Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments

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 businessperson, 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 The maximum for 2019 is $56,000 and increases to $57,000 for 2020. Contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year. For 2019, employer plus employee combined contribution limit is a maximum of 25% of compensation up to the maximums are $56,000 and $62,000, respectively. For 2020 these limits increase to $57,000 and $63,500. Employer 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). $19,000 for 2019. An additional $6,000 for participants 50 and over. In no case can this exceed 100% of their compensation. The limits for 2020 increase to  $19,500 and $26,000 respectively.
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.
  • The SEP-IRA contribution is calculated as a percentage of compensation. If your compensation is variable the amount that you can contribute year-to year will vary as well. 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 $19,000 ($25,000 if 50 or over) or 100% of your income for 2019 and $19,500/$26,000 for 2020 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.
  • For those wishing to invest in alternative assets inside of their SEP or solo 401(k), a number of self-directed retirement plan custodians offer this option.

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 

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

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. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo credit Flickr

4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing

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Last year was a down year for the markets, with the S&P 500 down 4.38% in 2018, the first down year for the benchmark since 2008. The index is up again in 2019 with a gain of 23.16% YTD through the end of October.

So far, 2019 has been an outstanding year for real estate and a good one fixed income as well. With all of these gyrations among various asset classes, you may be taking on more or less risk than is appropriate for your situation. If you haven’t done so recently, this is a good time to consider rebalancing your investments. Here are four 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.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if its right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring in two areas: the financial transition to retirement or small business financial coaching.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

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. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Social Security and Working – What You Need to Know

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In today’s world of early or semi-retirement, many people wonder when they should begin taking their Social Security benefits. The combination of Social Security and working can complicate matters a bit. You can begin taking your benefit as early as age 62, but that is not always the best choice for many retirees. If you are working either at a job where you are employed or some sort of self-employment, you need to analyze the pros and cons based on your situation.

Full retirement age

 Your full retirement age or FRA is the age at which you become eligible for a full, unreduced retirement benefit. FRA is an important piece in understanding the potential implications of working on your Social Security benefit.

Your FRA depends on when you born:

  • If you were born from 1943 -1954 your full retirement age is 66
  • If you were born in 1955 your FRA is 66 and two months
  • If you were born in 1956 your FRA is 66 and four months
  • If you were born in 1957 your FRA is 66 and six months
  • If you were born in 1958 your FRA is 66 and eight months
  • If you were born in 1959 your FRA is 66 and ten months
  • If you were born in 1960 or later your FRA is 67

Source: Social Security

Social Security and working

If you are working, collecting a Social Security benefit and younger than your FRA your benefits will be reduced by $1 for every $2 that your earned income exceeds the annual limit which is $17,640 for 2019. Earned income is defined as income from employment or self-employment.

During the year in which you reach your full retirement age the annual limit is increased. For 2019 this increased limit is $46,920. The reduction is reduced to $1 for every $3 of earnings over the limit.

This chart shows the monthly reduction of benefits at three levels of earned income for 2019.

                                         Reduction of Benefits – 2019

Age $25,000 earned income $50,000 earned income $75,000 earned income
Younger than FRA $307 per month $1,348 per month reduction $2,390 per month reduction
Year in which you reach FRA No reduction $86 per month reduction $780 per month reduction
FRA or older No reduction No reduction No reduction

Source: Social Security

The Social Security Administration recently announced new earnings limits for 2020:

  • For those who are collecting Social Security Benefits and are younger than their FRA, your benefits will be reduced by $1 for every $2 that your earned income exceeds the annual limit which is $18,240, this limit is increased from $17,640 for 2019..
  • During the year in which you reach your FRA the annual limit is increased to $48,600 from $46,920 for 2019. The reduction is reduced to $1 for every $3 of earnings over the limit.

Temporary loss of benefits

The loss of benefits is temporary versus permanent. Any benefit reduction due to earnings above the threshold will be recovered once you reach your FRA on a gradual basis over a number of years.

However, your benefit will be permanently reduced by having taken it prior to your FRA. This means that any future cost-of-living adjustments will be calculated on a lower base amount as well.

One other point to keep in mind, continuing to work can add to your Social Security wage base, somewhat offsetting the permanent benefit reduction from taking Social Security early.

A one-time do-over 

Everyone is allowed a one-time do-over to withdraw their benefit within one year of the start date of receiving their initial benefit. This is allowed once during your lifetime.

