Fundamental Indexing: An Overview

Fundamental Indexing: An Overview

Fundamental indexing, or “smart beta” is an investing buzz word you might have heard before.  It’s an investment strategy similar to index investing, and was introduced about ten years ago.  Since then the strategy has grown to become rather popular.

Generally, when it comes to new and popular investment strategies I run for the hills.  I learned early on that “this time it’s different” are incredibly dangerous words in the investing sphere.

But even though fundamental indexing is a newer strategy, I believe it merits an allocation in a well diversified portfolio.  This post will explain what fundamental indexing is and why I think you should consider using it.

Before diving into fundamental indexing, let’s take a look at where traditional indexing came from.

 

Indexing History

Back in the early 1900s there wasn’t much of a market for stocks.  If you wanted to invest in stocks you had to buy physical certificates from someone who had them on hand.  In the big metropolitan areas like New York there were plenty of people wheeling and dealing these certificates (this is how the New York Stock Exchange started).  But even if you could piece together a decent selection, building a well diversified portfolio was overly difficult.

Then in the late 1920s, the first mutual funds appeared.  Established by Massachusetts Investors’ Trust, investors could buy shares of a diversified investment fund managed by a professional for the first time.

The mutual fund market expanded through the 50s and 60s, and by 1970 there were nearly 250 open ended mutual funds available to investors.  These 250 funds were a far easier way for most people to invest, and billions poured into them from around the globe.

They weren’t without their shortcomings though.  The trouble with mutual funds was that investors were forced to put blind faith into an investment manager’s stock picking ability.  The mutual fund manager may be skilled, or they may not.  And since very few investors could have a face to face or phone conversation with a mutual fund manager, many were not completely sold on the idea.

 

Enter Index Investing

Then in 1971 Wells Fargo Bank started the first index fund.  It was a novel idea.  Rather than trust a stranger to manage your money, you could invest in an index fund that simply replicated a given universe of securities.  S&P 500 index funds simply bought all 500 stocks in the S&P 500.  All the research & analysis a mutual fund manager would undergo to pick superior securities was stripped from the equation.  And since investors didn’t need to pay a mutual fund manager’s salary, index funds were far less expensive.

This was the very idea that John Bogle used to build Vanguard into a massive investment company.  He believed that investors are far better off investing in an index than they are purchasing actively managed mutual funds that attempt to outperform an index.

Bogle also believed that active investment managers were unable to pick outperforming securities (and avoid underperforming securities) on a consistent basis.  Those who did were simply lucky.

The Active vs. Indexing Debate

The debate between which strategy is superior is fierce, and will probably rage on for eternity. Proponents of active management contend that in the long term, skillful mutual fund managers are still able to outperform index investing.  This might be because they are particularly adept at analyzing securities or the market, or because they have some other type of advantage.

Like Bogle, those arguing in favor of indexing claim that managers who outperform an index do so only by luck, and there is no mutual fund manager alive who can consistently outperform their benchmark index. Therefore it makes no sense to incur the additional cost of active management.

Over the last decade or so, the evidence has pointed toward indexing.  Fewer and fewer mutual funds are outperforming their benchmarks.  And along with more low cost investing options, billions of dollars have flown out of actively managed and into index funds in each of the last 10 years.

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IRA Contributions After 70.5

IRA Contributions After 70.5…Can You? Should You?

Recently I had a client in his mid-60s ask me how much longer he’d be allowed to contribute to his IRA.  My client was approaching retirement, but wasn’t planning on drawing from the account until he absolutely needed to.

Since he had other financial resources to draw income from his plan was to let the account grow for as long as possible, thereby delaying tax on the gains.  This meant contributing the maximum amount to his account each year, and only withdrawing funds when forced to by required minimum distributions.

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5 Times a Roth 401k Conversion is a Good Idea

5 Times a Roth 401k Conversion is a Good Idea

Roth IRAs have become one of the most popular ways to build retirement savings over the years.  In fact, they’re so popular that thousands of people clamor every tax season to convert their traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs.

