Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

401(k) Options When Leaving Your Job

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Retirement Funds over Time

Perhaps you are retiring or perhaps you are moving on to another opportunity. Perhaps you were downsized. Whatever the reason, there are many things to do when leaving a job. Don’t neglect your 401(k) plan during this process.

With a defined contribution plan such as a 401(k) you typically have several options to consider upon separation.  Here is a discussion of several and the pros and cons of each. Note this is a different issue from the decision that you may be faced with if you have a defined benefit pension plan.

Leaving your money in the old plan 

I’m generally not a fan of this approach. All too often these accounts are neglected and add to what I call “financial clutter,” a collection of investments that have no rhyme or reason to them.

In some larger plans, participants might have access to a solid menu of low cost institutional funds. In addition, many of these plans tend to be among the cheapest in terms of administrative costs. If this is the case with your old employer’s plan, it might make sense to leave your account there. However, it is vital that you manage your account in terms of staying on top of changes in the investment options offered and that you reallocate and rebalance your account when applicable.

Unfortunately far too many lousy 401(k) plans are filled with high cost, underperforming investment choices and leaving your retirement dollars there may not be your best option.

Rolling your account over to an IRA 

This route not only allows for the consolidation of accounts which makes monitoring your portfolio easier, but investors often have access to a wider range of low cost investment options than might be available to them via their old employer’s plan.

Even for do it yourselfer investors, rolling over to an IRA is often a good idea for similar reasons. You will want to take stock of your overall portfolio goals in light of your financial plan to determine if the custodian you are using or considering to offers a range of appropriate choices for your needs.

Rolling your account into your new employer’s plan 

If allowed by your new employer’s plan, this can be a viable option for you if you are moving to a new job. You will want to ensure that you consult with the administrator of your new employer’s plan and follow all of their rules for moving these dollars over.

This might be a good option for you if your 401(k) balance is small and/or you don’t have significant outside investments. It might also be a good option if your new employer has an outstanding plan on the order of what was mentioned above.

Before going this route, you will want to check out your new employer’s plan.  Is the investment menu filled with solid, low cost investment options? You want to avoid moving these dollars from a solid plan at your old employer to a sub-par plan at your new company. Likewise you don’t want to move dollars from one lousy plan to another.

Other considerations

A fourth option is to take a distribution of some or all of the dollars in your old plan.  Given the potential tax consequences I generally don’t recommend this route.

A few additional considerations are listed below (I mention these here to build your awareness but I am not covering them in detail here.  If any of these or other situations apply to you I suggest that you consult with your financial or tax advisor for guidance.):

  • The money coming out of the plan is always taxable, except for any portion in a Roth 401(k) assuming that you have satisfied all requirements to avoid taxes on the Roth portion.
  • You will likely be subject to a penalty if you withdraw funds prior to age 59 ½ with some exceptions such as death and disability.
  • There is also a pretty complex method for those under age 59 ½ to withdraw funds and avoid the penalty called 72(t). Additionally there are complex rules for those who are 55 and older who wish to take a distribution from their 401(k) upon separating from their employer. In either case consult with a financial advisor who understands these complex rules before proceeding.
  • If your old plan offers a match there is likely a vesting schedule for their matching contributions.  Your salary deferrals are always 100% vested (meaning you have full rights to them).  Matching contributions typically become vested on a schedule such as 20% per year over five years. You will want to know where you stand with regard to vesting anyway, but if you are close to earning another year of vesting you might consider this in the timing of your departure if this is an option and it makes sense in the context of your overall situation.
  • If your company makes annual profit sharing contributions, they might only be payable to employees who are employed as of a certain date. As with the previous bullet point, it might behoove you to plan your departure date around this if the amount looks to be significant and it works in the context of your overall situation.
  • Another factor that might favor rolling your old 401(k) to your new employer’s plan would be your desire to convert Traditional IRA dollars to a Roth IRA now or in the future. There could be a tax advantage to be had by doing this, however please consult with your financial advisor here for guidance tailored to your unique situation.
  • If you are 70 ½ or older and still working, you are not required to take annual required minimum distributions from your 401(k) as long as you are not a 5% or greater owner of the company. This might also be a reason to consider rolling your old 401(k) to your new employer’s plan, again consult with your financial advisor.

There are a number of options for an old 401(k) or similar retirement account when leaving your employer.  The right course of action will vary based upon your individual circumstances.  The wrong answer is to ignore this decision.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services. 

