Equities are too Risky and Should be Avoided: Grand Illusion #4

It happens all too often. The office receives a phone call or an email from a nervous investor who has been surfing the internet or watching their favorite news network. They’ve come across an article, a headline, or an advertisement proclaiming that the stock market is poised to drop by some cataclysmic amount. Further, the advertisement promotes the idea that the stock market is a high-stakes gamble, a roll of the dice, and is certainly rigged against the “Little Guy.” We are told by these frightened investors that these warnings must be credible. “After all, they are advertised on Fox News,” and these warnings “are all over the internet!” It’s an amazing phenomenon to watch the power of the media as it turns otherwise rational people into devout believers that the apocalypse is on our very doorstep.

The promoters of this brand of financial pornography are especially troubling. They prey on the uninformed and the most anxious investors of our society. They dupe the very investors that probably have the greatest need to own inflation-beating investments. Scaring the already apprehensive investor into purchasing high-commission products that will “keep their money safe” from stock market corrections is their modus operandi. Certainly, their articles, advertisements, and headlines are provocative. They are masters in the art of deception as their message distorts reality and is damaging to those who fall under its influence.

Volatility vs. risk

Anybody who understands investing knows that, in the long run, the only way you will be able to maintain the purchasing power of your money is to become a partial owner in a collection of the most profitable companies the world has ever known. In other words, you must own equities if beating inflation is your objective. The price the investor pays for superior, inflation-beating returns is short-term volatility. The stock market has been and always will be volatile. Those who are deceived by the grand illusion that equities are too risky and must be avoided fail to discern the difference between volatility and risk. Few people can make this distinction, but that is precisely the reason why few investors prosper.

Volatility is the advent of a temporary decline, while risk refers to the chance of a permanent loss. Properly understood, “volatility” is merely a synonym for unpredictability: it has neither negative nor positive connotations. It is worthwhile to take a minute and review the volatile history of the stock market as measured by the S&P 500 or large company stocks.

The Bear Market

Remember, a bear market is a drop of about 20% in value from the market’s previous high. This phenomenon is not something that is unusual or unique, bear markets are as common as dirt. As you can see from the chart below, in the seventy-three years since World War II, there have been 13 bear markets. They come around about every five years on average. These declines vary in their severity, frequency, and duration, but on average, the stock market retreats a little over 30% in a bear market. They last on average about 15 months, then the stock market rebounds and moves on to new highs. Given the very real possibility that your retirement could last two or three decades, you’ll be a participant in five or six bear markets during your retirement, so you might as well get used to them.

The biggest issue with bear markets is fear. Not fear of what the stock market is doing, but fear of what the investor is doing. Peter Lynch, the fund manager for the highly successful Fidelity Magellan Fund throughout the nineties, said, “The key to investing in stocks is not to get scared out of them.” You must not abandon equities when they are down because as sure as bear markets are to come, bull markets will surely follow.

The Bull Market

Included below is a chart that shows all the bull markets since World War II. As you can see, most investors are missing the point. Instead of worrying about avoiding the next -30% bear market, we should focus our attention on making sure we participate in the next 300% bull market!

As mentioned in our blog on market timing, it is an exercise in futility to try to guess when to be in or out of the markets. The key is to be disciplined and to stay invested. Since 1945, or the end of World War II, the S&P 500 has averaged an annualized rate of 11% including dividends. Another way of looking at this, if you could have invested $1,000 in the S&P 500 in 1945, that $1,000 would have grown to more than $1,800,000 today. A handsome reward for staying invested.

The Masters of Misinformation

Instead of teaching the public the virtues of investment discipline and sharing a historical perspective of investing in equities, the purveyors of this grand illusion that the equity markets are dangerous and should be avoided design advertising campaigns to reinforce the irrational fears of the financially ignorant. They fail to provide a historical perspective that a diversified portfolio of U.S. stocks has never gone down without fully recovering within a relatively short period of time. Never. Nor do they reveal that in a diversified portfolio of stocks, such as the S&P 500, the only way to lose money is to sell when the stock market is down. Not so coincidentally, this is exactly what they suggest you do to free up the cash to buy their “safe” products. The promoters of these sleazy enterprises profit only when you panic. They win only when you choose to lose.

So, who are the promoters that benefit from this grand illusion? The answer is simple. Any entity that benefits from frightening people out of equities is a co-conspirator. The companies that profit when you panic are predominantly the sellers of precious metals and annuities with the financial media assisting as a loyal partner in crime. For as they say in the news business, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Frightening, sensational, and exaggerated headlines and stories touting the demise of the stock market are the tools they employ to promote their ratings and sell their products.

In an accompanying blog, we look at the world’s worst investments. It may come as no surprise that in our estimation, the world’s worst investments are precious metals and index annuities. These historical underachievers are bought only by the fearful and ignorant. These products have horrible performance histories and are purchased only because, as Jeremy Siegel was quoted to have said, “fear has a greater impact on human action than does the impressive weight of historical evidence”. Unfortunately, experience has taught us that Mr. Siegel’s quote is entirely accurate.

Peter Lynch said, “Far more money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections, or trying to anticipate corrections, than has been lost in corrections themselves.” Think about this. Some investors are more than willing to systematically watch their purchasing power erode, because they are afraid of the pain associated with a temporary stock market correction. They are willing to pay unbelievably high fees to insurance companies that sell annuities with the promise to protect their money should the stock market crash. Some investors willingly throw money at the poorest of investments and subject their money to the promises of the shadiest of characters before they allow their money to be exposed to the temporary fluctuation in price of a share of the most profitable companies the world has ever known. The fearful investors are so focused on missing the next bear market that they willingly skip out on one of the most profitable investment opportunities ever made available to mankind: investing in equities.

Certainly, there will be temporary periods of pain and discomfort from investing into equities, but the pain of owning a well-diversified portfolio of equities has always proven to be temporary, and the long-term results have always been able to protect purchasing power.

Investing is more of an emotional exercise than it is intellectual. Those who can harness their emotions during volatile times, and not fall prey to the peddlers of doom, will be successful. Those who lack the emotional maturity to be a disciplined investor will forever struggle. The antidote to fear and panic is having a plan. Every investor needs to have an investment goal in mind when investing and then they need to create an investment portfolio that matches their future income needs. Without a goal-driven plan, emotions drive our investment decisions and emotionally charged investing will never produce a good investment outcome.

Scott M. Peterson is the founder and principal investment advisor of Peterson Wealth Advisors. Scott has specialized in financial management for retirees for over 30 years. Scott is a regular presenter at BYU’s Education Week and speaks often at other seminars regarding financial decision making at retirement. He also literally wrote the book on retirement income, Plan on Living: The Retiree’s Guide to Lasting Income & Enduring Wealth.

If you are getting close to retirement and will have at least $500,000 saved at retirement, click here to request a complimentary copy of Scott’s new book!

