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Posts Tagged ‘Diversification’

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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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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The holiday season is almost upon us.  Before we all get caught up in the spirit of the season (or mayhem, depending on your perspective), consider taking time to get your fiscal house in order with these tips.

The Year of the RMD

Last year, required minimum distributions (RMDs) were not required as Congress granted a reprieve to not force clients to take distributions from severely depressed retirement accounts.

That free pass is not available this year.  So if you or someone you know is over age 70 1/2, you have to take a distribution from your IRAs.  This also applies to those who are beneficiaries of inherited IRA accounts as well.

Distributions don’t have to be taken from each IRA account but a calculation must be made based on the value of all accounts at the end of last year.  Then a withdrawal can be made from one or more accounts as long as it at least equals the minimum amount.

Think Ahead for Higher Taxes

In all likelihood, taxes will be higher next year.  As things stand, the Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire and marginal income tax rates and estate taxes will increase.

So look to booking capital gains this year if possible since tax rates on both long-term and short-term gains are certainly lower this year.

Reduce Concentration

There’s obviously enough going on to distract any investor but what I’m talking about here is concentrated stock positions.  Many clients may take advantage of company-sponsored stock purchase plans or have inherited positions concentrated in just a few stock positions.

Regardless of one’s age, this is risky.  This is especially risky to concentrate your income and your investments with your employer.  Remember Enron?  How about WorldCom?  Or maybe Alcatel-Lucent?

So given the lower capital gains tax rates that exist definitely now (versus a proposed but illusory extension later), it makes sense to reduce the highly concentrated positions in one or more stocks.

I know a widow who inherited the stock positions that her husband bought.  These included AT&T and Apple.  While AT&T was once a great “widow and orphans” stock paying out a reliable dividend because of the cash flow generated from its near monopoly status in telephone services, it broke up into so many Baby Bells.  The dividends from these have not matched the parent company and the risks of these holdings have increased as the telecom sector  has become more volatile.

And while Apple has been a soaring success for her (bought very low), it represents over one-third of her investment holdings.

Like most people I come across, she has emotional ties to these holdings.  And while she and others like her would not think of going into a casino to put all their chips on one or two numbers at the roulette wheel, they don’t find it inconsistent to have a lot of their eggs in just one or two investment baskets.

Since she relies on these investments to supplement her income, she needs to think about how to protect herself.  Although people may recognize this need, it doesn’t make it any easier to get people to do what is in their best interests when their emotions get in the way.

‘Tis the Season for Giving

Right now the highest marginal income tax bracket is 35% which is set to rise to 39.6%.  And capital gains tax rates are set to rise as well.  And come January 1, the capital deduction on gifts will be reduced from 35% to 28%.  All of this makes giving substantial gifts to charities a little more costly for your wallet.  So if you’re planning to make a large charitable donation, it pays to speed it up into this year.

To Roth or Not to Roth – Year of the Conversion?

This year provides high-earners an opportunity to convert all or part of their tax-deferred accounts to Roth IRAs which offers an opportunity to pay no income tax on withdrawals in the future.

The decision to take advantage of this opportunity needs to be weighed against the availability and source of cash to pay taxes now on previously deferred gains in the tax-deferred IRAs or 401ks. It also must consider the assumptions about future income tax rates and even whether or not future Roth IRA withdrawal rules might be changed by Congress.

Create an Investment Road Map

To really help gain clear direction on your investing, you really should consider sitting down with an adviser who will help you draft your personal investment road map (an Investment Policy Statement) that outlines how investment purchase and sale decisions will be made, what criteria will be used to evaluate proposed investments and how you will gauge and track results toward your personal benchmark.

This exercise helps establish a clear process that minimizes the impact of potentially destructive emotional reactions that can lead you astray.

Rebalance and Diversify

Just as you might plan on changing the batteries in your smoke detectors when you reset the clocks in the spring and fall, you should rebalance your investments periodically as well.

Now is as good a time as any to reassess your risk tolerance.  Research has shown that an investor’s risk tolerance is dynamic and influenced by general feelings about yourself, your situation and the world around you.  With the world’s stock markets showing many positive gains, this may lead some to become more willing to take risks.  This may not be a good thing in the long run so really question your assumptions about investing.

Armed with your investment road map and a risk profile, you will be in a better position to determine the mix of investments for diversification.  Don’t be afraid of adding to the mix investment asset classes that may not be familiar.  The idea of diversification is assembling investment assets that complement each other while potentially reducing risk.  And just as the economy has changed and the types of industries that are dominant rise and fall, it’s fair to say that what is “in” now may be “out” later making it important to reconsider your mix.

