Tag Archives: retirement plans

GOP Lawmaker Hopes To Halt Fiduciary Push

financial freedomMy Comment: This push by the GOP is, in my opinion, more smoke and mirrors from those beholden to the lobbyists from Wall Street. The crux of this issue is that the people who run Wall Street firms do not want their rank and file representatives, the ones who work with people like you and me on a daily basis, to be held to a fiduciary standard.

For those of you who may not understand, a fiduciary standard means that what is said and done by representatives has to be in all respects, in the best interest of those who are clients of those representatives. The push back has been going on for years, and here is another example of how monied interests are more concerned about the welfare of the monied interests than of the general public.

That it “harms thousands of low and middle income Americans’ ability to save and invest for their future” is absolute and utter bullshit. I’m someone who has worked and made a living for the past 40 years, helping low and middle income Americans save and invest for their financial future, not some politician, bought and paid for by Wall Street firms.

Feb 26, 2015 | By Melanie Waddell

Firing back after President Barack Obama endorsed the Department of Labor’s efforts to revise fiduciary rules for retirement plan advice, Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., has reintroduced legislation to require the DOL to wait to repropose its rule until the Securities and Exchange Commission issues its own fiduciary rulemaking.

Wagner’s bill, H.R. 2374, the Retail Investor Protection Act, passed the House last year. But the Senate had “no interest” in taking up the bill and President Obama’s senior advisors threatened that it would be vetoed.

Better Markets and the Consumer Federation of America sent a letter to the full Senate the same day Wagner took action this week, arguing that the DOL rulemaking should be allowed to move forward as the “actual contents” of the DOL rule have not been made public.

Discussion about the DOL rulemaking “has for the most part been based on speculation,” Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation, and Dennis Kelleher, president and CEO of Better Markets, said in a letter.

“Much of (the discussion/complaints about the DOL redraft) has been directly contradicted by statements from DOL officials about its expected regulatory approach,” Roper and Kelleher wrote.

In a statement, Wagner said that she is reintroducing her bill because Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., “presented a solution in search of a problem by proposing another massive rulemaking from Washington that will harm thousands of low- and middle-income Americans’ ability to save and invest for their future.”

“This top-down, Washington-centered rulemaking against financial advisors and broker-dealers will harm the very middle-income families that Senator Warren and President Obama claim to protect,” Wagner said. “Americans should be given more freedom to seek sound financial advice without Senator Warren and President Obama’s interference.”

Wagner’s bill says that the SEC would be required to “go first” in issuing its rulemaking under Section 913 of the Dodd Frank Act before the DOL is able to propose a rule that expands the definition of a fiduciary under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.
But Roper and Kelleher told the Senate that the DOL rule should be “allowed to go forward, so that the public and all stakeholders have an equal opportunity to see the actual content of the rule.” Indeed, they wrote, “as required by law, at the close of the public comment period, DOL will consider all of the comments and input and decide the best course of action consistent with the law.”

By sending the rule to the Office of Management and Budget, DOL is simply starting the process to release the actual proposed rule for public comment, the two wrote.

The OMB review could take several months. Wagner’s bill would also require the SEC to “look into potential issues with a rulemaking establishing a uniform fiduciary standard in regards to investor harm and access to financial products that were not adequately addressed” in the agency’s 2011 study.

The SEC would also be asked under Wagner’s bill to look into “other alternatives outside of a uniform fiduciary standard which could help with issues of investor confusion.”

Wagner’s bill “is an investor protection bill in name only,” according to a statement from the Financial Planning Coalition, which comprises the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, the Financial Planning Association and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.

The coalition added that it “helped prevent this legislation from becoming law when it was first introduced and continues to oppose it now and in the future,” arguing that it would leave American investors “vulnerable to potential abuses and would substantially impede or even prevent the SEC from proceeding with congressionally authorized fiduciary rulemaking.”

