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Archive for the ‘Retire in A Day Series’ Category

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

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 of 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.  (My 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.

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.

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.

Things to Consider:

iMonitor Portfolio Program

Money Tools DIY Program

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

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

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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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It’s easy to get tripped up in retirement.  I’m reminded of the expression by the octogenarian to the recent newlywed fretting about life but rejecting out of hand the advice of his experienced senior:

A long time ago I was where you are now.  And later you’ll be where I am now.  But just as you haven’t been your age before, I’ve never been old before.

So for new retirees who “not been there or done that” it’s a whole new world filled with possibility and pitfalls.

Transitioning

Most retirees have an imperfect vision of retirement at best.  And if it hasn’t been discussed or communicated, it could be vastly different from that of your spouse.

Finding meaning in a post-work world can be a real challenge.  If your identity has been wrapped up in what you do, then you might now feel lost.  Your social networks might change.  Your activities might change.

It’s important to reassess your values and envision how you want to live in this next chapter of your life.

Initially, there may be more travel to visit family, friends or places.  You may want to tackle that “bucket list.”

But to live a truly fulfilling and rewarding retirement may require you to take stock in yourself, your values and what gives you meaning.  You may benefit from working with a professional transition coach or group that can help guide you through this period of rediscovery.  One such resource can be found here at the Successful Transition Planning Institute.

Lifestyle Budget

Typically, most retirees may take the rule of thumb bandied about that you will need from 60% to 70% of your pre-retirement income to live on in a post-retirement world.  This is because it is assumed that many expenses will drop off:  business wardrobe, commuting to work, professional memberships, housing, new cars, etc.

The reality is far different.  According to research conducted by the Fidelity Research Institute 2007 Retirement Index, more than two-thirds of retirees spent the same or higher in retirement.  Only eight percent spend significantly lower and about 25% spend somewhat lower. The Employee Benefit Research Institute  reported in its 2010 Retirement Confidence Survey that while 60% of workers expected to more than half of retirees didn’t see a drop in retirement expenditures while 26% of this group reported that their spending actually rose.

It all depends on your goals, lifestyle and what curve balls life throws at you.  If you have adult children who end up in a financial crisis of their own caused by job loss, health issues or divorce, you may be spending more than you expected to help out. Maybe the home you live in will require higher outlays for maintenance or to upgrade the home so you can live there independently. In reality all of that travel and doing things on your bucket list will cost money, too.  So it’s more the rule than the exception to expect spending to increase while you’re still healthy to get up and go.

Over time, the travel bug and other activities will probably decline but even after that these may be replaced by other expenses.

Healthcare

There is an old saying that as you get older you have more doctors than friends.  This is a sad reality for many including my parents.

My father is on dialysis and has complications from diabetes.  His treatments probably cost Medicare (and ultimately the US taxpayer) more than $30,000 each quarter as I figure it.  He takes about 13 prescriptions each day and enters the dreaded “donut hole” about mid-year each year. At one time their former employers (a Fortune 500 company) provided medical insurance benefits to retirees but that became more and more cost prohibitive for their employer and for my parents as premiums, co-pays and deductibles rose.  So now they rely on a combination of Medicare and Blue Cross/Blue Shield and a state program called Prescription Advantage.

As private employers and cash-strapped state and municipal governments tackle the issue, you can expect to pay more for your health care in retirement.

Wealth Illusion

It’s not uncommon to feel really rich when you look at your retirement account statements.  (Sure, the balances are off where they may have been at the peak but it’s probably still a large pot of money). The big problem is that retirees may have no comprehension about how long that pot of money will last or how to turn it into a steady paycheck for retirement.

In reality the $500,000 in your 401k or IRA accounts may only provide $20,000 per year if you plan on withdrawing no more than 4% of the account’s balance each year. Then again if you take out more early on in retirement, you could be at risk of depleting your resources quickly.

Misplaced Risk Aversion & The Impact of Inflation

So as you get older, you’ll be tempted to follow the rule of thumb that more of your investments need to be in bonds. Although this may seem to be a conservative approach to investing, it is in fact risky.

