Tag Archives: investments

10 Social Security Terms To Know And Understand

My Comments: Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

For those of you still not signed up and receiving monthly benefits, here’s some useful things to know.

For those of you who attended my Social Security workshops, you’ll recall the acronyms that appear on every page. There’s even a couple more here for you to learn.

Maurie Backman – The Motley Fool – Nov. 10, 2017

Social Security serves as a key source of income for countless retirees and disabled individuals.

It’s also an extremely complex program loaded with rules and terminology. If you’re attempting to learn about Social Security (which is something you should do, regardless of how old you happen to be), here are a few key terms you’ll need to understand.

1. OASDI

OASDI stands for old age, survivors, and disability insurance, and in the context of your paycheck, it’s the tax used to fund the Social Security program. The current OASDI tax rate is 12.4%. If you work for an outside company, you’ll lose half that amount of your earnings up to a certain income limit, while your employer will pay the remaining 6.2%. If you’re self-employed, however, you’ll pay the full 12.4% up front.

2. SSI

SSI stands for supplemental security income, and it’s different from OASDI in that it’s a program funded by general tax revenues, not Social Security taxes. SSI is designed to help those who are over 65, blind, or disabled with limited financial resources keep up with their basic needs.

3. FICA Tax

FICA stands for the Federal Insurance Contributions Act. It’s the tax that’s withheld from your salary or self-employment income that funds both Social Security and Medicare. For the current year, FICA tax equals 15.3% of earned income up to $127,200 (12.4% for Social Security and 2.9% for Medicare), but those making above $127,200 will continue to pay 2.9% FICA tax on income exceeding that threshold. In 2018, the earnings cap will rise to $128,700.

4. Social Security credits

In order to collect Social Security benefits, you must earn enough credits during your working years. In 2017, you’ll receive one credit for every $1,300 in earnings, up to a maximum of four credits per year. For 2018, the value of a single credit will rise to $1,320 of earnings. Those born in 1929 or later need 40 credits to qualify for benefits in retirement.

5. AIME

AIME stands for average indexed monthly earnings, and it’s used to calculate your personal Social Security benefit. The amount you receive from Social Security is based on your highest 35 years of earnings. To arrive at your AIME, your past earnings are adjusted for inflation so that they don’t lose value.

6. Full retirement age

Your full retirement age, or FRA, is the age at which you’re eligible to collect your Social Security benefits in full. FRA is based on your year of birth, and for today’s older workers, it’s 66, 67, or 66 and a number of months. Though you’re allowed to claim benefits prior to reaching FRA (the earliest age is 62), doing so will cause you to collect a reduced benefit amount — permanently.

7. Delayed retirement credits

Though waiting until full retirement age will ensure that you collect your benefits in full, if you hold off on filing for Social Security past FRA, you’ll rack up delayed retirement credits that will boost your benefits. Specifically, for each year you wait, you’ll get an 8% increase in your payments. Delayed retirement credits stop accruing at age 70, so that’s typically considered the latest age to file for Social Security (even though you can technically wait even longer than that).

8. Trust Fund

The Social Security Trust Fund was established in the early 1980s to cover any future shortfalls the program might face. If Social Security has a year in which it collects more taxes than it needs to use, that money is placed in the Trust Fund and invested in special Treasury bonds. Once Social Security’s incoming tax revenue fails to cover its scheduled benefits, the Trust Fund will be tapped to make up the difference. Come 2034, however, the Trust Fund is expected to run out of money, at which time future recipients might face a reduction in benefits.

9. COLA

No, we’re not talking about a soft drink. In the context of Social Security, it stands for cost-of-living adjustment, and it’s designed to help beneficiaries retain their purchasing power in the face of inflation. Back in the day, those who collected Social Security received the same benefit amount year after year. But beginning in 1975, beneficiaries have been eligible for automatic COLAs based heavily on fluctuations in the Consumer Price Index. COLAs are not guaranteed, however. If consumer prices don’t climb in a given year, benefits can remain stagnant. Such was the case as recently as 2016.

10. Survivors benefits

Survivors benefits are designed to provide income for your beneficiaries once you pass. Those benefits are based on your earnings records and the age at which you first file for Social Security. Surviving spouses, children, and even parents of deceased workers are eligible for survivors benefits.
Clearly, there’s a lot to learn about Social Security, but familiarizing yourself with these key terms will help you better understand how the program works. It also pays to read up on ways to maximize your benefits so that you end up getting the best possible payout you’re entitled to.

