As featured in The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and more!

Investing

No investment is without risk. You may feel safe when you do what financial advisers consider the “right thing” — invest in a broad stock market index fund with a long-term view — but there is risk there as well.

invest risk

Unfortunately, to build wealth over time, investors need to accept a significant amount of risk. Leaving money in risk-free investments, such as high-yield savings accounts, isn’t really investing at all. By taking on very little risk, keeping the bulk of your wealth in a savings account practically guarantees you’ll lose purchasing power over the long term due to the rising costs of goods that you might buy with that money.

Most middle class investors will need to grow wealth, rather than just preserve it, if financial independence is their end goal. So, just know that if you’re interested in growing your wealth over long periods of time, you’ll need to consider riskier investments than savings accounts.

Different Products, Different Risks

There is a dizzying selection of investment types scattered across the entire risk spectrum. These range from money market funds (low-risk investments, similar to savings accounts) to complex financial derivatives (risky financial moves often best left to professional investors).

Anyone who has ever invested in a 401(k) plan has had the opportunity to be familiar with risk profiling. To help you design your retirement portfolio, most 401(k) managers allow you to select your investments based on your appetite for risk. By asking the investor several questions about how they would react to different levels of investment performance, these 401(k) tools will categorize the investor based on their own, personal risk tolerance: usually low, medium, and high.

Measuring and evaluating the risk involved in any investment is a little more complex, though. While an investor’s risk tolerance can be categorized or marked on a scale, an investment’s risk should be plotted using several dimensions. To evaluate an investment, you should consider the different types of risk that could affect its performance in order to determine whether the investment is appropriate for you.

Resource: How to Evaluate an Investment Portfolio

Market risk

Market risk considers a broader picture. If you are invested in stocks, particularly if you choose the less expensive (but not necessarily safer) route of investing in a broad stock-based index fund, you have to accept that the overall economic condition of the country — or even the world — will cause your investment’s value to fluctuate. Market risk is relevant also for investments in single companies, bonds, or other products.

A market crash or decline could crush this investment’s performance, even if the quality of your investment remains the same. Investments also follow trends. For several decades, real estate could appear to be a “good” investment, encouraging more people to buy real estate and driving up prices for everyone else. Once the overall sentiment of investors switches to the belief that real estate is overpriced, your property could lose potential value… even though the structure hasn’t changed.

Learn More: 3 Keys to Deciding If Your Real Estate Is a Good Investment

Default risk

Default risk is related to the quality of the underlying investment, and is more apparent when investing in a single company through stocks or bonds. If you invest in a company’s or municipality’s bond, you generally expect a guaranteed return. The promised return is usually higher than what a savings account would provide, but you face the risk of default. If the company files for bankruptcy or if the municipality is mismanaged, it’s possible you won’t receive the return you were promised.

Pensions, thought to be stable investments for retirements, are also exposed to default risk. Today, your company may be promising all retirees access to free health care, but if your company later restructures, that promised benefit might disappear. The government offers a type of insurance for companies that offer pensions, but sometimes that insurance isn’t enough to ensure all pensioners receive exactly what had been promised.

Inflation risk

Financial planners like to assume that inflation runs about 3 or 4 percent a year over long periods of time. This allows planners and investors to calculate the expected “real” returns for an investment. If you assume inflation is 3 percent and your savings account earns 1 percent APY, your real return is a loss of 2 percent a year. This real return takes the effect of inflation into account.

There is a chance, however, that during any particular time, the measure of inflation — or for a more accurate description in this case, the increase of the cost of goods — is significantly more than 3 percent. If the country were to enter a period of hyperinflation, investments in your savings account would result in devastating losses when compared to consumer prices. (At least until banks began to offer more appropriate interest rates.) When a gallon of milk costs $25, a gallon of gasoline costs $30, and a movie ticket costs $75, it will be much harder to get by on the same income you had with today’s prices.

Mortality risk

Consider mortality risk when you have or are considering investments in pensions, insurance contracts, annuities, or any investment with a long-term horizon.