 

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Welcome to the Grand Illusions

Grand Illusion #1: Market Timing

Grand Illusion #2: Superior Investment Selection

Grand Illusion #3: The Persistence of Performance

Past performance does not guarantee future results – Grand Illusion #3

“If past history is all there was to the (investment) game, the richest people in the world would be librarians.” -Warren Buffett

If you have ever bought shares of stock, a bond, or shares in a mutual fund, you were presented with the following disclaimer: “Past performance does not guarantee future results.” The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission requires it and the SEC is right, there truly is no correlation between an individual investment’s past performance and its future. Past performance has no predictive power whatsoever.

Of course, that doesn’t mean your investment advisor sat you down, rested a hand on your shoulder, and with a kind but concerned look in their eye, uttered these words. No, it was in the fine print somewhere that most of us never bothered to read. Or worse, when we came across this disclaimer, we ignored it, because frankly, we did not want to accept it. We like guarantees. When we buy an investment, we simply want the assurance that it will perform as it has done in the past. Unfortunately, that promise can’t honestly be given.

The “grand illusion” of persistence of performance is hard to diffuse because so much of our life experience is based on the reliability of past performance. We believe the sun will come up tomorrow morning at the appropriate time, because it always has. We therefore assume that it always will. Your summer vacation at the beach, or next winter’s ski getaway, can be planned months in advance because of the persistence of performance of the weather, and the reliability of the change of the seasons. If you have a car that has averaged seventeen miles per gallon since you purchased it four years ago, it would be crazy to assume it will average anything but seventeen miles per gallon next month.

The persistence of performance surrounds us, and it seems quite natural to want to use past performance as a criterion to select our investments. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the past performance of a specific investment has any predictive power of that investment’s future.

S&P Persistence Scorecard

S&P Global, an independent research company that monitors the mutual fund industry, produces a biannual report they call the “S&P Persistence Scorecard.” These annual reports, always come to the same conclusion: that over a five-year period, less than 1% of the mutual funds in the top quartile at the beginning of a five-year period have been able to maintain their top quartile status at the end of five years.

Many investors waste an inordinate amount of time and energy studying past investment returns, attempting to discover next year’s investment champions. It is an exercise of futility, but it is easy to get caught up in, because we really want this illusion to be true. Founder of Peterson Wealth Advisors, Scott Peterson recounts an experience of when he was first beginning in the investment business:

“I cut my teeth in the investment business in the late eighties and early nineties, back in the day when double-digit investment returns were the investment norm. It seemed as if the whole world was consumed with finding the hottest-performing mutual fund. As a young and inexperienced advisor, I spent countless hours identifying all the top-performing funds so I could direct my clients to them. I now recognize that perfecting my golf swing or cleaning my garage would have yielded equally productive investment results.”

So, who profits from promoting the idea of persistence of performance?

Any entity that touts their ability to direct you to a superior investment, based on that investment’s past performance, perpetrates this grand illusion. The Morningstar, Inc. star-rating system for investments is based on past performance, rendering their system meaningless. That is right: buying a five-star fund versus a one-star fund does not increase your chance of success! Countless newsletters and magazines are sold as they flaunt their recommended lists of the hottest stock or best mutual funds to buy. All their recommendations are based on historical performances which has no predictive power.

Just as the road in front of us is different from the road behind us, it is important to recognize that drivers as well as investors who navigate solely by what they can see in their rear-view mirror are not well equipped to manage the inevitable twists and turns of the road that lies ahead.

Scott M. Peterson is the founder and principal investment advisor of Peterson Wealth Advisors. Scott has specialized in financial management for retirees for over 30 years. Scott is a regular presenter at BYU’s Education Week and speaks often at other seminars regarding financial decision making at retirement. He also literally wrote the book on retirement income, Plan on Living: The Retiree’s Guide to Lasting Income & Enduring Wealth.

If you are getting close to retirement and will have at least $500,000 saved at retirement, click here to request a complimentary copy of Scott’s new book!

 

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Grand Illusion #4: Equities are Risky and Should be Avoided

The myth of “Timing the Market” – Grand Illusion #1

The first “grand illusion” of investments is market timing. Market timing presupposes that those who are smart enough, or follow the markets closely enough, can figure out both when to get into the stock market and when to get out. The goal is to miss the pain and experience the gain.

Of course, we would all love to own equities and enjoy the profits while avoiding downturns, but unfortunately, it cannot be done. The difficulty in market timing is that you not only have to know when to get out, but also when to get back in. Therefore, you must guess correctly not only once, but twice for market timing to actually work.

What we have found is that there are a lot of people and products willing to take money from the public who attempt to time the market, but none have a proven track record to substantiate their claims. Of course, there is the occasional “investment guru” that may guess the temporary movement of the market. When that happens, they have their face on the cover of the financial magazines and show up on the financial radio and television shows, but they are soon forgotten. Why? Because successful market timers must guess correctly twice: when to get out, and when to get back in. That cannot reliably be done.

We often run into individual investors that report to us they saw the financial crisis of 2008-09 coming, and they were able to avoid the big downturn in the stock market. As we investigate their claim in more detail we find that these investors, that take such pride in their investment prowess, usually still have their money sitting in the bank account that they moved their money to during the great recession.  Therefore, even if they did miss the 56% downturn of 2008-09 they also missed out on more than 300% upturn since 2008-09. Again, you must guess correctly twice.

Can you really outperform the stock market average?

The S&P 500 is a representative basket of the 500 largest corporations in the United States: Apple, ExxonMobil, Proctor & Gamble, etc.

An index is a tool that gives us a way to measure how the overall stock market is faring. There is no management of the portfolio of stocks that make up the S&P 500, and you can’t buy into the S&P 500 itself. You can, however, purchase exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds that mimic the holdings of the S&P 500. When you buy an investment product that mimics the S&P 500, you become a partial owner of all 500 corporations that compose the S&P 500. You are buying a piece of the entire basket of stocks.

Actively managed portfolios

The alternative to passively investing into an index fund is to attempt to make money by investing into actively managed portfolios. Actively managed investment portfolios are those that attempt to outperform an index, such as the S&P 500, through market timing and superior investment selection. It is interesting to note that in a given year roughly 15% of actively managed mutual funds that invest into large U.S. stocks can outperform the S&P 500.

You may be thinking that you only need to do the research and find the 15% of mutual funds that beat the S&P 500. That is a great idea, but it’s just not that simple. It’s never the same funds that beat the S&P 500 year after year. Every year there will be a different group of mutual funds that outperform. You would have to determine in advance which 15% of mutual funds would be next year’s winners. Therein lies the challenge. Good luck.

Over longer time periods, the percentage of actively managed mutual funds that can outperform the index diminishes dramatically. The obvious question that needs to be asked, therefore, is, “Why don’t I just buy the average?”

Well, why don’t you?

The good news is that you don’t need to “beat the market” to be a successful investor, you only need to get the market’s average and participate in its earnings. Because when it comes to investing, getting the average return of the entire market puts you near the top of the class.