One reason you might consider this is going back to work and earning more than you had initially anticipated. This is a way to avoid having your benefit permanently reduced. You would reapply later when you’ve reached your FRA, or your earned income is under the limits. Your benefit would increase due to your age and any cost-of-living increases that might occur during this time.

When you do take advantage of this one-time do-over, you must pay back any benefits received. This includes not only any Social Security benefits that you received, but also:

  • Any benefits paid based upon your earnings record such as spousal or dependent benefits.
  • Any money that may have been withheld from your benefits such as taxes or Medicare premiums.

Social Security and income taxes 

Regardless of your age or the source of your income, Social Security benefits can be taxed based upon your income level. This could certainly be impacted from income earned from employment or self-employment, but it also includes other sources of taxable income such as a pension or investment income.

The amount of the benefit that is subject to taxes is based upon your combined income, which is defined as: adjusted gross income + non-taxable interest income (typically from municipal bonds) + ½ of your Social Security benefit.

The tax levels are:

Tax filing status Combined income % of your benefit that will be taxed
Single $25,000 – $34,000 Up to 50%
Single Over $34,000 Up to 85%
Married filing jointly $32,000 – $44,000 Up to 50%
Married filing jointly Over $44,000 Up to 85%

Source: Social Security

The Bottom Line 

The decision when to take your Social Security benefit depends on many factors. If you are working or self-employed you will want to consider the impact that your earned income will have on your benefit.

You should also understand that your benefits can be subject to taxes at any age over certain levels of combined income, regardless of the source of that income.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if its right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring regarding the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

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. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

How is My Financial Advisor Compensated?

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Many investors do not understand how their financial advisor is compensated.  It is important that all clients fully understand how their financial advisor is compensated and how much this relationship is truly costing them.

The three basic financial advisor compensation models 

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

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

How is My Financial Advisor Compensated?

Fee-based took on a whole new significance in light of the DOL fiduciary rules implemented a few years ago, then largely repealed by the Trump administration. Many firms have moved clients to fee-based or brokerage wrap accounts. The fee part arises from the wrap fee (typically a percentage of assets) charged to the client. Many of these accounts use mutual funds that throw off 12b-1 fees or other types of revenue sharing to the brokerage firm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

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. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

7 Tips to Become a 401(k) Millionaire

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According to Fidelity, the average balance of 401(k) plan participants stood at $103,700 at the end of the first quarter of 2019, just shy of the all-time high level of $104,300 at the end of 2017. This data is from plans using the Fidelity platform. This represents an 8% increase from the average balance of $95,600 at the end of the fourth quarter of 2018. This came on the heels of a drop in the stock market for that quarter and for the full year in 2018.

They indicate that about 180,000 participants had a balance of $1 million, which is about 35 percent higher than at the end of 2018. What is their secret? Here are 7 tips to become a 401(k) millionaire or to at least maximize the value of your 401(k) account.

Be consistent and persistent 

Investing in your 401(k) plan is more of a marathon than a sprint. Maintain and increase your salary deferrals in good markets and bad.

Contribute enough 

In an ideal world every 401(k) investor would max out their annual salary deferrals to their plan which are currently $19,000 and $25,000 for those who are 50 or over.

If you are just turning 50 this year or if you are older be sure to take advantage of the $6,000 catch-up contribution that is available to you. Even if your plan limits the amount that you can contribute because of testing or other issues, this catch-up amount is not impacted. It is also not automatic so be sure to let your plan administrator know that you want to contribute at that level. 

According to a Fidelity study several years ago, the average contribution rate for those with a $1 million balance was 16 percent of salary. The 16 percent contribution rate translated to a bit over $21,000 for the millionaire group.

As I’ve said in past 401(k) posts on this site, it is important to contribute as much as you can. If you can only afford to defer 3 percent this year, that’s a start. Next year try to hit 4 percent or more. As a general rule it is a good goal to contribute at least enough to earn the full match if your employer offers one.

Take appropriate risks 

As with any sort of investment account be sure that you are investing in accordance with your financial plan, your age and your risk tolerance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen lists of plan participants and see participants in their 20s with all or a large percentage of their account in the plan’s money market or stable value option.

Your account can’t grow if you don’t take some risk.  

