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Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) have been growing in popularity with investors and their advisers.  They offer low costs and opportunities to more precisely create an asset allocation or take advantage of trading and hedging ideas.

Currency Exchange Traded Funds have grown popular over the course of 2011 to investors who are attempting to gain exposure to foreign currency while avoiding the cost and complexity of the foreign exchange (Forex) market. Investing in foreign stocks and bonds can be a good investment when looking for a financial diversification and also offer the potential of producing substantial returns.

Up until recently, an investor’s only choice to hedge foreign exposure has been through the Forex markets. These markets can be complex for most investors and require substantial capital at risk.  Investing in Forex is promoted by some as a speculative way to make profits.  But an investment in foreign currency comes with the risk of losing money through exchange rates.

ETF’s that focus on currencies are a less complex way to hedge an overseas investment. They give the average investor the opportunity to invest away from the US dollar. ETF’s are also used as ideal instruments for investors to diminish the loss of money due to exchange rates.

Why Invest in Currency Exchange Traded Funds?

Investing in an ETF is much less complex than investing in the Forex market. Although the Forex is the most liquid market (trillions are traded each day), it can be difficult for the average investor to get a seat at the table considering the capital that may be needed and the trading costs incurred. ETF’s offer a simpler way to invest in foreign markets.

If an investor feels as though there is potential economic growth overseas or in an emerging market, ETF’s are a perfect vehicle for international exposure.  Buying individual stocks overseas may be difficult for US investors and may be costly as well.  Mutual funds are a great way to gain access but they have higher costs compared to ETFs.

Why invest in currencies?  Consider this:  Living in the US means that your source of income and most of your investments are denominated in US dollars.  If your portfolio is loaded with domestic investments (and most investors tend to be woefully under-allocated in foreign equity positions), adding a currency ETF to your portfolio can help balance your investments and add diversity to your portfolio away from the US dollar.

Let’s say you are investing overseas through mutual funds in your 401(k) or brokerage account.  Most of these portfolio managers tend to not hedge their exposure to currency changes.  This can turn a positive fund return into a loss when converting back to the US dollar.

Now an investor may want to hedge by holding a position in a foreign currency.  But investing in foreign markets can be risky because of the constant fluctuation of currency and exchange rates. The currency market never closes and is open twenty-four hours of everyday. For the average investor, constantly keeping up with the currencies to figure out the best times to sell and buy may not be worthwhile and result in a loss in money (as well as sleep).   ETF’s offer a more efficient opportunity to manage these risks of foreign investments.

Why bother?  Well, just look at the news headlines.  There continues to be debt crises in foreign and US markets.  This tends to lead to potentially higher interest rates as investors demand a higher return for attracting their money to a particular country.  Higher interest rates in turn will negatively impact the value of the currency and lead to a “weaker” currency. (The upside, on the other hand, is that a weak dollar, for example, will make our exports more competitively priced and help those business dealing overseas).

Investors may be interested in “safe haven” currencies during poor financial times. Countries with strong political stability, low inflation, and stable monetary and fiscal policies tend to be magnets for money in tough times. While that doesn’t necessarily describe the US right now, we are still considered the best option out there as a “safe haven.”

Hedging Examples

According to this article appearing on Investopedia, “a weakening currency can drag down positive returns or exacerbate negative returns in an investment portfolio. For example, Canadian investors who were invested in the S&P 500 from January 2000 to May 2009 had returns of -44.1% in Canadian dollar terms (compared with returns for -26% for the S&P 500 in U.S. dollar terms), because they were holding assets in a depreciating currency (the U.S. dollar, in this case).”

Disadvantages of ETF’s

No investment comes without risks and ETFs and currency ETFs in particular are no different. As is the case with many ETFs, there is always the issue of liquidity of the ETF.  (An ETF without a deep market or volume can produce exaggerated and volatile price changes). And in the case of currency ETFs there is the added issue of dealing with foreign taxes.

The Bottom Line

Whether or not a currency ETF makes sense for your particular situation is something that only you with the help of a qualified professional can determine.

But you should at least be aware of the tools available that may help you protect your portfolio. At the very least, it makes sense to hedge overseas investments especially during volatile times.

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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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Bonds are not the stodgy, boring things that most investors think of even though there’s no army of talking heads on financial news shows talking about them.

They are a huge market (about double the value of stocks as noted in my last post). They are an essential part of our economy.  Most companies cannot function without easy access to credit.  In fact, the shock and uncertainty that followed the collapse of some of the largest banks pretty much brought the economy to a standstill and contributed mightily to the Great Recession.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t money to be made in this asset class. Savvy investors of all stripes need to consider the value of bonds in a well-diversified portfolio.  And how you build that portfolio will help lower risks and costs and ultimately mean more money in an investor’s personal bottom line.

Whether someone is retired or not, bonds can provide income and potential capital appreciation (and depreciation if not hedged properly).

Bonds are a key part of an income-producing strategy (dividend-paying stocks are another asset class useful for this as well).

What is a Bond Ladder?

