Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘401k’

Saturday was a beautiful spring day in New England. Temperatures were moderate.  No humidity.  It was bright and sunny with languid puffy clouds hanging in the noon time breeze.  A beautiful day to be outside especially after the gloomy weather that Mother Nature has thrown at us during the winter and spring so far. A beautiful day for gathering with family and friends and celebrating the milestones of life whether a birth, a marriage, a graduation or connecting with others.

It so happened that I was attending the funeral celebration for a friend and client. Celebration is the right word.  While sadness always is part of these things, it truly was more fitting and proper to highlight and remember the qualities that we all should aspire to.

In this case we were gathered to celebrate a sister, aunt, daughter and friend who lived fully during her short 50 odd years.  A global traveler, talented cook and baker, gifted woodworker and gardener and charitable sort who always thought of others less fortunate.

Regardless of one’s religious persuasion, the celebrant of this service, a Roman Catholic priest, expressed it best when he said that many of us think a long life is synonymous of a good life.  But in reality, he emphasized, the teachings of many religions focus on the quality of life as opposed to its length. And this person, my friend and the sister of my very best friend, truly made her short time in the temporal world full and rich.

Like a light switch, one moment someone’s vivacious smile is there and in the next instant it is gone leaving us only with the warm glow of memory.  Whether it is better to have a sudden death or have time to prepare for the inevitable is a constant debate.  In this case, my friend was there one moment and in the next she was gone.

Inevitably, when confronted with such sudden tragedy, we tend to think of our own mortality.  I recall after the Twin Towers came down in NYC, how families were drawn closer together even if they didn’t have a direct connection to the victims of the terrorist attack.  And the interest in insurance and estate planning was at a high point.  Lawyer friends reported doing more wills and guardianship plans.  Insurance agents were fielding calls for new insurance policies.

It shouldn’t take a tragedy – whether public or personal – to get people motivated to act in their best interests but we are frail humans and tend to look at the present disregarding the future.

But we do that at our own peril.

Someday is Today

A person with friends is truly rich – remember “It’s a Wonderful Life.” While I truly believe that sentiment, it doesn’t mean abdicating one’s responsibility to care for family and friends by skipping the planning.

It is frustrating to be a financial planner and in trying to deal with such issues receive either blank stares or promises to deal with it later. At other times there is the all-encompassing answer to all: I’m All Set.

  • Someday, I’ll draft a will.
  • Someday, I’ll check my insurance coverage.
  • Someday, I’ll talk to my brother (or sister or friend) about guardianship of the kids.
  • Someday, I’ll deal with all these financial planning issues.

Someday is now.

Planning for the inevitable is not for you.  It is to help others.  It is selfish to think that things will just take of themselves.  Sure, plans will together.  But the stress on the family, friends and loved ones left to deal with picking up the pieces is not something you should burden someone with lightly when taking a few steps will help smooth the transition.

  1. At the very least, get a Will.  You don’t need to be rich to have one of these.  Better yet, make sure you have a Durable Power of Attorney in place so that your financial affairs can be coordinated.
  2. Review and update your Will periodically. Even if you do have a Will doesn’t mean that it still works for you.  Times change and so do tax and estate laws.
  3. Include written instructions.  Do you want to be buried or cremated? Who do you want to have certain sentimental, personal effects?
  4. Have a list of online passwords for your banking and social media accounts in a safe but accessible place.  Without them your heirs will have trouble dealing with some of your financial matters or your social media accounts could possibly be shut off.  And since most of our lives and communications are now so much online, your family might not be able to notify your extended network of your passing unless they can get online.
  5. Review your insurance as part of a comprehensive financial needs analysis regularly.  Too often people simply think that what they have in place covers them regardless of the simple fact that personal circumstances change and dictate changes in coverage.
  6. If you own property and have a mortgage or have young kids who would be raised by someone else when you’re gone, make sure you have insurance that at least covers the bills.  This means having a term insurance policy for at least the balance of the mortgage.  And if you have kids, figure out the costs to raise them (and pay for college maybe) and put a policy in place to equal that.  Otherwise, you may be leaving a spouse, friend, family member or business partner with trying to carry the costs without benefit of the resources.
  7. Check and update the beneficiaries on insurance policies, annuities, company-sponsored 401ks and personal IRAs. Maybe you had a divorce and never updated this so your ex-spouse may be the unintended recipient.  Or new kids, nieces or nephews have been born since the last time you did this.

In my banking and financial planning careers, I have seen both personally and professionally the impact on survivors left behind to pick up the pieces.  There was the client who needed to refinance to help pay for an elder parent’s funeral.  There was the friend who battled bravely against cancer but eventually succumbed leaving behind a wife, a three-year old toddler and a mortgage.

