Category Archives for "Retirement Planning"

Sep 19

Should you cancel your LTC insurance?

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

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Should you cancel your LTC insurance?

Long Term Care (LTC) can be a stressful subject to discuss, especially when costs are addressed. The reality is that Long Term Care is expensive. According to Genworth, a prominent provider of Long Term Care insurance, the median national cost of a stay at an assisted living facility is $48,000 annually in 2018. The total cost, over someone’s lifetime, ends up being much larger depending on where and how long a person will be needing it.

For example, the median cost of assisted living in New Jersey in 2018 was $72,780, according to Genworth. If someone were to stay at an assisted living facility for three years, the cost would be in excess of $200,000. Nursing home care could be even more expensive.

Aside from overall unpleasantness, a key issue with planning for LTC is the uncertainty. 70% of Americans will need it. But how much, and for how long? LTC is often the most unpredictable expense of retirement, and the least planned for.

Even insurance companies have difficulty ascertaining the cost. Large insurance providers such as John Hancock have left the field and no longer offer LTC policies to the general public. Others, including Genworth and Mass Mutual, have been struggling with State Insurance Commissions to increase premiums. Recently, Genworth was approved to increase premiums by 58% in 22 States.

According to the Federal Government, Long Term Care is the range of services and support you will need to meet health and personal care needs over a long period of time when you are unable to provide it for yourself. LTC is not medical care, but rather assistance with the basic personal tasks of everyday life.

The fact is that most of us will require some form of long term care usually toward the latter part of our lives . Given the high probability, and the high level of expense, it is something that needs to be addressed in our financial and retirement plans.

We have plenty of statistics on how LTC affects us as a whole, but very few on how it will affect us individually. Are we going to be part of the 70%, or can we avoid it and be part of the 30%. We just don’t have a very good way to predict how much long term care we will need, when we will need it, and how much it will cost. This is precisely why long term care planning is necessary as part of normal financial or retirement planning.

Who Pays for Long Term Care?

People often assume that Medicare or Medigap (the supplemental coverage for Medicare), or even regular health insurance will cover the cost of their Long Term Care expense.

Unfortunately, that is incorrect. Medicare is set up to cover only direct medical expenses, such as doctor and hospital visits, tests, and medicine. When it comes to issues of old age care, Medicare is not involved.

In general, most people without a plan who need Long Term Care will pay for it out of their own assets. Once there is no money left, Medicaid will usually take over. This approach works best for people who have enough assets to cover the other foreseeable circumstances in their future.

However, planning for Medicaid to take over is a backup plan at best. However, it is good to know that it is there, should we need it.

How do I protect my assets from nursing homes?

A close alternative to spending your own money and then letting Medicaid take over is actually to plan for Medicaid to take over. That involves creating a trust in which to put your assets so they can be protected in the event that long term care is needed. When that happens, the assets remain safely in the trust, and Medicaid pays for your long term care. You should keep in mind that Medicaid is taxpayer-funded, and as with other government programs, it is periodically under stress for funding. In other words, it is not easy to predict with certainty that such a plan would work, especially if it is much in the future.

Long Term Care Insurance

For others, purchasing a long term care insurance policy may be a better alternative. In exchange for the premiums, the insurance company commits to pay the amount contracted for. Effectively, the policy covers a significant percentage of the uncertainty generated by long term care. That amount can vary to take into account your own circumstances.

Who needs Long Term Care Insurance?

Long Term Care Insurance can help to preserve assets for other goals, including for legacy . It can also help you determine the level of care that you would like when you have a need for long term care.

From a tax viewpoint, it is worth noting that some of the premiums for most standard LTC policies available today may be deductible from taxable income within the limits specified by the IRS, especially for business owners. Also, up to certain limits, benefits are not taxed as income. Take this favorable tax treatment as a sign that Uncle Sam would like to encourage you to be covered (and not use Medicaid)!

The challenge with LTC insurance is that insurance companies have miscalculated the premiums required to cover their costs. As a result, premium increases, including the one mentioned earlier from Genworth, have shocked pre-retirees and retirees alike, resulting in a considerable debate about whether to drop LTC insurance policies altogether.

The financial impact of premium increases is real. It is a painful hit on a sore subject. And as with any price increase like that, the impulse is just to cancel.

However, canceling would be a mistake for many people. The cost of LTC must be covered somehow, and if not through insurance, it is usually through your own assets. However, it does provide an opportunity to reconsider the issue with your financial planner. Most people affected by price increases bought their policy many years ago. It would be beneficial to re-analyze the LTC need and the benefits of the policy. You may find out that you are over-insured, or underinsured. And then you can figure out a way forward on how to right-size your coverage.

According to Tara Bernard at the New York Times analyzing your LTC coverage can even lead to a renegotiation of the policy, especially if you are reducing the benefits.

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

First, as we mentioned before, it is expensive. Although, it is worth noting that the cumulative cost of LTC insurance premiums usually is less than the cost of Long Term Care itself!
Second, the possibility that the insurance policy may not be used, as in the case of death happening suddenly, is enough to stop many people from acquiring Long Term Care insurance. In this paradigm, the thought of paying premiums for years, and not collecting a benefit would make the insurance a waste.

Don’t Waste the Premiums

To counter this objection, the insurance industry has created products that allow you to “not waste the premiums.” These products allow you to purchase an annuity or a life insurance policy with a special “rider” that allows their conversion to an LTC policy should the need arise.

These products allow you to get Long Term Care coverage if needed, and allow repurposing the funds in case the Long Term Care benefit is not used. The details of these products are beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, that these alternatives can provide a lot of flexibility, at a cost, in a financial plan. For people who have significant assets that are not needed for their retirement plan, these alternatives may be worth considering.

Should I cancel my LTC insurance?

Because of the increases in premiums that are sweeping the LTC insurance industry, many people are wondering if they should cancel their policies . There is no easy answer to that question. The increased cost can be burdensome. But the other side to this question is if you cancel your insurance because of the premium increase, how are you going to pay for your Long Term Care expenses when they occur?

The answer is different for everyone. Being a financial planner and number geek, I believe that the answer for many resides in comparing the costs and the benefits. For most people that will result in keeping your insurance. If you are not sure, schedule a call, and we can review.

LTC can be a significant expense. As such, it needs to be factored into your overall retirement plan. The four approaches discussed (pay out of assets, Medicaid planning, traditional long term care insurance, and “not waste the premium” alternatives) all offer different benefits and should be matched to the right circumstance and individual preference.

In my experience, most people find it liberating to include LTC in a retirement plan formally, and know what is planned and how much is planned for. It then leaves greater flexibility to focus on the fun aspects of life!

