Mother Nature is in Charge!

Americans are getting a little disaster weary.  From the horrific wildfires out west to torrential rains and flooding all summer in the east, it has been quite a year.  And in the south and east, we all know what August means…hurricane season is upon us!  Mother Nature is getting on our nerves in 2018!

How can we protect ourselves to minimize the risks to our homes, our property and our livelihoods?  Mitigating risks from catastrophic events starts with prevention and planning by both government and individuals.  Prevention can start with using damage-resistant building materials, having elevated home designs, enforcing safe building codes, developing flood plain management systems, securing or removing hazards ahead of storms and by having evacuation or escape plans in place.  FEMA has an 81 page guide of Mitigation Ideas to deal with earthquakes, landslides, floods, hurricanes, hail, lightning, tornadoes, severe winter weather and more.  https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1904-25045-2423/fema_mitigation_ideas_final_01252013.pdf  There are many threats coming from our environment, but many things that can be done to lessen some of the painful aftermath of these occurrences.

We certainly can use property & casualty insurance to plan and prepare for the worst.  In hurricane-prone areas, for example, we have riders for “named storm” or “wind and hail” coverage that comes with our homeowner’s insurance.  The costs of the insurance can be reduced by increasing the amount of a deductible you want to have or, in other words, how much you can afford to pay out of pocket for repairs after a storm.  We also look for extra coverage for those circumstances when there is a widespread event like a hurricane that may drive costs up with higher demand for labor and materials.  Homeowners may want to have an extended coverage rider built in to help with those higher costs.  It is important to evaluate what your risk tolerance is for these situations and how much you want to pay to transfer some of the risk to the insurance company.  If your home is destroyed or badly damaged, do you have a comfortable level of protection for you and your family?

There has been much discussion on the 50 year old National Flood Insurance Program, as well. President Trump recently signed the legislation to extend the debt-ridden program until November 30th.  That means not dealing with necessary reforms until after hurricane season and mid-term elections.  The federal program, which is some $20 billion in debt to the U.S. Treasury, offers subsidized flood insurance to coastal or flood-prone areas where private insurers have pulled out or made it unaffordable.   As it is, the NFIP provides coverage with caps on claims for homes at $250,000 and on property at $100,000.  Many higher-value property owners may choose to also carry “excess” flood insurance to bridge the gap between the federal program caps and the value of their homes and property.

Unfortunately, the reduced premiums from about 5 million NFIP flood insurance policies nationwide cannot adequately support the claims that have come from recent events, including storms like Sandy, Katrina, Harvey, Maria, Irma and Matthew.  And hurricanes aren’t the only cause of flooding.  We have seen some of these epic rainstorms cause significant inland flooding and damage.   As the head of the SC Department of Insurance said recently, “our entire state is in a flood-zone.”  And this may be true for many areas in the South, East and Midwest.  It is clear there is a need for a flood program that can provide support for affected residents after a storm, especially as we see changing climate conditions and rising sea levels. Lawmakers thus far have been unable to find a bi-partisan fix to the financially strained system.

As homeowners and members of our communities, we should certainly do our share to prepare for these natural events and make sure we have a solid plan in place for our families and our property.  We can maintain our property, keep our own emergency fund and can participate in the insurance coverages available to help protect us.  And we should hope and expect that our legislators – local, state and national- will compromise to find solutions to reform existing programs and to prepare disaster plans that can assist all of us in the event of a catastrophic event.

At DWM, we use a holistic approach to evaluating your financial plan, including risk management.  We will help you review all of your property & casualty insurance policies to ensure that you have appropriate coverage for you and your family.  Let’s hope Mother Nature stays peaceful for the rest of the year!

Emptying the Nest

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It is an exciting time of year when smiling faces in caps and gowns are seen everywhere! Recently having the pleasure to witness my son’s graduation, the President of the University of South Carolina made sure that the graduates took the time to thank their parents for helping them get to this important occasion. Absolutely! So, congratulations, parents! Turning 21 or graduating from college are exciting milestones and your kids have now reached what we all consider to be the beginning of “adulthood” as they get ready to enter the “real” world. Kids grow up in all different ways and in all different stages – is your young adult ready for launch?

At DWM, we like to offer proactive financial advice for all members of our clients’ families. As your young adult is readying to depart the nest, however that looks, we think this is a good opportunity to provide some education, as they take the reins of their own financial future. Many college-aged kids have had a student checking account and understand how to use their debit card pretty well by now! They probably have some experience with having a job and budgeting for things they want to buy in the short term. However, some of the more complex financial topics can be intimidating for young adults, While they may have a solid background in finance, it is always good to review concepts like compound interest, building good credit, taxes, buying insurance and understanding 401(k)s, for once they land that first “real” job! We might suggest that a good place to start is by getting a copy of The Wall Street Journal. Guide to Starting Your Financial Life by Karen Blumenthal (https://www.amazon.com/Street-Journal-Guide-Starting-Financial/dp/030740708X ). This book covers issues about renting or buying your first home, basic investing, taxes, purchasing health insurance, buying a car, establishing good credit and saving for retirement, among other topics. Might make a perfect college graduation or 21st birthday gift!

