7 Ways for Women to Not Outlive Their Money

Once a month, my brass quintet goes to a retirement home/nursing home and plays a concert for the residents. Over the past 15 years, I’ve visited more than 100 locations in Dallas. They run the gamut from Ritz-Carlton levels of luxury to places that, well, aren’t very nice and don’t smell so great.

What all these places do have in common is this: 75 to 80 percent of their residents are women. Women outlive men, and in many marriages, the husband is older. Wives are outliving their husbands by a substantial number of years. While no one dreams of ending up in a nursing home, living alone at that age is even more lonely, unhealthy, and perilous.

For women who have seen their own mother, aunt, or other relative live to a grand old age, you know that there are many older women who are living in genuine poverty in America today. Husbands, you may not worry about your old age or what happens to you, but certainly you don’t wish to leave your wife in dire financial straits after you are gone.

Longevity risk – the risk of outliving your money – is a primary concern for many women investors. A good plan to address longevity begins decades earlier. Here are some of the best ways to make sure you don’t outlive your money.

1. Delay Social Security benefits. Social Security is guaranteed for life and it is often the only source of guaranteed income that will also keep up with inflation, through Cost of Living Adjustments. By waiting from age 62 to age 70, you will receive a 76% increase in your monthly Social Security benefit. For married couples, there is a survivorship benefit, so if the higher earning spouse can wait until 70, that benefit amount will effectively apply for both lives. Husbands: even if you are in poor health, delaying your SS benefit will provide a higher benefit for your wife if she should outlive you.Read more: Social Security: It Pays to Wait

2. Buy a Single Premium Immediate Annuity (SPIA) when you retire. This provides lifetime income. The more guaranteed income you have, the less likely you will run out of money to withdraw. While the implied rate of return is not terribly high on a SPIA, you could consider that purchase to be part of your allocation to bonds. Read more: How to Create Your Own Pension

3. Delay retirement until age 70. If you can work a few more years, you can significantly improve your retirement readiness. This gives you more years to save, for your money to grow, and it reduces the number of years you need withdrawals by a significant percentage. Read more: Stop Retiring Early, People!

4. Don’t need your RMDs? Look into a QLAC. A Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract is a deferred annuity that you purchase in your IRA. By delaying benefits (up to age 80), you get to grow your future income stream, while avoiding Required Minimum Distributions.Read more: Longevity Annuity

5. Invest for Growth. If you are 62 and retiring in four years, your time horizon is not four years, you are really investing for 30 or more years. If your goal is to not run out of money and to maintain your purchasing power, putting your nest egg into cash might be the worst possible choice. Being ultra-conservative is placing more importance on short-term volatility avoidance than on the long-term risk of longevity.

6. Don’t blow up your investments. Here’s what we suggest:

  • Don’t buy individual stocks. Don’t chase the hot fad, whether that is today’s star manager, sector or country fund, or cryptocurrency. Don’t get greedy.
  • No private investments. Yes, some are excellent, but the ones that end up being Ponzi schemes also sound excellent. Seniors are targets for fraudsters. (Like radio host Doc Gallagher arrested this month in Dallas for a $20 million Ponzi scheme.)
  • Determine a target asset allocation, such as 60% stocks and 40% bonds (“60/40”), and either stick with it, or follow the Rising Equity Glidepath.
  • Use Index funds or Index ETFs for your equity exposure. Keep it simple.- Get professional advice you can trust.

7. Consider Long-Term Care Insurance. Why would you want that? Today’s LTCI policies also offer home care coverage, which means it might actually be thing which saves you from having to move to an assisted living facility. These policies aren’t cheap: $3,000 to $5,000 a year for a couple at age 60, but if you consider that assisted living would easily be $5,000 a month down the road, it’s a policy more people should be considering. Contact me for more information and we can walk you through the process and offer independent quotes from multiple companies.

There is no magic bullet for longevity risk for women, but a combination of these strategies, along with saving and creating a substantial retirement nest egg, could mean you won’t have to worry about money for the rest of your life. The best time to start planning for your future is today.

7 Missed IRA Opportunities

Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is the cornerstone of retirement planning, yet so many people miss opportunities to fund an IRA because they don’t realize they are eligible. With the great tax benefits of IRAs, you might want to consider funding yours every year that you can. Here are seven situations where many people don’t realize they could fund an IRA.

1. Spousal IRA. Even if a spouse does not have any earned income, they are eligible to make a Traditional or Roth IRA contribution based on the household income. Generally, if one spouse is eligible for a Roth IRA, so is the non-working spouse. In some cases, the non-working spouse may be eligible for a Traditional IRA contribution even when their spouse is ineligible because they are covered by an employer plan and their income is too high.  

2. No employer sponsored retirement plan. If you are single and your employer does not offer a retirement plan (or if you are married and neither of you are covered by an employer plan), then there are NO income limits on a Traditional IRA. You are always eligible for the full contribution, regardless of your household income. Note that this eligibility is determined by your employer offering you a plan and your being eligible, and not your participation. If the plan is offered, but you choose not to participate, then you are considered covered by an employer plan, which is number 2:

3. Covered by a employer plan. Here’s where things get tricky. Anyone can make a Traditional IRA contribution regardless of your income, but there are rules about who can deduct their contribution. A tax-deductible contribution to your Traditional IRA is greatly preferred over a non-deductible contribution. If you cannot do the deductible contribution, but you can do a Roth IRA (number 4), never do a non-deductible contribution. Always choose the Roth over non-deductible. The limits listed below do not mean you cannot do a Traditional IRA, only that you cannot deduct the contributions.

