Necessities or Luxuries

August 3, 2010

Most spending falls into two simple categories: necessities and luxuries. Almost every dollar you spend could be divided in that way. The challenge of dividing our spending in such a way, however, is made more difficult because of the simple fact that most of us are not now and never have been in dire need.

Still, a “necessities versus luxuries” spending breakdown is useful for anyone trying to organize their finances and use their money efficiently. Most people spend most of their money, as opposed to saving, investing, or giving it away. Therefore, whether you are buying necessities or luxuries, spending has to be the starting point for any financial planning. A dollar spent is not a dollar that could be used in another way; a dollar not spent has the same future value as a dollar earned. You can increase the size of your financial pie only three ways: spending less, earning more, or, in some cases, paying less tax.

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Nearing Retirement?

January 12, 2010

Retirement planning has become more challenging in recent years. Aside from current market uncertainties, there are other more constant issues to consider, such as inflation and taxes. Investors planning for retirement have questions about how these factors will affect their retirement funding issues. Have I saved enough? What is a reasonable and sustainable withdrawal amount? Can I plan for retirement while also meeting other intermediate financial goals, such as educating children and paying off debt?

These and other questions weigh heavily on the minds of most retirement investors. What’s the solution? While it may be necessary to adjust your financial expectations for retirement or even postpone your retirement date, you can still achieve retirement security. But to do so, you’ll want to engage the services of a financial planning expert. Once retained only by the wealthy, financial advisors now assist all types of investors in making decisions about retirement. In fact, in a landmark survey conducted by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc., the most common reason for people to begin financial planning is to build a retirement fund. And among those who use a financial advisor as their primary source of guidance, a landmark 2004 survey found that 81% were extremely or very satisfied with the advisor.*

*Source: Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc., 2004 Consumer Survey.


The Different Focuses of Financial Professionals

December 31, 2009

In today’s world, many financial institutions offer a wide range of financial services to clients. Since the regulatory wall between banks and brokers was knocked down, the distinctions have been blurred, with many banks offering brokerage services, and vice versa. Still, I believe it remains true that most professionals tend to focus their efforts more narrowly.

Stockbrokers. Most stockbrokers help primarily with the accumulation phase and tend to have a shorter-term approach to investing, concentrating on the best possible returns at any given time, rather than a longer-term view that helps you get to where you want to be.

CPAs. Certified public accountants are primarily tax specialists, not investment specialists.

Private Bankers. Banks tend to focus on trusts, so they offer legacy/transfer services but usually not broad-based planning.

Insurance Agents. Insurance agents focus on risk or the legacy/transfer phase of planning. They are often also well-versed in certain types of tax-deferral or tax-avoidance products that are insurance related. However, most do not offer well-rounded financial strategies.

Attorneys. Lawyers work primarily on estate planning, a legacy/transfer niche.

Financial Advisors. Financial advisors can take your financial plan beyond accumulation strategies to address distribution and legacy/transfer issues as part of a comprehensive plan. I am proud of what I do, and I believe independent companies like mine, by bringing together experts in all of the planning phases, offer the most comprehensive service.


Good Communication and a Solid Plan

December 29, 2009

Most of us don’t want to think about the time when we won’t be around anymore for our loved ones and our loved ones certainly don’t want to think about when we won’t be around for them either. While difficult to do, it is highly recommended that you share your estate plan and financial plan with those who will be responsible for, and perhaps even the beneficiaries of your estate when you do pass on. If you have not created an estate plan or financial plan yet, it may be helpful, with the guidance of a qualified financial adviser, to help facilitate that discussion so that all options are considered. Some of the most well-executed estate plans have come with complete discussions with the entire family to get all of the issues out now while they can still be addressed, instead of after the fact when no changes can be made.

In having these discussions, it is also important to note where important documents such as wills and insurance policies can be found. It would be helpful to create a list of all bank, investment, retirement, and insurance accounts and their beneficiaries as well. Remember that any account, such as an IRA, generally has a designated beneficiary. Any account with a beneficiary designation does not pass through your will, but rather to who is listed as beneficiary on the account. Your will and beneficiary forms can be entirely different, and perhaps not even listing who you might like to receive a particular asset. There are even significant tax benefits in naming certain individuals or entities beneficiaries as well.