In addition, this is a good time to help them make sure all of their accounts are properly set up, titled appropriately and that they have a savings program in place. Reaching the age of majority, which is age 21 for both Illinois and South Carolina, is a good time to change any custodial accounts like a UTMA and UGMA to individual accounts. It may also be helpful to talk about debt, perhaps review student loans and consider opening a credit card account to establish some credit history. Using debt wisely, having a good emergency fund and responsible budgeting are all really valuable conversations and will help your young adult navigate their new financial map.

Encouraging saving and investing is a fundamental lesson and the “pay yourself first” concept is an important one. Remind them that they are paying their future self and that, just like the rewards for eating right, exercising and wearing sunscreen, saving and investing will benefit the health of their future self (as well as their current self!).

One idea that might help is having an automatic savings app like the one found in The College Investor article https://thecollegeinvestor.com/17610/top-automatic-savings-apps/. Also from The College Investor, you can find numerous financial and investing podcasts available that your young adult may take interest in. Here’s the link to get started: https://thecollegeinvestor.com/6778/top-investing-podcasts/. Or maybe they would want a subscription that focuses on the economy, like The Economist or Wall Street Journal.

If working and the business offers it, they should always make sure to contribute to their 401(k) to get the most advantage of any company match. And, if they don’t already have one, starting a Roth account is another great investment savings vehicle, especially while their starting incomes and lower tax brackets will allow them the opportunity to make annual contributions. Up to $5,500 of their earned income can be directly contributed to a Roth account and the compounded gains will never be taxed. Your young adult can set up automatic transfers to investment accounts or savings vehicles so they get used to not seeing those funds in their everyday account, just like 401(k) contributions. It is a great way to plant the seeds for a successful future!

Once the young adult has gotten some traction and they have good financial habits in motion, encourage them to contact us and check out the Emerging Investors program at DWM http://www.dwmgmt.com/investors/. You can learn even more about the EI program by clicking on this link and accessing one of our recent blogs written by Jake Rickord http://dwmgmt.com/archives-blog/index.php/2017/11/. Our Emerging Investors program offers a specialized financial planning model with DWM investment strategies that uses the automated Schwab IIP platform. Our goal is to help them graduate to full DWM Total Wealth Management clients down the road. The best way to reach the level of a TWM client is not just by higher earning, but by stronger and earlier investing. We love to educate and help others plan for their financial future. We are always available if you or your young adult have any questions and would certainly welcome feedback.   Please let us know how we can be of assistance!

 

The End of an Era

barbara-bush 2Barbara Bush was one of our country’s most cherished Grande Dames of politics and we were all saddened recently when she passed. With her signature white hair and pearls and her no-nonsense attitude, we were a little in awe, as well as inspired, by her example of family loyalty, faith, public service and good manners. She broke boundaries as the First Lady and championed education issues in her life, while remaining a loving wife and strong matriarch for her family. Regardless of what you think of her family’s politics, Barbara Bush was a woman to be admired.

Part of her legacy will now be the grace and dignity with which she managed her end of life. Surrounded by family at her home, she left this earth with the peace and comfort that we all might aspire to. Achieving that smooth and tranquil transition requires some planning, however. There are certain things that can and should be arranged and recorded ahead of time so that one’s loved ones are not unduly burdened and so that your own comfort and care are well-managed.

Caroline Feeney, in an article on wealthmanagement.com, recently outlined some of the lessons learned by watching Barbara Bush. We think these are valuable to review.

1.Understand Probate – Anyone who has been through probate will tell you to avoid it! Probate can be expensive, time-consuming and becomes part of the public record. Protecting your assets with proper titling and using a revocable or living trust can keep assets from going through the probate system. All revocable trusts remain private and anyone can set one up for their beneficiaries.

2.Plan for Contingencies – Think of all the scenarios that might come up. Select trustees and successor trustees with care and with a back-up plan. Consider the age, health and circumstances of beneficiaries, like substance addiction or divorce protection, when determining the age or terms of your designations.

3.Personal Property Memorandum – These are the softer, more sentimental items that you own. Houses and cars are protected by a trust or designated titling and a personal property memo provides a plan for the smaller tangible items. Someone will have to address these personal belongings when you are gone and, since you know them best, you should outline your plans for taking care of them. You only need to refer to the memo in a will or trust for it to be legally recorded. The list can be changed and updated, as you see fit, without involving a lawyer each time!

