Monday, September 22, 2014

Setting investment goals is a matter of life and death

In this column, I frequently emphasize the importance of setting investment goals in order to provide for your children’s college education and your own retirement.

To accomplish those goals, there are certain requirements. First and foremost, you must establish your goals and objectives. That’s pretty obvious.

But then you need to establish the parameters necessary to meet your defined goals. That could take some work. And, finally, you should periodically measure your progress toward achieving the goals.

At that point you may need to adjust your parameters or revise your goals. But make no mistake, goal setting and investing go hand in hand.

But what happens if something goes terribly wrong and you meet your maker long before you anticipated? September is Life Insurance Awareness Month and life insurance is the part of planning that few want to discuss.

Discussing death is never an easy topic, but it’s a vital part of financial planning. When my wife and I were raising our sons, they frequently lamented, “This isn’t fair.” My guess is that anyone who has raised children has heard this or a similar type comment. We often chuckled at such complaints, but we tried to do our best as parents.

In reality, though, life isn’t fair. It doesn’t always work out the way we want. A good example is being passed over for a well-deserved promotion. Then there’s illness and, even worse, an unexpected death.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for a family to own life insurance. Money is made two ways. You can work for it and you can put your money to work for you. Life insurance simply brings money to the table when you’re gone. Because, even if you’re no longer alive, you still want your family to have a roof over their head, food on the table and the means to achieve their goals.

Quite often, when a local tragedy makes the news, you hear about a fund-raiser to help the family. Although fund-raisers are admirable, they’re not something you can count on. I still think it’s best to plan and prepare for the unanticipated while you’re still alive and healthy.

Back when the Super Bowl was at the Pontiac Silverdome, one of the quarterbacks was Boomer Esiason. I mention this because his mother died at a young age without life insurance. Boomer watched as his father worked extra hard to provide for the family.

When he became a parent, one of his first purchases was life insurance. Today, he’s the spokesperson for Life Happens, an organization that highlights the importance of owning life insurance.

Statistics indicate that thirty percent of households in the U.S. have no life insurance at all. That happens to be an all-time low for life insurance ownership in this country. And it gives me a bad feeling.

It means that more and more families will be turning to the government for financial assistance at a time when Uncle Sam is hurting financially.

Life insurance is not only an unpleasant topic to discuss; it can also be quite confusing. There are all kinds of insurance companies and all kinds of policies, and the language can be confusing.

I hope you take the responsible route and make certain your life insurance program is in order.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ready to take your lumps? A lump sum buyout, that is

If you’re currently in the workforce and you anticipate a company-sponsored pension when you retire, the odds are pretty good that you’ll be faced with a major decision before you actually retire.

The decision that you will likely face is whether you should continue to receive a traditional pension or opt for a lump sum buyout. It certainly appears to me the stars are aligned in such a manner that lump sum buyouts will soon prove to be the norm rather than the exception.

There are a number reasons why plan sponsors might want to dissolve their pension programs. One is the insurance premium imposed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

The insurance premium per participant has jumped in recent years, and currently stands at $49 per annum. By 2016, however, the cost of the premium will jump by more than 30 percent, all the way up to $64.

To consider a lump sum buyout as an option, regulations mandate that the pension program be funded above 80 percent. So, as a plan sponsor, if your pension program is in relatively good shape and you can save significant money on insurance costs, why wouldn’t you consider terminating your pension?

In addition to no longer having to pay pension insurance premiums, even more money is saved by eliminating the required administrative costs.

Another major reason why I think so many plans will be offering lump sum options is the extremely low interest rate environment that we’re currently experiencing. Simply stated, if a projected pension is $1,000 per month or $12,000 per year, consider how much capital the plan would need to generate $12,000.

In other words, with interest rates so incredibly low, it would take a lot of investment dollars to generate $1,000 per month. If interest rates were to rise in the future, less money would be needed to generate the $1,000, maybe a lot less.

A common question that I’ve been asked by many employees is why the lump sum amount on their benefit projection statement is decreasing even though they are continuing to work. The answer is a function of the government rate for calculating how much the plan sponsor needs in reserve.

Currently, the rate is just over 1 percent. But in five years, it will be 4 percent. Obviously, the plan sponsor would need less money to generate your $1,000 per month at 4 percent rather than at 1 percent.