If you are covered by your employer plan, including a 401(k), 403(b), SIMPLE IRA, pension, etc., you are still be eligible for a Traditional IRA if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) is below these levels for 2018:

  • Single: $63,000
  • Married filing jointly: $101,000 if you are covered by an employer plan
  • Married filing jointly: $189,000 if your spouse is covered at work but you are not (this second one is missed very frequently!)

Your Modified Adjusted Gross Income cannot be precisely determined until you are doing your taxes. Sometimes, there are taxpayers who assume they are not eligible based on their gross income, but would be eligible if they look at their MAGI.

4. Roth IRA. The Roth IRA has different income limits than the Traditional IRA, and these limits apply regardless of whether you are covered by an employer retirement plan or not. (2018 figures) 

  • Single: $120,000
  • Married filing jointly: $189,000

5. Back-door Roth IRA. If you make too much to contribute to a Roth IRA, and you do not have any Traditional IRAs, you might be able to do a “Back-Door Roth IRA”, which is a two step process of funding a non-deductible Traditional IRA and then doing a Roth Conversion. We’ve written about the Back Door Roth several times, including here.

6. Self-Employed. If you have any self-employment income, or receive a 1099 as an independent contractor, you may be eligible for a SEP-IRA on that income. This is on top of any 401(k) or other IRAs that you fund. It is possible for example, that you could put $18,500 into a 401(k) for Job A, contribute $5,500 into a Roth IRA, and still contribute to a SEP-IRA for self-employed Job B.

There are no income limits to a SEP contribution, but it is difficult to know how much you can contribute until you do your tax return. The basic formula is that you can contribute 20% of your net income, after you subtract your business expenses and one-half of the self-employment tax. The maximum contribution to a SEP is $55,000, and with such high limits, the SEP is essential for anyone who is looking to save more than the $5,500 limit to a Traditional or Roth IRA. 
Learn more about the SEP-IRA.

7. Tax Extension. For the Traditional and Roth IRA, you have to make your contribution by April 15 of the following year. If you do a tax extension, that’s fine, but the contributions are still due by April 15. However, the SEP IRA is the only IRA where you can make a contribution all the way until October 15, when you file an extension. 

Bonus #8: If you are over age 70 1/2, you generally cannot make Traditional IRA contributions any longer. However, if you continue to have earned income, you may still fund a Roth IRA after this age.

A few notes: For 2018, contribution limits for Roth and Traditional are $5,500 or $6,500 if over age 50. For 2019, this has been increased to $6,000 and $7,000. You become eligible for the catch-up contribution in the year you turn 50, so even if your birthday is December 31, you are considered 50 for the whole year. Most of these income limits have a phase-out, and I’ve listed the lowest level, so if your income is slightly above the limit, you may be eligible for a reduced contribution. 

Retirement Planning is our focus, so we welcome your IRA questions! We want to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to fund an IRA each and every year that you are eligible. 

Volatility and Saving

We talk about saving for “retirement”, but what we really want is to create financial independence where you can work if you want to, but not because you have to. We create that wealth by saving.

When the market does well, people want to save and invest. It feels good when it is working! When there is volatility like in December 2018 (the worst December since 1931 according to Barrons), people don’t want to invest and saving becomes a lower priority. If they do save, it is either just going into checking or paying down debt. Both of those are part of a good financial plan, but that’s not the path to becoming a millionaire.

I think most Americans have a hard time imagining that they could become a millionaire, but one million dollars is not a vast amount of wealth in 2019. At a standard 4% withdrawal rate, a $1 million nest egg only provides $3,333 a month in distributions. And that is pre-tax! Take out  20% for taxes and you’re left with $2,666 a month net. 

With inflation of just 2-3%, one million dollars will have less than half the purchasing power when today’s 30-somethings reach retirement age. If you think you need $1 million in today’s dollars, you might need $2 million or more when you are 65 to maintain the same lifestyle.

I’m glad that the market has rebounded nicely in the first quarter of 2019. Looking ahead, there remains a great deal of uncertainty: rising inflation, falling corporate profits, an inverted yield curve, and so on. It’s easy to feel uneasy today. No one knows what will happen in 2019. In spite of Q1, it looks like a rough road ahead.

But it doesn’t matter. At least not to a long-term investor. And most of us are long-term investors. I don’t just mean people in their twenties – even if you are in your sixties and retiring soon, you’re not going to be pulling all your money out in the next two years. You still have an investment horizon of 20, 30, or more years.

We can’t let market volatility – or the fear of any one year – impact our commitment to saving and investing. Don’t try to time the market with your savings strategy. I have no idea what will happen in 2019 or even for the next five years, but I’m going to keep on saving and adding to my diversified portfolio. (I follow our Growth Model.)

I have been thinking recently about 10 years ago, March 2009. It was a terrible time in the market. The S&P 500 had been cut in half. It felt like every day was a new disaster. 2% drops were the norm, and there were the really bad days when the market would fall by 5% or more. As a financial advisor, I talked with people who were afraid, upset, and angry. My own account was down $200,000 at one point. I remember thinking that I could have paid off my mortgage if I had sold (at the top), and I’d still have more money left over than I had right then. Lots of would-a, could-a, should-a regrets.

I told people to stay the course, and that’s what I did. Thankfully, most followed my advice. Looking back with the gift of hindsight, it was an incredible buying opportunity and would have been a terrible mistake to sell. But it didn’t feel so obvious at the time! I didn’t get any calls from people who wanted to buy in February or March 2009.

