Don’t Make these Financial Mistakes

The world is going through a very difficult phase. Everywhere we are hearing that we need to get adjusted to the ‘new normal’. Nothing is normal as it used to be. Children are not able to go to schools.   Most people are working from home.  Healthcare professionals are working day and night for the recovery of people who get COVID-19.  In this situation, it’s quite natural that the economic situation is not good. Many people have lost jobs or are facing pay cuts and experts are predicting that an economic recession will set in.  We don’t have any control over this situation. But, what we can do is safeguard our finances, as much as we can, and avoid financial mistakes during this COVID-19 financial emergency.

Here are a few financial mistakes you should avoid.

Satisfying Wants to Avoid Boredom

Have you been browsing online shopping websites and ordering items? Is it because you need them or just to avoid boredom?

When the lockdown started, people were stockpiling grocery items. Now focus has shifted to buying items like clothes, books, entertainment things, and so on. So, in both situations, people are overspending.

But, now is not the time to do so. Rather, you should try to save as much as you can. We will discuss how to save more later in this article.

If you are getting bored at home, nurture a hobby (hopefully an inexpensive one). Do something which you’ve always wanted but didn’t get time to do so. If you wish, you can also do some online jobs as per your liking.

Following the Same Budget

Are you following your budget? You might say that you’re following it and saving. Good! But it’s a mistake. You’ll ask why? Because it’s necessary to re-assess your budget in light of the current situation and make modifications if required. If you’ve done that, well done!

If you still have income, it is time to save as much as possible. Doing so, you can be prepared for any future rainy days. If you save more, you won’t have to worry as much about losing your job. You know that you’ll be able to sustain yourself for a few months.

You can practice frugal budgeting to save more. Frugal budgeting doesn’t mean you’ll have to compromise with eating healthy or compromise with your life; it means to cut unnecessary expenses and increase your savings.

Overspending that Doesn’t Fit in your Budget

It is better to avoid buying big-ticket items during this time. Try to delay satisfying your wants for the time being.

To illustrate the previous point, let me highlight a survey conducted in January 2020 in Nebraska by First National Bank of Omaha.  It showed that about 50% of people in our country have a pay check to pay check lifestyle. So, it becomes quite tough to meet daily necessities when they face job loss, which has happened during this pandemic.

Therefore, you should try to have a good cash reserve. To do so, you need to save more and keep the amount in a high-yield savings account.

Check out how these ways to save more that you might be overlooking:

  • Stop eating out and have nutritious homemade food which is healthier too
  • Have a list when you go grocery shopping and don’t buy anything extra
  • Switch to debit cards if that can help you reduce your expenditures
  • Cancel your gym membership and work out in fresh air
  • Check out your magazine subscriptions and cancel if you rarely read them
  • Opt for bundling offers of television and internet
  • Opt for public schooling of kids instead of private schools
  • Start envelope budgeting to save more
  • Set temperature of water heater to 120 degrees to save electricity
  • Clip coupons and use them to save money

Using your Emergency Fund for Daily Necessities

Emergency funds are for rainy days. But, don’t touch it if you can manage without it.

Check how much you have in your emergency fund. Will you be able to sustain for about 6 months without a pay check? If not, try to have that amount in your emergency fund.

Do not touch your fund unless it’s an emergency. And, if you have to use it, try to save the required funds after the situation becomes normal and you start getting your usual pay check.

Every month, try to save a definite amount in your emergency fund. And, the account should be easily accessible so that you can withdraw funds whenever you need it.

Of course, if your emergency savings is the only thing between you and not paying your bills, you can start spending it.

Not using Available HSA funds

Instead of using your emergency fund for medical treatment, use your pre-tax HSA (Health Savings Account) funds. You can use the funds to get treated or tested for Coronavirus if required. You can even use the funds to consult a therapist if you’re anxious or depressed during this pandemic.

Delaying Filing your Taxes if You’re Eligible for a Refund

As per the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, the federal tax filing deadline has been extended to July 15, 2020, including any estimated tax payments for 2020. But, if you’re eligible for a refund, file your taxes.

As per IRS, the average refund is about $2,908 this year. It can help you to cover your living expenses or even make debt payments during this pandemic.

Not Paying the Entire Amount on your Credit Cards

It is a mistake to make only the minimum payments on your credit cards. If you do so, you’ll have to pay the interest on the outstanding balance every month. Therefore, it is always better to pay the entire balance on your cards every billing cycle if you possibly can. So, before swiping your cards, check out whether or not you’ll be able to make the entire payment in the billing cycle.

Also, use your reward points if you’re ordering things online; otherwise, your reward points may expire.

If required and if the creditors agree, you can take out a balance transfer card and transfer your existing balance to the new card. Usually, a balance transfer card comes with an introductory period of zero or low-interest rate. So, repay the transferred balance within that period.

However, after making the payment, do not cancel your existing cards especially if they have a long credit history.  If you cancel cards, the credit limit and the history of credit will reduce thereby affecting your credit score negatively.

Getting Panicked and Selling Stocks

Selling stocks after a stock market decline is one of the major financial mistakes that often people commit. They sell stocks when the market is down. But, have faith. The market will surely recover. Do not touch your investment portfolio at this time. The market recovered even after the economic crisis of 2009. However, it may take a bit more time. So, do not sell stocks right at this moment.

Another thing that the financial advisers always tell not to do is check your portfolio every day. It will make you stressed. Instead, if you have an additional amount after meeting your necessities, you can invest it in stocks as the prices are low.

Withdrawing from Retirement Accounts without Considering the Cons

The CARES Act has made it quite easy to withdraw funds from your retirement accounts, such as IRAs (Individual Retirement Account) and 401(k)s.

Here are a few advantages of withdrawing funds:

  • You can borrow up to $100,000 from your 401(k) plan.
  • You can withdraw $100,000 from any qualified retirement plan without having to pay an early withdrawal penalty.
  • You have 3 years to repay the amount without paying any income tax on the withdrawn amount.

The main advantage of starting to save early in such retirement accounts is to take advantage of compound interest. However, if you withdraw, you’ll lose the benefit to some extent. So, weigh the pros and cons before opting for this.

Not Reviewing your Financial Condition with your Financial Advisor

It is not a good idea to skip reviewing your financial situation with your financial advisor. It is rather more important at this time to have a clear view of your financial situation.

Discuss with your financial advisor how you need to maintain your investment portfolio and what moves you need to take. Talk about your financial goals and how you’ll implement them.

Taking on Debts without Thinking about How to Manage

Mortgage rates are comparatively low. You may feel the urge to take out a loan to meet your daily necessities if you’re facing financial problems. However, it is better not to take out additional debts that you can’t handle.

However, if you’re already having difficulty managing your existing debts, you can consolidate your debt. You don’t have to meet with a debt consolidator in person. You can just call a good consolidation company and seek help.

Sitting in Front of a Screen

At last, I would like to mention that it is quite important to stay physically and mentally healthy during this time. So, do not be stressed. Restrict your screen timing and have some me-time. Do something which you like. Nurture a hobby. Use this opportunity to spend time with kids and family members.

Enjoy quality time and take help from your family members to manage finances efficiently. Not committing these mistakes can help you have a better financial future.

About Good Nelly

Good Nelly is a financial writer who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has started her financial journey long back. Good Nelly has been associated with Debt Consolidation Care for a long time. Through her writings, she has helped people overcome their debt problems and has solved personal finance related queries. She has also written for some other websites and blogs. You can follow her Twitter profile.

Selecting Stocks with a Score

My husband really likes selecting stocks with a score, the Piotroski score in particular.  Briefly, Professor Piotroski created a set of nine financial ratios that contribute to the score. If a company meets a certain criterion and has favorable results on 8 or 9 of the ratios, his analysis indicates that the company’s stock is likely to do well. My husband is primarily a value investor. The appeal of the Piotroski score to my husband is that it focuses on value stocks and, while it relies heavily on statistical analysis, it isn’t a black box.

In this post, I’ll identify the group of stocks to which the Piotroski score applies. I’ll then briefly explain the financial ratios that determine the score. I’ll close with a specific example of a stock I bought solely using the Piotroski score and provide some general guidance on applying the results of the score.

Book-to-Market Ratio

What is It?

The book-to-market (BM) ratio is a financial ratio. The numerator is the book value of the company. This value is shown on the balance sheet in the company’s financial statements and is usually reported as “Shareholders’ Equity.”

The denominator of the ratio is the total market value of the company on the evaluation date as the financial statements. The total market value is the stock price multiplied by the number of shares outstanding and is also called the market capitalization.

In mathematical terms,

Piotroski waits for the financial statements to be published for a particular year end to get the book value. He then looks up the market capitalization on the evaluation date of the financial statements for use in the ratio.

Piotroski’s Criterion

In his paper, Piotroski identifies value stocks as companies that have BM Ratios in the highest quintile (highest 20%) of traded stocks. These stocks have high book values relative to their market capitalization. Looked at from the other perspective, these stocks have low market capitalizations (and therefore low stock prices) relative to their book value.

Recall that the book value is the company’s assets minus its liabilities. In theory, if the company were liquidated on the evaluation date of the financials, shareholders would get their portion of the Shareholders’ Equity, based on the proportion of shares owned. Therefore, a BM ratio of 1.00 means that the market capitalization of the stock is equal to the Shareholders’ Equity.

By comparison, the cut-off for the highest quintile of BM ratios[1] across all stocks reported in the ValueLine Analyzer Plus on May 29, 2020 is 1.47. The book values per share of these companies are almost 50% higher than their stock prices!   You can see why Piotroski might consider these stocks to be potentially good values at their current prices.

Why Might It Be High?

There are at least two reasons that the BM ratio might be high.

First, the market may perceive that either assets are overvalued or liabilities are undervalued. Both of these situations would cause the reported book value to be higher than its true amount.

For example, some companies have not fully funded their pension plans. That means that the estimated present value of the future pension benefits is more than the liability on the balance sheet. Companies disclose these differences in the Notes to Financial Statements. If the liability for pension benefits is understated, it will cause the company’s book value to be overstated.

Second, financial theory tells us that the market value of a company’s stock is equal to its book value plus the present value of future profits. If the market perceives that the company is unlikely to make money in the future, the market capitalization will be less than the book value.

The Piotroski score focuses on companies in the second category. That is, it attempts to identify companies that will be profitable in the future from among all of the companies that the market thinks will have negative future profits.

Piotroski Score

The Piotroski score is calculated as the sum of a set of 9 values of 1 or 0. There are 9 criteria in the calculation, in addition to the BM ratio being in the highest quintile. The process assigns a 1 if a company’s financial statement values meet each criterion and a 0 if it does not. As such, companies that meet 8 or 9 of the criteria are considered more likely to have above market average performance.

The 9 criteria are listed below:

  1. Return on assets (ROA) = Net income / Total assets at beginning of year > 0
  2. ROA this year > ROA last year
  3. Cash flow from operations > 0
  4. Cash flow from operations > net income
  5. Long-term debt / Total assets this year < Long-term debt / Total assets last year
  6. Current ratio this year > current ratio last year
  7. Shares outstanding this year <= shares outstanding last year
  8. Gross margin this year > gross margin last year
  9. Total sales / Total assets this year > Total sales / Total assets last year

Piotroski performed his analysis using data from companies’ financial statements from 1976 to 1996. The average of the one-year returns for the companies with scores of 8 or 9 was 7.5 percentage points higher than the average for all companies with high BM ratios and 13.5 percentage points higher than the average for the market as a whole.

How to Calculate It

If you are familiar with reading financial statements, you can calculate the Piotroski score yourself using the formulas above. Or, you could extract the key ratios from a source, such as ValueLine, Tiingo or Bloomberg, all three of which require subscriptions. I use the latter approach as I have a subscription to ValueLine that I use for a variety of purposes.

An easier option is to use a Piotroski calculator or screener.   I’ve never used any of these tools, but I used Google to find a couple free options you might try.

  • Old School Value – This Excel spreadsheet will calculate and show you how a company does on each of the 9 tests and the total score.
  • ChartMill – This screener lets you identify stocks based on their Piotroski score. As such, it helps you find stocks with scores of 8 or 9, but does not show you the details of the underlying calculation.

I suggest being careful to check the documentation of any of these tools to make sure that the descriptions of the 9 tests are the same as I’ve included above (which I took directly from Piotroski’s paper). In poking around on-line, I found more than one site that did not correctly specify the nine tests.

My Experience Selecting Stocks with a Score

Although I’ve looked at stocks using the Piotroski score several times, I’ve made only one purchase using it as my primary buying criterion. I purchased FUJIFILMS (FUJIY) in March 2012. At the time, FUJIY had a BM Ratio of about 1.40, as compared to a market average BM ratio of about 0.5. It had a Piotroski score of 8, having failed the test for an increase in gross margin.

For many, many years, FUJIY’s biggest product was film for cameras. With the advent of the digital camera, its market shrank rapidly. In the year before I purchased the stock, its price decreased by 32%. As I was looking at the company, it was transitioning its business from camera film to other types of related products, including medical imaging and, more recently, office products with its purchase of Xerox. With a good story and a high Piotroski score, I decided to buy the stock.

It turns out I was a little early in buying the stock. In the 12 months after I bought the stock, it decreased by 19% while the S&P 500 increased by 13%. However, if I had bought it a year later, my total return would have been much better over both the short and long term, as shown in the table below.

Total Return starting in March 2013
1 Year2 YearsUntil June 2020
FUJIFILMS+51%+84%+171%
S&P 500+22%+36%+110%

 

So, even though my returns were lower than the market average because I bought the stock too early in the company’s turnaround, I correctly decided to keep it after its first year of poor performance. That is, if I had sold the stock one year after I purchased it and bought an S&P 500 index fund, I would have been worse off.

