How to Increase Your Yield

How to Increase Your Yield

Opportunities for a Low Yield World, Part 2

Last week, we discussed how not to increase your yield today: by replacing safe bonds with high yield bonds. That’s because the potential for rising defaults today in junk bonds could have a major drag on what would otherwise appear to be a healthy yield. While the typical default rate for single-B and double-B bonds is 2-4% a year, in a crisis it could go much higher. In 2009, for example, global high yield bonds saw a 13% default rate that year.

It’s important to understand the risks in your bond portfolio and know what you own. There are four opportunities today for investors to improve their yields today, without simply trading down to junk bonds. None of these are home runs, but offer a bit more yield. And in the current low interest rate environment, increasing your yield by even one percent could be doubling your rate of return from your bonds. Some investors will choose to skip bonds altogether and add to their equities, but that would take on a lot of additional risk. For investors who want the risk and return profile of say a 60/40 portfolio, there’s no substitute for the safety of bonds.

1. Cash: Online Savings Account, not a Money Market Fund

Today, the Federal Reserve has lowered rates to basically zero. There is almost no yield on T-Bills, bank accounts, and short-term CDs. I see a lot of investors who park significant cash in a money market fund or in a Bank savings account. Those rates may have been near two percent a year ago, but many are now at 0.01%. That’s a whole one dollar of interest for a $10,000 investment each year! Not only are you not growing your cash, you probably aren’t going to keep up with inflation either. Your purchasing power is likely to decline with each passing year.

Instead of a money market at 0.01%, park your cash in an online savings account. You can link it to your primary checking account, and transfer money as needed. Most are FDIC insured, and several have no account minimums and no monthly fees. The one I use: Marcus.com from Goldman Sachs Bank. The current rate is 1.05%, with no minimums and no fees. You can open an account in about 1 minute and there’s an app for iOS and Android. I cannot think of any reason to not do this if you are presently earning 0.01% on a money market.

2. Buy Insured Municipal Bonds, not Taxable Corporates

The Coronavirus didn’t just hurt companies. Municipal Bonds – which are issued by cities, states, schools, and local entities – depend on taxes or revenues. Revenues from Stadiums, Toll Roads, etc., are down and so are taxes from sales, restaurants and bars, gasoline, income, and everything else which is taxed. The municipal bond market really doesn’t know how to evaluate this unprecedented problem. Compounding this issue is the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of different bonds, issued by 50,000 different entities. Some of these bonds are so small that they rarely trade.

The result is that we can now buy a tax-free, A-rated municipal bond with a higher yield than we can buy an A-rated corporate bond which is taxable. This doesn’t help retirement accounts, like a 401(k) or IRA, but if you are buying bonds in a taxable account, taxes matter. Imagine two bonds both yield 2%. One is tax-free and the other one is going to cost you 22 to 37 percent in income taxes. That’s a big difference when we consider after-tax returns!

It is unusual to find yields on tax-free municipal bonds being higher than on corporate bonds of a similar credit quality and duration. For folks in a high tax bracket, taking profits on your corporate bonds and shifting to munis can make sense. (Profits on your appreciated, high-priced corporate bonds can qualify for long-term capital gains rate of 15%, a lower tax rate than receiving the bond’s income and waiting for them to mature at par.)

If you are concerned about the credit quality of municipal bonds, look for bonds which are insured. Bond insurers offer protection to muni bond holders to cover losses of income and principal, should a municipality default. At this point, defaults on municipal bonds remain much lower than from corporate bonds. The highest rated insurer is AGMC, and those bonds remain AA- rated.

We build portfolios of individual municipal bonds for clients with taxable accounts over $250,000. For investors with smaller portfolios, you can achieve a similar benefit with an intermediate municipal bond fund.

3. Buy 5-year Fixed Annuities, not 5-year Bonds

Where are the yields of 5-year fixed income products this week? The 5-year Treasury bond has a yield of 0.27%. The best rate I have on a 5-year CD is 0.55%. I see an A- rated 5-year corporate bond from JP Morgan at 0.95%. Munis are better, but still only 1.0 to 1.3% tax-free for an A-rated bond.

The best place to park money for five years remains a fixed annuity. Today I see several annuities in the 3.0 and 3.1 percent range for a five year product. That’s basically triple the yield of corporates and about 6-times the yield from CDs. A fixed annuity is guaranteed, both for the rate of return and your principal. There is a trade-off with annuities. They charge very steep surrender charges if you need to access your money early. However, if you aren’t going to tap the account for 5+ years, it can make sense to put some money into an annuity.

Whenever people ask me how they can earn more while keeping their money safe, I discuss the pros and cons of an annuity. For today’s bond investors, a Multi-Year Guaranteed Annuity (MYGA) can be a way to increase your yield while keeping high credit quality.

4. Buy Preferred Stocks, Not a High Yield Fund

The High Yield ETF (HYG) currently has an SEC yield of 5.06%. There are a couple of reasons I prefer to own preferred stocks, besides the default risks I shared last week. First, I can save the ETF expense ratio of 0.49%. This is actually low compared to most high yield funds. When you own Preferreds directly, you might be saving one-half to one percent versus paying the expense ratio of a fund. At a 5% yield today, that is a 10-20% improvement. Yields are very low today, but expense ratios have not come down. Now, expenses eat up a larger portion of your return, leaving you with less income.

Second, preferreds today are offering a yield of 5-7%, which is attractive compared to bonds from the same company. For example, AT&T has preferred which yields 4.8% and is callable in 5 years. The February 2030 AT&T regular bond, however, yields less than 2.25% today. First Horizon Bank sold a 6.5% preferred this year, callable in five years. Their five year bonds, today, are available for a purchase with only a 1.865% yield.

Generally, the bonds are “safer” than preferreds, as they would rate higher in a bankruptcy liquidation. That’s one reason for the different yields, as well as the longer duration of the preferreds. Still, if you are comfortable with the credit risk of a company, the Preferreds may be trading at a significantly higher yield than the bonds of the company. That’s an opportunity today.

