Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

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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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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3 Financial Products to Consider Avoiding

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Red and white sign to avoid construction zone

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.

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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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.

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.  

Small Business Retirement Plans – SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

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One of the best tax deductions for a small business owner is funding a retirement plan.  Beyond any tax deduction you are saving for your own retirement.  As a fellow small business person, I know how hard you work.  You deserve a comfortable retirement.  If you don’t plan for your own retirement who will? Two popular small business retirement plans are the SEP-IRA and Solo 401(k).

Small Business Retirement Plans – SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

SEP-IRA Solo 401(k)
Who can contribute? Employer contributions only. Employer contributions and employee deferrals.
Employer contribution limits For 2016, up to 25% of the participant’s compensation or $53,000 whichever is less. Contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year. For 2016, employer plus employee combined contribution limit is 25% of compensation or $53,000 ($59,000 if the employee is age 50 or older) whichever is higher. Contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year.
Employee contribution limits A SEP-IRA only allows employer contributions. Employees can contribute to an IRA (Traditional, Roth, or Non-Deductible based upon their individual circumstances). $18,000 for 2016. An additional $6,000 for participants 50 and over. In no case can this exceed 100% of their compensation.
Eligibility Typically, employees must be allowed to participate if they are over age 21, earn at least $600 annually, and have worked for the same employer in at least three of the past five years. No age or income restrictions. Business owners, partners and spouses working in the business. Common-law employees are not eligible.

Note the Solo 401(k) is also referred to as an Individual 401(k).

  • While a SEP-IRA can be used with employees in reality this can become an expensive proposition as you will need to contribute the same percentage for your employees as you defer for yourself.  I generally consider this a plan for the self-employed.
  • Both plans allow for contributions up your tax filing date, including extensions for the prior tax year. Consult with your tax professional to determine when your employee contributions must be made. The Solo 401(k) plan must be established by the end of the calendar year.
  • Note that the SEP-IRA contribution is calculated as a percentage of compensation.  If your compensation is variable so will the amount that you can contribute to plan year-to year. Even if you have the cash to do so, your contribution will be limited by your income for a given year.
  • By contrast you can defer the lesser of $18,000 ($24,000 if 50 or over) or 100% of your income for 2016 into a Solo 401(k) plus the profit sharing contribution. This might be the better alternative for those with plenty of cash and a variable income.
  • Loans are possible from Solo 401(k)s, but not with SEP-IRAs.
  • Roth feature is available for a Solo 401(k) if allowed by your plan document. There is no Roth feature for a SEP-IRA.
  • Both plans require minimal administrative work, though once the balance in your Solo 401(k) account tops $250,000, the level of annual government paperwork increases a bit.
  • Both plans can be opened at custodians such as Charles Schwab, Fidelity, Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, and others. For the Solo 401(k) you will generally use a prototype plan. If you want to contribute to a Roth account, for example, ensure that this is possible through the custodian you choose.
  • Investment options for both plans generally run the full gamut of typical investment options available at your custodian such as mutual funds, individual stocks, ETFs, bonds, closed-end funds, etc. There are some statutory restrictions so check with your custodian.

Both plans can offer a great way for you to save for retirement and to realize some tax savings in the process.  Whether you go this route or with some other option I urge to start saving for your retirement today 

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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Avoid these 9 Investing Mistakes

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Investing is at best a risky proposition and sometimes even the best investment ideas don’t work out. However avoiding these 9 mistakes can help improve your investing outcomes.

Avoid these 9 Investing Mistakes

Inability to take a loss and move on 

It’s difficult for many investors to sell an investment at a loss. Often they prefer to wait until the investment at least gets back to a break-even level. I think its part of our competitive nature. Investing is not a competitive sport, leave that for our Olympians.  When reviewing your investments ask yourself “Would I buy this holding today?” If the answer is no, it’s time to sell and invest the proceeds elsewhere.

Not selling winners

I’ve seen many investors over the years refuse to sell highly appreciated holdings, all or in part. There is always the risk that you’ll sell and the price will keep going up. But sometimes it’s best to protect your gains and sell while you’re ahead or at least consider selling a portion of the holding and reinvesting the proceeds elsewhere. The latter can be part of your portfolio rebalancing process.