If you need to figure out which option works best for you, schedule a conversation with me today!

Jul 16

Do You Have To Pay Taxes in Retirement?

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

Do You Have To Pay Taxes in Retirement?

Many people mistakenly look forward to not having to pay income taxes in retirement. It is understandable that after a lifetime of paying taxes, retirees would feel that they deserve a break. 

Unfortunately, that is not generally how income taxes work! In this article, I categorize nine sources of income and their corresponding level of taxes. 

It may seem at times that taxes are hitting us from all directions.  However, a variety of tax rules can also give retirees, or ideally pre-retirees, opportunities to plan such that they can optimize their lifetime taxes, and avoid paying more than their fair share .

Social Security

For those filing as single with income below $25,000, or married filing jointly with income below $32,000, social security income is income tax-free. However, single filer retirees with income up to $34,000 or $44,000 for married filing jointly will find that 50% of their social security becomes taxable.  When income increases over $34,000, or $44,000 for married filing jointly then 85% becomes taxable. 

So while it is correct that a portion of their social security income will be income tax-free, many retirees find that they will pay some taxes on their social security income

Retirement Accounts

Retirement accounts such as 401(k), 403(b), and IRAs are an important source of income for retirees.  Income from these accounts is taxed as ordinary income, as if it was being earned in a job, with tax rates ranging from 10% to 37% at the federal level. That is because the initial contribution to those accounts helped to reduce taxable income at the time.  That means that the money in these retirement accounts was never taxed. 

To complicate the matter, distributions from some accounts may be exempt from State taxes. For instance, 403(b) accounts earned in New Jersey are exempt from New Jersey State income taxes at distribution. Similarly, IRA distributions from accounts that were established by Massachusetts taxpayers are exempt from State income taxes. These peculiarities vary from State to State. It’s important to verify how they may apply in your State rather than making an assumption.  

Pensions

Many retirees still receive pension income. Some of the more common ones include state, federal and military pensions. Although private pensions have been in decline for several decades now, there continue to be many people who receive payments from these pensions.

Retirees are often surprised to find that their pension income is taxable as ordinary income at the federal level, just as other retirement account income. As with other retirement income sources, there may be exceptions for state taxes that vary from state to state and pension to pension.

Roth Accounts

Income from Roth accounts is not taxed in retirement.  That is because the initial contribution came from after-tax money. In other words, the income used to make the contribution was taxed on the full amount before the contribution was made. I like to say that “Roth accounts are not tax-free, they are just taxed differently“.

A key benefit of Roth accounts is that their distributions do not count toward high-income surcharges for Medicare Part B and Part D premiums. 

Retirees find that Roth accounts can be tremendously useful to optimize taxes in retirement by strategically combining income from Roth accounts with income from taxable accounts .

As a result, effective retirement planning should include considering saving in Traditional vs Roth accounts and strategically converting Traditional to Roth accounts, when appropriate.

Before jumping into making a Roth conversion, it is important to understand that the point of a Roth account contribution should not be to avoid taxes in retirement per se.  Instead, it should be to reduce lifetime taxes . It is possible that a badly timed Roth contribution would increase lifetime taxes, while also reducing retirement income taxes. A strategic plan is important to think through and implement. 

Municipal Bonds

Income received from municipal bonds is federal tax-free.  Like a Roth contribution, an investment in municipal bonds is made with after-tax money. If you own municipal bonds from the state of your residence, the interest is also state tax-free. However, if you own municipal bonds from states other than your residence, their interest is usually taxable at the state level.

People also wonder what happens when they sell their municipal bonds.  When that happens, the price of the bond can be higher or lower than the face value, known as a premium or a discount. When the price is at a premium, the difference between the premium and the face value can be taxed. That can often be an impediment to a sale as people don’t want to be taxed.  

Investments

When held for one year or longer, investments outside of retirement accounts are subject to long term capital gains taxes. They can range from 0% to 23.8%, including potential Medicare surcharges.  In 2019, for a married couple filing jointly with taxable income up to $78,750, long term capital gains are taxed at 0% federally ($39,375 for people filing as single).

Therefore investments can potentially be taxed less than other sources of income such as retirement accounts. Balancing distributions from investments in conjunction with Traditional retirement and Roth accounts can be a valuable tax optimization tool.

For people preparing to retire, it may make sense to divert investments from retirement accounts to brokerage accounts . Since taxes cannot be entirely avoided, it is about creating a strategy that optimizes investment vehicles to reduce lifetime taxes.

Annuities

Any income from annuities held inside qualified retirement accounts such as an IRA will be taxable as ordinary income in its entirety.

Income from annuities that are not held in qualified retirement accounts is partially taxable as ordinary income. The amount of the distribution that represents your original investment is considered tax-free. 

Therefore, the taxation of annuity income falls somewhat below that the taxation of income from retirement accounts. 

Life Insurance

Loans from the cash value of an insurance policy are considered tax free. That is because, as any loans, they are not considered income. That is a critical point made at the time that an insurance sale occurs.  It should be noted, however, that life insurance is an instance when the tax issues are so prevalent in the discussion that they obscure the other costs of cash value life insurance. The loan from the policy is tax-free, but that in an of itself does not necessarily make life insurance cost-effective or appropriate for your needs.

Earned Income

Income earned in retirement is taxed as any other earned income before retirement. Some retirees continue to earn work income, from part-time jobs or from consulting gigs for example. That income is taxed as earned income as if they were not retired, including Social Security and Medicare. Unfortunately, there is no tax break for working in retirement!

The reality for most of us is that we will owe taxes in retirement. The multiplication of tax situations can make planning difficult for a retiree.

The challenge is to plan our income situation strategically, manipulate it if you will, in order to minimize lifetime taxes. 

Fortunately, wealth planning done properly is a very feasible endeavor that  may help you keep more of what you earned in your pockets!

Nov 18

Seven Year End Wealth Management Strategies

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

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

As we approach the end of a lackluster year in the financial markets, 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. 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 26, the Dow Jones is up 1.65%, and the S&P500 is up just 0.98% ]for the year. Unfortunately, many stocks and mutual funds are down for the year. Therefore you are likely to have a number of 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 an omelet out of these cracked eggs by harvesting your losses for tax purposes . 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, if you were to sell some losers and hypothetically accumulate $10,000 in losses, you could then also sell some winners. If the gains in your winners 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 that you have to wait 30 days before buying back the positions that you have sold to stay clear of the wash sale rule.

