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Posts Tagged ‘DJIA’

Da-Dum … Da-Dum … Da-Dum Da Dum Da Dum … Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da … Da Da Daaaa …..

Sound familiar?  While you could mistaken it for my toddler son Spencer calling me, it’s really the eerily memorable theme song from the classic water thriller Jaws. (Or at least that’s what it sounds like when I’m singing it).

Like many, after seeing this movie I was more than a bit afraid to go swimming even in my own backyard pool.  Let’s not even talk about trips to the beach!

Just as investors thought it was safe to get back into investing waters as the market continues to sport positive numbers on several indexes like the Dow and S&P, news of another potential scandal comes out that may cause investors to pause once again.

After a decade that has included three stock market busts, a real estate bubble burst, a mutual fund industry timing scandal, the greatest Ponzi scheme ever and a whole lot of smaller ones coupled with a long and wearying Recession and near financial meltdown, we now have another cloud on the horizon.

Since a November 20 article in the Wall Street Journal, there has been an increasing amount of media scrutiny about a widening investigation by the FBI, Securities and Exchange Commission and the New York Attorney General’s Office into possible insider trading by several well-known mutual funds, hedge funds and investment managers.

How this plays out is anyone’s guess.  But the last time there was a wide-spread scandal in mutual funds, the bedrock investment that allows many retail investors to get in on the action of Wall Street, it resulted in not only bad PR but in more than $3 billion paid out to investors to make up for the inequity of favorable market timing by a select few.

In fact more than six years after the scandal, I continue to receive checks in the amounts ranging from $2 to $30 from mutual fund companies that used to hold my investments.

Will this result in the same sort of long-tail remedy?  Who knows but the more immediate concern will be if individuals decide that this is one more piece of evidence that the Wall Street game is rigged against them.

I hope that is not the case.  Throwing the baby out with the bath water will ultimately do no good for an investor saving for long-term goals.  Sure, you can take all your marbles and go home.  In fact, more than $90 billion has been withdrawn from mutual funds since the beginning of 2009.

The general gist of this investigation is centered on so-called expert networks that offer research of various stocks to investment managers.  Since investing is all about determining what is a fair value to pay for the stock of a company, it’s important to understand the company’s cash flows and things that can affect the top and bottom line.  So certain research companies go about like investigative reporters developing contacts with companies, asking questions about new products or sales and then reporting this to stock analysts that work at other firms.

There is nothing inherently wrong or illegal about asset managers using third-party research.  Since there’s no easy to see bright line about what is or isn’t insider information in some of these cases, nothing wrong may have been done.

The problem for many investors right now is one of perception.  There is the cockroach theory in accounting and finance.  When you turn on a light in a room and you see something scampering off, it’s almost safe to say that there were probably more bugs running about when the lights were off.  So to avoid future surprises, you might want to relocate from the apartment and in investing you might be inclined to also get out of Dodge.

I think it’s too early to simply paint the whole industry with a broad brush and say that they’re all corrupt.  Yes, there were some bad apples.  But you should think about this sentiment best expressed by Frank Black in Investment News (11/29/2010, page 2):  If they are getting inside information … why did the average fund decline almost 50% in 2008-2009?

Trying to get a leg up on the other guy is pretty normal in a competitive marketplace.  Information is king after all.

But there are more honest fools in this business than corrupt ones.

Even a lump of coal is something useful even if it is dirty and messy right now.

So stay calm and avoid shooting first before asking questions of your financial adviser.  This is just another type of risk to be aware of and there are ways to lessen the adverse impact on your long-term portfolio and goals.

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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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After the Dow Industrials reached their peak on October 9, 2007, there was a long, painful decline to the trough reached on March 9, 2009.  During that time the DJIA lost 54% but was followed by a rally of 70%. Even with this spectacular run up through 2009, the index never reached it peak. While closer now after a good 2010 it, the peak is still a long climb up the mountain.  In fact, to break even from a 50+% loss requires a disproportionate increase (more than 100%) just to “get back to where you once belonged” as the classic rock song lyrics said.

Investors Win By Not Losing

As this roller coaster shows, its easier to keep what you have than try to rebuild it.  Unfortunately, after such volatility, investors tend to flee to places that are perceived to be safe.  For most that has created a flight to bonds. While investors think of risk as “loss of capital” the traditional views of risk continue to be turned on their head. Sure, you could stash your money away in a money market or under the mattress but what kind of return will that produce?  Will you have enough to eat more than dog food in retirement?

A recent documentary on the disaster at Pompeii and Herculaneum shows how many townspeople fled to the concrete tunnels near the wharves.  Considered a safe place, it ended up as a tomb to more than 300 skeletal remains. These hopeful survivors were trapped by the lava flows which sealed up the tunnels where they had fled.

