Please Mr. Obama, Lend Us Your Crystal Ball

The President wants the DOL to fine professionals who make money allowing 401k participants to make “bad” investments.
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So what’s the difference between a “bad” and “good” investment? Right, well in the Will Rogersian world of politicians and regulators, “the good ones only go up in price; the bad ones go down”.

“Don’t gamble; take all your savings and buy some good stocks and hold it till it goes up, then sell it. If it don’t go up, don’t buy it.” WR

Plan sponsors and other financial professionals are supposed to know which ones will go in what direction… and NEVER (as Will would admonish) buy a security that is going to go down.

“Where have all the crystal balls gone? Gone to hindsightful regulators, all of them.” PP&M, sort of.

POTUS wants investment advisors to only select the “good ones”, and they are expected to know in advance where the market may be going, in both the short run and the long. And getting paid for their efforts, well that can’t be “good”, especially when the market value goes down.

Remember, “advisors” are mostly salespeople; regulators are mostly cops.

Do any of these guys have a clue about the workings of the stock market? Which is worse: having the foxes (advisors) in charge of the hen house (401k investment (not pension) plans), or having the lunatics (politicians & regulators) running the asylum (stock market expectations)?

Both are bad, unrealistic, and counterproductive. Markets rise and fall in price… the advisory deal is to limit the amount of risk in a portfolio. Risk of loss is always involved, but it can be minimized… regulators just don’t really get it.

Participants need to be educated not coddled; costs are not the most important aspect of retirement investing, net spendable income at retirement is; stock market values will always go up and down… and that’s a good thing.

If 401k participants are expected to be retirement ready, they need to know the importance of growing income and to have investment options that can get the job done.

I’m not sure that can be accomplished in the current 401k space, but the education has been available for a long time… and it can be applied fairly easily in a “self directed” 401k environment.

And that, Mr. President, is all you should be lecturing the investment advisory community about. If a plan participant is too lazy, busy, greedy, or preoccupied to determine “what’s inside” an investment option, it is not the fault of his or her employer.

The education is out there: just read The Brainwashing of the American Investor

… and here are two Self Directed IRA or 401k income investment presentations for you to think about. 

Next Webinar April 8th

To Rollover 401k Plan Assets or Not To… That Is The Question

The major purveyors of 401k products, and those who benefit from using them remind me of politicians… they press the party line, and use their power to demonize the competition.

Their position and deep pockets allow them to get their message out while we who have neither can only shake our heads and whimper about the sacred purpose of retirement income programs.

But, in the simplest of terms, since when has 2% been better than 6% (both after expenses)? The DOL, fiduciaries, and plan sponsors are staring back at me, eyes wide shut.

LinkedIn discussion groups have been talking about the pros and cons of 401k rollovers to private IRA portfolios. Most of the articles, and not by a slim margin, are institutionally biased advertisements for low cost Mutual Funds and ETFs, despite the fact that have absolutely no “preparation for retirement income bones” in their mass marketed bodies.

When the market corrects, the results will be what they have always been for market-value-growth-only programs. This time though, the DOL will fine the Plan Sponsors (i.e., the corporations so bitterly hated by our government), for allowing plan participants to make investment judgment errors with their own money plus the matching contributions…. let hindsight reign in the 401k space!

The 401k “space” as they call it, has become a lucrative product shopping mall, totally out of touch with what should be the long run purpose of these “quasi” retirement programs: it’s the monthly retirement income that pays the bills, Charlie Brown, not the market value.

If a person were a conspiracy theorist, he or she could make a case for institutional/congressional manipulation of interest rates… keeping them near zero so that gurus will continue to predict that stock market “returns” will outpace those of income purpose securities. Hmmm.

None, absolutely none, of the products provided by the top institutional peddlers produce nearly as much after “expense-ratio” income as Closed End Income Funds. These outstanding (and income paying far longer than any income ETF) managed portfolios are never, ever, found in 401k Plans… except the Self Directed, “safe harbor” variety.

Interestingly, all the major 401k product providers, also manage Closed End Fund product lines that generate generous income, even after higher fees. These fees, so important to regulators and politicians, are never paid by the recipients of the much higher income.