Investing without a plan

When you take a road trip in your car you generally have a map to help you to get to your destination. Investing is a means to an end, a road map to achieve your goals such as providing a college education for your children or funding your retirement.

Without a financial plan how will you know how much you need to accumulate to achieve your goals?  How much risk should you take?  What types of returns do you need to shoot for? Are on track toward your goals?  Essentially investing without a plan is much like hopping in the car without any idea where you are headed. 

Trying to time the market

It’s difficult to predict when the market will rise and fall. Even if the stock market is following a general trend, there will be up and down trading days. Trying to buy and sell based on those daily fluctuations is difficult. While there are professional traders who do this for a living, for most of us this is a losing proposition.

Worrying too much about taxes

Taxes can consume a significant portion of your investment gains for holdings in a taxable account. While nobody wants to pay more tax than needed, in my opinion paying taxes on a gain is almost always better than dealing with an investment loss.

Not paying attention to your investments

Your portfolio needs to be evaluated and monitored on a periodic basis.  You should reevaluate a stock when the company changes management, when the company is acquired by or merges with another company, when a strong competitor enters the market, or when several top executives sell large blocks of stock.

This applies to mutual funds as well. Manager changes, a dramatic increase or decrease in assets under management or a deviation from its stated style should all be red flags that cause you to evaluate whether it may be time to sell the fund.

Failure to rebalance your holdings  

This goes hand in hand with having a financial plan. Ideally you have an investment policy for your portfolio that defines the percentage allocations of your investments by type and style (stocks, bonds, cash, large stocks, international stocks, etc.).  A typical investment policy will set a target percentage with upper and lower percentage ranges for each style. It is important that you look at your overall portfolio in terms of these percentages at least annually.

Different investment styles will perform differently at various times.  This can cause your portfolio to be out of balance. The idea behind rebalancing is to control risk. If stocks rally and your equity allocation has grown to 75% vs. your target of 60% your portfolio is now taking more risk than you had planned. Should stocks reverse course, you could be exposed to over-sized losses.

Assuming recent events will continue into the future  

The first 15 plus years of this century have been tough on investors. The market tumbled during the 2000-2002 time frame and then again in 2008-2009. More recently the stock market dropped steeply and suddenly in the wake of the Bexit vote in the U.K. These events have instilled fear into many investors. It’s hard to blame them.

However this fear and the assumption that recent events will continue into the future might also be keeping you from investing in the fashion needed to achieve your financial goals. Taking the events of recent years into account is healthy, however letting these events paralyze you can be destructive to your financial future. This holds true for stock market drops as well as protracted bull markets.

Building a collection of investments instead of a well-crafted portfolio

Are you investing with a plan or do you simply own a collection of investments?  Great football teams like my beloved Green Bay Packers have a better chance of winning when everyone embraces and executes their role in the game plan for that week.  In my experience you will increase your chances for investment success when all of the holdings in your portfolio fulfill their role as well.

Nothing guarantees investment success.  Avoiding these 9 investing mistakes as well as others can help you increase your odds of being a successful investor.

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401(k) Fee Disclosure and the American Funds

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With the release of the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rules for financial advisors dealing with client retirement accounts, much of the focus has been on the impact on advisors who provide advice to clients on their IRA accounts. Long before these new rules were unveiled, financial advisors serving 401(k) plan sponsors have had a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of the plan’s participants under the DOL’s ERISA rules.

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Starting in 2012, retirement plan sponsors have been required to disclose the costs associated with the investment options offered in 401(k) plans annually.

As an illustration, here’s how the various share classes offered by the American Funds for retirement plans stack up under the portion of the required disclosures that deal with the costs and performance of the plan’s investment options.

American Funds EuroPacific Growth

The one American Funds option that I’ve used over the years in 401(k) plans is the EuroPacific Growth fund.  This fund is a core large cap foreign stock fund.  It generally has some emerging markets holdings, but most of the fund is comprised of foreign equities from developed countries.  The R6 share class is the least expensive of the retirement plan share classes.  Let’s look at how the various share classes stack up in the disclosure format:

Share Class Ticker Expense Ratio Expenses per $1,000 invested Trailing 1 year return Trailing 3 year return Trailing 5 year return
R1 RERAX 1.59% $15.90 -10.54% 1.77% 0.89%
R2 RERBX 1.57% $15.70 -10.55% 1.79% 0.90%
R3 RERCX 1.13% $11.30 -10.13% 2.24% 1.37%
R4 REREX 0.84% $8.40 -9.89% 2.55% 1.66%
R5 RERFX 0.53% $5.30 -9.60% 2.86% 1.97%
R6 RERGX 0.50% $5.00 -9.56% 2.90% 2.01%

3 and 5 year returns are annualized.  Source:  Morningstar   Data as of 4/30/2016

While the chart above pertains only to the EuroPacific Growth fund, looking at the six retirement plan share classes for any of the American Funds products would offer similar relative results.   