For this reason, this is why looking abroad to developed and emerging markets still makes sense.  Many of these economies are not bogged down by the after-effects of the great financial meltdown. And the rise of their consumerist middle classes means the potential to take advantage of demographics favoring growth sectors like natural resources, telecom, agriculture and technology.

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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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Whatever your retirement dreams, they can still be made a reality.  It just depends on how you plan and manage your resources. On any journey it helps to have an idea where you’re going, how you plan to travel and what you want to do when you get there.

If this sounds like a vacation, well, it should. Most people invest more time planning a vacation than something like retirement.  And if you think of retirement as the Next Act in your life and approach it properly, you won’t be so easily bored or run out of money to continue the journey or get lost and make poor money decisions along the way.

It’s How You Manage It That Counts

How much you need really depends on the lifestyle you expect to have.  And it’s not necessarily true that your expenses drop in retirement. Assuming you have an idea of what your annual expenses might be in today’s dollars, you now have a target to shoot for in your planning and investing.

Add up the income from the sources you expect in retirement.  This can include Social Security benefits (the system is solvent for at least 25 years), any pensions (if you’re lucky to have such an employer-sponsored plan) and any income from jobs or that new career.

Endowment Spending: Pretend You’re Like Harvard or Yale

Consider adopting the same approach that keeps large organizations and endowments running.  They plan on being around a long time so they target a spending rate that allows the organization to sustain itself.

1. Figure Out Your Gap:  Take your budget, subtract the expected income sources and use the result as your target for your withdrawals. Keep this number at no more than 4%-5% of your total investment portfolio.

2. Use a Blended Approach: Each year look at increasing or decreasing your withdrawals based on 90% of the prior year rate and 10% on the investment portfolio’s performance.  If it goes up, you get a raise.  If investment values go down, you have to tighten your belt.  This works well in times of inflation to help you maintain your lifestyle.

3. Stay Invested:  You may feel tempted to bail from the stock market.  But despite the roller coaster we’ve had, it is still prudent to have a portion allocated to equities.  Considering that people are living longer, you may want to use this rule of thumb for your allocation to stocks: 128 minus your age.

If you think that the stock market is scary because it is prone to periods of wild swings, consider the risk that inflation will have on your buying power.  Bonds and CDs alone historically do not keep pace with inflation and only investments in equities have demonstrated this capability.

But invest smart. While asset allocation makes sense, you don’t have to be wedded to “buy-and-hold” and accept being bounced around like a yo-yo.  Your core allocation can be supplemented with more tactical or defensive investments.  And you can change up the mix of equities to dampen the roller coaster effects.  Consider including equities from large companies that pay dividends.  And add asset classes that are not tied to the ups and downs of the major market indexes.  These alternatives will change over time but the defensive ring around your core should be reevaluated from time to time to add things like commodities (oil, agriculture products), commodity producers (mining companies), distribution companies (pipelines), convertible bonds and managed futures.

4. Invest for Income: Don’t rely simply on bonds which have their own set of risks compared to stocks. (Think credit default risk or the impact of higher interest rates on your bond’s fixed income coupon).

Mix up your bond holdings to take advantage of the different characteristics that different types of bonds have. To protect against the negative impact of higher interest rates, consider corporate floating rate notes or a mutual fund that includes them.  By adding Hi-Yield bonds to the mix you’ll also provide some protection against eventual higher interest rates. While called junk bonds for a reason, they may not be as risky as one might think at first glance. Add Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) that are backed by the full faith and credit of the US government.  Add in the bonds from emerging countries.  While there is currency risk, many of these countries do not have the same structural deficit or economic issues that the US and developed countries have.  Many learned their lessons from the debt crises of the late 1990s and did not invest in the exotic bonds created by financial engineers on Wall Street.

Include dividend-paying stocks or stock mutual funds in your mix.  Large foreign firms are great sources of dividends. Unlike the US, there are more companies in Europe that tend to pay out dividends. And they pay out monthly instead of quarterly like here in the US.  Balance this out with hybrid investments like convertible bonds that pay interest and offer upside appreciation.

5. Build a Safety Net: To sleep well at night use a bucket approach dipping into the investment bucket to refill the reserve that should have 2 years of expenses in near cash investments: savings, laddered CDs and fixed annuities.

