The Prosperity Blog

The IRA: A Case Study in Present-Event Bias and Government Response

As a way to encourage individuals to save for retirement, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 established the first Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), which eventually gave birth to other tax-favored retirement plans such as 403(b)s, 401(k)s, SEPs etc. The basic format for these qualified retirement programs is a tax deduction on deposits and tax-free accumulation; distributions taken in retirement are then taxable as ordinary income.

Over the past three decades, the ongoing logic for participating in qualified retirement plans has been straightforward. Because retirement is projected to be a period of lower income, distributions taken from IRAs or similar accounts will be taxed at a lower rate. Thus, receiving a tax deduction now (against a higher tax rate), and paying tax later (at a lower rate) is a financial advantage. At some time, every proponent of qualified retirement plans has intoned “You should have an IRA because you’ll be in a lower tax bracket in retirement.”

The financial advantage of IRAs was predicated on several present-event biases. First, that income tax rates would remain the same. Second, that retirement living expenses would be less than while one was working. Over time, both of these variables have changed. Income taxes have both increased and decreased for segments of the population. And retirement expenses, especially medical costs, have dramatically increased.In short, what was thought to be always the same has changed.

In response to these on-going changes, government has continually tweaked the rules, trying to keep IRAs and other qualified retirement accounts beneficial for participants. But often, even the best government responses are a step slow.

Take for example the recently implemented one-year reprieve in required minimum distributions (RMDs). In order to capture some of the tax eventually due on IRAs, previous IRA regulations required individuals over age 70½ to make mandatory minimum withdrawals from retirement accounts each year. But in December 2008, lawmakers suspended this provision for 2009, hoping to give investors a chance for their “accounts to rebound after a brutal year in the markets,” according to a February 11, 2009 Wall Street Journal article (“New IRA Law Bewilders Investors”). Instead of being forced to sell investments to take their RMD, account holders will be able to sit tight and wait for a possible recovery of their account values.

However, retirees still had to take their RMD for 2008 or face a stiff penalty from the IRS. Thus, in a year when major US stock indexes had declines of 30% or more, account holders still had to sell out at low prices to meet the RMD requirement. In other words, a one-year suspension of RMDs might have been more beneficial last year instead of this one.

In addition, the one-year RMD suspension has created both aggravation and confusion for account holders. Financial institutions holding IRA funds are scrambling to establish procedures for contacting RMD recipients (some are contacting only those receiving monthly checks, others not planning any contact until April, 2009, and still others are automatically suspending payments). Company administrators of 401(k)s are trying to determine if they first must amend their plan documents. In addition to the unresolved detail, there is uncertainty as to whether the reprieve will be extended for 2010.

Because IRA policy is often present-event driven, more changes – and more uncertainty – seem likely in the future. (Although assuming that government will “always” be a step behind might be a present-event bias as well. Maybe one day, the politicians will get it right in advance.)

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The Million-Dollar Matrix


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Audio mp3 (16:19 min)

“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” – Morpheus, from The Matrix

In some circles, a million dollars is chump change; it takes only minutes for our government to spend that much, and big corporations have many millions pass through their hands in one day “ even during a recession.

But for most individuals, a million is still a big number when it comes to their personal finances. For a long time (probably since the beginning of the 20th century), becoming a millionaire has been a financial milestone for Americans. Even though inflation has dramatically changed the purchasing power of a million dollars, the number is big enough to still have significance. If you have account balances “ in the bank, in your portfolio, in your 401(k) “ that add up to $1,000,000, prevailing wisdom says you’re doing pretty well.

There are a lot of real-life variables involved in accumulating $1 million: career choice, physical health, personal lifestyle, geographic location, the general economic climate, even luck. Ask 10 millionaires for the key ingredients in their success, you’ll probably get 10 different answers.

The real-life variables probably have the greatest impact on whether or not someone will become a millionaire, but some of the mathematical variables “ and the conclusions that can be made from them “ are interesting as well.

Entering the Million-Dollar Matrix
There are three mathematical variables involved in accumulating $1 million:

  • Time
  • Amount deposited; and
  • Rate of return

These three variables are interrelated. The Million-Dollar Matrix shown below is a way to illustrate how changing one item can speed up or slow down one’s progress toward reaching the million-dollar milestone. And a deeper look indicates that different variables have greater importance at different points in the matrix.

