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retirement

Five "Get Ready" Rules for Retirement

There continues to be no lack of pressure on American's to get to work on building a prosperous retirement. 

Study after study, article after article, report after report continues to show what most advisors already know, American's are woefully unprepared for retirement. 

There are a lot of reasons that this is the case, lack of savings and investment, poor estimates of what post retirement spending will actually be like and the paralysis of just not being able to get started on "planning" for your golden years in any meaningful way. 

"Numbers scare me. I'm not alone in this. Scientists who study math anxiety say that the anticipation of crunching numbers can lead to the kind of agitation that, on a brain scan, looks a lot like the perception of physical pain." So said John Schwartz in his March 2015 blog post titled "Retirement Reality is Catching Up With Me" which ran on the 11th of that month in the New York Times. 

And, there are a lot of numbers to be crunched to get it right. If that weren't bad enough, the numbers need to be crunched on pretty much a regular basis, year-over-year.  We have family and life issues that change the pattern of spending and it's timing, we have market issues that impact the value of assets as well as their ability to provide either an income source to supplement us or a pool of funds we can draw on when needed to adjust to changing circumstances. 

Many an investor has been duped by the notion that "making 8%" on their portfolio means that they'll make 8% every year. Little do most pre and post retirees know that "averaging" 8% can be woefully different than earning 8%.  I mean, if the top half of your body is put in a freezer and the bottom half in an oven, we can surely figure out what the temperature of each could be to get you to your ideal 98.6 average temperature. But I'll bet you're going to be pretty uncomfortable no matter how that plays out. Averages and how we actually arrive at them can be at mathematically daunting to say the least. 

Investing for income, another notion that on it's face seems to work, inadvertently becomes an "income straight jacket" as investors allocate assets towards dividend paying stocks and long-term bonds. That's good for generating income, right?  Well, it might be, for at least a period of time. Once the Fed starts raising rates and inflationary pressures kick in we have a problem. Our dividend and interest payments from our investments are more or less locked in so now our "income" isn't keeping pace with inflation and the gap between "what we get" and "what we need" is ever increasing. In addition, both dividend paying stocks and longer term bonds are susceptible to interest rate swings, driving down the value of most investors holdings. Hamstrung, they won't sell because of depressed prices to improve their overall "income" return and they can't live any longer only on what's coming in. 

Is it any wonder that nationally the Pension Rights Center motes that the nation, as a whole, is almost $8 Trillion short in funding retirement. An increase of $2 Trillion from just five years earlier.

So what to do? Here's five things that should hold you in good stead as you move toward and through your retirement time;

  • Your magic number isn't about what you accumulate. It's about what you plan on spending during retirement. Five million dollars in banks, brokerage and retirement accounts isn't enough money if you plan on spending six million 
  • Build a long-term investment strategy and stick with it. As a sage market observer once said, "If they ain't ringing a bell to tell you when to get out of the market, I can assure you that they ain't ringing one to tell you when to get back in."  Market timing is akin to pipe dreams and tooth fairies, it'd be wonderful if it worked, but it doesn't, it won't and it never has
  • Don't forget randomness. The likelihood that a series of investment returns won't deviate from it's expected return is ZERO.  Any plan, no matter how well thought out, no matter who the provider of it is that portends that the way you average 8% is by earning 8% every year has a probability of success equal to ZERO
  • Follow the money. In 2015 everyone's asking, where to put their money when things are most uncertain. If you can't make money on cash (which you can't) and you can't make money on intermediate term bonds (bonds with maturity/duration periods of 3-7 years) then the only result is....it goes back into the market. In 1986 you may have been able to get 9% on government bonds or; ride the market tumult out.  Government bonds at 9% were a good alternative in 1986. The paucity of a 0.15% return on cash isn't an option for you, nor is it for any investment banker, mutual fund manager, endowment or any other living creature who might derive their compensation in whole or in part on making market type returns
  • Get your head out of the sand.  Unless immediate death is your post retirement plan, get comfortable with the fact that as medical technology improves so does your chance of living longer. I know you think that you can pull this one out of the fire at the last minute, but you can't. Taking more investment risk, working longer, downsizing etc. all seem like real options but there's two little problems there, which are [1] sometimes you can't and [2] they all begin from the premise that retirement will then be "based on a lifestyle less bountiful than you had envisioned and less hopeful than you'd planned for."  Those aren't good things. Plan ahead, well ahead for this goal. 