Caution

As with any investing strategy, it is important that you understand the assumptions underlying the Piotroski score. I also recommend that you understand the story behind the company you are considering for investment, as described in my post on buying stocks based on their financial fundamentals. There are companies that may have a Piotroski score of 8 or 9 that don’t have a good turn-around story, such as the one I described for FUJIY. In those cases, you may not want to rely solely on the Piotroski score.

 

[1] Calculated in this case as Book Value Per Share at most recent fiscal year end divided by Price on May 29, 2020, so not exactly equal to the ratio as calculated by Piotroski.

Picking Stocks Using Pictures

Picking Stocks using Pictures

Technical analysts select companies for their portfolio based on patterns in stock prices.  That is, it allows them to enhance their process of picking stocks by using pictures. This approach is very different from some of the others I’ve discussed, as buy and sell decisions are based in large part on these patterns and less on the financial fundamentals of the company. Every technical analyst has a favorite set of graphs he or she likes to review and their own thresholds that determine when to buy or sell a particular stock.

I’ve done just a little trading based on technical analysis, so asked Rick Lage, a family friend who has much more experience with this approach, to help me out. In this post, I will provide some background on Rick and provide explanations of the graphs he uses. I’ll also provide some insights on who I think is best suited for this type of trading.

Rick’s Story

Rick’s Background

“I was first introduced to the stock market in a Junior High School math class. I made my first trade with a stockbroker about 6 years after graduating from High School.

My interest in the stock market never faded. I was always focused on this platform to make money. Unfortunately losing money was a regular occurrence for many years in the beginning, with not many gains to be proud of.

My interest peaked in 1999 when I attended my first stock trading event in Las Vegas, known as the TradersExpo[1]. TradersExpo provides a wealth of information available for the beginner to the pro, including hardware, trading software, classroom instruction and more.

I personally have never been a day trader. Swing trading is more my definition. I do touch base with my stock watch list daily. It’s always managed and checking my technical indicators is a must.”

Rick’s Goals

“I stock trade for the challenge; not so much for the fun or success. If there is success the fun will follow. There will be losses. No doubt. But you learn how to manage those losses. You have no choice. Technical trading is my science.”

Rick’s Advice to New Traders

Rick says, “I have tried hard to never complicate the trade. There are many technical indicators, so don’t get overwhelmed. I pick stocks that have the momentum. Pick your favorite few indicators and go with those.”

Rick’s Tools

Rick’s favorite indicators are

  • Simple Moving Averages using 9 and 180 days (SMA 9 and SMA 180)
  • Price and Volume Charts
  • Relative Strength Index (RSI)
  • Moving Average Convergence Divergence (MACD)
  • Heikin-Ashi bar chart

I will provide brief introductions to each of these indicators, illustrating each with two stocks – Apple and Shopify. A graph of Apple’s stock prices from January 1, 2018 through mid-May 2020 is shown below. It had some ups and downs in price in 2018 and 2019, followed by a significant decrease and recovery so far in 2020.

Shopify had a steadier increase in 2018 and 2019, but much more volatility so far in 2020, as illustrated in the graph below.

Simple Moving Averages (SMA 180 and 9)

In this context, a simple moving average (SMA) is the average of the closing prices for the past n days, where n is specified by the person making the chart. In Rick’s case, he looks at the 180-day simple moving average and the 9-day simple moving average. For the former, he takes the average of the closing prices for the previous 180 days; for the latter, the average of the closing prices for the previous 9 days.

SMA Charts

Technical analysts add their favorite SMA lines to the chart of the stock’s price. For illustration, I’ve added the SMA 180 and SMA 9 lines to the Shopify and Apple stock price charts below.

SMA Indicators

Technical analysts then look at the crossing points on the chart to provide buy and sell indications. For example, a technical analyst might look at when the closing price line (black in these charts) goes up through the SMA 180 line (blue in these charts) and call it a buy signal or an indication of a time to buy a stock. You can see an example of a buy signal, using this method, for Shopify around May 1, 2019, as indicated by the green circle.  The buy signals for Apple are much more frequent using this criterion, two of which are indicated with green circles.

Similarly, a technical analyst might look at when the SMA 9 line (yellow/orange in these charts) goes down through the SMA 180 line and call it a sell signal. Using this criterion, there was a clear sell signal for Apple in early November 2018, as indicated by the red circle.

Every technical analyst has his or her favorite time periods for SMA lines. In addition, each technical analyst selects his or her own criteria for buy and sell signals based on those SMA lines. The shorter the time period associated with the SMA, the more often buy and sell transactions will be indicated. When I use SMA graphs to inform my buy and sell decisions, I use fairly long time periods as I am a long-term investor. By comparison, some people trade in and out of stocks several times a day, so use very short time periods, such as minutes or hours.

Price and Volume

A price and volume chart shows plots of both the price of a stock and its volume on a daily basis, color-coded to indicate whether the stock price went up or down each day. The graph below is a price and volume chart for Shopify.

The upper chart has rectangles (called boxes), sometimes with lines sticking out of them (called whiskers). The combination of the boxes and whiskers is often called a candle. There is one candle for each trading day.

Price & Volume Indicators

A red box indicates that the price was lower at the end of the day than at the end of the previous day; a green box, higher. Green boxes can be interpreted as follows:

  • The bottom of the box is the opening price.
  • The top of the box is the closing price.
  • The bottom of any whisker sticking down from the box is the lowest price on that day. If there is no downward whisker, the lowest daily price and the opening price were the same.
  • The top of any whisker sticking up from the box is the highest price on that day. If there is no upward whisker, the highest daily price and the closing price were the same.

Red boxes can be similarly interpreted, but the opening price is the top of the box and the closing price is the bottom of the box.

The lower section of the chart shows the number of shares traded each day. If the bar is green, the stock price went up that day, while red corresponds to down.

Technical analysts use these charts to identify trends. A really tall green bar in the lower section green is an indication that a lot of people think the stock will go up so are buying. Many technical analysts consider this a buy signal. Similarly, a really tall red bar is considered by some to be a sell signal. My sense is that you need to be very quick to respond using this type of strategy, as you don’t want to sell a stock after everyone has already sold it and the price has dropped or buy it after the price has increased.

Relative Strength Index (RSI)

The Relative Strength Index (RSI) is intended to measure whether a company’s stock is in an over-bought or over-sold position. If it is over-sold, it is a buy signal; if over-bought, a sell signal. The RSI is one of a broad class of measures called oscillators, all of which are intended to evaluate whether the market is over-bought or over-sold.

The RSI is determined based on a moving average of recent gains and the moving average of recent losses. The value of the RSI is scaled so it always falls between 0 and 100.

The RSI was developed by J. Welles Wilder. He considers the market over-bought when RSI is greater than 70 and oversold when it is below 30. There are many other ways in which the RSI chart can be used to identify trends and inform trading decisions that are outside the scope of this post.

The chart below shows the RSI for Apple (blue) and Shopify (orange).

The red horizontal line corresponds to RSI equal 70, Wilder’s over-bought signal. The green line is Wilder’s over-sold signal at RSI equals 30.

In this chart, there are several times when both stocks were over-bought. That is, the RSI for both stocks goes above the red line. Apple was considered slightly over-sold a few times, when the blue line crossed below the green line. By comparison, Shopify’s RSI came close to indicating that it was over-sold a few times, but never went below the green line.

Moving Average Convergence Divergence

The Moving Average Convergence Divergence indicator (MACD) is similar to the Simple Moving Average indicator discussed above. However, it uses an exponentially weighted moving average (EMA) instead of a simple moving average. A simple moving average gives the same weight to each observation. An exponentially weighted moving average gives more weight to more recent observations. MACD can use any period – minutes, hours, days, etc. For this illustration, I will set the period equal to a day. If you are trading more often, you’ll want to replace “day” in the explanation below with “hour” or “minute.”

The MACD was defined by its designer as the 12-day moving average (EMA 12) minus the 26-day moving average (EMA 26). MACD is compared to its own 9-day moving average to determine buy and sell signals. As with the simple moving average, the MACD crossing its 9-day moving average in the upward direction is a buy signal. When MACD falls below its 9-day moving average, it is a sell signal.

MACD Charts

The graph below shows Shopify’s daily closing prices along with the EMA 12 and EMA 26 lines in orange and green, respectively, starting on February 1, 2020.

This next chart shows the corresponding values of MACD (black) and its 9-day moving average (green).

If you compare the two graphs, you can see that MACD goes below the 0 line on the second chart on April 1, 2020. This transition is consistent with the orange line crossing above the green line on the first chart on the same date.

MACD Indicators

When Shopify’s MACD is bullish, its MACD is greater than its 9-day moving average or the black line is above the green line in the second chart above. This situation has been seen several times in the past few months – for short periods starting on February 11, March 23 and May 4 and a longer period starting on April 9.

The Apple MACD chart, shown below, has gone back and forth between bullish and bearish (black line below the green line) much more often in the past few months. It sometimes changes from bearish to bullish and back again on almost a daily basis.

The “convergence” and “divergence” part of MACD’s name refers to how the MACD behaves relative to the price. The relationship is somewhat complicated, so I suggest you refer to one of the sources I mention below if you are interested in this feature of MACD charts.

Heikin-Ashi bar chart

Also known as a Heikin-Ashi candlestick chart, the Heikin-Ashi bar chart is similar to the price part of the Price-Volume chart described above.   However, instead of using the actual high, low, open and close prices, all four of the points on the candle are calculated in a different manner. The purpose of the adjustments is to make a chart that makes identifying trends easier. I refer you to one of the resources below to learn the details of how these values are adjusted.

Heikin-Ashi Charts

The charts below show the Heikin-Ashi charts for Shopify and Apple for the past six months.

As mentioned, they look a lot like Price charts, except the boxes corresponding to the adjusted open and close and the whiskers corresponding to the adjusted high and low. The boxes are colored green when the adjusted close is higher than the previous adjusted close and red otherwise.

Heikin-Ashi Indicators

Here are some of the indicators people review when using Heikin-Ashi charts:

  • Longer boxes are indicative of trends. In the charts above, you can see that the Apple chart tends to have longer boxes than the Shopify chart.
  • When there is no whisker on one end of the box, the trend is even stronger. For example, neither the Apple nor Shopify charts have upward whiskers on the red boxes from mid-February to mid-March 2020. This time period corresponds to the time period highlighted by the red arrow on the chart below when both stocks’ prices were going down.

Similarly, almost none of the green bars in the last month of the Heishen Ashi chart have downward whiskers, corresponding to the time period in the price chart indicated by the green arrow.

Time periods when the boxes are short, have both whiskers and change color often are indicators of changes. For example, the Apple Heikin-Ashi chart from mid-January to mid-February shows several bars of alternating colors. Apple’s price changed from an upward trend to a downward trend in this period, as shown in the purple circle in the chart below. Identifying turning points is very important in deciding when to buy and sell stocks.

Who Can Use Technical Analysis

Technical analysis isn’t for everyone. It requires people who (a) have the ability to focus on markets fairly closely every day in the case of swing traders or all day in the case of day traders, (b) are happy with growing their portfolio with a large number of small “wins,” and (c) have a solid understanding of the charts being used.

Time Commitment

Unlike many other investment strategies, many day traders and swing traders do not consider a company’s financial fundamentals in their buy decisions. Instead, they monitor the patterns in their charts. Without the comfort of believing that the companies they own have sound fundamentals, it is important that they follow their charts consistently so they can quickly sell any positions that are not meeting expectations.

Lots of Small Wins

In my post on financial fundamentals, I talk about Peter Lynch’s concept of a 10-bagger – a stock whose value is at least 10 times what you paid for it. In that paradigm, the goal is to attain better-than-market-average returns by getting average returns on most of the positions in your portfolio and big gains on one or two positions.

By comparison, the goal of day traders and swing traders is to make a very small amount of money on every trade, but to make lots and lots of those trades. If you earn 0.1% on average on every trading day, it compounds to just over 20% a year!

For many of us, buying and selling with gains of less than 0.1% per security seems really small and might not seem worthwhile. As such, you need to be willing to be happy with lots of little wins rather than a 10-bagger if you want to be a day trader or swing trader.

Understand the Charts

One of the requirements of using technical analysis is to make sure you understand how to interpret the charts correctly. For example, Southwest Airlines (ticker: LUV) has done very poorly recently from the impact of COVID-19. The plot below shows its closing stock price from February 15, 2020 through May 20, 2020.

As can be seen, the last stock price on the graph (about $29) is almost exactly half of the stock price in mid-February (peaked at $58.54). As such, while it has had a few days on which the price increased, the overall trend has been down.

The RSI chart is shown below. Remember that an RSI value of less than 30 is an indication that it might be time to buy the stock.

In this example, there was a buy signal when the RSI crossed below the green line (30) on February 25. The closing stock price on that day was $49.66. If you had bought the stock on that date, you would have lost 41% in the subsequent three months as the stock was at $29 on May 20, 2020.

As you can see, interpreting charts takes time and expertise. If you are willing to invest the time to learn all of the nuances of each type of chart and monitor your positions, technical analysis might be the right investing strategy for you.

There’s a lot more to know about each of these indicators than I’ve provided in this post. Here are a few links to other sources of information to learn more.

  • Stock Charts
  • Technical Analysis for the Trading Professional by Constance Brown, McGraw-Hill Education, 2nd Edition, 2012.
  • Investopedia

How I Use Technical Analysis

I primarily rely on analysis of the underlying fundamentals of a company when I purchase individual stocks. Once I make the decision to buy a stock, I look at the charts to evaluate whether the timing is good for a purchase. If the consensus of the charts I review indicates that the position is over-bought (i.e., price is too high), I will wait to see if the price decreases before buying.

In addition, I use technical analysis in my Roth IRA, where there are no capital gains taxes on trades so more frequent trading isn’t adversely impacted. I follow a large handful of industry ETFs using technical analysis and buy and sell them as each one appears to be doing well. Because I am trading in industry exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and not individual stocks, I feel comfortable looking at my positions once a week. My thought is that industries aren’t likely to experience sudden weaknesses not seen throughout the market in shorter time frames.

