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Archive for October, 2010

After the Dow Industrials reached their peak on October 9, 2007, there was a long, painful decline to the trough reached on March 9, 2009.  During that time the DJIA lost 54% but was followed by a rally of 70%. Even with this spectacular run up through 2009, the index never reached it peak. While closer now after a good 2010 it, the peak is still a long climb up the mountain.  In fact, to break even from a 50+% loss requires a disproportionate increase (more than 100%) just to “get back to where you once belonged” as the classic rock song lyrics said.

Investors Win By Not Losing

As this roller coaster shows, its easier to keep what you have than try to rebuild it.  Unfortunately, after such volatility, investors tend to flee to places that are perceived to be safe.  For most that has created a flight to bonds. While investors think of risk as “loss of capital” the traditional views of risk continue to be turned on their head. Sure, you could stash your money away in a money market or under the mattress but what kind of return will that produce?  Will you have enough to eat more than dog food in retirement?

A recent documentary on the disaster at Pompeii and Herculaneum shows how many townspeople fled to the concrete tunnels near the wharves.  Considered a safe place, it ended up as a tomb to more than 300 skeletal remains. These hopeful survivors were trapped by the lava flows which sealed up the tunnels where they had fled.

In many ways, investors fleeing the danger of the markets by shifting to government bonds could be dooming themselves to a similar fate as the Pompeians.

The returns from “safe” Treasuries are pathetic.  Huge investor appetite has driven up to demand and helped lower the yields offered.  A backlash could hurt investors when interest rates rise as they inevitably have to.

If the goal is to preserve capital and avoid dangers, it shouldn’t matter to an investor what asset class is used.  (It’s Halloween.  Watch any scary movie and when the hapless victim is trapped he/she could care less whether the guy in the hockey mask is stopped by a dump truck or an arrow).

In much the same way, we should be looking at other ways to conserve capital.

Carrying Junk Around

Say “junk bonds” to someone and they may be thinking about Michael Milken in the 1980s or businesses on the brink of bankruptcy.  While these bonds are issued by companies with lower credit ratings, they offer a very good alternative to “safe” Government bonds. The point of diversification is to not put all your eggs in one basket.  Today most investors are torn between a savings account paying practically no interest or reaching for yield using alternatives.

The bond market prices the risks of bonds every day.  Currently, the bond market is pricing in a possibility of 6% default risk on junk bonds as a group.  That’s down from its historic number. Some individual bonds of companies may certainly be higher but as a group that’s not a bad number.  Some analysts at JP Morgan Chase have even estimated that the default risk for 2011 is as low as 1.4%.

Why so low? The projected default risk is low in part because companies are showing their highest level of profits in years.  They have shed workers, squeezed productivity gains from those remaining and taken over market share as weaker competitors have failed. The prospects for these companies look even better considering that as a recession ends company cash flows improve.  This means more cash available to service debt. And as these companies improve so too will their credit ratings leading to lower interest rates that they can get when they refinance their debts just like any homeowner would who has an improved credit score.

Avoiding the Danger of a Secular Bear

In a secular bear market, there are rally periods while the markets as a whole may languish or sometimes drop.  During the secular bear from 1/1/1965 to 12/31/1985, a Buy and Hold bond investor would have been whipsawed but ending up gaining about 1 basis point (or 0.01%)  per year for 20 years.  Not a lot of payback for the sometimes stomach-churning ride over that time.

A More Tactical Approach to Risk Management

Not all bonds are the same.  There are government bonds, municipal bonds, US investment grade corporate bonds, US hi-yield/junk bonds, convertible bonds, bonds from overseas and bonds from emerging markets.  Just like every homeowner applying for a mortgage is different and has to go through different underwriting,  the characteristics of all these bonds are different as well.

For instance, hi-yield bonds are more likely subject to credit risk.  Since the rates on these types of bonds are higher than that found on a Government bond or investment grade corporate bond, they are not so sensitive to changes in interest rates.  On the other hand, Government bonds are more sensitive to interest rate risk and the perceptions about expected inflation or the impact of monetary and fiscal policy on future interest rates.

Since these two bond categories are influenced by different factors, they tend to not be correlated meaning that they don’t move in lock-step: When one is zigging the other is probably zagging in the opposite direction.

A key way to reduce risk and potentially increase returns when dealing with bonds is to rotate among the different bond types.  Sometimes the market conditions favor one flavor of bonds over another.  At other times it’s better to reduce all bond types and shift to cash or money markets.

