Tag: Investment strategy

The Trouble with 401(k) Plans

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The 401(k) plan is now the primary retirement plan for employees in the private sector and Ted Benna isn’t happy.  Benna is regarded as the “father” of the 401(k) plan but now he calls his child a “monster.”

There are several problems modern with 401(k) type plans.

  1. They are too complicated. The typical 401(k) plan has dozens of investment options. These are often included to satisfy government regulatory demands for broad diversification.  For the plan sponsor, who has a fiduciary responsibility, more is better.  However, for the typical worker, this just creates confusion.  He or she is not an expert in portfolio construction.  Investment choices are often made when an employee gets a new job and there are other things that are more pressing than creating the perfect portfolio.  Which leads to the second problem.
  1. Employees are given too little information. Along with a list of funds available to the employee, the primary information provided is the past performance of the funds in the plan.  However, we are constantly reminded that past performance is no guarantee of future results.  But if past performance is the main thing that the employee goes by, he or she will often invest in high-flying funds that are likely to expose them to the highest risk, setting them up for losses when the market turns.
  1. There are no in-house financial experts available to employees. Employee benefits departments are not equipped to provide guidance to their employees; that’s not their function.  In fact, they are discouraged from providing any information beyond the list of investment options and on-line links to mutual fund prospectuses.  Doing more exposes the company to liability if the employee becomes unhappy.

What’s the answer?  Until there are major revisions to 401(k) plans, it’s up to the employee to get help.  One answer is to meet with a financial advisor – an RIA – who is able and willing to accept the responsibility of providing advice and creating an appropriate portfolio using the options available in the plan.  There will probably be a fee associated with this advice, but the result should be a portfolio that reflects the employee’s financial goals and risk tolerance.

Planning to Retire Someday? Start Planning Today!

A recent survey showed that most Americans don’t want to do their own financial planning, but they don’t know where to go for help.  60% of adults say that managing their finances is a chore and many of them lack the skills or time to do a proper job.

The need for financial planning has never been greater.  For most of history, retirement was a dream that few lived long enough to achieve.  In a pre-industrial society where most families lived on farms, people relied on their family for support.  Financial planning meant having enough children so that if you were fortunate enough to reach old age and could no longer work, you could live with them.

The industrial revolution took people away from the farm and into cities.  Life expectancy increased.  In the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy at birth was about 48 years.  Government and industry began offering pensions to their employees.  Social Security, which was signed into law in 1935, was not designed to provide a full post-retirement income but to increase income for those over 65.  (Interestingly enough, the average life expectancy for someone born in 1935 was 61 years.)

For decades afterwards, retirement planning for many Americans meant getting a lifetime job with one company so that you could retire with a pension.  The responsibility to adequately fund the pension fell on the employer.  Over time, as more benefits were added, many companies incurred pension and retirement benefit obligations that became unsustainable.  General Motors went bankrupt partially because of the amount of money it owed to retired workers via pension benefits and healthcare obligations.

As a result, companies are abandoning traditional pension plans (known as “defined benefit plans”) in favor of 401(k) plans (known as “defined contribution plans.”)  This shifts the burden of post-retirement income from the employer to the worker.  Instead of knowing what your pension income will be at a certain age and after so many years with a company, now employees are responsible for saving and investing their money wisely so that they will have enough saved to adequately supplement Social Security and allow them to retire.

In years past, people who invested some of their money in stocks, bonds and mutual funds viewed this as extra savings for their retirement years.  With the end of defined benefit pension plans, investing for retirement has become much more serious.  The kind of lifestyle people will have in retirement depends entirely on how well they manage their 401(k) plans, their IRAs and their other investments.

Fortunately, the people who are beginning their careers now are recognizing that there will probably not be pensions for them when they retire.  Even public employees like teachers, municipal and state employees are going to get squeezed.  Stockton, California declared bankruptcy over it’s pension obligations.  The State of Illinois’ pension obligations are only 24% funded.  Other states are facing a similar problem.

In fact, many younger adults that we talk with question whether Social Security will even be there for them.  They also realize that they need help planning.  Traditional brokerage firms provide some guidance, but the average stock broker may not have the training, skills or tools to create an unbiased financial plan; many are only after your investment accounts or using the plan to persuade you to buy an insurance product.  Mutual fund organizations can offer some guidance, but getting personal financial guidance via an 800 number is not the kind of personal relationship that most people want.

