Monday, October 25, 2010

The Informational Risk Premium

When you step back and look at the investment landscape, it is sometimes helpful to ask yourself if anything really IS different this time; to try to determine what has changed.

The usual answers point to recent return gyrations: the tech bubble's spectacular burst ten years ago, the near-death experience of global capitalism in 2008-2009. But the truth is, we've seen all this before in one form or another. Ask your grandparents; the 1929 crash and Great Depression were far more painful to far more people than anything we've experienced in recent years.

Michael Aronstein, who manages a mutual fund called the Marketfield Fund, offers an interestingly different take on what is fundamentally different today. In a one-hour speech at the NAPFA Practice Management & Investments Conference in San Diego, on September 22, he connected two dots that most of us are aware of intuitively, but may not have consciously considered. He said that the primary challenge for investment advisors, financial planners and money managers today, which is different from the challenges you faced in the past, is the sheer amount of attention that individual investors are now able to pay to the ups and downs in their portfolios.

"In the last 15 years," he said, "we have moved from an era where people who were not in the business would check stock quotes, if at all, in the morning when they got their newspaper. Sometimes, you would listen to a radio program on your way home from work, and it might tell you what the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at."

Compare that with today, when it's possible to have a running ticker at the bottom of your computer screen, or a portrait of your investment portfolio continuously updating its various components and arriving at new values every 15 minutes. At the same time, news, information and even fundamental analysis might be flowing into your brain through various sources. "Regarding the economy and its various indicators, there are probably ten thousand data points that we could be looking at in real time," Aronstein continued. "Combine that with hundreds and hundreds of opinions being thrown around as important every day, and it is a formula for driving everybody insane--and I think that really is what is happening to the investing public."

Put in its simplest terms, we are being driven to an unbalanced mental state by the sheer amount of information and opinions that are piling into our awareness at increasing speed, and nobody has a vested interest in telling us that paying attention is highly unlikely to improve our investing lives. In fact, to the extent that we feel panic, fear or a concern that we're missing out on some opportunity, all this information may well be sabotaging the average person's returns.

Panic is a particularly dangerous emotion to investment portfolios, and there is some evidence that more of it is being artificially manufactured by the media than ever before. Aronstein pointed out that it has become a pretty good business to give out doomsday information and frighten investors, and a lot of people have become pretty good at it. "It is rare to spend a day watching CNBC or any of the other financial reality programs," he said, "and not hear somebody come out with the most disastrous, frightening, extreme forecast about what is going on in the world and in peoples' portfolios."

That, in itself, helps us get a better handle on this new era of investing. Aronstein said that risk assets like stocks, which tend to be liquid and priced every second, become increasingly unattractive in an environment where there is a negative or confusing spin on their every movement. Who wants to own something which increasingly gives you heartburn and insomnia? As people sell out of the investments in order to avoid this confusion/heartburn factor, risk assets become more attractively priced than their fundamentals would justify. This could raise their future returns the same way value stocks enjoy return advantages over sexier growth companies: they are less attractive to the average investor.

Instead, investors might become more interested in investments which aren't traded every day--such as real estate and certain types of hedge funds. Because there is no way to watch them change in value in real time, the market commentators aren't talking about them or offering doomsday scenarios before the commercial break. Look for these products to proliferate, not necessarily because anybody believes less-liquid products offer better returns, but because they reduce stress.

It would be easy to say that market reality shows represent a scourge on the investing world. Of course they are unhelpful. Of course the moment-by-moment market movements and most of the data and opinions are of less than zero value to your financial health.

But the important thing here is for all of us to recognize that a new risk factor has emerged in the investment marketplace. This emerging "information risk premium" suggests that if you can tolerate (or ignore) the uncertainty and doomsday commentaries while others cannot, you might be able to get better returns ultimately

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

10 things to do with your IRA before the end of the year!

Your IRA, your own piece of your retirement puzzle, requires some tender loving care. Here’s a list of what you might need to do before December 31, 2011.

1. Take your required minimum distribution

Make sure all Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) are taken for the year 2010.

Look at all owned IRA accounts and employer plans (401(k), TSA and SEPs) for individuals age 70 ½ or older this year or inherited IRAs.

Beneficiaries, no matter what their age, must take distributions from all inherited accounts beginning in the year after the death of the account owner. Also, inherited accounts must be split before year end so beneficiaries can use their own life expectancies to calculate their RMDs.

Remember to take any 72(t) distributions that are required for 2010. If you fail to do this, you will pay penalty and interest retroactively to the first year you started taking these distributions.

2. Check for excess contributions

It might seem unlikely, given that the average IRA contribution is $3,798, but it’s possible that you contributed too much to your IRA during the year. If so, remove any excess contributions before the end of the year or you will be charged a 6% penalty for any excess contributions.

