Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Should You Accept a Pension Buyout Offer?

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Corporate pension buyout offers have been in the news in recent years with companies like Hartford Financial Services offering lump-sum payment options to vested former employees and with Boeing offering a choice of lump-sum or annuity payments to a similar group. Note these offers are not available to retirees who have already taken their pension benefit.

The answer to the question of whether you should accept a pension buyout offer versus taking your pension as a lifetime stream of monthly payment is that it depends upon your situation. Here are a few things to consider.

Are they sweetening the deal? 

Perhaps the lump-sum is a bit larger, and in the case of the Boeing offer the annuity payments were a bit better as well. Or perhaps there normally wouldn’t be a lump-sum option available from the pension plan so this in and of itself is an incentive.

Remember the incentive for the companies offering these deals is to get rid of these future pension liabilities. The potential cost savings and impact on their future profitability is huge. 

Can you manage the lump-sum? 

The decision to take your pension as a lump-sum vs. a stream of payments is always a tough decision. A key question to ask yourself is whether you are equipped to manage a lump-sum payment. Ideally you would be rolling this lump-sum into an IRA account and investing it for your retirement. Are you comfortable managing this money?  If not are you working with a trusted financial advisor who can help you?

There has been much written about financial advisors who troll large organizations (both governmental and corporate) looking for large numbers of folks with lump-sums to rollover. In some cases, these advisors have moved this rollover money into investments that are wholly inappropriate for these investors. As always be smart with your money and with your trust.  Be informed and ask lots of questions.

Do you have concerns about the company’s financial health? 

Do you have doubts about the future solvency of the organization offering the pension? This pertains to both a public entity (can you say Detroit?) and to for-profit organizations like Hartford Financial and Boeing. In the latter case pension payments are guaranteed up to certain monthly limits set by the PBGC. If you were a high-earner and your monthly payment exceeds this limit you could see your monthly payment reduced.

While I am not familiar with the financial state of either Hartford Financial or Boeing I’m guessing their financial health is not a major issue. If you receive a buyout offer you might consider taking it if you have concerns that your current or former employer may run into financial difficulties down the road.

Who guarantees the annuity payments? 

If the buyout offer includes an option to receive annuity payments make sure that you understand who is guaranteeing these payments. Generally, if a company is making this type of offer they are looking to reduce their future pension liability and they will transfer your pension obligation to an insurance company. They will be the one’s making the annuity payments and ultimately guaranteeing these payments.

This is not necessarily a bad thing but you need to understand that your current or former employer is not behind these payments nor is the PBCG. Typically, if an insurance company defaults on its obligations your recourse is via the appropriate state insurance department. The rules as to how much of an annuity payment is covered will vary.

The impact of inflation

An additional consideration in evaluating a buy-out option that includes annuity payments of this type is the fact that most of these annuities will not include cost of living increases. This means that the buying power of these payments will decrease over time due to inflation. 

What other retirement resources do you have? 

If you will be eligible for Social Security and/or have other pension plans it quite possibly will make sense to take a buyout offer that includes a lump-sum. Review all of your retirement accounts and those of your spouse if you are married.  This includes 401(k) plans, 403(b) accounts, IRAs, etc. This is a good time to take stock of your retirement readiness and perhaps even to do a financial plan if don’t have a current one in place.

The Bottom Line

I’m generally a fan of pension buyout offers, especially if there is a lump-sum option. As with any financial decision it is wise to look at your entire retirement and financial situation and to have a plan in place to manage this money.  Where an annuity is also available you need to understand who will be behind the annuity and to analyze whether this is a good deal for you. Be prepared to deal with an offer if you receive one.

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 our resources page as well.  

Annuities: The Wonder Drug for Your Retirement?

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Annuities: The Wonder Drug for Your Retirement?

Annuities are often touted as the “cure” for all that ails your retirement.  Baby Boomers and retirees are the prime target market for the annuity sales types. You’ve undoubtedly heard many of these pitches in person or as advertisements. The pitches frequently pander to the fears that many investors still feel after the last stock market decline. After all, what’s not to like about guaranteed income?

