Robo-Advisors may be just what we need!

Should you really fear Robo-Advisors?

Reading financial news, you see many posts warning of robo-advisors, telling you how you really need a human advisor, how you can robo-proof your investment business, or how robo-advisors are merely a fad and will die off when everyone realizes how evil they are.

All these posts have it backwards. They are apologists for entrenched firms attempting to protect their turf when individuals need help.

Shift from pensions to 401(k) plans hurt individuals

Last century, many large employers provided pensions as a benefit. These were large portfolios that could hire good advisors and thus performed well. However, by the end of last century, retirement funds had shifted to 401(k) and similar plans, where individuals managed their own portfolios.

Institutional portfolios hire great managers so many are able to beat their various market indices. In contrast, individual investors historically achieve less than half the returns of their related indices.

Poor performance by individuals managing their own retirement funds is a key factor in the current crisis facing Boomers who are under-funded for retirement. (Note to Millennials: don’t just speak to your parents, do your own planning so this doesn’t happen to you!)

Why do individuals invest poorly?

Individual investors are seen as a contrary indicator:

  • If they are buying, then the market is near its peak and it is time to sell; and
  • If they are selling, the market has reached its bottom and it is time to buy.

Here is a case in point:

We saw the regret and pride response in action beginning in March 2000, the largest purchase of mutual funds in the history of the stock market. Fast forward to 2008, just before the “Great Recession” market downturn, and stock prices were falling, but investors refused to sell at a loss. As the market continued to fall, investors held off until they simply couldn’t take it any longer. Many sold their stock near the bottom and missed the following upswing that began March 2009. Forbes – Why average investors returns are so low.

To summarize, individual investors perform poorly due to these factors:

  1. Lack of access to good investment advice; and
  2. Investment psychology. For more on the psychological factors to which individuals fall prey, see Seven deadly sins of investing to avoid.

There is a third factor: High expenses in form of commissions and other fees.

Robo-advisors address all three factors. 

  • First, automating advice permits good advisors to offer services to small investors. Betterment with automated rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting is a good example.
  • Second, automation lowers costs, so fees charged can be reduced. Combine that with use of ETFs and you have dramatically reduced expenses.
  • Last, robo-advisors are immune to greed and fear so their performance will not suffer the way performance of individuals may. No robo-advisor would wait until the market hit bottom to sell, as in the case of 2008 summarized above.  

Bring on the Robos!

What is my conclusion? Not only are robo-advisors here to stay, they may be just what individual investors need so they can retire well!

“Simplify your finances? No; “Gain control, understand your finances?” Yes

After reading a recent article in Kiplinger’s Finance Magazine  on simplifying your finances, I wondered if your personal finances can really be made simple.  While many of us may hope so, I am not sure that “simple” is best.

However, gaining control of your finances and gaining a better understanding do make sense.

clutter-286975_1920 Okay, that does need to be simplified!

Here are some ways that help you gain control that may also “simplify” your life:

Cash management and Debt management

Set up automatic payments with vendors so they use your bank or credit card, or set up payments using your bank website.

  • If the payments are regular, and of similar amounts, you save time and can plan on the withdrawals.
  • However, if you change banks, sorting and resetting auto-pay at the new bank can be a major headache. Similarly, if you change credit cards, you need to update information with all vendors.

You can also automate tracking of your spending by using websites like Mint or Personalcapital.  Or, you can use Quicken or QuickBooks software from Intuit to track your bank and credit card accounts.  You can download from your bank and credit card websites into the program and then review to analyze your cash flow and spending.

Setting up direct deposit for payroll into your checking is great.  You can also split part so it goes to savings or even have some go to your investment accounts.  You will then need to follow up to invest the cash that accumulates, but having money set aside saves it from being spent, and adds to your investments

Investing

Kiplinger’s recommended consolidating retirement accounts to avoid low balance fees.  It also makes updating beneficiary designations easier.

While avoiding fees makes sense, am not sure that putting all investments into a single retirement account does.  You cannot do this if you have Roth and pre-tax accounts like a 401(k) plan, and you probably should not do it if you have contributory IRA and 401(k) accounts that are subject to different tax rules.

Kiplinger’s also recommended using one broker for your taxable accounts.  This makes more sense, in that you have a higher balance which should mean lower fees and more attention from the broker.  However, I prefer using exchange traded funds, or ETFs, and avoiding most broker fees, which means essentially no attention from a broker.

One article said that your investment plan should be to “sign up and forget it.”  While avoiding investment pitfalls like second-guessing yourself out of panic when a fund goes down is good, I do think you need to review and rebalance your investments once a year.

Another article recommended using an “all in one” fund for investing.  Now, this really troubles me.  If your sole goal is retirement, then an age-targeted fund could make sense.  But, if you are saving for goals with different time horizons, this is a bad idea.

If you use an age-targeted fund, do your homework on the funds.  For example, if the fund plans to suddenly shift to bonds when you retire, that will not serve you well because you are likely to have several decades for which you will need the growth from stocks.