Wagner’s legislation, the coalition stated, “would require the (Securities and Exchange) Commission to consider less adequate and less effective alternatives,” and would also “slow or effectively prohibit the DOL from proceeding with its proposed fiduciary rulemaking for financial professionals who provide investment advice to retirement savers.”

SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White said last week that she would speak about her position regarding a rule to put brokers under a fiduciary mandate “in the short term,” noting that it remains her priority “to get the Commission in a position to make that decision” on such a rule.

7 Social Security Mistakes to Avoid

SSA-image-2My Comments: Social Security payments are a critical financial component of many lives these days. When it began in 1935, there was much gnashing of teeth among the political parties since it represented a recognition by the government that some people needed help. This was in a world recovering from the Great Depression and watching the developing threat of Communism in the Soviet Union.

Today, many millions of us pay into the system monthly and many millions of us receive a check every month. Some of us, like a client of mine, has a permanent disability that he was born with and qualifies for help with living expenses. He has never been able to earn a living and few surviving family members to help him get by from day to day.

I readily admit to an element of socialism in this process. But I live in a world of rules imposed on us by society where society has deemed it to be in the best interest of the majority that those rules exist. Like making us all drive on one side of the road instead of at random. Think about that for a minute if you choose to believe that society should have no role to play in our lives or that socialism is inherently evil.

Okay, enough political chatter. Here’s useful information about claiming benefits from the SSA.

by John F. Wasik / FEB 17, 2015

Most clients get lost trying to navigate Social Security on their own. There are about 8,000 strategies available for couples and more than 2,700 separate rules on benefits, according to the Social Security Administration. Yet most couples don’t explore all the possibilities; as a result, they end up leaving an estimated $100,000 in benefits on the table, reports Financial Engines, an online money management firm.

For many advisors, talking to clients about Social Security often means having a brief conversation that ends with the traditional advice of “wait as long as you can until you file.” But Social Security, with its myriad filing-maximization strategies, should play a much larger role in a comprehensive planning discussion.

Consider these basic questions: How do you ensure a nonworking spouse reaps the highest possible payment? Should the higher earner wait until age 70 to receive payments? What’s the advantage of taking benefits at age 62? Should clients take benefits earlier if they are in poor health? How can divorcees claim a benefit based on an ex-spouse’s earnings?

Clearly, there are several right and wrong routes to maximizing Social Security benefits. Here are some of the most common mistakes and how advisors can address them.

1. Not planning for opportunity cost
What’s the cost of waiting to take Social Security? How will withdrawals from retirement funds impact clients’ portfolios?

Advisors need to understand how a Social Security claiming strategy will affect a client’s net worth, notes Ben Hockema, a CFP with Deerfield Financial Advisors in Park Ridge, Ill. “If you wait to take Social Security, that will mean withdrawing more money from a portfolio,” he says. “The Social Security decision involves trade-offs.”

Hockema runs Excel spreadsheets in conjunction with specialized Social Security software to show clients what opportunity costs look like in terms of lower portfolio values, displaying return assumptions with graphs.

Many financial advisors point out that the answer is not always to wait until 70 to take Social Security. You have to take a broader view.

2. Failure to consider family history
What are the client’s family circumstances? What do they expect in terms of life expectancy? Have other relatives been long-lived?

Even if answers are imprecise, the discussions can provide valuable insights into how to plan Social Security claiming, say advisors who are trained in these strategies. But it’s the advisor’s role to tease out that information, notes CFP Barry Kaplan, chief investment officer with Cambridge Wealth Counsel in Atlanta. “People often have no clue” about the best Social Security claiming strategies, Kaplan says. “It’s complicated.”

3. Not integrating tax planning

One key question to consider: What are the tax implications of a particular strategy, given that working clients will be taxed on Social Security payments?

Here’s how Social Security benefits taxation works: If your clients are married and filing jointly, and their income is between $32,000 and $44,000, then they may have to pay tax on half of their benefits. Above $44,000, up to 85% of the benefits can be taxed.

