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

Dec 16

What is Bitcoin, exactly?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

What is Bitcoin, exactly?

BitcoinWhat is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a cryptographic protocol operating on a peer-to peer network created in 2009. This protocol is utilized in the form of a currency, allowing for direct transactions between individuals. Simply put, and as implied above, Bitcoin is an anonymous digital currency, which circumvents financial intermediaries in transactions.

Bitcoin can be considered in 4 parts:

1. How are Bitcoins created ? Bitcoins are created through a process called “mining”. The fundamental basis Bitcoin is founded upon is an algorithm, which regulates the speed at which Bitcoin can be “mined” and the manner in which it is used or transferred. In terms of speed, essentially, a computer program, accessible to anyone, works to solve an equation. Once it solves the equation, that person is awarded a certain amount of Bitcoins. The time it takes to solve an equation get progressively harder leading to diminishing returns, as the cap of 21 million Bitcoins gets closer (i.e. there is no additional money supply).

2. How does Bitcoin work? Bitcoins have two encryption keys: one public and one private. The public one has a similar role to an account number and the private one has a similar function to a PIN. Anyone can see the public one and the private one is stored in a “wallet” on the user’s computer or mobile device. These wallets store multiple Bitcoin addresses, created at the users’ discretion. To undertake a transaction, the user would simply give (whether directly or through a Bitcoin client) their private key, which can then be verified versus the public key to confirm the legitimacy of the transaction. Transactions are recorded in a public ledger in what are called “block chains”.

3. Why do people use Bitcoin? Bitcoin is used for its comparative advantages over other forms of currency and transaction methods. It is worth noting that one major attraction to Bitcoin, the anonymity factor, has drawn criticism from certain sectors (i.e. the US government). Websites, most infamously Silk Road (which was closed by the FBI in October 2013), use Bitcoin as a safe currency when dealing with illegal transactions (e.g. drugs, arms). Concern is that as Bitcoin becomes more liquid and volumes start increasing, it will become a target for money-launderers. Other comparative advantages which stand out are simply the fact that it is digital – giving it greater flexibility of usage – and that it is not subject to conventional political pressure or externalities. This second point derives from Bitcoin’s decentralisation, making market influences by a central bank (e.g. printing money) or a government (e.g. Cyprus’ proposed tax on bank deposits) irrelevant. Furthermore, the greatest attraction, at least from the financial side, is that Bitcoin is essentially frictionless; the digital currency has virtually no transaction fees, making cross-border transactions a main driver of future growth and monetisation.

Today, Bitcoin has limited usage. There are a number of services allowing individuals to obtain Bitcoins, through an intermediary or directly on the market (BTC China is the largest one at present, with c. 48% of Bitcoin activity). While large retailers do not accept Bitcoin, there are several services for the purchase of gift cards (e.g. Gyft), for example, providing an indirect method of accessing the retail market. Other website and small-scale retail also provide goods and services.

4. Every Bitcoin has two sides. Bitcoin suffers from a number of problems, many of which mirror the currency’s positives. The largest worry people have and the largest hurdle for Bitcoin and digital currencies in general is the lack of regulation and consumer protection. Simply put, what people don’t know, they don’t trust. While government and central bank action is certainly debatable, these institutions provide the authority to back a currency. Similarly, fees for companies such as MasterCard are used to insure users. The result of the lack of regulation, among other reasons, is a volatile and illiquid currency. Consumer confidence would go a long way to solving many of Bitcoin’s problems, with regulation, a potential platform, market penetration and less speculation key factors in controlling this.

From a technical perspective, digital currencies and especially Bitcoin have encountered difficulties of scalability and monetisation, with deflation a potential concern given the technical limit of 21 million Bitcoins. While perhaps simply growing pains, the currency has not gained any meaningful traction concerning scale and monetisation.  While the number of transactions have been increasing on absolute levels, normalised compounded monthly growth rates have been about 10%, compared to a previous rate of 13.6% (since the start of 2012).

(This guest blog was contributed by Patrick Chen, a graduate student in Finance at the Institut des Etudes Politiques, in Paris, France.  Insight Financial Strategists LLC does not provide Bitcoin advice or services.  This is published as an interesting topical topic ).

