The Real Danger In Overstating Returns (Like PIMCO)

Originally in ForbesAs if PIMCO needed any more bad press, The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether the bond giant “artificially boosted the returns of a popular fund aimed at small investors.” While we should all be attentive to the results of this probe—because I’d bet my lunch money that its implications will be felt beyond just PIMCO—there is an even deeper issue to consider. And this issue has a more direct impact on our individual portfolios and money management choices. The real danger in overstating returns, and indeed the root of most financial missteps, is self-deception.

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“How’s your portfolio?”

Who among us wants to feel like a failure? We’ll generally avoid experiencing this sensation at all costs. So, absent conspicuous success, we permit ourselves to believe that we’ve at least not failed, frequently through self-deception.

Defining “success” in investing can be an especially tricky endeavor and comes with a number of challenges. Is success attained by  reaching a certain number, or a particular account balance, however arbitrary? Or is success found in earning a particular rate of return? Or outperforming one’s peers or a particular benchmark?

There are so many variables unique to each investor that gauging true success becomes almost impossible. This is where self-deception becomes a handy tool.  It allows us to artificially create and meet arbitrary objectives, resulting in a feeling of progress. And progress, like success, feels good. In a classic scene from the movie Meet the Parents, Owen Wilson’s do-no-wrong character asks Ben Stiller’s still-finding-himself character, “How’s your portfolio?”

As so many do, Stiller responds self-deceivingly, “I’d say strong…to quite strong.” But is it really?

Unfortunately, self-deception is all-too-often our instinctive, default response.

The Financial Industry Fosters Self-Deception

The financial industry encourages confusion among investors by offering a seemingly limitless array of solutions and strategies. These solutions are marketed in a way to foster self-deception and lead investors to believe they are pursuing real success. Unfortunately, those who manage money have an even greater incentive to deceive themselves.

Maintaining an unwavering belief in the virtues of their investment philosophy is what helps money managers continue to attract new clients. It’s an act of self-deception driven by the most powerful human impulse—self-preservation.

I have seen many gross examples of the industry’s imperative for self-preservation. Some of them border on the hilarious. Once I was invited to a conference at a swanky hotel in Las Vegas. A number of the world’s most expensive platform speakers were on the bill. It didn’t take long to see that the whole event was sponsored by a large company whose business included acting as a middleman for financial advisors that sold equity-indexed annuities (EIAs) offered by insurance companies. The company took an “override” commission on every piece of business placed, so they worked tirelessly to brainwash advisors to see themselves as “the safe money experts.”

Advisors were swept into willful blindness by the siren’s song of double-digit commissions. They eventually talked themselves—and their prospects—into justifying the sale of products with surrender charges in excess of 10% that lasted for a decade or more.

Even more dangerous, however, is a less noticeable variety of self-deception. Take the money manager, for instance, who has convinced himself (and his firm’s investment committee) that beating the S&P 500 stock index over the past 14 years was a stroke of brilliance, all the while underperforming a simple, diversified blended benchmark. For an industry that has so consistently failed to add value during the investing process on behalf of its clients and customers, self-deception may be the only way for many to get a good night’s rest.

A Better Way

Fortunately, there is a better way. Investors, advisors and money managers alike can choose intellectual honesty. We can set in place deliberate systems of accountability designed to check and balance tendencies toward self-preservation through self-deception. We can choose evidence over opinion. We can choose transparency over sleight of hand.

We can redefine success by centering our planning on the values unique to each investor, and developing an evidence-based strategy tailored to an individual’s goals and objectives.

I’m a speakerauthor and director of personal finance for the BAM Alliance. If you enjoyed this post, let me know on Twitter or Google+, and click here to receive my weekly post via email.

Back to School — Back to Financial Fundamentals for 3 Generations

Originally in ForbesAs kids head back to school, adults spanning several generations set their sites on getting their financial house back in order.  What are the most important financial planning considerations in three major demographics—Millennials, Generation X and Empty Nesters?

Millennials:  First things first – Before making any big financial commitments, like buying a house, figure out what you want life to look like.