Don’t assume Target Date Funds are the answer 

Target Date Funds are big business for the mutual fund companies offering them. They also represent a “safe harbor” from liability for your employer. I’m not saying they are a bad option but I’m also not saying they are the best option for you. Everyone’s situation is different, be sure you make the best investing decisions for your situation.

I like TDFs for younger investors say those in their 20s who may not have other investments outside of the plan. The TDF offers an instant diversified portfolio for them.

Once you’ve been working for a while you should have some outside investments. By the time you are in your 30s or 40s you should consider a portfolio more tailored to your situation.

Additionally Target Date Funds all have a glide path into retirement. They are all a bit different, you need to understand if the glide path offered by the TDF family in your plan is right for you. 

Invest during a long bull market 

This is a bit sarcastic but the bull market for stocks that started in March of 2009 is in part why we’ve seen a surge in 401(k) millionaires and in 401(k) balances in general. The equity allocations of 401(k) portfolios have driven the values higher.

The flip side are those who swore off stocks at the depths of the 2008-2009 market downturn and have missed one of the better opportunities in history to increase their 401(k) balance and their overall retirement nest egg.

Don’t fumble the ball before crossing the goal line 

We’ve all seen those “hotdogs” running for a sure touchdown only to spike the ball in celebration before crossing the goal line.

The 401(k) equivalent of this is to just let your account run in a bull market like this one and not rebalance it back to your target allocation. If your target is 60 percent in stocks and it’s grown to 80 percent in equities due to the run up of the past few years you might well be a 401(k) millionaire.

It is just as likely that you may become a former 401(k) millionaire if you don’t rebalance. The stock market has a funny way of punishing investors who are too aggressive or who don’t manage their investments.

Pay attention to those old 401(k) accounts 

Whether becoming a 401(k) millionaire in your current 401(k) account or combined across several accounts, the points mentioned above still apply. In addition it is important to be proactive with your 401(k) account when you leave a job. Whether you roll the account over to an IRA, leave it in the old plan or roll it to a new employer’s plan, make a decision. Leaving an old 401(k) account unattended is wasting this money and can hinder your retirement savings efforts.

The Bottom Line 

Whether you actually amass $1 million in your 401(k) or not, the goal is to maximize the amount accumulated there for retirement. The steps outlined above can help you to do this. Are you ready to start down the path of becoming a 401(k) millionaire?

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

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. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

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.

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.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

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. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo credit:  Flickr

401(k) Fee Disclosure and the American Funds

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With the release and subsequent repeal of the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rules for financial advisors dealing with client retirement accounts, much of the focus in recent years has been on the impact on advisors who provide advice to clients for their IRA accounts. Long before these rules were unveiled and then repealed, 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 most 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 1.60% $16.00 0.79% 9.61% 3.30%
R2 RERBX 1.59% $15.90 0.80% 9.63% 3.32%
R3 RERCX 1.14% $11.40 1.24% 10.12% 3.78%
R4 REREX 0.84% $8.40 1.57% 10.45% 4.09%
R5 RERFX 0.53% $5.30 1.86% 10.78% 4.40%
R6 RERGX 0.49% $4.90 1.91% 10.84% 4.45%

3-and 5-year returns are annualized.  Source:  Morningstar   Data as of 6/30/2019

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                   0.75%

R3                   0.50%

R4                   0.25%

R5 and R6 have no 12b-1 fees.

Growth of $10,000 invested

The real impact of expense differences can be seen by comparing the growth of $10,000 invested by a hypothetical invest on June 30, 2009 and held through June 30, 2019.

  • The $10,000 invested in the R1 shares would have grown to a value or $19,606.17.
  • The $10,000 invested in the R6 shares would have grown to a value of $21,900.40.

This is a difference of $2,294.23 or 11.7%. The portfolios of the two share classes of the fund are identical, the difference in performance is due to the difference in expenses for the two share classes.

This analysis assumes a one-time investment of $10,000 and the reinvestment of all distributions. Morningstar’s Advisor Workstation was used to perform this analysis.

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 salesperson. This is fine as long as that salesperson 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 due to the extremely high expenses charged by these share classes. 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 quite pricey for a retirement plan in my opinion.

To be clear, I’m generally a fan of the American Funds. Overall however, their funds tend to offer a large number of share classes between their retirement, non-retirement and 529 plan shares. While the overall portfolios are generally the same, it’s critical for investors and retirement plan sponsors to understand the differing expense structures and the impact they have on potential returns.

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