Simply buying and holding means that gains made in one period may be taken away by another. If you’re able to make gains and take them off the table from time to time, you’ll have less money at risk and greater opportunities at preserving capital for the long term.

In the chart below, you can see that buying each of these major bond indexes can produce widely different results.  For nearly the same risk level (as measured by the standard deviation), US High Yield long term bonds have a clearly higher overall return and higher return during periods of higher interest rates than the long-term US Treasury index.

Bottom Line

Investors seeking ways to add income to their portfolio and reduce risk of loss to their capital really need to consider alternatives to buying and holding.  Rotating among these different bond asset types may reduce the overall volatility to the portfolio and preserve capital for the long term.

If you don’t want to end up like the victims of Mount Vesuvius and be buried by a “safe” move, you should open your minds to understand all the risks and ways to manage them.

Figure 1 (Source: BTS Asset Management Presentation/Nataxis Global Assoc, 10/27/2010)

Bond Index Annualized ReturnNov 1992 – Aug 2009 Standard Deviation (measure of risk) Annual Return During Rising Rate Period
BarCap US High Yield Long 10.45% 10.94 6.75%
BarCap US Corp Baa Investment Grade 6.97% 6.31 1.75%
BarCap US Aggregate Bond 6.46% 3.82 1.31%
BarCap LT US Treasury 8.11% 9.28 -0.40%

Figure 2 (Source: BTS Asset Management Presentation, 10/27/2010)

Bond Sector Credit Risk Interest Rate Risk Currency Risk
US High Yield High Low None
International Developed Market Low Medium High
Long-term US Government None High None
Emerging Market High Low High
US Municipal Low High None
US Investment Grade Corporate Low High None

Figure 3 (Source: BTS Asset Management Presentation, 10/27/2010)

CAPITAL PRESERVATION KEY to LONG-TERM SUCCESS
Loss Gain Needed to Get Back to Break Even

(15%)

+ 18%

(20%)

+ 25%

(30%) + 43%
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When I booked a cruise several years ago, I bought trip insurance that covered my cancellation because of medical reasons and also in the event that the cruise operator went bankrupt. The cruise line went belly up a month before the trip date and the insurance proved to be well worth it. Aside from a nominal deductible and the cost for the insurance, I got reimbursement for the entire trip cost.

When I traveled to Italy for my honeymoon, I also got a policy. In addition to covering for a similar event, I also added riders to cover for medical treatment and cost of transport back to the US. Your regular medical insurance plan typically does not cover you overseas and will not reimburse for medical evacuation.

Additional riders also covered for terrorism-related delays, not an unheard of possibility in this day and age.  And since my wife and I also have parents and a grandparent with medial issues, we opted for an additional rider that would cover the cost of unscheduled transport back to the States or in case we needed to cancel before departure resulting from a medical emergency.

The cost is cheap for the peace of mind. But I think that you may find better terms with other carriers. Don’t simply accept the option offered through the company arranging the travel.

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November is around the corner. Besides worrying about turkey dinners and seating arrangements for Thanksgiving, it’s that time of year again to review your health care options.

If you’re retiring, already retired or have an elder parent in this category, you should get familiar with the options available for health coverage.  Since most health care dollars are used by seniors for doctors, medical services and prescriptions, it’s important to get this right to avoid burning a hole in your pocket.

Most seniors are familiar with Medicare.  For a small monthly premium, the government-managed plan will cover a range of medical and doctor services.  This is usually through Medicare Parts A and B.  Some seniors also enroll in Medicare Part D (for Drugs or for Donut hole) which covers the cost for prescriptions (at least those outside of the dreaded donut hole.

Medicare Advantage (MA) is Medicare Part C.   These are plans offered by private insurance companies and are approved with Medicare to provide consumers with all Medicare services. The government pays the insurer a set amount to provide the services of Medicare Parts A and B.  Many of these plans also offer drug coverage.  In this combination, you will not need to buy separate drug plans or a Medicare supplement known as MediGap.

Beginning now and going through December 31, you (or your parents) have an opportunity to enroll or change coverage.

