Category: financial guidance

Are you taking more risk than you should?


 
We often take risks without knowing it.  There are some risks that are well known; things like texting while driving or not fastening your seat belt.  But there are other risks that are less well publicized and that can hurt you.
As financial professionals we often meet people who are not aware of the financial risks they are taking.  While there are countless books written about investing, most people don’t bother studying the subject.  As a result, they get their information from articles in the press, advertising, or chatting with their friends.
Many people have told us they are “conservative” investors and then show us investments that have sky-high risks.  This is because investment risks are either hiding in the fine print or not provided at all.  No one tells you how much risk you are taking when you buy a stock, even of a major company like General Electric.  GE is a huge, diversified global company, yet lost 90% of its value between 2000 and 2009.  Norfolk Southern is another popular stock in this area.  Do you know its “risk number?”   You may be surprised.
We have analytical tools that can accurately quantify your risk tolerance and give you your personal “Risk Number.”  We can then measure the risk you are taking with your investments.  They should be similar.  If not, you may find yourself unpleasantly surprised if the investment you thought was “safe” loses its value because you took too much risk.
We have no objection to daredevils who know the risk they are taking by jumping over the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle.  But we would caution the weekend cyclist not to try the same thing.  Contact us to find your personal “Risk Number” and then determine how much risk there is in your portfolio.
 
 
 

Why Your Home is a Poor Investment

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A couple we know moved to a new house recently.  They sold their old for a little more than twice the price they originally paid.  Doubling your money sounds like a great deal, right?

Not so fast.

To determine if the house was a good investment we need to make some calculations.  They originally bought their old home about 33 years ago.  That means that the return on their investment was just 2.4% per year.  To put it in perspective, 33 years ago CD rates were around 10%.  Viewed strictly from an investment perspective, they could have made a better return on their money if they had bought a CD.  And that’s to say nothing of maintenance and upkeep, costs not associated with CDs.

On the other hand, you can’t live in a CD.

How about investing that money in the stock market?  Over that same period the S&P 500 grew 8.5% annually.  That means that every $100 invested in the market 33 years ago would have grown to $1476!

The reason that so many people think that their home is their best investment is that they don’t sell their home very often.  As a result, they look at what they paid and what they sold it for.  If they held it for many years, it usually looks like a big number, and it is. But when viewed strictly as an investment, the annual growth rate is small compared to the alternatives.

As we alluded to earlier, home ownership also involves many other expenses.  There are property taxes and insurance.  Homeowners know that repairs and maintenance are expensive and never ending.  After all of the expenses are taken into account, the real return on home ownership may be even less that our earlier calculation.

But a home is much more than an investment.  It’s a place to live, a place to raise a family, a place to call your own.  A home is a refuge from the rest of the world.  The alternative is renting, wherein you often have more flexibility and are not on the hook for all of the repairs and maintenance.  But it also means that your monthly payment to your landlord is not going into equity that home ownership provides.

We are homeowners and advocates of home ownership.  The point of evaluating the true value of the home as an investment is to bring reality to the financial aspects of home ownership. It’s also a warning against investing too much of our resources in the family home, making many people “home poor.”

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.

The Biggest Myth About Index Investing

John Bogle has done a great job of “selling” index investing.  He started the Vanguard group with the promise that you could invest in the stock market “on the cheap.”  It’s the thing that made the Vanguard group the second biggest fund family in the country.

Selling things based on price is always popular with the public.  It’s the key to the success of Wal Mart,  Amazon, and a lot of “Big Box” stores.

But Bogle based his sales pitch not just on price, but also the promise that if you bought his funds you would do better than if you bought his competition.  He cites statistics to show that the average mutual fund has under-performed the index, so why not buy the index?

The resulting popularity of index investing has had one big, unfortunate side-effect.  It has created the myth that they are safe.

A government employee planning to retire in the near future asked this question in a forum:

“I plan to rollover my 457 deferred compensation plan into Vanguard index funds upon retirement in a few months. I currently have 50% in Vanguard Small Cap Index Funds and 50% in Vanguard Mid Cap Index Funds and think that these are somewhat aggressive, safe, and low cost.”

The problem with the Vanguard sales pitch is that it’s worked too well.   The financial press has given index investing so much good press that people believe things about them that are not true.

Small and Mid-cap stock index funds are aggressive and low cost, but they are by no means “safe.”  For some reason, there is a widespread misconception that investing in a stock index fund like the Vanguard 500 index fund or its siblings is low risk.  It’s not.

But unless you get a copy of the prospectus and read it carefully, you have to bypass the emphasis on low cost before you get to this warning:

“An investment in the Fund could lose money over short or even long periods. You should expect the Fund’s share price and total return to fluctuate within a wide range.”

The fact is that investing in the stock market is never “safe.”  Not when you buy a stock or when you buy stock via an index fund.  There is no guarantee if any specific return.  In fact, there is no guarantee that you will get your money back.  Over the long term, investors in the stock market have done well if they stayed the course.  But humans have emotions.  They make bad decisions because of misconceptions and buy and sell based on greed and fear.

My concern about the soon-to-be-retired government employee is that he is going to invest all of his retirement nest-egg in high-risk funds while believing that they are “safe.”  He may believe that the past 8 years can be projected into the future.  The stock market has done well since the recovery began in 2009.  We are eventually going to get a “Bear Market” and when that happens the unlucky retiree may find that has retirement account has declined as much as 50% (as the market did in 2008).  At some point he will bail out and not know when to get back in, all because he was unaware of the risk he was taking.