Why do we write so much about fixed income? For many of our investors who have achieved their accumulation goals, moving from growth into preservation and income is important. And there is an opportunity for us to add value through our fixed income choices: to increase yield, improve credit quality, or to reduce your risks. While it is relatively easy and fast to trade equity ETFs, buying individual bonds can require hours of research and trading.

Stocks have gotten all our attention this year, but don’t ignore your fixed income. The great return of fixed income in recent years has largely been the result of falling yields increasing the value/price of your bonds. Today, at nearly zero, yields could prove disappointing going forward. Our goal is to help you get more yield without simply taking on a lot of credit or duration risk.

Of these four ideas, you can certainly do #1 on your own. For #2 through #4, though, I think you will want to work with a financial professional. If you’d like to learn about individual municipal bonds, fixed annuities, or Preferred Stocks, please give me a call.

The High Yield Trap

The High Yield Trap

Opportunities for a Low Yield World PART 1

Everyone wants their investments to make more money, but we have to be careful to avoid the High Yield Trap. Since the Coronavirus Crash, central banks have been lowering interest rates to near zero. Last year, I was buying CDs at 2-3%. This week, I’m looking at the same CDs with yields of 0.1% to 0.2%. To which, my client innocently asks: What can we buy that will make more than a couple of percent with low risk?

Nothing, today. The five-year Treasury Bond currently yields 0.22%. That’s unacceptable for most investors, and it will push them out of safe fixed income, like Treasuries, CDs, and high quality municipal and corporate bonds. The yields are just too darn low.

Where will they go in pursuit of higher yields? Oh, there are plenty of bonds and bond funds with higher yields today. Credit quality has been plunging, as rating agencies are trying to keep up with downgrading firms that are being devastated by the shutdown or low commodity prices. In fact, through June 16, $88 Billion in BBB-rated bonds were downgraded to Junk Bond status this year. Each downgrade causes selling, which lowers the price of the bond, and the yield goes up (at least for new buyers).

Why It’s Called Junk

Before you get too excited, there are reasons to be concerned about buying lower grade bonds. In an average year, 2% of BB bonds and 4% of single-B rated bonds will default. That’s why high yield bonds are called junk bonds.

When those companies file for bankruptcy, the bond holders won’t be getting paid back their full principal. They will have to wait for a bankruptcy court to approve a restructuring plan or to dissolve the company. According to Moody’s, the median recovery is only 24 cents on the dollar when a bond defaults.

And while a 2-4% default rate might not sound too bad, that’s in an average year. In a crisis, that might rise to 8-10% defaults. In 2009, global high yield bonds had a 13% default rate in that year alone. These are historical rates, and it could be worse than that in the future. Additionally, the possibility of default increases as a company gets downgraded. If your BB-rated bond gets cut to CCC-rated, the chance of default is now a lot higher than 2%. And the price will probably go down, which creates a difficult choice. Do you sell for a loss or hold on hoping that the company can pay off your bond?

Here in Dallas, we are seeing a lot of companies go bankrupt, pushed over the edge by the Coronavirus. Big names like J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus, Pier One, Chuck E. Cheese, Bar Louie, and others have filed for bankruptcy in 2020. Most of these companies were issuers of high yield bonds and had a lot of debt. When they got into trouble, they could not keep up with their debt payments and had to fold. Expect more retailers, oil companies, and restaurants to go under before the end of 2020. Bond holders in those companies could lose a lot. (In all fairness, stock holders will do even worse. There is usually zero recovery for stock holders in bankruptcy.)

Funds versus Individual Bonds

If you are investing in a high yield bond fund, you may own hundreds or thousands of bonds. The fund may have a 7 percent yield, but don’t get too excited. A high yield fund is not a CD. You are not guaranteed to get your principal back. It’s likely (even more likely in the current crisis), that your return will get dinged by 2-4% in defaults and losses due to credit downgrades.

If you own individual high yield bonds, it can be even more precarious. Either the bond defaults or it doesn’t. Having the potential for an 75% loss, while earning an average 5-7% annual yield, is dangerous game. Everything is fine until you have a default. A single loss can wipe out years of interest payments. That’s why I generally don’t want to buy individual high yield bonds for my clients.

The quoted yield of 5-7% for high yield bonds does not reflect that some of those bonds will default. If you consider a 2-4% default rate, your net return might be more like 3-5%. That’s the High Yield Trap. Your actual returns often fall short of the quoted yield.

High Yield bonds are issued by companies. Stocks are companies. If companies do poorly – really poorly – both the stocks and bonds can get walloped at the same time. That’s the opposite of diversification. We want bonds to hold up well when our stocks are doing poorly. In finance jargon, we would say that there is a high correlation between high yield bonds and stocks. We want a low correlation.

Instead of High Yield?

What I would suggest, if suitable for an investor, would be a 5-year fixed annuity at 3% today. That would give you a guaranteed rate of return and a guaranteed return of your principal. That’s not super exciting, but it’s what investors need from fixed income: stability and dependable income. Don’t buy bonds for speculation. And above all else, Bonds should avoid the possibility of massive losses.

Be wary of the High Yield Trap. The yields appear attractive in today’s super low interest rate environment. But let’s be careful and not take unnecessary high risks. All bonds are not created equal. When you reach for yield, you are taking on more risk. Defaults have the potential to drag down your performance in a fund. In individual bonds, they could almost wipe out your original investment.

High Yield bonds are not inherently bad. If you bought at the bottom in 2009, they recovered very well. But I am very concerned that today’s yields are actually not high enough to compensate for the potential risk of defaults. We’ve already started to see corporate bankruptcies in 2020 and it’s possible we will have above average defaults in the near future. Until we have a real fire sale in high yield bonds, I’d rather stay away.