CEFS paying 6% to 9% after expenses are commonplace, but not available in 401k plans. Similarly, there are no restrictions on speculation in the equity markets, where similar high quality managed equity portfolios have been available for decades.

The retirement plan (401k) community has gotten so paranoid over goose-stepping DOL auditors and other regulators armed with crystal clear hindsight, that they have completely lost site of “spending money” as the be all and end all purpose of retirement portfolios. They must “outperform” half their brethren, and be dirt cheap to boot.

Yeah, I know that 401k Plans are not retirement portfolios, but neither the regulators, plan sponsors, congressional leaders, POTUSs, fiduciaries, or plan participants seem able or willing to accept that reality… why should they?

Looking inside the multi-billion dollar Vanguard 2020 TDF, we find 60% invested in equities (no less than 7000 individual positions) and income of about 1.5%. Wake up regulators… the “unfairness” is in the “emperor’s new clothes” products provided to the plan sponsors for inclusion in employee product menus.

You the fiduciaries, you the regulators, you the witch hunters, and you the do-gooders need to look at the product providers instead of their victims.

If you insist upon looking at investment plans as retirement programs (ERISA = Employee Retirement Income Act), perhaps you need to mandate that an outside-the-mainstream, “Self Directed”, income program be a major part programs you supervise. Until the focus changes from market value and expense control to after expenses income, these plans cannot provide what is expected of them… retirement readiness.

So in answering the “To rollover the 401k or not to rollover the 401k” question, I would say: “Run like _ _ _ _, just as fast as you can, to get out of that 401k and never ever buy a low income or no income security in the Rollover IRA you move to.

As long as plain vanilla portfolios of high quality equity (IGVSI companies) and Income CEFs yielding an experienced average, net/net 6% or more, are banned from participating in the 401k marketplace by (possibly) illegal monopolistic practices, rollovers to IRAs should be a requirement, not an option.

See how they run: https://www.dropbox.com/s/b4i8b5nnq3hafaq/2015-02-24%2011.30%20Income%20Investing_%20The%206_%20Solution.wmv?dl=0

As long as regulators are blaming generous employers for the investment mistakes of their employees, self-directed, income purpose, 401k plans are a much less scary, “almost a retirement plan”, option.

Dodging the DOL Chainsaw: Small Business Owner Protection

The DOL is Coming!   The DOL is Coming!

As if you weren’t already up to your elbows in rules, regulations, and expenses, the Department of Labor has empowered itself to fine at least half of the Employer/Plan Sponsors it audits… for multiple investment related reasons.

These include, among other things, the cost of the products in your investment menu and the market value performance of those products. As a plan fiduciary (right, you are a plan fiduciary), it’s your job to keep costs below average and performance above average…. and, yes, you are deemed responsible for your employees private investment decisions… no matter how foolish.

Hardly seems fair, does it. You give them money to invest, and you’re too blame when they mess up.

But, true to form within the 401k “space”, no one (other than the plan participants) seems to care about the retirement income benefit that 401k plans should provide to employers and employees alike… not even the DOL, ERISA champions of the interests of employees.

Since roughly half the plans will always be below average, it’s fair to expect that large numbers of plans will be fined….

In fact, 70% of plans audited in 2013 were penalized or forced to make reimbursements. Neither ETF providers nor Mutual Fund promoters share this responsibility with you, and all of this stress is on top of the “top heavy” problems you deal with year, after year, after year…

You may be able to protect yourself from the fines and the “top heavy” audits in one fell swoop by switching your plan to a professionally-managed-by-a-fiduciary, self-directed 401k they call a “Safe Harbor” Plan. In this type of plan, there is no menu of one size fits all products, none of which focus on income purpose investments that support the ultimate benefit of the program.

You see, the goal of the providers is to keep your money in their funds forever, hoping for upward only markets and their ability to convince you that you just can’t do better than 2% income anywhere. That’s the 401k space “end game”, but you can do much better, and considerably safer in a… “Safe Harbor”, managed growth and income program…

In the self directed, private portfolio “space”, you can require the safest equity selections, and growing retirement income, in a flexible asset allocation geared to the age and risk profile of each participating employee. Employees don’t have to participate, but you have to provide an immediately vested matching contribution if they do…. BUT, the top heavy problems disappear, and your contribution levels have no backdated limitations.