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Stocks for the Long Run? Not Now

My Comments: There is increasing uncertainty about the stock market. This uncertainty has been growing now for the past 3 plus years. The long term trends described below, coupled with historically low interest rates, suggest the next decade will be disappointing to most of us.

This analysis comes from a Guggenheim Investors report published last September. I haven’t included all the many charts as you will be better served by going directly to the source to see them. https://goo.gl/UL1SSP

If nothing else, you should read the conclusion below…

September 27, 2017 |by Scott Minerd et al, Guggenheim Investments

Introduction

Valuation is a poor timing tool. After all, markets that are overvalued and become even more overvalued are called bull markets. Over a relatively long time horizon, however, valuation has been an excellent predictor of future performance. Our analysis shows that based on current valuations, U.S. equity investors are likely to be disappointed after the next 10 years. While the equity market could continue to perform in the short run, over the long run better relative value will likely be found in fixed income and non-U.S. equities.

Elevated U.S. Equity Valuations Point to Low Future Returns

U.S. stocks are not cheap. Total U.S. stock market capitalization as a percentage of gross domestic product (market cap to GDP) currently stands at 142 percent. This level is near all-time highs, greater than the 2006–2007 peak and surpassed only by the internet bubble period of 1999–2000. This reading is no outlier: It is consistent with other broad measures of U.S. equity valuation, including Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio (CAPE), Tobin’s Q (the ratio of market value to net worth), and the S&P 500 price to sales ratio.

U.S. Equity Valuation Is Approaching Historic Highs

Here is the bad news for equity investors: At current levels of market cap to GDP, estimated annualized total returns over the next 10 years look dismal at just 0.9 percent (before inflation), based on previous trends. Intuitively this makes sense: Looking back at the history of the time series, it is clear that an excellent entry point into the equity market for a long-term investor would have been a period like the mid-1980s, or in the latter stages of the financial crisis in 2009. Conversely, 1968, 2000, and 2007 would have been good times to get out.

Market Cap to GDP Has Been a Strong Predictor of Future Equity Returns

Market cap to GDP is a useful metric because it has proven to be an accurate predictor of future equity returns. As the chart below shows, market cap to GDP has historically been highly negatively correlated with subsequent S&P 500 total returns, particularly over longer horizons where valuation mean reversion becomes a significant factor. Over 10 years, the correlation is -90 percent.

Market Cap to GDP Has Been a Good Predictor of Equity Returns 10 Years Out

It would be easy to assume that the rise in stock valuations is justified by low rates. A similar argument is made by proponents of the Fed model, which compares the earnings yield of equities to the 10-year Treasury yield as a measure of relative value. While there is some relationship between interest rates and valuation as measured by market cap to GDP, low rates do not explain why equities are so rich. At the current range of interest rates (2–3 percent), we have seen market cap to GDP anywhere from 47 percent to current levels of 142 percent—hardly a convincing relationship. In short, interest rates tell us little about where market cap to GDP, or other valuation metrics, “should” be.

Fixed Income Offers Better Relative Value

For a measure of relative value, we compared expected returns on equities over 10-year time horizons (as implied by the relationship with market cap to GDP) to the expected return on 10-year Treasurys—assuming that the return is equal to the prevailing yield to maturity. Typically, equities would have the higher expected returns than government bonds due to the higher risk premium, but in periods when equity valuations have become too rich, future returns on U.S. stocks have fallen below 10-year Treasury yields. Not surprisingly, past periods where this signal has occurred include the late 1990s internet bubble and 2006–2007.

The chart below demonstrates that if equities over the next 10 years are likely to return just 0.9 percent, 10-year Treasury notes held to maturity—currently yielding about 2.2 percent—start to seem like a viable alternative. The fact that S&P 500 returns over the past 10 years have not been as low as the model predicted can at least be partially explained by extraordinary monetary policy, which may have helped to pull returns forward, but in doing so dragged down future returns.

Conclusion

Based on the historical relationship between market cap to GDP ratios and subsequent 10-year returns, today’s market valuation suggests that the annual return on a broad U.S. equity portfolio over the next 10 years is likely to be very disappointing. As such, investors may want to seek better opportunities elsewhere. Equity valuations are less stretched in other developed and emerging markets, which may present more upside potential.