Fast forward to 2019: if you had purchased the S&P 500 Index ETF (ticker IVV), your ten year annualized return to February 1, 2019 would have been 14.95% (source: Morningstar). Incredible!

Now, that is cherry-picking the bottom of the market. So to be fair, let’s take a longer look. If you had invested 15 years ago, even with riding it all the way down in 2009, your 15-year annualized return of IVV still would have been 8.13%. Even with the biggest financial disaster since the Great Depression, investors in a basic stock index fund still have earned an 8% annual return over 15 years. That’s the sort of time horizon we should be thinking about.

At a hypothetical 8% return, you would double your money every nine years, with no additional contributions. If you had invested $100,000 into a fund and received 8.13% for 15 years, you’d end with $322,993. This is why we should keep saving and investing, despite whatever fear we may have about the market, politics, global risk, or whatever we may face in 2019 or in any single year.

How much should you save? IRA contribution limits have been increased in 2019 to $6,000 (or $7,000 if age 50 or older). That’s $500 a month, which is a lot for many Americans, but very doable and certainly a good place to start.

If you can earn 8% on your $500 a month, you will have $745,000 after 30 years. You will break $1 million in less than 34 years. For a couple, you can both invest in an IRA, so you could double these amounts. Most studies of retirement planning assume 30 years of accumulation. The question facing each of us is when to start. If you can start saving at 22, you could (potentially) have a million in your IRA by your mid-fifties. If you don’t start saving until age 40, it would take until your mid-seventies to reach the same level.

Some of you reading this have household incomes over $200,000. Can you save $5,000 a month? It’s possible, especially if you both have 410(k)’s with matching contributions. If you save $5,000 a month for 30 years, at 8%, you’d have $7,451,000. With that size nest egg, and a 4% withdrawal rate, you’d have nearly $300,000 in annual income. That’s actually more than your previous income.

Save early, save often, save as much as you can. No one has a crystal ball about what the market is going to do, but thankfully, accumulation has not been dependent on market timing. What has been successful in the past has been having a well-diversified asset allocation, using index strategies, and keeping expenses and taxes low.

Maybe instead of focusing on what the S&P 500 did in 2018 or your portfolio return over 12-months, we ought to track our savings rate. How much did you save in 2018? Are you increasing your savings in 2019? Are you saving enough to meet your goals? At your current savings rate, how long might it take to become financially independent?

If you are concerned about low rates of return in the years ahead, we may need to save more. But there’s no intelligent process for becoming financially independent, becoming a millionaire, that doesn’t include regular savings. We are always happy to talk about our investment strategy and why we invest how we do, but the conversation that more of us should be having is how to save more.

Past performance is no promise of future results. Historical returns are not guaranteed.

How to Pay Zero Taxes on Interest, Dividends, and Capital Gains

How would you like to pay zero taxes on your investment income, including interest, dividends, and capital gains? The only downside is that you have to live in a beautiful warm beach town, where the high is usually 82 degrees and the low in the winter is around 65.

If this sounds appealing to you, you should learn more about the unique tax laws of Puerto Rico. As a US territory, any US citizen can relocate to Puerto Rico, and if you make that your home, you will be subject to Puerto Rico taxes and may no longer have to pay US Federal Income Taxes. You can still collect your Social Security, use Medicare, and retain your US citizenship. (But not vote for President or be represented in Congress!) 

Citizens of Puerto Rico generally do not have to pay US Federal Income Taxes, unless they are a Federal Employee, or have earned income from the mainland US. This means that if you move to PR, your PR-sourced income would be subject to PR tax laws. In 2012, PR passed Act 22, to encourage Individual Investors to relocate to PR. Here are a few highlights:

  • Once you establish as a “bona fide resident”, you will pay zero percent tax on interest and dividends going forward.
  • You will pay zero percent on capital gains that accrue after you establish residency.
  • For capital gains that occurred before you move to PR, that portion of the gain would be taxed at 10%, (reduced to 5% after you have been in PR for 10 years). So if you had enormous long-term capital gains and were facing US taxes of 20% plus the 3.8% medicare surtax, you could move to PR and sell those items later this year and pay only 10% rather than 23.8%.
  • The application for Act 22 benefits costs $750 and if approved, the certificate has a filing fee of $5,000. The program sunsets after 2036. This program is to attract high net worth individuals to Puerto Rico, those who have hundreds of thousands or millions in investment income and gains. If your goal is to retire on $1,500 a month from Social Security, you aren’t going to need these tax breaks.

To establish yourself as a “bona fide resident”, you would need to spend a majority of each calendar year in Puerto Rico, meaning at least 183 days. The IRS is cracking down on fraudulent PR residency, so be prepared to document this and retain proof of travel. Additionally, PR now also requires you to purchase a home in PR and to open a local bank account to prove residency. (Don’t worry, PR banks are covered by FDIC insurance just like mainland banks). Details here on the Act 22 Requirements.

Note that Social Security and distributions from a Traditional IRA or Pension are considered ordinary income and subject to Puerto Rico personal income taxes, which reach a 33% maximum at an even lower level than US Federal Income tax rates. So, Act 22 is a huge incentive if you have a lot of investment income or unrealized capital gains, but otherwise, PR is not offering much tax incentives if your retirement income is ordinary income. 

If you are a business owner, however, and want to relocate your eligible business to Puerto Rico, there are also great tax breaks under Act 20. These include: a 4% corporate tax rate, 100% exemption for five years on property taxes, and then a 90% exemption after 5 years. If your business is a pass-through entity, like an LLC, you may be eligible to pay only 4% taxes on your earnings. If you are in the US, you could be paying as much as 37% income tax on your LLC earnings. Some requirements for Act 20 include being based in PR, opening a local bank account, and hiring local employees.

