Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

4 Things To Do When The Stock Market Drops

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Today the stock market took a hit. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell almost 832 points or about 3.2%. The S&P 500 lost almost 3.3%, its fifth decline in a row. Higher Treasury yields were a driver, as were declines in previously high-flying stocks like Amazon and Netflix. What should you do now? Here are 4 things to consider when the stock market drops.

4 Things to do When the Stock Market Drops

Breathe 

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

Step back, take a deep breath and relax.

Take stock of where you are 

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

Review your asset allocation 

Has your portfolio weathered this storm and the declines we saw earlier in the year as you would have expected? If so your allocation is likely appropriate. If not, then perhaps it is time to review your asset allocation and make some adjustments. Proper diversification is great way to reduce investment risk. This is a good time to rebalance your portfolio back to your target asset allocation if needed as well.

Go shopping 

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

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

The Bottom Line 

Steep and sudden stock market declines can be unnerving. Don’t panic and don’t let yourself get caught up in all of the media hype. Stick to your plan, review your holdings and make some adjustments if needed. Nobody knows where the markets are headed but those who make investment decisions driven by fear usually regret it.

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.

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 their 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 Value Index Adm (VVIAX) has an expense ratio of 0.05%. The Morningstar category average for the large cap value asset class is 1.03%. For the three years ending September 30, 2018 the fund ranked in the top 10% of all funds in the category; for the trailing five years it placed in the top 6% and for the trailing ten years it placed in the top 24% 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 0.82% which includes a 12b-1 fee of 0.24% (see more on 12b-1 fees below).

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 1.60%. Brokers and registered reps love these as the level load stays in place for ten 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.

Be sure to review the annual fee disclosures provided by your employer for your company’s plan for information on the plan’s expenses.

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.

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 ETFs 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 expenses can take a big bite out of your investment returns and your ability to accumulate an amount sufficient to achieve your financial goals. Investors need to understand all costs and expenses associated with their investments and take steps to minimize these costs.

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.

4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing

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Last year was a strong year for the markets, with the S&P 500 Index up almost 22% in 2017. The new year has started out a bit differently, though with the S&P 500 recording a gain of only 2.59% though the first half of 2018. It’s been a bumpy ride at times, with the markets experiencing some wild swings at times this year after peaking in late January.

The Russell 2000 index which tracks small cap stocks has hit new highs recently and many big tech stocks have done well so far in 2018. The uneven performance of the markets may have caused your portfolio to have strayed from its target asset allocation. You may be taking on more or less risk than is appropriate for your situation. If you haven’t done so, 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.

Five Things to do During a Stock Market Correction

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The stock market had a brutal week, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping over 1,100 points in the past two days alone. For the week the index was off over 1,400 points or approximately 5.7 percent. The S&P 500 experienced similar losses.

Facebook shares suffered a significant decline in the wake of revelations about the company’s failure to protect user data. Facebook shares fell 13.9 percent last week, leading social media and technology stocks lower for the week.

Add to this the likelihood of the administration imposing tariffs on imports from China and the Fed’s announcement of an interest rate hike and the markets reacted to a number of pressures last week.

Nobody can predict if this is the start of a major correction or just a normal blip on the radar. None the less, here are five things you should do during a stock market correction.

Do nothing

Assuming that you have a financial plan with an investment strategy in place there is really nothing to do at this point. Ideally you’ve been rebalancing your portfolio along the way and your asset allocation is largely in line with your plan and your risk tolerance.  Making moves in reaction to a stock market correction (official or otherwise) is rarely a good idea.  At the very least wait until the dust settles.  As Aaron Rodgers told the fans in Green Bay after the Packers bad start in 2016, relax. They went on to win their division before losing in the NFC title game.  Sound advice for fans of the greatest team on the planet and investors as well.

Review your mutual fund holdings

I always look at rough market periods as a good time to take a look at the various mutual funds and ETFs in a portfolio. What I’m looking for is how did they hold up compared to their peers during the market downturn. For example during the 2008-2009 market debacle I looked at funds to see how they did in both the down market of 2008 and the up market of 2009. If a fund did worse than the majority of its peers in 2008 I would expect to see better than average performance in the up market of 2009. If there was under performance during both periods to me this was a huge red flag.

Don’t get caught up in the media hype

If you watch CNBC long enough you will find some expert to support just about any opinion about the stock market during any type of market situation. This can be especially dangerous for investors who might already feel a sense of fear when the markets are tanking.  I’m not discounting the great information the media provides, but you need to take much of this with a grain of salt. This is a good time to lean on your financial plan and your investment strategy and use these tools as a guide.