2) Reassess your Investment Planning

Tax loss harvesting is a great tactic to use for short-term advantage. As an important side benefit, it allows you to focus on more fundamental issues. 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. 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 that your asset allocation matches your risk target..

3) Check on your Retirement Planning

It is not too late to top out your retirement account!  In 2018, you may contribute a maximum of $18,500 from your salary, including employer match to a 401(k), TSP, 403(b), or 457 retirement plan, subject to the terms of your plan. Those who are age 50 or over may contribute an additional $6,000 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 2018, reduce your 2018 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 pre-tax 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 to on a pre-tax 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.

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 that has a “low” deductible or to 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 pre-tax and to pay for qualified healthcare expenses tax-free. 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 rollover unspent amounts to future years.

 

Gozha net on Unsplash

6) If you are past 70, plan your RMDs

If you are past 70, make sure that you 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? 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 and take a tax deduction. 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 be used to reduce taxable income and provide financial planning benefits. However, as a result of 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 went up to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married filing jointly. Practically what that means is that you need to accumulate $12,000 or $24,000 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.

For instance, if you plan to give in 2018 and also in 2019, consider bundling your donations and giving just in 2019. 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 manager 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.  

Oct 15

Financial Planner or Estate Planner: Which Do You Need?

By Anna Byrne | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning , Tax Planning

Financial Planner or Estate Planner: Which Do You Need?

Financial Planners and Estate Planners are two different professions that are often confused. There is some overlap between professionals in these fields, but their roles are rather distinct. When you are striving to make a long-term plan for a strong financial future, both financial planners and estate planners play a crucial role.

In fact, when you consider some of the most recent personal finance statistics, it becomes very clear that many Americans could really benefit from retaining the services of both a financial planner AND an estate planner. For instance, 33% of Americans have no money saved for retirement, 60% lack any form of an estate plan, and only 46% have money saved for emergencies. Better planning starts with understanding what both types of planners do.

What is a Financial Planner?

A financial planner is a professional who offers a wide range of services that can assist both individuals and businesses to accomplish their long-term financial goals and accumulate wealth. They fall into two categories:

  • Registered Investment Advisor
  • Certified Financial Planner

Certified Financial Planners (CFP) are required to comply with the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, which means they have a basic level of expertise backed by a larger organization. Ethically they have to work in your best interest.

Services provided by both financial advisors and CFPs include:

What is an Estate Planner?

The goal of a financial planner is to assist with wealth accumulation. On the other hand, an estate planner can help you to make financial plans associated with your passing, which includes protecting the wealth that you have accumulated .

While you might believe only wealthy individuals need to work with an estate planner, you should consider the fact that everything you have accumulated in your life comprises your estate. Accumulated assets such as vehicles, furniture, bank accounts, life insurance, your home, and other personal possessions are all included in your estate.

Your assets become the property of the state if you die without a will or an estate plan in place , and your family members will not be able to claim them without paying legal fees and taxes. They will also have to face the stress of potential disagreements with other family members over how your property should be divided.

Besides planning for your passing, estate planning also involves creating a clear plan for your care if you become disabled , and it also covers naming guardians for underage children. Estate planning is a way to protect your family and your assets while reducing taxes and legal fees .

Which Do You Need?

The roles of financial planners and estate planners are unique, and for this reason, you will benefit from working with both . While your financial planner helps you accumulate wealth, he or she can also prepare you for a meeting with an estate planner as part of your long-term strategy. This includes providing the estate planner with lists of beneficiaries, tax return documentation, lists of investments and a breakdown of income and expenses.

When you work with both a financial planner and an estate planner, they will keep you accountable by periodically reviewing your documentation and beneficiaries and making sure everything is updated and reviewed as necessary. By taking the time to work with both these professionals, no important decisions will be overlooked, and you will take control of your financial future.

 

Note: This article was authored by Kristin Dzialo, a partner at Eckert Byrne LLC, a Cambridge, MA law firm that provides tailored estate planning. Eckert Byrne LLC and Insight Financial Strategists LLC are separate and unaffiliated companies. This article is provided for educational and informational purposes only. While Insight Financial Strategists LLC believes the sources to be reliable, it makes no representations or warranties as to this or other third party content it makes available on its website and/or newsletter,  nor does it explicitly or implicitly endorse or approve the information provided.  

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.

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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.

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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.

____________________________________________________________________

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.

____________________________________________________________________

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.

Aug 09

Top 5 Financial Mistakes Made by Foreign Nationals Living In the US

By Chris Chen CFP | Financial Planning , Retirement Planning

Top 5 Financial Mistakes

Made by Foreign Nationals Living in  America

Approximately 1.5 million foreign nationals move to the US every year to study, work and live. Many come on green card visas, and others on working and other temporary visas.  They come from all walks of life. They are engineers, scientists, physicians, academics.

Anyone who has moved to another country can testify that it is a daunting task. Everything is new. A lot of what was known must be relearned. What number to call for emergencies? How much to tip at restaurants if at all? And how to deal with investment and other financial matters?  

Engineers, scientists, physicians, academics, and business people moving to the US often continue to hold assets in checking,  investment accounts and in real estate in other countries. Some may even inherit assets in other countries while living in the US.  Eventually many move back to their home country or a third country.

All newly arrived people in the US  face the common dilemma of how to efficiently reinvent their financial lives.  In many ways the US financial system may seem odd. Many of the differences relative to their former home base can be found relatively easily.

However, there are financial pitfalls specific to foreign nationals living in the US to be aware of. Here are five of them.  

  1. Failure to understand US reporting requirements

Unless they have been in a monastic retreat, US citizens will know that their government cares about their foreign income and assets. Ugly acronyms such as FATCA and FBAR have been designed to ensure tax compliance from all Americans.  What is often overlooked is that the reporting requirements of foreign income and assets also apply to all residents of the US, including foreigners living in the US.

Foreign nationals in the US routinely underestimate the impact of necessary reporting requirements.  They do so at their own peril. Whether they are citizens or not, residents of the US are subject to taxation on their worldwide income. In many cases, taxes paid overseas can be offset by credits to US taxes, thus limiting the monetary impact. The real challenge is the obligation to report. Laws, including the aforementioned FATCA and FBAR, obligates all US residents to report foreign income and assets.  

In a routine instance, a foreign national may own a checking account, a brokerage account, or even real estate in their home country. When moving to the US and focusing on the excitement and challenge of a new life, it is easy to forget about these assets or believe that they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the IRS.Such an assumption would be wrong.

