Avoiding Another 2008 for Pre-Retirees

In 2008, the S&P 500 Index was down a whopping 37%. Other stock indices and many mutual funds did even worse. Perhaps the worst part of the 2008 crash was that diversification didn’t work. Correlations went to 1. You couldn’t hide out in international stocks, or small cap, or high yield bonds. They all went down. With today’s global economy, if the US catches a cold, the rest of the world becomes very sick. This is bad news for investors who thought they were safe by diversifying globally.

Since 2009, the market has been up. Just like Autumn turns to Winter, there will undoubtedly be another recession and bear market for investors in the future. On average, bear markets occur every 5-6 years, so many argue that we are already overdue. While we don’t know when this will ultimately occur, it’s not a matter of “predicting” a bear market, but being prepared.

If you’re a long-term investor, you can recover from years like 2008. In fact, it’s an opportunity to buy more shares while they are on sale. All that matters to you is that the returns are strong over the next decade or longer. However, if you were planning to retire in 2009, a year like 2008 can potentially derail your plans. Whether your retirement strategy involves a 4% withdrawal rate, buying an annuity, or investing for income, taking a 37% hit to your principal will certainly impact the amount of retirement income you can generate from your portfolio.

Even worse off were the people who retired in 2007, because they didn’t have the option of delaying retirement. If you retired with $1 million on January 1, 2007, and took withdrawals of 4% ($40,000 a year), you would have ended 2008 with less than $600,000 if you had invested in an S&P 500 Index fund.

There is a crucial window from 5 years before retirement to 5 years into retirement, when a large drop could have a major impact on your retirement success. Even if the market later rebounds, as it always has historically, retirees have the risk that their withdrawals could deplete their shares and they are still unable to recover. Financial planners call this sequence of returns risk.

We are starting a new portfolio model specifically to address sequence of returns risk by investing in a portfolio with significantly lower volatility. Our new Defensive Managers Select portfolio uses institutional funds with a disciplined quantitative or fundamental process to invest with less risk. Our aim is to approximate the return of a 60/40 portfolio, but with with much lower price fluctuation, as measured by standard deviation. We use funds which have a demonstrated track record of delivering low volatility, smaller magnitude of losses, and consistent positive returns.

The portfolio can include active managers, low volatility ETFs, alternative strategies, and cash. Portfolios will typically own 4-8 different funds, which gives us diversification of manager and style, in addition to stock and bond diversification. How did these funds do in 2008? While the S&P 500 Index was down 37%, three of our allocation funds were down 9.8%, 4.6%, and 0.5%. Although past performance is no guarantee of future results, we believe that having a disciplined risk strategy is better than not having any strategy and simply taking market results.

Defensive Managers Select takes a different approach than our traditional Premier Wealth Management portfolios. The Premier Wealth Management portfolios remain our recommended solution for accumulation and for investors who do not require withdrawals within five years. These portfolios use passive strategies, which are very low cost, tax efficient, and I believe will deliver superior long-term results for investors. Implicit in being invested in a passive strategy is that you have the time and resources to remain invested if the market ever takes another 37% plunge.

The Defensive Managers Select portfolio is not designed to beat the market. Most managers do not beat the market over time, and track records have no predictive accuracy as to which funds will beat the market going forward. What is more consistent is volatility. We are buying those funds with a style, process, and track record of low volatility. Pre-retirees don’t need to hit home runs, they just need to make sure that they aren’t going to be wiped out in the next bear market.

No one wants to think about another downturn, but there’s old saying that “the best time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining”. If you are within 5 years of retirement, don’t wait until there is a big drop to decide to shift your portfolio strategy to a more conservative posture. If you wait, you are just locking in your losses and diminishing your chances of recovery. The market is up this year, and the sun is shining. Now is the right time to adopt a defensive strategy.

Let’s schedule a call to talk about your income requirements and retirement goals. I don’t see a lot of other firms offering truly defensive retirement strategies, or making any distinction between accumulation and retirement objectives. This is a unique approach and one which I am happy to compare to what you are doing today. If the possibility of a bear market, or God forbid, another 2008, would hurt your retirement, let’s address that risk before it occurs.

Please note that the objective of this investment strategy is growth and not preservation of capital. While our goal is low volatility, that is no guarantee that losses will not occur.

6 Ways to Reduce Stock Market Risk


We had a roller coaster ride this past week in the market. Last Monday, the Dow dropped nearly 1000 points as investors spooked from the previous Friday’s sell-off sold positions en masse. By Friday, however, the major indices recouped their losses and several even finished slightly ahead for the week. Anyone who sold during Monday’s mayhem locked in their losses and lost out on the subsequent rebound.

No one can predict what the stock market will do in the future, so I genuinely believe it is futile to respond to this week’s activity by making trades. The media has detailed the concerns which “caused” the market to drop this week, but there are always going to be reasons which drive the short-term gyrations of markets. This noise can distract investors from staying focused on their financial goals.

