Saturday, February 26, 2011

Retirement Planning: Companies are Still Trying

Such is the conundrum of the 401(k). Your retirement planning tool is showing signs of increased balances even as some of the experiments to get people to invest more - via auto-enrollment - is as Aon Hewitt suggests, somewhat sub-optimal.

Auto-enrollment was supposed to get all boats to rise. New workers who knew little about this sort of plan to help them save for retirement were automatically enrolled in their new employer's defined contribution plan. But these new investors did not respond as the industry thought they would. Pamela Hess, director of retirement research at Aon Hewitt suggested in a January 26th press release from the company: "Auto-enrollment is a relatively simple and effective way for companies to help workers plan for retirement—especially younger workers who may not feel the immediate pressure to save for retirement." And yet, once in the plan, these new workers, often referred to as the Gen Y investor, failed to follow through on the effort with interest of their own.

Companies are still trying
It is not as if the companies aren't trying. Designed to simplify the investment decision process, more than half of the companies surveyed attempted to educate these new workers, appealing to this younger investor with the offer of online investment guidance coupled with online investment advice and managed accounts. Compared to 2010, when just 28 percent of employers offered managed accounts, this is a noticeable increase in what is often considered the most basic of fiduciary responsibilities.

Plan sponsors are undaunted by the lackluster use of these plans and continue to offer additional levels of services which include investment modeling and even attempts at profiling how what you have accumulated will be spent down once their employees do retire. Younger employees seem to accept the target date fund, the primary choice for the auto-enrollment effort despite the questions surrounding the viability and transparency of these funds.

Reinstating the matching contribution has helped some of these plans. By the end of 2010, in the wake of the Great Recession, 23% of the companies had stopped or lowered the amount of money the plans contributed. Over half have decided to add these matching contributions back to the plan in 2011 with about 18% of the 23% who stopped toying with the idea of bringing the matching contribution back.

Other incentives to get these workers to contribute more to their 401(k) plans are not so much incentives as elimination of other benefits that future retirees once banked on for their retirement. Fewer companies offer medical benefits to their employees and some have even raised the current cost of health insurance to employees to offset the cost of helping with retirement, a trade-off that seems counterproductive. Others have simply frozen their pension plans pushing workers to seek the alternative self-directed method of ensuring a secure retirement.

Some of these moves have actually forced the employee to invest more and the latest numbers published by Fidelity point to an increase in the average balance in these plans. yet the average balances, now estimated at the 2010 year end were still far below where they actually needed to be. If you had invested steadily over the last decade, your balance, according to Fidelity is around $180,000. If you are within fifteen years of retirement, you are still hundreds of thousands of dollars away from what is often considered the optimal balance.

The 14, 16, 18 Rule
For most investors - I prefer this term to overused "saving for retirement" - the accumulated balance in these plans should equal 14 times your last year's salary. Aon Hewitt points to a need for 16% of the salary of the 31 to 45 year old group as the goal, which includes the total amount of available benefits such as Social Security and any pension plans they might have. Because the youngest workers can count less on these additional sources of income for retirement, they will need 18% of their salary to make retirement comfortable.

If plan participants at Fidelity are any indication, these plans are moving in the right direction. Over a million people involved with the Fidelity offerings have accessed their online tools or simply called for advice. According to Beth McHugh, vice president of market insights at Fidelity, the answer to how much you will need still depends on the worker taking control of the plans. She suggests "At the end of the day saving at appropriate levels, saving continuously and ensuring that you have the appropriate asset allocation are the most critical components to help ensure that you have sufficient savings for retirement."

But contribution levels still remain lower than they should be. The average participant has increased their contribution, but from a paltry 4% to a better 7%. Yet this increase is still far from what the investment and retirement community would like to see workers contribute. Add to that the lack of portfolio diversification once they are in the plan, little effort by the participants to rebalance on a regular basis and for older workers, adequately defining the risks they are taking with those investments all increase the chances that these plans are not doing as well as they could.

Some of the uncertainty of retirement needs may be the problem. Not knowing the impact of taxes (although there has been an increase in the amount of Roth 401(k) options in many plans) and the negative effect of inflation. workers are underestimating what they might need and if they are making educated guesses on that number, taking too many risks too close to retirement to try an offset those issues.

The Selfish Approach
Perhaps the worker should instead frame the plan in a more realistic way. Most advice offered on how these plans should be spent down once you retire involve a suggestion that returns on the plan in a post-employment environment should be all that the retiree tap. This avoidance of using capital - in other words protecting the balance in the plan at all costs, may have created a greater worker angst than is needed.