Focus on risk

Use stock market corrections and downturns to assess your portfolio’s risk and more importantly your risk tolerance. Assess whether your portfolio has held up in line with your expectations. If not perhaps you are taking more risk than you had planned.  Also assess your feelings about your portfolio’s performance. If you find yourself feeling unduly fearful about what is going on perhaps it is time to revisit your allocation and your financial plan once things settle down.

Look for bargains

If you had your eye on a particular stock, ETF, or mutual fund before the market dropped perhaps this is the time to make an investment. I don’t advocate market timing but buying a good long-term investment is even more attractive when it’s on sale so to speak.

Markets will always correct at some point.  Smart investors factor this into their plans and don’t overreact. Be a smart investor.

NEW SERVICE – Do you have questions about retirement planning and making the financial transition to retirement? Schedule a coaching call with me to get answers to your questions.

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 more detailed advice about your situation.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

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8 Portfolio Rebalancing Tips

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A previous post here on the blog discussed 4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing. This post continues on the rebalancing theme and looks at some ways to implement a rebalancing strategy. In light of the recent volatility in the stock market, its important to review your asset allocation once the dust settles and consider rebalancing your portfolio if needed.

Here are 8 portfolio rebalancing tips that you can use to help in this process.

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Set a target asset allocation 

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

Establish a time frame to rebalance 

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

Take a total portfolio view 

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

Incorporate new money 

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

Use auto pilot 

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

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

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

Make charitable contributions with appreciated assets 

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

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

Incorporate tax-loss harvesting

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

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

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

Don’t think you are smarter than the market 

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

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

The Bottom Line 

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

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.

The Super Bowl and Your Investments

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Lombardi Trophy - Super Bowl XXXI

It’s Super Bowl time and once again my beloved Packers are not playing for the for the seventh consecutive year. They had a horrible season with Aaron Rodgers going down with an injury and their backup quarterback just not cutting it. The good news is that I was able to attend six regular season games at football’s holy shrine, Lambeau Field.

Every year the Super Bowl Indicator is resurrected as a forecasting tool for the stock market.

The indicator says that a win by a team from the old pre-merger NFL is bullish for the stock market, while a win by a team from the old AFL is a bad sign for the markets. Looking at this year’s game, New England is an original AFL team while Philadelphia is an original NFL team.

How has the Super Bowl Indicator done?

According Market Watch, this indicator failed to predict the direction of the stock market for the second year in row.  Denver won the 2016 game and the market had an up year. The Patriots won last year and 2017 was a stellar year for the markets. Overall the indicator has held true in 40 of the 51 prior Super Bowls.

Quoted in a Wall Street Journal article before the 2016 game, respected Wall Street analyst Robert Stoval said, “There is no intellectual backing for this sort of thing, except that it works.”

Some notable misses for the indicator include:

  • St. Louis (an old NFL team that was formerly and is now again currently the L.A. Rams) won in 2000 and the market dropped.
  • Baltimore (an old NFL team that was formerly the original Cleveland Browns) won in 2001 and the market dropped. Perhaps the markets were confused since the Browns became an AFC team (along with the Steelers and the Colts) as part of the 1970 merger.
  • The New York Giants (an old NFL team) won in 2008 and the market tanked in what was the start of the recent financial crisis.
  • In 1970 the Kansas City Chiefs shocked the Minnesota Vikings and the Dow Jones Average ended the year up, by less than 5 percent.

Is this a valid investment strategy?

As far as your investments, I think you’ll agree that the outcome of the game should not dictate your strategy. Rather I suggest an investment strategy that incorporates some basic blocking and tackling:

  • financial plan should be the basis of your strategy. Any investment strategy that does not incorporate your goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance is flawed.
  • Take stock of where you are. What impact has the bull market of the past eight plus years had on your portfolio? Perhaps it’s time to rebalance and to rethink your ongoing asset allocation.
  • Costs matter.  Low cost index mutual funds and ETFs can be great core holdings. Solid, well-managed active funds can also contribute to a well-diversified portfolio. In all cases make sure you are in the lowest cost share classes available to you.

View all accounts as part of a total portfolio. This means IRAs, your 401(k), taxable accounts, mutual funds, individual stocks and bonds, etc. Each individual holding should serve a purpose in terms of your overall strategy.