Not so long ago, I brought a QDI (Quality, Diversification, and Income) portfolio series to the 401k space. None of the product pushers were even slightly interested in any facet of the program… not even the superior retirement income generation capabilities… the “good ‘ole boys club” just couldn’t be bothered.

With the stock market at the peak of a six year sustained rally, what protections do you have from a correction? In the managed programs I’m describing, equity profits have already been taken, and the income keeps growing… monthly, in most cases. The Target Date Funds 401k providers are in love with are low quality equity, seriously low income time bombs, ready to go… KABOOM!

The Vanguard 2015 Fund, for example, was 50% invested in no less than 5,000 stocks at the end of January 2015; the total portfolio income was just barely 2%. What do you think the 2020 or 2025 portfolio looks like?

Here’s a look at the workings of a professionally managed retirement income program: a high quality, individual security, 30% Equity portfolio, generating three times the Vanguard 2015 TDF income, with a whole lot less risk:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/28ty6z5dkgn5ulu/Retirement%20Income%20Webinar.wmv?dl=0

Hmmmm, Small Business Owners, seems to me that would resolve your fiduciary issues.

The “Retirement Ready” 401k… exists. Right?

Income Production = Market Value Growth + Retirement Security

Unfortunately, it just isn’t available to you in the standard 401k product menu.

Since the demise of corporate Defined Benefit Plans, most employees have been forced to rely on their own investment acumen to make sense of the product menu choices accompanying an ever growing array of private and public Defined Contribution Plans.

These are savings plans that use hundreds of pooled portfolios of securities and derivatives, many with suggestive and exotic names, to invest and reinvest participant and employer monthly contributions. It is rare that any unbiased advice is available to either Plan Sponsors or Participants, and even professional fiduciaries seem a bit brainwashed when one observes the results of their investment product choices.

Recently, it was proven to me fairly conclusively, that no product specializing in top tier  S & P dividend paying companies in combination with a diversified collection of Closed End Income Funds yielding over 6% (after expenses) will ever gain traction in the “good ‘ole big boys club” described as the 401k space.

Quality, meaningful diversification, and income production, the core curriculum of college investment majors for a century or more is now deemed to be an “Alternative Investment”. This a term once reserved for the most speculative of  speculations… futures, options, indices, shorts, commodities, junk bonds, emerging markets, etc.

The speculative essence of 401k Plan product menu choices, coupled with the utter disinterest in providing meaningful income choices (even toward the end of a TDF “glide path”), just screams for a better way for employers to get, 401k-like, tax deferral and wealth accumulation benefits.

For smaller employers, a 401k “safe harbor”, self-directed, program is an attractive alternative with none of the Wall Street program investment choice drawbacks…. AND no “top heavy” or annual recalculation aggravation. Yes, there must be a “match” for employee contributions, and immediate vesting, but a maximum contribution with total matching is a major plus.

Sure this can be done without the help of a professional manager, but that will just put  you back into the same stuff of the 401k model… no known quality, no income, and a taste of every available speculation the Wall Street imagination can devise.

An ideal self-directed program would provide for professional portfolio management with an ever increasing income “purpose” asset allocation “bucket”, based on the age of each participant. For Example:

Self Directed, individually and professionally managed, portfolios for all employees featuring:

  • flexible asset allocations (ranging from 60% Equity to 0% Equity)
  • annual income growth (in all* investment and interest rate markets)
  • annual Working Capital growth (so long as income, gains, & deposits exceed losses)
  • one-to-one convertibility to a Rollover IRA
  • “ROTH” 401k availability

*Using the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis as a worst case scenario.

Many of you have attended the current series of income investing webinars (the January program video is available through the link provided below). This is the kind of program that you could create inside your 401k Plan if it were to become the “Self Directed” variety described above… isn’t it time that you got the most out of your company’s retirement income program?