Things to Consider

  • Medicare Advantage May Cost Less:  These plans must cover the same services that traditional Medicare offers.  In many cases, there are additional services offered in Medicare Advantage.  Usually this includes vision and dental coverage. The premium for many plans averages around $40 per month which is less than the $96.40 for standard Medicare Part B.
  • There are restrictions: Some plans offer extra services that you may never use (such as gym memberships).  These plans operate like HMOs or PPOs and require that you follow the rules about referrals from your Primary Care Physician (PCP) or using doctors, labs and hospitals that are within the network.  Otherwise, you could be responsible for higher out-of-pocket costs.
  • Compare plans: Use the services available at www.medicare.gov and click on “Compare Health Plans.” If you’re considering a plan that includes drug coverage, it’s helpful to have a list of your prescriptions and the formulary from your current Part D provider available to help with the comparison.
  • Health Care Reform: One of the ways that the government expects to pay for health care reform is by reducing the amounts that are paid out to Medicare Advantage plan sponsors which have typically been receiving an average of 14% more for each enrolled beneficiary than it costs using traditional Medicare.  While this may impact future services offered by some MA providers, your coverage cannot change in mid-year no matter what.  And you can always re-enroll with a traditional plan at the next annual enrollment period.
  • Restrictions for Those with Kidney Disease and Using Dialysis: If you have end-stage renal disease (ESRD), you typically cannot join a Medicare Advantage plan.  There are exceptions for those who have been enrolled in a MA before diagnosis.
  • Remember What’s Not Covered: Long-term care or “custodial care” is not covered by Medicare and most health insurance plans.  If you’re living abroad, Medicare will not cover you either. Under limited circumstances, it may pay for medical services while you are traveling.  You should check with the Medicare resources website at www.medicare.gov.

For more help on this topic, send me an email (steve@ClearViewWealthAdvisors.com) or call 617-398-7494.

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I would suggest something that can be added to over time by you and other friends or relatives. In this category, that would include the following:

  • UGMA/UTMA accounts
  • 529 Savings Accounts
  • Zero-Coupon Bonds
  • EE Savings Bonds
  • Individual Corporate or US Treasury Bonds
  • Dividend Reinvestment Plan (DRiP)

1.) UGMA/UTMA accounts that can invest in a diversified fund(s) or use proceeds to buy shares of some large diversified companies – Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway would work here;

2.) 529 savings account with maybe a target date allocation (tied to when the child is 18 y.o.);

3.) Zero-coupon bond (target face amount could be equal to part of an expected year of college tuition expense for example);

4.) EE Savings Bonds (as mentioned before, the taxes are zero when used for education and you can always buy more of them in reasonable denominations);

5.) Specific company or US Government bonds would have maturities that are close to the time frames you noted.

6.) Participate in a company-sponsored dividend reinvestment program (DRiP) by buying a single share of stock.  When the company issues its dividends, the proceeds will be used to buy shares (even fractional shares) in the company.  Over time, this is a cost effective way to build a stock position.  And since most companies that offer such plans are ones with brand names that children may know, it’s a great way to help kids gain an interest in savings and investing.

On a separate note for longer range thinking, you may also want to consider contributing to a Roth IRA once the child gets older and starts earning his own money from odd jobs, paper routes or the local grocery. If the rules don’t change and the child has earned income, he can contribute some of his earnings (or parents can consider it as long as it doesn’t exceed the total earnings).

Roth IRA proceeds can be tapped to pay toward college or toward a house down payment and if not used can at least be great seed money for retirement. (Yes, the rules could change but something to keep on the radar screen for when the time comes).

Now consider that as a way for a gift to really have a long term impact.

CAUTION: Giving the funds to a child when they reach a certain age without any strings could backfire. That’s why others here have mentioned things like the 529 or a UGMA account. Short of paying for a trust at least these structures allow you to place some restrictions on the use of the funds for the benefit of the child or for education specifically in the case of a 529. So if opening up any type of mutual fund direct with a fund family or even a brokerage account to hold the stocks or bonds suggested, consider having it titled in one of these forms.

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Given the roller coaster ride that stock market investors have experienced and the negligible rates offered by banks on savings, it’s easy to see why someone might want to use their cash to pay off their mortgage.

Being debt free is not only noble but can provide a buffer in tough times since you’ll have one less cash outflow each month.

For every dollar you pay off in a mortgage, your rate of return is equal to the amount of interest that you’re saving. This is measured by the interest rate (net of the amount that is deductible of course).

So in this example, you could be “earning” 6.125% (less the deductibility of the mortgage interest based on your tax bracket).

Compared to other savings alternatives, that’s a great return. And compared to other equity investments it can seem a lot less volatile.

But before you drain the cash reserve, let’s look at this more closely.

