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A key component of a diversified income-oriented portfolio is dividends. This is what I have noted in the past during my presentations, blogs and online musings. They are a key part of a solid retirement income strategy.

The total return from stocks is derived from two key components:  price appreciation and the cash flow from dividends.

Most investors are certainly familiar with the concept of price appreciation (or depreciation as was evident during the financial crisis and Flash Crash for instance).  This is what the media each night focuses on when they report on “The Market.”

But less noticed is the value of dividends to the longer-term success of an investor.

The Value of Dividends to An Investor

Below is a chart of various recent periods of stock market performance compiled by Thornburg Investment.

The “Dividend Aristocrats Index” refers to an index of companies that consistently lead the market in paying dividends and regularly increasing their dividends.

Annualized Total Return Period Dividend Aristocrats Index S&P 500
1990-94 12.58% 10.4%
1995-99 19.48% 28.54%
2000-04 9.79% -2.29%
2005 – 9/2009 2.32% -0.08%
1990 – 9/2009 10.97% 8.41%

Dividend-paying stocks have shown these positive attributes over this period:

  1. Historically higher yields than bonds
  2. Historically higher total returns compared to bonds because of the stock appreciation potential of the dividend-payers.
  3. Higher income, capital appreciation and total return compared to the S&P 500 Index in almost all of the periods noted above and a near 20-year annualized total return of nearly 11% versus 8.4.

Dividend-paying stocks are probably not as sexy as most aspects of the stock market.  They are part of “value investing.” They are the stuff of “conservative” portfolios built for “widows and orphans.”  They are the basic building blocks used by Benjamin Graham, the author of Intelligent Investing and the principles on which Warren Buffet built Berkshire-Hathaway.

But for an income-oriented investor (such as a retiree) looking at ways to manage income in retirement, they should not be overlooked.  In fact, recent research reveals that those companies that pay out higher dividends also tend to have higher stock prices because they also have higher earnings growth. And earnings growth is another key component in valuing stocks.  This research indicates this as a global tendency.

Searching for Yield

Unfortunately, seeking out high dividend-paying companies in the US is not so easy.  Unlike managements of Euro-based companies where paying dividends is a sort of badge of honor, US companies tend to be much more stingy in paying back earnings to owners of the company (the stockholders).

And the trend in dividend yields is one that continues to decline. A research note by Vanguard (May 2011) shows this trend.  From 1928 through 1945, the average dividend yield was around 5.6% and dividends represented about 67% of company earnings (aka dividend payout ratio). From 1945 to 1982 the average yields dropped to 4.2% and the payout ratio to 53%.  In the more recent period from 1983 through 2010, the average dividend yield has dropped to 2.5% with a payout ratio of about 46%.

As you can see finding “Aristocrats” that pay out higher than these averages makes a big difference.  And the higher payouts may also portend higher future earnings as well as stock price appreciation.

But even those companies which are “stingier” will still help out a portfolio.

Do Lower Dividends Mean Lower Stock Prices?

The question that investors may be asking themselves now is “will these lower dividend yields (historically and compared to Europe for instance) be an indicator of lower stock prices?” Because the market’s dividend yield is below its historical norm, is that an indicator of lower total returns in the future?

While the stock market is certainly not without bubbles and crashes, it is unlikely that this is a factor in possible future stock price levels. Lower dividend yields are not necessarily an indicator of lower total returns.

There are other reasons that are more likely the cause of this trend toward lower yield payouts.  Part of this is based on US tax policy.  Another is the culture of US corporate management that has opted toward share repurchases instead.

In the US, there is a bias in favor of long-term capital gains over receiving dividends and paying income taxes.

When dividends are paid out all stock holders receive the income and are subject to tax. When management opts for a “share repurchase” program, only those who tender their shares are paid out.  So this may be more agreeable to investors who are trying to manage their tax bill from investing. For those who are longer-term stock holders, they may receive more favorable capital gains treatment by holding the stock and waiting simply for appreciation.

