Month: October 2015

Buyer Beware: 4 Tricks to Inform Yourself With

© / bradcalkins

Investing offers a seemingly infinite range of approaches, methods, products, services, and theories. The abundance of alternatives can be confusing, or even paralyzing. We can equip you with four ideas that may help you to winnow the choices down to ones that are more likely to help you.

  1. Some of the highest-cost products attract the most persistent sales people. If you are being pursued by a seller who is willing to spend a great deal of time and effort and travel to connect with you, assume that there is a very healthy paycheck in the deal and know that you’re ultimately the one who will pay for it.
  2. Sellers love to spend a lot of time with the glossy sales brochures that are full of hope and promise, not the prospectus. You will learn about the dangers and risks and conflicts of interest and the costs from the prospectus, not the brochures. Two things to do: read the front cover of the prospectus, and have a knowledgeable third party review the whole document. If you encounter resistance to the idea of studying the prospectus, you know there is information in there that you should have.
  3. Some financial firms have gotten into the business of manufacturing their own ‘house brand’ products. These products may be impossible to move from that firm should you later elect to do business elsewhere. And companies that manufacture and distribute products have conflicts that independent firms do not. Beware of house brands.
  4. Second opinions do not cost, and may reward you. If you have any questions or concerns about a product being sold to you, call us for a complimentary review.

Bottom line, avoid being “sold.” Take advantage of the legally required disclosures in the prospectus. Beware of house brands. Seek second opinions.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

The Ant and the Grasshopper, Revised

© / smithore

Most of us are familiar with Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper: the hard working ants slave away all summer building nests and storing food while the lazy grasshopper idly eats and makes merry. Each one calls the other foolish: the grasshopper tells the ants they should relax and enjoy life, while the ants admonish the grasshopper to work harder and prepare for winter. In the end the ants have the last laugh when winter comes and they have food and shelter while the grasshopper has none.

It should be noted that Aesop was not a bug expert. If he was, he might have realized that grasshoppers only live a few months and do not survive long enough to even see winter. Knowing this, the grasshopper was actually quite wise to ignore the ants’ advice. He lived his life to the fullest, with no time wasted on unnecessary labors.

The true moral of the story is this: it is equally foolish to hoard wealth we’ll never use as it is to squander wealth that we’ll need in the future.

None of us knows the date that is going on our death certificate. We should strive to emulate both the ant and the grasshopper, because we never know which one we’ll wind up as. Like the ant, we should work hard and save wisely to prepare for the future. But like the grasshopper we should also enjoy what we have, while we have it. We need to have a little fun every day, because we never know how many days we have left.

The Times, They Are A-Changing

© / kgtoh

Forty years ago, poet Bob Dylan wrote a song that echoes a universal theme, the idea of constant change. One may trace this concept through all of history, from the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, Egypt, India and China down to our day. Dylan’s lyrics borrow from both the Bible and Aesop’s fables.

Yet there is a tension between constant change and our very human tendency to believe that current conditions and trends will continue. It is appealing to believe that we can know the future by extending past trends. When gasoline first hit $4 per gallon a few years ago, the media was full of predictions that the price would rise to $7.

We call this tendency “straight line thinking” because it involves looking back over a limited time to identify a straight line that can be extended into the future. Gasoline was $1.50 in 2002 and $4 in 2008; anybody could see the trend and many concluded that $7 gas was coming.

Yet nature abhors straight lines. When you open up your view to take in a longer time frame, you see cycles of up-down, up-down. Like the tides or the seasons, cycles seem to offer a more useful way to think about the world.

So our quest is to find good values, bargains, that may be due for a change in direction as the cycle turns. This contrarian method of investing is no guarantee of success. All of our clients have had the experience of owning a supposed bargain that became cheaper or even much cheaper. Yet it is the most promising way to approach investing, in our opinion.

Why is this? The first one now will later be last, the slow one now will later be fast, and the times… they are a-changing.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Is the Market Just A Casino?

© / provasilich

Some people experience a lingering reluctance to invest because they suspect Wall Street is a giant casino. Most of us understand that a casino will, on average, fleece its customers of their hard-earned money. But does the market actually function like that?

In reality, a share of common stock listed on a stock exchange represents a percentage ownership interest in a large enterprise. A bond represents money loaned to an enterprise or government for the promise of stated interest and a return of the face amount on the maturity date.

Shares of a successful business or bonds issued by a solvent company tend to reward long-term holders by returning amounts in excess of the original investment. These increases may be in the form of interest on bonds or dividends on stock, plus preservation or growth of the principal invested. These kinds of investments are not like a slot machine or a roulette wheel, games rigged by casinos to pay out only a fraction of the money wagered.

The amazing thing about a share of stock is that an owner receives the same proportional benefits whether a single share or millions of shares are owned. The companies associated with Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and the Walton family are well known to many. And anyone who wishes may invest in those companies on exactly the same basis as Buffett or Gates or
the Waltons—and enjoy the same percentage results.