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  • Are you in a relationship and looking to “settle down,” or do you highly value freedom and flexibility?  If the latter, you shouldn’t be buying a house or committing to a job that is geographically tethered.
  • If you’re in your twenties, the primary factor that will influence your financial success is how well you establish yourself in a career.  Invest in yourself, and that will likely help you invest more money in the future.
  • Save as much as you can in tax-qualified retirement accounts at this phase of life, because once you get settled down and have kids, your expenses will rise dramatically.
  • Don’t default to 100% equity portfolios just because you’re young.  After getting burned by the market crash of 2008, many Millennials got scared away and didn’t benefit from the subsequent market rise.  Your portfolio should likely be predominantly stocks at this age, but consider some fixed income exposure to keep from losing your shirt (and abandoning your strategy) in a downturn.

Dealing With the ‘Personal’ in Personal Finance

Originally in MoneyTo really help people, financial planners have to delve into the the feelings and emotions that drive their clients’ financial decisions. One planner explains why that’s so hard.

While most of us financial advisers want to do the best for our clients, we often struggle at the task.

The main problem, as I recently wrote: We don’t know our clients well enough. We may say that a client’s values and goals are important, but most of us don’t adequately explore these more personal (a.k.a. “touchy-feely”) parts of a client’s life.

Why is this? 

Financial-Advisor

One reason we avoid deeper discovery with clients: No matter how we’re paid—whether by commissions or fees—most of us don’t get compensated until the financial planning process has neared its end. 

3 Reasons Financial Advisors Should Court Younger Clients

Originally published CNBCLast month I attended a presentation that explored, in depth, the notable differences and financial tendencies of several generations, from the silent generation through the millennials.

The presentation described certain representative traits perceived as common among each generation and what financial advisors should consider when communicating with members of them as prospects and clients.

When discussion of the younger generations came up, I noticed advisors around the room rolling their eyes and scratching their heads. The expert at the front of the room was providing well-researched data to help us understand what is important—and less so—to these generations and how we might consider breaking through to them. 

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But, as the attention of this group of well-heeled advisors descended into a collective yawn, the presenter scurried to wrap up before answering the most important questions:

  • Why exactly should financial advisors dedicate themselves to working with younger clients?
  • Why should advisors apply valuable time and money to crafting services and messaging for a demographic niche notorious for inspiring descriptors such as “entitled,” “ungrateful” and “distrustful”?

New Report on the Cost of Kids: Reading Between the Lines

Originally in ForbesThe U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released its annual “Cost of Raising a Child” report. The news from it is really no news at all to us parents—kids are stinking expensive and growing even more so. However, if you read between the lines, there are three extremely important points that don’t show up in the executive summary:

My family outside of the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston

1)   Parents still have a choice. The USDA estimates that households with less than $61,530 in income will spend a total of $176,550 per child. Meanwhile, “middle-income parents” making between $61,530 and $106,540 each year can anticipate spending $245,340 per kid. Those blessed with household income over $106,540 should expect to spend $407,820.  

Here’s how I read these numbers: It likely costs approximately $175,000 to care for a child’s needs in today’s dollars. Beyond that, it’s our choice as parents if and how we spend additional money on our progeny. When your household income jumps from $106,000 to $107,000, the USDA isn’t holding a gun to your head and demanding that you spend an additional $162,480 per child.

It’s completely up to you, and you may choose to spend more or less than some of the USDA estimates. For example, you may choose (wisely) to spend more on one child than another for various, justifiable reasons, including each individual child’s own gifts and weaknesses. If you choose to put even one child through private school, from kindergarten through a graduate degree, you could easily spend a million bucks just for education—and college isn’t even included in the USDA’s numbers. 

The Top 10 Places Your Next Dollar Should Go

Originally in ForbesThere is no shortage of receptacles clamoring for your money each day. No matter how much money you have or make, it could never keep up with all the seemingly urgent invitations to part with it.

TOP 10 DOLLAR

Separating true financial priorities from flash impulses is an increasing challenge, even when you’re trying to do the right thing with your moola — like saving for the future, insuring against catastrophic risks and otherwise improving your financial standing. And while every individual and household is in some way unique, the following list of financial priorities for your next available dollar is a reliable guide for most.

Once you’ve spent the money necessary to cover your fixed and variable living expenses (and yes, I realize that’s no easy task for many) consider spending your additional dollars in this order: 

Make Your Career Move An Easy Job

 

Originally published CNBCYou know what has to be done, but it doesn’t make it any easier. You’ve done all the research, asked all the questions and mulled over your options, and you know that moving on from your current company is the right thing to do.