All these assets are subject to reporting to US government authorities. Under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act of 2010 (FATCA) the US government set up a global reporting infrastructure to mandate foreign banks and governments to report foreign-held assets owned by US residents to the US government. To ensure compliance, foreign institutions are subject to stiff penalties when they fail to report assets owned by US residents.  In other words, if you own a foreign asset, it is unlikely to be a secret to the US government.

Reporting requirements don’t stop with banks and governments. Taxpayers are also responsible for reporting their own information through FBAR and IRS form 8938 filings. Information in those forms is then compared with the bank and government reports. Discrepancies and failures to report can be considered tax evasion and fraud. They are subject to penalties that can be punitive. Ignoring this issue is not a sustainable strategy, because eventually, the government will catch up. If in doubt check with a professional.

  1. Get overwhelmed by US tax complexity

Foreign nationals who come to America are often overwhelmed by the complexity of the U.S. tax system.  As a result, they often become paralyzed by the complexity and end up missing out on taking care of their financial needs. On average, foreign nationals in the US have the advantage of being stronger savers than Americans. However, to gain a sustainable advantage you need to invest your savings to allow the laws of compound growth work for you and fructify your savings. For every problem, there is a solution.

Although it looks daunting, US tax complexity can also be overcome. Because software solutions are not typically designed to handle the complexities of foreign assets and income, it is advisable to hire professionals who have experience with international matters.

  1. Not being aware of tax treaties

The US maintains tax treaties with some 68 foreign countries that determine rules and exceptions for the treatment of various taxable events. The treaties provide a framework to avoid or minimize double taxation on a variety of active and passive income. Failure to be aware of the tax treaties, their provisions, and their implementation can result in unnecessary withholdings and taxes.

Tax treaties can also provide benefits. If you have worked in the US for a while, you will have accumulated social security credits, potentially qualifying you for social security retirement benefits. Through “totalization” agreements with 26 countries, those credits can be transferred to a number of social security peer systems in those countries, thus improving retirement benefits in those countries.  The reverse is also true. If you have social security equivalent credits in those 26 countries and retire in the US, they could be counted towards your US social security benefits. In the case where there is no totalization agreement and the foreign national has contributed to US social security for 10 years or longer (technically 40 quarters), the foreign national is usually eligible for a US social security retirement benefit.

  1. Cashing out retirement accounts upon leaving the U.S.

Foreign nationals often accumulate substantial U.S. retirement account balances during their American career. Most companies offer a 401(k) retirement plan; foreign national employees are also eligible to participate.  It is often an easy decision: 401(k) plans provide an easy saving mechanism and an immediate tax reduction. It allows a maximum annual saving for people under 50 of $18,500 a year including the company match, if applicable.

When they look to return to their home country, people are often conflicted about how to handle those accounts. Broadly speaking the choices are to leave the accounts unperturbed or to cash out and go home. Often the decision is to cash out.

Cashing out of a deferred tax retirement account such as a 401k or an IRA before age 59 ½ results in punitive taxation.  The distribution is taxed as income. Usually, it propels the account owner to a higher tax rate resulting in additional costs. For instance, a taxpayer that was in the 24% tax bracket could find himself or herself in the 32% bracket as a result of a retirement account distribution.  

To add insult to injury, the distribution is also subject to a 10% penalty for those who take when they are younger than 59 1/2.  It is easy to see that cashing out is an expensive proposition that robs you of the benefits of saving and tax-deferred growth.

The other possibility is to leave the account in the US or roll it over to an IRA if it is in a 401k or other company sponsored plan.  The immediate advantage is that there is no immediate income tax or penalty. In addition, the investment options are usually much stronger and less expensive than in other countries. The downside is that the assets may be subject to estate taxes if the foreign national dies owning the asset.  And, as with Americans, distributions in retirement are subject to income taxes. For those who choose to leave the retirement accounts in the US, a plan can be built to optimize income and estate taxes to ensure that you can benefit from the fruits of your savings.

  1. Not recognizing the advantages of keeping U.S. investment accounts when leaving.

The US investment environment is more favorable to individual investors than most others.  Mutual fund and ETF expense ratios are lower, transaction costs are lower, and management fees are lower.  Market liquidity is usually higher even for many investments that are focused on specific foreign markets. And the range of investment options available to individuals is wider. For instance, there are 80 ETFs listed in Singapore and 134 listed in Hong Kong, compared with 1,707 in the US (August 2018).

It should be noted that although financial assets held by foreigners are not `subject to US capital gains taxes, dividends and interest are subject to withholding taxes of 10% to 30%, depending on whether there is a tax treaty.  Often tax treaties can help mitigate the impact of income and estate taxes, including the withholding tax. Again this is an area where financial professional familiar with the intricacies of cross-border families can really help.

On balance, when they leave the US, foreign nationals can continue to enjoy the generally stronger US investment climate.

Last Word

Moving to the US to continue a thriving career is often a dream of many foreign nationals. A new lifestyle, upward progress and a taste of American culture. What is there not to like about such an adventure? But that dream may not turn out to be that great in real life if you don’t properly address the complexities and uniqueness of the US tax system. However, the five mistakes outlined in this note can be easily addressed with the help of the right professional. Do so, and you will reap the rewards

Jun 15

4 Risks of Pension Plans in Divorce

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

4 Risks of Pension Plans in Divorce

Although the number of pension plans has significantly declined over the years there are still many of them out there, and many divorcing couples have to figure out how to deal with them. The prime benefit that a pension plan provides is a fixed lifetime income.  A stream of income in retirement could well be a pension synonym. It used to be that fixed income was considered a negative. However, nowadays it is the lucky retiree who benefits from a pension plan!

In case of divorce, issues surrounding who is entitled to the pension present a challenge especially in the case of grey divorces (usually defined as people over 50).  Divorce and pension plans can sometimes generate conflict as the owner of the asset will often feel more proprietary about it than with other assets. Employees are often emotionally vested in their pension. They feel, more than with other assets, that they have really earned it. And that their spouse has not.  They often will have stayed in a job that they may not have liked for the privilege of qualifying for a higher paying pension. Couples look forward to getting that income when they retire. And so spouses will want to make sure that they get their share of it as part of the divorce.

Pension rights after divorce are determined as part of the overall divorce process. In a negotiated divorce, the parties can decide, within limits, how to divide their assets. In the worst case, the courts will make the decision.

What is a pension plan and how does it work?

