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Archive for the ‘10 Most Common Investing Mistakes’ Category

When you’re on an airplane and hit turbulence or rough weather, the flight crew tells you to stay seated and buckled.  Unfortunately, when the markets hit bad weather, there is rarely such a warning.

You might want to call it “Black Thursday.”

Yesterday, the markets around the world went into a tailspin reacting almost violently to the ongoing drumbeat of dour economic news.

On the radar, we’ve seen the storm clouds moving in for a while now:

  • lower than expected GDP in the US last quarter,
  • downward revisions of the GDP to a negligible 0.4% for the first quarter,
  • lower business and consumer confidence surveys,
  • sharply lower than expected new jobs created,
  • higher unemployment,
  • foreign debt crises weighing down our Eurozone trading partners.

There was a temporary distraction over the last couple of weeks as we in the US focused on the debt ceiling debate to the exclusion of all else.  Self-congratulatory press remarks by politicians aside, nothing done in Washington really changed the fact that we are still flying into a stiff head wind and storm clouds that threaten recovery prospects.

Eventually, though, the accumulation of downbeat news over the past few weeks seems to have finally come to a head yesterday.  No one thing seems to have caused it.  It just seems that finally someone said “the Emperor has no clothes” and everyone finally noticed the obvious: global economies are weak and burdened by debt and political crises.

All of this has been creating doubt in the minds of investors about the ability to find and implement policies or actions by governments or private sector companies.  And doubt leads to uncertainty.  And if there’s one thing we know for certain, it is that markets abhor uncertainty.

While many commentators may have thought that the “resolution” of the debt ceiling debate in Washington would have calmed the markets, it seems that upon further review of the details the markets are not so sure.  And in an “abundance of caution” market analysts who once were so OK with exotic bond and mortgage investments are now reacting overly negatively to any and all news and evidence of weakness by governments or companies.

What’s An Investor to Do?

Don’t panic.  It may be cliché but it’s still true.  If you hadn’t already put in place a hedging strategy, then what is past is past and move forward.

So the Dow has erased on its gains for 2011 and has turned the time machine back to December 2008.

If you sell now — especially without a plan in place — you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Here’s a simple plan to consider:

  1. Hold On:  You can’t lose anything if you sell.
  2. Hedge: As I’ve said before in this blog and in the ViewPoint Newsletter, you need to put in place a hedge.  There are lots of tools available to investors (and advisers) to help:  Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) on the S&P 500, for instance, can be hedged with options or you can use “trailing stop-loss” instructions to limit the market downside; another option – inverse ETFs that move opposite the underlying index. These aren’t buy-hold types of ETFs but can be used to provide short-term (daily) hedges.
  3. Rebalance:  If you’re not already diversified among different asset classes, then now’s the time to look at that. You may be able to pick up on some great bargains right now that will position you better for the long-term.  Yes, every risky asset got hit in the downdraft but that’s still no reason to be bulked up on one company stock or mutual fund type.
  4. Keep Your Powder Dry and in Reserve:  Cash is king – an oft-repeated phrase still holds true now.  Take a page from my retirement planning advice and make sure you have cash to cover your fixed overhead for a good long time.  With cash in place, you won’t be forced to sell out at fire sale prices now or during other rough times. This is part of what I refer to as “Buy and Hold Out.”
  5. Seek Professional Help:  Research reported in the Financial Planning Association’s Journal of Financial Planning shows that those with financial advisers and a plan are more satisfied and overall have more wealth.  Avoiding emotional mistakes improves an investor’s bottom line.

As a side note:  The old stockbroker’s manual still says “Sell in May and Go Away.”  Probably for good reason.  Historically, the summer months are filled with languid or down markets and volatile ups and downs.

 

While it’s tempting to give in to the emotional “flight” survival response that you’re feeling right now, don’t give in.  Stand and fight instead.  But fight smart. Have a plan and consider a professional navigator.

If you are seeking a second opinion or need some help in implementing a personal money rescue plan, please consider the help of a qualified professional.

 

Let’s Make A Plan Together:  978-388-0020

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Like a deer caught in headlights, individuals faced with too many choices in their company-sponsored plan freeze up and may end up taking no action for their retirement.  They may end up making costly choices – or worse, no choices – for their retirement savings dollars.

Common costly choices typically include buying too much company stock or a mutual fund representing the same industry of the employer or loading up on small cap or growth stocks and avoiding bonds.  Even young investors (under age 30) have as high a probability as older workers of not choosing any equity funds and only choosing a money market or bond fund for the bulk of their retirement savings.

Recent research completed by Columbia Business School and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business indicates that workers who are faced with too many investment options end up making decisions that can adversely impact their retirement.  Often individuals will either make asset allocations that are unbalanced or choose to do nothing and leave their savings in cash and money markets.

This research highlights the need for individuals to seek out help from professionals who can offer guidance in allocation and rebalancing decisions.