In many ways, investors fleeing the danger of the markets by shifting to government bonds could be dooming themselves to a similar fate as the Pompeians.

The returns from “safe” Treasuries are pathetic.  Huge investor appetite has driven up to demand and helped lower the yields offered.  A backlash could hurt investors when interest rates rise as they inevitably have to.

If the goal is to preserve capital and avoid dangers, it shouldn’t matter to an investor what asset class is used.  (It’s Halloween.  Watch any scary movie and when the hapless victim is trapped he/she could care less whether the guy in the hockey mask is stopped by a dump truck or an arrow).

In much the same way, we should be looking at other ways to conserve capital.

Carrying Junk Around

Say “junk bonds” to someone and they may be thinking about Michael Milken in the 1980s or businesses on the brink of bankruptcy.  While these bonds are issued by companies with lower credit ratings, they offer a very good alternative to “safe” Government bonds. The point of diversification is to not put all your eggs in one basket.  Today most investors are torn between a savings account paying practically no interest or reaching for yield using alternatives.

The bond market prices the risks of bonds every day.  Currently, the bond market is pricing in a possibility of 6% default risk on junk bonds as a group.  That’s down from its historic number. Some individual bonds of companies may certainly be higher but as a group that’s not a bad number.  Some analysts at JP Morgan Chase have even estimated that the default risk for 2011 is as low as 1.4%.

Why so low? The projected default risk is low in part because companies are showing their highest level of profits in years.  They have shed workers, squeezed productivity gains from those remaining and taken over market share as weaker competitors have failed. The prospects for these companies look even better considering that as a recession ends company cash flows improve.  This means more cash available to service debt. And as these companies improve so too will their credit ratings leading to lower interest rates that they can get when they refinance their debts just like any homeowner would who has an improved credit score.

Avoiding the Danger of a Secular Bear

In a secular bear market, there are rally periods while the markets as a whole may languish or sometimes drop.  During the secular bear from 1/1/1965 to 12/31/1985, a Buy and Hold bond investor would have been whipsawed but ending up gaining about 1 basis point (or 0.01%)  per year for 20 years.  Not a lot of payback for the sometimes stomach-churning ride over that time.

A More Tactical Approach to Risk Management

Not all bonds are the same.  There are government bonds, municipal bonds, US investment grade corporate bonds, US hi-yield/junk bonds, convertible bonds, bonds from overseas and bonds from emerging markets.  Just like every homeowner applying for a mortgage is different and has to go through different underwriting,  the characteristics of all these bonds are different as well.

For instance, hi-yield bonds are more likely subject to credit risk.  Since the rates on these types of bonds are higher than that found on a Government bond or investment grade corporate bond, they are not so sensitive to changes in interest rates.  On the other hand, Government bonds are more sensitive to interest rate risk and the perceptions about expected inflation or the impact of monetary and fiscal policy on future interest rates.

Since these two bond categories are influenced by different factors, they tend to not be correlated meaning that they don’t move in lock-step: When one is zigging the other is probably zagging in the opposite direction.

A key way to reduce risk and potentially increase returns when dealing with bonds is to rotate among the different bond types.  Sometimes the market conditions favor one flavor of bonds over another.  At other times it’s better to reduce all bond types and shift to cash or money markets.

Simply buying and holding means that gains made in one period may be taken away by another. If you’re able to make gains and take them off the table from time to time, you’ll have less money at risk and greater opportunities at preserving capital for the long term.

In the chart below, you can see that buying each of these major bond indexes can produce widely different results.  For nearly the same risk level (as measured by the standard deviation), US High Yield long term bonds have a clearly higher overall return and higher return during periods of higher interest rates than the long-term US Treasury index.

Bottom Line

Investors seeking ways to add income to their portfolio and reduce risk of loss to their capital really need to consider alternatives to buying and holding.  Rotating among these different bond asset types may reduce the overall volatility to the portfolio and preserve capital for the long term.

If you don’t want to end up like the victims of Mount Vesuvius and be buried by a “safe” move, you should open your minds to understand all the risks and ways to manage them.

