High Fees Tied to Mutual Fund Complexity

When David Marotta is investing his clients’ money in mutual funds, he scrutinizes the fees.

SP500 Index FundsTo demonstrate why fees are so important, Marotta charted the fees and 10-year returns for dozens of index funds in the Standard & Poor’s 500 family. Since these funds all track the same index and their performance is roughly the same, the fees will largely determine how much of the return the investor keeps and how much goes to the mutual fund company.

“The larger the fee the less that it performs. It’s kind of a straight line,said the Charlottesville, Virginia investment manager. “Anytime we’re picking a fund” for a client, “we’re trying to find the lowest-cost fund that we can find in that sector.”

The fees for the S&P 500 index funds he analyzed using Morningstar data ranged from one-tenth of a percent to 2.5 percent of the invested assets.

The issue of fees versus performance is more complicated for actively managed investments, which sometimes have strong returns that justify paying a higher fee. But in any investment, the true measure of how it’s doing is the after-fee return.

However, deciphering mutual fund fee disclosures can be extremely difficult for do-it-yourself 401(k) and IRA investors – and that is by design.

An analysis of S&P 500 index funds identified numerous narrative techniques in mutual fund documents that confuse investors. The researchers – from the University of Washington, MIT, and The Wharton School – evaluated each fund’s disclosures and showed that funds with more complex explanations of their investment holdings and fees also have higher fees. The researchers call this “strategic obfuscation.”

The study, which covered the period from 1994 through 2017, illustrated this complexity with two firms’ descriptions of their S&P 500 index funds. Schwab’s one-sentence summary gets right to the point: “The fund’s goal is to track the total return of the S&P 500 index.” This fund’s annual fee is 0.02 percent of the assets.

Deutsche Bank’s disclosure is more complicated for a few different reasons. First, the summary is three paragraphs and starts this way: “The fund seeks to provide investment results that, before expenses, correspond to the total return of common stocks…” …Learn More

Does Retiring Cause Memory Loss?

After four or five decades of work, retirement is liberating! It’s gonna be great! Right?

Well, not necessarily. It depends on how you retire.

In this video, Ross Andel, director of the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida, warns that a risk to retiring is that it can “speed up the aging of our brain. It could make us slower and more forgetful.”

His research demonstrates how work and retirement influence brain functioning. He tested the memories of people in their early 60s living in Canberra, Australia. Every four years, they were asked to remember as many random and unrelated words in a list as they could.

Naturally, they couldn’t remember as many words at 74 as at 62. “This is quite normal,” he said.

More interesting was what Andel found when he separated the test results for the retirees from the results for the older individuals who were still working. The decline in memory was almost exclusively among the retirees.

“Something seems to happen around the time of retirement to make people more forgetful,” he said.

Andel isn’t recommending that you work until you drop. He does provide a roadmap for limiting memory loss so you can enjoy retirement.

To find out what he has in mind, you’ll have to watch the video. …Learn More

Beware of scam

Cognitive Decline Meets COVID-19 Scams

The federal government warns that older Americans are being targeted by a battery of financial scams, including telemarketers offering to do contact tracing – for a fee – or to reserve a slot for a future vaccine. Others are soliciting donations to charities purportedly helping people in need during the economic slowdown.

COVID-19 makes this a perilous time for people struggling with cognitive decline.

Few can escape a deterioration in their cognitive capacity as they age. It’s just a matter of degree and speed. But the faster it happens, the more damage it can do, the FINRA Investor Education Foundation concluded in a new study.

The study was based on surveys of more than 1,000 older residents in Chicago retirement communities and subsidized housing – average age, 80. The same people were periodically asked questions with varying degrees of difficulty about their general financial knowledge and investments and were asked to compare and calculate percentages.

The older people who either initially had less understanding of financial concepts or experienced a faster decline in their knowledge made poorer financial decisions in exercises that simulated real-world decisions.

This included a vulnerability to scams, which was assessed by asking the older people to agree or disagree with statements like this: “If a telemarketer calls me, I usually listen to what they have to say.” (Not recommended.) And this: “If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is” (Count on it.)

To prevent scams, older people – and their caregivers – need to anticipate the financial damage that cognitive decline can cause. …Learn More

A sign that says what's your plan for retirement

Workers Lacking 401ks Need a Solution

Although COVID-19 has exposed alarming gaps in a health insurance system that revolves around the employer, the Affordable Care Act is one potential solution for workers who lack the employer coverage.

There is nothing equivalent on the retirement side, however.

Many workers between ages 50 and 64 are in jobs that provide neither health insurance nor a retirement savings plan. But, in contrast to the health insurance options available to them, “no retirement sav­ing vehicle appears effective in helping older workers in nontraditional jobs set aside money for retirement,” concluded a new analysis of workers in these nontraditional jobs.