We will discuss ways of improving your yield next week. Yes, it’s a low interest rate world, but there are ways we can incrementally improve your portfolio while maintaining good credit quality. We will also discuss financial planning strategies for low rates in an upcoming post. If you’d like a free evaluation of your portfolio, to better understand your risks, please send me a message for an online meeting.

Have stocks risen too fast?

Have Stocks Risen Too Fast?

Many investors today are asking, Have stocks risen too fast? We’ve had a terrific rebound off the lows of March and US stock indices are largely back in positive territory for the year. It has been quite a roller-coaster ride.

Unfortunately, uncertainty about Coronavirus remains high. We have neither a cure nor do we have the contagion under control in the US. The economic fallout from unemployment, consumer spending, and falling corporate profits remains unknown. It’s easy to make a case that the stock market has gotten ahead of itself and is being too optimistic.

That could be the case. But we shouldn’t be surprised that stocks are up. The stock market is a leading economic indicator. Traders are betting on things that they expect to happen, not waiting to respond to things that have already happened. Yes, the market is pricing in things improving. And if the market is wrong, stocks could respond negatively.

What should investors do? Run for cover? Buy gold and guns? No, I don’t think we should attempt to time the market. Trades based on what we think might happen in the next 12 or 24 months are not likely to add any value, in my opinion.

While our approach is focused on long-term results, I do not think investors should be complacent today. There are steps we are taking, without trying to bet on the short-term direction of stocks. Here are six strategies:

Stock Strategies for Today

  1. Rebalance. When there’s a big move in the market, up or down, rebalance to your original allocation. This creates a process to buy low and sell high.
  2. Re-examine your risk profile. Did the March collapse make you realize that your portfolio is too aggressive? If so, let’s take a closer look at your overall risk profile. This shouldn’t be guesswork. We use FinaMetrica, a leading Psychometric evaluation tool, to measure each client’s risk tolerance. If you should be less aggressive, now is a good time to make trades. Not when there is panic like March.
  3. Consider your return requirement. Two people could have the same risk tolerance. But if one has $100,000 and the other has $2 million, it is possible that they need different returns to meet their goals. One might need growth and the other might favor more stability and income. You only need to get rich once.
  4. Add alternative sources of return. The more we can diversify your portfolio, the better. Investments that have a lower correlation to stocks and less volatility can help create a smoother overall performance. That’s why we have taken the time to educate our clients about investments such as Preferred Stocks and Convertible Bonds.
  5. Look to lagging parts of the stock market. US Large Cap Growth is leading the rebound since March. Other areas are not yet back to even. For example, international stocks, or US Mid Cap Value. Today, some parts of the market are more expensive than others. If all you are doing is buying the best recent performers, you are looking in the rear view mirror. Instead, look at the fundamentals. Which stocks are less expensive today and a better relative value going forward?
  6. Lower your expense ratio. If your expected return on stocks is less today, a lower expense ratio will help you keep more of the market’s returns. That’s a big advantage of Index Funds. But we also like actively managed funds from companies like Vanguard, who recognize the importance of low costs.

Fixed Income

As you are worrying if stocks have risen too fast, don’t neglect your fixed income. Yields are way down in 2020. The good news is that the price of bonds has risen, which has helped your portfolio. Now, the problem is that people aren’t looking at the current yields. Money markets are yielding 0.01%. The five year Treasury Bond was at 0.22% this week. Your Investment Grade bond fund may be at 1.25% or less.

What worked in fixed income over the last 1-2 years is unlikely to produce much return going forward. We have ideas to upgrade the yields on your fixed income – from cash to intermediate bonds – while maintaining your credit quality and risk. That won’t have any impact on what stocks do, but your fixed income can create safety and income that gives you a smoother portfolio result.

The fact is that no one knows if stocks have risen too fast. It’s unknowable. We should resist the temptation to try to time the market today. We prefer to focus on what we can control: our asset allocation, good diversification, implementing portfolio alternatives, and keeping expenses and taxes low.

2020 RMDs

2020 RMDs Fixed

At the end of March, the CARES Act waived 2020 RMDs (Required Minimum Distributions) from retirement accounts. This will help people who do not need to take distributions. They can leave their IRAs alone and not be forced to take a taxable withdrawal while the market is down.

Unfortunately, this change created a couple of problems. People could have started their 2020 RMDs as early as January 1, but the waiver didn’t occur until late March. Some people set up monthly distributions from their IRA, but can only put back one, due to the rules regarding 60-Day Rollovers. Later, the IRS said that if you took a withdrawal between February 1 and May 15, you could put it back before July 31. But that left out people who took RMDs in January.

This week, the IRS corrected both of those situations with IRS Notice 2020-51. The ruling will provide relief for anyone who wants to put back their RMDs taken after January 1. You have until August 31 to roll them back into your IRA. Also, if you took multiple withdrawals, you can put them all back. That’s because this one-time rollover is not going to be considered a 60-Day Rollover. (You con only do ONE 60-day rollover in a 365 day period.)

Also, Inherited IRAs (Stretch or Beneficiary IRAs) were never allowed to do 60-day rollovers. Under this week’s ruling, if you had taken your RMD from an Inherited IRA, you can put now return the money to the account through August 31. Unprecedented!

As a reminder, the age for RMDs increased to 72, from 70 1/2, last year. It’s good that the IRS has provided relief from the quagmire Congress created with CARES Act changes in March. So, if you don’t want to take an RMD, you don’t have to. And now you can reverse your RMDs if you had already started.

Planning Opportunities

Currently, tax rates are low, but the Federal rates are supposed to sunset after 2025. So, if you have a choice between paying some taxes now at 12% or 22% that might be better than paying 15%, 25%, or more down the road. Also, if you anticipate needing to take more than your RMD next year, you might be better off spreading that amount over 2020 and 2021, if it will keep you in a lower marginal tax bracket.