For self-employed people in a service industry, PR is creating (new for 2019) very low tax rates based on your gross income, of just 6% on the first $100,000, and a maximum of 20% on the income over $500,000. Click here for a chart of the PR personal tax rates and the new Service Tax.
A comparison of Act 20 and Act 22 Benefits are available at  Puerto Rico Business Link

When most people talk about tax havens, they would have to renounce their US citizenship (and pay 23.8% in capital gains to leave), or they’re thinking of an illegal scheme of trying hide assets offshore. If you have really large investment tax liabilities or have a business that you could locate anywhere, take a look at Puerto Rico. Besides the tax benefits, you’ve got great weather, year round golfing, US stores like Home Depot, Starbucks, and Walgreens, and direct daily flights to most US hubs, including DFW, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, New York, and other cities. 

Puerto Rico is still looking to rebuild after the hurricane and it’s probably not the best place to be a middle class worker, but for a wealthy retiree, it might be worth a look. Christopher Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico in 1493 and the cities have Spanish architecture from the seventeenth century. I’ve never been to Puerto Rico, but would love to visit sometime in 2019 or 2020. If you’d care to join me for a research trip, let me know!

(Please consult your tax expert for details and to discuss your eligibility. This article should not be construed as individual tax advice.)

A Bond Primer

We have been adding individual bonds and CDs across many accounts since December, as we looked to reduce our equity exposure and take advantage of higher yields now available in short-term, investment grade fixed income. When you are an owner of individual bonds, you are likely to encounter some terminology that may be new, even if you’ve been investing in bond funds for many years. Here are some important things to know:

Bonds are generally priced in $1,000 increments. One bond will mature at $1,000. However, instead of quoting bond prices in actual dollars, we basically use percentages. A bond priced at 100 (note, no dollar sign or percentage symbol is used) would cost $1,000. 100 is called its Par value. If you are buying newly issued bonds, they are generally issued at Par (100). This is called the Primary Market – where issuers directly sell their bonds to the public. We also buy bonds in the Secondary Market, which is where bond desks trade existing bonds between each other. 

In the Secondary Market, bond prices are set by market participants. A bond priced at 98.50 would cost $985, and would be said to be at a discount to Par. A bond priced at 102 would cost $1,020, called a premium. As interest rates rise, the value of existing (lower yielding bonds) will fall. There is an inverse relationship between price and interest rates – when one rises, the other falls.

Bonds have a set Maturity date. That is when the issuer will return the $1,000 they borrowed from the bondholder and cancel the debt. Some bonds are also Callable, which means that the issuer has the right to buy the bond back before its maturity date. This benefits the company, but not the bondholder, because when interest rates are low, companies can refinance their debt to a lower rate.

Most bonds pay interest semi-annually (twice a year). We call this the Coupon. A bond with a 4% coupon would pay $20 in interest, twice a year. If the bond is priced exactly at Par, then the coupon is the same as the effective yield. However, if the bond is priced differently, we are more interested in its Yield to Maturity, commonly listed as YTM. This is very helpful for comparing bonds with different coupons. 

Most bonds pay a fixed coupon, although some pay a step coupon, which rises over time, and others are floating, tied to an interest rate index, or inflation. When we purchase a bond between interest payments, the buyer will receive all of the next payment, so the buyer will also pay the seller Accrued Interest, which is the interest they have earned calculated to the day of sale.

For bonds which are callable, we also have the Yield to Call (YTC), which measures what your yield would be if the bond is called early. Generally, if we are buying a bond at a discount, Yield to Call is attractive. If we buy at 96 and they redeem at 100, that’s a good thing. But if we buy a bond at a premium, we need to carefully examine if or when it might be callable. Yield to Worst (YTW) will show the worst possible return, whether that is to maturity or to a specific call date. 

Some bonds do not pay a coupon and are called Zero Coupon Bonds. Instead, they are issued at a discount and grow to 100 at maturity. Treasury Bills are the most common type of zero coupon bonds. US Government Bonds include Treasury Bills (under one year), Treasury Notes (1 to 10 years), and Treasury Bonds (10 to 30 years). There also are Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), which are tied to the Consumer Price Index, and Agency Bonds, which are issued by government sponsored entities, such as Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

In addition to Government Bonds, we also buy Corporate Bonds – those issued by public and private companies, Municipal Bonds issued by state and local governments, including school districts, and Certificates of Deposit (CDs) from Banks. 

Most Municipal Bonds are tax exempt, at the Federal and possibly at the state level. If you live in New York, any Municipal Bond would be tax-free at the Federal Level, but only NY bonds would be tax-free for NY state income tax. In states with no income tax, such as Texas, a tax-exempt bond from any state will be tax-free for Federal Income Tax purposes. 

To make their bonds more attractive, some municipal bonds are Insured, which means that if they were to default, a private insurance company would make investors whole. Those municipal insurers got in trouble in the previous financial crisis, and some are still weak today. My preferred insurer is Assured Guaranty (AGMC).

Please note that some Municipal Bonds are taxable; we sometimes buy these for retirement accounts. In addition to the types of bonds we’ve discussed, there are thousands of bonds issued outside of the US, in other currencies, but we do not purchase those bonds directly. 