When I pay sufficient attention to the positions in my Roth IRA, I tend to get about or slightly above market-average performance. However, when I don’t look at my positions and re-balance regularly, I find that my performance suffers which just confirms my first point in the previous section that using technical analysis requires time and diligence.

[1] There are now TradersExpo events held regularly in many cities (subject to change by the coronavirus).

Should I Buy Stocks Now?

Should I Buy Stocks Now?

Many, if not most, financial advisers recommend accumulating wealth from a diversified set of investments including stocks.  An investor can add stocks to her/his portfolio by purchasing stocks from an individual company or from buying mutual funds.  With the stock market down double digits since the beginning of 2020, some experts say stocks are “on sale” and now is a good time to buy, but just over half of Americans report they own stocks. This is down from 62% prior to the 2007/8 recession and it includes ownership of stocks that are contained within retirement funds and mutual funds, as well as individual stocks.  Common reasons to not buy stocks/mutual funds are (1) stocks are complicated and I don’t know how to get started, and (2) stocks are too risky.  Let’s review both of these drawbacks.

Stocks are Complicated

All too often, some of my friends and family are reluctant to purchase stocks because they do not understand the stock market.   Even some of my most intelligent friends shy away from financial conversations that involve the stock market because they do not want to appear ignorant.

If you did not learn about investing in school or from your parents, how can you figure this out?  How do you convert your dollars into stocks?  How do you learn which stocks are worthwhile?  Should you purchase individual stocks or mutual funds and, by the way, what exactly are mutual funds?

Investment Clubs Help You Buy Stocks

You can learn about many of these topics in a fun way by forming an investment club with like-minded friends and/or family.  Since 2004, I have been a member of Take Stock, a ladies’ investment club.  Our club is one of the 4,000 investment clubs of the National Association of Investors Corp. (NAIC).  The NAIC was formed in 1951 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with the aim of teaching individuals how to become successful long-term investors.  Originally, the NAIC’s focus was investing in common stocks, but, with the popularity of 401(k)s and other retirement plans, the NAIC has added education about stock and bond mutual funds.

The NAIC (also more recently known as Better Investing) stresses four principles for successful, long-term investing:

  1. Invest regularly, regardless of market conditions;
  2. Reinvest all earnings;
  3. Invest in growth companies (and growth mutual funds); and
  4. Diversify to reduce risk.

What Information Can I Get from NAIC/BI?

NAIC/Better Investing (NAIC/BI) provides many tools and resources to help individuals as well as investment clubs learn about investing.  There is a stock selection guide (SSG) that organizes companies’ performance information to allow you to determine for yourself whether a particular company is a stock you want to purchase and the price is reasonable.  Some of the free resources offered by NAIC/BI include:

  • Over 100 free stock investing videos;
  • An introduction to stock investing that explains the SSG;
  • How to start your own investment club;
  • Investor education articles;
  • Stories from members; and
  • 90-day free membership.

How My Club Works

My club was formed in 1999. It is comprised of nine women who meet monthly in each other’s homes.  Of the nine members, the one with the longest tenure is a charter member and the most recent arrival has been in our club for just over one year.   During our meetings, we review our club’s portfolio (currently stocks of twelve companies), discuss stocks to research for possible future purchase, and vote on any companies that we have already researched. It is not required that you meet in members’ homes—you could choose to meet at your local library, a restaurant, etc.  We typically meet in the evening on the second Tuesday of each month and the hostess for that month provides a light meal.  Every July, we meet at a local park for a summer concert and we bring our families/friends.

Monthly “dues” are used to invest in stocks and your ownership is based upon what percentage of the total portfolio you have invested through your paid dues.  The monthly dues are in multiples of $25 (i.e., $25, $50, $75 etc.) and there is a monthly minimum of $25.

I highly recommend forming or joining an investment club.  You’ll have the opportunity to learn more about the stock market, to learn more about individual companies that you and your club research, and you’ll get to know your friends and acquaintances better.  The best part is you’ll have fun while investing in your financial well-being and you will all become richer by enhancing your friendship.

One Final Caveat

If you are new to investing you will probably want to invest the portion of your money that you will not need in the near term, such as a down payment on a home you wish to  purchase three or more years from now, your children’s education fund, or your retirement fund.  Your rainy-day fund should be kept in more liquid investments that can be accessed quickly.

So now that you know you can have fun and learn about the stock market, you may still be reluctant to buy stocks due to the risk involved.  Let’s review this objection to increasing your wealth. . .

Stocks Are Too Risky

One of the primary concerns about owning stocks is the risk inherent in these investments.  What if I invest my money in the stock market and the stock market crashes as we have seen since Covid-19 or like we saw in 2008/2009?  While it is true that declines of 15+% in your investment portfolio are not desirable, it is also true that in every case where the stock market has had a large decrease, the stock market more than made up for the declines in the months and years following the drop.

As of this writing (April 30, 2020), since the beginning of 2020, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (Dow) is down about 18% and the S&P 500 is down about 11%.   While not good news, if you were invested in the market during 2019, you would still be ahead because the Dow rose more in 2019 than the current 2020 drop. (Dow added 22% and the S&P 500 added 28% during 2019).

We have likely heard the old adage:  risk is reward. That is, the more reward that is sought, the more risk that must be taken.  If you are desirous of the smallest risk possible, then you would probably choose to park your money in (for example) savings bonds or certificates of deposit which will guarantee you a reward albeit a small one.  If you prefer more reward, then you will likely choose to invest some of your portfolio into the stock market.  Let’s look at an example of how a specific risk tolerance manifests into investment growth.

Risk-Reward Comparison

Five years ago, assume you invested $1,000 with (1) small risk (investing in a certificate of deposit), (2) medium risk (investing in an S&P 500 mutual fund) or (3) high risk (investing in only one individual stock).  Here are the results:

 

CD:  “low” riskS&P 500: “medium” riskAmerican: “high” riskApple:   “high” risk

5/1/15

 $1,000 $1,000 $1,000

 $1,000

12/31/19 $ 1,073 $1,531 $633

 $2,376

4/30/20

 $1,077 $1,395 $298

 $2,209

5-year return

7.7%39.5%-70.2%

120.9%

4.75-year return (through 12/31/19, 0pre-Covid)

7.3%

53.1%-36.7%

137.6%

 

Takeaways from this Exercise

Here are the key takeaways from this table.

  • The lowest-risk investment provides a 7.7% return over five years. This is based on investing $1,000 over a period of five years at current CD rates of 1.5% per year.  Note that while the original investment of $1,000 grows over the five years, it is growing less than the rate of inflation over the five years so you have “lost ground” by investing in a CD.    Over this same five-year period, the Consumer Price Index rose by 8.9%, higher than the 7.7% earned in the CD; thus, your buying power is less since the cost of goods has risen by 8.9% while your investment grew at 7.7%.
  • The medium-risk investment provides a much better return than low risk. You would have earned nearly 40% over the five-year period.
  • The high-risk investment was defined as investing in only one single stock. As you can see, if you chose American Airlines for your one stock, you would have lost 70% of your investment.  However, if you had chosen Apple as your one stock, you would have more than doubled your money and earned a 121% return over five years.

Keep in mind that the results above include the effects of the drop in the stock market from COVID-19.  If we look instead at year end 2019 — before the effects of COVID-19 — we see returns of 7.3% (CD), 53% (S&P 500), -37% (AAL), and 138% (AAPL).

Your Risk Appetite

If your risk appetite is miniscule, then you would probably want to avoid the stock market altogether and put your money into certificates of deposit.   This will not bring wealth to you but it will give you peace of mind.  If you have more tolerance for risk, then investing in the stock market by diversifying your stocks is a much better way to accumulate wealth.   As shown in the example above, it is possible to earn more from investing in high-growth stocks, but it is also virtually impossible to pick which individual stocks will generate above average future growth.  The medium-risk option will usually provide much better returns over the long terms than will the low risk-option.

How I Built My Wealth

Stocks—primarily mutual funds with a variety of individual stocks—have contributed to my personal wealth accumulation.  I recommend including stocks in your assets and joining or forming an investment club with friends and family can be a fun way to further your wealth.  Good luck!

 

Kay Rahardjo, FCAS, MAAA is an actuary and risk management professional. She retired from The Hartford in 2014 from her role as Senior Vice President and Chief Operational Risk Officer. She developed and taught an operational risk management course at Columbia University.

How to Buy Life Insurance

How to buy life insurance

Choosing the right type of life insurance policy and its death benefit can be confusing. Not too long ago, I published a guest post from Baruch Silverman of The Smart Investor on the different types of life insurance. In this post, you’ll learn how to buy life insurance.  Specifically, I’ll help you evaluate which, if any, of those types of policies fit your situation and how to select your death benefit.

Why are You Buying It?

The first thing you want to consider is why you are buying life insurance. Three common purposes are:

  • the death benefit.
  • the investment returns.
  • sheltering gifts to your heirs from income taxes.

Death Benefit

If your primary purpose for purchasing life insurance is the death benefit, you’ll want to focus on term and whole life insurance.

Investment Portfolio

Some people use life insurance similar to other financial securities (such as stocks and bonds). Variable life and universal life have investment components to them. In simplified terms, the total amount you pay as premium for these types of life insurance is split between the amount to cover the cost of a whole life policy and the excess which can be invested. As such, the life insurer doesn’t invest the portion of premium related to the death benefit.  Further, the life insurer reduces the excess to cover its expenses, a risk charge and its profit margin before investing it.

Variable and universal life policies include the cost of whole life insurance.  Thus, only people who want the coverage provided by whole life insurance might consider using life insurance as part of their investment portfolio. Even then, the returns may not be as high as other investment vehicles with similar risk because of the additional costs charged by the life insurer.

Tax Shelter

Sheltering gifts to your heirs from income taxes only applies to the very wealthy (those who have more than $11 million in assets). I’m assuming that the vast majority of my readers aren’t in this situation, so won’t address it here.

Other Considerations

All types of life insurance can have an indirect impact on your investment portfolio. If you purchase life insurance in an amount that will cover your dependents’ basic living expenses, it allows you the option to invest your portfolio in riskier assets in anticipation of getting higher returns. That is, the death benefit itself could be considered a low-risk investment.  It reduces your overall portfolio risk when added to the other assets you own.

Do I Need Life Insurance?

Some people don’t need the death benefit from life insurance. In that case, it doesn’t make sense to buy life insurance as an investment security either. In the last section of this post, I provide the details of estimating your target death benefit. People whose target death benefit is zero are those who don’t need life insurance.   Briefly, characteristics of people who have a target death benefit of zero are:

  • Their available assets are more than their debts. Available assets exclude any illiquid assets (such as any real estate or personal property they own), savings for their dependents’ retirement (but not their retirement as they don’t need retirement savings after you die), emergency savings and any savings designated for large purchases.
  • They have enough money to cover their dependents’ education expenses.
  • Their dependents can support themselves on their existing income plus your available assets, including being able to make debt payments as they are due or after using available assets to pay off any debts.
  • They have enough money to pay any end-of-life expenses related to their death.

If you aren’t sure if you meet these criteria, keep reading!

Term vs. Whole

If  you’ve decided that you are buying life insurance for the death benefit, you need to decide whether term life or whole life insurance will better meet your needs. The primary differences between the two options are the length of time you need the insurance and the cost.

Term Life

If you think you will need life insurance for a limited period of time, term life insurance is likely better for you. For example, you might have dependents who aren’t currently able to cover their living expenses and the cost of any debt.  In that case, you might want to buy life insurance that will pay off your debts and support your dependents until they are independent.  If your needs change, many insurers will let you convert a term life insurance policy to a whole life policy without having to provide medical information or have a physical, one or both of which are often pre-requisites for purchasing whole life insurance.

Term life premiums are constant over the term of any policy you purchase. However, if you buy a policy when you are older, the premium will be higher than if you buy the same policy when you are younger.

Whole Life

If you think you will need life insurance for your entire life, whole life insurance is likely better for you. For example, if you have a spouse or disabled children who will never be able to support themselves, whole life insurance could supplement your savings to help make sure they are able to live more comfortably, regardless of when you die.

In addition to the death benefit, whole life insurance gives you the option to borrow money. As you pay premium, life insurers designate a portion of your premium as the cash value. The cash value is always owned by the insurance company, but you are able to borrow an amount up to the cash value at any time without prior approval, any collateral or impact on your credit score. The interest rates on cash-value loans are less than many other sources, particularly credit cards. If you die before the loan is re-paid, the amount of the loan will be deducted from your death benefit.

Cost Comparison

Whole life insurance is much more expensive than term life when you are young, but eventually becomes less expensive.

Probability of Dying

The graph below provides some initial insights into the difference in cost between whole life and term life, as it shows the probability that you will die at each age. I calculated the values based on 2016 data from the Social Security web site.

Not surprisingly, the probability you will die increases at each age. If you buy whole life insurance, it will cover the entire portion of the graph from your current age until you die. As such, there is a 100% probability that the life insurer will pay your death benefit (assuming you continue to pay your premiums). It is just a question of when.

If you buy a 20-year term policy and you are 30 years old, only the deaths that occur in the portion of the graph below highlighted in green would be covered. That is, you will receive the death benefit if you die between ages 30 and 50 and will get nothing if you die after age 50.

The probability you will die is much smaller in this narrow window than the 100% probability you will die at some point.

Present Value of the Death Benefit

There are many factors that determine the premium for term life and whole life insurance policies, but the most important component relates to the death benefit. Actuaries (who help price life insurance) usually base the portion of premium related to the death benefit as the present value of the death benefit expected to be paid, on average, in each year.

One-Year Term Policy

The chart below shows the present value for $1 of death benefit for several sample policies. For illustration only, I have calculated the present values using a 3% interest rate and the probabilities of dying from the charts above.