The value of a pension benefit can be difficult to determine. Unlike other accounts, pensions don’t come with a statement that makes them easily comparable to other assets; they come with the promise of a benefit (the monthly payment that someone might get at retirement). So the number one priority when a pension is involved in a divorce is to get a valuation. The financial consequences of divorce are serious, and not getting a valuation may lead to struggling financially after divorce

Risk of Valuation

Even when valued, the number provided on a report may lead to a false sense of security. Unlike other retirement statements, the value of a pension is estimated using the parameters of the beneficiary and of the pension. In most cases the divorce pension payout is calculated with a predetermined formula based on the employee’s length of employment and income.  In some cases, the benefit may vary depending on a few other factors.

The next step is to estimate how long the benefit might be paid. That is done using actuarial tables. Based on periodic demographic studies, actuarial tables predict our life expectancy. Some actuarial tables include those produced by the Society of Actuaries, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). A pension valuation will normally use the estimates from the actuarial tables representing  an average life expectancy of a cohort of people born in the same year. The estimates are usually accurate within their parameters, as individual variability is smoothed out  for large populations. However, individual longevity is harder to predict as it may fall within a wider range.

With the amount of the payment and the length of time that the payments will be made, how much is all of that worth?   Pension valuators use a “discount rate” to approximate the value of a future payment. The principle is that the value of a dollar paid next year will be less than the value of a dollar paid today. Hence you should be willing to accept less than a dollar for the promise of a payment next year, and even less for the promise of payment the year after.  

Financial analysts will use the concept of the prudent rate of return, the rate that a prudent person would invest at in order to receive that dollar next year or beyond. That of course could be subject to interpretation. Often the standard that is used is the government bond rate for the duration of the payment.  US government bonds are often considered to be risk free by economists and the public, although that too is subject to debate (Currently US government debt is rated at AA+ (below AAA) by Standard & Poor’s, the leading debt rating agency). Nonetheless that rate is often used for individual pension valuations.

The PBGC, on the other hand, has developed its own rates. The PBGC uses different rates before retirement, and rates during retirement. The former are significantly higher than the latter and assumes a rate of return that is in excess of the risk free rate.  That may be a better model for actual human behavior, as people will normally be tempted to take more risk for a better return, rationalizing, of course, that the incremental risk is not significant. On the other hand, for rates during retirement the PBGC uses rates that are well below the norm, reflecting the reality that retirees are even more risk averse than the average population.

Financial analysts will determine the value of the pension by taking a present value of the pension payments over the expected longevity of the individual at the determined discount rate(s). The number that comes out is usually a single number assuming a date of retirement.  

Understanding that we are working with an estimate, people usually ignore the fact that the magic number does not take into account the likely variability of  the inputs, in particular longevity.

If you will be the alternate payee (ie, if you are the spouse aiming to get a share of the other’s pension), it is important to pay attention to the fact that the real value of your share of the pension will fall within a range. It will not be a single number Hence when you trade that pension for another asset that has a fixed value, you want to make sure that you are not short changing yourself.

On the other hand if you are the beneficiary of the pension, it is painful enough to give up a share of it.  You don’t want to give up part of that asset if it will not be fully used. If it is the alternate payee that passes away early, his or her stream of payments stops, and, in most cases, does not revert back to you, the initial beneficiary.  If that were to happen you will have wasted a potentially substantial asset.

In summary it is important for divorcing couples to fully understand the value of their pensions for themselves and for their spouse.  Divorce already destroys enough wealth. There is no need to destroy more.

Risk of Default

Pensions have a risk of default or reduced benefits in the future. According to the Society for Human Resources Management  114 pension funds are expected to fail in the next 20 years. That is true even for pensions that do not look like they are in trouble currently. Some people may think that this is farfetched. Yet you only have to look at the Pensions Right website to convince yourself that benefit reductions do happen. When you consider that retirement can last 20, 30 or 40 years, you will want to evaluate if your pension plan is robust enough to last that long, and continue making payments for that long.

The risk of benefit reductions or outright default may apply mostly to the private sector. Yet public sector plans may be at risk also. For instance, Social Security has a trust fund that, together with payroll deductions, funds its retirement benefits (social security retirement benefits are effectively a pension). According to the 2009 Social Security Trustees Report, the Social Security trust fund will run out in 2037. When that happens, the Trustees project that retirement benefits will be cut by 24%.  

It should be noted that Social Security benefits are not divisible in divorce  The beneficiary keeps his or her benefits. The ex-spouse can get 50% of the beneficiary’s benefits (if married 10 years or longer) or 100% of his or her own, whichever is higher, but not both. That happens without prejudice to the prime beneficiary.

However, in 2037, both parties can expect a Social Security retirement benefit cut of 24%, unless Congress remedies the situation beforehand.

Personal Risk

People also underestimate personal risk. If you receive a pension as an alternate payee (ie the spouse who is getting a share of the pension from the former employee), you will want to consider the risks that your payments may be interrupted due to issues with your ex-spouse. Many pensions stop spousal payments when the beneficiary passes. When that happens, the alternate payee will have to find an alternate source of income to compensate.

It is worth remembering that our life expectancies are random within a range. The expected longevity of women reaching 65 years of age is to 85 years of age.  We often anchor on this or other numbers forgetting that few women pass away at 85. Most will pass away either before 85 or after 85. According to a paper by Dr. Ryan Edwards for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the standard deviation for longevity is 15 years. That means that most women will live to 85, +/- 15 years. From 70 to 100 with an average of 85. That is a wide range! What if the beneficiary of the pension passes away 10 years before his her life expectancy, and the alternate payee lives 10 years longer than life expectancy? That means that the alternate payee may have to do without his or her share of the pension for 20 years or longer (if the two ex spouses have the same expected longevity).

And what about inflation risk?

Most pensions do not have a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). That does not apply to all of them. For instance, the Federal Employee Retirement Systems (FERS) has a limited COLA. Effectively, when there is no inflation adjustment, the value of a pension payment is reduced every year by the amount of inflation. How bad can that be, you ask? Assuming a 3% inflation rate the value of a fixed payment will decrease by almost 50% over 20 years.  . What is the likelihood that expenses will have reduced by 50%?

A Last word

Pensions are a very emotional subjects in divorce. Perhaps because we are naturally risk averse, and perhaps because our risk aversion is exasperated by divorce related anxiety, we like to cling to what we perceive as solid. People will often want to keep the marital home, even if they cannot afford it, or take a chunk of a pension even when it may make better sense to trade it for another asset. Worse yet they will want to know whether to keep the house or pension in divorce.

What other asset you may ask? You could trade the pension for a tax- deferred retirement asset, such as an IRA or a 401k.  Or any other asset that you and your spouse own. The right decision will end up being different for everyone.