Many professional investors use index funds as part of a well-designed diversified portfolio.  But there should be no misconception that index investing is “safe.”  Don’t be fooled by this myth.

At what age are you too old to manage your money?

I was fascinated to read an article with the above title that was published recently.  It was accompanied by a picture of an elderly couple and their caregiver walking with canes.

The article reflects many of our own observations.  We have been managing money for people for over thirty years.  During that time we have seen the effect of age and ill health on the people we work with.

Here’s the good news:

“Most people who don’t suffer from cognitive impairment can continue managing their money in their 70s and 80s, according to a report just published by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College (CRR). But of course some older Americans, and especially financial novices who take over money management after the death of a spouse, will need help …”

Here’s the bad news:

As we get older our ability to process information slows down.  As a result, the elderly are more likely to be defrauded or abused by financial scams.  They may not open their mail regularly, have problems paying bills and fail to read and understand their financial statements and reports.

If you’ve never made investment decisions, paid the bills, balanced the family checkbook or reviewed the investment accounts you are especially vulnerable.  This if often true of older couples in which the wife managed the household and the husband managed the family finances.

As we get older, there are a few basic things that we should do to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

  1. Have a spending plan for your retirement years.
  2. Make sure that your spouse and your financial advisor knows about the plan and knows where your accounts are so that they can be monitored for fraud or abuse.
  3. At some point you or your spouse should agree to transfer your responsibility for managing your investments, and make sure that both members of a couple should know how to run the household finances.

For guidance on these issues, we suggest ordering a copy of BEFORE I GO and BEFORE I GO WORKBOOK.

Getting ready to file your taxes? Pay attention!

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As we head into tax season, many of you have received tax reports – commonly referred to as “1099s” – from your investment firm.

The IRS requires that 1099-MISC forms must be mailed by January 31st,  but issuers are not required to file copies of all 1099 Forms with the IRS until the end of February.

We frequently advise our clients to delay filing their taxes until March at the earliest.  That’s because the tax code is so complex that errors are inevitable.  As a result, investors often receive “corrected” 1099 forms after the February deadline has passed.  This may result in a change in the tax owed.  Those who use tax preparers or CPA firms may need to have their tax re-calculated, increasing the cost to the investor.

We note that Morgan Stanley has admitted to providing erroneous information to its clients.

Apparently Morgan Stanley’s reporting system sometimes generated an incorrect cost basis for its clients’ stock or bond positions, which threw off capital gains tax calculations following the sales of the securities, the paper reports. The errors affected a “significant number” of the firm’s 3.5 million wealth management clients for tax years 2011 through 2016, according to the paper. But around 90% of the under- or overpayments were less than $300 while more than half were less than $20, a Morgan Stanley spokesman tells the Journal.

It is always a good idea to check the accuracy of the statements you receive from your custodian.  There may be erroneous or missing information.  In many cases where securities were purchased years ago, the custodian does not have the cost basis of stocks or bonds that were sold.  In those cases the investor is responsible for providing that information.  If you do not provide that information, the IRS may assume that the cost basis is zero and tax you on the full amount of the proceeds of sale.

On a final note, many clients have asked us how long they need to keep records for tax purposes.  The primary IRS statute of limitations was three years. But there are many exceptions that give the IRS six years or longer. Several of those exceptions are more prevalent today, and one of them has gotten bigger.  The three years is doubled to six if you omitted more than 25% of your income. “Omitted” can mean to not report at all, or it can mean that the amount of income was under-reported by 25% or more.

If you have questions about your tax forms, or wonder where you can get assistance to determine the cost basis of securities bought or gifted long ago, give us a call.

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.

What does “diversification” mean?

To many retail investors “diversification” means owning a collection of stocks, bonds, mutual funds or Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).  But that’s really not what diversification is all about.

What’s the big deal about diversification anyhow?

Diversification means that you are spreading the risk of loss by putting your investment assets in several different categories of investments.  Examples include stocks, bonds, money market instruments, commodities, and real estate.  Within each of these categories you can slice even finer.  For example, stocks can be classified as large cap (big companies), mid cap (medium sized companies), small cap (smaller companies), domestic (U.S. companies), and foreign (non-U.S. companies).

And within each of these categories you can look for industry diversification.  Many people lost their savings in 2000 when the “Tech Bubble” burst because they owned too many technology-oriented stocks.  Others lost big when the real estate market crashed in late 2007 because they focused too much of their portfolio in bank stocks.

The idea behind owning a variety of asset classes is that different asset classes will go in different directions independent of each other.  Theoretically, if one goes down, another may go up or hold it’s value.  There is a term for this: “correlation.”  Investment assets that have a high correlation tend to move in the same direction, those with a low correlation do not.  These assumptions do not always hold true, but they are true often enough that proper diversification is a valuable tool to control risk.

Many investors believe that if they own a number of different mutual funds they are diversified.  They are, of course, more diversified than someone who owns only a single stock.  But many funds own the same stocks.  We have to look within the fund, to the things they own, and their investment styles, to find out if your funds are merely duplicates of each other or if you are properly diversified.

You need to look at a “portfolio x-ray” which will show you how much overlap there is between two or more mutual funds.

Only by looking at your portfolio with this view of diversification can you determine if you are diversified or if you have accidentally concentrated your portfolio without realizing it.

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.

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 .

 

©  Korving & Company, LLC