Category Archives: Personalization

How Much Do You Need to Save for Retirement?

In the financial advisory business, one of the most pressing and controversial topics is how much money people need to save during their working years in order to provide for long-term retirement income.  The research on this topic has evolved quite a lot in recent years, and a recent issue of Money magazine features a series of articles representing the current view on this critical topic.  These articles, based around interviews with a number of the current thought leaders on this topic, deserve to be widely read and discussed.

The series of articles in Money kicks off with perspectives by Wade Pfau.  Pfau’s introductory piece suggests a difficult future for American workers.  A traditional rule-of-thumb in retirement planning is called the 4% rule.  This rule states that a retiree can plan to draw annual income equal to 4% of the value of her portfolio in the first year of retirement and increase this amount each year to keep up with inflation.  Someone who retires with a $1 Million portfolio could draw $40,000 in income in the first year of retirement and then increase that by 2.5%-3% per year, and have a high level of confidence that the portfolio will last thirty years.  It is assumed that the portfolio is invested in 60%-70% stocks and 30%-40% bonds.  The 4% rule was originally derived based on the long-term historical returns and risks for stocks and bonds.  The problem that Pfau has noted, however, is that both stocks and bonds are fairly expensive today relative to their values over the period of time used to calculate the 4% rule.  For bonds, this means that yields are well below their historical averages and historical yields are a good predictor of the future return from bonds.  The expected return from stocks is partly determined by the average price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio, and the P/E for stocks is currently well-above the long-term historical average.  High P/E tends to predict lower future returns for stocks, and vice versa.  For a detailed discussion of these relationships, see this paper.  In light of current prices of stocks and bonds, Pfau concludes that the 4% rule is far too optimistic and proposes that investors plan for something closer to a 3% draw rate from their portfolios in retirement.  I also explored this topic in an article last year.

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Sector Watch: Spotlight on Defensive Strategy

About four and a half years ago, Folio Investing launched an equity (e.g. stock) portfolio that focused on reducing the impact of market volatility.  So-called defensive stocks are those which tend to be fairly insensitive to the mood of the market as a whole.  Conventional wisdom suggests that demand for band-aids, electricity and paper does not go up when the market is exuberant, but neither does it collapse when the market swoons.  The conventional wisdom also suggests that these stocks will tend to under-perform the broader market during rallies and, over the long-term, that a portfolio of these stocks will deliver modest returns.  Our research suggested, however, that it was possible to create a portfolio of defensive stocks that would provide returns to keep up with rallies in the broader market, while still substantially reducing the impact of market volatility.  Folio Investing launched the Defensive Strategy Folio that incorporated this research on February 28, 2008. Continue reading

The Challenge of Long-Term Income: Part II

In Part I of this article, I explained why I have issues with the traditional idea that individuals should provide for their required level of retirement income (beyond what is provided by Social Security and any pensions) entirely with assets with zero risk of loss of principal (e.g. Treasury bonds).  In Part II, I discuss the alternative approaches.

There are two investments that have zero loss of principal: traditional Treasury bonds and Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), which are Treasury bonds with embedded protection against inflation.

I agree with the notion that people need to save and invest so as to be able to provide a very reliable and consistent income stream in retirement.  Zvi Bodie has presented a compelling argument that investments in stocks do not become less risky as you hold them for longer periods, so that investors cannot rely on stocks as part of their required income stream.  I have performed detailed analysis of Bodie’s argument and I agree with his argument: the magnitude of loss that you can face with an equity-heavy portfolio increases the longer you hold the portfolio.  As I noted in Part I, William Bernstein has recently advocated for a portfolio in which all of your required income is provided by Treasuries and annuities, largely consistent with Bodie. Continue reading

The Challenge of Long-Term Income: Part 1

Portfolio Income: The Trouble With Treasury Bonds

The current economic environment is making it very hard for investors to generate reasonable levels of income through traditional means such as bond ladders.  While it is always dangerous to suggest that ‘it’s different this time,’ I believe that we are facing some unprecedented conditions that require new approaches.  Income-seeking investors with low risk tolerance—those who have traditionally favored government bonds—are in the most difficult situation.

The problem of low savings and investment rates in the U.S. is huge.  I have written about this in the past, along with many others.  Every study on retirement savings notes that Americans need to save more.  Having the ability to support yourself from a portfolio of savings is not, however, just about the amount that you save.  There is also the issue of how much income you can derive from each dollar in your portfolio.  Today, with historically low yields on government bonds, retirees and others seeking to live on the income from low-risk investments are faced with an enormous challenge that compounds the savings rate problem.  To be able to live on the income provided by very low-risk investments, the necessary savings rates increase dramatically relative to savings rates when investors are willing to bear some risk. Continue reading

Sector Watch: Spotlight on Utilities

Utility companies are expected to provide fairly stable performance, without too much downside risk.  Utilities are also typically expected to provide lower average returns than the broader market.  In the last decade, however, utilities have out-performed the broader stock market as investors have become increasingly risk-averse and worried about the prospects for sectors that depend largely on robust economic growth in order to meet their earnings targets. Continue reading

Tax Loss Harvesting: Five Tips to Keep More of What’s Yours

Here at the Portfolioist, we frequently turn to Steve Thorpe, founder of Pragmatic Portfolios, LLC to share his insights on the topic of Tax Loss Harvesting. Here are 5 of his Tax Loss Harvesting Tips to help keep more of your money when tax time rolls around.

