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

 

The Microsoft Retirement Income Program

Reading Between the Lines

Once we recognize that all investment portfolios eventually become retirement income portfolios, we can begin to focus on the regular recurring income that they produce… retired or not, the market value of your private portfolio (or of your 401k plan) has no purchasing power.

Yet all 401k programs are performance evaluated on market value growth as opposed to income production.

In late 1999, Microsoft Corporation (MSFT) common stock was at an all time high of $58.38 (split adjusted), and there were thousands of MSFT multi-millionaires out there confident that their retirement was secure…. with a guaranteed monthly income of ?

Please send me an email with the amount of income produced by a million dollars worth of Microsoft in 1999… or your favorite ETF or TDF today.

Several years later, one of those millionaires, and a golf buddy of mine, disclosed that he had just sold the 7 series BMW he had purchased with the proceeds of his MSFT stock… the one “asset” he still had from his dot.com fortune. Pushing 65, he just couldn’t bear the memory any longer.

If only he had sold the entire portfolio… or converted enough to tax free Closed End Funds to assure a lifetime income.

Yet no 401k programs today will hold income Closed End Funds (yielding 7% or so right now). Why? Because, according to the Department of Labor, 2% after low expenses is better than 7% after higher expenses.

By September 2000, MSFT stock had fallen by almost 50%; nearly 15 years later, with the market near its highest numberl ever, MSFT (at $47.60) remains 18% below its 1999 level… it didn’t pay a dividend until 2003, and its dividend yield today is only 2.6%, after many increases.

Back then, most Mutual Fund portfolios contained MSFT and hundreds of similar NASDAQ securities…  and this was OK with all varieties of regulators and plan fiduciaries because the markets, after all, were trending upward.

MCIM portfolios contained no NASDAQ equities, no Mutual Funds at all, and a growing income component of at least 30%… hmmm.

It took more than 15 years for NASDAQ to regain its 1999 level… how many of the heroes survived?

Today, most Mutual Fund investment portfolios and ETF gaming devices contain 1999 Microsoft look alikes, and most pay very little income…

MCIM portfolios? Well, no… no Mutual Funds, and no ETFs, just IGVSI (NYSE dividend paying) equities, and an income CEF component of at least 40%.

Can you get an MCIM Income Purpose portfolio in your IRA… absolutely;  in your 401k…  it’s a long sad story.

What’s in your wallet?

Retirement Income Webinar Sign-Up

Don’t get whipsawed by Risk Management!

Back in February of 2012, I recall a prominent CFO departing a global insurance company.  This particular individual was labelled “the highly regarded architect of a hedging strategy that proved key in rebuilding investor confidence in the wake of the financial crisis.”  The company had suffered financially during the prior market meltdown because of a huge exposure to equity-linked products;  pre-crisis the company had introduced investment products that guaranteed to return a substantial (if not all) amount of the investor’s initial investment.  The money was invested in the company’s funds which in turn invested in stock markets.  During the financial crisis, the value of these assets (stocks) held in the funds declined below the amount that was guaranteed spelling serious trouble for the company.  In response a stricter approach to risk management was adopted after-the-fact.

Sounds sensible doesn’t it?  But it just isn’t!  I’ve watched this pattern time and again over decades.  The fundamental flaw is a complete misunderstanding of what constitutes risk.

Risk is almost always equated to volatility.  For example, stocks move up and down rapidly with much magnitude so they are deemed more risky than bonds.  But are we really as averse to upside risk as downside risk?  Strangely people become more averse to volatility when they’ve suffered downside risk (and come to adore volatility when upside risk has rewarded them).  Because our internal model of risk is so much more complex than mathematics can reckon with, our efforts to ‘manage’ volatility can actually subject us to less volatility but more risk.  When we reduce risk (hedging strategies usually reduce volatility – both up and down) at the wrong times, we miss the chance to be rewarded by the kind of volatility we adore.  We are our own worst enemies.

The President and CEO of a completely different insurance company was quoted as saying this, also in February of 2012:

“We are maintaining our equity hedges as we remain very concerned about the economic outlook over the next few years. We continue to be soundly financed with year-end cash and marketable securities at the holding company of about $1 billion.”

 

This statement followed the company’s earnings release, having reported substantially increased losses from its investments – management had hedged the company’s equity position in 2010 (again, after-the-fact) and suffered investment losses in that year’s fourth-quarter because stock markets rose (instead of declining).  The actions designed to protect the company against volatility lost money.  Risk aversion after-the-fact caused the company to lose money and avoid potential returns from upside volatility.

Because the pain caused by the downside volatility suffered previously was still fairly recent, aversion remained at a high level causing the company to stick to its hedging strategy (in denial?) despite these huge losses, and it continued to lose money as the market continued to go higher and higher still.

The financial crisis is behind us and now that markets are hitting all-time highs, record amounts of dollars are scrambling to get some upside volatility action. Too late?  It’s hard to put a pin in it, but intuitively might one conclude that if managing risk (or ‘risk off’ as they say on business television) was a bad idea during and immediately after the financial crisis, then perhaps chasing volatility (‘risk on’) might not be such a good idea at present?