The easiest way to see the impact of the increasing probability of dying is to look at the present value of the death benefit for a 1-Year Term Life policy. You can see it increases from almost zero (actually $0.0015 per dollar of death benefit) at age 25 to $0.042 per dollar of death benefit at age 70 which corresponds exactly to the increase in the probability of dying at each age.

Policies with Longer Terms

There are also increases in the present value of the death benefit for the Whole Life and 20-Year Term Life policies as the age you first start buying the policy increases.

You can also see that the present value of the death benefit at age 25 for the Whole Life policy is much, much larger than the present value for either of the two term life policies. This relationship corresponds to the graphs above which compared the probability of dying in a 20-year period as compared to the 100% probability that you will die at some point.

The difference between the Whole Life and 20-Year Term Life policies is fairly small at age 70, because there is a high probability that you will die between age 70 and 90 – the period covered by the 20-Year Term Life policy. In fact, almost 80% of people age 70 will die during the 20-Year Term Life policy period.  As such, the present value of the death benefit for a 20-Year Term Life policy at age 70 is very roughly 80% of the present value of the death benefit for a Whole Life policy.

Annual Premium

The insurance company collects premium over the full life of the insurance policy to cover the present value of the death benefit. That is, you don’t pay all of your premium to the insurance company in one lump sum, but rather on an annual or monthly basis.

Unless you die during the policy term of the Term Life policy, you will pay premium for more years under a Whole Life policy than under a Term Life policy. Therefore, the differences you see above are larger than the differences in premium payments.

Illustration

The chart below shows the annualized amount of the loss costs. That is, I divided the present values of the death benefits by the average number of years an insured is expected to pay their premium. For example, for the 20-Year Term Life policy, the denominator was calculated as the sum of the probabilities that the insured would be alive in each of the 20 years and therefore able to pay his or her premium.

Post 49 Estimated Premium

Although these relationships are not precise, they are roughly representative of the differences in annual premium you might pay for the different types of policies at different ages. At age 25, the annual cost of a Whole Life policy in this illustration is roughly three times the cost of either of the Term Life policies. By age 70, the annual cost of a Whole Life policy is less than the cost of 20-Year Term Life policy because, while the present value of the death benefit isn’t all that different between the two policies, people who buy Whole Life policies make more premium payments, on average.

Reality vs. Illustration

It is important to understand that I prepared these examples as illustrations to help you understand the differences between Whole Life and Term Life insurance premiums. In practice, life insurers use different tables showing the probability of dying and different interest rates than I used for illustration, as well as using more sophisticated methods for calculating the present value of the death benefit and including provisions for expenses, risk and profit.

In practice, I’ve seen estimates that Whole Life annual premiums are anywhere from three to fifteen times more than Term Life premium at young ages. As you are looking at your options, you’ll want to get several premium quotes, as they vary widely depending on your age, location, gender, health and many other factors.

How Much to Buy

As with any financial decision, there are two conflicting factors that will influence the amount of the death benefit you buy on a life insurance policy – your budget and your financial needs. In the section, I will talk about how to estimate the best (i.e., target) death benefit for your situation. Once you’ve selected an amount, you can get quotes from several insurers to see whether the premium for that death benefit will fit in your budget or whether you will need to find the best balance between premium affordability and death benefit for you.

Rules of Thumb

Not surprisingly, there are some rules of thumb for guiding your selection of a death benefit. Some of the ones I’ve heard are:

  • Three to five times your salary
  • Ten times your total earned income (i.e., salary, value of benefits and bonus)
  • Ten times your total earned income plus $100,000 per child for college

Rules of thumb like these can provide some insights, but they, by definition, can’t take into account your personal circumstances.

Tailored Approach

A better approach for selecting a death benefit is to analyze your own finances and goals for buying life insurance.   I suggest calculating your target death benefit as the total of the amounts needed to meet your goals, considering the following components.

Debt

If you have debt, you’ll want to consider whether your dependents will be able to continue to make the payments on the debt out of their own income. For example, if your spouse’s earned income is high enough to continue to make your mortgage payments, along with all of the other expenses he or she will need to cover if you die, then you might not need to include the remaining principal on your mortgage as a component of your target death benefit. On the other hand, if you are concerned about your dependents’ ability to continue payments on any debt, you’ll want to include the outstanding principal on those debts as a component of your target death benefit. I’ll define this amount as “Debt Principal to be Pre-Paid.”

Final Expenses

When you die, your dependents will incur some one-time expenses. These expenses can include your funeral or memorial costs and professional expenses to settle your estate. I’ll call the amount of these expenses, “Final Expenses.”

Net Future Living Expenses

The next component of your target death benefit calculation is the amount you need to cover your dependents’ future living expenses.

Current Expenses

Start with your household’s total expenses from your budget. This amount will include monthly expenses for everyone in your household, the amounts you are setting aside each month for your designated savings and any amounts you are setting aside for your spouse’s retirement. To be clear, it will exclude any amounts you are saving for your own retirement.

You can eliminate any monthly expenses or amounts for designated savings for things that are only for your benefit. For example, if you spend enough money on clothes for your job to include it in your budget, you can eliminate those expenses. Similarly, you can also eliminate any expenses related to a vehicle that only you drive or designated savings to replace it.

Earned Income

You then need to calculate your dependents’ monthly earned income. This amount may be calculated in two parts – current monthly earned income and future monthly earned income. For example, your spouse may currently work part time as you are relying primarily on your income for support. If you die, your spouse may be able to work full time to increase his or her earned income. Alternately, your spouse may need some education (discussed below) to get the qualifications needed for his or her desired profession.

Extra Expenses

Next, you’ll need to calculate the amount of any expenses that your household will have because of any changes in your spouse’s availability to provide household services. For example, your spouse may work part-time while your children are in school and provide childcare after school. If your spouse starts working full time after your death, you will need to add after-school care expenses to your budget.

Time Periods

The last factor that goes into this calculation is the length of time until you think your dependents will become self-sufficient. For children, you might assume that they will become independent after they turn 18 or graduate from college. The ability of your spouse to become self-sufficient will be a function of his or her skills, education and/or need for more education and household responsibilities (e.g., childcare or elder care).

I suggest splitting the calculation of this component of your death benefit into three time periods – short-term, medium-term and long-term. For each time period, you’ll calculate your net living expenses as expenses minus income. For any periods for which income is more than expenses, set the difference to zero.

  1. Short term – During this time period, you’ll use your current monthly expenses, excluding your personal expenses, and your dependents’ current monthly earned income.
  2. Medium term – During this time period, you’ll use your current monthly expenses with adjustments for extra expenses for services currently provided by your spouse and your dependents’ future monthly earned income.
  3. Long term – During this time period, you’ll assume that your children (other than those who will always be dependent on you for care) are self-sufficient, so can eliminate all expenses related to children and their care from your expenses. You’ll use your spouse’s future monthly earned income. In many households, income in this period will exceed expenses so there may not be a need for death benefits to cover expenses in this period.

You also need to estimate how many months each of these three time periods will last.

Net Future Living Expenses

Your Net Future Living Expense amount for each time period is calculated as the number of months it will last multiplied by monthly net living expense amount. You can then calculate your total Net Future Living Expenses as the sum of the three amounts you calculated for the three time periods.

For those of you who like to see formulas instead of words, you will calculate:

  1. Short-term Net Expenses = Greater of 0 and Current Expenses – Current Income
  2. Medium-term Net Expenses = Greater of 0 and Current Expenses + Extra Expenses – Future Income
  3. Long-term Net Expenses = Greater of 0 and Future Expenses – Future Income
  4. Net Future Living Expenses = (number of months in short-term period x Short-term Net Expenses) + (number of months in medium-term period x Medium-term Net Expenses) + (number of months in long-term period x Long-term Net Expenses)

You could refine this amount by considering inflation and investment returns. Depending on your investment strategy and the time until the funds are used, your investment returns, on average, can be more than inflation. As a conservative first approximation, I suggest using the total without adjustment for inflation and investment returns.

Education

There are two types of education expenses that you might want to include in your target death benefit calculation:

  1. The portion of the cost of education for your children that you want to provide. Some people suggest $100,000 per child for college. This amount may or may not be the right amount depending on how much you expect your children to contribute to their educations, how many years of college education you want to support and what type of school they attend. Prestigious colleges can cost as much as $75,000 to $80,000 a year currently (2020), while in-state tuition (assuming your children live at home while attending college) can cost as little as $15,000 a year in some states. Other children may not go to college or may attend a trade school.
  2. The cost of any education your spouse needs or wants to allow him or her to work in a profession he or she enjoys and allows him or her to earn enough money to increase his or her independence.

Target Death Benefit Calculation

You can now calculate your target death benefit as follows:

Debt Principal to be Pre-Paid

Plus        Final Expenses

Plus        Net Future Living Expenses

Minus   Savings in excess of your real estate and personal property assets, emergency fund, designated savings and spouse’s retirement savings

Plus        Education Expenses

Minus   Amounts in existing college funds

Minus   Any amounts included in your Net Future Living Expenses designated for college

If you are single with no debt, this amount could be zero indicating that you might not need to buy life insurance. If you are married with no children, don’t have a lot of debt and have a spouse who can increase income or decrease expenses to be self-sufficient fairly quickly, you may need only a small death benefit. At the other extreme, if you have several children and a spouse who won’t be able to be financially independent for many years or ever, your target death benefit could exceed $1 million.   As you can see, the specifics of your financial situation are very important to setting a target death benefit and a rule of thumb may not work for you.

Do I Need a Financial Planner?

Do I Need a Financial Planner?

Creating your own financial plan can be a daunting task. If you aren’t sure where to get started or have a plan but want to improve it, a financial planner might be able to help. I’ve never used a financial planner, so I interviewed two friends who use a planner and Graeme Hughes[1], The Money Geek, to get their insights and perspectives.

In this post, I’ll first distinguish financial planners from other types of financial advisors. The rest of the post provides responses to questions asked by a few of my readers to help you with the following:

  • Figure out whether and how a financial planner can help you.
  • Prepare for your first meeting with a financial planner.
  • Understand the process for developing a financial plan and the deliverables.
  • Select a financial planner who meets your needs.

Financial Planners vs Other Financial Advisors

There are many types of advisors who can help you with your finances. In this post, I’ll focus on professionals who provide financial planning services. These professionals can be independent advisors, work for firms that perform solely financial planning services or can be employed by mutual fund companies, stock brokerage firms (e.g., Schwab or Morgan Stanley), other financial institutions (e.g., Ameriprise) or other types of firms (e.g., accounting firms). Most of these financial planners provide a brand range of services intended to assist you in creating a sound financial plan and attaining your financial goals.

Types of Other Financial Advisors

There are many other types of financial advisors, some of whom may be called financial planners, who specialize in segments of your financial plan. Examples of these advisors include:

  • Insurance agents who can assist you in finding the best insurance policies to meet your needs. Some insurance agents specialize in just property & casualty lines (such as residences, cars or umbrella policies) or health or life insurance or annuities, while others can assist with several or all types of personal insurance.
  • Stock brokers who provide advice about specific companies or financial instruments in which you might want to invest.
  • Money managers who make decisions about what to buy and sell in your portfolio and execute the transactions.
  • Debt consultants or consolidators who can help you find the best strategy for paying off your debts.
  • Tax accountants and tax lawyers who can provide advice about your tax situation and how it might impact your financial decisions. Tax accountants can also prepare your tax returns.

What’s Best for You

You’ll want to choose an advisor who has the right expertise to address your questions. If you want help with your overall financial plan, a financial planner is best. If you go to an advisor with a narrower focus in that situation, you might not get the best information for your overall financial health. For example, an insurance agent who specializes in life insurance and annuities would be less likely to focus on non-insurance savings mechanisms, such as 401k’s or exchange-traded funds, than a financial planner with a broader area of expertise.

To be clear, all of these types of advisors can be very valuable in refining your financial plan, but you’ll want to make sure you have the right expectations about their expertise. In fact, your financial planner may refer you to one or more of these consultants on a specific aspect of your financial plan.

What Services do Financial Planners Provide?

The primary service provided by a financial planner is the development of a sound financial plan. This process can include assistance with setting financial goals, budgeting, estate planning, retirement planning, selection of insurance coverages and investment strategies.

The specific services provided will be tailored to your needs. If you are just getting started, the financial planner may focus on identifying goals and creating a budget. If you already have a financial plan and want increased comfort that you will meet your goals, these services could be as sophisticated as statistical (Monte Carlo) modeling of your future financial situations under a wide range of assumptions regarding future investment returns.

As part of or before your first meeting, a good financial planner will ask about the current status of your finances and what your goals are for deliverables to make sure the planner helps you in a way that makes sense for you.

Do I Need a Financial Planner?

Using a financial planner is a matter of personal preference. I’ve never used one, but my background as an actuary and working with the finance and risk management departments of insurance companies has given me the confidence to go it alone. However, most people can benefit from good advice. As Graeme says, though, “You only need to be careful not to pay for more than you need.” His thoughts about the services you might want to use by age are:

  • A young person starting out might get counseling on budgeting, savings strategies, how much to save, and which tax-advantaged accounts to use.
  • Middle-aged individuals with more substantial savings ($100K+) might want to get an assessment of where they stand for retirement and how much to save to meet their retirement income goals, considering all of the resources at their disposal.
  • Pre-retirees (5-10 years out) will want to have a comprehensive plan to ensure they have adequately covered all likely scenarios, so they can be confident in their retirement plans before pulling the plug on work.

If you have enough assets for it to matter and aren’t highly confident you are on track to meet your goals or you suspect there are gaps in your knowledge, a professional financial planner can help.

For a different perspective on using a financial planner, check out this article from Schwab that I happened to read as I was writing this post.

What Will I Get?