What is an annuity?

I’ll let the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) explain this in a quote from their website:

“An annuity is a contract between you and an insurance company that is designed to meet retirement and other long-range goals, under which you make a lump-sum payment or series of payments. In return, the insurer agrees to make periodic payments to you beginning immediately or at some future date.

Annuities typically offer tax-deferred growth of earnings and may include a death benefit that will pay your beneficiary a specified minimum amount, such as your total purchase payments. While tax is deferred on earnings growth, when withdrawals are taken from the annuity, gains are taxed at ordinary income rates, and not capital gains rates. If you withdraw your money early from an annuity, you may pay substantial surrender charges to the insurance company, as well as tax penalties.

There are generally three types of annuities — fixed, indexed, and variable. In a fixed annuity, the insurance company agrees to pay you no less than a specified rate of interest during the time that your account is growing. The insurance company also agrees that the periodic payments will be a specified amount per dollar in your account. These periodic payments may last for a definite period, such as 20 years, or an indefinite period, such as your lifetime or the lifetime of you and your spouse.

In an indexed annuity, the insurance company credits you with a return that is based on changes in an index, such as the S&P 500 Composite Stock Price Index. Indexed annuity contracts also provide that the contract value will be no less than a specified minimum, regardless of index performance.

In a variable annuity, you can choose to invest your purchase payments from among a range of different investment options, typically mutual funds. The rate of return on your purchase payments, and the amount of the periodic payments you eventually receive, will vary depending on the performance of the investment options you have selected.

Variable annuities are securities regulated by the SEC. An indexed annuity may or may not be a security; however, most indexed annuities are not registered with the SEC. Fixed annuities are not securities and are not regulated by the SEC. You can learn more about variable annuities by reading our publication, Variable Annuities: What You Should Know.”

What’s good about annuities?

In an uncertain world, an annuity can offer a degree of certainty to retirees in terms of receiving a fixed stream of payments over their lifetime or some other specified period of time. Once you annuitize there’s no guesswork about how much you will be receiving, assuming that the insurance company behind the product stays healthy.

Watch out for high and/or hidden fees 

The biggest beef about annuities are the fees, which are often hidden or least difficult to find. Many annuity products carry fees that are pretty darn high, others are much more reasonable. In general, the lack of transparency regarding the fees associated with most annuity contracts is appalling.

There are typically several layers of fees in an annuity:

Fees connected with the underlying investments In a variable annuity there are fees connected with the underlying sub-account (accounts that resemble mutual funds) similar to the expense ratio of a mutual fund. In a fixed annuity the underlying fees are typically the difference between the net interest rate you will receive vs. the gross interest rate earned.  In the case of an indexed annuity product the fees are just plain murky.

Mortality and expense charges are fees charged by the insurance company to cover their costs for guaranteeing a stream of income to you. While I get this and understand it, the wide variance in these and other fees across the universe of annuity contracts and the insurance companies that provide them makes me shake my head.

Surrender charges are fees that are designed to keep you from withdrawing your funds for a period of time.  From my point of view these charges are heinous whether in an annuity, a mutual fund, or anyplace else. If you are considering an annuity and the product has a surrender charge, avoid it. I’m not advocating withdrawing money early from an annuity, but surrender charges also restrict you from exchanging a high cost annuity into one with a lower fee structure. Essentially these fees serve to ensure that the agent or rep who sold you the high fee annuity (and the insurance company) continue to benefit by placing handcuffs on you in terms of sticking with the policy.

Who’s really guaranteeing your annuity? 

When you purchase an annuity, your stream of payments is guaranteed by the “full faith and credit” of the underlying insurance company.  This differs from a pension that is annuitized and backed by the PBGC, a governmental entity, up to certain limits.

Outside of the most notable failure, Executive Life in the early 1990s, there have not been a high number of insurance company failures. In the case of Executive Life, 1,000s of annuity recipients were impacted in the form of greatly reduced annuity payments which in many cases permanently impacted the quality of their retirement.

