Stop worrying about rising interest rates

There is practically universal opinion that interest rates will rise in the future, and that bond portfolios will suffer painful losses when this happens. At Merriman, we think the financial news media has blown this story way out of proportion, with inflammatory headlines designed to capture attention. Narratives include “the coming bloodbath for bond holders” and “the imminent bursting of the 30-year bond bubble.”

Our Chief Investment Officer, Dennis Tilley, recently wrote an article detailing three reasons why we’re not worried about rising interest rates. Here’s a quick summary:

1. The Experts and Consensus Are Often Wrong

History provides countless examples of when experts and/or a super-consensus have been wrong about the future of stock and bond movements. This is why we don’t use market predictions to manage client portfolios.

2. A Portfolio Duration of Four to Five Years Is Optimal

The sweet spot duration for Merriman investors holding bonds is in the maturity range of four to five years. This intermediate duration provides a nice compromise of offering overall portfolio stability, market crisis/deflation/recession protection, a long-term real return above inflation and – perhaps most importantly – the ability to quickly adapt to a rising-rate environment. With this duration, we believe our clients don’t have to worry about rising interest rates. The article provides more detail and charts illustrating this point.

3. Rising Rates Signal an Improving Economy

Finally, rising interest rates are likely to coincide with an economy that is improving, which is generally good for stocks. Yes, temporarily, bonds will lose value due to rising yields. However, we expect only single digit losses from our bond portfolio, not the “bloodbath” that some pundits seem to think will happen.

Read the full article here to get more insight.

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Seahawks Secrets to Success

12Flag-1024x728Seattle is still reeling with excitement from the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl! Over 700,000 Seattleites celebrated downtown to welcome the champs coming home. No matter where your team allegiance lies, it’s easy to spot the strengths of the Seahawks both on and off the field. These lessons can be applied to multiple areas of life, including your finances.

Here are 12 things everyone can learn from the Seahawks:

1) It’s never too late: Russell Wilson was a third round draft pick but that didn’t determine his performance. No matter when you start saving and investing, there is always opportunity ahead of you.

2) Diversification is key: Every player on a team has a specific job to do, just as every investment in your portfolio has a unique purpose. It’s hard to win with a team full of quarterbacks! Design your portfolio with broad diversification to cover all types of positions.

3) Defense wins championships: There is a saying that “offense wins games and defense wins championships.” Many times it’s the team’s offense that gets all the praise and glory, but without a strong defense to hold back the competition, all of the points scored are for nothing. It’s easy to get caught up in short term performance chasing of stocks, but make sure to manage downside risk with bonds so that your returns won’t disappear in a down market.

4) Find a coach: Every team needs a coach to lead them to victory. Having a financial advisor will keep you on track toward achieving your goals.

5) Don’t compare your strategy to others: Every team has a different approach on how to win games. Your friends and family have their own ideas about investment that may be different from yours, and that’s okay. Stick with the plan you make with your financial advisor – it is unique to you.

6) Break expectations: Seahawks fullback Derrek Coleman is deaf. No one expected him to be able to play in the NFL but he didn’t let other people’s beliefs hold him back. Commit to success and don’t let others get in the way of what you want to accomplish.

7) Take a look back: Teams spend countless hours watching game footage to learn from their mistakes. Look back at historical investments to learn all you can about performance volatility throughout various market conditions.

8) Go all in: The Seahawks have an “All In” sign that they hit on their way to a workout. Often we don’t want to commit to a plan unless we know for sure it will work out…but a plan can’t work unless you commit. Go all in.

9) Never give up: Even when it looks like a team has lost, there is always a chance for a comeback late in the game. Sometimes when a portfolio is down, we are tempted to switch strategies or abandon hope. If you give up too early, you might miss the winning finish.

10)  Have fun: Football is tough work but it is also a lot of fun. Always make time for the activities you enjoy with the people you love. As we say here at Merriman – Invest Wisely, Live Fully.

