Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

The Bull Market Turns Seven Now What?

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On March 9, 2009 the market downturn fueled by the financial crisis bottomed out as measured by the S&P 500 Index. On that day the index closed at 677. Yesterday, on the bull market’s seventh birthday, the index closed at 1,989 or an increase of about 194 percent. According to CNBC the Dow Jones Industrial Average has increased 160 percent and the NASDAQ 267 percent over this seven-year time frame.

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With the bull market turning seven, now what? Here are some thoughts and ideas for investors.

How does this bull market stack up?

According to data from the most recent quarterly Guide to the Markets report from JP Morgan Asset Management, the average bull market following a bear market lasts for 53 months and results in a gain of 153%. By both measures this bull market is a long one.

Does this mean that investors should brace for an imminent market correction? Not necessarily but bull markets don’t last forever either.

There have been some speed bumps along the way, including 2011, a sharp decline in the third quarter of 2015 and of course the sharp declines we saw to start off 2016. Again this is not an indicator of anything about the future.

Winners and losers

A commentator on CNBC cited a couple of big winners in this bull market:

  • Netflix (NFLX) +1,667%
  • General Growth Properties (GGP) +9,964%

Additionally, Apple (APPL) closed at a split-adjusted $11.87 per share on March 9, 2009. It closed at $101.12 on March 9, 2016.

The CNBC commentator cited giant retailer Walmart (WMT) as a stock that has missed much of the bounce in this market, as their stock is up only 42% over this time period.

What should investors do now? 

None of us knows what the future will hold. The bull market may be getting long of tooth. There are factors such as potential actions by the Fed, China’s impact on our markets, the threat of terrorism and countless others that could impact the direction of the stock market. It seems there is always something to worry about in that regard.

That all said, my suggestions for investors are pretty much the same “boring” ones that I’ve been giving since I started this blog in 2009.

  • Control the factors that you can control. Your investment costs and your asset allocation are two of the biggest factors within your control.
  • Review and rebalance your portfolio This is a great way to ensure that your allocation and your level of risk stay on track.
  • When in doubt fall back on your financial plan. Review your progress against your plan periodically and, if warranted, adjust your portfolio accordingly.
  • Contribute to your 401(k) plan and make sure that your investment choices are appropriate for your time horizon and risk tolerance. Avoid 401(k) loans if possible and don’t ignore old 401(k) accounts when leaving a company.
  • Don’t overdo it when investing in company stock.
  • If you need professional financial help, get it. Be sure to hire a fee-only financial advisor who will put your interests first.

The Bottom Line 

The now seven-year bull market since the bottom in 2009 has been a very robust period for investors. Many have more than recovered from their losses during the market decline of 2008-09.

Nobody knows what will happen next. In my opinion, investors are wise to control the factors that they can, have a plan in place and follow that plan.

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.

20 Best Investing Blogs of 2016 – The College Investor

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I am very flattered to be included in this list of the 20 Best Investing Blogs of 2016  compiled by Robert Farrington on his outstanding blog The College Investor, with it’s tagline “Investing and Personal Finance for Millennials.”

20 Best Investing Blogs of 2016

I know and follow many of these people and read their blogs on a regular basis. There were a few that were new to me and I plan to add their blogs to my regular reading list as well. If you like to read about investing and financial topics this list is a great place to start.

Jim Blankenship, Financial Ducks In A Row

Josh Brown, The Reformed Broker

Ben Carlson, A Wealth of Common Sense

Kathryn Cicoletti, Ms. Cheat Sheet

Jim Dahle, The White Coat Investor

Sam Dogen, Financial Samurai

Eddy Elfenbein, Crossing Wall Street

Michael Kitces, Nerd’s Eye View

Larry Ludwig, Investor Junkie

Michael Piper, Oblivious Investor

Ben Reynolds, Sure Dividend

Barry Ritholtz, The Big Picture

Jeff Rose, Good Financial Cents

Todd Tresidder, Financial Mentor

Joe Udo, Retire By 40

Tadas Viskanta, Abnormal Returns

Roger Wohlner, The Chicago Financial Planner

The Dividend Guy Blog

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

The Mad FIentist

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.