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Are Best Mutual Fund Lists a Good Investing Tool?

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We all like to read article with lists that rank things. Top colleges, top new cars, best and worst dressed and the like are just a few lists we see periodically. Mutual rankings have been around for a while.  Many top personal finance publications such as Money Magazine, Kiplinger’s, and U.S. News publish such lists that rank mutual funds based upon performance. Are these Best Mutual Fund lists useful to you as an investor?

Money (magazine)

Best compared to what?

In order for any mutual fund ranking tool to be useful the comparison needs to be apples-to-apples. Comparing a large cap domestic stock fund to a fund that invests in gold mining companies is a pretty useless exercise. Make sure that you understand what is being compared and the basis for the rankings.

Past performance is not an indication of future performance 

This is a pretty common disclaimer in the investment industry and it is one that should be heeded. Last year’s top mutual fund might finish on top again this year or it might end up at the bottom of the pack. This is especially true for actively managed mutual funds where results can often depend upon the manager’s investment style and whether or not their style is still in favor. Mutual funds that have a big year often find themselves inundated with new money from investors who chase performance, this influx of new money can make it harder for the manager to replicate their past success.

Who’s in charge? 

It is not uncommon for a top mutual fund manager to be wooed by a rival fund company or for them to go off and start their own mutual fund. This is not such a big deal with index funds, but when looking at any actively managed fund be sure to understand whether or not the manager(s) who compiled the enviable track record are still in place.

What period of time is being used? 

Make sure that you understand the time period used in the rankings. Returns over a single year can vary much more than returns compiled over a three, five, or ten year time period. Understand that one or two outstanding years can skew longer-term rankings. Longer periods of time tend to smooth out these blips in performance.

Why didn’t you tell me about this fund a year ago? 

I recall looking at many of these lists over the years and wondering why the publication didn’t write about how wonderful the fund was a year ago before it chalked up this large gain. Well the answer is that this isn’t the job of the publication and they and most of us can’t really predict this.

Is looking at performance worthless? 

No it isn’t but you need to look at performance in context. Look at performance over varying time periods and always in relation to the fund’s peers. Among the things to look at:

  • Risk adjusted performance
  • Performance in up and down markets
  • Performance over rolling periods of time
  • Adherence to the fund’s stated style
  • Costs and expenses
  • Consistency of relative performance
  • Changes in the level of assets in the fund

In short selecting and monitoring mutual funds is about more than looking for the top performers of the past. Like any other investment vehicle, mutual funds need to be viewed in terms of potential future performance and in terms of how they fit into your overall investment strategy and your financial plan.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Do you want an independent review of your mutual fund holdings and your overall investment strategy? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.

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Reverse Churning Are You a Victim?

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One of the best things about being a freelance financial writer and blogger is that I often learn new things in the course of my writing. A reader left a comment on a post here on the blog and mentioned reverse churning. Until that time, I had never heard this term, but after a bit of research I found that its’s one more thing that clients of stock brokers and registered reps need to be aware of.

The issue of reverse churning is one that will come to the forefront as the initial implementation of the DOL fiduciary rules commences next week. Here’s what you need to know about reverse churning to protect yourself and to make a good decision if your broker proposes a fee-based account.

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What is churning?

Investopedia defines churning as “Excessive trading by a broker in a client’s account largely to generate commissions. Churning is an illegal and unethical practice that violates SEC rules and securities laws.”

Churning conjures images such as the boiler room in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross (actually they sold real estate) or the iconic 2002 ad by Charles Schwab (SCHW) in which a brokerage house manager is depicted as telling the brokers, “Let’s put some lipstick on this pig” in reference to a sub-par stock he wants them to pitch to clients.

What is reverse churning?

A 2014 piece by Daisy Maxey in The Wall Street Journal describes reverse churning as follows:

“The Securities and Exchange Commission says the practice of so-called “reverse churning”–putting investors in accounts that pay a fixed fee but generate little or no activity to justify that fee–is on its radar. Regulators will be watching for signs of double-dipping by advisers who generate significant commissions within a client’s brokerage account, then move that client into an advisory account and collect additional fees.”

This occurs in brokerage accounts that at one point generated significant commissions for the broker from the purchase and sale of individual stocks or other commission generating transactions. If the activity in the account tails off the broker makes little or nothing from this client.

As a way to generate ongoing fees from this type of client, the broker may suggest moving to a fee-based advisory account, often called a wrap account.