Remember, that since every investment program becomes a retirement income program eventually, you need to bring your program to a place where you can say with reasonable assurance:

“A stock market downturn will have no significant impact on my retirement income”

Only private “safe haven” type 401k plans, those that are both self directed and managed with the MCIM methodology appear capable of developing annually increasing spendable retirement income. The others just don’t seem to care.

“Retirement readiness” doesn’t just happen; there’s no button you can push. Those of you who are counting on a forever upward stock market, or the promise of a Target Date Fund need to “get real”, and quickly.

Here’s the content of the Vanguard 2015 TDF as of January 31, 2015:

Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund ………………..34.9% (3008 different stocks)
Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund ……….15.1% (5008 different stocks)
Vanguard Total Bond Market II Index Fund ……………..32.4%
Vanguard Total International Bond Index Fund…………10.0%
Vanguard Short Term Inflation-Protected Index Fund…7.6%

Equity Total = 50% Income Total = 50% TOTAL PROGRAM YIELD = 2.01%

So, if your Million Dollar Retirement Portfolio is in this TDF, will you be able to survive on $1,675 per month?

Have a private look at the workings of a professionally managed retirement income program; a high quality, individual security, 30% Equity portfolio, generating a million dollar prorated, $5,480 per month:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/28ty6z5dkgn5ulu/Retirement%20Income%20Webinar.wmv?dl=0

 

Pitfalls of Target Date Funds… and some proposed replacements

The LinkedIn Group Communities are abuzz with the idea that, even as popular as they have become, Target Date Funds (TDFs) are just not wonderful after all…

Several fixes have been proposed. I’ve done so myself. as you know. This one is from plansponsor.com “A Better Option than Target Date Funds” and needs some cautionary commentary.
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What to say when you agree that Target Date Funds are a sham, and do little to prepare 401k plan participants for retirement?

But what to shout out loud, when the fix for a low income, inappropriate asset allocation, is a “half-gainer” into a river of high risk speculations being promoted as “alternative investment” asset classes!

Note that “alternative investment” is a euphemism for those high risk mechanisms described in Investments 101 textbooks as “speculations”.

No matter how they are sliced, diced, sauteed, or seasoned, no recipe for speculations will ever produce the taste of a fundamentally sound investment.

Similarly, when considering ETF derivatives, the risk increases exponentially with each level, so a fund of funds is likely to be riskier than the funds it contains.

The article mistakenly merges all “Life Cycle” programs and products into the TDF category. There are at least three that are retirement income focused, and asset allocated to accommodate several different risk tolerances at retirement.

They are constructed with Investment Grade Value Stocks and Income ETFs. Not sexy at all, but they should provide lower drawdowns and higher income… and they can be converted security-for-security into a rollover retirement portfolio at any time.

Target date funds do not prepare us for retirement, though they may shield us a bit from maximum correction drawdowns.

My concern with them is that the inappropriate DOL/SEC focus on fund expenses and market value is (all good intentions aside) producing a low income retirement scenario that will only generate enough income if the market never, ever, goes down.

The popular Vanguard Target 2015, for example, is more than 50% in the stock market (with no signs of reducing exposure) and generating much less than 2% in spending money.

The fund holds positions in more than 5,000 different stocks (there are less than 500 Investment Grade Value Stocks)… clearly not a retirement fund in any sense of the word. The ideal “retirement fund” never invades principal, thus allowing for growth in the annual income provided.

But the portfolio alternative being proposed in the PlanSponsor.com article is absurd, or should be to any plan sponsor or fiduciary.

Commodities, private real estate, private equity speculations, and hedge funds may well be alternative asset classes BUT they are absolutely not investments. These are textbook speculations, nothing more, and certainly nothing that should ever be considered  suitable for a retirement program.

Inside Modern Portfolio Theory – For Emperors Only

Maybe it’s just me, but when I hear “Monte Carlo”, I can’t help but think “casino”…

My previous article post dealing with the income growing opportunities of 401k account “drawdown” elicited some interesting commentary from the MPT community.

Apparently, if we apply the proper mathematical algorithms to all stock market probabilities, including all possible cash flow scenarios, we will be able to deal with 401k participant expectations better…

I can’t control the warmth and fuzziness that has taken over my financial feelings… future predictions that possibly, maybe even more often than not, can reduce my drawdown to a less painful level than otherwise, while doing nothing to boost the income generated by my portfolio is certainly bringing on a huge sigh of relief…

What!