For those filing single returns, the range is from $25,000 to $34,000 for the 50% tax and 85% above $34,000. Be sure you can advise your clients on how to manage their income alongside their Social Security benefits.

4. Failing to ask about ex-spouses
Be sure to ask your clients about their marital history, understand what they qualify for and analyze how it will impact their cash flow. Was the client married long enough to qualify for spousal benefits? How much was the client’s ex making? Be sure to walk through different options with clients.

Kaplan offers the example of a 68-year-old woman who was twice divorced: “She was still working, and it had been 20 years since her last marriage,” Kaplan says. “I then discovered … a former spouse’s income that netted my client an immediate $6,216 — six months in arrears — and would result in an additional $1,036 per month until age 70, for a total [of] $30,000 in additional benefits.”

Kaplan’s divorced client was able to claim benefits based on her first spouse’s earnings, which boosted her monthly payment considerably.

5. Overlooking spousal options
A key question to ask: Does the “file and suspend” strategy make sense in your clients’ situation? In this case, the higher-earning spouse can file for benefits, then immediately suspend them, allowing the monthly benefit to continue to grow even if the other partner receives the spousal benefit.

The result: The lower-earning spouse can collect benefits while the higher-earning spouse waits until 70 to collect the highest possible payment.

6. Not taking advantage of new tools
Although specialized software packages can generate a range of benefit scenarios, only 13% of planners use subscription-based tools designed for Social Security maximization. (Most planners do have some comprehensive planning tools available, but they may not integrate Social Security scenarios.)

Most planners rely upon the free and often confusing calculators from the Social Security Administration, along with online calculators and general planning software, according to a survey by Practical Perspectives and GDC Research.

That’s despite the fact that only a quarter of planners “are comfortable enough to plan and recommend Social Security strategies to clients,” the survey noted.
A detailed conversation about Social Security may be even less likely to occur with high-net-worth clients, according to the survey.

When you approach Social Security with your clients, consider that there are multiple nuances within the system’s rules that few practitioners have studied, and these could result in higher payments. You may need some of the sophisticated tools now available.

7. Dismissing it altogether
There’s another reason clients — and often planners — don’t drill down into Social Security strategies: They don’t think it will be available in coming decades.

But don’t write it off altogether. The truth is that Social Security’s trust fund, the money held in reserve to pay for future retirees, is adequate to pay full benefits until 2033. If Congress does nothing to address the funding shortfall, the government will pay three-quarters of benefits until 2088.

And Social Security is one of the most successful and popular government programs in history, so it’s difficult to bet against its long-term survival.

David Blain, president of BlueSky Wealth Advisors in New Bern, N.C., suggests that, in addition to carefully reviewing benefit statements and earnings records, advisors should explore other aspects of Social Security, including spousal, death and survivor benefits.

“You need to take it seriously,” Blain says about integrating Social Security into a plan. “Clients may not understand it and think it’s not going to be there for them.”

John F. Wasik is the author of 14 books, including Keynes’s Way to Wealth. He is also a contributor to The New York Times and Morningstar.com.

The First Sign of an Impending Crash

080519_USEconomy1My Comments: Another in a littany of warnings about pending doom. It gets a little tiresome,doesn’t it? Especially when there are others who swear the signs are there for continued gains. My gut tells me this guy is probably right.

By Jeff Clark Thursday, February 12, 2015

Investors have plenty of reasons to be afraid right now…

There’s the rapidly falling price of oil… The big decline in the value of global currencies… The Russian military action in the Ukraine… And the possibility of the European Union falling apart.

It’s unsurprising that many investors are looking for the stock market to crash. And – as I’ll show you today – we’ve seen the first big warning sign.

But here’s the thing…

Stock markets don’t usually crash when everyone is looking for it to happen. And right now, there are far too many people calling for a crash…

Once we get through this current period of short-term weakness that I warned about on Tuesday, the market is likely to make another attempt to rally to new all-time highs.

