Category Archives for "Investment Planning"

Nov 14

Investment Bucket Strategy for Retirement

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Retirement Planning , Risk Management

retirement bucket strategy

Retirement Bucket Strategy 

What is the retirement bucket strategy? How does it work, and is this strategy right for you?

A key question for people retiring even with a healthy amount of assets is: is that going to last all the way?

So many elements go into answering that question. Still, on top of most people’s minds, one usually keeps them up at night: their investments.

And it makes sense: you can control your spending, social security is more or less a given, and Medicare and Medigap take care of most healthcare expenses. The biggest unknowns of our retirement are our lifespan and whether our investments will last all the way .

An effective retirement investment strategy is using the bucket investment strategy.

What Are The Three Buckets of Investing?

With the the retirement bucket strategy, retirees segment their spending needs into “buckets” depending on the time horizon of their spending . Of course, retirees can use as many buckets as they would like. However, for this discussion, let’s assume a 3 bucket investment strategy where the buckets can be arranged according to time horizon: near-term, medium-term, and long-term.

Retirees can use the immediate bucket to cover current living expenses and fund their lifestyle. Then they can use the intermediate bucket to refill the immediate bucket and the long-term bucket to refill the intermediate bucket. With a bucket retirement plan, each bucket pours into the next, creating multiple buckets or lines of defense between a retiree and adverse market events . 

The immediate bucket

The near-term or immediate bucket covers near-term living and lifestyle expenses. That could be defined as 1-5 years. In the case of Insight Financial Strategists, we tend to use five years.

To cover current living and lifestyle effectively, the risk of investments in the immediate bucket needs to be kept low. Hence the immediate bucket is invested in low-risk instruments, even cash, to ensure that market events such as a sudden drop in values don’t affect the investment and the spending they are associated with.

In market downturns, a low-risk immediate bucket allows the investor to leave their other buckets invested and not have to sell their investments at a loss.

Every year that passes reduces the money in the immediate bucket. After one year, there are only four years of expenses left. At that time, the immediate bucket is replenished from the intermediate bucket.

The intermediate bucket

The role of the intermediate bucket is to get a better balance between risks and returns. While the immediate bucket is useful to tamp down short-term risk, too much in the immediate bucket would leave the retiree open to other risks, such as inflation, if the intermediate and long-term buckets did not complement it.

The amount budgeted in the intermediate bucket reflects spending and lifestyle needs after year 5 to another milestone. Our firm’s intermediate bucket covers expenses between the sixth and tenth year.

In addition to the time horizon, the risk embedded in the intermediate bucket reflects the investor’s risk tolerance. Typically this would result in a mix of stocks and bonds.

The allocation provides more growth potential than the low-risk immediate bucket and lower volatility than the long-term bucket. Because of that latter point, the intermediate bucket is expected to recover faster from a market downturn than the long-term bucket. 

Assets from this intermediate bucket are typically used to replenish the immediate bucket as it dwindles. 

The long-term bucket

Lastly, the long-term bucket aims to provide the portfolio with growth for assets expected to be used ten years or more in the future. In a retirement horizon of 20 years, 30 years, or longer, that is necessary to fight inflation and ensure that there will be enough in a retiree’s later years. 

In a retirement bucket strategy, the long-term bucket is invested in assets such as stocks that are expected to bring higher returns , although with higher volatility. The volatility is acceptable in this bucket because the immediate bucket covers short-term needs, and long-term bucket funds are not needed for another 10+ years. Downturns caused by the increased volatility have historically recovered (1). 

Graph 1: S&P 500 Performance 

Graph 1 represents the performance of the S&P500 from 2005 to 2021. Clearly, downturns occur, notably from the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2009. However, in the long term, the market is positively biased (1). 

How does it Work?

In years when the market is up, rebalancing happens normally. We replenish the immediate bucket from the intermediate bucket and the intermediate bucket from the long-term bucket. So if the market is up substantially, we might harvest more of the gains in case future years are less giving. 

retirement bucket strategy

Graph 2: A Hypothetical Bucket Plan

Exact bucket sizing will depend on the retirees’ needs and lifestyles. Most retirees will have a steady source of income, such as Social Security. In 2023, the maximum Social Security benefit is $4,459 per month, equivalent to $53,508 per year. If that is the retiree’s only steady income source, we expect the immediate bucket to cover expenses above that amount. For example, the retiree’s immediate bucket in Graph 2 represents spending for the plan’s first five years. When netting steady income, such as Social Security, the plan generates an income need that investments can cover.

retirement bucket strategy power of compounding

Graph 3: Power of Compounding

A key reason to remain invested in the intermediate and long-term buckets is the power of compounding . This property allows money invested over a more extended period of time to grow substantially. For example, Graph 3 shows the difference in the value changes between a hypothetical investment and cash. 

What are the benefits of a retirement bucket strategy?

There are a few distinct benefits of the retirement bucket strategy.

First, the financial planning needed to size retirement buckets properly can give retirees a great visual of how they can ride through retiremen t, living the life they prefer, yet without running out of funds. If the plan shows that it will be difficult, retirees can adjust their spending accordingly. Most people are surprised how even small changes in the parameters of a plan can result in outsized long-term effects.

Second, the bucket approach to investing can give retirees the peace of mind of knowing that their short-term needs will be taken care of regardless of market events . It will not stop people from worrying about what happens in the long-term bucket. After all, that’s where a lot of their resources are. 

Third, financial planning gives the investor a stronger ability to plan taxes optimally. It allows a deliberate use of various accounts such as brokerage, Traditional retirement, and Roth accounts.  

Fourth, it allows retirees to plan their legacy better. With the retirement bucket strategy, planning expenses and the resources needed to fund them enable the retiree to identify a legacy surplus if any. The excess funds can become an additional bucket focused on legacy planning. That allows the retiree to better think through how to help their children or their favorite causes. It enables them to plan the distribution of a legacy in a way that helps the children when they need it, which may be before the retirees’ death. 

What are the drawbacks of a retirement bucket strategy?

Some critics claim that the retirement bucket strategy results in an investment strategy that is too conservative and overweighted in bonds. However, as we size the buckets according to a retiree’s spending needs, there is no overweighting or underweighting, just right-sizing. That perhaps is the best feature of the retirement bucket strategy: removing the uncertainty of arbitrary allocation and distribution strategies.

Other critics find the retirement bucket strategy challenging to maintain. 

Working optimally, the retirement bucket strategy requires retirees to update their financial plans periodically. It also requires regular adjustments in investments. All of that can be complicated. However, the right software and skills help simplify the process.

Is the investing bucket strategy right for you? 

If you need a retirement plan that allows you to 

  1. Balance your short-term and long-term needs
  2. visualize your income and expenses, and visualize whether you will have enough for your lifetime. 
  3. If you need to plan for a legacy without guessing how much you can spend, the bucket investing approachshould be an option.  

To learn more about the retirement bucket strategy, visit Insight Financial Strategists,  or schedule a complimentary call

 

(1): I should note that it is impossible to guarantee future returns.  

Oct 26

Seven Year End Wealth Opportunities

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

As we come close to the end of the year, you still have time to make a few smart financial moves.

Maybe because of the year-end deadline, many year-end planning opportunities seem to be tax-related. However, tax moves should be made within the context of your overall long-term financial and investment plan. Hence, make sure to check in with your financial and tax advisors.

Here are seven important areas to focus your efforts on to help you make the best of the rest of your financial year.

1. Harvest your Tax Losses

As of October 22, the S&P500 is up 21%, and the Dow Jones is up 16% for the year. Unfortunately, some stocks and mutual funds are still posting a loss for the year. Therefore, it is likely that some items in your portfolio show up in red when you check the “unrealized gains and losses” column in your brokerage statement.

You could still make lemonade out of these lemons by harvesting your losses for tax purposes. It is worth remembering that the IRS individual deduction for capital losses is limited to $3,000 for 2021. In other words, if you don’t offset your losers with your winners, you may end up with a tax loss carryforward that could only be used in future years. This is not an ideal scenario!

You can also offset your losses against your gains. For example, suppose you sell some losers and accumulate $10,000 in losses. You could then also sell some winners. Then, if the gains in your winners add up to $10,000, you would have offset your gains with your losses, and you will not owe capital gain taxes on that combined trade!

Bear in mind that Wealth Strategy is not all about taxes! Tax-loss harvesting could be a great opportunity to help you rebalance your portfolio with a reduced tax impact. Beware though of the wash sale rule: if you buy back your sold positions within 30 days, you will have negated the benefit. 

2. Review your Investment Planning

Tax-loss harvesting can be used effectively for short-term advantage. However, it also provides the opportunity to focus on more fundamental issues. So, in the first place, why did you buy these securities that you just sold? At one time, they probably played an important role in your investment strategy. And now, with the cash from the sale, it’s important to be mindful when reinvesting.

You may be tempted to wait for a while to see how the market evolves. We may have been spoiled into complacency with the bull run we experienced since the Great Recession. However, we should not forget that volatility does happen.

It’s almost impossible to predict accurately when the next bear market will start if it hasn’t already. And after more than eighteen months of strong gains, it is time to reassess if you and your portfolio are positioned for a potential downturn. 

You will want to ensure that your portfolio risk is aligned with your goals and that your asset allocation is aligned with your risk target. Reach out to your Wealth Strategist to review.

3. Review your Retirement Planning

There is still time to top out your retirement account! In 2021, you can contribute up to $19,500 from your salary, including employer match, to a standard defined contribution plan such as 401(k), TSP, 403(b), or 457, subject to the terms and conditions of your plan. And if you happen to be 50 years old or older, you can contribute an additional $6,500 for this year.

If you have under contributed to your plan, there may still be time! You have until December 31 to boost your retirement planning by topping off your 2021 contributions. This will also have the benefit of reducing your 2021 taxable income if you contribute to a Traditional plan.

As an alternative, you could contribute to a Roth account if your employer offers that plan option. 

Many employers offer a Roth in their employee retirement plans. If yours does not, schedule a chat with your HR department!

Many people think of the Roth account as tax-free. However, you should bear in mind that although Roth accounts are popularly designated as “tax-free,” they are merely taxed differently since you would be contributing after-tax funds. Double-check with a Certified Financial Planner professional to determine whether choosing to defer some of your salaries on a pretax basis or post-tax to a Roth account better fits your situation.

