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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Where to Invest Now - Stewart H Welch III on Fox News

Where to Invest Now

As I was leaving the TV station earlier this week, I was stopped by a friend who asked for my thoughts on the markets. He had recently upped his contributions to the retirement plan and indicated his intention to invest 100% in bonds based on his dismal outlook for the economy. Hmmm. At first blush, this seems like a perfectly reasonable and conservative approach. It’s hard to argue that the outlook for the economy doesn’t paint a bright picture, at least in the near term. And setting up a systematic savings program is one of the most basic keys to accumulating wealth. However, I suggested he consider a slightly different approach to his investing strategy.

First let’s look at the stock market. For the decade ending 2009, the stock market has delivered negative returns and this year continues to disappoint investors. Could it be that much of the downside risk is already wrung out of the stock market? Sure, it could go down further but for someone who is systematically putting fresh money in each month, I’d say the stock market is a very good bet if you don’t plan to touch your money for at least five years. At this point, the greatest risk to the stock market may be ‘event’ risk…something like Greece defaulting on its sovereign debt. There is a small risk of a double-dip recession, but that seems unlikely. The good news is that corporations have used the economic downturn to take dramatic steps to cut expenses and improve systems. In short, they are lean and mean! Once the economy perks up, increased revenue will quickly accrue to their bottom line…think profits!

Now let’s take a moment and review the bond market. We are in the midst of the worst interest rate environment that I can remember. The Federal Reserve has set interest rates at zero percent and is actively pursuing policies that continue to keep interest rates low. It’s a disaster for retirees who depend on interest income to pay their bills each month. Investors, afraid of the stock market, continue to pile money into bonds and bond mutual funds, and in many cases, are buying longer maturities and lower quality just to get any kind of yield. What this creates is a kind of bond market ‘bubble’. Eventually, the Federal Reserve is going to take the lid off of interest rates and we’ll likely see them rise dramatically. At that time, bond holders, especially holders of longer maturity bonds or bond funds, will see values drop dramatically. Worse, it may be years before bonds recover from the bursting bubble.

What’s an investor to do? Since the stock and bond market future is never predictable, consider a mixture of high quality dividend-paying stocks (examples: AT&T, Southern Company and Eli Lilly) with bonds having medium to short maturities (example funds: VFSTX, PTTOX). You’ll want to own a basket of at least 20 stocks. Keep a close eye on your bond funds and be ready to shorten maturities when the Fed begins raising interest rates. An allocation of 60% stocks and 40% bonds should allow you to capture much of the stock market return with significantly less volatility.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pre Marriage Financial Advice

Last week I discussed ways to reduce the financial strain in the event of a divorce. It occurred to me that a better strategy is to head off a future divorce by starting out a marriage on a sound financial footing. So if you or someone you know will be getting married in the near future, help them out by passing along these tips:

Commit to financial responsibility. First, start by realizing that even though you believe your marriage is ‘special’ and not at risk of a future divorce, the reality remains that one out of every two marriages will end in divorce. Of equal importance, realize that while financial issues may not always be the primary reason for a divorce, in most cases it’s a major contributing factor. So if you can get your finances squared away from the beginning, your chances of being in the 50% who stay married go way up.
Pull and share your credit reports. You’re about to combine your finances so it’s best to get a handle on where each of you stands on your credit score. If there are problems, you’ll have more time to resolve them before you join financial forces. Remember, when you get ready to buy your first home, lenders will review both of your credit histories.
Set short, medium and long-term goals. Let’s face it. The vast majority of couples are made up of one person who is more of a ‘spender’ and the other more of a ‘saver’. This is the perfect mix for frequent disagreements about money. “Honey, let’s go out to dinner (again) tonight.” “No. We’re saving for the down payment on a home, remember?” With finances, there’s a constant ‘dance’ between immediate and delayed gratification. Work it out together in advance and ‘automate’ saving for your goals wherever possible.
Divide the responsibilities. Someone has to pay the bills and handle the family finances. Often, the one who controls the money wields uneven control in the marriage. The best solution is to share the responsibility by paying the bills together. This way you both have a handle on where your finances stand.
Meet regularly. At least monthly, set aside time to review your goals; review last months expenses versus your budget (yes, you should have a budget); review your expected expenses for the upcoming month; and look ahead for any non-periodic expenses. This should not take you more than a couple of hours per month and is vital in order to keep your finances on track.
Understand the costs of affluence. In my experience, most couples have pretty lofty financial goals and expectations regarding their future lifestyle. Building a big financial future often comes at a cost in the form of long hours at work for at least one of the marriage partners. Be sure to discuss how you, as a couple, intend to balance work, money and family time.

Marriage is a wonderful institution where two people commit to intertwine their lives for the purpose of building a future together. All marriages face the spectrum of both bliss and challenges. By joining forces to solve your financial puzzle, you’ll likely find that the moments of bliss far out way the moments of challenges.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Financial Strategies for Divorcing Couples

I’m happy to report that my wife and I will soon celebrate our 30th anniversary of marriage. Unfortunately, about one-half of marriages do not stand the test of time. Now you’d think that divorcees would have learned the lessons from a failed marriage and ‘get it right’ the second time around…but this is not the case. According to research, 67% of second marriages and 74% of third marriages fail. The emotional and financial trauma associated with divorce is often substantial. If you or someone you know is facing the prospects of a divorce, here are suggestions that can soften the impact:

Seek mediation. I was working with a couple who decided to end their marriage. In this case both people worked in well-paying jobs and they had minor children so there would be custody issues in addition to property division, child support and perhaps alimony issues. I suggested they consider divorce mediation rather than the traditional ‘you hire your attorney, I’ll hire mine’. There were lots of assets involved so the stakes were high including potential legal expenses. These clients approached their divorce with civility, a sense of fairness and a focus on doing what was in the children’s best interest. The result was a smooth transition and legal fees of under $3,000. Contrast this to a recent couple’s divorce that chose to each hire their own attorney to fight out both the financial and custody issues. This couple, whose wealth was but a fraction of the couple in my first example, spent more than $70,000 in legal fees. This is money that could have been split between the couple rather than the attorneys or used to set up college funds for the children.
Get professional help regarding division of financial assets. Which would you rather receive in a divorce, $100,000 personal investment account or $100,000 retirement account? Well, it depends. Clearly there are very different tax issues involved. A Certified Financial Planner or CPA can help you work through the various tax issues according to each person’s individual goals. In addition, there will be income tax issues that will need to be resolved. You’ll also want to decide how attorney fees will be handled.
Protect your credit. The divorce process can easily take many months and ‘disruption’ is a common byword. This disruption of the normal handling of your finances can result in things falling through the cracks such as bills not getting paid on time. The last thing you want is to be newly divorced and have bad credit. Pull a current credit report from each of Transunion, Experian, and Equifax; resolve any current credit inaccuracies together; and be diligent regarding paying all bills in a timely manner. It’s often much easier to repair credit before rather than after a divorce.
Change beneficiary designations. You’ll want to re-write your will. However, the laws of most states automatically exclude an ex-spouse from receiving assets under your will if you forget to change it after your divorce. This is not the case with life insurance beneficiary designations, designations for retirement plan beneficiaries, co-ownership of bank accounts, etc. We had one case where an ex-spouse was left on a bank account for more than 20 years…and was therefore entitled to the bank account proceeds when the owner died.