Here’s an example to help you use the matrix. Suppose you want to know the monthly deposit that would be needed to accumulate $1 million in 20 years. This information is found in the second shaded column from the left (the one that says œ20 years at the bottom). If you earned a steady annual rate of return of 8% for the entire 20-year period, a deposit of $1,686 would be required each month to realize a $1 million accumulation. If the projected rate of return increased to 12%, the deposit requirement would decrease to $1,001/mo. If the projected rate decreased to 4%, the deposit would have to increase to $2,717/mo.

Million Dollar Matrix

Remember: The Matrix is not real life “ it’s just math. In real life, the financial variables aren’t static. Rates of return don’t stay the same year after year, so any comparison to actual returns is going to differ (although average rates of return over a specific period will correlate with a steady rate of return over the same time period). The matrix doesn’t make any recommendation about what type of financial vehicles will be used to generate these projected returns, doesn’t factor in any investment risks that might be part of financial instruments that offer the possibility of higher rates of return, and doesn’t consider how taxes might impact any of these decisions.

However¦ the math of the Matrix prompts some interesting thoughts about accumulation. Such as:

The shorter the time period, the greater the emphasis on the size of the deposit. Look at the 5-year column. If you’re starting at zero, and plan to accumulate $1 million in 5 years, it’s all about the size of the deposit. Sure, there’s a difference between depositing $12,123 each month at 12% and $15,835 at 2%, but the 12% earning deposit requirement is a 23% reduction over what’s needed with a 2% annual rate of return. Compare that spread with the 12%-2% difference at 40 years: $84/mo. is 94% less than $1,359/mo.

Look at the comparisons between the 2% and 12% annual returns at the 10- and 15-year periods. While the monthly requirement is almost halved, you still must consider whether the additional investment risk required to earn 12% per year would be worthwhile, especially for extended time periods. If you choose to project a lower rate of annual return (say 6%), the deposit numbers don’t move very much. At any time period less than 20 years, the main ingredient in accumulating $1 million is funding. You must be able to save a lot of money in a relatively short period of time.

With longer time periods, the challenge is consistency, both in deposits and rates of return. As the time period gets longer, the deposit required gets smaller and increased rates of return deliver exponential results. Less money can do more when the time is long and the return is high.

But in longer time frames, it’s easy to see how real-life issues could undo the math. Question: For a responsible, future-oriented 25-year-old, which would be harder: saving $84/mo. for 40 years, or earning 12% a year for 40 years? Answer: Both.

Can you imagine making a monthly savings deposit for 480 months and never missing a payment? Can you imagine an investment that delivers 12% annual returns for 40 years without a hiccup? Math says it’s possible, real life says no. (See the blog post: Buy-and-Hold: Hanging On, or Gone for Good?)

If the higher long-term rates of return are not realistic, this means 40-year savers should set aside more than $84/mo. At a 6% annual rate instead of 12%, our typical 25-year-old needs to save $500/mo. “ for 40 years. That’s a big challenge, for anyone, let alone most 25-year-olds. How many people keep anything “ the same job, the same house “ for 40 years?

If you think you’re getting a late start on accumulation, be cautious about œcatching up by seeking higher returns. According to the Employee Benefits Research Institute’s 2009 survey, released April 16, 2009, almost half of American workers 55 and older reported their savings and investments were less than $50,000 “ and 30% said they had less than $10,000. These are people with a short accumulation horizon, and most of them aren’t close to accumulating $1 million.

Given their circumstances, some older accumulators may feel their only hope is to swing for the investment fences, hoping to hit a financial home run. But remember the math is in the Matrix. A few percentage points in higher returns isn’t going to deliver as much impact as figuring out how to set more aside. Further, if you lose money attempting to achieve a higher return, you have a shorter time to recover the loss.

It’s worth remembering that most Americans at all income levels currently experience their peak earning years between the ages of 45 and 54. This peak earning period has steadily increased over the past 20 years, and there are indications this trend will continue. So, while the monthly deposit to achieve a $1 million dollar accumulation in a short time may seem steep, it’s also possible that your ability to save larger amounts may be ramped up as well.