Another opportunity afforded by the 2020 RMD waiver is to do a Roth Conversion. If you had planned to pay the taxes on a $50,000 RMD, you could do a $50,000 Roth Conversion instead. Once in the Roth, your $50,000 is growing tax-free with no future RMDs. You paid some taxes at today’s lower rates, and reduced your future RMDs by doing a conversion in 2020.

A Roth Conversion does not count towards your RMD amount. So for people over 72, most never want to do a conversion because they are already paying a lot in taxes on their RMD. It’s best to do conversions after you retire – and are in a low bracket – but before you start RMDs. For people who missed that window, 2020 is the year to do a Roth Conversion.

Retirement Income Expertise

Creating tax-efficient retirement income is our mission and passion. If you want professional advice on establishing your retirement income plan, we can help. Here’s how:

  • We stay informed. Rules regarding your IRAs and 401(k) accounts have actually seen significant changes in the past couple of years.
  • Tools, not guesses. We analyze the likelihood of success of your retirement income plan through MoneyGuidePro. You will create a baseline scenario, which we will monitor and adjust based on market changes.
  • Asset location. Improving tax-efficiency through placing investments which generate ordinary income into tax-deferred accounts, and keeping long-term capital gains and qualified dividends in taxable accounts. Research and select more tax-efficient investment vehicles.
  • Sequence of Withdrawals. Determine the optimal order of withdrawals by account type and asset. Evaluate when you begin Pension payments and Social Security.

I suspect that there are not a lot of my readers who need to put back RMDs from January and are impacted by Notice 2020-51. But, I do have clients in this exact situation, and this type of detailed work is how I can add value to your financial life. Whether you are already retired, soon to be retired, or it’s just a dream at this point, we can create a plan to take you through the steps you need to feel comfortable about retirement.

Investing During Coronavirus

Investing During Coronavirus

Investing during Coronavirus has exposed many flaws in portfolios, investor behavior, and advisor services. There’s a saying that everyone is a genius in bull market. Unfortunately, the previous 10 glorious years in the stock market masked a lot of risks for investors.

Since the March stock market crash, investors are discovering these problems and realizing that their portfolios may need a tune-up. Here are 9 investment pitfalls which were exposed by the Coronavirus.

9 Investment Pitfalls

  1. No Risk Analysis. Don’t wait until a Bear Market to assess what level of risk is appropriate for you and your goals.
  2. No target asset allocation. You can not rebalance if you do not begin with an objective such as a 60/40 or 70/30 allocation.
  3. Not diversified. Being concentrated in individual stocks or sectors can create wildly different results than the overall market. Diversification is valuable.
  4. Changing Direction. In March, investors wanted to sell at the low. However, in hindsight, they should have been buying. Stick with your plan and resist the temptation to time the market.
  5. Performance Chasing. We want to believe that the best strategies in the recent years will remain winners. Evidence, however, suggests that top active funds are unlikely to continue to outperform.
  6. Not using Index Funds. Everytime there is a crisis, I hear the argument that active fund managers can be more defensive than an index fund. However, when I look at industry data, such as SPIVA, the majority of active funds still have worse long-term results than their benchmark.
  7. Ignoring expenses and taxes. We can often create significant savings in expenses and taxes with good planning.
  8. Only focusing on investment returns. Investing is important, but your financial plan should address more. What about your savings rate, debt management, emergency fund, employee benefits, life insurance, estate planning, or college savings goals?
  9. Bad service from an advisor. Are you getting rebalancing, monitoring, and adjustments to your portfolio? Are you receiving timely financial planning advice? Is your advisor available to meet and able to add value?

Financial Planning Process

What investors need to understand about investing during Coronavirus are the benefits of a financial planning process. There is a science to financial planning and portfolio management. That is to say, there are best practices and important steps which individual investors often miss on their own. We can’t avoid market volatility, but having a disciplined process can make sure you are well prepared to avoid these nine problems.

Read more: Good Life Wealth Management Financial Planning Process

Why Good Life Wealth Management?

  • Fiduciary: our obligation is to place client interests first.
  • Fees, not commissions. Transparent costs means you know exactly what and how we are paid. As a result, we think this better aligns our interests, reduces conflicts of interest, and benefits clients with independent ideas.
  • CFP(R) Professional. Only about 25% of advisors in the industry hold the Certified Financial Planner designation. For more than 30 years, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certification has been the standard of excellence for financial planners. CFP® professionals have met extensive training and experience requirements, and commit to CFP Board’s ethical standards that require them to put their clients’ interests first. That’s why partnering with a CFP® professional gives consumers confidence today and a more secure tomorrow.
  • CFA, Chartered Financial Analyst. The CFA Program provides a strong foundation in advanced investment analysis and real-world portfolio management skills. CFA charterholders occupy a range of investment decision-making roles, typically as a research analyst or portfolio manager. 

When you have an important need, you seek professional advice. Our process is designed to help you achieve your financial goals and avoid the pitfalls that are often not seen until a crisis occurs. Did March reveal some problems with your portfolio and your financial plan? If so, give me a call and we can help you get back on track.

Unplanned Retirement

Unplanned Retirement

With job losses this year reaching 40 million, many Americans are being forced into an unplanned retirement. Maybe they wanted to work until age 65 or later and find themselves out of work at age 60 or 62. Job losses due to Coronavirus layoffs may be the most common reason today. However, many people also enter early retirement due to their health or to care for a spouse or parent.

Each year, the Employee Benefits Research Institute publishes a Retirement Confidence Survey Report. Here are some findings from their 2020 report published in April:

  • 48% of current retirees retired earlier than they had planned. Only 6% retired later than they originally planned.
  • Less than one-half of workers have tried to calculate how much money they will need to live comfortably in retirement.
  • Of workers who reported their employment status would be negatively effected by the Coronavirus, only 39% felt confident that they will have enough money to last their entire life.