I’m the type of investor who cringes when he hears market analysts explain how investors are “placing their bets” but how can you possibly sleep at night when you know that your 401k selections are “probably” being designed using the “Monte Carlo” algorithm subset of Modern Portfolio Theory?

Check it out if you wish, but if you aren’t rolling-on-the-floor, LOL, when you finish, have I got a new suit of clothes for you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monte_Carlo_method

How many soontobe retirees (including myself, eventually) would even pretend to understand it. Really, a show of hands would be appreciated. How many of you think that these probability games are “investing”.

Retirement income is not (and should not be) about gambling. A fundamentally sound (i.e., quality) portfolio that generates 6% or so income (tax free, even) is easy to put together… yes, in today’s low interest rate environment.

4% to 5% in the 401k space, convertible upon rollover to the 6% variety is doable as well. You need to make a market value drawdown an opportunity to grow the income… faster.

Once the retirement income has been secured, then you can tour the world’s casinos until the excess capital is gone.

The MPT portfolio that bursts like a 4th of July “finale” in my weakened brain is reminiscent of the magical Junk Bond Portfolios of the ‘1980’s.  Don’t worry  about it, investors, we’ve put all these fundamentally speculative securities together in such a brilliant manner that the sum of the junk has been transformed into non-junk.

As of August 31st, 2014, the Vanguard Target 2015 portfolio was still 51.8% invested in the World’s Stock Markets and generating less that 2% in spending money…

Yes, it is true, the inmates really have taken over the asylum.

The Retirement Income Gap

A BlackRock and EBRI analysis (from Think Advisor, July 9th) suggests that older retirees are further from being retirement ready than their younger counterparts… go figure.

Ironically, since most benefit plan investors (really speculators) at all ages are market value focused instead of income focused, this observation will likely be the same ten years from now.

… and this is so easy to fix, if plan participants are forced to start thinking “income” from the get-go. Retirement readiness is a planning issue that “target date funds” and most other 401k product shopping menus are just not equipped to deal with.

Plan advisors, fiduciaries, and plan sponsors need to make sure they have “serious income production options” in the benefit plans they are advising.

What if you could liquidate your “all time high market value with nearly zero programmed income” benefit plan balances and trade them in for a 5% or so compound income machine that is convertible, security for security, at retirement? You can. And, at retirement, you’ll actually be able to increase the income production significantly with a few simple tweaks….

Here’s where the 401k industry and DOL focus on expense ratios make no sense at all. Income Closed End Funds pay in excess of 6%, and have for years. Nearly all of them (the hundreds that I’m familiar with) continued their payments without a hiccup throughout the financial crisis and continue to do so now…

The 6% is AFTER EXPENSES. The best from Vanguard Target Funds is maybe 1.5%; Stable Value Funds are in the 2% area, again, maybe….

Isn’t it our fiduciary responsibility to focus on the income purpose of benefit programs? Isn’t it our responsibility to educate plan sponsors and participants enough so that they understand that it is the income that pays the bills… not the market value, and not the three year total return.

Isn’t our responsibility to school the DOL…. that performance of a retirement income program should be measured in terms of income production… and that market value and expense ratios are not the predominate considerations? Well maybe not that one.

There is only one product I know of that has the proper income focus — and with a reasonable expense ratio. For more information, contact a qualified 3(38) fiduciary at either QBOX Fiduciary Solutions or Expand Financial.

401k Plan Fiduciary and Performance Responsibility

Anyone who influences the investment product mix should likely be a fiduciary… but only if the selected investment managers are fiduciaries as well.

Yes, that eliminates all Mutual Funds and ETFs, since neither admit fiduciary responsibility. But Mutual Funds, ETFs, and Collective Trusts could be recommended by plan fiduciaries who are not paid for product placement.

Plan sponsors could be required to use: fee only plan advisors, non-product investment education providers, and 3(38) fiduciaries, TPAs and record keepers that help keep all the fiduciary bases covered.