Unfortunately, company sponsors do not have the staff, time or resources to provide this type of service.  And sponsors – who are indeed acting as trustees for the participants in their plans – may simply believe that they are “all set” because the investment firm offering the investment menu can provide the needed help through their toll-free customer service lines or websites.

People need tailored help and guidance which is not something that either employers or investment firms are prepared to offer.

While not discussed specifically in this study, the increased use of auto-enrollment in company plans and Target Date funds has helped.  At least individuals are “paying themselves first” by employers automatically enrolling them.  And target date funds can at least offer a glide path with preset rebalancing decisions to the asset allocation mix.

But these one-size fits all solutions may not be best for everyone.  This is where a fiduciary adviser can help out.

And this is why Clear View Wealth Advisors offers customized help for plan participants.  Through one of my flat fee financial planning programs, individuals can receive customized help in choosing a proper mix of funds from among the plan choices and receive guidance on periodic rebalancing actions.

To see details of the benefits study, go to www.BenefitNews.com or click here.

Help with Retirement Planning or 401ks is a Click Away with Clear View

Get Personal Help with Your Retirement Plan Choices

 

 

Retirement Plan Helpline:  978-388-0020

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We certainly don’t need another case to justify the mistrust that consumers have of all things financial.  There’s been no shortage of scams, lawsuits and perp walks over the past couple of years.

Here is a recent example of a slew of cases involving broker-dealers selling either private placements or other illiquid securities that have ended up burning investors.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal and Financial Advisor magazine earlier this week (June 1), an independent brokerage firm with representatives across the country, has been accused of misleading elderly and unsophisticated investors without proper consideration of whether the investments were suitable.

The article reports that the brokerage firm sold billions of dollars of non-traded Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) to individuals since 1992 and pocketed more than $600 million in fees. Sales of these investments generated more than 60% of the firm’s total revenues.

Now there is nothing wrong with a REIT per se. They are great ways to buy into a diversified portfolio of real estate. And there’s nothing wrong with illiquid investments either.  They serve a purpose and have a place in a portfolio assuming that it makes sense for the individual.

The problem comes from the way these investments are sold by some in the industry who do not have the best interests of the client at heart. When there is a profit motive involved, there is the potential for misbehavior arising from this basic conflict of interest.

Brokerage firms are held to a certain standard called “suitability” which is a sort of legal test to see if a particular investment makes sense for an investor.  Presumably, a broker working for a brokerage firm will ask a range of questions about the investor’s income, other assets, investment goals and time frame.  Then a brokerage firm’s compliance department will review the information and the application for the investment before the purchase.

Red flags would be if an investor has a large chunk of money to be tied up in any one type of investment or asset class.  Another might be if the investor indicates that they need the cash for some specific goal on a certain date but the investment is tied up longer than that and thus subject to an early redemption penalty.

Apparently in this case, the brokerage firm did not even do this type of “due diligence” on the investors buying into the REIT.  For many who were not knowledgeable of things like asset allocation or reading complex investment documents, they allegedly simply relied on marketing materials provided by the brokerage firm.

In previous cases, we have seen how there has been an incentive by brokerage firms to not complete any significant due diligence on an investment product that is sold by their representatives. Investors who think that they are protected by a firm’s “compliance department” have often found that no one was really checking on the investments being offered.  And like the fox guarding the hen-house, there is the potential for hanky-panky.

And the one who pays is the investor.  In many cases, the brokerage firm gets paid twice:  A 1 to 2% “due diligence” fee paid by the investment’s sponsor and then from the 5% to 10% commission paid by the investor. And in some cases the brokerage only pocketed the fee instead of hiring the team of due diligence analysts.

There is a battle going on in the financial industry especially since the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation reform bill.  While not the greatest, it did offer change.  And one key change was to implement a universal “fiduciary” standard on those working with clients.

Right now, stand-alone registered investment advisers (RIAs) and specifically fee-only financial planner and advisers already subscribe to a “fiduciary” standard.  The standard is a higher legal duty to do what is “best” and “right” for the client and not what is the highest profit option for the adviser’s firm.

In the recent David Lerner Associates case as well as many others, the inherent conflict of interest between profit for the firm and the products sold to the consumer is glaring.

In all likelihood, consumers searching for higher yields heard the sales pitches from brokers.  And remember that when it comes to investing, the motivations are either fear or greed. In this case, the “greed” of the consumers looking for higher rates of return met the “greed” of the brokers looking to sell the product.  It should be no surprise that supply met demand.

But it also clearly shows how the most vulnerable need special help.  While they may go to a broker or agent thinking that the nice guy is going to do what’s right by them, they end up paying a price because they don’t realize who is representing them in the transaction.

As investors search for yield they need to do more due diligence.  And they should not be afraid to be working with a fiduciary who can help them with a second opinion.

Brokers are not all bad.  They serve a valuable role in our financial system.  But consumers really need to know that not all financial professionals are alike and the help of a fiduciary may keep them from getting burned by their fear or their greed.

