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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. 


Be aware....be very aware.

A recent survey conducted by Rebalance IRA found that 46% of Baby Boomers don't understand that they're paying fees on the investments in their 401k account. 

When you dig a bit deeper into the numbers, those that do not understand that they're paying something for their investment accounts are a bit scary.  Only 4% of the respondents believe that they're paying more than 2%.  

If we're talking about your typical 401k, largely invested in actively managed mutual fund offerings the 4% who believe that they're paying more than 2% are off by about another 2% when you take manager expense ratios and undisclosed trading costs into account. 

For the record, these costs along with restrictions on what investments you can own (your investment offerings are generally dictated by the plan) are the main reasons why a rollover of your retirement plan when you leave work is an optimal idea. 

The survey goes on to say that the average fees were about 1.5% (that doesn't include undisclosed trading costs which are generally about equal to a funds expense ratio), among smaller plans, the average is 2.5% or has high as 3.86%.  

And what about performance? The typical respondent believes that his/her account went up in value by about 5.2%, yet target benchmark indices were up about 9.5% meaning that the average respondent underperformed the market by over 4%. I'm sure that the fees that were paid had something to do with the material underperformance of their investments.  And yet, as is often typical, the average respondent said that they were happy with their under performing by about 100%. My sense here is that most Boomers relate returns to bank interest rates and 5.2% certainly sounds good when you compare it to what you earned on a savings account. 

The additional feedback from respondents centered on savings rates and other factors. Rebalance IRA found that 28% of respondents aren't actually saving for retirement and 66% said that they are either very anxious or somewhat anxious about their readiness to retire.

Bottom line, most people make (and have continued to make) fundamentally flawed investment and retirement decisions. 

Thankfully, the Client's of my firm are NOT among them.

The Tax Man Cometh and Your Investment Returns Goeth...away?

Clearly, 2013 was a great year in the market. But just like Halloween, your 2014 return is coming around to haunt you. 

Last weeks dip in the market prompted many mutual funds to sell of considerable gains that they had carried forward from 2013. Both stock and bond mutual fund managers were sitting pretty, with built up gains that they had yet to get out of, poised but waiting for the right moment. And, sure enough for many, last weeks dip in the market was the exit point. 

Mutual funds must distribute their realized gains to shareholders. When that happens, the shareholders must then pick up those capital gains on their tax returns. The cost of paying those taxes should be considered a direct reduction in your return because they are in fact a direct expense of owning your mutual fund investment. 

A recent Reuters article goes on to say that stock mutual fund investors could be hit worst of all. Morningstar Analyst Russel Kinnel estimates that stock funds could be sitting on gains of around 20% and could end up paying the majority of that out as gains to shareholders. 

Coupled with ongoing expense ratios for mutual funds in the range of about 1.4% per year and adding in undisclosed trading costs of what amounts to another 1% or so, the typical investor who owns an actively managed mutual fund is paying somewhere around 2.4% of their portfolio value every year in expenses, and that's before you factor in taxes and commissions. No wonder American's are having such a hard time building a nest egg for retirement or any other goal. 

This coming April might be especially daunting for investors.  Many people had carry-over losses from the last market downturn and had been able to offset gains for a few years with those losses, but for many, the pool of available offsets has run out. 

The Rise of ETF's and Indexing

More and more investors are realizing that investing is a zero-sum game. There's only so much money to go around.  One mutual fund managers 10% gain has to be by definition another mutual fund managers 10% loss. While fund managers struggle to out perform a passive benchmark (the S&P 500 would be one example of a passive benchmark) they all seem to have forgotten that their desire to "beat the market" is inexorably complicated by the fact that by and large, they are the market. 

Indexing and the use of Exchange Traded Funds (ETF's) can minimize many of the costs that an investor faces. Not only is there no "management" team who have to have salaries paid, space rented, research conducted and distribution costs paid, but indexing by definition will largely eliminate the costs of any active trading in the portfolio as well. That could amount to a reduction in expenses to the end Client of as much as 2/3 over an "active" strategy. 

And there's a potentially more important payoff; the possibility of higher and more consistent performance. 

No one can guarantee or assure performance improvements, we all know that. But a recent study by Dimensional Fund Advisors shows the following factors as it relates to "active" vs. "passive" investing; 

  • LARGE CAP CORE- active fails to outperform passive roughly 95% of the time
  • MID CAP CORE- active fails to outperform passive roughly 94% of the time

(Note: the best performing active option is in Small Company Value with a 54% in Small Company Value as noted below.)

And even where active stands a fighting chance in asset classes such as Small Company Equity, active still fails to beat a passive bet 68% of the time in Small Company Core, 77% of the time in Small Company Growth and 54% of the time in Small Company Value. 

The track record on bond funds in the "active" vs. "passive" debate is even worse, where Municipal Bond Funds  (failing 98% of the time), Intermediate Municipal Bond Funds (failing 100% of the time), Short Term Municipal Funds (failing 96% of the time), High Yield Bond Funds (failing 97% of the time) and TIPS (failing 100% of the time) make an active management decision a benefit to the sales person and the fund company but clearly not the investor. 

For the record, no one can tell you what active funds will [a] beat a passive strategy, [b] that beating a passive strategy in one period provides any assurance that the same manager will beat it in the next or [c] that beating a passive option one out of five out of ten years will accumulate more money than the passive option since that would be dependent on what the actual returns were period by period. 

If you've chosen an active management bent to your investment program, the research is pretty clear, it'll be expensive in terms of costs, expensive in terms of returns and expensive from a tax standpoint. 

But how much difference does it really make?

On a $500,000 portfolio over a twenty year period a 2% difference in returns is the difference between $1,603,567 and $2,330,478 or roughly $700,000. 

Want to make progress toward retirement, college funding, buying a vacation home or just simply living out your life in reasonable comfort?  I'll bet $700,000 in additional wealth will help with no additional out of pocket cost!

Last year, PBS Frontline reviewed for everyone the negative impact of active management costs AND THAT WAS IN RETIREMENT ACCOUNTS.  That's important because of course, the implications for taxes aren't considered in retirement accounts. Taxes would be an additional costs on top of the expenses and any commissions paid.  I'd urge you to watch this series which is still available on the Frontline website. (Note: If you click on the graphic above it'll take you there.)

At Barry Capital we realized a long time ago that active management was, in our opinion, a fools game.  It's a story, artfully told about how, with time, talent and tenacity (and a whole lot of your money) a dedicate individual or group of individuals is going to show you how to beat the market. 

One small problem.....there's no chance that it will happen with enough frequency to make anyone any more money. Unless you're the fund company that is.