Admittedly, there may also be an incentive by management not to declare dividends so that they can hold onto the capital to “reinvest” in the business – which may or may not be a good thing.  (The same argument can also be seen in political terms in Washington when both parties are arguing about whether or not to have tax cuts).

And management may also have an incentive to repurchase stock because such programs provide the company with flexibility to change the terms – something that is frowned upon if management were to lower or cancel a declared dividend.

How to Use Dividends in Your Portfolio

In any event, using dividend-paying stock is something that makes sense in retirement portfolios.  To provide tax efficiency, it makes sense to include these in your qualified accounts (like IRAs).  And to boost income, it makes sense to add global dividend-paying stocks which tend to have higher yields and payouts.  Nothing in these current research notes indicates that the lower US yields and payouts are an indicator for lower future stock prices.  There are enough other things going on in the economy locally and globally that can impact do that.

To Build a Better Mousetrap or Get More Information

For more ways to build a retirement income portfolio, please feel free to give me a call directly at 978-388-0020 and stay tuned to the company website for upcoming webinars that will cover this topic too.

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

Costs

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

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

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

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

Choice and Access

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

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

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

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

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

Risk Controls & Broader Choice of Investment Strategies

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

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

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

Consider this:  If you think that Treasurys or munis are in their own bond bubbles, what can you do to protect yourself through your 401k?  Probably, not much.  But in your own IRA you’ll be able to build a more all-weather portfolio that includes inflation hedges like convertible bonds, foreign dividend-paying stocks, master limited partnerships or even managed futures.  All come in mutual funds or ETFs which offer the advantages of diversification without the tax and cost structures of direct investment options.

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

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

Things to Consider:

iMonitor Portfolio Program

Money Tools DIY Program

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

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

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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 easy to get tripped up in retirement.  I’m reminded of the expression by the octogenarian to the recent newlywed fretting about life but rejecting out of hand the advice of his experienced senior:

A long time ago I was where you are now.  And later you’ll be where I am now.  But just as you haven’t been your age before, I’ve never been old before.

So for new retirees who “not been there or done that” it’s a whole new world filled with possibility and pitfalls.

Transitioning

Most retirees have an imperfect vision of retirement at best.  And if it hasn’t been discussed or communicated, it could be vastly different from that of your spouse.

Finding meaning in a post-work world can be a real challenge.  If your identity has been wrapped up in what you do, then you might now feel lost.  Your social networks might change.  Your activities might change.

It’s important to reassess your values and envision how you want to live in this next chapter of your life.

Initially, there may be more travel to visit family, friends or places.  You may want to tackle that “bucket list.”

But to live a truly fulfilling and rewarding retirement may require you to take stock in yourself, your values and what gives you meaning.  You may benefit from working with a professional transition coach or group that can help guide you through this period of rediscovery.  One such resource can be found here at the Successful Transition Planning Institute.

Lifestyle Budget

Typically, most retirees may take the rule of thumb bandied about that you will need from 60% to 70% of your pre-retirement income to live on in a post-retirement world.  This is because it is assumed that many expenses will drop off:  business wardrobe, commuting to work, professional memberships, housing, new cars, etc.

The reality is far different.  According to research conducted by the Fidelity Research Institute 2007 Retirement Index, more than two-thirds of retirees spent the same or higher in retirement.  Only eight percent spend significantly lower and about 25% spend somewhat lower. The Employee Benefit Research Institute  reported in its 2010 Retirement Confidence Survey that while 60% of workers expected to more than half of retirees didn’t see a drop in retirement expenditures while 26% of this group reported that their spending actually rose.

It all depends on your goals, lifestyle and what curve balls life throws at you.  If you have adult children who end up in a financial crisis of their own caused by job loss, health issues or divorce, you may be spending more than you expected to help out. Maybe the home you live in will require higher outlays for maintenance or to upgrade the home so you can live there independently. In reality all of that travel and doing things on your bucket list will cost money, too.  So it’s more the rule than the exception to expect spending to increase while you’re still healthy to get up and go.

