Olen Explains ‘Pound Foolish’

New York journalist Helaine Olen lit up Twitter last week with her new book, “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.” She has attracted high praise – from The Economist, The New York Times, and others – and a few critics, in the online community and at Business Week: “Financial professionals,” Business Week wrote, “are not responsible for knitting the safety net, though Olen makes it sound as though they are.”

Squared Away asked Olen to explain her thinking behind the book.

Squared Away: Let’s get this out of the way. What do you have against financial planners?

Olen: I don’t have anything against all financial advisers, but a lot of people are selling themselves as experts in things they are not expert in. I believe that their commissions are almost inherently conflicted. I also believe that the minute you start selling things as, “I can protect you. I can do better than…,” you’re getting into dangerous territory, because it’s simply not true.”

Are there situations in which financial planning services are useful?

I would never want anyone to think I don’t believe a good, non-conflicted financial planner or coach isn’t useful. They are, very much so. I think very few of us actually see ourselves honestly, and we could all use an objective eye looking over things like our money and investing strategies at least occasionally. But consumers need to know how their chosen advisers are compensated and if that method of compensation can influence their recommendations and strategies.

You say, “No amount of savvy or money management can fully protect” people from a punishing economy that pummels wages and erodes high-quality employment. Are average individuals blamed for troubles that are larger than they are?

Olen: I absolutely think this sort of sentiment – the idea that we will all be okay if only we learn proper money management – is an excuse to blame people for their troubles. Since the late 1970s, a massive inequality issue has opened up. We have very little class mobility in our country. We know that our net worth plunged by 40 percent in 2007-2010. To turn around and tell people that their issues are all their fault is naïve at best and it’s an outright lie at worst. …Learn More

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401(k) Mutual Funds Mediocre

A spate of research in recent months shows that the mutual funds offered in employer 401(k)s have fairly unremarkable – though not disastrous – investment performance.

As with any academic study worth its salt, the various authors’ findings are complex and loaded with critical twists, turns, and footnotes.  Descriptions of three research papers on 401(k) plan returns can be found by clicking “Learn More” below. But here’s the gist:

  • So-called Target Date Funds – investments are based on each employee’s planned retirement age – perform better than investments guided by financial advisers hired by one Oregon employer to advise its workers. TDFs also outdo employees who go it alone.
  • When the 401(k) plan’s trustee is also a mutual fund management company, it’s more reluctant to remove its own, poorly performing funds from the plans’ smorgasbord of funds.
  • Employers select mutual funds that outperform a portfolio of randomly selected funds but underperform passive indexes.

There’s a common thread in many of these studies: the extra fees that investors pay for advice or the stock pickers who manage their mutual fund often don’t translate to better returns… Learn More

Music as Money Metaphor

To get a grip on retirement worries, overwhelming student loans, or squeaking by, it always helps to get more money or make a plan.

But finding a way to think about how to manage your money is also useful. It’s like making music, says Timothy Maurer, a Baltimore financial planner. At first, you have to master the “boring stuff, but eventually real songs start being produced.”

p.s. Maurer said that his brother Jon Maurer, who is “a far more accomplished musician than I,” is the pianist in this video.

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Financial Planners Diversify: Four Types

Brokers, registered investment advisers, fee-only, commission-based, dual license – the labels for financial planners can be intimidating.

In a consumer-friendly article, the Retirement Income Journal (RIA) in November identified four adviser types, based on what they do for their clients.

Most advisers still fall into the traditional Technician category. But the rise of other types – Strategist, Behaviorist, and Life Coach – partly reflects a profession rocked by the 2008 financial crisis. The number of advisers nationwide fell 3 percent last year, according to Cerulli Associates in Boston.

“[T]he combined impact of the financial crisis, boomer retirement, the advent of behavioral economics and fee compression is forcing more advisers to evolve,” RIA explained.

The following is an adaptation of RIA’s article, which was based on a presentation to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of business by fee-only advisers Paula Hogan in Milwaukee and Rick Miller in Boston.

The new year is around the corner, and perhaps you’ll want to hire a planner. But which of the following four types suits you? …Learn More

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Long-Term Care Policies Unpacked

The typical, elderly couple spends about $260,000 on health care and long-term care services during retirement – for the unlucky ones, the amount can be double. No wonder sales of long-term care policies this year will increase nearly 10 percent, according to the American Association for Long Term Care Insurance. At the same time, major insurers are pulling out of the market in droves, and premiums are surging due to higher demand by aging baby boomers, record-low interest rates, and rising medical costs.

To help navigate this increasingly treacherous market, Squared Away interviewed Larry Minnix Jr., chief executive of LeadingAge, a non-profit consumer organization in Washington.

