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Did you know that close to $4.2 Trillion in IRA and retirement account assets can be invested in much more than the standard run-of-the-mill investment choices offered at Big Box investment companies?

Ever since IRAs were first introduced in the 1970s, investors have been permitted to invest in a range of stock market alternatives including non-publicly traded assets such as real estate, notes and loans, private equity and tax liens.  But not many financial advisors and even fewer investors are fully aware of the options.

Legendary investor Warren Buffett uses a simple rule for success:  Invest in what you know and understand.  Diversification offers risk protection. And what better way to diversify than to own something that you have experience with like real estate or a business?

You may find greater portfolio diversification and a return-on-investment that might be better geared to meet your individual goals when you consider investing in what you know from experience.

Any IRA including a traditional IRA, SEP, Roth IRA, Coverdell Education Savings Accounts and solo 401(k) can use a portion of IRA funds to acquire interests in these various stock market alternatives.   Essentially, an investor determines the amount and source of the funds, transfers them to an independent third party custodian to hold and then instructs the custodian to release funds to acquire an investment in one or more alternatives.  The custodian also holds all income for the investor derived from the investment.

The “rules of the road” can be complex but not impossible to navigate with proper guidance.  Basically, an investor, spouse, lineal descendant or fiduciary advisor is a “prohibited person” and cannot “self-deal” or make personal use of the property.  With few exceptions, a “prohibited person” cannot work for or take income from an IRA investment.

What can an investor do?  Combine multiple IRAs from many individuals along with personal funds to buy property as co-tenants, for example.

It’s easier to list the things that a self-directed IRA cannot use as possible investments.  These include 1.) collectibles, 2.) life insurance contracts, and 3.) stock in a Sub-Chapter “S” corporation.  Most everything else is fair game.

If structured properly, the self-directed IRA can act as a lender to help facilitate a real estate transaction. Self-directed IRAs can invest as a member of an LLC or as a stockholder of a C-Corporation or even as a Limited Partner.  This is one way to add a level of asset protection to an investment.

Harnessing the power of a self-directed IRA may offer an investor a whole new way to invest and get retirement dreams back on track.

For a guide to Self-Directed IRA Basics including the “rules of the road” for avoiding IRS trouble spots, please call 617-398-7494 or email steve@ClearViewWealthAdvisors.com for a free copy of the notes from his presentation made to Greater Lowell Landlord Association members on November 11, 2009.

About Steve Stanganelli, CFP ®

Steve is a five-star rated, board-certified financial planning professional offering specialized consulting advice on investments including self-directed IRAs.  Steve is principal of Clear View Wealth Advisors, LLC, a fee-only Registered Investment Adviser located in Amesbury and Wilmington and can be reached at 617-398-7494.

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For individuals in retirement living on a fixed income, it can devastate one’s savings and lifestyle.

As a bond or CD-holder, the purchasing power of regular interest income gets hit.  As a stock investor, stock prices can suffer as profit margins and earnings of your equity holdings are hurt by the higher costs for inputs like energy, precious metals and labor.

Right now, Wall Street is in a good mood.  For the quarter just ended, the Dow has gained about 14%, the S&P increased 14.5% and the NASDAQ was up 15%.  In fact the last time the Dow saw such a large quarterly surge was back in the fourth quarter of 1998 when it rose more than 17% as the dot-com bubble was forming.

This quarter’s rally continued a trajectory that began in mid-March 2009.  It has been primarily propelled by glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel.  A variety of positive statements from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke contributed to a more optimistic view.  Residential real estate sales continued to come back mostly prompted by a first-time homebuyer tax credit.  Corporate earnings have been up.  The popular “cash for clunkers” program spurred auto sales and by some measures consumer spending increased marginally even without the impact from auto sales.

Despite the Wall Street rally, Main Street is still hurting: unemployment continues to rise, business and personal bankruptcies have increased, bank failures are at their highest level and the dollar continues to weaken fueling fears of inflation down the road.

Signs of future higher inflation are on the radar screen:  All the government economic stimulus here and abroad coupled with mounting public debt; the Fed’s projected end of a program in March 2010 that will likely lead to higher mortgage rates; a Fed interest rate policy which has no place to go but up and rumblings that foreign governments and investors may not want to continue at their current pace of supporting our debt habit. 

So how do you position yourself to profit whichever way the tide turns?