Figure 1 (Source: BTS Asset Management Presentation/Nataxis Global Assoc, 10/27/2010)

Bond Index Annualized ReturnNov 1992 – Aug 2009 Standard Deviation (measure of risk) Annual Return During Rising Rate Period
BarCap US High Yield Long 10.45% 10.94 6.75%
BarCap US Corp Baa Investment Grade 6.97% 6.31 1.75%
BarCap US Aggregate Bond 6.46% 3.82 1.31%
BarCap LT US Treasury 8.11% 9.28 -0.40%

Figure 2 (Source: BTS Asset Management Presentation, 10/27/2010)

Bond Sector Credit Risk Interest Rate Risk Currency Risk
US High Yield High Low None
International Developed Market Low Medium High
Long-term US Government None High None
Emerging Market High Low High
US Municipal Low High None
US Investment Grade Corporate Low High None

Figure 3 (Source: BTS Asset Management Presentation, 10/27/2010)

CAPITAL PRESERVATION KEY to LONG-TERM SUCCESS
Loss Gain Needed to Get Back to Break Even

(15%)

+ 18%

(20%)

+ 25%

(30%) + 43%

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Like the mythical siren’s call, the pitch is enticing – a seemingly perfect investment.

Investors can buy into a contract offering a minimum return with the potential to capture the upside of increases in the stock market while avoiding portfolio value declines if – and when – the market goes down.

This blend of promises can be found in ‘equity-indexed annuities” or EIAs offered by insurance companies.

And these offerings have become popular given the steep declines in the stock market.  According to a report in the WSJ (9/02/09), sales of EIAs during the first half of 2009 rose 20% compared to a year ago to $15.2 billion.

As compelling as these products may sound, they are anything but simple.  There are many complicated moving parts to each EIA contract. So buyer beware!

Think of investing as finding the route to your destination (a goal) and matching that with the appropriate mode of transportation (or investment vehicle) to get you there.  You may be traveling from Boston to New York and can choose highways or back roads. You can choose hi-speed rail, a car, a bus, a bike or even a plane.  You can drive or fly yourself or hire someone else to drive. All will get you to where you want to go but it’s a question of what kind of comfort level you want on the ride, how much time you have to get there and at what cost – in fees or simply mental health.

For those who may not have the stomach for the gyrations of the stock market but are looking to be more venturesome, the EIA may be a suitable compromise. It’s sort of like someone hiring a driver for the trip but traveling on main roads while avoiding highways.

First, understand that an annuity is offered by an insurance company and backed by the credit-worthiness and deep pockets of the insurer.  There is no FDIC backing. This is not a bank product (although you may find them sold by brokers with desks in banks).

Next, understand that an index can be any benchmark for any asset class or market.  The most common benchmarks include the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), the S&P 500 and NASDAQ in the US.  Overseas, indexes include the NIKKEI in Japan for instance.

An equity-indexed annuity (EIA) ties the amount that will be credited to an investor’s account to the performance of a particular index. 

But don’t expect to receive a one-for-one increase in your account value based on the index’s increase.  Instead, these contracts include a “participation rate” that sets a percentage of the index gain that is used.

The index-based interest credit may be further limited by “caps” that set a maximum amount of gain.

For anyone who has ever had an Adjustable Rate Mortgage, the process is very similar to how loan rates are recalculated.

Calculating the interest credit is further complicated by the method of measuring the change in the index value.  For instance, the insurer can determine the index change based on the “Annual Reset” – the difference between the index value at the beginning and end of each contract annual anniversary date.  Or a “point-to-point” method may be chosen that compares the index value at the beginning date with some future date like the fifth anniversary. Or the insurer will use “index averaging” taking multiple index returns and averaging them.

By the way, the index value won’t include changes resulting from dividends. While total return on the S&P 500 averaged 9.5% between 1969 and 2008, more than one-third of the return was attributed to dividends.  So these EIA market participation formulas will be calculated on a lower base when dividends are not considered part of the index return.

Typically but not always, there is a minimum amount of interest that is credited. But be aware that this minimum interest credit may not apply to 100% of the contract value.  It may apply an interest rate of 3% to only 90% of the value.  It may apply 1.5% interest to 85% of the total value.  It all depends on the terms of the contract.

EIA contracts have dual values:  the one based on the index value, participation rate and cap; the other based on the minimum interest credit.  And if you get out of the contract before the full term, you may be forfeiting the index-based account value. The insurer would then pay out the amount based on the minimum guaranteed portion which may be lower than what you expected compared to the index formula.

And how many football fans would be happy if their favorite team was on the 1-yard line and the referees moved the goal post?  Well, most EIA contracts reserve the right to unilaterally change terms reducing the participation rate or using stiffer lower, caps for example.

And most contracts have very steep surrender charges that can start at 10% to 15% of the contract value in the first year and declining from there for up to 10 years.

And be aware of the financial incentives that are part of these contracts.  Some EIAs offer “bonuses” to investors – an extra 5% or 10% added to the initial deposit.  But there is no free lunch.  In exchange for such a bonus, the insurer will likely increase the surrender penalty.  So as much as the bonus is an incentive to open the contract, the penalty is an incentive to not move the money out.

