What’s my number?? – Making sense of Financial Planning

Financial Plan #2Dear Mr. Market:

Let’s be honest… the vast majority of hard working Americans have one question in common – Will I be able to retire?  The circumstances pertaining to each individual are as different and unique as the individual themselves. The one connecting point we all have however, is to know if we are going to be able to reach our goals, whatever they might be.

Have you seen some of the commercials where an actor asks you if you know how much you need to retire? Other commercials have people carrying around a huge cut-out of a random numbers …like $1,456,298 around with them.  What’s your magic retirement number? Where should an individual go to get their many questions answered?  With few guarantees how is anyone to know if they are on track to reach their goals?

There is certainly not a lack of financial planning services and products available to consumers today.  It can actually be a bit overwhelming and frustrating for the average person.  Any Financial Plan should be viewed as a guide or a benchmark, serving as a road map to the ultimate destination.  As with other financial service offerings there are many different elements that need to be taken into consideration. Let’s take a moment to look at some of the more important ones and put it in plain English using some common phrases we are all familiar with….. Continue reading

The New “MyRA” … A Direct Route To Retirement Or A Bad Detour?

Dear Mr. Market:

MyRA#7

If you ask the average hard working American what their top financial concerns is, it’s that that they won’t be able to retire.  We could certainly go on and on about different solutions and how people can get on track to make their dreams a reality but today we will focus on a new program offered from the government.  On January 29th President Obama delivered his State of the Union address.  One of the takeaways from this speech was a new retirement account called MyRA (short for My Retirement Account).

Currently over half of the U.S. workforce is not covered by a retirement plan through their employer.  MyRA is targeted at low to middle-income workers, encouraging them to save for their own retirement.  Contributions will be funded through automatic payroll deductions where individuals can start with as little as $25 and contribute amounts as small as $5.  Individuals would be guaranteed that their account would never go down and they will not pay any fees on the accounts.  Sounds like a great product doesn’t it?!  Well let’s take a step back and dig a bit deeper to really explore what the MyRA is all about….

The MyRA can essentially be viewed as a way to introduce individuals that have not saved or funded a retirement account to the many long-term benefits of doing so. At this point companies are not required to be involved in the program, if President Obama wants to force employers to participate a vote from Congress would be required.  The accounts would be funded with after tax dollars much like a Roth IRA.  While it will be funded with payroll deductions individuals will be able to keep their accounts when they change jobs.  MyRA is subject to Roth IRA income and contributions limits.  Individuals can invest up to $5.500 per year (or $6,500 for investors 50 or older); once the owner reaches the age of 59 ½ they can make withdrawals tax-free.  There are also no required minimum distributions (R.M.D.’s). Continue reading

Windhaven Portfolios: Is Schwab just blowing hot air?

Dear Mr. Market:

The investment industry is notorious for not being transparent with investors.  The industry tends to be a shade of grey as opposed to being black and white. There are often hidden agendas or conflicts of interest that the average investor is never aware of or informed about.  Think back to some of the situations that have negatively impacted investors in just the last few years: Bernie Madoff, Insider Trading, the Mortgage Industry debacle and the meltdown of Enron!  Conflict of interest is essentially why the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is now in existence.

Conflict of InterestOccurs when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation. (from Wikipedia).

WindhavenToday we will take a look at an investment firm that has had incredible growth over the last several years: Windhaven Investments.

schwabIn 2010 Charles Schwab & Company (SCHW) purchased a small investment advisory firm in Boston named Winward Investments.  The firm’s strategies had posted impressive results for several years and didn’t use the industry standard ‘buy and hold’ type of approach.  They used primarily ETF’s (Exchange Traded Funds) and claim to invest in over 40 different sectors, participating in positive markets and protecting in downturns.  Schwab paid a hefty price for the firm, paying $150 million in cash and stock (source: WSJ). Continue reading

Force your Portfolio to be Disciplined in 2014

Rebalance Cartoon

Congratulations Mr. Market…you’ve delivered a tremendous year of returns to equity investors!  With the broad equity markets delivering returns over 25% (S&P =29%, DJIA = 25% and the NASDAQ = 37% as of 12/27/2013) investors are now faced with the question of what to do now?  For those investors that were invested in stocks, especially domestic stocks, year-end statements are going to look very impressive but remember that is only on paper. As we step into 2014 what should investors do with their portfolios?