Under this arrangement there is an ongoing fee based upon the assets in the account plus often trailing commissions in the form of 12b-1 fees from the mutual funds usually offered in this type of account. These generally include proprietary mutual funds offered by the brokerage firm, or at the very least costly actively managed funds from other fund families in share classes geared to offering broker compensation.

Fee-based is not fee-only

Fee-based is often confused with fee-only. I suspect the brokerage industry likes it this way.

Fee-only compensation means that the financial advisor earns no compensation from the sale of financial products including trailing fees and commissions. Their fees come from their clients. These can be hourly, a flat-fee or as a percentage of the assets under management.

Fee-based compensation, also called fee and commission, is a mix of the two forms of advisor compensation. A common form of the fee-based model entails the client paying the advisor to do a financial plan and then if the client chooses to have the financial advisor implement their recommendations this will often be via the sale of commission-based products.

The version with fee-based advisory accounts associated with reverse churning by brokers and registered reps arose out of a 2007 rule that prohibits the charging of fees in brokerage accounts. Many broker-dealers have a registered investment advisor (RIA) arm which runs these accounts.

The fiduciary rule

The new fiduciary rules make fee-based accounts more desirable for brokers and other fee-based advisors. These types of accounts will become even more prevalent with the disclosures required for retirement accounts under the new rules.

There has been a movement towards fee-based accounts in the brokerage world for several years now, likely in anticipation of the eventual issuance of these rules. This movement should accelerate in IRAs. In some cases, this will be a good thing as clients will fully know what they are paying in terms of fees.

In other cases, clients will find themselves paying 100 basis points or more in wrap fees for accounts where they were formerly trading infrequently on a commissioned basis. Whether the fee-based account will be a better deal will vary.

If all they are getting is an expensive managed account filled with bad to mediocre mutual funds that charge high fees on top of the wrap fee, this is not a good deal. If the advisor does little more than collect a fee, this sounds like the definition of reverse churning based on my understanding of the term. Much will depend upon the level and types of advice clients receive for the fees they will now be paying.

Buyer beware 

If you are working with a stock broker or registered rep and they propose moving to a fee-based or wrap account, you should take a hard look at what you are being offered. What is the wrap fee? What types of investments are used in the account? Are they expensive actively managed mutual funds that throw off 12b-1 fees in addition to wrap fees? What is the track record of the manager of the account that the advisor is proposing? What types of advice and service will you receive for the fees you will paying?

The Bottom Line 

I can’t recall hearing about a case of churning in recent years. Reverse churning is a new term to me, but from the perspective of a broker or registered rep, fee-based advisory accounts make a ton of sense. They provide ongoing fee income and frankly require little attention from them. If your broker proposes a wrap account, make sure you understand how this arrangement benefits you the client.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Has your broker proposed a fee-based option and you aren’t sure if this is the right option for you? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services. 

 

How is My Financial Advisor Compensated?

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Many investors do not understand how their financial advisor is compensated. With the initial implementation of the new DOL Fiduciary Rules mandating that advisors put their client’s interests first when working with their retirement accounts upon us, the issue of financial advisor compensation will be front and center. It is important that all clients fully understand how their financial advisor is compensated and how much this relationship is truly costing them.

The three basic compensation models 

Commissions: The advisor is compensated for the sale of investments, insurance, or other financial products. Compensation is paid by the firm that provides the financial product, usually a mutual fund or an insurance company. This may be in the form of an up-front charge, trailing (ongoing) fees or a combination of both. Other names for commissions include front-end loads (A share mutual funds are an example), 12b-1 fees that serve as trailing commissions on some mutual funds and commissions paid to advisors for the sale of insurance products.

Fee-based: Typically the advisor will charge a fee for putting together a financial plan for you. If you chose to implement the recommendations in the plan, such as the purchase of insurance, an annuity, or investments, the implementation will typically be done via the sale of commissioned products.

How is My Financial Advisor Compensated?

Fee-based has taken on a whole new significance in light of the new DOL fiduciary rules. Many firms have moved clients to fee-based or brokerage wrap accounts. The fee part arises from the wrap fee (typically a percentage of assets) charged to the client. Many of these accounts use mutual funds that throw off 12b-1 fees or other types of revenue sharing to the brokerage firm.