 

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You wince, imagining the look on the face of your boss and co-workers when you tell them. You’re no longer an insider, but an outsider or—worse—a competitor. Even your relationship as friends could be compromised. It’s stressful for everyone, but especially for you because ultimately it’s your choice.

As you go through your morning routine on the day you’re delivering the news to your company, every step seems more pronounced than it typically does. Maybe it’s because you recognize it could be the last time you’ll go through the paces exactly like this. Or maybe it’s because the adrenaline has already notched up in anticipation of the discussions you’re about to have with your boss and colleagues.

Indeed, along with marriage, divorce, death and personal injury, changing jobs is consistently ranked as one of the most stressful things a person can do. That stress can be substantially reduced, however, if you’re better prepared for what comes next. Here are three ways to make the most of your job transition:

1. Leave well. “It’s more important to leave well than it is to start well,” a good friend once told me. And it’s true. You’ve already made a good impression on your new company—you got the job! But while you’re heading on to new and exciting adventures, your former employer is left to deal with the rejection and cleanup from your departure.

Make it easier by offering to stay on for a reasonable period of time, but not longer. In most cases, shorter is better for all parties, as it reduces the awkwardness and hastens the healing.

Part of leaving well is preparing to deal with impulsive counterattacks mounted consciously or unconsciously by your former co-workers. Especially if you brought or maintained client relationships, the words “I’m leaving” may magically transform you from friend to foe—but let that be their choice, not yours. Take the high road whenever possible.

2. Don’t leave anything behind. Along with your personal Swingline stapler and the letter opener your parents gave you, don’t leave your 401(k) or any other transferable benefits behind.

Specifically regarding your 401(k) or other comparable plan, you typically have three options, depending on the design of the plan you’re leaving and the plan your new company offers. The first option is to leave it there; I rarely recommend this unless you’re in love with the plan investment options and pay close attention to them.

Option two is to transfer the old 401(k) into the new plan, if they allow it. This gives you the benefits of consolidation and, while rarely advisable, the ability to borrow from your plan—a provision not available in old retirement plans or IRAs.

For most, the sensible choice is to aggregate the newly antiquated 401(k) plan with other prior plans in the form of a direct rollover to an IRA. In this case, you are not limited to the investment options in the new 401(k)—options that are notoriously mediocre. Be certain to check all the right boxes to ensure that your rollover is not a taxable event.

It’s also important to take stock of any company benefits that are transferable. Although they are nearly extinct, pension plans of various sorts accrued during your tenure may do nothing for you now but could be meaningful in the future.

One client recently had a premonition that she’d left a small pension behind from a previous job. I encouraged her to call the company’s human resources department, and indeed, there was $9,000 sitting in a plan earning 3 percent per year that she can’t touch for another 15 years.

If you’re blessed enough to have annual income in excess of your saving and spending needs, you may have a qualified or non-qualified deferred compensation plan to handle. And while also rare, there are occasions in which group benefits—such as life, disability income or long-term care insurance through your company—can also be traversed to private policies with the vendor.

3. Make the most of your fresh start. Nobody’s perfect—including you. But as the saintly image of yourself you’ve been promoting to your new company starts to settle into something closer to reality, you do have an opportunity to trade some bad habits for good ones.

Take advantage of this clean slate by embracing the time-management method that’s worked so well for your friend, or finally start using a system to seize control of your email inbox.

Develop a healthier rhythm of life and work. Be careful not to overextend yourself at the beginning of the new gig, lest you set expectations you’ll never be able to live up to.

Make wise choices with your new benefits package. Increase your 401(k) contribution to the level you know you should be saving, and put sufficient time into really understanding the new investment options and determining the optimal mix for you. Don’t forget to add beneficiaries to your new 401(k) plan and any group life-insurance coverage in the new benefits package.

As you review your group benefits—especially health, life and long-term disability-income insurance—be sure to actually understand them and acknowledge whether or not you should be supplementing them privately. (You can be almost sure that the base level of free life and disability-income insurance is insufficient.)

Consider opening your mind to a high-deductible health plan, which gives you the option to utilize a Health Savings Account (HSA). Many assume this is too complicated or costly, especially if you have a young family, but even in that case, this can be a great way to make nearly all of your household medical expenses tax deductible.

While certainly stressful, a job change navigated well can be an amazing personal and professional launchpad—especially when you leave on good terms, don’t leave anything behind and take full advantage of the fresh start.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter at @TimMaurer, and if you’d like to receive my weekly post via email, click HERE.