Setting aside that this ignores the risks that bonds themselves carry, it is ignoring the simple fact that inflation eats away at your purchasing power.  Even in a tame inflationary world with 1% annual inflation, a couple spending about $80,000 a year when they are 65 will need over $88,000 a year just to buy the same level of goods and services when they turn 75.  Given the potential for higher inflation in the future that may result from a growing economy and/or current monetary policy, investments need to be positioned to hedge against inflation with a diverse allocation into stocks and not just bonds even when in retirement.

The other risk is trying to play catch up.  As a retiree sees the balances on his accounts get drawn down, he might even be tempted to “shoot for the moon” by investing in illiquid investments like stocks in small, thinly traded markets or in sectors that are very speculative.

Ball games are one by base hits and consistency on the field and at the plate.  Home runs are dramatic but not a sure thing.

Underestimating How Long You’ll Live

We all want a long and productive life.  Many will even say that they don’t want to live to be a burden to their families.  But here again the reality is that most folks do a bad job of guessing how long they’ll live.  A report by the Society of Actuaries notes that 29% of retirees and pre-retirees estimate that they’ll outline the averages but in fact there is a 50% chance of outliving them.

So while they may have enough resources to carry them through the average life expectancy, they will not have enough when they live longer than the averages. And if a couple attains the age of 65, there is a better than 50% chance that at least one of them will live into their 90s.

Given the fact that most women become widows at the age of 53 (Journal of Financial Planning, Nov. 2010), this has a big impact on the availability of resources for retirement.  Too often, a short-sighted approach to maximize current retirement income from a pension is to choose the option that pays the highest but stops when one spouse dies. All too often this puts the widow who may live longer without a reliable source of income to provide for her.

Conclusion

Too often people underestimate how long they will live in retirement, how much they will actually need for living in retirement and how to invest for a sustainable retirement paycheck using appropriate product, asset and tax diversification.

Many people do not save enough for their own retirement.  The social safety net providing support for old age income and healthcare may not be enough to maintain a desired lifestyle.  Women need to understand the risk of living long into retirement and manage resources accordingly.  And because more than 40% of Americans are at risk of retiring earlier than expected because of job loss, family care needs or personal health, there is a real need for proper planning to address these issues.

While retirees will benefit from having a good plan and road map before the final paycheck ends, it’s never too late to start. And for the newly retired with the time to address these issues, now’s as good a time as any to speak to a qualified professional who can help.

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It’s natural for investors who are still skittish after a decade-long roller coaster ride with the stock market and plummeting real estate values to be risk averse and seek out investment alternatives for protecting their nest eggs for retirement, college funding or simply their emergency cash.

And where there is demand, there will be supply.  So naturally, financial firms will design products geared toward satisfying this demand.

One such product that’s getting more attention recently are Market Linked Certificates of Deposit (CDs).

These are in essence a savings product designed to provide a minimum guaranteed interest rate plus the opportunity to increase the return by linking to the return of a specific market index or in some cases an index for inflation.

Such products are part of the larger class of “structured products” produced by investment banks that can come in many flavors and various strategies:  reverse-convertibles, principal-protected notes, Exchange Traded Notes.  They essentially are debt bundled with a derivative and marketed as a way to bet on stocks and interest rates as a way to manage certain risks. All offer in one package strategies using some sort of derivative and may offer a combination of principal protection, risk reduction and/or enhanced returns.

Recent surveys of more than 17 brokerage firms and more than 38 million investors show that most of these products are used by those with under $500,000 in investable assets.  For those with assets between $250,000 and $500,000, about 1.5% of their assets are placed in such products which is slightly higher than the 1.33% of assets for those with under $250,000 to invest.  (Investment News, 11/15/2010, page 52).

More than $70 billion of such products are held by investors with more than $42 billion bought in 2010 according to Bloomberg data.  And given continued uncertainty about the markets, the demand looks like it will not be abating any time soon especially as financial marketing organizations use investor fears as a selling point. Brokers and banks often receive higher fees and commissions for selling such products.