This will suck investors in from the sidelines… And get folks to stop worrying.

Then, later this year, when nobody is looking for it… the market can crash.

But for now, just to be on the safe side… Keep an eye on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note yield…

The 10-year Treasury note yield bottomed on January 30 at 1.65%. Today, it’s at 2%. That’s a 35-basis-point spike – a jump of 21% – in less than two weeks.

And it’s the first sign of an impending stock market crash.

As I explained last September, the 10-year Treasury note yield has ALWAYS spiked higher prior to an important top in the stock market.

For example, the 10-year yield was just 4.5% in January 1999. One year later, it was 6.75% – a spike of 50%. The dot-com bubble popped two months later.

In 2007, rates bottomed in March at 4.5%. By July, they had risen to 5.5% – a 22% increase. The stock market peaked in September.

Let’s be clear… not every spike in Treasury rates leads to an important top in the stock market. But there has always been a sharp spike in rates a few months before the top.

It’s probably still too early to be concerned about a stock market crash… But keep an eye on the 10-year Treasury note yield. If it continues to rise over the next few months, then you can start to worry.

Good investing,

Jeff Clark

13 Reasons Why a QLAC Belongs in Your IRA

My Comments: Some people made good decisions along the way and now have significantly large IRA accounts. Some people I know have little need for the money to maintain their existing standard of living.

If this is you and would like to find a way to NOT take money every year and pay the IRS a sizeable chunk of your retirement nest egg, there is now a way to defer some of the taxes. You can’t avoid the truism about the inevitability of death and taxes, but you can delay it.

This article explains your new option. If you’d like to know more, send me an email or give me a call. I can help make it happen for you.

By Stan Haithcock / Nov 18, 2014

Qualified longevity annuity contracts (QLACs) were approved on July 1 of this year for use in Traditional IRAs, 401(k)s, and other approved retirement plans.

They’re also referred to as qualifying longevity annuity contracts. Regardless of what name you choose, let’s look at some reasons why you should consider including a QLAC in your IRA:

1. Potentially reduce taxes
The ruling allows you to use 25% of your individual retirement account, IRA, or $125,000, whichever is less, to fund a QLAC. That dollar amount is excluded from your required minimum distribution, RMD, calculations, which could potentially lower your taxes.

2. Lessen your RMDs
As an example, if you have a $500,000 Traditional IRA, you could fund a $125,000 QLAC under the current rules. Your RMDs (Required Minimum Distributions) would then be calculated on $375,000.

3. Plan for future income
QLACs allow you to defer as long as 15 years or to age 85, and guarantees a lifetime income stream regardless of how long you live.

4. Spousal and non-spousal benefits
Legacy benefits for both spouse and non-spouse beneficiaries guarantee that all the money will go to your family, not the annuity carrier.

5. Protect your principal
QLACs are longevity annuity structures, which are fixed annuities. Also referred to as deferred-income annuities (DIAs), the QLAC structure has no market attachments, and fully protects the principal.

6. Add a COLA
Depending on the carrier, you can attach a contractual COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) increase to the annual income or a CPI-U, Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers, type increase as well.

7. No annual fees
QLACs are fixed annuities, and have no annual fees. Commission to the agent are built into the product, and very low when compared with fully-loaded variable or indexed annuities.

8. Contractual guarantees only
QLACs are pure transfer of risk contractual guarantees, and agents cannot “juice” proposal numbers.

9. Laddering income
Because of the QLAC premium limitations, this strategy should be used as part of your overall income laddering strategies, and in combination with longevity annuities in non-IRA accounts.

10. No indexed or variables allowed
Variable and indexed annuities cannot be used as a QLAC, which is a positive for the consumer in my opinion. Only the longevity annuity structure is approved under the QLAC ruling.

11. Complements Social Security
QLACs work similarly to your Social Security payments by guaranteeing a lifetime income stream starting at a future date.

