Category Archives: pension plans

How Am I Doing? An 8-Point Financial Checklist

How am I doing?A question that nags at many people is whether they are on track financially.  Even an average financial life can seem remarkably complex.  How does anyone know whether he or she is doing the right things?  A range of studies on how people manage their money suggests that many, if not the majority, are making choices that look decidedly sub-optimal.  Americans don’t save enough money and when they do save and invest, they often make basic mistakes that substantially reduce their returns.  More than 60% of self-directed investors have portfolios with inappropriate risk levels.  Almost three quarters of Americans have little or no emergency savings.  The solution to these problems starts with an assessment of where you are and where you need to be.

The key, as Einstein once said, is to make things as simple as possible but no simpler.  In an attempt to provide a checklist that’s in line with this edict, I offer the following questions that each person or family needs to be able to answer.

The first three questions focus on consumption and saving:

  1. Am I saving enough for to meet personal goals such as retirement, college education, and home ownership?
  2. Am I saving enough for contingencies such as a job loss or an emergency?
  3. Am I investing when I should be paying down debt instead, or vice-versa?

The next five questions deal with how you invest the money that you save:

  1. Is my portfolio at the right risk level?
  2. Am I effectively diversified?
  3. Am I aware of how much am I paying in expenses?
  4. Are my financial decisions tax efficient?
  5. Should I hire an investment advisor?

Anyone who can answer all eight of these questions satisfactorily has a strong basis for assessing whether he or she is on track. Odds are there are more than a few questions here that most of us either don’t have the answer to or know that we are not addressing very well.

Part of what makes answering these questions challenging is that the experiences of previous generations are often of limited relevance, especially when it comes to life’s three biggest expenditures: retirement, college, and housing.

For example, older people who have traditional pensions that guarantee a lifetime of income in retirement simply didn’t need to worry about choosing how much they had to save to support themselves during retirement.

The cost of educating children has also changed, increasing much faster than inflation or, more crucially, household income.  For many in the older generation, college was simply not a consideration. It has become the norm, however, and borrowing to pay for college is now the second largest form of debt in America, surpassed only by home mortgages.  Children and, more often their parents, must grapple with the question of how much they can or should pay for a college education, along with the related question of whether a higher-ranked college is worth the premium cost.

The third of the big three expenses that most families face is housing costs. Following the Second World War, home buyers benefitted from an historic housing boom.  Their children, the Baby Boomers, have also seen home prices increase substantially over most of their working careers.  Even with the huge decline in the housing crash, many Boomer home owners have done quite well with real estate.    Younger generations (X, Y, and Millenials), by contrast, have experienced enormous volatility in housing prices and must also plan for more uncertainty in their earnings.  And of course, what you decide you can afford to spend on a home has implications for every other aspect of your financial life.

In addition to facing major expenses without a roadmap provided by previous generations, we also need to plan for the major known expenses of everyday life. It’s critically important to determine how much to keep in liquid emergency savings and how to choose whether to use any additional available funds to pay down debts or to invest.  There are general guidelines to answering these questions and we will explore these in a number of future posts.

The second set of questions is easier to answer than the first.  These are all questions about how to effectively invest savings to meet future needs.  Risk, diversification, expenses, and tax exposure can be benchmarked against professional standards of practice.

What can become troubling, however, is that experts disagree about the best approach to addressing a number of these factors.  When in doubt, simplicity and low cost are typically the best choices.  Investors could do far worse than investing in a small number of low-cost index funds and choosing the percentages to stocks and bonds based on their age using something like the ‘age in bonds’ rule.  There are many ways to try for better returns at a given risk level, and some make far more sense than others.  Even Warren Buffett, arguably the most successful investor in the world, endorses a simple low-cost index fund strategy.  Upcoming posts will provide a number of straightforward standards for addressing these questions.

Investors who find these questions  too burdensome or time consuming to deal with may wish to spend some time on the eighth and final question: whether they should hire an investment advisor to guide them.  Investors may ultimately choose to manage their own finances, search out a human advisor, or use an online computer-driven advisory service.

While financial planning can seem complex and intimidating, our series of blog posts on the key issues, as outlined in the eight questions above, will provide a framework by which individuals can effectively take control and manage their financial affairs.

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How Much Do You Need to Save for Retirement?

In the financial advisory business, one of the most pressing and controversial topics is how much money people need to save during their working years in order to provide for long-term retirement income.  The research on this topic has evolved quite a lot in recent years, and a recent issue of Money magazine features a series of articles representing the current view on this critical topic.  These articles, based around interviews with a number of the current thought leaders on this topic, deserve to be widely read and discussed.