4. Roth Conversions

Our current tax environment is especially favorable to Roth conversions. With the current TCJA law, income tax rates will be going back up in 2026. Therefore, Roth conversions could cost less in current taxes until then. Of course, Congress could vote for tax rates to go up before the end of the year. There is even the possibility that Congress will remove the ability to do a Roth conversion after 2021.

To do a Roth conversion, you withdraw money from a Traditional tax-deferred retirement account, pay income taxes on the distribution, and move the assets into a Roth account. Then the assets can grow and be distributed tax-free, provided certain other requirements are met. If you think that your tax bracket will be higher in the future than it is now, you could benefit from a Roth conversion.

5. Choosing your Health Plan 

With health insurance re-enrollment season, the annual ritual of choosing a health insurance plan is with us. With health insurance getting ever more expensive, this could be one of your more important short-term financial decisions. 

Your first decision is to decide whether to subscribe to a high deductible option or stick with a traditional plan with a “low” deductible. The high deductible option will have a cheaper premium. However, if you have a lot of health issues, it may end up costing you more. High deductible plans allow access to Health Savings Accounts (HSA).

The HSA is a special instrument. With it, you can contribute money before taxes to pay for qualified healthcare expenses tax-free. Balances in HSAs can be carried forward to future years. They can also be invested to allow for potential earnings growth. This last feature is exciting to wealth managers because, in the right situation, clients could end up saving a lot of money.

If you choose a high deductible plan, you should plan to fund your HSA to the maximum. Many employers will contribute as well to encourage their employees to pick that option. If you choose a low deductible plan instead, make sure to fund your Flexible Spending Account. FSAs are used to pay for medical expenses on a pretax basis. The unspent amount cannot be rolled over to future years, unlike HSAs.

6. Plan your RMDs

Don’t forget to take your Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) if you are past 70. The penalty for not taking your RMD is a steep 50%. Your first minimum distribution must be withdrawn by April 1 of the year following the year in which you turn 70 ½, and by December 31 for each year after.

Perhaps you don’t need the RMD? Then you may want to redirect the money to another cause. For example, you could fund a grandchild’s 529 tax-advantaged educational account. Contributions are post-tax, but growth and distributions are tax-free so long as they are used to pay for education.

7. Charitable Donations

You could also plan for a Qualified Charitable Distribution from the IRA. That distribution must go directly from the IRA to a charity. Unlike a normal RMD, it is excluded from taxable income and may count towards your RMD under certain conditions

Charitable donations can also help reduce taxable income and provide financial planning benefits. However, the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) has made it more complicated. A significant result of the TCJA is that standard deductions for 2021 are $12,550 for individuals and $25,100 for joint filers. In practice, it means that the first $12,550 or $25,100 of deductible items have no tax benefits. 

For example, if a married couple filing jointly (MFJ) pays $8,000 in real estate taxes and $5,000 in state income taxes for a total of $13,000 of deductions, they are better off taking the standard $25,100 deduction. The first $12,100 that they donate to charity would not yield a tax benefit. One way to go around this new situation is to bundle your donations in a given year. Another possibility, within certain limits, is to give directly from an IRA.

As an example, if you plan to give in 2021 as well as 2022, bundling your donations and giving just in 2021 could result in a deduction and the accompanying reduced tax. 

If your thinking wheels are turning after reading this article, check in with your Wealth Strategist or financial planner: there may be other techniques that you could or should do before the end of the year!

 

Feb 19

What is Bitcoin, exactly?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Investment 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. To put it more simply, Bitcoin is an anonymous digital currency, which circumvents financial intermediaries in transactions.

Four key Bitcoin considerations:

1. How are Bitcoins created? 

Bitcoins are created through a process called “mining.” Fundamentally, Bitcoin is founded upon an algorithm, i.e., a mathematical formula, which regulates the speed at which Bitcoin can be “mined” or created and how it can be used or transferred. Practically, a computer program works to solve an equation. Once the computer solves the equation, a certain number of Bitcoins is generated. The time it takes to solve an equation gets progressively longer, requiring more resources and leading to diminishing returns as the cap of 21 million Bitcoins approaches (i.e., there is no additional money supply).

2. How does Bitcoin work?

[inlinetweet prefix="RT @boston_planner" tweeter="" suffix="#financialinsight #bitcoin #crypto"]Bitcoins have two encryption keys: one public and one private. The public key 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 matched to the public key to confirm the transaction’s legitimacy. Transactions are recorded in a public ledger in what is called “blockchains.”

Bitcoin price evolution

Bitcoin from September 2020 to February 19, 2021

3. Why do people use Bitcoin? 

Bitcoin is used for its comparative advantages over other forms of currency and transaction methods. One major attraction of Bitcoin is that it is comparatively anonymous. That 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), can use Bitcoin as a safe currency when dealing with illegal transactions (e.g., drugs, arms). There are continuing concerns that as Bitcoin becomes more liquid and, volumes start increasing, it will become a target for money-launderers. Other comparative advantages that stand out are simply the fact that it is digital – giving it greater flexibility of usage – and freedom from conventional political pressure or externalities. This second point derives from Bitcoin’s decentralization, making market influences by a central bank (e.g., printing money) or a government (e.g., the expansion of the money supply) irrelevant. Furthermore, at least from the financial side, the greatest attraction is that Bitcoin is essentially frictionless: there are virtually no transaction fees, making cross-border transactions a principal driver of future growth and monetization.
Today, Bitcoin continues to have limited usage. Many services allow individuals to obtain Bitcoins through an intermediary or directly on the market. While large retailers do not accept Bitcoin, there are several services for the purchase of gift cards, for example, providing an indirect method of accessing the retail market. Other websites and small-scale retailers also offer goods and services that can be paid with bitcoin. Notably, it is possible to buy Bitcoin directly through Robin Hood.

4. Every Bitcoin has two sides. 

Bitcoin suffers from a number of problems, many of which mirror the currency’s positives. The most significant concern 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 actions can be debated, these institutions provide the authority to back currencies. Similarly, fees for companies such as MasterCard are used to ensure users. The result of the lack of regulation, among other reasons, is a volatile and relatively 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 monetization, with deflation a potential concern given the technical limit of 21 million Bitcoins. While perhaps merely growing pains, the currency has not gained any meaningful traction concerning scale and monetization, unlike its price growth as demonstrated in the graph above. Significantly, the pricing of bitcoin in the graph above is in dollars.

(This post is based on research work by Patrick Chen.  Insight Financial Strategists LLC does not provide Bitcoin advice or services).

Mar 26

What’s After The Bear Market?

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Portfolio Construction , Retirement Planning , Sustainable Investing

What's After The Bear Market?

For the month ending 3/20/2020, the S&P 500 has been down almost 32%. Maybe it is because it’s happening right in front of us, but, somehow, the drawdown feels worse compared to history’s other bear markets.

According to Franklin Templeton, there have been 18 bear markets since 1960 which is about one every 3.1 years . The average decrease has been 26.3%, taking a little less than a year from top to bottom.  

Financial planners often work with averages. But the reality is that each bear market will be different from the norm. At the time that I write this, the depth of this particular drawdown does not even rank with the worst in history. Sure, it may still get worse, but that’s where we are today. 

We may not want to hear about how things will get better, because the situation with the Covid-19 pandemic and its resulting prescription of social isolation and market downdrafts is scary. But, eventually, things will get better. 

Keep in mind that things may get worse before they get better. The count of people with the virus will almost certainly increase. If you don’t have a source yet, you can keep up with it over here. But eventually, the Coronavirus epidemic will run out of steam. We will get back to our places of work. Kids will go back to school. Financial markets will right themselves out. We will revert to standard toilet paper buying habits. We will start going out to eat again. Life will become normal again. 

Financially, the question is not just how bad will things get, but how long it will take for our nest eggs to rebuild, so we can put our lives back on tr

Historically, since WWII, it has taken an average of 17 months for the S&P 500 to get back to its peak before a bear market .

The longest recovery since we have had reliable stock market records has been the Great Depression. The longest recovery post-WWII was in the wake of the dot-com crash at the beginning of this century. That took four years. The stock market recovery following the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 took only 3.1 years

Hence, it could take us a while before we make it back to the previous market peak. However, we may want to look at the data differently. This graph shows that, historically, we have needed to achieve a return of 46.9% to recover from a bear market .  According to Franklin Templeton calculations, these numbers can look daunting. However, they have been achieved and exceeded after every past downturn. While there is no guarantee, these numbers suggest that there will be strong returns once we have reached the bottom of the market. I like to think of this as an opportunity.  

With the time that it takes for investments to grow and get your money back, there is time to take advantage of higher expected returns. For those who have resources available, this means that there is time to deploy your money at lower prices than has been possible in recent months.

Those of us who have diversified portfolios and are not in a position to make new investments, the opportunity is to rebalance to benefit from a faster upswing. 

We know from history that every US stock market downturn was followed by new peaks at some point following.

Could this time be different? 

Of course, that too is possible.

I like to think that the future will be better. We will still wake up in the morning looking to improve ourselves, make our lives better, and achieve our goals. We are still going to invent new technologies, fight global warming, and struggle for a more equitable society. 

We are living through difficult times right now. Losses in our brokerage and retirement accounts are not helping. But we will get through this. Please reach out to me if you have specific questions or concerns.

Oct 28

Is A Health Savings Account Right For You?

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

Is A Health Savings Account Right For You?

It is health insurance plan signup season . Whether you subscribe to your employer’s health care insurance plan or you buy your own directly, it is the time of the year when you have to sign up all over again. Unless you have specific circumstances such as a change of employer, a divorce, or new baby, this is the one time in the year when you get to change your health care insurance plan.

If you have been keeping abreast of the popular financial media, you may have come across the Health Savings Account (HSA).  According to AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans), 22 million people had HSA accounts in 2018.  Financial Planners love HSA. It is potentially the most tax advantageous vehicle that exists.  Contributions to HSAs are pre-tax, the money is invested tax-free, and distributions are tax-free if used for health purposes. Triple tax-free. HSAs are even better than Roth retirement accounts !

The reality is that we all have health care expenses, and they can be substantial . Having the ability to pay with tax-free money is a critical advantage. If you have to pay a $100 hospital invoice, you might have to earn $150 or more first, pay Federal income taxes, Social security taxes, state income taxes, before you can have $100 to pay your bill. With an HSA, there is no income tax, you pay with $100 of your earnings. 