3 Financial Planning Lessons from the Cincinnati Bengals

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Long-time readers of The Chicago Financial Planner know that I am a die-hard football fan and avid supporter of the Green Bay Packers. Come playoff time, I try catch all of the games as they are often memorable. The game this past Saturday between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals was memorable for the wrong reasons if you are a Bengals fan.

Rarely, if ever, in my 50 years of watching NFL games have I ever seen a team give away a game (especially a playoff game) in such a bonehead fashion as did the Bengals. Besides some just plain dumb moves, the level of dirty play and bad sportsmanship was disgusting.

What can we learn from the Bengals about financial planning? Here are 3 financial planning lessons from the Cincinnati Bengals.

Protect your downside 

The Bengals had gained the lead in the final quarter after being held scoreless for the first three quarters of the game. On what should have been a routine running play, (in the Steelers end no less) to try to run the clock out, the Bengals’ running back fumbled. In this situation ball security should have been his first priority, not gaining any yardage.

Unless you are very young, most investors are wise to diversify their portfolios in order to dampen the impact of market declines like the financial crisis or even the market volatility that we’ve seen since the start of the new year.

Keep your emotions in check 

Cincinnati linebacker Vontaz Burfict made a key interception that looked like it might seal an improbable comeback win for the Bengals. After the fumble mentioned above, he proceeded to make one of the absolute dumbest and dirtiest hits to the head of a Steelers receiver resulting in a key 15-yard penalty.

His teammate (and I’m sure fellow Mensa member) Adam Pacman Jones then garnered another 15-yard penalty for shoving a Pittsburgh assistant coach during an on-field altercation that set-up a chip-shot game winning field goal for the Steelers.

Burfict is known as a loose cannon and has been fined in the past and Jones is not a choir boy either. Both personal fouls can be attributed to a combination of bad judgment and a failure to keep their emotions in check in a key situation.

Investors need to stay calm during periods of upheaval in the economy and the financial markets. So far 2016 has started off with roughly a 5% loss in some the major market averages.

Back in 2008 and early 2009 the financial press was filled with stories of investors who panicked and sold out of their stock holdings, including mutual funds and ETFs, at or near the bottom of the market. Many of these investors stayed out missing all or most of the six plus year rally we’ve seen since the lows of March 9, 2009. Sadly, for those who were near retirement they booked substantial losses and never gave their portfolios a chance to recover.

Investors need to stay calm. One way to help in this area is to have a plan. Have an asset allocation that that reflects your situation including your time horizon for the money and your risk tolerance. Review your portfolio at regular intervals and rebalance as needed. A plan does not eliminate market volatility or the stress that it can bring, but it can help to prevent you from acting on your emotions, usually to your detriment. 

Build a team that you can depend on 

While both Burfict and Jones are talented players, both have a history of issues. Jones has been in trouble with the NFL for off-field activities and has been suspended by the league in the past. Burfict was suspended for this hit and has been fined for prior transgressions. He was undrafted, many say as a result of a reputation for being hard to deal with.

As a viewer of the game I would say these two players let their teammates and fans down at the most critical point in the most important game of the season. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since 1991 and their comeback to take the lead and put themselves into a position to win was heroic, only to be destroyed by the lack of self-control of these two.

In the course of accumulating money for goals such as retirement and college for your kids, many of you will seek advice along the way. In doing so it is important to build a team of advisors and partners that you can trust.

If a financial advisor is needed be sure to choose a fee-only advisor. This isn’t to say that one who derives some or all of their compensation from the sale of financial products isn’t competent, but someone who doesn’t have the conflict of interest inherent in the sale of financial products starts out as more objective.

