Universal Life Insurance, a 1980s Sensation, Has Backfired

A long decline in interest rates caused premiums to soar when they were supposed to stay level

Cornerstone Comments: This Wall Street Journal article does an good job describing the earlier adoption of Universal Life Insurance policies, and the negative impact of lower interest rates on these policies over the past decade. However, it does not properly characterizing the insurance industry’s attempt in educating current policy owners of this impact, and the importance of policy reviews regardless of market conditions. Still, there are a few take-aways we have advocated for years.

  • Policies of all types, and in particular Universal Life policies, should be reviewed periodically. If your current advisor is not asking to review your policies, please call us for a complimentary review.
  • The need for life insurance can change over time. What at one point may have been a good idea can change as circumstances change. Be open to changes and alternative uses for your policy, including using unneeded cash values for other financial needs like long term care or guaranteed fixed income.
  • The world of Universal Life insurance and other policy types have evolved. Costs and surrender charges for many have been reduced.
  • Finally, although this article is a good starting point on this matter, it should not be assumed the opinions shared are actionable to you. Everyone’s circumstances are different. A good planner will not have one solution that fits all clients.

We hope you find this article a good starting point for your own questions in insurance and policy reviews. We view insurance as one among many different potential financial planning strategies. We are available to help educate on these and other financial matters.

A popular insurance product of the 1980s and 1990s has come back to bite many older Americans.

Universal life was a sensation when it premiered, and for some years it worked as advertised. It included both insurance and a savings account that earns income to help pay future costs and keep the premium the same.

That was when interest rates were in the high single digits or above. Today, rates are completing a decade at historically low levels, crimping the savings accounts. Meanwhile, the aging of the earliest customers into their 70s, 80s and even 90s has driven the yearly cost of insuring their lives much higher.

The result is a flood of unexpectedly steep life-insurance bills that is fraying a vital safety net. Some find they owe thousands of dollars a year to keep modest policies in effect. People with million-dollar policies can owe tens of thousands annually. Some retirees are dropping policies on which they paid premiums for decades.

“I’m very scared that everything will go down the drain,” said Bernice Sack, a 94-year-old former hospital billing clerk in North Carolina.

A $56 monthly premium Mrs. Sack paid when she bought the policy 35 years ago has climbed to $285, despite her efforts to keep the cost down by reducing her death benefit. Living with a daughter and getting by on Social Security, she skimps on medications to pay the insurance bill, sometimes runs late on her share of household costs and considers ice cream a splurge.

John Resnick, co-author of an American Bar Association book on life insurance, said of hundreds of older policies he has reviewed over a decade, “easily 90% or more actually were in trouble or soon to be in trouble.” Many people “are sitting on a ticking time bomb, and most probably aren’t aware of it,” he said.

Universal life is among the reasons Americans are approaching retirement in the worst shape in decades. The insurance policy type emerged in an era nearly four decades ago when the Federal Reserve was fighting inflation with high interest rates. Some financial advisers suggested people forgo traditional “whole life” insurance and buy less-expensive policies that covered just a limited term, investing what they saved in the mutual funds and money-market funds then proliferating. Insurance companies embraced this mantra of “buy term and invest the difference” by inventing a new product.

With universal life, the customer buys a one-year term-insurance policy and renews it annually. In the early years, the premium the customer pays is a good deal more than the actual cost of the insurance. The excess goes into a tax-deferred savings account.

The policies are designed so the gains in the savings account, which the industry typically calls a “cash-value” account, offset part of the cost of renewing the term insurance each year.

Much depends on what interest rate the account is earning. When these policies first were sold, U.S. interest rates were unusually high, and insurers often illustrated the policies to potential customers using a scenario of continuous 10% to 13% rates.

Companies typically showed worst-case scenarios, too. But with high rates common, the worst-case scenarios often got short shrift.

The interest projections were proving unrealistic by the mid-1990s, and especially so after the 2008 financial crisis depressed rates. Although many policies didn’t allow the savings-account return to fall below 4% or 5%, that wasn’t enough for early customers. The cost of a year of term insurance soars once people reach their late 70s.

Compounding the problem, universal life offers flexibility that is alluring but dangerous. Within reason, customers plan their own monthly or annual premium payment. They can set it low, counting on high interest income in their savings account to keep the policy financially sound.

Customers also can choose to pay less than their planned premium sometimes if money is tight. Or they can skip a payment altogether. And they can borrow against their savings account.

Any such move, of course, will spell skimpier earnings in the account. It is widely accepted that not all customers—or even all insurance agents—fully understood years ago how borrowing or skipping payments could undermine a universal-life policy.

Defending their sales, insurers say they have paid out more than $150 billion on universal life policies, and some owners received value from their policies by borrowing from them. Insurers stress that materials given to customers say only a minimum interest rate is guaranteed; higher rates used in sales pitches are hypothetical.

Insurers send customers annual statements showing the change in the value of their savings account and what it has cost to renew their term insurance. Some companies seek to identify problematic older policies, sending customers extra communications to be sure they understand their situation.

“Lincoln annually provides all policyholders with an updated statement that they and their agent can, and should, use to manage their policy and assess how various activities including withdrawals, missed payments and loans may impact its value,” said Scott Sloat, a spokesman for Lincoln National Corp. , the company that sold Mrs. Sack her policy.

He said Lincoln sends additional letters to customers who could face a large, sudden jump in their premium in 10 years or sooner if they don’t take action, such as by voluntarily increasing premium payments or reducing the policy’s death benefit.

Nicholas Vertullo, an 85-year-old former high-school teacher outside New York City, has three universal-life policies issued by a unit of American International Group Inc. One of them initially earned 9% on its savings account. The policies’ accounts today fetch 4% to 4.5% interest.

“I was abstractly aware that interest rates could vary,” Mr. Vertullo said. After the 2008 financial crisis, “the whole thing came home in a way that it was no longer an abstraction…. These life policies were quicksand.”

For death benefits totaling about $475,000, Mr. Vertullo is paying about $30,000 a year, triple the original premiums.