Yes, I did say annuities.  This safety net is supported by three legs so you’re not putting all your eggs into annuities much less all into an annuity of a certain term. For many this may be a dirty word.  But the best way to sleep well at night is to know that your “must have” expenses are covered.  You can get relatively low cost fixed annuities without all the bells, whistles and complexity of other types of annuities.  (While tempting, I would tend to pass on “bonus” annuities because of the long schedule of surrender charges). You can stagger their terms (1-year, 2-year, 3-year and 5-year) just like CDs.  To minimize exposure to any one insurer, you should also consider spreading them around to more than one well-rated insurance carrier.

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I would suggest something that can be added to over time by you and other friends or relatives. In this category, that would include the following:

  • UGMA/UTMA accounts
  • 529 Savings Accounts
  • Zero-Coupon Bonds
  • EE Savings Bonds
  • Individual Corporate or US Treasury Bonds
  • Dividend Reinvestment Plan (DRiP)

1.) UGMA/UTMA accounts that can invest in a diversified fund(s) or use proceeds to buy shares of some large diversified companies – Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway would work here;

2.) 529 savings account with maybe a target date allocation (tied to when the child is 18 y.o.);

3.) Zero-coupon bond (target face amount could be equal to part of an expected year of college tuition expense for example);

4.) EE Savings Bonds (as mentioned before, the taxes are zero when used for education and you can always buy more of them in reasonable denominations);

5.) Specific company or US Government bonds would have maturities that are close to the time frames you noted.

6.) Participate in a company-sponsored dividend reinvestment program (DRiP) by buying a single share of stock.  When the company issues its dividends, the proceeds will be used to buy shares (even fractional shares) in the company.  Over time, this is a cost effective way to build a stock position.  And since most companies that offer such plans are ones with brand names that children may know, it’s a great way to help kids gain an interest in savings and investing.

On a separate note for longer range thinking, you may also want to consider contributing to a Roth IRA once the child gets older and starts earning his own money from odd jobs, paper routes or the local grocery. If the rules don’t change and the child has earned income, he can contribute some of his earnings (or parents can consider it as long as it doesn’t exceed the total earnings).

Roth IRA proceeds can be tapped to pay toward college or toward a house down payment and if not used can at least be great seed money for retirement. (Yes, the rules could change but something to keep on the radar screen for when the time comes).

Now consider that as a way for a gift to really have a long term impact.

CAUTION: Giving the funds to a child when they reach a certain age without any strings could backfire. That’s why others here have mentioned things like the 529 or a UGMA account. Short of paying for a trust at least these structures allow you to place some restrictions on the use of the funds for the benefit of the child or for education specifically in the case of a 529. So if opening up any type of mutual fund direct with a fund family or even a brokerage account to hold the stocks or bonds suggested, consider having it titled in one of these forms.

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Given the roller coaster ride that stock market investors have experienced and the negligible rates offered by banks on savings, it’s easy to see why someone might want to use their cash to pay off their mortgage.

Being debt free is not only noble but can provide a buffer in tough times since you’ll have one less cash outflow each month.

For every dollar you pay off in a mortgage, your rate of return is equal to the amount of interest that you’re saving. This is measured by the interest rate (net of the amount that is deductible of course).

So in this example, you could be “earning” 6.125% (less the deductibility of the mortgage interest based on your tax bracket).

Compared to other savings alternatives, that’s a great return. And compared to other equity investments it can seem a lot less volatile.

But before you drain the cash reserve, let’s look at this more closely.

  1. Tying up a lump sum of cash in a property can be risky. You may come up short on emergency reserves by using the bulk of it to pay off the loan.  Will you have enough cash to cover 12 months of your living expenses?  Will you have enough to cover operating expenses for the properties if they were vacant or you lose your job?
    • Considering that in this case you have three other investment properties and your primary residence, there is always the likelihood that you might need cash for an emergency repair or the cost of compliance with any changes in building codes or prepping a vacant unit for a new tenant or even to cover the carrying costs while a unit is vacant.
  2. Real estate is an illiquid investment. Once you send in the check to the bank you no longer have the cash readily available for use either to pay for ongoing expenses, cover emergencies or for other investment alternatives that may come along.
    • What if a really good deal on another investment property came along?  Depending on your market, you could find a very inexpensive property to buy that could more easily cash flow now but without the cash you’re out of luck. Sure, you’ll have more equity but to tap into it will require a bank to agree to give it to you which is more difficult on investment properties and your primary residence may not have enough equity to allow you to get a home equity line of credit (HELOC) or home equity loan to recoup the cash you may need.
  3. Property prices are still in flux.While savings bank rates are abysmal, losing money is even less appealing. By investing more in your property, you could actually see a negative return.  In some markets, real estate prices are still going down so it is conceivable that you could turn each $1 paid in principal into 90 cents.

