Category Archives: Financial Advice

The Fiduciary Rule Is Dead. What’s an Investor to Do Now?

My Comments: Under the Obama administration, a long awaited and necessary step was taken to introduce rules that protected consumers of investment advice. It created a fiduciary standard for licensed financial professionals that formalized a ‘best interest’ mindset for professionals when working with clients.

Very soon after Trump became president, he announced this idea was a waste of time, presumably responding to pressure from Wall Street firms. As someone who has embraced a fiduciary standard in my practice for over 40 years, I saw it as a way to better serve my clients and to level the playing field among financial professionals, some of whom choose to cheat.

Interestingly, many national and regional financial firms of every stripe chose to embrace the idea of a fiduciary standard, recognizing it’s value in an ever competitive world. My suspicion is that if and when Trump is gone from the scene, this valid idea will resurface. Finding ways to cheat and not be held accountable is not in my client’s best interest.

By Lisa Beilfuss Sept. 9, 2018

It is a tricky time to be working with an investment professional.

Regulation is in flux, and different types of professionals are held to different standards when it comes to giving advice and recommending products. So, it can be hard to know exactly what you’re paying for.

Muddying the waters, a U.S. Circuit Court in June threw out the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule, an Obama-era regulation that sought to curb conflicts of interest in financial advice that the Obama administration said cost American families $17 billion a year and a percentage point in annual returns.

The decision was a final blow to a rule that the financial-services industry fought, saying it would make advice more costly, and that the Trump administration had put under review for revision or repeal.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, meanwhile, has been working on its own investor-protection measure. The agency’s version may wind up replacing the fiduciary rule, though it is shaping up to be less restrictive for brokers, and consumer advocates say that it would do little to raise the standard of care that is currently required.

Here are a few things investors should know as they navigate their financial relationships.

Names can be crucial
Financial pros can go by a number of titles: There is wealth manager, financial planner, broker, financial adviser—as well as “advisor” with an “o”—and more. The difference is sometimes semantics, but it is often much more.

For one, financial advisers, regulated by the SEC, have for decades been held to a fiduciary standard, meaning they have to put clients’ interests before their own. The requirement traces back to the stock-market crash of 1929 and subsequent Depression, which Congress in part blamed on abuses in the securities industry.

Brokers are regulated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, the securities industry’s self-regulatory body. They must provide what the agency describes as “suitable” investment advice—short of the fiduciary care required of their adviser counterparts.

Where things get tricky is that some financial professionals are dually registered, and some have professional designations that carry requirements trumping the standards required by regulators. For example, a broker who’s also a certified financial planner has to serve as a fiduciary, when doing financial planning, to maintain the designation.

The best way to know whether your adviser is a registered investment adviser, broker or both is to search BrokerCheck, a database maintained by Finra. An individual’s profile will denote his or her title and regulatory overseer.

But industry professionals and consumer advocates say investors should confirm any information with their adviser. Even better, the experts say: Investors should ask a financial professional to put in writing whether he or she is a fiduciary in their particular relationship.

Location matters
When it comes to which standard of care is required of an investment professional, where he or she works matters. Advisers who are held to a fiduciary standard must choose products that are in the best interest of the client. But what products an adviser can pick varies from firm to firm.

For example, at stand-alone investment advisories—-those that aren’t connected to a bank or brokerage—advisers typically have access to the universe of investment products, including the cheapest index funds. Some brokers at firms connected to banks do too, but not always. Some firms have house funds and lucrative partnerships with fund companies, and their brokers have more limited menus of investment options from which to choose.

To understand any constraints and incentives an investment adviser might have in recommending products, consumer advocates suggest checking firms’ securities disclosures. Advisory firms regulated by the SEC have to spell out conflicts of interests in those.

With the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule dead, brokers don’t have to disclose conflicts the way they did under the rule. Observers say potential rules from the SEC requiring that brokers serve clients’ best interest may emphasize disclosing conflicts over mitigating them.

For now, the best way to understand conflicts and constraints is to ask your broker, and to have him or her explain product selections.
“Never own something you don’t understand,” says Patti Houlihan, who heads the advocacy group Committee for the Fiduciary Standard. “If you can’t understand [a product] after reading a few pages on it, you shouldn’t be buying it,” she says, suggesting investors walk away from anything that is confusing or sounds too good to be true.

Fees don’t necessarily mean ‘best interest’
Many investment advisers, already required to act as fiduciaries, charge investors a percentage of their assets under management. Doing so eliminates commissions, which can cause conflicts of interest by pushing an adviser to recommend one product over another to the detriment of the client.

