Bad Money Moves to Avoid

What are truly the very worst investments and financial products you can buy with your money? Those things that when all things are considered provide you the lowest chance for profit. 

According to the AARP, they include five primary types: alternative investments, time-shares, equity-indexed annuities, private and non-traded REITs, and oil drilling partnerships. You can read why each are to be avoided right here. To that list I would add most permanent (whole, universal, variable) life insurance policies, deferred annuities and non-publicly traded partnerships. 
In that same article, AARP also provided five clues to watch for to tell you when something isn’t right about an investment that is being sold to you. These are all good things to watch for:
1. An impossible promise: There’s no such thing as high returns with little or no risk. The best opportunities typically go to institutional investors: it’s much easier to raise money from a few big fish than to solicit thousands of small fry.
2. Complex terms: Perhaps the offer comes with hundreds of pages of technical and legal disclosure, and you’re required to sign a document saying you read and understood it all. Good investments are easy to grasp. My rule is never to buy anything I couldn’t explain to an 8-year-old. Ask yourself: would they write hundreds of (legal) pages to protect you or themselves?
3. A ticking clock: If you hear that this investment opportunity is available only for a short time, it’s the reddest of flags. The salesperson doesn’t want you to think it over or ask others for their opinion. Run, don’t walk away from these investments.
4. Fancy language: That would be words such as “structured,” “managed,” “deferred,” “derivative,” “collateralized” and even “guaranteed.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with an FDIC guarantee on your CD. But leaving cash at a bank or brokerage firm is a bad investment if you are earning 3 percent or less: you’re losing ground to inflation. A higher-paying CD is a better option if you’re not willing to take risk with your money.
5. A stranger calls: Be very careful of accepting a free-lunch “educational seminar.” I have yet to meet someone unknown to me who truly wanted to and could make me rich. Someone once said that you truly can’t afford “free”, and I have come to believe it.
Millions of investors fall prey to bad investments usually out of fear or ignorance. In addition, no matter how smart you may be or how much experience you have, studies also show that all of us can be very gullible and blinded by our greed.

Nevertheless, knowing what to avoid is an important part of being successful with investing and managing risk. Most of the time, anything sold to you by others as terrific alternatives to equities and fixed income, especially those with lots of hype, complexity and outrageous fees, must be avoided. Eliminating these bad investments from your consideration and portfolios is a must if you desire to give yourself the best chance for long-term investing and financial success.

If you have any questions about any investments or insurance products you might be considering, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our web site at As a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm, we always put your interests first, and there’s never a charge for an initial consultation.



The Kirk Report

Scary Headlines, Remarkable Returns-3rd 2013 Quarterly Financial Review

The threat of a government shutdown virtually guaranteed that the investment markets would close out the third quarter with a whimper rather than a bang.  The S&P 500 index lost 1.1% of its value in the final week of the quarter as the U.S. Congress seemed to be lurching toward a political standstill that would shut down the U.S. government.  All the uncertainty has tended to obscure the fact that most U.S. stock market investors have experienced significant gains so far this year.
And the recent quarter was no exception.  Despite the rocky final week, the Wilshire 5000–the broadest measure of U.S. stocks and bonds–rose 6.60% for the third quarter–and now stands at a 22.31% gain for the first nine months of the year.  The comparable Russell 3000 index gained 6.35% in the most recent three months, posting a 21.30% gain as we head into the final stretch of 2013.
Other U.S. market sectors experienced comparable gains.  Large cap stocks, represented by the Wilshire U.S. Large Cap index, gained 6.24% in the second quarter, and are up 20.77% so far for the year.  The Russell 1000 large-cap index returned 6.02% for the quarter, up 20.76% for the year, while the widely-quoted S&P 500 index of large company stocks gained 5.32% for the quarter and is up 18.62% since January 1.
The Wilshire U.S. Mid-Cap index index rose 9.02% in the latest three months of the year, and is up 26.19% as we enter the final quarter.  The Russell midcap index was up 7.70% for the third quarter, and now stands at a 24.34% gain so far this year.
Small company stocks, as measured by the Wilshire U.S. Small-Cap, gained 9.68% in the third quarter; the index is up 27.53% so far this year.  The comparable Russell 2000 small-cap index was up 10.21% in the second three months of the year, posting a 27.69% gain in the year’s first nine months.  The technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index was up 11.16% for the quarter, and has gained 25.24% for its investors so far this year.