Primary Deliverable

The most important deliverable from a financial planner is a financial plan. Depending on where you are in the process of managing your finances, it will include some or all of the following items:

  • Your financial goals
  • A statement of your current financial position (assets and debt)
  • A budget
  • Your savings strategies and actions, including
    • Short-term savings
    • Designated savings
    • Retirement savings, sometimes including investment advice
  • A plan for re-paying your current debt
  • Guidance about the types and amounts of insurance to buy, along with descriptions of your current policies
  • A brief description of your income tax situation
  • Guidance on what needs to be done to ensure that the legal documents are in place in case you become incapacitated or die

Other Deliverables

In addition, financial planners can provide longer term projections that show estimates of the growth in your income, assets (from investment returns and additions to savings) and expenses. These types of projections can provide insights about your ability to retire when and in the style you want.

Another benefit of working with a financial planner is that you can get referrals to other advisors and can become aware of other financial resources to help with different aspects of your financial life. For example, most financial planners do not draft legal documents, such as wills, trust agreements or powers of attorney. Many financial planners, though, have worked with lawyers who have this expertise and can provide you with a referral.

How Should I Prepare?

All financial planners have their own unique processes. As such, you’ll want to ask your planner the format of the information he or she would like to see. Many planners will provide you with a questionnaire and/or an information request to guide you through the process of compiling your information. Nonetheless, there are a number of fundamental pieces of information that every financial planner will request. They are your:

  • Assets, including retirement accounts
  • Liabilities
  • Income
  • Monthly expenses
  • Current or future defined benefit pension benefits
  • Financial goals
  • Values

Graeme was quite clear that the numerical values above should be firm, accurate numbers, not guesses. It will take some time to compile all of this information, but will ensure that you get the best service from your financial planner. He also added that you should “run away” from any planner who makes recommendations before obtaining this information.

What is the Process?

You are likely to meet with your financial planner once or twice to create or refine your financial plan initially. Some planners prefer to learn about your finances by reviewing documents and answers you provide to their questionnaires. Other planners prefer to have an introductory meeting to learn about you and your finances. In either case, the financial planner wants to learn your objectives and concerns, along with your family structure.

The financial planner will then assess your situation and goals, identify gaps and challenges, and determine the most appropriate strategy for ensuring your goals will be met. The planner will prepare a financial plan and an investment plan, including an asset allocation assessment for investments, and provide them to you in writing.

Your financial planner will then meet with you in person to present the plan and make recommendations. You and your planner will then identify the action items that come out of the plan and assign them to either you or the planner, depending on their nature and your planner’s areas of expertise.

How Often Should I Check Back In?

Financial planning is not a “one and done” exercise. You’ll want to track your progress against your plan and adjust it as necessary. Adjustments might be needed as there are changes in the economy and investing markets or changes in your personal life, such as marriage, a death in the family, children, or a change in your goals.

If both your life and the economy are fairly stable, once a year may be often enough to meet with your financial planner. More typically, you’ll want to check in with your financial planner twice a year. Of course, if you have any life changes, it will also be a good time to check in with your financial planner to see if any tweaks or more significant changes to your financial plan are indicated.

How are Financial Planners Paid?

There are a number of different ways in which financial planners are paid. Here are some of the more common options.

No Charge

If you use a financial planner at a brokerage firm or mutual fund company, you can often get some financial planning services at no charge. The more money you hold at the brokerage firm, the more services you can get at no charge.

Fixed Fees Per Service

Many independent financial planners will provide services on a fixed-fee basis. That is, they will charge you a fixed cost for each of the different aspects of your financial plan with which they provide assistance. Financial planners at brokerage firms also can charge fixed fees for services that are beyond those that are provided at no cost.

Commissions

Financial planners who also sell products, such as insurance or mutual funds, are often paid based on the products you purchase through them. For example, sellers of insurance are often paid 5% to 15% of the premium on the policies you purchase.

Percentage of Assets

Although it is more common with people who manage your money than with advisors who help you with your financial plan, some financial planners are paid as a percentage of the market value of your assets that they manage. This type of compensation is also common for financial planners who work for mutual fund companies.

What’s Best for You

When you get advice from a financial planner, you’ll want to understand the possible biases introduced by the form of their compensation. The vast majority of financial planners are ethical and are focused on your best interests. Nonetheless, you’ll want to be aware of the possibility that the solution proposed by a financial planner is potentially influenced by their compensation. As such, I suggest seeking financial planning advice from people who provide their services either at no charge to you or for a fixed fee.

How Do I Find the Financial Planner that is Best for Me?

One of the best ways to identify possible financial planners is to get recommendations from other financial professionals with whom you already have a relationship, such as an accountant or attorney. If you have friends who are particularly financially savvy, you might ask them for a recommendation. However, you are probably at least as skilled at selecting a financial planner as any friends who are in the same boat as you. And, you are a better judge of a good fit for you than anyone else. Also, I strongly recommend against using a family member as a financial planner. There are almost always too many emotions tied up in family relationships for a family member to be able to advise you on a subject that often requires difficult conversations, such as your finances.

Check their Qualifications

Once you have identified one or more possible financial planners, you’ll want to check their qualifications and whether they have been disciplined. In the US, the most common designation attained by professional financial planners is a Certified Financial Planner, though there are many other designations that indicate expertise, such as a Certified Financial Analyst or a Certified Public Accountant (CPA).

Once you’ve identified the candidates’ professional designations, you’ll want to check to see if there has been any disciplinary action against them. Disciplinary actions are all available on-line. Graeme’s words of wisdom are, “I don’t care how minor the infraction. I wouldn’t go near anyone who has been disciplined. It’s not hard to be an honest advisor, and I wouldn’t trust anyone who has failed at that.”

Interview a Few Financial Planners

You then want to interview the remaining candidates. Again, I’ll provide Graeme’s advice, as I think it is right on target.

  • Are they generous with their time?
  • Do they listen to you?
  • Do they listen to your spouse?
  • Are they genuinely curious about your situation and your plans and goals?
  • Do they ask questions?
  • Or, are they too quick to sell you something?

Your Final Selection

Look for a combination of training and experience. A financial planning designation should be a minimum, along with several years in the industry. They should also be able to refer you to current clients who can recommend their services.”

I suggest that you also think about whether you feel you can develop a good, long-term relationship with the potential advisor.  Also, consider whether they garnered your respect during the interview. Starting the process of financial planning on a shaky foundation will be unproductive at best.

[1] Graeme Hughes is an accredited Financial Planner with 23 years of experience in the financial services industry. During the course of his career he completed hundreds of financial plans and recommended and sold hundreds of millions of dollars of investment products.

A Man is Not a (Sound Financial) Plan

A man is not a plan

“A Man is Not a Plan!” It sounds like a very dated statement, but a guide on a recent trip I took told me about a conversation he had with one of his nieces about her finances.  They were talking about how she could improve her financial situation by building a sound financial plan. As they were talking, one of them came up with the slogan, “A Man is Not a Plan.” He suggested I use it as the title for one of my posts. So, here it is!

In this post, I will talk about the key components of a sound financial plan. A financial plan provides the structure to help you organize your financial information and decisions. I’ll provide brief explanations of the things to consider about each component, what you need to do and, for most of them, links to posts I’ve written that provide much more detail. I’ll also provide insights on how to know when you need help and who to contact.

Sound Financial Plan

A sound financial plan includes the following sections:

    • A list of your financial goals – In this section, you’ll want to identify your three to five most important financial goals.
    • A list of your current assets and liabilities (debts)
    • Your budget
    • Your savings and investment strategies to help you attain your goals, including
      • Short-term savings
      • Designated savings
      • Retirement savings
    • Desired use of debt, including re-payment of current debt
    • Your giving goals
    • Risk management strategy, i.e., types and amounts of insurance to buy
    • Understanding of your income tax situation
    • What you want to have happen to you and your assets when you become incapacitated or die and related documents

     

  • You will likely be most successful if you create a formal document with all of these components of a sound financial plan. You’ll want to review and update your financial plan at least every few years, but certainly any time you have a significant change in your finances (e.g., a significant change in wages) or are considering a significant financial decision (e.g., buying a house, getting married or having children). Of course, a less formal format is much better than no plan at all, so you should tailor your efforts to what will best help you attain your financial goals.

    Budget

    A budget itemizes all of your sources of income and all of your expenses, including money you set aside for different types of savings. It provides the framework for all of your financial decisions. Do you need to change the balance between income and expenses to meet your goals? Can you make a big expenditure? How and what types of insurance can you afford? How much debt can you afford to re-pay?

    I think that a budget is the most important component of a sound financial plan and should be the first step you take. Everyone should have a good understanding of the amounts of their income and expenses to inform the rest of their financial decisions.  While some people will benefit from going through the full process of creating a budget and monitoring it, others can be a bit less detailed.

    In the text section of your financial plan, you’ll want to include a list of your financial goals as they relate to your budget and how you plan to implement them. You can include your actual budget in your financial plan itself or as a separate attachment.

    Savings

    I generally think of savings in three categories (four if you include setting aside money for your kids): emergency savings, designated savings and retirement savings. You will want to address each of these types of savings in your financial plan. The information you’ll want to include for each type of savings is:

    • How much you currently have saved.
    • The target amounts you’d like to have saved.
    • Your plan for meeting your targets.
    • For what you’ll use it.
    • How fast you’ll replenish it if you use it.
    • How much you need to include in your budget to meet your targets.
    • Your investing strategy.
    • A list of all financial accounts with location of securely stored access information.

    Emergency Savings

    Emergency savings is money you set aside for unexpected events. These events can include increased expenses such as the need to travel to visit an ailing relative or attend a funeral or a major repair to your residence. They also include unexpected decreases in income, such as the reduced hours, leaves of absence or lay-offs related to the coronavirus.

    The general rule of thumb is that a target amount for emergency savings is three to six months of expenses. I suggest keeping one month of expenses readily available in a checking or savings account that you can access immediately and the rest is an account you can access in a day or two, such as a money market account.

    Designated Savings

    Designated savings is money you set aside for planned large expenses or bills you don’t pay every month. Examples might include your car insurance if you pay it annually or semi-annually or money you save for a replacement for your car you are going to buy in a few years.

    To estimate how much you need to set aside for your designated savings each month, you’ll want to look at all costs that you don’t pay every month and figure out how often you pay them. You’ll want to set aside enough money each month to cover those bills when they come due. For example, if your car insurance bill is $1,200 every six months, you’ll want to put $200 in your designated savings in each month in which your insurance bill isn’t paid. You’ll then take $1,000 our of your designated savings and add $200 in each month it is due to pay the bill.

    Retirement Savings

    Saving for retirement is one of the largest expenses you’ll have during your working lifetime. There are many aspects of saving for retirement:

    • Understanding how much you will receive in retirement from government programs, such as Social Security in the US or the Canadian Pension Plan in Canada.
    • Setting your retirement savings goal.
    • Estimating how much you need to save each year to meet your retirement savings goal.
    • Deciding what are the best types of accounts in which to put your retirement savings – taxable, Roth (TFSA in Canada) or Traditional (RRSP in Canada).
    • Determining in what assets (bonds, stocks, mutual funds or ETFs, for example) to invest your retirement savings in light of your risk tolerance and diversification needs and how those choices affect your investment returns.

    Debt

    Debt can be used for any number of purchases, ranging from smaller items bought on credit cards to large items purchased with a loan, such as a home. Whether you have debt outstanding today, use credit cards regularly and/or are thinking of making a large purchase using debt, you’ll want to define your goals with respect to the use of debt.

    For example, do you want to never have any debt outstanding (i.e., never buy anything for which you can’t pay cash and pay your credit card bills in full every month)? Are you willing to take out a mortgage as long as you understand the terms and can afford the payments? Do you have a combination of a high enough income and small enough savings that you are willing to use debt to make large purchases other than your home? Do you have debts you want to pay off in a certain period of time?

    As you think about these questions, you’ll want to consider what debt is good for you and what debt might be problematic.  A sound financial plan includes a list of your debts, how much you owe for each one, your target for repaying them, and your strategy for using debt in the future.

    Credit Cards

    Credit cards are the most common form of debt. Your financial plan might include the number of credit cards you want to have and your goals for paying your credit card bills. As part of these goals, you might need to add a goal about spending, such as not buying anything you can’t afford to pay off in a certain period of time.

    Student Loans

    Many people have student loans with outstanding balances. In your financial plan, you’ll want to include your goal for paying off any student loans you have. Do you want to pay them off according to the original schedule? Are you behind on payments and have a goal for getting caught up? Do you want to pay off your student loans early?

    Car Loans

    In a perfect world, your car would last long enough that you could buy its replacement out of your designated savings. However, the world isn’t perfect and you may need to consider whether to take out a loan or lease a car. Your financial plan will include your strategy for ensuring that you always have a vehicle to drive. How often do you want to replace your car? What is your goal with respect to saving for the car, loans or leases? How much will it cost to maintain and repair your car?   Your budget will include the amounts needed to cover the up-front portion of the cost of a replacement car, any loan or lease payments and amounts to put in designated savings for maintenance and repairs.

    Mortgages

    Most homeowners borrow money to help pay for it As part of creating your financial plan, you might include your goal for home ownership. Are you happy as a renter for the foreseeable future or would you like to buy a house?

    If you want to buy a house either for the first time or a replacement for one you own, you then need to figure out how to pay for the house. How much can you save for a down payment? Can you set aside enough in designated savings each month to reach that goal? What is the price of a house that you can afford, after considering property taxes, insurance, repairs and maintenance?

    Once you have a mortgage, you’ll want to select a goal for paying it off. When a mortgage has a low enough interest rate, you might make the payments according to the loan agreement and no more. If it has a higher interest rate or you foresee that your ability to make mortgage payments might change before it is fully re-paid, you might want to make extra payments if you have money in your budget.

    Paying Off Debt

    If you have debt, you’ll want to include your goals and your strategy for paying it off in your financial plan. You’ll first want to figure out how much you can afford each month to use for paying off your debts. You can then compare that amount with the amount needed to meet your goals. If the former is less than the latter, you’ll need to either generate more income, reduce other expenses, put less money in savings or be willing to live with less aggressive goals. These decisions are challenging ones and are a combination of cost/benefit analyses and personal preference.

