Category Archives: Financial Planning

SECURE Act Seeks to Help Americans Save More for the Golden Years

At the end of 2019, Congress passed the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act as part of a year-end appropriations package. This bill is designed to address specific issues related to retirement savings plans in an effort to help Americans save more for retirement.

Retirement Plan Contributions

People are living longer, and a decrease in employer-sponsored pensions has resulted in retirees relying more on Social Security benefits than in the past. So first, the SECURE Act eliminated the age limit on traditional IRA contributions so that people who work into their 70s and beyond may continue to contribute to the traditional IRA up to the annual limit. In 2020, the limit for all IRAs – traditional and Roth combined – is $6,000; $7,000 for individuals age 50 and older.

Retirement Plan Distributions

The SECURE Act also extends how long retirees may keep money invested in their traditional IRA, 401(k)s and other defined-contribution plans before mandating distributions. Starting this year, people who turn 70½ after Dec. 31, 2019 may delay having to start taking annual required minimum distributions (RMD) until age 72.

Inherited IRAs Reigned In

The Stretch IRA is an advantage bestowed to non-spouse beneficiaries who inherit an IRA. While a benefit still exists, the SECURE Act makes it somewhat less advantageous. Starting in 2020, assets in these inherited accounts must be fully distributed by Dec. 31 of the 10th year following the death year of the IRA owner. This means that annual distributions will be larger and the investment will no longer be able to grow beyond 10 years.

Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plans

The SECURE Act also made changes to employer-sponsored retirement plans. For example, it allows employers to increase the cap on automatic payroll contributions to 15 percent (up from 10 percent) of an employee’s paycheck. Research has found that automatic payroll deductions have been instrumental in improving both participation and savings rates among employer retirement plans. However, employees continue to have the ability to retain their current contribution level (or opt out of the plan entirely).

The legislation also requires employers that sponsor a defined-contribution plan to offer it to any long-term, part-time workers. The criteria for this requirement are that individuals must be age 21 or older and work at least 500 hours each year, for three years in row. However, the measurement time for this requirement doesn’t start until 2021.

The SECURE Act attempts to replace the secure pension plan by making it more attractive for employers to offer a lifetime income option as part of their 401(k) plan. Also known as an annuity, this option allows the worker to use his or her retirement plan contributions to purchase an annuity contract over time.

In the past, employers were reluctant to include an annuity option because they could be held liable if the annuity provider is unable to fund the retirement income guaranteed by the annuity contract. To help alleviate this concern, the SECURE Act protects the employer from liability as long as it chooses an annuity insurer that, for at least seven years, is 1) licensed by that state’s insurance commissioner; 2) has filed audited financial statements in accordance with state laws; and 3) maintains the statutory requirements for reserves among all states where the provider does business.

Employers that offer an annuity option must now issue a customized statement each year that estimates how much plan participants would receive in monthly retirement income based on the current balance of their annuity. When employees retire or take a new job, they can transfer their in-plan annuity to another 401(k) or an IRA without incurring fees or surrender charges.

The SECURE Act also provides new benefits for small businesses that sponsor a retirement plan for employees. They may now receive up to $5,000 to offset retirement plan startup costs, and can get an additional $500 tax credit per year for three years if their plan features auto-enrollment for new hires. The bill makes it possible for small employers in unrelated industries to open a multiple-employer 401(k) plan (MEP) in order to share administrative costs.

Conclusion

Overall, the various provisions of the SECURE Act described above are designed to make retirement savings easier and more accessible. Small businesses will find it less burdensome to offer both full- and part-time employees 401(k) plans by providing tax credits and protections on collective Multiple Employer Plans. Individuals will find they have more flexibility in managing their accounts later in life. Overall, the SECURE Act should ease the coming retirement crisis as demographics change by helping people prepare better.

Safety vs. Probability: Planning For Retirement

As we progress through life, we find there are certain things we can control and others we cannot. However, even with the things we can’t control, we can exercise good judgement based on facts, due diligence, historical patterns and a risk/reward calculation.

These strategies play an important role in retirement planning. When it comes to accumulation, spending and protecting your nest egg, financial analysts rely heavily on safety and probability planning strategies.

For example, a probability-based approach generally refers to investing. In other words, prices of stocks and bonds will vary over time, and as investors we do not have control over the factors that cause those price swings – such as poor company management, a dip in sector growth, an economic decline, political instability and even global economic implications. We basically have to do our due diligence to ensure the securities we invest in are stable and well-managed, but in the end it’s a bit of a leap of faith. The markets will inevitably rise and fall and our equity investments will be impacted.