Fortunately there is another option.  The rapidly growing independent RIA (Registered Investment Advisor) industry offers personal guidance to help people create and execute a successful financial plan that will take them from work through retirement.  Many RIAs are run by Certified Financial Planner (CFP™) professionals.  Many are fiduciaries who put their clients’ interests ahead of their own.  And many, including us, offer financial plans for a fixed fee as a stand-alone line of business, meaning that we don’t push or require you to do anything else with us except create a plan that you’re happy with.  Contact us to find out more.

Who, exactly, are these financial advisors

There’s a really great article on the CNBC website that discusses the question of what financial advisors are.  There is a lot of confusion because people use the term “financial advisor” for a group of people who are really different.  There is less confusion in the medical field because we distinguish between various kinds of doctors.  When you have a medical problem you distinguish between a pediatrician, a heart surgeon, a dentist or a psychiatrist.   They’re all doctors but people know there’s a lot of difference between them.

The same thing is true of financial advisors.  They could be a stock broker, an insurance salesman, or a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA).

Here is one important difference between brokers (technically known as Registered Representatives) who work for investment firms like Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo, UBS or other major firms and investment advisors.

Brokers can only offer you investment advice that is incidental to them buying or selling financial products, whereas investment advisors are professionals who are paid by you to give you advice — advice that is in your best interest. The latter is called a fiduciary responsibility.

Before engaging an advisor, Ask yourself these key questions:

  • Are you looking for advice on individual stocks or someone to manage a diversified portfolio for you?

  • Are you looking for a product to solve a problem or a long-term financial plan?

  • Are your assets straightforward, or will you need more coordination because of complex estate-planning issues?

  • Are you an employee of a company, or might you be dealing with potentially complex tax issues, like selling your business?

  • Are your issues acute and immediate, or will they be ongoing or recurring?

  • How much do you want to rely on the recommendations of your advisor, or do you want to be the ultimate arbiter of what’s best for you, whether to follow a recommendation or not?

  • Are you prepared to evaluate each recommendation to determine whether it’s aligned with your needs?

These questions will help you determine what kind of financial advisor you need.

Feel free to contact us to answer some of your questions.

Is your money going in the right direction?

An acquaintance recently asked me how his money should be invested.  With banks paying virtually zero on savings, it’s a question on everyone’s mind.  Should he invest in stocks or bonds? If it’s stocks, what kind: Growth, Value, Small Cap or Large Cap, U.S. or Foreign?  The same can be asked of bonds: government or corporate, high yield or AAA, taxable of tax free?  That’s a question that faces many people who have money to invest but are not sure of where.

It’s a dilemma because we can’t be sure what the future holds. Is this the time to put money into stocks or will the market go down? If we invest in bonds will interest rates go up … or down? How about investing in some of those Asian “Tigers” where economic growth has been higher than in more developed countries?

There is no perfect answer. We are not gifted with the ability to read the future. And what is this “future” anyway? Next week? Next year? Or 20 years from now when we will need the money for retirement?

We know that generally, people who own companies usually make more money that people put their money in the bank. Another word for “people who own companies” is “stockholders.” That’s why, over the long term, stockholders do better than bondholders. On the other hand, bonds produce income and are generally lower risk than stocks. So my first answer to the question I was asked is: invest in both stocks and bonds.

Choosing the right stocks and bonds is a job that is best left to professionals. That’s the benefit of mutual funds. Mutual funds pool the money of many investors to create professionally managed portfolios of stocks and bonds. They are an easy way of creating the kind of diversification that is important for reducing risk.

To circle back to the original question our friend asked: the answer is to create a well diversified portfolio. We know that some of the time stocks will do better than bonds, and vice versa. We know that some of the time foreign markets outperform the U.S. market. We know that some the time Growth stocks will do better than Value stocks. We just don’t know when. So we select the best funds in each category and measure the over-all result. With so many funds to choose from, the smart investor will get help from a Registered Investment Advisor like the folks at Korving & Company.

Call us for more details.

How a stock market slump affects retirees

Because retirees are no longer earning income, they view a decline in their investments with more concern than those who are still working.

Many savers in retirement also focus on a number that represents the peak value of their portfolio and view any decline from that value with concern.

Psychologists refer to this as the “anchoring effect.”

The unfortunate result of this is that it causes them to worry, leading to bad decisions. This includes selling some – or all – of their stock portfolio and raising cash. This makes it more difficult for their portfolios to regain its previous values, especially when the return on cash-equivalents like money market funds and CDs are at historic lows.

The answer to this dilemma is to create a well-balanced investment portfolio that can take advantage of growing markets and cushions the blow of declining markets.

This is often where an experienced financial advisor (RIA) can help. One who can create diversified portfolios and who can encourage the investor to stick with the plan in both up and down markets.

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How Do I Start Saving and Making My Money Grow?