There are several agencies that provide credit ratings to assess the financial strength of the issuer. Standard and Poor’s highest rating is AAA, followed by AA+, AA, AA-, A+, A, A-, BBB+, BBB, BBB-. These are considered all Investment Grade. Below this level, from BB+ to C are below Investment Grade, often called High Yield or Junk Bonds. D means a bond has Defaulted. Moody’s ratings scale is slightly different: Aaa is the highest, followed by Aa1, Aa2, Aa3, A1, A2, A3, Baa1, Baa2, and Baa3 for Investment Grade. Junk Bonds include Ba(1,2,3), B(1,2,3), Caa(1,2,3), Ca, and C.

There are about 5,000 stocks issued in the US, but there are probably over a million individual bonds issued, each one identified by a unique CUSIP number. Every week, there are bonds which mature and new ones which are issued. 

Our approach for individual bonds is to buy only investment grade bonds, and ladder them from one to five years with diversified issuers. We also sometimes invest in other types of bonds, such as floating rate bonds, mortgage backed securities, emerging markets debt, or high yield. For those categories, we will use a fund or ETF because it’s more important to diversify very broadly with lower credit quality.  

Your Goals for 2019

Welcome to 2019! A new year brings a fresh chance to accomplish your goals. Maybe you’re dreaming that this will be the year you buy your first home. Maybe you’ve realized that your kids are one year closer to college and it’s time you start preparing. Maybe this is the year you want to exit from your current job so you can spend more time doing the things you love.

Even if your goals are further out than 2019, by December 31 of this year, you can either be several steps closer to achieving those goals, or you can sit right where you are today and risk that they will remain forever out of reach. Time stands still for no one. This is the only chance to do 2019 before it is gone forever.

Many of your goals have a financial component. Whether it is becoming a home owner, paying off your student loans, getting married, saving for a college education, planning for your retirement, or supporting your favorite charity, we can help you achieve your goals. The objective of our financial planning is not to own a bunch of stocks and bonds or get a nice tax break, it is about finding an effective, efficient, and logical way to help you accomplish your life’s goals.

We love when someone has a concrete, specific objective. When you truly embrace an important goal, there is ample reason to find the discipline for whatever steps are needed to achieve your objectives. I can tell you all about the benefits of a Roth IRA or a 529 College Savings Plan, but if that doesn’t fit into your needs, all my words are worthless. The “why” has to be there first, before we can get excited about “how” we are going to do it.

If you have goals that you want to accomplish in 2019 – or 2020 or 2029 – I’d like to invite you to join us and become a client of Good Life Wealth Management today. We serve smart investors who value personalized advice centered on their goals.

I’d welcome the opportunity to share our approach and allow you to consider whether it would be a good fit for you and your family. 

  • Our process focuses on planning first – we want to fully understand your goals and needs before we make any kind of recommendation. You would think this would be universal, but believe me, most of the financial industry has a product that they want to sell you before they have even met you. (Read our 13 Guiding Beliefs.)
  • We have no investment minimums. Younger professionals have financial goals and complex, competing objectives (hello, student loans!) even if they haven’t started investing or only have a small balance in a 401(k). We think helping young professionals build a strong financial foundation is important work. This is our Wealth Builder Program.
  • I’ve been a financial planner for 15 years and hold the Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Financial Analyst designations. Professional expertise and deep investment experience should be a given if you’re seeking financial advice. (More about Scott.)
  • Having your own plan means that you have taken an objective measure of where you are today, that we have created specific goals and objectives, and that we identify and implement steps to achieve those goals. While this is often savings and investment based, we’re going to evaluate your whole financial picture, from taxes and employee benefits to estate planning and life insurance. Bringing in a professional delivers accountability to a plan and protects you from what you don’t know you don’t know. (Financial Planning Services)
  • We are a Fiduciary, legally required to place client interests ahead of our own. Our fees are easy to understand and transparent. We aim to eliminate conflicts of interest wherever possible and if not possible, reduce and disclose. I invest in our Growth 70/30 model right along with our clients; if I thought there was a better way to invest, we would do that instead. (Skin in the Game)

Successful people – in any field – seek out the help and expertise of others. They surround themselves with knowledgeable professionals, not to abdicate responsibility, but to improve their understanding through asking the right questions. I became a financial planner to help others achieve their goals, and I love my job. For me, it is endlessly interesting and personally rewarding.

You could make a New Year’s resolution about your finances, but I genuinely believe you are more like to have a good outcome if you hire the right advisor who can help guide your journey. If you want 2019 to be the year when you turned your dreams into goals and a plan, then let’s talk about how we can work together.

Bonds for Safety in 2019

2018 saw rising interest rates, which hurt the prices of bonds. Most bond funds were flat to slightly down for the year. Rising interest rates also means higher yields, and we now see sufficient yields to justify buying short-term bonds. We have been reducing our equity exposure over the last few weeks, and have been using those proceeds to buy individual investment grade short-term bonds and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). 

I wanted to share a couple of themes which will guide our investment process for fixed income in the year ahead. In general, this is not a great time to be taking a lot of risk with your bond allocation. We want to use bonds to offset the risk of stocks to dampen overall portfolio volatility. Thankfully, bonds can now also make a positive contribution to your return albeit in a very modest 2-4% range, and with low or very low risk.

1. Credit doesn’t pay. A credit spread measures the difference in yield between a high quality bond, such as a US Treasury bond, versus say a bond issued by a company which has lower credit. That spread remains very tight today, meaning that you are not getting much additional yield for accepting the credit risk of a lower quality issuer.

This has led us to be selective about which corporate bonds we buy, only buying issues which have enough spread to justify their purchase. In today’s market, this primarily leads us to financial companies, especially the large banks, and to municipal bonds, including the rarely-discussed taxable municipal bonds which are a good choice for IRAs or other non-taxable accounts.