Keith Styrcula of the Structured Products Association said in a recent interview “these kinds of investments have become so attractive because people can no longer trust stock market indexes to go up.” He added that “there’s a lot of fear in the market right now, and a lot of investors don’t just want one-way exposure anymore.”  (Investment News, 11/15/2010, page 51).

But even though these products are marketed as a way to reduce risk they are not risk free.  There is no free lunch and this is no exception. Such products are subject to liquidity risk, market risk, credit risk and opportunity costs.

Market-Linked CDs are a form of principal-protected note offered by an investment bank.  These are not your Grandmother’s bank CDs.  First, such notes are offered as debt of the sponsoring institution so there is always the potential of credit risk.  Think of Lehman Brothers which was a large producer of such notes.  If the issuing firm fails, as Lehman did, the investment is at risk. While there is FDIC-protection on the principal, that may be small comfort when dealing with the time frame to get access to your money through a FDIC claim process.

They may involve a complex strategy which may be buried in the details of the offering’s prospectus.  For market-linked CDs, for instance, the issuer offers the downside protection by managing a portfolio of Treasury bonds (like zero coupon bonds to meet the projected maturity date of the CD).  The upside potential that is offered comes from investing in the bond yield through various strategies.

In such a low interest rate environment, these notes work only if provided sufficient time for the issuer to implement its strategies.  This is one reason that such CDs typically have long lock up periods that can be five years or more.

An issuer may guarantee a minimum interest amount but this is typically not FDIC-insured.  And this is really an obligation of the issuer so that’s where the credit risk comes into play. And you should note that the minimum guarantee usually only applies when the investment is held to maturity.  An investor will lose this guarantee by redeeming before the contract maturity date. And because of the nature of these products, there really is no secondary market around to allow someone else to buy you out early.

The upside potential is calculated based on the performance of the index chosen.  The CD investor does not own the index or the stocks in the index.  The issuer uses its money to invest and potentially reap the dividends issued as well as the appreciation.

What the issuer offers to the CD investor is a certain percentage of the upside gain of the index (called a participation rate) but limited by a ceiling (called a cap).  This calculation of the gain can be convoluted for an investor to understand. While it’s pretty simple to understand a typical CD (put $1000 in at an annual interest rate of 3% means you have $1,030 at end of the period), the same is not true for market linked CDs.

Your gain may be based on an average (so now the question is how are they calculating that average: monthly,  semi-annually, annually, term of the CD) or a Point-to-Point calculation. (Example: If the market index is 1000 when the account opened, went up to 2000 after one year but drops to 1050 by the maturity date, then the point-to-point is from 1000 to 1050 or 5% in this case).

In many ways these are similar to other structured products like market linked annuities (sometimes referred to as index annuities or equity-indexed annuities).

I addressed many of the same issues about calculating returns and possible risks in a post on the subject a while back.

Bottom Line:

Whether or not such products make sense for your personal portfolio really requires a good, long chat with a qualified financial professional. Like any other investment, the potential risks and opportunity costs need to be weighed against your personal goals, time frame, liquidity needs and the potential offered by other alternative options.

So if you are considering such products, just be aware of all the risks and look beyond the marketing brochure at the local bank.

Resources:

SEC Investor Education on Market-Linked CDs

MoneyLinkPro Blog Post on Market Index Annuities

Wikipedia Definition

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Recent academic research by Gordon Pye on the impact of emergency withdrawals on retirement planning may put into question the rule of thumb used by many advisers to determine a safe, sustainable withdrawal rate.

For many investors and their financial advisers, the accepted rule of thumb has been to withdraw no more than 4% of an investment portfolio in any given year to provide a sustainable income stream when in retirement.

Is this rule of thumb reasonable given the potential impact of personal emergencies?  And how can a withdrawal strategy be created to account for them and the impact of external forces like a market correction or longer bear market?

Cloudy Crystal Ball

Analytical tools and software have come a long way but even contemporary tools can’t account for everything.