What Are the Alternatives?

Consider a non-bank financial firm that is offering one of those ultra-high yield money markets for a good portion of this reserve fund.  It’s accessible and won’t cost you anything to hold and they tend to offer higher rates than most brick-and-mortar banks.

You could also split off a portion of the funds and find a ultra-short term bond mutual fund.  Average yields are about 2%.

For a small portion (starting at around $2,500) you could even use a convertible bond fund.  These are hybrid investments combining the fixed income of a bond with the potential capital appreciation of a stock.  These types of investments have held up well when interest rates rise because of Fed action or inflation.

For more information on these, you could check out my article posted on www.ezinearticles.com here.

Likewise, you could also consider other types of short-term bond investments like mutual funds that target floating rate notes.  These types of commercial loans are regularly reset and are a good way to hedge against inflation.  Since there is credit risk, you don’t want to put a whole lot of eggs in this one basket but 5% to 10% of your funds is prudent for you to consider.

As in all things, read the prospectus and speak with your adviser to determine if these are right for you in your situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Just when you thought it was safe to get back into the investing waters, talk of deflation has creeped back into conversation.

Why does it matter? Well, how you position your portfolio to deal with these two scenarios will make a big difference to your personal bottom line.

With inflation, your money is worth less the longer you hold onto it. So you’re more likely to spend in the now because prices may be moving up.

With deflation, your money may buy more later the longer you hold onto it as prices continue to drop. (Not good for a seller but a better deal for a buyer – just ask someone trying to sell a house in Florida these days).

Since consumers respond differently to these two opposing forces, the ultimate direction of them can have a decidedly different impact on how the recovery progresses because of the way consumers react and business respond to their actions. Ultimately, this will impact how to position an investment portfolio accordingly.

The Right Hook
During a fight a boxer may expect to be hit from both the right and left. It’s just not known when and with how much force. But a good boxer, like a Boy Scout, knows to be prepared.

First the economy has been peppered with jabs from the right that could result in higher inflation: expanding money supply, ballooning government deficits, higher commodity prices, weak currency value.

Given the huge inherited, current and projected government deficits here and abroad, the conventional thought has been that all of this government stimulus will ultimately result in “crowding out” private investment and raise the ugly head of higher inflation down the road. The prospect of higher taxes to pay for these past deficits also lends support to these thoughts.

Recent run-ups in certain commodity prices like oil and energy products have resulted in a rise in consumer prices in January bolstering fears of inflation.

The Left Hook

Now comes the left hook – the deflationary threat: asset prices continuing to fall, increasing slack in industrial capacity, and continuing pressure keeping a lid on labor expenses because of high unemployment.

Credit is still tight with bank lending down. While dollars have been pumped into the economy through the TARP program, it’s mostly sitting in bank vaults. Money that isn’t circulating isn’t a cause of inflation.

Recent economic reports have indicated that core consumer prices actually are flat, well below the 10-year average of 2.2%.

Despite some recent reports, housing prices and rents are down and still expected to fall in key markets, dampening the immediate threat of inflation.

Defensive Portfolios: Lessons from Spencer

The best and strongest home depends on your environment and the threats faced.

Each evening before putting our infant son, Spencer, to bed, we read a story. The favorite for now is


    The Three Little Pigs
(undoubtedly because of Spencer’s dad’s animation).

We all know the story: Three pigs, three houses built from different materials, one pig survives because of his well-built brick house.

The same can be said for portfolios. Heck, a house of sticks can provide some shelter in some circumstances but what happens if a big bad wolf shows up?

Since we don’t know which type of bad wolf will be showing up at the door (inflation or deflation), it makes sense to be positioned to survive either threat.

The elements of a portfolio will likely be the same regardless of an investor’s mind-set. The differences will be in the proportion of the components used.

Inflation Protection Portfolio
To protect this type of portfolio consider elements more likely to retain value even as inflation increases. Example: Commodity funds or ETFs; inflation-linked fixed income funds that include TIPS and/or floating rate notes; Real Estate Investment Trusts or REIT funds (10%); Cash to take advantage of higher short-term interest rates.

Deflation Protection Portfolio
The majority of this type of portfolio is positioned in long-term Treasurys followed by cash and municipal bonds. As consumer prices and interest rates fall, the fixed income stream from the bonds would be worth more.

