How to Create Your Own Pension

With 401(k)s replacing pension plans at most employers, the risk of outliving your money has been shifted from the pension plan to the individual. We’ve been fortunate to see many advances in heath care in our lifetime so it is becoming quite common for a couple who retire in their sixties to spend thirty years in retirement. Today, longevity risk is a real concern for retirees.

With an investment-oriented retirement plan, we typically recommend a 4% withdrawal rate. We can then run a Monte Carlo simulation to estimate the possibility that you will deplete your portfolio and run out of money. And while that possibility is generally small, even a 20% chance of failure seems like an unacceptable gamble. Certainly if one out of five of my clients run out of money, I would not consider that a successful outcome.

Social Security has become more important than ever because many Baby Boomers don’t have a Pension. While Social Security does provide income for life, it is usually not enough to fund the lifestyle most people would like in retirement.

What can you do if you are worried about outliving your money? Consider a Single Premium Immediate Annuity, or SPIA. A SPIA is an insurance contract that will provide you with a monthly payment for life, in exchange for an upfront payment (the “single premium”). These are different from “deferred” annuities which are used for accumulation. Deferred annuities come in many flavors, including, fixed, indexed, and variable.

Deferred annuities have gotten a bad rap, in part due to inappropriate and unethical sales practices by some insurance professionals. For SPIAs, however, there is an increasing body of academic work that finds significant benefits.

Here’s a quote on a SPIA from one insurer:
For a 65-year old male, in exchange for $100,000, you would receive $529 a month for life. That’s $6,348 a year, or a 6.348% annual payout. (You can invest any amount in a SPIA, at the same payout rate.)

You can probably already guess the biggest reason people haven’t embraced SPIAs: if you purchase a SPIA and die after two months, you would have only gotten back $1,000 from your $100,000 investment. The rest, in a “Life only” contract is gone.

But that’s how insurance works; it’s a pooling of risks, based on the Law of Large Numbers. The insurance company will issue 1,000 contracts to 65 year olds and some will pass away soon and some will live to be 100. They can guarantee you a payment for life, because the large number of contracts gives them an average life span over the whole group. You transfer your longevity risk to the insurance company, and when they pool that risk with 999 other people, it is smoothed out and more predictable.

There are some other payment options, other than “Life Only”. For married couples, a Joint Life policy may be more appropriate. For someone wanting to leave money to their children, you could select a guaranteed period such as 10 years. Then, if you passed away after 3 years, your heirs would continue to receive payouts for another 7 years.

Obviously, these additional features would decrease the monthly payout compared to a Life Only policy. For example, in a 100% Joint Policy, the payout would drop to $417 a month, but that amount would be guaranteed as long as either the husband or wife were alive.

There are some situations where a SPIA could make sense. If you have an expectation of a long life span, longevity risk might be a big concern. I have clients whose parents lived well into their nineties and who have other relatives who passed 100 years old. For those in excellent health, longevity is a valid concern.

There are a number of different life expectancy calculators online which will try to estimate your longevity based on a variety of factors, including weight, stress, medical history, and family history. The life expectancy calculator at Time estimates a 75% chance I live to age 91.

Who is a good candidate for a SPIA?

  • Concerned with longevity risk and has both family history and personal factors suggesting a long life span,
  • Need income and want a payment guaranteed for life,
  • Not focused on leaving these assets to their heirs,
  • Have sufficient liquid funds elsewhere to not need this principal.

What are the negatives of the SPIA? While we’ve already discussed the possibility of receiving only a few payments, there are other considerations:

  • Inflation. Unlike Social Security, or our 4% withdrawal strategy, there are no cost of living increases in a SPIA. If your payout is $1,000 a month, it stays at that amount forever. With 3% inflation, that $1,000 will only have $500 in purchasing power after 24 years.
  • Low Interest Rates. SPIAs are invested by the insurance company in conservative funds, frequently in Treasury Bonds. They match a 30-year liability with a 30-year bond. Today’s SPIA rates are very low. I can’t help but think that the rates will be higher in a year or two as the Fed raises interest rates. Buying a SPIA now is like locking in today’s 30-year Treasury yield.
  • Loss of control of those assets. You can’t change your mind once after you have purchased a SPIA. (There may be an initial 30-day free look period to return a SPIA.)

While there are definitely some negatives, I think there should be greater use of SPIAs by retirees. They bring back many of the positive qualities that previous generations enjoyed with their corporate pension plans. When you ask people if they wish they had a pension that was guaranteed for life, they say yes. But if you ask them if they want an annuity, they say no. We need to do a better job explaining what a SPIA is.

The key is to think of it as a tool for part of the portfolio rather than an all-encompassing solution to your retirement needs. Consider, for example, using a SPIA plus Social Security to cover your non-discretionary expenses. Then you can use your remaining investments for discretionary expenses where you have more flexibility with those withdrawals. At the same time, your basic expenses have been met by guaranteed sources which you cannot outlive.