4.Palliative Care – Less than 30% of people have a Health Care Power of Attorney (HCPOA) that spells out the kind of care you want to receive and the people that you want making the decisions on your behalf if you cannot. The HCPOA allows an agent to make health care decisions, if you are incapacitated, for things like life support, tube feeding or organ donation. Consider those that might not be overcome with grief as agents who are tasked to comply with your wishes.

5.Prepare an inventory of all accounts – This includes a list of all bank and investment accounts with passwords, as well as all digital assets, including social media accounts. You can use a password vault or keep a handwritten list in a safe and then give access to one of your designated trustees.

6.Have Tax Planning Up to Date – The estate tax limits have increased in 2018 ($11.2M individual/$22.4M married couple), so most of us will not need to worry about estate taxes, unless the legislation changes again! It is still a good idea to have all of your information gathered, organized and up to date to make it easier for your executors, trustees and beneficiaries.

7.Designated Beneficiary Planning – We always help our clients make sure that all assets are titled properly, including real estate, investment accounts, qualified plans, bank accounts and life insurance policies.

8.Review Plan Regularly – Once you have a good plan in place, you should review it every year or two or as there are any life changes. At DWM, we keep copies of your documents with our own summary “estate flow” to help manage this.

9.Use Professionals! – This includes a recommended estate attorney to prepare your plan, as well as a professional wealth manager, like DWM, to review it.

10.Everyone Can Have an Estate Plan – You don’t need to be a famous, well-connected political icon, like Barbara Bush, to be thoroughly prepared.

Estate planning can be a daunting and sometimes complicated task. Many of our clients have trepidation about the process when starting, but every one of them feel a great deal of relief and accomplishment when they have done all the work and have a good estate plan in place. Helping our clients navigate all of the requirements and considerations of estate planning is a very important and satisfying part of what we do at DWM. We are not lawyers, but we know our clients well and can help them understand the many objectives and appropriate pieces of a good customized estate plan. Please let us know if you would like to review your estate plan with us!

Happy National Social Security Month!

Many Americans are worried about the state of Social Security and the possibility that benefits will be reduced or even disappear in the future. Even those already collecting Social Security benefits may be concerned that their monthly check could be impacted by the swelling population of beneficiaries and the inability of the taxes collected from the current workforce to keep up with the demand.

Every April, the Social Security Administration celebrates with a month of highlighting the agency’s mission to “promote economic security” and educating all of us on their programs and services. Social Security was originally created by President Roosevelt in 1935, as part of his New Deal plan, to develop a comprehensive social insurance program. There are three parts to the benefits in Social Security – retirement benefits, survivor and death benefits and disability benefits. This is a pay-as-you-go system, so the payroll taxes paid by the workers and employers today fund the benefits for the beneficiaries of the three SS programs.

Social Security is the single largest federal program and accounts for around 24% of all federal spending. According to the most recent report from the Social Security Administration, the benefits paid out by the Social Security retirement program will be more than what’s paid in, starting in 2020. When the program started in 1935, many workers paid into the program, but few lived long enough after retirement age to collect much in the way of benefits. The Social Security Trust Fund was created when the taxes collected surpassed benefits that were paid out. However, in 2010, the government starting dipping into these reserves to address the insufficient revenue. This trust fund is expected to be completely depleted by 2034 and benefits could be reduced to 75%-80% of current payments, unless something changes that will increase the money going into the trust fund or decrease the amounts being paid out.

We have all heard about Social Security benefits running out and have heard about the need for reform. We jokingly thank the Millenials for supporting something from which they may never recoup any income. But it really is a serious issue for the many Americans who have not saved enough on their own. As Investment News contributor, Mary Beth Franklin, notes, “By 2030, all baby boomers will be older than 65, meaning one in every five U.S. residents will be of retirement age”. This, of course, will put critical stress on the entire Social Security program.

So what can be done? Each year, the Social Security trustees use their annual reports to recommend that lawmakers address the projected trust fund shortfalls. We have heard about “means testing” for benefits, which already impacts Medicare Part B premiums. Means testing could take the form of more income taxes, a reduction in benefits, a surtax or some other method to correct the program shortfalls. Another possible solution talks about tying Social Security benefit checks to prices rather than wages, as price increases are slower than wage growth. This could correct shortfalls over time, but may present other undesirable effects. In a recent article, Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, notes, “An implication of that change [using prices over wages] is that over time Social Security would replace a smaller and smaller portion of the income people made during their working lives.”

Congress is looking at a tactic to address the problem of insufficient retirement savings with a bi-partisan (remember that word?) bill, the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act (RESA). This legislation would create a retirement savings program allowing access for workers who may not currently contribute to an employer-sponsored retirement plan. It would also offer a collective ‘multi-employer plan’ (MEP) that allows small businesses to share in the costs of plan administration and make it easier for them to offer retirement savings plans to their employees. The more that Americans can save on their own, the less of an impact SS benefit shortfalls will have.