Giving Goals

Many people want to give to their community either by volunteering their time or donating money.  If you plan to give money or assets, you’ll first want to make sure that you can afford the donations by checking your budget and other financial goals.  It is also important to make sure that your donations are getting used in the way you intended, as not all charities are the same.  A Dime Saved provides many more insights about giving in her Guide to Giving to Charity.

  • Insurance

    Protecting your assets through insurance is an important part of a sound financial plan. The most common types of insurance for individuals cover your vehicles, residence, personal liability, health and life. There are other types of insurance, such as disability, dental, vision, and accidental death & dismemberment, that are most often purchased through your employer but can also be purchased individually.

    As I told my kids, my recommendation is that you buy the highest limits on your insurance that you can afford and don’t buy insurance for things you can afford to lose. For example, if you can afford to pay up to $5,000 every time your home is damaged, you might select a $5,000 deductible on your homeowners policy. Alternately, if you can afford to replace your car if it is destroyed in an accident, you might not buy collision coverage at all. Otherwise, you might set lower deductibles as your goal.

    For each asset in your financial plan, including your life and health which can be considered future sources of income or services, you’ll want to select a strategy for managing the risks of damage to those assets or of liability as a result of having those assets.

    A financial plan includes a list of the types of policies you purchase, the specifics of the coverage provided and insurer, changes you’d like to make to your coverage and your strategy for insurance in the future. You’ll also want to attach copies of either just the declaration pages or your entire policies to your financial plan.

    Car Insurance

    Car insurance can provide coverage for damage to your car, to other vehicles involved in an accident you cause and injuries to anyone involved in an accident. The types of coverages available depend on the jurisdiction in which you live, as some jurisdictions rely on no-fault for determining who has to pay while others rely solely on tort liability.

    Homeowners Insurance

    Homeowners insurance (including renters or condo-owners insurance) provides coverage for damage to your residence (if you own it), damage to your belongings and many injuries to people visiting your residence.

    Umbrella Insurance

    One way to increase the limits of liability on your car and homeowners insurance is an umbrella insurance policy. An umbrella also provides protection against several other sources of personal liability. If you have money in your budget for additional insurance, you might consider purchasing an umbrella policy.

    Health Insurance

    Health insurance is likely to be one of your most expensive purchases, unless your employer pays a significant portion of the cost. Whether you are buying in the open market or through your employer, you are likely to have choices of health insurance plan. Selecting the health insurance plan that best meets your budget and goals can be challenging.

    Life Insurance

    There are many types of life insurance, including term and whole life. Some variations of whole life insurance provide you with options for investing in addition to the death benefit. Once you have compiled the other components of your financial plan, you’ll be better able to assess your need for life insurance. If you have no dependents and no debt, you might not need any. At the other extreme, if you have a lot of debt and one or more dependents, you might want to buy as much coverage as you can afford to ease their financial burden if you die. To learn more specifics about buying life insurance, you might review this post.

    Income Taxes

    Some of your financial decisions will depend on your income tax situation.

    • Do you want your investments to produce a lot of cash income which can increase your current income taxes or focus on appreciation which will usually defer your taxes until a later date?
    • Is a Roth (TFSA) or Traditional (RRSP) plan a better choice for your retirement savings?
    • Are you having too little or too much income taxes withheld from your paycheck?
    • Do you need to pay estimated income taxes?
    • How will buying a house, getting married or having children affect your income taxes?
    • Will moving to another state increase or reduce your income taxes?

     

  • As you consider these and other questions, you’ll want to outline at least a basic understanding of how Federal and local income taxes impact your different sources of income as part of creating a sound financial plan.

    Legal Documents

    Although it is hard to imagine when you are young, at some point in your life you may become incapacitated and will eventually die. There are a number of documents that you can use to ensure that your medical care and assets are managed according to your wishes. You can either include these documents as part of your financial plan or create a list of the documents, the date of the most recent version of each one and where they are located.

    Powers of Attorney

    There are two important types of powers of attorney – medical and financial.

  • A medical power of attorney appoints someone to be responsible for making your medical decisions if you are physically or mentally incapable of doing so. You can supplement a medical power of attorney with a medical directive that is presented to medical personnel before major surgery or by the person appointed to make medical decisions that dictates specifically what is to happen in certain situations.A financial power of attorney appoints someone to be responsible for your finances if you are physically or mentally incapacitated. The financial power of attorney can allow that person to do only a limited number of things, such as pay your bills, or can allow that person to do anything related to your finances.

    Trusts

    There are several forms of trusts that can be used to hold some or all of your assets to make the transition to your beneficiaries easier when you die. Trusts can also be used to hold money for your children either before or after you die. While I am familiar with some types of trusts, I don’t know enough to provide any guidance about them. If you are interested in them, I suggest you research them on line and/or contact a lawyer with expertise in trusts.

    Your Will

    If you die without a will, your state or provincial government will decide how your assets will be divided. In many jurisdictions, your spouse, if you have one, will get some or all of your assets. Your children or parents may also get some of your assets. Most people want more control over the disposition of their assets than is provided by the government.

  • A will is the legal document that allows you to make those specifications. Your will can also identify who will become legally responsible for your minor children or any adult children who are unable to take care of themselves. That responsibility can be split between responsibility for raising your children and responsibility for overseeing any money you leave either to their guardian(s) or for them.

    How to Know When You Need Help

    As you can see, there are a lot of components to a sound financial plan and many of them are interrelated. There are many resources available to help you develop and refine your plan. Many of those resources are free, such as the links to the articles I’ve published on relevant topics. There are also many other sources of information, including personal stories, on line.

    You can also get more personalized assistance. There are many types of financial advisors, a topic I’ll cover in a post soon. Many financial advisors provide a broad array of services, while others specialize in one or two aspects of your financial plan.

    Sources of Advice

    The table below lists the types of obstacles you might be facing and the types of advisors that might be able to help.

    ObstaclePossible Advisors
    I can’t figure out how to make a budget or how to set aside money for emergency or designated savings.Bookkeeper, accountant, financial planner
    I can’t make my budget balance.Bookkeeper, accountant, financial planner
    I have more debt that I can re-pay.Financial planner, debt counselor, debt consolidator
    I don’t know what insurance I should buy.Financial planner, insurance agent or, for employer-sponsored health insurance, your employer’s human resource department
    I’m not sure I’m saving enough for retirement.Financial planner
    I have questions about how to invest my savings, including whether I am diversified or need to re-balance my portfolio.Financial planner or stock broker
    I don’t understand how income taxes work.Accountant
    I need help with a Trust, Power of Attorney or Will.Wills & estates lawyer

    Clearly, a financial planner can help with many of these questions, but sometimes you’ll need an advisor with more in depth expertise on one aspect of your financial plan.

Don’t Panic! Just Plan It.

Don't Panic. Just Plan it.

Financial markets have been more turbulent in the past few weeks than has been seen in many years, probably more volatile than has happened since many of you started being financially aware. You may be wondering what actions you should take. With the sense of panic and urgency surrounding recent news, it often feels as if drastic action is necessary. If you have created financial plan, inaction may be the best strategy for you!

As indicated elsewhere on this blog, I do not have any professional designations that qualify me to provide professional advice. In addition, my comments are provided as generalities and may not apply to your specific situation. Please read the rest of this post with these thoughts in mind.

Biggest Financial Risk from Recent News

I suspect that losing your job or losing business if you are self-employed is the biggest financial risk many of you face. Understanding your position within your company and how your company will be impacted by coronavirus, oil prices and other events will inform you as to the extent to which you face the risk of a lay-off or reduction in hours/salary.

If you think you might have a risk of a decrease in earned income, you’ll want to look into what options for income replacement are available to you, including state or federal unemployment programs, severance from your employers, among others. Another important step is to review your expenses so you know how you can reduce them to match your lowered income.  In addition, you’ll want to evaluate how long you can live before exhausting your emergency savings, with or without drastic reductions in your expenses. You may even want to start cutting expenses before your income is lowered and put the extra amount in your emergency savings.

Your Financial Plan & Recent News

In the rest of this post, I’ll look at the various components of a financial plan and provide my thoughts on how they might be impacted by the recent news and resulting volatility in financial markets. For more tips on how to handle financial turmoil, check out these mistakes to avoid.

Paid Time-Off Benefits/Disability Insurance

If you are unfortunate enough to get COVID-19 or are required to self-quarantine and can’t work from home, you may face a reduction in compensation. Your first line of defense is any sick time or paid time-off (PTO) provided by your employer. In most cases, your employer will cover 100% of your wages for up to the number of days, assuming you haven’t used them yet.

Once you have used all of your sick time/PTO, you may have coverage under short- or long-term disability insurance if provided by your employer or if you purchase it through your employer or on your own. Disability insurance generally pays between 2/3 and 100% of your wages while you are unable to work for certain causes, almost always including illness. It might be a good time to review your available sick time/PTO and disability insurance to understand what coverage you have.

Emergency Savings

Emergency savings is one of the most important components of a financial plan.  There are two aspects to your emergency savings that you’ll want to consider. The first is whether you have enough in your emergency savings.  The second is the risk that the value of the savings will go down due to financial market issues.

Do I Have Enough?

If you are laid off, have reduced hours or use up all, exhaust your sick time/PTO or get less than 100% of your wages replaced by disability insurance, you may have to tap into your emergency savings. The need to spend your emergency savings increases if you tend to spend most of your paycheck rather than divert a portion of it to savings.

I generally suggest one to six months of expenses as a target for the amount of emergency savings. In light of recent events and the increased risks lay-off and illness, I would focus on the higher end of that range or even longer. As you evaluate the likelihood you’ll be laid off, the chances you’ll be exposed to coronavirus and your propensity to get it, you’ll also want to consider whether you have enough in emergency savings to cover your expenses while your income is reduced or eliminated.

In certain situations, such as in response to the coronavirus, creditors will allow you to defer your payments.  You will then have the option as to whether to defer them or make those payments from your emergency savings./a>

Will it Lose Its Value?

I’ve suggested that you keep at least one month of expenses in emergency savings in a checking or savings account at a bank or similar financial institution. The monetary value of your emergency savings is pretty much risk-free, at least in the US. The only way you would lose any of these savings is if the financial institution were to go bankrupt. In the US, deposits in financial institutions are insured, generally up to $250,000 per person per financial institution, by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). For more specifics, see the FDIC web site. Similar protections may be available in other countries.

I’ve also suggested that you keep another two to five months of expenses in emergency savings in something only slightly less accessible, such as a money market account. There is slightly more risk that the value of a money market account will go down than a checking or savings account, but it is generally considered to be very small. Money market accounts are also insured by the FDIC. For more specifics, see this article on Investopedia.

As such, the recent volatility in financial markets are unlikely to require you to take action related to your existing emergency savings and could act as an opportunity to re-evaluate whether you have enough set aside for emergencies.

Short-Term Savings

Another component of a financial plan is short-term savings.  Short-term savings is money you set aside for a specific purpose. One purpose for short-term savings is expenses that don’t get paid every month, such as property taxes, homeowners insurance or car maintenance and repairs.   Another purpose for short-term savings is to cover the cost of larger purchases for which you might need to save for several years, such as a car or a down payment on a house.

Short-term savings are commonly held in money-market accounts, certificates of deposits (CDs) or very high quality, shorter term bonds, such as those issued by the US government. CDs and US government bonds held to maturity are generally considered to have very little risk. Their market values are unlikely to change much and the likelihood that the issuers will not re-pay the principal when due is small.

Thus, the recent volatility in financial markets is also unlikely to require you to take action related to your short-term savings.

Long-Term Savings

Savings for retirement and other long-term goals are key components of a financial plan.  If they are invested at all in any equity markets, your long-term savings have likely taken quite a beating. Rather than try to provide generic guidance on how to deal with the losses in your long-term savings, I’ll tell you how I’m thinking and what I’m doing about mine. By providing a concrete example, albeit one very different from most of your situations, my goal is to provide you with some valuable insights about the thought process.

Think about the Time Frame for My Long-Term Savings

As you may know, I’m retired and have just a little income from consulting. As such, my financial plan anticipates that I will live primarily off my investments and their returns. I have enough cash and bonds to cover my expenses for several years. As such, I’m not in a position that I absolutely have to liquidate any of my equity positions in less than three-to-four years.

For many of you, your most significant goal for long-term savings is likely retirement. As such, your time horizon for your long-term savings is longer than mine and you can withstand even more volatility. That is, you have a longer time for stock prices to recover to the recent highs and even higher.     In the final section of this post, I’ll talk about how long it has taken equity markets to recover from past “crashes” to help you get more perspective on this issue.

Know Your Investments

My view is that, if I wait long enough, the overall stock market will recover. It always has in the past. If it doesn’t, I suspect something cataclysmic will have happened and I will be focused on more important issues such as food, water and heat, than my long-term savings. For now, though, my view is that my investments in broad-based index funds are going to recover from the recent price drops though it may take a while and be a tough period until then. As such, I am not taking any action with respect to those securities. Once the stock market seems to settle down a bit (and possibly not until it starts going up for a while), I might invest a bit more of my cash to take advantage of the lower prices.

I have a handful of investments in stocks and bonds of individual companies. These positions have required a bit more thought on my part.   I already know the primary products and services of these companies and the key factors that drive profitability, as I identified these features before I purchased the stocks or bonds as part of my financial plan. I can now look at the forces driving the economic changes to evaluate how each of the companies might be impacted.

Example 1

I own some bonds that mature in two to three years in a large company that provides cellular phone service. As discussed in my post on bonds, as long as you hold bonds to maturity, the only risk you face is that the issuer will default (not make interest payments or re-pay the principal). With the reduction in travel and group meetings, I see an increased demand for technological communication solutions, such as cell phones. While the stock price of this company has gone down, I don’t see that its chance of going bankrupt has been affected adversely, so don’t plan to sell the bonds.