Find an investment custodian who has reasonable fees and offers the types of investments and accounts that meet your needs. Free ETF platforms are nice, but who cares if the ETFs on the platform are not the ones that are right for you.

Other advisors might include a CPA or an attorney to handle estate planning matters.

In all cases don’t be afraid to ask questions. In the case of a financial advisor it is important to understand if they have worked with clients in similar situations as you and to understand what you will receive for the fees paid.

The Bottom Line 

As I’ve written here in the past, football and the world of financial planning and investing have some similarities. Learn from the Cincinnati Bengals and be sure to protect your financial downside, keep your emotions in check and build a team that you can trust. These steps will put you on track towards achieving your financial goals.

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.

4 Things To Do When The Stock Market Drops

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The stock market has started out the new year with some hefty declines. We are seeing firsthand the impact that China has on our markets. CNBC is calling this the worst start to a new year in almost a century. What should you do now? Here are 4 things to do when the stock market drops.

4 Things to do When the Stock Market Drops

Breathe 

Cable news networks like CNBC have a field day during steep, sudden stock market corrections like we are seeing this week. It’s easy to get caught up in all of this hype. Don’t let yourself be sucked in.

Step back, take a deep breath and relax.

Take stock of where you are 

Review your accounts and see the extent of the damage that has been done. Depending upon how you are invested it may be minor or a bit more significant. Investors who are well-diversified have probably been hurt but not to the extent of those with a heavy allocation to equities and other areas that have been hit.

Review your asset allocation 

Has your portfolio weathered this storm and the declines of this past summer as you would have expected? If so your allocation is likely appropriate. If not, then perhaps it is time to review your asset allocation and make some adjustments. Proper diversification is great way to reduce investment risk.

Go shopping 

Market declines can create buying opportunities. If you have some individual stocks, ETFs or mutual funds on your “wish list” this is the time to start looking at them with an eye towards buying at some point. It is unrealistic to assume you will be able to buy at the very bottom so don’t worry about that.

Before making any investment be sure that it fits your strategy and your financial plan. Also make sure the investment is still a solid long-term holding and that it is not cheap for reasons other than general market conditions.

The Bottom Line 

The stock market declines we’ve seen since the start of 2016 have been steep and unnerving. Don’t panic and don’t let yourself get caught up in all of the media hype. Stick to your plan, review your holdings and make some adjustments if needed. Nobody knows where the markets are headed but those who make investment decisions driven by fear usually regret it.

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.

8 Portfolio Rebalancing Tips

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My last post discussed 4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing. This post continues on the rebalancing theme and looks at some ways to implement a rebalancing strategy. Here are 8 portfolio rebalancing tips that you can use.

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Set a target asset allocation 

Your asset allocation should be an outgrowth of a target asset allocation from your financial plan and/or a written investment policy. This is the target asset allocation that should be used when rebalancing your portfolio. 

Establish a time frame to rebalance 

Ideally you are reviewing your portfolio and your investments on a regular basis. As part of this process you should incorporate a review of your asset allocation at a set interval. This might be semi-annually for example. I generally suggest no more frequently than quarterly. An exception would be after a precipitous move up or down in the markets.

Take a total portfolio view 

When rebalancing your portfolio take a total portfolio view. This includes taxable accounts as well as retirement accounts like an IRA or your 401(k). This approach allows you to be strategic and tax-efficient when rebalancing and ensures that you are not taking too little or too much risk on an overall basis.

Incorporate new money 

If you have new money to invest take a look at your asset allocation first and use these funds to shore up portions of your asset allocation that may be below their target allocation. A twist on this is to direct new 401(k) contributions to one or two funds in order to get your overall asset allocation back in balance. In this case your will need to take any use of your plan’s auto rebalance feature into account as well. 

Use auto pilot 

For those with an employer sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k), 403(b) or similar defined contribution plan many plans offer an auto-rebalancing feature. This allows you to select a time interval at which your account will be rebalanced back to the allocation that you select.