Now’s as good a time as any to once again get back to basics:  Protect yourself from scams with this guide from the CFP Board of Standards.

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Below is a post from the Boston Tax Institute (May 31, 2011) from Kurt Czarnowski, formerly with the SSA as Regional Communications Director in New England.  Kurt presented to the Merrimack Valley Estate Planners Council, one of my groups a while ago and always had a knack for making the complex and dry information from Social Security enlightening and fun.

Unfortunately, many people do not completely understand how work and earnings impact a person’s ability to collect Social Security retirement benefits. As a result, they may be losing out on monthly payments which are rightfully theirs.

The good news is that the Senior Citizens’ Freedom To Work Act of 2000 eliminated the Social Security annual earnings limitation beginning with the month a person reaches Full Retirement Age (FRA). (From 2000 through 2002, FRA was age 65. However, in 2003, it began increasing, so that FRA is now age 66 for people born between 1943 and 1954.)

This means that if you are at Full Retirement Age or older, and you work, you can receive a full monthly Social Security benefit, no matter how much you earn. In addition, any earnings you may have had prior to the month you reach your FRA do not impact your ability to collect benefits from FRA going forward.

But, if you are under FRA, there is still a limit on how much you can earn and still receive full Social Security benefits. In 2011, the annual limit is $14,160, and if you are younger than full retirement age during all of 2011, you lose $1 in benefits for each $2 you earn above that amount.

If you retire in mid-year, you already may have earned more than the yearly earnings limit, but that doesn’t mean you can’t collect benefits for the remainder of the year. There is a special rule that applies to earnings for one year, usually in the first year of retirement. In 2011, this rule lets you collect a full Social security check for any month your earnings are $1,180 or less, regardless of the yearly earnings total.

It is important to note that if some of your retirement benefits are withheld because of your earnings, these payments are not completely lost. Starting at your full retirement age, your benefit amount will be recalculated, and it will be increased to take into account those months in which payments were withheld.

Retiring? Consider your options and the role of Social Security

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One thing that I will add here is that I have seen first hand the problems that can occur when folks do not understand the rules.

As a registered tax preparer with XtraRefunds, I have had several folks come in to have us prepare their taxes.  They invariably have had false information about Social Security benefits.

I had one case where an individual came to me as a new client.  During the initial intake he failed to answer certain questions. Although he was over age 65, he was still working a full-time job and running a small business on the side.  Only after we had completed the return, did he happen to mention that he was receiving Social Security benefits but he had no paperwork (1099-R or annual benefits statement for instance).

When we finally got the paperwork from SSA and inputted the amounts, his tax status changed considerably from a refund to a liability. This was because a portion of his benefits were taxed.  Not everyone realizes that up to 85% of Social Security benefits can be taxed when you have a gross income above certain levels.

This example stresses the need for having a trusted adviser to work with before you make major money moves instead of relying solely on what friends and relatives might say.

Need help?  Consider a 30-minute free call at 978-388-0020.

Free Phone Consulation on Retirement Issues with a Certified Financial Planner Professional

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This is a common question from many folks.

There are many valid reasons to consider a 401k rollover.

While changing jobs can be stressful and life can otherwise get in the way, you really should not neglect this.  Oftentimes, out of sight is out of mind and you could be losing money and not even know it.

Costs

While it may not seem like it, you are paying for your funds to stay with your old employer’s sponsored plan.  You just don’t see it.  Fees for employer plans are not very transparent.  While you may not see an actual bill, your employer is probably paying for the administration of the plan through hidden fees assessed on the balances held in it.

I have seen sponsored plans that had these back-end hidden fees and charged the participant a piece for each contribution.  A little here, a little there all adds up.  And the more it is, the less there is to compound for your retirement.

While there are few things that you can control in life and investing, fees are one of them.

In a rollover IRA, you’ll have more choices of platforms which may offer low loads and costs so you can keep more in your pocket.  So control what you can when you can for successful investing.

Choice and Access

While some employer plans may offer a variety of funds which may be top of the line, you’re still limited to the menu selected by your employer.  More often than not this is influenced by the broker associated with the plan.  And this can be influenced by the restrictions placed on the choices by the broker’s company or administrator because there may be an incentive to fill the menu with one fund family.

I’ve seen plans offered through national payroll companies that required more than 50% of the fund choices to be from one particular fund family.  Not every choice in a management company’s fund line up may be stellar so you’re limiting yourself by staying with the old plan.

When you rollover you’ll have a much larger universe to choose from.  (Like most independent fee-based advisers, my registered investment adviser company has access to more than 14,000 non-proprietary mutual funds with no loads or loads waived).  You’ll typically even have access to individual stocks, bonds, Unit Investment Trusts, Exchange Traded Funds and bank CDs.

