Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Annuity Sellers Love Stock Market Turmoil

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We experienced our first major stock market correction in several years earlier this week. As I write this the market is recovering but who knows where things will go.

Just like clockwork if we see a prolonged period of volatility you can count on a new wave of ads touting various types of annuity products as the answer for investors worried about the stock market. Annuity sellers love stock market turmoil. Those of you who follow my blog know that I have a special level of contempt for those who sell financial products by invoking fear.

Stan Haithcock wrote Annuity sharks smell blood with market volatility recently at Market Watch. This was one of those articles that after reading it led me to wish I’d written it.  Stan’s opening paragraph provides a great overview.

“Any time the stock market has a bad week or experiences extreme volatility, the annuity sharks start smelling blood in the investment waters and will be on the attack to lock your money into their “perfect product.” Current indexed- and variable-annuity sales pitches can sound enticing and almost too good to be true, so it’s important to keep your head and understand the contractual realities and proper uses for annuities in a portfolio.” 

Mike Ditka and Indexed Annuities

My dislike of fear-mongering annuity ads started a few years ago when the local news radio station was full of ads touting indexed annuities as the cure for the risky stock market. The group enlisted former Bears coach Mike Ditka as their pitchman. Ditka can probably sell anything to the win-starved fans of the Chicago Bears.

I personally think using any celebrity spokesperson to sell financial products is reprehensible and takes something as serious as someone’s financial well-being and equates it to the decision of which snack food to buy.

Indexed Annuities 

Though I’ve tried to keep an open mind about these products, I’ve reviewed many contracts over the years and have never found one that seemed to have much redeeming value for the contract holder. By this I mean I’m not sure what the product does for them that a properly diversified investment strategy with a well-conceived retirement income plan couldn’t do just as well or better for a whole lot less money.

Indexed annuities, sometimes called equity-indexed annuities, offer limited upside participation in a stock market index such as the S&P 500. The reason they are sold as an alternative to the risky stock market is they offer either a guaranteed minimum return each year or a limit on how much of a loss the contract holder can incur each year. The sales pitches will vary and they are often also touted as an alternative to CDs.

A few things to be leery of if you are being sold one of these products:

  • Long surrender periods. I’ve seen policies where the surrender charges last for 10 years or more.
  • High fees and commissions. The fees internal to the contract serve to provide nice compensation to those selling them. Why do you think agents and registered reps are so eager to sell you an indexed annuity?
  • Hard to understand formulas to determine your return. The premise is typically that you will participate in a portion of any gains on an underlying market benchmark such as the S&P 500 and that there is some minimum amount of return that you will make no matter how the index performs.  Make sure you understand the underlying formulas that determine your return and any factors that might cause a change in the formula.  Check out FINRA’s Investor Alert on Indexed Annuities as well.
  • Limited upside participation in the underlying index.

Additionally the sales pitches can be confusing. Make sure you understand what you would be buying, all of the underlying expenses and most important why this is the BEST solution for you.

Variable annuities and riders 

Variable annuities generally have underlying investment choices called sub-accounts that function like mutual funds. They also have internal fees called mortality and expense charges that cover the insurance aspect of the contract. These fees can vary all over the board. Many contracts also carry surrender charges for a number of years from the issue date as well.

While the value of the VA will vary based upon the investment results, several riders or add-ons can create certain product guarantees. These riders come at a cost and that cost will impact how long it takes for the contract holder to come out ahead.

Two popular living benefit riders are guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefits (GMWB) and guaranteed minimum income benefits (GMIB).

A GMWB rider guarantees the return of the premium paid into the contract, regardless of the performance of the underlying investments via a series of periodic withdrawals.

A GMIB rider guarantees the right to annuitize the contract with a specified minimum level of income regardless of the underlying investment performance.

Both types of riders entail added costs and require varying time frames to be eligible for exercise and/or to recover the cost of the rider.

A variable annuity with or without one of these riders may be the right choice for you. You are far better off shopping around for the best product versus allowing yourself to be sold via a slick sales pitch.

The Bottom Line 

Renewed market turmoil means a new wave of annuity sales pitches reminding prospects how risky stocks can be. Financial planning should always trump the sale of any financial product so investors who are worried about the volatility in the stock market will generally be better served by having an overall financial plan in place from which the appropriate products for implementation will flow.

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.

Reader Question: Do I Really Need a Financial Advisor?

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This question came from a reader who is around 60, works for a major corporation and has retirement assets in neighborhood of $1 million.  He indicated he is looking to either retire or be able to retire in the near future.  His question was in response to my recent request for story ideas and I appreciate this suggestion.  I will address this question largely from the perspective of this person’s situation as this is the type of client I am quite familiar with.

Do I really need a financial advisor? 