Essentially, a bond ladder describes a strategy to manage fixed-income investments by staggering the maturity dates of the various investments.

Some may be familiar with CD ladders: You select a series of bank certificates of deposit and stagger their maturity dates so that every six months, for example, a CD matures and you can reinvest the proceeds.

The advantage of this is that in a rising interest rate environment the investor is not locked out  of getting a higher rate on new money.

As with any fixed income investment, the disadvantage is that in a falling rate environment money that matures gets reinvested at a lower rate.

To minimize this impact professionals focus on the concept of “duration” which is a measure of how sensitive a bond (or any fixed income investment) is to changes in interest rates:  The lower the duration, the less sensitive and vice versa.

Mutual funds may publish an implied “duration” measure but it is not accurate because the fund, unlike the bonds themselves, is perpetual.

So to minimize risk to a fixed income portfolio, an investor (with the help of a competent financial professional) can create a custom portfolio.  And unlike a passive index fund, this custom portfolio can be built using bank CDs of staggering maturities for the near-term money coupled with a variety of bonds (corporate, US Government and municipal issues) with their own staggered maturity dates.

To mitigate the risks posed by higher interest rates caused by inflation or other political influences, the mix can also include “floating rate” bank notes. These are essentially bank loans to companies that adjust. Think of them like adjustable rate mortgages but to fund company operations  instead of real estate.

To add diversification to the mix, one can add closed-end funds that can be bought at a discount. These funds are professionally managed and offer an opportunity for price appreciation but at an expense ratio that is typically far lower than a conventional open-ended bond mutual fund.

By combining these elements, an investor may be able to lower the overall risk from interest rate movements, from default risk of individual components and from the impact of a “run on the bank” when others are selling (NAV risk).

And the overall cost of putting this together is cheaper than many mutual funds.  The cost to buy or trade an individual bond is typically included in the yield offered without any additional charge.  CDs do not have any added cost.  And for US Treasurys there may be a nominal fee (less than $3 per bond or example).

A knowledgeable financial professional can have access to hundreds of bond brokers.  By being independent and not beholden to any one broker’s inventory, an adviser can access offerings from multiple sources, find the best price and terms and lower an investor’s costs.

Depending on the total assets in the bond portfolio, the cost for professional management to monitor and make changes can typically run between 0.4% and 0.7% of the portfolio which is well under the cost of many mutual fund options.

For help putting your personal portfolio together, call Steve Stanganelli at Clear View at 978-388-0020 or 617-398-7494.

 

 

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Investors are always looking for the next big thing. By the amount of time and energy devoted to talking heads divining tea leaves and spouting stock tips on news programs, cable TV and the internet, you would think that the only market that counts is the US stock market.

In fact, the global bond market actually dwarfs the stock market by a factor of two to one. According to the December 2010 Asset Allocation Advisor, the amount of outstanding debt in the world tops $91 Trillion compared to the $52 Trillion market value of all stock markets around the globe. Of this all US stocks are valued at only $17 Trillion.

There is a mistaken belief among investors that bonds are only for “conservative” investors or those who are retired. Stocks are exciting.  Bonds are boring.  If we have learned anything from the financial collapse triggered by mortgage bonds in 2008, bonds are anything but boring.  The important lesson is knowing that bonds are not to be ignored and can play an important role in a diversified portfolio when done right.

What’s an investor to do?  Build a better mousetrap.

Most investors, if they have any bond exposure at all, will buy them through a mutual fund.  While mutual funds offer instant diversification and professional portfolio management, there are limitations.  In no particular order, these are: costs, inability to control for taxes, lack of customization and what is known as “NAV” risk.

For actively managed bond mutual funds, the average operating costs (or expense ratio) can exceed 1% per year.  For index or passive bond mutual funds, the costs can be less (sometimes as low as 0.2% per year) but you will only have access to a statistical sampling of bonds.  With either option you lack the ability to customize the holdings to match your specific needs for generating income or control the timing of sales which may be important from a tax perspective.

Another problem, NAV risk, is little understood by consumers.  Mutual funds are priced daily.  A value is determined for each of the mutual fund’s investments (closing price times number of shares or units owned).  And this total is divided among the total number of mutual fund units outstanding.  This Net Asset Value is the number you see in the charts and tables on line or in the newspaper.

With a mutual fund there is a constant flow of money coming in to buy more units or flowing out to cover redemptions made by other investors.  Sometimes there is a mismatch between these flows.  If there is a “run on the bank” and lots of redemptions occur, the mutual fund may be forced to sell holdings at “fire sale” prices intended for long-term investment to raise cash to meet the demands caused by redemptions.  For those investors who hold on, they can be punished in the near-term by seeing the NAV fall and dragging down the value of their holding. That’s the NAV risk.

In the next part of this blog, I’ll talk about the ways to help reduce the impact and costs of these problems by building your own portfolio of bonds.

For additional information or help with investing, call Clear View Wealth Advisors at 978-388-0020 or 617-398-7494.