It might seem as if I was picking on insurance companies earlier, but many pension funds, other financial services companies, portfolio managers and everyday investors follow the same destructive pattern.  Adoring upside risk but loathing downside risk – always at the wrong times – has ruined careers and put a serious dent in the life-savings of families.  More experienced money managers (there are fewer of us nowadays) increase risk when others are most averse to the idea, and begin to manage risk (hedging, raising cash balances) during periods of ‘irrational exuberance.’  They’ve learned the hard way that it’s easier to keep all the hair on your head if you avoid circumstances that make you want to pull it all out.

Mal Spooner

Finding an investment adviser is no easy task!

 

When RRSP season rolls around, it’s not unusual for dissatisfied clients to consider firing their investment adviser and finding a new one.  Even though most of the time it’s the client who’s the problem and not the adviser (more about this later), once the decision is made the question is how to select a new adviser?

Out of the several thousand investment advisers and financial planners I’ve met over the years, at least a few ‘hundred’ have what I consider to be the savvy to do an excellent job for their clients.  If only 10% of potential advisers are exceptional, finding one will require some work.  Ideally some of what follows will make the job a bit easier for some.

The most important thing to remember is that a capable stockbroker or financial planner doesn’t have to meet the stereotype.  For example, I was looking to hire a new sales rep for my fund company and received a resume from a fellow who was actually an investment adviser looking for a change.   I arranged to meet with him, and just happened to be standing on the street in front of our building when this black BMW pulls up, and a jittery youngster (young compared to me anyway) gets out.  He has his hair gelled straight back like Gordon Gekko, the fictional bigwig from the movie Wall Street, wearing the well-tailored pinstripe suit complete with suspenders that weren’t really necessary.  I didn’t hire him.

Beware of those advisers that are into role-playing.   It is okay I suppose to have a nice car, but a ‘look-at-me’ aura is a warning sign.  When someone deliberately adorns the trappings of success, I believe there’s insecurity in their personality.  Certainly your adviser should exude confidence but shouldn’t need or want to stand out from the crowd by adorning themselves with accoutrements.

You must be realistic.  Your adviser does work for a financial services firm, so expect to be using products and services offered by his company.  However any evidence that he/she is willing to deviate from the company’s party line for your benefit is a very good sign.

Ask him/her what he/she thinks about the market or a mutual fund, or even an individual stock or two.  If he/she simply regurgitates the newspaper headlines or is in love with a top performing mutual fund (you can’t ‘eat’ past performance is one of my favorite expressions), or his/her favourite stocks are everyone else’s favourite stocks too, you might want to avoid this adviser.  On the other hand, if you sense a real independent thinker willing to disagree with conventional wisdom, the adviser is a keeper.

Larger firms are especially good at marketing their wares, and I would recommend that it is infinitely better that you look for the right adviser rather than to just agree to hire the one that lands on your doorstep.  Keep in mind that good investment managers are not always good with people.  A good first impression is not necessarily an indication that the adviser does good work. Ask questions.  For example, ask exactly how they handled themselves in the financial crisis?

Even though it is extremely difficult (likely impossible) to predict market declines, anyone can certainly “do something” about their circumstances once the proverbial poop hits the fan.  Investment professionals often respond differently depending upon depth of experience or temperament:

  • Some are no more experienced (or no smarter) than their clients – they panic and sell at the bottom of markets.
  • Some proclaim a new respect for caution, and hold more cash and bonds….after it’s too late.
  • Some boldly acknowledge they didn’t see the Bear Market coming, apologize and admit that they are buying cheap assets aggressively ‘near’ the bottom (a good sign indeed).

Asking tough questions will enable you to determine whether you’re talking to a pro.  Don’t be afraid to sound stupid – it’s your money we’re talking about here and not your ego.

You may want to stay with the big firm you’re banking with for convenience, or choose to find a smaller firm that is more specialized in managing money for individuals.  It is much easier to learn about what motivates the professionals in a smaller wealth management boutique, learn about their investment philosophy and get personal attention.

Heads up!  When a firm’s performance presented to you seems too good to be true; it probably is.  A prime example was the case of Bernie Madoff.

In March 2009, Madoff pleaded guilty to 11 federal crimes and admitted to turning his wealth management business into a massive Ponzi scheme that defrauded thousands of investors out of billions of dollars. Madoff said he began the Ponzi scheme in the early 1990s. However, federal investigators believe the fraud began as early as the 1980s, and the investment operation may never have been legitimate.

Even small wealth management companies ordinarily have their performance numbers calculated and audited by third party services.  Make sure any performance data you see has been vetted by an independent third party.  Although instances of fraud get volumes of press coverage, they are one in millions.

Most boutique investment firms aren’t gifted marketers, and they rely heavily upon word-of-mouth to get new clients.  Ask friends, your accountant or lawyer for referrals.  There’s no harm calling and arranging to visit a few firms.