Do I really need a financial advisor? The only answer of course is that it depends.  There are many factors to consider.  Let’s take a look at a few of them.

How comfortable are you managing your own investments and financial planning issues? 

This is one of the main factors to consider.  The reader raised the point that the typical fees for ongoing advice on a portfolio of his size would likely be $8,000-$10,000 per year and wondered if the fee is worth it.

Certainly there is the issue of managing his portfolio.  It sounds like he has a significant 401(k) plan balance.  This will involve a decision whether to leave that money at his soon to be former employer or roll it to an IRA.  Beyond this decision is the issue of managing his investments on an ongoing basis.  And taking it a step further the fee level mentioned previously should include ongoing comprehensive financial planning advice not just investment advice.

Since it is likely that his 401(k) contains company stock (based upon who he works for) he has the option of electing the Net Unrealized Appreciation (NUA) treatment of this stock as opposed to rolling the dollars over to an IRA. This is a tactic that can save a lot in taxes but is a bit complex.

Can you be objective in making financial decisions? 

The value of having someone look at your finances with a detached third-party perspective is valuable.  During the 2008-09 stock market down turn did you panic and sell some or all of your stock holdings at or near the bottom of the market?  Perhaps a financial advisor could have talked you off of the ledge.

I’ve seen many investors who could not take a loss on an investment and move on.  They want to at least break-even.  Sometimes taking a loss and redeploying that money elsewhere is the better decision for your portfolio.

Can you sell your winners when needed and rebalance your portfolio back to your target allocation when needed?

Do you enjoy managing your own investments and finances?

This is important.  If don’t enjoy doing this yourself will you spend the time needed not only to monitor your investments but also to stay current with the knowledge needed to do this effectively?

In the case of this reader I suggested he consider whether this is something that he wanted to be doing in retirement.

What happens if you die or become incapacitated?

This is an issue for anyone.  Often in this age bracket a client who is married may have a spouse who is not comfortable managing the family finances.  If the client who is interested and capable in this area dies or becomes incapacitated who will help the spouse who is now thrust into this unwanted role?

Not an all or nothing decision

Certainly if you are comfortable (and capable) of being your own financial advisor at retirement or any stage of life you should do it.  This is not an irreversible decision nor is there anything that says you can’t get help as needed.

For example you might hire a financial planner to help you do a financial plan and an overall review of your situation.  You might then do most of the day to day work and engage their services for a periodic review.  There are also financial planners who work on an hourly as needed basis for specific issues.

Whatever decision that you do make, try to be as objective as possible.  Have you done a good job with this in the past?  Will the benefits of the advice outweigh the fees involved?  Are you capable of doing this? 

Please feel free to contact me with your questions, comments and suggestions for future topics you’d like to see covered here at The Chicago Financial Planner.

Small Business Retirement Plans – SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k) 2015 Update

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This is an update of one of the most popular posts on this blog Small Business Retirement Plans – SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k) revised to reflect contribution limits for 2015.  As a business owner it is up to you to save for your own retirement.  Both of these vehicles can be good choices depending upon your situation.  You work hard and deserve a solid retirement.  Please start a retirement plan for yourself and your family, or if you have one in place make sure you fund it.

 A comparison of the main features of the two plans – 2015 Update

SEP-IRA * Solo 401(k)
Who can contribute? Employer contributions only. Employer contributions and employee deferrals.
Employer contribution limits For 2015, up to 25% of the participant’s compensation or $53,000, whichever is lower. Contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year. For 2015, employer plus employee contribution limit is $53,000 ($59,000 if the employee is age 50 or older).  Contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year.
Employee contribution limits The maximum combined employee contribution to a SEP-IRA and/or a Roth or Traditional IRA is $5,500 ($6,500 for those 50 or over). $18,000 for 2015.  Plus an additional $6,000 for participants 50 and over.  In no case can this exceed 100% of 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.  Check with your custodian for specific eligibility requirements. No age or income restrictions, generally.

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

*A SEP-IRA can be started up for the prior tax year until the date that your tax return is due including extensions.  Likewise contributions for the prior tax year can be made up until the date your extension is due.  For those who have not made a contribution to a retirement plan for the 2014 tax year this might be an option as of the date of this article. 

 A few points to consider 

  •  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.
  • The Solo 401(k) Plan is also for the self-employed with no employees other than a spouse or business partner.
  • Both plans allow for employer contributions up your tax filing date, including extensions for the prior tax year.  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 2015 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 available 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 use some other option better suited to your situation I urge you to start saving for your retirement today  Talk with your financial or tax advisor to determine the best retirement plan for your situation.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions, comments and suggestions for future topics you’d like to see covered here at The Chicago Financial Planner.

 

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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