Over time, the travel bug and other activities will probably decline but even after that these may be replaced by other expenses.

Healthcare

There is an old saying that as you get older you have more doctors than friends.  This is a sad reality for many including my parents.

My father is on dialysis and has complications from diabetes.  His treatments probably cost Medicare (and ultimately the US taxpayer) more than $30,000 each quarter as I figure it.  He takes about 13 prescriptions each day and enters the dreaded “donut hole” about mid-year each year. At one time their former employers (a Fortune 500 company) provided medical insurance benefits to retirees but that became more and more cost prohibitive for their employer and for my parents as premiums, co-pays and deductibles rose.  So now they rely on a combination of Medicare and Blue Cross/Blue Shield and a state program called Prescription Advantage.

As private employers and cash-strapped state and municipal governments tackle the issue, you can expect to pay more for your health care in retirement.

Wealth Illusion

It’s not uncommon to feel really rich when you look at your retirement account statements.  (Sure, the balances are off where they may have been at the peak but it’s probably still a large pot of money). The big problem is that retirees may have no comprehension about how long that pot of money will last or how to turn it into a steady paycheck for retirement.

In reality the $500,000 in your 401k or IRA accounts may only provide $20,000 per year if you plan on withdrawing no more than 4% of the account’s balance each year. Then again if you take out more early on in retirement, you could be at risk of depleting your resources quickly.

Misplaced Risk Aversion & The Impact of Inflation

So as you get older, you’ll be tempted to follow the rule of thumb that more of your investments need to be in bonds. Although this may seem to be a conservative approach to investing, it is in fact risky.

Setting aside that this ignores the risks that bonds themselves carry, it is ignoring the simple fact that inflation eats away at your purchasing power.  Even in a tame inflationary world with 1% annual inflation, a couple spending about $80,000 a year when they are 65 will need over $88,000 a year just to buy the same level of goods and services when they turn 75.  Given the potential for higher inflation in the future that may result from a growing economy and/or current monetary policy, investments need to be positioned to hedge against inflation with a diverse allocation into stocks and not just bonds even when in retirement.

The other risk is trying to play catch up.  As a retiree sees the balances on his accounts get drawn down, he might even be tempted to “shoot for the moon” by investing in illiquid investments like stocks in small, thinly traded markets or in sectors that are very speculative.

Ball games are one by base hits and consistency on the field and at the plate.  Home runs are dramatic but not a sure thing.

Underestimating How Long You’ll Live

We all want a long and productive life.  Many will even say that they don’t want to live to be a burden to their families.  But here again the reality is that most folks do a bad job of guessing how long they’ll live.  A report by the Society of Actuaries notes that 29% of retirees and pre-retirees estimate that they’ll outline the averages but in fact there is a 50% chance of outliving them.

So while they may have enough resources to carry them through the average life expectancy, they will not have enough when they live longer than the averages. And if a couple attains the age of 65, there is a better than 50% chance that at least one of them will live into their 90s.

Given the fact that most women become widows at the age of 53 (Journal of Financial Planning, Nov. 2010), this has a big impact on the availability of resources for retirement.  Too often, a short-sighted approach to maximize current retirement income from a pension is to choose the option that pays the highest but stops when one spouse dies. All too often this puts the widow who may live longer without a reliable source of income to provide for her.

Conclusion

Too often people underestimate how long they will live in retirement, how much they will actually need for living in retirement and how to invest for a sustainable retirement paycheck using appropriate product, asset and tax diversification.

Many people do not save enough for their own retirement.  The social safety net providing support for old age income and healthcare may not be enough to maintain a desired lifestyle.  Women need to understand the risk of living long into retirement and manage resources accordingly.  And because more than 40% of Americans are at risk of retiring earlier than expected because of job loss, family care needs or personal health, there is a real need for proper planning to address these issues.

While retirees will benefit from having a good plan and road map before the final paycheck ends, it’s never too late to start. And for the newly retired with the time to address these issues, now’s as good a time as any to speak to a qualified professional who can help.

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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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