Best that you start actually thinking this one through. I know that finding out that there's a problem isn't a comfortable reality for anyone, but finding out early leaves time to adjust, plan, and rethink things a bit. Finding out too late, leads to chaos, bad decisions, and the severe likelihood that all you'll do at that point is compound your problem. 

Confront the issue, understand the pitfalls and gaps, develop or buy the expertise to deal with them and remember, retirement is suppose to be at least as good a time as your working years were, if not better. 

But that isn't going to happen by chance. You have to make it so. 



Three Reasons To Stop Benchmarking Your Investments

Arbitrary, unrelated and irrelevant.....there they are three reasons. Now let's take a closer look at the rest of the story. 

Benchmarking

Comparing your investment portfolio performance to something has been around a long time. 

Many people use an index as a benchmark, comparing their portfolio to let's say the S&P 500 Index or the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  Those are ok choices, but they're more or less meaningless in the real world. You might as well be comparing your portfolio to the performance of your colleague in accounting. 

  • Arbitrary- any benchmark you pick is of your own choosing, there's no real way to tell which benchmark is better for you than any other. What about the EAFE Index, or the Russell 2000 Value or Russell 1000 Growth Index, why not them? (Other than the fact that those are a bit harder to get data on, but that doesn't mean that they might not be better does it? Gold is harder to find than wood and that's worth more right?)
  • Unrelated- depending on your holdings, the benchmark you pick might be totally unrelated, especially if you don't have any real idea of what it is that you own, beyond a Morningstar or Lipper style designator. What about style attribution, doesn't that matter? If you own a derivative laden large company growth fund, guess what, it's not a large company growth fund is it, if the fund's leveraged to the moon, it's more like a micro-cap fund than a large company growth fund, albeit that the fund company would prefer you continue to think about them as "large company growth" especially when they out-perform their peers by 8%! (Oh, did I mention that that 8% out-performance comes at 200% of the risk?)
  • Irrelevant- ahhhh, saving the best for last. The benchmark that matters most to you is the one that is "all" about you. How much do you need to earn on average so that the net present value of your [a] future income streams such as your pension, social security, annuity payments, etc., plus the net present value of your investment assets and cash, exceeds by some meaningful amount to you, the net present value of all your future spending?  That's the number that matters most, because that's the number that gets you to the finish line.  

If your goal is your future then your benchmark should be your benchmark. Not mine, not The Wall Street Journal's and certainly not Harry's in accounting.

benchmark

If, in the future, you're forced to stop going on vacations, or trading down out of your house or not being able to throw the kids a couple thousand a year for the extras that they need but can't afford, it won't matter much that you outperformed the S&P 500 will it?

No, it won't because it wasn't your performance that let you down, it'll be the fact that you didn't invest enough....something that comparing your portfolio to a benchmark other than your own can't possibly tell you can it?

If they're your goals, and it's your life, make that your benchmark. 

 

Rules For A Sound Retirement Reality

EBRI (Employee Benefit Research Institute) just released it's 2015 study of the longest running national survey of retirement confidence on Tuesday. And, there's good news....well, sort of. 

The 25th annual Retirement Confidence Survey said that 37% of workers are "very confident" about the ability to live a retirement on their own terms that's double the amount from 2013 and another 36% were "somewhat confident." Terrific. 

Reality is however that little has changed in the way of underlying data to conclude that those dramatic rises in confidence are based on anything other than "hoping it to be true." 

The data shows that 57% of workers have an aggregate value of less than $25,000 in savings and investment. That's frighteningly low.

So, how do we get to the dramatic rise in optimism? Well, frankly, it's a mere extrapolation of of data and you can pretty much pick the data you'd like to delude yourself into believing. If the price of homes in your neighborhood has shot up recently, simple, just assume that that meteoric rise continues. Even though it won't. 

Stock market up 32%? Let's assume that'll continue, even though it can't. 