Half of all retirees retired at a younger age then they had planned. That statistic has remained very consistent over the years. In the 1991 report, it was 51%. This is a reality that more people should be preparing for. If you want to retire at 65, 70, or “never”, will you be prepared if you end up retiring at 64, 60, or 55? Certainly, if you enjoy your work, keep on working! But sometimes, the choice is not ours and people find themselves in an early, unplanned retirement.

If you have lost your job or just want to be better prepared should that happen, you need to plan your retirement income carefully.

Unplanned Retirement Steps

  1. You should begin with a thorough and accurate calculation of your spending needs. Not what you want to spend but what you actually spend. Determine your health insurance costs until age 65 and for Medicare after age 65, including Part B premiums, and Medicare Advantage or Medigap coverage, and Part D prescription drug coverage. Read more: Using the ACA to Retire Early.
  2. Reduce your expenses. This will require setting priorities and determining where you can do better. Still, there may be some low hanging fruit where you can save money with little or no change in your lifestyle. Read more: Cut Expenses, Retire Sooner
  3. Calculate your sources of retirement income. Read more: When Can I Retire?
  4. Be careful of starting Social Security at age 62. This is very difficult for people to not access “free money”, everyone wants to do it. Be sure to consider longevity risk and the possible benefits of spending investments first and delaying Social Security for a higher payout later. Read more: Social Security, It Pays to Wait
  5. Consider going back to work, even part-time, to avoid starting retirement withdrawals. The more you delay your retirement, the more likely you will not run out of money later. Here’s the math on why: Stop Retiring Early, People!

Be Prepared for the Unexpected

I think the best way to survive an unplanned retirement is to achieve financial independence at an early age. If you could retire at 50, plan to work until 65, and end up retiring at 60, it’s no problem. This requires saving aggressively and investing prudently from an early age. And that’s why retirement planning isn’t just for people who are 64. Retirement planning should also be for people who are 54, or 44, or even 34. Plan well, and an early retirement could be a good thing. It’s your chance to begin a new adventure!

If – surprise! – you do happen to be facing an unplanned retirement, let’s talk. We can help you evaluate your options for retirement income and establish a process and budget. Our retirement planning software can help you make better informed decisions, including when to start benefits, how much you can withdraw, and if you have enough money to last your lifetime.

It certainly is a shock to people when they end up retiring earlier than they had originally planned. However, it is very common and about half of all retirees are in the same situation. Unfortunately, not everyone who has an unplanned retirement will be having the comfortable years they had hoped. Basing your retirement on the assumption that you will work until age 70 or later may not be realistic. It could even set you up for failure if you end up needing to retire early. Whatever your age, retirement planning is too important to not seek professional help.

Adding Convertible Bonds

Adding Convertible Bonds

This week, we are adding Convertible Bonds to our Premiere Wealth Management portfolios. This will shift 2-6 percent of portfolios from equities to our Alternative Investments sleeve. What are convertible bonds and why now?

Convertible bonds and are unique in that they have an option to convert from a bond into shares of stock of a company. Why would you want to do that? Let’s say a $1,000 bond has an option to convert it into 20 shares of stock. That would give a convert price of $50 a share. If the stock price stays at $40 a share, you would just let the bond mature and get back your $1,000 in principal. But if the stock price rises to $60 a share, you could convert your $1,000 bond into 20 shares. Then you could sell the shares for $60 a share, or $1,200. And while you wait, the bond pays interest.

Benefits of Convertible Bonds

Why do companies offer convertible bonds? There are a couple of benefits to the company:

  • Convertible bonds typically pay lower interest rates since there is also potential upside for investors. This saves the company on interest costs versus issuing regular bonds.
  • If the bonds do convert to stock, the company issues new shares and does not have to use cash to pay back the loan. Imagine borrowing $100 million and then paying it off by issuing stock!
  • Compared to issuing new shares right away, a convertible bond delays diluting existing shareholders for several years. The interest expense is deductible for the company, whereas paying a stock dividend would not.

Here are the benefits for investors of convertible bonds:

Other Considerations

What are the risks of convertible bonds?

  • Companies who issue convertible bonds can be lower credit quality, and more than half do not carry a credit rating. Some of these bonds will default.
  • The volatility of convertibles can be closer to stocks than it is to high quality bonds like Treasury Bonds. Once the stock price is above the convert price, the price of the bond will be about as volatile as the stock.

How to invest in Convertible Bonds?

Because Convertible Bonds are closely related to equities, I consider them more of a substitute for stocks rather than fixed income. For this reason, we reduced equities to purchase a Convertible Bond Fund. I would recommend buying a fund rather than individual bonds. The fund can research the credit quality of unrated issuers and will diversify into a large number of bonds.

The fund we are adding has a 27-year track record and a five-star rating from Morningstar. Here is the most recent quarterly fact sheet on the fund. We will invest in the Institutional Share class, which has a lower expense ratio. Typically, investors would need $1 million to buy the institutional shares, but I can buy shares for my clients as a Registered Investment Advisor.

Why now?

We have had a very strong rebound in stocks markets since the lows of March. While there are a lot of reasons for optimism, the economic recovery from the Coronavirus seems to be priced into stocks. Bond yields are near zero, and offer little return potential compared to stocks. In this environment, I would like to add alternative investments that might offer returns better than bonds, but with less downside risk than stocks.

Currently, we have 10% allocated to Alternatives, using Preferred Stocks and a Hedge Fund replication strategy. Adding Convertible Bonds, our target weighting in Alternatives will be to 12-16 percent. No one can predict what markets will do in the near future. What we can do is to diversify our sources of return and risk. We can evaluate which investments have offered effective risk-adjusted returns historically and how they might work today. If you have questions about investing during the Coronavirus, please send me a message.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Investing in convertible bonds carries risk of loss.

Safe Investing During Deflation

Safe Investing During Deflation

How do you begin to think about safe investing during deflation? Last week, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the CPI-U fell 0.8% in April. The Consumer Price Index is a basic measure of inflation and has almost always been positive throughout US History. Deflation is not a good environment for building wealth.