Insurance companies are regulated at the state level; state insurance departments are generally the backstop in the event of an insurance company failure. In most cases you will receive some portion of the payment amount that you expected, but there is often a delay in receiving these payments.

The point is not to scare anyone from buying an annuity but rather to remind you to perform your own due diligence on the underlying insurance company.

Annuities and the DOL fiduciary rules

The Department of Labor’s fiduciary rules that will govern which financial products financial advisors use for clients in their retirement accounts do not prohibit the use of annuities, but the new rules do require much more disclosure and justification when they are used. The final draft of the rules also cover indexed annuities which is different from drafts of the rules prior to the final version.

Should you buy an annuity? 

Annuities are not a bad product as long as you understand what they can and cannot do for you. Like anything else you need to shop for the right annuity. For example, an insurance agent or registered rep is not going to show you a product from someone like Vanguard that has ultra-low fees and no surrender charges because they receive no commissions.

An annuity can offer diversification in your retirement income stream. Perhaps you have investments in taxable and tax-deferred accounts from which you will withdraw money to fund your retirement. Adding Social Security to the mix provides a government-funded stream of payments. A commercial annuity can also be of value as part of your retirement income stream, again as long as you shop for the appropriate product.

Annuities are generally sold rather than bought by Baby Boomers and others. Be a smart consumer and understand what you are buying, why a particular annuity product (and the insurance company) are right for you, and the benefits that you expect to receive from the annuity. Properly used, an annuity can be a valuable component of your retirement planning efforts. Be sure to read ALL of the fine print and understand ALL of the expenses, terms, conditions and restrictions before writing a check.

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 our resources page as well.  

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The Election and Your Financial Plan

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The improbable happened last night, we now have President-Elect Donald Trump.

The financial news media is buzzing about the election results and the potential impact on your pocketbook. There has been much speculation about taxes, healthcare and certainly which stocks and stock sectors might benefit from the Trump victory and the Republic majority in both houses of Congress.

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What should you do financially in the wake of the election? 

Nothing!

There is a lot of speculation and uncertainty. Those of you who read this blog or follow me on social media know that I advocate the use of a financial plan as the basis of most financial decisions. Reacting to the election or any other major event usually is not a good idea. For example, many investors who panicked and sold off investments during the market drop of 2008-09 are generally behind those investors who stuck with their investment plan, at least based upon my experience.

In all likelihood there will be changes in the coming months politically and economically. Some of these changes might create the need to adjust strategies for some investors and retirement savers down the road.

For now my suggestion is to monitor the news and to stick with your financial plan. As always your financial plan should be reviewed on a periodic basis and adjusted when appropriate.

My advice is to plan and not react.

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 our resources page as well.  

5 Tips to Manage Taxable Mutual Fund Distributions

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With the end of the year in sight it’s time for year-end mutual fund distributions. If you hold mutual funds in taxable accounts, these distributions will be taxable to you.

taxable mutual fund distributions

Even with the weakness in the stock market to start the year, the Bexit vote in United Kingdom and recent pre-election weakness many mutual funds have gains embedded from a seven-year plus bull market.

Short of selling the funds, which may or may not a good idea, here are 5 tips to manage taxable mutual fund distributions.

Don’t buy the distribution 

During November and December mutual fund companies will publish information about fund distributions on their websites. If you are looking to add to a position or start a new mutual fund position in a taxable account it is important that you know the dates of these distributions and take the anticipated distribution into account. You don’t want to buy a fund shortly before a significant distribution and then owe taxes on the distribution only having owned the fund for a short time.

Even if you reinvest distributions on mutual funds held in a taxable account the distributions are still taxable in the year received. These distributions can be added to your cost basis in fund which can take a bit of the sting out of this.

Consider tax-loss harvesting to offset capital gains distributions 

As you go through your taxable accounts near the end of the year consider selling holdings with a loss to offset some of the capital gains distributions from your funds.

Just as with gains and losses generated from the sale of investments, long-term capital gains are matched against long-term capital losses and likewise with short-term capital gains and losses.