Skydiving

Annuities are the best examples. If your annuity payments or distributions to you continue only as long as you’re alive, you run the risk of dying before you receive enough of your benefit to make the premium payments and fees worthwhile. If your investment strategy focuses solely on the long-term, there is a chance that you will never live to enjoy the benefits.

Life is short. It’s almost always shorter than you would like for it to be. But realize that mortality risk runs in the opposite direction, as well. If you live longer than expected, and you have tried to plan your financial life so you fully expend your wealth during retirement, you run the risk of running out of money.

Related: Should You Take a Lump Sum for Your Pension?

Spend some time to think about the risks of your investments. You may discover that your tolerance for risk is lower or higher than you expected. Perhaps you’ll need to adjust to accept more risk in order to meet your financial goals.

{ 21 comments }

In your personal finance journey, you may or may not have come across peer-to-peer (P2P) lending platforms. The great news is, these have proven to be solid investments over the past few years, providing much higher returns than what you could earn on bank investments. But we have to wonder:  will P2P platforms continue to be reliable investments, particularly if the economy begins to weaken?

p2p

Since P2P lending only got its start in the early 2000s, we don’t have a particularly strong or reliable track record to fall back on. The first platforms only began coming on line as the last recession – the Financial Meltdown – was unfolding. So while they have been a picture of success since their inception, we don’t really know how they’ll hold up under pressure.

What Effect a Weakening Economy Might have on P2P Lending

In the absence of any substantial performance data from the last recession, we can only speculate what effect a weak economy will have on P2P lending. But we can rely on the general performance of loans in past recessions for strong clues.

When the economy declines, asset prices fall and unemployment rises. In turn, default rates on virtually all types of loans rise. Since P2P loans are unsecured and taken for a variety of purposes, they most closely relate to credit cards.

According to the Federal Reserve, credit card default rates were at 2.34% at the end of 2016. However, they hit a high of 6.77% during the second quarter of 2009, in the middle of the Financial Meltdown.

While P2P loans are priced to accommodate certain default levels, they are based on the most recent default experience. Should default rates rise to something close to what they were in 2009, P2P loans priced based on today’s default rates will likely suffer disproportionate losses in interest rate return.

The Flood of Institutional Money Might Weaken Lending Standards

The basic concept of P2P lending is simple. Individual borrowers come to lending sites in search of loans, which will ultimately be funded by individual investors. But as interest rates have continued low, institutional participation in P2P lending has grown, as banks and other large lenders seek higher returns. For example, Lending Club recently reported that banks funded 31% of loan originations in the fourth quarter of 2016, compared with 13% in the third quarter.

One of the concerns over increased institutional participation is loan quality. As institutions bring larger amounts of capital into the space, loan quality may decline. That can happen as P2P lenders lower underwriting standards in order to draw in a larger number of loans. As they do, the quality of those loans will gradually decline, eventually increasing the rate of default.

It remains to be seen if that will play out as a worst-case scenario. However, not only is the industry itself relatively new, but institutional participation is only very recent. That means that the impact of greater institutional participation has yet to be felt.

Lending Club’s 2016 Scandal

In May of 2016, Lending Club’s CEO, Renaud Laplanche, was forced to resign amid a scandal. A summary of the event disclosed that:

Lending Club conducted a review, under the supervision of a sub-committee of the board of directors and with the assistance of independent outside counsel and other advisors, regarding non-conforming sales to a single, accredited institutional investor of $22 million of near-prime loans. The loans in question failed to conform to the investor’s express instructions as to a non-credit and non-pricing element. Certain personnel apparently were aware that the sale did not meet the investor’s criteria…The review further discovered another matter unrelated to the sale of the loans, involving a failure to inform the board’s Risk Committee of personal interests held in a third party fund while the Company was contemplating an investment in the same fund.

Since Laplanche’s resignation, earnings have gone negative three quarters in a row. What’s more, the pattern of losses are expected to continue through 2017. The company is forecasting losses of $69 million to $84 million, on revenue in the range of $565 million to $595 million for the year. The company cites the loss of investors in the aftermath of last year’s scandal.