We will continue to watch and wait for the legislators and administrators to solve this problem with Social Security. At DWM, we are all about helping you determine ways to save more, protect that savings and then invest it to have appropriate growth to achieve your goals. We work hard to help our “vintage” clients evaluate all of their options and strategies when applying for Social Security benefits. Benefits taken at the earliest age of 62 will reduce your lifetime benefits, while waiting to begin until the maximum age of 70 can increase your benefits by 8% a year after Full Retirement Age (FRA) is reached. We evaluate which is the most effective strategy for each client – whether waiting and maximizing your benefits or starting benefits at FRA and possibly avoiding any benefit changes that may occur. There is much to consider, but we are here to help navigate the sign-up, the strategy choices and all of the tax implications involved. Please let us know if we can help enhance YOUR retirement savings!

LOOKING THROUGH THE GENDER LENS

Woman_with_wealth.jpgLast week, we celebrated International Women’s Day. Adopted by the UN in 1975, we recognize this global day of advocacy to celebrate women’s work and to promote women’s rights. It has been a troubling year hearing women’s stories of facing sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere, but yet a momentous year of watching women gain a collective voice against this treatment. The #Me Too movement has catapulted women’s rights to one of the top national conversations and focused attention on the goal to removing gender bias in many aspects of our culture. You’ve come a long way, baby, indeed!!

This conversation has also put the spotlight on the gender gap for pay and hiring practices. According to an article in Businessweek, working women still earn between 57% – 80% of the salary of a working man, depending on whether they are white, black or Hispanic. Women’s pay is catching up, but is predicted not to achieve equal status until 2058. This affects all of us, as women have less opportunity to save, contribute to Social Security and participate in the economy. Saving adequate retirement savings is harder for women. Women are able to save less for several reasons, the gap in pay being one of them. There may be career interruptions for children, a need to pay for child care while in the workplace, higher healthcare costs and, of course, women live longer, which all puts a strain on women’s ability to save for retirement and have adequate means when older.

Adding to the difficulty in obtaining adequate saving levels, research has shown that women are, on average, less risk tolerant in their financial decisions than men. According to Associate Professor from the University of Missouri Rui Yao, women and men do not think of investment risk differently, but income uncertainty affects women differently from men. That uncertainty may result in women keeping funds in asset allocations with lower expected returns to “buffer the risk of negative income shocks”. This can be a concern for any investor with low levels of risk tolerance, as they might have greater difficulty reaching their financial goals and building adequate retirement wealth because they are less likely to invest in more growth-oriented asset classes with bigger returns, like equities. “Risk tolerance is one of the most important factors that contributes to wealth accumulation and retirement,” said Rui Yao. At DWM, we review the risk tolerance of all of our clients very carefully. We make sure that their investment strategy matches well with their capacity for risk, as well as their tolerance for it, while making sure that they can achieve their goals for financial independence.

Despite fighting issues of sexual harassment and glass ceilings in the workplace, women have made some remarkable gains in their financial status. In 40% of American families, the primary breadwinner is a woman and, for the first time in history, women control the majority of personal wealth in the U.S. In fact 48% of all millionaires are women. Also, women will benefit immensely in the future transfer of wealth – from husbands who are older and die sooner or parents who now bestow equal inheritances to sons and daughters. Breadwinner women may control more wealth, but there is still a shortfall in other areas.

There are many arguments for equalizing our gender dynamics at home and at work – there is no doubt that enabling women to achieve their full potential is certainly better for women and their families. There is also a universal financial argument to be made. By some estimates, according to Sallie Krawchek of Ellevate Network, if women were fully engaged in the economy, GDP would increase by 9%! Ms. Krawchek’s article also cites multiple studies that conclude “companies with diverse leadership teams” outperform other companies on metrics including higher returns on capital, lower risk and greater innovation. This translates into healthier corporate environments that are rewarded on the bottom line. That is good for men, women and families! All of the reasons for closing the gender gap are important, but the financial benefits for everyone are significant and certainly can’t be considered controversial. As someone once said, “It’s the economy, stupid”!

While there remain roadblocks to women achieving equality in their financial status with men, we do think having these national conversations and educating both women and men on the benefits of empowering women will begin to make progress. We agree that deficiencies in retirement savings and the economic engagement of women are highly related and we hope changes are coming. At DWM, we look at the total wealth management for all of our clients equally and with consideration for every one of their life situations. We know that anything that has a positive effect on the financial success of women is good for us all.