After an extended period of low volatility, a tough week often raises questions about how much risk is in your portfolio and how a downturn might impact your ability to fulfill your financial objectives like retirement. Before we invest, we have all our clients take the FinaMetrica risk assessment to better understand your personal beliefs and comfort with taking risk. Given the choice, we’d all prefer to have less risk in our portfolios. The reality, however, is that the reason stocks outperform other asset classes is that stocks provide a risk premium – that is a higher rate of return – in exchange for the volatility and unpredictable path of their results.

I am always interested in ways of reducing risk. While I think investors will have the highest long-term return by embracing risk intelligently with a diversified, index allocation, the most important factor is actually each investor’s behavior. If you aren’t willing to stay invested through the inevitable ups and downs of the market cycle, you are likely to greatly hurt your performance. The most important part of my job is educating investors and encouraging them to stick with the plan.

Investors want options and we are happy to suggest ways to reduce risk. Below are six ideas to reduce price volatility in your equity portfolio. Just bear in mind that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” While each of these approaches can reduce risk, some may reduce your return as well. The first three strategies can be applied to a traditional portfolio; the second three options are slightly more unusual and may be unfamiliar to most investors.

  1. Diversify. This is the most basic step, but forgetting this can be a big mistake. If you are investing in individual stocks, you are taking on specific risks that those positions could implode. This is an uncompensated risk which we can avoid entirely by investing broadly across the whole market. Over time, the majority of stock pickers fail to outperform the index. We prefer to invest in index exchange traded funds (ETFs). Diversification doesn’t always work quite as planned, but having non-correlated holdings improves the likelihood that when one category is down that other categories can offset or reduce those losses.
  2. Increase your bond allocation. The biggest impact you can have on your overall portfolio risk is by changing your asset allocation. We run five model portfolios: Conservative (35% equities/65% fixed income), Balanced (50%/50%), Moderate (60%/40%), Growth (70%/30%), and Aggressive (85%/15%). If you want to shift to an allocation with less risk, the best time to change would be when the market is up. Be careful, because you are most likely to want to change at a market bottom, which is exactly the wrong time to become more conservative!
  3. Consider Low Volatility ETFs. I’ve written about these previously. A Low Volatility ETF selects stocks from an index, but instead of weighting the positions by market capitalization, it weights the positions to emphasize the stocks with the lowest volatility. Historically, this process can produce a similar long-term return as a regular index, but with a somewhat less bumpy ride. How have they done recently? Over the past month, the iShares USA Minimum Volatility ETF (USMV) is down 2.72%, versus the iShares S&P 500 (IVV), which is down 4.80%. Year to date, USMV is up 0.83% versus IVV which is down 2.08%. In this time frame, the low volatility fund has been more defensive. However, you should expect a low vol strategy to under perform a traditional index fund in a bull market. For example, over the past three years, USMV’s annualized return of 13.59% has lagged IVV’s return of 14.50%. (Source: Morningstar.com as of August 28, 2015)
  4. Bond + Options. Instead of buying an ETF that invests in the market, we can buy an option on the ETF or index. If you had $100,000 to invest in the S&P 500, we would purchase a zero coupon bond that would mature at $100,000 in several years. This bond would trade at a discount, say for $93,000. With the remaining $7,000, we would purchase an option on the S&P 500. At the end of the term, if the market was down, the option would expire worthless. However, you’d still get $100,000 back from the maturity of the bond and not lose any money. That’s a lot better than if you had put your $100,000 into an ETF, in which case, you could be down 30% or more. If the market was up, you’d receive the $100,000 from the bond and a gain from option on the index. While I love the simple elegance of this approach, there are three important considerations: i. With today’s low interest rates, the cost of bonds is quite high, leaving very little money to purchase an option. As a result, your option may not provide the same return as investing directly in the market. In other words, if the market was up 10%, your options may not return $10,000. ii. While this strategy eliminates stock market risk, it does introduce credit risk that the issuer of the bond defaults. iii. The option’s return will include price appreciation, but not dividends, so you will miss out on approximately 2% of yield that you would receive from investing in an ETF.
  5. Equity-Linked CD. This is an FDIC insured CD, but instead of paying a fixed rate of return (like 2%), the return is based on the performance of an equity index, such as the S&P 500. If the market goes down, you are guaranteed to get your original principal back. Even if the bank goes bust, your CD is insured by the FDIC like a regular CD. Before you get too excited about this option, let me explain that you do not get the full start-to-finish return of the index. Rather they have a formula to calculate the CD return. For example, a common approach for a 5-year CD is to add up the 20 quarterly returns of the S&P 500, subject to a cap of 5% per quarter. This sounds good, but there are three caveats: i. If the market is up 20% in a quarter, you only get credit for 5%. But if the market is down 20%, that is a minus 20% counted towards the sum. ii. Since this approach adds quarterly returns instead of multiplying, you miss out on compounding. iii. Again, no dividends. An Equity-Linked CD is not redeemable during the term, so your return is not guaranteed if you do not hold to maturity.
  6. Equity Indexed Annuity (EIA). Unlike the CD above where the return is unknown until the end of the term, most EIAs post a return annually using a “point to point” method. Typically this includes a cap on the annual return, and a floor of zero, so there are no negative years. These can be even more confusing than the CDs, however, because to access those returns and receive your money there may be withdrawal restrictions, surrender charges, and other complex rules. An annuity may work for someone who is close to retirement or in retirement and needing income with less market risk. For a younger investor, an annuity may not be the best fit.