Keep in mind that while a diversified portfolio of cash, stocks, bonds, real estate and other asset classes may not provide you with the full returns shown above, you are also not taking on the risk of a 100% equity portfolio. That’s just smart money and risk management.
In the first half of the year, any diversification into investments other than U.S. stocks were dragging down returns.  That was no longer the case in the 3rd quarter.  The broad-based EAFE index of larger foreign companies in developed economies rose 10.94% in dollar terms during the third quarter of the year, and is up 13.36% so far this year.  The biggest surprise is Europe: a basket of European stocks rose 13.16% over the past three months, which accounts for virtually all of their returns this year; the index is now up 13.17% for the year. 
Emerging markets stocks are climbing out of a deep hole that they fell into earlier in the year, returning 5.01% in the past three months, even though the EAFE Emerging Markets index is still down 6.42% for the year. 
Other investment categories are not faring so well.  Real estate, as measured by the Wilshire REIT index, fell 1.98% for the quarter, though it is still standing at a 3.84% gain for the year.  Commodities, as measured by the S&P GSCI index, reversed their recent slide and rose 5.44% this past quarter, taking them to nearly even, just down 0.27% so far in 2013.  Gold prices perked up on the uncertainty over the government shutdown, gaining 9.26% in the recent quarter, though gold investors have lost 20.48% on their holdings so far this year. 
Bonds have continued to provide disappointing returns both in terms of yield and total return.  The Barclay’s Global Aggregate bond index is down 2.24% so far this year, and the U.S. Aggregate index has lost 1.87% of its value in the same time period. 
In the Treasury markets, the year has seen a bifurcated market; declining yields in bonds with 12 month or lower maturities, while longer-term bonds have experienced rising yields and a corresponding decline in the value of the bonds held by investors.  In the past year, the yield on 10-year Treasuries have risen almost a percentage point, to 2.65%, and 30-year bonds are now yielding 3.73%, up 86 basis points over the past 12 months.    
Municipal bonds have seen comparable rate rises; a basket of state and local bonds with 30-year maturities are now yielding 4.32% a year; 10-year munis are returning an average of 2.56% a year.  The rises, of course, have caused losses in muni portfolios.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to notice about America’s 20+% stock market returns so far this year–extraordinary by any measure–is that they were accomplished at a time when investors seemed to be constantly skittish.  Just a few weeks ago, everybody seemed to be worried that the Federal Reserve would end its QE3 program and let interest rates find their natural balance in the economy.  One might wonder why this would be such a scary event, since it is the Fed’s economists way of telling us that the U.S. economy is finally getting back on its feet.
All eyes are still on Washington, but now they’ve moved from the Fed to the Capitol Building.  The question everybody has been asking in the final days of the quarter is: what would be the investment and economic impact of a government shutdown?  This question might be one to consider going forward, since the two parties seem to have a lot of fundamental disagreements over spending priorities, and budget battles could become quarterly events.
An article in the Los Angeles Times says that most economists and analysts seem to expect a partial two-week government shutdown.  The lost pay for hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers would cut 0.3 to 0.4 percentage points off of fourth quarter growth–the difference between weak 2% growth annual growth that the economy is currently experiencing and an anemic 1.6% growth rate that would be flirting with recession.  An estimate by Goldman Sachs puts the potential lost GDP at 0.9%.
A longer shutdown could cause disruptions in private-sector production and investments, and would almost certainly lead to stock market declines.  The L.A. Times article notes that stocks lost about 4% of their value during the December 1995-January 1996 shutdown.  Job growth stalled, and the GDP gained just 2.7% in that first quarter. Interestingly, in all cases of past government shutdowns, the stock market recovered all of the losses and then some. That could be why the market is holding up well right now, but a protracted shutdown creates uncertainty and the markets hate uncertainty.
Interestingly, Congress has quietly moved away from the issue that has triggered the last few budget stalemates, focusing this time on whether or not to fully fund President Obama’s health care legislation.  In the past, the issue was budget deficits, but it turns out that the budget deficit has come down dramatically over the past 12 months.  The U.S. government posted a $117 billion surplus in June, and the Congressional Budget Office expects to run a surplus again in September–the result of revenue gains as a result of tax hikes plus the growing economy, coupled with a 10% reduction in spending. 
What does all this mean for your investments in the final 2013 quarter?  Who knows?  Nobody could have predicted, at the start of the year, with all the hand-wringing over the fiscal cliff and new tax legislation, that we would be standing nine months into 2013 with significant investment gains in the U.S. markets and a resurgence in global investments led by, of all places, Europe.
This much we can predict: the recent uncertainties–the paralysis in Congress, worries about the direction of interest rates and whether the Fed is going to stop intervening in the markets–will give way to new worries, new uncertainties, which will make all of us feel in our guts like the world is going to hell in a handbasket. With that said, the bull market that started in March 2009 is getting long in the tooth and is overdue for a longer period of rest (10% or more correction, or even a bear market)
Nonetheless, the headlines obscure the fact that investment returns are created the hard way, by millions of people getting up in the morning and going to work and spending their day finding ways to improve American businesses, generate profits, create new products and new markets, day after day after day. 
Whatever ups and downs you experience–and you WILL experience them, perhaps in the next quarter or the next year–that underlying driver of business enterprises and stock value is constantly working on your behalf.  That will be true no matter what the headlines say, no matter how spooked you feel about whatever scary thing is going on in the world.  Nobody enjoys the investment ride the way children enjoy the thrills of a roller coaster, but both seem to ultimately deliver their riders to a semblance of safety in the end.