Tim Maurer, a certified financial planner, is director of personal finance at the BAM Alliance and an adjunct faculty member at Towson University. He has co-written two books with best-selling author Jim Stovall. Their most recent release is “The Ultimate Financial Plan: Balancing Your Money and Life.” 

 

What You Can Learn From Bill Gross And PIMCO’s Troubles

Originally in Forbes“Trouble. Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble.” Reading all the news about Bill Gross and PIMCO, I keep hearing that Ray LaMontagne song in my head. (Go ahead—give it a listen while you read this, just for fun.)

The king of bonds isn’t yet abdicating the throne, but it’s been a rough stretch since PIMCO came down from the mountain to translate the etchings on the “New Normal” tablets. It was, of course, hard to argue the logic in 2009, that U.S. markets would struggle under the weight of a sluggish economy hampered by high unemployment and systemic government debt. But as it often does in the face of supposed certainty, the market defied man’s expectations.

EGO

Time Is More Precious Than Money

As the Fed has taught us through the money-printing machine cloaked as quantitative easing, the potential supply of U.S. dollars is limitless. Even for most of us individually, we are capable, to varying degrees, of generating and regenerating money through work, investment and happenstance.

Time, however, is a different story.

Thanks to Emily Rooney for permission to feature her artwork

Thanks to Emily Rooney for permission to feature her artwork

It brings to mind these lyrics: “Where you invest your love, you invest your life,” croons Marcus Mumford in the song “Awake My Soul” on Mumford & Sons’ debut album, “Sigh No More.”

Sure, musicians are notorious for writing lyrics because they sound self-important, or maybe simply because they rhyme, but Mumford has earned a reputation for lyrical brilliance and offers us something deep and meaningful here to apply in our lives and finances.

No matter how much we strive, delegate and engineer for efficiency, there are only 24 hours in each day. We are unable to manufacture more time, and once a moment has passed, it is beyond retrieval.

Of these 24 hours each day, if we assume that we will sleep, work and commute for approximately 17 of them, that leaves us with a measly seven hours to apply ourselves to loftier pursuits. After an hour at the gym, an hour to eat and another hour to decompress with a book or TV show, we’re down to four hours to personally affect those for whom we are presumably working and staying healthy—the people we love.

Our human capacity to love also has its limits.

While not measurable, we can all acknowledge that our capacity to love, in the four hours each day that we have to invest it, is affected by how we’ve invested the other 20 hours. By the “end” of many days, we are just beginning our four hours, and we are already spent. Even if we wanted to, we have nothing left to give—no love left to invest.

I am a chief offender of misallocating my love.

I often allow the four hours I have to give to my wife, Andrea, and two boys, Kieran (10) and Connor (8), to shrink to three, two or even one. In whatever time is allocated, I often serve leftover love, having over-invested myself throughout the day. Then I steal from their time, interrupting it with “important” emails and calls.

I must acknowledge that these are choices I make.

We have the choice to order our loves, to acknowledge the limited nature of time and our own capacity, and to prioritize our work and life.

It’s entirely appropriate to love our work and the people we serve through it. It’s entirely appropriate to love ourselves and to do what is necessary to be physically, fiscally, psychologically and spiritually healthy. It’s entirely appropriate to love our areas of service and civic duty, and to serve well. Therefore, almost paradoxically, it’s entirely appropriate to spend 83 percent of our daily allotment of time in pursuits other than the direct edification of those we love the most.

But what would our lives look like if we engineered our days to make the very most of the other four hours?

Would we have a different job? Would we live in a different house or part of the country? Would we drive a different car? Would we say “no” to some people more and to other people less? Would we invest our time and money differently?

Would you invest your love differently?

I’m excited to be part of a contingent of financial advisors asking these questions of our clients (and ourselves).  We don’t believe that the only way to benefit our clients is through their portfolios, and we believe that asset allocation involves more than mere securities.

This isn’t a particularly new concept.  Indeed, the second phase of the six-step financial planning process, as articulated in the Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®) practice standards, is to “determine a client’s personal and financial goals, needs and priorities.”  But thought leaders like Rick Kahler, Ted Klontz, Carol Anderson, George Kinder, Carl Richards and Larry Swedroe are persistently nudging the notoriously left-brained financial realm to reconcile with its creative and intuitive side for the benefit of our clients.