He had planned to replace the income his wife will lose when, on his death, his teacher’s pension and Social Security check stop. Years ago, he cut the death benefit to repay a loan against the insurance, and now he is looking into a bigger cut to reduce his annual cost. Mr. Vertullo said he and his wife have forgone restaurant meals and travel, living “an austere and Spartan retirement.”

“I hate to confess this: I simply went along,” Mr. Vertullo said. “I don’t think I understood completely what the hell I was doing.”

AIG said it doesn’t comment on individual situations. It said universal life is one of a wide range of solutions it offers to meet families’ specific needs.

In the early years of universal life, buyers often were businesspeople and other professionals who found the tax-deferred interest feature attractive. The insurance industry’s reputation for conservative products helped allay skepticism. By 1985, universal life was generating 38% of the industry’s premiums for individual life policies, according to research firm Limra. Americans bought two million to three million universal-life policies a year in the 1980s and early 1990s.

As interest rates declined, some agents alerted owners that funding shortfalls were developing. One who did was Pennsylvania agent Allen Carr, who says he had been “gullible” to believe universal-life policies could be counted on to work as planned. When policies he had sold veered from their projected performance, Mr. Carr said, “it was embarrassing going back [to customers] saying, ‘We have a potential problem.’”

Industrywide, some customers angrily canceled their policies. Others took a shame-on-me attitude for not having read the details. Some began voluntarily paying larger premiums to put the policies on firmer financial footing.

Lawsuits arose, and from the mid-1990s to early 2000s plaintiffs’ lawyers reached settlements over allegedly deceptive sales practices, such as promising the savings buildup would eliminate the need to pay premiums at all in a decade or so. State regulators tightened rules on how insurers could illustrate the policies, including requiring them to cite interest rates that could be justified for the long haul.

The industry responded by offering a new wrinkle: guaranteed universal life, which had a fixed premium designed to ensure lifetime coverage if paid on time. Many early universal-life policyholders swapped into this.

The disappointed early buyers of universal life included people in the industry—a gauge of how poorly the policies often were understood. Early this year, MetLife Inc. alerted Ohio couple Thomas and Rebecca Bell they would need to start paying about $300 a month on a policy for which they had been paying $97 monthly since they acquired it in 1994. At that time, Mr. Bell was an insurance agent.

The Bells owned a universal-life version with some added twists and risk, “variable universal life,” which let them invest the savings in stock and bond funds. After having paid $26,000 in premiums over the years, the couple let the $25,000 policy lapse. “There was no way [a $300 monthly premium] would be in our budget,” said Ms. Bell, 79.

Her 86-year-old husband, who was a tools salesman in addition to selling insurance, said he didn’t remember much about the policy’s particulars, but “It’s not what I expected it to be.”

A MetLife spokeswoman said, “We understand it can be challenging to cover the cost of insurance” when a policy contains less built-up income than envisioned. She said MetLife updates policyholders annually on their accounts’ value and urges them to contact their agents or the company.

The tumble in interest rates didn’t affect just customers—it also dinged insurers’ profits. As corporate-bond yields fell below 5% in recent years, insurers earned less from investing premiums, yet still had to pay guaranteed minimums of around 4% on universal-life savings accounts.

With future profits expected to be hurt by low rates, at least a half-dozen insurers have invoked policy provisions that they say allow them to raise the rates used to calculate the annual cost of customers’ term insurance, according to ITM TwentyFirst, which provides policy-management services.

This means some customers see costs rising not simply because they are a year older, or because their savings account didn’t grow as planned, but because their insurer has changed its price formula. As a result, even some customers who kept their policies well funded are being hit with unexpectedly higher costs.

One is Douglas Bradley, 83, a longtime health-insurance broker in California, whose premium roughly doubled because of a change made by insurer Transamerica. “I am absolutely stupefied at this,” Mr. Bradley said.

Transamerica, a unit of Aegon NV, declined to comment on Mr. Bradley’s situation but said its change was contractually permitted.

Such increases are “causing more life-insurance policies to expire even quicker than before” as customers who can’t afford them drop their policies and hand insurers “windfall profits,” said Henry Montag, a principal with The TOLI Center East in Melville, N.Y., which evaluates policies held in trusts.

Mrs. Sack, the 94-year-old retired hospital billing clerk, was warned by her insurance agent in 2000 that the universal-life policy she bought in 1983 was financially off track. Mrs. Sack had borrowed a little over $4,000 from it and had skipped some payments. Also, while the policy’s savings account initially earned over 10%, by 2000 this was down to 5.7%. She lowered the death benefit to $21,000 from $25,000 to repay the loan but still had to nearly double her premium, to $100 a month.

The premium kept rising. She borrowed a few thousand dollars more from the policy, and the interest return continued to slide, to the 4% minimum.

Her experience is detailed in an inch-thick stack of documents, bills and correspondence, with scribbled names of Lincoln National representatives she and her daughters have spoken to in their efforts to figure out the situation.

Mrs. Sack complained last year to North Carolina’s insurance department. It responded that “we understand your frustrations” but that the company appeared to be in compliance with policy provisions.

Even though Mrs. Sack has paid more for the insurance—approximately $39,000—than her heirs will ultimately receive, she doesn’t dare stop paying and let it lapse.

“My prime concern is my burial,” Mrs. Sack said. “My children are all so supportive, but I don’t want them to pay for mine.”

This article was prepared by a third party for information purposes only. It is not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. It contains only general descriptions and is not a solicitation to sell any insurance product or security, nor is it intended as any financial or tax advice. For information about specific insurance needs or situations, contact your insurance agent, Guarantees are based on the claims paying ability of the issuing company.

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Is Your Company’s 401(k) Plan as Good as It Could Be?

Two recent court rulings may make you want to double-check.

How often do retirement plan sponsors check up on 401(k)s? Not as often as they should, perhaps. Employers should be especially vigilant these days.

Every plan sponsor should know about two recent court rulings. One came from the Supreme Court in 2015; another, from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in 2017. Both concerned the same case: Tibble v. Edison International.