Fee-only: The advisor charges a fee for the services rendered. This can be one-time or ongoing based upon the nature of your relationship and the services rendered. Fees may be hourly, flat or retainer based, or based upon a percentage of the assets under advisement.

Why should you care how your advisor is paid? Because his/her compensation can impact the choice of the products recommended to you and your return from those products.

An advisor who is paid via commissions will likely recommend those products that offer him a commission or sales load. Sales people generally sell what they are compensated to sell. Commissions can therefore result in a huge conflict of interest for your advisor. Does she suggest the very best and lowest cost products or does she suggest those products that pay her the highest commission?

Fee-only advisors do not have this inherent conflict of interest because they are paid by the client, not the financial product provider. They are free to suggest the best investment vehicles and financial products for each client’s individual situation.

Should compensation be the only metric used to select a financial advisor?

Of course not, but the advisor’s compensation should be made crystal clear to you. When interviewing an advisor ask very direct questions.

Ask them to detail ALL sources of compensation. These might include up-front commissions or sales loads; deferred or trailing commissions; surrender charges if you opt out of the mutual fund or annuity too early; a wrap fee on your overall investment account; or a myriad of other fees and charges in various combinations.

This extends to fee-only advisors as well. Be sure to understand how much you will be paying for their advice and what types of investing costs you can expect to incur.

While you will not be writing a check for any commissions or product-based fees, make no mistake you are paying the freight. Excessive commissions or expenses serve to directly reduce your return on investment.

Once the new fiduciary rules go into effect, you may be asked to sign a form called a Best Interest Contract Exemption or BICE. The BICE form is used when the advisor seeks to use commissioned-based products, collect other types of revenue sharing or otherwise work with you in a fashion that is outside of the new fiduciary rules. Be sure to read this agreement carefully and to ask questions before signing it.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if you are invested properly for your situation? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

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Stock Market Highs and Your Retirement

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As I write this the S&P 500 Index reached another record high today, it’s 19th record high already in 2017. This comes less than a year after a 610 point drop in the Dow in the wake of the Brexit, the vote taken in U.K. where they decided to leave the European Union.

Difference Between Stocks and Bonds

Over the past 16 + years we’ve seen two market peaks followed by pronounced market drops.  The S&P 500 peaked at 1,527 on May 24, 2000 and then dropped 49% until it bottomed out at 777 on October 9, 2002.  The Dot Com Bubble and the tragedy of September 11 both contributed.

The S&P 500 rose to a high of 1,565 on October 9, 2007 only to fall 57% to a low of 677 on March 9, 2009 in the wake of the Financial Crisis. Since then the market has rallied and we are now in year nine of this bull market. As someone saving for retirement what should you do at this point?

Review and rebalance 

During the last market decline there were many stories about how our 401(k) accounts had become “201(k)s.” The PBS Frontline special The Retirement Gamble put much of the blame on Wall Street and they are right to an extent, especially as it pertains to the overall market drop.

However, some of the folks who experienced losses well in excess of the market averages were victims of their own over-allocation to stocks. This might have been their own doing or the result of poor financial advice.

This is the time to review your portfolio allocation and rebalance if needed.  For example your plan might call for a 60% allocation to stocks but with the gains that stocks have experienced you might now be at 70% or more.  This is great as long as the market continues to rise, but you are at increased risk should the market head down.  It may be time to consider paring equities back and to implement a strategy for doing this.

Financial Planning is vital

If you don’t have a financial plan in place, or if the last one you’ve done is old and outdated, this is a great time to have one done. Do it yourself if you’re comfortable or hire a fee-only financial advisor to help you.

If you have a financial plan this is a great time to review it and see where you are relative to your goals. Has the market rally accelerated the amount you’ve accumulated for retirement relative to where you had thought you’d be at this point? If so this is a good time to revisit your asset allocation and perhaps reduce your overall risk.

Learn from the past 

It is said that fear and greed are the two main drivers of the stock market. Some of the experts on shows like CNBC seem to feel that the market still has a ways to run and might even be undervalued. Maybe they’re right. However don’t get carried away and let greed guide your decisions.

Manage your portfolio with an eye towards downside risk. This doesn’t mean the markets won’t keep going up or that you should sell everything and go to cash. What it does mean is that you need to use your good common sense and keep your portfolio allocated in a fashion that is consistent with your retirement goals, your time horizon and your risk tolerance.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if you are invested properly for your situation? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

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Understanding Your Bond Fund’s Duration

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Interest Rates

For most of the past 30 years bonds and bond mutual funds have had the proverbial wind in their sails. Interest rates have steadily headed downwards. Bond prices and interest rates have an inverse relationship.