Protecting your information

Having a master password for access to all your other passwords reminds me of the joke about the student who repeatedly distilled his notes down, first to an outline, then to note cards, and finally to one word.  How did he do on the day of the exam?  He forgot the word.

Nonetheless, having passwords is clearly important so having a way to manage them is as well.  Check out this recent review of apps for managing your passwords PC Magazine Best Password Managers for 2015.  You can manage the passwords yourself by creating a document that you save as a PDF and then encrypt.  But don’t forget the password you used for the PDF!

Store files in one place

We did a post on using cloud storage when you do not need originals.  Here is another site to check out:  Shoeboxed

Credit cards

In addition to downloading transactions as noted above, you can track your credit score and credit history by using sites like Credit Karma

Estate planning

For insurance purposes, and for your estate plan, having a record of possessions, you can list all your property using sites like Know your stuff home inventory.

Conclusion?

There are ways to gain better understanding of your finances that also make your finances simpler.  But setting simplification as your primary goal risks distorting your finances – too simple may be a bad result.

P.S. Our sister website, www.wokemoney.com, encourages you to gain a better understanding of your finances so you can handle your own planning.  Let me know what you think.

Okay then, what is a financial plan?

You may hear some argue that robo-planners will not replace individual, human planners. I call them the “There’s no app for that” group.

We do believe that “There is an app for that.”
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Well, that is not what I had in mind.

But exactly what is “a financial plan”? Finding a good, workable definition is a challenge.

Wikipedia says:

Textbooks used in colleges offering financial planning-related courses also generally do not define the term “financial plan.” For example, Sid Mittra, Anandi P. Sahu, and Robert A Crane, authors of Practicing Financial Planning for Professionals[8] do not define what a financial plan is, but merely defer to the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards’ definition of ‘financial planning’.

Can’t we define “financial plan”?

Yes. Investopedia offers this broad definition:

While there is no specific template for a financial plan, most licensed professionals will include knowledge and considerations of the client’s future life goals, future wealth transfer plans and future expense levels. Extrapolated asset values will determine whether the client has sufficient funds to meet future needs.

And Wikipedia gives more detail:

In general usage, a financial plan is a comprehensive evaluation of an individual’s current pay and future financial state by using current known variables to predict future income, asset values and withdrawal plans. This often includes a budget which organizes an individual’s finances and sometimes includes a series of steps or specific goals for spending and saving in the future.

So you need to project where your assets can take you to be sure you meet your future in good shape. Makes sense

And what is my definition?

A to do list or “action plan” that tells you what you need to change now so you optimize the use of all your resources to achieve your major, long term goals in the future.         

So what does a financial plan look like?

If you paid to have a financial plan prepared, and have a complicated situation, you may get a glossy, bound book filled with projections, charts and graphs, plus text. While much of it may be boilerplate, it will tell you where you are going from now until you die, how your money will follow if you invest according to the plan, and what you need to change on taxes, insurance, and your estate plan.

At the other extreme, you can glean the essential steps and write them all on a PostIt note, which you then place in a spot you see often enough to remind you what to do:

  • Maximize my 401(k) contributions,
  • Set up and contribute to a Roth IRA,
  • Review my investment allocation, use ETFs,
  • Steer clear of any major credit card debt,
  • Review my beneficiary designations,
  • Sign an medical directive, and
  • Save enough for a fun (not too expensive) vacation next summer!

In the end, it doesn’t matter how many pages or what the plan looks like; what matters is that you learn from reviewing your finances and change how you manage your resources so that improve your finances.

So, yes, a simple to do list could be enough, if you follow it!

Roth or not to Roth? Deciding requires predicting your future tax rate

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More employers now provide the option of a Roth 401(k) as well as a traditional 401(k), so you may ask:

Which should contribute to a Roth 401(k) or a traditional 401(k)?

The answer is not so simple and it depends on your income tax rate now and at retirement. Before offering background and explanation, we start with this Quick Summary

If you have a high tax rate now, and expect a low tax rate later, pick the traditional 401(k)

The traditional plan is better because get the current tax deduction, reducing taxes now at the higher tax rate. This may be true for people in middle or later years of employment.

Note: this is only financially better if you invest the amount of taxes saved.

If you have a low tax rate now, and expect a high tax rate later, pick the Roth 401(k).

The Roth plan is better because you avoid higher taxes later. This may be true for most people starting work now.

If expect to have the tax rate later as you have now, pick the Roth 401(k)

The Roth plan has other benefits described below.

Background – How the Plans Work:

Tax deferred growth

Earnings on both the traditional 401(k) and the Roth 401(k) are not taxed. Not paying taxes on investments in your retirement account means more grows and compounds tax-free – that is why contributing to a retirement plan is so important.

Contributions “pre-tax” vs. after tax

Contributions to a traditional 401(k) are made “pre-tax,” meaning that the amount contributed is excluded from your taxable income for the year.

Contributions to a Roth 401(k) are made after tax – they are not excluded from taxable income.