Now, more than ever, it is important to have a risk-controlled approach to investing.  This is centered on an age-based allocation that includes exposure to multiple assets.

This is why we will continue to manage portfolios with an allocation to bonds and fixed income but there are ways to protect from the impact of inflation and still allow for growth.

1.)    Include dividend-paying equities:  Using either mutual funds or ETFs that have a focus on dividend-paying stocks will help boost income as well as return.   Stocks that pay dividends have averaged near a 10% annual return compared to a total return less than half of that for stocks that rely solely on capital appreciation.  Better yet, consider stock mutual funds or ETFs that focus on stocks that have a record of rising dividends.

2.)    Stay short:  By owning bonds, ETFs or bond mutual funds that have a shorter average maturity, you reduce the risk of being locked into less valuable bonds when higher inflation pushes future interest rates up.

3.)    Hedge your bets with inflation-linked bonds: Fixed-rate bonds offer no protection against inflation. A bond that has changes linked to an inflation index (like the Consumer Price Index) like TIPS issued by the US-government or ETFs that own TIPS (like iShares TIPS Bond ETF – symbol TIP) offer an opportunity for a bond investor to get periodically compensated for higher inflation.

4.)    Float your boat with Floating-Rate Notes: These medium-term notes are issued by corporations and reset their interest rates every three or six months.  So if inflation heats up, the interest rate offered will likely increase.  Yields in general are higher than those offered by government bonds typically because of the higher credit risk of the issuer.

5.)    Add Junk to the Trunk: Hi-yield bonds are issued by companies that have suffered down-grades – sort of like homeowners with dinged credit getting a mortgage.  Yields are set higher than most other bonds because of the higher risk.  Yet, as inflation heats up with a growing economy, the prospects of firms that issue junk improve and the perceived risk of default may drop. So as the yield difference narrows between these “junk” bonds and Treasuries, these bonds offer a “pop” to investors.

6.)    Own Gold and Other Commodities:  Whether as a store of value or hedge against inflation, precious metals have a long history with investors seeking protection from inflation.  It’s usually best to focus on owning the physical gold or an ETF that is tied directly to the physical gold. Tax treatment of precious metals is higher because of its status as a “collectible” but this is a minor price to pay for some inflation protection.  And because the demand for commodities in general increases with an expanding economy or a weakening dollar (in the specific case with oil), owning funds which hold these commodities will help hedge against the inflationary impact of an expanding economy.

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On Wednesday, March 11, I launched the inaugural event of my Financial Road Map Series teleconferences.

I want to thank each of you who stopped by to listen in to my brief discussion on taking control of your financial future by controlling what you can.

To recap the important points we discussed:

1.) Control What You Can:  No sense in worrying about things that are beyond our individual control.  There’s plenty enough for us to handle and impact directly.  Things that you can control can include:  Your saving and spending habits, your health and exercise programs, your asset allocation, your investing costs, and most importantly, YOUR ATTITUDE.

2.) Have SMART Goals:  Begin with the end in mind.  Be Specific with Measurable goals that are Attainable and Realistic and tied to a specific Timeframe.  It’s one thing to say “someday I want to be rich” or “someday I want to own a boat.”  But if you can put a number to that vision, your mind’s eye can picture it as reality and it becomes a real target to shoot for.

3.) Understand Your Risk:  These past seventeen months have tested what it means to be an investor.  It has highlighted the reality that most individuals do not have a handle on their own risk appetite.  Understanding risk is more than simply answering a few questions on a form.  It involves an open and honest conversation with yourself, your spouse (significant other) and your advisor. Go beyond the standard form and consider what does money mean to you, how your family treated money, what has been your best and worst financial decision and how you came to those decisions.  Ask yourself (or your advisor should ask) how you feel about these risk attitudes.  You may even want to consider using an impartial tool located at www.riskprofiling.com to provide additional insight into your risk tolerance.

  • NOTE: In my practice I utilize multiple risk profile formats to get a handle on how a client thinks and what motivates a decision.  This is helpful to be able to better communicate with a client. 

But having an honest conversation is also integral to proper investment planning.  For instance, I can use the standard risk profile tools, my questions and the website tool listed above and determine a Risk Capacity Measure for a client.

A person who has verifiable emergency reserves (3 to 12 months depending on their particular circumstances), has a positive cash flow and net worth, low debt ratio and adequate life insurance in place has a capacity for higher risk than someone not demonstrating these attributes.  For someone lacking these attributes, the financial plan will likely focus on improving these measures before investing in something risky.