After the fiduciary rule was unveiled—and then went into temporary effect—many brokerages accelerated moving clients toward fee-paying accounts from commission accounts. They said it made compliance with the new regulation easier, because charging commissions under the fiduciary rule would require disclosures and contracts that executives said were too onerous and costly.

Fee accounts are regulated by the SEC, meaning once you’re in one, the adviser needs to act as a fiduciary. But that doesn’t mean being put into one was actually in your best interest.

A fee account “doesn’t keep your fees from being way higher than they should be,” says Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America.

“The fee-based accounts at brokerage firms still incorporate the conflicts of the broker-dealer model,” Ms. Roper says, such as revenue derived from fund companies, proprietary products and incentives meant to encourage broker behavior.

Ms. Roper encourages investors to ask their financial professionals for detailed fee breakdowns. For example, is a 1% advisory fee all-inclusive, or is that separate from underlying product fees? Investors with more complicated financial pictures might pay more to get more service, but even they should be wary of paying much more than 1%, Ms. Roper says.

“That’s a hole you have to dig out of,” she says, referring to the long-term effect of fees on investment returns.

By the same logic, paying commissions doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a fiduciary. In the spirit of the obligation, investment professionals are expected to evaluate on an individual basis what type of model is best.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-fiduciary-rule-is-dead-whats-an-investor-to-do-now-1536548266

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7 Myths About Variable Annuities: Exposing Their Dark Side

My Comments: Anyone now retired or thinking about retirement spends time and energy coming to terms with how to manage their money.

Increasingly, fees charged by advisors and/or their companies are perceived as a threat somewhere along the way. However, unless you have the skills to do it all yourself, you are necessarily going to have to pay fees to gain the peace of mind you crave.

But there are fees and there are fees. My experience with variable annuities suggests they are generally excessive and you can gain the same positive outcome at a lower cost using a different approach.

These comments from Craig Kirsner are not definitive. But if you have variable annuities in your portfolio or are being encourage to buy one, I advise you to think again.

by Craig Kirsner, July 31, 2018

One of the most misunderstood investment strategies I’ve come across over the past 25 years is the variable annuity. When I audit existing variable annuities, I get the facts about them by calling the insurance company directly rather than the broker who sold them. Why? Because I believe you should trust but verify, and I like to get my information directly from the horse’s mouth.

When I call the insurance company, among other questions, I ask: What are all the fees? What is the risk? What are the features? After going through that drill numerous times, I’ve pretty much seen it all. Based on my experiences over the past 25 years, the following are the seven most common myths I’ve learned about variable annuities and the facts dispelling those myths:

Myth #1: A variable annuity is a suitable investment for a retiree

I typically work with high-net worth clients, but regardless of your means, your investing goals and strategies evolve as you grow older.

Early in life, you were probably happy to ride with the ebb and flow of the market, waiting and hoping to hit that investment “home run.” And why not? Suffering a loss now and then didn’t bother you because you were certain of a rebound, and you knew you had plenty of time to recover, long before retirement.

But years pass and investing approaches change. Entering retirement, most people start thinking about protecting and preserving what they have, not making a big splash in the market.
You may have heard it said that these days the return OF your principal is more important than the return ON your principal, and that is definitely true for most of our clients. That’s why the variable annuities some retirees count on for a regular income may not be the best route to take. Which brings us directly to Myth #2.

Myth #2: Your money is safe

People are often led to believe by their brokers that with variable annuities their money is safe, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Your money is invested in mutual funds with no real protection of your principal.

The name of the annuity pretty much sums it up: “Variable,” as in the principal varies, unlike a fixed annuity, where the principal is guaranteed by the insurance company.

Continue reading HERE: https://www.kiplinger.com/article/retirement/T003-C032-S014-7-myths-about-variable-annuities.html

The market will crash this year — and there’s a good reason why

My Comments: Frankly, I have no idea if it will or not, but I tend to pay attention when people smarter than I start talking about stuff that is clearly an existential threat to my financial well being and that of my clients, family and friends.

If the money you have saved is critical in terms of being able to pay your bills in the future, there are ways to protect yourself against downside risk and still participate in the upside promise of the markets.

Thomas H. Kee Jr. / President and CEO of Stock Traders Daily / April 25, 2018

The market is going to crash this year, and there is a very good reason why. The amount of money chasing stocks is drying up considerably, natural conditions are prevailing, and it is happening on the heels of the most expensive bull market in history.