The Self-Directed IRA Option – Not Available in Your 401(k)

Have you ever considered investing in something besides stocks, bonds or mutual funds? Maybe you might want to invest in real estate or buy judgments or invest in a business by being its lender or providing a friend with start-up capital.

Well, you can’t do that with a typical 401k plan.  But you can with a self-directed IRA.  And such an IRA can’t be done through the Big Box financial firms.  There are specialized bank and non-bank custodians who handle such transactions and work through independent financial planners to help their clients learn more about such options.

Risk Controls & Broader Choice of Investment Strategies

While you may have online access to your company-sponsored plan so you can make trades or switches of your funds periodically, there really are no risk controls that you can use given the limitations of the platform the 401k is using.

Let’s put it this way:  Investors make money when they don’t lose it.  At least that’s my working philosophy.  Having options and systems in place means that you stand a better chance of protecting your retirement nest egg.

It’s always easier to not lose money in the first place than it is to try to make up for lost ground.  Your money has to work harder to get back to breakeven — much less get ahead for your retirement goals.

Consider this:  If you think that Treasurys or munis are in their own bond bubbles, what can you do to protect yourself through your 401k?  Probably, not much.

But in your own IRA you’ll be able to build a more all-weather portfolio that includes inflation hedges like convertible bonds, foreign dividend-paying stocks, master limited partnerships or even managed futures.   All come in mutual funds or ETFs which offer the advantages of diversification without the tax and cost structures of direct investment options.

Want to lower costs and control your investments more? You can even buy individual corporate or taxable municipal bonds and build an income ladder with the help of a professional financial planner.

Or maybe you want to minimize the impact of another downdraft in the market.  Using ETFs and trailing stop-loss orders you may help protect your gains.  Not an option in your old 401k.

So when you roll your account over, you’ll also have access to professional help, tools and direct management options tailored to your specific needs that you just can’t get within your old 401k.

Actionable Suggestions – Things to Consider:

iMonitor Portfolio Program: We prepare the allocations, select the funds or other investments and monitor.  We will make changes and rebalancing decisions as needed for you.

Money Tools DIY Program: We prepare the allocations and select the funds.  We will offer recommendations on Exchange Traded Funds as well. Periodically, we send you updates for rotating funds or rebalancing. You manage the funds directly on whatever custodian or trading platform you choose.

For more information, please call Steve Stanganelli, CFP® at 978-388-0020 or 617-398-7494.

Check out the website and newsletter archives for more on this and similar topics:  www.ClearViewWealthAdvisors.com

Adapted from ViewPoint Newsletter Archive (January 20, 2011)

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The other day I was contacted by Evan Lips, a reporter from the Lowell Sun who was doing a timely article on financial planning tips for the new year.

He had spoken to other financial planners and investment representatives and he had a wide range of opinions provided by them.  These included ways to manage credit to savings to kinds of investments to use for a retirement account.

Because everyone is at a different place in his or her life, some of these tips may not really help now. For instance, how you take money out of retirement accounts when retired is a tip that is less important to someone recently graduated looking to pay off student loan debt.

But there is something common that really can help anyone of any age.

Number One Tip for 2011 and Beyond

So my Number One tip for any consumer of any age:  Control What You Can and Leave the Rest.

What do I mean?

Consumers are usually their own worst enemy.  Too distracted by daily affairs, it’s easy to become overly focused on the news of the moment.  And this can lead to an emotional reaction that can otherwise sabotage long-term financial health.

Things You Can Control

1.      Investors have control over certain things: Their emotions (and reactions to the crisis of the day), investment expenses, asset allocation and amounts they save.

2.       Investing is long-term but the financial media is fixed on short-term crises of the moment.  Be mindful of that and try to tune out the noise.

3.       Your mom was right: Live beneath your means and you’ll have extra cash to save; build up your emergency reserves (minimum 3 months of fixed expenses for married couples working; 6 months for couples with one-earner and nearer 12 months for someone with variable income).

4.       Pay yourself first.  Make it automatic. Have a portion of your paycheck directly sent to a high-yielding savings account.

5.       You can lower your investing expenses and improve your diversification by using Exchange Traded Funds.  ETFs are investments that can trade like stocks but represent a broad basket of investments.  (Sort of like an index mutual fund but with even less expense). If you have less than $100,000 to invest and are looking for efficient core holding for global stock diversification, consider something like the OneFund® ETF from US One at www.usone.com (ticker symbol: ONEF) which is composed of 5 other ETFs from Vanguard and costs less than 0.35% per year while providing 95% exposure to 5,000 large, small and medium-sized companies throughout the world.

6.       Develop good money habits: Reconsider that fancy coffee or fast-food lunch and pocket the savings for a more meaningful goal (i.e. vacation, paying off debt, down payment for a house).