In Tibble v. Edison International, some beneficiaries of the Edison 401(k) Savings Plan took Edison International to court, seeking damages for losses and equitable relief. The plaintiffs contended that Edison International’s financial advisors and investment committee had breached their fiduciary duty to the plan participants. Twice, they argued, the plan sponsor had added higher-priced funds to the plan’s investment selection when near-identical, lower-priced equivalents were available.1

Siding with the plan participants, the SCOTUS ruled that under ERISA, a plaintiff may initiate a claim for violation of fiduciary duty by a plan sponsor within six years of the breach of an ongoing duty of prudence in investment selection.1

The unanimous SCOTUS decision on Tibble (expressed by Justice Stephen Breyer) stated that “cost-conscious management is fundamental to prudence in the investment function.” This degree of alertness should be applied “not only in making investments but in monitoring and reviewing investments. Implicit in a trustee’s [plan fiduciary’s] duties is a duty to be cost-conscious.”2,3

Two years later, the U.S. District Court ruled that Edison International had indeed committed a breach of fiduciary duty regarding the selection of all 17 mutual funds offered to participants in its retirement plan. It also stated that damages would be calculated “from 2011 to the present, based not on the statutory rate, but by the 401(k) plan’s overall returns” during those six years.3

The message from these rulings is clear: the investment committee created by a plan sponsor shoulders nearly as much responsibility for monitoring investments and fees as a third-party advisor. Most small businesses, however, are not prepared to benchmark processes and continuously look for and reject unacceptable investments.

Do you have high-quality investment choices in your plan? While larger plan sponsors may have more “pull” with plan providers, this does not relegate a small company sponsoring a 401(k) to a substandard investment selection. Sooner or later employees may begin to ask questions. “Why does this 401(k) have only one bond fund?” “Where are the target-date funds?” “I went to Morningstar, and some of these funds have so-so ratings.” Questions and comments like these may be reasonable and might surface when a plan’s roster of investments is too short.

Are your plan’s investment fees reasonable? Employees can deduce this without checking up on the Form 5500 you file – there are websites that offer some general information as to what is and what is not acceptable regarding the ideal administrative fees.

Are you using institutional share classes in your 401(k)? This was the key issue brought to light by the plan participants in Tibble v. Edison International. The U.S. District Court noted that while Edison International’s investment committee and third-party advisors placed 17 funds in its retirement plan, it “selected the retail shares instead of the institutional shares, or failed to switch to institutional share classes once one became available.”3

Institutional share classes commonly have lower fees than retail share classes. To some observers, the difference in fees may seem trivial – but the impact on retirement savings over time may be significant.3

When was the last time you reviewed your 401(k) fund selection & share class? Was it a few years ago? Has it been longer than that? Why not review this today? Call in a financial professional to help you review your plan’s investment offering and investment fees.

This material was prepared by MarketingPro, Inc., and does not necessarily represent the views of the presenting party, nor their affiliates. This information has been derived from sources believed to be accurate. Please note – investing involves risk, and past performance is no guarantee of future results. The publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional services. If assistance is needed, the reader is advised to engage the services of a competent professional. This information should not be construed as investment, tax or legal advice and may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any Federal tax penalty. This is neither a solicitation nor recommendation to purchase or sell any investment or insurance product or service, and should not be relied upon as such. All indices are unmanaged and are not illustrative of any particular investment.

Citations.

1 – faegrebd.com/en/insights/publications/2015/5/supreme-court-decides-tibble-v-edison-international [5/18/15]

2 – cpajournal.com/2017/09/13/erisas-reasonable-fee-requirement/ [9/13/17]

3 – tinyurl.com/yd8s2rq3 [8/17/17]

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Real Estate Investments Course Starts September 17, 2018 at UC Berkeley Extension, San Francisco Campus

The next Real Estate Investments for Financial Planners and Investors course starts Monday September 17th at the San Francisco UC Berkeley Extension campus. This class will serve as an important foundation for making buy, sell, and hold real estate investment decisions. The coursework includes

  • An introduction to real estate investment basics
  • The Real Estate Cash Flow model
  • Real estate ownership and finance
  • Case studies on real estate investment decisions, and how they have impacted personal financial goals

Click here to register. Or contact me if you have any questions, or if you would like a copy of the course outline.

Sincerely, Rich Arzaga, CFP®, CCIM, Instructor

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How Much Money Will You Really Spend in Retirement? Probably a Lot More Than You Think

When we retire, every day becomes just like the weekend. And on the weekend, we have all kinds of time and opportunities to spend money. Many of us vastly underestimate the percentage of income we’ll need. Here’s how to make sure you get that number right.

I was asked recently by a former student-CFP® candidate to recommend a software program for a friend who wanted to create a plan on her own. I get this question every-so-often. While there are a few pretty slick sites that produce easy to create financial profiles, my experience is that it is often user-error that causes them to create a plan that looks promising but falls apart on quick review. One of the biggest reasons in understatement of spending. The following article by Dan Ariely and Aline Holzwarth, begins to describe this gap. Other assumptions not covered in this article are also missed, like assumed performance, treatment of assets and taxes, and the introduction of risk during the plan. If you want a great plan, my recommendation is to choose a great planner who can integrate technology with planning experience. Ask for a sample of her/his work. Ask her/him to explain how the plan was assembled. Ask if she/he holds a CFP® designation. These few questions alone will help you learn which advisors view planning as a foundation for your financial life, and other advisors say they are planners but prefer to only manage your investments. I hope this article helps.

By Dan Ariely and Aline Holzwarth

It’s the question that plagues pretty much everybody as they look ahead: How much money will I need in retirement?

Most likely, a lot more than you think.

Let us explain. The typical approach most people take is to ask what percentage of their final salary they think they will need in retirement. If you have ever visited a financial adviser, you must have been asked this sort of question. You most likely dedicated a whole minute (at most) to formulating your answer.

And no one would blame you for it. Answering a question as complex as this requires knowledge far beyond most people’s grasp—and far beyond the grasp of even many professionals.