The stimulus efforts of global central banks created a fabricated demand for stocks, bonds, and real estate, ever since the credit crisis, but as of April 2018 those combined efforts are now a drain on liquidity. As recently as last September the combined effort of the ECB and the FOMC was infusing $60 billion per month into these asset classes, like they had almost every month since the credit crisis — but now they are effectively selling $30 billion of assets per month. That is a $90 billion decline in the monthly demand for assets in seven short months.

Central banks are now a drain on liquidity, and it is happening when natural demand levels are significantly lower than where current demand for stocks, bonds, and real estate appears to be.

According to The Investment Rate — an indicator that measures lifetime investment cycles based on ingrained societal norms to identify longer term stock market and economic cycles in advance — we are currently in the third major down period in US history. The rate of change in the amount of new money available to be invested into the U.S. economy declines every year throughout this down cycle, just like it did during the Great Depression and stagflation. This down cycle also started in December of 2007.

Although the market began to decline directly in line with The Investment Rate’s leading indicator, the declines did not last very long. The Investment Rate tells us that the down period lasts much longer than just the credit crisis, and the declines The Investment Rate suggests are rooted in material changes to natural demand levels based on how we as people invest our money, so it identifies natural demand. The natural demand levels identified by The Investment Rate are much lower, and they decline consistently from 2007.

As much as The Investment Rate serves to identify natural demand levels, when stimulus was introduced by Ben Bernanke a second source of new money was born. The stimulus efforts by the FOMC and the ECB added new money to the demand side of stocks, bonds, and real estate, with the intention of spurring prices higher to induce the wealth affect. The policies were successful, asset prices have increased aggressively, but there are repercussions.

Asset prices increased so much that the valuation of the S&P 500, Dow Jones industrial average, Russell 2000, and NASDAQ 100 at the end of last year made them more expensive than in any other bull market in history. In other words, we just experienced the most expensive bull market in history, and the PE multiple of 25 times earnings on the S&P 500 was driven by the constant capital infusions coming from central bank stimulus programs.

Not only were these programs unprecedented given their size, but they also told us what they were going to buy, when they were going to buy it, and how much they were going to buy, every month, in advance, every year since the credit crisis. At no time in history has Wall Street been able to identify when buyers were going to come in like they have during this stimulus phase.

However, now the stimulus phase is over and not only are these central banks no longer a positive influence on liquidity, but they are now removing liquidity from the financial system as well.

This is happening at a time when natural demand levels as those are defined by The Investment Rate are also significantly lower than where demand currently seems to be, and that creates a double whammy on liquidity. The demand for equities this year is far less than it was last year as a result of these two demand side factors. Because price is based on supply and demand, and because demand is cratering, prices are likely to fall. This applies to stocks, bonds, and real estate.

What’s Next For Investments???

My Comments: You have not heard much from me lately. That’s because I’ve been spending hours and hours building an internet course on retirement planning. I’m not there yet but soon will be. Keep following this blog and you’ll get an announcement when it’s ready.

In the meantime, we’re at the end of Quarter 1 of 2018 and it was an interesting quarter for a lot of reasons. For those of you with time on your hands and sufficient interest to explore the details, the following article from The Heisenberg Report is revealing. Whether it helps you make money or helps you not lose money remains to be seen.

Go HERE if you are ready to wade through 8 pages of commentary and graphs. The conclusion you will discern is that market complacency is diminishing rapidly and that something uncomfortable is likely to happen soon.

A Time for Courage

My Comments: In past blog posts I’ve shared the words, and wisdom, of Scott Minerd. He’s one of the principal brains at Guggenheim Partners, a major player on the world stage when it comes to investing money. (BTW, this pic of Scott is from 12/21/2015)

Right now many of you are rightly worried by the fall in equity prices on Wall Street, if not across the planet. Don’t equate a crash on Wall Street with the American economy. What it means is there are strong feelings about the high valuations that we see in the DOW and the S&P500.

Is it time to bail out and wait for the bottom to appear? Probably not. But don’t take my word for it. Read below what Scott is saying and then sit back. From a strategic perspective, you need to decide how much of your overall portfolio is exposed to the markets and how much of it should be protected against severe downside movements. There are insurance policies available that make this possible and the price is reasonable.