Since SPIAs are bond-like, you could consider a SPIA as part of your bond allocation in a 60/40 or 50/50 portfolio. A SPIA returns both interest and principal in each payment, so you would be spending down your bonds. This approach, called the “rising equity glidepath“, has been gaining increased acceptance by the financial planning community, as it appears to increase the success rate versus annual rebalancing.

There’s a lot more we could write about SPIAs, including how taxes work and about state Guaranty Associations coverage of them. Our goal of finding the optimal solution for each client’s retirement needs begins with an objective analysis of all the possible tools available to us.

If you’re wondering if a SPIA would help you meet your retirement goals, let’s talk. I don’t look at a question like this assuming I already know the answer. Rather, I’m here to educate you on all your options, so we can evaluate the pros and cons together and help you make the right decision for your situation.

What Happens If You Die Without a Will?

Last April, a long-time client passed away unexpectedly at his home. I ask all clients if they have an estate plan. If they do not, I recommend they get one and provide a referral if they do not have an attorney. Unfortunately, not everyone follows my advice, and this client passed away without a will or estate plan in place.

It has been over a year now, and his estate is still not settled. I was able to transfer his IRA to his spouse within days of receiving the death certificate. But, his individual account and his home and business assets remain tied up in Probate Court. His account, which I was managing, is frozen, and I cannot place any trades in the account or pay any bills (yet) for the estate.

Assets which have designated beneficiaries, such as life insurance policies, retirement accounts, or annuities, will go to the beneficiaries without the involvement of the Probate Court. Additionally, joint accounts with rights of survivorship, may go to the survivor, such as a spouse, almost immediately.

For all other types of assets, their disposition is determined by your Will. When you do not have a Will, it is said that your estate is “Intestate”. In these cases, your individual assets will be distributed based on state law. For real property, for example, one-half of your home would go to your surviving spouse, and one-half would go to surviving parents or siblings. But you wanted your spouse to receive all of your house or real estate investments? Too bad, you don’t have a will with those instructions.

Chart of Distribution of Assets in Texas Without a Will.

For parents of minor children, not having a will means that a court will determine who gets custody of your children. And since minors cannot own, inherit, or manage investments, any funds designated for their care would have to be placed in trust under the management of a court-appointed trustee (not of your choosing). Expenses for your children would need to be approved by the court.

Everyone does need to have a will and a few other estate planning documents. Typically, you will also want:

  • Durable Power of Attorney: authorizes a person to make financial decisions and enact transactions such as paying bills on your behalf, in case you are incapacitated or unable to make those decisions.
  • Health Care Power of Attorney: designates someone to make health care decisions if you are too ill or injured to speak for yourself.
  • Physicians Directive: instructions on what care or life support you would like to receive or not.

Here in Texas, we are a Community Property State, but even for married people you still need a will. If you die “intestate”, your assets could be tied up for a year or more, assets might not automatically go to your surviving spouse, and you increase your expenses and the potential for fights and lawsuits between family members. I have seen a LOT of families fall apart over disagreements about a parent’s estate, and yet parents never think it would happen with their kids. But it does, with sad consequences that no parent would want.

Do you need a trust? The majority of people do not. It used to be that a trust was needed to avoid the estate tax. But for 2018, a married couple has basically $22 million that can be passed on without any estate taxes at all.

I have an experienced attorney here in Dallas who will create a complete Will and set of Estate Documents for you. Like me, he believes this is essential protection which every family needs. He will meet with you face to face and determine your needs before making a recommendation. For families needing standard documents, the cost is a flat $750, which is less than some online services.

After my experience of having a client pass away without a Will, I wished I had been more adamant about insisting he had gotten this done. I realize it is a morbid topic that most people don’t want to think about. But the responsible way to take care of your loved ones is to make sure your Estate Plan is in place.

If you have a Will, you may need an update or a new one, if:

  • you have moved to a different state,
  • you have gotten married, divorced, or had children,
  • any of your beneficiaries have passed away,
  • your documents are more than five years old.

This is so easy to put off for another day because you are “too busy”. Please don’t wait. There is never an ideal time. Let me help you get this done, and I promise you will feel better once you have this settled.

5 Steps to Boost Your Savings

The key to financial independence is your commitment to saving.

The market has captured our attention in the past quarter, as volatility spiked and concerns have risen about everything from interest rates to North Korea. While everyone is fixated on how the Dow is doing or how much the S&P 500 is up or down each day, we all need a reminder from time to time that the only way you accumulate money is by setting it aside. Saving is the real growth engine for investors, not rates of return.

It’s not that returns don’t matter. It’s just that we have no control over what the market does, and worrying about those short-term gyrations is a waste of your time and energy. Volatile markets often make people not want to invest, preferring to wait until there is more clarity.