(We are not recommending or advocating the purchase of any specific company to anyone, of course.)

The flawed casino analogy may seem plausible since some investors engage in short-term trading, speculation, and other aggressive tactics. But how one uses the market is within one’s control, and the practices of short-term traders have nothing to do with long term investors.

One person may use an automobile as a getaway car after bank robberies, while the next one uses a car to commute to work. The misuse of a vehicle by the robber has nothing to do with the usefulness of the vehicle to the commuter.

So for you and for us, the answer is, “NO!” the market is not a casino.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All investments involve risk and may lose value.

Investing: A Moral Good?

© / rocketclips

It is unquestionably good that we have farmers to raise our food, shopkeepers to bring the things we need within reach, nurses to nurture us back to health, and so forth. We know instinctively that any pursuit that benefits others, or helps to meet the needs of society at large, is a worthy pursuit.

Is investing in the same category as worthy labor? Some people tend to think it is not. We offer the following perspective for your consideration.

Many of us have known route drivers for overnight and package delivery companies; long-tenured ones become part of the fabric of a community, well known to all. They clearly perform a worthy service. Yet how valuable would their efforts be without the trucks, planes, terminals, software systems, and the rest of the capital investment that supports their jobs? How much delivery could get done if the only equipment was handcarts?

The two largest such companies have billions of dollars of assets invested so that hundreds of thousands of employees have the tools and resources they need to do their jobs. This capital at work, about $100,000 per employee, is what makes the efforts of the workers so valuable. Where did the money come from?

Companies issue stock and bonds to finance their capital investments. The buyers of those investments, the investors, are ultimately the ones who provide the tools used by the workers to increase the value of their efforts.

And who are these “investors?” We know hundreds of them personally. They are workers saving for retirement, the retired, widows, families saving for college expenses, and everyone else trying to put money away for a rainy day or leave a legacy.

So do these friends and relatives and neighbors deserve a return on their investment? Presumably we all agree that a return on investment is only fair.

People at work and investments at work are to the world as teachers and classrooms are to education. Both are needed, both are useful. In the sense that necessary and useful things are good, both are worthy.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All investments involve risk and may lose value.

The Very Best Way to Retire


Have you been reading those articles with titles like “Ten Best Places to Retire” or “The Best Investments for Retirement” or “Six Best States for Retirement Taxes”?

Being in the business of retirement—and voracious readers besides—we read all that stuff. And we talk to scores of people about their retirement plans and scores of retirees as well.

There is one sure thing about retirement: no one but you knows your best way to live in retirement.

The articles are useful only to prompt your own thinking about your own situation. Most retirements are successful, in the sense that people are happier with greater freedom to pursue their interests and control over their schedules. These people often say, “I don’t know how I had time to work”—because they are so busy. One client told us that “work is way overrated.”

Other retirements do not work out as well. We believe there are a few aspects of retirement that successful retirees thought out in advance.

Where to live? A minority of people move to retirement destination locations. Most stay close to friends and family. Others split the difference and travel in winter or adopt a snowbird routine. With planning, you can do what you want to do.

What type of housing? Residential living encompasses more choices than ever before. Some people enjoy yardwork or gardening, or they like to putter in the garage or shop. Others can’t wait to give away the rake and mower. The amenities of a condo or apartment community like a pool or exercise facilities are attractive to some. A townhouse setup with exterior maintenance and care is the right choice for others. Staying in the family home is perhaps the most common option. Where do you want to wake up every day?

What to do? There are as many retirement lifestyles as there are people. Some spend much time with family, attending ballgames and school events of grandchildren, helping with child care or errands. Others are busy with some combination of fishing, hunting, golfing, hiking, traveling, exercising, or boating. Social clubs, meals with friends, bowling leagues, or card parties dot some retiree calendars. Part-time jobs are desirable for an increasing number of retirees, both for a little extra income and for the enjoyment. How do you want to spend your time?

A wise person once said, “Time is what life is made out of. Be careful how you spend it.” Your time, your life. Think about it. We are here to do the math; call us if you would like an office appointment or telephone conference.

Can Investment Arithmetic Buy Your Groceries?


One of the enduring concepts used by successful retirees and endowment funds alike is the idea that portfolio income is what pays the bills, not portfolio market value. Market values change from day to day and minute to minute. As we’ve written before, “Own the orchard for the fruit crop.” It helps one’s sanity to focus on the fruit crop (portfolio income), not the value of the orchard (market value.)

Imagine a company, XYZ Widgets, whose shares trade for $100 per share and pay annual dividends of $3 (a yield of 3% annually on the stock price.) The price of XYZ stock can go up or down in the short term, but historically there is little correlation between changes in the market price and changes in the dividend.

Let’s imagine that XYZ stock falls to $50. While companies may sometimes cut dividends they are often reluctant to do so, so XYZ may continue paying $3 per share. Despite the drop in stock price, shareholders would still get the same $3 with which to pay their bills. In fact, XYZ may then be an even better prospect for income investors: at $50 a share, that $3 dividend now gives them a 6% annual yield on their cost.