12. Indexed to inflation
The QLAC ruling allows the premium amount to be indexed to inflation. That specific amount is $10,000, and should increase by the amount every three to four years.

13. Only the big carriers play
Because of the reserve requirements to back up the contractual guarantees, only the large carrier names most people are familiar with will offer the QLAC version of the longevity annuity structure.

I have recently written an easy to read QLAC Owner’s Manual that clearly explains the law and what you need to know to make an informed decision. In my opinion, it’s worth your time to take a closer look.

4 Lessons For Us From a Century Ago

My Comments: As a nation we are on the horns of a dilemma regarding our role as the sole surviving superpower from the last century. I embraced Obama’s assertion that our national focus should revert to what is in our best interest domestically. At the time we were embroiled in Iraq and other places and I was sick and tired of the cost in terms of lives and dollars.

This article, which appeared recently in The Financial Times, tells us this is not a new dilemma. That roughly 100 years ago Britain was caught in the same issues as we face today. The comment about “spending money and men to try and civilize those who don’t want to be civilized” rings a bell with me.

However, if I want to leave this planet with some assurance it will be a better and safer place for my grandchildren, I don’t want us to hide in the shadows and hope for a better outcome. Hope is NOT a global strategy for success.

America, Britain and The Perils of Empire, By Gideon Rachman / October 13, 2014 / The Financial Times / Middle East turmoil of 1919 offers important lessons for today

General Sir Philip Chetwode, deputy chief of Britain’s Imperial General Staff, warned in 1919: “The habit of interfering with other people’s business and making what is euphoniously called ‘peace’ is like buggery; once you take to it, you cannot stop.”

It is difficult to imagine any member of the Obama administration making such an eyebrow-raising comparison. But, as the US struggles to cope with turmoil across the Middle East, Sir Philip’s complaint – quoted in David Reynolds’s recent book, The Long Shadow – has a contemporary ring to it. Even more so the lament of his boss, Sir Henry Wilson, the chief of Britain’s Imperial General Staff, who complained in 1919 that -”we have between 20 and 30 wars raging in the world” and blamed the chaotic international situation on political leaders who were “totally unfit and unable to govern”.

Britain was directly or indirectly involved in the fighting in many of these wars during the years 1919-1920. Their locations sound familiar: Afghanistan, Waziristan, Iraq, Ukraine, the Baltic states. Only Britain’s involvement in a war in Ireland would ring no bells in the modern White House. The British debates, and recriminations of the time are also strongly reminiscent of the arguments that are taking place in modern America. And how events panned out holds some important lessons for today’s policy makers.

The British military effort in Iraq in 1920, like the allied effort today, was conducted largely through aerial bombing. Then, as now, there was strong scepticism about the long-term chances of achieving political stability in such an unpromising environment. AJ Balfour, the British foreign secretary complained – “We are not going to spend all our money and men in civilising a few people who do not want to be civilised.” In an echo of America’s current Middle East confusion, even British policy makers knew that they were pursuing contradictory goals. As Professor Reynolds points out – “The British had got themselves into a monumental mess in the Middle East, signing agreements that, as Balfour later admitted, were ‘not consistent with each other’.”

Then, as now, even the people making policy seemed confused about the motives for military intervention in the Middle East – was it “making peace” as Gen Chetwode suggested, was it the rich oil reserves of the area, was it the protection of another territory (India for the British, Israel for the Americans), or was it simply a vague sense that imperial prestige was at stake? The debates in London, almost a century ago, as in Washington today, suggested that all these motives were mixed together in ways that no one could completely disentangle.

Military leaders’ complaints about incompetent politicians also echo down the ages. Sir Henry’s lament about British political leaders who are “unable to govern” is matched by the increasing rumble of complaint about the leadership of Barack Obama. Even Mr Obama’s former defence secretary, Leon Panetta, has just complained that the US president “too often relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader”.

These comparisons between the British and American dilemmas, almost a century apart, are intriguing – but do they offer lessons? I would point to four.

