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Our blog talks about current events that impact your financial reality and future prospects. We explain the implications.

The Three Facets of Risk

The Three Facets of Risk

OK, I'll admit it - I'm a risk freak.  

 

It's not that I love to take a ton of risk in my life (though some wonder whether surfing, downhill skiing, hang gliding and scuba diving are appropriate activities for someone in his 50s); it's that I contemplate the concepts of risk. A lot.  

 

That is not a typo. It's the concepts of risk, plural. There are at least three facets of risk that merit consideration: need, ability and willingness.

 

With the Fed's current zero interest rate policy, almost all of us need to take risk to accomplish our retirement objectives. The so-called "risk-free rate of return" is 2.4% per year (fully taxable), which is what the US government gives you for lending it money for 10 years. After taxes, you are probably guaranteed to lose only a little purchasing power over that decade after inflation in factored in. [Yes, that's right: risk-free means almost certain guarantee of losing real value in your investment!] All other things being equal, you'd need to take more risk. 

 

To fully understand your own need, think about what you want your money to do for you, and when you want it done. Want to retire at 65 with $10,000 a month in living expenses? Fine, that requires a certain amount of risk. Retire at 52 with $20,000 a month? No problem - as long as you have $15 million or want to assume a risk profile that makes climbing Mt. Everest look like a walk in the park.  

 

The ability to take risks reflects where you are in life. If you're 28 and starting a job, you have all the ability in the world to take as much risk as you would like. But if you're nearing retirement, or facing health challenges, or are living paycheck to paycheck, you simply do not have an ability to take much risk.

 

Need and ability are fairly quantifiable and objective. The challenge comes in assessing one's willingness to take risks, and this is where most uncertainty lies. Your nest egg, at its most bare, is there to give you peace of mind that you are able to do what you want when you want. But if there's so much risk in the portfolio that you're stressed when the Dow drops a few hundred points... well, that kind of defeats the purpose of peace of mind! [I'm reminded of the investor during the crash of '08 who told me he slept like a baby: woke up crying every few hours curled up in a corner.] 

 

Ask someone their long term risk tolerance when the market has been down six months in a row and you'll get a markedly different answer than you would when the market is roaring ahead (recency bias). Or notice reticence to change? That's status quo bias. Oh, there are plenty more, but here's the takeaway: understanding risk requires time and patience, and a recognition that it's a dynamic concept.   

 

The riskiest approach? Not knowing how much risk you need to take, you're able to take and that you're willing to take!

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Your 401(k) Plan:  A Great Savings Opportunity (Except When It’s Not)

Your 401(k) Plan:  A Great Savings Opportunity (Except When It’s Not)

We have all been told since our first job that saving for retirement through the workplace makes sense. By deferring a portion of your salary while you are working, you can not only make solid and notable strides toward funding your future, you can save on your taxes today.

 

That's because 401(k) plans - and their less well-known sister, 403(b) plans - are "pre-tax" plans. If you made $140,000 and deferred $15,000 to your company retirement plan, you would be taxed as though your salary was $125,000. Any gains in the plan are not taxed until you begin to withdraw funds, presumably later in life when you are retired. Chock that one up to the "no brainer" category, right?

 

Well, yes and no. [There are no yes or no answers in this field; it's why economics is called the "dismal science."] Nine times out of ten you will want to take advantage of this type of tax-deferred savings. At an absolute minimum, if you work for a company that matches any of your own contributions, by all means you should participate - failing to do so, at least to the maximum of the company match if you can, is equivalent to throwing away free money.

 

Let's talk about two of the times (there are others) when you may want to reconsider using your 401(k) as a primary retirement funding vehicle (if you work in the Pentagon, we'll call this your PRFV). The second is more prevalent, so skip ahead if you're time constrained. 

 

The first instance where it makes sense to forgo a 401k is if you are nearing retirement and you expect your marginal tax rates to stay the same or increase in retirement. Remember, long-term capital gains and qualified dividends are generally taxed at lower rates than income, so if your salary is lower (or maybe you've gone part-time), and your tax rates will increase in retirement because of Social Security, a pension or other income, take the tax hit now and pay lower rates than you would later, in retirement. Remember, all funds (whether original contributions or gains) withdrawn from a 401k or 403b and non-Roth IRAs are subject to ordinary income taxes at the state and federal level at the time of distribution.

 

The second and more likely reason why you might hesitate to fully participate in your company's 401k plan is fees. A long-time client of mine just switched jobs, so we were reviewing his new plan and found that the annual expense ratio for the "right" investment portfolio was at least 2.28%. That is utterly outrageous; although sadly, it is not uncommon. [There's a ditty in here somewhere:  "If your plan costs start with two, you, my friend, are screwed!"]

 

So how much is "too much"?  The first thing to know is that small plans - those with total assets of less than $10 million - are more expensive, simply because the plan maintenance costs are spread over fewer employees. A recent Deloitte Consulting study for the Investment Company Institute found that the typical annual fee is 0.67%, but for small companies the average cost is 1.27%. A similar study by the trade magazine Plan Sponsor showed the average plan cost for a plan with 50 participants and $2.5 million in assets was 1.46%. 

 

The good news is that the figures are declining, mostly because of regulations that now require making information on expenses available. The bad news is that a whole lot of smaller companies have not taken the time to look at their plans to see what they and their employees are paying. Two types of folks are happy about that: (1) the insurance companies and large brokerage houses, which are often the ones who are charging the usurious fees; and (2) plaintiffs' attorneys, who are seeing this employer breach of fiduciary duty as ripe pickings for class action lawsuits. [If you own a company with a 401k plan, then you are a fiduciary, and that's a high standard! This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to see if you are at risk!]

 

Mark my words: there will be a spate of lawsuits in the coming years that relate to exorbitant fees in 401k plans. If you are a fiduciary, please take a look at your plan - for your own sake and for the sake of your employees. The 401k world is changing, don't be left behind!

 

If you are not an employer fiduciary, but you're interested in reviewing your 401k holdings (and expense ratios) or consider other retirement planning, call me. I'd be happy to take an objective look and let you know if you are doing all you can to prepare for a successful retirement.

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The Fiduciary Standard, Last Straws and Your Financial Health

The Fiduciary Standard, Last Straws and Your Financial Health

Until a few weeks ago, few people outside the advisory world could tell you what a fiduciary standard is, much less why it mattered. But since April, when the Department of Labor proposed a new fiduciary standard for anyone giving retirement investment advice, the term and its impact on consumers have been the talk of the town. 

 

As a fee-only planner and a proud member of NAPFA (the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors) and FPA (the Financial Planning Association), both leaders in promoting fiduciary standards to serve the needs of consumers, I've been dedicated to the fiduciary standard of serving in my clients' best interests my entire career. But the whole discussion has me thinking about the other attributes that define a great advisor, and why working with a professional often makes such a significant difference in the retirement outcomes for individual investors. It's true that fee-only planners receive no commissions for the products we recommend. But that's only part of the picture, and there's so much more to the story... 

 

Many of the clients who walk in my door for the first time are couples who have hit a turning point in their finances. More often than not, one spouse has taken the lead in managing their money, and there's been a "last straw" that broke the do-it-yourself back of the couple's money management. A poor investment. A tax disaster. A layoff. The reasons are many, but the outcome is the same: they need an expert to turn things around. To begin the conversation, I ask two key questions: "When was the last time you lost sleep over money?" and "When was the last time you had a fight about money?" Inevitably, the answers I receive cut to the crux of their unique issues. The last straw if you will. And it helps me better understand their sensitivities, their goals, and, perhaps most importantly, their differences. When it comes to money, no two couples are alike, and no two couples define success in the same way. This is precisely why customized investment management is so vital to helping every investor reach his or her own financial "success." 

 

Whether you've experienced your own “last straw” or simply want be sure your portfolio is optimized for success (however you define it), you can count on an experienced fee-only advisor to explore the following questions—questions that are often overlooked by non-fiduciaries and do-it-yourselfers alike:

 

1. What's the annual cost of your portfolio?

The exciting part of investing is watching your assets grow. But it's easy to forget about the small details that can eat away at that growth. Even small expenses can have a big impact on your outcome—tens of thousands of dollars worth—over the long term due to the power of compounding. A professional advisor dives into the details to be sure your nest egg is as cost efficient as possible by working to keep fund management fees, taxes, transaction fees, tax preparation costs, and other expenses to a minimum. 

 

2. Is your portfolio tax efficient - today and post-retirement?

Taxes are typically the largest expense to anyone's savings. So even when your assets are growing nicely, if your portfolio isn’t designed to be as tax efficient as possible, it may not be climbing as high or as quickly as it could be. A professional advisor knows how to mitigate taxes within your portfolio by balancing gains and losses and carefully allocating assets (read more on this in my April 15 blog), as well as how to be sure your accounts are tax diversified so you’re paying the taxes you do pay at the optimal time, both before and after retirement.

 

3. Are your investments as diversified as they need to be?

Everyone talks about diversification - especially after a market crash - but few understand how to truly analyze a portfolio to ensure it's taking on the least amount of risk to accomplish the goals of the individual investor. A professional advisor not only has the knowledge and tools required to complete an in-depth analysis of all assets and holdings, but also how to synchronize that information with specific long- and short-term financial goals. 

 

Ultimately, investment management is a field where practice may not make "perfect," but it almost always beats out applying casual knowledge and hoping for the best. It's a lot like visiting a family physician - a general practitioner with years of practice and experience treating hundreds of patients - when something goes wrong with your health. You present your symptoms and, using his or her insight and medical wisdom, your MD can usually identify the problem and prescribe a solution. And when the problem lies outside the area of general medicine, the MD has a network of trusted specialists with extensive knowledge of your ailment. You put your trust in your physician because they have in-depth knowledge, extensive training, experience-based insight, and a trusted professional network. 

 

When it comes to your financial health, would you ask for anything less? 

 

Need some help to address your own "last straw" and improve your financial health? Call to schedule your financial check up.

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Reducing the Thrills and Upping the Odds: The Psychology of Financial Decision-Making

What a ride.

 

The DOW jumped past 18,000 recently, and then, somewhat predictably, has been bouncing around that area ever since. But things have been moving skyward for a while now, and many investors are feeling a bit giddy with the recent bull market. It’s an excitement that makes today the perfect the time to talk about the importance of behavioral finance and its impact on investor psychology.

If you’ve never heard of behavioral finance, it’s a theory based on the belief that cognitive psychology has the power to alter our decision-making ability when it comes to our finances. As a whole, people are rational when it comes to maximizing wealth and striving to create a more comfortable and secure lifestyle, yet it’s surprisingly common for people to make highly irrational decisions when it comes to investing. 

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A great example is the recent $500 million Powerball drawing—the fifth largest lottery prize in U.S. history. People around the country lined up in droves to buy lottery tickets in hopes of winning the jackpot. But what are the odds? 1 in 175 million. If that money came in a single, tax-free pot, such an investment may actually be pretty wise. But as taxable “income” that is most often spilt into pieces, the statistical odds of receiving a return on your investment are even more diminished. And when you realize that your odds of being struck by lighting this year is 1 in 700,000, you can see how irrational it is for people to be tossing their money in that direction. Yet millions of people make the choice to “dream big” and add their money to the pot—even when they know how little chance they have of taking home the cash.

 

It’s easy to look at the lottery as an anomaly. It’s just a game after all. But “dreaming big” may be costing people much more than they realize—especially when it comes to the stock market.

 

Last spring, James and Maya, a couple I’ve worked with for years, wanted to talk about shifting their portfolio. They felt we weren’t taking on enough risk; that our current approach was much too conservative for them to see the gains they hoped for. They were both hoping to retire by the end of 2016, and they felt more risk was well worth the potential of a greater return on their investment. James had read an article saying that equities were poised to grow for the next two years, and they wanted to take advantage of that market trend.

 

I wondered if I’d been wrong to steer them toward a level of conservative investing that seemed to fit their ages. Despite how close they were to retiring, everyone has a unique tolerance for risk. Perhaps I’d underestimated their risk tolerance. Maybe, at least for James and Maya, it made more sense to be more aggressive. I suggested they complete a detailed emotional risk tolerance assessment to see where they really stood.

 

The results were fascinating. The changes they had suggested when they first came in—shifting to 70% equities—would have given their portfolio an extremely aggressive risk tolerance score of 85. Before giving them the assessment, I was able to talk them down to a more tolerable (yet still highly aggressive) score of 69. But although both James and Maya were vocal about their desire to take on more risk, their responses to the questionnaire painted a very different picture. In fact, their combined score for emotional risk tolerance was just 29. While they clearly wanted the potential for gains, in reality, they were both emotionally averse to risk. If the market shifted downward over the next 24 months (and the odds of that happening surely beat the lighting statistic!) they would have been highly uncomfortable with the level of loss they would see.

 

James and Maya aren’t unique. Richard H. Thaler, a pioneer in behavioral finance, has been studying investor psychology for years. His latest book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, is based on his decades of research in behavioral science and economics, and it presents his theories about how we make choices—and how we can make better ones. Another pioneer in the field andwinner of the Nobel Prize in Economics is Daniel Kahneman. His New York Times bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow explains the two systems that drive the way we think— “fast, intuitive, and emotional” vs. “slower, more deliberative, and more logical”—and the effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning our next vacation. In both books, the lessons are clear: reducing the role of emotions can help us make better decisions.

 

Of course, a certain amount of “dreaming big” isn’t a bad thing. As your advisor, it’s my job to be sure the odds really are in your favor. I’m constantly evaluating the latest market shifts and identifying any necessary changes to your current asset allocation, and I strive to keep your approach in line with your personal goals and tolerance for risk. If you feel something’s changed, come on in and take your own emotional risk tolerance assessment. No matter what the results, we’ll build a portfolio that offers much better odds than 175 million to 1—and one that’s tax-favored to boot.

 

Are your own emotions wreaking havoc with your financial decisions? Let’s set a time to talk about how we can work together to reduce the thrills and up the odds for your financial success.

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Risk takers take note: The S&P 500 was 2014’s best high-stakes bet!

Risk takers take note: The S&P 500 was 2014’s best high-stakes bet!

The financial headlines are exciting these days. The S&P 500 added a whopping 11.4% in 2014. Nasdaq was up by 11%. And the DOW jumped 7.5%.

 

With these great numbers blaring at you from the bright lights of the news media, you might be asking: “Why aren’t my numbers looking so impressive? What am I doing wrong?”

 

The fact is, unless you’re willing to bet your portfolio on high-risk, short-term returns, if your portfolio delivered a relatively modest sounding after-inflation return of 3-4% in 2014, it’s likely you’re doing everything right. Here’s why:

A balanced portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds delivers a much more reliable return on investment than 100% stocks. There may not be any fireworks when you see that single-digit number, but remember that the goal is to achieve a solid long-term return—after tax, after inflation, and after fees—all at a reasonable risk based on your long-term financial goals. A well-balanced, diversified portfolio includes four major asset classes, with varying percentages depending on your personal financial goals, time horizon, and other key factors. These four components are:

  1. Domestic large-cap equities

  2. Domestic mid-cap, and small-cap equities

  3. International equities (including global stocks in developed and emerging markets)

  4. Fixed-income securities (including bonds)

While it’s true that domestic caps performed undeniably well last year, history tells us that maintaining a careful mix of these four key components (with the riskier equities category decreasing in weight as the time horizon decreases) can decrease risk substantially and deliver a more predictable return over the long term. When comparing a strict S&P 500 to a sample diversified portfolio over a nearly 10-year period from October 2003 to May 2013, the diversified portfolio earned an extra 2.9% annually—at substantially less risk than the equities portfolio.

 

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(Source: Diversification: Why Not Put Everything in Whatever Will Go Up the Most?, Forbes, July 2013)

 

Hedge funds are a good example of the more risky approach, and there’s a good reason these funds aren’t delivering their touted too-good-to-be-true numbers these days too. Known for their inconsistent (but sometimes high-flying) returns, hedge funds averaged a return of just under 3% in 2014. Just like betting on that long shot at the racetrack, hedging the market is a tricky game—and the more volatile the market is, the trickier the game becomes.

 

It’s difficult to look away from the thrilling numbers of the major benchmarks— the S&P 500, Nasdaq, and the Dow—in 2014, but it’s important to remember that these highly publicized indexes don’t account for the not-so-little details of taxes, fees, commissions, and inflation, so the actual return to a portfolio isn’t quite what it seems (and really, is anything ever quite what it seems?!). And while the S&P 500 is one of the most watched indicators of performance for large cap equities, it includes only 500 stocks from more than 15,000+ to choose from. These 500 stocks are certainly representative of the overall market, but historically, the S&P has outperformed international developed and emerging-market stocks only three times since 2000, and it outperformed domestic midcap and small-cap stocks only once since 2000. While a $2 Million portfolio invested only in the S&P 500 in 2014 would have gained $228,000, that same portfolio would have lost more than $1.1 million during the great bear market of October 2007 to March 2009. That’s a level of volatility that even the most seasoned risk taker may find difficult to stomach.

 

Few anticipated such stellar returns on the S&P 500 last year. Perhaps even fewer anticipated the S&P 500’s 38% decline in 2008. If you really are a risk taker—and you’re willing to bet you financial future on the potential of cashing in on the long shot—you may get a good thrill from throwing your savings at the benchmarks. If you’re really, really lucky, you may see a fireworks-worthy return on your investment.

 

As for the rest of us? We’ll keep moving forward and striving for that nice, comfortable 3-4% each year after inflation, fees and expenses. Our nerves will benefit greatly, and my guess is that our retirement cash flow will be that much more comfortable when the time comes as well.

 

Is it time to explore changes to your own portfolio?I’m here when you’re ready (just please don’t ask me to place all your bets on the long shots—I don’t have the fortitude).

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