Tax-loss harvesting or any tax strategy should only be used if it makes sense from an investment point of view.

Index funds are not a cure-all for taxable mutual fund distributions

Index funds tracking standard broad-market indexes are generally pretty tax-efficient. That doesn’t mean that this will be the case each and every year. Further index funds and ETFs tracking small and mid-cap indexes may need to make more transactions in order to track their respective indexes.

As smart beta products become more popular they will likely be less tax-efficient than more common market-cap weighted index products. Smart beta funds will likely need to buy and sell more frequently in order to rebalance to the their underlying benchmark than more standard index products, potentially resulting in larger capital gains distributions.

Don’t let the tax tail wag the investment dog 

While it is aggravating to receive large taxable mutual fund distributions, it is rarely a good idea to sell an investment holding solely for tax reasons.

Mutual fund distributions are one of three types:

  • Dividends
  • Short-term capital gains
  • Long-term capital gains

All three have different tax implications.

Ordinary dividends and short-term capital gains are taxed at your highest marginal ordinary income tax rate. Long-term capital gains are taxed at preferential rates ranging from 15% to 20% with higher income tax payers subject to the 3.8% Medicare tax. Qualified dividends are taxed at these same rates as well.

That said it is important to pay attention to the tax efficiency of the mutual funds that you are using in your taxable accounts. 

Consider distributions when looking to rebalance 

Year-end is a good time to look at rebalancing your entire portfolio, both taxable and tax-deferred accounts.  As you look to rebalance your portfolio consider reducing positions in taxable mutual fund holdings that continually throw off large distributions. If the fund is a good holding look for ways to own it in a tax-deferred account if possible.

The decision with regard to the taxable portion of your portfolio always involves taxes to one extent or another. If you were looking to reduce your position in the fund anyway it can make sense to sell it prior to the record date for this year’s capital gains distribution. If selling the fund would result in a capital gain, offsetting the gain against a realized loss on another holding could be a good strategy.

The Bottom Line

With the gains in the stock market over the past few years many investors may find themselves the recipient of large distributions this year in spite of weakness in the markets over the course of the past year. When possible consider tax-efficiency when buying mutual funds in a taxable account.

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 our resources page as well.  

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Resolving Financial Issues Before Marriage

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Personal financial topics are often some of the most difficult topics for people to discuss. But since financial issues often cause significant problems in marriages, you should try to reach some sort of agreement on your finances before your wedding. Some items to consider include:

Resolving Financial Issues Before Marriage

Where do you want to be in five or 10 years?

Our dreams for the future often come with price tags. If one spouse wants to continue his/her education or start a business, significant sums may be needed for that goal. If children are part of your future plans, when you have those children, how many you have, and whether both of you continue working will have a significant impact on your finances. Planning now will allow you to set priorities and start saving for those goals.

What assets and liabilities are each of you bringing to the marriage?

Preparing a combined net worth statement will give you a starting point for determining how you can help achieve your financial goals. If one or both of you have significant assets, you might want to consider a prenuptial agreement to spell out what happens to your assets in the event of death or divorce. For a second or third marriage, especially if there are children from any of these prior marriages, proper estate planning is essential.

Do either of you have credit problems?

When you apply jointly for credit, both of your credit histories will be evaluated. Thus, if one of you has an outstanding credit history and the other has credit problems, it can affect the approval process and your debt’s cost. If one of you has credit problems, work hard during the early years of your marriage to correct those problems.

Should you combine your finances or keep them separate?

Some couples prefer pooling all funds, thinking it helps create a feeling of unity. Others, however, have difficulty losing their financial autonomy, especially if they have been on their own for many years. Keep in mind that this is not an either/or decision. You can set up a joint account for shared expenses, with each spouse contributing a predesignated amount to the account. For the remaining funds, separate accounts can be kept for discretionary spending.

How will you handle spending decisions?