Just imagine for a second the sorts of inputs you might use to get to the right number, such as the cost of living where you want to retire, the cost of health care (and how much of it you will utilize), the state of Social Security, the rate of inflation, the risk level of your investment portfolio, and especially how you want to spend your time in retirement. Do you want to take walks in the park or join a gym? Drink water at dinner or expensive wine? Watch TV or attend the ballet weekly? Visit family once a year or twice a year or four times a year? Do you want to eat out once or twice or five times a week? And so on.

Try it yourself. Stop for a minute and think to yourself what your percentage might be. Clearly, it’s a daunting task to transform all these hard-to-predict inputs into a single percentage.

To understand better how people grapple with this question, we invited hundreds of people—of different age groups, income levels, and professions—to our research lab and asked them how much of their salary they thought they would need in retirement.

The answer most people gave was about 70%. Did you also choose a percentage around 70%-80%? You’re not alone. In fact, we, too, thought that 70% sounded reasonable. But reasonable isn’t the same as right. So we asked the research participants how they arrived at this number. And we discovered that it wasn’t because they had truly analyzed it. It was because they recalled hearing it at some point—and they simply regurgitated it on demand.

The 70%, in other words, is the conventional wisdom. And it’s wrong.

Sticker shock

To find out what people actually will need in retirement—as opposed to what they think they will need—we took another group of participants, and asked them specific questions about how they wanted to spend their time in retirement. And then, based on this information, we attached reasonable numbers to their preferences and computed what percentage of their salary they would actually need to support the kind of lifestyle they imagined.

The results were startling: The percentage we came up with was 130%—meaning they’d have to save nearly double the amount they originally thought.

How could this be? Just think about it. Working is actually a very cheap activity. When you’re working (never mind the fact that you are actually making money), you aren’t spending much. There’s no time to spend money at work. And when we do spend money, it is often paid for by our employers. At least some companies pay for our coffee, our travel, team-building activities, happy-hour drinks and so on. It is one of the cheapest ways to spend our time.

When we retire, it is as if someone took 10 waking hours of our workday and gave us free time to do as we please. Every day becomes just like the weekend. And on the weekend, we have all kinds of time and opportunities to spend money. We shop, travel, buy tickets for events and eat out.

Sure, we may have the time in retirement to do certain things ourselves that we would pay for while working (like mow the lawn, clean the house or make our own lunch). But for the most part, it is much easier to spend money when we’re not spending most of our waking hours at work.

Self-assessment

Now that we know how misguided the 70% figure is, here’s the hard question: How can each of us figure out more precisely the kind of life we’ll want—and what it will cost?

In a study conducted in collaboration with MoneyComb, a fintech company that participated in our Startup Lab academic incubator program at our Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, we found out that a good way to think about spending in general is to think about the following seven spending categories: eating out, digital services, recharge, travel, entertainment and shopping, and basic needs.

To help you think about your time in retirement, imagine that every day was the weekend. How much would you like to spend in each of these categories? How often would you eat out? Which digital subscriptions would you want to have? How would you pamper yourself? How often, where and how luxuriously would you want to travel?

Clearly, those who prefer spending time at the beach and watching Netflix won’t spend nearly as much as those who prefer the opera and good wine three times a week. Those who want to spend vacations visiting family won’t spend nearly as much as those who want to take a few cruises a year. Believe it or not, what might seem like minor preferential differences like these can quickly add $20,000 a year to your spending requirements. This is precisely why it’s so important to factor in these preferences when determining how much you need for retirement.

Details, Details

Failing to account for all of your expected costs in retirement, no matter how small, can be costly. Here are some specifics—many of which people often forget—to factor in when making projections.

1 Water, gas, electricity, heating/cooling, garbage collection    2 Rent, mortgage, insurance, maintenance    3 Primary-care doctor, specialists, hospital bills, medications, insurance    4 News sources, Netflix, Hulu, etc.    5 Loan/lease, maintenance, insurance, gas, car wash, parking

Source: Dan Ariely and Aline Holzwarth

Try this exercise yourself: Close your eyes and picture a single representative year in retirement. Live it in the best way you can imagine. (And remember that “best” doesn’t necessarily mean “more expensive.”) The more expensive you imagine your future, the larger the sacrifice you will have to make today.

Now, answer each of the following questions from the list of categories.

We know that just thinking about retirement, not to mention doing the math, can be overwhelming. So pour yourself a glass of wine and make this a rewarding process for yourself. Just take note of how much you spent on the bottle for future reference.

  • Eating out and in:Do you like to cook, or do you prefer going out to eat? How often do you want to go out to dinner in retirement? How much do you spend on each meal, on average? How often do you see yourself splurging on dessert, or a fancy bottle of wine?
  • Digital services:What are the digital services you pay for now? Do you have a subscription to The Wall Street Journal? (You won’t want to give that up.) Do you have cable? How about videogames? Apps and software? Online courses? What are all the digital services you want to have in retirement, and how much do they cost? Would you like to spend more or less on digital services in retirement?
  • Recharge (recreational and personal services):Do you like to pamper yourself? What sort of pampering do you imagine in retirement: reading a book at the beach, treating yourself to the occasional $15 manicure, or going all in with luxurious spa treatments? How often do you want to get a massage? Are you a member of a country club, or would you like to be?
  • Travel:Do you like to travel? How often? How much do you spend on everyday transportation? What do you spend on flights in a year? Do you imagine traveling more or less in retirement than you do now? What sort of traveling suits you? Do you like to go on cruises? Are you the type to go on a cross-country road trip in your 60s, or would you prefer the comfort of first class on a plane? Or perhaps you want to have your own private jet that takes you to your own private island. (We can all dream.)
  • Entertainment:How will you spend your time in retirement? What sorts of events will you want to attend? How much do you want to spend on the opera, concerts, musicals, ballet, sports events, museums, classes and so on? Will you buy books or borrow them from the library?
  • Shopping:Are you a shopper? Do you like to give your friends and family gifts? What about donations to charity? How much shopping do you see yourself doing in retirement? How much do you imagine spending on clothing, electronics, home goods and other shopping?
  • Basic needs (utilities, housing, health care):Finally, we arrive at the least exciting but most necessary category—our essential spending. How much do you think you will spend on utilities, housing, health care and other basic needs? (This is of course a very complex number to estimate, and this is where getting input from professionals can be very useful.)