Sep 24

How to choose a financial planner

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

How to choose a Financial Planner

Chris Chen CFPHow to choose a financial planner is a question that vexes many people looking for one, even as a number of online resources address the topic.  For instance, the Financial Planning Association as well as a number of online resources in the financial and popular media offer advice on that.

I was prompted to think about this issue by a question I received recently

Question:  

“Currently I am pulling about 4% on my trading accounts.  These are probably below what is going on in the market, but that’s one of the reasons I am seriously looking at a financial adviser.

Do you have any empirical data (history) on what returns I could expect.  I am a numbers type so that would definitely help me in my decision making process. “

It is a great question!  Clients want results, and Financial Planners want results.  The difficulty with using results to measure effectiveness, and as a benchmark on how to choose a financial planner, is that there are so many moving variables that using historical results to choose a financial planner is not effective. As the saying goes, there are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics.

Hence my answer:

Before answering the question “…we would need to work a little more on your objectives and your comfort with risk.  An investment portfolio would have to reflect both. For instance, if you have a short term goal, you would want the money allocated to that goal to be in a lower risk investment allocation.  If you have a long term goal, you would want the opposite. Then, could you compare the performance of the two? They would be like apples and oranges, so probably not.

Now if you and I had the same long term goal, should we be invested in the same way?  Only if we have the same attitudes toward risk, ie how we feel when the market goes down.  Depending on our respective comfort with risk, you and I would have different asset allocations.  Could you compare the performance of our two asset allocations? It would be like comparing a red delicious with a granny apple.  Sort of the same thing, but not quite.

With regard to your results, I assume that they are year to date.  Compared to a S&P 500 return of 19.33% year to date on 9/23/2013, a 4% return year to date would be reflective of a fairly conservative asset allocation with relatively little risk.  In a stock trading situation, your 4% probably came with taking substantial risk.

My job as a financial planner is to understand your goals and your comfort with risk.  Then I can propose an investment allocation and investments that efficiently help you reach your goals with the appropriate amount of risk.

In summary, I could provide you with numbers, but they would not be meaningful without the underlying context of where they came from. Chances are they will be better than some other financial planners’, and worse than some others. In and of itself that would not be meaningful, and, in my opinion, you should not rely on those numbers to decide how to choose a financial planner.”

Check out our Financial Planning Page and our Investment Page

Sep 16

Long Term Care Considerations for Retirement Planning

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Long Term Care Considerations for Retirement Planning

Long Term Care is no one’s favorite topic. However, most of us will require some form of long term care at some point in time, when we are no longer able to do everything for ourselves that we used to . Hence LTC should be addressed in a financial plan or a retirement plan.

For many of us LTC is the most unpredictable and least planned for expense of  retirement . We just don’t have a very good way to predict how much long term care we will need, when we will need it, and how much it will cost. Paradoxically, this is exactly why planning is needed as part of normal financial or retirement planning.

According to the Federal Government, Long Term Care is the range of services and

Long Term Care

support you will need to meet health and personal care needs over a long period of time. LTC is not medical care , but rather assistance with the basic personal tasks of everyday life.

According to Genworth, a prominent provider of Long Term Care Insurance, the median annual cost in 2013 for a semi-private room in a nursing home is $75,405 per year. Based on my experience LTC costs in Massachusetts are much higher than that.

Who Pays for Long Term Care?

People often assume that Medicare or Medigap (the supplemental coverage for Medicare), or even regular health insurance will absorb the cost of their Long Term Care expense. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

In general, most people who need Long Term Care pay for it out of their own assets. Once there is no money left, Medicaid will usually take over. Take note that Medicaid is a government welfare program . This approach works best for people who have enough assets to cover any foreseeable circumstance, or people who just don’t have enough assets worth protecting.

Long Term Care Insurance

That’s why Long Term Care insurance is an important part of a financial plan . For those who have it, long term care insurance will pay for your Long Term Care expenses, up to the limit of the policy. This is a way to preserve assets for other purposes, including for your legacy.

From a tax standpoint, it is worth noting that the premiums for most classical LTC policies available today are deductible from taxable income within the limits specified by the IRS. In addition, up to certain limits, benefits are not taxed as income. Take this favorable tax treatment as a sign that Uncle Sam would like to encourage you to be covered!