The pain caused by the loss of a loved one doesn’t need to be compounded by the stress, frustration and confusion of having to unexpectedly deal with financial challenges.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

This is a common question from many folks.

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

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

Costs

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

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

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

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

Choice and Access

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk Controls & Broader Choice of Investment Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actionable Suggestions – Things to Consider:

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

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

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

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

Adapted from ViewPoint Newsletter Archive (January 20, 2011)

Read Full Post »

Black Friday is traditionally the day that can make or break a retailer’s bottom line.  But don’t let enthusiasm for the season, the sales or the advertising hype end up putting you into the Red.

Black Friday is here.  Even before you may have had a chance to digest your Thanksgiving feast or recover from a day of football, you may have already been lured into the local mall.  Maybe you were one of those early bird shoppers preparing for a marathon day of shopping at 1 AM.  (It’s not too late to consider these tips for the rest of your shopping season or to teach your kids).

I was not one of them.  I slept in and have probably missed a host of specials and discounts on every imaginable thing sold. While I don’t feel bad I know that I’ll probably be picking on the leftovers like a I will be with the Thanksgiving turkey in the refrigerator.

Although I’m not the best marathon shopper, I thought I’d share a few tips that may help you avoid turning this holiday’s shopping season into a budget-busting hole for your family budget that you’ll be paying for and digging out of long after that snazzy do-dad you bought for Uncle Charlie is lost or breaks.

Have a Budget

No one says that you have to go and take out a second mortgage on your home to buy gifts for the entire world (that’s even assuming that you can qualify for a Home Equity Loan or HELOC).

It’s probably reasonable to budget somewhere around 1% of your gross income for holiday purchases of gifts for others in your family and friend network. Unless you’re buying an engagement or anniversary ring for your significant other, there’s no need to bust the budget here – even then there are limits. (And you really should not be spending more on stuff than you’re putting away in your IRA or 401k).

Are you afraid you’ll be considered the cheap skate relative or office mate? Who cares?  Are those folks going to bail you out if you’re in financial trouble?  Do you really want to be one of the folks who’s still paying off the credit card charges you incurred for this holiday by the time you serve next year’s Thanksgiving turkey?  All of those great savings you got will simply be replaced by interest charges on the balance you carry.

Gifts are barely remembered while memories of sharing time with friends and family have more meaning to most folks.

Make a List and Check It Twice

Just like Old Saint Nick, you should prepare a shopping list. Have a written list of who’s going to be receiving gifts.  If you know them well, you can jot down a few ideas of types of gifts to try to find.  Before you even open up your web browser or step foot in the store, get this done.  Without a list you’re more likely to become an impulse buyer.

Have a Shopping Plan

Experienced shoppers know that it pays to have a plan of attack when those doors open.  You’ve been scouring the newspaper inserts (you do still get the newspaper, right?) and browsing the websites.  You’ve been in the stores before and know the floor layout.  You can bypass all the stuff you don’t need and just go straight to the department in the store where that perfect gift for Aunt Sally is.

Hey, store merchandisers know that you’re only human and easily distracted.  That’s why they’ll stack up stuff near cash registers.  That’s why grocery stores force you to walk through the entire store to get to the dairy case and that quick stop to pick up milk costs you $30 because you pick up a “few things.”

I prefer to use shopping sites that will find and compare items.  Whether you use Amazon.com or MySimon.com or a host of other shopping robots, you can narrow down the price range to expect to pay for an item.  And for the Smartphone set, “there’s an app for that.”  You can download an app that will allow you to scan a product’s UPC which can then pull up product information and comparative prices.

Consider Charity

You might want to give back instead of simply consume.  Sure, we need consumers to buy more stuff to get the economy moving again (we also need corporations to invest their $2 trillion in cash back into their businesses by buying equipment and hiring folks but that’s a different discussion).

But nothing says that you have to stimulate the economy single-handedly.

There are causes and people who need your help throughout the year and providing a donation in lieu of a gift made in China will help them, make you feel good, provide you with a tax deduction, and reduce our trade imbalance which will ultimately improve the strength of the US dollar.

Remember the Spirit of the Season

What do you really want your family to remember about the season?  What values do you want to pass down to your children or grandchildren?

Sure, it can be all about the ostentatious display of holiday lights and some of those displays are really nice and others are just way over the top.

Sure, it can be about buying the biggest, best new shiny thing.

I’m not trying to be Scrooge here. Far from it.  I believe that the holiday is about family and friends.  And more particularly, I think that playing Santa for young kids is magical – for you and them.

When I was growing up, my brother and I typically received one gift each from our parents, aunts, uncles and grandmother. And after we opened them up, our parents let us keep one toy out to play with while the others were put away so we didn’t end up overly distracted and bored with the toys all at once.