Uncertainty is always going to be part of investing; long-term investors have done very well by ignoring what they can’t control and concentrating on saving as much money as possible.

Here’s a guarantee for you: if you save $2,000 a month, you will accumulate ten times more money than if you had saved $200 a month. If your plan is to reach $500,000 or $1,000,000 or $5,000,000, the sooner you save, the faster you will accomplish your goal.

Saving is the most difficult, simple thing in the world. There is nothing complex about saving money, but actually doing it is quite challenging. Let’s break it down into five steps:

Step 1. Update your attitude about saving. Thoughts become actions.
Do You Hate Saving Money?

Step 2. Create an ambitious goal.
How To Become a Millionaire in 10 Years

Step 3. Find ways to reduce your expenses.
23 Ways to Save Money

Step 4. Create a Financial Plan.
How Some Investors Saved 50% More

Step 5. Stick with the program.
How Exercise Can Make You A Better Investor

Want more evidence?
Study: Deferral Rates Trump Fund Performance

A lot of financial advisors only want clients who are already very wealthy. They can charge more fees that way. For me, I love helping investors who are at all points on their financial journey and my purpose in life is to lift others up to achieve the American Dream. That’s why we have no investment minimums at Good Life Wealth. I can help you the most if you are committed to saving and recognize that saving is the key to your financial future.

What Q1 Suggests About the Rest of 2018

Now that the dust has settled on the first quarter of 2018, investors are trying to figure out what this renewed volatility means. Although we experienced a drop of roughly 10% in February, the overall return for the first quarter was a negligible loss: if you invested in an S&P 500 Index Fund, such as SPY, you had a return of -1.00% through March 31.

For the most part, portfolios were close to flat for Q1. Nevertheless, investors are quite concerned about where we go from here and worry that we may have more losses ahead in 2018. Here’s what we think:

1. Technical Analysis. The 200-day moving average, a key level of support, has held since February. The market went straight up in December and January, and the subsequent pull-back simply returned prices to the longer-term trend line. We have not seen a crossover of the 60 and 120 day averages, which would be expected to precede a prolonged downturn. Presently, the Q1 pullback appears to be a temporary correction and is not worsening.

While that could change in the months ahead, we will continue to use an evidence-based process to examine the trend. For investors who want to be more nimble, we are now offering the Equity Circuit Breaker, which uses Technical Analysis to move in and out of the market based on these trends.

2. Fundamentals. The economy remains strong. Leading Economic Indicators suggest that the potential for a recession in 2018 is extremely unlikely. Unemployment is so low that many employers are now finding it difficult to fill positions and are having to raise wages. All of which provides a positive backdrop for the stock market.

3. Bonds, however, have turned negative in the past six months. The Federal Reserve has increased short-term interest rates through the Fed Funds rate, and has planned another two or so rate hikes in 2018. As rates go up, the price of bonds goes down. The total return of the US Aggregate Bond Market, if you invested in the AGG exchange traded fund, was -1.47% for Q1.

Short-term rates have crept up to nearly 2% on a 1-year T-Bill, but the yield on the 30-year Treasury bond has hardly budged and is only 3.03% today. If the yields on long-term bonds had moved as much as short-term rates, the return of the bond market would have been worse than it was in Q1.

Anticipating more rate increases ahead in 2018, I think investors would be smart to seek out the safety in short-term, high quality bonds, like 0-2 year Treasuries. There remains a high risk for those in long-term bonds. The chase for yield in recent years drove the price of junk bonds to very high levels. We sold our position in high yield last summer, as we posted here on August 13. Since that time, prices have moved down on junk bonds. If you really want to understand the economy, follow the bond market.

4. Total Return. While a large drop in the price of the bond market is unlikely, it seems very possible that returns could be zero or negative for 2018. This is a tough market for investors who want income, and what income is available today comes with elevated risks. We think that investors would be well served to invest with a total return objective rather than investing for income or yield.

5. Volatility is back. Three thoughts on risk and investing:

  • Diversification is crucial. That’s why we invest in broad-based ETFs as our core holdings. Don’t risk too much on any one stock, sector, or country.
  • Asset Allocation, specifically your weighting in bonds, remains the best measure to achieve a targeted level of risk and return for a portfolio.
  • Quarterly fluctuations are mostly just noise for long-term investors. Focus on what you can control and the markets will likely serve you very well over your decades as an investor.

2018 is already proving to be a harder year than 2017 for investors. We will continue to watch the market closely so that we can provide informed, timely guidance for you. What is most important, however, is to have a strategy in place for your personal situation. Is your investment allocation optimized for your needs, time horizon, and risk preferences? If you don’t know – or know that it is not – we need to sit down and go through our financial planning process first, before we make any conclusions about how you are invested today.

