Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments


Stock Market Highs and Your Retirement


Major stock market averages the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished at all-time high levels today. The S&P 500 flirted with 5,000 reaching that mark briefly, but settling just below that level at the close. At some point we are bound to see a stock market correction of some magnitude, hopefully not on the order of the 2008-09 financial crisis. As someone saving for retirement, what should you do now?

Difference Between Stocks and Bonds

Review and rebalance 

During the financial crisis there were many stories about how our 401(k) accounts had become “201(k)s.” The PBS Frontline special The Retirement Gamble put much of the blame on Wall Street and they are right to an extent, especially as it pertains to the overall market drop.

However, some of the folks who experienced losses well in excess of the market averages were victims of their own over-allocation to stocks. This might have been their own doing or the result of poor financial advice.

This is the time to review your portfolio allocation and rebalance if needed.  For example, your plan might call for a 60% allocation to stocks but with the gains that stocks have experienced you might now be at 70% or more.  This is great as long as the market continues to rise, but you are at increased risk should the market head down.  It may be time to consider paring equities back to target allocation levels and to implement a strategy for doing this.

Financial Planning is vital

If you don’t have a financial plan in place, or if the last one you’ve done is old and outdated, this is a great time to review your situation and to get an up-to-date plan in place.. Do it yourself if you’re comfortable or hire a fee-only financial advisor to help you.

If you have a financial plan this is an ideal time to review it and see where you are relative to your goals. Has the market rally accelerated the amount you’ve accumulated for retirement relative to where you had thought you’d be at this point? If so, this is a good time to revisit your asset allocation and perhaps reduce your overall risk.

Learn from the past 

It is said that fear and greed are the two main drivers of the stock market. Some of the experts on the financial news shows seem to feel that the market still has some upside. Maybe they’re right. However, don’t get carried away and let greed guide your investing decisions.

Manage your portfolio with an eye towards downside risk. This doesn’t mean the markets won’t keep going up or that you should sell everything and go to cash. What it does mean is that you need to use your good common sense and keep your portfolio allocated in a fashion that is consistent with your retirement goals, your time horizon and your risk tolerance.

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.

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

Photo credit:  Phillip Taylor PT


Brexit and Your Portfolio


As you are most likely aware, the U.K. voted to leave the European Union. The so-called Brexit vote was a surprise to many and caused a swift, severe and negative reaction in the world financial markets.


On Friday June 24, the S&P 500 lost about 3.6% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost about 3.4% of its value. There may be more pain in the days ahead, only time will tell.

As an individual investor what should you do when the stock market drops?

This isn’t new 

While the Brexit is a new issue, we’ve seen plenty of market disruptions before. The stock market crash of October 19, 1987 saw the market drop 22.61%. The correction following the Dot Com bust and 9/11 was severe as was the market decline in the wake of the 2008 financial crises. The markets recovered nicely in all cases and even with Friday’s declines the S&P 500 is about three times higher than it was at the depths of the market in March of 2009.

A good time to do nothing 

While everyone’s situation is different, the vast majority of investors would be wise to do nothing in the wake of these market declines. Panicking and withdrawing money from your accounts may feel good now, but you’ll likely regret it down the road.

Investors nearing retirement who sold their equity holdings near the depths of the financial crises in late 2008 or early 2009 realized large losses, then sat on the sidelines during some or all of the ensuing market recovery. Their retirement dreams are in shambles because they panicked.

Some strategies to consider 

Once the dust settles a bit, here are a few things you might consider:

Rebalancing your portfolio. Especially if the markets continue their downward trend for a few more days or weeks it is likely that your portfolio will become underweight in equities. This is a good time to rebalance back to your target asset allocation. Rebalancing forces a level of discipline on investors, in this case buying when equities have fallen.

Tax-loss selling. In the course of rebalancing and reviewing your portfolio, you may have some holdings in your taxable account that have dropped below their cost basis. Look to sell some of them to realize the loss. Be sure to understand the wash-sale rules if you intend to buy these holdings back. Above all ensure that any asset sales make good investment sense, as the saying goes “…don’t let the tax tail wag the investment dog…”

Recharacterize a Roth conversion. If you have converted traditional IRA dollars to a Roth IRA and the value of these converted dollars has fallen you are entitled to a do-over or recharacterization. You generally have until October 15 of the year following the year in which the conversion took place. The assets that are recharacterized cannot immediately be converted back to a Roth, there is generally at least a 30 day waiting period. In other words if you did a conversion in 2015 you would have until October 15, 2016 (or the latest tax filing date including extensions).