Unfortunately, there's no substitute for answers. 

We can fool ourselves all we want, but in the final analysis, the joke's going to be on us. 

I asked a potential Client the other day; "If I have $5,000,000, do I have enough money to retire on?"  The answer was an enthusiastic, "absolutely!"

I followed it with the following: "If I have $5,000,000 and plan on spending $6,000,000 do I have enough to retire on?" The answer was, as you'd expect, of course not. 

So it isn't about what you have. It never has been. The commercials about your "magic number" were at least partially accurate...there IS A NUMBER and IT ISN'T MAGIC. 

In the parlance of wealth management, the question is, this.......

"Does the net present value of all your projected future spending and taxes result in a number that is greater than or less than, the projected future value of your assets and income, adjusted for inflation and predicated on the fact in whole or in part that the returns on your assets will be random?"

Complicated question. One which I can assure you with almost precision like certainty, only a handful of people "know" the answer to. 

Of this we can be sure; 

  • having "things" like a 401k and an IRA are nice, they're retirement assets but they don't assure you of anything
  • having more than the $25,000 than the typical EBRI survey respondent is also nice, but that doesn't assure you of anything other than your retirement will likely be better than theirs and yet fall way short of your ideal
  • having a lot more than the typical EBRI respondent assures you of nothing, other than you'll have a retirement better than them and the guy or gal next to them and the one, after that and the one after that. 

But if you're all still falling short, who's the winner. 

Quick recommendation here....get the math done. Not some math, not sorta math, your math. 

It's your retirement, you own the outcome.

"Survey says..........."




Hidden Taxes Still Cost Money

A recent article from Russell Investment only confirms what some of us already know; 

"Your mutual funds taxes are impeding your progress"

The article is a good one and kudos to Russell Investments on writing it. It confirms for us however, factors we've known for a long time. Your investments are incredibly expensive and those costs make the chances of your meeting your long term investment goals or any financial goal for that matter, daunting at best. 

If the math is correct in the article (we have a lot of faith in the Russell organization, so let's assume it is ok?) a taxable capital gain of nearly $8,969 is bad enough, but with having 15% of that being a short term distribution, the tax impact is considerable. 

Look we're not saying that all or even a majority of your investment decisions should be driven by tax factors, but if they aren't driven by them, clearly they should at least be a consideration in the grand scheme of things shouldn't they? We think that they should especially when they can be avoided without too much effort. 

As we've written before, how may layers of costs can the mutual fund industry heap on investors before they wake up and stop the insanity? 

If we have expense ratios (the cost of operating the fund) of about 1.3% to 1.5% of assets (Source: Investopedia) and if the Wall Street Journal was right a few years back that "undisclosed trading costs to mutual fund investors was annually about equal to the funds expense ratio, then we've got just the cost before commissions or fees of owning the damn things at about 2.6% to 3.0% per year.

Add to that, either commissions or advisor fees and you've got costs of about 3.0% to 4.0% per year. Now let's factor in taxes because if we take the hypothetical investor from the Investopedia article, taxes in his case were ANOTHER 2.4% getting the total costs to about 5.4% to 6.4%. 

Ever wonder why actively managed mutual funds can't beat an index fund or passive ETF with any consistency? If you did, just go back and re-read the last paragraph again. 

So, let's take and example for a minute. Let's say we're trying to pay for a child's college education in ten years. Here's what we can reasonably count on for our math.

1. The average cost of a college education will come in at roughly 2x the inflation rate. For the sake of this post, let's consider the inflation rate to be 3.1%. That means that the average college tuition will increase year-over-year by about 6.2% so we have at least earn that

2. We then have to earn enough to cover the expense ratio, another let's say 1.3%, so now our investment has to earn 7.5% just to keep pace

3. Then we have to cover the trading costs of another 1.3% so our "required earnings" are not up to 8.8% and then; 

We have to earn enough to cover any tax bill and any fees or commissions. 

If you believe that's going to happen I've got an actively managed mutual fund I can sell you. (That bridge reference just wasn't appropriate here, even though based on recent infrastructure analysis "it" has about as much of a chance as falling down on the job as your actively managed mutual fund will.) 