In fixed income, low yields should not deter investors, as our analysis indicates that U.S. Treasurys should outperform equities over the next decade. But as we explained in The Core Conundrum, low Treasury yields should steer investors away from passively allocating to an aggregate index that overwhelmingly favors low-yielding government-related debt. In particular, sectors not represented in the Bloomberg Barclays Aggregate Index, including highly rated commercial asset-backed securities and collateralized loan obligations, can offer comparable (or higher) yields with less duration risk than similarly rated corporate bonds. We believe active fixed-income management that focuses on the best risk-adjusted opportunities—whether in or out of the benchmark—offers the best solution to meeting investors’ objectives in a low-return world.

How this Bull Market Will End

My Comments: Once again, our assumptions about the future of the current bull market are challenged. I want these writers to be right, and that too is a challenge for me. I share it with you here in hopes it gives you a better idea about what to do with your money.

By Krishna Memani, Brian Levitt & Drew Thornton | August 15, 2017

This secular bull market—the least loved in memory—is now more than 100 months old, and up by 265% from its bottom on March 9, 2009. It is also the second longest bull market on record (after the 1990s’ dot-com boom) and fourth largest in terms of market advance.

For some investors, the sheer age of this cycle is enough to cause consternation. Yet there is nothing magical about the passage of time. As we have said time and again, bull markets do not die of old age. Like people, bull markets ultimately die when the system can no longer fight off maladies. In order for the cycle to end there needs to be a catalyst—either a major policy mistake or a significant economic disruption in one of the world’s major economies. In our view, neither appears to be in the offing:

• Global growth is sufficiently modest. The “accidental” synchronized global expansion (so-called accidental because it was more of a coincidence than a coordinated effort by global policymakers) is already fading, but slowing growth in the United States and China does not foretell a crisis.

• The United States, nine years into this market cycle, has not exhibited the excesses that are indicative of typical economic downturns.

• For its part, China’s high leverage poses a threat to its financial stability, but government actions are likely to be gradual to ensure a phased pace of deleveraging while maintaining growth stability.

• We believe that low inflation globally will provide cover for policymakers to be more accommodative than many expect.

We are optimistic that this cycle will ultimately be the longest on record, though we do not believe our view is Pollyannaish. We will continue looking out for telltale signs indicating the end of the current cycle, even as we believe that none of them are forthcoming:

1. U.S. and/or European inflation increases more rapidly: If inflation picks up meaningfully in the developed world and tighter policy commences, then the cycle will likely be curtailed.

2. High-yield credit spreads widen: The bond market is usually a good indicator of the end of a cycle. Cycles end with the yield curve inverting and high-yield credit spreads blowing out. An equity market sell-off typically follows soon thereafter.

3. The 10-Year U.S. Treasury rate falls and the yield curve flattens: The 10-Year Treasury rate will reflect the real growth and inflation expectations of bond market participants. A flattening yield curve driven by the decline of long-term rates would be an ominous sign for the U.S. and global economy.

4. The U.S. dollar strengthens versus emerging market currencies: A flight of capital from emerging markets to the United States would slow growth among the former—which are major drivers of economic activity—and potentially cause another earnings recession for U.S. multinational companies.

Note: There is a white paper published by Oppenheimer Funds with 18 charts in support of the authors argument that the current bull market will not end soon. You can find it HERE.

Why Britain needs the immigrants it doesn’t want

My Comments: As someone born on British soil, I am more than casually interested as Britain comes to terms with it’s choice to leave the European Union. Immigration is but one of several areas with huge economic implications for Britain in the coming years.

There are parallels between what is expressed in this article by Ivana Kottasova and what the United States is moving toward in terms of immigration. The immigration fault lines in this country and the efforts of the current administration to curtail immigration will significantly influence the economic well being of your children and grandchildren in the years to come.

by Ivana Kottasová / Oct 18, 2017

Britain has a problem: It wants fewer immigrants, but its economy desperately needs more.

The British government is seeking to slash the number of immigrants from the European Union following its departure from the bloc in March 2019.

It’s planning tougher controls despite warnings that more EU workers are needed to harvest the country’s crops, build homes for its citizens and build its next startup.

The risks are especially pronounced in health care.

The National Health Service says there are over 11,000 open nursing jobs in England, and another 6,000 vacant positions across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The overburdened system, described by the British Red Cross as facing a “humanitarian crisis,” already relies on 33,000 nurses from the EU.

“We would describe the NHS as being at the tipping point. There are huge staffing problems,” said Josie Irwin, head of employment at the Royal College of Nursing. “Brexit makes the situation worse.”

Jason Filinras, a 29-year old from Greece, was recruited last year to work as a front line nurse at a hospital just north of London.

Filinras joined the hospital’s acute admissions unit, where he runs tests and determines how to treat patients after they have been stabilized in the emergency room.