The profiteers of market timing

So, who stands to profit from the illusion of market timing?

First, the mutual fund industry in general. The fees for actively managed mutual funds are more than ten times higher than buying a fund that mirrors an index. The average cost of actively managed large-cap stock funds is 2.33% when expense ratios and transaction costs are considered. The average cost to buy a fund that tracks the performance of the S&P 500 itself is .20% when transaction costs and expense ratios are considered. Even though index funds outperform actively manage mutual funds and are cheaper to buy, for the obvious financial benefits, mutual fund companies promote their more expensive, worse-performing funds instead.

The second group of profiteers of this particular grand illusion is any other person or entity that promotes the idea that they know what the market’s next move will be. The large brokerage firms and the small investment advisors, whose value propositions are their knowledge of the future, are co-conspirators of this illusion.

Magazines, newsletters, and cable news stations that predict the future of the markets, the price of oil, the next recession, or any other future price or event, likewise share in this “grand illusion”.

The following that some of these prognosticators have is amazing. On the air, these self-assured individuals are incredibly convincing. But being convincing doesn’t mean they are accurate. Few investors take time to investigate the track record of those that can “see into the future”. If you were to Google the accuracy rate of their past predictions, you would know better than to follow their forecasts.

Some of the most entertaining promoters of the illusion are the authors of books that have figured out when the “financial apocalypse” will begin. For $34.99, they will share this dark secret with us, and instruct us on how we can thrive while the entire economy collapses, dollars become worthless, and our neighbors starve to death in the streets.

The next time you are in the bookstore, check out the books on investing. You will find a book authored by Harry Dent in 1999. His book, ‘The Roaring 2000s’, predicted that the Dow Jones Industrial Average would surge to 35,000 by the end of the next decade. That never happened. Instead, the first ten years of this century ended up being the worst decade for investing since the Great Depression. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed the decade lower than where it began, an entire decade with no growth.

Instead of taking a breather after this forecasting disaster, in 2009, Mr. Dent doubled down on his forecasting and wrote a new book, ‘The Great Crash Ahead’. Since this book hit the shelves, the S&P 500 has tripled in value.

It seems like this forecaster just can’t get things right. I wouldn’t be so disparaging about this author if it were not for the fact that he is one of the most quoted “experts” in the financial industry. Every year for the past several years, he has predicted that the Dow Jones Industrial Average will drop by 6,000 points. It hasn’t happened, but that’s not the point. The point is that every time he makes this dire prediction, he sells a lot of books.

The grand illusion of market timing is reminiscent of the California gold rush. In 1849, fortune seekers from across the globe flocked to California in hopes of striking it rich. Fortunes were made, but it was not the hard-working prospectors that become wealthy. Rather, it was the shop keepers, suppliers, and bankers who were the real profiteers. Similarly, fortunes are now being made by market timing. Unfortunately, it is not the investor that will be bringing home the profits. It is the mutual fund industry, brokerage firms, and the financial media that are the real winners.

With the illusion of market timing, everybody makes money but the investor.

Scott M. Peterson is the founder and principal investment advisor of Peterson Wealth Advisors. Scott has specialized in financial management for retirees for over 30 years. Scott is a regular presenter at BYU’s Education Week and speaks often at other seminars regarding financial decision making at retirement. He also literally wrote the book on retirement income, Plan on Living: The Retiree’s Guide to Lasting Income & Enduring Wealth.

If you are getting close to retirement and will have at least $500,000 saved at retirement, click here to request a complimentary copy of Scott’s new book!

 

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Grand Illusion #2: Superior Investment Selection
Grand Illusion #3: The Persistence of Performance
Grand Illusion #4: Equities are too Risky and Should be Avoided

Do actively managed portfolios beat the market? – Grand Illusion #2

The fallacy that the stock market can regularly and consistently be outperformed by superior investment selection is the ugly stepsister to the first ‘grand illusion’ of investments, market timing. The notion that through an extensive search of the stock market or the mutual fund industry, investors can reliably uncover the next investment superstar is categorically false.

You might think, “If I could only find and buy the next Apple, Google, or Amazon stock in its infancy, I would be rich.” Well, you would be rich, but it is unlikely you will be that lucky. There are thousands of mutual fund managers and pension plan managers, and a wide variety of other highly educated, experienced professionals in the investment industry scouring the investment universe in search of the next investment superstar. The full-time professionals, with their vast resources, can rarely find a hidden investment gem or concoct a superior portfolio of investments, that can reliably beat their corresponding index (or the average).

We like to think that trying to get rich through individual investment selection, versus owning a diversified portfolio of equities, is like betting on a single football team that will win next year’s Super Bowl, versus having a partial ownership in the National Football League (NFL) itself. Owning a share of the entire NFL would entitle you to a proportional share of all the profits from the entire organization and from every team. Certainly, teams within the organization will experiences their ups and downs each year, but overall, the NFL as an entity makes a lot of money (and half of its teams are guaranteed to have losing seasons). A rational investor would not bet on a single team instead of owning a piece of the whole organization. Rational investors recognize that the odds are not in favor of those who try to beat the markets through superior investment selection.

Successful long-term stock and mutual-fund pickers are hard to find. There are no market timers or stock pickers listed among Fortune magazine’s richest people in the world. Wouldn’t you think that if market timers and stock pickers could really do what they claim to be able to do, they would be numbered among the world’s wealthiest individuals? So, where are they?

Does Warren Buffet beat the market?

Some would argue that the oft quoted billionaire Warren Buffett would qualify as a successful stock picker. He is a unique and talented investment manager and has made excellent individual investment choices. But Warren Buffett’s successes can be attributed to his extreme discipline and patience rather than flipping stocks or timing markets. It is interesting to note the instructions he gives to the trustee of his own estate regarding how his wife’s money is to be managed upon his demise: “the trustee is to put 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund.” When the third wealthiest person on the planet, who made his wealth by managing investments, instructs his trustees to not even attempt to “beat the market” we should pay attention.

An additional illustration of Mr. Buffett’s belief in the passive investing process is demonstrated in an interesting wager that he made in 2007 with Ted Seides of Protégé Partners. Protégé Partners is a New York-based money-management company that prides itself in its ability to time the markets and outperform the stock market through superior investment selection. The bet was, that for a ten-year period, Protégé Partners would choose a combination of “timing and selecting” types of investments to beat Warren Buffett’s choice of a mutual fund that mimicked the S&P 500. At the end of the ten years, the winner’s favorite charity would receive one million dollars.

When the wager was completed in 2017, Buffett’s S&P 500 index fund returned 7.1% compounded annually. Protégé Partners competing hedge funds returned an average of 2.2%. Surely Buffett’s charity, Girls Inc. of Omaha, was excited to open their mail box after the wager was completed.