Last week, however, the Fed increased interest rates by 25 basis points (0.25%). They also indicated that they would continue to raise rates this year as, in their view, our economy has reached a new phase. This is part of an overall tightening of the money supply to keep the economy from overheating, including an effort to keep inflation in check.

Many investors may be wondering what this means for their bond mutual funds ETFs. A key number that all holders of bond funds and ETFs must know and understand is the fund’s duration.

What is duration? 

Bond mutual funds and ETFs are a portfolio of individual bonds.

According to Morningstar, “Duration is a time measure of a bond’s interest-rate sensitivity, based on the weighted average of the time periods over which a bond’s cash flows accrue to the bondholder.” A bond’s cash flows include the value received at maturity, generally $1,000 per bond, and the periodic interest payments received by the holder of the bond. A bond’s duration is expressed in years and is generally shorter than its maturity.

All things being equal, a bond with a longer time to maturity will have a higher duration meaning its price is more sensitive to changes in interest rates. Likewise, the higher the bond’s coupon rate (the stated interest rate paid by the bond) the lower the bond’s duration. Bonds with a shorter time to maturity and a higher coupon rate will have a lower duration and their price will be less sensitive to changes in interest rates.

The duration of a bond fund or ETF can be found on the fund’s fact sheet usually posted on the fund company’s site, or the portfolio tab on the fund’s listing on Morningstar.com.

What does bond fund duration tell us? 

The largest bond fund, Vanguard Total Bond Market Index (ticker VBMFX), has an effective duration of 6.05 years according to Morningstar. This tells us that if interest rates rise by 1% the value of the underlying bonds held by the fund would likely decline by around 6.05%.  Note this number is an approximation and bond prices are impacted by factors other than changes in interest rates. This fund roughly tracks the aggregate U.S. bond market.

By comparison Vanguard Long-Term Investment Grade (ticker VWESX) has longer duration of 13.31 years and would see a greater impact from rising interest rates.

The Vanguard Short-Term Bond Index ETF (ticker BSV) has a duration of 2.76 years.

The actively managed Double Line Total Return Bond Fund I (ticker DBLTX), managed by Jeffrey Gundlach who many call the “bond king,” has a duration of 3.98 years.

What should I do now?

As mentioned above, duration is a good indicator of the potential impact of a change in interest rates upon the value of your bond fund, but other factors also come into play. In 2008, many bond funds saw outsized losses and investors moved their money into Treasuries as a safe haven during the financial meltdown.

Many high-quality bond funds suffered major losses that year based only upon this flight to quality by investors.

Longer term the total return of a bond fund or ETF is driven by income payments as well as the direction of interest rates. Lower coupon bonds will be replaced by bonds with higher coupon rates over time.

Bonds are traded on the secondary market and prices are a function of supply and demand much like with stocks.

Bond mutual funds and ETFs offer the advantage of a managed portfolio.  On the flip side unlike an individual bond, bond mutual funds and ETFs never mature.

Is it time to get out of bond funds?  The point of this article is not to advocate that you do anything differently, but rather that you understand the potential duration risk in any bond mutual funds or ETFs that you currently hold or may be considering for purchase.

Bond funds and ETFs still have a place in diversified portfolios, but for many investors the characteristics of the fixed income portion of their portfolios may need an adjustment. This might mean shortening up on bond fund duration and looking at other, non-core types of bond funds.

The landscape of the financial markets is continually evolving and interest rates are a part of this evolution. As investors we need to understand the potential implications on our portfolios and adjust as needed.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if you are invested properly for your situation? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

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Investing Seminars – Should You Attend?

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It must be the season for investing and retirement dinner seminars. I’ve received a number of these invitations in the mail recently.

Typical was one from a local investment firm “___ Cordially Invites You to Attend an EXCLUSIVE Dinner Gathering!” Wow, me invited to anything that was exclusive?  The only brokerage sponsored investment “seminar” that I have ever attended featured legendary market guru Joseph Granville who among other things played the piano in his boxer shorts. It was in a movie theater in Milwaukee back in grad school, no food was involved.