The same applies to bonds and other income-generating investments. A 5% bond issued at full price may be sold off down the road for cheaper if bondholders are worried about the company’s prospects for making good on their debts. If you bought that 5% bond for 50 cents on the dollar you would receive the same amount of interest, but now it would be equivalent to a 10% return on your investment each year. If the company recovered and was able to pay full price at maturity, you would receive 100 cents for every 50 cents worth of bonds you bought at a discount.

This arithmetic is one reason why investors who “buy low” often have an edge. A market downturn can have alarming effects on your retirement savings. But while the purchasing power of your retirement funds may go down, falling prices also allow you to buy income investments at higher yields.

There is no guarantee that you will be able to find high quality investments at such steep discounts, or that discount investments will turn out to be high quality. These examples are intended to illustrate the arithmetic of portfolio income, not as advice to any individual to buy a specific investment.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. We suggest that you discuss your specific situation with your financial advisor prior to investing.

The payment of dividends is not guaranteed. Companies may reduce or eliminate the payment of dividends at any given time.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

Investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Can You Afford Retirement? Part 2

© / Kenishirotie

In the prior installment, we wrote about determining how much income you’ll need in retirement.

The challenge we face in trying to understand retirement planning is that so many of our resources are in lump sum form. IRA balances, profit-sharing plans, and 401(k)s show one big number, the account value. But in the real world, we need recurring income with which to pay our bills.

So how do you take a lump sum and figure out the recurring income it will produce? Or, if you know the income you will need to fund our retirement lifestyle, how do you figure out the lump sum you need?

(If you would like us to do the arithmetic, or if you are actually getting ready to figure out your own retirement scenario, feel free to call for an appointment in the office or a telephone conference. If you are more the ‘do-it-yourself’ type, read on.)

Our baseline assumption is that a diversified, well-invested portfolio can stand withdrawal rates of 5% annually on a perpetual basis. So if your hypothetical retirement income target says you need $24,000 per year ($2,000 per month) from your portfolio after Social Security benefits and pensions, you can figure the size of the portfolio needed simply by multiplying $24,000 by 20 (or equivalently by dividing $24,000 by 5%.) Either way, this formula says you will need $480,000 in order to produce $24,000 of portfolio income per year.

Some commentators say that 4% is the right number, not 5%. A lower withdrawal rate will produce greater financial security, all other things equal. Our experience says 5% is workable, but this is not guaranteed. It is a rule of thumb. We would expect that the lump sum would go up and down in value with a generally rising long term trend, and that income withdrawals may increase from time to time.

Some people prefer to plan for a certain number of years, or use annuities, to boost planned spending for a given amount of retirement resources. Our preferred methodology, when possible, is to rely on generating sustainable levels of income on a continuous basis.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Annuities are long-term, tax-deferred investment vehicles designed for retirement purposes. Gains from tax-deferred investments are taxable as ordinary income upon withdrawal. Withdrawals made prior to age 59 ½ are subject to 10% IRS penalty tax. Surrender charges apply.

All examples are hypothetical and are not representative of any specific investment. Your results may vary.

Investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

The Fruits of Investment

© / Kurhan

Imagine for a moment that you are a simple farmer cultivating a modest but lush orchard of apple trees. Every year you reap a bountiful harvest of fruit to feed your family, with some surplus to sell for other foods and necessities you can’t grow yourself.

Every once in a while your neighbor comes by and offers to buy all your trees for firewood. Even if he offers you a generous price, accepting it would be foolish: the money you could sell it for would sustain you for a while, but it would not produce new crops for you year in and year out. It would run out where a well-tended orchard could keep providing for you long after.

One day your neighbor comes up to you in a bad mood, still wanting to buy your trees. The timber market has been flooded with cheap wood, cutting into his profits, so now he can only offer a much lower price for your trees.

If you wouldn’t sell your orchard when the price is high, why on Earth would you want to sell it when the price is low? As long as you plan to keep your orchard and live on your fruit crop, it shouldn’t matter to you what price someone may quote for it.

For those of us planning to retire on our investments, we would do well to heed the parable of the orchard and the fruit crop. Many retirees plan to live on a portfolio of income-bearing investments. We know that investments are subject to volatility, and at some point in your retirement you will probably see price swings in your investments—even government bonds and other conservative investments are not immune. But your ability to pay bills and buy groceries doesn’t depend on the market value of your holdings, it depends on the dividends and interest payments they generate. As long as your “fruit crop” is secure, you have no reason to sell your orchard. Therefore it doesn’t matter what someone wants to buy it for.

Investors, like farmers, sometimes suffer crop failures—there are no guarantees. But it is the stability of your income that should concern you first and foremost, not the stability of your price.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Government bonds are guaranteed by the US government as to the timely payment of principal and interest and, if held to maturity, offer a fixed rate of return and fixed principal value.

The payment of dividends is not guaranteed. Companies may reduce or eliminate the payment of dividends at any given time.

Investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.