For the mathematically challenged, here’s a hypothetical example of what a person might face in today’s pension environment and why a current lump sum buyout might look fairly attractive from an employee’s point of view.

Retire now with a $12,000 annual pension or a lump sum payment of $150,000. Or, retire in five years with the same $12,000 pension or a $100,000 lump sum.

Of course, this is just hypothetical. Everybody’s situation is different and there are pros and cons both ways. But what would you do?

If you’re approaching retirement, I strongly suggest you get an opinion and analysis from a trusted financial adviser because there are a lot of moving parts. It will probably be the most important financial decision of a lifetime.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer because everyone’s circumstances are unique. But to dismiss either option without doing your homework is not a well-thought-out option.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

It’s not too late to ‘Go West!’

Summer vacations can be both fun and educational. My recent western states vacation is a good example. When I head for the west coast, I generally make several stops. One of the most interesting was at Rapid City, S.D.

To my surprise, the city has life size bronze statues of all our presidents. I wandered into the main office and learned that the artists and statues were funded and maintained by a private organization. A gentleman explained to me that it was their way of honoring our nation.

My next stop was the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, where I was fascinated to learn the process of its dream, design, construction and ongoing maintenance. It’s also where I decided the direction of today’s column.

I overheard some startling comments from the large contingent of domestic and foreign visitors, including such as “Who is that along with Washington and Lincoln?” But my favorite was “Why did they put Roosevelt on the monument before he was president?” Obviously, some visitors were confusing Teddy and Franklin D.

Whenever I turned on the news during my western trip, the topic was Ferguson, MO, just outside of St. Louis. In our nation’s history, St. Louis was the starting point for many western settlers.

Most were seeking the American Dream of a better economic life. People have continually moved west seeking a better lifestyle. Those journeys were not without risk, and, on some occasions, ended in death.

The nation has changed dramatically since the Wild West was settled. While the American Dream is still alive and well, I fear that many don’t share the dream or simply lack the drive to improve their lot in life.

As a financial advisor, I help people handle their finances. Except for the few that inherited their wealth, most accumulate it through work and investment. But the foundation for building wealth is something that many seem to be lacking.

Our nation’s challenge is to develop new opportunities that lead to good jobs and careers. I believe we need a modern-day western journey to revive the American dream. In other words, we should be emphasize having dreams and taking calculated risks rather than debating the minimum wage.

It appears our focus is on just getting by rather than aiming for the sky. My youngest son and some of his friends are good examples. After graduating from college at the height of the recession he “went west.”

He discovered there are plenty of well-paying jobs for those that are willing to dedicate themselves and work hard. Many in his age group followed the same path.

In the investment world, you need to find the balance between minimizing risk and maximizing aggressiveness. I don’t mean if you’re without work or unhappy with your job, that you should drop everything and head west tomorrow. But you shouldn’t abandon your dreams.

There are indeed many opportunities that can be pursued. The American Dream that pushed many of our forefathers west still exists. You might have to look a bit harder to find them, but they are out there. Our history is full of stories of individuals who took risk and found success. America has changed, but with hard work, a bit of risk and maybe a little luck, no dream is unattainable.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Highway robbery? Your pension could be paving roads

The next time you drive down a newly paved road, it just might be that the money to pave that road came from your pension fund, although by a slightly circuitous route. How can that be? Let me lay the groundwork.

According to the well-respected newspaper Pension and Investment News, the country’s 100 largest pension plans were underfunded by a staggering $122 billion last year. And while that’s a frightening number and a tenuous situation, it’s actually good news.

Again, how can that be? Well, as of a result of the recently improved investment climate, that number represents a huge improvement over 2012, when the plans were underfunded by more than $300 billion. So the gap is definitely closing.

Over the years, our nation’s bookkeepers have used a variety of accounting tactics that are somewhat gimmicky. The objective is often to rob Peter to pay Paul, and in this instance, it essentially hijacks money from your pension plan and puts it into Uncle Sam’s tax coffers.

Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Highway Trust Fund Bill to provide some very needed dollars for highway funding. The Highway Trust Fund, it seems, had run out of gas.

Fear not. Your pension plan has come to the rescue. The bill’s creative accounting, signed into law by President Obama, is called “pension smoothing.” The objective of pension smoothing is to keep the Highway Trust Fund going until next summer. But only until next summer.