“If you have a patient who is not able to take care of themselves, you have to do all the basic things for them — from helping them with washes, helping them with toilet, feeding them,” he said.

Heis just one of 250 nurses recruited from the EU by the West Hertfordshire Hospitals Trust over the past two years to work in its three hospitals. EU citizens now make up 22% of its nursing staff.

The trust didn’t have a choice. The unemployment rate is at its lowest level in four decades, and there simply aren’t enough British nurses.

The shortage of workers cuts across sectors — from agriculture to education — and across skill levels. There aren’t enough fruit pickers and there aren’t enough doctors.

The political impetus to reduce immigration from the EU can be traced to 2004, when Britain opened its borders to workers from eight eastern European countries that had joined the bloc.

Government officials expected 5,000 to 13,000 people from the countries to come to Britain each year. Instead, 177,000 came in just the first year.

Critics say that increased immigration has changed the fabric of local communities, and undercut the wages of British workers.

It’s an argument that has currency with voters. Immigration was the most important issue for voters ahead of the Brexit referendum in June 2016, according to an Ipsos Mori poll.

Theresa May, who became prime minister in the wake of the EU referendum, has promised to bring annual net migration below 100,000. The figure was 248,000 in 2016.

It had been difficult to meet the target because EU rules allow citizens to move freely around the bloc. May says that Brexit will mean an end to free movement.

“The government is putting politics above economics, which is quite a dangerous game,” said Heather Rolfe, a researcher at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

Labor economists say that a radical decline in immigration would hurt the British economy.

The Office for Budget Responsibility, the government’s fiscal watchdog, said that 80,000 fewer immigrants a year would reduce annual economic growth by 0.2 percentage points.

“To lose these people would be pretty tough and it would mean that some sectors might find it very difficult to survive,” said Christian Dustmann, professor of economics at University College London.

Some EU workers, upset over political rhetoric and a lack of clarity about their legal status, are already leaving Britain. Net migration from the EU fell to 133,000 last year from 184,000 in 2015, according to the Office for National Statistics.

The impact is already being felt: The Nursing and Midwifery Council said that roughly 6,400 EU nurses registered to work in the U.K. in the year ended March, a 32% drop from the previous year. Another 3,000 EU nurses stopped working in the U.K.

“It’s all this uncertainty that will make us leave,” said Filintras. “I can’t say that I am 100% sure that I won’t think about leaving.” If he does move home, he will be hard to replace.

Irwin said the British government has made it less attractive for new British nurses to enter the profession by scrapping college scholarship programs and capping salaries. Applications for nursing courses are down 20% as a result.

Nurses make an average of £26,000 ($34,600), while German supermarket chain Aldi offers college graduates a £44,000 ($58,500) starting salary and a flashy company car.

Trouble also looms in other sectors.

A third of permanent workers supplying Britain with food are from the EU, according to the Food and Drink Federation.

The British Hospitality Association, which represents 46,000 hotels, restaurants and clubs, has warned that the sector faces a shortfall of 60,000 workers a year if the number of EU workers is sharply curtailed.

KPMG estimates that 75% of waiters and waitresses and 37% of housekeeping staff in Britain are from the EU. British farms are heavily dependent on seasonal workers from the bloc.

“If you cannot harvest your strawberries anymore … then supermarkets might buy the strawberries directly from Poland,” said Dustmann.

Business groups and labor unions have repeatedly called on the government to moderate its negotiating position. But May has shown no signs of backing down.

“The government is interpreting the vote to leave the EU as a vote against immigration … and to some extent that is true,” said Rolfe.

Boston, a town on the east coast of England, shows why: According to census data, the town’s foreign-born population grew by 467% in the decade to 2011. In 2016, the town had the highest proportion of voters choosing to leave the EU.

The End Of Capitalism Is Already Starting–If You Know Where To Look

My Comments: I argued last week (Is Capitalism Killing America?) that pure communism and pure capitalism are flawed economic models for society. They simply define the ends of a continuum along which we as a society are struggling to place ourselves.

I think this topic needs a better understanding. Mindful that economics is as easy to understand as Gaelic to any newcomer, an effort to get ones arms around it will go a long way toward solving the political riddle that is consuming us these days, not just in America but across the planet.

In terms of how the underlying economic model defines our lives, at one end, the individual has complete freedom to say and do whatever comes to mind. At the other end, the individual has virtually no freedom to say and do. Control instead lies with the state, which in today’s world means a geographically defined area administered by the state.