Where Are You in the Matrix?
Even if the Matrix isn’t real life, the math gives you some things to think about.

As mentioned earlier, saving starts with funding. Once they understand the format, almost everyone who enters the Matrix gravitates toward a time frame that matches their current age and projected retirement. A 40-year-old checks out the columns for 20, 25 and 30 years. A 55-year-old looks at the 10-year column, or if he doesn’t have much savings, scans the 15 and 20-year columns. The rate of return matters, but mostly, you’re checking to see if you can match the required deposits.

This is a natural and productive starting point.
œHow much are you saving each month? is a pivotal question, and the Matrix gives you some perspective on whether you ought to be looking to save more, depending on your objectives and circumstances.

Next, there should be a consideration of what you believe is a reasonable rate of return. During the boom years in the financial markets over the past two decades, it was common to believe averaging double-digit annual returns was realistic. Now¦well, most people are less optimistic. It’s not that double-digit returns are out of reach, it’s the awareness that they may also be accompanied by double-digit losses that tends to dampen expectations “ or bring them to more realistic levels.

Assuming a lower rate of return means higher funding levels will be required to reach your objectives. That can be a bummer, because more money allocated to saving for the future means less allocated to spending today. However, overfunding your financial objectives and underprojecting your rate of return is better than the reverse “ underperforming and underfunding would be the worst of both worlds.

Making The Matrix Work For You
In terms of accomplishment, accumulating $1 million by saving is still a big deal. Most millionaires didn’t become millionaires by saving. They did something, owned something, built something, or sold something to acquire their millionaire status. So while it’s mathematically possible for a middle-class American to save his way to $1 million, it’s a project that requires diligence and discipline “ and one that will most likely take a minimum of 15-20 years to accomplish.

If you’re looking for help in the million-dollar Matrix, ask yourself this question: Would you rather work with someone who helps you find a way to

a.) Save $2,568/mo. for 25 years at 2%, or
b.) Save $1,001/mo. for 25 years at 12%

The answer to this question speaks to our perception of that loosely defined term œfinancial planning. Most often, the phrase is used when discussing investment strategies, but there are other possible applications. For example, planning could include strategies for debt structuring, budgeting, tax planning or risk management. If those strategies make it possible to save more money, they are certainly just as valuable, maybe more, than those that focus on trying to squeeze out higher returns.

In general, it is easier, and less risky, to earn 2% than 12%. If a financial professional can show you (through better management of debt, expenses, taxes, etc.) how to meet the demands of the Matrix through higher deposits at lower risk, your chances of succeeding are better than the reverse. The TV stock pickers and newsletter writers get a lot of press when they hit a home run, but you may find that financial efficiency combined with steady, conservative returns gets the job done just as well.

After all, you don’t care where you enter the Matrix. All that matters is if you leave with a million dollars.

WHERE ARE YOU IN THE MATRIX?

IS YOUR FOCUS ON HIGHER RETURN, OR MORE SAVING?

COULD YOU BENEFIT FROM GREATER FINANCIAL EFFICIENCY?

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Buy-and-Hold Strategy: Hanging on or gone for good?

LISTEN: mp3 audio (9:07 min)

Buy-and-hold: an accumulation strategy based on the belief that even though there will be intermittent periods
of volatility and decline,
profitable rates of return will be realized by those who keep their money invested in the financial markets over long periods of time.

The buy-and-hold approach is often recommended for œretail investors, (i.e., those who aren’t professional money managers, but place their money with financial institutions through brokers or other financial representatives) because buy-and-hold doesn’t require nonprofessionals to engage in regular market timing (trying to buy on lows and sell on highs), thus minimizing both mistakes and expenses.

There is considerable historical evidence that buy-and-hold is profitable over longer time periods, particularly 20 years or more. And prior to last year’s steep decline in market values, most shorter-term buy-and-hold periods for the past three decades showed good results as well.

But the statistical evidence supporting buy-and-hold doesn’t translate to the real world, primarily because retail investors don’t hold what they buy.