It’s impossible to reliably predict future changes within the investment markets, however there are numerous ways for investors to favorably influence their own results. Important areas to focus on include developing an investment plan, saving regularly, diversifying widely, adhering to an appropriate asset allocation, and paying attention to all forms of costs – including taxes. For many investors, tax loss harvesting can improve their after-tax bottom line, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars per year. Continue reading

Financial Products are Sold, Not Bought

Guest post by Contributing Editor, Robert P. Seawright, Chief Investment and Information Officer for Madison Avenue Securities.

Critics of the financial services industry (often with good reason) frequently remind consumers that financial products are typically “sold” rather than “bought” and implore them not to fall into that trap.  The concept here is that financial products are “sold” — pushed upon a consuming public that doesn’t understand them or perhaps even want or need them.  Instead, the alleged basis for their continued vibrancy and ongoing sales is that advisors get paid big bucks to sell them. Continue reading

The Most Common Mistake Investors Make

Each year, the research firm DALBAR publishes their Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior.  Every year, the results show that individual investors are their own worst enemies. 

And this year is no exception. 

The QAIB examines the real returns earned by investors in equity mutual funds, bond mutual funds, and asset allocation mutual funds.  Over the past twenty years, the average investor in an equity mutual fund has under-performed the S&P 500 Index by an annualized Continue reading

Stocks and Shocks: What to Do?

Guest Post by Contributing Editor, David Kotok, Chairman and Chief Investment Officer, Cumberland Advisors.

How do we avoid walking into a “left hook” in the markets? That was the discussion this week during a client review.

“Can’t you see them coming and avoid them?” he asked. Well maybe some folks can, but the issue of investing with possible shocks as an outcome is a very difficult one.

“Do you position for the worst outcome?” If yes, you would never invest in anything.

“Is there a middle road?” We think so and that is why we use a combination of ETFs and bonds and recommend diversifying risk among several asset classes.

Below this introduction is a partial list of upcoming potential shocks. As readers will note, we can see the potential shock relatively clearly. Scott MacDonald of MC Asset Management calls them “dangerous seas ahead.” His maritime metaphors sequence the Titanic and Lusitania. Lehman-AIG and the meltdown were the Titanic. “This leaves us to wonder if the U.S. economy is not like the Lusitania, operating in a high risk environment, but felt to be safe from prowling German U-boats in the North Atlantic.” ponders Scott.

Of course, we cannot know the result of a potential risk before it happens. We cannot know the outcome and the policy shift. Therefore, the anticipatory period preceding the risk and the aftermath (if as and when the risk is realized) are not symmetrical. In other words, you are investing in asymmetry. Knowing this in advance allows for an asset-allocation rebalancing as the circumstances and probabilities change. In other words: reassess, reassess, reassess risks and rebalance, rebalance, rebalance.

Some of the discussion in our new book addresses these types of asymmetries. See Amazon.com, From Bear to Bull with ETFs or visit Cumberland’s website. In the book, we actually show the comparison with the ten sectors of the S&P 500 index and the relative performance of each sector in the bear and in the subsequent bull market.

Now let’s get to some potential shocks and comment about them:

