Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Your Retirement Plan in 2012

This article originally appeared at and was written by Paul Petillo

"Time is free, but it's priceless. You can't own it, but you can use it. You can't keep it, but you can spend it. Once you've lost it you can never get it back." Harvey MacKay

One of the key elements in any financial transaction is time. If you want to retire, you must consider the amount of time. If you want to borrow, how long you have to pay it back can be translated into dollars and cents. Investing; timing they suggest can't be down but is important nonetheless.

If you are twenty, time is on your side. If you are thirty, there is time left. If you are forty, time is of the essence. If you are fifty, time is running out. If you are sixty, where has the time gone. And older than that, time is no longer on your side. It accompanies us through life like some dark passenger. It reflect back on us from the mirror. And when we look at our retirement plan, it stares at us without guilt or shame. Time is the truth.

When I first began writing these predictions, and I've been churning out these year end ditties for over a decade, many were laced with optimism, some with an urging that we learn the lesson and move forward armed with knowledge of past mistakes, and still others were exercises in reality. In 2012, we have some opportunities and some problems awaiting us, left on the table as we symbolically turn the calendar wiping out 2011. But it won't leave quietly.

So I have a few thoughts about what you can do - resolutions of sorts but not the drastic sort we make and break almost within hours of promising ourselves at midnight.

Increase your contribution I start with this obvious chant for two reasons: you aren't making a large enough contribution and two, I would be remiss in not telling you this right from the start. And I'm not just speaking to those with a 401(k).

There are the millions of you who are forced to (and because of that are not likely to) finance your own retirement through an individual retirement account. We lament at the worker who literally only has to sign up at his workplace and doesn't. And far too often, we say little about the person who has to sign-up (after finding a fund), commit with a fortitude that is somewhat lacking and to contribute some of their paycheck via direct deposit every week or month. That effort, it seems is a much more involved hurdle.

In 2012, the investment world will be little changed. It will roil and confuse and gyrate and possibly even nose dive - just as it has for decades. It will react to news - if not from Europe form China or even the presidential elections (which ironically tend to be excellent years to invest). This will have you second-guessing your investments. But this will only apply if you have no idea how much risk you can take.

Pay attention to diversification You may not be capable of rebalancing, the act of making sure that your investments are directed evenly across many investments. This is much harder than it seems. As long as you are involved - and that is YOU in capitals - the struggle to keep balance will not get any easier.

For the vast majority of us, mutual funds will be the investment vehicle of choice. These investments will see more movement towards fee reductions. Which is a good thing. Fees will and always have been a subtraction of gains. This makes an excellent argument for indexing.

Choosing six index funds across the following cross-sections of the markets will not solve the problem of rebalancing (some will do better than others) but it will provide diversification. Index the largest companies (an S&P 500 fund), a mid-cap fund (the next 400 companies in size), small-caps (the next 2000), an international fund (an index of the largest countries (those with established banking systems even if they are currently troubled and will continue to be so in 2012), an emerging market fund (after international funds, the most risky) and a bond index (one that covers as much fixed income as possible).

Some of you will wonder if exchange traded funds (ETF) wouldn't be just as good if not better than simple indexing. In 2012, ETFs will continue to drill down ever deeper into sectors of the markets that add risk along with the illusion of an index. ETFs will become more actively managed in 2012 offering you more risk at a lower cost. Cheap doesn't mean better. 2012 will be year of the ETF. If you are unsure what these investments are, consider this conversation I had with David Abner of Financial Impact Factor Radio recently to help explain what these investments are and how they work.

Focus on your financial well-being This refers to your credit score. It continues to impact your financial future and will become increasingly harder to ignore. A new credit rating service agency will add to the difficulty in 2012 and not only will the current scoring impact costs such as insurance, it will seek to trace the breadcrumbs of your financial life more thoroughly that the big three do.

There is little likelihood that the job market will increase as many of our returning troops will flood the marketplace, taking numerous jobs from your kids just out of college. Which means another year with your kids at home. The only answer to this problem is to continue to tighten down your budgets in 2012. As I mentioned earlier: "If you are forty, time is of the essence. If you are fifty, time is running out. If you are sixty, where has the time gone."

And you must do this understanding that inflation - not the reported number but the real number in your grocery bill - will still chip away at your wealth. This means you will move in two opposite directs in 2012: saving and investing more for your fleeting future (at least 6% but 10% would be best) and spending less in the present (easy of you don't use credit).

And the housing market will improve for those who have repaired any damaged credit or who have saved enough of a down payment to buy a house. people are still buying and selling. These people have found that while the market is not accessible to all, it is for those that have done right by their personal finances.