I hope you’re having a great week and I welcome your questions, feedback and comments. If you or someone you know is looking for a fee-only fiduciary advisor or money manager who puts your interests first, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.


Wilshire index data:
Russell index data:
S&P index data:–p-us-l–
Nasdaq index data:
International indices:
Commodities index data:
Treasury market rates:
Aggregate corporate bond rates:
Government shutdown impact:,0,155302.story
Budget surpluses:
My thanks to Bob Veres, publisher of Inside Information for his help with this article.

Your Returns Versus the Market

One of the most misleading statistics in the financial world is the return data we are routinely given by the financial media, telling us how much investors made in the markets and in individual stocks or mutual funds over some time period.  In fact, your returns are almost guaranteed to be different from whatever the markets and the funds you’ve invested in have gotten.

How is this possible?  Start with cash flows.  We are told that the S&P 500 has delivered a compounded return of about 7.8% from 1992 through 2011, which sounds pretty positive until you realize that this return would only be available to somebody who invested all his or her money at the beginning of 1992 and didn’t move that money around at all for the next twenty years.  If you invested systematically, the same amount every month, as most of us do, then you would have earned a 3.2% compounded return.  Why?  A lot of your money would have been exposed to the 2008 downturn, and not much of it would have enjoyed the dramatic run-up in stocks from 1992 to 2000.

In addition, there is the difference–only now getting attention from analysts–between investor returns and investment returns.  Human nature drives investors to sell their stocks and move to the sidelines after their portfolios have been hammered–which is often the worst possible time to sell.  And it drives people to start increasing their equity allocations toward the peak of bull markets when they perceive that everybody else is getting rich.  That means less of their money tends to be exposed to stocks when the market turns from bearish to bullish, and more is exposed when markets switch from bullish to bearish.

Understand also that owning a diversified portfolio means that only a portion of your investments are exposed to stocks. Assets such as cash, bonds, real estate, commodities and other non-stock investments all have returns that are inherently different than stocks, making overall portfolio return comparisons an “apples to oranges” one.