As a Divorce Financial Planner, it is my task to make sure that each side understands exactly what is at stake, and to help prepare them for rebuilding financially after divorce. In many cases it makes sense for both parties to get a share of the pension. In others it does not.  How to keep your pension in a divorce is a vital question. Even more important is to understand the true value of the pension, and its ambiguities.  It is a difficult task in a process that is already filled with anxieties and uncertainties to focus effectively on yet one more ambiguity. Yet for successfully managing finances after divorce it must be done.

 

Other posts that you may find interesting:

Pension Division in Divorce

Post-Divorce Investments 

In Divorce, Can We Share a CDFA?

 

 

May 16

Doing the Solo 401k or SEP IRA dance

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

Doing the Solo 401(k) or SEP IRA Dance

Doing the Solo 401(k) or SEP IRA dance

If you are self-employed, one of your many tasks is to plan for your own retirement. While most Americans can rely on their employer’s 401(k) for retirement savings, this is not the case for self-employed people.

In some respects, that is an advantage: most employees barely pay any attention to their 401(k). It is an opportunity for the self-employed to make the best choices possible for their business and personal situation.

The most obvious benefit of saving for retirement is that you will have to retire anyway, one day, and you will need a source of income then. With a retirement account, most people appreciate that it is specifically meant to save for retirement. People also appreciate the tax benefits of the SEP IRA and Solo 401(k).

The more immediate benefit is that retirement savings in tax-deferred accounts help reduce current taxes, possibly one of the greatest source of costs for small businesses. Of course, the tax saved with your contribution will have to be paid eventually when you take retirement distributions from the SEP-IRA.

When it comes to tax-deferred retirement savings vehicles for the self-employed and owner and spouse businesses, two of them stand out due to their high contribution limits and flexible annual contributions: the SEP IRA and the Solo 401(k). These two vehicles provide a combination of convenience, flexibility, and efficiency for the task.

SEP IRA

The SEP IRA is better known by its initials than its full name (Simplified Employee Plan IRA). For 2018 the SEP IRA contribution limits are the lesser of 25% of compensation up to $275,000, or $55,000 whichever is less. You may note that this is significantly higher than the limit for most 401(k)s plans, except those that have a profit sharing option. SEP IRA rules generally allow contributions to be deductible from the business’ income, subject to certain SEP IRA IRS rules.

One of the wrinkles of SEP IRA eligibility is that it applies to employees: you have to make a contribution of the same percentage of compensation as you are contributing for yourself. So if you have employees, another plan such as a Solo 401(k) might be a better choice.

And for fans of the Roth option, unfortunately, the SEP IRA doesn’t have one. When comparing the SEP IRA vs Roth IRA, the two clearly address different needs.

Solo 401(k)

credit: InvestmentZenThe Solo 401(k) also known as the individual 401(k) brings large company features to the self-employed. It generally makes sense for businesses with no common law employees. One of the Solo 401k benefits is that just owners and their spouses, if involved in the business, are eligible. Employees are not. So, if you are interested in just your own retirement plan (and your spouse’s), a Solo 401(k) may work better for you than a SEP IRA. If your business expands to include employees and you want to offer an employer-sponsored retirement plan as a benefit to them, then you should consider a traditional company 401(k) option.

The Traditional Solo 401k rules work in the same way as the SEP IRA: it defers income taxes to retirement. It makes sense if you believe that you will be in an equal or lower tax bracket in retirement. Those who think that they may be in a higher tax bracket in retirement should consider a Roth option for their Solo 401(k): it will allow you to contribute now on an after-tax basis, and you will benefit from tax-free distributions from the account after retirement. A Roth 401k calculator may be required to compare the benefits. Again, the Roth option is not available in SEP accounts.

Solo 401k contribution limits permit you to contribute the same amount as you might in its corporate cousins: up to 100% of compensation, up to $18,500 a year when you are younger than 50 years old, with an additional $6,000 annual catch-up contribution for those over 50 years of age.

In addition, profit sharing can be contributed to the Solo 401(k). The Solo 401k limits for contributions are up to 25% of compensation (based on maximum compensation of $275,000) for a maximum from all contributions of $55,000 for those under 50 years of age and $61,000 for those over 50 years of age.

Another difference with the SEP IRA is that the Solo 401(k) can be set up to allow loans. In that way, you are able to access your savings if needed without suffering a tax penalty.

So Which Plan Is Best for You?

The SEP IRA is simpler to set up and administer. However, the Solo 401(k) provides more flexibility, especially for contribution amounts. Given that the amount saved is one of the key factors for retirement success, that should be a consideration.

Comparing the Solo 401k with the traditional employer 401k, you may no longer have to ask how to open a Roth 401k.  You will have control of that. On the other hand you will be entirely responsible for figuring out your Roth 401k employer match.

As could be expected, administration of the Solo 401(k) is slightly more onerous than that of the SEP IRA.

SEP IRA vs 401k chart

Solo 401(k) and SEP IRA

A Last Word

If you don’t have a plan get one. It is easy. It reduces current taxes. And it will help you plan for a successful retirement. The SEP IRA and the Solo 401(k) were designed specifically for small businesses and the self-employed. Although we have reviewed some of the features of the plan here, there are more details that you should be aware of. Beware of the complexities!

Once you decide on the type of plan, it will be time to choose a provider that offers the features that you need, the investment choices that you need, and the guidance to help you maximize your hard earned savings.

At Insight Financial Strategists we help figure out what works for you and your retirement plansand show you how to set up a Solo 401k or a SEP IRA!

May 14

4 Counter-Intuitive Steps to Take Now to Make Your 401(k) Rock

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

4 Counter-Intuitive Steps to Take Now to Make Your 401(k) Rock

With the demise of traditional defined benefit plans, 401(k)’s provide the most popular way for individuals to save for their retirement.

401(k)’s are also the second largest source of US household wealth right behind home equity.

According to the Investment Company Institute there were over 55 million active participants in 401(k) plans plus millions of former employees and retirees as of the end of last year. The amount of money is staggering at $5.3 trillion as of the end of 2017.

Given the importance of 401(k)’s to US household financial health you would think that plan participants would watch their balances like a hawk and actively manage their holdings.

Some people do, but the vast majority of people do not truly understand what they own or why.  Most people know that the more they contribute to their 401(k) the higher their ending balances are going to be, but beyond that there is a lot of confusion.

Many people do not make 401(k) choices naturally. Many participants do not even know where to begin when it comes to:

  • What funds to select

  • How much to allocate to each fund

  • Deciding on the proper amount of risk to take

  • Understanding how their 401(k) fits in with the rest of their financial picture

When given a choice, people usually start with the issue or problem that they perceive as the easiest to figure out, not necessarily the one of greatest importance.