  • Possible Shock Number 1: The Fed will cease “Operation Twist” on June 30. They confirmed the policy shift as recently as this last meeting and Bernanke’s statement. What will a twist cessation bring to bond yields? Will it change home mortgage interest rates? Delay a housing market recovery? Alter the steepness of the yield curve? Or the flatness of the yield curve? What happens to bond credit spreads? Pricing of repo collateral? Maybe the whole thing will pass as a non-event. Nobody knows.
  • Possible Shock Number 2:The so-called “fiscal cliff” is approaching at year-end. Strategas’ Dan Clifton and Jason Trennert have hammered this theme. Their summary identifies three elements:“… roughly one-third of the entire tax code expiring at the end of the year, the spending sequester beginning on January 2, a debt ceiling increase needed in the six weeks after the election and before the end of the year.”How much will markets anticipate these outcomes? How deep is fiscal drag? Is there a fiscal drag? Is Ricardian equivalence dead? How large is the policy shift danger to our country from the Congress? From this President? From next year’s President (re-elected or new)? All of these tax-spend-borrow outcomes are probable in the present-day realm of American politics. That puts our American destiny in the hands of a class of people who are very unpopular and despised by the majority of American citizens. Our politicians have become the scurrilous, scatological scoundrels that we elect and send to Washington. (We include both political parties in this opprobrium). Jack Bittner asks if we should limit all pols to a single term.
  • Possible Shock Number 3: The Bank of Japan has leaped to the top of the G4 central banks when it comes to balance-sheet expansion. BOJ announced an increase in the rate of asset purchases and an extension of the duration of the Japanese sovereign debt it will buy. Initial market reaction was that this plan is “not enough.” BOJ is trying to get Japan’s inflation rate UP! They have not succeeded in the past. Is this time different? What will be the impact on the foreign exchange markets? Will the yen weaken? If so, which currency will strengthen? We have written in the past that FX market adjustments are quite distorted when the G4 central banks are all maintaining their policy interest rates near zero.
  • Possible Shock Number 4:The FDIC limit on non-interest-bearing demand deposit insurance is scheduled to revert back to the pre-crisis level at the end of this year. We quote from the FDIC website:“From December 31, 2010 through December 31, 2012, at all FDIC-insured institutions, deposits held in non-interest-bearing transaction accounts will be fully insured regardless of the amount in the account. For more information, see the FDIC’s comprehensive guide, Your Insured Deposits.”What will be the impact in the money-market end of the yield curve? Will there be an extension of the termination date if markets begin to tighten? What will happen to repo rates? Repo collateral pricing? How closely is the Fed watching this development, since the Fed has been providing the market with more repo collateral (T-bills) through its Operation Twist? Is there a relationship, or will there be one? Can the banking system withstand larger withdrawals of zero-interest deposits if corporate agents deem deposits to be insecure without FDIC insurance coverage? (Note that the FDIC just closed five more banks this week. In the case of the Bank of Eastern Shore, Cambridge, Maryland, the FDIC has not found a buyer or merger partner, and the uninsured depositors are at risk of loss. Readers who are still worried about the safety of their bank deposits may check the FDIC website for the current rules).
  • Possible Shock Number 5: Watch the price and futures prices of Brent crude. Many are sanguine about oil and energy pricing and the gasoline price. We are not. Libyan production is not coming back in a hurry (hat tip to Barclays for superb research on the risk of Libyan civil war). Geopolitical risk is high in the Persian Gulf (Iran) and in Nigeria (see the developing news story of turmoil in this important oil-producing country). Worldwide demand for oil inexorably rises. U.S. energy policy still fails to accelerate our move to energy independence. Despite Energy Secretary Salazar’s protestations, the fact is that the Obama Administration has a failed energy policy and continues to pursue it. We do not drill, we do not encourage the use of natural gas in an accelerated and proactive way, and we do stymie new production and exploration. We do have pipelines running in the wrong directions, and we do have distorted domestic oil pricing because of excess inventories in Cushing, Oklahoma. At Cumberland, we remain attentive to this sector even as the market has become sanguine about it. We continue to hold our oil-energy-exploration and oil-service positions. The range of forecasts of the oil price is a mile wide. We have seen a low of $40 a barrel within two years and a high of $175. We lean to the higher price, not the lower one.

Reassess and Rebalance

I will stop now with the list of possible shocks and leave it to the reader’s imagination to complete this compendium with thoughts about Europe or China slowing or future inflation risk. Here is how we see the portfolio management decision. Remember this is today. It could change tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. The operative structure is reassess, reassess, reassess, rebalance, rebalance, rebalance.

Cumberland continues its fully invested approach using ETFs. We have been in that mode since the bear-market bottom of October 3. We think the bull market that started on October 3 is only half over as to price change and only one-third to one-fourth over as to time. Of course, any shock could derail this forecast. Our bond portfolios are slowly repositioning to a hedged or defensive mode. We have time. The process of moving from the present very low interest rates will require years and be volatile but gradual. Interest rates cannot go below zero. To get them above zero and into a more normal relationship, the G4 central banks must neutralize over four trillion dollars equivalent of excess reserves. Collectively they are still enlarging this position and are a long way from extraction from it.

Two items are recommended:

  • Read “Death of a Theory,” by St. Louis Fed president James Bullard, in the March-April/2012 monthly bulletin of that bank.
  • For analysis of last year’s bear market and the ensuing bull market, readers may wish to consult our new book, From Bear to Bull with ETFs. We thank readers for their responses so far. For the first time in our life, we have had a three-week-running best-selling book. All links to book distribution will be constantly updated on Cumberland’s website.

(Disclosure: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Portfolioist. Cumberland Advisors is unaffiliated with FOLIOfn Investments.)

About David R. Kotok:

David R. Kotok co-founded Cumberland Advisors in 1973 and has been its Chief Investment Officer since inception. Mr. Kotok’s articles and financial commentary have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and other publications. He is a frequent guest on financial television including Bloomberg Television, CNBC and Fox. He also contributes to radio networks such as NPR and media organizations like Bloomberg Radio, among others.

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The Biggest Unknown in Financial Planning

In a recent blog post, I reviewed a new book on the future of the Equity Risk Premium (ERP).  For those who are not familiar with the ERP, it is the additional return that investors expect to receive for bearing the risk of owning company stock vs. owning a low-risk asset like government bonds.  As readers of the  book, Rethinking the Equity Risk Premium will discover, there is little agreement on how the ERP should be measured historically and even less consensus on how to estimate the future ERP.

We all know that there is no guarantee that stocks will deliver higher returns than bonds. In fact, at the depths of the last market crash (think back to early 2009) bonds had out-performed stocks over a trailing period of more than 40 years.  If markets are at all rational, it would make sense that Continue reading