This would be bad enough, but people also switch their mutual fund and stock holdings.  When a great fund hits a rough patch, there’s a tendency to sell that dog and buy a fund that whose recent returns have been scorching hot.  Many times the underperforming fund will reverse course, while the hot fund will cool off.  The Morningstar organization now calculates, for every fund it follows, the difference between the returns of the mutual fund and the average returns of the investors in fund, and the differences can be astonishing.  Overall, according to Morningstar statistics and an annual report compiled by the Dalbar organization, investor returns have historically been about half of what the markets and funds are reporting.

And then there’s the tax bite.  Some mutual funds invest more tax-efficiently than others, and generate less ordinary income.  Beyond that, if a fund is sitting on significant losses when you invest, you get to ride out its gains without having the tax impact distributed to your 1040.  If the fund is sitting on large gains when you buy in, you could find yourself paying taxes on gains even if the fund loses money.


My thanks to Inside Information publisher Bob Veres for his contribution to this post.

Update on Extension of Bush Era Tax Cuts

I promised to update you on progress in changes to income tax legislation that affects all of us in 2011.  As you may recall, the Bush-era tax cuts were scheduled to expire after 2010, which essentially amounts to a tax increase if Congress didn’t act to extend them.

After the stock market close yesterday, President Obama, in a televised speech, announced a compromise with Republicans in Congress which, if passed into law, would amount to a much bigger fiscal package in 2011 than virtually anyone expected. In addition to a two-year extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, he added a one-year reduction in the payroll tax and a huge investment tax credit.  While the ultimate bill that gets passed may be different than detailed below, I wanted to get you some details right away.

I would expect that the proposal will be signed and turned into law in the next couple of weeks.  Among the highlights of the proposed bill are:

— A two year extension of tax cuts for all income levels.   The 15% rate on capital gains and dividend income would also be extended as part of the deal. The president also proposes a 35% estate tax rate, with a $5 million exemption.  It appears that the President traded tax extensions for the “rich” for unemployment benefit extensions and the below payroll tax deduction.

— Payroll tax deduction. This would reduce the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax applied to employee wages by 2 percentage points.

— Renewal of emergency unemployment benefits through the end of 2011. This would be more than the three-month extension most analysts had expected. It puts around $60 billion in the hands of unemployed citizens, which is much more than the consensus expected.

— ARRA tax cut extensions. Several small tax cuts in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in 2009, will be extended, including an expanded earned income tax credit, and various education-related tax breaks.

— Full expensing of business investments in 2011.  This would allow the expensing of business investment in 2011, similar to the policy that the president proposed in September.  It will allow companies to deduct the entire cost of capital expenditures on their taxes rather than depreciate them.

Congress and the White House will need to work out the details, but I expect this tax bill to pass. It’s not likely that this lame duck Congress would leave for the holidays until this is sent to the President for his signature.  It’s rare that I pity the Internal Revenue Service, but with tax forms to revamp and guidance and rules to formulate, they will be behind the curve on getting this out.  I would expect some delays of 2010 income tax refunds for returns filed early, but none that are terribly lengthy.

The stock markets have been expecting this, and some of it already factored into current levels, but I still expect market reaction to be positive and further bolster any Santa Claus rally we may have coming.  This is essentially another huge fiscal stimulus plan, perhaps larger than any of us have been expecting or realize.

I’ve been saying all along that Congress will “hem and haw”, posture for their constituents, and pretend to be against tax cuts and for fiscal responsibility.  But ultimately the economy is too fragile to be saddled with a tax increase this year or next. Even I am a bit surprised by the depth and breadth of the bill, but I could not see Congress not doing something before year-end. Failing to pass something would have amounted to a quantitative easing neutralizer (i.e., rendering quantitative easing worthless).

I will keep my eyes and ears peeled open for more details about this bill and its ultimate passage and will let you know what ultimately gets passed. If you, a family member, friend or colleague would like more information about this or just need to talk about a financial situation, please feel free to forward a link to this post to them and suggest they get in touch with me (  I will be sure to take good care of them.  As always, I’m available for any questions you may have and welcome your comments.

Have a great holiday season and look for my year-end and 2011 Economic and Market Outlook letter later this month.

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