By Scott Minerd, Chairman of Investments and Global CIO – 02/06/2018

In what otherwise might have been another quiet Monday with investors lulled to sleep by the low volatility world of the past year, I was surprised to be suddenly overwhelmed with a deluge of calls late in the day from clients and the media asking for an explanation of the collapse in equity prices. My answer in a word was simply “rates.”

The backup in bond yields has been significant, with the 10-year Treasury rising 23 basis points in the last month, and hitting a recent peak of 2.88 percent. The tax cut euphoria drove stocks up at an unsustainable pace, but concerns have been building about bond market supply congestion following the Treasury Department’s refunding announcement, and Friday’s employment report has increased speculation that the Fed may need to become more aggressive to head off potential inflationary concerns.

Contributing to inflation worries is impressive wage growth. Hourly earnings were up 0.3 percent in January and upwardly revised for December to 0.4 percent, supporting the concept of wage growth of 4 percent or more for 2018. These data are trending up even before we fully digest changes to the minimum wage and the effect of wage increases and bonuses related to the new tax plan. These are likely to give a lift to consumption, which will reinforce more labor demand, and thus drive unemployment lower.

Dare I say that some in the market are becoming concerned that the Federal Reserve may be falling behind the curve, especially as evidenced by the recent steepening in bond yields? This is also a possibility. The consensus for future rate hikes, was moving to four rate increases in 2018, and possibly more.

I think that the setback (the largest one-day point decline in history) is not over but we are approaching a bottom. This correction is a healthy development for the markets in the long run, and the equity bull market, while bloodied, is not broken. The lower bond yields will help but the curve steepening speaks more of flight to safety in times of market turmoil than concerns over the economy.

Ultimately, my previously held market views are intact. I still hold the opinion that the favorable economic fundamentals that are in place, where we are in the business cycle, the breadth of the market, and levels of current valuations are supportive of equities. Buying here will probably make investors happy campers later in the year, but the tug of war between stocks and bonds is just getting under way. This may be the big investment story for 2018.

The Perfect Storm (Of The Coming Market Crisis)

My Comments: We do not live in a perfect world. Flaws are all around us. As responsible adults, we always try to make good decisions, and mostly we succeed. Until we don’t.

If you expect to live another 20 or 30 years, the money you’ll need to pay your bills has to come from somewhere. If you’ve already turned off the ‘work for money’ switch and retired, you’re dependent on work credits and saved resources. Maybe you have a pension that sends you money every month. Good for you.

If you are still working, you’re probably setting aside some of what you earn so you can someday retire and get on with the rest of your life without financial stress. At least that should be your plan.

This article from Lance Roberts, a professional money manager, needs to be read and understood. I’m not going to copy everything he says, but I do encourage you to follow the link I’ve put below. Make an effort to understand what he’s telling us. Your financial life may depend on it.

Know also there are ways to shift the risk of loss to a third party. For a fee, you get to enjoy the upside and avoid the downside. If you do live for another 20 – 30 years, where is your money going to come from?

Lance Roberts published this today, November 28th, and it can be found HERE.

FIA: Dream Investment or Potential Nightmare?

My Comments: The article below by Jane Bryant Quinn in the AARP Bulletin are fine, as far as they go.

My initial reaction was to reject her comments out of hand as they reflect a bias that to my mind is not accurate. But then I decided to expand on her thoughts. I apologize if I made this too technical for some of you.

Most of the Fixed Index Annuities (FIA) sold are probably very close to having the features and limitations she describes. If there is indeed $60B flowing into FIAs each year, then they are being sold by every run of the mill agent across the planet. And most of those are probably selling whatever their company is telling them to sell. A strong reason for them to sell FIAs is that they make good money for the company. If the client benefits, it’s an incidental benefit for most of them.

I decided to add my two cents worth, below in red, based on what I know after 40 plus years as an entrepreneur in financial services, and the qualities and features of the FIAs I’ve chosen to present to potential clients. You should draw your own conclusions about the merits of FIAs, or the lack thereof.

by Jane Bryant Quinn, AARP Bulletin, October 2017

I’m getting mail about an apparent dream investment. It promises gains if stocks go up, zero loss if they fall and guaranteed lifetime income, too. What’s not to like? Plenty, as it turns out.