Nontraditional workers who want to save for retirement are left with two options: their spouse’s 401(k) savings plan or an IRA operated by a bank, broker or financial firm.

A spouse’s 401(k) hasn’t been an effective fallback for a couple of reasons. First, a substantial number of the workers who lack their own 401(k)s are not married. And second, if they are married to someone with a 401(k), they’re not any better off. The researcher found that married people currently contributing to 401(k)s do not save more to compensate for the spouse without a 401(k), reinforcing other research showing these couples don’t save enough for two.

The other option – an IRA – is open to everyone. But only a small fraction of Americans currently are saving money in IRAs, and most of them already have a 401(k). So IRAs, in practice, aren’t doing much for the people who need the help: workers who lack employer benefits. … Learn More

Street worker working at night

Public-Sector Disability is Fairly Generous

About one in four state and local government employees – some 6.5 million people – do not participate in the Social Security system. They get their disability insurance, as well as their pensions, from their employers.

Whether the coverage is more or less generous than Social Security disability depends on the individual worker’s circumstance and how the state or local employer calculates benefits. But a new study concludes that public-sector workers who have a disability generally receive benefits that are at least as generous as the federal benefits.

To compare them, researchers at the Center for Retirement Research had to construct a database with each state’s and locality’s eligibility requirements and benefit payments. The sample consisted of 67 different disability programs, which cover a majority of the U.S. workers who don’t pay into Social Security.

The main thing Social Security and the public-sector have in common is eligibility – a 35-year-old must have five years of employment to receive federal disability and four to six years under most public-sector programs. One way they differ is that most state and local governments have a more liberal definition of what qualifies as a disability. Social Security pays benefits to a worker who can no longer do any job. Public-sector benefits go to a worker who can’t continue doing his current job.

The disability benefits are also calculated differently. Social Security’s progressive formula is the most generous to low-wage workers, because it replaces a higher percentage of their past earnings. But each state and local government uses the same formula for all of its workers, regardless of their earnings, and the formula gives more credit to employees who have been with their employer the longest.

What does all this add up to? The older public-sector workers, who are most at risk of developing a disability, receive relatively generous protection under the state and local programs, because the eligibility requirements are less strict than Social Security’s and because the benefits for most long-tenured employees replace a higher percentage of their earnings.

Older people who moved into the public sector late in their careers are in a different situation. …Learn More

Lost and Found art

Pension, 401k Registry Bill Resurfaces

When COVID-19 throws people out of work, their chances of retiring comfortably can deteriorate rapidly. What better time to find a new way to help?

A perennial proposal just reintroduced in Congress would do some good: establish an online database of employer retirement plans so workers and retirees can locate old pensions and 401(k) accounts.

Workers are increasingly responsible for making sure they have enough money to retire. But moving from job to job is now the norm – the one-employer career is a distant memory – and pensions get left behind and 401(k)s fall by the wayside. People who try to find old plans often can’t locate employers that have changed names, merged, relocated, or terminated a plan.

The primary way to find retirement plans now is through the lost property records kept by each state. But Anna-Marie Tabor, director of the Pension Action Center in Boston, which recovers lost pensions and 401(k)s for the center’s clients, said billions more in unclaimed funds can’t be located in the state records, because employers are not required to turn over plan information to the states. Also, 401(k)s are hard to find since many employers transfer small accounts to third-party IRAs without the account owner’s awareness.

Tabor argues in the Journal of Aging and Social Policy that the COVID-19 recession brings new urgency to passing the proposed Retirement Savings Lost and Found Act of 2020, especially for low-income workers hit hardest by layoffs and older workers who are running out of time to repair their finances prior to retiring.

“Connecting people with money they’ve already earned is an easy and inexpensive way to support the economic recovery,” she said. …Learn More

Some with Severe Mental Disability Work

Artwork of stairs

People with intellectual disabilities, autism, or schizophrenia have high rates of unemployment. But a new study finds that some can find part-time or even full-time jobs with the help of coaches funded by the government.

Having a coach doesn’t guarantee that a person with a disability will get a job. But in a 2019 study, the people who received this support “were significantly more likely to become employed” than those who did not get the help, according to researchers for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

To get and keep these jobs requires a lot of personal attention. The federal-state Vocational Rehabilitation program provides coaches – often at non-profits – who find the right jobs for their clients and then act as a liaison to smooth out the bumps and guide the employer-employee relationship.

Because the cognitive disabilities of the individuals in the study varied so much, the researchers broke them out into nine groups, based on their specific disabilities, education levels, and likelihood of benefitting from the program. In all but one of the nine groups, the people who received support had significantly higher employment rates than those who did not receive the help.

Between a third and half of the people with coaching support had a job, the researchers found. Among the people who did not receive any support, employment rates were as low as one in four. …Learn More