The process of defining goals and setting a budget can help resolve differing views about money matters, forcing couples to compromise and make joint decisions about how money will be spent. While that might seem like a painful process, addressing these issues now can help prevent future misunderstandings. You may want to set a maximum amount that each of you can spend without consulting the other.

How will you handle insurance?

If you both have medical insurance through your employers, it may be cheaper to select one plan for both of you. Combining auto insurance may also reduce premiums. You’ll also want to evaluate your life insurance.

Who will handle financial tasks?

Decide who will handle financial tasks. One person may be more suited for these tasks due to his/her background or time availability. However, the other spouse should not give up total control. Set up a formal time, perhaps monthly, to go over financial matters. This keeps both spouses informed and provides a designated time to discuss spending or items of concern. You then won’t fret about how to bring up financial topics or let finances interfere at other times.

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 our resources page as well.  

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3 Financial Products to Consider Avoiding

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Before buying ANY financial product make sure that this product is right for you in terms of your unique, personal financial situation.  Financial products are tools and just like your projects around the house you should use the right tool for the job, not the tool that the financial rep wants to sell to you.

Here are three financial products that you should consider avoiding.

Equity-Indexed Annuities 

Equity-Indexed Annuities are an insurance-based product where the returns are tied to some portion of the performance of an underlying market index such as the S&P 500.  They are also called fixed-index insurance products and indexed annuities. Your gains are limited to a portion of what the index gains and there is generally some sort of minimum return to limit (or eliminate) your risk of loss.  As you can imagine these were pitched heavily to Baby Boomers and retirees after the last market downturn and are still being sold based upon fear today.

Two problems here are generally high internal expenses and surrender charges that keep you locked in the product for years. Worse yet, these internal expenses can be hard to isolate. If you decide to go ahead with the purchase of an Equity-Indexed Annuity be sure that you understand all of the details including the level of index participation, expenses, surrender charges, and the health of the underlying insurance company. Check out FINRA’s Investor Alert regarding Equity-Indexed Annuities for more cautionary information.

Proprietary Mutual Funds

It is not uncommon for registered reps and brokers to suggest mutual funds from the family run by their employer. In many cases they are incentivized or even required to do so. While some of these funds are perfectly fine, all too often in my experience they are not.  Whether via high fees and/or low performance these are often investments to be avoided.

A lawsuit against Ameriprise Financial brought by a group of participants in the company’s retirement plan alleged the company breached its Fiduciary duty by offering a number of the firm’s own funds in the plan and that these funds then paid fees back to Ameriprise and some of its subsidiaries as revenue sharing. The suit was ultimately settled.

JP Morgan also settled a suit by some retail investors over the bank steering clients into their more expensive proprietary funds over those of other families.

Load Mutual Funds

It is important that you understand the ABCs of mutual fund share classes.  In the commissioned/fee-based world reps often sell mutual funds that offer compensation to them and to their broker-dealers.  A shares charge an up-front commission plus a trailing fee (often a 12b-1) of somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.25% or more.

B shares charge no up-front commissions, but carry an additional back-end load as part of the ongoing expense ratio.  This can amount to an addition 0.75% or more added to the fund’s annual expenses.  In addition these shares also contain a surrender charge that typically starts at 5% if your sell the fund before the end of the surrender period.  B shares have been largely phased out by most fund providers.

C shares typically have a permanent 1% level load added to the fund’s expense ratio and carry a one year surrender period.

These sales loads ultimately reduce the amount of your investment and are an expensive form of advice. Nobody expects financial advisors or any other professional to provide financial advice for free. Unless the person to whom you are paying these pricey loads is providing extraordinary advice, this is a very expensive way to go.

The DOL fiduciary rules

The fiduciary rules introduced by the DOL (Department of Labor) in April of 2016 impose a far greater level  of disclosure on financial advisors. The rules require financial advisors to act as fiduciaries when providing advice to clients on their retirement accounts such as IRAs.