Often investors choose to go with an adage commonly heard in casinos – “Let it ride!” Although the market defied odds and dodged several ominous obstacles, there is no guarantee that it will continue to do so going forward.  Sitting back and doing nothing could very well allow those returns to dwindle away and become nothing but a memory.  It wasn’t that long ago that ‘The Tech Bubble’ hit investors with a strong left uppercut that they never saw coming.  Mr. Market delivered three years of impressive returns (1997 = 33%, 1998 = 28% & 1999 = 21%) only to see it disappear with three consecutive years of negative returns (2000 = -9%, 2001 = -11%, 2002 = -22%) and let’s not forget 2008 (-37%).   How can investors avoid repeating history while also managing the risk and unrealized gains in their portfolio?  Continue reading

Mutual Funds’ dirty little secret….Capital Gains Tax

cap gains tax cartoonDear Mr. Market:

With one of the strongest stock market years on record many mutual fund investors will end the holiday season by unwrapping a lump of coal. In January most mutual fund companies and the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) will mail out Form 1099-DIV. 2013 will bring mutual fund investors capital gains distributions ranging from 6% to 60%. It’s no secret that we’re not fans of most mutual funds and capital gains distributions are just one more reason.  Today we will take a moment to address an issue that every investor (especially mutual fund investors) needs to be aware of – Capital Gains Distributions.

Capital Gains Distribution – The payment of proceeds prompted by a fund manager’s liquidation of underlying stocks and securities in a mutual fund. Capital gains distribution occurs when a mutual fund manager liquidates underlying positions that have made gains since they were added to the fund. Capital gains distributions will be taxed as capital gains to the person receiving the distribution. (Source – Investopedia.com)

 When a mutual fund sells any position at a profit it creates a capital gain, these can be either short-term or long-term.  By law mutual fund companies are required to distribute these gains to all of their shareholders.  If the position was held for less than a year it will be considered short-term. These are distributed to shareholder as income dividends and taxed at their ordinary income rates.  Long-term capital gain distributions (over one year) are taxed as follows: 0% for taxpayers in the 10% and 15% tax brackets, 20% for individuals in the 39.6% bracket and 15% for all others.  The key thing to remember when looking at mutual funds is that the investor has absolutely no say as to when positions are purchased or sold within the fund and the taxable consequences that are incurred. Continue reading

How to Add 3 Nobel Prizes to your Portfolio

nerd money Dear Mr. Market:

What if you, the investor, had all the knowledge and findings that it took to win a Nobel Prize in Economics? Would you be a better investor? Believe it or not…with the amount of news disseminated in today’s hyper-information and “data dumping” world…you likely already have all it takes to be a more disciplined and well schooled investor.

This past Monday (10/14/2013) the winners of the prestigious Nobel Prize for Economics where announced.  All three winners were American, which marks a trend as at least one American has won the award since 1999.  The winners: Eugene Fama, Lars Peter Hansen and Robert Shiller were recognized for their outstanding research and work in the financial markets.  While their work does not perfectly align there are several similarities and the bottom line is that you can never trust Mr. Market!

 Summary Of The Winners:

  • Eugene Fama’s research has revealed the efficiency of financial markets. If you’re a financial advisor who makes a living pitching expensive mutual funds or annuity products at clients you won’t likely have a framed portrait of Dr. Fama in your plush office.  Fama basically states that the market absorbs information so quickly that investors simply can’t outperform it consistently.  He is credited for popularizing the use of index funds as an investment option.
  • Lars Peter Hansen works strictly with data (econometrics), creating statistical models in an effort to test competing theories.  His work has allowed researchers to focus on what truly drives the financial markets. Of the three winners Hansen is the least known and popular but he ironically helps connect the other two winners’ work into something investors need to be aware of; you simply need to derive conclusions from what you do AND do not know.
  • Robert Shiller is best known for creating the Case-Shiller Home Price Index Study and now perhaps for the fact that he is married to Janet Yellen, the next Federal Reserve Chairman.  We’re huge fans of behavioral finance so the next time you hear someone talk about a “bubble” you will know who originally broke ground on the concept. His research has shown that investors are irrational and that markets develop bubbles that will eventually burst (he predicted both the Tech and Real Estate Bubbles). Continue reading