I spoke with an estate attorney the other day.  We were talking about the many challenges for helping clients plan properly for contingencies in the face of so many internal and external variables.

What he said is worth keeping in mind when thinking about any sort of financial planning:  If you tell me when you’re going to die, I can prepare a perfect estate plan for you?

The same sentiment can be adapted for retirement income planning.  Sure, if you tell me how long you’ll live in retirement, how much it will cost each year and when you’re going to die, I can tell you how much you’ll need.

In reality, this is unlikely.  More often than not, the crystal ball is cloudy. So you have two choices here: Wing it or Plan.

Winging it is pretty simple. Nothing complicated.  Simply keep shuffling along. Sometimes you’ll scramble. Other times you’ll be “fat and happy” for lack of a better phrase.

Planning, on the other hand, is a lot like work.  It requires assumptions and conversations.  It may even require bringing in others to help create the framework.

While nobody wants another job to do given an already busy day, there is an upside to investing the time here: Peace of mind.

What the Doctor Says:

Here’s a summary of what Dr. Pye wrote recently in his article.

  • In retirement, you may never have an emergency or you may have one or more.
  • The timing and extent of these emergencies is unknown.
  • While a retiree may be able to reduce the damage caused by a bear market maybe through market growth, other emergencies may require withdrawals that siphon money away from the investment pot that can never again be used to help repair the hole left by that withdrawal.
  • The timing of these emergency withdrawals may cause a retiree to abandon a market strategy at an inopportune time.

The biggest unknown?  Health care is the biggest likely emergency on your retirement budget.  These can be related to your own health or even an adult son or daughter.  Other emergencies may be caused by catastrophic weather (mudslide, wind or flood damage to your home), the extended loss of a job by a son or daughter or a divorce compelling you to help out.

In other research by Dr. John Harris supports the notion that what matters most to all investors – and retirees in particular – is the sequence of returns not simply the average rate of return on a portfolio.

Intuitively, we understand this.  A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  Cash now is better than cash later (which may be a deterrent against planning now for a future need).  If you were to just retire and the market takes a nosedive as you are withdrawing funds, you would be in tough shape because you have a smaller base that is invested that has to do double (or triple) duty.  The amount of appreciation needed to make up for the hole left by the withdrawals combined with market losses would be near impossible or require an investor to take imprudent risks to try to regain lost ground.

So what’s an investor to do?

  1. Save more – easier said than done but this is really key or otherwise choose a different lifestyle budget.
  2. Reduce initial withdrawal rates from 4% to 3%.
  3. Follow an “endowment spending” policy instead of a simple rule of thumb.
  4. Invest for income from multiple sources (dividend-paying stocks as well as bonds).
  5. Stay invested in the stock market but change up the players.  Not even a championship ball club has the same line up from game to game.  As markets change, you need to add more tactical plays into the mix of asset types
  6. Separate your investments into different buckets:  short-term lifestyle budget, medium-term and longer-term.  Each of these can have different risk characteristics.
  7. Keep a safety net of near-cash to cover lifestyle needs for 1 to 2 years.
  8. Monitor the buckets so that one doesn’t get too low or start to overflow.  This will require moving funds from one to the other to maintain consistency with the targets.
  9. Don’t let your insurances lapse.  Insurance is there to fill in the gap so you don’t have to shell money out-of-pocket.  Here you want to regularly recheck your homeowner coverage for inflation protection riders, cost of replacement and liability.  Check your coverage and deductible limits for wind, sump pump and other damage.

 

 

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As noted in previous articles and posts, whether or not your student qualifies for federal financial aid for college will depend on the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) calculation.

Typically, almost all assets and income are included in this calculation by financial aid officers.  There are exceptions to all rules and in this case, federal aid formulas (under the “Federal Methodology”) exclude home or family farm equity, money accumulated in tax-deferred retirement accounts and cash value built up in a life insurance policy.  The cash values of fixed and variable annuities are also excluded.

Since these assets are not counted in determining aid, some families may be tempted to consider “asset shifting” strategies.  With such techniques, a countable asset like savings or investments through a brokerage account are used to acquire one or more of these other non-countable asset types.