Collective Investment Fund Trustees and Investment Managers are fiduciaries.

If Plan Sponsors do all the above, their responsibility is covered, and plan participants can be responsible for their own investment mistakes… subject to the product alignment rules outlined below.

What happens in the case of an individual brokerage account option within the plan? Are Plan Sponsors responsible for the performance of these portfolios? Perhaps, but just from a qualification standpoint… Rules that impose fiduciary liability on employers will eventually kill defined contribution plans dead!

So how should we deal with investment performance?

What constitutes poor performance, and how can performance be judged when all plan participants will have somewhat different investment objectives and risk tolerances?

If I want an income building, convertible-at-retirement CIF, that’s my choice… investments with income or “working capital” preservation objectives can’t be judged with a market value ruler.

If I get a 50% match from my employer, that’s an annual 50% gain on contributions… my good fortune, my business, my selections. Similarly with cost. If my program develops a convertible, 6% income, portfolio, why should it matter if the expense ratio is higher than with standard 401k income products?

Again, participant’s choice… leave the employer alone.

My solution would be an investment menu “warning system” based on product risk assessment and a system of controls on individual portfolio content.

The menu composition rules and participant selection controls would be based on risk recognition and income production instead of market value history… higher quality plus reasonable income should equal a more secure retirement.

All participants currently have access to  “performance”, “income production”, and “expense” information;  few convert the data into realistic performance expectations, or risk assessments.

A simple warning label could flag high risk products.  Plans must have less than 20% “high risk”  and at least 30% “low risk” opportunities in selection menus containing between 20 and 40 selections.

Participants must select at least 10 products… no more than two “high risk”, no less than three “low risk”. No high risk and all low risk is the “default” within three years of retirement.

No single portfolio position could exceed 25% of the portfolio… any excess would automatically be reallocated among four default positions. None of the “most risky’ products could be “default” choices, and at least one of the least risky must be.

Done. No DOL aggravation required.

For more information, contact a qualified 3(38) fiduciary at either QBOX Fiduciary Solutions or Expand Financial.

Fiduciary duty – a long time overdue

As most Canadian readers will know, the concept of mandating that certain advisors have a legally binding fiduciary duty to their clients has been gaining strength recently. Long overdue in my opinion!

Ignoring fancy legal words, a fiduciary duty or responsibility is to put the interests of the client FIRST, before the interests of the advisor. While for professional advisors this should be self-evident (and has always been part of my personal standard of integrity), regulators seem to feel the need to add more regulatory teeth to this issue.

So far, the impetus in Canada has come from the CSA (no – not the Canadian Standards Organisation – The Canadian Securities Administrators) which is a policy group consisting of the top Securities Regulators in each Province and Territory – and yes this includes Québec. They provide policy direction to Provincial Regulators and try and make the rules consistent across the country. There is a parallel insurance industry group called the CCIR (the Canadian Council of Insurance Regulators) which functions in the same manner as the CSA for the life and general insurance industries. I am going to presume that the folks on the CCIR are paying close attention to the work of their colleagues on the CSA and we can expect further action on the insurance side of the Canadian money world soon. Good stuff! HOWEVER, there is a problem from my perspective – what about the rest of the financial community??

What about banks, trust companies, credit unions, caisse populaires? How about household financing companies, mortgage lenders and brokers and payday lenders? What about vehicle dealers and their financing arms? Have people considered the furniture and appliance dealers and their lending practices? Even issuers of credit cards should be subject to this duty – some could argue they are the biggest offenders of not putting the interest of the client or customer ahead of their own! What about MLM businesses that require an “investment” by new “distributors” before they can play the game? Who is considering this issue beyond just the “investment” industry?

How do we, as a society, deal with those unscrupulous folks such as Earl Jones who was never registered or licensed in the first place? It wouldn’t matter what rules were in place via IIROC, the MFDA or the equivalent bodies in Québec for the Mr. Jones’ of this world. How will this impact Ponzi-schemes and the perpetrators behind them?

My next blog will examine some of the costs that will have to be paid – by guess who?? The consuming public is the ONLY source of $$ to pay for regulation and they need to be fully informed of this aspect as well!