9 Ways to Manage Capital Gains

Investors want to rebalance or reduce their exposure to stocks without creating a large tax bill. We specialize in tax-efficient portfolio management and can help you minimize the taxes you will pay. Here are 9 ways to manage your investment taxes more effectively:

1. Use ETFs instead of Mutual Funds. ETFs typically have very little, and often zero, capital gains distributions. Actively managed mutual funds are presently sitting on very large embedded gains, which will be distributed on to shareholders as the managers trade those positions. Using ETFs gives you better control of when you choose to realize gains.

2. Donate appreciated securities to charity instead of cash. If you are already planning to give money to a charity, instead donate shares of a stock or fund which has appreciated. The charity will get the same amount of money and they will pay no capital gains on the sale. You will still get the same tax deduction (if you exceed the now higher standard deduction) plus you will avoid paying capital gains. Use the cash you were planning to donate to replenish your investment account. Same donation, lower taxes.

Consider funding a Donor Advised Fund and contributing enough for several years of charitable giving. If you give to a large number of charities, it may be easier to make one transfer of securities each year to the Donor Advised Fund, and then give to the charities from the Fund.

3. Give appreciated securities to kids in the zero percent capital gains bracket. Some taxpayers in the lower brackets actually pay a 0% capital gains rate. If your grown children are no longer dependents, and would qualify, they may be able to receive the shares and sell them tax-free. Just be sure to stay under the $15,000 annual gift tax exclusion per person. For 2018, the zero percent capital gains rate will apply to single taxpayers under $38,600 in income and married couples under $77,200.

4. Harvest losses annually. Those losses give you the opportunity to offset gains and rebalance your portfolio. Any unused losses will carry forward to future years without expiration. And you can also use $3,000 a year of losses to offset your ordinary income, which means that instead of just saving 15-20% in taxes you could be saving 37% or more.

5. Develop a Capital Gains Budget. It’s not all or nothing – you don’t have to sell 100% of a position. We can trim a little each year and stay within an annual capital gains target. We also can sell specific lots, meaning we can reduce a position and choose to sell shares with the highest or lowest cost basis.

6. Wait a year for long-term treatment. We try to avoid creating gains under 12 months. The long-term rate is 15% or 20%, but short-term gains are taxed as ordinary income.

7. Use your IRA. If you have a well diversified IRA, we can often rebalance in that account and not create a taxable event. While many investors put taxable bonds in IRAs and leave the equities in a taxable account, for taxpayers in a high bracket, you may prefer to buy tax-free municipal bonds in the taxable account and keep equities in the IRA.

8. Stop Reinvesting Distributions. If your position in a stock or fund has grown, don’t make it larger through reinvestment of dividends and distributions! Reinvesting takes away your choice of how to rebalance your portfolio with the cash flow you receive. However, please make sure you are doing something with your distributions in a timely manner and not letting them accumulate in cash.

9. Just take the Gains already! Don’t let a gain disappear because you don’t want to pay 15% in taxes. If you have a big winner, especially with an individual stock or a speculative investment like bitcoin, take your gains and move on. If we become too obsessed with taxes we run the risk of letting our investment returns suffer.

While most people are thinking about their 2017 taxes right now, reacting to what has already passed, we suggest looking ahead to 2018 and being proactive about managing your futuretax liabilities. Taxes can be a significant drag on performance. If you’re investing in a taxable account, we can give you peace of mind that you have a plan not only for financial security, but also to manage your capital gains as efficiently as possible.

What Are Quarterly Tax Payments?

The IRS requires that tax payers make timely tax payments, which for many self-employed people means having to make quarterly estimated tax payments throughout the year. Otherwise, you could be subject to penalties for the underpayment of taxes, even if you pay the whole sum in April. The rules for underpayment apply to all taxpayers, but if you are a W-2 employee, you could just adjust your payroll withholding and not need to make quarterly payments.

If your tax liability is more than $1,000 for the year, the IRS will consider you to have underpaid if the taxes withheld during the year are less than the smaller of:

1. 90% of your total taxes dues (including self-employment taxes, capital gains, etc.)
2. 100% of the previous year’s taxes paid.

However, for high income earners – those making over $150,000 (or $75,000 if married filing separately) – the threshold for #2 is 110% of the previous year’s taxes. Additionally, the IRS considers this on a quarterly basis: 22.5% per quarter for #1, and 25% per quarter for #2, or 27.5% if your income exceeds $150,000.

Many taxpayers will find it sufficient to make four equal payments throughout the year. If that’s the case, your deadlines are generally April 15, June 15, September 15, and January 15. However, if your income varies substantially from quarter to quarter, or if your actual income ends up being lower than the previous year, you may want to adjust your quarterly estimated payments to reflect these changes.

You can estimate your quarterly tax payments using IRS form 1040-ES. Of course, your CPA or tax software should automatically be letting you know if you need to make estimated tax payments for the following year. You can mail in a check each quarter, or you may find it more convenient to make the payment electronically, via IRS.gov/payments.  For full information on quarterly estimated payments, see IRS Publication 505 Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax.