Friends and clients have attended financial aid workshops sponsored by college aid planners or insurance agents who recommend purchasing annuities or life insurance.  Sometimes these strategies involve doing a “cash out” refinance or drawing on a home equity line of credit. Tapping home equity to fund a deposit into an insurance or annuity vehicle may benefit a mortgage banker and insurance agent but is it in your best interests?

Asset Shifting to Qualify for More Financial Aid: Is it worth it?

Well, that depends on what side of the table you’re sitting on.

Yes, it’s true that anything you can do to reduce your expected family contribution may help boost the amount and type of aid your student may receive.

On the other hand, remember these points:

  • Family assets are counted at a low contribution rate of 5.6% above the asset-protection allowance calculated for your family circumstances.
  • If you put money into a tax-deferred account, it’s locked up.  Access to the funds before age 59 1/2 results in early withdrawal penalties in most cases.
  • You may have to pay to borrow your own money.

Granted, socking away money into tax-deferred vehicles may make sense for you.  And as I’ve noted before, paying for college is as much a retirement problem as anything else so anything you can do to provide for your Golden Years can be a good thing.

But don’t get tempted into long-term commitments to cover short-term financing issues.

By shifting assets you lose access and flexibility for the cash.  If employing such a strategy reduces your emergency cash reserve, then you’ve increased your risk to handle unexpected cash needs.

Cash Value Life Insurance and the Bank of You

Cash value life insurance accumulates its value over time.  Starting a policy within a couple of years of your student’s college enrollment is not going to help you.  During the initial years of such a policy very little cash is built up as insurance expenses and first-year commissions paid out by the insurer to the agent are very high which limit the amount of paid premiums that are actually invested for growth.

But consider this:  For some who have existing policies or are looking for a way to build cash over time that offers guarantees and is potentially tax-free, then by all means use life insurance.  There are strategies commonly referred to as the Infinite Banking Concept or the Bank of You which champion life insurance as a way to build and access your own pot of money available to you to borrow for almost any purpose.

There are many attributes to life insurance that make these concepts useful

  • Tax-free dividends,
  • Access to money without credit or income qualifications or delays from a traditional bank,
  • Guarantees on the cash value from the insurer.

But one downside is the cash flow needed to actually build up a pot big enough to tap into for buying a car much less paying school tuition.  You would in all likelihood need to divert all other available cash and stop funding any other tax-deferred plans to build up the cash.  And then there is the time line needed.  To effectively build up the cash, you really need to bank on at least 5 years before you have a Bank of You to tap. This is why such a solution is not recommended for those with students about to enter college.

Bottom Line:

Don’t let the financial aid tail wag the retirement planning dog here.  Only use these tactics after consultation with a qualified financial professional, preferably one who has no vested interest in whether or not you purchase a particular product.

 

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Lots of ink has been spilled discussing one of the most hyped retirement and tax strategies: Roth IRA conversions.  The prospect of future tax-free withdrawals is enticing.  But there are lots of issues that need to be considered whether it is right for you.

According to Google, there has been a surge in interest about Roth IRA conversions as it has become one of the top search terms this fall. (1)

This is hardly surprising considering that starting in 2010, all taxpayers, regardless of income, are eligible to convert tax-deferred retirement assets to a Roth IRA.

Prior to the change, the law prevented taxpayers with household incomes above $100,000 from converting assets to a Roth IRA.

Starting this year, tax code changes allow conversions of other tax-deferred retirement accounts regardless of income. This broadens the opportunity for those who did not have these choice before. It should be noted that there are still annual income limits in place for determining eligibility to contribute to a Roth IRA. (There are no limits to use a Roth 401k provision in your employer’s plan).

The majority of Americans believe their own taxes are going to increase.  Given government deficits and entitlements for an aging workforce, taxes may certainly be needed to cover these commitments.

As it stands, tax rates are scheduled to increase in 2011. Unless Congress acts to delay reversion to the prior tax rates, taxes on Roth IRA conversions will be higher after 2010.