If you're saving for college and you can clear that probably about 9% a year hurdle, you're on your way to making some real money.....just one problem.  If you make 11% you're not keeping much of any of it now are you? 

Nuveen investments some 20 years ago used to run an add campaign that said, "it's not what you earn, it's what you keep." 

I wish I'd have though of it, because it may be the only thing about investing that still rings true today. 

I know what your saying, that since Barry Capital doesn't use active management (we'd prefer that you keep them money that otherwise gets wasted) we've got a bias. Well, you'd be right on both counts, we don't use active management and we have a bias. Our bias just happens to be spreading around the world.  If you've got 81 mintues to spare you can check it out here. 

 

As I wrap this up, I just took a look at the four largest portfolios that we manage in each of our core investment strategies.  The grand total on this years (2014) capital gain distributions were: $0. (Unless we rebalanced your portfolio at some point and realized a gain as a result of that effort, an effort we can assure you at some point you'll be glad we undertook on your behalf.)

If you can't change your investment program, you'll have a tough time. If you can change it please do so for your own benefit. 

We'd be happy to help. 


Living longer...Working longer.

The average age at which an American worker retires is now reported to be 62 and that's the highest self-reported average age in 23 years.  

A recent Gallup study showed that in 1993 the average age was 57 and even as recently as 2010-2012 the age hovered at around 60.

But for many, even age 62 may be too early.  No doubt that the average age has creeped up, with the lack of a reliable program of saving/investment during their lives, and/or the Great Recession "mark-down," it's not hard to understand the "need" to work longer. 

And, there are for sure, workers who are working because they love their work or they feel more fully alive and involved when they are pursuing their passion so they've chosen to continue at their life's work. And, I think,  we can be relatively certain that the extra money doesn't hurt either. Also, I'd bet that as the percentage of total jobs moves more towards "technology" and less toward, manual labor, we wouldn't be surprised to see the age creep even more in the future, just as a natural outgrowth of the societal impact on work itself. 

Ironically, about the same time as the Gallup organization was asking about retirement ages, they were also asking the American public what their biggest financial fear was and as you might image, not having enough for retirement came in at the top of the its at 59%. The harmony between "working longer" and "not having enough for retirement" is almost scary, but, this too is not to be unexpected. 

So what's the answer?

I think in the last few years I've written more than a few blogs about changes that need to take place in the workplace, whether that's that we provide new incentives for increasing investments in saving for retirement, develop a newer/better retirement plan system or some other improvements (if you're old enough you can remember when your pension might have been 66% of your highest three years average earnings).

Surely we can do a much better job on financial education, an area where we do very little in relation to what we could potentially do. Teaching people how to handle and manage money is a skill that pays benefits for a lifetime. And middle school, yes, middle school, is a good place to start. 

I think that actually planning for your future also pays substantive dividends (no pun intended) and if possible or preferred, people should commit to working with someone who can help them understand the financial structure of working toward, to and through retirement. 

What passes my understanding is how frequently we seem to refer to the retirement problem as if there's no existing means to remedy it. Odd isn't it that when we talk about childhood obesity or obesity in general we can pretty quickly come up with "diet and exercise" as steps that should be undertaken to stem the tide on weight gain. 

Likewise, shouldn't the first thing that comes to mind when we're talking about providing for our own financial security be something like, "set your goals, have a plan..?"  

So, what's the problem?

Over the thirty years that I've been in the financial services profession, there's been the often used saying that "more people plan their vacation, than plan their finances" and from what I've seen that is a true statement. 

But the key to all this may lie in the fact that we CAN plan our vacation and if we CAN plan that, then we've got the appreciation/understanding/ability TO plan anything else.  So whey don't we?

There a a host of rationale and irrational reasons we don't and a series of blogs could be written explaining, validating or invalidating almost all of them in some way. 

In the interest of brevity, let's conclude on this thought. 

"If you don't know where you're currently situated on a map, you have little idea in which direction your next step should be."

Figuring out where you are doesn't take planning it takes quantification. Figuring out where to take the next step means you've been moved to action, an often unintended benefit of the "quantification" process. This is the nexus at which we cross from "quantify" to "plan." 