Please note that the estimated payments will fulfill the requirement of 100% of last years payment, or 90% of this year’s payment if that figure is lower. However, it is not required that you pay 100% of the current tax bill, so if your income is significantly higher this year, you could still owe a lot of taxes in April even after making quarterly estimated payments.

If you’re self-employed, you don’t need to be a tax expert, but you do need to understand some basics and to make sure you are getting correct advice. When you aren’t being paid as a W-2 employee, it is up to you to make sure you are setting money aside and making those tax payments throughout the year, so that next April you aren’t facing penalties on top of having a large, unexpected tax bill.

When To Get Out Of Equities

Look at each time the S&P 500 Index fell by 8% since 1928, and you will find two very different types of outcomes. 85% of the time, an 8% drop resulted in only a shallow correction, an average of 13%, which the market recovered from, on average, in just 106 days. That’s tolerable.

However, in 15% of the 8% drops, the stock market was headed into a severe Bear Market, suffering an average decline of 43%, which took 1090 days to recover.* That’s three years – from the bottom – just to get back to even. Anyone who invested through the Tech Bubble in 2000-2001 and the Crash of 2008-2009 needs no reminder that Bear markets have always been a part of investing.

Given a choice, wouldn’t you rather be on the sidelines when things are falling apart? Investors of all ages feel this way, but for those who are closer to retirement, we don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, I can just Dollar Cost Average since I don’t need to touch this money for 30 years”.

Most sources say you cannot time the market. That’s because people usually base their decisions on sentiment and worthless forecasts. We are blind to our own confirmation bias, where we look for opinions that support our prejudices, rather than looking objectively at all evidence.

Without a crystal ball, how can you tell when a small drop is just a brief correction versus the first weeks of a longer Bear Market?

To remove human emotion and look solely at the price movement of the market is the objective of Technical Analysis. Let’s consider a chart of the historical prices of the S&P 500 Index. One of the ways to examine the larger trend of market is through a Moving Average (MA). This is simply a measure of the average price over a number of days, such as 20, 60, 120, or 200 days. A Moving Average with small number of days responds quickly to changes in market prices, whereas a MA based on a large number of days is smoother and slower to react.

When the market is boldly moving up (like in 2017), a chart will have these characteristics:

  • The 60-day moving average is above the 120-day moving average, and both have an upwards slope, gaining each day.
  • The current price of the market is above the moving averages, pulling the averages higher.

When we are in a prolonged decline (like in 2008), a chart will typically have the reverse characteristics:

  • The 60-day moving average is below the 120-day moving average, and both have a downwards slope, sinking each day.
  • The current price of the market is below the moving averages, pulling the averages lower.

A brief drop, like we experienced in February, is a temporary blip in the market price and has little impact on the longer 60 or 120 day moving averages. Technical Analysis suggests that a Bear Market may be starting when there is a crossover – when the 60-day MA goes from being above the 120-day MA to being below it.

Crossovers are considered a major shift in the direction of the market, and often do not occur for years at a time. Crossovers occurred relatively early in the previous two Bear Markets and if you had used that signal to sell, you would have significantly reduced your losses. The reverse crossover, when the 60-day breaks above the 120-day MA, is considered a Bullish indicator that the downwards trend has broken. That’s the Buy signal to get back into the market.

A few caveats are in order: these signals will not pinpoint the top or bottom of the market. With a 60-day lag, the market could have already have suffered significant losses before we get a “Sell” signal. Similarly, at the bottom, the market could have rebounded by a substantial percentage before we get the “Buy” signal to get back in. In a shorter Bear Market, these indicators might have you get out at a loss and then buy back in at a higher level, adding insult to injury.

Looking at back-tested funds which use this approach, however, they would have had lower losses in the past two Bear Markets. While it’s nice to avoid the losses, what is even more compelling is how well the strategy performs over 10 or more years. After studying this for nearly two years, we are now going to offer this strategy to our clients, calling it the Equity Circuit Breaker.

This does not change what we purchase in our portfolios. Investors will have the choice of adding the Equity Circuit Breaker or not. If you want to participate, we will track these moving averages and when a crossover occurs, we will sell your equity positions and move the proceeds into cash or short-term Treasuries. When the Bullish crossover occurs, we will buy back into your equity funds, returning to your target asset allocation.

The goal is to reduce losses then next time we have a Bear Market. While there is no guarantee this program will work exactly as it has in the past, you might prefer to have a defensive strategy in place versus the alternative of staying invested for the whole ride down and back up.

I am making this optional for two reasons. First, some investors have a long enough time frame to accept market volatility and prefer a simpler approach. Second, taxes. Selling your equity positions in a taxable account could generate capital gains.