A Roth IRA conversion offers an opportunity for future tax-free income.2

But does it make sense?

Does Roth Conversion Make Sense

Whether or not a Roth conversion makes sense really depends on an individual’s circumstances.

Money in all types of tax-deferred accounts like IRAs, 401ks and such are all jointly owned by the participant and Uncle Sam as silent partner.

Although the tax tail shouldn’t wag the dog, you should cut the best deal with the least impact on your personal tax situation.

It makes the most sense for those who expect to have more than enough assets and income for retirement and don’t want to be forced to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) on IRA accounts.  It also makes sense for estate planning purposes as a way to build a multi-generational legacy of tax-deferred wealth accumulation.

And for most who believe that their marginal income tax rates in retirement will be higher whether because of tax policy or because of their own success with work and investments, then it may make sense to lock in the tax liability now.

It also makes sense for those who expect a low income year in 2010 because of retirement or unemployment for example.  Being in a lower tax bracket may reduce the tax bite on the converted funds.

While income and earnings may be withdrawn in retirement tax-free, an investor will still need to pay Uncle Sam now for that future privilege.

And all of this analysis assumes that Congress doesn’t change the rules down the road and even tax Roth accounts.  Consider the fact that during the 1980s, Congress changed the rules about taxing Social Security benefits.

Keeping that in mind, it still may make sense as a way to hedge against future tax policy to do a partial conversion of some of your tax-deferred retirement accounts especially if you have money from non-IRA accounts to tap.

If you use the funds from the tax-deferred account and you’re younger than 59 ½, you’ll be hit with an early withdrawal penalty and your investment will be starting from a lower base making the payback of the strategy more complicated.

Because the tax is assessed on the gains in the account, an ideal time to do this and minimize the tax impact is when account values are off their highs.  With the gains over the past year, this may make a conversion less attractive.

Another thing to consider is that by doing a conversion, your adjusted gross income will increase and potentially result in loss of COBRA subsidy or education credits which are subject to income phase outs.

You Can Change Your Mind Later

Unlike most things in life, you can get a “do over” called a recharacterization that converts everything back to the way it was. The assets would be converted back to tax-deferred status and you can file an amended tax return seeking a refund of the income taxes you paid on the conversion.

Roth IRA conversions offer the potential for tax-free income in retirement for taxpayers at all income levels. If you want more information about converting to a Roth IRA, call 617-398-7494 or email today.

It’s critical to review your individual situation before making a decision about moving important assets.
1) InvestmentNews, November 16, 2009
2) Rasmussen Reports, September 3, 2009

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“The safest way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket.” Kin Hubbard

Investing takes time.  As humans our brains are more wired toward the flight-or-flight survival responses that got us to the top of the food chain.  So we are more prone to panic moves in one direction or another and this is not always in our best long-term interests.

So to retire richer requires a little work on understanding who we are and what we can do to improve our sustainable retirement odds.

There are lots of things in life that we cannot control.  And humans in general are easily driven to distraction. We are busy texting, emailing, surfing the web, and all other manner of techno-gadget interruptions from phone, computer and office equipment around us.

It’s no wonder that folks find it difficult to focus on long-term planning.  We hear a snippet of news on the radio or watch a talking head wildly flailing his arms about one stock or another and think that this is the ticket to investing success.

For those who remember physics class and one of Newton’s great discoveries, you can just as easily apply the rules of the physical world to human financial behavior:  A body at rest will tend to stay at rest; a body in motion will tend to stay in motion.

For most investors, inertia is the dominant theme that controls financial action or inaction.  Confronted with conflicting or incomplete information, most people will tend to procrastinate about making a commitment to one plan or another, one action or another.  Even once a course of action is adopted, we’re more likely than not to leave things on auto-pilot because of a lack of time or fear of making a wrong move.

To get us to move on anything, there has to be a lot of effort.  But once a tipping point is reached, people move but not always in the direction that may be in their best interests. Is it any wonder that most people end up being tossed between the two greatest motivators of action – and investing:  Greed and Fear.