When it comes to retirement, financial advisors often recommend the following probability-based investments because they tend to be more stable and reliable:

  • Investment-grade bonds
  • High dividend-paying stocks
  • Real estate investment trusts (REITS)
  • Master limited partnerships (MLPs)

On the other hand, the safety side of the equation involves insurance products. Note that all guaranteed payouts are backed by the issuing insurer, not the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) or the U.S. Treasury Department. So even though insurance products represent strategies that we consider “safe,” they are only as secure as the financial strength of the issuing insurance company.

Insurance contracts are based on insurance pools. This means they spread the risk of losing money across a wide pool of insured participants, betting that a portion of that pool will die early while others live longer. However, that risk is managed by the insurer instead of the contract owner, who is guaranteed to get paid no matter what happens in the investment markets or how many people in the insurance pool live a long time.

Among safety-based vehicles, you might want to consider a long-term care insurance policy to cover expenses should you need part- or full-time caregiving in the later stages of your life. Like homeowner’s insurance, this type of contract leverages manageable premiums to pay for expenses that you might otherwise not be able to afford.

Another safety contract is an income annuity, which offers the option to pay out a steady stream of income for the rest of your life and the life of your spouse – even if the payouts far exceed the premiums you paid. This is a way of ensuring you continue to receive income even if you run out of money.

 

A retirement plan doesn’t have to rely on safety or probability alone – you can combine these strategies. Many retirees feel more comfortable knowing they have a growth component in their portfolio to help offset the impact of long-term inflation. And within the safety allocation, you can even combine strategies. For example, a hybrid life insurance policy that offers a long-term care benefits rider allows you to draw from the contract if you need to pay for your own long-term care, which simply reduces the death benefit for your heirs. This way you don’t have to pay for coverage you don’t need, but it’s there if you do.

Economic Correlation: Cyclical and Non-Cyclical Stocks

A rising tide might lift all boats, but the same cannot be said for the economy.

When the U.S. experiences robust economic growth, certain sectors of the stock market tend to rise while others hold steady or even decline by comparison. The stocks of companies that experience higher revenues are typically categorized as cyclical. In other words, their good fortune rests mainly on consumers being gainfully employed and having ample discretionary income with which to buy more goods and services.

Take, for example, auto manufacturers. Sales typically increase when more people can afford to buy a new car. But that’s not all the time, because the economy is cyclical – it ebbs and flows over time. Therefore, companies that produce non-essential products – sometimes referred to as consumer discretionary goods and services – tend to flourish during economic cycles of strength and rising GDP. That is why they are called cyclical stocks.

But when the economic future is in decline or at least uncertain, people tend to delay buying non-essential items like a new car. When the economy really takes a nosedive, more consumers are affected, they buy less stuff, manufacturing takes a hit and companies start laying off their workforce.

Despite these unfortunate circumstances, people still have to eat. They buy essential items, such as food and toothpaste and toilet paper. These are considered consumer staples, and the stocks of companies that produce these types of goods are defined as non-cyclical stocks. That’s because those companies are expected to continue earning revenues regardless of economic cycles. Non-cyclical industries include food and beverage, tobacco, household and personal products.

Another non-cyclical sector is utilities. Utilities are a little bit different because people tend to purchase relatively the same amount of utility service – with exceptions for extreme weather or making slight thermostat adjustments to save money – whether the economy is robust or in a downward spiral. Because of this, utility companies are considered a very stable business model.

For investors, that means they are well-established, long-term performers and usually pay out high dividends. Not only are utility stocks a good option for retirees seeking income to supplement their Social Security benefits, but they offer a safe haven for investors to relocate assets during periods of economic decline.

In light of recent cautions by economists predicting a recession in 2020, this could be a good time to review your portfolio from the perspective of cyclical versus non-cyclical holdings. It doesn’t mean you need to sell completely out of your stock allocation; perhaps just temper your holdings to equities that tend to perform reliably regardless of the economy. In addition to consumer staples and utilities, consider companies that specialize in national defense, waste management, data processing and payments.

Also be aware that the past three decades have boasted several of the longest running economic expansions in U.S. history (1991 to 2001; 2001 to early 2007; 2009 through 2019). What this tells us is that U.S. economic growth cycles appear to be lengthening while declines are relatively shorter and followed up with impressive recovery periods.

So, take heart. If you decide to transfer some of your assets to less flashy, non-cyclical securities, you might not have to leave them there for long. However, it’s always a good idea to maintain a diversified portfolio so you don’t have to make adjustments based on economic cycles. And as always, consult an investment professional to help you make these important decisions.