We contribute to several forums that provide advice to novice investors. One of the most popular questions goes like this:

• I’m 28 and will start a new job soon. I have accumulated $10,000 in a savings account and will be able to save an additional $1000/month when I start my new job. I need advice on how to start an investment plan.

It’s a good question. The person asking it usually has some money in the bank and has enough income to add to his or her savings. But because interest rates are so low the savings are not growing. There are three common reasons for not starting an investment program.
Not knowing where to start. The mechanics of opening an investment account can be complicated.
Fear of making a mistake. People work hard for their money and don’t want to lose if because they made some rookie error.
Not knowing who to trust. Who will provide good, honest advice for you?
Here’s how to begin an investment plan that works for people of all ages.

  • Find a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) who is a fiduciary: who put their clients’ interests ahead of their own and provide unbiased investment guidance. They will help you through the process.
  • Find someone with experience. You don’t want to deal with someone who’s learning with your money.
  • Find someone who is accredited. A CFP™ (Certified Financial Planner) is trained to give advice on all aspects of financial planning.
  • Find someone who does not charge commissions. It eliminates conflicts of interest.
  • Find someone who has a good reputation in the community.

At Korving & Company, we’ve been helping people just like you make better decisions about their money and their lives for thirty years.

Are fees really the enemy?

The popular press puts a great deal of emphasis on the costs and expenses of mutual funds and investment advice. I am price conscious and shop around for many things. All things being equal, I prefer to pay less rather than more. However, all things are rarely equal. Hamburger is not steak. A Cadillac is not the same as a used Yugo.

The disadvantage facing most investors is that today’s investment market is not your father’s market. Those words are not even mine; they come from a doctor I was speaking to recently who uses an investment firm to manage his money. His portfolio represents his retirement, and it is very important to him. He knows his limitations and knows when to consult a professional. It’s not that he isn’t smart; it’s that he’s smart enough to realize that he doesn’t have the expertise or the time to do the job as well as an investment professional.

As Registered Investment Advisors, we are fiduciaries; we have the legal responsibility to abide by the prudence rule (as opposed to brokers, who only have to abide by a suitability rule). Some interpret our responsibility as meaning that we should choose investments that cost as little as possible, going for the cheapest option. But do you always purchase something exclusively on the lowest cost without taking features, quality, or your personal preferences into consideration?

As I drive to work each day, I pass an auto dealership featuring a new car with a price tag of $9,999 prominently displayed. I’m never tempted to stop in and buy this car, despite its low price. It does not meet my needs nor does it have the features that I’m looking for in a new car. Why would an investment be any different? Too many investors believe that there is no difference between various stocks, mutual funds or investment advisors. They focus exclusively on price and ignore risk, diversification, asset allocation and quality. People who go to great lengths to check out the features on the cars they buy often don’t know what’s in the mutual funds they own. Yet these are the things that often determine how well they will live in retirement. It’s this knowledge that professional investment managers bring to the table.

People who would never diagnose their own illness or write their own will are too often persuaded to roll the dice on their retirement. Don’t make that same mistake with your investments.

Avoid Self-Destructive Investor Behavior

Charles Munger is Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.  Munger and Warren Buffett are viewed by many as the best investment team in the country.  He provided some excellent investment insight:

“A lot of people with high IQs are terrible investors because they’ve got terrible temperaments.  You need to keep raw emotions under control.”

Dalbar, Inc. has studied the returns of the average stock fund investor and compared it to the average stock fund.  Over the last 20 years investors sacrificed nearly half of their potential returns by making elementary mistakes such as:

  • Trying to time the market – thinking you can get out before a market decline and get back in when the market is down.  It never seems to work.
  • Chasing hot investments – from chasing internet stocks in the 1990s to real estate ten years later often leads to financial disaster.
  • Abandoning investment plans – if you have a strategy, and it’s sound, stick with it for the long term.
  • Avoiding out-of-favor areas – for some reason, people want bargains in the store but avoid them in the market.  Don’t be part of the herd.

Few amateur investors have the training or discipline that allows them to avoid these costly mistakes.  One of the most important services that a trusted investment manager can provide is to remain disciplined, stick with the plan, remember the goal and focus on the long term.

For more information about professional investment management visit Korving & Co.

Korving & Co. is a fee-only Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) offering unbiased investment advice.

Arie and Stephen Korving are CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professionals.

Are Retirees Focused on the Wrong Thing in Their Portfolios?

According to a recent study, a middle class couple aged 65 has a 43% chance that one of them will live to age 95. The challenge for this couple is to continue to enjoy their lifestyle and have enough money to live worry-free. Once you stop working you are dependent on income sources like pensions, annuities, social security payments and withdrawals from the savings you have accumulated over the years.