So while someone cannot control the weather (unless you remember the old story line from the daytime soap General Hospital in the 1980s), the direction of a stock index or the value of a specific stock, we can all control our emotions.

Easier said than done?  You bet.  That’s why you need to approach investing for retirement or any financial goal with a process that helps take the emotional element out of it.  And you need to develop good habits about saving, debt and investment decisions.

What Does Rich Mean To You?

So you say you want to retire rich?  Sure, we all want to.  But what does “rich” look like to you.  There are surveys of folks who have $500,000 or $1million in investable assets describing themselves as middle class.  There are those I know who live quite comfortably on under $30,000 a year and would never describe themselves as poor.

Be Specific

First you should get a good picture of where you expect to be and what kind of life you envision.  Be clear about it.  Visualize it and then go find a picture you can hang up in a prominent place to remind you of your goal every day.  (That’s why I have pictures of my family on this blog reminding me of why I do everything I do).

Appeal to Your Competitive Streak

We are better motivated when we have tangible targets for either goals or competitors.  Ever ride a bike or run on the road and use the guy jogging in front of you as a target?  Same thing here.

So assuming you know what your retirement will look like, you’ll be able to put a number to it.  Now find out how you’re doing with a personal benchmark.  One way is to go to www.INGcompareme.com, a public website run by the financial giant ING which allows you to compare your financial status with others of similar age, income and assets.  Or try the calculators found at the bottom of the home page for www.ClearViewWealthAdvisors.com. This might help give you the motivation you need to save more if needed.

Use Checklists

They can save your life.  And even the lives of your passengers.  Just ask Captain Sully who credits his crew with good training and following a process that minimized the distractions from a highly emotional scene above the Hudson River.

The daily grind can be distracting.  Often we may be unable to see the big forest because of the trees standing in our path to retirement.

So try these tips:

Mid-thirties to early 40s:

  • Target a savings goal of 1.5 times your annual salary
    • Enroll in a company savings plan
    • Take full advantage of any 401k match that’s offered
    • Automatically increase your contributions by 5% to 10% each year (example: You set aside 4% this year; then next year set aside at least 4.5%)
    • If you max out what you can put aside in the company plan, consider adding a Roth IRA
    • Get your emergency reserves in place in readily available, FDIC-insured bank accounts, CDs or money markets
    • Invest for growth: Consider an allocation to equities equal to 128 minus your current age
    • Let your money travel: More growth is occurring in other parts of the world so don’t be stingy with your foreign stock or bond allocations.  Americans are woefully under-represented in overseas investing so try to look at a target of at least 20% up to 40% depending on your risk profile

Mid-Career (mid-forties to mid fifties)

  • Target a savings goal of 3 times your annual salary
    • Rebalance your portfolio periodically (consider at the very least doing so when you change your clocks)
    • Make any “catch-up” contributions by stashing away the maximum allowed for those over age 50
    • Consolidate your accounts from old IRAs, 401ks and savings to cut down on your investment costs and improve the coordination of your plan and allocation target

Nearing and In Retirement (Age 56 and beyond)

  • Target savings of six times your annual salary
    • Prune your stock holdings (about 40% of 401k investors had more than 80% in stocks according to Fidelity Investments)
    • Shift investments for income:  foreign and domestic hi-yield dividend paying stocks, some hi-yield bonds, some convertible bonds
    • Map out your retirement income plan – to sustain retirement cash flow you need to have a retirement income plan in place
    • Regularly review and rework the retirement income plan that incorporates any pensions, Social Security benefits and no more than 4% – 4.5% withdrawals from the investment portfolio stash accumulated
    • Have a Plan B ready:  Know your other options to supplement income from part-time work or consulting or tapping home equity through a reverse mortgage or receiving pensions available to qualifying Veterans.

Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion or help in crafting your plans form a qualified retirement professional.  You can find a CFP(R) professional by checking out the consumer portion of the Financial Planning Association website or by calling 617-398-7494 to arrange for a complimentary review with your personal money coach, Steve Stanganelli, CFP(R).

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