Example 2

One company whose stock I’ve owned for a very long time focuses on products used to test food safety. While the company’s stock price has dropped along with the broader market, I anticipate that people will have heightened awareness of all forms of ways of transmitting illness, including through food-borne bacteria and other pathogens. As such, I am not planning to sell this stock as the result of recent events.

Example 3

I own stock in an airline that operates primarily within North America. This one is a bit trickier. It looks like travel of all types is going to be down for a while. I’m sure that US domestic airline travel will be significantly impacted, but suspect it will not be affected as much as international or cruise ship travel. The reduction in revenue might be slightly offset by the lower cost of fuel, but that is probably not a huge benefit in the long term.

I’ve owned this company for so long that I still have a large capital gain and would have to pay tax on it if I sold the stock. At this point, I don’t think there is a high probability that this airline will go bankrupt (though I’m not an expert and could be wrong). I expect the price to drop more than the overall market average in the coming months, but also expect that it will recover. As such, I don’t plan to sell this stock solely because of recent events.   However, if this company had most of its revenue from operating cruise ships, was smaller, or had more foreign exposure, I would study its financials and business model in more detail to see if I thought it would be able to withstand the possibility of much lower demand for an extended period of time.

Summary

I have gone through similar thought processes for each of the companies in my portfolio to create my action plan. I will re-evaluate them as time passes and more information becomes available.

What We Can Learn from Past Crashes

Although every market cycle is different, I thought it might be insightful to provide information about previous market crashes. For this discussion, I am defining a market crash as a decrease in the price of the S&P 500 by more than 20% from its then most recent peak. I have identified 11 crashes using this definition, including the current one, over the time period from 1927 to March 14, 2020.

As you’ll see in the graphs below, the market crash starting at the peak in August 1929 is much different from most of the others. It took until 1956 before the S&P 500 reached its pre-crash level! Over the almost three years until the S&P 500 reached its low and then again during the recovery period (from the low until it reached its previous high), there were several crashes. I have counted this long cycle as a single crash, though it could be separated into several.

Magnitude of Previous Crashes

The table below shows the dates of the highest price of the S&P 500 before each of the 11 crashes since 1927.  It also shows the percentage decrease from the high to the low and the number of years from the high to the low.

Date of Market Peak

Price ChangeYears from High to Low

9/17/29

-86%2.7

8/3/56

-21%

1.2

12/13/61-28%

0.5

2/10/66-22%

0.7

12/2/68

-36%

1.5

1/12/73

-48%1.7

12/1/80

-27%1.7

8/26/87

-34%

0.3

3/27/00-49%

2.5

10/10/07-57%

1.4

2/20/20-27%

0.1

While they don’t happen all that often, this table confirms that the S&P 500 has suffered significant decreases in the past. What seems a bit different about the current crash is the speed at which prices have dropped from the market high reached just a few weeks ago. In the past, the average time from the market peak to the market bottom has been 1.4 years, but the range has been from 0.3 years to 2.7 years. While the 27% decrease in the S&P 500 from its peak on February 20, 2020 until March 14, 2020 is large and troubling, the average price change of 10 preceding crashes is -41% (-36% if the 1929 crash is excluded). As such, it isn’t unprecedented.

What Happened Next?

This table shows how long it took after each of the first 10 crashes for the S&P 500 to return to its previous peak. It also shows the average annualized return from the lowest price until it returned to its previous peak.

Date of Market Peak

Years from Low Back to PeakAnnualized Average Return During Recovery

9/17/29

22.29.3%

8/3/56

0.929.8%
12/13/611.2

31.7%

2/10/660.6

55.3%

12/2/681.8

28.3%

1/12/73

5.812.0%

12/1/80

0.2293.4%

8/26/87

1.6

28.1%

3/27/004.6

15.7%

10/10/074.1

22.9%

For example, it took 1.6 years after the market low price on December 4, 1987 (the low point of the cycle starting on August 26, 1987) for the S&P 500 to reach the same price it had on August 26, 1987. Over that 1.6-year period, the average annual return on an investment in the S&P 500 would have been 28%!

Because the values from the 1929 and 1980 cycles can distort the averages, I’ll look at the median values of these metrics. At the median, it took 1.7 years for the S&P 500 to reach its previous high with a median annualized average return of 28%.   There are obviously wide ranges about these metrics, but, excluding the 1929 crash, the S&P 500 never took more than 6 years to recover from its low. This time frame is important as you are thinking about the length of time until you might need to use your long-term savings.

After hitting bottom, the S&P 500 always had an average annual return of 12% or more over the recovery period, a fair amount higher than the overall annual average return on the S&P 500. Anyone who sold a position in the S&P 500 at any of the low points missed the opportunity to earn these higher-than-average returns – a reminder to not panic.

From Crash to Recovery

The graph below shows the ratios of the price of the S&P 500 to the price at the peak (day 0) over the 30 years after each of the first 10 market peaks in the tables above.

The light blue line that stays at the bottom is the 1929 crash. As you can see, by 30 years later, the S&P 500 was only twice as high as it was at its pre-crash peak. For all of the other crashes, the S&P 500 was at least four times higher than at each pre-crash peak, even though in many cases there were subsequent crashes in the 30-year period.

To get a sense for how the current crash compares, the graph below shows the same information for only the first 100 days after each peak. The current crash is represented by the heavy red line.

As indicated above, one of the unique characteristics about the current crash is that it occurred so quickly after the peak. The graph shows that the bright red line is much lower than any of the other lines on day 17. However, if you look at the light blue line (after the peak on September 17, 1929) and the brown line (after the peak on August 26, 1987), you can see that there were similarly rapid price decreases as occurred in the current crash, but they started a bit longer after their respective peaks.

Current Crash

We can’t know the path that the stock market will take going forward in the current cycle. It could halt its downward trend in a few days to a week and return to set new highs later this year. On the other hand, if other events occur in the future (such as the weather conditions that led to the dust bowl in the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s that exacerbated the banking issues that triggered the 1929 crash), it is possible stock prices could decline for many years and take a long time to recovery. Based on the patterns observed, this trend is less likely, but it is still a possibility.

As such, it is important as you consider your situation that you look at your investment horizon, your ability to live with further decreases in stock prices and your willingness to forego the opportunity to earn higher-than-average returns when the stock market returns to its pre-crash levels if you sell now, among other things.

Closing Thoughts

My goal in writing this post was to provide you with insights on how to view the disruptions in the economy and financial markets in recent weeks and plan your responses to them. My primary messages are:

  1. Don’t panic. While significant action may be the best course for your situation, do your best to make well-reasoned and not emotional decisions. Although you might want to sell your investments right away to avoid additional decreases in value, it isn’t the best strategy for everyone.
  2. Stick with (or make) a financial plan. Having a financial plan provides you with the ability to look at the impact of the uncertainties in financial markets and the overall economy on each aspect of your financial future separately, making the decision-making process a little easier.

 

The Different Types of Life Insurance

The life insurance landscape is confusing, to put it lightly. One can get lost in the different types of policies and terminologies, such as whole life, term life, cash value, variable life, and a lot more. If you want to purchase life insurance, you need to first understand the different types, how they work, their cost and which type is right for you and your lifestyle. They fall under four basic types: term, whole, universal and variable.

But how do you make sense of all the different types to ensure that you are picking the correct and best one? Here’s a quick breakdown of the four most common types of insurance policies.

Types of Life Insurance

There are two time-frames over which you can buy life insurance – a stated term or the rest of your life. Insurance that provides benefits over a stated term is known as term life. Permanent life policies provide benefits for the rest of your life (as long as you continue to make premium payments). There are three common types of permanent life insurance – whole life, universal life and variable life.

Term Life Insurance

Term life protects the insured for a pre-determined number of years which is usually any period from 10, 15, 20 or 30 years. The length of time the insurance is in effect is the “term” of the policy. When the term ends, the policy can be renewed on an annual basis as long as the premium is paid. Most insurance companies allow the policy owner to renew until the age of 95, after which point the probability of dying is so high as to make the cost of the insurance almost the same as the death benefit. The life insurance offered by employers is usually term life with a term of one year.

Term life is the most popular type of life insurance and the most affordable. Many financial advisors recommend that you buy term life insurance instead of whole life insurance and use the money you save to invest. But remember that this is a piece of general advice and not specific because you should first consider your own needs and personal situation. What product is most appropriate for you will depend on many things.

Here are the main strengths of term life insurance.

Flexibility

Life insurance will provide cash for your beneficiary so your family can deal with the negative financial consequences of your death. Term life insurance policies are very flexible in that they easily adjust to the policyholder’s needs.

Death Benefit

Beneficiaries do not pay income taxes on death benefits from life insurance. If the policy is properly owned, the death benefits can also be free from estate taxes.

Whole Life Insurance

When you buy traditional whole life insurance, the death benefit and the premium stay the same throughout the term of the policy. As indicated in the name, the term of a whole life is your entire life or until you stop paying the premium.

As you get older, the probability that the death benefit will be paid increases leading to increases in the amount of premium needed to pay for the death benefit (as would be seen in the premium increases you would pay if you bought a series of one-year term life insurance policies). You can imagine that the cost gets very high if you live to 80 years old or more. The insurance company could just assign a premium for term life insurance that goes up each year but it will come to a point that it will be very expensive for people at advanced ages.

Under a whole life policy, the insurance companies keep the premium level by charging a premium that is higher in the early years. This premium is more than what they need to pay claims when you are younger so they invest the money and use it to help pay the cost of insurance as you get older while keeping the premium level.

The main advantages of whole life insurance are as follows.

Lifetime Guaranteed Insurance

With whole life, the insurance company guarantees a premium amount that you have to pay. This means that this amount will stay the same for the rest of your life and will not increase. You can also rest assured that your loved ones/beneficiaries will receive a guaranteed, lump-sum payment at the time of your demise. You may also choose your business to be a beneficiary if you want.

Cash Value Accumulation

Aside from having life insurance for life, whole life also allows you to build a significant cash asset, as the insurance company sets aside a portion of the premium in an account. What’s more, your cash asset under a whole life policy is not going to be dependent on the ups and downs of the market at any time. You can also borrow against the cash value portion of your whole life policy. So, in case you need money for other things in the future such as payment for a home, college funding or a business loan, you’ll have a ready source of borrowing.

Tax Benefits

Whole life insurance carries with it numerous tax benefits, one of which is the tax-advantaged buildup of cash value. Also, many whole life policies provide dividends representing a portion of the insurance company’s profits that are paid to policyholders. Whole life insurance dividends may be guaranteed or non-guaranteed depending on the policy. The good thing is that even if you are accumulating dividends on the policy, you can defer paying the tax for them. This feature is one of the reasons that make whole life slightly more expensive than both term and universal policies. But take note that the policy is not flexible like the others.

Universal Life Insurance

Universal life falls under the umbrella of permanent life insurance options. It provides more flexibility than whole life.

There are three main components of universal life.

Death Benefits

You can choose from 2 options when determining how you want the beneficiary to receive the death benefits:

• Type A Death Benefit or Level Death Benefit. It’s up to you to pick a level of the death benefit, one that starts off as a single amount and stays level or the same for the life of the policy, regardless of its cash value.

• Type B Death Benefit: The other option is a combination of a specific death benefit and then the insurance company adds the cash value accumulation feature that accumulates over the life of the policy.

The Cash Value Portion

The insurance company allocates a portion of your premiums to an interest-crediting strategy of your choosing. In the basic form of Universal Life, interest is credited at a fixed rate by the insurance company. Some policies, known as Variable Life as discussed below, allow people to invest in mutual funds.

Flexible Premiums

The owner of a universal life policy has the option to pay as much or as little premium above a stated minimum. Although this flexibility attracts many insurance customers, a good percentage find it confusing at the same time. In term life insurance, you pay a certain amount every month or every year and you already know what the death benefit will be. But here, the shifting balances of premiums and death benefits are more complicated than what the majority of people need. Plus, it comes with the same extra costs as other permanent policies.

Another major difference between universal life and whole life policies is that policyholders of universal life can pay the premiums as they desire. However, in order to remain active, the policy must have sufficient available cash value to pay for the cost of insurance.

This isn’t something that you can do with a whole life policy because you can’t change the premiums to suit your present economic situation.

Variable Life Insurance

Variable life is similar to whole life with a different treatment of the cash value component.

In whole life and universal life policies, the fund managers keep the cash value component in a savings account. Although the growth is small when compared to other investment options, there is an assurance of the minimum rate guaranteed by the insurer. The insurance company also makes dividend payments from time to time.

Investment of Cash Value

When it comes to variable life, you’d imagine that it is some type of investment vehicle. The funds are in a mutual fund-like sub-accounts where there is potential for bigger growth. But there’s also the possibility of losing money depending on how the market behaves. The insurance company places the cash value in the stock market. Unlike universal life insurance policies, the insurer of a variable life insurance policy does not guarantee that your cash value won’t decrease.

If you are seeking higher, tax-deferred growth, variable life insurance policies are better investment options than whole life policies because they are like a “super-IRA.” However, you can only invest in the sub-accounts that are available through your policy. You don’t have the option to choose from the wide variety of mutual funds that are on the open market.

While premiums for a variable life can be lower than whole life, it is riskier since the company invests in the stock market. Many people don’t know much about the stock market and don’t know how to properly manage the funds to adjust to the market conditions. An average person won’t have the necessary skills or experience to do it effectively. These features limit a variable life insurance policy as an investment option and as a life insurance choice. The limits on investment choices is common to all permanent policy types.

Cost Comparison

The premium for a term life insurance policy is less than the premium for a whole life policy in the first several years you own it.  As you get older, you are increasingly likely to die so the premium for term life insurance increases and eventually become more expensive than if you were paying for a whole life policy you started buying when you were younger.