If the value of the assets that you converted has fallen appreciably, there can be significant tax savings to be realized here. These rules are complex so be sure that you know what you are doing or that you seek the advice of a knowledgeable tax or financial advisor.

The Bottom Line 

Event-driven market declines such as we’ve seen (and may continue to see) via the Brexit vote are often swift and severe in nature. For most investors the best course of action is no action. Once the dust has settled a bit review your portfolio and make adjustments and tweaks that make sense in a thoughtful, controlled fashion.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.  


The Bull Market Turns Seven Now What?


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


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

How does this bull market stack up?

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

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

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

Winners and losers

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

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

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

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

What should investors do now? 

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

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

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

The Bottom Line 

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

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

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

Is the Dow Jones Industrial Average Still a Relevant Stock Market Index?


The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) of 30 large stocks has long been arguably the most watched index for those following the stock market.  As I write this IBM a long-time index component reported a major miss in its quarterly earnings.

The stock was down some 7% for the day and due to this decline the DJIA was been down most of the day.  The index finished up some 19 points but without the drag of IBM the index would have been up around 100 points according to a commentator on CNBC.  This begs the question is the Dow Jones Industrial Average still a relevant stock market index?

It’s just 30 stocks 

The DJIA is a weighted average (the actual weighting formula is very complex) of the price of the 30 stocks that comprise the index.  Originally the index was supposed to represent the stocks of large industrial companies.  Over the years the composition of the index has changed to reflect the changing nature of American business.

Here are the 30 companies that comprise the index:







3M Co
American Express Co
AT&T Inc
Boeing Co
Caterpillar Inc
Chevron Corp
Cisco Systems Inc
E I du Pont de Nemours and Co
Exxon Mobil Corp
General Electric Co
Goldman Sachs Group Inc
Home Depot Inc
Intel Corp
International Business Machines
Johnson & Johnson
JPMorgan Chase and Co
McDonald’s Corp
Merck & Co Inc
Microsoft Corp
Nike Inc
Pfizer Inc
Procter & Gamble Co
The Coca-Cola Co
Travelers Companies Inc
United Technologies Corp
UnitedHealth Group Inc
Verizon Communications Inc
Visa Inc
Wal-Mart Stores Inc
Walt Disney Co


Certainly a nice mix of manufacturers, retail, financial services, and technology related companies.  Three major names absent from the index include Google, Facebook, and Apple.  While these are large and influential companies they do not represent the total focus of the investment universe.

Chuck Jaffe wrote this excellent piece on the topic of the Dow It’s time to ditch the Dow Jones Industrial Average  over at the Market Watch site.

Investing options are varied and global 

Of the major market benchmarks the broader S&P 500 seems to hold a lot more sway with many money managers and others in the finance and investing world.  I know that personally I am a lot more concerned with this index as a benchmark for large cap mutual funds and ETFs than the Dow.

The NASDAQ is also widely watched due to its heavy tech influence.  I think the bursting of the Dot Com bubble put this index on the radar to stay back in early 2000.

Other key benchmarks include the Russell 2000 for small cap stocks, the Russell Mid Cap, the EAFE for large cap foreign stocks and many others for various market niches.  Additionally there are any number of index mutual funds and ETFs that follow these and other key benchmarks for those who want to invest in these segments of the stock market.

While I’m guessing the Dow will remain a widely watched and quoted stock market indicator I and many others find it increasingly irrelevant.  It is always a good idea to benchmark your investments against the appropriate index for a single holding or a blended, weighted benchmark to gauge your overall portfolio’s performance.


Investment Diversification – A Look at the Basics


Investment Diversification is one of the basic tools  of building a sound investment portfolio. Diversification is the fancy name for  the advice your mother might have given you:  Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. This is the basic tenant behind asset allocation, a key diversification tool.