This serves two purposes. First it saves you from having to remember to do it. Second it takes the emotion and potential hesitation out of the decision to pare back on your winners and redistribute these funds to other holdings in your account.

I generally suggest using a six-month time frame and no more frequently than quarterly and no less than annually. Remember you can opt out or change the interval at any time you wish and you can rebalance your account between the set intervals if needed.

Make charitable contributions with appreciated assets 

If you are charitably inclined consider gifting shares of appreciated holdings in taxable accounts such as individual stocks, mutual funds and ETFs to charity as part of the rebalancing process. This allows you to forgo paying taxes on the capital gains and provides a charitable tax deduction on the market value of the securities donated.

Most major custodians can help facilitate this and many charities are set-up to accept donations on this type. Make sure that you have held the security for at least a year and a day in order to get the maximum benefit. This is often associated with year-end planning but this is something that you can do at any point during the year.

Incorporate tax-loss harvesting

This is another tactic that is often associated with year-end planning but one that can be implemented throughout the year. Tax-loss harvesting involves selling holdings with an unrealized loss in order to realize that loss for tax purposes.

You might periodically look at holdings with an unrealized loss and sell some of them off as part of the rebalancing process. Note I only suggest taking a tax loss if makes sense from an investment standpoint, it is not a good idea to “let the tax tail wag the investment dog.”

Be sure that you are aware of and abide by the wash sale rules that pertain to realizing and deducting tax losses.

Don’t think you are smarter than the market 

It’s tough to sell winners and then invest that money back into portions of your portfolio that haven’t done as well. However, portfolio rebalancing is part of a disciplined investment process.  It can be tempting to let your winners run, but too much of this can skew your allocation too far in the direction of stocks and increase your downside risk.

If you think you can outsmart the market, trust me you can’t. How devastating can the impact of being wrong be? Just ask those who bought into the mantra “…it’s different this time…” before the Dot Com bubble burst or just before the stock market debacle of the last recession.

The Bottom Line 

Portfolio rebalancing is a key strategy to control the risk of your investment portfolio. It is important that you review your portfolio for potential rebalancing at set intervals and that you have the discipline to follow through and execute if needed.

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.

4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing

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As we move into the last month of the year and look forward to the new year many of us look to get our financial situation in order. One of the most important things you can do is to ensure that your investments are properly allocated. Portfolio rebalancing is something that all investors should do periodically. 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 are on track for their third year 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) review 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 so perhaps the full-blown portfolio review would not be done each time you do a rebalancing review.

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.

Smart Beta ETFs the Next Big Thing?

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For those of us involved in financial services it is hard to check your Twitter stream or visit an industry website without seeing the term smart beta. ETF providers have really taken to this trend and have introduced many new ETFs based on some aspect of smart beta.

Nobody follows a trend quite like the folks who market mutual funds or ETFs and smart beta is the hip thing that all of the “cool kids” are doing. At a recent ETF industry conference sponsored by Morningstar (MORN) this was virtually all anyone was talking about in the sessions I attended.

What is smart beta and is it really smart?  Are smart beta ETFs the next big thing in ETF investing?

Smart Beta Defined 

According to Investopedia (for whom I am a frequent contributor):

“Investment managers that follow a smart beta investment strategy seek to passively follow indices, while also taking into account alternative weighting schemes such as volatility. That’s because smart beta strategies are implemented like a typical index strategies in that the index rules are set and transparent. Smart Beta strategies will differ from standard indices, such as the S&P 500 or the Barclays Aggregate, in that the indices focus on areas of the market that offer an opportunity for exploitation.” 

We will attempt to expand on that definition a bit below. 