The series of articles in Money kicks off with perspectives by Wade Pfau.  Pfau’s introductory piece suggests a difficult future for American workers.  A traditional rule-of-thumb in retirement planning is called the 4% rule.  This rule states that a retiree can plan to draw annual income equal to 4% of the value of her portfolio in the first year of retirement and increase this amount each year to keep up with inflation.  Someone who retires with a $1 Million portfolio could draw $40,000 in income in the first year of retirement and then increase that by 2.5%-3% per year, and have a high level of confidence that the portfolio will last thirty years.  It is assumed that the portfolio is invested in 60%-70% stocks and 30%-40% bonds.  The 4% rule was originally derived based on the long-term historical returns and risks for stocks and bonds.  The problem that Pfau has noted, however, is that both stocks and bonds are fairly expensive today relative to their values over the period of time used to calculate the 4% rule.  For bonds, this means that yields are well below their historical averages and historical yields are a good predictor of the future return from bonds.  The expected return from stocks is partly determined by the average price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio, and the P/E for stocks is currently well-above the long-term historical average.  High P/E tends to predict lower future returns for stocks, and vice versa.  For a detailed discussion of these relationships, see this paper.  In light of current prices of stocks and bonds, Pfau concludes that the 4% rule is far too optimistic and proposes that investors plan for something closer to a 3% draw rate from their portfolios in retirement.  I also explored this topic in an article last year.

Continue reading

Handcuff Volunteers and the Rally of 2013

The S&P500 is up by 26% for the year-to-date, despite the fact that employment growth is anemic, the labor participation rate is at its lowest point in thirty five years, and inflation-adjusted GDP growth is experiencing a long-term slowing (see chart below).  GDP turns negative in recessions—this is the definition of a recession—but has historically recovered much faster than we have seen in the post 2008 years. Continue reading

Saving and Investing for Retirement: Part One

We Are In Trouble: Part One of Our Special Five Part Series

As the presidential election season of 2012 has gotten underway, there is a massive issue that has gotten very little attention: how Americans will sustain themselves in retirement.  In 2010, there were 40 million Americans over the age of 65.  By 2030, that number is expected to rise to 70 million, which represents 20% of the total population.  At the same time, we have moved from a workforce with traditional pensions to one in which each person chooses how much to save and how to invest that money.

Only 42% of American private-sector workers between ages 25 and 64 have any type of retirement plan in their current job. The majority of Americans (67%) who have access to a pension plan have only self-directed accounts such as 401(k)’s and similar accounts (such as 457(b) plans which cover those who work at non-profits or who are employed by the state or local government organizations).  A large number of Americans also have IRAs.  We refer to these types of retirement plans as Defined Contribution (DC) plans as opposed to Defined Benefit (DB) plans, the traditional pensions that used to be the norm. Continue reading

What is Your Pension Really Worth?

Last week, we posted an article from Michael Lewitt, Vice President and Portfolio Manager at Cumberland Advisors called “The Pension Dilemma” that talked about how America’s largest pension fund, the California Public Employees Retirement Systems (CALPERS) reported an abysmal 1% return on its investments for the past year (ending June 30, 2012).

CALPERS has been in the news lately for several reasons:

  1. The California state pension is a bellwether for other state-run retirement systems across the U.S. that are also forced to face one of the most challenging periods in history: low interest rates, volatile markets and slow economic growth.
  2. CALPERS missed their own internal targets by more than 7.2% and then blamed their underperformance partly on picks made by individual investment managers (which CALPERS declined to name).
  3. The CALPERS underperformance has shaken the confidence that many investors have in their own pension funds.

What Does This Means for the Average Investor?

Retirement planning is a passion for us here at the Portfolioist. Yes, go ahead and laugh at the use of the word “passion” if you must—but that’s how we truly feel—especially in these turbulent economic times. Continue reading

The Pension Dilemma

Guest Post by Contributing Editor, Michael Lewitt, Vice President and Portfolio Manager, Cumberland Advisors. We thought this was an interesting article and thought our readers would too. Enjoy.

America’s largest pension fund, the California Public Employees Retirement System (CALPERS), reported a 1% return on its investments for the 12 months that ended June 30, 2012.  This disappointing return fell woefully short of the plan’s target return of 7.5%Continue reading

We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us

Guest post by Contributing Editor, Robert P. Seawright, Chief Investment and Information Officer for Madison Avenue Securities.

Psychologist Walter Mischel’s famous 1972 marshmallow experiment, was designed to study children’s ability to defer gratification.  In the actual experiment, the researchers analyzed how long each child resisted the temptation to eat a marshmallow placed in front of them in order to obtain a second marshmallow later and whether or not doing so was correlated with future success. The kids’ struggles  to hold out for the extra marshmallow is poignant and hits home with all of us (watch kids re-create the experiment in this video).