Tips:

  1. Never hire a Wealth Management firm based only on past performance.
  2. Don’t complain about investment results.  Ask for an explanation.
  3. Never second guess your adviser.
  4. Pay the fees – sure hey hurt when performance is poor, but you won’t care at all when performance is good.
  5. Be patient. Good things don’t happen overnight or every day.

Don’t pretend to be smarter than your adviser, you’re not!  Tips number 2 and 3 are very important.  I mentioned earlier that oftentimes the client is the problem, not the adviser.  In times of stress, we have a tendency to let our emotions get the better of us.  It’s kind of like swimming – if you panic then you’re more likely to drown.  Your investment adviser cannot walk on water, but is trained to swim.  There is an infinite number of things that can and do damage investment portfolios. The most damaging crises cannot generally be controlled, but wealth can be salvaged and even restored if level heads prevail.  Click on the picture to watch a funny video I made – are you at all like this client?

 

Mal Spooner

What’s The Greedy Algorithm?

Many people instinctively use a greedy algorithm to solve problems, but they should have no expectation that it will generate optimal or even good results.

By: Don Shaughnessy

Back in the depths of history, I took a course in operations research.  Essentially the process of applying mathematical analysis to real world problems.  One of the interesting parts was the Greedy Algorithm.  It is the process where you choose the most expedient next step without consideration of other possible solutions or even how you got to where you are.

Some (even most) possible courses of action can thus never be implemented because the first step is not as good.  The greedy algorithm can perpetuate or even create problems.

For those with short time frames, it’s attractive.  “We are going to do this now and we will deal with any problems that arise, if and when they arise.”  Bias to action.  Sometimes they say it even when the future problem is known and certain to occur.

Micromanaging is an indicator.  You can make all the decisions if you only think one step at a time.

The algorithm can sometimes generate the unique, worst-possible, answer.  The “traveling salesman” problem where you are to find the best way to visit a list of customers is one. Take the closest next seems obvious, but that choice will always generate the worst route.

When the algorithm fails, it is because an early right looking step was wrong.  People tend not to go back and restart.  Often that choice is unavailable.  Lovers of greedy usually attack the newly observed problem in isolation and again use the greedy algorithm to solve it.

That’s debilitating.  Partly solved problems become chronic.  There are only a few problems (matroid, if you care) where you get an optimal answer being greedy.  Worse yet, using the greedy algorithm denies you the ability to learn.  Because the breakdown appears later, you only learn to avoid that step and there may have been nothing wrong with it.  Nothing tells you to stop using the failure inducing first step.

A financial plan evolves over a long period.  You should not watch the next step too carefully because it can take you away from the overall strategy that you need.  Worse still, most of the good early steps are boring.

A mistake is your friend, but only if you learn something of value from it.  In this case Gordon Gecko was wrong.  Greed is not good.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.  don.s@protectorsgroup.com

The 1% Solution

By: Don Shaughnessy

Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto was an Italian Renaissance man born 250 years too late. He was an engineer, an industrialist, a philosopher, a sociologist and best known as the first modern economist. He is the one who noticed the 80-20 rule. The Pareto Principle.

It would be hard to find someone who has not heard of Pareto. 20% of the effort gets 80% of the results. Focus on key customers, key markets, key products, key processes. Focus will make you rich. Might be true, but all that focus causes you to miss another important aspect of the principle.

The Pareto Principle is a power law. That means that you can go further. If 80% results from 20% of the effort, then 80% of the 80% resulted from 20% of 20% of the effort. The 64-4 result. The third is 51.2% for 0.8% of the effort. More follow but the point is clear. There are only a few things that really matter.

51% of the result for 1% of the effort is a nice deal, but, there is a lot of clutter to toss before you can see how.

You start by thinking about where the 1% may or may not be.

It won’t be in filling out forms for the government or collecting receivables. Planning a better parking lot or counting inventory won’t help much either.

Cost analysis, automation, engineering and marketing are worth looking at but might not include the 1%.

The 1% most probably is in freeing time to do only those things that you are the best at doing. It is not enough that you are the best, it must be your best best.

You might be the best salesman in the room but you are only that by a narrow margin. You may be the best customer relations person or the best inventor or the best leader by a much wider margin. Let the others carry the ball where they can do nearly as good a job and spend your time on the things that may include the 1%

Sweet reward here! Employees will like it and do better than before.

People who have searched for the 1% found important things:

If you have no idea of what the 1% might be, you could stop doing it by
accident.
It is not the same 1% all the time and in every situation.
Your employees know and will do more than you think. Let employees be
creative and helpful.
Customers know the difference between price and value. Deliver value.
Customers know how they will be changing in future, ask them.
Customers know what they don’t like. Ask them and listen.

Looking for the 1% works. No one ever finds it, but finding a little of it is a big win.
Start Now!

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.  don.s@protectorsgroup.com