Do all of that this may not seem like a new year - but it will be a better year!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Seeing Retirement with a Financial Planner

On the surface, financial planning has remained the same. You are looking for a path to retirement that will provide you with a secure future, a worry-free post-work life. And financial planners offer you their service as a guide on that journey. But choosing the right one seems to have become more difficult as the industry has converted itself into what they think is more user friendly. How do you chose? 

There was time in the not-too-distant past when financial planners were catering to only the elite investor, one who is already versed in the concept of spending money to keep money. These richer clients understood that making money was the easy part; keeping it on the other hand was tougher. The sort of planners these folks hired were asset-based. This means that if you had wealth, for a percentage of those assets, they would invest to keep it.

They had an interest, albeit conflicted, in keeping your money in motion. Not only would they get a portion of your returns, they might also receive pay from the very products they were suggesting you use. Beyond these conflicts, which have obvious pluses and minuses, their interest was in the growth of your portfolio. They did attempt to cultivate a long-term relationship and the way they constructed their business with ease of access to conversations. And they knew that if they did a good job, they wouldn't hear from you until you stumbled across some idea on your own. They might at the point weigh the option against their own self-interest: less money to manage because, for instance you thought a life insurance policy was a good idea for your estate, would be less of a percentage of the total wealth under management.

Until, of course, things go awry. When the markets nose-dived in 2008, not only did economists and financial students miss the event, but so did financial planners. This exposed to some of these wealthy clients the fallibility of their skills. Paying as much as 2% of the net worth of their portfolios and at the same time, losing value the same as someone who didn't pay anyone for advice, brought the industry to rethink their approach.

Enter the flat-fee financial planner. This seemed like the logical choice for those with not a lot of money but the same needs as those who had much more: they wanted to keep it. The question is, without the incentive to make more based on the strength of the portfolio, it seemed as if this was simply window-dressing planning - they charged a flat fee for people who didn't need a lot of ongoing advice and they didn't offer more than was needed.

Storefront financial planners popped up everywhere. They would take your plan, reconstruct it and channel you into other products, some you might not need. They might suggest refinancing (and they could help). They might restructure your life insurance needs (and they could help). They might steer you towards an annuity (and they could help there as well).

And once that was done and you seemed set, they made money on the commissions these product brought in and did so under the guise that it was all in your best interest. Sometimes it was. The problem was that this yearly or twice yearly visit could cost upwards of $1,000. This might be a good investment for those who are in relatively stable shape. But for many who sought this sort of advice, the money might have been better spent elsewhere.

The next phase of advice giving came as a result of the downturn. While many people lost a great deal of investable net worth, some had un-investable assets. the may have had muh of their net worth tied up in their business for instance, an asset but not one that would be considered liquid. These assets, while seemingly under management would be considered when any advice was given. The concept of protection although came at a cost that sometimes is twice that of the fee-based planner.

The advent of the hourly based financial planner seemed to be a good solution. Much like the service provided by lawyers, the concept of the clock-running seemed to be a good idea for some people. They paid for what they received. The relationship was even more important here than in many of the other types of planning scenarios: planners were paid by the hour so they kept that meter running. Call with a question: and the meter clocked the time. Stop by with a concern: and the meter clocked the visit even as they chatted up your personal life.

Removing the asset-based incentive will keep your financial planner working longer on your plan with results that aren't often eventful. None of this suggests that this group isn't without merit. Far too many people equate the time they spend making money as more fruitful than time spent keeping it. They could, in almost every instance, find the same solutions on their own. Ironically, they could save money by investing some of their own time.

Evan Esar, American humorist who once quipped: "The mint makes it first; it's up to you to make it last." Keep in mind, credentials play a role. Start with the certified financial planner designation and move towards the references. Even if someone you know recommends a planner, do your own background check. Ironically, once you satisfied your inner skeptic, calculate the amount of hours you did and the amount of hours after-the-fact that you questioned your decision.

On today's Financial Impact Factor Radio with Paul PetilloDave Kittredge and Dave Ng we discuss the role financial planners can play in your retirement planning. Even as the industry surrounding advice has shifted to a more consumer friendly format, it has become more difficult to chose the right financial planner for the task.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Your Retirement, Your Estimations

I understand that it is difficult to sum up all of the issues facing our quest for retirement, from our biases to having to participate in a market that seems almost impossible to embrace. So for the sake of this discussion: Here's the problem facing Baby Boomers. 