A Health Savings Account is effectively an alternative to the Flexible Spending Account (FSA) , the more traditional way to pay for health care expenses that are not covered by insurance. The FSA allows employees to save pre-tax from earnings, and then to spend it on health care expenses without paying taxes on the earnings.  Money in FSAs, however, is not invested, and it must be spent by year-end or be forfeited. It has to be spent, or it will be lost. HSA funds, on the other hand, can be invested, and funds from HSA accounts can be carried over into the future. Thus, HSAs can be spent in a way that is similar to other retirement savings accounts such as the IRA or the Roth IRA.

IRA Roth IRA 529 FSA HSA
Contributions are pre-tax Yes No No Yes Yes
Funds are invested tax-free Yes Yes Yes N/A Yes
Distributions are tax-free (1) No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Distributions can be taken in the future Yes Yes Yes No Yes
  1. If used as intended for retirement, education or health expenses respectively

What’s in it for the employer?

In order to contribute to an HSA, you must have chosen a High Deductible Health Plan with your employer. 

According to the IRS, for 2019, a high deductible is defined as $1,350  ($1,400 in 2020) for an individual or $2,700 for a family ($2,800 in 2020.) On top of this high deductible, annual out of pocket expenses (including deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance) cannot exceed $6,750 for an individual or $13,500 for a family. Those numbers increase in 2020 to $6,900 for an individual and $13,800 for a family. 

For employers, offering high deductible health insurance plans is more cost effective than other plans. Therefore, they will prefer that their employees sign up for high deductible plans. Many employers will contribute directly to HSA accounts to encourage their workforce to choose a high deductible health insurance plan.

Theoretically, if employees have to pay out of pocket or out of their HSA for their health care expenses, they will be more careful about their choices.  While the funds in the HSA remain available to be used for health care expenses immediately if needed, the designers of the HSA believe that the ability to carry over HSA balances to future years will motivate employees to be better health care shoppers when choosing treatments or, indeed, when choosing to be treated in the first place. The net result is that high deductible health plans help employers contain health care expenses, and shift the burden on their employees. 

From an employee’s point of view, high deductible plans can make a lot of sense . If you don’t believe that you will need (much) health care in the coming year, you can benefit from a lower cost plan, and from the savings and investment opportunity.  

Financial Benefit 

And how do you maximize the value of the HSA? By contributing to the maximum, and investing it. A dollar contributed may be worth many times its value in the future when invested.

The Internal Revenue Service allows individuals in 2020 to contribute up to $3,550 to their HSAs. Families may contribute up to $7,100.  Both individuals and families can benefit from a catch-up provision of $1,100 if they are over 55.

According to Debbie Taylor, a CPA and tax expert, many people make the mistake of not investing their HSA contributions and keeping them in money market. Because one of the key benefits of HSAs is that the contributions can grow tax-free , not investing them is a grievous and expensive mistake. 

However, it’s worth noting that an HSA may need to be invested differently from your retirement accounts , especially if you plan to use your HSA at different times than you might use your retirement accounts. Consult your wealth manager for more insight.

If you are choosing the high deductible plan to save money, but you are not able to contribute to your HSA, you are putting yourself at risk if you have an unforeseen health event. Not having enough saved to cover the cost of the health care you need means that you may have to go into debt until you have met your plan’s deductible. 

So, if you have a tight budget, please think twice before trying to save money with a high deductible plan. It may just backfire on you.

Unintended Consequences

A question that is often minimized at enrollment time is what happens to the HSA if you have miscalculated, and you happen to have a significant health care expense in the year that you are contributing? 

First, if it is a major event, you may consider using funds in your HSA account. However the health care insurance will eventually kick in and cover most of the cost. So as a subscriber to a high deductible plan, you are still protected from the catastrophic consequences of an unexpected health issue. While you may not harvest all the benefits of the HSA, and you will likely lose the cost savings of choosing a high deductible plan, you are protected from financial disaster.

What if it is not a really major event, just a somewhat major event like, say, a trip to the emergency room for a temporary issue that you will easily recover from?

In that case, you also have the option to use your funds in the HSA to pay for those expenses. Your contributions will have been pre-tax as with an FSA. You will not have enjoyed much investment growth. Your distribution will still be tax-free. You are giving up the future benefits of the HSA, but you are dealing with your more immediate issues. Basically, your HSA will have functioned like an FSA. You will also lose the savings benefits of choosing a lower cost high deductible plan over a higher cost low deductible plan.

What if instead, you decide to pay for your trip to the emergency room out of pocket with post-tax savings and save your HSA for the future, as your wealth manager told you that you should? The real cost of your $5,000 trip depends on your income and tax bracket. If you happen to be in the 32% Federal tax bracket and you live in Massachusetts, the cost of the $5,000 emergency room trip will be around 58% higher.  

HSAs provide some tremendous benefits that should be considered by everyone who is looking to enhance their health care and their retirement situation. However, the decision to choose a Health Savings Account should be based on more than just taxes and the cost of your health care insurance. It is important to consider the very real costs of unforeseen events and to be realistic about your health insurance needs. 

Nov 18

Seven Year End Wealth Strategies

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

Seven Year End Wealth Strategies

As we approach the end of the year, there is still time to improve your financial position with a few well-placed year-end moves.
Maybe because we are working against a deadline, many year-end planning opportunities seem to be tax-related. Tax moves, however, should be made with your overall long-term financial and investment planning context in mind. So make sure to check in with your financial and tax advisors.
Here are seven important moves to focus your efforts on that will help you make the best of the rest of your financial year.

1) Harvest your Tax Losses in Your Taxable Accounts

As of October 22, the Dow Jones is up 16.57%, and the S&P500 is up just 21% for the year. Unfortunately, there are still stocks and mutual funds that are down for the year. Therefore you are likely to have some items in your portfolio that show up in red when you check the “unrealized gains and losses” column on your brokerage statement.
You can still make lemonade out of these lemons by harvesting your losses for tax purposes. However, the IRS individual deduction for capital losses is limited to a maximum of $3,000 for 2018. So, if you only dispose of your losers, you could end up with a tax loss carryforward, i.e., tax losses you would have to use in future years. This is not an ideal scenario!
However, you can also offset your losses against gains. For example, suppose you were to sell some losers and hypothetically accumulate $10,000 in losses. In that case, you could then also sell some winners. Then, if the gains in your winners sold add to $10,000, you have offset your gains with losses, and you will not owe capital gain taxes on that joint trade!
This could be a great tool to help you rebalance your portfolio with a low tax impact. Beware though, you have to wait 30 days before buying back the positions you have sold to stay clear of the wash sale rule.

Gozha net on Unsplash

2) Reassess your Investment Planning

Tax-loss harvesting is a great tactic to use for short-term advantage. However, as an important side benefit, it allows you to focus on more fundamental issues. So why did you buy these securities that you just sold? Presumably, they played an important role in your investing strategy. And now that you have accumulated cash, it’s important to re-invest mindfully.
You may be tempted to stay on the sideline for a while and see how the market shakes out. Although we may have been spoiled into complacency after the Great Recession, the last month has reminded us that volatility happens.
No one knows when the next bear market will happen if it has not started already. Therefore, it is high time to ask yourself whether you and your portfolio are ready for a significant potential downturn.
Take the opportunity to review your goals, ensure that your portfolio risk matches your goals, and your asset allocation matches your risk target. Then, reach out to your Wealth Strategist about that.

3) Check on your Retirement Planning

It is not too late to top out your retirement account! In 2021, you may contribute a maximum of $19,500 from your salary, including employer match to a 401(k), TSP, 403(b), or 457 retirement plan, subject to the terms of your plan. In addition, those who are age 50 or over may contribute an additional $6,500 for the year.

If you have contributed less than the limit to your plan, there may still be time! You have until December 31 to maximize contributions for 2021, reduce your 2021 taxable income (if you contribute to a Traditional plan), and give a boost to your retirement planning.

Alternatively to deferring a portion of your salary to your employer’s Traditional plan on a pretax basis, you may be able to contribute to a Roth account if that is a plan option for your employer. As with a Roth IRA, contributions to the Roth 401(k) are made after-tax, while distributions in retirement are tax-free.

Many employers have added the Roth feature to their employee retirement plans. If yours has not, have a chat with your HR department!

Although the media has popularized the Roth account as tax-free, bear in mind that it is not. Roth accounts are merely taxed differently. Check-in with your Certified Financial Planner practitioner to determine whether electing to defer a portion of your salary on a pretax basis or to a Roth account on a post-tax basis would suit your situation better.

4) Roth Conversions

The current tax environment is especially favorable to Roth conversions. Under the current law, income tax rates are scheduled to go back up in 2026; hence Roth conversions could be suitable for more people until then. And, of course, it is possible that Congress will vote for tax rates to go up before the end of the year.
With a Roth conversion, you withdraw money from a Traditional retirement account where assets grow tax-deferred, pay income taxes on the withdrawal, and roll the assets into a Roth account. Once in a Roth account, the assets can grow and be withdrawn tax-free, provided certain requirements are met. If you believe that your tax bracket will be higher in the future than it is now, you could be a good candidate for a Roth conversion.

Read more about the new tax law and Roth conversions

5) Pick your Health Plan Carefully

It is health insurance re-enrollment season! The annual ritual of picking a health insurance plan is on to us. This could be one of your more significant financial decisions for the short term. Not only is health insurance expensive, it is only getting more so.
First, you need to decide whether to subscribe to a traditional plan with a “low” deductible or a high deductible option. The tradeoff is that the high deductible option has a less expensive premium. However, should you have a lot of health issues, you might end up spending more. High deductible plans are paired with Health Savings Accounts (HSA).
The HSA is a unique instrument. It allows you to save money pretax and to pay for qualified healthcare expenses tax-free. In addition, unlike Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs), balances in HSAs may be carried over to future years and invested to allow for potential earnings growth. This last feature is really exciting to wealth managers: in the right situation, clients could end up saving a lot of money.
If you pick a high deductible plan, make sure to fund your HSA to the maximum. Employers will often contribute also to encourage you to choose that option. If you select a low deductible plan, make sure to put the appropriate amount in your Flexible Spending Account. FSAs are used to pay for medical expenses on a pretax basis. Unlike with an HSA, you cannot roll over unspent amounts to future years.