Market Jitters...

My fellow finance blogger Ken Faulkenberry defines investment diversification as follows:

“Investment portfolio diversification is a portfolio strategy combining a variety of assets to reduce the overall risk of an investment portfolio. “  

A basic look at diversification 

Based on Ken’s definition you could use stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, private equity and a whole host of assets and asset types in building a diversified portfolio.  In the examples that will follow I am going to limit this to mutual funds investing in stocks and bonds.  Please note that nothing that follows should be construed as advice or a recommendation of any kind.  The mutual funds and allocation percentages used are for example only. 

Let’s start with an investor with $100,000 to invest.  Let’s go back in time to January 1, 2000.  One thought would be to pick a fund that invests in a variety of stocks.  Perhaps the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX) is a good choice.  How much would an investment of $100,000 have grown to by December 31, 2009, the end of the press has deemed the lost decade?  The answer is that your $100,000 investment would have shrunk to $90,165 for an average annual loss of 1.03%.  Truly a lost decade for this investor.

Let’s say this investor added the following funds to his portfolio:

  • Vanguard Small Cap Index (NAESX)
  • Vanguard Mid Cap Index (VIMSX)
  • Vanguard Total International Stock Index (VGTSX)

How much would an investment of $100,000 invested equally in each of these four funds have grown to by December 31, 2009?  (We are assuming no taxes or rebalancing in this and all examples in this article)  The answer is $137,511.  This is $47,346 or about 52% more than an investment of our investor’s cash only in the Vanguard 500 Index.  Let’s look at the average annual investment returns for each of these funds for the period 1/1/2000 – 12/31/2009:

Vanguard 500 Index -1.03%
Vanguard Small Cap Index  4.36%
Vanguard Mid Cap Index  6.13%
Vanguard Total International Stock Index 2.29%


While the average annualized return of 3.23% over the course of the decade is nothing to write home about, it does illustrate the potential benefits of diversification.

Let’s add some bonds 

Some say building a portfolio is much like cooking, which is one of my favorite pastimes.  My motto in the kitchen is “… when in doubt add more wine…”  Sadly wine and investing are not a good mix.

What if we added some bond funds to the mix?  In this case let’s add the following funds:

  • PIMco Total Return (PTTRX)
  • T. Rowe Price Short-Term Bond (PRWBX)
  • American Century Inflation Adjusted Bond (ACITX)
  • Templeton Global Bond (TPINX)

If we now divide the investor’s $100,000 investment equally among the four equity funds from the prior example and among these four bond funds, by 12/31/2009 the $100,000 investment has grown to $174,506 or almost double what an investment of $100,000 in the Vanguard 500 Index Fund alone would have yielded.  The portfolio’s average annual return was 5.72% for the decade.

Looking at the average annual investment returns for each of the bond funds for the period 1/1/2000 – 12/31/2009:

PIMco Total Return 7.65%
T. Rowe Price Short-Term Bond 4.89%
American Century Inflation Adjusted Bond  7.20%
Templeton Global Bond 10.66


The impact of diversification

Again this example was based on eight funds weighted equally with no rebalancing and the reinvestment of all distributions.  This was an unusual decade in that bonds largely held their own or outperformed equities.  It is likely that if we performed this same analysis for the ten years ended December 31, 2019 the results would look different.  None the less there are a few things we can take away from this analysis:

  • The decade 2000-2009 was a poor one for large cap stocks as illustrated by the use of the S&P 500 index fund.
  • Small, mid cap, and international equities outperformed domestic large cap stocks.
  • Diversifying the equity holdings in this example boosted overall portfolio return.
  • Bonds were aided by generally declining interest rates and lower volatility than equities.  Both of these factors helped their overall return for the decade and really boosted our hypothetical portfolio.  Bonds in general have a relatively low correlation to equities which assisted in mitigating the volatility of our portfolio and enhanced returns.
  • Even in this “lost decade” asset allocation helped enhance return.

What does this mean for the future? 

