Is Financial Engines right for you?

financial enginesDear Mr. Market:

If you were asked to list two or three of the largest Registered Investment Advisory (RIA) firms in the country which ones would come to mind first? You’d definitely hear many of the names associated with Wall Street and the investment industry. Names like: Merrill Lynch, Charles Schwab, Fidelity and Wells Fargo – while these are certainly large firms none of them are RIA’s. We’ve written on several occasions what an RIA is and how they are driven by their fiduciary responsibility to their clients. A simple online search of RIA’s will show that the largest firm is nearly 40% larger than any its closest competitor. It specializes in assisting individuals in managing their company retirement accounts and has become a behemoth in the investment industry. Financial Engines, Inc. has risen out of relative obscurity and is quickly becoming a household name.

Financial Engines is based out of Sunnyvale, CA, is publicly traded under the ticker symbol FNGN, and currently manages over $90 billion in assets! To put this in perspective the second largest RIA firm is Fisher Investments with assets under management of just over $50 billion. Fisher Investments is a marketing machine and if you have a portfolio over $500,000 in value, you’ve most likely received one of their post card mailings or solicitation emails.

Financial Engines, on the other hand, is a relatively young company and is the creation of some of the brightest minds in the industry that made their mark in the late 1990’s. The founders of the firm are Nobel Prize winning economist William Sharpe, Stanford Law Professor Joseph Grundfest, Attorney Craig Johnson and Jeff Maggioncalda. While the firm went through some minor growing pains, they have certainly found their target market – working with individuals and managing the investments in their company retirement plans. Continue reading

Top Tax Tips for 2014

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Dear Mr. Market:

Your whole world is about investing and the stock market. Stick to what you’re good at and leave things like repairing your car, fixing that leaky faucet, or doing your taxes to someone else-

(1) Don’t take investment advice from a CPA and vice versa.

Notice how we practice what we preach. Our first “tax tip” will be to let you know that for specific tax advice you should NOT go to your investment advisor. We’re not CPA’s and even though we understand a great deal about taxation (specifically with regard to investments) our job is to manage investments, not tax codes.

Why is it then that we see so many accountants, tax preparers, CPA’s, and even “enrolled agents” dole out investment advice around this time of year? Investors naturally gravitate to the professional that sees the majority of their financial house and by default it’s typically a CPA. We’re not bashing CPA’s but allow us to be crystal clear on this point: A CPA has no formal training nor better understanding of investments or the portfolio strategy you or your financial advisor has put together.

Look to Tip #2 on what your CPA should know about your investment situation:

(2) If the introduction hasn’t been made yet…Make it happen!

In the case of investments and taxes one old adage couldn’t be more true: ”The right hand should always know what the left hand is doing.”

If your investment advisor has not met or interacted with your CPA an introduction needs to be made. They don’t have to become best friends but your overall financial situation will be enhanced when key professionals that help you know each other.

(3) What type of tax professional do you need?

Do you simply need 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