6) If you are past 70, plan your RMDs

If you are past 70, make sure to take your Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) each year. The 50% penalty for not taking the RMD is steep. You must withdraw your first minimum distribution by April 1 of the year following the year in which you turn 70 ½, and then by December 31 for each year after.
Perhaps you don’t need the RMD? Instead, you may want to redirect the money to another cause. For instance, you may want to fund a grandchild’s 529 educational account. 529 accounts are tax-advantaged accounts for education. Although contributions are post-tax, growth and distributions are tax-free if they are used for educational purposes.
Or, you may want to plan for a Qualified Charitable Distribution from the IRA. The distribution must be directly from the IRA to the charity. It is excluded from taxable income and can count towards your RMD under certain conditions.

7) Plan your charitable donations

Speaking of charitable donations, they can also reduce taxable income and provide financial planning benefits. However, due to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA), it may be more complicated than in previous years. One significant difference of the TCJA is that standard deductions are $12,550 for individuals and $25,100 for joint filers. So, practically, what that means is that you need to accumulate $12,550 or $25,100 of deductible items before you can feel the tax savings benefit.
In other words, if a married couple filing jointly has $8,000 in real estate taxes and $5,000 of state income taxes for a total of $13,000 of deductions, they are better off taking the standard $24,000 deduction. They would have to donate $7,000 before they could start to feel the tax benefit of their donation. One way to deal with that is to bundle your gifts in a given year instead of spreading them over many years. Or, within certain limits, to give directly from your IRA.
For instance, if you plan to give in 2021 and also in 2022, consider bundling your donations and giving just in 2021. In this way, you are more likely to be able to exceed the standard deduction limit.
If your thinking wheels are running after reading this article, you may want to check in with your Wealth Strategist or financial planner: there may be other things that you could or should do before the end of the year!

 

Check these other wealth management posts:

Is the TCJA an opportunity for Roth conversions?

New Year Resolution

How to Implement a New Year Resolution

Tax Season Dilemna: Invest ina Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA 

Note: The information herein is general and educational in nature and should not be construed as legal, tax, or investment advice. We make no representation as to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented.  To determine investments that may be appropriate for you, consult with your financial planner before investing. Tax laws and regulations are complex and subject to change, which can materially impact investment results. Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market and other conditions.We make no representation as to the completeness or accuracy of information provided at the websites linked in this newsletter. When you access one of these websites, you assume total responsibility and risk for your use of the websites to which you are linking. We are not liable for any direct or indirect technical or system issues or any consequences arising out of your access to or your use of third-party technologies, websites, information, and programs made available through this website.  

Sep 18

3 Simple Ways to Avoid Ruining Your Retirement

By Eric Weigel | Investment Planning , Retirement Planning , Sustainable Investing

3 Simple Ways to Avoid Ruining Your Retirement

 

Photo by Melvin Thambi on Unsplash

 

What’s your “Probability of Ruin”?

Many people considering retirement or in the early phases of this new stage in life worry about outliving their assets.  

These individuals no longer have the luxury of a steady paycheck, and unless they are one of the lucky ones with a defined benefit plan and/or a large portfolio of liquid investments, they will have to dip into their 401k’s and savings to fund their lifestyle.

Somebody in the de-accumulation phase will naturally worry about how long their money will last and whether they can maintain their lifestyles.

People are living longer these days and it is not unheard of for a newly minted retiree to live another 30 years.  

Let’s look at the data. According to the Social Security Actuarial Life Table (2014) estimates, life expectancy for a 65 male is 17.81 years and for a female 20.36 years.  Somebody in above average health may live even longer – these are just median numbers. If you want to conduct your own calculations, you can refer to How Long Will You Live?

David Blanchett of Morningstar uses the 2012 Society of Actuaries annuity table to estimate the likelihood of living to a certain age using the methodology outlined in his 2013 FPA journal article. This cohort of individuals comes from a higher than average socio-economic group and tends to live longer than average.

Table 1 highlights the calculations from the perspective of a 65-year-old. There is a 50% chance that a male lives to age 89 with a female living to age 91.

Table 1

 Life Expectancy

Source: David Blanchett, Morningstar

The point of these projections is that most people should plan for a long period in retirement. The good news is that we are living longer today but the bad news is that we need to make our retirement savings last longer if we are to maintain a certain lifestyle.

Some people retire with very healthy nest eggs that, barring a cataclysmic event, will provide plenty of cash to fund their lifestyles.  They need not worry much as long as assets vastly outstrip expenses.  They have a high margin of safety.

For most retirees, however, the margin of safety provided by their financial assets in relation to their expenses is slimmer.  They do need to worry about how much they are spending, how their investments are performing and how long they may need their portfolio assets to last.  They may have other sources of income such as Social Security but still need to make their investment portfolios work hard to bridge the gap between lifestyle expenses and sources of income.

Most people in retirement face a balancing act

They can control their expenses to some extent (putting off non-essential expenses).  They can plan and make sure that their investment portfolios are structured in accordance with their appetite and need for risk-taking (maybe requiring the help of a financial professional). But what they can’t control are capital market returns and how long they need to tap into their retirement accounts (how long they will live).

One way to identify the various trade-offs required to ensure the sustainability of an investment portfolio is to come up with a CHRIS, a Comprehensive Holistic Retirement Investment Strategy with the help of a financial professional.  A good plan should clearly outline what actions you need to take and what type of minimum portfolio return you will need to achieve to ensure that the probability of running out of money before you or your partner/spouse die is within your comfort zone.

Another alternative is to forego a formal financial plan and utilize some sort of rule of thumb such as William Bengen’s 4% rule. According to this highly popular rule published in 1994, you can safely withdraw 4% of your capital every year in retirement.  The research contains a number of key assumptions (such as a 50/50 stock/bond allocation) often ignored in the popular press, but the Bengen rule is not only well known but popular among many retirees.

Should one just jump ahead in and rely on the Bengen 4% rule? Our view is that before you do so, you really should understand the probability of running out of money.

Milevsky and Robinson provide a simple approach in their highly touted article A Sustainable Spending Rate without Simulation to calculating what they call the “probability of ruin.”

Milevsky and Robinson identify three important factors: your rate of consumption, the risk/reward structure of your portfolio, and how long you live. Visually, these concepts can be illustrated in a Retirement Finances Triangle as depicted in Figure 1.

Without going into the mathematics of the Milevsky and Robinson approach for calculating a “probability of ruin” lets us think a bit more deeply about what makes retirement planning complicated in the first place.

 Figure 1

The first aspect that makes retirement planning difficult is the uncertainty surrounding how long you and your spouse/partner are going to live. People are living longer, on average, than in previous generations. But an average does not necessarily help you.  Your physical and mental health could be dramatically different from the “average” individual.

The other variable that is highly uncertain and makes retirement planning more difficult relates to the variability of investment outcomes on your retirement portfolio.  While history is a guide as to what to reasonably expect in terms of key asset class returns and risks over the long-term, in any given year returns could fall within a wide range.

As most people already know, stock returns exhibit more variability in outcomes than bonds.  The “probability of ruin” calculation using the Milevsky and Robinson formula incorporates the ability of individuals to evaluate the implications of various forms of asset allocation with varying levels of expected risk and return.

As you have probably figured out by now, calculating the “probability of ruin” is extremely important in planning your retirement.

The Setting:

To make the situation more realistic let’s look through the eyes of George and Mandy, both aged 65 and about to retire from their corporate jobs.  They have saved diligently over the years and now have a portfolio worth $1,000,000 that they will tap to fund their lifestyle in retirement.

The Problem:

George and Mandy estimate that they will need $90,000 a year to maintain their lifestyle.  Their Certified Financial Planner has also told them that their Social Security income will be $50,000 a year.  They face an annual gap of $40,000. They expect to tap into their retirement portfolio to fund this gap.

They are in reasonably good health and based on discussions with their financial planner they assume that they will live to age 90. To be safe, they assume a retirement horizon of 30 years.

Their starting portfolio value is $1,000,000 and they wish to withdraw $40,000 a year to fund their living expenses.

Capital Market Assumptions:

We assume that inflation will run 3% per year, on average.  Currently, inflation is running a bit lower than 3% in the US but the historical average is only slightly north of 3%.

What sort of investment risk and return assumptions should people use to calculate the probability of running out of money under this scenario?

Past returns are often a poor guide in forecasting returns and George and Mandy decide as a starting point to use the current Insight Financial Strategists long-term capital market assumed risk and return numbers as outlined in Table 2. These numbers are derived from expected long-term growth, profitability and starting valuation relationships.  They should be viewed as purely hypothetical and subject to great variation.

For illustrative purposes only, Insight Financial Strategists has aggregated all the asset class risk and return numbers into six multi-asset class strategy portfolios according to investment risk – Conservative, Moderate Conservative, Moderate, Moderate Aggressive, Aggressive and the industry convention of a 60/40 balanced strategy.

Table 2

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

Let’s start out gently – the Case of No Uncertainty:

It always helps to start off with a hypothetical scenario where all decision elements are known with certainty up front. We assume that George and Mandy own a 60/40 portfolio returning 4.9% per year and an annual inflation rate of 3%.

If they were to withdraw the equivalent of $40,000 a year in inflation-adjusted terms what would the required distribution look like over their retirement years?

Figure 1

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

The red line in Figure 1 depicts what would happen to their expenses in retirement if inflation were to rise every year by 3%.

What started off as a withdrawal of $40,000 turns into a much larger number over time. For example, after ten years they would need to withdraw $52,000 each year to fund their lifestyle (assuming that their Social Security checks are adjusted annually for inflation as is the current practice).

After 20 years they would need to withdraw $70,000 from their portfolio each year and after 30 years (their last year in their calculations) the number would increase to $94,000 annually. Inflation can sure take a bite!

In terms of George and Mandy’s portfolio, the assumption is that it will yield 4.9% per year or in inflation-adjusted terms, 1.9% per year. After withdrawals are taken out of the portfolio by George and Mandy to fund their lifestyle net of portfolio returns (the assumed 4.9% nominal return per year) the assumed value of the portfolio is depicted in Figure 2.

 Figure 2

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

At the end of the 30th year, the portfolio is expected to be worth $277K.  As long as George and Mandy only live 30 years in retirement and the assumed inflation and portfolio returns prove spot on (accurate) then things should be ok.  They will glide through retirement and even have some assets left over.