 

Doing the math

Now that you have a guide for determining roughly how much you’d like to spend in each category, you’re ready to add everything up. Here is an Excel spreadsheet that you can download and play with. It is prepopulated with example numbers, but you should change things around to fit your own personal preferences. To get your percentage, you’ll need to add your salary in the spreadsheet. (And if you’d like, go to our survey to let us know what percentage you got and share any feedback.)

If you want to take the next step in this process and translate your annual amount to the total amount you will need over the course of your full retirement (to know the total amount you need to accumulate from until then, for example), simply multiply the annual amount by the number of years you expect to be in retirement. For most of us, that should be about 20 years.

As we live longer, funding retirement is a moving target. And to have any hope of successfully securing our future lifestyles, we have to start early and we have to build a more detailed and accurate picture of the way we hope to live. We have to understand not just how much we will earn in our life and how far we are from retirement (in years and in dollars), but also how we want to spend our time both during our working years and after.

Once we have determined how much we truly need to save for retirement, we can then focus on how to get to this amount. We can adjust our current lifestyle accordingly, figuring out which trade-offs we are willing and unwilling to make. We should also work backward to determine how much risk we need to take in our investment portfolios in order to reach these goals. And finally, for most of us the retirement we desire may be out of reach, so we need to start being extra nice to our children.

Mr. Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. He is the founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. Mrs. Holzwarth is the head of behavioral science at Pattern Health, and principal of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University.

Appeared in the September 4, 2018, print edition as ‘How Much You’ll Really Spend in Retirement.’

This article was prepared by a third party for information purposes only. It is not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. It contains references to individuals or entitles that are not affiliated with Cornerstone Wealth Management, Inc. or LPL Financial.

 

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Financial Planning Optimism

It’s back to school for students all across the country, and whether it’s the first week in kindergarten, high school, or college, parents and students alike are excited yet probably nervous at the same time. What will the new school year bring—and can it live up to our hopeful expectations? This is likely how many investors may feel about the markets right now, with reasons for excitement and some causes for concern. Overall, when it comes to market fundamentals, the positives may outweigh the negatives—and hopefully the same will be the case for the 2018–19 school year.

Strength in several economic and market indicators is driving optimism among consumers and businesses. The Institute for Supply Management manufacturing index has soared to a 14-year high, while the job market also continues to show robust growth. As we await the figures for August, the economy has produced an average of 215,000 new jobs during the first seven months of the year. These positive economic indicators cement expectations of an additional interest rate increase at the Federal Reserve’s (Fed) September meeting; given the Fed’s gradual and transparent rate hike campaign, however, investors in U.S. markets have thus far taken these increases in stride.

Along with a steady economy, corporate America continues to deliver solid performances, as second quarter earnings season delivered very strong profit growth. Meanwhile, generally upbeat forward-looking guidance, along with high business and consumer confidence, helps support the outlook for earnings over the balance of the year and into 2019. With this backdrop, the now longest bull market in history may have further to go.

Although stocks have been performing well, there are some areas of concern. September is historically the weakest month of the year for stocks. There are also some trouble spots in emerging markets, including Turkey and Argentina, which have led to year-to-date losses in emerging market investment strategies. Policy risk remains in the background with the ongoing trade tensions and the upcoming midterm elections. These factors may lead to a pickup in near-term market volatility, but stocks still have the potential to push higher from current levels over the rest of the year.

The longest bull market, and one of the longest economic expansions, means investors may worry that the good times will soon come to an end. But it appears that both the bull market and expansion have room to run. The U.S. economy is enjoying solid momentum, bolstered by the new tax law; business spending is picking up; the manufacturing sector is healthy; and the latest earnings season was one of the strongest on record. So although there are areas to keep a close eye on, and the potential for some ups and downs in the market, we can retain a positive outlook for the final months of 2018. Let’s hope that students, teachers, and parents can also put their worries aside and enjoy their return to another school year.

As always, if you have any questions, I encourage you to contact me.

Sincerely,

Important Information

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual security. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing.

All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. Indexes are unmanaged and cannot be invested into directly. Economic forecasts set forth may not develop as predicted.

Investing involves risks including possible loss of principal. No investment strategy or risk management technique can guarantee return or eliminate risk in all market environments. Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

This research material has been prepared by LPL Financial LLC. Tracking #1-768037

Dear Investor, That Cocky Voice in Your Head Is Wrong

The following article is courtesy of The Wall Street Journal

The findings from the field of behavioral economics apply to everyone. Especially you.

By Jason Zweig

As much as all of us investors wish we were perfectly logical calculating machines, we are human: emotional, distractible, impatient, inconsistent. Behavioral economics is the study of how real human beings—not the walking, talking spreadsheets that traditional economists pretend we are—make financial decisions. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to persuade yourself that the findings of behavioral economics apply to everyone else but you. After more than 20 years of studying research in that field, here’s how I think most investors interpret it. How many of these sound like you? I know many of them sound like me.

  • Behavioral economics teaches that people are overconfident: They believe they know more than they do, or they assume their knowledge is more precise than it is.

I’m 100% certain that’s true for everybody else, but there’s no way that applies to me.

  • Behavioral economists say that confirmation bias leads most people to seek out evidence supporting what they already believe or to ignore data that might disprove their beliefs.

That’s so ridiculous I’m not even going to waste my time refuting it.

  • Behavioral economics says investors are myopic: Short-term losses or costs can blind them to the pursuit of longer-term rewards.

I could explain all that to you, but I gotta run.

  • Behavioral economists say you should inform your decisions with the base rate, or the best available historical evidence of how likely an outcome is.

Why would I do that when my gut feelings give me the right answer, like, pretty much almost all the time?

  • Extensive research documents unconscious biases, or factors that shape our behavior below the level of awareness.

