All Posts by Chris Chen CFP

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Chris Chen CFP CDFA is the CEO and a Wealth Strategist with Insight Financial Strategists LLC in the Boston area. He specializes in retirement planning and divorce financial planning

Feb 06

Market Correction? Hold on to your socks!

By Chris Chen CFP | Capital Markets , Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Risk Management

Market Correction? Hold on to your socks!

As of the close of the market yesterday February 5, the S&P 500 has suffered a loss of 6.2% from its high on Jan 26, 2018 .  All other major indices have followed this downward trend. After we have been telling you for months that the market was going to be due for a major correction, has the time come?

One of the ways that we gauge market risk is by observing our proprietary Risk Aversion Index . It has started to show “normal” behavior compared to the last few years when  it was indicating a lot more complacency to risk than average.  Clearly market participants are feeling antsy.  However, according to the risk measure, it is too early to draw conclusions.

We have not experienced meaningful corrections in the recent past. However it is worth remembering that according to American Capital historically 5% corrections happen 3 times a year on average, and 10% corrections happen once a year on average .  The current correction may just be a long overdue reminder that we are not entitled to volatility free financial markets.

Just two weeks ago the consensus was that we were going to experience a continuation of the bull market at least into the early part of this year. This is still our view. Although the stock market is a leading indicator, at this time this correction does not appear to be a recession driven correction.

When it comes to your investments, verify that your investment profile matches your financial planning profile . That would not insulate you from market corrections. However, matching investment and financial planning profiles would help ensure that you are taking the appropriate amount of risk given your goals and time horizon . If you haven’t measured your risk profile in a while, you may do so at this link.  Unlike the stock market, it is risk free!

Jan 16

Is 2018 the Year of the Roth 401(k) or the Roth IRA?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

Tax Bill Analysis: Is 2018 the Year of the Roth 401(k) or the Roth IRA?

Much of the emphasis of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) passed in December 2017 affected individual income taxes. However, there are also impacts on investment strategies.

From an individual standpoint, the major feature of the TCJA is a reduction in income tax rates.  Except for the lowest rate of 10% all other tax brackets go down starting with the top rate which drops from 39.6% to 37%.

2018 MFJ Tax Table

 Table 1: 2018 Tax Rates for Married Filing Jointly and Surviving Spouses

Even then, not everyone’s income taxes will go down in 2018 . That is because some of the features of the bill, such as the limitation on State And Local Taxes (SALT) deductions,  effectively offset some of the tax rate decreases.

However, in general, it is safe to say that most people will see a reduction in their federal income taxes in 2018. Of course, this may prompt a review of many of the decisions investors make with taxes in mind.

Retirement is one area where reduced income taxes may have an impact on the decision to invest in a Traditional or a Roth 401(k) or IRA . The advantages of tax-deferred contributions to retirement accounts, such as Traditional 401(k) and IRAs are also tied to current  tax rates. In Traditional retirement accounts, eligible contributions of pre-tax income result in a reduction in current taxable income and therefore a reduction in income taxes in the year of contribution.

Most people expect to make the same or less income in retirement compared to working life, and thus expect that their retirement tax rate will be equal or lower than their working year tax rate. For those people, contributing pre-tax income to a Traditional retirement account comes with the possibility of reducing lifetime income taxes (how much you pay the IRS over the course of your life).

Most people are pretty excited to see their taxes go down this year! However, the long term consequences of the tax decrease should be considered.  While the TCJA was passed with the theory that it would stimulate growth such that tax revenues would grow enough to make up for the increased deficit created in the short term by tax cuts, few serious people actually believe that.  The most likely result is that we will experience a small boost in growth in the short term, and that federal deficits and the National Debt will seriously increase thereafter.

In the opinion of the non partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, not even the expectation of additional short term growth is enough to temper the seemingly irresistible growth in the federal debt.

TCJA impact on the National Debt

Increased deficits will make it more difficult to fund our national priorities, whether it is defense, social security, health care, or investment in our national infrastructure.  Therefore, I expect that we will initiate another tax discussion in a few years, most likely resulting in tax increases, in addition to the automatic tax increases that are embedded in the TCJA.