The Mighty Dollar

With tax cuts and tax returns on everyone’s minds, we think it is a good time to look closely at our favorite currency!  We might call it “dough”, “bread” or “cheddar”, we have “bean”-counters to keep track of it and we use simple, gastronomic valuations, like the Big Mac Index, to compare it to its peers.  Thinking about the US dollar and its’ value might just make you hungry!   The dollars’ worth is determined by the foreign exchange market, but investors and economists alike are always looking for ways to value the currencies and look for explanations or even monetary conspiracies, to explain currency fluctuations.

In 1986, The Economist came out with the Big Mac Index as a simple way to discuss exchange rates and purchasing-power parity (PPP), which compares the amount of currency needed to buy the same item in different countries, in this case a Big Mac. The Wall Street Journal came up with their own modernized version of this same idea with their Latte Index, which compares the price of a Starbucks tall latte in cities around the world.  For example, in New York City, the WSJ reporter could buy a tall latte at Starbucks for $3.45.  Other WSJ reporters would need to spend $5.76 in Zurich, $4.22 in Shanghai, $3.40 in Berlin (almost the same as the U.S.), $2.84 in London and $1.53 in Cairo.  These simple comparisons of the price of a good that is available in many countries can be an indicator of whether foreign currencies are over-valued or under-valued relative to the US dollar.

There are some criticisms of these simple tools.  Costs of these products can depend on local wages or rents, which are generally more expensive in richer countries and can add to the cost of the product.  The price for a Starbucks Latte can even fluctuate amongst American cities or specific locations, like airports, which may have higher rents.  And adjusting these indices for GDP will change the data and perhaps improve their accuracy.  Some also have pointed to the ingredients in these particular items as causing value differences.  McDonald’s, for example, must use strictly British beef in the U.K.  Starbucks can be a little more consistent, as coffee beans are not generally grown in most of the countries they operate in, so the imported price is pretty standard.

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What these indices don’t tell us about the currency market is why fluctuations occur.  For example, why has the U.S. dollar hit a recent three-year low?  According to an article in yesterday’s WSJ, one simple explanation for a weakened dollar is that “the economies in the rest of the world are finally growing again, so their currencies are strengthening. The U.S. economy isn’t improving as fast—because it was stronger to start with—so the dollar’s falling.”  The Chinese yuan has gained 3.8% so far in January after gaining 6.7% in 2017, which has the officials at the People’s Bank of China concerned about their exports.  President Trump and the U.S. have been critical of any Chinese central bank policies that would devalue the Chinese currency and cheapen goods coming into the U.S.  This trade friction complicates China’s management of their currency, particularly as they attempt to make the yuan a more market-driven currency.

Adding to the currency gap with China and the drop in US currency values overall were comments made last week by the U.S. Treasury Secretary signaling Administration support for a weaker U.S. dollar as being “good for trade.”   Such overt comments are traditionally avoided by the Treasury Department, but may spotlight the Administration goals to reduce the trade deficit and allow currencies to float freely.  President Trump reiterated his stance on trade imbalances in his State of the Union address, pledging to “fix bad trade deals” and that he expects trade deals to be “fair” and “reciprocal”.  Another factor that may weaken the dollar is the belief that 2018 will bring a tightening of monetary policy by the international banks.  Some banks, like the Bank of Canada and Bank of England, have already raised rates.

A weaker dollar makes U.S. goods cheaper to foreign markets, but there is a risk of undermining confidence in an array of U.S. assets, like the U.S. Treasury market.  As the WSJ article explained, as the new tax law expands the federal budget deficit, the government will look to sell the debt to foreign investors.  Those investors may demand higher rates to compensate for the risks of a weaker currency and those costs could fall onto the U.S. taxpayers.

So, we should think about our American dollar today and perhaps look at our paychecks or tax returns to see what has changed.  At DWM, we are always careful to think about each and every one of your dollars – the ones you invest, the ones you save, the ones you spend and the ones you pay in tax.  Using the simple Big Mac or Starbucks Latte indices might help us remember all the factors that go into the value of a dollar around the world.  For me, I certainly prefer to imagine buying a tall latte in Zurich over a Big Mac!

 

 

Understanding Risk and Reward

Electronic Discovery Risk Assessment3-1024x664Mark Twain once said “There are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies and statistics”.  We are inundated nowadays with statistics.  Statistics are a scientific method for collecting and analyzing data in order to make some conclusion from them.  Very valuable indeed, though not a crystal ball by any means. 

When you study investment management, you must conquer the statistical formulas and concepts that attempt to measure portfolio risk in relation to the many variables that can affect one’s investment returns.  In the context of investing, higher returns are the reward for taking on this investment risk – there is a trade-off – the investments that usually provide the highest returns can also expose your portfolio to the largest potential losses.  On the other hand, more conservative investments will likely protect your principal, but also not grow it as much. 

