Category Archives: Financial Planning

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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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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Why do smart people use financial advisors?

What is the real value to hiring a financial advisor, and who uses them?  What is the value proposition?  What makes one car with four doors and wheels worth $300,000 and other $30,000?  Although we might have an answer, the answer differs from person to person.

People use financial advisors for many reasons.  Some use them because they absolutely need them, others because they want them. Paying a fee for advice and guidance to a professional who uses the tools and tactics of a CFP™ (CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™) and an experienced Registered Investment Advisor who is a fiduciary can add meaningful value compared to what the average investor experiences.

Many middle-class investors are anxious about their finances and are not interested in learning the details of managing their money.  This anxiety often results with money left on the sidelines because they don’t know what to do or are afraid of making mistakes. That means earning a fraction of 1% at the bank when the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) is up over 25% in the last 12 months.

There are others who are interested in learning about investing and may want to hire an advisor to “look over their shoulder.”  They want to hire an “investment coach.”

A third category are people who hire professionals because they are busy doing things that are more important to them: building a career or a business, being with family, or living an active retirement.  They hire an expert to manage their money the same way they hire a lawyer for estate planning, a CPA to prepare their taxes, and a doctor to keep them healthy.

A fourth category is people who were making their own investment decisions but ended up making a huge financial mistake.  This leads me to a story about a really smart, highly paid high tech executive who is very knowledgeable about investing; but he hired an advisor:

It’s not because he lacks the knowledge or interest, obviously. Rather, he figured out he had behavioral blind spots and understood he was at risk of great financial loss. He’s paying someone just to take that risk off his plate.

Determining your goals, controlling risk, managing portfolios well, and knowing your limitations – knowing you have “blind spots” – has led many smart people to hire an advisor.

Vanguard, the hugely successful purveyor or no-load mutual funds (that appeal to do-it-yourselfers) estimates that a financial advisor is worth about 3% net in annual returns.  They attribute this to the seven services that a good advisor provides:

  1. Creating a suitable asset allocation strategy.
  2. Cost-effective implementation.
  3. Rebalancing
  4. Behavioral coaching
  5. Asset location
  6. Spending strategy.
  7. Total return versus income investing.

If you have an advisor but he is not meeting your objectives, ask us for a second opinion.  If you don’t have an advisor but may want one, we offer a free one-hour consultation to see if we are compatible.

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A good Registered Investment Advisor is a “Life Coach.”

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People who are not familiar with Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs) too often view them as stock brokers.  They are not; they are held to a higher standard and are focused on the client, not the money.  RIAs are trusted advisors who put their clients ahead of themselves.    They are fiduciaries that are skilled in the art making good financial decisions.

Younger professionals who are building careers would do well to find an RIA as their financial guru, a “Life Coach.”  It takes time, experience and a high level of expertise to manage money well.  The young lack that expertise but have the biggest advantage of all: time.  They are in a perfect position to build wealth with the least amount of effort if they can lean on experts who can show them how to navigate the risky ocean of investing.  Just as important, they need a wise guide who can advise them on managing their income.  Too many people, even those with six figure salaries, live paycheck to paycheck.  Knowing what to spend and how to save is the role of the advisor.

This is very important for the independent professional – the doctor or lawyer.  Focused on building a practice, they need someone to advise them on managing their money wisely.

For the business owner, the entrepreneur, it’s even more important.  There is no career track and the challenge of building a business often results in poor money management.  Excessive debt can lead to bankruptcy, a common result in many industries that depend on debt financing.  A good advisor can help the business owner create a personal portfolio that’s independent of his business.  At the same time he can advise the owner the best way of financing his growth.

Once the business is established the owner needs guidance setting up retirement and benefit plans for himself and his employees.  This all part of the RIA’s skill set. And finally, as the business matures and the owner starts thinking of retirement, the advisor provides the guidance to transition the individual and his family to life beyond work.

That’s the point at which the coach gets the pleasure of knowing he’s done a good job as part of a winning team.

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The Financial Planner as a Healer

Money is a significant source of stress for most people.  In many studies, it ranks above issues such as work, children and family.  Chronic financial stress is often the leading cause of family break-ups.

Chronic stress is also associated with all sorts of health problems, psychological problems, marriage conflicts and behavior issues such as smoking, excessive drinking, depression and overeating.