First, while it is always tempting to blame political leaders, the problems often run far deeper than that. The British prime minister in 1919 was David Lloyd George, who most historians now regard as a decisive and dynamic leader. That did not prevent the imperial staff from complaining about the torpor and confusion of his administration. The real problem, however, was the intractable nature of the problems that Britain was facing, and the limits of the resources it could bring to bear.

Second, it is much harder to be a global policeman if your government’s finances are stretched and your country is war-weary. In 1919, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, British imperial possessions were more extensive than ever. But the UK was exhausted after the first world war and had little appetite for further conflict. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars of the past decade were small affairs, by comparison. But they left a similar reluctance in the US to get involved in further conflicts.

Third, the uncanny similarity between the trouble spots of a century ago and those of today suggests that there are some parts of the world where geography or culture create a permanent risk of political instability and war: the frontiers between Russia and the West, Afghanistan, Iraq. The idea that ‘twas ever thus’ may comfort contemporary policy makers in Washington, as they struggle to cope with multiple crises.

Yet the fourth lesson derived from Britain’s travails in 1919 is less comforting. Many of the conflicts that the Imperial General Staff were struggling with did get resolved fairly swiftly. The western allies’ involvement in the Russian civil war was over by 1920, as the Bolsheviks moved towards victory. An uneasy peace was also re-established in Iraq. But Britain’s ability to impose its will on the world was waning. The political turmoil of 1919 was, in retrospect, an early sign that the world was entering a new period of instability that – within a generation – would lead to another shattering world war. Once the dominant global power loses its grip, the world can quickly become much less orderly.

Stop Tinkering With Your Retirement Portfolio

InvestMy Comments: I can’t tell you how many times over the past 40 years that a client has talked with me suggesting something is wrong with his investments. It usually comes after a long run up in the markets and he or she thinks his portfolio is lagging. And almost every time we’ve made a change, it has resulted in something worse. We moved away from good stuff into bad stuff.

That’s not to say that changes should never be made. Some changes are for the best, like when you think the markets are likely to crash and you want some assurance that the manager you’ve chosen has the ability to move to cash when the you know what hits the fan. Most of them use the tactics described below.

My management team of choice these days will definitely miss some of the upside. But they will also miss most of the downside. That’s why they are my team of choice. If you want guarantees, you have to move your money to insurance company products, and for that you will pay a price in restricted access. But for some of your money, it’s very OK, as it allows the rest of your money to go with the flow.

By George Sisti, CFP (oncoursefp.com ) / Oct 9, 2014

Having just attended the annual convention of the Financial Planning Association, I think it’s appropriate to compare goal focused financial planning to the market focused, no-plan, portfolio tinkering strategy that most investors employ.

Good financial planning starts with the assumption that the future is uncertain, future rates of return are unpredictable and that diversification is the essential element of any prudent investment strategy.

Good financial planning takes time. Gathering and analyzing client data, discussing financial goals and developing a plan to attain them shouldn’t be rushed. An analysis of risk tolerance, insurance coverage, income, expenses and employee benefits should precede any portfolio allocation recommendations. Finally, clients should receive an Investment Policy Statement which summarizes what has been accomplished and explains the investment strategy being employed.

Upon completion of this process I am often asked, “How often will you look at my portfolio?” Many clients are bewildered when I answer, “As infrequently as possible.” The never ending babble coming from the financial media leads many investors to believe that their portfolios require constant tinkering. Most don’t realize that allowing their adviser to tinker with their portfolio will likely do more harm than good.

Perhaps it would sound more reassuring if I answered, “As often as I look at my own.” My portfolio consists solely of index exchange-traded funds, ETFs, and is designed to meet my financial goals at an acceptable level of expected volatility. Consequently, I never tinker with it and ponder its allocation only during its annual rebalancing.

You can control your portfolio’s inputs but not its performance; which will be determined primarily by its asset allocation. Its growth will be directly proportional to how well it was funded and inversely proportional to how much you tinkered with it. Like a good employee, it shouldn’t require continual oversight.