The Super Bowl Indicator is another fun piece of Super Bowl hype. Your investment strategy should be guided by your goals, your time horizon for the money and your tolerance for risk, not the outcome of a football game.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Resources to consider

Check out Personal Capital’s retirement planning tools to be sure you are on trackPersonal Capital can help you organize your entire financial picture and provide advice if needed.

Looking to learn more about investing and financial planning? Whether you do it yourself or work with a financial advisor, the Fire Your Financial Advisor online course from the White Coat Investor can help. Make this the year you invest in yourself. Be sure you have the knowledge and the tools to thrive in today’s complex financial environment.

(Note these are affiliate links, I receive a fee if you enroll at no extra cost to you)

My services

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

Financial advisors are you looking to ramp up your content marketing? Contact me regarding my ghost writing services for advisors.

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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 The maximum for 2017 is $54,000 and increases to $55,000 for 2018. Contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year. For 2017, employer plus employee combined contribution limit is a maximum of 25% of compensation up to the maximums are $54,000 and $60,000, respectively. For 2018 these limits increase to $55,000 and $61,000. 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). $18,000 for 2017. An additional $6,000 for participants 50 and over. In no case can this exceed 100% of their compensation. The limits for 2018 increase to $18,500 and $24,500 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 $18,000 ($24,000 if 50 or over) or 100% of your income for 2017 and $18,500/$24,500 for 2018 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 

NEW SERVICE – Do you have questions about retirement planning and making the financial transition to retirement? Schedule a coaching call with me to get answers to your questions.

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 more detailed advice about your situation.

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Are Best Mutual Fund Lists a Good Investing Tool?

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We all like to read article with lists that rank things. Top colleges, top new cars, best and worst dressed and the like are just a few lists we see periodically. Mutual rankings have been around for a while.  Many top personal finance publications such as Money Magazine, Kiplinger’s, and U.S. News publish such lists that rank mutual funds based upon performance. Are these Best Mutual Fund lists useful to you as an investor?

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Best compared to what?

In order for any mutual fund ranking tool to be useful the comparison needs to be apples-to-apples. Comparing a large cap domestic stock fund to a fund that invests in gold mining companies is a pretty useless exercise. Make sure that you understand what is being compared and the basis for the rankings.

Past performance is not an indication of future performance 

This is a pretty common disclaimer in the investment industry and it is one that should be heeded. Last year’s top mutual fund might finish on top again this year or it might end up at the bottom of the pack. This is especially true for actively managed mutual funds where results can often depend upon the manager’s investment style and whether or not their style is still in favor. Mutual funds that have a big year often find themselves inundated with new money from investors who chase performance, this influx of new money can make it harder for the manager to replicate their past success.

Who’s in charge? 

It is not uncommon for a top mutual fund manager to be wooed by a rival fund company or for them to go off and start their own mutual fund. This is not such a big deal with index funds, but when looking at any actively managed fund be sure to understand whether or not the manager(s) who compiled the enviable track record are still in place.

What period of time is being used? 

Make sure that you understand the time period used in the rankings. Returns over a single year can vary much more than returns compiled over a three, five, or ten year time period. Understand that one or two outstanding years can skew longer-term rankings. Longer periods of time tend to smooth out these blips in performance.

Why didn’t you tell me about this fund a year ago? 

I recall looking at many of these lists over the years and wondering why the publication didn’t write about how wonderful the fund was a year ago before it chalked up this large gain. Well the answer is that this isn’t the job of the publication and they and most of us can’t really predict this.

Is looking at performance worthless? 

No it isn’t but you need to look at performance in context. Look at performance over varying time periods and always in relation to the fund’s peers. Among the things to look at:

  • Risk adjusted performance
  • Performance in up and down markets
  • Performance over rolling periods of time
  • Adherence to the fund’s stated style
  • Costs and expenses
  • Consistency of relative performance
  • Changes in the level of assets in the fund

In short selecting and monitoring mutual funds is about more than looking for the top performers of the past. Like any other investment vehicle, mutual funds need to be viewed in terms of potential future performance and in terms of how they fit into your overall investment strategy and your financial plan.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Do you want an independent review of your mutual fund holdings and your overall investment strategy? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.

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

The issue of reverse churning is one that will come to the forefront as the initial implementation of the DOL fiduciary rules commences next week. Here’s what you need to know about reverse churning to protect yourself and to make a good decision if your broker proposes a fee-based account.

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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.”

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 ongoing 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 from other fund families 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 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, 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 make 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 the 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, make sure you understand how this arrangement benefits you the client.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Has your broker proposed a fee-based option and you aren’t sure if this is the right option for you? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.