Opening the invitation, it was from a well-known brokerage firm. The topic of the seminar is “Strategies for helping build a stronger portfolio.” The areas to be covered include:

  • Outlook for Domestic/International Stock & Bond Markets
  • Focus on distributions:  strategies for managing your retirement income
  • Developing a systematic process to help GET and STAY on the right financial track
  • Strategies to help take advantage of upside market potential while planning for a possible downside

So far this all sounds great. Reading on I noticed that while the session is sponsored by two brokers from the firm, the featured speakers were from a mutual fund company that offers funds that are often sold by commissioned reps while the other speaker was from an insurance company who is big in the world of annuities.

Should you attend? 

Clearly the objective is to sell financial products to the attendees, this is reinforced by the choice of speakers. That said there might be some good information available, the topics are certainly timely especially for Baby Boomers and retirees.

Consider attending one of these seminars only if you feel that you can resist a sales pitch. In the case of this session, the restaurant is a pretty good one that is close to my home. I am often tempted to check out one of these seminars out of professional curiosity, a free meal at a good restaurant would be an added bonus.

What are you hoping to gain from attending? The brokers are likely spending a fair amount of money on this session and expect a return on their investment. There will be a good deal of sales pressure at the very least to schedule a follow-up session with them.

Think about your real objective 

If you want a good meal and perhaps a little bit of knowledge, go ahead and attend.

If you are serious about finding a financial advisor to guide you to and through retirement, perhaps you should forego the meal and try to find someone who is a good fit for you. I strongly urge that you seek a fee-only advisor who sells only their knowledge and advice. NAPFA (a professional organization for fee-only advisors) has published this excellent guide to finding a financial advisor.

A free meal is great, but in the end as they say, there are no free lunches.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if you are invested properly for your situation? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

Year-End 401(k) Matching – A Good Thing?

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Tim Armstrong

I was reminded of the issue of year-end 401(k) matching by employers when I learned that the employer of a close relative was changing their match to the end of the year.

A few years ago, AOL announced that they were moving to a year-end once per year match on their 401(k) plan. AOL subsequently rescinded this change due to the public relations disaster caused by the firm’s Chairman tying this change to both Obama Care and specifically to two high-risk million dollar births covered by the company’s health insurance in 2012. Many major companies, including IBM, have gone this route in recent years. What are the implications of a year-end annual 401(k) match for employees and employers?

Implications for employees 

Ron Lieber wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times entitled Beware the End-of-Year 401(k) Match about this topic.  According to Lieber:

“AOL’s chief executive, Tim Armstrong, drew plenty of attention earlier this month when he seemed to attribute a change in the company’s 401(k) plan in part to a couple of employees whose infants required expensive care. But what was mostly lost in the discussion was just how much it would cost employees if every employer tried to do what AOL did. 

The answer? Close to $50,000 in today’s dollars by the time they retired, according to calculations that the 401(k) and mutual fund giant Vanguard made this week. That buys a lot of trips to see the grandchildren — or scores of nights in a nursing home.” 

The Vanguard study assumes an employee earns $40,000 per year and contributes 10% of their salary for 40 years, the investments earn 4% after inflation and the employee receives a 1% salary increase per year. The worker would have a balance that was 8.7% lower with annual matching than with a per pay period match. Of note, the Vanguard analysis assumes that this hypothetical worker missed 7 years’ worth of annual matches due to job changes over the course of his/her career.

Lieber also discussed the case of IBM’s move to year-end matching that also proved controversial. IBM, however, offers all employees free financial planning help and has a generous percentage match.

Additional implications of an annual match from the employee’s viewpoint:

  • One of the benefits of regular contributions to a 401(k) plan is the ability to dollar cost average. The participants lose this benefit for the employer match.
  • Generally, employees must be employed by the company as of a certain date in order to receive their annual match.  Employees who are looking to change employers will be impacted as will employees who are being laid off by the company.
  • If the annual match is perceived as less generous it might discourage some lower compensated workers from participating in the plan. This could lead to the plan not passing its annual non-discrimination testing, which could lead to restrictions on the amounts that some employees are allowed to contribute to the plan. 

Note employers are not obligated to provide a matching contribution. The above does not refer to the annual discretionary profit sharing contribution that some companies make based on the company’s profitability or other metrics. Lastly to be clear, companies going this route are not breaking any laws or rules.

Implications for employers 

I once asked a VP of Human Resources why they chose a particular 401(k) provider. His response was that this provider’s well-known and respected name was a tool in attracting and retaining the type of employees this company was seeking.

While not all employers offer a retirement plan, many that do cite their 401(k) plan as a tool to attract and retain good employees.