11)  Give back: In the midst of practice, games, media interviews, and sponsor appearances, Russell Wilson still makes time to visit the patients at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Appreciate the gifts you have in your life and share them with others.

12)  Identify your 12s: Seattle’s fans are known as the 12th man. Even though the fans aren’t on the field, they play an important role in the game. Find fans who will support you through all your wins and losses, and recognize their contribution to your success.

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Umbrella insurance

When you hear the term “umbrella insurance,” your first thought might be, “What do umbrellas have to do with insurance? Is this just another product the insurance industry is trying to sell me?” Actually, umbrella insurance has nothing to do with conventional umbrellas.

Umbrella insurance is “extra insurance,” like an umbrella is extra protection against the rain, even though you have a raincoat on. Think of your regular car and homeowners insurance as the raincoat, and the umbrella insurance as the “umbrella” you carry for torrential downpours.

Many people tell me they have liability coverage with their auto and home policies, so why would they want to buy more? A typical individual does in fact have liability coverage on their auto policy and their homeowners policy, usually between $100,000 and $300,000 in coverage. This is indeed a lot of money.

But imagine you are driving your car when it’s wet out and you don’t see a cyclist when you make a turn. You hit the cyclist, who sustains serious injuries. In this situation, you may owe for lost wages, medical bills, and pain and suffering. If this person is the CEO of a large corporation and can’t work for, say, five years, the wages alone might exceed $1,000,000. Medical bills, including physical and occupational therapy, could easily be over $1,000,000. You will have far exceeded the limits of your auto policy.

In situations where losses aren’t covered by your other policies, umbrella insurance can provide the following:

  • Additional lawsuit coverage.
  • Added coverage for defense costs.
  • Liability coverage for some lawsuits not covered by your underlying auto or home insurance (for example, an accident involving a boat you rented on vacation, or a slander lawsuit).

You can also add an “uninsured or underinsured motorist” component to some policies, which can cover damages if you are injured by someone who has no insurance or not enough insurance. For example, you are out jogging and get hit by a car. The motorist’s insurance does not completely cover your medical costs. Your umbrella policy can step in at this point, with the uninsured motorist component, provided that the other motorist was at fault.

The good news is that this is one of the best buys in the insurance business. It typically costs only $150 to $200 per year for the first $1,000,000 in coverage, and then about $100 each for each additional million.

Umbrella insurance can give you peace of mind and help protect against financial ruin. I recommend you pull out those policies, look over the amount of liability coverage you have and schedule an appointment with your financial advisor or insurance agent to see if your coverage has kept pace with your assets and needs.

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Maximizing the impact of charitable contributions

With the recent tornado in Oklahoma we are reminded of the importance of charitable giving.  In fact, since the tornado, over $15 million has been donated to the American Red Cross. According to the Giving USA Foundation, individuals gave over $217 billion dollars to charitable causes in 2011, a 3.9% increase over 2010. As charitable giving increases, I want to make sure you know not only how to maximize your charitable contributions from a tax standpoint (see my post about using the donor advised fund), but also that you are informed about the effectiveness of the charities you choose.

There are a couple resources available now to help understand how effective a charity is with the money you donate. Charity Navigator has been around since 2001 and now assesses over 6,000 charities. Its goal is to provide one overall rating based on two areas of effectiveness: 1) their financial health and 2) their transparency and accountability. For example, the American Red Cross, a popular one at this moment, shows a total score at 59.64 out of 70 as of fiscal year end in June of 2011.

Another website, CharityWatch.org, also rates different charities’ effectiveness. While they rate only 600 or so of the largest charities, they tend to dig much deeper into the inner workings of the organization than Charity Navigator. They study the individual finances of every charity to give a clear picture on what the money is actually being used for. Instead of taking the information at given at face value, they try to determine if the donors’ objectives are actually being met. Because their analysis is more in-depth, Charity Watch charges $50/year for access to their Charity Rating Guide, which provides financial data and a rating from “A+” to “F” for each charity.