Focusing on preserving wealth as an heirloom is not how these plans should be calculated. In a era of less, the retirement planning employee should be focusing on what they will need first and not so much on what they might leave to their heirs. While prudent lifestyles are still a great help - both prior to and after they retire - being selfish in your projections is not necessarily a bad thing.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Retirement Planning: DCA matters - right?

There is a school of thought circulating that dollar cost averaging is not smart investing. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it is how your 401(k) plan works and why it works so well. You essentially make a contribution determination - usually a percentage of income which is taken before taxes ore levied - and each paycheck, you buy share of whatever investment you have chosen in your retirement account.

The concept is basically simple enough for most every investor to understand, even embrace. One, the investment is steady and in many cases affordable and painless. Because of its automatic nature, you need only check your statement every quarter to make sure the money went into the account and went where it was supposed to go.

DCA also benefits the average retirement investor with some control over the numerous errors that plague most investors. By doling out money evenly, your investments are bought based on affordability and not on the decision of the herd. Herd decision making relies on following the rest ofthe investors as they sell or buy and experience with this sort of mentality suggests that they usually buy when the markets are on the way up and sell as they descend.

DCA does something unique. It allows the investor to buy less as the herd buys more and to buy more as the herd sells. Imagine a share of a mutual fund costing a dollar. You allocate one dollar of your paycheck and you buy one share. But the market goes up and the share now costs $2. DCA restricts your enthusiasm at joining the herd and allows you to only buy one-half a share. the shares you already own have increased in value so you aren't missing the upswing. You just aren't throwing more money at something that may be over valued.

Now imagine the opposite happening. The share falls in value to 50 cents. Your dollar buys two shares and while it is true, your other shares have lost value in the process, the investment thinking here is that over the long-term, there will be more upsides than downsides. This means that you will be buying the same share at a discount.

Are there any downsides to this investment strategy? Some think so. One gentleman I was discussing this with suggested that folks using a 401(k) plan should never forget that this is investing. I couldn't agree with him more on that point. He went on to say that even the most passive investing requires some diligence and dollar cost averaging takes that diligence away. That is a downside but not an insurmountable one.

He thought that all of the money in a given year should be sent to the most conservative fund available in the employee's 401(k) and then redistributed to funds that are doing better. While this may work for some people, few of us know how mutual funds operate, whether the markets are favorable or not and often we find out after the markets have made the decision for us, and lastly, our 401(k) do supply the rapid response some of this thinking implies.

It does require a skill level and command of all of the emotions and biases that plague even seasoned investors. It obligates us to be better educated - but for most of us, we need time to get to that point. It is always my hope that we do attempt to become better acquainted with the way our money is being invested. But in the mean time, the concept of dollar cost averaging serves far too many of the average investors too well to be discarded.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Cassandras are talking about Munis

If you are a municipal bond investor, you have done either one of two things. Believed the recent rhetoric about the imminent bankruptcy of numerous large American cities and with thosebankruptcies, a default on the municipal bonds they have issued or do not believe that this can happen.
Those that believe have been reported as selling their investments, divesting almost a third of what was invested in these securities since November of last year. This makes less knowledgeable investors skittish to say the least and worried - as all bond investors tend to be - that you will ve left holding what are essentially worthless securities.

Volatility has been seen in this market and if Vanguard's recent withdrawal from the muni ETF market is any indication, you might be right. But some logical evidence points to other reasons why this is overblown.

Many 30-year AAA tax-free bonds now yield over 5%. These ratings are key to the quality of these bonds. Lower ratings mean higher yield offerings and with it, an outward indication that risk exists. But if you are in the top federal tax bracket, you’d have to earn almost 8% in a taxable bond to get that kind of after-tax yield. In this interest rate environment, that’s nothing to sniff at.

Plus, municipal bond issuance will drop to $350 billion this year from $430 billion last year. If you took Economics 101, you know that decreasing supply generally firms prices up.

The extension of the Bush era tax cuts do play a role as do the slumping US Treasury rates. Some experts, Bill Gross, the man who manages Pimco investments recently declared, “I don’t subscribe to the theory that there will be lots of municipal bankruptcies.”

Panic creates the illusion that there are bubbles in certain markets, municipal bond markets not excluded. Ignoring risks make people worry more than they should. The bottom line: there is volatility in every investment and the chance you will lose money. But municipal bonds will not default  en masse anytime soon. Unless of course, the economy fails to recover.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tell Me a Lie: Retirement Planning and the High Net Worth Boomer

You would like to think that we are all truthful. But that may not be the case. Are Baby Boomers, more specifically those considered high net worth, telling a story about their retirement that isn't quite truthful?