Back to the Future: Will 2010 Look Like 2004?

December 24, 2009

While some forecasters are reaching back to the 1930s to find comparisons to the environment the markets are likely to encounter in 2010, we find a more recent comparison to be compelling. We believe that 2004 could be a useful guide to what may happen in 2010.

The idea that 2010 could be similar to 2004 in many ways may not be as far fetched as it may seem. After all, 2009 looked a lot like 2003. Consider that in both 2003 and 2009:

1. The S&P 500 index started the year at about the 900 level and closed in on 1100 as the year wore on.
2. The stock market made its low in March in the aftermath of a recession brought on by a bursting bubble in the financial markets.
3. Key economic barometers like the Institute for Supply Managements Purchasing Mangers Index (ISM) rose above 50 in the second half of the year signaling the return of expansion in the manufacturing sector.
4. The dollar fell and commodity prices rose.

Not only did the charts look similar, the years even sounded the same: the best selling album in 2009 is actually a compilation from 2003, Michael Jackson’s Number Ones.

Just as 2009 echoed 2003, 2010 is likely to be similar to 2004 in a number of areas, including: earnings growth for S&P 500 companies, the actions by the Federal Reserve, the outcome of the congressional elections, and the performance of the stock and bond markets.


Proposed Reforms (Part 3)

December 22, 2009

Consolidation of bank regulators – Currently, there are four major bank regulators: Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), Federal Reserve (Fed), Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS). We think it is most likely that the OCC and OTS are merged into a new National Bank Supervisor (NBS), but more aggressive consolidation is also possible. Senator Christopher Dodd’s has recently proposed combining all four and stripping the Fed and FDIC of their regulatory functions. In addition, there are proposals to merge other agencies involved in the regulation of financial markets, including the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). Also, non-federally regulated financial institutions (such as AIG and Countrywide) were prime contributors to the financial crisis. Bringing these financial institutions under the scrutiny of the federal regulatory umbrella is likely to be part of the consolidation.

Systemic risk regulator – The gaps in the patchwork of financial industry regulators contributed to the series of failures that led to the financial crisis. The Obama administration’s proposal to grant enhanced authority to the Fed to oversee overall financial system risk appears to be losing favor to the idea of creating a Financial Services Oversight Council to make recommendations on preventing systemic risk. This is very likely to get passed in some form.

Other measures include requiring hedge funds to register with the SEC, restructuring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, increasing SEC regulation of the credit rating agencies and even considering changing their business model.


Proposed Reforms (Part 1)

December 15, 2009

With sweeping financial industry reform again on Washington’s agenda what should investors be watching? Last week, the House Financial Services Committee took up debating the major proposals. The big issues to be debated in the coming months include:

Too-big-too-fail institutions – A proposal would create a designation for financial institutions that are systemically important and subject them to special regulation. The outcome of this legislation is likely to have a market impact. At first glance, this designation would give an institution a competitive advantage because it would have what amounts to Government Sponsored Enterprise status with an implied government guarantee. This competitive advantage for Tier 1 institutions to access capital cheaply may result in consolidation of the industry among a few systemically important institutions rather than a larger number of competitors that would pose less individual risk to the financial system – which would be counter to the intention of the legislation. However, the additional cost to these firms in the form of higher capital requirements, contributions to pre-fund a bailout fund, and the threat of a break-up may have negative consequences. Last week, the UK regulators forced Royal Bank of Scotland to sell some business lines to reduce the size of the institution and the stock reacted poorly falling over 10% in a couple of days. Clearly, how this issue is dealt with is very important to the financial services industry. This is the most contentious issue and is unlikely to be resolved before the end of the year resulting in lingering uncertainty for the sector.

Consumer Financial Protection Agency – The Obama administration has proposed the creation of a new agency intended to protect consumers purchasing financial products. The focus has shifted from regulating the types of products that can be sold, (which would eliminate complex financial products and ensure only plain vanilla products are marketed) to making sure the disclosure is appropriate on products that are more complex. The reach of this agency to regulate what products are sold, how they are marketed, and perhaps even how they are priced is critical to the size and profitability of the financial industry. This could be a positive for the sector if it lessens the risk of default or litigation risk for lenders, but presents challenges if it forces consolidation as the products become commoditized.