But let’s take a closer look at the tax question. Let’s say you have a 50% gain in your equity positions. You started at $200,000 and it has grown to $300,000. If we were to sell those positions and create $100,000 in long-term capital gains, you’d be looking at 15% tax, or $15,000. (Long-Term Capital Gains could be as high as 23.8% for those in the top tax bracket.) That is a substantial amount of tax, but could still be worth it. If we avoid a 20% drop, you would have prevented $60,000 of losses.

Paying some taxes along the way also will increase your cost basis and basically just pre-pay taxes you would otherwise pay later. For example, Investor A buys a fund for $10,000, sells it at $15,000 after year two and generates a $5,000 capital gain. Then she buys back into the fund with the $15,000 and sells it at $18,000 at year five, for a $3,000 gain. Investor B buys a fund for $10,000, holds it for the same five years, and then sells for $18,000. Both investors will pay the same tax on $8,000 in capital gains. Investor A just split that tax into two segments whereas Investor B paid the tax all at the end.

Of course, if your accounts are IRAs, we could trade without any tax consequences. If you’d like to add the Equity Circuit Breaker to your Good Life Wealth Management Portfolio, there is no additional cost, just reply to this email. We also offer the option of limiting the Equity Circuit Breaker to your IRAs and not to your taxable accounts. I’ll be talking with clients individually throughout the Spring about the new program.

As of today, we have not had a crossover, so there is not yet a trigger for us to sell. I will be looking at this on a regular basis. Investors should make the decision about participating well in advance of the trigger occurring. Once the losses have already started, it is harder to make a decision. I think the best use of this approach is passive – to consider it carefully in advance, turn it on (or not), and then leave it alone. We will do the work for you.

If today’s market is making you nervous, the Equity Circuit Breaker may help you sleep better at night. You have been telling us “we want to participate in the upside, but want to step aside when things get ugly.” If that’s what you’ve been thinking, feeling, or wishing, we can provide you with a plan that’s based on a disciplined process.

*Market Pulse, Goldman Sachs Asset Management, February 2018

Vanguard’s Measure of Our Value

We create value for you through holistic financial planning, looking at your entire financial picture to create a comprehensive approach to investing your money, gaining financial independence, and safeguarding you from risks. This sounds great, but let’s face it, it’s pretty vague. The numerical benefits of hiring a financial advisor can be difficult to evaluate. Since 2001, Vanguard has spent considerable resources in measuring how I can add value for investors like you.

Their study is called Vanguard Advisor’s Alpha and they have identified areas where financial advisors create tangible value. Their aim is to quantify how much a client might benefit from each process a financial advisor could offer. Vanguard’s conclusion is that an advisor like me can add 3% a year in benefits through effective Portfolio Construction, Behavioral Coaching, and Wealth Management.

Their recommended approach in these areas very much reflects what I do for each client. Not all advisors use these steps with their clients. If your advisor isn’t talking about these actions, you could be missing out. Vanguard has analyzed how much a client might gain from each step in our financial planning process. Benefits, below, are measured in basis points (bps), where 1 bp equals 0.01% in annual benefits.

1. Portfolio Construction

  • Suitable Asset Allocation / Diversification >0 bps
  • Cost Savings (Expense Ratios) 40 bps
  • Annual Rebalancing 35 bps

Our approach is to create long-term, diversified investment strategies for each client. We start with a top-down asset allocation and use ultra low-cost ETFs and institutional-class mutual funds to implement our allocation. Portfolios are rebalanced annually.

2. Behavioral Coaching

  • Estimated Benefit 150 bps

There is a huge benefit to coaching and that’s why we prefer to write about behavioral finance topics than giving you “weekly market updates”. You can’t control what the market does, but you can control how you respond. And how you respond ends up being one of the biggest determinants of your long-term results.

We take the time to create a solid plan, educate you on our approach, and reinforce the importance of sticking with the plan. There are real risks to having a knee-jerk reaction to a bear market, chasing performance, or buying into bitcoin or whatever fad is currently making the headlines. Based on Vanguard’s calculations, the value of Behavioral Coaching is actually greater than investing steps like asset location or rebalancing.

3. Wealth Management

  • Asset Location 0 to 75 bps
  • Spending Strategies (withdrawal order) 0 to 110 bps
  • Total Return versus income approach >0 bps

Asset location is creating tax savings by placing certain investments in retirement accounts and certain investments in taxable accounts. Spending Strategies, for retirement typically, are another area of considerable attention here at Good Life Wealth. Go to our Blog and you can find all of our past articles (currently 197). In the upper right, use the Search bar and you can find several articles explaining these concepts and how we implement them.

Vanguard lists some of these benefits as 0 bps with the explanation that the value can be “significant” but is too individual to quantify accurately. When they do add up the benefits we can achieve in Portfolio Management, Behavioral Coaching, and Wealth Management, Vanguard believes we are adding 3% a year in potential benefits for many clients.