On the other hand, I remember going to a cousin’s house and they had TONS of packages under the tree.  Their parents would wrap all sorts of little stocking-stuffers – candy, marbles, even tooth paste and socks.  It was all about showing the quantity of gifts even if they were mundane, everyday sort of things.

I think that I enjoyed our holiday more and better because we weren’t focused on tearing off lots and lots of wrapping paper.

And I think that’s what I want my soon-to-be 15-month old son, Spencer, to take away as part of his understanding of the holiday and our new family’s traditions.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

 

“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).

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

It is said that when the British surrendered to the Colonial Army at Yorktown the band played a tune titled “The World Turned Upside Down.”  True or not, it is a fitting sound track to a seemingly improbable situation: The defeat of a well-trained army and navy of the most powerful empire in the world by an under-funded, out-numbered and ill-equipped army of colonials. It was as if the Sun, Earth and stars had become unhitched leaving navigators without their usual bearings.

In much the same way, the Great Recession has shattered our views on what is ‘safe’ and what it means to be ‘conservative’ or ‘aggressive.’  Looking to preserve capital and produce income?  Invest in government bonds and maybe real estate.  Young and looking to score big on the potential upside of stocks? Go for small company stocks or overseas because if there’s a bust you’ll have time to recover. At least that was the conventional thinking. Everything that was traditionally considered to be ‘safe’ and dull turned out to be dangerous and ‘risky.’

There’s nothing scarier than conventional thinking in a changing market.  And what has evolved after the near melt down of the US financial system – indeed the global financial system – in the Fall of 2008 is certainly a changed market.

Household names including the bluest of the Blue Chips have entered and come out of bankruptcy.  The foundation for wealth for most people – real estate – has crumbled and is a long way from recovery to previous levels. Government debt of developed countries considered at one time to be nearly risk-less have been to the precipice as Greece neared default and threatened the entire Euro zone. Now, it’s not even beyond the pale to consider a future downgrade of the credit rating of the US Government.

Having an understanding of risk is important not just for investors but for the advisers trying to guide them.  In the past, an adviser (or your company’s 401k web site) would have you fill out a questionnaire.  Those eight to 12 questions would identify the type of investor you were and lead to an asset allocation reasonably appropriate for an investor’s Risk Profile, Time Horizon and Goals. This was sometimes considered a “set and forget” type of thing.

But commonsense and our experience tell us that things change.  Take the weather:  Some days it’s sunny and other times it’s rainy or cold.  What you wear on one day or even part of a day may not be right when the weather changes.  That’s just like investing.  A risk profile and asset allocation determined at one point might not be right for another.

So risk profiles are not static things either.  Invariably, they change based on how we feel. Hey, we’re only human. You need to reconsider your risk appetite regularly and now is a good time.  And it should be more than a few multiple choice questions.

After the run-ups in the markets in the late 90’s, people would tend to see things going up perpetually and say they would be more comfortable with risk.  On the other hand, after the two major meltdowns this past decade, the pendulum has swung the other way. Too far, in fact.

Faced with our own emotions and the vagaries of a global economic system, one might consider it to be less risky to sit on the sidelines.  Or maybe it’s safe to put all your chips on what you know – like your company stock.  Or just cash it all out and leave it parked in a money market or bank.

At first glance these strategies may be considered low risk but in reality – even the reality of today’s changed world – they are not.  Your company stock?  Consider Enron or Lucent and ask their employees how their retirement accounts held up.  Cash?  At the minuscule rates banks are offering, you’re already behind the eight ball with taxes and inflation.

There’s more to risk than the volatile nature of an asset’s price. And what should matter most is not which assets are owned but how well they perform on the upside and downside.

If you’re hungry, your goal is to not be hungry.  You say you like to eat steak and always eat steak.  Well, that’s great but the risk of heart disease may catch up to you.  So what you ate before may not be right for you now. Maybe it’s time to substitute more fish and add more vegetables.

That’s the essence of remodeling your portfolio now.  Government bonds still have a place in your portfolio – just like that steak – but it’s time to scale back on the developed nations of Europe with their risks of default and the US where another bubble is brewing and add those from emerging markets. If you own gold or want to buy it because it’s a “safe haven” for inflationary times and you don’t want to miss the boat, consider other more usable commodities like potash.  (As the world adds nearly 75 million people a year, there’s a growing demand for cultivating food for them and potash is a staple needed for fertilizers).  After seeing a huge multi-national like BP get hammered for its lackadaisical approach to employee and environmental safety, it may be time to add more small companies to the mix which have less bureaucracy and may be faster to respond to opportunities and troubles.

The risky stuff may actually be more safe than the traditional stuff.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: