Monthly Archives: March 2017

Even the “rich” can’t afford retirement.

Investment Approach

Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs) deal with people at all wealth levels but most are upper income even if they are not billionaires.  There is a retirement crisis and it’s not just hitting the working class.

The typical median wage earner making $50,000 a year and retiring at 67 can expect Social Security to pay him and his wife about $2400 per month.  To maintain their previous spending levels this leaves a gap of about $1000 a month that has to be made up from savings. But many of these middle income people have not saved for their retirement.  Which means working longer or reducing their lifestyle.

This problem is also hitting the higher income people.  How well is the person earning over $200,000 a year going to do in retirement?  The issues that even these so-called “rich” face are the same:  increased longevity, medical care, debts and an expensive lifestyle are all issues that have to be considered.

“The $200,000+ executive expects a fine house, two cars, two holidays a year, private schools, to pay for his kid’s university tuition, and so it goes on. And this is not to mention the tax bill he’s paying on his earned income. A bunch of all this was really debt-funded, so effectively the executive spent chunks of his retirement money during his working days.”

When high income people are working, they usually don’t watch their pennies or budget.  But once retired, that salary stops.  That’s when savings are required to bridge the gap between their lifestyle and income from Social Security and (if they’re lucky) pension payments.  At that point the need for advance planning becomes important.

Before the retirement date is set, the affluent need to create a retirement plan.  He or she needs to know what their basic income needs are; the cost of utilities, food, clothing, insurance, transportation and other basic needs.  Once the basics are determined, they can plan for their “wants.”  This includes things such as replacing cars, the cost of vacation travel, charitable gifts, club dues, and all the other expenses that are lifestyle issues.  Finally, there are “wishes” which may include a vacation home, a boat, a wedding, a legacy.  The list can be a long one but it should be part of a financial plan.

If the plan tells us that the chances of success are low, we can move out our retirement date, increase our savings rate or reduce our retirement spending plans.

This kind of planning will reduce the anxiety that is typically associated with the retirement decision making.

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Why Your Home is a Poor Investment

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A couple we know moved to a new house recently.  They sold their old for a little more than twice the price they originally paid.  Doubling your money sounds like a great deal, right?

Not so fast.

To determine if the house was a good investment we need to make some calculations.  They originally bought their old home about 33 years ago.  That means that the return on their investment was just 2.4% per year.  To put it in perspective, 33 years ago CD rates were around 10%.  Viewed strictly from an investment perspective, they could have made a better return on their money if they had bought a CD.  And that’s to say nothing of maintenance and upkeep, costs not associated with CDs.

On the other hand, you can’t live in a CD.

How about investing that money in the stock market?  Over that same period the S&P 500 grew 8.5% annually.  That means that every $100 invested in the market 33 years ago would have grown to $1476!

The reason that so many people think that their home is their best investment is that they don’t sell their home very often.  As a result, they look at what they paid and what they sold it for.  If they held it for many years, it usually looks like a big number, and it is. But when viewed strictly as an investment, the annual growth rate is small compared to the alternatives.

As we alluded to earlier, home ownership also involves many other expenses.  There are property taxes and insurance.  Homeowners know that repairs and maintenance are expensive and never ending.  After all of the expenses are taken into account, the real return on home ownership may be even less that our earlier calculation.

But a home is much more than an investment.  It’s a place to live, a place to raise a family, a place to call your own.  A home is a refuge from the rest of the world.  The alternative is renting, wherein you often have more flexibility and are not on the hook for all of the repairs and maintenance.  But it also means that your monthly payment to your landlord is not going into equity that home ownership provides.

We are homeowners and advocates of home ownership.  The point of evaluating the true value of the home as an investment is to bring reality to the financial aspects of home ownership. It’s also a warning against investing too much of our resources in the family home, making many people “home poor.”

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The Retirement Dilemma Facing American Workers

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The way Americans fund their retirement has undergone a fundamental transformation in the last 30 years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of private-sector employees with a traditional defined benefit pension plan has dropped from about 45% in 1980 to a little over 20% in 2011. A defined benefit pension plan is one that provides the retiree with a guaranteed income for the rest of his or her life.

The guaranteed pension has been replaced by a defined contribution plan. Today, about 50% of the private workforce participates in one of these plans, which include 401(k) plans and 403(b) plans and allow the worker to set money from their paycheck aside to grow tax-deferred until they retire, at which point they can start pulling from it to fund their retirement. However, there is no guarantee that the amount saved will be adequate to meet their income needs once they retire.

Most government workers still have access to traditional defined benefit pension plans. However, most of these plans are severely underfunded and questions are being raised about cities and states being able to pay the benefits that were promised. A recent poll of people 25 years and older concluded that “Americans are united in their anxiety about their economic security in retirement.” Over 75% of those surveyed worry that economic conditions might hurt their chances for a secure retirement. (For related reading from this author, see: How Retirees Should Think About Retirement Income.)

Social Security and Medicare Concerns

The federal government provides a basic level of retirement income via Social Security, and provides a basic level of health insurance via Medicare and Medicaid. However, these programs are on shaky ground according to most actuaries. The Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money around 2034 unless it is reformed. That does not mean that checks will not go out to retirees, but it does mean that the amount going out will decrease.

Medicare is in even worse shape and, with the continued rapid rise in medical costs, may face a crisis even sooner. The costs of health care and increasing life spans are major issues for retirees, which explains the reason that so many Americans think they are facing a retirement crisis in the first place. Given the level of debt at the federal level and the rhetoric of the current administration, we do not see the government jumping in to fund the American worker’s retirement at levels above what it does now.

Even Denmark, an icon of the Welfare State, is proposing tax cuts, reducing welfare benefits and raising the retirement age.

“We want to promote a society in which it is easier to support yourself and your family before you hand over a large share of your income to fund the costs of society.”

Funding Your Own Retirement

If the government is not going to come to the rescue, and if corporations are going to continue to unload the financial risks and burdens associated with pension plans, what is the answer? Look to the old saying, “If you want something done, do it yourself.” Going forward, it’s increasingly going to be up to the individual American worker to fund his or her own retirement.

If people begin saving early, a large part of the retirement problem will be solved. The most valuable asset that people have when they are young is time. If workers begin putting money aside at an early age, it will grow and compound for 40 to 50 years until retirement, solving a large part of the problem. The compounding of returns is what makes so much of the difference.

Here is a little math exercise: assume you begin by saving $25 per month—much less than the cost of having one decent dinner at a restaurant—and invest it conservatively so that it grows at 5% per year. At the end of 45 years you will have $50,000. Now assume that you increase your savings by 10% each year—so that in year two you save $27.50 per month (still far less than the cost of just one dinner out)—at the end of 45 years you have $400,000 to use in retirement. These examples go to show that saving a modest sum for retirement does not require much cost or effort, just discipline, time and patience.

Financial Education is Key

The greatest asset that young workers have is time. Unfortunately, people rarely enter the workforce knowing much about saving or investing. That is one reason so many people live paycheck to paycheck. The solution to the retirement crisis is achievable by educating young people and raising awareness. Until schools and colleges begin having mandatory courses for our young people about managing money, parents should be doing this. If they are unsure, they can put their children in touch with a financial planner who will spend time to provide the education. Many financial planners are beginning to offer hourly rates to help people learn to plan and budget.

For most people, the retirement problem is the result of a lack of information. The solution is right in front of us, if we realize that times have changed and people must change with it.

(For more from this author, see: Are You Ready for the Retirement Challenge?)

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The most common investment mistake made by financial advisors

Bill Miller beat the S&P 500 index 15 years in a row as portfolio manager of Legg Mason Capital Management Value Trust (1991-2005), a record for diversified mutual fund managers.  He was interviewed by WealthManagement.com about active vs. passive management.

We have written a number of articles about the mistakes individual investors make.  But what about mistakes that financial advisors make?  We are, after all, fallible and make errors of judgment.  And like all mortals we cannot predict the future.

Here’s Bill Miller’s assessment about traps that financial advisors fall into:

One problem is how they deal with risk. There is a lot more action on perceived risks, exposing clients to risks they aren’t aware of. For example, since the financial crisis people have overweighted bonds and underweighted stocks. People react to market prices rather than understanding that’s a bad thing to do.

Most importantly, most advisors are too short-term oriented, because their clients are too short-term oriented. There’s a focus on market timing, and all of that is mostly useless. The equity market is all about time, not timing. It’s about staying at the table.

Think of the equity market like a casino, except you own it: You’re the house. You get an 8-9 percent annual return. Casinos operate on a lower margin than that and make money. Bad periods are to be expected. If anything, that’s when you want more tables.

We agree.  That’s one of the reasons we are choosy about the clients we accept. One of the foremost regrets we have is taking on clients who hired us for the wrong reasons.  One substantial client came to us as the tech market was heating up in the late 1990s.  He asked us to create a portfolio of tech stocks so that he could participate in the growth of that sector.  We accepted that challenge, but it was a mistake.  When the tech bubble burst and his portfolio went down and we lost a client.  But it taught us a valuable lesson: say no to clients who focus strictly on short-term portfolio performance.  Our role is to invest our clients’ serious money for long term goals.

Like Bill Miller, we want to have the odds on our side.  We want to be the “house,” not the gambler.  The first rule of making money is not to lose it.  The second rule is to always observe the first rule.

To determine client and portfolio risk we use sophisticated analytical programs for insight into prospective clients actual risk tolerance.  That allows us to match our portfolios to a client’s individual risk tolerance.  In times of market exuberance we remind our clients that trees don’t grow to the sky.  And in times of market declines we encourage our clients to stay the course, knowing that time in the market is more important than timing the market.

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The Biggest Myth About Index Investing

Reader Mailbag: Dividend Investing vs Index Investing

John Bogle has done a great job of “selling” index investing.  He started the Vanguard group with the promise that you could invest in the stock market “on the cheap.”  It’s the thing that made the Vanguard group the second biggest fund family in the country.

Selling things based on price is always popular with the public.  It’s the key to the success of Wal Mart,  Amazon, and a lot of “Big Box” stores.

But Bogle based his sales pitch not just on price, but also the promise that if you bought his funds you would do better than if you bought his competition.  He cites statistics to show that the average mutual fund has under-performed the index, so why not buy the index?

The resulting popularity of index investing has had one big, unfortunate side-effect.  It has created the myth that they are safe.

A government employee planning to retire in the near future asked this question in a forum:

“I plan to rollover my 457 deferred compensation plan into Vanguard index funds upon retirement in a few months. I currently have 50% in Vanguard Small Cap Index Funds and 50% in Vanguard Mid Cap Index Funds and think that these are somewhat aggressive, safe, and low cost.”

The problem with the Vanguard sales pitch is that it’s worked too well.   The financial press has given index investing so much good press that people believe things about them that are not true.

Small and Mid-cap stock index funds are aggressive and low cost, but they are by no means “safe.”  For some reason, there is a widespread misconception that investing in a stock index fund like the Vanguard 500 index fund or its siblings is low risk.  It’s not.

But unless you get a copy of the prospectus and read it carefully, you have to bypass the emphasis on low cost before you get to this warning:

“An investment in the Fund could lose money over short or even long periods. You should expect the Fund’s share price and total return to fluctuate within a wide range.”

The fact is that investing in the stock market is never “safe.”  Not when you buy a stock or when you buy stock via an index fund.  There is no guarantee if any specific return.  In fact, there is no guarantee that you will get your money back.  Over the long term, investors in the stock market have done well if they stayed the course.  But humans have emotions.  They make bad decisions because of misconceptions and buy and sell based on greed and fear.

My concern about the soon-to-be-retired government employee is that he is going to invest all of his retirement nest-egg in high-risk funds while believing that they are “safe.”  He may believe that the past 8 years can be projected into the future.  The stock market has done well since the recovery began in 2009.  We are eventually going to get a “Bear Market” and when that happens the unlucky retiree may find that has retirement account has declined as much as 50% (as the market did in 2008).  At some point he will bail out and not know when to get back in, all because he was unaware of the risk he was taking.

Many professional investors use index funds as part of a well-designed diversified portfolio.  But there should be no misconception that index investing is “safe.”  Don’t be fooled by this myth.

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At what age are you too old to manage your money?

I was fascinated to read an article with the above title that was published recently.  It was accompanied by a picture of an elderly couple and their caregiver walking with canes.

The article reflects many of our own observations.  We have been managing money for people for over thirty years.  During that time we have seen the effect of age and ill health on the people we work with.

Here’s the good news:

“Most people who don’t suffer from cognitive impairment can continue managing their money in their 70s and 80s, according to a report just published by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College (CRR). But of course some older Americans, and especially financial novices who take over money management after the death of a spouse, will need help …”

Here’s the bad news:

As we get older our ability to process information slows down.  As a result, the elderly are more likely to be defrauded or abused by financial scams.  They may not open their mail regularly, have problems paying bills and fail to read and understand their financial statements and reports.

If you’ve never made investment decisions, paid the bills, balanced the family checkbook or reviewed the investment accounts you are especially vulnerable.  This if often true of older couples in which the wife managed the household and the husband managed the family finances.

As we get older, there are a few basic things that we should do to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

  1. Have a spending plan for your retirement years.
  2. Make sure that your spouse and your financial advisor knows about the plan and knows where your accounts are so that they can be monitored for fraud or abuse.
  3. At some point you or your spouse should agree to transfer your responsibility for managing your investments, and make sure that both members of a couple should know how to run the household finances.

For guidance on these issues, we suggest ordering a copy of BEFORE I GO and BEFORE I GO WORKBOOK.

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