With federal income tax rates down in 2018, and our expectation that individual taxes will start increasing  after 2018, now may be the time to consider a Roth instead of a Traditional account. The consideration of current and future tax rates remains the same. It just so happens that with lower tax rates in the current year, it becomes marginally more attractive to consider the Roth instead.

Consider the case of Lisa, a married pharma executive, making $225,000. This places  her in the 24% federal tax bracket. In 2018, her $10,000 Traditional 401(k) contribution reduces her income taxes by $2,400. In 2017, Lisa would have been in the 28% tax bracket. Her $10,000 Traditional 401(k) contribution would have resulted in a $2,800 reduction in income taxes. Hence, Lisa’s tax savings in 2018 from contributing to his 401(k) goes down by $400 compared to 2017.

Federal income tax impact on a $10,000 Traditional 401(k) contribution Table 2: Tax savings on a 401(k) contribution with $180,000 taxable income

From a tax standpoint, contributing to a Traditional 401(k) is still attractive, just a little less so.  In order to optimize her lifetime tax liabilities, Lisa may consider contributing to a Roth 401(k) instead, trading her current tax savings for future tax savings. If Lisa were to contribute the entire $10,000 to the Roth 401(k), her 2018 income taxes would increase by $2,400 compared with 2017. Why would Lisa do that? If she expects future income tax rates to go back up, she could save overall lifetime taxes. It may be an attractive diversification of her lifetime tax exposure.

For instance, suppose now that the national debt does grow out of hand and that a future Congress decides to increase tax rates to attempt to deal with the problem. Suppose that Lisa’s retirement income places her in a hypothetical future marginal federal tax rate of 30%. In that case, she will be glad to have invested in a Roth IRA in 2018 when she would have been taxed at a marginal rate of 24%: she would have saved on her lifetime income taxes.

Of course, if Lisa’s retirement marginal tax rate ends up being 20%, she would have been better off saving in her Traditional 401(k), saving with a 28% tax benefit in her working years and paying retirement income tax at 20%.

Note also that Lisa would not have to put the entire $10,000 in the 401(k). She could divide her annual retirement contribution between her Roth and her Traditional accounts, thus capturing some of the tax advantages of the Traditional account, reducing the tax bite in the current year, and preserving a bet on a future increase in income tax rates.

Another possible course of action to optimize one’s lifetime tax bill is to consider a Roth conversion. With a Roth conversion, you take money from a Traditional account, transfer it to a Roth account, and pay income taxes on the distribution in the current year.  As we know, future distributions from the Roth account can be tax-free, provided certain conditions are met . A distribution from a Roth IRA is tax free and penalty free provided that the five-year aging requirement has been satisfied and at least one of the following conditions is met: you have reached age 59½, become disabled, you make a qualified first-time home purchase, or you die. (Note: The 5-year aging requirement also applies to assets in a Roth 401(k), although the 401(k) plan’s distribution rules differ slightly; check your plan document for details.)  Because tax rates are lower in 2018 for most individuals and households, it makes it marginally more attractive to do the conversion on at least part of your retirement funds.

Consider David, a single pharma marketing communications analyst. With $70,000 in taxable income he is now in the 12% marginal federal income tax bracket, down from the 25% federal income tax bracket in 2017. He is working on his part time MBA in 2019, and expects his income to jump substantially as a result. Additionally, David, a keen student of political economy expects his retirement taxable income to be higher than his current income and overall tax rates to go back up before he reaches retirement.  David now has a sizeable Traditional IRA.

For David the opportunity is to convert some of his Traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. To do that, David would transfer some of his Traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. He would pay income taxes on the conversion amount at his federal marginal rate of 22%. David would only convert as much as he could before creeping into the next federal tax bracket of 24%. If he feels bold, David could contribute up to the 32% federal tax bracket. Effectively this means that David would stop converting when his taxable income reaches $82,500 if he wanted to stay in the 22% tax bracket, and $157,500 if he wanted to stay in the 24% tax bracket.

In this example, if David were to convert $10,000 from his Traditional IRA to his Roth IRA, he would incur $2,200 in additional federal income taxes. If David expects to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, he would end up saving on his lifetime income taxes.

David could combine this strategy with continuing to contribute to his Traditional 401(k), thus reducing his overall taxable income, and increasing the amount that he can convert from his IRA before he hits the next tax bracket.  If he were to contribute $10,000 to his Traditional 401(k) and convert $10,000 from his Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, you could view this as a tax neutral transaction.