Managing this risk is a fundamental responsibility for an investment advisor, like DWM.  You cannot eliminate investment risk. But two basic investment strategies can help manage both systemic risk (risk affecting the economy as a whole) and non-systemic risk (risks that affect a small part of the economy, or even a single company).

  • Asset Allocation. By including different asset classes in your portfolio (for example equities, fixed income, alternatives and cash), you increase the probability that some of your investments will provide satisfactory returns even if others are flat or losing value. Put another way, you’re reducing the risk of major losses that can result from over-emphasizing a single asset class, however resilient you might expect that class to be.
  • Diversification. When you diversify, you divide the money you’ve allocated to a particular asset class, such as equities, among asset styles of investments that belong to that asset class. Diversification, with its emphasis on variety, allows you to spread you assets around. In short, you don’t put all your investment eggs in one basket.

However, evaluating the best investment strategy for you personally is more subjective and can’t as easily be answered with statistics!  Investment advisors universally will try to quantify your willingness to lose money in your quest to achieve your goals. No one wants to lose money, but some investors may be willing and able to allow more risk in their portfolio, while others want to make sure they protect it as well as they can.  In other words, risk is the cost we accept for the chance to increase our returns.

At DWM, when our clients first come in, we ask them to complete a “risk tolerance questionnaire”.  This helps us understand some of the client’s feelings about investing, what their experiences have been in the past and what their expectations are for the future.  We also spend a considerable amount of time getting to know our clients and understanding what their goals are and what their current and future financial picture might look like.  With this information in mind, we can then establish an asset allocation for each client’s portfolio.  We customize the allocation to reflect what we know about them, looking at both their emotional tolerance for risk, as well as their financial capacity to take on that risk.  We also evaluate this risk tolerance level frequently to account for any changes to our clients’ feelings, aspirations or necessities.  While we use the risk tolerance questionnaire to start the conversation, it is our understanding of our client that allows us to fine tune the recommended allocation strategy.

A Wall Street Journal article challenged how clients feel about their own risk tolerance and suggested that being afraid of market volatility tends to keep investors in a misleading vacuum.  The article suggests that investors must also consider the risk of not meeting their goals and, that by taking this into account, the investor’s risk tolerance might be quite different.

The WSJ writer surveyed investors from 23 countries asking this question:

“Suppose that you are given an opportunity to replace your current portfolio with a new portfolio.  The new portfolio has a 50-50 chance to increase your standard of living by 50% during your lifetime.  However, the new portfolio also has a 50-50 chance to reduce your standard of living by X% during your lifetime.  What is the maximum % reduction in standard of living you are willing to accept?” Americans, on average, says the article, are willing to accept a 12.65% reduction in their standard of living for a 50-50 chance at a 50% increase.   How might you answer that question?

So, bottom line, it is the responsibility of your advisor, like DWM, to encourage you to choose a portfolio allocation based on reasonable expectations and goals.  However, understanding your own risk tolerance and seeing the big picture of your investment strategy is also your responsibility.  Our recommendations are intended to be held for the long-term and adhered to consistently through market up and downs.  We know that disciplined and diversified investing is the strategy that works best for every allocation!

We want all of our clients to have portfolios that give them the best chance to achieve their financial aspirations without risking large losses that might harm those chances.  Through risk tolerance tools and in-depth conversations, we get to know our clients very well, so we can help them make the right choice.  After all, our clients are not just numbers to us!

Total Eclipse of the Sun

We all spend a lot of time thinking about our Sun.  In the summer, we want to know if clouds or rain will obscure the Sun’s heat and brilliance and perhaps impact our plan for outdoor activities.  We must think about the Sun’s intensity by protecting our skin and our eyes from the powerful UV rays with sunscreen, protective clothing and eyewear.  Sunrise and sunset mark the ebb and flow in our days with beautiful atmospheric displays.  The Sun, as we all know, keeps us alive on this planet!

On August 21st, our moon will pass between the earth and the Sun, throwing shade across a wide path of the United States that includes Charleston, SC.  Temperatures will drop, the sky will darken and animals will be confused about what to do. The Great American Eclipse of 2017 will begin in the Charleston area with the first phase at 1:17 pm, will hit the peak or “totality “ period at 2:46 pm and will finally end around 4:10 pm.  This is the first total solar eclipse to occur in the US since 1979 and is the biggest astronomical event that America has seen in years.

There are five stages to a solar eclipse and there are some interesting features to look for during each phase, for those of you getting ready to participate.  Here are the 5 phases:

1. Partial eclipse begins (1st contact): The Moon starts becoming visible over the Sun’s disk. The Sun looks as if a bite has been taken from it.