7.       Pay off your debt by snowballing payments.  This technique will help you see progress toward paying off debts.  Start with the ones with the lowest balances and pay above the minimum.  Then when this debt is paid in full apply the amount you were paying toward the next debt.  Eventually, like a snowball rolling down hill, you’ll be applying all these payments in large lumps toward the highest balance debt.  And this will help accelerate paying the debts off and lower your interest expenses.  Then when everything is paid off you can direct this toward your emergency reserves or investing goals.

8.       Position yourself to qualify for more student financial aid: Skip the allowance and put your kid to work.  See my post on this here.

Want Some Low-Cost Globally Efficient Ways to Invest?

What is an ETF?  Go to https://moneylinkpro.wordpress.com/?s=exchange+traded+fund or http://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/etf.asp

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What could possibly link the children’s story of Watership Down, Thanksgiving turkey and retirement investing risks?

Well, my mind works in strange ways (just ask my wife and I’m sure my 15-month old Spencer agrees as well).

Buy and Hold – A Broken Promise?

After all the troubles in the stock market and in financial markets in general over the past couple of years, I was recently rereading an article in the trade magazine, Journal of Financial Planning. In the September 2009 issue there is a book excerpt by Ken Solow, CFP (R) entitled Buy and Hold is Dead (AGAIN): The Trouble with Quant Models.

Over the past couple of years there has been much written about Buy and Hold investing. You may be familiar with the concept as an approach to investing that focuses on selecting an investment (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, real estate) and simply holding on through good times and bad.  Occasionally, you should rebalance back toward some strategic assert allocation to reduce or minimize certain risks.

The reasoning behind this is simple: humans are bad at financial decisions and by adopting this approach you can take the emotion out of investing.  Too often, we tend to make important decisions with little information and rely on emotions like fear or greed.  In fact, Warren Buffet, investor-extraordinaire of Berkshire-Hathaway fame, has said this many times and by doing the opposite of what the masses do he has amassed a fortune for himself and his investors.

For many, buy and hold was discredited after the great Financial Meltdown that tipped us into the Great Recession.  All asset  classes – whether large company stocks, small company stocks, stocks of foreign firms, bonds from companies large or small and bonds issued by sovereign nations – went down.

Most investors feel cheated, angry and worse. This buy and hold approach was advertised as a way to minimize risk.  Unfortunately, most investors probably misinterpreted the idea of minimizing risk and thought that it eliminated the downside volatility.

As I often say to clients, we know there will be sunny days and rainy days.  Risk management means carrying an umbrella and maybe wearing a rain coat as well.  But just because you are using one or both of them doesn’t mean that you won’t get wet.  You’ll just not get soaked like the guy who’s running from the street curb toward the office door with nothing but a newspaper over his head.

It’s true that Buy and Hold will help take the emotion out of investing. Over the long-term, the Ibbotson Charts will show that all asset classes have gone up since 1926 until now even after the meltdown.

That provides cold comfort to the retiree who is just about to start withdrawals from his portfolio to supplement his retirement income and lifestyle.  There were many who saw their investments drop 30%, 40% or more.  And while their portfolio may have bounced back some with the market rally and over time the market may continue to rise, they just don’t have the time to wait.  They have to start taking out money now.  And each time they take out money to live on, there is less in the pot to grow.

This has happened before.  Remember Enron.  Remember Lucent Technologies.  On one day someone is a paper millionaire.  Fast forward and the companies are in the tank (bankrupt in the case of Enron) and your retirement dream is a nightmare. If you’re at the tail end of a 25 year career, you really don’t have the time to make it up but have to make do with what you have. (Even for these folks, not all is lost and there are things one can do to sustain a retirement as I noted here in a previous post. And I’ll be talking about sustainable withdrawal rates in another post on retirement income planning.)

For the rest of us, there is a lesson in there. And this is where Watership Down and Thanksgiving turkey come into play.

Buy and Hold, Modern Portfolio Theory & The Illusion of Math

Buy and Hold is based on the quantitative model of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) first devised Harry Markowitz more than 50 years ago.  Such quantitative models are based on lots of mathematics.  The formulas are complex and elegant.  They are beyond what most of us are comfortable with but they do provide a sense of security.  You input numbers from data on various asset classes and a very precise number comes out the other side of the black box.  This provides a sense of security.  Instead of relying on something subjective like your instinct or your gut feelings, you can put your faith into something objective like the science of math and finance.

Over the past few years and principally from the mid-1990s until our recent meltdown, we have come to rely on ever more complex quantitative models. These complex models drove the markets in real estate and mortgages as we relied more and more on the black boxes of the financial engineers.  But theories are only theories and models are only as good as the assumptions and data used to create them.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  And a model is only as good as the assumptions behind it.  All models are based on past events. And even though we are warned that “past performance is no guarantee of future results” we rely on these backward-looking, statistically-based models for predicting our futures.

In a normal world, the behavior of markets and investors can be assumed pretty well. But in panics, all bets are off.  No amount of modeling can predict how presumably reasonable people will act but it’s safe to say that human nature’s fight or flight syndrome kicks in hard.