Factor investing 

Most smart beta ETFs take an aspect or a factor from a traditional index. Traditional index ETFs passively track a market value weighted index like the S&P 500.  Some popular factors include low volatility, momentum; equal-weighted indexes, dividends and quality are common factors. An equal-weighted index would give equal weighting to a huge stock like Apple (APPL) and to the smallest stock in terms of market capitalization in the S&P 500 Index.

An example of a smart beta ETF based on a factor is the Powershares S&P 500 Low Volatility ETF (SPLV).

This ETF invests in the 100 stocks in the index that have exhibited the lowest volatility over the past 12 months. A sound idea in theory and perhaps ultimately in practice.

Like many smart beta ETFs the inception date of SPLV was May 5, 2011 over two years after the low point of the markets during the financial crises. The index the ETF follows was essentially created in the lab via back-testing, much like the Peter Boyle character in the movie Young Frankenstein. This means that most of the “history” of this ETF is via back-testing and not real performance data. As a presenter at the Morningstar conference said, he’s never seen a back-test that did not yield a positive result.

Looking at SPLV’s results, the ETF trails the S&P 500 index in terms of trailing three year returns 12.95% to 14.77% on an average annual basis for the period ending 10/19/2015. However for the year-to-date period through the same date SPLV has gained 1.27% versus 0.41% for the index.

Looking at another measure, standard deviation of return which measures the variability of the ETF’s returns (up and down) over the three year period ending 9/30/2015, the standard deviation for SPLV is +/- 9.63% versus +/- 9.74% for the index. My guess is that a selling point of this ETF would be lower volatility but over the past three years the smart beta ETF is only fractionally less volatile than the index and an investor would have considerably less money if they had held SPLV over a more traditional ETF like the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY).

Is an investment in SPLV a bad idea? I don’t know because I have no idea how this ETF will hold up in a pronounced bear market. Yes it has performed better than the full index so far in 2015 including the volatility in August and September. How will it do if we hit a rough patch like 2000-2002 or 2008-2009? Good question.

A growth area 

According to data from Morningstar as of 6/30/2015:

  • There were 444 smart beta products listed in the U.S.
  • These products accounted for $540 billion in assets under management which was 21% of all U.S ETF assets.
  • Of the new cash flows into ETFs over the past 12 months, 31% went into smart beta products.
  • The assets in these products grew 27% over the same period.
  • A quarter of new ETF launches over the past five years were smart beta products.

Who uses smart beta ETFs? 

From what I have heard and read smart beta ETFs are being used largely by financial advisors and institutional investors versus individuals. You might say so what? These folks are likely investing your money either via your relationship with a financial advisor who may use them in a portfolio or use a TAMP (turnkey asset management program) program offered by a third-party to manage your money.

Reasons to use Smart Beta 

Morningstar cites several reasons investors and advisors might consider smart beta ETFs:

  • To manage portfolio risk
  • To enhance portfolio returns
  • For tactical asset allocation, meaning an allocation that is based in part on the advisor’s assessment of market conditions
  • Reducing fees versus actively managed mutual funds
  • To use an active strategy grounded by an index core

Many, including me, view strategic beta as a form of active management. A presenter at the Morningstar conference suggested that any smart beta ETF with an expense ratio of 50 basis points or higher should not be considered as this is the lower end of the fee range for the better actively managed mutual funds offering an institutional share class.

What does this mean for individual investors? 

Again I suspect that most of the money invested here will be institutional or via financial advisors. As an individual investor working with a financial advisor who suggests using smart beta ETFs in your portfolio, you should ask them to explain their rational. Why are these ETFs a better choice than an asset allocation strategy using more traditional index products?

If you will using smart beta ETFs on your own, be sure that you fully understand the underlying index which was likely created post-financial crises via back testing. Understand that smart beta strategies may look good on paper but in reality they can take a number of years to prove themselves.  Lastly understand that strategies that look good in testing may not work as well when millions of dollars are actually invested there real-time.