Both Treasury and US Government Agency bonds still have lower yields than CDs. This month, we bought some one-year CDs at 2.70% to 2.75% while the one-year Treasury was around 2.50%. That spread widens as we look to two and three year maturities.

I should explain that we offer “Brokerage CDs”, which are a little different than your typical bank CDs. Brokerage CDs are FDIC-insured against loss and we can shop for the best rates available, from both top banks like Wells Fargo or JP Morgan Chase and from smaller local banks who want to compete for the best yield. 

While you can typically redeem a bank CD early, albeit with an interest penalty of a few months, with a Brokerage CD, you would have to sell the CD in the bond market. If interest rates continue to rise, you would likely have to sell at less than full value. While these CDs offer the excellent rates, they are best used when you can hold to maturity.

We use CD rates as the basis of our spread comparison, rather than the traditional Treasury bonds. If we can’t find an improvement of at least 0.35% to 0.50% for an A-rated bond, then it’s not worth taking even the small risk over the CD. We will still use Treasury Bills for maturities of 6 months or less.

2. 5-year Ladder. In larger accounts, our goal is to create a ladder of bonds and CDs that mature over the following five years (2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023). This gives us a nice diversification of maturities while still maintaining a low overall duration. When the 2019 bonds mature, we purchase 2024 bonds to maintain a 5-year structure. In a rising rate environment, we are likely to be able buy new bonds at a higher rate. 

Besides being a sensible way to build a bond portfolio, a ladder also can be used to meet future needs for withdrawals or Required Minimum Distributions. Then instead of needing to sell equities or bond funds which could be down, we have a bond that is maturing to meet those cash needs. As a result, an investor might not need to touch their equities for the next five years. If or when their equities do grow, we can rebalance by selling stocks and buying new bonds at the top of the ladder.

While bond prices may go down if interest rates continue to rise in 2019, when you have an individual bond or CD, you know that it will mature at its full face value. So even if prices fluctuate, you will realize your stated Yield to Maturity when you do hold to maturity, which should be very possible with a 5-year ladder.

(Two notes: 1. While we can say that CDs and Treasury Bonds are guaranteed, other types of bonds do have some risk of default and cannot be described as guaranteed. 2. Investors who try to predict interest rates have as little success as investors who try to predict stock markets. We do not want to make bets on the direction of interest rates.)

3. Fixed Annuities. Annuities get a bad rap, but a Fixed Annuity is a third type of guaranteed fixed income investment. They deserve a closer look by investors as a bond substitute and work well with a 5-year laddered approach.

The current rate for a 5-year fixed annuity is 3.80% from one carrier I use. That compares to a 5-year CD at 3.35% to 3.60%. That’s not much of an improvement, however, the Fixed Annuity is an insurance product outside of our managed portfolio, so there are no investment management fees. Your net return is 3.80%. The insurance company will pay me a small commission directly, which does not impact your principal or your rate of return.

I think laddering fixed annuities can make sense for some, as a bond replacement, and more investors should learn about this before dismissing it as soon as they hear the word annuity. A 3.80% percent return on an annuity would be the equivalent of a 4.80% bond if you include a 1% annual management fee.

We wrote about doing a 5-year ladder of Fixed Annuities back in February 2016 in this blog, and I think it still makes sense for some investors. We would count this as part of your fixed income target for your overall portfolio allocation (60/40, etc.).

The stock market gets a lot of attention, but we don’t neglect fixed income in our portfolios. I do think there are benefits to managing your bond portfolio, and we spend as much time sweating the details of our fixed income selections as we do our stock market exposures.

Extend Your Car Warranty for Free

When it comes to saving money, there are two expenses which will make or break your budget: your home and your cars. If you keep those expenses below your means, you will have a surplus to save and invest. That’s how you generate wealth. 

Unexpected car repairs are the worst. You can spend thousands and it feels like you are just flushing your money away. That’s why we love car warranties: they help extinguish our fear of repair bills. For a lot of people, when their car warranty runs out, they want to get a new car because they can’t stand the thought of a catastrophic repair bill. 

But buying a new car every three or four years exposes you to the steepest part of the depreciation curve. Most cars will lose 50 to 60 percent of their value within five years. Owning new cars is trading the mere possibility of car repair bills, which might not happen, for the certainty of significant depreciation, which is inevitable.

Of course, car dealers would love to sell you an extended warranty. It’s one of their most profitable areas. That alone makes me think they are not worth it. You are spending $2,000 to buy a $1,000 warranty. And the insurer probably only pays out 50 to 80 cents in claims for every dollar in premiums it receives. It seems like you would be betting against yourself. 

I don’t usually endorse products or services here in my newsletter, but I came across a benefit which I think many of my readers might enjoy. It’s a way to provide protection against unexpected car repairs. This might allow you to keep your vehicles for longer and then direct more savings into your investment portfolios. (Selfishly, I will make more if my clients have larger investment portfolios, but hopefully that’s a goal we can both agree on!)

There is a company called BG Products which makes fluids for cars and trucks. They make motor oil (including synthetic), transmission fluid, brake fluid, anti-freeze/coolant, steering fluid, etc. BG offers a Lifetime Protection Plan that when you use their product regularly, if that component breaks down, they will reimburse you for the cost of the repair, up to a specific limit.

Best of all, they will cover your car, even if you don’t start using their fluids until 50,000 or 100,000 miles. That means that if you have a car with 80,000 miles, past the manufacturer’s warranty, you can actually add protection to your vehicle today. They offer double the protection if you start before 50,000 miles, so you might want to start sooner if you can. 