Without trying to make every reader an expert in the exciting field of accounting, let me keep the basics of pension smoothing simple. In essence, the government is allowing companies to defer making pension plan contributions with the commitment to make those deposits in the future.

Keep in mind that pension fund managers manage their funds very long term in order to make the money last for a large number of working and retired employees. Their definition of long term utilizes mathematical concepts such as time value of money, future value, inflation and a few other mystical statistical equations.

With pension smoothing, the government is allowing pension fund managers to defer current contributions into their pension funds, which, essentially, are your pension funds.

So, how does this deferment contribute to highway funding? In simple terms, it puts more dollars into corporations. In fact, it’s estimated that corporate America will benefit to the tune of more than $50 billion.

More money for corporations means more tax dollars for Uncle Sam. In this case, those “extra” tax dollars are being used to add nearly $11 billion to the Highway Trust Fund.

In the interest of full disclosure, the Bill also funnels money into the Highway Fund from customs fees and the rarely mentioned Underground Storage Tank Fund. But that doesn’t affect your pension.

Pension smoothing does. While I personally don’t like accounting gimmicks, I have a bigger problem with pension smoothing. It’s only a temporary measure.

Rather than addressing the issue, it kicks the problem down the road. Something that our leaders in Washington have become quite good at doing. To fix the problems long term, we need serious tax reform, not just patchwork solutions.

Pension smoothing may have not made the headlines today, but it may be a problem for many pensioners down the road.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Social Insecurity

I was a bit surprised in late July when the Social Security Trustees released their annual report.  The report itself wasn’t so much of a surprise as the fact that it was not mentioned by any of the news media.      

Such lack of attention rattled my mind like a car alarm.  These days, when most people hear an alarm, they simply think of it as an annoyance.  Many don’t even bother to turn their heads to see what, if anything, is going on.  In fact, I doubt many people stop to wonder if someone is actually trying to steal a car.

It seems to me that the same phenomenon is going on with Social Security .  The can has been kicked down the road so many times, I don’t think people even hear the aluminum can bouncing off the road and hitting a brick wall.

We’ve heard it bouncing and rattling for so long we’ve simply become accustomed to the noise.  Such complacency,

I fear it could prove to be a dangerous mistake.

Just over a year ago, I wrote an article about Social Security Disability.  I questioned whether or not all the recipients were really disabled.

Since I wrote that article, I’ve received a number of e-mails from various legal firms offering their services to help me qualify for Social Security Disability.  These aren’t occasional offers; they come on an almost daily basis.

The number of people receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) recently reached a new high and now exceeds 11 million people as of this past May.  That represents an increase of eighteen percent since January 2009.

There are all sorts of arguments and debates as to the causes.  Is it the economy?  Is it political?  Is it changing demographics?  Are we getting sick or injured at an alarming rate?   Have the eligibility rules changed?  Quite likely, it’s some combination of these postulations.

But whatever the reason for the surge in disability claims, I think it’s time to stop ignoring the tin can clattering off the walls.  I say this because, according to the Social Security Trustee Report, the SSDI program will only be able to pay full benefits through 2016.  That’s not very far off.  After 2016, there would only be sufficient funds to pay just over 80 cents on the dollar.

As a financial advisor, I always come back to the math.  If the math indicates the numbers do not add up, it is likely a problem.  But problems can be solved.

According to the Social Security Trustee Report, the SSDI problem is just over a year away.  Even more alarming, the retirement portion of the Social Security program is in jeopardy not too many years later.

I’m puzzled as to why the trustees’ annual report receives such little press.  The mathematic realities of the entire program need to be dealt with now.

If they continue to be glossed over, the lead story in the news will soon be the announcement of a major Social Security crisis.  At that point, everyone will wonder how it happened and why we weren’t aware that a crisis was imminent.           

Within two years, some tough decisions need to be made, because borrowing more money to pay promised benefits is not a prudent mathematical decision.

Monday, August 18, 2014

How to save like a hero: Train yourself

Being a financial adviser isn’t just a job; I also consider it to be a lifestyle. It’s an occupation that requires one to be a technician and also to have the skills to interact with people. For me, it’s a badge I carry proudly and enjoy thoroughly.

I periodically attend education conferences that help me stay current with investment trends, economic forecasts, and the onslaught of new and constantly changing rules and regulations. There’s no question that the variety of classes is valuable, but what I find even more valuable is what I learn from my peers from other parts of the country and from the featured speakers from outside our profession.