I can compare this to two automobiles I have owned — a 1974 Chevrolet Vega and a 2007 Acura. By 1978, the Vega was burning a quart of oil every 250 miles. I had my head under its hood every week to add oil or tinker with something that wasn’t working. Thankfully, those days are over. I’ve never opened the Acura’s hood. It runs flawlessly and has had no mechanical problems. About once a year, I take it to the dealer for service. He opens the hood and tinkers as required. I drive the car home and am content to keep the hood closed for another year.

Unless there are major changes in your personal circumstances, an annual portfolio review and rebalance should be sufficient. For the next 12 months you can concentrate on the more important and enjoyable things in life. Excess portfolio peeking leads to excess portfolio tinkering which inevitably leads to lower portfolio performance.

To many investors this sounds too simple, too good to be true. (It is simple, but it isn’t simplistic — there’s a difference.) Many believe that stock investing is a rigged game. Institutional money managers use elaborate software and powerful computers that constantly monitor a multitude of market indicators to generate buy and sell orders.

Misguided investors believe that they have to adopt similar strategies to level the playing field. But whether you count on your fingers or use sophisticated software, attempting to predict the market’s next move is a loser’s game — for both amateur and professional investors.

Instead of goals based financial planning, many financial advisers offer products and trading strategies that turn retirement investors into short-term speculators. This despite the fact that study after study shows that more frequent trading leads to lower returns. Too often the big winners in the “outsmart the market” game are, in John Bogle’s words, the croupiers in the Wall Street Casino.

Today, many investors are frightened and confused by the noise and conflicting advice emanating from the financial media. Consequently many are underfunding or poorly allocating their retirement accounts. A good financial plan containing a comprehensible investment strategy is the best defense against our natural tendency to make shortsighted, emotional investment decisions. Most financially secure retirees will admit that they rarely looked at their portfolios during their accumulation years.

Like it or not, most of us are our own pension plan managers. It’s a difficult task that few investors are capable of accomplishing without professional help. Unfortunately, this professional help is rarely client focused. Too often it is market focused and characterized by frequent portfolio tinkering based on forecasts of questionable value. It’s time for investors to say, “Enough already!”

You need a personal financial plan; one containing a comprehensible investment strategy that is based on your personal goals, not what the market did yesterday or what someone thinks it will do tomorrow. Take a pass on the continuing barrage of new products offered by the Wall Street Promise Machine.

Use low-cost index funds to create a diversified portfolio. By doing so, you’ll give less money to Wall Street’s asset eating dragon; you’ll have more working on your behalf and maximize your chances of attaining a comfortable retirement.

The 4 Drivers Of Stock Market Prices

profit-loss-riskMy Comments: In recent posts I’ve suggested there is a looming crash in the markets that will negatively impact all of us, except perhaps those of us with the ability to go to cash and go short when the crash happens. To hedge my comments, I’ve said “sometime in the next 3 years.”

Here is an article that suggests otherwise. If you don’t speak “economics”, this is relatively easy to follow and understand. Enjoy…

Greg Donaldson / Oct. 7, 2014

We have found that very few investors understand what really drives the stock market. In our view, the four primary drivers of market valuations are earnings, dividends, interest rates and inflation. If you can quantify what is going on with those four variables, our models indicate that you can predict about 90% of the annual movement of stock prices.

Last time, we talked about the Barnyard Forecast, which is a model that signals the probable direction of the market. While the Barnyard Forecast does correctly predict the market’s direction 6 to 18 months from now with about 80% accuracy, it is not a short-term predictor nor does it have any valuation component. Therefore, we use select valuation models to ascertain the relative attractiveness of stocks.

Almost all of these models use some component of the above mentioned variables. Within those four variables, there are two that stand out above the others as being the most important drivers. We’ll take a look at each factor and then conclude with what it means for stocks.