The problem occurs if either George and/or Mandy live past age 95. According to the actuarial data in Table 1, there is a 25% chance that George will live to age 99 and Mandy will live to age 101.

Now what? Their current $1,000,000 portfolio is now insufficient to fund their retirement expenses past the age of 97.  They will run out of money and not be able to rely on portfolio income anymore.

What could they do to prevent such an unpleasant outcome?

For starters, they could spend less. For example, they could cut back their annual spending to $30,000.

They could also shoot for higher portfolio returns by taking on a bit more investment risk.  George and Mandy understand that higher portfolio returns are not generated out of thin air.  Higher prospective returns are tied to higher risks.

But does the real world work like this?

Is it just a matter of pulling some levers here and there and voila you have wished for the perfect outcome?

Unfortunately, referring to the Retirement Finances Triangle depicted in Figure 1 although there are some things that George and Mandy can control such as their expenses but when it comes to how long they will live and how their portfolio will actually perform over their retirement years there are lots of unknowns.

Let’s deal with the real world – Introducing Uncertainty:

What if George and/or Mandy live longer than the assumed 30-year lifespan? This is what professionals refer to as longevity risk.  Living a high quality, long life is a very noble and common goal. Outliving your assets is a real fear.

What if portfolio returns do not measure up to our assumed returns? This is referred to as investment risk. What happens if investment returns are significantly below expectations and portfolio income proves insufficient to maintain your desired lifestyle?  Most retirees seek some margin of safety in their investments for this exact reason.

The Milevsky and Robinson formula is designed to take these uncertainties into account by modeling the likely distribution of portfolio returns and longevity.  The end output is a probability of running out of money at some point in time over the retirement horizon.  They refer to this number as the “probability of ruin”.

Let’s start by looking at the implications of the various portfolios strategies presented in Table 1. The Conservative strategy is the least risky approach but also has the lowest prospective returns. This strategy is exclusively composed of bonds.

The Aggressive strategy is exclusively composed of equities and is expected to have the highest returns as well as the highest risk of all of our strategies.

The 60/40 strategy falls along the middle in terms of prospective portfolio returns and risk.

What do the different risk and return profiles of the strategies imply in terms of the probability of ruin of George and Mandy’s portfolio?

Figure 3 depicts graphically the output from the Milevsky and Robinson formula.

Figure 3

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

What immediately jumps out from the bar charts is that the probability of ruin for the various portfolios is quite high. No longer assuming that everything is perfect creates, not surprisingly, more difficult likely outcomes.

For example, if George and Mandy were to employ the Conservative strategy yielding an assumed 2.3% annual return there is an 80% probability of them running out of money at some point in retirement.  Being conservative has its drawbacks!

What if they had the internal fortitude to employ the all-equity Aggressive strategy yielding a prospective return of 6.8% with a volatility of 17%? Their probability of ruin would drop to 37%.

Even if they employed the conventional 60/40 strategy, their probability of ruin would still exceed 45%.

What if the probability of running out of money is too high? 

Well, for starters they could reduce their rate of consumption, i.e. spend less. Maybe not what they wanted to hear but possible.

Let’s assume that instead of taking out $40,000 a year from their investment accounts they withdraw only $30,000? Let’s also assume that they invest in the traditional 60/40 portfolio. The only thing that has changed from the previous scenario is that now George and Mandy are spending only 3% of their initial portfolio to fund their lifestyle.

By spending less and thus depleting their investment assets at a slower rate, they lower their probability of running out of money at some point over their remaining lives to 30%. George and Mandy start thinking that maybe searching for a more inexpensive vacation option makes sense and allow them to worry less about outliving their assets.

 Figure 4

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

 

What else can they do to shift the odds in their favor?

Besides spending less, another option is to work a bit longer and postpone their retirement date. Let’s say they both work five years longer than originally planned.   What would happen assuming that they still intend to withdraw $40,000 in portfolio income and they invest in the 60/40 strategy?

Figure 5

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

By delaying retirement for five years George and Mandy lower the probability of running out of money to below 38%. Not bad but maybe not quite to their satisfaction.

Could George and Mandy restructure their investment portfolio to improve their odds?

Yes, that is certainly a feasible approach as we already outlined in Figure 3.  Higher return strategies carry higher risk but when held over the long-term tend to lower the probability of running out of money.

But not everybody is equally comfortable taking investment risk even if it is likely to result in higher ending portfolio values over the long-term.

Is there another approach to design a more suitable retirement portfolio?

While risk and return are inextricably intertwined, recent financial research has identified the “low volatility” anomaly where lower volatility stocks outperform their higher volatility cohorts on a risk-adjusted basis.  See this note for an introduction to the low volatility anomaly.

Let’s say that instead of assuming a 10.4% volatility for the 60/40 portfolio we are able to utilize a mixture of similar investment vehicles designed to exhibit lower levels of volatility but equivalent returns. Say the volatility of this strategy is now 8.4% and uses a range of lower volatility fixed income and equity approaches plus possibly an allocation to a guaranteed annuity.

Figure 6 illustrates the implications of using the lower volatility investment strategy.  The probability of ruin goes down marginally to below 42%.  Good but not great in the eyes of George and Mandy.

Figure 6

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

What else can George and Mandy do? 

After all, they have evaluated the impact of lowering their expenses, deferring their retirement date and structuring a more suitable investment portfolio and they still are uncomfortable with a probability of ruin in the 30% range.

The short answer as in many areas of life is to do a bunch of small things.  They could elect to just lower their spending from 4% to 3% and the probability of running out of money would drop to about 30%.

But George and Mandy realize that they could do even better by doing all three things:

  • Spending less
  • Working a bit longer
  • Structuring a more suitable investment portfolio

Figure 7 highlights the various alternative courses of action that they could take to increase the odds of not running out of money in retirement.

Figure 7

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

There are no guarantees in life, but spending less, delaying retirement and designing a more suitable portfolio lowers the probability of running out of money to about 20%.

While we all strive for control, George and Mandy are comfortable with this approach and the sacrifices required. To them leading a fulfilling life in retirement is more than just about money and sacrificing a bit in order to gain peace of mind is a worthwhile trade-off.

_________________________________________________________________________

What does calculating the probability of running out of money in retirement teach us?

Is the trade-off that George and Mandy are making appropriate for you? Maybe, but maybe not. At the very least, understanding your own circumstances and your own probability of running out of money may lead to vastly different choices.

Your retirement could extend for 30+ years. Having enough resources to fund your retirement is important to maintain your lifestyle and achieve peace of mind.

While much of life is beyond our control, everybody can still exert some influence over their retirement planning.  In this article we highlighted three general strategies:

  • Adjusting your spending
  • Delaying when you tap your retirement resources
  • Designing an investment portfolio that suitably balances risk and reward

As people enter retirement, they can’t eliminate either longevity or investment risk. What they can do is manage the risks and remain open to adapting their plan should things change.

At Insight Financial Strategists we don’t believe in shortcuts. A CHRIS, a Comprehensive Holistic Retirement Income Strategy, gives you the best chance of full understanding your circumstances and what needs to happen to fund your lifestyle in retirement.

Barring a full financial plan, at a minimum people should evaluate the likelihood of running out of money. Applying the Milevsky and Robinson formula represents a starting point for an in-depth conversation about your needs, goals and especially your attitude toward risk and capacity to absorb losses.

Interested in having the professionals at Insight Financial Strategists guide you? Please request a complimentary strategy session here.

______________________________________________________________________________

Disclaimer:

Information presented herein is for discussion and illustrative purposes only and is not a recommendation or an offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities. Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market and other conditions. References to specific investment themes are for illustrative purposes only and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Investment decisions should be based on an individual’s own goals, time horizon, and tolerance for risk. Material presented is believed to be from reliable sources and no representations are made by our firm as to another parties’ informational accuracy or completeness. All information or ideas provided should be discussed in detail with an advisor, accountant or legal counsel prior to implementation.

This piece may contain assumptions that are “forward-looking statements,” which are based on certain assumptions of future events. Actual events are difficult to predict and may differ from those assumed. There can be no assurance that forward-looking statements will materialize or that actual returns or results will not be materially different from those described here.

Stock and bond markets are volatile and can decline significantly in response to adverse issuer, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments. Investing involves risk, including the risk of loss.

 

Aug 13

Is Your Caution Today Hurting Your Tomorrow?

By Eric Weigel | Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Retirement Planning , Sustainable Investing

A Hypothetical Case of Fear vs Greed Tradeoffs

How our brain works:

We all think that we are fully rational all the time but in reality the way our brains operate that is not always the case.

One of the key functions of the brain is self-defense. When the brain perceives danger it makes automatic adjustments to protect itself.  When it perceives discomfort it seeks to engage in an action that removes the stress.

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman explains how we all have a two way system of thinking that we use to make decisions.  He labels the two components as System 1 (Thinking Fast) and System 2 (Thinking Slow).

System 1 is automatic, fast responding and emotional. System 2 is slower, reflective and analytical.

Think of your System 1 as your gut reaction and your System 2 as your conscious, logical thought.

While we all like to think that our key life decisions are governed by our logical thought (System 2) research has shown that even major decisions are often driven by our gut feel.

Which System do we use to make a decision? That depends on the problem. If we have seen the problem many times before such as what to do when see a red light we default to our automatic System 1 thinking.

When we face a challenge or issue that we have not seen before or maybe infrequently we tend to use System 2, our more reflective and analytical capabilities.

Kahneman’s research shows that we spend most of our time in System 1. While most people think of themselves as being rational and deliberate in their decision making, the reality is that we often employ “short-cuts” or heuristics to make decisions.

Most of the time, these “short-cuts” work just fine but occasionally for more difficult or complex problems the impressions arrived from System 1 thinking can lead us astray.

Why? Above all else, System 1 thinking seeks to create quick and coherent stories based on first impressions.  These impressions are a function of what our brain is sensing at that moment in time.

According to Kahneman, conclusions are easily reached despite often contradictory information as System 1 has little knowledge of logic and statistics. He calls this phenomenon – WYSIATIfor “what you see is all there is”.

The main implication from WYSIATI is that people often over-emphasize evidence that they are familiar with and ignore evidence that may be much more relevant to the problem at hand but that they are not fully aware of.