  1. Tying up a lump sum of cash in a property can be risky. You may come up short on emergency reserves by using the bulk of it to pay off the loan.  Will you have enough cash to cover 12 months of your living expenses?  Will you have enough to cover operating expenses for the properties if they were vacant or you lose your job?
    • Considering that in this case you have three other investment properties and your primary residence, there is always the likelihood that you might need cash for an emergency repair or the cost of compliance with any changes in building codes or prepping a vacant unit for a new tenant or even to cover the carrying costs while a unit is vacant.
  2. Real estate is an illiquid investment. Once you send in the check to the bank you no longer have the cash readily available for use either to pay for ongoing expenses, cover emergencies or for other investment alternatives that may come along.
    • What if a really good deal on another investment property came along?  Depending on your market, you could find a very inexpensive property to buy that could more easily cash flow now but without the cash you’re out of luck. Sure, you’ll have more equity but to tap into it will require a bank to agree to give it to you which is more difficult on investment properties and your primary residence may not have enough equity to allow you to get a home equity line of credit (HELOC) or home equity loan to recoup the cash you may need.
  3. Property prices are still in flux.While savings bank rates are abysmal, losing money is even less appealing. By investing more in your property, you could actually see a negative return.  In some markets, real estate prices are still going down so it is conceivable that you could turn each $1 paid in principal into 90 cents.

What Are the Alternatives?

Consider a non-bank financial firm that is offering one of those ultra-high yield money markets for a good portion of this reserve fund.  It’s accessible and won’t cost you anything to hold and they tend to offer higher rates than most brick-and-mortar banks.

You could also split off a portion of the funds and find a ultra-short term bond mutual fund.  Average yields are about 2%.

For a small portion (starting at around $2,500) you could even use a convertible bond fund.  These are hybrid investments combining the fixed income of a bond with the potential capital appreciation of a stock.  These types of investments have held up well when interest rates rise because of Fed action or inflation.

For more information on these, you could check out my article posted on www.ezinearticles.com here.

Likewise, you could also consider other types of short-term bond investments like mutual funds that target floating rate notes.  These types of commercial loans are regularly reset and are a good way to hedge against inflation.  Since there is credit risk, you don’t want to put a whole lot of eggs in this one basket but 5% to 10% of your funds is prudent for you to consider.

As in all things, read the prospectus and speak with your adviser to determine if these are right for you in your situation.

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While a drip can be annoying while you’re trying to sleep, it is anything but that when it comes to investing. It may even be a sweet sound of money accumulating as you sleep.

DRP or DRIP are the acronyms for Dividend Reinvestment Plans.  Companies offer shareholders a way to reinvest in the company stock using a transfer agent and bypassing the services and cost of a stock broker.

If a company offers such a program, then any shareholder participate.  These programs are typically offered by larger companies that typically pay dividends.  A shareholder benefits from owning an equity investment from the possibility of capital appreciation (buying low and selling higher) and from cash flow distributed to stockholders in the form of dividends.

Companies offering such DRIPs will give a shareholder the option to receive their dividends in the form of cash or using the cash to buy more shares of the company stock.  This process may be familiar to mutual fund investors who choose to reinvest dividends distributed from the mutual fund company to buy more shares in the mutual fund.

In addition to buying company stock from the proceeds of dividends, some companies also offer optional cash purchases programs (OCP).  If you work for Raytheon, HP or GE, for instance, your employer provides a way for you to buy the company stock from amounts you may have deducted from your paycheck.

Participants in such plans in the US are listed as “registered” shareholders through a transfer agent. In the old says, this would have required a shareholder to hold onto the original stock certificates but now this is not necessary as the transfer agent keeps track of all shares in their “book entry” record keeping system.

By purchasing at least one share of a company’s stock, an investor becomes eligible to participate in these plans.

They are a cost-effective way to build a long-term position in a brand name company using “dollar-cost-averaging.”

These can be an ideal gift to young child or even to help supplement your retirement.

For instance, if you invest $50 per month from a child’s birth to their 18th birthday, you would have invested $10,830 and your investment could be worth nearly $30,459 assuming a 10% annual return (capital appreciation and dividends).

You can check out other resources at www.directinvesting.com or www.giftofstock.com.

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Investing Mistake #1: Treating Investments Like a Part-Time Job and Not a Business.

“When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him: Whose?” Don Marquis

While you may be investing for a child’s education, a vacation home or retirement, the common ingredient for success really is the process, approach and mindset you bring to making investing a success.  Take it seriously and you get serious results.  If you are fearful, your results will reflect it.  If you are a daredevil, your results may reflect that, too.

All your personal goals are important, aren’t they? You’ve worked hard for your money, didn’t you?  So why not find a better way to make your money work smart for you?