Federal tax impact on a $10,000 Traditional 401(k) contribution and $10,000 Roth conversion

Table 3: Balancing a Traditional 401(k) and a Roth Conversion

This strategy may work best for people who expect to have a reduced income in 2018. Maybe it is people who are back in graduate school, or people taking a sabbatical, or individuals who are no longer working full time while they wait to reach the age of 70 and start collecting social security at the maximum rate.

It is worth remembering that Roth accounts are not tax free; they are merely taxed differently. That is because contributions to a Roth account are post-tax, not pre-tax as in the case of Traditional accounts. You should note that the examples in this article are simplified. They do not take into account the myriad of other financial, fiscal and other circumstances that you should consider in a tax analysis, including your State tax situation. The examples suppose future changes in taxes that may or may not happen.

If you believe, like I do, that tax rates are exceptionally low this year and will go up in the future, you should have additional incentive to analyze this situation. The decision to contribute to a Roth IRA or 401(k) works best for people who expect to be in a similar or higher tax bracket in retirement, and have at least 5 years before the assets are needed in order not to pay unexpected penalties. Is that you? The financial implications of whether to invest in a Roth instead of a Traditional account can be complex and significant. They should be made in consultation with your Certified Financial Planner.

 

Nov 10

Killing Alimony

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning , Tax Planning

Killing Alimony?

Eliminating the deductibility of alimony payments from taxable income is one of the features of the Republican House Tax Reform bill. It is very significant to both payors and recipients of alimony.

The Goddess Nemesis

Written into the fabric of the GOP tax proposal is a change in how alimony is taxed. People paying alimony could lose “the greatest tax deduction ever.” And that could ultimately affect those receiving alimony, too.

Since details of the new tax overhaul bill were released on Nov. 2, people of all income levels and ages have been trying to figure out how they could be affected going forward. One group of folks not likely to be happy: those paying alimony.

Section 1309 of the House bill would eliminate the deductibility of alimony. Killing the alimony deduction is one of the smaller revenue targets for the House Republican tax bill, yet it is exceedingly significant to the people affected.

Under current rules, alimony payors may deduct their payments from their taxable incomes, thus lowering their income taxes. In return, recipients pay income taxes on their alimony income. Because payors are usually in higher tax brackets and recipients in lower tax brackets, families can save money on taxes by shifting the tax burden to the lower earner. The saving can help increase cash flow for divorcing couples. They can then decide how to allocate the savings: to the payor or the recipient … or the court can do it for them.

Killing the alimony tax deduction raises only about $8 billion over 10 years

According to the House, abolishing the alimony deduction would not be a large revenue generator. Killing the alimony tax deduction raises only about $8 billion over 10 years. That is because the tax increase on payors is offset by a tax decrease for recipients. For them, alimony income would no longer be taxable.

This wrinkle could have a significant impact on divorce settlements. For many payors, saving taxes on alimony payments is the one pain relief that comes with making the payments. According to John Fiske, a prominent mediator and family law attorney, “Alimony is the greatest tax deduction ever.” Without the deduction, payors will find it much more expensive and more difficult to agree to pay.

For example, in Massachusetts alimony payors usually pay 30% to 35% of the difference in the parties’ incomes. For a payor in the 33% federal tax bracket, the House tax bill increases the cost of alimony by nearly 50%.

The entire set of laws, guidelines and practices around alimony are based on its deductibility. Passage of the House Republican tax bill is likely to lead to a mad scramble in the states to change the laws and guidelines to adjust alimony payments downward to make up for the tax status change.

The likely net result: although recipients would no longer pay tax on alimony income, abolishing the tax deductibility of alimony is likely to reduce their incomes even further as divorce negotiations take the new, higher tax burden on payors into account.

A previous version appeared in Kiplinger

Sep 03

Roth 401(k) or not Roth 401(k)?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

Roth 401k or not Roth 401k?

Which is better, more money in your paycheck or more tax-free cash in your retirement? It’s an important question only you can answer. 

According to a 2017 research paper at Harvard Business School, employees who have the option to contribute to a Roth 401(k) instead of a traditional 401(k) tend to contribute the same amount to either account. Given that a Roth 401k tends to result in more money taken out of your paycheck every week or month than a traditional 401k, that’s unexpected!  