There is a lesson to be learned from this wager. Warren Buffett, one of the smartest investors on earth, believes in the value of passive investing. He believes very few investors “can beat the market” and he trusts that investing into the average through index mimicking equities will ultimately beat out those who seek above average investment results through superior stock and mutual fund selecting.

Who benefits from actively managed portfolios?

So, if market timing and superior investment selection has been proven to be unproductive, who benefits from these deficient strategies? Mutual fund companies, brokerage firms, and any entity or individual whose value proposition is their ability to tell you what tomorrow’s star investment will be. Especially egregious profiteers in this illusion are the magazines that provide lists of “the best mutual funds for the year” and the television programs instructing the public on what stocks to buy and sell as part of some inept day-trading strategy.

There is an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money that is wasted on the possibility that market timing and superior investment selection may contribute to investment performance. The academic world refutes the claims that market timing and superior investment selection have any significant impact on actual investment results. In practice, the additional costs (increased management costs and higher trading costs) incurred by those who willingly pay for these tactics far outweigh any possible benefit they might offer.

Many naïve investors believe that if they spend an hour or two every other month checking out stocks, or mutual funds, on the internet, that they will be able to create an investment mix that will outperform market averages. When long term, index beating, investment selection can’t be accomplished by the most experienced professionals, it is doubtful that the amateur on an occasional cruise through cyberspace will be successful.

Certainly, there is a lot of money being made by the deception of superior investment selection. Unfortunately, we once again see that everybody, but the investor is making that money.

So, when it comes to investing your own portfolio we would suggest that you follow the sage advice of Vanguard Mutual Funds founder Jack Bogle, “Don’t struggle to find the needle in the haystack. Just buy the haystack.”

Scott M. Peterson is the founder and principal investment advisor of Peterson Wealth Advisors. Scott has specialized in financial management for retirees for over 30 years. Scott is a regular presenter at BYU’s Education Week and speaks often at other seminars regarding financial decision making at retirement. He also literally wrote the book on retirement income, Plan on Living: The Retiree’s Guide to Lasting Income & Enduring Wealth.

If you are getting close to retirement and will have at least $500,000 saved at retirement, click here to request a complimentary copy of Scott’s new book!

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Grand Illusion #3: The Persistence of Performance
Grand Illusion #4: Equities are too Risky and Should be Avoided

Investment myths: Welcome to the Grand Illusions

As investment advisors, as well as ones who have extensively researched investment-related topics over the past thirty years, we have come to a disappointing conclusion: the ideas embraced and promoted by many in the investment industry and the media are not shared by the facts that are revealed in the academic world.

The next few blog posts will be dedicated to debunking the investment fallacies of our day such as market timingsuperior investment selectionthe persistence of performance, and avoiding equities by exposing where academic research and conventional wisdom collide. After all, we really can’t proceed with a constructive discussion about the management of investments during retirement without first dispatching false investment narratives.

So, why is there a chasm between academia and the messages shared by the conventional investment pundits of the day? The simple answer is that for some, profits trump giving quality investment information.

It is also important to remember that financial institutions were created to make profits for themselves and their shareholders, not their customers. These entities as well as the financial media are in the business of selling products and making profits. Giving useful, common-sense, factual investment advice is not their primary objective – selling a product and making money is.

Unfortunately, the tried-and-true facts resulting from academic research are valuable but usually boring. Fictional concepts, no matter how useless and sometimes damaging they may be, certainly have more sizzle, and sizzle sells products. The financial media, whether it is newspapers, magazines, radio or television, must “sell” you the news instead of giving you the facts. The financial news outlets would go out of business if they headlined the simple truths of investing such as “Patience and Discipline, the Keys to Success,” or “Slow and Steady Wins the Race.” To survive, they must continually come up with new and exciting headlines to grab your attention with headlines like, “Six Hot Funds to Buy Now!” or “Wall Street’s Secrets Revealed!” These headlines are catchy, and surely generate a lot of money for their companies, but this type of information does not help the investor.

We don’t begrudge corporations trying to make a profit in the most capitalistic industry on earth. Certainly, there are reputable financial companies that have valuable products and services we can benefit from.

Unfortunately, some companies and individuals fill the airways and printed media with half-truths and even outright lies as they attempt to get us to purchase their products and services. Just as pornography is harmful to all that get caught in its snare, this financial pornography likewise has no redeeming value, gives the investor a false sense of reality, and will devastate the financial future of any that allow themselves to be seduced by it.

As we were searching for a name to call these investment falsehoods, a song that that is often played on our classic rock radio station came to mind. The lyrics to the old Styx hit, “Grand Illusion,” accurately describes the deceptions of our day. So, welcome to the grand illusions of investing.

Scott M. Peterson is the founder and principal investment advisor of Peterson Wealth Advisors. Scott has specialized in financial management for retirees for over 30 years. Scott is a regular presenter at BYU’s Education Week and speaks often at other seminars regarding financial decision making at retirement. He also literally wrote the book on retirement income, Plan on Living: The Retiree’s Guide to Lasting Income & Enduring Wealth.

If you are getting close to retirement and will have at least $500,000 saved at retirement, click here to request a complimentary copy of Scott’s new book!

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Grand Illusion #1: Market Timing
Grand Illusion #2: Superior Investment Selection
Grand Illusion #3: The Persistence of Performance
Grand Illusion #4: Equities are too Risky and Should be Avoided

How Will I Pay for Health Insurance in Retirement?

Bob and Patricia are 60 years old and would love to retire as soon as possible. It’s not uncommon to meet people like Bob and Patricia who have been saving diligently, setting money aside into their 401(k)s, making wise investments, and living below their means with a desire to transition into retirement as early as possible. Unfortunately, health insurance for them to retire before age 65 can now cost as much as $2,000 per month for a high deductible health insurance plan, even for someone who has significant savings, this additional expense can make early retirement unaffordable.

In the past, many people were able to leave the workforce and continue to receive health insurance through a former employer. These retiree health insurance plans would bridge the gap between the time that someone left the workforce and the time they began receiving Medicare benefits at age 65. Unfortunately, most of these benefits, along with other retirement benefits like generous pensions, have gone the way of the Dodo bird. If you are one of the few that still have these benefits available to you, count yourself very fortunate. So, is there a way to retire before age 65, and purchase affordable health insurance? The answer is yes! But it requires special planning.

The Affordable Care Act

The Affordable Care Act, also commonly known as, “Obamacare” contains a provision that provides health insurance subsidies to Americans below certain income levels. To qualify for a health insurance subsidy or discount, your household income cannot be more than four times the federal poverty line. The federal poverty line is based on the number of people in your household. Looking at Table 1., four times the federal poverty line ranges from $49,960 in 2020 for a household of one, all the way up to $138,360 for a household of six. Since Bob and Patricia have a household of two, they would need to have an income below $67,640 in 2020 to qualify for a subsidy, and the subsidies are significant.