We all want to make sure the money we give generously is used effectively. Whether you’re giving funds to aid with large natural disasters or donating to your local food bank, donations are needed and greatly appreciated. Now, in addition to maximizing the tax effectiveness of your charitable donations through donor advised funds, these tools can help you choose organizations that will help your dollar have maximum impact.

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I’m finally making some money…now what?

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with a client’s daughter. She’s in her twenties, just finished up her nursing degree six months ago and is working the night shift at a local hospital. She is living with a couple of roommates and is finally in a position to save some money after being a very broke college student. She now faces the question posed by many young people who are starting their first “real” jobs.

Now what?

Michelle (as we will call her) wanted to know what to do with the money she’s now able to save. She had no idea where to start getting her finances in order. To get her started on the right track, I suggested she focus on a few key areas.

Live within your means

She’s already years ahead of many twenty-somethings in that she is living on less money than she earns. She wasn’t sure how much money she would be able to save on a monthly basis so I suggested she set up a rough budget. I didn’t encourage her to be terribly rigid with the budget but to use it to get a sense of where she is spending her money so she’s aware of her spending habits. This will help her decide what she wants to spend money on and what is less important to her.

Create an emergency fund

While she enjoys her job and has no plans to quit anytime soon, you never know what life will throw your way. So I recommended she save three to six months of income and have it very liquid (money market, for example), which will enable her to have a safety net in place.

Understand your insurance policies

Michelle wasn’t sure exactly what her benefits were at work. She knew she had medical but wasn’t sure of the deductible. She also didn’t know if she had dental or vision coverage. As a young woman in her twenties, the likelihood of an expensive surgery or illness is very low, but injuries can still happen.

She also had no idea whether her employer provided disability insurance. I recommended she read through her employee materials again as things are typically a blur when starting a new job. I also encouraged her to ask the HR department about any questions she may still have after reading the policy information.

I checked to make sure she has car and renter’s insurance and that the policies are up to date. When you’re just getting started financially, you don’t want to find out after an accident that your $10,000 car is only covered up to $5,000, or regret not having renter’s insurance after your upstairs neighbors leaves a faucet on, flooding your apartment and ruining your new laptop, couch and clothing.

Pay off your debt

This is typically the ball and chain around many people’s ankles when they first start their careers. I recommended that Michelle pay off the money she owes by attacking the debt with the highest interest rates first. She has about $10,000 in student loans and another $1,500 in credit card debt. The credit card debt has a much higher interest rate than the student loans, so she’ll pay the minimum on the student loans until she pays off the credit cards. Then she’ll pay down the student loans. A good way for her to keep debt in check moving forward is to use primarily cash for all purchases or to use a credit card and pay it off monthly.

I also recommended she compare her local credit union fees and programs to that of her bank. She’ll likely save money on ATM transactions, credit card interest and loans in the future by using a credit union.

Identify short-term and long-term goals

Michelle’s short-term goals include a trip with college friends to Hawaii later in the year. Her longer-term goals include retirement and buying a house. It was important to identify these goals so she can budget for the trip and start down the road to home ownership and retirement. While retirement is probably 40 to 50 years off for Michelle, she will not have to save nearly as much towards her future as friends who start saving in their thirties. She’s fortunate to have a 401k plan and the hospital provides her with some matching as well. The matching is basically free money to her so she would be wise to take advantage of it. By contributing to her 401k plan, she’ll pay less in taxes and benefit from the employer match, which is a win-win. She may not be able to add as much as she’d like to her retirement plan right now, but she can always increase that after building up her emergency fund and paying off debt.

Get organized

Michelle is well on her way to a successful future just by addressing her finances at such a young age. She’ll have a good handle on her spending habits, her debt level and goals.