Traditional 401k contributions are made on a pre-tax basis while Roth 401k contributions are made post-tax . So, assuming a given level of cash flow available, most of the time contributions to a traditional 401k will be easier than contributions to a Roth 401k because traditional plans drive your annual taxable income lower. You’ll still have to pay taxes on the contributions later when you retire. but the “taxable event” is deferred.

Take the case of Priya, a 49-year-old single mom. She makes $135,000 a year and lives alone with her son.  Not counting her employer’s match, Priya saves $350 per pay period in her traditional 401k, totaling $9,100 a year.  Absent other considerations, her $9,100 contribution reduces her annual taxable income from $135,000 to $125,900.  As a result, since her taxable income is less, she will pay less income taxes.

Roth 401ks and Roth IRAs are not tax-free: they are merely taxed differently

What if Priya were to switch her contributions to her company’s Roth 401k? She is considering contributing the same amount: $9,100. However, because contributions to a Roth are post-tax , they would no longer reduce Priya’s taxable income.  Thus, she would pay taxes on $135,000 instead of $125,900.  Hence Priya would end up owing more taxes for the year.

No brainer for the traditional 401k, right? Wrong. Roth 401ks provide one major advantage. If Priva switched to the Roth and maintained her contribution level, she might end up with more income in retirement as Roth 401k distributions in retirement are tax-free , whereas traditional 401k distributions are taxed as income .  However, switching her contribution to the Roth would be at the expense of her current cash flow.  Can Priya afford it?

What if she would reduce her Roth contribution to keep her current cash flow constant? In that case, it is not clear that Priya’s after-tax income in retirement would be higher or lower with a Roth 401k than with a traditional 401k. Answers would require further analysis of her situation.

It’s important to remember that Roth 401ks and Roth IRAs are not tax-free: they are merely taxed differently . That makes the decision to invest in a Traditional or a Roth 401k is an important financial planning decision :  employees need to understand the benefits and drawbacks of both approaches to make an informed decision that balances current spending desires with future income needs.

According to John Beshears, the lead author of the Harvard study, one possible explanation for his finding is that people are confused about the tax properties of the Roth . Another possibility could be that people have greater budget flexibility than they give themselves credit for. Either way, employees should seek additional support before making this very important decision.

 

A prior version of this article appeared in Kiplinger and Nasdaq.com
 

Feb 07

5th Annual Symposium

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

5th Annual Symposium

Oakley CCThe 5th Annual Symposium on Divorce Financial Issues will be held on Friday March 24, 2017 at the Oakley Country Club in Watertown, MA. The Symposium provides a full day devoted to Financial Issues for Divorce Professionals such as therapists, coaches, mediators and lawyers.

This year, the Symposium is a fundraiser in support of the Community Dispute Settlement Center (CDSC), a 501(c)(3) not for profit mediation and training center dedicated to providing an alternative and affordable forum for resolving conflict. Part of the registration fee will be donated to CDSC.

The Symposium is offered by Insight Financial Strategists LLC, a Registered Investment Advisor with a focus and expertise in Divorce Financial Planning , in conjunction with the speakers and their respective firms.

This year’s presenters include

Ross Grifkin, a banker in Waltham, MA: buying out a small business in a divorce.

Kim Whelan a mediator in Newton, MA: tricks and traps of the middle income divorce.

David Kellem a lawyer and mediator in Hingham, MA: the post divorce budget and how it impacts divorce settlements and negotiation

Bill Coyne, a lawyer in Newton, MA: divorce as your last estate plan

Chris Chen, a financial planner in Waltham: divorce and disability insurance

The Symposium will be held at the Oakley Country Club in Watertown, MA on Friday March 24 from 8:30 to 4:30. Continental breakfast and a buffet lunch will be served. The cost of the Symposium is $195. Use code EARLY75 for a $75 early bird discount valid until March 5, 2017. Please register here

We look forward to see you there!

 

 

Jan 30

Politics and Economics

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Politics and Economics

 

Frankfurt am Main, Skulptur "Bulle & Bär"We started the year in the middle of a correction, as the S&P500 lost 13.3% between November 4, 2015 and February 11, 2016.

However, supported by a slow but continuing economic recovery, rising corporate profits and low interest rates, 2016 ended up being a pretty good year for the financial markets with the S&P500 rising 11.96%.