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June 2011 ViewPoint Newsletter

The current issue of the ViewPoint Newsletter from Steve Stanganelli, CFP(R) and Clear View Wealth Advisors is available for download from the SlideShare.net website.  A copy can also be found at the Clear View website newsletter archive.

In this issue, I focus on the key themes of the newsletter:  Retirement, College, Investing Strategy and Taxes.

  1. Retirement:  Using an “endowment” strategy to sustain withdrawals in retirement
  2. Investing: The value of dividend investing strategies for a total return investor and a discussion of how dividend payouts may predict future stock prices
  3. Taxes:  Real estate owners and especially those going through divorce may find these tips useful.
  4. College Planning:  On Thursday, June 9 there will be another free webinar with this one focused on Paying for College – Debunking Financial Aid Myths.

CLICK BELOW to VIEW the NEWSLETTER

Make Sense of Your Money with the ViewPoint Newsletter

Click Here to Download June 2011 ViewPoint Newsletter

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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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Consumers and homeowners in particular tend to think that financial planning is all about investing.  In reality, the key to proper financial planning is making smart moves with your money to protect your hard-earned wealth.  Too often consumers fret about the specific investment’s return and ignore the things that they can control such as how to not lose money.

One of the key parts of a good financial plan is proper estate planning.  And one element of an estate plan is controlling for risks that can wipe out your wealth such as from a lawsuit or a creditor.

To that end the revisions that became effective with the updated Massachusetts Homestead Law will help all homeowners.

New Law in Massachusetts Will Protect Homeowners and Vital for Seniors

As reported in the Boston Tax Institute newsletter of May 31, 2011, the Massachusetts Legislature has enacted a new law that will increase homestead protection for homeowners in Massachusetts. Homestead protects a person’s residence from most creditors. If a homeowner is sued by a creditor or files for bankruptcy, a portion of their equity in their home – the “homestead estate” – is deemed unavailable to their creditors. The new law was passed on December 16, 2010, and became effective on March 16, 2011.

What a homestead exemption does is protect the property against attachment, levy on execution or a court-ordered forced sale to satisfy payment of a debt.

The new law essentially puts in place a minimum amount of coverage for all homeowners (now $125,000) and each homeowner can file the form to gain protection up to the extended amount ($500,000 or $1 million for an elder couple).

Cheap Protection Against Lawsuits or Creditors

This is cheap protection.  And vital for anyone.

Consider this: One lawsuit can not only ruin your day but force you to lose the equity in your home.

If you have teens at home and there is a severe car accident, you can be sued.  If you lose the lawsuit and are assessed a civil judgement by the court, the other party could put a lien on your home or even force the sale of the property to pay the claim.

An elder driver could drive through a wall or onto a sidewalk and cause property damage or personal injury that exceeds their insurance liability coverage.

These are only a couple of examples that could put someone’s home at risk.  This new law at least provides some basic protection and the extended coverage will provide more peace of mind.

Key Updates to the Law

Under the amended Massachusetts Homestead law (Estate of Homestead):

  • Massachusetts homeowners will receive automatic $125,000 protection against debt collectors (if they hold that much equity in their home) without having to do anything.
  • Homeowners can elect to file a homestead declaration with the Registry of Deeds, which will give homeowners up to $500,000 in equity protection from non-exempt creditors.  Homestead forms, or homestead deeds, are filed at the Registry of Deeds in the county in which the residence is located. The filing fee ranges from $35-$100.
  • For married couples, both spouses will now have to sign the form. Before only one spouse signed and protection was only afforded to the spouse who signed.  If a single person declares a homestead and subsequently gets married, the Homestead automatically protects the new spouse.
  • Homesteads now pass on to the surviving spouse and children who live in the home.  The protections also remain for transfers between relatives.
  • There is new protection for homeowners who receive insurance proceeds from fire or other damages.
  • There has always been confusion whether a homeowner had to re-file a homestead after a refinance.  The new law clarifies this issue – homeowners do NOT have to re-file a homestead after a refinance.  Under the new law, Homesteads are automatically subordinate to mortgages, and lenders are specifically prohibited from having borrowers waive or release a homestead.
  • Homesteads are now available for single families, condominiums, coops, manufactured homes and now for 2-4 unit homes; and also for homes that are held in a trust for estate planning or other reasons.
  • Closing attorneys in mortgage transactions must now provide borrowers with a notice of availability of a homestead.
  • There is no need to re-do/re-file an existing homestead under the new law.

The form itself is pretty easy to fill in and file with the registry where your primary residence is located and recorded.  For a $35 registry fee you could get $300,000 in protection from creditors (now up to $500,000).

Special note:  Attorney Ed Adamsky provided a clarification (thanks, Ed):

If you have already filed a homestead, you do not have to update it to get the benefits of the updated Massachusetts law. If you have not filed one, you should do so. In New Hampshire there is nothing to file

For specific guidance on legal issues, speak with a qualified attorney. For help in putting in place a financial plan or road map for your money that looks at all the pieces of your plan, then call a qualified financial planner who can help make sense of all the moving parts regarding your money.

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