For financial advisors 

Most financial advisors that I know are very deliberate in testing new products and investing ideas before using them with clients. With the rise of third-party advisors such as TAMPs and ETF strategists, financial advisors still need to understand the underlying products and strategies being used to invest their client’s hard-earned money.

The Bottom Line 

Smart beta is the next evolution of ETF investing or so say the firms trying to gather assets into these products. I’m not saying that smart beta isn’t an enhancement or that I am against new investing inovations. I am leery of any investment vehicle designed to solve a problem or fill a role in portfolios that have not gone through a full stock market cycle. With any investment vehicle that you are considering, be sure to fully understand the benefits, the risks and the costs. How smart is smart beta? We really won’t know until the market goes through a full cycle that includes a significant correction.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner.

The Risks of Too Much Company Stock in Your 401(k) Plan

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Retirement plan sponsors are starting to get it, requiring 401(k) participants to hold company stock in their accounts exposes them to major fiduciary liability if the stock price tanks. That said it is still an option in many 401(k) plans.

According to Fidelity about 15 million people own about $400 billion in company stock across 401(k) plans that they administer.

Too dependent on your employer    

Just ask former employees of Enron, Lehman Brothers or Radio Shack about this.

All employees depend on their employer for a paycheck. If you add a high level of company stock as a component of your 401(k) account you have a recipe for disaster. If the company tanks you might find yourself out of job with no income. If this difficulty causes the stock price to decline you are not only unemployed but your retirement nest egg has taken a hit as well.

How much is too much? 

There is no one right answer; this will vary on a case by case basis. Many financial advisors say the total in employer stock should be kept to a maximum of 5% to 10% of total investment assets. This not only includes stock held in your retirement plan but also shares held outside the plan as well shares represented by any stock options or restricted shares that may be held.

Employers and fiduciary risk 

In the past it was more common for companies to use their stock as the matching vehicle in the 401(k) plan and to require that it be held for a period of time. Both are less common today due to a number of lawsuits by employees against companies after significant declines in the price of their employer’s stock. Plan sponsors want to avoid this type of fiduciary liability.

Diversify 

It is important to set a maximum allocation to your employer’s stock in your 401(k) plan and in total.  Use increases in the stock price as opportunities to take profits and diversify. Within your 401(k) plan there will be no taxes to pay on the gains, though there will be taxes due down the road when taking distributions from a traditional 401(k).

Make sure you fully understand any restrictions on selling company shares held in your plan.

Discounted purchases 

Often employees have the opportunity to purchase shares of company stock at a discount from the current market price. This is a great feature but the decision to purchase and how much to hold should not be overly influenced by this feature.

Net Unrealized Appreciation 

If you leave your employer and hold company shares in your 401(k) plan consider using the net unrealized appreciation (NUA) rules for the stock.

NUA allows employees to take their company stock as a distribution to a taxable account while still rolling the other money in the plan to an IRA if they wish. The distribution of the company stock is taxable immediately, at ordinary income tax rates, based upon the employee’s original cost versus the current market value.

The advantage for holders of highly appreciated shares can be sizable. Any gains on the stock will qualify for long-term capital gains treatment where the rates are generally lower. For a large chunk of company stock the savings can be very significant. Note there are very specific rules regarding the use of NUA so it is best to consult with a knowledgeable financial or tax advisor if you are considering going this route.

The Bottom Line 

Holding excessive amounts of your company’s stock in your 401(k) plan can expose you to undo risk should your employer run into financial difficulty. You could find yourself unemployed and with a much lower retirement plan balance if the stock price drops significantly. Set a target percentage for your overall holdings of employer stock and periodically sell shares if needed to rebalance just as you would any other holding in the plan.

What is a Hedge Fund?

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The term hedge fund is used often in the financial press.  I suspect, however, that many investors do not really know what a hedge fund is.

What is a Hedge Fund?