We hope this may help those who are on the fence, wondering if it is worth it to hire us as your financial advisor. There is a value to what we offer or I wouldn’t be in this profession. The Vanguard study doesn’t consider our benefits in helping you with tax planning, risk management, estate planning, college funding, or other areas. They also don’t consider intangible benefits, such as peace of mind, saving time by hiring an expert versus trying to do it yourself, or the fact that investors who create a retirement plan with an advisor save 50% more than those who do not.

We offer two distinct programs to meet you where you are today and help you get to where you want to be. We are welcoming new clients for 2018. Do you have questions about how we might add value for you? Let’s talk.

Premiere Wealth Management
Comprehensive financial planning and portfolio management
Cost is 1% annually, for clients with $250,000 or more to invest

Wealth Builder Program
Subscription program to build your net worth with expert financial planning in the areas you need
Cost is $99/month, for clients with $0 to $249,999

Roth Conversions Under the New Tax Law

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) will impact Roth Conversions in 2018 and beyond in a number of significant ways for investors. Since I can hear the yawns already through my laptop, here’s why you should care: wouldn’t it be great to have your investment account growing tax-free? Once you are retired, which would you prefer: an account with $100,000 which you could access tax-free or one which will cost you $22,000 or more in taxes to use  your money? Taxes can take a huge bite out of your investment returns.

Quick refresher: A Roth IRA holds after-tax money and grows tax-free. A Conversion is when you take a Traditional IRA, 401(k), or similar account, pay the taxes on it today, and transfer it to your Roth IRA. While that does mean paying taxes now, any future growth in the account would be tax-free. When you withdraw the money from a Roth IRA in retirement, you pay no taxes.

The TCJA has both positive and negative impacts on doing a Roth Conversion:

1. Lower tax rates. Under the TCJA, most people will receive a 1-4% reduction in their marginal tax bracket. For example, the top bracket was 39.6% in 2017 and will be 37% in 2018. If you are in the top bracket, a Roth Conversion is cheaper by 2.6% today.

For a married couple, if your taxable income is under $77,400 you are now in the 12% tax bracket. Paying 12% to convert an IRA to a Roth would be a bargain, but the Conversion plus your taxable income would need to stay under $77,400 to remain in the 12% rate. With a $24,000 standard deduction, a married couple could make as much as $101,400 and be in the 12% bracket.

To add a sense of urgency, don’t forget that the new lower tax rates are only temporary. In 2026, the top rate goes back to 39.6%. I suppose Congress could extend the tax cuts, but no one knows what will happen in eight years. What we do know is that deficits will rise dramatically, which suggests to me the need to have higher taxes in the future.

2. Beneficiary’s Tax Rate. If your beneficiaries – children, grandchildren, or anyone – are in higher tax bracket than you, the tax bill may be lower for you to convert your IRA to a Roth than for the beneficiaries to inherit the IRA. With a Conversion, your heirs inherit your Roth IRA tax-free. Also, converting to a Roth means you do not have to pay any Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) starting at age 70 1/2, allowing your account to grow.

If you were planning to leave your Traditional IRA, perhaps in trust, to your young grandchildren, the TCJA will change how they are taxed. For children under age 18, or under age 24 if full-time students, they used to be taxed at their parent’s tax rate. Now for 2018, the “Kiddie Tax” will increase the tax on unearned income, such as IRA distributions, to the much worse tax rate of trusts, a 37% tax rate on income above $12,500.

3. The TCJA eliminated Recharacterizations. Previously, you could undo a Roth Conversion through a process called a Recharacterization. Why would you want to do that? Let’s say you converted $10,000 of a mutual fund from a Traditional to a Roth IRA in January; you would pay taxes on the $10,000 as income. Now, imagine that the account went down and was worth only $8,000 by November. You’d be pretty mad to pay taxes on $10,000 when your account was then only worth $8,000.

The Recharacterization would let you cancel your Roth Conversion if you didn’t like the outcome within that tax year. You could get a “Do-Over”. The TCJA eliminated Recharacterizations, so now if you do a Roth Conversion, you are stuck with it!

4. Back-Door Roth. Since 2010, there has been a type of Roth Conversion called a Back-Door Roth IRA. It allows high income investors who did not have any IRAs to fund a non-deductible Traditional IRA and then convert it to a Roth. It was a “Back Door” way to fund a Roth IRA if you made too much to qualify under the regular rules. There was discussion in Congress to eliminate the Back Door Roth IRA (as there has been for years), but in the final version of the TCJA, it is still allowed…for now.

So, should you convert your IRA to a Roth? If you are in a low tax bracket, 10% or 12% in 2018, I think it is worth consideration. If you are in a low tax bracket this year and anticipate your income rising substantially in future years, this would be a good year for a Conversion. You don’t have to convert your entire IRA. You could just convert a portion that would stay within your existing tax bracket. I suggest you use outside funds to pay the taxes, rather than the proceeds of the conversion.