System 1 conclusions therefore may be biased and lead to decision “short-cuts” or heuristics that seriously impair the quality of a decision.

What makes making “money” decisions so hard?

When it comes to investing people often rely too much on System 1 or automatic thinking. The research shows that we are not infallible and we in fact often make behavioral mistakes. Sometimes we over-rely on our gut feel without properly evaluating the consequences of our actions.

Often our brain perceives of the dangers first and sends us a warning signal to be careful.  Losing money puts us on red alert.

Behavioral finance research (for example in the book Nudge) has shown that losing money makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same amount makes you happy. People are loss averse.

Loss aversion makes people overvalue what they have due to a reluctance to incur any losses should they make a change. What they give up, sometimes unknowingly, is potential upside.

Loss aversion creates inertia. Inertia often works against investors that overvalue the attractiveness of their current holdings.

There are different degrees of loss aversion.  According to Prospect Theory, all investors value gains less than losses but some exhibit an extreme dislike for potential losses that significantly hinders their long-term wealth creation potential.

Nobody likes to lose money, but taking on risk in order to compound your hard earned savings is an integral feature of how capital markets work.  You don’t get a higher reward unless you take additional risk.

Most investors know that stocks do better than bonds over the long-term but that the price of these higher returns is more risk.  Investors also understand that bonds do better most of the time than simply purchasing a CD at the local bank or investing in a money market mutual fund.

But knowledge stored in your logical and analytical System 2 thinking does not always make it through in the face of stress or uncertainty.

People can become too risk averse for a couple of reasons:

  • Case A: They let their fears and emotions guide their investment decision making and give disproportionate importance to avoiding any losses
  • Case B: They fail to calibrate their expectations to the likely frequency of outcomes.

In Case A, investors seek the perceived safety of bonds often not realizing that as interest rates go up bonds can lose money.  Or they simply pile into CD’s not realizing that their returns most often fail to keep up with inflation. Stocks are frowned upon because you can lose money.

Investors in Case A let their decisions be driven by emotion and fear and will over-value the importance of safety and under-value the importance of future portfolio growth.  Their account balances will not go down much when capital markets experience distress, but neither will they go up much during equity bull markets.

In Case B investors mis-calibrate their expectations for various investment outcomes and the consequences can be as dire as in the first situation.  Behavioral finance research has shown that investors frequently over-estimate the likelihood and magnitude of extreme events such as stock market corrections.

Investors often become fixated on what could happen should an equity market correction occur, but they fail to properly evaluate the likelihood and magnitude of such a correction in relation to historical precedents.  They also importantly fail to properly calibrate the probability of observing a recovery after going through such a correction.

What are the implications for investors playing it too safe?

Let’s consider the case of investors currently working and saving a portion of their income to fund a long-term goal such as retirement. These individuals are in the accumulation phase of their financial lives.

Somebody in the accumulation phase will naturally worry more about how fast they can grow their portfolio over time and whether they will reach their “number”.  People in the accumulation phase care primarily about their balances going up year after year. They are in “growth” mode.

The Hypothetical Setting:

To better illustrate this situation let’s look through the eyes of a recent college grad called Pablo earning $40,000 a year. Pablo is aware of the need to save part of his salary and invest for the long-term.  He just turned 22 and expects to work for 40 years.

Pablo will also be receiving annual 2.5% merit salary increases which will allow him to save a greater amount each year in the future.

The Problem:

Pablo faces two key decisions – what percentage of his salary to save each year and the aggressiveness of his portfolio which in turn will determine its most likely return.

He is conflicted. He has never made this much money before and worries about losing money. He also understands that he alone is responsible for his long-term financial success.

Pablo knows that there is a trade off between risk and return but he wants to make a smart decision. His System 1 thinking is saying play it safe and don’t expose yourself to potential loses.

At the same time his rational and informed System 2 thinking is influenced by a couple of finance and economics classes he recently took while in college.

Pablo can succumb to automatic System 1 thinking and invest in a very conservative portfolio. Or he can rely on his System 2 thinking and invest in a higher risk and commensurately higher return portfolio.

One Alternative – Save 10% of his Income and play it safe investing

For simplicity sake assume that Pablo decides to put 10% of his salary into an investment fund. The fund consists primarily of high grade bonds such as those contained in the AGG exchange traded fund.

From the knowledge gained in his econ and finance classes Pablo estimates that this portfolio should return about 4% per year – a bit below the historical norm for bonds but consistent with market interest rates as of August 2018.

Pablo also understands that such a portfolio will have a bit of variability from year to year. He estimates that the volatility of this portfolio is likely to be about 6% per year. Again, this estimate is in line with current bond market behavior as of August of 2018.

He knows that this is a low risk, low return portfolio but the chances of this portfolio suffering a catastrophic loss are negligible. He is petrified of losing money so this portfolio might fit the bill.

How large could his portfolio be expected grow to over 40 years of saving and investing in this conservative manner?  We built a spreadsheet to figure this out. We assumed a 4% portfolio return on principal, 2.5% annual salary increases and a half year of investment returns on annual contributions also at 4%.  Remember that this is a hypothetical example with no guarantee of returns.

At the end of 40 years Pablo’s salary is assumed to have grown to $107,403 and his portfolio, invested in this conservative manner, would have a balance of $575,540.  The growth of this portfolio (identified as 10_4) is shown in Figure 1. The naming convention for the portfolios corresponds to the savings rate followed by the assumed hypothetical rate of return on the strategy.

Figure 1

Source: Insight Financial Strategists, Hypothetical Example

Pablo knows that his portfolio will not exactly return 4% every year. Some years will be better, other years much worse but over the next 40 years the returns are likely to average close to 4%.

But Pablo does not feel comfortable just dealing in averages.  If things go bad, how bad could it be?

Given the volatility of this conservative portfolio there is a 10% chance of losing 3.6% in any given year. These numbers are calculated by Insight Financial Strategists based on an approximation of a log-normal simulation and are available upon request. Not catastrophic but nobody likes losing money.

Figure 2 shows the 90th and 10th probability bands for this conservative portfolio. These bands are estimated based on the expected average return of the portfolio and its volatility.

The actual portfolio return would be expected to lie about 2/3 of the time within these bands. In the short-term, say 1 to 2 years out, the portfolio returns are more unpredictable.  Over longer horizons, the average return to this conservative portfolio should fall within much tighter bands given the assumed risk and return numbers in the log-normal simulation.

Based on the calculations, the average returns over ten years should range between 6.3% and 1.4% per annum. Clearly, even this conservative portfolio has some risk especially in the short-term, but over longer holding periods returns should smooth out.

Figure 2

 log-normal simulation using 4% assumed return and 6% volatility

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

Another Alternative – Save 20% of his Income and continue investing in a conservative portfolio

Assuming the same 2.5% annual salary increases, the final salary would have been the same but his nest egg would have grown to $1,151,080. Pablo keeps looking at Figure 1 (the 20_4 line representing a 20% savings rate invested at an assumed 4%) and starts thinking that maybe a bit of extra saving would be a very good thing.

He still has a 10% probability of being down 3.6% in any given year, but if his budget allows, he feels that he can forego some frills until later.

Now, Pablo is starting to get excited and wonders what would happen if he invested more aggressively, say in a variety of equity funds?

Yet Another Alternative – Keep saving the same amount but invest more aggressively

The likely returns would go up but so would his risk. He estimates that based on current market conditions and the history of stock market returns (obtained from Professor Damodaran of NYU) that this more aggressive portfolio should have about an 8% annual rate of return with a volatility of around 14% per year. These estimates are both a bit lower than the 1926-2017 average reflecting higher current (as of August 2018) valuations and lower levels of overall market volatility.

He is thinking that maybe by taking more risk in his portfolio during his working years he will be able to build a nest egg that may even allow him for some luxuries down the road.

He also knows that things do not always work out every year as expected. Pablo is pretty confident that 8% is a reasonable expectation averaged over many years, but how bad could it be in any given year?

A log-normal simulation was conducted using the assumed risk and return numbers – same approach as before.

Figure 3 shows the 90th and 10th percentile bands for this portfolio.

Figure 3

log-normal simulation using an assumed 8% return and 14% volatility

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

Given the volatility of this equity-oriented portfolio, there is a 10% chance of losing 9.2% in any given year (based on the simulations). Ouch, the reality of equity investing is starting to sink in for Pablo.

But Pablo is also encouraged to see that his returns in any given year are equally likely to be about 26% or higher. That would be nice!

Especially when it comes to equities there is a wide range of potential returns but over time these year by year fluctuations should average out to a much narrower range of outcomes. While our best estimate is that this portfolio will return on average 8% per year over a ten-year window the range of expected outcomes should be between a high of 12.9% and a low of 1.6%.

Pablo decides to research the history of stock, bond, and cash returns by reading our April Blog on Understanding Asset Class Risk and Return and looking at a chart of long-term returns from Morningstar (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Source: Morningstar

He is surprised to find that over the long-term equities do not seem as risky as he previously thought. He is also quite surprised by the wide gap in wealth created by stocks versus bonds and cash.

The research makes Pablo re-calibrate his expectations and he starts wondering whether the short-term discomfort of owning equities is worth it in the long run.

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The “Aha!” Moment:

Pablo’s System 1 thinking is on high alert and his first thought after seeing how much he could lose investing in equities is to run back to the safety of the bond portfolio.

But something tells him to slow down a bit and think harder. This is a big decision for him and his System 2 thinking is kicking in. Before he throws the towel in on the equity-oriented portfolio he glances again at Figure 1 to see what might happen if he invests more aggressively.

What he sees astounds him. It is one thing to see compounding in capital market charts and yet another to see it in action on your behalf. Small differences over the short term amount to very large numbers over long periods of time.

If Pablo were to invest in the more aggressive portfolio there would be more hiccups over the years but his ending account balance should be $1,440,075 if he consistently put aside 10% of his salary every year.

If he saved 20% the ending portfolio balance would double in size.

Decision Time – Picking among the alternatives

Pablo is now faced with a tough decision.  Does he play it safe and go with the conservative portfolio? Or, does he go for more risk hoping to end up with a much larger nest egg but knowing that the ride may be rough at times?

Beyond the numbers, he realizes that he needs to look within to make the best possible decision.  His System 1 thinking is telling him to flee, but his System 2 thinking is asking him to think more logically about his choices.  He also needs to deal with how much he is planning to save from his salary.