Clearly the period used in the analysis was unique one, a decade that contained market declines (as measured by the S&P 500 Index) of 49% from March of 2000 through October of 2002 and 57% from October of 2007 through early March of 2009.  However it seems that market volatility has become the norm rather than the exception so the current decade will likely be an interesting one as well.  A few lessons we can take forward:

  • Diversification reduces risk.
  • Diversification among assets with low correlations to one another further reduces risk.
  • Diversification is important because we have no way of knowing which investments or asset classes will perform well or poorly or when.


Note that all data used in this article was generated via Morningstar’s Advisor Workstation.

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

Photo Credit:  Flickr


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ETFs – 4 Considerations Before Buying


English: You may have heard enough of bad news...

ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) are the  “hot” investing product. Fund companies are tripping over themselves to bring new ETFs to the market place.  This reminds me a lot of the mid to late 90s and the proliferation of new mutual funds.  While the number of ETFs is lower, the growth in new products is still high.

Traditionally most ETFs have been index products.  The new frontier is actively managed ETFs.  Several providers have filed for approval to offer active ETFs, no doubt buoyed by the success of the ETF version of PIMco’s popular Total Return bond fund (tickers BOND for the ETF and PTTRX for the fund).

I have been a big user of ETFs in the portfolios of my individual clients.  To date I’ve used index ETFs exclusively.  The low cost and style purity are the big selling points in my opinion.

Just as with mutual funds or any other investment vehicle, investors need to do their homework before buying an ETF.  Here are 4 factors to consider:

Understand the ETF’s underlying index

Beware of ETFs with somewhat suspect underlying indexes. According to Chuck Jaffe in a MarketWatch article several months ago, a Vanguard report found that “1,400 U.S. listed ETFs track more than 1,000 different indexes. But more than half of these benchmarks had existed for less than six months before an ETF came along to track it.” 

Many of these new ETFs rely on the hypothetical back-testing of these new indexes. While history is not always a good predictor of future performance, I like to see an ETF with an underlying index that has been “battle tested” in the real world.

Even among ETFs tracking more traditional indexes there can be differences.  For example in the Large Cap Growth style:

  • iShares Russell 1000 Growth ETF (IWF) tracks the Russell 1000 Growth Index, the growth slice of the Russell 1000 Index.
  • Vanguard’s Growth ETF (VUG) is in the process of switching index benchmarks as part of an overall switch of benchmark providers by Vanguard across many of its index mutual funds and ETFs.  The new provider’s index will remain a bit different from the Russell index used by the Barclay’s ishares product.
  • The Schwab U.S. Large Growth Index (SCHG) tracks Dow Jones U.S. Large-Cap Growth Total Stock Market Index, with a smaller market cap than the benchmark index of the other two ETFs. Additionally the Schwab ETF has higher weighting in financial stocks than most other Large Growth indexes.

To most investors these are fairly subtle differences, but none the less each of these Large Growth ETFs will exhibit slightly different performance during different market conditions.

Leverage and inverse indexing

Not all ETFs make sense for all investors.  There are a number of ETFs that move inversely with a given benchmark.  For example there are ETFs that move in the opposite direction of the S&P 500 index.  What many investors fail to understand is that these movements are tied to the markets on a daily basis, over longer periods of time the performance may not be as closely tied to the inverse performance of the index due to the use of derivatives in these products.

Leveraged index ETFs are available both long and inverse.  These ETFs multiply the movement of the index both up and down.  This is great if you’ve “bet” in the right direction.  However if for example you hold a leveraged ETF that goes 3 times inverse of the S&P 500 Index during a  market rally the ETF will drop in value roughly 3 times as much as the gains on the S&P 500.

There is nothing wrong with either inverse or leveraged ETFs as long as you understand how they work, when and when not to use them, and are comfortable with the risks.  In my opinion these products are not appropriate for most individual investors.

Know what you are buying 

With the advent of “funky” index products as mentioned above and with the growth of actively managed ETFs, investors really need to understand where they are investing their money more than ever.

ETF providers are just like mutual fund providers (in fact many firms offer both) in that they are about gathering assets and making a profit.  There is nothing wrong with this, but make sure that you invest based upon your needs and unique situation and that you ignore their hype, especially about “new and better” ETFs. 

Cheap is good 

One of the great features about ETFs has generally been their low expense ratios.  Just as with mutual funds and any other investment vehicle the cost of ownership is critical, cheaper is better.