If you are planning to leave your IRA to a charity, they can receive the funds without paying any income taxes and you should not do a Roth Conversion. In fact, if your estate plan includes donations to charity, the most tax-efficient solution is to make those donations from your Traditional IRA. Instead, leave your heirs money from taxable investment accounts; they can receive a step-up in cost basis and potentially owe little or no income taxes or capital gains.

If your IRA is invested in equities, converting when the market is at an all-time high is a risk. With the elimination of Recharacterizations, you don’t get a do-over if the stock market tanks after you do a conversion. It would be preferable to do a conversion is when your account is at a low point, such as in a Bear Market. Educate yourself now, and then in the future, if the market does go down by 25% or 30%, that would be an advantageous time to convert your investments to a tax-free Roth to enjoy the likely subsequent rebound.

In the mean time, if you have questions about Roth Conversions, or just choosing a Roth versus Traditional account for your 401(k), please send me a note. A Roth Conversion could possibly save you tens of thousands of dollars in retirement, which would definitely help elevate your lifestyle. It’s a big decision – often costing thousands of dollars in taxes today – so we have to make sure we are making a well-informed choice and have a thorough understanding of the costs and benefits.

Putting February in Perspective

2017 was not only a great year in the market, but an anomaly of historic proportions for its extremely low volatility. There were no large daily swings in 2017, and no big drops or corrections regardless of the economic data, corporate earnings, or political turmoil. The market never fell below the January 1st level in 2017, so the year-to-date numbers were positive for the entire year.

This January continued 2017’s winning streak, but February was another story altogether. The market plunged roughly 10% in a week, including the largest single day point drop in the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The market regained much of its loss, but has sold off by 3% or so in the past week. Investors are wondering is whether this is the end of the bull market and what to do next.

Here is the frustrating reality about being an investor: No one can predict the future. Forget about Wall Street forecasts – their track record of accuracy is horrible. The market doesn’t care what we think, positive or negative. The old saying that “the market climbs a wall of worry” has certainly been true the past year or two.

If you would have asked me at the start of 2017 if I thought the S&P 500 Index would go up 22% that year, I would have said no way. The prices were relatively high, we faced rising interest rates, and the political climate was a mess. Uncertainty is not supposed to be the backdrop for a 20%+ year.

Thankfully, I did not act on my opinions in January of 2017 and get out of the market, because we would have missed a tremendous year of investment returns. We should recognize that even when we think our feelings about the market are based on a rational examination of facts, there is no guarantee that the outcome will be as we expect. We are too easily influenced by recent performance and allow our fear or greed to drive investment decisions about what should be a decades-long plan.

For those who are disturbed by February’s action, I’d suggest taking a 30,000 foot view. Although the market did correct by 10%, we basically only gave up the gains from a few weeks and put accounts back at the level they were in December. The market pulled back towards the 200-day moving average, a key level of support, but did not cross or violate those levels. In other words, the overall trend upwards has not been broken. Perhaps the market just needed a correction and chance for profit-taking. That’s healthy and not necessarily a bad thing.

The US economy looks strong, and while the stock market could diverge from the economy, I think we can take comfort in knowing that wages are rising, unemployment is very low, earnings are growing, and many companies are robust and profitable. The tax cuts going to corporate America will increase earnings. Although we’ve gone nine years without a bear market, we are in unprecedented times, so it is possible that the market continues up for a while longer.

I share this not because I think my job is to be bullish or to convince people to buy stocks. Rather my objective is to educate investors, moderate our behavior, and encourage consistency. When fear starts to pick up, that’s the time when it becomes challenging to stick to the plan. Our focus should be on looking out 10 or 20 years. That’s the sort of time frame we really need to have in mind as an investor.

Just like the seasons, there will be a bear market – a drop of 20% or more – in the future. But investors would be better served by worrying less about the inevitability of market cycles and instead focusing on what they can control: how much they save, diversifying, keeping costs and taxes to a minimum, and having a long-term strategy.

We will continue to watch the market closely and evaluate whether a temporary correction threatens to become a more prolonged decline. If that were to occur, we would take action. For some investors, we may choose to become more defensive. For those with a longer time horizon, I think you want to buy when the market is on sale. This decision would be based on technical indicators – what the actual price movement of the stock market suggests – rather than a decision influenced by news, market sentiment, forecasts, or opinions. (We will explore this topic in more detail in an upcoming post.)

Presently, there is little from February to indicate that we’ve had anything more than a garden variety correction. Volatility is a normal part of investing, something we need to remind ourselves after 2017. If you’re not currently investing with us, let’s talk about how you are currently positioned and see if we might be able to recommend some ways to improve your investment strategy.