Concerns over China, falling oil prices, surging junk bond yields, recession fears, the rising dollar, Brexit, a four-quarter profit recession, a contentious U.S. election, weakness in U.S. manufacturing, and eurozone banking worries all conspired against bullish sentiment during various times of the year.

While the pundits credited a solid market prior to the election to the expectation that Clinton would win, we were surprised by the reaction to Trump’s win and the consequent exuberant market rally. Most of the year’s gains happened in the fourth quarter after the election.

So what about 2017?

Trump and the Republican Congress have made many promises, some of which appear to help sustain the financial markets.  In particular the move to tax reform and limit regulations will probably be implemented and  is viewed very positively by the business community.

Some proposals such as rebuilding infrastructure have the Congress and Trump at odds. Historically, infrastructure has not been a strong Republican concern. It remains to be seen whether a significant bill can pass Congress.

Some other initiatives are more problematic and could have consequences that have not yet been factored in the financial markets.  The move to limit legal immigration and the intent to expel millions of undocumented immigrants could have a ripple effect throughout the economy, including Silicon Valley and the agriculture industry.

Talking about altering trade patterns, starting with the elimination of the TPP and various noises about import tariffs goes counter to decades of bipartisan free trade efforts.  It is not clear what the net impact of these policies, which have not yet been fully defined, will have on the economy. However, restricting free trade is not a positive.

Last but not least, Republicans have a political imperative to deal with health care. Will they show the intestinal fortitude to go through with a full repeal of Obamacare, as has been talked about? A full “repeal now and replace later” could create chaos for States, employers, insurance companies, the healthcare industry, and the public. We’ll have to wait and see to evaluate the net effect.

The financial markets are demonstrating optimism in the midst of all this political turmoil, although we don’t know if the clouds on the horizon carry rain or not. Regardless the US economy is strong and resilient; it will survive our dysfunctional politics.

 

This post is extracted from our January 2017 newsletter.  Please write to let us know that you would like a copy

Jan 17

Five Common Questions About Divorce

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

divorcing-swansdivorcing-swans5 Common Questions About Retirement and Divorce

divorce and retirementRetirement accounts are often one of the major assets of divorcing couples. Analyzing and dividing retirement accounts can be fairly complex . Some of the major questions that I come across include the following:

1. Is My Retirement Account Separate Property?

People will often feel very proprietary about their retirement accounts. They will reason that because the account is in their name only, as opposed to the house which is usually in both their names, they should be able to keep those accounts. Most of the time, this is flawed reasoning. The general rule is that assets that are accumulated during marriage are considered marital assets regardless of the titling.

However, there are cases when part of a retirement plan can be considered separate. This often depends on state law, so it is best to check with a specialist before getting your hopes up.

2. Can I Divide a Retirement Account Without Triggering Taxes?

Most of us know that taking money out of a retirement account will usually trigger taxes and sometimes penalties. However, dividing retirement accounts in divorce provides an exception to that rule. You can divide most retirement accounts in divorce tax-free through a Qualified Domestic Relations Order  (QDRO). As a result of the QDRO, both spouses will now have a separate retirement account.

QDROs are used for 401(k)s, defined benefit pension plans, and other accounts that are “qualified” under ERISA . Many accounts that are not “qualified” such as 403(b)s use a “DRO” instead. The federal government uses its own procedure known as a “COAP”. Some accounts such as IRAs and Roth IRAs can be divided with a divorce agreement without requiring a QDRO.

Since there are so many different retirement accounts, the rules to divide them vary widely. Plan administrators will often recommend their own “model” QDRO. It usually makes sense to have a QDRO specialist verify that the document conforms to your interests.

3. Can I Take Money out Without Penalty?

In general, you cannot take money out of retirement accounts before 59½ years of age without triggering income taxes and a 10% penalty . It makes taking money out of retirement accounts a very expensive proposition as you may only get 60 to 70 cents for every dollar that you withdraw, depending on your tax bracket and the State that you live in.

In addition, that money that was set aside for retirement will no longer be there for that purpose. Although you might tell yourself that you will replace that money when you can, that rarely ever happens.