We should reasonably expect that Lending Club, as the largest platform in the P2P space, will recover. However the episode should serve as a warning that the development of P2P lending won’t necessarily be an elevator ride straight up. With the number of P2P lenders increasing steadily, there are bound to be more negative surprises.

Read More About Reducing Risk With Lending Club here.

That might make a strong case for spreading your P2P investments across several lending platforms.

The Nature of P2P Loans Themselves

Despite the positive overall performance of P2P lending over the past few years, the practice contains two built-in issues.

The first is the fact that the loans are largely comprised of debt consolidation loans. Though such a loan can potentially improve a borrower’s financial situation by lowering the interest rate and monthly payment that he or she is paying, it also holds the potential to borrow even more money.

For example, many borrowers engage in serial debt consolidation. They have a few credit cards, and then do a debt consolidation to lower the monthly payment. But one or two years into the debt consolidation, and they rack up more credit cards. Eventually, there’s another debt consolidation – and maybe even a third, and a fourth.

From a risk standpoint, the problem is that the borrower is never actually paying off debt. Often, the debt consolidation simply sets the stage for the next round of borrowing. As that cycle continues, the risk of default on the latest debt consolidation loan increases.

The second major concern is that most P2P loans are unsecured. Borrowers can typically take loans as high as $40,000, and for nearly any purpose, without having to put up any collateral. In the event of a loan default, there will be no assets to seize in order to satisfy the debt.

In an economy with low unemployment, low interest rates, and rising asset prices, neither issue is a major concern. But when the economy eventually weakens, both run more than a slight chance of becoming more pronounced.

Positioning Your P2P Portfolio for Leaner Times

All of this should be a reminder that P2P lending, like virtually all other types of investing, is not completely risk-free. And despite recent healthy performance, the situation could change — and change dramatically — in the event of an economic slowdown.

None of this is to discourage investing in P2P lending. Since the next recession is virtually inevitable, though, now is the time to prepare your investments for a change in circumstances.

Prepare Now: Sweat In Up Markets So You Don’t Bleed In Down Markets

How can you protect yourself?

  • As noted earlier, consider investing on several P2P lending platforms. That will minimize the risks associated with any one platform.
  • Don’t use P2P investing as a substitute for the fixed income portion of your portfolio. Instead, make it part of your fixed income investments, to offset and increase the lower rates paid on traditional but safer fixed income investments. You should have both P2P and traditional fixed income investments.
  • Invest across various risk grades, despite the fact that returns may be higher on the weaker grades. Lending Club’s Statistics page (“Loan Performance Details” chart) shows that default rates increase substantially with each lower credit grade.

In regard to the last item in particular, it’s important to realize that default rates are likely to increase more dramatically in the lower credit grades in the face of a bad economy. Those are, after all, the highest risk loans being made.

We don’t have much information available as to how well P2P investing performed in the last recession. But that makes it even more important, at this late stage of the current economic recovery, to make some reasonable assumptions about what’s likely to play out. This will allow us to best prepare for it.

How do you think P2P investing will do when the economy takes the next nosedive?

{ 0 comments }

Apple CashIn 1977, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak incorporated a little start-up company called Apple Computer. For the first 25 years of Apple’s existence, they were simply a personal computer company, one which plugged in millions of Americans across the country.

For the last 15 years, however, Apple has been everything else. They’ve been music players, phone creators, watch makers, etc., and the success of the company has exploded to the tune of a $718B current market evaluation.

Strangely though, Apple has always (even now) hoarded cash. The most recent quarterly report shows Apple (APPL) sitting on a whopping $245 billion in cash. To put this into perspective, only one other US corporation has over $100 billion in cash, and that’s Microsoft — at just under $105 billion.

This means that Apple has more than double the amount of cash on hand than any other company in the United States, and this really isn’t new for them either. For the last decade, Apple has led the US in cash hoarding, slowly and steadily increasing their cash reserves year over year by about 10 percent. For a company to have a third of its value come from cash is not uncommon. What is uncommon, though, is for a company to have $245 billion on hand, with no apparent plan or desire to spend it.