My most recent seminar was in Nashville. It featured two outstanding speakers: Marcus Luttrell and Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Lutrell was a Navy Seal from Texas who survived Operation Red Wings on the slopes of Sawtalo Sar, a mountain in Afghanistan. He was the only survivor of the mission and his book, “Lone Survivor,” was made into a movie. His talk was intense and from the heart.

Sullenberger, the other featured speaker, was also quite newsworthy. He was the pilot who landed his passenger jet on the Hudson River when it lost all engines due to a bird strike shortly after takeoff. His ability to bring the aircraft down safely was truly incredible and witnessed as it happened on national television. Sully spoke with the eloquence of a college professor.

In many ways the speakers were complete opposites. Marcus was a fairly young man with young children. Sully, on the other hand, has grown children and was near the end of his career when he piloted the aircraft to a safe landing. They were total opposites in their backgrounds and education.

So why mention these guys in a financial column? Because of what they shared in common, something of value to all people, including investors. Years and years of training that helped them survive.

For Marcus, it was physical Navy Seal training that pushed his body to the limits. For Sully, it was the technical training of a pilot. Sully pointed out that flight simulators didn’t have water landings, but his many years of training simply kicked in during the time of crisis.

As investors, we may not need the physical toughness of a Navy Seal, but we do need to have the mental training. For example, you can mentally train yourself to be a saver. And maintain that mindset regardless of the financial circumstances.

A person that deposits a dollar in a piggybank every day is a simple example. So is someone that contributes every payday into his or her retirement plan.

It’s easy to find a reason not to save. But with strong financial discipline and the ability to keep emotions in check, anyone can do it. You just have to train yourself to act that way.

If either Marcus or Sully had panicked in their situations, they would not have survived. I have written many times that investors need to keep their emotions at bay. In most instances, if you panic and make emotional decisions with your money, you lose.

As an investor, you need to be mentally tough and keep your emotions in check. All it takes is the proper training.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A day in the life of a financial planner

Early Monday morning I was at the gym when I crossed paths with a nice elderly gentleman who went out of his way to tell me how much he enjoys my column. He said that, even at his age, he picks up valuable and useful information.

I graciously accepted his kind words. One of the things I really enjoy about the financial services industry is that it requires me to stay current with the continuous barrage of rules, regulations and trends in this ever-changing world.

What I didn’t mention to the gentleman was that later in the week I would be attending an educational seminar for three days. Three days where I would get to listen and learn from some of the most respected financial people in the country.

Later that same morning, I learned that a dear friend died unexpectedly while on a camping trip. And finally, still on Monday, I met with some clients who proudly shared their child’s plans for college.

In a nutshell, that one Monday summarized why thorough financial planning is so important. First, statistics clearly show that people are living longer than ever before. The challenge is to make certain that retirees do not outlive their income.

But, sometimes you can be on the wrong side of statistics. The call I received later in the morning about a friend’s unexpected death is a reminder that no matter how thorough your retirement planning, your family’s world can change in a heartbeat. It may be difficult to discuss, but life insurance and estate planning are a critical part of the planning process.

Finally, planning for a son’s or daughter’s higher education should begin the day they’re born. Having the funds to pay for college isn’t something that just happens. It’s a goal that needs to be achieved. One that takes hard work and financial sacrifice on the part of mom and dad.

There’s no question that the world we live in is complex and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. For example, years ago a retiree could live relatively comfortably on the interest he or she received from bank deposits. Now, interest rates are so low that retirees need to find additional sources to generate income.

As far as college education goes, I can still recall an auto executive telling me that, while in college, he could come home for the summer, walk into the plant and make enough money to pay all his college bills and then some.

In today’s world, college costs have skyrocketed and high paying summer jobs are few and far between. This national trend of higher costs and less income has resulted in a staggering amount of college debt that’s choking recent grads.

The one constant in the world is change and it’s changing faster than ever. Tax rates, interest rates and economic conditions change rapidly. Life situations can change faster than the blink of an eye.

Without planning, your chance of success is limited. In order to achieve your goals and objectives you have to take the time to plan. And you need to plan for the good (child’s education), the sad (sudden death), and the likely (long life).

That’s why I, along with most reputable financial advisers, study hard to help clients achieve their goals.