There is no limit on miles. As long as you continue to change the fluids within the specified number of miles, your car will be covered. You could keep your car for 300,000 miles and it would still be protected.

Here are the service intervals required for the Lifetime Protection Plan. If your manufacturer suggests more frequent changes, I would follow those instructions. To stay under this protection plan, you need to replace fluids before reaching these limits.

Engine Oil: 10,000 miles

Coolant: 30,000 miles

Transmission Fluid: 30,000 miles

Power Steering: 30,000 miles

Brake Fluid: 30,000 miles

The BG plan will reimburse repairs if these components break, but not for normal wear and tear. You would have to get the repairs done and then submit your receipts for reimbursement, which are subject to the following limits:

Plan 1, started before 50,000 miles: $4,000 coverage

Plan 2: started between 50,001 and 100,000 miles: $2,000 coverage

Full details of covered components HERE.

BG Products are not available in stores, you have to find a shop which uses them. Here in Dallas, I have used M2 Auto Repair, near Love Field. I’ve had a great experience there and can recommend them. If you talk to Eddie, the owner, please tell him I sent you.

If you’re not in the Dallas area, you can find a BG Dealer here. I have not filed a claim with BG, so I cannot vouch for that process, but obviously it is going to be very important to be able to document that you did have the services performed within the mileage limits and that the repairs required were on the specific parts covered by the protection plan. 

It doesn’t cover electronics, which is an increasingly large component in modern cars, but can give you some peace of mind over mechanical failures. If you’ve used BG and had a claim, please send me an email and tell me about your experience. 

I am aware that other fluid makers offer warranties, including Mobil 1Castrol, and Valvoline. In reviewing their warranty pages, they may offer similar benefits, but I think it may be more difficult to document proof of eligibility, and they don’t cover all of the systems that BG Products covers.

I’d also love to hear from you if you have ever filed a claim with another oil company and what result you received.  Regular maintenance is an important part of keeping your car healthy, and it’s great to see a company stand behind its products. I’m no expert on cars, but I have spent a lot of time looking at spending behavior. Any techniques which can help us spend less over the life of our vehicles will help you achieve your other financial goals. So, even if you don’t end up using the Lifetime Protection Plan, just knowing you were covered may provide you with the extra confidence to keep you car for 150,000 or 200,000 miles.

The Persistence Scorecard

As investors begin reviewing their year-end 2018 statements for their 401(k) and other accounts, I know many will want to change funds after a disappointing year. What do investors do? If they have 15 funds available in their plan, they will often sell out of their lagging fund and put money into whichever funds are performing best.

It seems rational enough to believe that a fund manager who is doing well might have above average skills, work harder, or have a better team than other fund managers. That’s why many investors switch funds – in the assumption that an excellent track record is evidence that strong performance will continue. 

You should care about your funds and their managers. But the reality is that switching funds for better performance is not a slam dunk. In December, Standard and Poor’s released their semi-annual Persistence Scorecard. I hope you will read this report. It may change how you invest, how you select funds, and the reasons why you would switch from one fund to another.

In the Scorecard, S&P analyzes returns of over 2,000 US mutual funds, to determine whether high performing funds continue to have strong performance. They evaluate funds by quartile, with data through September 30, 2018. The top 25% of funds would be called first quartile and the worst 25% of funds would be the fourth quartile.

When you buy a fund in the top quartile, what is the likelihood that it will stay a top performer? Let’s go back to September 2016 and track the 550 domestic equity funds that were in the top 25% for the preceding one-year period. Only 21.09% of the top quartile funds stayed in the top quartile in the next year, ending September 2017. And only 7.09% of the 2016 top quartile funds managed to stay in the top quartile for both 2017 and 2018. Of the funds in the top 25% in 2016, only one in thirteen would stay in the top quarter for the next two years.

When you buy this year’s top funds, it is very unlikely that those funds will continue to be the best performers in the subsequent years. Even though we have all heard that “past performance is no guarantee of future results”, everyone still wants to buy the 5-Star fund, even though all that rating tells us is the fund’s most recent performance!

Perhaps you knew better than to put much weight on one year performance. Still, wouldn’t a good manager be able to create a nice long-term track record? The Scorecard also looks at three and five-year returns.

Let’s consider the five-year data:

We will go back to September 2013 and track the 497 funds which were in the top quartile for five-year performance. How did they do over they following five years, through September 2018?

Only 27.16% would stay in the top quartile for another five years. 21.73% would fall to the second quartile, 20.32% would fall to the third quartile, and 21.13% would end up in the bottom quartile. Additionally, 9.46% of the top funds in 2013 would not even exist five years later. Fund companies merge or liquidate their worst performing funds to make their track records disappear. That’s right, when you go on Morningstar and look up funds, what you see is the result of Survivorship Bias. The record has been cleansed of the worst offenders and you only see the survivors. Thankfully, S&P keeps all data and includes deleted funds in its study.

To me this is another reason to use index funds rather than active managers. There is little evidence that when you pick a top performing manager that he or she will persist as a top performer. In fact, there is about only a one-in-four chance a top fund will remain in the top quartile. That’s pretty much a roll of the dice. Switching from one active manager who is underperforming to another active manager who was recently outperforming is very unlikely to be a successful strategy.

Instead of focusing on manager selection and risk chasing performance, we take a more structured approach:

1. Start with the overall asset allocation. Your weighting of stocks and bonds (60/40, 70/30, 50/50, etc.) is the largest determinant of your portfolio risk and return in the long run.