However, if you have no other choice, it so happens that divorce is one of the few exceptions to the penalty rule. A beneficiary of a QDRO (but not the original owner) can, pursuant to a divorce, take money out of a 401(k) without having to pay penalties. However, you will still have to pay income tax on your withdrawal. Note that this only applies to 401(k)s. It does not apply to IRAs.

4. How Do I Compare Retirement Accounts with Non-Retirement Accounts?

Most retirement accounts contain tax-deferred money. This means that when you get a distribution, it will be taxable as ordinary income. At the other end of the spectrum, if you have a cash account, it is usually all after-tax money. In between you may have annuity accounts where the gains are taxed as income, and the basis is not taxed; you may have a brokerage account where your gains may be taxed at long-term capital gains rate; or you may have employee Restricted Stock which is taxed as ordinary income. All of these accounts can be confusing.

In order to get an accurate comparable value of your various assets, you will want to adjust their value to make sure that it takes the built-in tax liability into account. Many divorce lawyers will use rules of thumb to equalize pre-tax and after-tax accounts. Rules of thumbs can be useful for back-of-the-envelopes calculations , but should not be used for divorce settlement calculations, as they are rarely correct.

What is the harm you might ask? Rules of thumb are like the time on a broken clock – occasionally correct, but usually wrong . In the best of cases, they may favor you. In the worst cases they will short change you. If the rule of thumb is suggested by your spouse’s lawyer, it will have a good chance of being the latter.

Because these calculations are not usually within a lawyer’s skill set, many lawyers and clients will use the services of a Divorce Financial Planner to get accurate calculations that can form a solid basis for negotiation and decision making. It is usually better to know than to guess .

5. Should I Request a QDRO of My Spouse’s Defined Benefit Pension?

Defined Benefit pension plans provide a right to a stream of income at retirement . Unlike 401(k)s and IRAs they are not individual accounts. They do not provide an individual statement with a balance that can be divided.

As a result, many lawyers take the path of least resistance and will want to QDRO the pension. It is usually painful to the pension beneficiary who will often feel very emotional about his or her pension. And it is not necessarily in the spouse’s interest to QDRO the pension .

A better approach is to consider the value of the defined benefit pension compared to the other retirement assets. With a pension valuation, you can judge the value of the pension relative to other assets and make better decisions on whether and how to divide it. A pension valuation will allow each party to make an informed decision and eventually provide informed consent when agreeing to a division of retirement assets.

Another key consideration is that defined benefit plans are complex. Although they have common features, they are each different from one another, and each come with specific rules. You will be well advised to read the “plan document” or have a Divorce Financial Planner read it and let you know the key provisions.

A common provision is that the benefit for the alternate payee can only start when the plan participant starts receiving benefits and must stop when the plan participant passes away. It is all good for the plan participant. But what if as a result of that, the alternate payee ends up losing his or her pension benefits too early?

Hence a key issue of valuing defined benefit plans is that a true valuation is more than just numbers. It also involves a qualitative discussion of the value of the plan, especially for the alternate payee. Some Divorce Financial Planners can handle the valuation of interests in a defined benefit plan easily and the discussion of the plan. Others will refer you to a specialist.

The Bottom Line

Retirement plans are more complex than most divorcing couples expect . Unlike cash accounts they do not lend themselves to a quick asset division decision.  The short and long-term consequences of a sub-optimal decision can be far reaching. It will be worth your while to do a thorough analysis before accepting any retirement asset division.

 

 

A previous version of this post was published in Investopedia

Aug 25

Is Your Portfolio Diversified?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Investment Planning

Is Your Portfolio Really Diversified?

Diversification is simple to understand. In the context of managing your portfolio, diversification is (simply) about investing in diverse securities so as to lower the risk of the portfolio. Ever since markowitzNobel Prize winner Harry Markowitz wrote his seminal paper “Portfolio Selection” in 1952, finance professionals (and increasingly lay people) have understood that the true risk of an asset is its contribution to the risk of a portfolio.

In a recent survey run by Insight Financial Strategists, according to 41% of respondents a single mutual fund is sufficient diversification . After all, even the most concentrated mutual fund typically has several dozen stocks. However, many mutual funds diversify within a single asset class in a single country, such as, large-company stocks in the U.S.