2. Total eclipse begins (2nd contact): The entire disk of the Sun is covered by the Moon. Observers in the path of the Moon’s umbra, or shadow, may be able to see Baily’s beads and the diamond ring effect, just before totality.  Baily’s beads are the outer edges of the Sun’s corona peeking out from behind the moon and the diamond ring effect occurs when one last spot of the Sun shines like a diamond on a ring before being obscured.

3. Totality and maximum eclipse: The Moon completely covers the disk of the Sun. Only the Sun’s corona, or outer ring, is visible. This is the most dramatic stage of a total solar eclipse. At this time, the sky goes dark, temperatures can fall, and birds and animals often go quiet. The midpoint of time of totality is known as the maximum point of the eclipse. Observers in the path of the Moon’s umbra may be able to see Baily’s beads and the diamond ring effect, just after totality ends.

4. Total eclipse ends (3rd contact): The Moon starts moving away, and the Sun reappears.

5. Partial eclipse ends (4th contact): The Moon stops overlapping the Sun’s disk. The eclipse ends at this stage in this location.

Historically, solar eclipses have been significant events and have been recorded dating back to 5,000 BC.  There are writings of mathematical predictions of eclipses from ancient Greece, Babylon and China.  Rulers and leaders often used the predictions of astronomical events to gain power or to offer reassurance to a fearful population.  George Washington was grateful for a heads up about a coming solar eclipse prior to a battle in 1777 so he could alleviate any superstitions that his troops may have.  And scientists have used the opportunity of an eclipse to study the Sun, measure distances and features in the universe and learn about the Earth’s atmosphere.  The discovery of hydrogen can be credited to a solar eclipse and a solar eclipse in 1919 provided observational data for Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  This year, NASA has set up many sites within the path of the eclipse to monitor, measure and capture data to further their knowledge.  There is much to be learned from studying these phenomena.

As we have seen throughout history, the science of astronomy can be used to predict and measure certain events and occurrences with regularity.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there could be more certainty in predicting the ups and downs of the stock market?  One study found that stocks around the world rise on sunnier days!  However, no one can predict the future.  We need to focus on what we can control, including an appropriate asset allocation, diversification and keeping costs low.  That is why actively managed funds underperform the benchmarks and why even the geniuses like Warren Buffet recommend using passive index funds.  At DWM, we think you should stick with your investing plan and not look for the latest fads or trends or even astronomical events to impact your strategy.

We hope that NASA and other scientists learn some spectacular new things from this years’ eclipse.  Here in Charleston, we will be avid, yet passive spectators to the historical occurrence and will use our ISO certified eclipse glasses to watch the once-in-a-lifetime event unfold.   Happy eclipse watching!

Now’s the time to plan your 529!

Summmerrrtttime!  Every day in the summer at our office here in Charleston, we are regaled with the carriage tour drivers’ versions of this famous song from Porgy & Bess.  We end up having that song stuck in our head a lot of the time!  Already the ads for back to school sales are appearing and it reminds us that, while the “livin’ is easy” right now, the hustle of getting kids ready to head back to school isn’t far away.  We hate to interrupt your summer fun, but it is a good idea to get ready for college tuition payments no matter what age those students are!

We wanted to highlight the particular advantages of using 529 plans for funding your education purposes, as it is the most cost-effective way to manage the expenses of higher education.  Enacted in 1996, Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Service Code allows an account owner to establish a plan to pay for a beneficiary’s qualified higher education expenses using two types of plans – a pre-paid tuition program or the more popular, state-administered college savings plan.  The beneficiary can be a family member or friend or an owner can set up a 529 account for their own benefit.  Anyone can then donate to the account, regardless of the owner or beneficiary.  Funds can be deposited and used almost immediately (need to wait 10 days) or can be invested and grown until needed.  Surprisingly, according to a Wall Street Journal article recently, only 14% of Americans plan to use 529s to pay for college.

Although there is no allowable federal tax deduction for 529 contributions, the income and gain in the account are not taxable, as long as they are used for qualified education expenses.  These qualified expenses include tuition, room & board, books and, in a 2015 legislative change, payments for many technological expenses like a computer, printer or internet access, even if not specifically required by the educational institution.  The costs for off-campus housing can also qualify, as long as the amount used matches the average cost of resident-living at your university.  Many states, like SC and IL, also allow a tax deduction for 529 contributions to in-state plans.  Another recent legislative change allows for an increase from one to two annual investment selection changes per year, unless there is a rollover and then a change can be made at that time.  This gives the 529 owner a little more benefit, flexibility and control over their accounts.