My final piece of advice, which Michelle has already followed, is to talk to your parents’ financial advisor. The advisor may not be in a position to take you on as a client, but they should be happy to meet with you and get you headed in the right direction.

 

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Risk mitigation

The return-centric environment in which we live too often gives little credence to an equally important measure – risk. Professionals and individual investors alike can often quote the return of a given stock or index, followed by silence when asked to recite its relative measure of risk. The financial crisis shouted to us the importance of understanding and controlling risk. If you did not hear the call – and hopefully you did before the fall – it’s not too late to answer it.

Two quantifiable means of controlling risk are diversification and asset allocation.

Proper diversification stretches well beyond your region and your country of residence. It has little to do with individual stock positions or individual sectors. It consists of all types of stocks – large, small, value, growth, etc., which are located all over the world. Global diversification is the goal.

Diversification is equally important for bond allocations. A bond portfolio consisting of high-yield bonds differs from one invested in U.S. treasury bonds. Obtaining an adequate amount of diversification on both sides of your portfolio is essential in controlling your risk.

Asset allocation speaks to the percentage of stocks and the percentage of bonds in your portfolio. While the specific mix has many variables, age and retirement goals are often large factors. Each investor’s situation is unique and there is no “one size fits all” solution. A good place to start is by answering the following questions:

  • At what age do I begin adding bonds? 40? 45?
  • How often do I add bonds and how much do I add?
  • What is an appropriate allocation once I am retired?

If you are struggling to answer these questions, it may be time to seek professional guidance. The answers are essential to your long-term investment success.

Investor discipline is a less tangible but equally important component of risk mitigation.

As stocks outpace bonds, a portfolio’s risk increases. At some point, there will be a need to sell the stocks to buy bonds and maintain the target allocation. In essence, this follows the golden rule of investing – that is to sell high and buy low. The same logic holds within each asset class of the portfolio, such as when international stocks outpace domestic stocks or small cap stocks outpace large cap stocks.

I can almost guarantee that when the time comes, rebalancing will not feel like the natural thing to do. Why, for example, would you want to buy into an underperforming asset class? Despite our rational brain, loading up on the winners will feel like the right thing to do at that moment. There are two questions you must ask yourself:

  • Do I have the discipline to rebalance my portfolio?
  • What mechanical process will I use to rebalance?

Your long-term investment success hinges on your answers to these questions. If you do not know how to answer them, seek guidance.

Investing is about risk and return. Understanding how much risk you can afford to take and how much risk you’re willing to take is the key. Quantitatively, two ways in which we control risk for clients is through diversification and asset allocation. Keeping clients disciplined in their goals and executing on a well thought out rebalancing process is another, less tangible means of controlling risk.

As Warren Buffet famously said, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”

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Six must-know investment terms

Industry specific jargon can be intimidating. Fortunately, you can leave most of it to the experts. The six terms listed below are the exceptions – understanding them is crucial to your long term investment success.

Fiduciary. Someone who is legally obligated to put your interests ahead of theirs. In the investment world, Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs) have a Fiduciary responsibility. Stockbrokers do not. The difference is dramatic. Do yourself a favor and make sure you work with someone who is legally obligated to put your interests first so that you can prosper.

Market index. Indices are measuring sticks for different sections of the market. A good example is the S&P 500, which represents the 500 largest companies in the United States. Understanding the indices allows you to track your relative performance. To do so, it’s important to understand which indices are fair representations of your portfolio. Using the S&P as a barometer against a portfolio of international stocks, for instance, does not make sense. In this case, using the EAFE Index (Europe, Asia and Far East) would be suitable.

Personal risk tolerance. In its simplest sense, how much of your portfolio should be allocated to stocks and how much to bonds? The answer depends upon your unique set of goals and circumstances. Remember – it is a personal risk tolerance. Speak with a Certified Financial Planner™ to guide you to an answer.