Many  people approach the problem of how to invest their 401(k) in a simplistic manner.

Many  401(k) participants start off by selecting funds. For most participants this is not an easy choice, but in comparison to the other issues this one appears manageable.

But sadly, 401(k) participants are getting it backwards by picking funds first. They are not framing the problem correctly.

Picking funds before figuring out your goals and objectives is like picking furniture before you know the size and shape of your dining room.  It might work out but it would involve a lot of luck.  Do you want to count on luck when it comes to your financial future?

A different way of addressing the challenge  is to start the other way around. Start with the end goal in mind.

Re-frame the problem to first figure out what you are trying to do.  You want your 401(k) to work for you and your family, right? Sound like a better starting point?

Without knowing what you are trying to do and what really matters to you putting money into your 401(k) loses meaning.

 

What funds to select

First figure out for yourself why you are taking money out of your paycheck to put into your 401(K).  What is your “why”?

The answer may be obvious to you, but when money gets tight due to some unforeseen life event you will be glad that you have a tangible picture for its ultimate use.

Visualize what you are going to do with that money. Is it for a retirement full of adventure? Is it for buying that dream sailboat that you’ll take around the world? Or, is it simply to preserve your lifestyle once you retire? Money has no intrinsic value if you don’t spend it on things that matter to you and your family.

 

 “Money cannot buy peace of mind.

It cannot heal ruptured relationships, or build meaning into a life that has none.”

Richard M. DeVos, Billionaire Co-founder of Amway, Owner of Orlando Magic

 

So, if starting with the end in mind makes sense to you, let’s take a look at the four counter-intuitive steps that you can take now to make your 401(k) work for you. Figure 1 lays it all out.

Figure 1

Step 1: Define what matters to you and inventory your resources

Visualize your goals and objectives for the type of life you and your family want to lead.  Don’t just think about your retirement – think as broadly as possible.

Close your eyes, visualize, pour a nice glass of cabernet for you and your partner before you have the “talk”, write it down in your journal – whatever approach gets you out of your everyday busy persona and makes you focus on what you really want out of life.

How do you want to use your money to accomplish this lifestyle?

Maybe you and your spouse want to engage in missionary work  in 10 years. Maybe you also need to fund college expenses for your children? Maybe you see a lakefront house in the near future?  There is no cookie cutter approach when it comes to people’s dreams! It’s up to you to make them up.

Your 401(k) assets are just one component of your household wealth .  Think about your other assets and financial obligations.  And don’t forget to include your partner’s or spouse’s.

Your house, your emergency fund, investments in mutual funds, possibly a little inheritance, company stock. Almost forgot, your spouse’s 401(k)  and that condo that he/she bought before you met.  Take a comprehensive inventory of your assets.

How much debt do you have? That is part of your financial picture as well. Do you anticipate paying your mortgage off in the next few years?

Wealth managers talk about a concept called the household balance sheet. It’s the same idea that financial analysts use when evaluating a company.  In the corporate world you have assets, liabilities and the difference is net worth.  In your own world you have assets, obligations and unfunded goals, and net worth is the difference.

Sounds a bit harsh when it involves you, right? Don’t take it personally. The key idea is taking an inventory of what you own, what you owe and then matching that up to your goals and aspirations.

 

Step 2. How aggressive do you need to be while being able to sleep at night

The whole idea of saving and investing is about making your goals and aspirations a reality.  If you already have enough assets to fund your desired lifestyle into perpetuity then you don’t really have to worry too much about investing.  Just preserve what you got!

If you are like most people, you need to make your investments work for you. You need a return on your assets.

It’s a good idea to be realistic about goals and objectives.  Are your goals reachable? Is there only a tiny probability of reaching them?

Are your goals a stretch, reachable with some effort, or a slam dunk?

Your answer will dictate how aggressive you will need to be in your investment strategy.

  • If your goals are a stretch you need high return/high risk investments – be ready for a volatile ride and many highs and lows
  • If your goals are within reach using conservative asset class return assumptions you need a moderate return/moderate risk portfolio – you will still experience fluctuations in your portfolio that will leave you feeling anxious at times, but the periods of recovery will more than make up for the periods of stress
  • If your goals are a slam dunk, you are lucky and you will only need low return/safe investment strategies – your portfolio values will not fluctuate much in the short-term but your portfolio will also not grow much in size

To some extent this is the easy part.  There is a link between risk and return in the capital markets. Higher risk usually translates over long periods of time into higher returns. Equities do better on average than bonds and bonds in turn do better than money market investments. So far so good.

Figuring out the required rate of return to fund your goals and objectives given your resources involves math but little emotional contribution.

But what about your emotions?

This is the tricky part.  Many people are able to conceptualize risk in their heads, but are entirely unable to deal with their emotions when they start losing money.

They think of themselves as risk takers but can’t stand losing money.  They panic every time the stock market takes a dip. It does not matter why the market is tanking – they do not like it and run for the exits.

But an honest assessment of both your need to take risk as well as your comfort level with investment fluctuations is necessary in managing your long-term financial health. You will see massive cracks if these two dimensions of risk are not aligned.

Let’s examine a simple situation where we classify your need and comfort level with investment risk in three states: low, medium and high.

Figure 2 lays out all the possibilities.  Ideally, your two dimensions of risk will match up directly.  For example, if your need for risk is low and your comfort level with taking risk is low you are all set. Same if you need a high risk/high return strategy to meet your goals and objectives and you are comfortable experiencing significant fluctuations in your portfolio.

Figure 2

The real problem for you is, however, when the two dimensions of risk are not aligned. You’ll need to resolve these differences as soon as possible to regain any hope of financial health.

Let’s say you are really risk averse. You fear losing money. Your worst case scenarios (bag lady, eating cat food) keep popping up in your nightmares.  If your goals and objectives are ambitious in relation to your resources (high need for risk) those nightmares will not go away and you will live in fear.

You can do one of two things – learn to live with fear or, scale back your goals and objectives.  There is no right or wrong answer – it’s up to you but you must choose.

What if you are comfortable taking on lots of investment risk? Would you like a low risk/low return portfolio? Probably not. In fact, such a portfolio would probably drive you crazy even if you did not need any higher returns.

People comfortable with investment risk frequently suffer from fear of missing out (FOMO). They think that they should be doing better. They want to push the envelope whether they need to or not.

FOMO is as damaging of an emotion as living in fear.  Both states spell trouble. You will need to align both dimensions of risk to truly get that balance in your financial life.