Watership Down – A Lesson from Spencer’s Bedtime

What happens is that things go along and work until they don’t.  Assumptions are assumed to be fine until they need to be revised. When I was reading Watership Down there is a scene where the protagonist, a wild rabbit, encounters a number of other well-fed white rabbits.  Our hero tries to get them to follow him but to no avail.  The tame rabbits live in a fine world where they are provided plenty of food, water, shelter and care.  What more is there to go searching for “out there?”

The Thanksgiving Turkey

Our false sense of security and belief in a system like MPT or Buy and Hold can be illustrated in the tale of the Thanksgiving turkey.

As retold by Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan:

Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race “looking out for its best interests,” as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey:  It will incur a revision of belief.

Unable or unwilling to question its beliefs, the turkey was lulled into a false sense of security by his daily reinforcing experiences. Like the tame white rabbits in Watership Down, the turkey’s world is looking good and life is great.  So much so that neither even think about ways to escape.

At least in the animated movie Chicken Run with Mel Gibson (another soon-to-be Spencer favorite), the chickens are led to question their assumptions about life on the farm and plot ways to escape.

What We Learn from Bedtime Stories for Investing

What we learn from these stories is that just because things have worked in the past, doesn’t mean that they are absolute truths that will hold in the future. The most dangerous thing that an investor can do is simply accept with blind faith the assumptions of the past.  In a changing market, there’s nothing scarier than conventional thinking.

Theories are only theories and while it may seem like heresy to question assumptions, it’s in your best interest to do so.

Does this mean abandoning Modern Portfolio Theory or Buy and Hold? No.

It does mean that it makes sense to add some human judgment to the mix.  Good models can work even better with common sense.

Like the counter-culture of the 1960s would teach, you as an investor will do best to question authority and question assumptions.

Use an Investment Policy Statement as a Better Road Map

Here with the aid of a qualified professional you can walk through and create a personalized investment policy statement as a road map for investing decisions.

Such an approach can combine the quantitative tools to be used along with the more qualitative, value-based criteria that can be combined to help in the investment selection and portfolio management process.

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All your ex-es may live in Texas as the country song says but do you really want your hard-earned money to follow?  And you may be a generous sort but would you rather have your wealth pass on to your family or Uncle Sam?  More examples of smart people doing dumb things when it comes to estate and legacy planning.

What do you think of when someone says “estate plan?”

If you think that it’s only for “old” people or those with lots of money, then think again.  If you have someone or something you care about, then you need a plan regardless of age or the amount of money involved.

Honey, I forgot the kids …

Think of Ana Nicole Smith and her infant daughter.  Think about the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Take away the money and there is still the drama about custody and guardianship for the children that could have been avoided with a proper plan.  And this sort of thing happens daily with families of much lesser means but the same need for care of a loved one.

There is an old saying:  Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.

What Estate Planning Really Means to You and Your Family

The easiest definition of estate planning is controlling how and who gets what you have when you pass away or become disabled.

As estate attorneys in the Esperti Petersen Model define it:

Estate planning provides the ability to:

  • Give what I have
  • To whom I want
  • When I want
  • The way I want.

Legacy planning takes it a step further and provides for the transfer of wisdom, memories and experiences along with the material wealth.

Most estate attorneys and financial advisers start from the point of view about the money and taxes.  Most clients are categorized into three groups:

  1. Individuals
  2. Married with assets above the federal estate tax exemption (now through December 31, 2010 at $3.5M)
  3. Married with assets below the federal estate tax exemption.

But a more client-focused and value-oriented planning approach to estate and financial planning begins with conversations about what is important to the client.  Only then will a client understand the context of a plan as well as why there may be need for changes to keep it current and aligned with the goals expressed by the client.

Too often, I hear that “I’m all set” because “I took care of it” or drafted a will when their college senior was about 2 years old.

In an increasingly complex world with changing state and federal tax codes, fluctuating asset values and a litigious culture, it is even more important to create a plan and routinely review it.  (If you were traveling on a highway cross-country, you wouldn’t simply turn on cruise control and take a nap, would you? I hope not. Even if you have good insurance, are you sure who’s going to get the proceeds?)

17 Major Mistakes

There are more than 17 significant common  mistakes that people make regarding estate planning.  These include failing to coordinate the financial plan, improperly structuring life insurance policies, choosing the wrong executor, improperly gifting assets, failure to properly create and fund trusts and the list goes on.

We could talk about Qualified Personal Residence Trusts, Installment Sales to Defective Grantor Trusts, Family Limited Partnerships and Credit Shelter Trusts.

But that’s all legalese.  It’s sort of like asking someone for the time and they tell you how to build a watch.  That doesn’t matter to you as much as knowing the time.  There are lots of tools in the tool kit of a qualified estate and financial planner.  You probably don’t care about which tool to use as long as the right tool recommended by a professional does the job.