Over 600 children who took part in the original experiment. A small minority ate the marshmallow immediately. Of those who attempted to wait, less than one-third deferred gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow. The others struggled to resist temptation and held out for an average of less than three minutes. Any of us struggling to diet or just to eat right will surely relate. For most of us, a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, no matter how likely we are to acquire the two later.

As it turned out, those children who waited and got the second marshmallow did better later in life.  A follow-up study in 1988 showed that Continue reading

Stocks and Shocks: What to Do?

Guest Post by Contributing Editor, David Kotok, Chairman and Chief Investment Officer, Cumberland Advisors.

How do we avoid walking into a “left hook” in the markets? That was the discussion this week during a client review.

“Can’t you see them coming and avoid them?” he asked. Well maybe some folks can, but the issue of investing with possible shocks as an outcome is a very difficult one.

“Do you position for the worst outcome?” If yes, you would never invest in anything.

“Is there a middle road?” We think so and that is why we use a combination of ETFs and bonds and recommend diversifying risk among several asset classes.

Below this introduction is a partial list of upcoming potential shocks. As readers will note, we can see the potential shock relatively clearly. Scott MacDonald of MC Asset Management calls them “dangerous seas ahead.” His maritime metaphors sequence the Titanic and Lusitania. Lehman-AIG and the meltdown were the Titanic. “This leaves us to wonder if the U.S. economy is not like the Lusitania, operating in a high risk environment, but felt to be safe from prowling German U-boats in the North Atlantic.” ponders Scott.

Of course, we cannot know the result of a potential risk before it happens. We cannot know the outcome and the policy shift. Therefore, the anticipatory period preceding the risk and the aftermath (if as and when the risk is realized) are not symmetrical. In other words, you are investing in asymmetry. Knowing this in advance allows for an asset-allocation rebalancing as the circumstances and probabilities change. In other words: reassess, reassess, reassess risks and rebalance, rebalance, rebalance.

Some of the discussion in our new book addresses these types of asymmetries. See Amazon.com, From Bear to Bull with ETFs or visit Cumberland’s website. In the book, we actually show the comparison with the ten sectors of the S&P 500 index and the relative performance of each sector in the bear and in the subsequent bull market.

Now let’s get to some potential shocks and comment about them:

  • Possible Shock Number 1: The Fed will cease “Operation Twist” on June 30. They confirmed the policy shift as recently as this last meeting and Bernanke’s statement. What will a twist cessation bring to bond yields? Will it change home mortgage interest rates? Delay a housing market recovery? Alter the steepness of the yield curve? Or the flatness of the yield curve? What happens to bond credit spreads? Pricing of repo collateral? Maybe the whole thing will pass as a non-event. Nobody knows.
  • Possible Shock Number 2:The so-called “fiscal cliff” is approaching at year-end. Strategas’ Dan Clifton and Jason Trennert have hammered this theme. Their summary identifies three elements:“… roughly one-third of the entire tax code expiring at the end of the year, the spending sequester beginning on January 2, a debt ceiling increase needed in the six weeks after the election and before the end of the year.”How much will markets anticipate these outcomes? How deep is fiscal drag? Is there a fiscal drag? Is Ricardian equivalence dead? How large is the policy shift danger to our country from the Congress? From this President? From next year’s President (re-elected or new)? All of these tax-spend-borrow outcomes are probable in the present-day realm of American politics. That puts our American destiny in the hands of a class of people who are very unpopular and despised by the majority of American citizens. Our politicians have become the scurrilous, scatological scoundrels that we elect and send to Washington. (We include both political parties in this opprobrium). Jack Bittner asks if we should limit all pols to a single term.
  • Possible Shock Number 3: The Bank of Japan has leaped to the top of the G4 central banks when it comes to balance-sheet expansion. BOJ announced an increase in the rate of asset purchases and an extension of the duration of the Japanese sovereign debt it will buy. Initial market reaction was that this plan is “not enough.” BOJ is trying to get Japan’s inflation rate UP! They have not succeeded in the past. Is this time different? What will be the impact on the foreign exchange markets? Will the yen weaken? If so, which currency will strengthen? We have written in the past that FX market adjustments are quite distorted when the G4 central banks are all maintaining their policy interest rates near zero.
  • Possible Shock Number 4:The FDIC limit on non-interest-bearing demand deposit insurance is scheduled to revert back to the pre-crisis level at the end of this year. We quote from the FDIC website:“From December 31, 2010 through December 31, 2012, at all FDIC-insured institutions, deposits held in non-interest-bearing transaction accounts will be fully insured regardless of the amount in the account. For more information, see the FDIC’s comprehensive guide, Your Insured Deposits.”What will be the impact in the money-market end of the yield curve? Will there be an extension of the termination date if markets begin to tighten? What will happen to repo rates? Repo collateral pricing? How closely is the Fed watching this development, since the Fed has been providing the market with more repo collateral (T-bills) through its Operation Twist? Is there a relationship, or will there be one? Can the banking system withstand larger withdrawals of zero-interest deposits if corporate agents deem deposits to be insecure without FDIC insurance coverage? (Note that the FDIC just closed five more banks this week. In the case of the Bank of Eastern Shore, Cambridge, Maryland, the FDIC has not found a buyer or merger partner, and the uninsured depositors are at risk of loss. Readers who are still worried about the safety of their bank deposits may check the FDIC website for the current rules).
  • Possible Shock Number 5: Watch the price and futures prices of Brent crude. Many are sanguine about oil and energy pricing and the gasoline price. We are not. Libyan production is not coming back in a hurry (hat tip to Barclays for superb research on the risk of Libyan civil war). Geopolitical risk is high in the Persian Gulf (Iran) and in Nigeria (see the developing news story of turmoil in this important oil-producing country). Worldwide demand for oil inexorably rises. U.S. energy policy still fails to accelerate our move to energy independence. Despite Energy Secretary Salazar’s protestations, the fact is that the Obama Administration has a failed energy policy and continues to pursue it. We do not drill, we do not encourage the use of natural gas in an accelerated and proactive way, and we do stymie new production and exploration. We do have pipelines running in the wrong directions, and we do have distorted domestic oil pricing because of excess inventories in Cushing, Oklahoma. At Cumberland, we remain attentive to this sector even as the market has become sanguine about it. We continue to hold our oil-energy-exploration and oil-service positions. The range of forecasts of the oil price is a mile wide. We have seen a low of $40 a barrel within two years and a high of $175. We lean to the higher price, not the lower one.