This conversion is one of the most popular financial planning moves, since it can reduce your tax burden and eliminates required minimum distributions (RMDs).

More recently, a new form of Roth account has emerged: Roth 401k plans.  Roth 401k plans are essentially the same alternative to traditional 401k plans that Roth IRAs are to traditional IRAs.  Contributions are made after tax, and gains and withdrawals are tax free.

And with Roth 401k plans on the scene, many sponsors are starting to allow their participants to convert their traditional, pretax 401k balances into Roth, after tax balances.  This transition is known as a Roth 401k conversion.

Roth 401k conversions are not unlike Roth IRA conversions.  The transition will create taxable income, but your assets will never leave your employer’s 401k plan.

Here’s how one might work:

  • Johnny has a $100,000 saved up in his employer’s 401k plan.  He didn’t pay any income tax on his contributions, and they will continue to grow tax free until he starts taking withdrawals.
  • When he starts taking withdrawals after age 59 1/2, he’ll owe income tax on every dollar he takes out of his account.
  • If Johnny were to convert his 401k contribution to Roth contributions, he would owe income tax on the entire $100,000 this year.  His account would continue to grow tax free as it would have otherwise.
  • But, when he begins taking withdrawals down the road, they won’t be taxable income to Johnny.  Essentially, he would be paying his tax burden now instead of later.

Conversions can be appealing.  You pay taxes on the account now, rather than in the future when you might be in a higher bracket.  But the decision is not always so cut and dry.  And since this is a question I get in my practice from time to time, I thought it’d help to share 5 circumstances where a Roth 401k conversion is a good idea.

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Does the 4% Rule Still Work

Does the 4% Rule Still Work?

Recently I had a client come into my office who was concerned about his and wife’s and his retirement.

This client works at a company that sponsors a 401(k), but his wife works for the state and will receive a pension after retiring.  My client was concerned that his 401(k) savings wouldn’t be enough to cover their annual living expenses, after accounting for their pension and social security benefits.

“Do we need to save more?  I’m not sure we could.  We’ve got Danny in college now and our daughter right behind him.  I’m just worried we’ll zero out our savings and have to cut back on spending.”

We talked about how much he was saving in his 401(k), and how much that might amount to in 15 years when they planned to retire.  But really, the crux of my client’s concern was that he’d spend through his savings too fast after they stopped working.

In his financial plan, we’d originally planned for withdrawals of 3.5% of his nest egg per year.  Whatever was left over after he and his wife passed would go to the kids.

“I just think that 3.5% might be too much.  I’ve been reading some pretty negative things about the 4% rule recently.  3.5% just seems too close for comfort.  What’s your take on it?”

 

 

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The Ultimate 7 Step Checklist for Hiring a Financial Advisor

The Ultimate 7 Step Checklist For Hiring a Financial Advisor

A few years back, I had a friend approach me at a BBQ.  He had some questions about how his financial advisor was managing his accounts.

 

Friend: “Yeah, I just don’t know if this guy is doing the right thing for me.  We talk every now and then, he seems like a nice guy, but my portfolio hasn’t really gone anywhere.

Plus, every time we chat he has some brand new investment idea he tries to sell me on.  And every single time, he talks up his new idea like it’s the Michael Jordan of portfolio management.  (My friend is a big NBA fan).  His ideas sound good….I’m just not sure I’m in the right situation.  I feel like there’s more going on behind the scenes that I don’t see, but I don’t know what questions to ask.”

Me: “Well how did you find him?”

Friend: “A coworker recommended him.  Said the guy made him a ton of money a few years ago.”

Me: “How are you paying him?”

Friend: “Well, I’m not really sure.  Everything gets wrapped through the account somehow.”

Me: “OK.  Let’s take a step back.  Maybe it’d help to identify what you’re looking for in an advisor.  If you were starting fresh, what would you like an advisor to help you with?”

Friend:  “Hmmm.  I guess manage my money and help it grow, make sure I’m on track for retirement, and make sure I don’t run out of money after I stop working.”

