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Archive for September, 2009

Both dependent care and medical flexible spending accounts are funded with pre-tax deductions from your paycheck. Both have a “use or lose” policy if the funds deducted are not used in the calendar year for which the election was made.

Typically, a person can only make the election to have these deductions taken at the time of their hiring or during the annual enrollment period every company offers for their employees to make changes to their health and welfare benefits. (There are other times as well during certain “life events” such as marraige or birth of a child when benefit elections can also be changed.)

Since the election to make these deductions are made for a full year, one must be very cautious about the amount chosen. If you don’t use the funds towards eligible expenses in the time period allowed, you cannot get the money back.

For those with young children or elder parents needing day care, the dependent care FSA can be useful.  The maximum amount that can be set aside is pegged at $5,000 each year. With the costs of child care and adult day care being what they are, it is not likely that an employee will end up not using the full amount set aside so maxing out makes sense.

However, the dependent care program only allows a person to receive funds already in their FSA account, regardless of how much the person has already paid out in dependent care expenses. For example, if a person elects the $5,000 maximum to be withdrawn over the course of the year, after 3 months there is only $1,250 in the account. Even though the person has already paid more than that to the child care provider, they can only receive the balance.

With the medical flexible spending account, however, a person can be reimbursed at any time during the year up to the annual
amount elected to have withdrawn
.  Thus, the person can receive funds from the FSA prior to the funds actually having been withdrawn from their paycheck.

Let’s assume you know you are going to have a surgical procedure in January and your cost will be about $5,000, so you elect to have $5,000 deducted towards the medical FSA during the open enrollment period. In February, you pay your $5,000 portion. Even though you have only about $800+ in your FSA account, you can submit a reimbursement claim for the full $5,000 that you paid out.

It is prudent to review what your expected medical expenses may be in the upcoming year, verify that they are eligible FSA expenses with your employer’s FSA administrator, and then make the election. It can’t hurt to underestimate, so you may have to pay some expenses with after tax dollars, but that’s still much better than giving away money because you overestimated and you lose what you had deducted and not used.

Some examples for using a medical FSA are when you incur orthodontia expenses and dental procedures for which you have a high deductible and/or co-pay. Regular doctor office visit co-pays, which are not usually exceptionally expensive, are eligible for FSA reimbursement. If you go often enough, even saving a few tax dollars can be beneficial.

Using the FSA is a great tool to enforce a disciplined savings program to cover expenses that are expected to be incurred anyway during the year.  And by doing it through a tax-deferred program at work, you’re ultimately reducing the cost by your marginal income tax rate so that your savings stretch out to buy you more services. (For someone in the 20% marginal tax bracket, for example, one would have to earn $1.25 to have enough cash to pay for $1.00 of services after the impact of taxes.)

By taking some time to project your personal expenses, you can ultimately benefit with Uncle Sam’s help.

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Like the mythical siren’s call, the pitch is enticing – a seemingly perfect investment.

Investors can buy into a contract offering a minimum return with the potential to capture the upside of increases in the stock market while avoiding portfolio value declines if – and when – the market goes down.

This blend of promises can be found in ‘equity-indexed annuities” or EIAs offered by insurance companies.

And these offerings have become popular given the steep declines in the stock market.  According to a report in the WSJ (9/02/09), sales of EIAs during the first half of 2009 rose 20% compared to a year ago to $15.2 billion.

As compelling as these products may sound, they are anything but simple.  There are many complicated moving parts to each EIA contract. So buyer beware!

Think of investing as finding the route to your destination (a goal) and matching that with the appropriate mode of transportation (or investment vehicle) to get you there.  You may be traveling from Boston to New York and can choose highways or back roads. You can choose hi-speed rail, a car, a bus, a bike or even a plane.  You can drive or fly yourself or hire someone else to drive. All will get you to where you want to go but it’s a question of what kind of comfort level you want on the ride, how much time you have to get there and at what cost – in fees or simply mental health.

For those who may not have the stomach for the gyrations of the stock market but are looking to be more venturesome, the EIA may be a suitable compromise. It’s sort of like someone hiring a driver for the trip but traveling on main roads while avoiding highways.

First, understand that an annuity is offered by an insurance company and backed by the credit-worthiness and deep pockets of the insurer.  There is no FDIC backing. This is not a bank product (although you may find them sold by brokers with desks in banks).

Next, understand that an index can be any benchmark for any asset class or market.  The most common benchmarks include the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), the S&P 500 and NASDAQ in the US.  Overseas, indexes include the NIKKEI in Japan for instance.

An equity-indexed annuity (EIA) ties the amount that will be credited to an investor’s account to the performance of a particular index. 

But don’t expect to receive a one-for-one increase in your account value based on the index’s increase.  Instead, these contracts include a “participation rate” that sets a percentage of the index gain that is used.

The index-based interest credit may be further limited by “caps” that set a maximum amount of gain.

For anyone who has ever had an Adjustable Rate Mortgage, the process is very similar to how loan rates are recalculated.

Calculating the interest credit is further complicated by the method of measuring the change in the index value.  For instance, the insurer can determine the index change based on the “Annual Reset” – the difference between the index value at the beginning and end of each contract annual anniversary date.  Or a “point-to-point” method may be chosen that compares the index value at the beginning date with some future date like the fifth anniversary. Or the insurer will use “index averaging” taking multiple index returns and averaging them.

By the way, the index value won’t include changes resulting from dividends. While total return on the S&P 500 averaged 9.5% between 1969 and 2008, more than one-third of the return was attributed to dividends.  So these EIA market participation formulas will be calculated on a lower base when dividends are not considered part of the index return.