Table 1. FEDERAL POVERTY GUIDELINES (YEAR 2020)
# In Household Federal Poverty Line (FPL) 2-Times (FPL) 3-Times (FPL) 4-Times (FPL)
1 $12,490.00 $24,980.00 $37,470.00 $49,960.00
2 $16,910.00 $33,820.00 $50,730.00 $67,640.00
3 $21,330.00 $42,660.00 $63,990.00 $85,320.00
4 $25,750.00 $51,500.00 $77,250.00 $103,000.00
5 $30,170.00 $60,340.00 $90,510.00 $120,680.00
6 $34,590.00 $69,180.00 $103,770.00 $138,360.00
http://www.healthreformbeyondthebasics.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/REFERENCE-GUIDE_Yearly-Guideline-and-Thresholds_CoverageYear2020.pdf

For example, Bob and Patricia, Utah residents, would receive $1,345.29 per month if they reported an income of $65,000 for the year. If Bob and Patricia were to choose a high deductible Bronze plan (See Table 2.) that would typically cost about $1,227 a month. Applying their subsidy of $1,345.29, they wouldn’t have to pay a monthly premium. Now let’s say they select a gold plan that costs $2,403 per month; they would only have to pay $1,058 after their subsidy is applied. That’s a savings of over $16,000 a year in healthcare expenses.

Table 2. EXAMPLES OF HEALTH INSURANCE PLANS AND IMPACT OF SUBSIDIES
Plan Bronze Plan Silver Plan Gold Plan
Monthly Premium $1,227.40 $1,856.76 $2,403.36
Subsidy $1,345.29 $1,345.29 $1,345.29
After Subsidy $0.00 $511.47 $1,058.07
Quotes ran August 2020 at www.healthcare.gov. Based on a household of two with an annual modified adjusted gross income of $65,000

You might be thinking, this sounds great, but I’m not sure I’m willing to restrict myself to only living on an amount that’s below the threshold to qualify for these discounts.

Well, here’s where the planning comes in. The discounts are based on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). We need to be careful not to confuse this with cash flow coming into the household.

Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI)

Let’s look at how the tax code defines modified adjusted gross income for health insurance – to determine your modified adjusted gross income, the tax code looks at your adjusted gross income (AGI) and adds back in a few income sources that are normally not included. Three of the most common income sources that must be added back into AGI to come to the MAGI calculation are:

  • Excluded foreign income
  • The Non-taxable portion of Social Security
  • Tax-exempt interest

Once MAGI is calculated, there are ways to keep your income below the 400% of the federal poverty line income limit that would allow you to qualify for subsidies and still have the monthly cash flow you would like.

Let’s return to the case of Bob and Patricia and see how this would work. Let’s say that Bob and Patricia have saved $3,000,000 for retirement. These savings include pre-tax accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, tax-free accounts like Roth IRAs, and after-tax brokerage investment accounts. Bob and Patricia decide that they would like to have $100,000 per year in income. Bob and Patricia can control how much of their $100,000 income are included in their AGI by choosing which accounts they take distributions from.

Example: Bob and Patricia decide to take out $50,000 from Bob’s IRA over the year for income. They then supplement their IRA income by taking out $50,000 from Bob’s after-tax brokerage investment account. Bob is careful not to sell stocks that have embedded capital gains, which would be added to their MAGI. This means that Bob and Patricia will be able to enjoy $100,000 per year of income but only report about $50,000 on their taxes. This would allow them to then qualify for the significant health insurance subsidies.

This example doesn’t consider things like capital gains, interest, or dividend income that would likely be applicable in their case. These items need to be considered, so careful planning is required. However, the point remains that this strategy would allow someone to enjoy the amount of income they prefer, while simultaneously qualifying for significant subsidies for health insurance.

One last note on health insurance subsidies for early retirees. When you apply for health insurance during open enrollment, you will have to estimate your income or MAGI for the following year. For Bob and Patricia, this means that they would state their income on the application as $50,000 using the numbers from the example above. You might ask, what if my income ends up being different from my estimate? Any difference in income between your estimate and actual income will be reconciled when you file your taxes for the following year. If your actual income is higher than the estimate you used on your application, you would be required to pay back a portion of the subsidy you received. If your actual income is lower than your estimate, you may be eligible for a higher subsidy, which would be paid to you as a tax credit.

In my experience, this isn’t much of an issue unless your actual income is so high that you wouldn’t have qualified for a subsidy at all. In this case, you would be required to pay back the entire subsidy you received throughout the year. In Bob and Patricia’s case, this would mean coming out of pocket $16,000 to pay back the subsidies they received based on their income estimates.

Careful planning is the key. If you understand and follow the rules you can receive significant benefits, if you mess up, you’ll go from thinking you’ve saved money to having to pay out large sums at tax time.

There are other aspects of this planning strategy for early retirees that I haven’t mentioned in this article, but this is a good start. I would recommend you consult with a qualified financial professional that is knowledgeable in the detailed tax rules associated with the Affordable Care Act before attempting to implement this strategy. If you’ve prepared well, early retirement is an achievable goal. Health insurance is a significant expense, that can derail your ability to retire early. However, there are powerful planning strategies available to the well informed to help you retire with confidence.

Mark P. Whitaker, MS, CFP®, CRPC® is a financial advisor and partner with Peterson Wealth Advisors, an SEC-registered investment advisor practice located in Utah. Peterson Wealth Advisors specialize in helping successful professionals transition into retirement and helping clients through retirement by providing expert investment and financial planning advice. Peterson Wealth Advisors are the only retirement specialists who offer the Perennial Income Model™, a proprietary investment approach that matches a retiree’s investments with their current and future income needs. Mark holds a bachelor’s degree in Personal Financial Planning from Utah Valley University and a master’s degree in Financial Planning from The College for Financial Planning. Mark is a Certified Financial Planner™ professional and holds various other industry-recognized certifications. Mark loves his country; he served for 11 years in the Utah Army National Guard, including a deployment to Afghanistan. Mark loves his family and lives with his wife and children in Provo, Utah.

Turning Retirement Savings Into Income: 4 Income Plans Evaluated

For the new retiree, it’s a huge challenge to create a plan to transition a career’s worth of accumulations into a retirement full of income that needs to last until the end of life. There are so many factors to consider and every retiree’s situation is unique. So copying your retired neighbor’s plan won’t work. It all comes down to the question: How am I going to create an inflation-adjusted stream of income from my investments that will last for the rest of my life?

There are several retirement income strategies that are widely used today by people that hold themselves out as “retirement professionals”.

4 Retirement Income Strategies

Annuities

Unfortunately, there are salespeople in every community that would have you think that buying an annuity is a good substitute for having a retirement income plan. An annuity’s promise of guaranteed income and protection from volatile markets is appealing to the new retiree. The problem is that these products – with their high fees and low returns – will never keep up with inflation. The retiree that gets talked into following the “annuity ‘IS’ my plan” method may shield themselves from temporary market swings, but they condemn themselves to permanent losses in purchasing power throughout retirement. That’s important because at just a 3% inflation rate, it’ll cost $2.40 in the 30th year of retirement to buy what a dollar bought in the first year.