Most of these retirement income sources are fixed once we retire and are out of our control. It’s the retirement savings component that has people concerned. Most retirees don’t want to run out of money before they run out of time. For many they, themselves, are the income source that makes the difference between just getting by and enjoying life. Many retirees focus on the dividends and interest that their portfolios create. That may not be the best answer. Let’s examine the problems associated with this approach.

For the last five years the interest rate on high quality bonds (and CDs) has been close to zero. People who have chosen the “safety” of U.S. Treasury bonds or CDs have actually lost purchasing power after you take inflation and taxes into consideration. The same holds true for owners of tax-free municipal bonds. Those who bought bonds 10, 15, even 20 year ago when interest rates were higher have realized that bonds eventually come due. And when bonds mature, new bonds pay whatever the current interest rate is. That has meant a huge drop in income for many people who depend largely on interest payments.

Dividend payments are also subject to disruption. The financial crisis of 2008 was devastating for many investors. Those who owned bank stocks were particularly impacted. Bank stocks were a favorite for many income investors at that time because they produced lots of dividend income. Most banks slashed or eliminated their dividends, and some went out of business completely. Even companies that were not considered banks, like General Electric, were forced to cut their dividends. Dividends are nice income sources, especially in a low interest rate environment, but they are not guaranteed and you have to be careful about having too much of your portfolio concentrated in any one stock or industry.

The preferred method of planning for withdrawals from retirement savings is to take a “total return” approach. Total return refers to the growth in value of a portfolio from all sources, not just dividends and interest but also capital appreciation. In many cases, capital appreciation provides more return than either dividends or interest.

So how does one go about taking an income from a total return portfolio? Many advisors use 4% as a good starting point for withdrawals. That means for every $100,000 in your portfolio you withdraw $4,000 (4%) per year to live on while investing the rest. The goal is to invest the portfolio is such a way that over the long term, the growth offsets the withdrawals you are taking. It’s like a farmer harvesting a crop, leaving enough so that your portfolio has the chance to actually grow a little over time.

Of course, as we age other factors enter into our lives and the retirement equation, often headlined by medical problems related to aging. We will deal with these issues in another essay.

4 Reasons Why You Need a Good Financial Advisor Now

A good financial advisor has a number of roles: planner, investment manager, educator who is willing to teach you about investing, and sounding board with whom you can share your fears and aspirations.

Why is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA), a fiduciary who puts your interests ahead of his own, so important now? People often get over-confident during a Bull Market. It’s when the market gets scary that financial professionals really prove their worth.

We have all heard the old sayings about being diversified, buy low and sell high, and stay the course. That’s often harder to do than it looks, especially in trying times such as these, when investor psychology overtakes reason. A financial advisor’s job sometimes involves protecting investors from themselves. And to protect them from all the bad advice that’s out there and from the bad actors in the industry.

  1. The first thing that a fiduciary does is tell their clients that despite what you hear, no one can time the market. There may be some people who are exceptionally good at stock picking, but those rare individuals are not giving away their advice to you on TV, in Money Magazine, or in newsletters; I don’t care what they claim. If they exist at all, they are managing their own portfolios on an island in the Caribbean.
  2. The retail financial services industry has an incentive to sell you expensive products as often as possible. And they are very good at it. Don’t get caught in the frequent trading trap; it’s not to your benefit. A fee-only RIA does not have an incentive to sell you investments to earn a commission.
  3. Investors typically allow their portfolios to get too risky during the good times. When the stock market is going up, it’s too easy to get caught up in the excitement and ignore asset allocation guidelines. A good investment manager will rebalance your portfolio regularly to keep you from running into a Bear Market with a portfolio overloaded with risky stocks.
  4. A fee-only RIA works for you. Stockbrokers, insurance agents, even mutual fund managers, work for the companies that pay them. They are legally required to work in the best interest of their employers, not their clients. Some of them do try to work in their clients’ best interests, but there can be large financial incentives to do otherwise. A fee-only RIA works only for you. We act in your best interest and use our expertise to allow you to take advantage of opportunities in good markets and weather the bad ones.

During volatile markets, we focus on the important things that really matter, not the daily chatter. We keep open lines of communication with our clients, helping them make sense of what’s going on, providing perspective, and helping them distinguish between what’s just noise and what’s a genuine trend. We work hard to control risk and manage portfolios to help our clients maintain confidence in their financial future.

If you want to receive our weekly commentary, view our latest guides, or get a free download of the first three chapters of our book “Before I Go”, or just find out about us, visit us at www.korvingco.com.

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