What happens when you deal with real people? (1)

Jack and Jill and a Boy Named Dale

Jack recently turned 32.  He and Jill have been married for nearly three years. Dale was born nearly 13 months ago.  When not at work as UPS delivery driver, he enjoyed getting his heart pumping by cycling with a local riding club.  During a weekend ride as the group of cyclists were descending a hill quickly, a car being driven by a dentist who was late for a client appointment overtook the riders thinking that he had enough time and distance to safely clear the group.  He abruptly turned right onto the street where his office is located.

Unfortunately, the other car coming from the opposite direction to the stop sign on the street the dentist was driving onto was being driven by a young driver who was distracted by her incoming text message which lead her to cross over her lane.  When the dentist’s car hit her at the corner, it caused the cyclists to swerve in confusion.

In the resulting melee, Jack went down hard breaking his collarbone and vertebrae in his lower back leaving him without the ability to walk more than a short distance and unable to lift more than a couple of pounds.

Richard and Anne and the Day that Changed Everything

Richard and Anne lived in an old colonial overlooking the river in a quaint New England town.  Richard had a successful position with Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the world’s premier bond trading shops located in the World Trade Center of New York City.  While Anne managed the home front and their two rambunctious boys age 7 and 4, Richard would commute by plane to meet clients or for meetings at the corporate offices in New York.

By all accounts, they had an ideal life.  They had family and close ties to the community.  Their weekends were filled with home improvement projects on their home or one of the three investment properties they rented out.

Their world was turned upside down a little after 9 AM on September 11, 2001 when Richard’s plane was flown into one of the World Trade Center towers.

Paul and His Long Lost Love

Paul had been married to Bertie for more than 5 years when Bertie asked for a divorce in 1967 fed up by Paul’s late night carousing. After a couple of years of the single life, Paul found Carol, a long lost love from high school days.

Flirtations became something more and Paul and Carol got married and lived a nice life together.

After more than 30 years of working at his job with the state, he decided to retire. But before he turned in his papers, Paul died suddenly from a heart attack.

Although the loss of Paul, her long time love, was devastating, the news that followed was even worse.  It seems that Paul had never quite gotten around to fixing the beneficiary listed on his pension so the estate of his ex-wife Bertie, long since dead, would be going to Bertie’s younger, sole-surviving sister from Texas leaving Carol without an income source for her retirement.

Sal and Pauline

The romance that would result in seven children, thirteen grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren began when Sal and Pauline met at a USO dance at Fort Devens in 1943. Before shipping overseas with his Army unit, they got married.  More than sixty years later, they enjoyed the retirement years shuttling between family visits and weekly dances at the local senior center.

Then Sal noticed that Pauline started forgetting things.  With that many kids and grand kids, it wasn’t hard to imagine forgetting all their birthdays but soon she started forgetting to eat and dress.

Eventually, her doctor gave Sal the hard news that Pauline had Alzheimer’s and despite his best efforts she would need professional care.

After Sal and his sons brought Pauline to the nursing home, the reality hit home.  Despite their frugal lifestyle, Sal and Pauline had a sizeable nest egg and home.  After the first 120 days in the nursing home, Sal would need to start writing checks in the amount of $7,500 each month for Pauline’s care.  A lifetime of hard work and saving was being threatened.  What could he do?  Was there any other way?

Lots of Things Can Happen

Divorce.  Disability. Law Suits. Remarriage. Car Accidents. Business Partners.

If you think that these things can’t happen to you, think again.  Seek out the help of a good planning team that can coordinate these pieces.  While no one can predict what may happen, putting together a proper plan will help you and those you love with picking up the pieces after a personal loss or tragedy.  

Value-Oriented Estate Plan Foundation

(1) Note:  All names have been changed and situations presented are a compilation of various facts.

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Whatever your retirement dreams, they can still be made a reality.  It just depends on how you plan and manage your resources. On any journey it helps to have an idea where you’re going, how you plan to travel and what you want to do when you get there.

If this sounds like a vacation, well, it should. Most people invest more time planning a vacation than something like retirement.  And if you think of retirement as the Next Act in your life and approach it properly, you won’t be so easily bored or run out of money to continue the journey or get lost and make poor money decisions along the way.

It’s How You Manage It That Counts

How much you need really depends on the lifestyle you expect to have.  And it’s not necessarily true that your expenses drop in retirement. Assuming you have an idea of what your annual expenses might be in today’s dollars, you now have a target to shoot for in your planning and investing.

Add up the income from the sources you expect in retirement.  This can include Social Security benefits (the system is solvent for at least 25 years), any pensions (if you’re lucky to have such an employer-sponsored plan) and any income from jobs or that new career.

Endowment Spending: Pretend You’re Like Harvard or Yale

Consider adopting the same approach that keeps large organizations and endowments running.  They plan on being around a long time so they target a spending rate that allows the organization to sustain itself.