The underlying portfolios and the management team are identical for each share class.  The difference lies in the expense ratio of each share class.  This is driven by the 12b-1 fees associated with the different share classes.  This fee is part of the expense ratio and is generally used all or in part to compensate the advisor on the plan.  In this case these would generally be registered reps, brokers, and insurance agents.  The 12b-1 fee can also revert to the plan to lower expenses. The 12b-1 fees by share class are:

R1                   1.00%

R2                   0.74%

R3                   0.50%

R4                   0.25%

R5 and R6 have no 12b-1 fees.

Share classes matter

The R1 and R2 shares have traditionally been used in plans where the 12b-1 fees are used to compensate a financial sales person.  This is fine as long as that sales person is providing a real service for their compensation and is not just being paid to place the business.

With all of the publicity generated by the new DOL fiduciary rules one has to wonder if the expensive R1 and R2 share classes might go by the wayside at some point

If you are a plan participant and you notice that your plan has one or more American Funds choices in the R1 or R2 share classes in my opinion you probably have a lousy plan and you are overpaying for funds that are often mediocre to poor performers.  It is incumbent upon you to ask your employer if the plan can move to lower cost shares or even a different provider. The R3 shares are a bit of an improvement but still pricey for a retirement plan in my opinion. That evaluation has to be made in the context of the plan’s size and other factors.

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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6 Investment Expenses You Need to Understand

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Investment expenses reduce your investment returns. While nobody should expect investment managers, financial advisors or other service providers to offer their services for free, investors should understand all costs and fees involved and work to reduce investment expenses to the greatest extent possible.

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Here are 6 investment expenses you need to understand in order to maximize your returns.

Mutual fund and ETF expense ratios

All mutual fund and ETFs have expense ratios. These fees cover such things as trading costs, compensation for fund managers and support staff and the fund firm’s profit. Expense ratios matter and investors shouldn’t pay more than they need to.

Vanguard’s site, as you might expect, deals with this topic at length. In one example, it shows the impact of differing levels of fees on a hypothetical $100,000 initial account balance over 30 years with a yearly return of 6%. After 30 years the balance in the account would be:

$574,349 with no investment cost

$532,899 with an investment cost of 25 basis points

$438,976 with an investment cost of 90 basis points

These numbers clearly illustrate the impact of fund fees on an investor’s returns and their ability to accumulate assets for financial goals like retirement and funding their children’s college educations.

Mutual fund expense ratios are an example of where paying more doesn’t get you more. Case in point, Vanguard Growth Index Adm (VIGAX) has an expense ratio of 0.09%. The Morningstar category average for the large cap growth asset class is 1.21%. For the three years ending January 31, 2016 the fund ranked in the top 32% of all of the funds in the category; for the trailing five years the fund placed in the 19% and for the trailing ten years the top 17% in terms of investment performance.

Sales loads and 12b-1 fees

Front-end sales loads are an upfront payment to a financial advisor or registered rep. Front-end sales loads reduce the amount of your initial investment that actually goes to work for you. For example, if a rep suggests investing in a mutual fund like the American Funds EuroPacific Growth A (AEPGX) for every $10,000 the investor wants to invest, $575 or 5.75% will be deducted from their initial investment balance to cover the sales load. Over time this will reduce the investor’s return versus another version of the same fund with a similar expense ratio that doesn’t charge a sales load.

Some will argue that this load is a one-time payment to the advisor and their firm for their advice. This strikes me as dubious at best, but investors need to decide for themselves whether the advice received in exchange for paying a sales load warrants this drain on their initial and subsequent investments. This share class has an expense ratio of 0.89% which includes a 12b-1 fee of 0.21% (see more on 12b-1 fees below).