When funding 529 accounts, we recommend that our clients not fund more than 50% of the total cost of estimated expenses for the education of their student before the student selects and starts college.  One nice feature about 529 plans is that they are transferrable to a sibling or other close family member, if a student doesn’t use or exhaust their entire 529 account.    However, you don’t want to overfund an account and then have some leftover.  Only the gains in the account are taxed, but there is a 10% penalty on the account if the funds are withdrawn and not used for qualified education expenses.  Another reason for not overfunding is that there are many scholarships available – you may have an accomplished science whiz or an amazing athlete that earns scholarship money.  Once final amounts of tuition requirements are determined, 529 account owners can make necessary additional contributions to take advantage of tax benefits.

There are many scholarship opportunities available for those who take the time to look and apply.  Checking with the high school guidance counselor, local civic groups or community organizations about scholarships or awards opportunities can give your high school student some hands on involvement in paying for their own education!  All high school seniors should also fill out the annual FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).  There are many opportunities for earning money for college and nothing should be ruled out.

We know that using 529 accounts is the least expensive way to pay for college.  Research shows that the most expensive way to pay is by taking out student loans or paying out of pocket as the student needs it.  At DWM, we want to help you strategize how to save for and pay for any education expenses that you may have before you, no matter when those costs are expected.  We can help you evaluate the various state plans and the investment options in the 529s and calculate an appropriate annual or lump sum amount of savings.  We will be glad to help make your summertime livin’ easy and carefree!  Okay, now back to summer fun…already in progress!

Health Savings Accounts – Understanding the Benefits

Health care is a very hot topic in 2017.  The new administration made it their leading agenda item, though we have yet to see a plan agreeable to both sides of the aisle.  As Republicans contemplate how to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with a good alternative, Health Savings Accounts or HSAs are expected to figure prominently.  President Trump has made the expansion of access to HSAs an important measure for his health-care plan and conservative proposals are using expanded eligibility and increased contribution limits as key elements in their plans.   We think it is a good time, therefore, to understand how these plans might fit into an overall health care and investment strategy.

Health care costs are rising and the costs and inflation associated with health care are a tremendous consideration for retirement planning.  There are varying estimates of costs for retirement health care –some estimates show that a 65 year old couple will need an average of $260,000 for 20 years of healthcare spending.  At DWM, we actually look at health care as a separate spending goal in our financial plans because of the higher inflation and importance of adequately preparing for these costs. 

Here is where an HSA may come in.  HSAs offer an opportunity to take advantage of triple tax benefits to pay for some of this cost.  HSA contributions can be deducted or paid pre-tax, there is tax-free compounding while in the account and no tax is paid on qualified withdrawals for health care.  It’s a trifecta of tax advantage!  After age 65, you can make withdrawals for any reason and pay regular income tax just like you would for an IRA, but there are no required minimum distributions.  However, using the funds for non-qualified expenses before you are 65 results in a stiff 20% penalty plus the normal taxes.

 Let’s look at how HSAs currently operate.  You are eligible to contribute to a Health Savings Account if you are part of a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) and as long as you have not signed up for Medicare.  There is an annual contribution maximum and, for 2017, it is $3,400 for an individual and $6,750 for families.  A HDHP, in 2017, means your deductibles must be at least $1,300 for an individual and $2,600 for a family with maximum out-of-pocket expense requirements of $6,550 for an individual or $13,100 for a family policy.  The lower premiums charged for this kind of coverage have attracted consumers and employers alike.  Given the ACA’s requirements that certain preventive screenings, annual visits or prescription drugs be covered regardless of deductibles, these policies are now more attractive and palatable to average health care consumers.  These plans are also becoming more popular as employers look for ways to manage their employee benefit costs. 

You can make withdrawals from the Health Savings Account for many traditional healthcare expenses and the qualified expenses can also include things that you normally pay for with after-tax dollars, like vision or dental care and supplies.  It might be a good way to pay for braces for your child or eye exams that might not be otherwise covered.  This might be one way to use HSAs – as a tax-free payment for the costs of the deductibles on the HDHP, as well as some additional medical expenses.  The other beneficial use is as an extra savings vehicle to be used in retirement for those future retirement health costs, including some of the long-term care costs that Medicare doesn’t pay. Also, the pre-tax contributions that you are allowed to make to these accounts can be in addition to your contribution maximums for other qualified accounts.  You can also, like IRAs at age 50, make $1,000 “catch-up” contributions to your HSA at age 55.  

There are some downsides to these accounts.  High deductible plans might not be the right choice for everyone; each individual or family will have to evaluate their situation carefully.  Also, the HSAs are not offered by every financial institution and the investment choices and administrative costs should be investigated before committing to one.  It also takes disciplined saving to make the most of the tax advantages. 

We do think there could be a place for these accounts in certain circumstances and, as the political negotiations continue to unfold, it is good to understand their pros and cons. We recognize the importance that health care costs play in preparing for financial independence.   As your holistic financial advocate, we would be glad to help you evaluate how a health savings account might fit into your overall plan to help you reach your goals.