2. Determine how much you want in each category, such as US Large Cap, US Small Cap, US Value, International, Emerging Markets, etc. We base this on correlation, risk and return profiles, and diversification benefits. Then, we adjust the weightings towards categories which we feel are presently undervalued relative to the others.

3. Choose funds which closely reflect those categories. If you are buying a mid-cap fund, it should act like a mid-cap fund. 

4. Expenses matter. According to research from Morningstar: “the expense ratio is the most proven predictor of future fund returns.” We prefer funds with low expenses so you can keep more of the performance you are buying.

5. While we could use actively managed funds, we like the track record of index ETFs, along with their low cost, tax efficiency, and transparency. They are great building blocks for a portfolio.

Being diversified means owning a broad basket of holdings. This can be frustrating sometimes, wondering why you own A instead of B, when A is down this year and B is up. But putting all your money into whichever category or fund is doing best at any one point in time is not an effective strategy. That’s not just my opinion – look at the data from Standard and Poor’s Persistence Scorecard and I think you will reach the same conclusion. Bet on the market, not the manager.

Storm Clouds Gathering

Being an investor requires the humility to acknowledge that no one has a crystal ball and we cannot control the future. I find it best to ignore predictions and forecasts and to tune out day to day news, especially from “experts”. It’s just noise that distracts us from our process. There are always Bulls and Bears, so we run the risk of Confirmation Bias, embracing evidence that conforms to our beliefs and disregarding arguments that differ.

The current Bull Market is nine years old and there have been ample reasons for several years to think that we are in the late innings of this expansion. But anyone who has tried to time the market over the past decade has almost certainly hurt their returns rather than enhanced them.
Over the past two weeks, we’ve observed two significant economic signals which like the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” have been strong predictors of past Bear Markets. Because of their rarity and historical significance, I think investors should consider these signals with more weight than opinions, forecasts, or projections.

1. The crossover of the Equity Circuit Breaker. We’ve described this technical analysis previously, but here is a quick review: We look at the S&P 500 Index and calculate Moving Averages based on the previous closing prices of the past 60 and 120 days. That is each day, we look back at the previous 60 and 120 days. When the market is in an uptrend, the 60 day moving average stays above the 120 day average and both lines are sloping upwards. 

In a Bear Market, a prolonged downturn, the 60 day moving average is below the 120 day average and both are sloping down. The signal occurs when these two lines crossover; this reflects a potential change in regime from an up market to a down market. Because we are looking at longer averages – 60 and 120 days – this analysis usually tunes out brief market panics of a month or two. A crossover occurred this year at the end of November.  

This crossover was a good predictor in past Bear Markets; it would have gotten you out of stocks very early in the 2008 crash and back into stocks in the Fall of 2009. However, it can give false positives. Back in 2016, we also had a crossover occur for several months. That year, if you had traded on the crossovers, you would have gotten out at a loss and then had to buy back into stocks several percentage points higher.

2. Yield Curve Inversion. Typically, longer-dated bonds pay higher interest rates than shorter bonds. This week, however, we briefly saw the five-year Treasury Bond trade at a lower yield than the two-year Treasury, an inversion of the normal upwards slope of the yield curve. 

Why should you care? A Yield Curve Inversion has been a good predictor of previous recessions. This shows that investors are bidding up five-year bonds, preferring to tie up their money for longer, seeing a lack of short-term opportunities elsewhere. It also reflects a belief that interest rates may fall.

Past Yield Curve Inversions have occurred in 1978, 1988, 1998, 2000, 2005-2006. In each case, except for 1998, a recession took place within a year or two. So it does not have a 100% track record of accuracy either, but it is a rare enough of an event that I think it is worth our very careful consideration. The seven previous recessions all were preceded by a yield curve inversion.

Read More: from Bloomberg, “The US Yield Curve Just Inverted. That’s Huge.”

Over the past several years, when people asked me what it would take for me to become concerned about a Bear Market, I would have told them these two things: a crossover of the moving averages and a yield curve inversion. Both have been good (but not perfect) predictors of past Bear Markets and Recessions. And both have occurred since Thanksgiving this year.

The market may continue to go up in 2019, so I cannot assume anything with certainty. Still, I am concerned enough about these two signals that we are going to be slightly reducing our equity exposure and risk levels for our 2019 models. This is a temporary, tactical move and we will look to move back to our target equity weighting either when we feel that prices are significantly distressed, or after the moving averages have crossed back upwards. We are not going 100% to cash; at this point, we are considering reducing equities by 20%, pending further analysis this week.

We will be making necessary trades on a household by household basis before January 1, making sure we minimize any possible tax liabilities. We will look to harvest losses in taxable accounts and to try to avoid creating gains except in IRAs. 

While there’s no guarantee these trades will be profitable, I take these two signals seriously enough that I feel compelled to act and will be doing the same trades in my own portfolio. If we do have a prolonged Bear Market, we may wish to have sold even more. However, I want to balance that risk with the fact that these signals could be wrong this time. Perhaps the market continues up for another year or two before there is a recession and we miss out on significant further gains.  

Investors were not at all successful at timing the market back in 2007-2009, even though with the gift of hindsight, we might think it will be “easy” to see and act next time around. My goal remains to create effective, diversified portfolios that are logical, low cost, and tax-efficient. Making tactical adjustments to reduce risk and hopefully enhance returns is what clients expect from me, but we do not make these changes lightly. If you have questions about your portfolio, or want to talk in more detail about these signals, or the economy, I am always happy to have a conversation about what we can do for you.