There are, however, some valid reasons why a plan sponsor might want to go the annual matching route:

  • Lower administration costs (conceivably) from only having to account for and allocate one annual matching contribution vs. having to do this every pay period. In many plans the cost of administration is born by the employees and comes out of plan assets, in other plans the employer might pay some or all of this cost in hard dollars from company assets.
  • Cost savings realized by not having to match the contributions of employees who have left the company prior to year-end or the date of required employment in order to receive the match.
  • Let’s face it the cost of providing employee benefits continues to increase. Companies are in business to make money. At some point something may have to give. While I’m not a fan of these annual matches, going this route is better for employees than eliminating the match altogether.

Reasons a company wouldn’t want to go this route:

  • In many industries, and in certain types of positions across various industries, skilled workers are scarce.  Annual matching can be perceived as a cut in benefits and likely won’t help companies attract and retain the types of employees they are seeking.
  • Companies want to help their employees to retire at some point because they feel this is the right thing to do. Additionally, if too many older employees don’t feel they can retire this creates issues surrounding younger employees the company wants to develop and advance for the future. 

Overall I’m not a fan of these annual matches simply because it is tough enough for employees to save enough for their retirement under the defined contribution environment that has emerged over the past 25 years or so. The year-end or annual match makes it just that much tougher on employees, which is not a good thing.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services. 

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Financial Fraud – Tips to Protect Yourself

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Financial fraud is all over the news.  Whether high-profile Ponzi Scheme cases via the likes of Madoff, Allen Stanford or many smaller cases, investors are being defrauded out of their hard-earned money at an alarming rate.

Financial Fraud – Tips to Protect Yourself

I’d like to tell you that the problem emanates only from financial advisors who sell product, but sadly two former presidents of NAPFA, the country’s largest organization of fee-only advisors, have been implicated in fraud cases in recent years.

Given the increasing skill and imagination of fraudsters there is no fool-proof way to protect you and your family from financial fraud.  None the less here are some tips for you to reduce the risk:

Use a third-party custodian

If a financial advisor suggests that you don’t need to house your investments with a third-party custodian such as Schwab, Fidelity, your bank, Merrill Lynch, etc. I suggest that you run (don’t walk) away from any relationship with this person.

This was one of the key tactics that Madoff used to perpetrate his fraud for so many years. He even sent his own client statements. While a third-party custodian is not fool-proof, you should insist upon this arrangement. Besides receiving an independently prepared statement, you can generally set-up online access.

Review your account statements

Read and review your account statements on a regular basis. Besides being a good practice, this is a must to catch both honest mistakes and potentially fraudulent transactions. Several years ago, an advisor allegedly took client funds from accounts at Schwab by forging their signatures. I’m sure that he was counting on the fact that many clients never review their account statements or check their accounts online.

Affinity Fraud

Don’t assume that you can trust an advisor just because he or she attends your church or you are in the same Rotary club. Affinity fraud is far too common. Many of Madoff’s victims were members of the Jewish community up and down the East Coast. I’m not saying to disqualify an advisor because they are a member of your church, but they should be put through the same level of scrutiny as any other advisor that you would consider.

Beware the rush job

If an advisor is insistent that you invest NOW, be very leery. There is no investment that is that urgent. Investments should be made after careful planning to ensure that they are part of a strategy that is right for you. Don’t let yourself be pressured into doing anything with your money. High pressure often equals a scam.

Only invest in what you understand

If you don’t understand an investment vehicle proposed by a financial advisor don’t allow your money to be invested there. Demand he or she explain the investment to you until you do understand it so that you can make a good decision.

Elder Fraud

If you have elderly parents or relatives talk to them about investment scams as many are aimed at seniors. While this can be a touchy subject, it is an important one. Sadly, a high percentage of the financial fraud aimed at seniors is perpetrated by family members. Your help here may include protecting these people from other members of your own family.

Stay engaged

Overall make sure that if you work with a financial advisor that you stay engaged in the process of managing your money. While it is great to find a trusted advisor, make sure you continue to ask questions about the advice they are providing and why they feel a particular investment or course of action is right for your situation.

The Bottom Line

Financial and investment fraud is rampant. The steps above can help but overall be diligent about your finances and the people you are trusting to provide you advice. Be especially leery of unsolicited calls urging you to invest in the next hot thing. If something sounds too good to be true it probably is.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

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