June 2017

needle in haystack

Mutual Fund Fees: Here’s What Matters

Investors will probably see good news in Morningstar Inc.’s annual report showing that the fees charged by actively managed mutual funds continue to come down.

The truth is that focusing on fees alone misses the point. What matters is a fund’s after-fee return. There are always fund managers who excel at picking stocks and can deliver strong after-fee returns to investors year after year, justifying the high fees required to pay them. The early years of Fidelity’s Magellan fund is the classic example.

The trick is finding that clever manager, which requires a combination of luck and the skill and inclination to compare numerous investment options. One thing making this task a little easier is the mutual fund industry practice of reporting returns, net of fees. But the research shows that stock funds that consistently outperform their benchmarks are few and far between – and finding them would be particularly challenging for 401(k) investors who already struggle with basic decisions.

Morningstar’s fee report indicates investors might be getting the message.  In 2015 and 2016, they pulled a total of $627 billion out of the group of actively managed funds charging the highest fees. During the same two years, they funneled $429 billion of new money into lower-fee index funds.

Yes, active funds’ average fee (called the expense ratio, in a prospectus) declined last year to 0.75 percent – or three-quarters of 1 percent – from 0.78 percent in 2015. This continued a downward trend: fees averaged 1 percent in the early 2000s.

But compare this with 0.17 percent for index funds. In contrast to actively managed funds, passive index funds aren’t set up to beat a market benchmark: their goal is to simply mimic the performance of a specific market index, whether it’s the Standard & Poor’s 500 or a Bloomberg Barclay’s bond index. …Learn More

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Top 10 Blogs Explore Weighty Issues

Millennials’ reliance on their parents, retirement finances, and long-term care – Squared Away readers had some serious topics on their minds during the first half of the year.

Here are the 10 most popular blogs, ranked by the number of page views each received between January and June:

  • Retiree Benefits: Tale of 2 Cities (and States)
  • Get Dental Work Before You Retire
  • Long-Term Care Insurance Goes Uptown
  • Long-Term Care on a Boxed Wine Budget
  • The Benefits of Late-Career Job Changes
  • Retirees Don’t Touch Home Equity
  • People Lack Emergency Funds, Tap 401(k)s
  • Managing Money with Cognitive Decline
  • Why Parents’ Home is the Millennial Crib
  • Our Stubborn State of Financial Illiteracy …

Learn More

Boomer Men’s Lifetime Earnings Lower

The first study known to look at changes over several decades in lifetime earnings for the nation’s workers shows a dramatic trend: women are up and men are down.

The oldest people studied, mostly men, began working in the 1950s, when the post-war U.S. economy was going full throttle, and they started retiring in the 1980s when the industrial economy was only in the early stages of a protracted decline. The youngest workers studied are “middle” baby boomers, who came of age during the twin 1980s recessions in heavy industry and experienced the rise of the service economy and two high-tech booms and busts.

Over this time period, men’s earnings went through two distinct phases.  In the first phase – which spanned the working lives of men born in 1932 through 1941 – the typical man’s lifetime earnings, adjusted for inflation, saw a 12 percent increase, the researchers found.

In the second phase, men’s lifetime earnings turned negative. Boomers born in 1958 have earned 10 percent less in total than men born in 1942. The decline is primarily due to men being paid less after accounting for inflation, and not from reductions in how many hours or how many years they worked, the analysis found.

In contrast, lifetime earnings for women born over the same 27-year period enjoyed “steady” and “broad-based” gains of 20 percent and 30 percent over the two sub-periods. …Learn More

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Autopay Ends Credit Card Late Fees

Credit card companies usually set small-dollar minimum payments, so there’s really no excuse for incurring fees for late card payments.

Yet many consumers fail to pay on time. In a new study, British researchers found a no-brainer solution that is highly effective: setting up automatic payments of our credit cards.

The researchers started out with a different premise: that customers might learn, over time, to prevent maddening late fees after having to pay them numerous times. The researchers roundly rejected this after following nearly 250,000 U.K. credit card holders over two years.  When it comes to late fees, we do not learn from our mistakes.

What they noticed, however, was a clear distinction between card holders who incur late fees regularly and those who don’t or who stopped incurring the fees.   Setting up autopay “all but eliminates the likelihood of future [late] fees,” while the probability remains “persistently high” (about one in five) among people who did not, they said.

Further, a seemingly obvious explanation for chronic late fees didn’t hold water: that people don’t have the cash to make their minimum payments.  Payers of late fees “do not appear to be liquidity constrained,” the study found. Apparently, most people simply forget to pay those pesky credit card bills. …Learn More

Pre-Retirement Financial Review is a Must

My husband has taught high school biology for 30 years in Boston and works hard for his students. But he’s nearly 64 and it’s time to think about retiring.