Apple is currently the highest-valued company on the NYSE. In fact, the amount of cash they have on-hand could buy all but about 15 current corporations. So, will Apple ever actually decide to buy a few companies, and expand itself beyond the tech industry? Let’s play around a bit.

Three Possible Landing Spots for Apple Cash

 

Netflix LogoNETFLIX – Years ago, when Netflix made its entrance, its stock could be had for under $3 a share. Today, it’s a company valued at $61 billion, which does a whole lot more than deliver DVDs through the mail. House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and The Crown are just some of the original programming Netflix is offering up today, and Netflix recently signed a music publishing deal with BMG Rights Management. Emmy awards be damned, Netflix is coming after the Grammys!

So, how does Apple fit in? Well, there might be a way for Apple to use its technology to enhance the current Netflix portfolio, in terms of streaming or making it more accessible on the iPhone or Apple Watch. The most likely reasoning for Apple to acquire Netflix, though, is simply expansion. Just as Apple was tired of building computers only 15 years ago, they may have grown tired of building just computers, watches, and phones now. Perhaps they are looking to increase the breadth of the company. With Amazon attempting to do a little of everything these days, Apple could consider something similar.

Tesla LogoTESLA – Shhhh, don’t tell anyone but Apple has likely been working on an electric car for a while now. Rumor has it that a few years ago, Apple purchased a lot of property in Sunnyvale California under the shell company name “SixtyEight Research.” Under the name “Project Titan,” Apple appears to be developing software for autonomous vehicles, and the hope is to have a release date somewhere around 2021. If, however, things take a turn for the worst and Apple is not able to develop the software or the car they desire, I think a company like Tesla is a terrific fit for the Apple portfolio.

Not only is Tesla an automaker, but it’s also an energy company with the acquisition of Solar City. Imagine a day where you drive home in your Apple car, enter your home using a code on your Apple security system, and then power your entire house with a single, solar cell battery. That’s the vision of Elon Musk (without the Apple part right now)… and if Tesla can deliver on their promise of an affordable T3, I truly believe the company will be Apple’s number one target for years.

Twitter LogoTWITTERTwitter is in a tailspin. Quarter after quarter, the company continues to lose hundreds of millions of dollars with no end in sight. For a website and a business that draws some of the most online traffic, it’s becoming more of a Shakespearean tragedy than a solid business model. CEO Jack Dorsey appears to have only one viable method for making Twitter profitable for investors: a sale.

Is there a way for Apple to swoop in and make Twitter a successful company? Maybe. And it’s clear that the constant talk of a Twitter sale is doing the company no favors; in the last three years, the company has gone from a $43 billion evaluation to just $11 billion. So, Apple may want to wait another few quarters to try to buy Twitter at an even lower price tag.

Working online for 10 years myself, I can only imagine the kind of revenue and potential a site would have when it drives millions of visits a day. I believe Apple is the kind of innovative company that could make Twitter a winner.

What the Future Holds

It’s somewhat concerning to me that a company of Apple’s size and magnitude is hoarding as much cash as they are. We’ve gone from the original iPhone to the soon-to-be-released, $1,000 iPhone 8, and there hasn’t been as much innovation as you’d expect from the most valuable US company in existence. Sure, the new iPhone might have a curved screen and will ditch their proprietary lightning port in favor of a standard USB charger (why, I have no idea), but it’s still just a phone. It would be nice to see them go bigger and better on other technological advances and the acquisition of one of the three above companies could do the trick.

Besides, if Apple buys a company like Twitter and it still bleeds money, Apple will “only” be left with $230 billion. I think they’ll manage.

{ 1 comment }

If you’ve been paying attention to financial news, you’ve probably heard mention of the fiduciary rule. This rule was approved last year under the Obama administration, with the goal of increasing transparency within the investment realm. It was designed to force advisors to suggest investment products to their clients that were more affordable, rather than being able to suggest ones that instead provided these advisors with higher commissions.