Stock risk. Ever heard the saying “don’t put all your eggs in one basket?” While some companies may seem like a sure thing, remember this – the S&P 500 of 1960 looked much different than the S&P 500 of today. Times change, companies grow and others fail to meet changing demands of the world. Eastman Kodak and Enron come to mind. Successful investors use diversification to increase their long-term risk adjusted return.

Loaded mutual funds. A front-end load is recognized when you purchase a mutual fund. A back-end load is recognized when you sell one. Choose their no-load counterpart. You will save the fee and the performance is more often than not just as good. After all, a no-load fund has a head start in the amount of the load, which can be upwards of 4% in some instances.

Pundit. Someone who prognosticates, in this case, about the financial markets. Their pedigree may be impressive and their intellect alluring, but do not follow their advice. No doubt they made a few good calls in their day. Chances are they made more bad ones. Your best bet is to develop a long-term strategy with your financial advisor that you can stick to. One that is tailored to your specific needs and goals.

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A stellar 2012 for DFA

The article “All in the Family” by Barron’s ranks mutual fund families across several asset classes and time periods. A stellar 2012 for the DFA Value Portfolio helped it earn first place for the US equity fund category. Its three year performance was also very respectable. DFA took 16th place overall for 2012 and 33rd for five-year performance. This article substantiates our use of DFA in client portfolios. The funds served clients well in the short term, but more importantly for the long term. Investing is, after all, a marathon, not a sprint.

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2013 update to the ultimate buy-and-hold strategy

Every year, we update some of our core articles.

The 2013 update of The ultimate buy-and-hold strategy, which includes performance information through 2012, is now available in our Best of Merriman library.

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5 ways to simplify your finances

For many Merriman clients, getting investments right is only part of achieving their financial goals. I am often asked what else people can do to help improve their financial outlook, and I always answer that being financially disciplined is just as important as investing wisely.

Here are five things I think everyone should do to simplify their financial situation and become more disciplined with their finances:

  1. Consolidate your accounts. If you have an inactive 401(k) with an old employer, transfer it into an IRA. Often, 401(k)s have limited investment options, and you can take advantage of diversification and management benefits by moving your old 401(k) into an IRA account held elsewhere.  Likewise, if you have several IRAs in your name, consider consolidating them into one. There is no real benefit to maintaining multiple accounts, and it can be a headache to manage them all.
  2. Get a handle on what you are spending. There are dozens of apps and websites that can simplify the process of tracking expenses. Mint.com is a great example – it is free and anyone can use it. If you own an Apple device, go the App Store and search for “budget.” Find the app with the highest ratings and download it. Knowing how much money you spend and what you are spending it on is important, both before and after retirement.  You cannot, for instance, know how much you are going to need in retirement unless you know how much you typically spend.
  3. Put your savings on auto-pilot. If your employer matches contributions to your 401(k), you should contribute at least enough to max out that matching and take advantage of that “free money.” If you can afford more, all the better. Don’t forget that saving is not limited to company-sponsored retirement accounts. Saving toward your emergency fund in a bank account or your child’s education in a 529 college savings plan is just as important.  As with your 401(k), you can set these types of accounts up for automatic contributions. Ideally, you would work with a Certified Financial Planner™ to figure out the exact percentage you need to contribute based upon your specific set of circumstances.
  4. Limit the number of credit cards you own.  The more cards you own, the more complicated it becomes to manage them. If you have several cards with outstanding balances, consider transferring balances to consolidate your credit card debt at a lower interest rate and save yourself a substantial amount in interest payments.
  5. Use an auto-pay service to manage and pay your bills. I have a Schwab checking account that allows me to pay thousands of vendors directly from my account. It also alerts me when I have a bill due. If you do not bank with Schwab, don’t worry – most banks now offer a similar service. Ask your local branch for help in getting this set up.

Some of these steps may sound daunting, but are actually quite easy to complete. I know you’ll be glad you did it. Ultimately, these steps will allow you more time to focus on the things that matter most to you.

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