So, Long Term Care insurance helps pay for long term care expenses , LTC insurance helps preserve your assets and your legacy, and LTC insurance is potentially tax deductible. So why are so many people resistant to traditional Long Term Care insurance?

First, it is expensive. Although, we might point out that the cost of insurance is normally much less than the cost of Long Term Care itself.

Second, the possibility that the insurance policy may not be used, for instance if death happens suddenly, is enough to stop many people from acquiring Long Term Care insurance. The thought of paying premiums for years, and not collecting a benefit would make the insurance a waste. For people who feel like that, there are alternatives.

Don’t Waste the Premiums

There are LTC insurance products that allow you to “not waste the premiums” . They allow you to get Long Term Care coverage if needed, and have an opportunity to get the premium paid back in case the Long Term Care benefit is not used.

Although, the details of these products is beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say, that these alternatives can provide a lot of flexibility in a financial plan.

These three approaches (pay out of assets, traditional long term care insurance, and “not waste the premium” alternatives) all offer different benefits and should be matched to the correct circumstance and individual preference. If you need to figure out which option works best for you, get help from your financial planner.

Check our other posts on Long Term Care:

Planning For Long Term Care

Should You Cancel Long Term Care Insurance

Aug 26

Investing in Aggressive Growth Funds

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Investing in Aggressive Growth Funds

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/dd/NYSE_Building.JPG/320px-NYSE_Building.JPG

Chances are your retirement plan offers one or more stock funds to choose from. If it is consistent with your investment objectives and your investment risk tolerance, you may want to consider investing a portion of your plan in an aggressive growth fund.

Risks and Rewards

Aggressive growth funds, as the name indicates, are stock funds that are growth-oriented. Included in aggressive growth funds are several options like “small-cap” funds, “emerging market” funds, as well as various kinds of international funds. Aggressive growth funds tend to invest in smaller, fast-moving companies in developing sectors with the potential for rapid growth (hence the name), such as high-tech or biotechnology. They may also invest in equities that have fallen out of favor on Wall Street, but appear ready for a comeback.

Because they invest in companies that are often less known and not as established as the companies that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), aggressive growth funds tend to exhibit volatile behavior.  For instance, when the market goes down, an aggressive growth fund may go down more than the DJIA.  Conversely, when the market goes up, aggressive growth funds often go up more. The goal of aggressive growth funds is to achieve higher returns than other stock funds.

Aggressive growth funds are best suited  for long-term investors with the intestinal fortitude to bear the market’s worst downturns while seeking the strongest returns.  For example, an investor may want to allocate some of his or her portfolio to aggressive growth funds to potentially accumulate as much as possible over a long time horizon. These funds may be especially suitable for younger investors with 25, 30, or 35 years until retirement.

Don’t Forget Diversification

Regardless of how aggressively you would like to invest, keep in mind the crucial benefits of allocating your money across investments that behave differently.

If you invest in an aggressive growth fund, you may want to balance its inherent risk with investments that have different risk characteristics such as growth and income funds, bond funds, and money market funds.

A financial planner can help you determine the investment allocation that’s best suited for you and your goals.

Jul 17

Should you buy stocks now?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Should you buy stocks now?

buy stocks now or follow your long term financial plan?If you are like many investors, you may have a large chunk of your brokerage account or IRAs in money market or short term treasury, and your 401(k) in a Stable Value Fund. The DJIA and S&P500 have been reaching new highs in the past few weeks, and, naturally, investors are wondering: is it time to get back into the market, is it time to buy stocks now or stock mutual funds?
A recent Dalbar study has shown that the average investor in US stocks and stock mutual funds earned an average return of 4.25% per year over the past 20 years, while the S&P500 stock index generated an average 8.21% return over the same period. In other words the average equity investor underperforms the financial markets by almost 4%. This large difference is mostly due to people trying unsuccessfully to time the market.
A more sensible  approach is to consider the intended use of the money sitting in money market. Is it for a short term purpose, such as next September’s college tuition or buying a car? If so, the funds should probably stay in money market. Is it for a long term goal, such as retirement or saving to buy a house on the beach in 10 years? Then, buying stocks may be something to consider.
As an investor, you should have a long term plan that allocates your money to goals and to investments.  Whether to buy stocks now or not to buy stocks now should not depend upon how well the market is doing. If you need a plan, or you need to update one, speak with your Financial Planner. If you need a planner, contact us or the Financial Planning Association of Massachusetts.
Jul 01