While this could be a temporary blip due to falling energy prices in April, we certainly are not out of the woods from the economic damage of the Coronavirus. With 20.5 million people filing for Unemployment in the last two months, there could be an extended reduction in consumer demand. And we know from Econ 101 that when demand shifts down, there becomes an oversupply of goods, and prices fall. That’s deflation.

I think that any deflation will be temporary and that the global economy will recover. But the amount of time this takes could be anywhere from months to years. And while I am studying projections of the depth and duration of this likely recession, my readers know what I think about expert predictions. They are wildly inaccurate. Trying to time the market based on economic predictions is likely to do worse than staying the course.

Deflation Is Anti-Growth

What might deflation mean for investors? Historically, stocks do poorly during deflationary periods. Commodities and Real Assets also can lose value. If millions of people lose their jobs and income, how are they going to afford a mortgage and buy a house? We know from 2008 that house prices can go down when people cannot buy houses.

No one has a crystal ball to know what will happen next. But, I think investors can and will want to make small adjustments to their investment portfolios because of the possibility of deflation. With the market rebounding incredibly well from the March lows, the upside versus downside potential in the near term has worsened.

It is okay to want to have some of your investments in a safe asset. The challenge that we discussed in the previous blog is that we are near zero percent interest rates today on cash, CDs, and Treasury Bills. While this would technically preserve purchasing power in a deflationary environment, we can do better and should be looking to grow.

Fixed Annuities For Capital Preservation

My suggestion for a safe yield today: fixed annuities. This week, I had a client purchase a 5-year annuity at 2.9%. That is 2.6% higher than a 5-year Treasury bond today (0.307%). Both are guaranteed, yet the annuity gets a bad rap. Sometimes, an annuity is the right tool for the job. Sometimes, it is not. Unfortunately, because some unscrupulous salespeople sold annuities which were unsuitable for the buyers, investors have negative perceptions.

I keep bringing them up because they are an objectively effective fixed income solution that many savers would appreciate. Because I want every investor to make informed decisions, here is what you need to know about Fixed Annuities.

Annuity Basics

  1. An annuity is issued by an insurance company and is a contract between the company and you. There are many flavors of annuities, but the kind I am discussing today are Fixed Annuities, specifically Multi-Year Guaranteed Annuities (MYGAs).
  2. A MYGA has a set term (3, 5, 7, or 10 years commonly) and a fixed rate of return. In this aspect, it behaves similarly to a CD.
  3. An Annuity is a tax-deferred retirement vehicle. You will not pay any taxes on the gains from the annuity, until you withdraw the money. At the end of the term, you can roll into a new annuity and continue to defer the gains. This is called a 1035 Exchange. There are no income restrictions or contribution limits to annuities.
  4. If you withdraw from an Annuity before age 59 1/2, there is a 10% penalty on the gains. Annuities are most popular with investors over 55, but younger people who know they are not going to need the money until retirement can also use a MYGA towards retirement saving. You can invest IRA money (Traditional, Roth, etc.) into an Annuity, too.
  5. There are often large penalties if you withdraw money from an annuity before its term is complete. For this reason, it is very important to have other sources of liquid assets. That way you can remain in the annuity for the full term.
  6. What happens if an Insurance Company fails? Annuities are insured at the State level by a mandatory Guaranty Association. In Texas, all insurers pay premiums to the Texas Guaranty Association, which protects annuity holders up to $250,000. This information is for educational purposes only and is not an inducement to buy insurance. If you have more than $250,000 to invest, spread your money over several insurance companies to stay under the covered limit.

How to Use MYGAs

A MYGA is a good substitute for a bond or bond fund. They offer safety and capital preservation, but with a higher rate of return than cash, CDs, or T-Bills available today. While there are some corporate and municipal bonds with higher yields, they are generally not guaranteed and carry risk that the issuer could default and be unable to pay. That’s especially a problem during deflation, as bankruptcies could increase significantly, causing losses to bondholders.

The main trade-off with MYGAs is the lack of liquidity. We want to keep annuity purchases to a reasonable size. I also recommend creating a 5-year ladder, where you divide your total investment into 5 pieces which will mature in 1,2,3,4, and 5 years. Then in each subsequent year, you will have access to 20% of your investment, should you need it. And what you don’t need, you can reinvest into a new 5-year annuity at the top of the ladder.

Lastly, for transparency, Annuities pay a commission. If someone purchases a MYGA from me, the insurance company will pay me a commission on the sale. I generally view commissions as a conflict of interests. However, I’d point out that a 2.9% yield on a MYGA is the net return to the investor.

There are no investment advisory fees for Annuities. For some reason, I don’t hear very many Investment Advisors mentioning that to their clients when they bash Annuities! I want what is going to be best for you. If that’s an annuity, fine, and if not, that’s fine too. The minimum investment on most annuities is $10,000, but if you have a smaller amount, let me know.

Stay Diversified, Increase Safer Positions

Safe investing during deflation can be a challenge. Low interest rates aren’t helping investors. I will continue to recommend diversified portfolios which may have 50% or more in stocks for long-term investors. Still, there is a role for safe investments for most portfolios, and many people may want to have more safe investments. They offer ballast against the risk of stocks and the diversification can give a smoother trajectory to your overall return.

Given the strong rebound we have had from the March 2020 crash, this may not be a bad time to reevaluate your risk profile. If that thought process has you wondering about safe investing during deflation, lets talk about MYGAs. I am an independent agent and can offer annuities from many different companies to find you the best features and rate for your needs.

Coronavirus Market

Coronavirus Market Update

As we enter the seventh week of shut-downs, we are going to share our Coronavirus Market Update. Let’s look at the numbers and talk about stocks, unemployment, interest rates, oil prices, and government assistance programs.