Are you kidding me? I’m not aware a single decision of mine that could possibly have been affected by unconscious bias.

  • Most people tend to be unrealistically optimistic, overestimating how likely they are to have good fortune and underestimating how many bad things will happen to them.

Ha! Just you wait until Facebook buys my great new scratch-n-sniff app for $10 billion!

  • The disposition effectleads investors to sell their winning stocks too soon and hold onto their money-losing positions too long.

Well, I sure don’t suffer from that. I don’t have any losers!

  • The sunk-cost fallacyleads many people to keep trying to justify a past decision even after it’s become obvious that it was a mistake.

That’s nonsense, and I’ll prove it to you after I finish checking the price on this stock I bought five years ago. [Pause.] I’ve only lost 85%, so I’ll be back to break-even in no time.

  • Research in dozens of countries around the world shows that investors almost everywhere keep most of their stock portfolios in shares of local companies instead of spreading their bets worldwide. This “home bias” leaves them underexposed to the benefits of global diversification.

I’m not surprised people in backward countries would do something dumb like that. I’ve got at least 10% of my assets outside the U.S.!

  • Research shows that many people are prone to “status-quo bias” or investing inertia, preferring to leave their current portfolio in place even when they might be better off switching to other choices.

But all my investments are already perfect. Why would I want to change?

Well, sure, but haven’t these scientists ever noticed somebody wins Powerball almost every week? The jackpot’s up to $459 million, so excuse me while I go buy 25 tickets.

  • Many people exhibit what’s called the bias blind spot, or the tendency to see clearly that other people’s behavior isn’t optimal while remaining oblivious to our own shortcomings.

The more I think about it, the more I can see how that might apply to people like you.

  • Experiments in behavioral economics show that most people are prone to anchoring. People who compare prices to the last digits of their Social Security number, for instance, are willing to pay more for something if their final digits are high.

People are so irrational! Hey, can you believe this guy on CNBC? He just said Apple stock’s going to $300 a share. There’s no way it’s worth more than, like, $285.

Without even thinking about it, I can come up with three people who would never do that: me, myself and I.

That’s nonsense—WHAT DO YOU MEAN, THE DOW IS DOWN 140 POINTS?

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Global investing involves special risks such as currency fluctuation and political instability and may not be suitable for all investors.

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Guarding Against Identity Theft

Take steps so criminals won’t take vital information from you.

America is enduring a data breach epidemic. The latest annual study of the problem from Javelin Strategy & Research, a leading financial analytics research firm, says that 16.7 million people across the nation were impacted by I.D. theft in 2017 – an all-time high.1

The problem is getting worse – much worse. Last year, 30% of U.S. consumers were alerted about data breaches by firms holding their personal information. In 2016, just 12% of consumers were so affected.1

Social Security numbers were compromised in 35% of I.D. crimes last year; credit card numbers, in 30% of breaches. Account takeovers tripled in 2017. About 1 million smartphone and computer users had phony intermediary accounts established for them at Amazon, PayPal, and other commerce websites.1

Tax time is prime time for identity thieves. They would love to get their hands on your 1040 form, and they would also love to claim a phony refund using your personal information. In 2016, the I.R.S. had spotted 1 million bogus returns; in 2017, the number dropped to 900,000. This spring, initial data suggested even fewer cases of fraud would be identified, but the numbers are still too large.2

E-filing of tax returns is smart; just make sure you use a secure Internet connection. When you e-file, you aren’t putting your Social Security number, address, and income information through the mail. You aren’t leaving Form 1040 on your desk at home (or work) while you get up and get some coffee or go out for a walk. If somehow you just can’t bring yourself to e-file, then think about sending your returns via Certified Mail. Those rough drafts of your returns where you ran the numbers and checked your work? Shred them.

The I.R.S. doesn’t use unsolicited emails to request information from taxpayers. If you get an email claiming to be from the I.R.S. asking for your personal or financial information, report it to your email provider as spam.3

Use secure Wi-Fi. Avoid “coffee housing” your personal information away – never risk disclosing financial information over a public Wi-Fi network. (Broadband is susceptible, too.) It takes little sophistication to do this – just a little freeware.

Sure, a public Wi-Fi network at an airport or coffee house is password-protected – but if the password is posted on a wall or readily disclosed, how protected is it? A favorite hacker trick is to sit idly at a coffee house, library, or airport and set up a Wi-Fi hotspot with a name similar to the legitimate one. Inevitably, people will fall for the ruse, log on, and get hacked.

Look for the “https” & the padlock icon when you visit a website. Not just http, https. When you see that added “s” at the start of the website address, you are looking at a website with active SSL encryption, and you want that. A padlock icon in the address bar confirms an active SSL connection. For really solid security when you browse, you could opt for a VPN (virtual private network) service which encrypts 100% of your browsing traffic.4,5

Check your credit report. Remember, you are entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the big three agencies: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. Historically, asking these bureaus to freeze your credit file in case of suspicious activity has cost a fee. Beginning in fall 2018, you will be able to request a freeze from all three at no charge, thanks to a change in federal law.6

Don’t talk to strangers. Broadly speaking, that is very good advice in this era of identity theft. If you get a call or email from someone you don’t recognize – it could tell you that you’ve won a prize; it could claim to be someone from the county clerk’s office, a pension fund, or a public utility – be skeptical. Financially, you could be doing yourself a great favor.

This material was prepared by MarketingPro, Inc., and does not necessarily represent the views of the presenting party, nor their affiliates. All information is believed to be from reliable sources; however we make no representation as to its completeness or accuracy. Please note – investing involves risk, and past performance is no guarantee of future results. The publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional services. If assistance is needed, the reader is advised to engage the services of a competent professional. This information should not be construed as investment, tax or legal advice and may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any Federal tax penalty. This is neither a solicitation nor recommendation to purchase or sell any investment or insurance product or service, and should not be relied upon as such. All indices are unmanaged and are not illustrative of any particular investment.

Citations.