While the rule has not yet been implemented (it was slated to go into play this April), it looks like its run may be short-lived. Today, President Trump signed an executive order that is likely to halt the implementation of the rule, along with ordering a widespread review of the Dodd-Frank Act.

fiduciary rule

This has many up in arms, as the fiduciary rule seems to be a matter of common sense and integrity. Forcing ALL advisors to offer their clients less expensive investment products, rather than higher priced ones that may result in bigger commissions, seems like a great idea. Transparency throughout any industry should be mandatory… so why nix the rule?

Yes, There Is Already a Fiduciary Obligation…

For almost 80 years, a fiduciary obligation — called the fiduciary standard — has been in place. This was implemented with the Investment Advisors Act of 1940, intended to affect most types of investment accounts. This standard implements an expectation that advisors need to place their client’s interests ahead of their own. The advisor is always supposed to act in the best interests of their clients, in every situation, whether the client is aware of it or not.

The reach of this standard is far and wide. An advisor cannot, for example, make trades on a client’s behalf that would result in higher commissions or fees for himself or his firm. An advisor is supposed to make all efforts to ensure that the investment advice given is not only accurate, but complete. They are bound to a “best execution” standard, while dictates that the purchase and sale of securities should be completed with the best possible combination of low cost and efficiency. Advisors are also prohibited from buying securities for themselves before they buy them (or advise their purchase) for their client.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the existing fiduciary standard already prohibits the potential of conflicts of interest. In fact, if a potential conflict of interest is present, the advisor must disclose this to the client before any trades take place. Which begs the question…

Then, What Would the Fiduciary Rule Even Change?

As mentioned, the fiduciary standard already has provisions to avoid and prohibit conflicts of interest between advisors and their clients. This is, of course, the heart of the fiduciary rule… so why the new implementation?

Well, the difference primarily lies in the types of retirement account providers to which the existing rule applied.

As it stands today, the fiduciary standard does not technically apply to insurance reps, broker-dealers, and financial company reps (other than investment advisors). These individuals, instead, are bound by the suitability standard.

The suitability standard is much simpler and much less comprehensive. In a nutshell, it says that an advisor only needs to assess a client’s risk and tolerance before offering investment products and advice. Essentially, gathering a client’s preferences is enough, as long as the products the advisor subsequently recommends match those preferences. This opens up the possibility of a very large grey area… if an advisor simply believes that a product suits a client’s risk tolerance, it’s fair game.

The new rule, though, would make sure that everyone was bound to the fiduciary guidelines. Rather than having the freedom to pick financial products that simple lie below a client’s threshold, all advisors would need to first disclose the fees, limitations, conflicts of interest, etc. of the product. As of now, just the designated investment advisors are bound to such. The fiduciary rule simply hoped to expand this rule to anyone and everyone offering any sort of investment-related advice.

Why It’s Happening

Well, the argument seems to be that the fiduciary rule could actually harm many of the lower-income investors out there, in a number of ways. First, it would prevent advisors from recommending more expensive investment products to their clients when lower priced alternatives exist — even if the higher priced ones were a better match in the end.

Forcing advisors to be transparent about fees and compensation sounds like a great idea, unless the client then chooses their investment product based on this information alone. If an advisor puts three different funds in front of a client, with one having a noticeably higher rate of commission, the client is less likely to lean toward that fund. But what if it had a good chance of outperforming the others? To combat this, potential investors would need to take into account all components of a financial product, not just seek to avoid fees where they could.

Does limiting suggestions to lower cost financial products actually harm the client? Could narrowing their options actually be taking away their investment freedom, causing harm in the long run? Some fiduciary rule-protesters think so.

Another way that this rule could harm lower-income investors is through financial advisor services. Today, some companies are able to offer free or low-cost investment advice to their customers. The new regulations threaten to increase their fees for providing such, resulting in some of the smaller savers being denied advice or simply being unable to afford it.

The Impacts Overall

The fiduciary rule has also been challenged as detrimental to the smaller firms and dealer-brokers in the industry. The cost of compliance with the rule is expected to be high, with additional technology and compliance experts being an added, necessary investment.