Can we afford it? When we retire, will we eventually run through our savings? Is retirement scary – or what?

Questions like these are also probably haunting millions of baby boomers in the middle of the night. One out of three boomers in a recent Transamerica survey said they are not confident they will have enough income to retire “comfortably” and another third concede that they are only “somewhat confident.”

To find the answer for ourselves, my husband and I hired a financial adviser. It was the best thing we could’ve done. The point of this blog is to encourage other boomers to take stock of their imminent retirement, whether it’s around the corner or still a decade away.

We’d been kicking around retirement scenarios inside our marriage bubble. My husband has not fixed a retirement date in his head but is talking about the next one to three years. To be conservative, we posed this simple question to our adviser: can Garret retire in 2018?

Garret Virchick and Kim Blanton

Her answer was in the half-inch packet, which she delivered to our front door. We sat around our dining room table as she walked us through her quantitative analysis of our financial profile.

Many financial advisers like to talk about how they’ll manage a baby boomer client’s investments. In truth, simple index funds do the trick for us. Our adviser, Wendy Weiss of Weiss Financial Advisors in Cambridge, Mass., used to be an investment adviser for large financial firms, but spent very little time on our investments. The most important thing for baby boomers who, like us, are not wealthy is knowing how much income will come in the door every single month to pay the bills in retirement.

“It’s more important for my clients to find out how to use that 401(k) in retirement than it is for me to try to manage the investments for you,” she said. …Learn More

Social Security’s Legacy to Ex-Wives, Kids

Social Security Administration poster, 1956

Many women are fuzzy on how Social Security benefits for widows work and even more unclear about the program’s spousal benefits.

I know two of these women. Their situations nicely illustrate how this federal program promotes the well-being of older women and families.

One is my divorced aunt. She was surprised to learn, after my uncle died a few years ago, that her widow’s – or survivor’s – benefit, based on his decades of work as a housing developer, would be double the spousal benefit she’d received while he was alive. Divorced spouses are eligible for the same spousal and survivor’s benefits as still-married spouses, though only if the marriage lasted more than 10 years.

For a more complex experience involving Social Security’s child, spousal and survivor benefits, consider a friend of mine, who married an older man with whom she adopted two baby girls from China.

The couple divorced after 12 years, but John remained a loving older father. He showered his little girls with attention and, as they grew up, spoiled them with shopping excursions to the mall. But one of his best gifts came after he retired: Social Security benefits that provided financial security to his daughters and their mother.

John, like many older men, had difficulty finding steady work, but earlier in his career, he’d been a well-paid executive. On the strength of this earnings history, John signed up for his Social Security pension when he reached his full retirement age. His initial benefit was $2,209. In addition to this benefit, $828 per month went to each of his daughters, who were in elementary and middle school at the time.

Under Social Security’s rules, benefits go to children under age 16 when a parent is collecting a Social Security pension. This continues until the child reaches age 18 (or 19, if they’re still in high school). Each child’s benefit is precisely half of the parent’s pension, but John’s daughters received less than half because they bumped up against Social Security’s family maximum.

When John died a year ago, at age 73, his Social Security legacy continued. …Learn More

Is There a Student Loan Gender Gap?

Now comes the toughest part of borrowing money for college: paying it back.

There is much for this year’s crop of graduates to learn.  For example, the federal government gives you a reprieve after graduation, usually six months, before requiring you to start repaying your debts. But did you know that interest builds up during this “grace period”?  Starting payments right away reduces how much you’ll have to pay back.

Making repayment mistakes or not having a plan can also be very costly.  Click here for some tips to avoid these mistakes.

Here’s another issue: women borrow slightly more money for undergraduate degrees than do men but earn less after college and seem to have more difficulty paying back their loans.

In 2012, women borrowed $21,000 for an undergraduate degree, on average, compared with about $19,500 for men, according to a new study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

Men are able to pay their debt back faster too. During the first four years after graduation, men pay off 38 percent of their outstanding college debt. Women pay about 31 percent. Women graduates with student debt are also more likely to report more difficulty making their rent payments, AAWU’s survey found.

Many questions remain unanswered. What explains the differences? Also, the study doesn’t control for how much young adult men and women earn in their jobs. Nor does it sort out the implication of different payoffs for the different types of degrees that men and women choose.  Careers in software engineering or nursing are more likely to justify hefty loans than degrees in film or women’s studies with uncertain career paths.

This study raises interesting issues, which future research will hopefully address.

In the meantime, women, it’s something to think about. Learn More

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