Earnings

Most investors look to earnings as the primary guide of what a company is worth. In theory, that makes sense. If Company A is earning $500 and Company B is earning $1,000 — wouldn’t you rather own Company B?

The problem with earnings is that they can be engineered by creative corporate executives. In times of recession, earnings are particularly volatile. Earnings can be calculated in a variety of different ways, which adds additional complexity. We don’t think earnings should be completely discounted in valuing companies or the stock market as a whole. However, the unpredictable nature of earnings often gives very bad signals at turning points in the market.

Dividends
We have found dividends to work much better than earnings. Over the past 50+ years, dividends have had approximately three times more predictive power than earnings.

Let’s say you own two rental properties. One rents for $100 per month and the other rents for $200. If both rents are increasing at 3% per year and both will continue to rent for the next 20 years, which rental property would be worth more to you? The one that will pay you the most in rental income over its useful life… right?

John Burr Williams was the first to apply this theory to stocks. He said the value of a stock today is the sum of all future dividend payments discounted back at some required rate of return. In other words, the more a company pays out to its owners in the future, the more valuable that company is to its owners today.

Not only does that theory make “real world” sense, but it also holds up statistically. In our models, we’ve found that dividends are the most important driver of stock prices by a wide margin.

Interest Rates
Interest rates are a primary concern for most stock investors. The general level of interest rates essentially represents the “opportunity cost” of investing in stocks.

If your bank account were to start offering 10% per year on your savings account, you would probably prefer to “invest” in your savings account rather than in the stock market. If your bank account is only paying 0.1%, however, the attractiveness of investing in stocks increases.

Many investors would be surprised, however, that interest rates are not the most important factor in determining long-term stock prices.

Inflation
Inflation is actually a much more significant predictor. How can that be? There are several reasons for this.
Interest rates can be artificially set by the Federal Reserve. Inflation can be influenced by Fed policy, however, it is primarily a result of real world economic activity.

Inflation is also one of the primary drivers of interest rates. If inflation is rising, it has the effect of diminishing the real rate of return for a bond investor. In that environment, a bond buyer will demand a higher rate of interest to compensate for the loss of purchasing power.

In addition, inflation is impacted to a large degree by economic growth. When the economy is growing at a faster rate, the Federal Reserve will generally tighten monetary policy, which raises interest rates.

The importance of inflation is also reflected in several of our models. We have a price-to-earnings (or “P/E”) Finder model that we use to determine the appropriate P/E ratio for stocks. In that model, inflation has been a much better predictor of P/E than interest rates, GDP growth or earnings growth expectations.

Outlook for Stocks
If you can understand these four variables, you can get a fairly accurate gauge of the valuation of the market. At this moment, all of these variables are very positive for stocks.

• Dividend growth for the S&P 500 has been over 10% year-to-date. We believe this will continue to be strong in 2015. Companies are beginning to understand how valuable their dividend checks are to shareholders and have begun to emphasize dividend growth as a priority.
• Earnings are expected to grow by over 10% in 2015. Time will tell whether that will come true or not. If it does, we anticipate the market will reward the companies for their continued strong performance.
• Inflation remains very low. With little capacity pressure from either employment or plant and equipment, we don’t see much of a chance that inflation gets higher than the Fed’s target of 2.5%. The economy is simply not growing fast enough.
• With inflation low and the Fed continuing their stimulative monetary policy, interest rates are likely to remain low. The 10-year Treasury continues to trade at the low end of our 2013 prediction of between 2.5% and 3.0%. We don’t anticipate that rates will get much higher than that over the near term.

As we talked about last week in our Barnyard Forecast, monetary policy conditions are very favorable. Aside from a major geopolitical shock, stocks don’t face any major red flags going into 2015.

The most current reading from our S&P 500 valuation model indicates that the fair value of the market is about 1,950. As this is being written, the S&P 500 is trading at about 1,952. From both a directional perspective and a valuation perspective, our models are saying that stocks are still the place to be.