1 – cbsnews.com/news/identity-theft-hits-record-high/ [2/6/18]
2 – nextgov.com/cybersecurity/2018/04/irs-stopping-fewer-fraudulent-returns-and-s-good-thing/147305/ [4/9/18]
3 – forbes.com/sites/kellyphillipserb/2018/03/22/irs-warns-on-dirty-dozen-tax-scams/ [3/22/18]
4 – nytimes.com/2018/05/04/technology/personaltech/staying-safer-on-public-networks.html [5/4/18]
5 – cntraveler.com/story/how-to-keep-your-data-safe-while-traveling [6/7/18]
6 – nbcnews.com/business/consumer/credit-freezes-will-soon-be-free-everyone-n883146 [6/14/18]

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Financial Considerations When Buying a Car

Things to think about before heading to a dealership.

Time to buy a car? Short of buying a house, this is one on the most important purchases you will make. It’s also one that you might be making several times through your life, comprising of thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of dollars.

If you think about it, you can probably imagine other things that you might want to prioritize, ranging from saving for retirement, buying a home, or even some lifestyle purchases, like travel. Not to mention that having more money on hand will likely be handy if you have sudden need of an emergency fund. Thankfully, there are many options for saving money by avoiding spending too much on your next car. Here are some things to think about.

Buying a new car? It may not be the best value; a brand-new car loses roughly 20% of value over the first year and about 10% of that happens the moment you drive it off the lot. Buying used might require more research and test driving, but under the right circumstances, it can be a considerably better value.1

A trade-in might not always favor you. A dealership has to make a profit on the vehicle you are trading in, so you will often receive far less than the Blue Book value. A better value may be to try to sell your vehicle, yourself, directly to another person. If you do attempt a trade-in, avoid any major expenditures on the old car beforehand, like major repairs or even a detailing. Focus on getting the best price for the new car and leave the trade-in for the end of your negotiation.2

Leasing vs. buying. Leasing a car may only be advantageous if you are a business owner and able to leverage the payments as a tax deduction. While you can get a brand-new car every few years, there are many hoops to jump through; you need excellent credit, and there are many potential fees and penalties to consider when leasing, which you don’t face when buying. In many ways, it’s akin to renting a car for a longer period of time, with all of the disadvantages and responsibilities.3

Shop around for interest rates, but consider credit unions. Credit unions tend to have more favorable rates as they are member owned. At the average American bank, the interest rates are 4.5%, according to Bankrate.com. Meanwhile, you can often get rates in the neighborhood of 2.97% through the typical credit union. There are a number of other benefits to credit unions, including being based locally as well as user-friendly practices, such as options to apply to a credit union at the dealership. There are many financing options, though, so make credit unions only part of your research.4

An automobile is a big-ticket purchase. It’s worth taking your time and making sure that you’ve covered your bases in terms of making the most responsible purchase.

This material was prepared by MarketingPro, Inc., and does not necessarily represent the views of the presenting party, nor their affiliates. All information is believed to be from reliable sources; however we make no representation as to its completeness or accuracy. Please note – investing involves risk, and past performance is no guarantee of future results. The publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional services. If assistance is needed, the reader is advised to engage the services of a competent professional. This information should not be construed as investment, tax or legal advice and may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any Federal tax penalty. This is neither a solicitation nor recommendation to purchase or sell any investment or insurance product or service, and should not be relied upon as such. All indices are unmanaged and are not illustrative of any particular investment.

Citations.

1 – marketwatch.com/story/8-things-youre-better-off-buying-used-2018-08-02 [8/2/18]

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When to Ignore the Crowd and Shun a Roth IRA

‘Stealth’ taxes and financial aid implications are among the factors savers should consider when switching accounts

The following article is Courtesy of Laura Saunders and The Wall Street Journal, and makes some very good points on why funding a Roth Conversion could have a negative impact to an overall financial plan. For many of our clients who are high income earners, the worse possible time for a Roth Conversion may be when they are in their peak earning years – the same period of time most people think about this for the first time.

To determine if a Roth IRA is the right strategy for you and your family, or perhaps to learn when might be the right time to explore this strategy, feel free to reach out to Cornerstone.

Switching your traditional individual retirement account to a Roth IRA is often a terrific tax strategy—except when it’s a terrible one.

Congress first allowed all owners of traditional IRAs to make full or partial conversions to Roth IRAs in 2010. Since then, savers have done more than one million conversions and switched more than $75 billion from traditional IRAs to Roth accounts. (Source: The Wall Street Journal September 2018)

The benefits of a Roth conversion are manifold. A conversion gets retirement funds into an account that offers both tax-free growth and tax-free withdrawals. In addition, the account owner doesn’t have to take payouts at a certain age.

While traditional IRAs can also grow tax-free, withdrawals are typically taxed at ordinary income rates. Account owners 70½ and older also must take payouts that deplete the account over time.

IRA specialist Ed Slott and Natalie Choate, an attorney in Boston, say that Roth IRAs also yield income that is “invisible” to the federal tax system. So Roth payouts don’t raise reported income in a way that reduces other tax breaks, raises Medicare premiums, or increases the 3.8% levy on net investment income.

Yet both Ms. Choate and Mr. Slott agree that despite their many benefits, Roth conversions aren’t always a good idea. IRA owners who convert must pay tax on the transfer, and the danger is that savers will give up valuable tax deferral without reaping even more valuable tax-free benefits. For tax year 2018 and beyond, the law no longer allows IRA owners to undo Roth conversions.

Savers often flinch at writing checks for Roth conversions, and sometimes there are good reasons not to put pen to paper. Here are some of them.