To protect against surprise inflation, a smaller proportion would be set aside into TIPS, commodities and higher-quality/large cap US stocks.

Little Pig, Little Pig, Let Me In
Not sure where the market will go? Not sure which threat to expect? Learn from the third little pig: Build the strongest house possible.

If there is inflation, the economy will be expanding. As such equities will be the place to be. So consider an allocation of 20% to 25% in the US and a like amount in foreign equities. A portion of these equities should include high-quality firms that are dividend-paying. Commodities and cash will likely benefit from inflation so a 10% allocation to each is prudent. The fixed income component can include some exposure to TIPS (5%) as well as intermediate high-quality bonds (20% – 30%).

To hedge against the risk of deflation, a portfolio with exposure to municipal bonds (5%) and long-term Treasurys (5% – 10%). And some of the equity portfolio should include exposure to consumer staples that tend to do well in such an environment.

To provide some added diversification consider adding positions in companies that focus on infrastructure and firms that can maintain pricing power like utilities, pipeline operators and the like.

Taking these steps should allow an investor to sleep better at night. At least it works for Spencer.

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“Sometimes all it takes to change your life massively for the better is a small action and a small success, “ says David Bach, a noted author on money matters. 

  1. Consolidate Your Accounts:  Don’t wait for spring cleaning to roll around.  Make it easier on yourself by combining old 401(k) or IRA balances from your various old jobs.  This can help cut down on the amount of paper you receive and improve the chances you’ll have a coordinated investment plan. And it’s just one more way to have a more ‘green’ holiday.
  2. Pay Yourself First: While there always seems like there’s more month at the end of your paycheck, you can only get ahead by making a point of putting aside money in savings.  It doesn’t matter if it’s just $5 or 5% of each paycheck as long as it’s consistent.  Start somewhere and try to build up to your target of at least 5% of your net cash flow. Direct the money into a separate money market account that you can’t access easily from an ATM or debit card.
  3. Get to Know Where Your Money Goes:  For most people cash flow is not the problem. It’s cash retention that is a challenge. There always seems to be too much flow away from you.  Set up a system to keep track of where your money is spent.  Whether you decide to use a notebook or financial accounting software like Quicken or an online service like Mint.com, this is a first step to getting the information you need to decide what your spending priorities should be. 
  4. Cut Expenses:  Armed with the information from your tracking, now consider ways to lower expenses.  Do you really need a daily Mucho Grande from your favorite coffee place?  At $5 a day, your habit could help pay for your annual vacation or pay down your credit card or mortgage debt. Do you really use all those movie channels?  Can you wear a sweater and lower the thermostat?  Do you really need to be in the mall? Cut down on impulse shopping by creating and sticking to a master list of groceries and household goods.
  5. Reduce Temptation: Consider saving the bulk of any bonus checks or raises.  By automatically diverting this money, you’ll be able to add to your emergency stash, have cash to pay down debt or even invest. See #2 above.
  6. Reevaluate Your Risk Tolerance:  One of the most useful services that financial planners can offer is helping you really articulate your goals and establish your tolerance for investing risk.  After the bumpy ride of the past 18 months, most folks realize that they may not have had a handle on this.
  7. Avoid the Casino Mentality: It is an understatement that investing in the market can be risky but now is not the time to try to play catch up by “doubling down” or chasing the hottest investments ideas.  Remember the story of the tortoise and hare.  Sometimes the race doesn’t go to the swiftest but the most consistent.  So diversify your eggs into different baskets and watch those baskets.  For help in choosing the right mix of investments and a style that will help you sleep better at night, consider meeting with a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER ™ professional.
  8. Rebalance Your Investments:  Over time, accounts that have been consistently rebalanced tend to have higher balances.  So plan to rebalance at least annually or even quarterly.  But first you need to have targets in mind so that you can unemotionally prune back your winners while adding to the laggards.
  9. Add to Your Retirement:  If you haven’t taken advantage of your employer’s sponsored retirement plan, start now.  If your employer doesn’t offer a plan or you’re self-employed, start your own.  Resolve to set aside at least the amount that will get you the maximum company match.   Ideally, you should know your “NUMBER” for living in retirement the way you want.  Consulting with a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER ™ professional can help you here.
  10. Get Planning Advice to Map Your Route to Your Goals:  Maybe you’ve winged it and thought your home and 401(k) were your tickets to a secure retirement.  Odds are that your planning is not filling the bill.  Sit down with a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER ™ professional to discuss your whole picture and map out the action steps that will help keep you on track for financial success.

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