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Fred Is Dead – And The Beat Goes On.

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Paying for College: Myths About Financial Aid That May Blow Your Retirement.

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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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College costs continue to escalate.  The burden on families grows every year.

Even before the Great Recession trying to balance the competing and emotional needs of paying for college while trying to save for retirement was a struggle. Let’s face it: Paying for college is as much a retirement planning issue as anything else.  Don’t ever forget that.

So how much is a college education worth to you? The average price keeps going up and is the only part of the economy not showing any slowdown in price increases (besides gas prices of course).

  • Average public 4-year school tuition is now $16,000 per year
  • Private colleges are at $32,000 per year
  • Elite private colleges are near $50,000 per year

And this doesn’t include tuition, room, board, fees and “extras.”

Again, how much is this worth to you? Will you be satisfied eating Mac and Cheese or working as a Wal-Mart greeter during your “Golden Years” knowing that your child got the most expensive education that money could buy?

If the answer to that is “hell no,” then you’re at the right place.

Become an Informed Buyer of Education

Welcome to my latest blog where I will endeavor to bring you insightful and creative tips on how to be an informed consumer of higher education.

Trying to get a handle on what to do is difficult.  Let’s face it:  Unless you’re Octa-mom or do this everyday, you’re flying blind when it comes to figuring out how to manage paying for college. Have you actually seen a FAFSA form lately? Do you really want to?

Sure, if you have a couple of kids within a couple of years of each other, the rules might be the same.  Sure, you can rely on what your neighbors did for their kids who graduated a few years ago.

Or you can have a plan tailored to your situation.

Look, just like tax laws, financial aid rules and how college admissions officers work their magic change every year.

So you may as well have a plan and be a part of making it happen.

This blog and my website are here to help.

Stop by and let me know your thoughts.  Shoot me a question.  And feel free to try out the exclusive college planning service website on your own. And then let me know when you’re ready to get serious about this by calling me directly at 978-388-0020.

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It’s hard to tell if anyone actually missed my posts.  Trying to come up with fresh and interesting perspectives on topics can be a time-consuming and thankless task.  But I’ve tried to maintain my discipline.

But for those of you who have been reading my missives, you’ve probably noticed that there has been a pretty big gap (about four weeks) since my last post. My apologies.

Well, since my last post there have been a whole lot of changes happening in the world at large and in mine in particular.

We’ve seen several revolutions culminating in changes in the Arab world. The spark of democracy has turned into a bit of a wildfire.  And all of this has had an impact on global trade and markets.  And as much as I have wanted to comment and make my views known, it’s been next to impossible because of the all-consuming changes occurring with Clear View Wealth Advisors and Team Stang.

On January 20, Clear View Wealth Advisors entered into an agreement that acquired the assets of an established income tax preparation business with a principal office located in South Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Getting the business relocated, systems up and running and dealing with my favorite friends from Verizon has pretty much taken up all my time.

Adding tax preparation to the line up of services may sound good in theory.  Now we’ll see how well it works in reality.

It will make for some interesting commentary as I go through the growing pains.

And speaking of growing pains, Team Stang has officially announced that we are adding a new member with an expected due date of September 1, 2011.

Stay tuned.

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They say white-collar crimes tend to increase in times of economic stress.  This is one of those times.  And it’s all the more important to be watchful.

For most of us, our personal identities extend beyond just our name.  In many ways we are also our online profiles and our credit, too.

Identity Theft: A Growing Problem and Cost to All of Us

Right now, there are scammers out there trying to steal not just what you own but trying to steal you.  Identity theft is a real problem and a drag on our economy. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimated in 2006 that more than 3.6 million households affecting over 9 million people were victims of identity theft. One study noted that the cost to consumers was nearly $57 billion dollars (that’s with a ‘B,” folks) in 2005.

And according to the Government Accounting Office (GAO-02-363, March 2002), this costs the federal government (and us taxpayers), too.  The average cost for a financial crime investigation is about $15,000 for the Secret Service, more than $11,000 for the US Attorneys and nearly $20,000 for the FBI.

I have a client whose niece works for a regional office of the FBI who has sent out around this notice for a new twist on a “phishing” scam.

Watch Out for Folks Gone Phishin’

Phishing is where the scammer posing as a legitimate company or authority tries to get an unwary consumer to divulge valuable personal information like a Social Security number, account number or other details like a date of birth.

The Jury Duty Hoax – A Twist on An Old Scam

In this latest reported scam, the FBI has confirmed that scammers are calling and posing as “jury duty coordinators” saying that an arrest warrant has been or will be issued for failing to show up for a recent jury summons.

If you protest that you never received a notice, the “coordinator” will ask for your Social Security number, date of birth and address so that he can verify the information and cancel the arrest warrant.

Most of us are sufficiently deferential (or even scared) of the court system so the scammers are relying on us to simply roll over and give them what they ask for on the phone.  In some cases, the “coordinator” uses intimidation and bullying tactics to get you to comply.

Once you give them your information the scammers have hit the jackpot.