Men and women under stress have often relied on medical and mental health professionals.  However, financial planners are uniquely positioned to help people address what is likely the number one source of stress in their lives – their relationship with money.  Dealing with these issues head-on with a financial planner can lead to improved emotional and physical health, an improvement of work-related problems and improved relationships with family and friends.

A competent and caring financial planner does a great deal more than manage investments or create a financial roadmap.  He listens and empathizes with the conflicting issues that people face when attempting to manage their personal finances.

Discussing the issues that cause worry with a financial planner can lead to setting realistic goals, analyzing alternatives, prioritizing actions and implementing an easy-to-follow plan.  Just as important, it allows the client and the planner to review progress on a regular basis.

As a result the client gets a sense of personal control over his or her finances.  Someone who is in control of their life has much lower stress than someone who feels that events and outside agents control them.

For a relationship between a client and a financial planner to work well together, they must have shared views and expectations of financial planning, financial markets, investment philosophy, and managing risk.  An initial meeting between a client and a financial planner should establish a comfort level and determine whether the planner is actually interested in the client, or just the client’s money.

The planner’s goal should be to help their clients organize their financial affairs, and to discuss the client’s past, present and future – including death.  The planner should create a level of trust that allows him to keep the client from self-injury, which often results from fear surrounding money.  The financial planner should provide a sort of reality check to the client, reducing both excessive pessimism and irrational optimism.  A client should feel able to discuss money honestly and openly with their planner without a fear of judgment.

In many ways, a financial advisor can be the confidant to whom you can take your financial concerns … and make it all better.

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New Years Resolutions for 2017

As another year winds to a close, we wanted to present you with some New Years resolutions designed to improve your financial health in the coming year.

  • Update your estate plan. Has there been a change in your family over the last year?  A marriage, a new baby, a death in the family?  If so, you need to update your estate plan, your insurance policies and your beneficiary designations.
  • Update your internet passwords. Are you using the internet to pay bills, shop, or access your investment accounts?  You will want to update your passwords and make them harder to guess.
  • Review your investments. Have you reviewed your portfolio recently?  Is it still aligned with your needs and goals?  If not, make some changes.
  • Get a personal “Risk Number.” Do you know how much risk you can take?  Most people don’t really know.  Resolve to get your personal “Risk Number“this year.  If you don’t know yours, click here to figure it out.
  • Get your portfolio’s “Risk Number.” Do you know how risky your investments are?  Most people don’t know how much risk they are taking.  Get your portfolio’s “Risk Number” and compare it to yours.  If it’s not the same, you need to consult your financial advisor.
  • Update your financial plan. If you don’t know where you’re going you probably won’t get there.  What’s your financial plan?  If you answered: “I don’t have one” resolve to get one this year.
  • Set your financial goals. Do you know how much you need to save to retire?  Here are some guidelines:

A 30-year-old can open a retirement account and make regular monthly contributions.  By investing properly and aiming for a modest 6% per year rate of return:

  • Saving just $200/month, by age 67 his account will have grown to nearly $350,000.
  • By saving $500 per month the account will be worth over $850,000.
  • Saving $1,000 per month will make our 30-year-old a millionaire by age 59.

 

If you have problems with any of these resolutions, you should definitely consider working with a financial advisor; someone who will be like a health coach for your personal finances.  Resolve to find one this year.

Think of the Advisor as your Sherpa, as it were, whose job it is to guide you amid the extreme altitudes and treacherous passes in investing’s hazardous terrain. That is to say, an Advisor is not someone you hire to beat the market for you, but rather someone who can help you achieve your personal financial objectives as “a facilitator, mentor, and market strategist” for those who, on their own, struggle to achieve their goals.

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Exploding health care costs

Here are some scary projections about the cost of health care for retirees:

 The average lifetime retirement health care premium costs for a 65-year-old healthy couple retiring this year and covered by Medicare Parts B, D, and a supplemental insurance policy will be $266,589. (It is assumed in this report that Medicare subscribers paid Medicare taxes while employed, and therefore will not be responsible for Medicare Part A premiums.)

If we were to include the couple’s total health care (dental, vision, co-pays, and all out-of-pockets), their costs would rise to $394,954. For a 55-year-old couple retiring in 10 years, total lifetime health care costs would be $463,849.

These projections come from Health View Services.