In times past, this might have been a kingdom, or perhaps a tribal group with loosely defined geographic borders. Today we are defined by areas with largely agreed upon boundaries which 99% of the world’s population accepts as reality.

The challenge for all of us it to determine just where on that continuum is the soft spot that defines a comfort zone for those living within those agreed upon boundaries. These comments by Eillie Anzilotti help us better understand the search for equilibrium.

By Eillie Anzilotti / Sep 18, 2017

These days, Richard Wolff is feeling pretty glad he stuck around teaching this long. Now in his 70s and lecturing at the New School University and having become, over the course of his nearly 50-year-long professorial career, one of America’s most prominent Marxist economists, Wolff is used to being fringe. That’s no longer a word that can apply to him, or to his ideas. Over the summer, inequality experts Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk launched a conversation on this site when they posed the theory that capitalism is at the core of the many crises gripping our world today. To Wolff, that’s not news. But it is new to him to see the same ideas he has taught for decades being met not with scorn or skepticism, but with genuine interest.

In 2011, the same year that Occupy Wall Street injected dissatisfaction with the financial system into the American mainstream, Wolff founded Democracy at Work, a nonprofit that advocates for worker cooperatives–a business structure in which the employees own the company, and share decision-making power over salaries, schedules, and where profits are directed. “If I had to pinpoint right now where the transition away from capitalism is happening in the United States, it’s in worker co-ops,” Wolff says. Though he’s been championing the cause of cooperatives–a radically democratic departure from the top-down capitalist business structure–for years, certain recent events, like the 2008 recession and the presidency of Donald Trump, poster boy for corrupt capitalism, have galvanized a distinctly anti-capitalist movement in the U.S.

“Americans are getting closer and closer to understanding that they live in an economic system that is not working for them, and will not work for their kids,” Wolff says. Growing awareness that wages have been unable to keep up with inflated costs of living have left younger generations particularly disillusioned with capitalism’s ability to support their livelihoods, Wolff says, and with CEOs out-earning employees by sometimes as much as 800 to 1, it makes sense that public interest should be swinging toward a workplace model that encapsulates shared ownership, consensus-based decision making, and democratized wages.

Admittedly, Wolff acknowledges, a small boom in the number of worker-owned cooperatives in the U.S.–consecutive years of double-digit growth in co-ops since 2010 have brought the total up to around 350, employing around 5,000 people–does not exactly scream revolution. But perhaps that’s because historical precedents for alternatives to capitalism have conditioned us to expect its end to dramatic and cataclysmic.

But that might be mean we’re looking in the wrong places. “I don’t want people to think in terms of Russia and China,” Wolff says. In their pursuit of an alternative, Wolff says, those countries neglected to do the work of transition at the micro scale, instead initiating wide-sweeping reforms at the state level and leaving their populations in the lurch.

Instead, Wolff says, it’s instructive to look to the transition to capitalism, and understand that it’s the smaller waves and shifts in the way things are done that signal true change.

Before capitalism emerged in Europe, there was feudalism, a radically different system in which nothing–neither land nor labor–was for sale, and serfs orbited their feudal lord like ribbons tethered to a maypole. Feudalism’s inhumanity was different from capitalism’s: Instead of being unable to work and earn money to pay for rent and necessities, serfs were dependent on the lords for their livelihoods and their schedules and for a piece on land upon which to labor. Their stability was contingent on the lord’s generosity or lack thereof.

Sometimes, serfs would get squeezed, Wolff says–maybe a serf who was permitted to work his own land three days a week was cut down to two, and had to work on the lord’s the rest of the time, struggling to feed his family. Those serfs would run away. They’d jet off into the forests around the manors, where they’d encounter other runaway serfs (this is the origin of Robin Hood). That group of runaways, who’d cut ties with the feudal system, would establish their own villages, called communes. Without the lord controlling how the former serfs used their land and their resources, those free workers set up a system of production and trade in the communes that would eventually evolve into modern capitalism.

“The image of the transition from feudalism to capitalism was the French Revolution, and that was part of it,” Wolff says, “but it wasn’t the whole story. The actual transition was much slower, and not cataclysmic, and found in these serfs that ran away and set up something new.”

In the U.S., businesses converting to cooperative workplace models are the functional equivalent of those runaway serfs. Around 10 cities across the U.S. have, in recent years, launched initiatives specifically to support the development of worker co-ops, which have been especially beneficial in creating job and wage stability in low-income neighborhoods. Because workers are beholden to themselves and each other, rather than a CEO and a board of directors, the model parts ways with the capitalist structure and advances something that more closely resembles a true democratic system.