Even if you're not a planner, take the first small step and "quantify."  

Knowing where you're situated is seldom ever a bad thing, trust me on this one.


Avoiding The Low Interest Rate Trap

For many pre-retirees and "in place" retirees, this extended period of low interest rates presents a financial conundrum; how to keep pace with rising costs, when your income specifically can't?

Feeble returns on safe investments such as bank deposits and bonds may hinder retirement income models for another decade according to a recent interview with Bill Gross, manager of the world's biggest bond fund. Currently the average yield on a five-year CD is about 0.8% compared with 2.26% back in 2009. 

But, for the record, the problem here lies not so much in the environment of low rates, as it does in the misguided approach that most American's take to retirement. 

It's long been said, that inflation, especially when it's lowest is at it's most insidious levels. With an average inflation rate of around 3%, retirees hardly notice year by year the rate at which their prices are rising.  When rates are low, inflation spends much less time as a topic addressed by the mainstream media, and the less that investors/retirees hear about it, the less that they factor it into their thinking in planning for their future. 

It's All In How You Look At It

America suffers from many ills as it relates to retirement. Many of those are self inflicted like the problem that low yields portend for keeping pace or actually enjoying retirement. But, many of those exact problems are caused by the perception of retirement. 

Striving to reach an artificial finish line such as "your retirement date" or turning 65 or collecting your first Social Security check, clouds our thinking.  Many retirees have a life expectancy much longer than they think that they do.  Given that, it might be best of we reframe the problem: 

"The finish line is your date of death, not your date of retirement.

I'd bet if we looked at the problem that way, we'd understand better that keeping pace with inflation and not relying on "fixed income" in a world of nothing but variables, probably isn't a wise path to take. 

The "income straight jacket" is especially concerning. 

The income straight jacket exists because too many American's believe that when they retire their time horizon for investing has now ended, they've made it, they got to the finish line. So, it would appear to be time to employ a different strategy.  Instead of investing for growth, the default becomes to position the portfolio to replace the very thing that they had when they were successfully making it (i.e., when they were working) namely income. 

Portfolios replete with high dividend paying stocks and fixed income abound. But there's a problem lurking in the shadows; when interest rates rise and the underlying value of their entire portfolio starts to drop, the decisions that need to be made become more problematic. 

Not only can't their portfolio income keep up because many of those rates are locked in; but the value of everything is declining as well, making the notion to initiate some change even more daunting. Who wants to sell as prices are dropping off the cliff?

Over the last few years there's been more than a few articles on the impact of lower than average interest rates on retirement and retirement income. But I'll submit that if you used bad math and poor judgement to build your portfolio in the first place, it's not a surprise that the "market" has found a way to make your bad decisions cost you. 

The Problem With Low Rates Is Our Reliance On Them Not To Be....

In and of themselves, lower than normal interest rates should not be much of a concern. Oh sure, they deserve some attention on how things are built and managed, but lower than average rates are not the death nell that we're hearing about. 

I'd bet that there are few people who are complaining that inflation (a number typically tied to the overall level of interest rates currently in play) isn't high enough or that you're ready to step up to the plate and have your mortgage and/or home equity loan rates move up to around 7%. 

Thinking that you're going to earn 8% on fixed income or bank investments when the inflation rate is 3% is about the same as the Client who would like to earn 10% on the stock market but just not have any risk....it isn't going to happen.  At point of fact, I'm not sure that it could happen. 

A local sports radio celebrity often comments about "mediocre" sports teams who seem to playing way better than they should be.  His comment about those teams seems true here as well; 

"The reality is that if your teams got problems, real problems, it's only a matter of time until those problems become real and your run is gonna end...."

Likewise for building a portfolio. 

Or a house, or a car, boat, sports team or business.  Weaknesses have an odd way of finding weaknesses in a relatively efficient manner. 

So stop waiting for rates to go up if for no other reason than you can't make that happen and start focusing on what you can do for yourself.

Sit down with someone who knows how to construct a plan for your retirement and your portfolio based on all the relevant factors, not just the ones we'd like to see happen.