Market Timing and Investment Picking

The perceived value of many in the investment industry is their claim to forecast the future and to pick “market-beating” investments. Unfortunately, the facts reveal that these “sophisticated underachievers” of the investment industry rarely beat market averages over time. Having a plan that’s designed to work through all the different stages of the economy is better than betting on the future direction of the markets – or the future success of a handful of investments.

Betting on Historical Averages

If equities have historically averaged 10% and bonds have averaged 5%, shouldn’t I be able to split my investments between these two investments and average a 7.5% return? Sorry, it doesn’t work that way! The problem lies in the fact that these long-term averages are derived from a series of annual returns, both higher and lower, that don’t resemble the long-term average. Even though it’s true that large US stocks have averaged around 10% over the long run, rarely has their annual return come close to 10% in a given year. Stocks have historically fluctuated on an annual basis from a high of 54% to a low of -43%.

Taking a systematic withdrawal based on long-term averages will devastate a retirement portfolio when the occasional down year (or even down decade) comes along.

Time Segmented Withdrawals

The time-segmented withdrawal strategy was inspired by a Nobel Prize-winning economist and we believe it’s the most reliable, inflation-beating income strategy available today. This methodology matches the retiree’s current investments with their future income needs – just as professional money managers of large pension plans match their investment portfolios with the future payouts to their participants. It only makes sense that individuals have their own retirement income managed the same way that managers of pensions have successfully managed pension cash flows of millions of participants for generations. Yes, adopting methodologies 1, 2, or 3 is easier for the local investment advisor to create and manage than a time-segmented income plan, and that’s why you haven’t heard of time-segmented income plans from other investment advisors. But, shouldn’t your future income be based on what’s in your best interests and not on what’s easiest or most lucrative for the investment advisor?

Peterson Wealth Advisors has taken the academically brilliant idea of time segmentation and transformed it into a practical model of investment management that we call “The Perennial Income Model™”. To get a better understanding of the Perennial Income Model™ you can request our book “Plan on Living, a Retirees Guide to Lasting Income and Enduring Wealth”. For specifics on how the Perennial income Model™ could be applied to your retirement income plan, schedule a complimentary consultation with one of our Certified Financial Planner™ professionals.

Scott M. Peterson is the founder and principal investment advisor of Peterson Wealth Advisors. Scott has specialized in financial management for retirees for over 30 years. Scott is a regular presenter at BYU’s Education Week and speaks often at other seminars regarding financial decision making at retirement. He also literally wrote the book on retirement income, Plan on Living: The Retiree’s Guide to Lasting Income & Enduring Wealth.

Don’t Make Retirement Investing Decisions Based on a Headline

The other day I saw a headline that read “Cancer overtaking heart disease as leading cause of death in many states”.  The headline grabbed my attention and I continued to read to see if my state was one of the states where cancer was on the rise. Upon further investigation, I found that cancer deaths per capita are lower now than at any time in recorded history. What is really happening is that with fewer smokers and healthier lifestyles, heart disease is killing fewer people thus making cancer, with the lowest death rate in history, the number one cause of death in certain states.

I don’t think there was any attempt to deceive the reader in the headline about cancer and heart disease, but I see on an almost daily basis attention grabbing headlines from the financial media that will say anything to capture the reader’s or listener’s attention no matter how deceptive their headlines might be.

CNBC ended 2018 with the following headline: “US stocks post worst year in a decade as the S&P 500 falls more than 6%”. Then my radio told me we just had the “worst December for stocks since 1930”.

These factually true, yet misleading headlines are quite shocking if historical perspective is not provided and historical perspective is never provided. Historical perspective destroys the “shock and awe effect” and frankly, shock and awe sells. Historical perspective also destroys the credibility of any person or entity that sells shocking headlines about equities to the public. So, you aren’t going to see much historical perspective from the financial media any time soon.

Let’s put some historical perspective with those truthful yet misleading headlines. Money invested into the S&P 500 at the beginning of 2018 would have lost 6% for the year but a prudent investor would not invest short term money (one year) into a long-term investment such as equities.

What would be the current value of $10,000 if it were invested into the S&P five years ago or in December of 2013? Today’s value would be worth $14,894 or an annualized return of 7.4%.

How about $10,000 invested ten years ago or in December of 2008? That $10,000 would have grown to $32,771 today representing an annualized return of 12.6% for the decade.

How about investing over a long period, say since the end of WWII? $10,000 invested into the S&P 500 since May of 1945 would be worth more than $18 million averaging an annualized return of 10.76% per year.

What is the moral of this story? Ignore the shocking short-term headlines when it comes to your long-term investments.

Scott M. Peterson is the founder and principal investment advisor of Peterson Wealth Advisors. Scott has specialized in financial management for retirees for over 30 years. Scott is a regular presenter at BYU’s Education Week and speaks often at other seminars regarding financial decision making at retirement. He also literally wrote the book on retirement income, Plan on Living: The Retiree’s Guide to Lasting Income & Enduring Wealth.

If you are getting close to retirement and will have at least $500,000 saved at retirement, click here to request a complimentary copy of Scott’s new book!

Creating Retirement Income from your Investments

At retirement once you have made thoughtful decisions about how to get the most out of your Social Security and pension, the balance of your retirement income will have to come from your investments. The distribution of your investments will need to be coordinated with these other streams of income for tax purposes, as well as to help you stretch your income out to last a lifetime.

We liken the accumulation and distribution of retirement funds to what a skier experiences at a ski resort. Riding the chairlift up the mountain is the easy part of skiing. It takes no skill, and even the most inexperienced skier can ride the lift without running into too many difficulties. The skier simply must stay on the lift and they will get to the top of the mountain. Just a warning: abandoning the lift could prove to be fatal.

Having a 401(k) is like riding the lift. A certain percentage of the worker’s check is systematically deducted by an employer, oftentimes matched, and then deposited directly into an investment portfolio. It is easy, even automatic. But, as abandoning the ski lift could prove to be fatal, not participating in a 401(k), or failing to invest into an IRA, will have catastrophic consequences.

New skiers once off the lift, are bound to have difficulties. Getting down the mountain can turn into a frustrating and even a dangerous endeavor to the novice skier. Help from an experienced instructor is invaluable.

Likewise, new retirees often make mistakes as they begin retirement, crashing, so to speak, as they make poor choices regarding their Social Security and pensions benefits. These mistakes can be compounded if investment accounts are not properly managed and distributed. The key is choosing a proper mix of investments and then properly liquidating those investments to provide an income stream that will last throughout retirement.

Accumulation Vs. Distribution

So, why is distributing retirement funds so much more difficult than accumulating funds? One only must go back to the decade 2000-2010 to understand how volatility in the stock market impacts the accumulator, versus someone who is retired and is distributing retirement funds. 2000-2003 were awful years for equities. The stock market declined by 49% before recovering. From 2004-2007, the stock market finally gained some momentum, then the worst market downturn since the Great Depression occurred in 2008-2009 (declining by 57%). The net result for the U.S. stock market was that it ended the decade in 2010 at about the same level as it started in 2000. Ten years without growth.