With statistics suggesting that as many as 80% of financial planning recommendations are not implemented by clients, it’s officially time to recognize that personal finance is more personal than it is finance.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter at @TimMaurer, and if you’d like to receive my weekly post via email, click HERE.

Study Reveals Investing Is Hazardous To Your Health

Investing Hazard-01I don’t need to inform you that investing is dangerous business.  You already know in your gut what Joseph Engelberg and Christopher Parsons at U.C. San Diego found in their new study, that there is a noticeable correlation between market gyrations and our mental and physical health.

But when do you think the financial industry will get the point?

Shortly after I became a financial advisor, I was given a book to commit to memory.  It told me what my role in life would be: To make a very good living helping approximately 250 families stay in the stock market.

The text insisted that regardless of my client’s age or risk temperament, it would be in their best interest to be—and stay—in stocks, exclusively and forevermore.  I was the doctor; they were the patients.  I was the ark-builder; they were the—you get the point.

The book might even be right.

But…

The Behavior Gap

My friend and New York Times contributor, Carl Richards, has been drawing a particular picture for years.  He’s struck by the research acknowledging the noticeable difference between investment rates of return and what investors actually make in the markets.  (Investors make materially less.)

Investors, it appears, allow emotions to drive their investing decisions.  A desire to make more money causes them to choose aggressive portfolios when times are good, but a gripping fear leads them to abandon the cause in down markets, missing the next upward cycle.

Investors buy high and sell low.

Well-meaning advisors, then, including the author of the book I referenced, have claimed their collective calling to be the buffer between their clients’ money and their emotions.  Unfortunately, it’s not working.

Maybe it’s because the intangible elements of life are so tightly woven into the tangible that we can’t optimally segregate them.

Maybe it’s because we’re not actually supposed to forcibly detach our emotions from our rational thought.

Maybe it’s because financial advisors and investing gurus should focus less on blowing the doors off the benchmark du jour and more on generating solid long-term gains from portfolios designed to be lived with.

Livable portfolios.

Portfolios designed to help clients stay in the game.

Portfolios designed to help clients (and advisors) avoid falling prey to the behavior gap.

Portfolios calibrated with a higher emphasis on capital preservation.

How much less money do you make, anyway, when you dial up a portfolio’s conservatism?

The Same Return With Less Risk

In his book, How to Think, Act, and Invest Like Warren Buffett, index-investing aficionado, Larry Swedroe, writes, “Instead of trying to increase returns without proportionally increasing risk, we can try to achieve the same return while lowering the risk of the portfolio.”

Using indexing data from 1975 to 2011, Swedroe begins with a standard 60/40 model—60% S&P 500 Index and 40% Five-Year Treasury Notes.  It has an annualized rate of return of 10.6% over that stretch and a standard deviation (a measurement of volatility—portfolio ups and downs.) of 10.8%.

Next, Swedroe begins stealing from the S&P 500 slice of the pie to diversify the portfolio with a bias toward small cap, value and international exposure (with a pinch of commodities).  The annualized return is boosted to 12.1% while the standard deviation rises proportionately less, to 11.2%.  (Remember, this is still a 60/40 portfolio with 40% in five-year treasuries.)

But here’s where Swedroe pulls the rabbit out of the hat:  He re-engineers the portfolio, flipping to a 40/60 portfolio, proportionately reducing all of his equity allocations and boosting his T-notes to 60% of the portfolio.  The net result is a portfolio with a 10.9% annualized rate of return—slightly higher than the original 60/40 portfolio—with a drastically lower standard deviation of 7.9%

Same return.  Less Risk.

This, of course, is all hypothetical.  This happened in the past, and for many reasons, it may not happen again.  These illustrations are not a recommended course of action for you or your advisor, but instead a demonstration that it is possible—and worth the effort—to work to this end.

Because we can’t keep hiding from the following logical thread:

1)   Volatile markets increase investor stress (even to the point of physical illness).

2)   Heightened investor stress leads to bad decisions—by both investors and advisors—that reduce investor returns.

3)   Market analysis suggests that portfolios can be engineered to maintain healthy long-term gains, while at the same time dramatically reducing the intensity of market gyrations.

How could we not, then, conclude that more investors would suffer less stress, thereby reducing (hopefully eliminating) their behavior gap, thereby allowing investors to hold on to more of their returns?

Isn’t that the point?

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter at @TimMaurer, and if you’d like to receive my weekly post via email, click HERE.