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Archive for the ‘Risk Management’ Category

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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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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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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The entrepreneur was being interviewed after a long life.  He had made it through the Great Depression and was looking back.  As he warmly reflected, he straightened up and with a twinkle in his eye told the world the secret of his success.

“It was really quite simple.  I bought an apple for five cents, spent the evening polishing it, and sold it the next day for 10 cents. With this I bought two apples, spend the evening polishing them and sold them for 20 cents. And so it went until I had amassed $1.60.

It was then my wife’s father died and left us $1 million.”

Sudden wealth is certainly one way to make it.  And the lottery is another.

But in reality most of us will need to rely on the principles of growing your wealth slowly.

It may not be sexy and exciting to talk about but over time there are certain principles that will work:

  • Living beneath your means
  • Consistently saving
  • Responsibly using credit
  • Protecting your assets, life and income with appropriate insurance
  • Investing in a broad, diversified mix of assets

Of course there are lots of specifics that need to be tailored for each individual and to reflect what’s going on in the world around us.  From year to year specific investments may need to be changed just as you might change the drapes or the color of your house. But the overall process of building and preserving wealth depends on the foundation you build. And like your house, you want that foundation to be solid.

Over the next several posts I’ll continue to explore the most common mistakes that investors make and how you can avoid them.

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