 

 

 

 

Investopedia defines a hedge fund as follows:

“An aggressively managed portfolio of investments that uses advanced investment strategies such as leveraged, long, short and derivative positions in both domestic and international markets with the goal of generating high returns (either in an absolute sense or over a specified market benchmark).” 

Here are a few basics about hedge funds to help you understand them.  Note this is certainly not meant to be an in-depth tutorial but rather is meant to provide an introduction to hedge funds.

Who can invest in hedge funds? 

In order to invest in a hedge fund you must be an accredited investor.  The current definition of an accredited investor is someone with a net worth of $1 million (excluding the equity in their home) and at least $200,000 in income ($300,000 with a spouse) over the past two years.  Many hedge fund investors are institutional investors such as foundations, endowments and pension plans.  About 65 percent of the capital invested in hedge funds comes from institutional investors.

What is the minimum investment? 

The minimum required to invest is often $1 million or more though some smaller hedge funds and funds of funds may have lower minimums.  New companies like Sliced Investing are seeking to change these high minimums by allowing investors to invest as little as $20,000.

Do I have access to my money? 

Unlike mutual funds, ETFs, closed-end funds and individual stocks hedge funds typically do not offer daily access to your money.

Some hedge funds allow investors to subscribe (invest) or redeem their money monthly, for others this might be quarterly or based upon some other time period.  Most hedge funds will require advanced notice for redemptions which might be as long as 180 days.  This allows the fund managers time to raise sufficient cash and allows for an orderly sale of fund investments especially if the redemption is a significant amount.

Some hedge funds also require a lock-up which means that there are no redemptions allowed during this initial period.  A typical lock-up period is one year, though some are as long as two years.  In some cases the lock-up period is “soft” meaning that redemption can be made but there will often be a penalty ranging from 2 percent to as high as 10 percent. 

Some hedge funds may also have the ability to enforce “gates” on redemptions which means they can decide to process only a portion of the redemptions requested.  This provision came into focus during the 2008-2009 market downturn as hedge fund redemptions requests swelled as many investors sought to raise cash.

What types of fees are charged? 

The fees charged by hedge funds vary widely.

Many hedge funds charge a management fee of 2 percent or more.

There might also be incentive fees of 10 to 20 percent of the fund’s profits or more.  This rewards the fund manager for superior performance.  The flip side of this is that the manager generally only collects an incentive fee if the fund’s performance exceeds its former highs, known as a high water mark.

If a fund loses 5 percent in a given year, no incentive fees will be paid to the manager the following year until the 5 percent loss is made up.

The term two and 20 is a common one in the hedge fund world meaning that the fund would charge a 2 percent management fee and a 20 percent incentive fee.  This may seem pricey but if the performance is stellar then investors won’t mind paying it. 

What types of investment strategies are available? 

There is a vast range of investment strategies across the hedge fund landscape.  These might include long-short, global macro, market neutral, convertible arbitrage, distressed securities and many others.  Additionally there are a number of fund of funds offered which means that the fund offers a collection of strategies and fund managers under one umbrella.   

What should I consider before investing in a hedge fund?

From reading the above you might ask yourself why would I invest in hedge funds?  Let’s remember that hedge funds are considered alternative investments.  Ideally they will have a relatively low correlation to the traditional long-only equity and fixed income investments in your portfolio.  At their best well-managed hedge funds can add balance and reduce the overall risk of your portfolio, in some cases the strategies are designed to provide absolute returns across all investing environments.

Before investing in a hedge fund or any alternative investment make sure you have considered and fully understand the following:

  • The fund’s investment strategy.
  • How this investment strategy fits with your overall portfolio and investing strategy.
  • What the fund “brings to the table” that you can’t get with more traditional long-only stock and bond investments.
  • Who is managing the fund and their history and investment track record.
  • The required minimum investment.
  • Any redemption restrictions and/or lock-up periods.  Make sure that you won’t need to tap this money during this time period. 