1. Figure Out Your Gap:  Take your budget, subtract the expected income sources and use the result as your target for your withdrawals. Keep this number at no more than 4%-5% of your total investment portfolio.

2. Use a Blended Approach: Each year look at increasing or decreasing your withdrawals based on 90% of the prior year rate and 10% on the investment portfolio’s performance.  If it goes up, you get a raise.  If investment values go down, you have to tighten your belt.  This works well in times of inflation to help you maintain your lifestyle.

3. Stay Invested:  You may feel tempted to bail from the stock market.  But despite the roller coaster we’ve had, it is still prudent to have a portion allocated to equities.  Considering that people are living longer, you may want to use this rule of thumb for your allocation to stocks: 128 minus your age.

If you think that the stock market is scary because it is prone to periods of wild swings, consider the risk that inflation will have on your buying power.  Bonds and CDs alone historically do not keep pace with inflation and only investments in equities have demonstrated this capability.

But invest smart. While asset allocation makes sense, you don’t have to be wedded to “buy-and-hold” and accept being bounced around like a yo-yo.  Your core allocation can be supplemented with more tactical or defensive investments.  And you can change up the mix of equities to dampen the roller coaster effects.  Consider including equities from large companies that pay dividends.  And add asset classes that are not tied to the ups and downs of the major market indexes.  These alternatives will change over time but the defensive ring around your core should be reevaluated from time to time to add things like commodities (oil, agriculture products), commodity producers (mining companies), distribution companies (pipelines), convertible bonds and managed futures.

4. Invest for Income: Don’t rely simply on bonds which have their own set of risks compared to stocks. (Think credit default risk or the impact of higher interest rates on your bond’s fixed income coupon).

Mix up your bond holdings to take advantage of the different characteristics that different types of bonds have. To protect against the negative impact of higher interest rates, consider corporate floating rate notes or a mutual fund that includes them.  By adding Hi-Yield bonds to the mix you’ll also provide some protection against eventual higher interest rates. While called junk bonds for a reason, they may not be as risky as one might think at first glance. Add Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) that are backed by the full faith and credit of the US government.  Add in the bonds from emerging countries.  While there is currency risk, many of these countries do not have the same structural deficit or economic issues that the US and developed countries have.  Many learned their lessons from the debt crises of the late 1990s and did not invest in the exotic bonds created by financial engineers on Wall Street.

Include dividend-paying stocks or stock mutual funds in your mix.  Large foreign firms are great sources of dividends. Unlike the US, there are more companies in Europe that tend to pay out dividends. And they pay out monthly instead of quarterly like here in the US.  Balance this out with hybrid investments like convertible bonds that pay interest and offer upside appreciation.

5. Build a Safety Net: To sleep well at night use a bucket approach dipping into the investment bucket to refill the reserve that should have 2 years of expenses in near cash investments: savings, laddered CDs and fixed annuities.

Yes, I did say annuities.  This safety net is supported by three legs so you’re not putting all your eggs into annuities much less all into an annuity of a certain term. For many this may be a dirty word.  But the best way to sleep well at night is to know that your “must have” expenses are covered.  You can get relatively low cost fixed annuities without all the bells, whistles and complexity of other types of annuities.  (While tempting, I would tend to pass on “bonus” annuities because of the long schedule of surrender charges). You can stagger their terms (1-year, 2-year, 3-year and 5-year) just like CDs.  To minimize exposure to any one insurer, you should also consider spreading them around to more than one well-rated insurance carrier.

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Remember leisure suits? Remember bell bottoms? How about skinny ties?

Fashion sense changes. And so has money sense over the last couple of decades. But like the old song title: Everything Old Is New Again.

Over the past couple of decades we loaded up on debt, used our homes as piggy banks and became part of the “ownership” society investing more in real estate, mutual funds, stocks and our 401(k)s.

Like a pendulum, things change and old fashions that fell out of favor seem to come back into style.

Unfortunately, some of those fashions when it comes to money should never have been forgotten.

1.) Live Below Your Means: Easier said than done especially if living in a high tax or high cost state. But it’s worth remembering mom’s advice on this one.

2.) Skip the McMansion: They cost too much to heat, furnish and maintain. And they don’t produce any income for you (unless you consider taking on roommates). And who are you gonna get to buy the McMansion anyway when you want to downsize?

3.) Protect Your Credit: Use it sparingly and only if you can pay it off soon. Consider using a snowball method to get yourself out of debt (focusing on a credit card balance and then as that one gets paid off redirecting your payments to the next balance). And keep your credit score high by not closing out accounts. Use them every once in a while to keep them active. This will help maintain your credit score and allow you to qualify for better terms.

4.) Pensions Are A Thing of the Past: Secure your retirement income by saving in whatever tax-efficient options are available to you. This includes your 401k and IRA. Add a Roth IRA to stay diversified regarding future income taxes. Consider a lifetime income annuity – no frills, no bells and whistles, low expenses, laddered and divided among different insurers to reduce your risk.

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