Sorry Mutual Fund: You’re Fired!

always done it that wayDear Mr. Market:

It has been said that eight of the most expensive words in the business world are: “Because we have always done it that way!”  How often have we heard these words in our personal or professional life?  Where would we be as a country if we embraced this phrase?  Isn’t it safe to say life as we know it would not be the same if generations before us didn’t challenge the norm and truly “think outside the box”?

For decades Wall Street has fought change and attempted to maintain a shroud of secrecy with investors.  Mr. Market has become very skilled at pushing aside information and research that questions the norm and in many cases proves him completely wrong.  In this article we will look at some facts and figures that simply can’t be argued with or twisted into something that they are not.  If you are an investor who owns any mutual funds you need to read this! Continue reading

Looking Under the Hood of your Company Retirement Plan

Dear Mr. Market:

401k under the hoodIf you ask any hard working American what their goal is the answer will usually have some something to do with retirement.  While this common goal should be attainable through focus and discipline the market has certainly thrown its fair share of setbacks at investors.  For most Americans their home is their largest asset and second is their retirement plan (401(k), 403(b), Simple IRA, SEP IRA, etc).  You have a limited amount of control on the value of your home but how can you manage and monitor your retirement plan to help make your retirement goals a reality?  In this article we will take a step back to the basics and look at factors that will have a profound impact on the performance of your retirement accounts and what you can do to control them.

Last fall legislation was passed requiring 401(k) providers to completely disclose their entire fee structure to participants. Investors will now be able to see what fees are associated with the various funds in the plan and what they are paying to participate in their employers retirement plan. According to CNN Money, a working couple will see nearly a third of their investment reduced by these fees over their careers– that amounts to nearly $155,000!! Schwab reported that nearly 30% of investors had absolutely no idea that they paid any fees for their retirement plan. Continue reading

Are you really looking for horrible investment advice?

Dear Mr. Market,

How great would it be to have a job where you could constantly deliver results short of expectations and never have to worry about being fired?  What if you could always simply blame your lack of performance on random external forces or global events?  Imagine if you had a yearly performance review that went something like this…

 “You missed your target goals by 28% and were wrong more often than you were right!  Nice work, we are going to give you a bonus and a 10% raise!”

pay performance

 This doesn’t happen in the real world…or does it?!  The financial services industry has become notorious for overpaying executives even when the company itself is struggling to survive or is even on the verge of declaring bankruptcy.  For example, Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers was one of the 25 best-paid CEO’s for eight years straight – right up until his firm collapsed in 2008.  It has been called ‘”the largest bankruptcy in history”;  it triggered a chain reaction that produced the worst financial crisis and economic downturn in 70 years!  What about professionals in the financial industry that consistently underperform but are not at risk of losing their jobs? Continue reading

Where to find a top advisor?!

Top advisor - magnifying glassSo…if you’re looking for the best financial advisor there is do you simply run a quick search on Google? Would it look something like ” best financial advisor in Denver” or “best financial advisor in Orange County”?  Would you rely on a list that ranks the best financial advisors?

In nearly every aspect of our lives we rank products or services and take pride if we are associated with or use that brand.  How often have you heard that a product has a “Gold Star Rating” or is recommended by ‘Consumer Reports’?  It should be no surprise that the same applies when it comes to the Financial Services industry.  Investors want to work with the best and often rely on rankings issued by various publications and websites for this information.

The key difference is that there are many more variables that need to be taken into consideration when looking at the financial industry and ranking firms or individuals.  In this article we will take a look at a list that is published annually and is highly respected – ‘Barron’s Top 1,000 Advisors List’.  Through our discussion it will become clear why ranking financial professionals is not as easy as ranking cars or laundry detergent and the results need to be looked at closely. Continue reading