Paul Barnes wrote in 1987 that the reason ratios (percentages are used ) is a mathematical one "and is basically used to facilitate comparison by adjusting for size".  What he quickly pointed out was that their use is "only good if the ratios possess the appropriate statistical properties for handling and summarizing the data". It is why, when the information culled from a recent Wells Fargo survey expressed as a percentage, that 25% of the adult population would need to work into their eighties, a postponement of retirement that has become newsworthy of late. The survey even suggested that they accepted the fact.

Now we have always been barraged with percentages: 10% off this, we are the 99%ers that, the markets down such-and-such a percentage for month, the quarter, the year. Whatever it is, it blurs some distinct realities by ignoring, as Mr. Barnes suggested, some important data. And we don't need to go far beyond our own observations to find the underlying reasons why some people (25% evidently) are not retiring historically.

Let's start with the unemployment rate. Expressed as a percentage, perhaps because of the space needed to write such a large number over and over, it is hovering at 8.6%, give or take a re-estimate or revision. And quickly you will be told that to add in the disparaged worker, the underemployed person or even the fully employed person who is getting less and the percentage of people who will not be able to retire based on the typical timeline of a thirty year or even forty year career this number becomes almost impossible to calculate. Estimates push the real unemployment rate to around 14%. If you are older and long past the benefit-of-time growing your savings and a stat in this group, the trouble with these numbers can be even more devastating.

Let's from there move towards the participation rate in 401(k) plans. Or better, how about we look at the number of 401(k) plans there are, which is less than 50% of the workplaces. And that is only for those who don't have access to a 401(k). those percentages get worse when you consider that more than half of this group doesn't do a single thing to prepare for retirement.

And what about the folks that do have a 401(k)? Participation rates are up in some surveys, down in others. Chances are, if you were just hired, you were auto-enrolled in your company's plan. Recent numbers suggest that 90% of those newly hired chose to not opt out. While that is a headline number, the 10% who chose not to participate is more worrisome and adds to the quarter who will not have enough for retirement - although they may not be old enough to embrace the full consequence of that decision. But even auto-enrollment has its problems as two-thirds of those who are automatically enrolled don't do anything to adjust the default investment the plan picked.

Pamela Hess, director of retirement research at Hewitt Associates suggests that "Most employees who are automatically enrolled tend to stick with the employer-provided default contribution rate, so simply getting them into the 401(k) plan at a minimal contribution rate isn't going to help them meet their long-term retirement needs." That minimal contribution rate is often 3% and not close to adequate. In fact, in the larger picture, less that sixty percent of those who are in a plan contribute more than 5% of their pre-tax pay.

Ms. Hess believes that  "Companies should strongly consider increasing the default contribution rate and coupling automatic enrollment with contribution escalation, which automatically increases employee contributions to the 401(k) plan and helps get them to a better savings rate over time." Auto-escalation has helped, a method of putting some or all of the employee's raises into the plan but unless the worker understands the implications of failing to do so, they often don't opt for this benefit.

I have pointed out before that the recovery will need jobs that people want to stay in long enough to benefit from the company match. As much lip service as these plans offer when they match the contribution, vesting is still an issue. Some workers may be deciding to not stay long enough to get the matched contribution, a period that usually last five years and decide to not bother. And many who slashed their contributions have not returned to offering them, pushing participation down in their plans even for those who are fully vested. If these businesses have restored the match, they have often cut benefits elsewhere making the choice of contributing more a financial one with a harsh reality.

So when a survey crosses the retirement radar suggesting that 25% of us are planning to work into our eighties, the number misses some key data. Workers who suggest that a retirement number - a dollar amount base on any number of formulae - is what will determine their time of retirement, the estimates they embrace may be outsized. 
These folks fret over the stock market and construct a worse-case scenario for what might happen if the gains they had hoped for fail to materialize.

And then they turn around and overestimate their comfort zone, attempting to replicate exactly what they have now. Here is where they become discouraged. Previous generations of retirees had something we never had: modest outlooks. Skip back just three generations and the elderly were likely to move in with children in retirement.

When the numbers tell only part of the truth, as if shining a narrow beam of light and describing what it illuminates is all that matters to the discussion, we need to refocus and see what we've been missing. Retiring can still happen when it should - which is when you want and not when your retirement account statement says so based on some target. So embracing a time, which 20% of the surveyed did, is a much more realistic parameter. 
The only question left is how can you do it?

Two answers are worth repeating: you need to become a little more austere in your fifties and save more, much more. The reality of the harsh regime will stiffen your resolve for when work is not what you want to do. It is practice with a safety net. the second is readjusting your expectations and plan for those realities. The investment you make to mentally prepare yourself for this less-than-what-you-had-previously-planned retirement is still a plan and will work. And if its any comfort, the data shows that too many don't even have that!