The Bottom Line 

Like any investment option you might consider it is important to understand the pros and cons of hedge funds in general and any specific fund or strategy that you might be considering for your portfolio.

Disclosure: This blog post was written for Sliced Investing pursuant to a paid content arrangement I have with the company’s representatives as part of an effort to raise awareness about alternative investment options. All views expressed are entirely my own, and were not influenced or directed by Sliced Investing.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Why Using Home Equity to Invest in the Stock Market is a Bad Idea

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Not that I needed one but an email newsletter that I received from attorney Dale Ledbetter recently served as an excellent reminder what a poor idea using home equity to invest in stocks really is.  From his email:

Strong stock market encourages the resurrection of a bad practice – borrowing money against the value of your home to play the market. The horror story set out below is likely to be repeated if these practices continue.

A married couple, both of whom were in their late 80s, was persuaded by their bank to take out 100% value equity line of credit against their home. They were then persuaded to turn these “borrowed assets” over to the bank’s securities subsidiary where they were told the return would easily exceed the cost of the credit line. 

The broker then advised the couple to put 95% of the total proceeds into a single stock. The securities account tanked, resulting in an almost 100% loss. In the meantime, the house dropped in value by $100,000, resulting in a foreclosure proceeding. The bank then refused to permit a $150,000 short sale to bona fide buyers. 

The husband died. The wife, who now lives in a constant care facility, is entering bankruptcy to force the bank to take the house. 

Of course, the bank and their securities subsidiary blame it all on the elderly couple who they described as “sophisticated investors.” Both husband and wife had been schoolteachers and had no training or experience in the securities industry or in investment strategies. The fact that both were in their late 80s and suffering from diminished capacity, was not enough to deter the aggressive sales tactics of their “trusted advisors.” 

Aside from what would seem to be blatant investment fraud on the part of the bank and their advisory unit, this piece reiterates why using your home equity to invest in the stock market is such a bad idea.  Here are a few specific reasons that I discourage this practice.

Did you really forget the 2008 housing market crash this soon? 

For those with short memories an overinflated housing market crashed and triggered a meltdown in the economy and drastically reduced the value of many homes.  We are still recovering from this and although home values have improved in many parts of the country we learned that home prices will not always go up and that real estate is not the safe store of value we were led to believe.

To put this another way let’s say you tap your home equity to invest in the stock market.  What if the value of your home decreases 10 percent, 20 percent or more?  Now you have to pay back that home equity loan on a house that isn’t worth nearly as much as when you took out the loan.  You could find yourself underwater on your home or worse in foreclosure.  You could also find that your plans to fund a comfortable retirement or your children’s college education are out the window.

What if your investments tank?

Much like these poor folks in Mr. Ledbetter’s example above, not all investments are a sure thing.  What happens if you borrow against your home equity to invest in the stock market and things don’t work out?  If the specific investments you or someone else chose drop in value you are now stuck with investments worth less than your original investment and you will be stuck paying off the loan which is still based upon the amount borrowed.

Even if you went with a few index funds and the stock market drops you will find yourself in the same boat.  Again this is a great strategy to ruin your otherwise well-planned financial future.

Who exactly is suggesting this idea? 

Like the poor folks in Mr. Ledbetter’s example take a look at anyone suggesting this idea to you with a very jaundiced eye.  What is in it for them?  Are you the only one with any real skin in the game?

In the example above the bank won at last twice.  They got the interest on the loan and their brokerage unit made money via fees and perhaps other sources on the investment side.  They had no skin in the game and will likely come out whole even after the foreclosure.  

The Bottom Line

Generally, in my opinion, anyone who would suggest this idea to an investor is motivated by greed and does not have the best interests of their clients at heart.  Using your home’s equity to invest in the stock market is just not a sound idea.

There might be instances where tapping home equity to invest can be a good idea, but these are very limited and should only be undertaken by truly sophisticated investors who fully understand the risks involved.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions. 

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