Fear versus Greed:

He needs to come to terms with how much risk he is willing to take and whether he can stomach the dips in account balance when investing in riskier assets.  As Mike Tyson used to say, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the face”.

In structuring his investment portfolio Pablo needs to balance fear with greed.  Paying attention to risk is absolutely necessary but always in moderation and in the context of historical precedents.  If Pablo lets his fears run amuck he may have to accept much lower returns.

With the benefit of hindsight, he may come to regret his caution. On the other hand, the blind pursuit of greed and a disregard for risk may also in hindsight come back to bite him.  Pablo needs to find that happy medium but only he can decide what is right for him. Risk questionnaires can help in this regard. Try ours if you like!

Consumption Today versus Tomorrow:

Pablo also needs to come to grips with how much current consumption he is willing to forego in order to save and invest.  We live in an impulse oriented society. Spending is easy, saving is hard.

Saving is hard especially when you are starting out.  On the other hand, over time the saving habit becomes an ingrained behavior.  The saving habit goes a long way toward ensuring financial health and the sooner people start the better.

Will Pablo be able to save 10% of his salary? Or, even better will he be able to squeeze out some additional expenditures and raise his saving to 20%?

If possible Pablo should consider putting as much money in tax-deferred investment vehicles such as a 401(k). He should also have these contributions and any other savings automatically deducted from his paycheck. That way he won’t get used to spending that money. Pablo may come to see these deductions from his paycheck as a “bonus” funding future consumption.

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to continually be afraid you will make one”

— ELBERT HUBBARD

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Lessons Learned:

This has been an eye-opening experience for our hypothetical friend Pablo.  He was not expecting such a difference in potential performance.  He now realizes the importance of maximizing saving for tomorrow as well as not succumbing to fear when investing for the long-term.

He has learned several invaluable lessons that also apply to individuals in the accumulation phase of their financial lives

Lesson 1: The Importance of Saving

  • Delaying consumption today allows you fund your lifestyle in the future
  • Saving even small amounts makes a big difference over the long-term

Lesson 2: The value of patience and a long-term perspective

  • In the early years you may not notice much of a difference in portfolio values
  • Keep saving and investing – disregard short-term market noise and stick to a plan

Lesson 3: Small differences in returns can amount to huge differences in portfolio values

  • Seemingly tiny differences in returns can result in large differences in portfolio values
  • Compounding is magic – take advantage of it when you can

Lesson 4: The importance of dealing with your fear of losing money

  • Letting your first instinct to avoid risky investments dictate what you own will work against you
  • Investing involves risk – best to manage rather than avoid risk
  • The pain and agony of losing money in any given year is alleviated over the long term by the higher returns typically accruing to higher risk investments

Lesson 5: Investing in your financial education pays off

  • Gaining a proper understanding of capital market relationships is an invaluable skill to possess
  • Leaning on financial experts to expedite your learning is no different than when athletes hire a coach

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Now what should you do?

Avoid all risks, save a lot and watch your investment account grow slowly but smoothly? Or, take some risk and grow your portfolio more rapidly but with some hiccups?

Are a couple of restless night’s worth the higher potential returns in your portfolio? On

Also, are you willing to delay some current consumption in order to invest for the future?

The answer depends on you – your needs, goals and especially your attitude toward risk and your capacity to absorb losses.

Interested in having the professionals at IFS identify your risk tolerance, time horizon, and financial needs? Please schedule a complimentary consultation here.

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Disclaimer:

Much of the data used in these illustrations comes courtesy of Professor Aswath Domodaran from NYU and covers US annual asset returns from 1928 to 2017. Information presented herein is for discussion and illustrative purposes only and is not a recommendation or an offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities. Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market and other conditions. References to specific investment themes are for illustrative purposes only and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Investment decisions should be based on an individual’s own goals, time horizon, and tolerance for risk.

This piece may contain assumptions that are “forward-looking statements,” which are based on certain assumptions of future events. Actual events are difficult to predict and may differ from those assumed. There can be no assurance that forward-looking statements will materialize or that actual returns or results will not be materially different from those described here.

Stock and bond markets are volatile and can decline significantly in response to adverse issuer, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments. Investing involves risk, including risk of loss.

Jul 19

Post-Divorce Investments – What do I need to plan for now?

By Eric Weigel | Divorce Planning , Investment Planning , Portfolio Construction , Risk Management

Making Your Post-Divorce Portfolio Reflect the New You

Divorce is the final step of a long process. Whether the marriage was long or short, the end of marriage brings about the conclusion of an important phase of your life.

Divorce is an emotional event sometimes anticipated years in advance and at other times coming totally out the blue.

In all cases whether anticipated or not, divorce is a stressful event. According to the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory Scale divorce ranks as the second most stressful event that a person can experience in a lifetime.

Typically when you divorce you end up with an investment portfolio that is ½ of your old couple’s portfolios. Invariably, your new portfolio will not be suitable anymore.  If you haven’t been the “financial” person in your marriage you may not even know what you own.

Most likely you will need to make changes to your portfolio to suit your new situation. You are now also solely responsible for your financial health.

Your post-divorce portfolio should reflect your updated needs, objectives and comfort level with investment risk.  This may not be what you bargained for or you may feel ill-prepared to handle this on your own.  You may feel that your life is out of your sync, but aligning your financial assets to your new situation is entirely under your control.

Why do you need a new portfolio once you divorce?

For one, the dollar amounts are less than before and your current investment strategy reflects your goals as a couple rather than your own objectives going forward.

Moreover, most likely your confidence is a bit shot and your desire to take much investment risk is lower than before.

Ok, are you with me? You can control this aspect of your new life. What steps should you take to get the ball rolling?

We suggest an approach rooted in our P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E methodology.

The first step involves thoroughly examining your new situation from a non-financial standpoint.  Where do you want to live? What type of lifestyle are you looking for? If you have children what type of issues do you need to account for?

The second step is to re-evaluate your comfort with taking investment risk.  Now that you are solely in charge of your financial life how do you feel about taking on risk? Are you comfortable with the inevitable stock market swoons that occur periodically? Are you able to think as a long-term investor given your recent divorce?

The next step is really important. Your post-divorce portfolio needs to work for you. Establishing a hierarchy of financial objectives will drive the type of strategy that is most appropriate for you.

Is your primary objective to save for retirement? Do you have any major objectives besides retirement? Maybe you need to fund college tuition for your two kids.  Maybe you plan on buying a new home in 2 years once your life has settled down?

Next you need to deal with the nitty gritty of figuring out exactly what you own and cash flow budgeting.  What you own should not be difficult to figure out as you have just gone through the divorce process.

The second part of cash flow budgeting is often highly sensitive for people not used to budgeting during their marriage.  If you have never had a budget or stuck to one this step seems like a major imposition. But unless money is so plentiful you have no choice.

At least for a period of time you will have to keep track of your expenses and gain an understanding of where the money is going. The reason this is important is that you may need to tap into portfolio gains to fund your living expenses. If that is the case, your portfolio should be structured to write you a monthly check with a minimal amount of risk and tax consequences.

The next step in the P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E process is to evaluate your tax situation. If you are in a high tax bracket you might want to favor tax-advantaged investments such as municipal bonds. If your income is going to be taking a hit post-divorce you probably will end up in a lower tax bracket increasing the attractiveness of a Roth conversion to your traditional individual retirement account.

The last three steps all involve figuring out how best to construct your investment portfolio.  Going from your pre-divorce portfolio to something that fits your needs and goals will usually require some major re-adjustments in your strategy.

Going through our P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E process or a similar approach is probably the last thing you want to do on your own.  Most likely you will need the help of an advisor to work through this.

Keep in mind that the reason you are doing this is to regain control over your financial life. You sought the help of a lawyer during your divorce. Now is the time to move forward and seek the help of financial professionals with an understanding of your situation and new set of needs.

What is the best way to implement a portfolio strategy for newly divorced people?

The most important aspect of post-divorce portfolio is that it fits you and your new circumstances and desires.  Using our P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E methodology as a framework for evaluating your needs and desires we suggest implementing a portfolio structure that encompasses three “buckets”.

A “bucket” is simply a separate portfolio and strategy that has a very specific risk and return objective. Each bucket in our approach is designed to give you comfort and clarity about its role in your overall portfolio.

What is the role of these “buckets”?

Each “bucket” has a very specific role in the overall portfolio as well as very explicit risk and reward limits.

We label our three “buckets” as the Safe, the Purchasing Power and the Growth portfolios.

The role of the Safe Bucket is to provide liquidity and cash flow to you to meet your short-term lifestyle needs. How much you have invested in your Safe portfolio is a function of how much money you need to fund your lifestyle over the next few years.

The second bucket – the Purchasing Power portfolio – is designed to allow you to enhance your lifestyle in terms of real purchasing power.  What this means is that every year your portfolio should have a return exceeding inflation.

Finally, the third bucket – the Growth portfolio – is designed to grow your portfolio in real terms. This portfolio is designed to maximize your returns from capital markets and will be almost exclusively invested in higher risk/higher reward equity securities.

Conclusion:

Going through divorce is one of the most stressful situations anyone can face. Transitioning to a new beginning may take a short term for some but for most people the period of adjustment is fraught with uncertainty and doubt.

People often worry about their finances and whether they can maintain their lifestyle.  A life event such as divorce also tends to shorten people’s horizon as their outlook in life often lacks clarity.

The implications from an investment standpoint are primarily a temporarily diminished desire to take on portfolio risk and a shortening of time horizons.  In English this translates to searching for greater certainty and not looking too far out.

As wealth managers our first goal is to first understand the client’s circumstances and needs once the divorce is finalized. Our P.R.O.AC.T.I.V.E process serves as the framework for initiating and exploring client concerns and issues.

Our P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E approach is designed to make your money work for what you deem important.  Divorce is difficult and transitioning to a new beginning takes time.  As you adjust to your post-divorce life your financial assets will also need to be managed consistent with the new you.

At Insight Financial we are experts at guiding you through this difficult adjustment period and transition into a new beginning. To read our full report on our approach for managing your post-divorce investments please click here.

Our wealth management team at Insight Financial Strategists is ready to help you in your transition.  To set up an initial consultation please book an appointment here.

