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Posts Tagged ‘Risk’

What could possibly link the children’s story of Watership Down, Thanksgiving turkey and retirement investing risks?

Well, my mind works in strange ways (just ask my wife and I’m sure my 15-month old Spencer agrees as well).

Buy and Hold – A Broken Promise?

After all the troubles in the stock market and in financial markets in general over the past couple of years, I was recently rereading an article in the trade magazine, Journal of Financial Planning. In the September 2009 issue there is a book excerpt by Ken Solow, CFP (R) entitled Buy and Hold is Dead (AGAIN): The Trouble with Quant Models.

Over the past couple of years there has been much written about Buy and Hold investing. You may be familiar with the concept as an approach to investing that focuses on selecting an investment (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, real estate) and simply holding on through good times and bad.  Occasionally, you should rebalance back toward some strategic assert allocation to reduce or minimize certain risks.

The reasoning behind this is simple: humans are bad at financial decisions and by adopting this approach you can take the emotion out of investing.  Too often, we tend to make important decisions with little information and rely on emotions like fear or greed.  In fact, Warren Buffet, investor-extraordinaire of Berkshire-Hathaway fame, has said this many times and by doing the opposite of what the masses do he has amassed a fortune for himself and his investors.

For many, buy and hold was discredited after the great Financial Meltdown that tipped us into the Great Recession.  All asset  classes – whether large company stocks, small company stocks, stocks of foreign firms, bonds from companies large or small and bonds issued by sovereign nations – went down.

Most investors feel cheated, angry and worse. This buy and hold approach was advertised as a way to minimize risk.  Unfortunately, most investors probably misinterpreted the idea of minimizing risk and thought that it eliminated the downside volatility.

As I often say to clients, we know there will be sunny days and rainy days.  Risk management means carrying an umbrella and maybe wearing a rain coat as well.  But just because you are using one or both of them doesn’t mean that you won’t get wet.  You’ll just not get soaked like the guy who’s running from the street curb toward the office door with nothing but a newspaper over his head.

It’s true that Buy and Hold will help take the emotion out of investing. Over the long-term, the Ibbotson Charts will show that all asset classes have gone up since 1926 until now even after the meltdown.

That provides cold comfort to the retiree who is just about to start withdrawals from his portfolio to supplement his retirement income and lifestyle.  There were many who saw their investments drop 30%, 40% or more.  And while their portfolio may have bounced back some with the market rally and over time the market may continue to rise, they just don’t have the time to wait.  They have to start taking out money now.  And each time they take out money to live on, there is less in the pot to grow.

This has happened before.  Remember Enron.  Remember Lucent Technologies.  On one day someone is a paper millionaire.  Fast forward and the companies are in the tank (bankrupt in the case of Enron) and your retirement dream is a nightmare. If you’re at the tail end of a 25 year career, you really don’t have the time to make it up but have to make do with what you have. (Even for these folks, not all is lost and there are things one can do to sustain a retirement as I noted here in a previous post. And I’ll be talking about sustainable withdrawal rates in another post on retirement income planning.)

For the rest of us, there is a lesson in there. And this is where Watership Down and Thanksgiving turkey come into play.

Buy and Hold, Modern Portfolio Theory & The Illusion of Math

Buy and Hold is based on the quantitative model of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) first devised Harry Markowitz more than 50 years ago.  Such quantitative models are based on lots of mathematics.  The formulas are complex and elegant.  They are beyond what most of us are comfortable with but they do provide a sense of security.  You input numbers from data on various asset classes and a very precise number comes out the other side of the black box.  This provides a sense of security.  Instead of relying on something subjective like your instinct or your gut feelings, you can put your faith into something objective like the science of math and finance.

Over the past few years and principally from the mid-1990s until our recent meltdown, we have come to rely on ever more complex quantitative models. These complex models drove the markets in real estate and mortgages as we relied more and more on the black boxes of the financial engineers.  But theories are only theories and models are only as good as the assumptions and data used to create them.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  And a model is only as good as the assumptions behind it.  All models are based on past events. And even though we are warned that “past performance is no guarantee of future results” we rely on these backward-looking, statistically-based models for predicting our futures.

In a normal world, the behavior of markets and investors can be assumed pretty well. But in panics, all bets are off.  No amount of modeling can predict how presumably reasonable people will act but it’s safe to say that human nature’s fight or flight syndrome kicks in hard.

Watership Down – A Lesson from Spencer’s Bedtime

What happens is that things go along and work until they don’t.  Assumptions are assumed to be fine until they need to be revised. When I was reading Watership Down there is a scene where the protagonist, a wild rabbit, encounters a number of other well-fed white rabbits.  Our hero tries to get them to follow him but to no avail.  The tame rabbits live in a fine world where they are provided plenty of food, water, shelter and care.  What more is there to go searching for “out there?”

The Thanksgiving Turkey

Our false sense of security and belief in a system like MPT or Buy and Hold can be illustrated in the tale of the Thanksgiving turkey.

As retold by Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan:

Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race “looking out for its best interests,” as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey:  It will incur a revision of belief.

Unable or unwilling to question its beliefs, the turkey was lulled into a false sense of security by his daily reinforcing experiences. Like the tame white rabbits in Watership Down, the turkey’s world is looking good and life is great.  So much so that neither even think about ways to escape.

At least in the animated movie Chicken Run with Mel Gibson (another soon-to-be Spencer favorite), the chickens are led to question their assumptions about life on the farm and plot ways to escape.

What We Learn from Bedtime Stories for Investing

What we learn from these stories is that just because things have worked in the past, doesn’t mean that they are absolute truths that will hold in the future. The most dangerous thing that an investor can do is simply accept with blind faith the assumptions of the past.  In a changing market, there’s nothing scarier than conventional thinking.

Theories are only theories and while it may seem like heresy to question assumptions, it’s in your best interest to do so.

Does this mean abandoning Modern Portfolio Theory or Buy and Hold? No.

It does mean that it makes sense to add some human judgment to the mix.  Good models can work even better with common sense.

Like the counter-culture of the 1960s would teach, you as an investor will do best to question authority and question assumptions.

Use an Investment Policy Statement as a Better Road Map

Here with the aid of a qualified professional you can walk through and create a personalized investment policy statement as a road map for investing decisions.

Such an approach can combine the quantitative tools to be used along with the more qualitative, value-based criteria that can be combined to help in the investment selection and portfolio management process.

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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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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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“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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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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