3. Is everything in place?

Take nothing for granted when it comes to your IRA. Before year end, double check on all IRA funds that you moved from one account to another during 2010, make sure that IRA funds went into IRA accounts, not non-IRA accounts or Roth IRAs and be sure that Roth IRA funds went into Roth IRA accounts.

4. Can you do a stretch IRA?

Check whether your IRA custodian or 401(k) plan administrator will allow for the so-called “stretch” for beneficiaries.

The stretch means that beneficiaries can use their own life expectancy for distributions. In addition, check whether the custodian or plan administrator will accept a durable power of attorney, and disclaimers.

The answer to these questions will have substantial impact on the success of your estate plan. If the custodian or 401(k) (plan administrator) doesn’t accept a durable power of attorney or disclaimer, you might consider another custodian.

5. Who’s your beneficiary?

Here’s some well-worn but can’t be repeated often enough advice: Review your beneficiary designations. Make sure there is both a primary and a contingent beneficiary named on the beneficiary designation form.

If there is no beneficiary named, the IRA proceeds will go to the estate and lose the tax advantage of the stretch benefits. If there is no contingent beneficiary, and the primary beneficiary has died, then the assets also go to the estate with the same negative result.

It’s especially worth checking your beneficiary designations if you’re divorced. Make sure your ex-spouse has been deleted as a beneficiary, unless you want them to remain as a beneficiary. The U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled that the beneficiary named on the beneficiary designation form trumps divorce.

Don’t name your living trust as your beneficiary. A living trust should not be the beneficiary because the living trust must qualify as a ‘designated beneficiary’ to receive favorable stretch and tax treatment. I find that most living trusts do not qualify, or can lose their designated beneficiary status through later changes to the trust.

Make sure your custodian has a written copy of your beneficiary designations.

6. One last chance for Roth conversions

If you plan to do a Roth conversion in 2010, the funds must leave the IRA by Dec. 31 to be reported and taxable as a 2010 distribution and conversion. The funds can then be rolled over to the Roth IRA up to 60 days after they are received by the account owner.

Contrary to what some might believe, you do not have until April 15, 2011 to do a 2010 Roth conversion.

Here's another reason why you might want to convert some or all of your IRA to a Roth IRA: the Roth IRA could fund a credit shelter or by-pass trust.
Remember, anyone can convert their traditional IRAs to a Roth IRA in 2010 regardless of income. What’s more, you can pay the taxes over two years, instead of one.

7. Turn wealth into income

Right about now, the Social Security Administration is sending you a report that tells you how much income you’ll receive in today’s dollars when you retire. Write down that number on a piece of paper.

Now, total up the value of all IRA and 401(k) accounts in your household and multiple that number by 0.04. That number is the amount some experts say you could withdraw from your retirement in today’s dollars.
Now, add that number to your Social Security benefit figure, and then subtract that amount from your income. The results are roughly the amount of money you’ll need from other sources (such as work, pensions, reverse mortgages, life insurance or inheritances) to enjoy a lifestyle similar to what you have today. If you are not working you will no longer be paying your social security taxes, roughly 6.5% of your earned income each year.

Let’s use some round numbers as an example. Say you have household income of $100,000. You expect to receive $25,000 per year from Social Security and withdraw $5,000 per year from your retirement accounts. If you do not work you will no longer be paying $6,500 in social security taxes. Somehow you’ll need to come up with another $63,500 per year to live the life to which you are accustomed.

For some, the best way to close the gap will be to contribute more to their IRAs and 401(k)s wile working, work longer, or lower their standard of living.

8. Review your investment plan

Consider updating your investment policy statement or plan. Make sure your asset allocation remains appropriate given your financial goals.
Rebalance your IRA’s asset allocation, if you haven’t done so within the past year. It’s best to rebalance your IRA in a holistic manner. That is, look at all your assets in all your accounts, taxable and tax-deferred.

In many cases, consider putting your fixed-income investments in your tax-deferred accounts and those investments that produce capital gains and dividend income in your taxable accounts.

Since IRAs are tax-deferred vehicles, it makes no sense for them to hold ‘tax-preferenced’ investments such as municipal bonds and annuities.

You can also use your RMDs to rebalance. It could save on transaction costs.

9. Roll old 401(k)s to an IRA

If you have one or more 401(k)s sitting with former employers, consider rolling that money over to an IRA. You should get better investment choices, lower costs and more control of your investment assets.

10. Recharacterize your Roth IRA

If you converted a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA during 2010 and now realize that your income taxes were higher than expected due to the conversion, or you’re short money to pay the income tax or you’re unwilling to pay the income tax, consider a recharacterization. That is, consider putting the money in the Roth IRA back into your traditional IRA.