As a result, we could expect to see many of these companies disband or be acquired. It’s actually already being seen, in the case of American International Group and MetLife Inc. brokerage operations. Both of these have already been sold off in anticipation of the fiduciary rule’s April 10 implementation date.

What does this really mean, though? Less diversity in the industry, for starters, as the independent companies disappear. Also, as the consolidation continues, it threatens to eliminate (or make difficult to find) advisors who will be able to offer smaller plans. Once again, this has the potential to greatly impact the lower-income investors.

It’s interesting to note that when the United Kingdom implemented a similar rule in 2011, their investment industry had exactly this response. Independent companies could not keep up or could not afford to comply with the technology and changes required. So, they forged paths with larger corporations. As a result, the number of financial advisors in the U.K. has dropped by a whopping 22.5% ever since, creating an even bigger guidance gap than had previously existed.

This effect makes it easy to see why the fiduciary rule has been referred to as “Obamacare for your IRA.” While the rule is necessary and important in many ways, its impact of narrowing the advisor industry down to fewer and fewer options is certainly a check mark in the negative column. Having options and healthy competition between companies is generally a big benefit for consumers.

All Hope Is Not Lost

For proponents of the fiduciary rule who are appalled to see its (likely) overturn today, I have some good news. Many of the financial services companies that were slated to be impacted by its April roll out are going to move forward with their new standards. They had already put new changes in place and believe that transparency is an important part of the advisor-investor relationship.

Companies like Morgan Stanley and LPL Financial Holdings, Inc. have both said that they still plan to move forward with the new standards that they have already worked to create. Hopefully, this idea of working in the best interest of the customer catches on and spreads, on its own, throughout the industry.

Until then, we wait and see.

{ 0 comments }

Where Can I Buy Bitcoin Online?

by Michael Pruser

Full disclosure alert, I’m a bit of a bitcoin junkie.  Globally, access to bitcoin is much easier with dozens of funding methods for international investors. However, the US of A has yet to embrace the bitcoin, so being able to buy and sell the cryptocurrency is a lot harder than you might think. When bitcoin started […]

2 comments Read the full article →

The Financial Checklist Manifesto

by Jeff

There are so many different ways to organize, prioritize, and classify your tasks and responsibilities. You’d probably need a couple years just to sort through all of them on your own. You can have an organizer on your computer, your phone, in your pocket, or a notebook. If you’re short of paper, you can just […]

1 comment Read the full article →

Year End Reminder: Change Your 401(k) Contribution Level Now

by Luke Landes
Winter Snow

At the end of the year, most people in the United States are thinking about the holidays and the potential credit card bills for gifts and family visits. One good way to control this potentially stressful month is to take some time to breathe and get your own finances in order. There are several actions […]

16 comments Read the full article →

Will Traditional Retirement Accounts Allow You to Retire Early?

by Aliyyah Camp
traditional

If you plan to retire early, you may be wondering whether it makes sense to invest in traditional retirement accounts, such as employer-sponsored 401(k)s/403(b)s and IRAs/Roth IRAs. The speculation comes into play because there’s an early withdrawal penalty when you take money out of these accounts before age 59 ½. I argue that it’s still […]

0 comments Read the full article →

Can You Earn More With a Fidelity CD Ladder?

by Mark Hull

It’s been a long time since banks offered savings accounts with decent returns. The Fed may raise interest this year, meaning rates could finally rise. In the meantime, what do you do? If you’re looking for a quick way to create an investment vehicle that is FDIC insured, and promises greater returns than online savings, […]

0 comments Read the full article →

Can Betterment Portfolios Earn You An Extra 15 Percent?

by Kevin Mercadante

What if you could increase your after-tax investment returns by 15 percent over 30 years? Betterment is claiming you can do just that with their Tax-Coordinated Portfolio. What’s more, they claim that it can even work across several accounts at the same time. Interested? Read on… Who is Betterment? Betterment is a robo-advisor. In fact, it […]

0 comments Read the full article →
Page 1 of 2912345···Last »