Deferred sales loads associated with B shares are largely a thing of the past. Carrying the American Funds example forward, the EuroPacific Growth B (AEGBX) which has been closed to new investors since 2009, was purchased at NAV with a deferred sales charge of 5%. The fund carried a surrender charge over a period of years whereby if the investor sold the fund during this time they would be assessed a surrender charge (see below for more on surrender charges) on a declining basis. In order to compensate the advisor for not receiving an upfront sales commission the fund’s expense ratio is 1.69% which includes a 0.99% 12b-1 fee which compensates the advisor. After a set period of time B shares are supposed to convert to the lower cost A shares. If you are still in a B share of any fund you should aggressively ask why this is and demand to have the shares converted to A shares if eligible.

Level loads are associated with C shares. The American Funds EuroPacific Growth C (AEPCX) fund has a level load of 1% in the form of a 12b-1 fee and an overall expense ratio of 1.61%. Brokers and registered reps love these as the level load stays in place for eight years until the funds convert to a no load share class of the fund. There is a 1% surrender charge if the fund is redeemed within the first year of ownership.

12b-1 fees are a part of the mutual fund’s expense ratio and were originally designated to be marketing costs. They are now used as trialing compensation for financial advisors and reps who earn compensation from selling investment products. They can also be used to provide revenue-sharing in a 401(k) plan. While 12b-1 fees don’t increase expenses as they are part of the fund’s expense ratio, typically funds with a 12b-1 fee will have a higher expense ratio than those that don’t in my experience.

401(k) expenses

For many of us our 401(k) plan is our primary retirement savings vehicle. Beyond the expense ratios of the mutual funds or other investments offered, there are costs for an outside investment advisor (or perhaps a registered rep or broker who sold the plan) plus recordkeeping and administration among other things. If your employer has these costs paid by the plan they are coming out of your account and reducing the return on your investment.

Add to this mutual funds that may be more expensive than needed to compensate a brokerage firm or insurance company and all of a sudden the expenses associated with your 401(k) plan are a real drag on your investment returns.

Financial advice fees

Fees for financial advice will vary depending upon the type of financial advisor you work with.

Fee-only financial advisors will charge fees for their advice only and not tied to any financial products they recommend. Fees might be charged on an hourly basis, on a project basis for a specific task like a financial plan, based on assets under management or a flat retainer fee. The latter two options would generally pertain to an ongoing relationship with the financial advisor.

Fee-based or fee and commission financial advisors will typically charge a fee for and initial financial plan and then sell you financial products from which they earn some sort of commission if you choose to implement their recommendations. Another version of this model might have the advisor charging a fee for investment management services, perhaps via a brokerage wrap account, and receiving commissions for selling any insurance or annuity products. They also would likely receive any trailing 12b-1 fees from the mutual funds used in the wrap account or from the sale of loaded mutual funds.

Commissions arise from the sale of financial and insurance products including mutual funds, annuities, life insurance policies and others. The financial advisor is compensated from the sale of the product and in one way or another you pay for this in the form of higher expenses and/or a lower net return on your investment. Additionally, financial sales types are incented to sell you products for which they are compensated, it is highly unlikely they will push a low-cost Vanguard index fund.

Investors need to understand these fees and what they are getting in return. In fact, a great question to ask any prospective financial advisor is to have them disclose all sources of compensation that they will receive from their relationship with you.

Surrender charges

Surrender charges are common with annuities and some mutual funds. There will be a period of time where if the investor tries to sell the contract or the fund they will be hit with a surrender charge. I’ve seen surrender periods on some annuities that range out to ten years or more. If you decide the annuity is not for you or you find a better annuity the penalty to leave is onerous and costly.

Taxes 

Taxes are a fact of life and come into play with your investments. Investments held in taxable accounts will be taxed as either long or short-term when capital gains are realized. You may also be subject to taxes from distributions from mutual funds and ETF for dividends and capital gains as well.

Investments held in a tax-deferred account such as a 401(k) or an IRA will not be taxed while held in the account but will be subject to taxes when distributions are taken.

Tax planning to minimize the impact of taxes on your investment returns can help, but investment decisions should not be made solely for tax reasons.

The Bottom Line

Fees and expanses can take a big bite out of your investment returns and your ability to accumulate a sufficient amount to achieve your financial goals. Investors should understand the expenses listed above and others and take steps to minimize these costs.

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.