Me: “So if you were starting from scratch, what qualities would you look for in an advisor?  What criteria would you use?”

Friend:  “I really have no idea.  I’ve never thought of it that way.  Plus there’s about a million financial advisors around here, I get information overload.  I guess I’d go with someone I know and like, and seems to have a good reputation.  What should I be looking for?”

I had to think about my friend’s question for 10 seconds or so.  At the time, I was working at Charles Schwab, but strongly considering starting my own firm.

Me: “I think if I were looking for an advisor, I’d try to find someone who’s competent, trustworthy, unbiased, enjoyable, and looks after for my finances for a fair and transparent price.”

Friend: “Whoa whoa whoa.  Slow down with the laundry list.  That’s a whole lot of stuff I don’t understand.  It sounds GOOD though.  I need to tend the grill, but let’s reconvene in a few minutes.”

Coincidentally, this was one of the very reasons I was considering starting my own firm.  There are about 300,000 professionals in the U.S. today who call themselves “financial advisors” or “financial planners.”  But in my opinion, only a small portion of them have the qualities and service model I’d look for in an advisor.

I’ve had this question come up many times in the years since, and my friend isn’t the only one who’s not sure how to evaluate a potential advisor.  And without knowing what questions to ask, how can you be sure you’re finding someone trustworthy and competent?

Because of this, I thought it’d be helpful to build a checklist you can use to evaluate financial advisors & planners.  If I were looking to hire someone for help with my finances, these are the exact qualities I’d look for and the exact criteria I’d use.  And at the very least, hopefully you’ll be armed with a few good questions to ask.

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How to Analyze a Variable Annuity(2)

How to Analyze a Variable Annuity

Ever had a variable annuity pitched to you?  Maybe you own one.  They’re a popular way for many people to mix guaranteed retirement income with the growth potential of equities.

But I’m guessing even if you hold a variable annuity, you’re not 100% sure how it works.

“What are the annual fees again?”

“How does that bonus period work?”

These were a few of the questions a client asked me recently when he was considering a variable annuity.

**Full disclosure – I do not sell variable annuities** 

This client just wanted a second opinion. He’d recently met with an advisor who pitched him a variable annuity, and wanted input from an objective source.

My client was in a tough position.  He’d just lost his father, and was about to receive a sizable inheritance.  He wanted to use this inheritance to produce income throughout retirement, since he was about to turn 60.

He was skeptical about investing in the markets, fearing that another financial crisis would destroy his nest egg.  At the same time, he struggled with the idea of buying an annuity.  He was attached emotionally to the money since it was coming from his father’s estate, and he didn’t want to fork it over to an insurance company.  On top of that, the annuity he was considering was complicated and confusing, and he was feeling a little lost.

After walking through everything together, my client decided to use some of his inheritance to purchase an annuity – but not the one he was being pitched.  He opted for a fixed rather than a variable annuity, which he bought with a small portion of the money from his father.  He decided to invest the majority of the money in a diversified portfolio geared to produce income.

My client isn’t alone, and I get a lot of questions about variable annuities.  Since they have so many moving parts, I wanted to share exactly how I analyze variable annuities using my client’s contract as an example.

There’s a lot of nonsense floating around the internet when it comes to annuities.  Hopefully this framework is useful to you if you’re considering buying one.

 

American Legacy Annuity Analysis

In this video, I’ll analyze the American Legacy variable annuity offered by Lincoln Financial Group, which my client was considering.  This specific contract is the American Legacy Shareholder’s Advantage annuity, with the i4LIFE Advantage Guaranteed Income Benefit.  I’ll also assume that the Enhanced Guaranteed Minimum Death Benefit (EGMDB) is chosen.

Framework: How a Variable Annuity Works

Before we discuss how to analyze a variable annuity, let’s take a step back and review how they work & where they came from.

Variable annuities have become very popular in the retirement planning industry over the last 25 years.  Essentially, they’re a contract between you and an insurance company that guarantee you a series of payments at some point in the future.