You might ask, how did this volatility and ten years of no growth affect the accumulator? Well, it was a wonderful blessing! Those of us who were systematically contributing to 401(k)s and IRAs from 2000-2010 were able to purchase greater quantities of equities as the price of stocks plummeted during the decade. Certainly, our account balances suffered temporarily, but as the share prices dropped, the number of shares we were able to purchase rose as we systematically purchased beaten-down shares of stock month by month. Once we had accumulated a bunch of cheap shares over the decades, the stock market shot up to record highs. Those downtrodden stocks we purchased so cheaply during the “lost decade” have now caused our account balances to explode with value.

Contrast this with what happened to the unfortunate retiree who was distributing investments during the first decade of the century. Many of those investors were forced to sell their equities at the worst possible time. They had no choice; they had to sell at a loss to provide the income necessary just to pay the bills. Many well-funded retirement accounts were devastated during this turbulent time.

Systematic purchasers of equities do well investing in volatile, down markets, while systematic liquidators of equities are crushed during down-market cycles. During 2000–2010, buyers were blessed, and sellers suffered. This decade perfectly illustrates the difficulty of accumulating retirement funds versus simply managing and distributing retirement funds. The good news is that there are plans that can be implemented to help protect future retirees from having to liquidate equities at a loss to create income, should you be unfortunate enough to begin your retirement at the beginning of a bear market. The Perennial Income Model which we created is such a plan and is further explained in other blog posts and in the video below.

The Need for Growth

Given the history of 2000-2010, you may think that you will just avoid equities altogether, so you will not be forced to liquidate those volatile investments in a down market. That will not work. Keeping ahead of inflation is essential to having enough income to last throughout retirement and equities are one of the few investments that will be a necessary component of your portfolio.

As we see things, there are only two categories of investments: fixed-income investments and rising-income investments. Fixed-income investments are characterized as slow-growing and non-volatile investments such as bank deposits and certain types of bonds. Certainly, there is an appropriate time to own fixed-income investments. They should be the investment of choice when you have a limited time for your money to grow (less than five years) and you can’t afford to wait out a stock market correction. Fixed income investments protect us from short-term volatility but are damaging to own over the longer term, as they offer little protection against the erosion of purchasing power.

In the long run, the only rational approach to protect against the erosion of purchasing power is to invest in rising-income type investments, in other words, owning equities. As a shareholder, or the partial owner of some of the greatest companies in America, you have the rights to the profits those companies make. These companies pay their shareholders their proportional share of the profits in the form of the dividends. Historically, the dividend rate of the greatest companies in the world, or the S&P 500, has increased about one and a half times faster than consumer prices have gone up. In other words, their dividends have managed to stay ahead of inflation. Besides the growth of dividends, historically, stocks have additionally experienced a tremendous amount of growth in their value.

Stocks, Bonds, and Compound Interest

Government bonds are the classic fixed-income investment. They are very stable and are backed by the federal government. For the last thirty years, these bonds (as measured by the ten-year treasuries) have had an average annual return of about 5%. If $100,000 were to have been invested into these bonds in 1987, the value of that investment would be $460,000 today.

Meanwhile, stocks, the classic rising-income investment, have averaged more than 10% during the same time. $100,000 placed into an investment that mirrors the S&P 500 for the past thirty years would be worth $1,650,000 today. Inflation-beating growth is necessary to maintain your purchasing power over retirement, and that kind of growth is achieved by investing into equities.

When you purchase a share of stock, you become a partial owner of the company whose stock you purchased. As an owner of the company, you are entitled to all the profits and growth associated with that company, according to the proportional amount of the company that you own.

Land, cars, homes, and essentially anything that can be bought and sold on the open market will have a price that fluctuates. Buying and selling partial ownership or shares in corporations is no different than buying and selling anything else, but somehow the simplicity of the concept is lost when it comes to buying shares of stocks.

Far too many times we have had people tell us after a market downturn that they were not going to buy equities until things stabilized a bit and prices rebounded. That is like saying, “I’m not interested in buying that cabin for a 30% discount; real-estate prices are just too uncertain. When cabin prices stabilize, and the price goes back up 30%, I will write you a check.” We wouldn’t conduct any of our other business in this manner. Why do we treat our equity purchases differently?

Certainly, the daily selling prices of corporations fluctuate, but being an owner of a diversified portfolio of these corporations over a long period of time has been and will continue to be the recipe for success. The key to investment success throughout retirement is to have a plan. A plan that overcomes the effects of inflation as well as takes into account the occasional bouts of stock market volatility. You need a plan that matches your current investment portfolio with your future income needs.

 

Scott M. Peterson is the founder and principal investment advisor of Peterson Wealth Advisors. Scott has specialized in financial management for retirees for over 30 years. Scott is a regular presenter at BYU’s Education Week and speaks often at other seminars regarding financial decision making at retirement. He also literally wrote the book on retirement income, Plan on Living: The Retiree’s Guide to Lasting Income & Enduring Wealth.

If you are getting close to retirement and will have at least $500,000 saved at retirement, click here to request a complimentary copy of Scott’s new book!

The World’s Worst Investments – Gold and other precious metals, and Index Annuities

In past blogs, we have offered you some insight into the very temporary nature of a bear market as well as the illusion that equities are a dangerous place to invest. With these two blogs as a foundation, we would like to warn about certain types of investments that could do serious damage to your retirement. These investments not only have horrendous track records, but they are almost exclusively purchased as a result of an emotional reaction to a short-term downturn of the stock market or as an emotional reaction to the mere possibility that the stock market will decline. As we have seen again and again, when emotions and investing combine, there is seldom a good outcome.

In our estimation the worst types of investments you can buy are precious metals and index annuities. You may be very familiar with these products because these industries are the predominate advertisers on the cable news networks. One can surmise, from the sheer volume of these industry’s advertisements, that they must be very successful. First, they are successful in convincing the unwary public of the virtues of fleeing the stock market and also in duping the public into buying their perennially underperforming products.

The argument against buying Gold and Precious Metals

The thinking is that if, for whatever reason, countries and their currencies cease to exist, then precious metals will be one of the few items that will hold value and preserve purchasing power. The question is, “To purchase what?”

If all the currencies of the world had no value, the world would be in utter chaos. Anarchy and revolution would rule. This has never happened on a large scale in the history of our world, so nobody has a credible idea of what a world without currency would look like. There would be no manufacturing, no food production, and no police or armies to protect us. There would be no commerce—that’s right, stores would be shuttered. Why would anybody choose to work if there was not a way to be paid for labor rendered?

So, even if your ounce of gold held its value, what could you buy with it? Where? How? In our estimation, a homemade meal would be worth more than an ounce of gold, if you were fortunate enough to locate the food and a willing cook to put it together for you.