Gross Domestic Product: A Primer

The economic indicator known as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) represents the dollar value of all purchased goods and services over the course of one year. It is comprised of purchases from all private and public consumption, including for profit, nonprofit and government sectors.

There are four components that are added to calculate the GDP:

  • Consumer spending
  • Government spending
  • Investment spending (this includes business, inventory, residential construction and public investment),   Net exports, meaning the value of goods exported minus the value of goods imported

The government calculates and publishes the GDP rate on a quarterly basis and for the entire year.

What Affects GDP?

There are different ways GDP is measured. For example, nominal GDP refers to a straight calculation of raw data, while real GDP adjusts the calculation to include the impact of inflation.

When inflation increases, the GDP tends to rise; when prices drop, so does the GDP. Be aware that this adjustment can happen even when there is no change in the quantity of goods and services produced in the United States during that time frame.

A key component of the GDP calculation is net exports. This number rises when the country sells more goods and services to foreign countries than it buys from them. A trade surplus means the United States sells more than it purchases, which is a strong contributor to GDP. When the United States buys more foreign goods than it sells, this creates a trade deficit, which is a negative weight in the GDP calculation.

GDP also reflects demand. The dollar output of certain sectors and industries rises and falls based on the popularity of their products and services. For example, when a new product is well received, then those sales increase that sector’s contribution to the GDP. This is a helpful measure because it enables companies to make better research and development decisions based on recent success. The same is true when a new product, or even an upgrade to a new product, does not increase sales.

What Does GDP Indicate?

The GDP is the most common, broad-based measure used to monitor the country’s economic progress. When it is on the rise, the economy is considered to be growing. When the GDP rate drops – even if it remains in positive territory – the economy is viewed as contracting. If it continues to slip quarter after quarter, it is an indicator that the economy might be in trouble and the Federal Reserve or Congress could consider altering monetary (interest rates) or fiscal (taxes and government spending) policy to inject cash into the nation’s financial system.

Technically, economists define a recession as a prolonged period of economic decline, often precipitated by two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth.

This economic yardstick also is used to indicate a country’s general standard of living. The better a country is able to produce the goods and services that its residents and businesses use, the more that capital is infused back into the country. Therefore, higher GDP levels indicate a more prosperous country and relatively higher standard of living among its residents.

The GDP doesn’t just gauge domestic economic health, it serves as a comparison measure to other countries. This is particularly important during periods of growth and decline, when the United States can track how well it is responding to global economic factors relative to other countries.

Current Trendline

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, first quarter real GDP closed at 3.1 percent. In the second quarter, real GDP fell to 2.0 percent. The advanced assessment for the third quarter of 2019 is 1.9 percent.

 

What to Expect and How to Prepare for a Recession

Prepare for a RecessionEconomists generally determine that the country has fallen into a recession after two consecutive quarters of negative gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Since 1967, the United States has experienced seven recessions.

The thing is, predicting a recession is a little like predicting a tornado. Experts are never exactly sure if or when one will occur, but they can cite when conditions a ripe for one based past experience. The good news for predictors is that the economy follows a similar pattern of indicators in the months leading up to a recession.

The bad news is that many those indicators have recently emerged. For example:

  • Inverted Yield Curve – This is when the yield on longer-term Treasury bonds is lower than the yield on shorter-term Treasury bonds, which happened recently for the first time since 2007. On average, an inverted yield curve has occurred 14 months in advance of every recession in the past 50 years.
  • Corporate Profits – Estimates for corporate earnings growth have dropped substantially since last year, from 7.6 percent to 2.3 percent.
  • Global Trade – The ongoing U.S. trade war with China has resulted in weakness in the manufacturing and farming industries. Moreover, global trade volume is also down, which further reduces the market for U.S.-manufactured goods.

What to Expect in a Recession

The worst recession in U.S. history was the most recent one, between 2007 and 2009. Dubbed the Great Recession, it was short (compared to the Great Depression of 1929-1939) but it took a powerful toll on a large chunk of the population. For example, close to half of U.S. households lost at least 25 percent of their net worth; one out of every four households lost at least 75 percent of their net worth.

About one-third of households experienced one or more of the following:

  • Fell more than two months behind on their mortgage
  • Had their home foreclosed
  • Had their home equity drop into negative territory
  • Lost a job

That was a bad recession. Fortunately, while economists are seeing signs of another one on the horizon, as of now (absent any significant shocks) they do not expect it to be as severe.

Tips to Prepare for a Recession

With multiple warning signs evident, it appears we do have some time before a recession potentially hits. It’s a good idea to use this time to protect your financial situation to help minimize any impact that a recession can have on you personally. The following are some tips to consider.