There are two phases in a variable annuity: the accumulation phase and the payout phase.  What’s unique about a variable annuity is that you invest your contributions during accumulation phase – hence the term “variable.”  These investments are known as sub accounts and behave a lot like mutual funds.  They are professionally managed and will follow a specific investment strategy described in a prospectus.

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Employee Stock Options 5 Top Mistakes that Leave Money on the Table

Employee Stock Options: The Top 5 Mistakes That Leave Money on the Table

Employee stock options can be a wonderful form of compensation. Unfortunately, far too many employees leave money on the table when managing them. Here are the top five mistakes you should strive to avoid:

 

1) Underappreciating Tax Liabilities

There are two types of company stock options: incentive stock options (ISOs) and non-qualified stock options (NQSOs). They differ in structure, who they’re offered to, and how they’re taxed. Here’s a good review of both.

In order to maximize the value of a stock option grant, employees should always try to minimize the resulting tax liabilities. Stock options can be tricky creatures from this perspective since the option grant, exercise, and resulting stock sale can all be taxed differently. Exercising ISOs can even subject employees to the alternative minimum tax (cue shudder). Thus, tax minimization should be a focal point of any long term stock option strategy.

 

2) Exercising Options and Selling Shares Immediately

Rather than exercising and selling immediately for a profit, it’s almost always better to exercise employee stock options and hold the shares for at least a year. By doing so, the difference between the sale price and strike price is taxed as a long term capital gain instead of ordinary income.

Since long term capital gains are taxed at lower rates than ordinary income, this can be a big tax saving technique. Also, keep in mind that incentive stock options must also be held for two years after the grant date to qualify as long term capital gains.

 

3) Forgetting About Them Until It’s Too Late

The very worst case scenario is when employees forget about stock option grants and allow them to expire unused. While not nearly as costly, another common mistake is neglecting options until they approach expiration. Allowing the exercise window to close limits your options, thwarting the benefits of a thoughtful long term plan.

Employees should start thinking about their stock option strategy immediately after they’re granted. Starting early leaves you the most flexibility, and the best opportunity to minimize taxes and maximize their value.

 

4) Neglecting Stock Plan Rules Before Resigning

Most companies force employees to exercise stock options upon termination of employment. Normally they have 90 days to take action, but the window varies from place to place.

This window for stock options will also be different than the windows for severance packages and other benefits, making things a bit confusing. Before tendering resignation, be sure to understand your company’s stock plan and set a strategy accordingly.

 

5) Failing to Account for a Merger or Acquisition

Mergers and acquisitions affect employee stock options in several different ways. Sometimes vesting schedules accelerate, while in others the existing company’s shares will be phased out and replaced with the new company’s.

When going through a merger, employees should keep abreast of how management is handling their stock plan, and adjust accordingly. If necessary, pester HR for up to date information. The only way to maximize stock option value is to concoct a strategy with up to date data.

The Ultimate Guide to Early Retirement with Rule 72t Distributions

72t Distributions: The Ultimate Guide to Early Retirement

What’s the most common piece of retirement advice you’ve ever heard?

I bet it has something to do with tax advantaged retirement savings.  Most people are inundated with voices telling them to start saving early and take advantage of tax deferrals.  It’s solid advice.  Saving tax deferred money through IRAs, 401(k) plans, and other retirement vehicles is a wonderful way to grow your wealth over time.  The downside?  Those pesky withdrawal penalties.  The IRS will typically ding you 10% if you withdraw from these accounts before turning 59 1/2.  And if you’re considering an early retirement, this can pose a problem.  Fortunately there are loopholes, including taking 72t distributions in substantially equal periodic payments.

 

Tax Advantaged Savings

 

The IRS wants us to save for retirement.  By allowing us to defer taxes in retirement accounts like IRAs, Roth IRAs, and 401(k)s, the government is essentially begging us to improve our own financial futures.

The catch is that we have to keep our money in these accounts until we reach 59 1/2.  Otherwise we’re hit with a 10% penalty, in addition to income tax.