Follow the money, too.  Many EIAs pay out commissions to brokers between 6% and 10% and sometimes more.  An investor should be aware that there may be an incentive by a salesperson to offer this as a catch-all solution whether or not it fits the investor’s particular situation. 

The advantages to an EIA include the opportunity to participate in the upside of a market index as an alternative to investing directly through mutual funds for instance.  When an investor opens up an annual statement, there may be less apparent volatility because the account balances aren’t fluctuating wildly.  So this may help a conservative investor dip a toe in the market and sleep better.  And like most annuity products, investors have free access to a portion of their money without surrender charge (usually 10%). And like any other insurance product, it provides a guaranteed death benefit.  Like other annuities, it offers an income stream that you cannot outlive.

The average return on such EIA contracts has been reported to be in the 5%-6% range.  Given the complexities of these contracts and the average returns, it may be a costly way to limit your market exposure but it may make sense for those looking for a principal-protected CD alternative for the cash portion of their portfolios as well as a source of income to supplement retirement.

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The market’s are jumpy to say the least right now.  As I post this the market has ended four days down in a row after finishing August up 3.5% and up 45% since March. 

Despite signs of ‘green shoots’ and glimmers of positive economic activity, the US stock markets have ended the summer rally with a selloff of over 2% (on the DJIA Index).  Fears of a stock market correction or a “W”-shaped recovery loom large after several months of impressive gains.

Manufacturing activity in the US and Europe are mostly up.  Large money-center banks have been paying back the US Treasury for the money borrowed as part of their bailout.  US auto manufacturers are rehiring.

Yet fears that the mighty economic engine of China may slow coupled with worries about the commercial real estate sector in the US have lead investors to take cover.

What’s an investor to do?  Buy and Hold. Or is buy and hold dead as some commentators say?  What about diversification which really seemed to not protect anyone from the steep dive in all markets and all asset classes?

I personally believe that it’s important to follow the time-tested wisdom of grandma:  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

But diversifying doesn’t mean “set it and forget it” either which is typical among investors.

To all things there is a season.  And farmers planting crops and fisherman at sea all know that there are cycles in nature.  (El Nino, anyone?)

So why wouldn’t you expect there to be cycles in markets as well?

Considering that stock and bond markets reflect the collective expectations and emotions of millions of investors, it’s an easy leap to expect markets to be governed by cycles in the cumulative raw emotions as well as considered opinions of its many participants.

Example: Right now small-cap stocks have paid off big time this year.  According to the WSJ, stocks in the S&P Small Cap 600 index have leaped over 66% and midcap stocks are up nearly 62%, far outpacing the S&P 500 large cap index which gained “only” 51%.

What a typical investor will do upon hearing such performance will be to move money into this hot sector of the market. And of course that has been exactly what investors have done as more than $7.5 Billion of all fund flows have been to small-cap mutual funds versus outflows of $18.5 Billion from large-cap funds. What’s that saying about “when fool’s rush in?” 

This being said, there are ways to combine investment approaches.

Instead of “buy and hold” it’s time to consider “sit on it and rotate.” 

Ideally, we all want to a perfect investment that always goes up and never goes down.  But a look at one of those “periodic table” of investment returns shows, rarely does the same sector that was a top performer one year do a repeat the following year.

There is a way to get off the wild roller coaster ride between “gloom and doom” and “irrational exuberance.”

This is what I refer to as a “skill-weighted” portfolio.  Essentially, this approach combines various investments in different assets with different investment approaches to help reduce the roller coaster ride.

Even a nesting hen that is sitting on its eggs will rotate positions every once in a while.  And through this approach, too, an investor will maintain a watchful eye on his portfolio being positioned for opportunities by rotating between and among investments, sectors and trends.

Think of a house: a foundation, a frame and then all the visually appealing touches.

In this approach, an investor will have a core foundation comprised of index type investments (mutual funds or Exchange Traded Funds) with a frame consisting of actively managed mutual funds and topped off with a trend-following program for stocks and/or other Exchange Traded Funds to accent the portfolio.  The combination of all these elements will provide balance which helps reduce overall volatility while still positioning for opportunities.

Consider this:  If an investor owns and holds onto an index, he’ll get 100% of the upside … and 100% of the downside.  If an investor owns all actively managed mutual funds, more than 80% do not beat their benchmark.  And those who “market time” need to be right two times:  when they sell and then when they buy.

Not all approaches work all the time but by combining them (rotating between them) an investor may have a better opportunity to preserve, protect and ultimately profit.

What should matter most to any investor is not beating an individual benchmark but getting where they want to go with as few bumps as possible.

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