Reassess and Rebalance

I will stop now with the list of possible shocks and leave it to the reader’s imagination to complete this compendium with thoughts about Europe or China slowing or future inflation risk. Here is how we see the portfolio management decision. Remember this is today. It could change tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. The operative structure is reassess, reassess, reassess, rebalance, rebalance, rebalance.

Cumberland continues its fully invested approach using ETFs. We have been in that mode since the bear-market bottom of October 3. We think the bull market that started on October 3 is only half over as to price change and only one-third to one-fourth over as to time. Of course, any shock could derail this forecast. Our bond portfolios are slowly repositioning to a hedged or defensive mode. We have time. The process of moving from the present very low interest rates will require years and be volatile but gradual. Interest rates cannot go below zero. To get them above zero and into a more normal relationship, the G4 central banks must neutralize over four trillion dollars equivalent of excess reserves. Collectively they are still enlarging this position and are a long way from extraction from it.

Two items are recommended:

  • Read “Death of a Theory,” by St. Louis Fed president James Bullard, in the March-April/2012 monthly bulletin of that bank.
  • For analysis of last year’s bear market and the ensuing bull market, readers may wish to consult our new book, From Bear to Bull with ETFs. We thank readers for their responses so far. For the first time in our life, we have had a three-week-running best-selling book. All links to book distribution will be constantly updated on Cumberland’s website.

(Disclosure: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Portfolioist. Cumberland Advisors is unaffiliated with FOLIOfn Investments.)

About David R. Kotok:

David R. Kotok co-founded Cumberland Advisors in 1973 and has been its Chief Investment Officer since inception. Mr. Kotok’s articles and financial commentary have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and other publications. He is a frequent guest on financial television including Bloomberg Television, CNBC and Fox. He also contributes to radio networks such as NPR and media organizations like Bloomberg Radio, among others.

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Financial Literacy is the Issue of the Month? Try Issue of the Century.

April is Financial Literacy Month.

All month long, I have been trying to think of how to write a post that can express the depth of my conviction that the lack of financial knowledge is at the core of some of the biggest problems that we, as individuals (and as a nation) are facing.

There are so many areas in which we can see the enormous problems created by a lack of financial literacy that, frankly,  I don’t even know where to start. In fact, the Wall Street Journal just ran an article about college graduates who have little hope of ever being financially secure given their enormous levels of student loan debt. (Even President Obama isn’t exempt: he admitted today that he paid off his student loans just 8 years ago.)

This is a big problem. Continue reading

The Biggest Unknown in Financial Planning

In a recent blog post, I reviewed a new book on the future of the Equity Risk Premium (ERP).  For those who are not familiar with the ERP, it is the additional return that investors expect to receive for bearing the risk of owning company stock vs. owning a low-risk asset like government bonds.  As readers of the  book, Rethinking the Equity Risk Premium will discover, there is little agreement on how the ERP should be measured historically and even less consensus on how to estimate the future ERP.

We all know that there is no guarantee that stocks will deliver higher returns than bonds. In fact, at the depths of the last market crash (think back to early 2009) bonds had out-performed stocks over a trailing period of more than 40 years.  If markets are at all rational, it would make sense that Continue reading