1. Market rebound

From a low of 2237 on the S&P 500 Index on March 23, we are up 27% to 2836 as of Friday’s close. This is a remarkable bounce. Now the market is down only 12% year to date. I have a couple of thoughts on this:

  • The rebalancing trades I placed in March consisted of selling bonds and buying stocks. Overall, those trades have been profitable and beneficial for clients. At the time, it did not feel good to buy stocks in the midst of such carnage. Rebalancing is usually a contrarian action; we buy when markets are down and sell when markets are up.
  • If you thought the best move in March was to bail out and increase cash, it didn’t work. The market bottom will often be significantly ahead of an economic bottom. The market is a leading indicator. You won’t get an All-Clear to come back into the market.
  • Was that THE bottom? Will we retest lows? I don’t know and it is not predictable. We have up come very far, very fast and as I will discuss below, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of the economic fallout. The market has had a 26% move in a month and I am going to rebalance again. Because we made deliberate trades in March, some portfolios may now be overweighted in stocks after this quick rebound. Those trades will happen this week.

2. Unemployment

There have been 26 million unemployment claims since the start of the Coronavirus. Approximately one out of six workers have been laid off and this number excludes most independent contractors. A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston projects that 18% of homeowners and 36% of renters in New England will be unable to make their housing payments.

These levels of unemployment have not been seen since the Great Depression, when unemployment reached 24% in 1933. This will have a ripple effect on consumer spending, defaults on loans, mortgages, and credit cards, the auto industry, real estate prices, and so on. For the economy, this will likely have an impact for at least 12-18 months.

Markets go up when there are more buyers than sellers. That’s it. So, the action over the past month tells you that there is money on the sidelines, in spite of rising unemployment. The wealthy are less wealthy, but they are rebalancing and looking for profits in a strong market. They are also bargain shopping for great companies which may have been trading at multi-year lows in the past month.

3. Oil prices

This week, massive options selling coupled with no buyers caused the May futures contracts for Crude Oil to sink into negative prices. With people not travelling, demand for oil has plummeted. A few countries have flooded the market with oil and current daily production exceeds demand by 20 million barrels a day. Luckily, Texas is more diversified today than just oil companies, but oil companies are taking a hit.

Oil Companies which have borrowed a lot of money for expansion or acquisition are in trouble and may fail. This is creating fear in the bond market, where the spreads on corporate bonds have widened significantly. At the beginning of the year, corporate bonds were trading at yields very close to Treasuries. Not so today, and that creates opportunity to buy bonds of companies with strong balance sheets.

4. Interest Rates

Treasury bill interest rates fell to zero last month, to match zero rates in Europe and Japan. Today, those levels have increased slightly, but remain around 0.13% to 0.20% for maturities of two years or less. Take aways:

  • You can’t fund your retirement with Treasury bonds today – the returns are too low. These rates are way below historical inflation, and even if we are in deflation for the next year, the returns just don’t work with most people’s required rate of return in their retirement projections.
  • You can move from Treasuries to CDs to Fixed Annuities to increase your yield while maintaining a guaranteed, safe return. Treasury rates are being manipulated by Central Banks. As governments take on trillions of new debt, they somehow become a safer credit and their interest rate falls to zero? This is not what a free-market looks like and it is penalizing the heck out of savers and retirees.
  • Individual investors will choose not to own Treasuries. The Fed wants to push investors out of risk-free assets and into risky assets like stocks or real estate.

5. Government Programs

Individuals have been receiving their $1200 stimulus checks. Many small businesses who applied for the Paycheck Protection Program have been shut out as demand for those loans greatly exceeded the $349 Billion allocated. I’ve heard that only companies who applied on the very first day received funds. Apparently, the Treasury favored community banks and therefore you were actually less likely to receive the loan if you applied through one of the large national banks. However, if you have an application pending, Congress is going to fund further loans. Thank you to everyone who reached out to me to discuss their PPP application.

The SBA also offered the Emergency Income Disaster Loans (EIDL). They announced a week ago that they were no longer accepting applications. I applied for this program about 18 days ago and still have not received a reply. They originally said applicants would receive the money in three days. I sent an email about my application and received back a form letter saying they were still processing applications in the order received. Hopefully, this will work! If you applied for any government assistance for your business, please shoot me an email and let me know where things stand for you.

Final Thoughts

The market has had a great rebound in April and it is a big relief. Losses have been cut by 2/3 and many investors have been buying. From my perspective, investors seem less panicked this year than they were in 2000 or 2008. As a result, most have understood that they need to ride things out and that this will pass.

We rebalanced in March and that worked well. It is part of our discipline and we will look at rebalancing again now that we have recovered 26%. This will be done on a portfolio by portfolio basis and will include a careful examination of the tax implications of any trades. Most of the March trades harvested losses, so we can now realize short-term gains up to those levels.

The economy clearly isn’t out of the woods. Unemployment will probably increase in May. These numbers will grow and many families are going to have to tighten their belts. There is a tremendous amount of government support being directed at impacted industries and small businesses. Hopefully, those funds will start to reach companies soon. Investors need to be patient and have a disciplined plan. We will continue to focus on your long-term success and look at ways to reduce unnecessary risk.

Stimulus Payments to Business Owners

Stimulus Payments to Business Owners

As part of the $2 Trillion CARES Act, there are three programs to provide Stimulus payments to business owners. Unlike the 2008 crisis, this time the government is not bailing out the big banks and Wall Street. Instead, Washington is sending cash to self-employed people and small business owners. They are shoveling money out the door to help you pay your bills, keep your workers paid, and still have a business when we eventually emerge from the Coronavirus shutdown. The scale of this is unprecedented and you should make sure to get your share.

We are going to look at three specific programs and give you links to find more information and apply. The three stimulus payments to business owners include: the Paycheck Protection Program, Employee Retention Tax Credit, and the SBA Disaster Grant. You may be eligible for some or all of these programs.