Shore Up Your Finances

Start by reducing your debt as much as possible, particularly any accounts exposed to a variable interest rate. The interest on credit cards and home equity lines of credit have a habit of increasing when you can least afford it. If you have a variable rate mortgage you might want to refinance at today’s low fixed mortgage rates so your monthly payments do not increase. One way to generate a robust savings fund is to temporarily suspend contributions to a retirement plan and save that money in a readily available account.

Minimize Household Expenses

Most people have to cut back on household expenses during a recession, so you might as well start now to help you prepare. For example, consider trading in a gas-guzzling car for one with better gas mileage and lower monthly payments, or pull the plug on cable TV and switch to a streaming service. Deploying these cost-reduction strategies now not only reduces your expenses during a recession but will also help contribute to your savings fund.

In many areas of the country, real estate prices are at the top of the market. It might be worth considering selling your house now while you can get a good price. This will give you a pot of cash to sit on during the recession, which is especially helpful if you lose your job. In fact, after the sale you may consider renting until real estate prices drop and you can purchase another home at a good price – and maintain a healthy cache of savings. This strategy could also save you from raiding your investment portfolio for money – helping protect your future financial security.

Protect Your Investment Portfolio

Take a good look at your portfolio and give it a recession stress test. Consider reallocating some funds to options that tend to perform reliably during an economic decline, such as:

  • Government bonds
  • Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS)
  • Corporate Inflation-Protected Securities (CIPS)
  • Consumer staples stocks
  • Well-established dividend stocks
  • Fixed Income Annuity (FIA)

Recognize that it is generally not a good idea to completely cash out of the market. The best way to accumulate wealth over time is to stay invested regardless of temporary economic declines. In fact, investors who maintained their market positions between 2007 and 2017 experienced an average 240 percent growth rate.

Once the recession has ended, think about rebalancing your portfolio to realign its strategic asset allocation with your investment objectives and timeline. This allows you to cash in on outperforming assets and buy into depressed securities that could be poised for post-recession growth.

How to Inflation-Proof a Retirement Portfolio

How to Inflation-Proof a Retirement PortfolioStatistics indicate that the average life expectancy is longer than it used to be, but empirically we see this every day among elderly people who have lived much longer than they probably expected. This phenomenon spotlights a particular component of retirement planning that was not as significant in the past as it is now: long-term inflation.

While we’ve not experienced annual inflation rates this century as high as the latter part of the 20th century, inflation can balloon at any time. But what can be even more devastating to a retiree on a fixed income is cumulative inflation over time. It’s also important to recognize that specific consumer product inflation rates can differ substantially from the averages.

For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost (not always the price a consumer pays) of an oil change in 2000 was about $20. However, motor oil, coolant and fluids have experienced an average inflation rate of 5.66 percent per year – so in 2019 the cost of providing an oil change was about $56.89. That’s a 184.45 percent increase in less than 20 years for a common household expense during a normal retirement timeframe.

To build a portfolio designed to provide inflation-adjusted income throughout a long retirement, consider the following tactics.

Optimize Your Social Security Benefits

Social Security benefits receive periodic cost of living adjustments (COLA) based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is a weighted average of prices of common goods and services purchased by all urban consumers. However, retirees spend more of their household income on goods and services that experience higher levels of inflation, such as medical services. Therefore, Social Security benefit increases might not keep up with a retiree’s actual cost of living – especially over time.

That’s why it’s important to consider inflation in order to optimize your Social Security benefits. In other words, except for people in exceedingly poor health (expected to die within a few years) or in dire circumstances, it’s a good idea to delay starting Social Security benefits as long as you can. If you can wait until age 70, benefits will increase by as much as 8 percent each 12-month period past your full retirement age. Delaying not only increases the level of income you’ll receive each month, but it also gives you more time to save money for retirement and allows your investments more time to grow.

Inflation-Aligned Investments

Another way to inflation-proof your retirement portfolio is to allocate a portion of assets to investments that tend to increase at the same pace as inflation. The following are some options you might want to consider.