 

Other posts you may find interesting

Pension Division in Divorce

4 Risks of Pension Plans in Divorce

Post-Divorce Investments 

 

 

Jun 14

3 Mistakes DIY Investors Are Prone to Making in a Crisis

By Eric Weigel | Investment Planning , Portfolio Construction , Risk Management

Photo by Robert Metz on Unsplash

Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Investors have been cropping up everywhere since the end of the 2008 Financial Crisis.

DIY investors tend to be well-educated professionals of reasonable means that prefer to build their own portfolios without the help of an investment professional.

They educate themselves about investing by reading a number of investment books (here is a popular one for Bogleheads) and subscription-based services espousing the benefits of the DIY approach.

 

A lot of DIY investors identify strongly with Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard for his dedicated approach to index investing.

One thing that distinguishes today’s crop of DIY investors from the original crop back in the 90’s is that today’s investors are much more focused on exchange-traded funds (ETF) as compared to individual stocks.  A large number of inexpensive and liquid ETF’s have made this possible.

The primary appeal of DIY investing revolves around gaining control over your portfolio.

You are in charge and make all decisions. From selecting a specific ETF to all buy and sell decisions.  A secondary appeal of DIY investing is cost – if you are the manager of your own portfolio you save yourself the fee that would have gone to your investment advisor. Typically this fee amounts to about 1% of the value of your portfolio.

DIY investors tend to do well when capital markets exhibit low volatility and the trend in price is well established.  Everybody loves up-trending markets that don’t fluctuate much.  But as Humphrey Neill, a famous contrarian investor used to say “Don’t confuse brains with a bull market”.

The analogy I like to use is that of a pilot. When everything is calm even a novice will look good. But when the friendly skies become turbulent, a novice pilot will likely tense up and the odds of making a mistake will increase significantly.

DIY investors face the same situation. During periods of calm, portfolio decisions will come easily. The cost of a poor decision is not likely to have major consequences in such a benign environment.

But when the capital markets get dicey, the implications of one’s actions increase dramatically.  A poor decision could decimate the value of your portfolio and seriously harm your overall financial health.

My contention is that when the rubber hits the road, many DIY investors are ill-equipped to deal with extreme capital market uncertainty. 

Stock market corrections are not fun for anybody, but experienced investment managers have the real benefit of having seen a movie of the same genre before.

I have lived through the 1987, 2000-2002 and 2008 stock market meltdowns.  None of these were fun but I learned valuable lessons in each of these crises.  Mainly I learned not to panic but also ways to course correct once it became clear that action was required. A key insight is that changing fundamentals require changing portfolio compositions.

Many DIY investors have not seen a real crisis in their investment lifetimes.  While everybody can read about stock market crashes unless you live through such a period it is hard to truly assimilate their impact both on your pocketbook but more importantly on your psyche.

A crisis such as 2008 is extremely disorienting even for professional investors, but the advantage that experience and knowledge of capital market behavior afford you is a game plan honed by the school of hard knocks.

Without the benefit of having lived through previous periods of real capital market stress and the knowledge of how markets typically behave, DIY investors are at a significant disadvantage.

The potential for errors during a crisis goes up exponentially.  Three common reactions or mistakes that we have seen from DIY investors involve:

1. Selling Everything in a Panic

No questions asked, just get rid of everything that is taking a hit before it gets even worse.  Taking action by selling everything may give the DIY investor a sense of relief.  But making decisions in a highly charged emotional state is asking for trouble.

If the decision to sell is based on solid research and is well thought out, fine.  But if it is based on impulse and an immediate need to get rid of the stress then it is most likely that the portfolio was not appropriate for the individual in the first place.  Investing comes with volatility, there is no way around this!

Oftentimes when an investor sells in a panic the most troubling decision is when to buy in again. Even worse if the decision to sell turns out to be wrong, the investor will endlessly question themselves and lose confidence in their ability to navigate on their own.

DIY investors tend to focus on the initial portfolio composition or asset allocation but often fail to plan ahead should market conditions change.  And if there is one thing that holds true is that change is inevitable and an ongoing part of financial markets. Planning ahead for changing market conditions is an integral component of a well-designed investment plan.

Fortunately, most DIY investors know that impulsively selling everything in a panic is not a good wealth creation strategy. But don’t kid yourself – in a market meltdown you will want to sell everything and more!

You will have to control your emotions and have the stomach to weather the inevitable periods of market turbulence.

Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash

 

2. Becoming extremely risk-averse and freezing up even if action is clearly needed

Most market corrections are short-lived and while painful in the short-term they barely register on the long-term map. For example, in 2018 we have already had a couple of equity market corrections but in each case, the market recovered its losses fairly quickly.

No harm, no foul! Doing nothing or standing pat works just fine when markets recover.

The bigger problem for investors is when corrections take on a bigger life and become outright market crashes.  For example, the S&P 500 was down three straight years from 2000 to 2002.  What do you do when the roof seems to be caving in?

Many DIY investors close their eyes and pretend that this is not happening to them. They get frozen and choose to ignore reality.  This is not an abnormal reaction at all for us humans, but we also know that small problems many times lead to big problems if we do not address the underlying issue.

Wishing the problem away does not work.  From the field of behavioral finance, we know that investors tend to hang on to their losing investments way too long.  The flipside is that research has also shown investors to sell their winners way too soon. This effect is known as the disposition effect.

The price of financial assets such as stocks is a function of fundamentals (growth and profitability), the fair price of those fundamentals (investment multiples) and the sentiment of buyers and sellers.

During a period of crisis, the tendency of DIY investors is to focus almost exclusively on sentiment. When sellers want out now and buyers are scarce the price will automatically come down.

You observe falling prices and you get more and more uncomfortable.  But is there any real economic information in investor sentiment?

Experienced investors while not immune to the same feelings of fear will look at the underlying fundamentals and the value of those fundamentals. Experienced investors know that investor sentiment is fickle and lacks much predictive ability.

Has something changed recently to warrant this drop in market values? Are growth rates and profitability permanently impaired, or is the market overreacting? Are investors reacting to the perception of market over-valuation? These are all questions that require some real expertise and most importantly an understanding of context.

There is no cookie cutter way to analyze market action making the experience in similar conditions coupled with knowledge of historical market behavior all that much more valuable.

DIY investors often lack an understanding of context and an assessment of prospective fundamentals in the face of wildly fluctuating capital market conditions. The tendency by many is to stand pat, but what if changing market fundamentals require a change in portfolio positioning?  Intentional investing often requires action.

3. Failing to assess the changing risk levels of their portfolios

A frequent mistake made by DIY investors is to focus almost exclusively on returns and ignore the risk and correlation structure of their portfolios.

Much of the thought behind DIY investing hinges on ideas derived from Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) but somehow you hardly ever hear DIY investors justify changing allocations based on the volatility structure and composition of their portfolios.

A related mistake is to often assume diversification benefits that often are not there when you need them most.  A good read on “fake diversification” can be found here.

Ignoring changing asset volatility and correlation is a serious mistake made by many non-professional investors.  In fact, one could say that by ignoring the volatility structure of portfolios DIY investors are ignoring some of the lowest hanging fruit available.

As Nobel Prize Winner Harry Markowitz once said: “diversification is the only free lunch provided by capital markets”.

As capital markets change over time so will the risk characteristics of a portfolio even if rebalanced periodically to static weights. 

In a study done a couple of years ago on portfolio rebalancing, I showed just how much stock and bond volatility and correlations can change over time.

Figure 1

Source: Global Focus Capital LLC

Stock volatility, in particular, can move quite a bit around. Bond volatility while still variable shows much lower variability.  And, correlations between stocks and bonds can move between positive and negative values implying large changes in diversification potential for a portfolio.

Say, a DIY investor has a portfolio composed of 60% US stocks and 40% US Bonds. The DIY investor diligently rebalances this portfolio every month so that the weights stay in sync. What would this 60/40 portfolio look like in terms of volatility?

Using the above study over the 2000 to 2016 period, the average volatility of this 60/40 portfolio would average 8%.  Assuming that the average volatility would not change much would be a mistake. The range of volatility goes from 4% to 15% as shown in Figure 2.

Even the old standby 60/40 portfolio exhibits wildly fluctuating levels of portfolio risk.  A 4% volatility level implies a much lower level of potential downside risk compared to a portfolio with a volatility of 15%.  Experienced investment professionals inherently understand this and often seek to target a narrower pre-defined range of portfolio volatility.

Figure 2

Source: Global Focus Capital LLC

DIY investors do not often construct portfolios targeting an explicit range of risk. Instead, the often hidden assumption is that over the long-term asset returns, volatilities and correlations will gravitate toward their “normal” levels. These assumptions are not supported by the empirical evidence.

For DIY investors, changing levels of volatility and correlations can cause significant changes to the risk/returns characteristics of their portfolios. For example, volatility tends to spike up during periods of capital market stress and remain low when markets are trending up.

Also, correlations among investments within the same asset class (broadly speaking equities, bonds and alternatives) tend to also jump up during periods of crisis leading many to question the benefits of asset diversification.  What investors should be questioning instead is why they did not re-adjust their portfolios to reflect the changing conditions.

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Conclusion:

DIY investing is here to stay. Many non-investment professionals have educated themselves as to the virtues of retaining control over their portfolios. After all, DIY investors are saving themselves the fee that they would normally pay their advisor for managing their portfolio.

When markets trend up and volatility is low, DIY investors will typically fully participate in the gains.

But there is another “cost” that DIY may be incurring on their own that often rears its ugly head especially during periods of capital market turbulence.

We are all human and we suffer from the same biases and fears. The difference is that experienced professional investors have the advantage of having seen similar periods of capital market stress before and possess a more nuanced perspective of normal capital market behavior.

DIY investors tend to make three types of mistakes during a crisis – they chuck it all in a panic, they freeze up and do nothing, and, lastly, they ignore changing levels of portfolio volatility.

Professional investors while prone to the same fears as the DIY crowd are better positioned to focus their attention on the fundamentals of investment performance -growth, profitability & valuation – that ultimately drive portfolio values.

Experience and knowledge gained over many market cycles are at a premium when your portfolio most needs it.  At Insight Financial Strategists we are experts in integrating your financial planning needs with your investments.

You do not have to go at it alone and compete against the pros.  Our investment approach is rooted in the latest academic research and implemented using low-cost investment vehicles.

Interested in talking? Please schedule a complimentary consultation here.

 

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