Is Your Portfolio “In Style” or Making a Bad Fashion Statement?

It is fairly common knowledge that a retirement portfolio’s carefully constructed asset allocation can become unbalanced in two cases: When you alter your investment strategy and when market performance causes the value of some funds in your portfolio to rise or fall more dramatically than others. But did you know there is also a third scenario? Your portfolio can become unbalanced due to unexpected changes in the funds’ holdings.

Getting the Drift

The phenomenon known as “style drift” generally occurs when a fund’s manager or management team strays beyond the parameters of the fund’s stated objective in pursuit of better returns. For example, this may occur when a growth fund begins investing significantly in value stocks or when a large-company fund begins investing in the stocks of small and midsized companies. As a result, the fund’s name may not accurately reflect its strategy.

If style drift occurs within the funds held in your portfolio, it could alter your overall risk and return potential, which may influence your ability to effectively pursue your financial goals.

Feeling the Effects

While some fund managers embrace a strategy that provides significant flexibility to help boost returns, and indeed such flexibility often proves quite successful, investors need to remember that too much flexibility can also present a threat to their own portfolio’s level of diversification. Investors need to consider their ability to tolerate unexpected changes in pursuit of higher returns.

For example, let us assume an investor allocates her equity investments equally between growth funds and value funds with the hope of managing risk and increasing exposure to different types of opportunities. If the manager of the growth fund begins to invest heavily in value stocks, the investor could end up owning two funds with very similar characteristics and a much greater level of risk than she intended.

Truth in Labeling?

Although most investment companies, including those represented in your retirement plan, adhere to stringent fund management standards, you may not want to simply judge a book by its cover, so to speak. An occasional portfolio review can help ensure that you remain comfortable with each fund’s management strategy.

For a comprehensive look at each fund and to evaluate its potential role in your portfolio, take the time to study its prospectus and annual report to determine how much flexibility the fund manager has in security selection. Also, look carefully at the fund’s holdings to see if they are in line with the stated objective. If you discover something that appears amiss, it may be appropriate to rebalance your portfolio accordingly.

If you would like to discuss your current portfolio asset allocation or any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Have a Merry Christmas!

Handle Asset Location With Care

An old question has become new again.  You have tax-deferred accounts like IRAs and Roth IRAs, and you have accounts that pay taxes every year on the income they receive.  Where do you put different types of assets? 

The answer is that you want to put the most tax-inefficient investments inside the tax-deferred accounts.  The most notoriously tax-inefficient investments, historically, have been bond funds, commodities futures funds and real estate investment trusts (REITs), which all generate ordinary income that can be taxed at 39.6% plus the 3.8% Medicare tax for higher-income taxpayers.  The Roth IRA, which shelters all future returns from taxes of any sort, can be a great place for mutual funds that invest in small cap stocks, since they tend to have high turnover and historically have provided the highest gains.  

In taxable accounts, you might put growth stocks which, if you hold them for more than a year, will have their price appreciation taxed at a maximum rate of 20% (or 23.8% with the Medicare surtax).  Of course, you can choose to hold individual securities for much longer periods, which gives you tax deferral on its own–and, if the stocks are held until death, the heirs get a step-up in basis, which basically means any rise in value is never taxed.  Municipal bonds which qualify for an exemption from federal taxes are also good candidates for the taxable portion of your investment accounts. 

What makes this debate new again?   Higher ordinary income tax rates, and potentially higher capital gains tax rates (up from 15% to 23.8% for tax filers who have to pay the new Medicare surtax) have introduced some gray areas, as have the historically low rates on bonds.  When bonds were delivering upwards of 10% on the investment dollar, putting them in an IRA was a no-brainer.  But what if you’re cautious about rising rates, and you’ve shortened maturities in a yield-starved market, so your return is closer to 1%?   Suddenly, these funds are no longer a huge tax concern. 

At the same time, REITs offer tax benefits like depreciation, which becomes more valuable at higher ordinary income rates.  And persons in retirement may see their tax rates fall from above 39% down to 15%, which decreases the benefits of astute asset location, and might raise the value of rebalancing each year across all accounts. 

Another consideration for retirees is the mandatory withdrawals they have to take from their IRA account after they reach age 70 1/2.  If the IRA is holding all the income-generating investments, then systematically liquidating those holdings means creating a higher exposure to stocks and a generally more volatile portfolio as you age–which may be the opposite of what is desired.

Saving taxes through asset location strategies is one of those rare opportunities to get additional dollars without taking additional risk–but a mindless focus on taxes without looking at the bigger picture can result in unintended consequences.  The rules of thumb need to be informed by your tax bracket and other aspects of your individual circumstances–with an eye on the ever-changing tax and interest rates that Congress and the markets throw at us. 




 Many thanks to Bob Veres, publisher of Inside Information for his help writing this blog post.


Portfolio Makeover: Can I Retire Early?

Money Magazine recently approached me to perform an investment portfolio makeover for a couple in the Metro Detroit area, Kevin and Janice Ford.  The article, written by Money Magazine Senior Writer Donna Rosato, was published in the January-February 2010 double-issue.  The Roasato’s met with me recently and we put together a financial plan and asset allocation.  Here’s an intro to the article and a link to the full one:

(Money Magazine) — Kevin Ford has worked as an engineer in the Detroit auto industry for more than three decades – currently for the car company that best suits his name. His wife, Janice, is also a veteran of the field, a fellow engineer who even ran her own dealership for a few years before leaving the industry in 2005 to do part-time business development consulting.

Kevin hoped to follow her into retirement at age 55, and two years ago that seemed doable. The family had nearly $1 million saved, plus a hefty pension; they had no debt besides a $300,000 mortgage; their son, Darrell, was out of college and daughter, Kimberly, would be done in 2011.

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