Others will concentrate their portfolio on a few securities, sometimes with very unfortunate results. For instance, between September 1, 2015, until November 17, 2015, the Sequoia fund (symbol SEQUX) lost 26.3% of its value largely due to its high concentration in a single stock, Valeant (VRX). Looking at the price evolution of VRX below (source: Google), and knowing that SEQUX had more than 30% invested in VRX, it is not surprising that the mutual fund tumbled.

Stock price of VRX from 9/1/2015 to 12/1/2015

Price of VRX from 9/1/2015 12/31/2015

In practice, diversification is hard to implement. There are many levels of diversification. Some of them are:

  • by individual securities
  • by asset manager;
  • by asset class; and
  • by geography.

Ideally, an investor will want to diversify so that the various investments are not correlated with one another, have low correlation or even have negative correlation. For instance, according to data from portfolio analytics firm Kwanti, Goldman Sachs (GS) and JP Morgan (JPM) have an 89% correlation based on monthly returns. In other words, buying GS and JPM in the same portfolio only provides a low diversification value.

diversification is about investing in diverse securities so as to lower the risk of the portfolio

In another example, based on monthly returns, JPM and Walmart have a negative correlation of -0.14%, according to data from Kwanti . I don’t know that I would necessarily want to buy either JPM or WMT. However, this pair provides good diversification from one another.

Most of us end up investing in mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, not in individual securities. The same principle applies there. Having a single large cap mutual fund that tracks Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index may not be sufficient diversification.

Sure, the S&P 500 ETF provides more than one security and is, therefore, diversified. But in general, most of the securities within a single asset class will be highly correlated with one another (such as with JPM and GS). With that, you would be protecting yourself against the risk inherent in any given company in the portfolio, but not against risks inherent to the asset class or other factors.

Ideally, you would want to be diversified across asset classes, across regions of the world and across asset managers. The following jelly bean chart from Schwab demonstrates the benefits of a wide diversification program: the ranking of the assets by performance changes seemingly randomly from year to year. A fully diversified portfolio (the orange boxes in the chart) is intended to avoid the peaks and valleys of individuals asset classes while providing a more middle-of-the-road return experience.

Jelly Bean chart

Is your portfolio diversified? A detailed analysis from a fee-only Certified Financial Planner can give you the full scoop on your portfolio and provide suggestions to mitigate the risks that you are exposed to. Like any other sound advice, apply it now, not later.

 

A previous version of this post was published in Kiplinger.

Jul 19

Getting Help When You Need It Most

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning

Getting help when you need it most

chess pieces divorcingWhen “Lindy” was trying to figure out the implications of the latest divorce settlement offer that she received from her soon-to-be ex-husband “Ted,” she panicked. She would have asked her lawyer for
guidance, as 79% of divorcing individuals end up doing, but she was not sure that her divorce lawyer could give her the guidance she needed .

The previous offer had come two days before their last court appearance. There was just not enough time to understand the implications of the various components of the offer and assess whether it was an equitable division of marital assets. Lindy was just too nervous to make the decision “on the steps of the courthouse”, so she said no.

Even Lindy’s lawyer was happy with the process

Clearly, there is something wrong with a process in which the financial outcome is so critical to both parties but people like Lindy and Ted get no professional financial support despite spending substantial sums of money litigating a divorce. Yet it is not surprising. The financial issues of divorce have become terribly complex ranging from shorter-term tax issues to longer-term financial planning issues.  Divorce lawyers have enough on their hands with the legal issues of divorce. Increasingly, divorce lawyers are unable to counsel their clients in depth on the financial implications of divorce , which inevitably have a lasting impact on their quality of life and stability long after the divorce itself is finalized.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Institute of Divorce Financial Analysts, 75% of respondents believe that a divorce financial specialist would have been helpful in the preparation, negotiation or recovery phases of their divorces . According to this same survey, 45% of people litigating their divorces felt unprepared to enter financial negotiations and 40% of those mediating their divorces feel the same way.

No wonder divorce financial planning has risen as a specialty. Professionals dedicated to meeting the needs of divorcing individuals can help people such as Lindy and Ted understand the financial issues of divorce, negotiate settlements and recover into a financially stable post-divorce life.