Taxing withdrawals vs. no tax

Withdrawals from a traditional 401(k) are taxed in the year of withdrawal.

Withdrawals from the Roth plans are not taxed. That is, the after-tax contributions are not taxed a second time and neither is the growth on those contributions.

Other rules – early withdrawal and require minimum distribution

There are penalties for withdrawal before reaching age 59½, unless certain exceptions are met, such as disability or first-time home buyer.

You must begin withdrawing when you reach age 70½ under the IRS Required Minimum Distribution or “RMD” rules. For more on RMD rules, see IRS Retirement Topics – RMDs

Hedging your bets:

If you are not sure of your tax rates, or if you just want more options because you cannot predict, then you can opt to combine plans. For example, you can contribute to your traditional 401(k) up to the employer match and then put the rest in a Roth IRA, if the contribution limits allow.

Conversions:

When you change jobs, you can convert a 401(k) to a Roth IRA, but doing so is a taxable event. If you expect your tax rate to be higher in the future, this is a good move. However, you will want to pay taxes due from other sources. If you have to take funds from the IRA to pay the taxes, you reduce the amount going into the Roth IRA which dramatically reduces the future benefit.

If you convert after-tax contributions made to a traditional 401(k) or non-deductible IRA, you have less on which taxes are due because the after-tax portion is not taxed in converting to a Roth IRA.

Other considerations:

While a Roth 401(k) is subject to RMD, a Roth IRA is not. If you can re-characterize the Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA, you avoid the RMD. This may mean that you pass more on to your heirs. Also, you may gain investment flexibility compared to a company plan.

If you use a Roth plan, then your taxable income at retirement will be less than if you were withdrawing from a traditional plan where withdrawals are taxed. This could lessen tax due on social security benefits.

On the other hand, if you expect to use funds in your retirement plan to donate to a charity, you are better off getting the tax savings for yourself now. The charity is not subject to much if any income tax.

Also, if you expect your heirs to receive your retirement plan assets and know that those heirs will be in a lower income tax bracket, you should use a traditional plan now to get the tax benefit for yourself. How can you possibly determine that heirs will get more of your retirement than you and also be in a lower tax bracket? I cannot imagine – well, maybe I can, but none of the ideas sound good. Anyway, it seemed like a good idea to mention (they teach you to think this way in law school).

5 Things Every Young Person Should Know About Retirement – You’ve got time, so use that time well!

If you are young, you’ve got time, and if you use that time well, you may even make up for the possibility of no pension and no Social Security benefits.

1. You won’t have what your parents had – no pension and no social security. Millennials are the first post-war generation to face retirement with virtually no pension. Fewer than 7% of Fortune 500 companies offer pension plans to new hires. Also, the way that the Social Security system is currently funded, there will be no reserves by 2033. Social security benefits are paid to retirees from the tax withholdings of the current workforce and also from the Social Security Reserves. Once the reserves are depleted, it is estimated the tax revenues the collected at that time will only be enough to pay out three quarters of the scheduled benefits. There are measures Congress could take to head off this eventual depletion, like changing the benefit formulas, raising payroll taxes or increasing the cap on taxable wage income. Until any changes are actually implemented, don’t count on any benefits!

2. Learn how to save and spend – now! It’s never too late to adopt good spending and saving habits, and the sooner you do it, the better. The more you can set aside that is invested now, the better off you will be. Also, avoid accruing any high interest rate debts. You can make your coffee at home if that is what allows you to max-out contributions to your 401(k) plan, especially if your employer matches what you contribute. If you do not have employer-sponsored plan, open a Roth IRA or even a traditional IRA. It’s a lot easier to put money aside now than it is to play catch-up in your 40s. And you can set up auto-debits so the investments are made as soon as your paycheck hits your bank account – keeping it out of your shopping slush fund!

3. We’re living longer, healthier lives. Longer, healthier lives are good, but they also require more investments at retirement. If you hit the Social Security full retirement of 67 now, the Center for Disease Control estimates you will live to around 86. That’s 19 years of retirement that you need to fund. But, if you are younger, living a longer, healthier life, then you will likely live longer, requiring more funds, unless you choose to work later in your life.

4. The good news is you have time. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College suggests that, by setting aside money at age 25, you will need to save only about 10% of your annual income to retire at 65. If you wait to save, the percentage you need each year increases. If you wait ten years, starting at age 35, your target savings increases to 15%. Wait until you’re 45 and you’ll need to save 27% of your annual income. Imagine if you were 55 today and wanted to retire at age 67? The message is: don’t wait!

5. You also have great resources. With smartphone apps and do-it-yourself trading services, investing is more accessible and less costly than ever. Also, there are more affordable investment products available like ETFs (see our post), so you avoid high fund manager fees. Saving on fees means more to grow for your retirement. Over the course of 40 years, those fund manager fees add up to real money.

In sum, start saving now. Set up a simple portfolio and adjust it as you go along. The time you’ve got now will reward you later!