Typically but not always, there is a minimum amount of interest that is credited. But be aware that this minimum interest credit may not apply to 100% of the contract value.  It may apply an interest rate of 3% to only 90% of the value.  It may apply 1.5% interest to 85% of the total value.  It all depends on the terms of the contract.

EIA contracts have dual values:  the one based on the index value, participation rate and cap; the other based on the minimum interest credit.  And if you get out of the contract before the full term, you may be forfeiting the index-based account value. The insurer would then pay out the amount based on the minimum guaranteed portion which may be lower than what you expected compared to the index formula.

And how many football fans would be happy if their favorite team was on the 1-yard line and the referees moved the goal post?  Well, most EIA contracts reserve the right to unilaterally change terms reducing the participation rate or using stiffer lower, caps for example.

And most contracts have very steep surrender charges that can start at 10% to 15% of the contract value in the first year and declining from there for up to 10 years.

And be aware of the financial incentives that are part of these contracts.  Some EIAs offer “bonuses” to investors – an extra 5% or 10% added to the initial deposit.  But there is no free lunch.  In exchange for such a bonus, the insurer will likely increase the surrender penalty.  So as much as the bonus is an incentive to open the contract, the penalty is an incentive to not move the money out.

Follow the money, too.  Many EIAs pay out commissions to brokers between 6% and 10% and sometimes more.  An investor should be aware that there may be an incentive by a salesperson to offer this as a catch-all solution whether or not it fits the investor’s particular situation. 

The advantages to an EIA include the opportunity to participate in the upside of a market index as an alternative to investing directly through mutual funds for instance.  When an investor opens up an annual statement, there may be less apparent volatility because the account balances aren’t fluctuating wildly.  So this may help a conservative investor dip a toe in the market and sleep better.  And like most annuity products, investors have free access to a portion of their money without surrender charge (usually 10%). And like any other insurance product, it provides a guaranteed death benefit.  Like other annuities, it offers an income stream that you cannot outlive.

The average return on such EIA contracts has been reported to be in the 5%-6% range.  Given the complexities of these contracts and the average returns, it may be a costly way to limit your market exposure but it may make sense for those looking for a principal-protected CD alternative for the cash portion of their portfolios as well as a source of income to supplement retirement.

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The market’s are jumpy to say the least right now.  As I post this the market has ended four days down in a row after finishing August up 3.5% and up 45% since March. 

Despite signs of ‘green shoots’ and glimmers of positive economic activity, the US stock markets have ended the summer rally with a selloff of over 2% (on the DJIA Index).  Fears of a stock market correction or a “W”-shaped recovery loom large after several months of impressive gains.

Manufacturing activity in the US and Europe are mostly up.  Large money-center banks have been paying back the US Treasury for the money borrowed as part of their bailout.  US auto manufacturers are rehiring.

Yet fears that the mighty economic engine of China may slow coupled with worries about the commercial real estate sector in the US have lead investors to take cover.

What’s an investor to do?  Buy and Hold. Or is buy and hold dead as some commentators say?  What about diversification which really seemed to not protect anyone from the steep dive in all markets and all asset classes?

I personally believe that it’s important to follow the time-tested wisdom of grandma:  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

But diversifying doesn’t mean “set it and forget it” either which is typical among investors.

To all things there is a season.  And farmers planting crops and fisherman at sea all know that there are cycles in nature.  (El Nino, anyone?)

So why wouldn’t you expect there to be cycles in markets as well?

Considering that stock and bond markets reflect the collective expectations and emotions of millions of investors, it’s an easy leap to expect markets to be governed by cycles in the cumulative raw emotions as well as considered opinions of its many participants.

Example: Right now small-cap stocks have paid off big time this year.  According to the WSJ, stocks in the S&P Small Cap 600 index have leaped over 66% and midcap stocks are up nearly 62%, far outpacing the S&P 500 large cap index which gained “only” 51%.

What a typical investor will do upon hearing such performance will be to move money into this hot sector of the market. And of course that has been exactly what investors have done as more than $7.5 Billion of all fund flows have been to small-cap mutual funds versus outflows of $18.5 Billion from large-cap funds. What’s that saying about “when fool’s rush in?” 

This being said, there are ways to combine investment approaches.

Instead of “buy and hold” it’s time to consider “sit on it and rotate.” 

Ideally, we all want to a perfect investment that always goes up and never goes down.  But a look at one of those “periodic table” of investment returns shows, rarely does the same sector that was a top performer one year do a repeat the following year.

There is a way to get off the wild roller coaster ride between “gloom and doom” and “irrational exuberance.”

This is what I refer to as a “skill-weighted” portfolio.  Essentially, this approach combines various investments in different assets with different investment approaches to help reduce the roller coaster ride.

Even a nesting hen that is sitting on its eggs will rotate positions every once in a while.  And through this approach, too, an investor will maintain a watchful eye on his portfolio being positioned for opportunities by rotating between and among investments, sectors and trends.

Think of a house: a foundation, a frame and then all the visually appealing touches.

In this approach, an investor will have a core foundation comprised of index type investments (mutual funds or Exchange Traded Funds) with a frame consisting of actively managed mutual funds and topped off with a trend-following program for stocks and/or other Exchange Traded Funds to accent the portfolio.  The combination of all these elements will provide balance which helps reduce overall volatility while still positioning for opportunities.

Consider this:  If an investor owns and holds onto an index, he’ll get 100% of the upside … and 100% of the downside.  If an investor owns all actively managed mutual funds, more than 80% do not beat their benchmark.  And those who “market time” need to be right two times:  when they sell and then when they buy.

Not all approaches work all the time but by combining them (rotating between them) an investor may have a better opportunity to preserve, protect and ultimately profit.

What should matter most to any investor is not beating an individual benchmark but getting where they want to go with as few bumps as possible.

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