What is Tactical Asset Allocation?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

Tactical asset allocation can enhance a long term strategy

Asset Allocation

Strategic asset allocation, the practice of maintaining a strategic mix of stocks, bonds, and cash, has guided many investors in creating portfolios that suit their risk profile and long-term investing goals.  This widely used strategy is a long-term, relatively static tool and is not intended to take advantage of short-term market opportunities.

Proponents of tactical asset allocation, in contrast, take a shorter-term view. Tactical asset allocation is the practice of shifting an asset allocation by relatively small amounts (typically 5% or 10%) to capitalize on economic or market conditions that may offer near-term opportunities. Tactical asset allocation differs from re-balancing, which involves periodic adjustments to your strategic allocation as a result of portfolio drift or a change in personal circumstances. With tactical asset allocation, you maintain a strategic allocation target, but fine tune the exact mix based on expectations of what you believe will happen in the financial markets.

Tactical asset allocation also can involve shifting allocations within an asset class. For example, an equity portion of a portfolio may be shifted to include more small-cap stocks, more large-cap stocks, or other areas where an investor perceives a short-term opportunity. Note that mutual funds that invest in these areas may impose restrictions on short-term trading, and it is important to understand these restrictions before making an investment.

A tactical approach involves making a judgment call on where you think the economy and the financial markets may be headed. Accordingly, a tactical asset allocation strategy can increase portfolio risk, especially if tactical allocations emphasize riskier asset classes. This is why it may be a good idea to set percentage limits on asset allocation shifts and time limits on how long you want to keep these shifts in place.

In addition, when evaluating investment gains that are short-term in nature, such as those on investments held for one year or less, it is important to understand taxes on short-term capital gains. Currently, short-term capital gains are taxed as ordinary income, where the highest marginal tax rate is 39.6%. In contrast, long-term capital gains on investments held for more than one year are taxed at 15% for most investors, 20% for joint filers earning more than $450,000.

 

© 2013 S&P Capital IQ Financial Communications. All rights reserved.

Jun 26

Overturning DOMA

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning

Some financial impact from overturning DOMA for same-sex couples 

Overturning DOMAToday, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 federal law prohibiting married same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits.   According to Justice Kennedy who wrote the majority opinion “DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.”

For states such as Massachusetts where same-sex marriage is legal, federal benefits that were previously unavailable can now be accessed by married same-sex couples.  Many of  the benefits are financial or have a financial impact.  For instance, with DOMA overturned, same-sex couples will now have the ability to file taxes jointly, or to qualify for social security benefits. In addition, same-sex couples can now simplify their legacy planning, since they will be subject to the same rules as opposite-sex couples.

Same-sex couples who divorce  will now be able to get the same benefits as opposite-sex couples.  For example, same-sex divorced couples can now divide property without incurring gift taxes.  When alimony is paid, the payor may now deduct the payments from taxable income.

Divorced same-sex couples may need to revisit their separation agreements.  For those people who have an alimony arrangement, as the alimony amount can now be deducted from the payor, it will also become  taxable to the payee.  Hence the amounts may need to be recalculated to take that new fact into account.   People who have had to pay gift taxes as a result of a property division pursuant to divorce may be able to reclaim those taxes.

These are exciting times for same-sex couples.  Life without DOMA will be easy to settle day to day.  For financial issues, such as financial planning and tax planning it may take a little more adjustment.  Make sure to contact your CFP and CPA for more details.

 

Jun 25

What Is Your Legacy Plan?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning

What Is Your Legacy Plan?

While it may not be pleasant to think of one’s own passing, having your affairs in order can help ease the burden on friends and family, when the time comes, and can contribute to your own peace of mind knowing you have done all you can to prepare. There are many factors that should be considered when trying to create an effective and comprehensive legacy plan. Some considerations include:

  • Instructions on your own care in sickness
  • Guardians for your minor children should both parents pass
  • Protection from creditors
  • Charitable contributions
  • Continuation of a family business
  • Reducing or eliminating tax
  • Maintaining family harmony
  • Legacy creation and support of future generations

In addition, all these factors should integrate appropriately with your retirement income planning and your investment decisions.