4.) Have an Investment Road Map: Most people would not go on a trip without a map or GPS.  The same should be true about investing.  Having a road map (called an Investment Policy Statement) is something that professional investors like pension funds, insurance companies and endowments use all the time.  It outlines the end result desired (for instance, growth of capital with the investment generating $X in income per year), the types of investments that will be considered (i.e. no investment in nuclear power or tobacco), and the criteria for determining when to buy, when to sell and what to replace it with.  This helps take the emotion out of investing and avoids having a long-term plan sabotaged by the chatter of “talking heads” either in the media or at the office water cooler.

5.) Risk Allocation:  You don’t need a graduate degree in finance to understand that some things just make sense.  More than ever the old adage makes sense: Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket.  While it is true that all asset classes have lost value from their peak nearly 18-months ago, that is no reason to give up on the wisdom of diversification. Just because someone doesn’t win a race the first time doesn’t mean you give up running ever again, does it?

But let’s be sensible about this.  Having a target risk allocation (based on investor age, timeframe until goal, risk capacity and risk tolerance) does not mean simply that you “buy and hold” or “set and forget.”  While academic literatute indicates that a buy and hold strategy will win out over time, in reality most investors do not have the stomach for the occasional and frightening roller coaster rides that happen like they have recently.  In which case in makes sense to buy, regularly and tactically rebalance while exploiting short-term trends and hold cash.  (Most investors do a poor job at following trends, implementing a disciplined trading strategy without emotion and sometimes having to go against the grain and do what seems uncomfortable like buying when everyone else is selling).

6.) Control Your Costs and Your Investment Vehicle: Invesment costs can weigh you down like an anchor.  And choosing the right investment vehicle helps you ride in comfort to your destination. 

Consider this:  Not all mutual funds are created equal.  Actively managed mutual funds have costs that detract from performance.  And typically more than 50% of active mutual funds do not match much less beat their benchmark index.  Does this mean that you give up on investing?  Heck, no. It just means you find another ride.  When a star football player gets hurt, does the team forfeit the remaining games?  No, they have a back up ready for replacement.  With a solid investment policy and using ETFs, you can make a quick switch, too.

This is why you should consider a strong core of index mutual funds and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) as part of your investment stratetgy (see “Top 8 Reasons to Use ETFs in Your Portfolio,” March 10 blog post).

7.) Estate Planning is for Everyone: Be prepared.  That’s the motto that every Boy Scout knows.  It’s good advice here as well.  Having the best investment strategy and record-breaking performance on investments will mean absolutely nothing if you’re not on a strong foundation.  This is what an estate plan will help do by laying the groundwork on how you want to control disposition of your assets and control your affairs.  Regardless of age or portfolio size, an estate plan is important throughout the various stages of life.  This goes for seniors and newly married couples.  If you have something or someone to protect, you need to talk with an attorney to draft a plan that includes at the very least: a Last Will, a durable Power of Attorney, a health care directive.  And if you have minor children it is imperative to have your guardianship issues addressed.

8.) Insurance: In uncertain times, it is even more important to make sure that you protect yourself from contingencies that can blow up your plans and get you off track.

Please review these items annually.  Consider putting it on your calendar to coincide with the seasonal change for clocks.

  • Make sure you have full replacement coverage on your property
  • Add an “umbrella liability” policy to your home and auto.  In a litigious world you don’t need to lose everything because of a lawsuit.
  • Make sure you have filed a “homestead declaration” recorded at the Registry of Deeds on your primary residence.  This will protect you from creditors placing a lien on your property that could force you to sell to settle a suit.
  • Review your employer-sponsored benefits and consider group Long-term Care Insurance, Short and Long-term Disability and Supplemental Accident coverages in addition to standard health/vision coverage.
  • You really need to consider coordinating these coverages with individually owned policies because when you leave your employer you will lose these coverages. 
  • Life Insurance:  Do speak with a financial planner who will do a detailed expense analysis to determine the appropriate level of insurance.  This approach is more likely to result in an appropriate level of insurance at a lower cost than rules of thumb based on income.  As with employer-benefits, consider having policies separate from your work.  A level-term policy is relatively inexpensive and offers cost-effective coverage during the peak years when you may have considerable debts and family responsibilities.

For specific advice on any of these matters, please consider speaking with an independent board-certified planner.

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