The longer your time horizon, the less you should be concerned about short-term market volatility. We can implement any of these approaches for our investors and we’re happy to help you weigh your options to make the right choice for you. However, we don’t usually recommend numbers 4 through 6, because they’re likely to have a lower return. Let’s say that over 5 years, the market returns 8% a year, but one of these defensive strategies might only return 5%, because of no dividends (-2%) and because of caps or other weighting mechanisms (-1%). And over 5 years, that 3% difference in return on a $100,000 portfolio would make the difference between growing to $127,628 versus $146,923. What seems like just a small trade-off in performance becomes significant over time.

Risk may be a four-letter word, but you may be better served to think of risk as opportunity. This past week was a reminder that stock prices do go up and down, often randomly and sometimes quite painfully. This part of being an investor is challenging and frustrating, but also largely unimportant over time and out of our control. We are wiser to focus on the things we can control, including our saving, being diversified, and keeping costs and taxes to a minimum.

Get Off the Sidelines: 3 Ways to Put Cash to Work


I know there are many investors who have a lot of cash on the sidelines. They may have raised cash fearing a pullback in 2014. Or maybe they made contributions to their IRA and didn’t invest the money because the market was at or near a high. Others sold positions once they reached their price targets and have been sitting in cash ever since.

Looking at today’s valuations, it’s a lot tougher to find bargains that seemed plentiful a few years ago. Unfortunately, holding cash cost investors plenty last year, when the S&P 500 Index was up more than 13%. And that’s the problem with trying to time the market with your purchases: you can miss a lot of upside by being on the sidelines, even if you’re out for a relatively short period.

If you have a significant level of cash in your portfolio that will not be needed in the next couple of years, it probably makes sense to put your cash to work. And while there’s no guarantee (ever) that the market will be higher in a month or a year from now, that’s the uncertainty that we have to accept in order to make more than the risk-free rate over time.

I can understand that putting a lot of cash to work at once is daunting when the market is up like it is today. So rather than thinking in black and white terms of all-in or all-out, let’s consider three strategies to help you get that excess cash invested prudently.

1. Dollar Cost Average. We invest in three tranches, 90 days apart, investing 1/3 of the cash position each time. This gives us the advantage of getting an average price over time. If prices drop, we can pick up more shares at a lower price.

Dollar Cost Averaging worked well in the second half of 2014, as we had cash to invest in October when the market was down 7%. Of course, there are also times when the market rises, and the lowest prices were available at the first trade date. In that case, Dollar Cost Averaging can increase your average cost basis.

2. ETF Limit Orders. One of the advantages of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) compared to Mutual Funds is the ability to use limit orders. If you believe there might be a pullback in 2015, place a limit order to buy ETFs at a set price or percentage below the current values.

For example, if you think there might be an 8% correction, we could set limit orders that are 8% below the current price of each ETF. This way we have a plan in place that will automatically invest cash if the market does in fact drop. Even though there is no guarantee we will have such a drop, this is still a much better plan than saying “Let’s wait and see what happens”, because when the market is down, people don’t feel good about making purchases. And recently, any corrections in the market have been short-lived, so there has been only a small window of opportunity.

3. Use “Low Volatility” ETFs. If the primary concern is market volatility, there are Low Volatility products can help reduce that risk today. These are funds which quantitatively select stocks from a broader index, choosing only the stocks which are exhibiting a lower level of fluctuations and risk. Low volatility funds are available in most core categories today, such as large cap, small cap, foreign stock, and emerging markets.

Over time, a Low Volatility index may be able to offer  similar returns to a traditional index, but with measurably lower standard deviation of returns. These ETFs have been available for only a couple of years, so this belief is largely based on back testing, and there’s no guarantee this strategy will work in the immediate future.

We should also note that a Low Volatility strategy is likely under perform in Bull Markets (think late 90’s, or 2009), and could lag other strategies for an extended period of time. Additionally, Low Volatility does not prevent losses, so the strategy could certainly lose money like any other equity investment in a bear market.

With those caveats in mind, I am happy to use Low Volatility funds if they give an investor some more comfort with their equity positions and the willingness to put cash to work. Time will tell if these funds are successful in achieving their stated objectives, but in my opinion, Low Volatility funds are among the more compelling ideas offered to investors in the past several years.

Each of these three strategies has advantages and disadvantages, and there is no magic solution to the conundrum of how to get cash off the sidelines today. My role is to work with each investor to find the best individual solution to move forward and have a plan to accomplish your personal goals. Luckily, we have a number of tools and techniques available to help address your concerns.