“This is the beginning of the end of capitalism,” Wolff says. “Whether these experiments–which is what we have to call them at this point–will congeal into a massive social transformation, I don’t know. But I do know that massive social transformations have never happened without this stage. This stage may not do it, but change won’t happen without it,” he adds. These subtle shifts away from capitalism are not just apparent in the development of more co-ops, Wolff says. Over the past year, he’s been called in to meet with CEOs at large financial firms, who seemed to Wolff to be steeling themselves for a dethroning. As CEOs continue to disproportionately outearn their employees, the call for a dismantling of the system has become loud enough that they seem to have no choice but to pay attention. While it’s a flimsy gesture, some have distributed their bonuses to their employees.

“The move toward co-ops and the change in consciousness I’ve witnessed in workplaces and among my students are the two mechanisms of transformation that are now underway globally, and I’d like to say–it’s more a wish than anything else–that it’s too late to stop them,” Wolff says. “And the sheer beauty of this is that nothing fuels this movement more than capitalism’s own troubles, and the displeasure, disaffection, and anxiety it produces.”

Of course, the thought currents and little blooms of democratic workplaces are not enough to engineer a new economic system. These developments are all happening outside of the political system; in the White House and in Congress, the presence of big capitalist businesses continues as strong asever. But the fact that local governments like New York City and Austin have launched incubator programs for worker-owned cooperatives indicates that they’re not incompatible with the current political system.

Could it look something like inviting Medicare and Medicaid recipients into the legislating body that decides the future of healthcare in this country? Could it look something like involving women in the legal processes that determines what resources they can access to care for their own bodies? Something like a cooperativized Housing and Urban Development department that brings those people it aims to serve into the process of determining how best to do so?

Or what about developing a justice system that relies not on removing people from the formal economy via mass incarceration, but that emphasizes cooperative employment and job training at both points of re-entry and pre-incarceration? Kimberly Westcott, associate counsel in the New York-based Community Service Society, a 172-year-old anti-poverty organization, has begun a program through Democracy at Work to teach cooperative work within prisons. If the cooperatives that could form inside prisons could function just like those on the other side, are the walls necessary?

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.

Less Immigration Equals Less Growth

My Comments: This thought comes from Neel Kashkari, President of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank. I repeat them here for two reasons: one, investment returns correlate positively with economic growth and two, young people in this country are having fewer children.

Why are we encouraged to fear immigrants and immigration? What threat do they actually pose to the rest of us? Life in these United States is almost always better with more money and more money comes from economic growth. Fewer immigrants over time will simply mean we have less money. Why is that a good thing?

This photo is of me, my mother and grandmother on June 20, 1950. It was the day I left England and immigrated to the United States.

by Ann Saphir, August 7, 2017

Reuters) – Less than week after a U.S. President Donald Trump embraced legislation to reduce immigration, Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari urged residents of South Dakota to embrace newcomers instead.

“Just going to math, if a big source of economic growth is population growth, and your population growth slows, either because you restrict immigration or because you have fewer babies, your economic growth is going to slow,” Kashkari said at the Rotary Club of Downtown Sioux Falls, responding to a question about a Trump-backed bill to cut legal immigration by 50 percent over the next 10 years. “Do we want economic growth, or not? That’s what it comes down to.”

Kashkari not alone in seeing immigration as key to U.S. economic growth.

Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan routinely points out that immigrants have historically boosted U.S. workforce growth, and therefore economic growth, and has warned that the crackdown on illegal immigration could hurt consumer spending. Fed Chair Janet Yellen told U.S. lawmakers earlier this year that slowing immigration could probably hurt growth.

Most economic research suggests that immigration has little effect on wages of U.S. workers, and one recent study of what happened after the U.S. ended a guest-worker program for Mexican farm workers in the 1960s showed that growers, instead of raising wages to attract more workers, simply automated more of their field work.

The U.S. economy has been stuck at about 2-percent growth in recent years, and appears unlikely to break to out of that pattern anytime soon, St. Louis Fed President Bullard said earlier Monday.

“You can either accept slower growth; you can spend a lot of money to subsidize fertility – child care etc, very expensive – or you can embrace immigration. That’s math,” Kashkari told the audience in Sioux Falls, where the foreign-born population grew by more than a third from 2010 to 2014, figures from the U.S. census show.

“You guys have done a pretty good job of embracing immigration and that is a source of economic growth vibrancy.”