The investment is called a fixed-index annuity, or FIA, and it’s issued by an insurance company. Sales are booming — $60.9 billion in 2016. FIA contracts vary, but this is how they work. (Sales are booming, not so much because of the financial benefits, but because they offer emotional benefits as well. ie “I get to stay invested in the markets and I won’t lose any money…”)

You buy the annuity with a lump sum, which goes into the insurer’s general fund. You are credited with a tax-deferred return that’s linked to the market — for example, to Standard & Poor’s index of 500 stocks. If the S&P rises over 12 months, you receive some of the gain. For example, your credits might be capped at an increase of 5 percent, even if the market soars. If stocks go down, you take no loss — instead, your FIA receives zero credit for the year. ( Many FIAs do have caps limiting the upside potential. The one’s I offer clients have NO caps. If the index goes up 50%, you get 50%. If it goes down 50%, you get nothing credited. You have shifted the downside risk to an insurance company. It also means that when the market goes back up again, you are starting from zero and not from somewhere lower. That in turn means at the end of the next crediting period, you are higher than if you were starting in a hole somewhere.)

Each year’s gains or zeros yield your total investment return. . (Your money is NOT invested in an index, whether it’s an S&P500 index or any of dozens of other indices. The yield on bonds inside the insurer’s general fund is used to buy option contracts and the return given the client is a function of the performance resulting from those options.) But I see problems:

Low returns. Salespeople might claim that FIAs could earn 6 or 7 percent a year. But with fees, they’ll struggle to match the low returns from bonds, says Michael Kitces of the wealth management firm Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md.(The product I prefer buys 2 year option contracts with the bond yield. Over a ten year period, any ten year period since 2000, a 2 year option result exceeds two consecutive one year options 87% of the time. Some of this is due to the fact that 2 year options are cheaper than 1 year options. In this scenario, a 6% geometric mean return is not unreasonable.)

High fees. You can’t find out what you’re paying for investment management. Costs are buried in the black-box system used to adjust the credits to your account. Sales commissions run 5 to 7 percent and may be hidden, too. Under the new fiduciary rule, which requires advisers to put your interests ahead of theirs, commissions have to be disclosed if you’re buying the annuity for a retirement account, but not for other accounts.

Salespeople sometimes claim, falsely, that their services are free. (Numbers shown in hypothetical illustrations provide by sales agents are always net of fees. At least the ones I show prospective clients. Yes there are obviously costs inside FIAs. I’m sorry but no one works for free. What is critical, however, is the net return to you the buyer.)

Profit limits. Every year, the insurer can raise or lower the amount of future gain credited to your account. You face high risk that returns will be adjusted down. (Yes, this happens. It’s a function of market cycles, of interest rates in general, and the performance of the index chosen. The FIAs I offer have NO CAPS and will credit whatever the option used calls for.)

Poor liquidity. You can usually withdraw 10 percent in cash, each year, without breaking your guarantee. But you’ll owe surrender charges if you need your money back before five or 10 years are up. You might also forfeit some gains. ( This lack of liquidity is the price you pay for shifting the risk of loss to an insurance company. It’s the same thing you do with your car, your house, your life when you buy life insurance, etc. The benefit to you from this ‘cost” is the avoidance of downside risk associated with market corrections. Without the ability to offset this risk to an insurance company, many people opt instead for ‘guaranteed’ returns which actually means you are guaranteed to go broke if you get less than the increase in the cost of living. The cost of a guaranteed returns might mean you run out of money sooner.)

Lifetime benefits. For about 1.5 percent a year, you can add a “guaranteed lifetime withdrawal benefit” to your FIA. Promised yearly payments run about 5 percent. But, Kitces asks, why do it? Your basic FIA already provides a lifetime income. What’s more, 5 percent is not a return on your investment. The insurer is merely paying you your own money back, in 5 percent increments — and charging you 1.5 percent for the “service.” If you live long enough, you’ll exhaust your money and the insurer will pay, but that doesn’t happen often. ( I choose not to offer these anciliary benefits to clients. They serve to make more money for the company by playing to your fears.)

For a guaranteed income, try a plain-vanilla immediate or deferred annuity. It’s cheaper, and you’re not apt to be led astray. (It’s possible you will be led astray. The rules today do not support a fiduciary standard. They should, but our current administration is working hard to avoid that outcome. It’s back to buyer beware despite the best efforts of some who think all financial advisors should be legally required to work in a clients best interest.)

On balance, Jane Bryant Quinn’s comments are essentially correct. But only if you are talking about the arguably poor contracts that so many companies and their agents are interested in selling. If you find someone who is happy and willing to act in your best interest, you are much more likely to find FIAs that resemble the contracts I prefer for my clients. They are a way for you to stay invested in the markets and at the same time, remove the risk of market losses within a crediting cycle.