Even if you already have a legacy plan in place, you may want to conduct a review. Decisions made years ago may not accurately reflect your current wishes. Legacy plans are not for the significantly wealthy alone. If you have children in your care or a business you wish to leave to future generations, it is important that protections and guidance are put in place now and are not put off until your retirement years. It is always a possibility that you may not have the luxury to last throughout the entire life expectancy table.

A poorly executed legacy plan, or the lack of one at all, could leave those you most care about to suffer needlessly in your absence. Be sure to work with a CFP™ professional or another experienced professional to gain control of your estate plan.

 

The preceding content was originally published on the Financial Planning Association © Web site, www.FPAnet.org

 


Jun 17

Start an Emergency Fund

By Chris Chen CFP | Divorce Planning , Financial Planning

Start an Emergency Fund

This week I wrote the following short piece for the Boston Globe:

 

Many people have trouble putting together an emergency fund. After all, there is always something else to spend money on! These are often small items, small fees and small purchases that go unnoticed. However, they add up. What if you could limit your purchasing of these small items, and put your extra cash into a rainy day fund instead?

Here are some ideas:

1. Consider giving up your daily Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks habit. At $3.05, a cappuccino may not seem like a lot, but one every 251 working days in the year adds to $765. What small expenses do you incur every day that adds up?

2. AT&T and Verizon will charge you $199.99 for the new iPhone5 or the newer Samsung Galaxy 4 with a two year contract. The truth is most of us want the new hot phones and their fancy features. How long will these phones stay “hot”?

3. Pack your lunch: a sandwich or a salad at Panera will set you back $9 a day, or $2,259 a year.

4. Carpooling is great. Biking to work is better: It will not just save you gas, it will make you healthy too. Have you tried Boston Bikes yet?

 

http://www.boston.com/business/personal-finance/2013/06/14/raining-pouring-how-start-saving/0h0ktD2nYBSVEZ6ILO6nxM/story.html?pg=2

Simon Abrams on Unsplash.com
Jun 13

Working into Retirement

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Working into Retirement

The Great Recession has many older Americans considering the prospects of going back to work after retirement or staying in the workforce past their normal retirement age. But working after retirement age is not a new necessity. According to the Social Security Administration, more than 30% of individuals between the ages of 70 and 74 reported income from earnings in 2010, the latest year data are available. Among a younger age group, those between 65 and 69, nearly 49% had income from a job.

Some remain employed for personal reasons, such as a desire for stimulation and social contact; others still want a regular paycheck. Whatever the reason, the decision to continue working into your senior years could potentially have a positive impact on your financial future.

Working later in life may permit you to continue adding to your retirement savings and delay making withdrawals. For example, if you earn enough to forgo Social Security benefits until after your full retirement age, your eventual benefit will increase by between 5.5% and 8% per year for each year that you wait, depending on the year of your birth. Although you can continue working after age 70, you cannot delay social security benefits past age 70. You can determine your full retirement age at the Social Security Web site (www.ssa.gov) or by calling the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213.

Adding to Your Nest Egg

Depending on the circumstances of your career, working could also enable you to continue adding to your retirement nest egg. If you have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, you may be able to make contributions and continue building retirement assets. If not, consider whether you can fund an IRA. Just remember that after age 70 1/2, you will be required to make withdrawals, known as required minimum distributions (RMDs), from traditional 401(k)s and traditional IRAs. RMDs are not required from Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s.

Even if you do not have access to a retirement account, continuing to earn income may help you to delay tapping your personal assets for living expenses, which could help your portfolio last longer in the years to come. Whatever your decision, be sure to apply for Medicare at age 65. In certain circumstances, medical insurance might cost more if you delay your application.

Work doesn’t have to be a chore. You may find opportunities to work part time, on a seasonal basis, or capitalize on a personal interest that you didn’t have time to pursue earlier in life.

© 2013 S&P Capital IQ Financial Communications. All rights reserved.