Doomsday predictions and conspiracy theories have never been a friend of the disciplined investor and at Peterson Wealth Advisors, we simply refuse to fan that flame. If, however, you are one of those who thinks that chaos and revolution are the destiny of our society, you might as well step away from the computer and get back to building your bunker. But before you go, we would like to share with you one important thought. The richest men in the world, from every generation, did not get that way by betting against the ingenuity and indomitable spirit of the human race to create a better life for itself. Successful investors have always been richly rewarded for their willingness to invest in the future. This generation is no exception. Today’s optimists, or those willing to invest in a better tomorrow, are thriving.

For those of you who are not planning on living in a bunker, but are considering owning some gold, perhaps as an inflation hedge, let us share with you some facts.

First, although touted as an inflation beater, gold does not keep up with inflation. In 1980, the price of gold was $850 an ounce. The price started a decline over the next twenty years and bottomed out at less than $300 per ounce at the start of the new millennia. It then shot up during the first decade of the century, peaking at over $1,800 per ounce in 2018, and now has settled back to about $1,300 per ounce.

With all its volatility, gold has gone from $850 an ounce to $1,300 an ounce over thirty-seven years. That works out to be a rate of return of less than 1% per year. Meanwhile, the cost of goods and services, or inflation, grew by 3.1% annually. The price of gold does not keep up with inflation and no matter how many times the lie that “gold is an inflation fighter” is repeated on your cable news network doesn’t make the lie anymore true.

Precious metals are advertised as safe havens from the turmoil of the stock market, yet they are neither safe nor dependable. The price of gold, and other precious metals is extremely volatile. In fact, the price of precious metals has historically been more volatile than the stock market. It is hard to understand why anyone would want to own any investment that fluctuates wildly in price, never pays a dividend, has a dismal track record and can’t keep up with the inflation.

So, when well-known actors advertise that they buy gold because they are “good Americans concerned about the future,” please try to see through the deception. They tell you to buy gold because they are actors who get paid to tell you to buy gold.

Index Annuities are insurance products

They advertise that you can participate in some of the returns of the stock market in the good years but that you will not lose money in the years when the stock market retreats.

The sales pitch of these products is enticing, but the devil is in the details.  First, these products have caps or limits on how much they will pay when the stock market goes up. So, when the stock market goes up, earnings within these products are limited to the prevailing cap of the product. If the stock market goes up 10, 15, or even 30% in a given year, these products will pay to you only the prevailing market cap. In most instances, these caps can be changed by the insurance companies without warning. The consumer has no say. The prevailing market cap currently is 5%.

Second, these products have severe penalties if you liquidate your investment before the surrender period expires. Surrender periods are imposed because the insurance companies that create these products pay a large upfront commission to the insurance agent who sell these products. If an index annuity owner cancels their annuity before the surrender period expires, the insurance company can recoup the commission paid to the agent from the surrender charge assessed to the annuity owner. The surrender periods typically last seven to ten years. Surrender charges can run as high as 10% of the value of the annuity.

Third, index annuities don’t participate in the dividends of the underlying indexes they follow. This is significant. Almost half of the returns of the S&P 500 can be attributed to the dividends of the companies that make up the S&P 500 index. So, if you choose to invest into the stock market via an equity index annuity, you automatically cut your profits in half by foregoing future dividend payments.

To better illustrate the absurdity of these products, let’s apply the same investment criteria used in an index annuity to a real-estate transaction.

The deal would go something like this: “We will take your money and invest it into a rental property. Your investment is guaranteed to never lose money, as long as you leave the money with us for at least ten years. If you liquidate prior to ten years, you will be subject to a surrender charge as high as 10% of your initial investment. Additionally, you will not receive any rental income stemming from your investment, but we will pay you a portion of the annual increase of the value of your property each year, and the amount we will pay you will be completely up to our discretion. Oh, and by the way, thank you for paying us an upfront commission of 7% of your purchase. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”

Of course, nobody would agree to a real-estate deal like this! Why would we agree to similar terms with our other investments? There are hundreds of index annuities to choose from, and they all have variations on how they credit earnings and apply surrender charges. Even though all index annuities are different, they share a common trait. Index annuities are complicated products. Few owners of index annuities really understand how their annuities really work. People buy these products because they know that there is some type of guarantee associated with them. However, it is our belief that if the consumer really understood index annuities, they would never purchase one.

Before investing any money into an equity index annuity, do your homework and understand how these products are structured. The Securities and Exchange Commission has issued alerts to the public regarding the potential pitfalls of index annuities. The only advocates of index annuities that we come across are those companies that create them and the insurance agents who sell them.

What About the Guarantees?

The draw to these products is their guarantees. The only positive guarantee is that index annuities offer is that you won’t lose money when the stock market goes down. Since every market downturn is temporary, that isn’t much of a guarantee when you consider all that you lose by owning these products.

Owning an index annuity will certainly provide additional guarantees—undesirable guarantees.

Owning an Index Annuity Guarantees:

  • That you will never get stock market–like returns. Market caps ensure this will never happen.
  • That you will never be paid a dividend. Dividends historically account for almost half of the growth of the stock market.
  • That you will never be able to beat inflation over the long run by investing into their annuity, again thanks to market caps and no dividend payments.
  • That you just paid one of the highest commissions in the investment universe to the insurance salesman who sold you the annuity.
  • That the bulk of your money will be locked up inside one of these products for as long as a decade. Certainly, lump-sum distributions are available to you if you are willing to forfeit as much as 10% of your principal to access your money earlier than what is allowed by the annuity contract.

So, why are index annuities so prevalent? Unfortunately, they pay some of the highest commission of any product in the investment industry. Need we say more? Index annuities are sold by insurance agents, and for many agents, index annuities are the only product in their quiver that could loosely be called an “investment.”

Frightened, unwary investors purchase precious metals and index annuities because they fail to distinguish the difference between volatility and risk. Those who purchase these products have been duped by the emissaries of gloom that promote an irrational fear of equities, and fear is a powerful tool. A tool so powerful that the impressive weight of historical evidence manifesting the inflation-fighting power of equities is ignored and traded for the false promise that your money can “safely and dependably grow and beat inflation” while invested in precious metals and index annuities. Thankfully, knowledge is likewise a powerful tool and as you continue to investigate, you will become increasingly aware of the foolishness of owning precious metals and index annuities.

Scott M. Peterson is the founder and principal investment advisor of Peterson Wealth Advisors. Scott has specialized in financial management for retirees for over 30 years. Scott is a regular presenter at BYU’s Education Week and speaks often at other seminars regarding financial decision making at retirement. He also literally wrote the book on retirement income, Plan on Living: The Retiree’s Guide to Lasting Income & Enduring Wealth.

If you are getting close to retirement and will have at least $500,000 saved at retirement, click here to request a complimentary copy of Scott’s new book!