 

Step 3. Determine the asset allocation consistent with your goals and risk preferences

Sounds like a mouthful, right? Let’s put it in plain English.  First of all, the term asset allocation simply refers to how much of your investment portfolio you are putting into the main asset classes of stocks, bonds and cash/bills.

Sure, we can get more complicated than that.  In our own research we use ten asset classes, but in reality breaking up the global equity and bond markets into finer breakouts is important but not critical for the average individual investor.

Figuring out the right range of stocks, bonds and cash is much more important than figuring out whether growth will outperform value or whether to include an allocation to real estate trusts. Do the micro fine tuning later once you have figured out your big picture asset allocation.

All right, since we are keeping things simple let’s look at some possible stock/bond/cash allocations. We are going to use information from our IFS article on risk and return. As a reminder the data used in these illustrations comes courtesy of Professor Aswath Domodaran from NYU and covers US annual asset returns from 1928 to 2017.

Table 1

The top half of the table shows the performance and volatility of stocks, bonds and cash/bills by themselves. From year to year there is tremendous variability in returns but for the sake of simplicity you can use historical risk and returns statistics as a rough guide.

Here is what you should note:

  • If you need high risk/high portfolio returns and you can take the volatility go with a stock portfolio with average historical returns of 12%. On a cumulative basis nothing comes close to stocks in terms of wealth creation but you should expect a bumpy ride
  • If you only need low risk/low returns and you are extremely risk averse go with cash/bill type of portfolios returning, on average, 3%. This portfolio is probably just going to keep up with inflation
  • If you have a medium tolerance for risk and medium need for taking risk then you will likely gravitate toward a combination of stocks, bonds and cash
  • There is an infinite number of combinations of asset class weights – the three asset allocations in the bottom panel of Table 1 may very well apply to you depending on your risk tolerance, need for return and time horizon

What about the stock/bond/cash mixes?

  • The 60% stock/40% bond allocation has over this 1928-2017 period yielded a 9% return with a 12% volatility. Historically, you lost money in 21% of years but if you are a long-term investor the growth of this portfolio will vastly outstrip inflation
  • The 40% stock/60% bond portfolio is a bit less risky and also has lower average yields. When a loss occurs, the average percentage loss is 5%. This portfolio may appeal to a conservative investor that does not like roller coaster rides in his/her investment accounts and does not need the highest returns.
  • The 25% stock/50% bond/25% cash portfolio is the lowest risk/return asset class mix among our choices. Historically this portfolio yields an average return of 6% with a volatility also of 6%. This portfolio may appeal to you if you are naturally risk averse and have a low tolerance for portfolio losses, but you might want to also check whether these returns are sufficient to fund your desired goals and objectives

 

Step 4. It’s finally time to pick your funds

Yes, this is typically where people start. Many times people pick a bunch of funds based on a friend’s recommendation or simply based on the brand of the investment manager.  Rarely do people dig deep and evaluate the track record of funds.

A lot of people pick their funds and declare victory.  They are making a huge mistake. They are not framing the problem correctly.

The problem is all about how to make your 401(k) work for you in the context of your goals and objectives, your resources and your comfort with investment fluctuations.

Picking funds is the least important part.  You still have to do it but first figure out what matters to you, your need and comfort with risk and your target stock, bond, cash mix.

Once you have your target asset allocation go to work and research your fund options.  Easier said than done, right?

Here are some fund features that you should focus on:

  • Passive or Active Management – a passive fund holds securities in the same proportions as well-known indices such as the S&P 500 or Russell 2000. An active fund is deliberately structured to be different from an index in the hope of achieving typically higher returns
  • Fund Style – usual distinctions for equity funds are market capitalization, value, volatility, momentum and geographic focus (US, international, emerging markets). For bond funds the biggest style distinctions are maturity, credit and geographic focus
  • Risk Profile – loosely defined as how closely the fund tracks its primary asset class. Funds with high relative levels of risk will behave differently from their primary asset class. Accessing a free resource such as Morningstar to study the basic profile of your funds is a great starting point. For a sample of such a report click here
  • Fund expenses – these are the all in costs of your fund choices. Lower costs can translate into significant savings especially over long periods of time.  In general, index funds tend to be lower cost than actively managed funds

Understanding what makes a good fund choice versus a sub-optimal one is beyond the financial literacy and attention span of most plan participants.

For most people a good rule of thumb to use is to allocate to at least two funds in each target asset class.

Let’s make this more concrete. Say your target asset allocation is 60% stocks and 40% bonds.  Most 401(k) plans have a number of stock and bond funds available.

What should you do? A minimalist approach might entail choosing an S&P 500 index fund and an actively managed emerging market equity fund placing 30% in each. This maybe appear a bit risky to some so maybe you only put 10% in the emerging market fund and 20% in a US small capitalization fund.

Same on the bond side where you might allocate 20% to an active index fund tracking the Bloomberg US Aggregate index and 20% in a high yield actively managed option.

Let your fund research dictate your choice of funds.  You should keep things simple.

Know what funds you own and why.  Keep your fund holdings in line with your asset allocation.  Spreading your money into a large number of fund options does not buy you much beyond unneeded complexity.

Most of your 401(k) performance will be driven by your target asset allocation anyway. 

Picking funds that closely match the risk and return characteristics of your asset classes (say stocks and bonds) is good enough.

Trying to micro-manage the selection of funds will not likely lead to a huge difference in overall portfolio returns.

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Conclusion:

The task facing you in managing your 401(k) may seem daunting at times.  You may feel out of your own depth.

You are not alone but if you reverse the usual way in which most participants manage their 401(k)’s you should gain greater control over your long-term financial health.

Start with the end in mind. What is this money for? Think about your life goals and objectives.  Depending on your resources, you will need to figure what type of risk/return portfolio combination you will need as well as how comfortable you are dealing with the inevitable investment fluctuations.

Lastly, keep it simple when choosing your funds.  You have figured out the important stuff already.   Pick at least a couple of funds in each of your target asset classes by performing some high level research from sites such as Morningstar and MarketWatch.

Keep in mind that more funds do not translate into higher levels of diversification if they are all alike. Know what you own and why.

If this is all just too much for you, consider hiring Insight Financial Strategists to review your 401(k) investment allocations.  We will perform a comprehensive analysis of your asset allocation and fund choices in relation to your stated goals and objectives while also keeping your expressed risk preferences in mind.

The analysis will set your mind at ease and make your 401(k) work for you in the most effective manner. We are a fee based fiduciary advisor, which means we are obligated to act solely in your best interest when making investment recommendations.

 

 

 

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