So far this type of phishing scam and fraud has been reported in eleven states including Illinois, Ohio and Colorado.

So be wary of unsolicited calls asking you to provide your Social Security number and other personal identifying information.  No legitimate government agency or business you deal with will ever ask you to just give them your stuff.  They may ask you to verify what they have (if not ask them to read out what they have).  And if you’re ever unsure, ask for the website and a call back number so you have time to check it out independently.

So protect yourself and others you know by letting them know about this scam.

Go to the FBI website to check out details on this and other scams.

And if you ever suspect a scam, you can also check out the website for the Federal Trade Commission as well.

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Do you want to clear a room or stop a conversation fast?  Talk about life insurance.  Mention life insurance to someone and the reaction is something like hearing nails across a chalk board. Folks will either run for fear that you’re going to try to sell them something or their eyes will glaze over.

Most folks don’t want to talk about it.  The topic is boring.  And it’s kind of weird to talk about death.

Heck, when I speak with folks about planning, the inevitable phrase I hear in the conversation is “If I die …” as if they have found some secret to living forever.

So assuming that you’re not featured in the Vampire Diaries, there is a very high likelihood (about 100% give or take 0%) that you may die someday. So it only makes sense to consider life insurance as part of your overall planning.

Life Insurance Through Work Is Only A First Step

Most folks will get some insurance through their employer.  It’s cheap. It’s fast. There’s no medical exam.  It’s simple.

And as I’ve said time and again, there’s always a simple solution to every problem.  (In this case, employer-sponsored group life insurance). And as I’ve also said before, simple solutions are probably wrong.

Now don’t think that I’m saying that the group policy that you get and pay for through your paycheck is wrong.  It’s a good start.  But there’s more to proper life insurance planning than simply figuring a multiple of your salary.

How Much Life Insurance Is Needed?

The reason for any insurance is to cover the costs of risks that we are either not willing or don’t have the resources to cover ourselves.  That’s true whether you’re insuring a car, a home, your life or your paycheck.  So first you need to know what it is that you’re covering.

In the case of life insurance, it’s usually a good idea to figure out how much money your family needs to maintain their current standard of living if you and your income are no longer part of the picture.  Then add in any large expenses to cover.  Typically, this would include an amount to pay off any mortgages and loans and even college funding or other similar expected obligations. Net out the amount of other insurance and investments available and this will give you an idea of the amount of insurance coverage to get.

The amount of insurance that one needs throughout life changes with circumstances.  This is why it’s critical to include an insurance needs analysis as part of your regular financial planning progress reports.  This is why I use a particular tool from ESPlanner that helps project the amounts of coverage needed over time.

Insurance as An Asset Class to Reduce Risks

Now I’ve said that insurance is an asset class.  Why?  Well consider this.  When you invest, you’re likely to spread your money into different types of asset classes:  stocks and bonds of large, small, US and foreign companies.  This is the basis of diversification: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You do this to help reduce risk.  In this case, you’re trying to reduce the risk of having your investment wiped out by spreading your bets to other sectors of the economy and even parts of the world.

Like asset diversification, insurance is also a risk tool.  In this case insurance is there to replace things that you may not have the cash or investments to cover on your own.  Or maybe you feel you’d be better off investing the cash and earn a return on your money that will hopefully increase the resources you need for your lifestyle whether now or in retirement.

Think of it this way.  You could hit home run after home run picking stocks but what happens if you or your family are hit with an unexpected loss?  You’d have to dip into your savings and investments.  You’d need to sell those winning stocks.  You’d probably incur huge capital gains and have to pay taxes on it.

Life insurance is there to cover living expenses, replace in some small way the loss of income if you or your loved one dies and it does this for the most part tax free to the beneficiary.

And you can carry over the idea of diversification to insurance.  Just like mixing up the kinds of stocks or bonds you own, you can carry insurance from two or more insurers.  You do this by having your employer-sponsored group plan plus something you pay for on your own separate from your employer.  You can further diversify by mixing up the kinds or terms of coverage dividing some between term and permanent type policies.

Kinds of Life Insurance: Term vs Permanent

Insurance comes in two basic varieties: term and permanent.  Term insurance has a fixed premium for a fixed time period.  It’s great for covering specific risks for a defined time period (i.e. a mortgage, college costs).  Permanent life insurance has many flavors but in essence the key is that some of your premium that you pay is used to build up cash value.

Now for those who are unhappy with the stock market, you may want to consider some of the benefits offered by permanent life insurance.

  • The value is guaranteed. You’ll always know how much you have. And the insurer is required to credit a minimum amount to your value each year.
  • You receive dividends and their tax-free. Policyholders will receive dividends that increase the value of their account.
  • You can access the cash value at any time. Unlike going to a bank for a loan, the insurer will give you access to your account’s cash value with very little delay. You pay no penalty when receiving the cash as long as you repay yourself.  And if you set up the account properly, you can build up enough cash value to tap into for anything from buying a car to buying a home to funding retirement without paying a penalty or taxes.  (This is described by some as the Infinite Banking Concept where you become your own banker).

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