Cost of Term Life Policies

You might think that it is a disadvantage to choosing term life. After all, you have to die first to receive money (which does not go to you at all). Every year you will have to keep paying insurance premiums so you can protect your family. The premiums are affordable so you won’t have problems making the payments. But here is where some people can’t reconcile the cost and the benefit: when the 20 years go by and the insured is still alive. The insurance company does not give back anything. The truth is, this is a fair deal because the low premium you are paying only accounts for the death benefit you will get in case you die during the term of the policy.

Cost of Permanent Policies

In contrast, if you had purchased a permanent policy, you could keep it forever. And if you opted to stop in 20 years, the insurance company would likely give you back a portion of the premiums you have paid. When you account for the dividends you’ve received, there is a chance that you’ll get back all your premiums at that point. There is no guarantee that the policy will pay dividends so the insurance companies will not include them in their projections.

In the early years, permanent policies are more expensive than term policies so you would have to consider how much you are able (or are willing) to pay when you choose your life insurance.

About Baruch Silvermann

Baruch Silvermann is a personal finance expert, investor for more than 15 years, digital marketer and founder of The Smart Investor. But above all, he is passionate about teaching people how to manage their money and helping millions on their journey to a better financial future.

Mutual Funds and ETFs

Mutual-Funds-and-ETFs

Mutual fund and ETFs (exchange-traded funds) allow you to invest in securities without having to select individual positions. Instead, the fund manager makes the decisions as to when to buy and sell each security. As such, a fund is an easy way for new or busy investors to participate in financial markets. This post will help you learn about the different types of funds, their pros and cons and other considerations of owning mutual funds and ETFs.

What is a Mutual Fund?

A mutual fund is pool of money collected from the investors in the fund. The investors own shares in the mutual fund itself, but not in the individual securities owned by the fund. However, other than closed-end funds discussed below, an investor’s return is his or her share of the returns of the aggregation of the returns of the individual securities owned by the mutual fund. That is, if, on average, the securities in the mutual fund issue dividends of 3% and appreciate by 2%, fund owners will receive a dividend distribution equal to 3% of the value of their share of the pool plus the value of their ownership share will increase by 2%.

Most mutual funds also issue capital gain distributions once or twice a year. If the mutual fund had a gain on the aggregate amount of securities sold in the year, it will often distribute the amount of the gain to investors as a capital gain distribution in proportion to their ownership shares in the pool.

Mutual funds can be purchased directly from the fund manager or through a broker. Most mutual funds are not traded on exchanges. Purchases and sales of mutual funds occur once a day, with all buyers and sellers receiving the same price which is equal to the net asset value of the underlying assets. (See below for more information and exceptions.)

What is an ETF?

Exchange-traded funds or ETFs have several characteristics in common with mutual funds:

  • They are pools of money collected from their investors.
  • Investors share in the returns of the aggregation of the individual securities.
  • ETFs can hold a wide range of securities, including stocks, bonds and commodities.

These are a few of the ways in which ETFs differ from mutual funds:

  • They are exchange-traded securities (as implied by their name), so they can be bought and sold any time the exchange is open. As such, the price you pay or receive when you buy or sell an ETF can vary over the course of a day.
  • While many mutual funds have a minimum investment requirement, most ETFs do not.

Types of Mutual Funds and ETFs

There are many features of mutual funds and ETFs that are important in determining the best funds for your portfolio. Almost all of these features apply to both mutual funds and ETFs.

Active vs. Passive Management

An actively managed fund has a fund manager who is responsible for selecting the securities that will be owned by the fund. The manager decides when to buy and sell each security.  By comparison, the securities owned by a passively managed fund are determined so that the performance of the fund tracks a certain basket of assets.

Index funds are a common type of passively managed funds.   An index fund is a mutual fund or ETF that has a goal of matching the performance of an index, such as the S&P 500, the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the Fidelity US Bond Index.

There are other passively managed funds whose trades are determined so as to produce returns similar to a certain segment of a market, such as a particular industry or region of the world, that may or may not have an index that measures those returns.

Securities Owned

Funds can own a wide variety of securities – everything from stocks and bonds to commodities, among others. As you are looking for a fund, you’ll want to decide what type of security you are seeking.

Geography

Most funds focus on a specific geography. Many mutual funds focus on US investments, while others purchase securities from within a region of the US, the whole world or segments thereof, such as the developed world excluding the US. While I hold most of my North American equity positions in individual companies, I use mutual funds to diversify my portfolio globally.

Market Segment

Just as funds focus on a specific geography, they sometimes invest in one or more market segments.   Some funds focus on a specific industry, such as natural resources or technology or financial companies. If you think a particular industry is going to benefit from trends in the economy, such as healthcare as the population ages, you might want to buy a fund that focuses on the healthcare industry. On the other hand, you might want to avoid healthcare stocks if you think that the healthcare industry might be at risk of significant disruption from changes in the government’s role in healthcare.

Other funds focus on the size of companies.  For example, an S&P 500 Index fund only buys positions in companies in the S&P 500 which, by definition, are large.  Other funds focus on middle-sized companies (middle-sized capitalization of mid-cap) or smaller companies (small-cap).

Another “industry” on which many funds focus is municipal bonds. These funds invest in bonds issued by municipalities. In many cases, interest from municipal bonds and municipal bond funds is not taxed by the Federal government or in the state in which the municipality is located. For example, if you buy a bond issued by the City of Baltimore, it is likely that it will not be taxed at all if you are a Maryland resident.

Appreciation vs. Dividends

Some funds focus on high-dividend investments, while others focus on appreciation in the value of the securities they own. You can learn the focus of a fund by looking at its details either in a summary or its prospectus. Funds that focus on high-dividend yields often have “high-dividend” in their name, but not always. The type of return targeted by funds you purchase will impact the specific securities owned by the fund. In addition, the type of return impacts the taxes you will pay (discussed below).

Growth vs. Value

Companies are often categorized between growth and value, reflecting the two primary reasons that stock prices increase. The stock price of a growth company is expected to increase because the company will increase its profits. By comparison, the stock price of value company is expected to grow because its valuation, often measured by the price-to-earnings or P/E ratio, is considered low and likely to return to normal.

Closed-end vs. Open-end Funds

Most funds are open-end funds. The price you pay for these funds is equal to the market value of the securities owned by the fund divided by the number of shares outstanding.   This price is known as the Net Asset Value. You can buy shares from and sell shares back to the fund owner at any time at the net asset value.

A closed-end fund differs in that the number of shares available is fixed when the fund is first created. When you buy and sell shares in a closed-end fund, the other party to the transaction is another investor, not the fund owner.  In fact, closed-end fund shares trade in the same manner as if the fund were a company. As such, the price is not the net asset value, but rather has a market value that reflects not only the net asset value but also investors views of the future performance of the fund.

I found Investopedia to have some great information about open-end funds and closed-end funds.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Mutual Funds and ETFs

The biggest advantage of mutual funds and ETFs is the ease with which you can diversify your portfolio, especially in asset classes or market segments with which you are unfamiliar. I think index-based ETFs are a terrific way for new investors to participate in markets. As I mentioned above, I use mutual funds for international stocks, as I don’t know enough about economies and market conditions outside the US, much less about individual companies, to make informed buying decisions.

A drawback to actively-managed funds is that they tend to underperform the market. That is, there are not many money managers who can consistently produce returns that exceed their target benchmarks. This difference is even greater when returns are reduced for fees paid by investors (discussed later in this post).

There are many sources for statistics about mutual fund returns. CNBC states that, in every one of the nine years from 2010 through 2018, more than half of actively managed large-cap funds produced returns less than the S&P 500. The same article also indicates that 85% of those funds underperformed the S&P 500 over a ten-year period and 92% underperformed over a 15-year period. As such, care should be taken when investing in actively managed funds. If you are looking for funds that will produce returns similar to broad market indices, such as the S&P 500, an index fund might be a better choice.

Income Taxes

There are four types of returns that are taxed when you own mutual funds or ETFs that hold stocks or bonds held in taxable accounts. Funds held in tax-deferred or tax-free accounts will have different tax treatment. The taxable returns on other types of funds will depend on the types of returns generated by the underlying assets.

Capital Gains

When you sell your ownership position in a fund, the difference between the amount you paid when you bought it and the amount you received when you sell it is a capital gain.   The taxation of short-term capital gains (related to securities owned for less than one year) is somewhat complicated in the US. Long-term capital gains are taxed in the same manner as dividends in the US, at 15% for most people. In Canada, capital gains are taxed at 50% of the rate that applies to your wages.

Interest

When you own a bond fund, interest paid by the issuers of the bonds owned by the fund is taxable in the year the interest payment was made. In the US and Canada, interest held in taxable accounts is taxed at the same rate as wages, except for certain municipal and government bonds which may be exempt from state or Federal taxes.

Dividends

Dividends paid by companies owned by a fund are taxable in the year the dividends payments are made. For most people in the US, there is a 15% Federal tax on dividends from investments held in a taxable account plus any state taxes. In Canada, dividends are taxed at the same rate as wages.

Capital Gain Distributions

Over the course of a year, a mutual fund may sell some of its assets. The capital gains earned from those assets are distributed to owners as capital gain distributions. Capital gain distributions are taxed in the same manner as capital gains.

Fees

There are generally three types of fees that can affect your returns on ETFs and mutual funds: front-end loads, operating expenses and commissions. Schwab identifies two other hidden costs that are a bit more obscure, so I’ll refer you to its post on this topic if you want more information.

Front-End Loads

Some mutual funds require you to pay a fee when you make a purchase. The fee is usually a percentage of your investment. For example, you would pay $10 for every $1,000 you invest in a fund with a 1% front-end load. If you purchased this fund, its total return on the underlying investments would need to be 1% higher over the entire period over which you owned it than the same fund with no front-end load for you to make an equivalent profit.

Funds that don’t have a front-end load are called no-load funds.

Operating Expenses

Mutual funds and ETFs, even those that are passively managed, have operating expenses. The operating expenses are taken out of the pool of money provided by investors. Every fund publishes its annual operating expense load, so you can compare them across funds. Funds with higher expense loads need to have higher returns on the underlying investments than fund with lower expense loads every year for you to make an equivalent return.

ETFs tend to have much lower operating expense loads than mutual funds. Similarly, passive funds tend to have lower operating expense loads than actively managed funds.

Commissions

If you purchase a mutual fund or ETF through a broker, you may pay a commission both when you buy the fund and when you sell it. A commission is a fee paid to the broker for the service it provides allowing you to buy and sell securities. Many brokers have recently reduced or eliminated commissions on many ETFs. If you purchase the mutual fund or ETF directly from the fund manager, you will not pay a commission.

Dividend Reinvestment

Many funds allow you to automatically reinvest distributions (i.e., interest, dividends and capital gain distributions). Although it includes all types of distributions, it is often called dividend reinvesting or reinvestment. It is a great way to ensure that all of your returns stay invested, as you don’t have to keep track of the payment dates on any distributions so you can reinvest them.

I have a few cautions about dividend reinvestment.

First, you want to reevaluate your choice of fund periodically. If you blindly reinvest all of your dividends and something changes that makes the fund a poor fit for your portfolio, automatic dividend reinvestment will cause you to have more money invested in something that you don’t want.

Second, you’ll want to be aware of the tax implications of dividend reinvestment – one of which is helpful and one of which requires some care – if you hold the fund in a taxable account.

Increased Cost Basis

As indicated above, when you sell a fund, you pay capital gains tax on the difference between your proceeds on sale and what you paid for the fund. The distributions that you reinvest are considered part of what you paid for the fund. You’ll need to take care to keep track of the amounts you’ve reinvested, as they increase your cost basis (the amount you paid) and decrease your capital gains tax.

Taxes on Distributions

Even if you reinvest your distributions, you need to pay taxes on them in the year in which they were paid. As such, if 100% of your distributions are automatically reinvested, you’ll need to have cash available from another source to pay the income taxes on the distributions.

Selecting Mutual Funds and ETFs

There are thousands of mutual funds and ETFs from which to choose. Here are my thoughts on how you can get started.

Set your Goals

  1. Determine what type of fund you are seeking. Are you trying to focus on a small niche or the broader market?
  2. Narrow down the type of fund that will meet your needs. Do you want an actively managed fund or a passive one? Are you interested in an open end or closed end fund?  Do you want the fund to look for growth companies or those with low valuations?

Identify Some Funds

  1. Once you’ve narrowed down the type of fund you’d like, you can use a screener to help you further narrow down your choices. Most large brokerage firms, as well as many independent entities, have mutual fund and ETF screeners. For example, Morningstar, a global investment-research and investment-services firm, has a free screener (after you sign up at no charge) at this link.
  2. Look at the ratings of the funds that are identified. The entity assigning the ratings usually expects higher rated funds to perform better than lower rated funds.
  3. Look at the historical returns. While past performance is never a guarantee of future performance, funds that have done well in the past and have consistent management and strategy may do well in the future.
  4. Read the details of the fund either on the fund manager’s web site or in the prospectus. Look to see if the objectives of the fund are consistent with your objectives. Make sure the types of securities the manager can purchase are in line with what you would like to buy. The names of some funds can be much narrower than the full range of securities the manager is allowed to buy. Find out if the fund management and objectives have been stable over time. Some funds can change their objectives on fairly short notice, potentially exposing you to risks you may not want to take or lower expected returns that you desire. To learn more about reading a prospectus, check out the article on Page 9 of this on-line magazine.
  5. Compare the fees among the funds on your list. If the underlying assets are similar and are expected to produce the same returns, funds with lower fees are more likely to provide you with higher returns (after expenses) than funds with higher fees. Don’t forget to look at both front-end loads and annual operating expense ratios.
  6. Select a strategy for buying your mutual funds or ETFs, such as dollar-cost averaging, waiting for a price drop or buying at the market price.

Make a Decision

  1. Buy a position in the fund(s) that best fit your requirements. As indicated above, you can buy most funds either through a broker (which can sometimes add a commission to your expenses) or directly from the fund manager.
  2. Last, but not least, be sure to monitor your positions to make sure that the fund objectives, holdings, management and fees remain consistent with your objectives.