  • Series I Savings Bond – The I-Bond, guaranteed by the federal ­government, helps protect an investor from creeping inflation in a couple of ways. First, the I-Bond credits the holder’s account with a fixed interest rate plus the annualized inflation rate from the preceding six months. Second, the account value does not drop when prices fall.
  • TIPS – Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) are marketable securities whose principal increases and decreases in tandem with the inflation rate (adjusted every six months). However, the coupon rate is fixed, so payouts vary based only on the inflation-adjusted principal. Upon maturity, the investor receives the greater of the adjusted principal or the original principal.
  • CIPS – Corporate Inflation Protected Securities (CIPS) are similar to TIPS, but they invest in corporate bonds and typically pay a higher yield that combines a fixed payout plus the variable CPI rate. Unlike TIPS, they are not guaranteed by the U.S. government but are backed by the financial strength of the issuing company.
  • REITS – A Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) pays out reliable dividend income that tends to rise with inflation. REITS own or finance a diversified portfolio of income-producing real estate, such as office buildings, apartment buildings, warehouses, retail centers or hotels. REIT dividends have outpaced inflation in all but two of the past 20 years, according to the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts.
  • IPA – With an inflation-protected annuity (IPA), initial income payouts are low but rise over time to align with long-term inflation, based on a formula linked to the CPI. A differentiating benefit of an IPA is that it offers issuer-guaranteed income for life, so the retiree doesn’t have to worry about reinvesting assets during later stages of retirement.

It is a good idea to work with a financial advisor to incorporate inflation-resistant investments for your retirement portfolio based on your individual objectives, tolerance for risk and timeline.

Lost Inheritance: How To Find a Deceased Parent’s Assets

If you have a relative who recently died and left you in charge of his or her finances, you are not alone. You probably have colleagues at work in the same boat. A neighbor or two (or 10) and even your millennial yoga teacher might very well be working through a quagmire of wills, probates and assets nobody can find. You are definitely not the only one.

The internet has made it much easier to keep track of our checking, savings and investment accounts. But the elder generation generally missed out on the convenience of dashboard consolidation and app trackers. What most of them leave behind are file cabinets full of bank statements and old bills, bookshelves of file folders and prospectuses – perhaps once carefully catalogued. You may start rummaging through papers and not find anything more recent than five years ago.

How do you wrap your hands around investments and assets you know your dad owned but have no idea where they are?

Bear in mind that when there is no activity in an account for a year or more, assets may be deemed dormant or abandoned. They could eventually become property of the domicile state through a process called escheat, so it is important that you do not wait too long before finding lost assets.

Start at Home

If your parent used a computer, you should get access to his file folders and dig into his email account to see if he received any electronic communications from financial companies. If he wasn’t computer literate, then start with the mail. It may take six months to a year to get your hands on all of the paperwork, but if your relative did not sign up for electronic delivery then companies are required to send him statements through the U.S. mail.

If no one continues to live at his home, the easiest way to do this is to notify the post office to route all of his mail to your address. To do this, you will need to complete a Forwarding Change of Address order at the post office and provide proof that you are authorized to manage the deceased’s mail.

As you’re rummaging through Dad’s paperwork, here are some tips on what to do:

  • Look for bills and check if those entities are holding a utility deposit;
  • Look for statements for bank accounts, bonds, stocks, mutual funds, CDs, dividend or payroll checks, life insurance policies and retirement accounts;
  • Look for any record of a safe deposit box, such as a bill for the rental or a key; if he has one it is most likely located at his bank branch;
  • Contact his past employers to ask if they have any record of pensions, retirement plans or employer-purchased life insurance for your parent.

Once you get your hands on any statements, call the company or broker listed. You will need to send them certain documents to verify your parent is deceased (or a durable power of attorney document if he is incapacitated). Different firms and circumstances might have different requirements, but you’ll definitely need to send a copy of the death certificate. You may also be asked to provide a Court Letter of Appointment naming you as executor, a “stock power” of attorney that enables you to transfer ownership of stock, a state tax inheritance waiver, affidavit of domicile, trustee certification showing successor trustee, and/or a letter of authorization for joint accounts.

You’ll need to call and provide these or similar documents for each institution where your parent holds assets. Don’t worry, these companies have trained staff to help guide you through the legal process of how to manage the assets of deceased account owners.

Move to the Internet

Check unclaimed property lists at every state where your father lived. Get started at Unclaimed.org, a free website that allows you to search for unclaimed property held by each state. Also search at MissingMoney.com to conduct a national search.

Go to the Pros

If you’re sure your relative had more assets than you’re able to find, consider hiring a forensic accountant. These professionals have the tools and expertise to find offshore accounts, shell companies and other types of financial accounting practices. For example, a forensic accountant may request an IRS transcript that reports past 1099-DIV and 1099-INT distributions. Note that banks are required to issue such forms for account activity involving $10 or more.

You also may want to share your task with your own financial advisors. They might be able to recommend ways to help you track down, transfer and manage your parents’ assets, particularly if you need to set up income sources for another parent or relative. The point is, you don’t have to go it alone. This is a common problem and there are experts to help you work through it – but it will likely take time, patience and a lot of paperwork.