  • Your tax rate is going down. In general, it doesn’t make sense to do full or partial Roth conversions if your tax rate will be lower when you make withdrawals. This means it’s often best to convert in low-tax-rate years when income dips. For example, a Roth conversion could work well for a young saver who has an IRA or 401(k) and then returns to school, or a worker who has retired but hasn’t started to take IRA payouts that will raise income later.
  • Those who will soon move to a state with lower income taxes should also consider waiting.
  • You can’t pay the taxes from “outside.”  Slott advises IRA owners to forgo a Roth conversion if they don’t have funds outside the account to pay the tax bill. Paying the tax with account assets shrinks the amount that can grow tax-free.
  • You’re worried about losses. If assets lose value after a Roth conversion, the account owner will have paid higher taxes than necessary. Ms. Choate notes that losses in a traditional IRA are shared with Uncle Sam.
  • A conversion will raise “stealth” taxes. Converting to a Roth IRA raises income for that year. So, benefits that exist at lower income levels might lose value as your income increases. Examples include tax breaks for college or the 20% deduction for a pass-through business. Higher income in the year of a conversion could also help trigger the 3.8% tax on net investment income, although the conversion amount isn’t subject to this tax. The threshold for this levy is $200,000 for singles and $250,000 for married couples, filing jointly.
  • You’ll need the IRA assets sooner, not later. Roth conversions often provide their largest benefits when the account can grow untouched for years. If payouts will be taken soon, there’s less reason to convert.
  • You make IRA donations to charity. Owners of traditional IRAs who are 70½ and older can donate up to $100,000 of assets per year from their IRA to one or more charities and have the donations count toward their required payouts. This is often a highly tax-efficient move. But Roth IRA owners don’t benefit from it, so that could be a reason to do a partial rather than full conversion.
  • Financial aid will be affected. Retirement accounts are often excluded from financial-aid calculations, but income isn’t. If the income spike from a Roth conversion would lower a financial-aid award, consider putting it on hold.
  • You’ll have high medical expenses. Under current law, unreimbursed medical expenses are tax deductible above a threshold. For someone who is in a nursing home or has other large medical costs, this write-off can reduce or even wipe out taxable income. If all funds are in a Roth IRA, the deduction is lost.
  • You think Congress will tax Roth IRAs.Many people worry about this, although specialists don’t tend to. They argue that Congress likes the up-front revenue that Roth IRAs and Roth conversions provide and is more likely to restrict the current deduction for traditional IRAs and 401(k)s—as was considered last year.

Other proposals to limit the size of IRAs and 401(k)s to about $3.4 million, to make non-spouse heirs of traditional IRAs withdraw the funds within five years, and to require payouts from Roth IRAs at age 70½ also haven’t gotten traction so far.

Withdrawals from a Roth IRA may be tax free, as long as they are considered qualified. Limitations and restrictions may apply. Withdrawals prior to age 59 ½ or prior to the account being opened for 5 years, whichever is later, may result in a 10% IRS penalty tax. Future tax laws can change at any time and may impact the benefits of Roth IRAs. The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax advice. We suggest that you discuss your specific tax issues with a qualified tax advisor.

 

Why the U.S. Might Be Less Affected by a Trade War

The nature of our economy could help it withstand the disruption.

A trade war does seem to be getting underway. Investors around the world see headwinds arising from newly enacted and planned tariffs, headwinds that could potentially exert a drag on global growth (and stock markets). How badly could these trade disputes hurt the American economy? Perhaps not as dramatically as some journalists and analysts warn.1,2

Our business sector may be impacted most. Undeniably, tariffs on imported goods raise costs for manufacturers. Costlier imports may reduce business confidence, and less confidence implies less capital investment. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, which regularly surveys firms to learn their plans for the next six months, learned in July that businesses anticipate investing less and hiring fewer employees during the second half of the year. The survey’s index for future activity fell in July for the fourth month in a row. (Perhaps the outlook is not quite as negative as the Philadelphia Fed reports: a recent National Federation of Independent Business survey indicates that most companies have relatively stable spending plans for the near term.)1,2

Fortunately, the U.S. economy is domestically driven. Consumer spending is its anchor: household purchases make up about two-thirds of it. Our economy is fairly “closed” compared to the economies of some of our key trading partners and rivals. Last year, trade accounted for just 27% of our gross domestic product. In contrast, it represented 37% of gross domestic product for China, 64% of growth for Canada, 78% of GDP for Mexico, and 87% of GDP for Germany.3,4

Our stock markets have held up well so far. The trade spat between the U.S. and China cast some gloom over Wall Street during the second-quarter earnings season, yet the S&P 500 neared an all-time peak in early August.5

All this tariff talk has helped the dollar. Between February 7 and August 7, the U.S. Dollar Index rose 5.4%. A stronger greenback does potentially hurt U.S. exports and corporate earnings, and in the past, the impact has been felt notably in the energy, materials, and tech sectors.6,7

As always, the future comes with question marks. No one can predict just how severe the impact from tariffs on our economy and other economies will be or how the narrative will play out. That said, it appears the U.S. may have a bit more economic insulation in the face of a trade war than other nations might have.

This material was prepared by MarketingPro, Inc., and does not necessarily represent the views of the presenting party, nor their affiliates. All information is believed to be from reliable sources; however we make no representation as to its completeness or accuracy. Please note – investing involves risk, and past performance is no guarantee of future results. The publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional services. If assistance is needed, the reader is advised to engage the services of a competent professional. This information should not be construed as investment, tax or legal advice and may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any Federal tax penalty. This is neither a solicitation nor recommendation to purchase or sell any investment or insurance product or service, and should not be relied upon as such. All indices are unmanaged and are not illustrative of any particular investment.Citations.

1 – reuters.com/article/us-usa-economy/us-weekly-jobless-claims-hit-more-than-48-and-a-half-year-low-idUSKBN1K91R5 [7/19/18]
2 – nytimes.com/2018/07/24/upshot/trade-war-damage-to-us-economy-how-to-tell.html [7/24/18]
3 – money.cnn.com/2018/07/25/news/economy/state-of-the-economy-gdp/index.html [7/25/18]
4 – alliancebernstein.com/library/can-the-us-economy-weather-the-trade-wars.htm [7/17/18]
5 – cnbc.com/2018/08/06/the-sp-500-and-other-indexes-are-again-on-the-verge-of-historic-highs.html [8/6/18]
6 – barchart.com/stocks/quotes/$DXY/performance [8/7/18]
7 – investopedia.com/ask/answers/06/strongweakdollar.asp [3/16/18]