Along these same lines there is an ETF price war going on.  The major players are Vanguard, Barclay’s (via their ishares), and Schwab who is trying to make inroads into the ETF business. It is key to make sure that the ETF product fits your needs and your portfolio, don’t just opt for the lowest expense product.

It is also important to note the transaction fees involved in buying ETFs.  Remember ETFs trade like stocks during the trading day as opposed to mutual funds which trade daily after the market close.  A number of custodians offer no transaction fee trades for certain ETFs.  Look at how you will be investing. Will you make larger lump-sum purchases? If so, paying a transaction fee for an ETF really won’t make much of an impact. However, if you will be making smaller purchases, say via dollar-cost averaging, it pays to look around.

Do you use ETFs?  Please leave a comment about your experiences with ETFs both good or bad.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

Photo credit:  Wikipedia


Are My Investments Safe?


This is a question that I hear and am asked often.  Concerns over the issue of investment safety have increased markedly over the past few years in the wake of high-profile investment scams, such as with Bernard Madoff, as well as a result of the severe market decline of 2008-09.  This is a question that should be addressed from several points of view.

An assortment of United States coins, includin...

An assortment of United States coins, including quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which investment was the safer choice? 

A major concern of investors in or approaching retirement is the risk of losing money from their investments.  Any way you look at it, a 37% loss in the S&P 500 Index (as occurred in 2008) is devastating, especially to an investor on cusp of retirement.  Many investors sold out of their equity positions in late 2008 or early 2009 just as the stock market was nearing bottom (the S&P 500 hit its low point of that cycle on March 9, 2009).

Let’s look at an investor who had $10,000 in an S&P 500 fund at the beginning of 2008.  The index lost 37% for the year so his fund was worth roughly $6,300 (we will ignore fund expenses for this example).  If this investor sold his holding and moved it all to a money market fund his money would have “grown” to maybe $6,500 by September 20, 2012.  As anyone who invests in a money market fund knows the interest rates are abysmal.

By contrast if the investor had held onto his fund, it would have been worth about $10,899 as of September 30, 2012.  While the market fund would not have lost any money during a couple of down periods over this time span, the investor certainly lost purchasing power.  Which investment was the safer choice?

When investing client money risk of loss is certainly top of mind, hence the reason client dollars are invested in a diversified portfolio that combines their need for investment growth with their aversion to losses.  I would tell any retiree or pre-retiree that their biggest risk in retirement is loss of purchasing power (aka running out of money) vs. the risk of investment losses.

Safety from fraud 

Whether its Madoff, Alan Stanford, or any number of lesser know fraudsters investment scams are in the news a lot.  I’d like to tell you that using a fee-only NAPFA member like me is an iron clad guarantee, but alas we’ve had several former members accused of defrauding clients, including two former organization chairmen.  Part of protecting yourself is using you own good common sense.  Ask these two questions (among others):

  • Are the returns touted by the money manager too good to be true?  In the case of Madoff he sold false consistency.  The returns were very steady, but unspectacular.  They were also not possible given how he claimed to have invested the money during the years of his fraud given what actually occurred in the financial markets.
  • Will your money be housed at reputable third-party custodian (Schwab, Fidelity, your bank, etc.)?  If not, this is huge red flag, end the relationship immediately.  This was again a key element in Madoff’s fraud.

Over and above this, check up on what your advisor is doing.  Get online access to your accounts and review each statement carefully with an eye towards verifying and understanding each and every transaction that occurred. 

Safety from fear mongers 

This isn’t one that makes many lists of investor concerns.  I won’t call these folks fraudsters as such, but when the markets aren’t doing well folks telling you to shun more traditional investments and put your money in gold or index annuity products come out of the woodwork.  Both of these can be viable alternatives for a portion of your investment allocation, as can many other non-traditional vehicles.  Again, understand what you are buying, the fees involved, any restrictions on accessing your money, and who is selling the investment product to you.  Invest from a position of knowledge, not fear.

As a brokerage commercial stated many years ago “… money doesn’t come with instructions…”  You don’t need to be a financial expert but you do need to be diligent about who you invest with and where your money is invested.

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