Oscar Wilde probably said it best: "What we have to do, what at any rate it is our duty to do, is to revive the old art of Lying.” Nowhere is this resurgence in the falsehood more prevalent than when we tell a surveyor about our finances. When they look extremely bleak, we tell them they look even worse. When they look okay, we tell them they are really good. It is in our natures to tell lies considering we do it when we smile.

Evidently, a group of wealthy Baby Boomers told a survey group from Bank of America/Merrill Lynch that their retirement not only looked promising but was much better than their parent's retirement was. This is pretty lofty talk from a group that just a couple of years ago was not one bit happy with where their portfolios had gone in the wake of the financial meltdown. Now, $250,000 in investable asets is enough to warrant such retirement superlatives as "freedom" and "relaxation".

What changed? True the markets recovered over the ensuing couple of years. But I doubt that this had anything to do with it. many of these folks, like all age and wealth groups did, panicked at the sudden rebalancing of their portfolios by market forces. Unaccustomed to an all-inclusive debacle, many moved into much more conservative type investments and in the process, created their own mini-bubble in the bond market.

The rest of us moved into target date funds, a sketchy hybrid of funds designed to rebalance our aggressive natures for us. If you are older, the fund you plopped the remaining balance of your 401(k) is close to your age - so you too may have benefited from the updraft of conservatively invested enthusiasm. I wrote about this relationship with the bond market a couple of days ago suggesting that if their isn't a bubble in the bond market, it is because it won't pop when it reaches the end of its run; it'll hiss itself into normalcy.

It may be that this group has a better restructuring plan in place or they are simply lying to themselves - and the surveyors. Consider this: $250,000 in investable assets was consider the borderline between the rest of us schmucks and the high-net worth individual. I'm sure that this number is not even close to the actual investable assets these people had. It is our carrot.

One thing that stands out with the group surveyed is the change in attitude about what retirement is. They mostly believe working in retirement is a way to stay physically and mentally engaged. And for many, it is. For those with less than $250,000 in investable assets, it often isn't the case.

But these high-net worth folks worry about the same things you do: the cost of health care, the cost of children still living at home and that there portfolios, no matter how well managed, might not be enough. So they smile when they say they have it better than their parents and do so while lying about how much better.

And these high-net worth folks are not short on advice, even if they didn't take their own. Get a financial adviser as early as possible, they suggest and of course start early. Good pieces of hindsight advice that they were told as they began their working careers - and didn't follow.

About this advice to use financial advisers earlier. Then there was a survey conducted in 2006, when things were going great: housing values were appreciating, the markets were humming along, and early retirement was well within reach or it was assumed to be. And the results show a complete turnaround in thinking from then to now.

Back then - keep in mind these were the good times - another survey was published: In it, the following: "According to a new MyWay Investment Advisors (MWIA - an independent financial planning and investment advisory firm) survey, 98% of respondents would change the way they work with their advisor with 43% saying they wanted to change the amount they paid for the financial advice and services. This compares to only 13% of advisors who would look to improve how they currently operate, including pricing for clients.. The survey focused on how individuals would like to be treated by their financial advisor or investment professional and how they would like to pay for those services.

"The survey targeted the individuals with annual incomes greater than $75,000 and $150,000 to $600,000 in invested assets, including 401Ks. A duplicate survey was sent to financial planners, investment managers, insurance sales people and other financial industry professionals to compare responses." Why has this advice changed? Pricing and the way pricing is structured has evolved. Yet the higher the net worth, no matter what you pay, you pay more than you should.

So which is the truth? Are they happy now or were they happy then? The most telling piece of info coming from that survey: "When it comes to financial advice, however, financial advisors isn't where most of those surveyed go for information. Only 27% utilize financial advisors while over half (56%) get advice from a friend, publications or on their own.

"Of those that have a financial advisor, only 18% are happy with him or her. a whopping 56% say they are dissatisfied and 23% still have not made a decision."

This means one thing. We can no longer look to those we consider net-worth wealthy for guidance in how to become net-worth wealthy ourselves. Retirement has become a reality and an illusion. It is something we want and fear, something we strive for and are repelled by, something that is both possible and impossible. Yes it is a conundrum.

But it is your puzzle to figure out. And the simplest way to do that is figure out if you are willing to live on less than you have now. You don't need a financial adviser to tell you that you probably haven't invested enough. You know that you are probably wrangling more debt that you would like. You know that your contribution to your 401(k) is les than it should be. And you know that your goals concerning retirement are lofty than they are on paper.

Your balance sheet needs to be revisited and often. You need to double your 401(k) contribution now, no matter what age you are. There are numerous, almost painless ways of doing this including channeling the tax relief on your Social Security payroll tax (2% for the next two years) or simply increasing your contribution by 1% for every month of the upcoming year. You have the pieces to solve this puzzle. It all depends on how much you want to lie. The rich can. So can you.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of