What if you are self-employed or an Independent Contractor, but not a corporation, LLC, or other entity? You are still a business even if you are the only employee. If you file a Schedule C, you have a business. If you have questions, here’s my contact info.

Paycheck Protection Program

The Paycheck Protection Program is providing $349 Billion in loans to small businesses. These loans are designed to keep employees on the payroll and off unemployment. The loans are forgivable. The government doesn’t want you to pay them back, as long as you spend the money to pay employee salaries and benefits in the next eight weeks.

The PPP is available to businesses from 1 to 500 employees. The Small Business Administration (SBA) guarantees the loans, which will be provided through 1700 Banks and Credit Unions. Your bank is probably already an SBA lender. Technically, the PPP is a 2-year loan at 0.50% interest. Payments are not required for six months. If you spend the loan on allowable expenses within 8 weeks, then the loan will be forgiven. You also have to keep the same number of employees and not reduce payroll during this period. The loan forgiveness will be non-taxable. Steps:

  1. Apply for the loan at your bank using Model Application (link below).
  2. Spend the loan in the following eight weeks on payroll, benefits, and rent.
  3. Apply for loan forgiveness and document that the funds were spent as intended.

You must state on the application that your business was impacted by the Coronavirus and you need this money to meet payroll and expenses. This is easy. Most businesses are “non-essential” and were required to close in your area due to the shelter in place rules. Even if you stayed open, you may have had supply disruptions, or other negative impacts to you business.

Loan Amount and Application

The application provides instructions to calculate your loan amount. You are eligible to borrow two and one-half months of payroll, up to $10 million. Payroll includes gross pay plus taxes. Salary eligible for loan forgiveness is capped to $100,000 per person annually.

Then over the next eight weeks, you can spend the loan on payroll, payroll taxes, employee benefits, including health insurance premiums, retirement plan contributions, and sick leave or vacation. You can also spend the money on rent or mortgage interest for your business property (if you have a store or office, for example). Non-payroll expenses cannot exceed 25% of the total.

Eligible businesses includes corporations and LLCs, but also includes non-profit organizations, sole proprietors, and those who are self-employed or independent contractors. Many businesses can apply for the loan starting on April 3, 2020, and Independent Contractors can apply starting April 10. The program will close once the $349 Billion is gone. Don’t delay!

Here is the required application for the Paycheck Protection Program. Your bank should accept this paperwork for the loan. The SBA is paying all the application or service fees for the loan, so it costs you nothing. If you have a business account at Chase, apply here to get in their queue.

Employee Retention Credit

If you own a business with multiple employees, such you should also know about the Employee Retention Tax Credit. It’s another part of the CARES Act. To qualify, you must have either been temporarily closed down due to local regulations or have your gross receipts fall by 50% this quarter versus last year. For business owners with lower income or part time workers, it may be better to use the Employee Retention Credit rather than the PPP. You have to choose one or the other: if you take the PPP you are ineligible for the Employee Retention Credit.

The Employee Retention Credit is for 50% of income per employee up to $10,000 a year. So the maximum tax credit is $5,000 per employee for 2020. Now if your employees will make less than $5,000 in 2.5 months but more than $10,000 for the rest of the year, you would be better off with the ERC versus the PPP. The ERC is not available to self-employed individuals and will apply to income from March 12, 2020 to the end of the year. Full details and eligiblity here on the IRS Website.

In general, I think the PPP is the better option for most businesses, but it would not hurt to run the numbers. Calculate if the Employee Retention Credit would provide you with more funds. Of course, you won’t get the tax credit until you file your 2020 taxes next year. If you need the funds to meet payroll now, then you need the PPP. The ERC is not available to self-employed or sole proprietors.

SBA $10,000 Disaster Grant

The third of the stimulus payments to business owners from the CARES Act is the SBA Disaster Loan program. The full name is the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan Application. They have expanded the eligibility to all businesses. You are technically applying for a loan. As part of the loan application, they will advance your business $10,000 of the loan. This is not called a “grant” on the SBA application, even though the CARES Act calls it a grant, so it can be confusing. They will direct deposit the funds into your business account within a week. The $10,000 Grant does not have to be repaid, but if you borrow more than the $10,000, the rest would have to be repaid. You’re not going to believe this, but even if the SBA does not approve your loan, you still get to keep the $10,000.

You can apply online at the SBA website here; it should take less than 20 minutes. On page one, they ask questions about your business eligibility for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program. Most will check the first line: “Applicant is a business with not more then 500 employees.” That qualifies you for the grant, even if you are the only employee.

Next, you will certify that you are not in a disqualifying business (i.e. porn). Third, you will give information about your business, including EIN, gross revenues and cost of goods sold for the 12 months to January 31, 2020. Fourth, information about the owner and the bank information for the deposit. Towards the end of the application, there is a box to check if you want to be considered for a $10,000 advance on the loan. CHECK THIS BOX. This advance is the $10,000 grant under the CARES Act. After you submit, it will give you an application number. Print this page or write it down. You do not receive an email confirmation, but you will be notified of the decision by email.

Which to Choose?

Technically, you can apply for both the SBA disaster grant and the PPP. However, they will subtract the disaster grant from your PPP forgiveness amount. The primary reason to do the disaster grant instead of the PPP is if your PPP would be under $10,000. If you need additional loans beyond the PPP’s two months of funding, do both applications. Also, you can apply for the Disaster Grant right now online whereas most banks are struggling to get ready for the PPP application.

Don’t delay in applying for stimulus payments for business owners. There are limited funds in place and some of these programs are first come, first served. I’ve spoken with some clients who are reluctant to take a bailout of their business and are prepared to tough it out. With everyone going to shelter in place, the economy is grinding to a halt. And when you have a service economy, that’s a catastrophic problem. So, please take the money and use it. Pay your employees. Keep buying stuff. Keep funding your retirement accounts. And of course, replenish your emergency fund or increase it. If you don’t need the money, make a donation to your favorite local charity, because they are also hurting from the shutdown.