“Obamacare” enrollment has just begun for the coming year and premiums are increasing an average of 22% even as deductibles have increased to $6,000 for the “Bronze” plan before insurance actually pays anything.   The number of companies offering health insurance to individuals is shrinking and some of the larger companies have stopped offering individual policies altogether.

Many people tell us that health care is one of their top concerns in retirement, right up there with running out of money.  Unfortunately the majority has not even begun to put money aside for retirement and those who have underestimate the cost of doctors, hospitals and drugs during their retirement years.

No matter where you are in your life cycle, you should take action now to get to know a knowledgeable financial advisor, preferable a fee-only Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) who specializes in retirement and who can provide guidance on these issues.

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A reader asks: what’s the difference between risk tolerance and risk capacity?

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That’s an interesting question and it depends on who you ask.  The investment industry measures risk in terms of volatility, taking the opportunity for both gains and losses into consideration.

I will answer with a focus on losses rather than gains because, for most people, risk implies the chance that they will lose money rather than make money.

 Risk tolerance is your emotional capacity to withstand losses without panicking.  For example, during the financial crisis of 2008 – 2009 people with a low or modest risk tolerance, who saw their investment portfolios decline by as much as 50% because they were heavily invested in stocks, sold out and did not recoup their losses when the stock market recovered.  Their risk tolerance was not aligned with the risk they were taking in their portfolio.  In many cases they were not aware of the risks they were taking because they had been lulled by the gains they had experienced in the prior years.

People who bought homes in the run-up to the real estate crash of 2008 were unaware of the risk they were taking because they believed that home prices would always go up.  When prices plunged they were left with properties that were worth less than the mortgage they owed.

This exposed them to the issue of risk capacity.

Risk capacity is your ability to absorb losses without affecting your lifestyle.  The wealthy have the capacity to lose thousands, millions, or even billions of dollars.  Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, recently lost $6 billion dollars in a few hours when his company’s stock dropped dramatically.  Despite this loss,  he was still worth over $56 billion.    His risk capacity is orders of magnitude greater than most people’s net worth.

The unlucky home buyer who bought a house at an inflated price using creative financing found out that the losses they faced exceeded their net worth.  As a result many people lost their homes and many declared bankruptcy.

There are some new tools available to measure your risk tolerance and determine how well your portfolio is aligned with your risk number.  Click HERE to get your risk number.

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What’s Your Risk Number?

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Defining how much risk someone is willing to take can be difficult.  But in the investment world it’s critical.

Fear of risk keeps a lot of people away from investing their money, leaving them at the mercy of the banks and the people at the Federal Reserve.  The Fed has kept interest rates near zero for years, hoping that low rates will cause a rebound in the economy.  The downside of this policy is that traditional savings methods (saving accounts, CDs, buy & hold Treasuries) yield almost no growth.

Investors who are unsure of their risk tolerance and those who completely misjudge it are never quite sure if they are properly invested.  Fearing losses, they may put too much of their funds into “safe” investments, passing up chances to grow their money at more reasonable rates.  Then, fearing that they’ll miss all the upside potential, they get back into more “risky” investments and wind up investing too aggressively.  Then when the markets pull back, they end up pulling the plug, selling at market bottoms, locking in horrible losses, and sitting out the next market recovery until the market “feels safe” again to reinvest near the top and repeating the cycle.

There is a new tool available that help people define their personal “risk number.”

What is your risk number?

Your risk number defines how much risk you are prepared to take by walking you through several market scenarios, asking you to select which scenarios you are more comfortable with.     Let’s say that you have a $100,000 portfolio and in one scenario it could decline to $80,000 in a Bear Market or grow to $130,000 in a Bull Market, in another scenario it could decline to $70,000 or grow to $140,000, and in the third scenario it could decline to $90,000 or grow to $110,000.  Based on your responses, to the various scenarios, the system will generate your risk number.

How can you use that information?

If you are already an investor, you can determine whether you are taking an appropriate level of risk in your portfolio.  If the risk in your portfolio is much greater than your risk number, you can adjust your portfolio to become more conservative.  On the other hand, if you are more risk tolerant and you find that your portfolio is invested too conservatively, you can make adjustments to become less conservative.

Finding your risk number allows you to align your portfolio with your risk tolerance and achieve your personal financial goals.

To find out what your risk number is, click here .

 

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