Why Mindset Can Really Harm You

Too often, investors simply think that what and how they save won’t really matter.  They don’t have enough money to make it worth it and they don’t have the time to really focus on the whole investing game. I know, life gets in the way when you’re doing other things and making other plans.

Thinking of this made me remember visiting an underground cave with my friends John and Lisa on a trip through the Blue Mountains. We entered the caves on a tour and saw all these fantastic, awe-inspiring formations created by the centuries of slow drips of water and mineral from the cave ceilings.  The stalactites and stalagmites formed bridges and statues of animals and even formations reminiscent of the craftsmanship used to build the cathedrals of Medieval Europe.  Small, incremental and consistent efforts produced such grand results.  If it can happen in nature, why not for something like a college savings account?

Too often, investors simply throw up their hands and take the easy road.  They do nothing, make no changes and for fear of making a mistake or because they don’t know who to trust, they avoid working with a professional.

They may hear the media report that a monkey throwing darts at a list of mutual funds or stocks may have beaten a professional money manager. Another favorite topic in the financial press is how most money managers do not bear their index.  But on the other hand, other stories will focus on the fantastic results of quick trigger investment schemes of the day-trader variety.

Let’s face it:  How well your investments perform from day to day will not likely make a big difference in your lifestyle now.  But how well you plan and invest may determine if, how and when you can retire, build a legacy to pass on and do all the things that are on your personal “bucket list.”

Two Categories of Investors

So investors will fall into two categories:  Those who focus exclusively on performance and those who focus on process.

Most investors, despite repeated warnings in small print at the end of the ads,  will focus on past performance as reported by the popular press and websites.  So despite the daily constraints on time because of family and work, these same folks will pick up an occasional financial newspaper or magazine or troll some financial websites and pick up a few ideas. They’ll see a Top 10 list of investments from last quarter or last year and then buy them because they performed well over some arbitrary time frame.

The Part-Time Investor in Action

Those who are more well-to-do or successful or affluent are either too busy making money to focus their time on investing or they believe that they have the skills to handle things on their own because they are successful in their careers.

I’m reminded of a woman I met on several occasions to discuss a way to bring some order to her investments.  She was a single mom raising a teen and worked in a fast-paced, deadline sensitive business.  Whenever we spoke, we were regularly interrupted by ringing phones and a buzzing pager.  Although she barely had time for lunch, much less research basic investment concepts, she ultimately decided that she would go it alone and master an online trading strategy to buy and sell stocks and options.

If you’re a successful surgeon or restaurateur or engineer or banker, do you really think that the same skill set that got you to the top of your profession, will also mean you can invest the time needed to properly manage and protect your wealth – not just your investments, but the whole set of tax, asset protection, retirement strategy planning, credit and cash management concepts?

Highly successful people may have achieved enviable incomes but can tend to be haphazard or casual about investing and integrating a financial plan.  Often, they may think that their incomes are secure, their career path certain, and they have skill and time to handle things on their own.

In reality, most may not really know what it takes to get to their goal.  For a 49-year old executive with a good $400,000 annual income and a $1 million investment portfolio trying to target for a retirement lifestyle at age 65 without much down scaling, he has to grow his nest egg to $6 million within a mere decade and a half.

And there is the equally disturbing statistic that the Great Recession has been hard on white collar professionals.  Those with college and advanced degrees make up more than 20% of the unemployed and long-term unemployed.

Be the CEO of Your Own Investment Company

Investing at any level and especially at this level requires a business mindset. The same sort of principles that apply to business success apply to your own investing. And just like any other CEO, you need to make sure that your assets are managed in a systematic, disciplined and prudent manner.

  • Business Plan: You need a business plan for your investments that covers the short and long term.  This means having a clear road map for your goals with appropriate benchmarks tied to achieving them. Instead of using the arbitrary indexes quoted by the media, you need to have a personal benchmark so you’re more likely to stay on target.
  • SMART GOALS: You need clear goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Specific
  • Commit to a Realistic Strategy: You need a clear strategy for meeting those goals – a 20% annual return might sound nice but is it realistic given historical norms and your own experience and peace of mind
  • Don’t take it personally: As in business, don’t take the ups and downs in the market personally and don’t be afraid to review
  • Surround yourself with a professional team: If you’re serious about investing for success, then take the time to assemble a proper team of professionals who can help and who you can trust.  No business succeeds long term without a good team.

Don’t be too focused on your career to ignore this.  You can’t afford to treat your family’s future security as a part-time job or hobby.

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