Q: Is there anyone for whom long-term care insurance does not make sense?

A: Not many. I’ve seen too much of the consequences for too many age groups and too many families – long-term care just needs to be insured for. A majority of the American public is going to face the need for some kind of long-term care in their family. The only people it doesn’t make sense for are poor people – they have Medicaid coverage, mostly for nursing homes. And for people who are independently wealthy, if they face a problem of disabling conditions they can pay for it themselves. You find out at age 75 you have Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, but it’s too late to insure for it. Think about it like fire insurance. I don’t want my house to burn down, and very few houses do. But if mine burns down, I do have insurance.

Q: The Wall Street Journal reported that GenWorth Financial next year will charge 40 percent more to women who buy individual policies. Why?

A: Among the major carriers, private long-term care insurers have either limited what they’re doing or backed out of the market entirely. You’d have to get GenWorth’s actuarial people [to explain], but let me venture a guess. I’ve had private long-term care insurance for 12 to 15 years, but my wife couldn’t get it. She’s got some kind of flaw in the gene pool, and she was denied coverage. She may be the bigger risk, because I’m more likely to stroke out and die, but she’s more likely to live with two to three conditions for a long period of time.

Q: Your wife wasn’t healthy enough to get coverage?
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Financial Education Strategies Need Work

Brigitte Madrian

In a September paper distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Professor Brigitte Madrian and her co-authors reviewed the current state of U.S. financial education. In an interview, Madrian, a professor in Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, provided some fresh insights into education, regulation, and the role of the financial industry.

Q: Besides low financial literacy, why do people make bad financial decisions?

A: Procrastination. Inattention – one reason people accrue credit card late fees is that they forget to pay their bills on time. Advertising – people are swayed by the marketing of financial services and products. Not all products pushed by financial advisers or financial-services companies are appropriate for everyone, and sometimes people are swayed into purchasing products that may be right for someone else but aren’t right for them.

Q: Does financial education even work?

A: I believe the jury is out. We do not have a lot of compelling evidence on the impact of financial literacy programs. There have been lots of studies on programs, but many of them are of dubious scientific validity. Of the ones that are more credible in terms of methodology, some find very little impact on financial education and a handful find financially positive effects. …

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Blame Aid Policies – Not Tuitions

Admissions policies and financial aid packages at individual colleges – not just tuitions and fees – are significant determinants of student loan levels, according to new research.

No wonder there’s a cottage industry of financial planners who specialize in counseling families on college admissions: this granular – and often invisible – information about financial aid is critical to whether your child carries a burdensome debt load with his diploma on graduation day.

The media and policymakers – and (Squared Away adds) parents – “have assumed that tuition and university sticker prices are the primary if not the sole factor driving the rise in student indebtedness,” James Monks, an economist in the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business, concluded in an October paper. “This assumption ignores the substantial impact that college and university admissions and financial aid policies” have in determining debt levels.

Certainly parents should pay attention to tuition and fees. But Monk found that public college admission policies that are blind to students’ financial circumstances produce students with “a higher average debt upon graduation,” which tends to fall on their lower-income students. When a college says that it is “need-blind,” it is saying that it looks at each student’s financial situation only after deciding whether to admit him or her based on test scores, grades and letters – this policy is typically aimed at increasing enrollment of low-income students. After agreeing to accept a student, the institutions try to help those who need it most through their financial aid packages. But this aid often falls short, requiring heavy borrowing by students.

In contrast, the target of some private institutions is to maximize the number of students graduating with no debt or limited debt. At institutions with such policies, Monks found that students have significantly lower debt levels than institutions that lack this policy.

Danielle Schultz, a straight-talking Evanston, Illinois, financial planner said most public colleges claim to be need-blind in selecting their incoming freshman class. But at a time when state budgets are tight, far fewer now have the financial resources to back up such a policy, she said, which drives up borrowing by their students. As for private colleges, she said they’re also feeling financial pressure and believes that fewer institutions than in the past can afford to maintain generous no-debt policies.

Rising debt levels is the result. U.S. college graduates had $26,600 in student debt last year, up 45 percent from 2004, according to a new report by the Institute for College Access and Success.

Schultz, who just successfully shipped her daughter off to college – Bryn Mawr outside Philadelphia – describes college application as a treacherous process rife with pitfalls.

“Schools are in the business of forking over the least money possible to get the most motivated kids and the most diversity,” she said. The onus is increasingly on parents “to think hard about what kind of dollars they are willing to fork over.” These days, it’s about the major: can the student get a job after college? Her rule: don’t borrow more than the student can expect to earn the first year after graduation…Learn More

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