In Lindy’s case, she was fortunate to be referred to a Divorce Financial Planner by a divorce coach. Divorce Financial Planners build on financial expertise often acquired by Certified Financial Planners (CFP®) or Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). They also often hold the Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA®) designation. They excel in their ability to simplify the complex financial issues of divorce so that people like Lindy and Ted can understand the consequences of their decisions and plan accordingly for their separate futures. In addition, Divorce Financial Planners bring to the table an understanding of tax issues in divorce, employee stock options, retirement plans, pension plans, Social Security, real estate and long-term financial planning.

They help assess potential outcomes of strategies such as trading home equity for ownership of retirement accounts—is that a good idea for you for the long term?

In Lindy’s case, the new offer seemed to address her needs better. Ted offered to give Lindy more of the 401(k) in exchange for keeping his pension. In addition, Ted offered more alimony.

However, Ted’s offer was still not clear about his employee stock options, as he did not know how to value them. In addition, the offer did not address the issue of college funding for their 13 year old daughter.

Lindy’s Divorce Financial Planner carefully reviewed the settlement offer in light of her individual circumstances, explained the various issues and made recommendations for her lawyer. After some more negotiations, Lindy and Ted were able to come to an agreement and avoid a costly trial. Even Lindy’s lawyer was happy with the process , as it helped him to focus on his area of expertise: writing the agreement and managing the legal process.

A previous version of this post was published in Kiplinger

Dec 23

Interest Rates, the Economy and You

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

Interest Rates, the Economy and You

Janet Yellen official portrait

Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve

The Federal Reserve recently announced on December 16 that it would increase the Federal Funds rates by 0.25%.  It has been 3,457 days since the Fed increased rates, with the last rate increase in 2006, or almost 9.5 years.  The Fed’s policy of ultra low rates was initiated during the Great Recession and was intended to help stimulate an economy that was reeling from the sub-prime mortgage crisi. Evidently, the Fed believes that the economy is strong enough to withstand a return to a more normal rate environment.

Most observers believe that the Federal Reserve will continue to raise rates through 2016 and 2017. Some believe that the Fed will increase rates three or four times in 2016. According to Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist at First Trust, on December 17, the federal funds future market is priced to anticipate two rate hikes next year.

Here is a guide to what it means for the rest of us:

Mortgage borrowers may consider that now may be the time to refinance , especially if you are on an Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM). The December 16 increase is not likely to have a very strong impact on long term interest rates, which tend to follow the 10 year Treasury rate. However future fed funds rate increases will most likely push the yield curve up, leading to more costly refinancing down the road.

the very modest increase in the Fed Funds rate will not yet trigger an increase in bank and CD rates sufficient to cause a stampede from mattresses to CDs

On the other hand, short term mortgage rates will be affected immediately thus leading to an immediate increase in ARM payments. As noted above, conventional wisdom is that rates will continue to increase , and will eventually have a substantial upward impact on traditional long term mortgage rates. Get yours while you can!

Borrowers with Home Equity Lines of Credit (HELOC) will be impacted directly by the fed funds increase with increased monthly payments which will become more painful as the Fed continues to step up rates over the next few years. If you have the income, the credit score, and the debt ratio, you may want to refinance your HELOC into a long term fixed rate mortgage. If not, make efforts to pay down your balance to keep your payments manageable!

Credit card borrowers are likely to see an increase in interest rates and payments, even though credit card interest rates are already sky high. If you can pay those credit cards down, do so . For those who use 0% credit cards to roll balances from one period to another, expect that the 0% interest rate period will shorten over time: you will have to roll over balances more often.

From an income standpoint, long suffering fixed income investors are not out of the woods yet. As the Boston Globe reported me saying in October, the very modest increase in the Fed Funds rate will not yet trigger an increase in bank and CD rates sufficient to cause a stampede from mattresses to CDs. However it is a marginal improvement, and perhaps savers will be rewarded with increased returns as rate hikes continue over the next few months and the next few years.

Investors saw the stock market close up on the day of the Fed’s announcement, with the S&P 500 closing at 2,073.07. Clearly, the market was not spooked by the modest .25% increase , or the prospect of more increases next year. This may be an opportunity to do a portfolio check and ensure that you maintain a well diversified portfolio that is adapted to your needs, risk tolerance and time horizon. In particular you will want to understand the impact that your bond allocation will have on your portfolio.
If you have not done so already, schedule a review on your debt and investment strategies with your CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ Professional.

 

A previous version of this post appeared in the Boston Globe’s Managing Your Money blog

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