The IRS does provide 9 ways for us to take withdrawals without incurring the penalty:

  • Take withdrawals after 59 1/2
  • Roll withdrawals into another IRA or qualified account within 60 days
  • Use withdrawals to pay qualified higher education expenses
  • Take withdrawals due to disability
  • Take withdrawals due to death
  • Use withdrawals for a qualified first-time home purchase up to a lifetime max of $10,000
  • Use withdrawals to pay medical expenses in excess of 7.5% of adjusted gross income
  • As an unemployed person, take withdrawals for the payment of health insurance premiums
  • Take substantially equal periodic payments pursuant to rule 72t

But it you’re seeking to retire early, you probably don’t want to wait until 59 1/2. And if this is you, most of the loopholes the IRS provides will not apply.

Except for the final loophole, that is.  Rule 72t allows you to take withdrawals from your qualified retirement accounts and IRAs free of penalty, IF you take them in “substantially equal period payments” over your lifetime.  Here’s how:

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SEC Money Market Reform(2)

SEC Money Market Reform

Since the crisis in 2008, regulators have paid extra attention U.S. financial markets.  Sweeping changes like Dodd-Frank and the Department of Labor fiduciary ruling will change the way Americans save for retirement.  While these two examples have received tremendous media coverage, others haven’t.  SEC money market reform efforts have important implications, but seem to have flown under the radar.  Here’s what you need to know:

 

Background

Money market funds are a type of mutual fund developed in the 70s, which invest in short term fixed income securities. Their objective is two-fold:

  1. Never lose money
  2. Provide a higher yield than interest bearing bank accounts

The money fund market is comprised of three types: government funds, tax exempt funds, and prime funds.  As you can guess, each type describes what securities the fund may invest in.

Government money funds invest in government securities only, and as a result are thought to be the safest of the three types.  Tax-exempt funds invest in municipal securities that are exempt from U.S. federal income tax, while prime funds may invest in both corporate and U.S. government debt. So, while government funds may be safer, prime funds normally offer a higher yield in exchange for slightly more risk.

 

Reserve Primary Fund

Many investors have historically viewed all three types of money market funds as safe alternatives to cash. This view changed during the financial crisis in 2008. At the time, the Reserve Primary Fund was the largest money market fund in America, with assets of over $55 billion.

Being a prime fund, the Reserve Primary invested in an array of corporate debt issues. And in 2008, its portfolio included sizable chunk of securities issued by Lehman Brothers – which wasn’t seen as an overly risky proposition at the time.

As you probably know, the Lehman Brothers investment did not turn out well. Lehman Brothers was in far more trouble than its management let on, and the company eventually went bankrupt and could not repay its debts. This meant the Reserve Primary Fund lost its entire investment in the debt securities, striking a blow to its portfolio value.

 

Breaking the Buck

The hit was large enough to cause the fund to lose money, as its net asset value fell from a stable $1.00 to $0.97 per share. Also known as “breaking the buck,” only three other money funds had lost money in the 37 year history of money market mutual funds.

The reaction from the fund’s investors was fierce, as the consensus opinion at the time viewed the Reserve Primary Fund as a safe alternative to cash. Investors ran for the exits and demanded millions in redemptions. The fund lost over 60% of its assets in a mere two days, compromising its ability to meet other redemption requests and further spreading market contagion.

To diffuse the situation, the U.S. Treasury Department stepped in and offered to insure money market funds much like the FDIC insures bank deposits. Investors in funds participating in the Treasury’s program would be guaranteed at least a $1.00 net asset value if their fund broke the buck. This support helped limit liquidation pressure, and helped stabilize money markets until the crisis subsided.

 

SEC Money Market Reform(2)

SEC Money Market Reform

Unsurprisingly, the government does not want to be in the business of insuring money market funds today. So, the SEC has responded with reforms to help avoid this situation in the future. In July of 2013 the SEC amended Rule 2a-7, which will be enacted in October of 2016 and change the market structure of money funds.

The amendment essentially bifurcates money funds into two broad categories: retail and institutional. The previous classifications of government, tax-exempt, and prime will still exist, meaning that each will be further partitioned into retail and institutional classes.

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