The fiduciary rules require advisors to have their client sign a disclosure document for many financial products with sales charges and trailing commissions if used in a retirement account. Load mutual funds and proprietary mutual funds will most likely require a BICE (Best Interest Contract Exemption) disclosure. Additionally Equity-Indexed Annuities were not exempted from these disclosures in the final draft of the rules as they had been in earlier drafts.

It will remain to be seen how the fiduciary rules will impact these three products, both within retirement accounts and overall. As an example, broker Edward Jones recently announced that mutual funds and ETFs will no longer be offered to clients in retirement accounts where commissions are charged.

Before making any financial or investment decision review your specific situation. Consult a fee-only financial advisor if you feel that you need financial advice.

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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4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing

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The past year has been volatile for investors. Between a dip in the markets last year, a shaky start to the current year and the Brexit vote in the U.K. it has been quite a roller coaster ride for investors. In spite of all of this, major market indexes stand at or near record levels. In the course of all of this, your portfolio may have strayed from your target allocation and it might be time to rebalance.  Here are 4 benefits of portfolio rebalancing.

4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing

Balancing risk and reward

Asset allocation is about balancing risk and reward. Invariably some asset classes will perform better than others. This can cause your portfolio to be skewed towards an allocation that takes too much risk or too little risk based on your financial objectives.

During robust periods in the stock market equities will outperform asset classes such as fixed income. Perhaps your target allocation was 65% stocks and 35% bonds and cash. A stock market rally might leave your portfolio at 75% stocks and 25% fixed income and cash. This is great if the market continues to rise but you would likely see a more pronounced decline in your portfolio should the market experience a sharp correction.

Portfolio rebalancing enforces a level of discipline

Rebalancing imposes a level of discipline in terms of selling a portion of your winners and putting that money back into asset classes that have underperformed.

This may seem counter intuitive but market leadership rotates over time. During the first decade of this century emerging markets equities were often among the top performing asset classes. Fast forward to today and they coming off of several years of losses.

Rebalancing can help save investors from their own worst instincts. It is often tempting to let top performing holdings and asset classes run when the markets seem to keep going up. Investors heavy in large caps, especially those with heavy tech holdings, found out the risk of this approach when the Dot Com bubble burst in early 2000.

Ideally investors should have a written investment policy that outlines their target asset allocation with upper and lower percentage ranges. Violating these ranges should trigger a review for potential portfolio rebalancing.

A good reason to review your portfolio

When considering portfolio rebalancing investors should also incorporate a full review of their portfolio that includes a review of their individual holdings and the continued validity of their investment strategy. Some questions you should ask yourself:

  • Have individual stock holdings hit my growth target for that stock?
  • How do my mutual funds and ETFs stack up compared to their peers?
    • Relative performance?
    • Expense ratios?
    • Style consistency?
  • Have my mutual funds or ETFs experienced significant inflows or outflows of dollars?
  • Have there been any recent changes in the key personnel managing the fund?

These are some of the factors that financial advisors (hopefully) consider as they review client portfolios.

This type of review should be done at least annually and I generally suggest that investors review their allocation no more often than quarterly.

Helps you stay on track with your financial plan 

Investing success is not a goal unto itself but rather a tool to help ensure that you meet your financial goals and objectives. Regular readers of The Chicago Financial Planner know that I am a big proponent of having a financial plan in place.

A properly constructed financial plan will contain a target asset allocation and an investment strategy tied to your goals, your timeframe for the money and your risk tolerance. Periodic portfolio rebalancing is vital to maintaining an appropriate asset allocation that is in line with your financial plan.

The Bottom Line 

Regular portfolio rebalancing helps reduce downside investment risk and ensures that your investments are allocated in line with your financial plan. It also can help investors impose an important level of discipline on themselves.

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 our resources page as well.  

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 recently 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 its’s one more thing that clients of stock brokers and registered reps need to be aware of.

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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.”

Evidently 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 continual 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 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, which I wholeheartedly support, 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 by some, 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 makes 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 these 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 to you make sure you understand how this arrangement benefits you the client. Clients of brokers and fee-based advisors are likely to see more of these types of accounts proposed to them as the implementation of the new fiduciary rules nears.

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