For the past 15 years DALBAR, a research company based in Boston, MA, has issued an annual report titled Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior (QAIB), which measures the œeffects of investor decisions to buy, sell, and switch into and out of mutual funds. Here’s an excerpt from the 2009 report:

Throughout the 15-year history of QAIB, which encompassed periods of unprecedented market upswings as well as last year’s drop, the œaverage investor has continuously achieved 20-year results that have lagged what the oft-quoted return statistics would lead investors to believe are achievable. Why? There is one simple reason: When the going gets tough, investors panic.

According to DALBAR’s research, the average mutual fund shareholder stays invested for 4-5 years during good times, and as little as 2½ years during down stretches. Consequently, investors never realize 20-year profits because they never stay in the market that long. In addition, most retail investors enter or exit the market at the wrong time “ they buy high and sell low. According to DALBAR’s research, this is not a recent phenomenon; average investors have never bought-and-held for long periods, and have always achieved real returns well below the statistical possibilities.

Combine this behavior pattern with the precipitous decline in values over the past 18 months and the result is a strong backlash against buy-and-hold as a legitimate accumulation strategy. Type the phrase œthe end of buy-and-hold investing in a search engine, and the results are astounding. Some recent headlines, from prominent sources:

An End to Buy-and-Hold Stock Investing?
(CBS News EconWatch, March 9, 2009)

More Investors Say Bye-Bye to Buy-and-Hold (Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2009)

Buy-and-Hold in Disrepute
(Forbes, April 18, 2009)

Most of the commentary in the articles confirms DALBAR’s findings: Things are tough, and investors are in panic mode. In some cases, there is a sense of betrayal conveyed by investors. They were told values might drop, but never expected the fall could be this steep, and the time it will take to recover the losses seems too long. In the WSJ article, 31-year-old Kenneth Kimmons described why he stopped making regular deposits to his 401(k): œI just got tired of putting money away and losing it.

But if buy-and-hold dies out as a popular strategy for retail investors (read: the average American saver), is it really a bad thing? Maybe not.

Buy-and-hold was touted as a set-it-and-forget-it financial approach. It was passive. You simply provided the money, let the markets do their magic, and œPresto! 30 years later, you can retire! The WSJ article referenced above mentions that the recent losses resulting from the passive approach has prompted many savers to take a more active and responsible approach to managing their money. As Robert Lenzner says in the Forbes article, œInvestors beware: You have to watch over your money like hawks, read your monthly statements and ask questions. You must be active, not passive¦

For some retail investors, this active approach means a move toward more conservative financial products that accurately reflect their true risk tolerance “ so they don’t have to watch over their money like a hawk, or read monthly statements. For example, some insurance companies reported a 60% increase in sales of fixed annuities over the past year.*

For others, a more active approach means exercising direct control over their investment decisions. Instead of letting someone else manage their money, the individual is taking all the responsibility. The WSJ article reports that discount brokerage companies are œseeing record levels of trading activity and new-account openings.

“Typically in a bear market, you’ll see a retraction of activity and reduction of people opening new accounts,” says Jay Pestrichelli, managing director at TD Ameritrade. “This time around, somebody forgot to tell the retail client that’s what happens.”

Not everyone is convinced that retail investors will find results from personal management better than what they experienced with buy-and-hold. John Bogle, the 79-year-old founder of mutual fund giant Vanguard Group, who helped popularize index funds and promoted the idea that individual investing is œa fools’ game said, “If you want to trade the market, you’ve got to be right twice — you’ve got to get out and get back in. Not only is there the question of whether individuals are savvy enough to manage their own money, but active short-term investors typically pay more commissions, fees and other costs. And various studies have shown that most market timers typically lose more money than buy-and-hold investors.

Perhaps what’s happened is retail investment clients are beginning to understand the true risks associated with investments in the financial markets. As Declan McCullagh commented in the CBSNews article, œFinancial planners and writers love to assure skittish investors that, no matter how bad the stock market looks right now, share prices always go up by 10 percent or so in the long run. Now they are beginning to understand how long the long run can be, and they aren’t sure they want to hold on for the entire ride, especially if it includes some steep declines.

*www.InvestmentNews.com, March 6, 2009: Fixed-Annuities Sales Rose 60% in 2008. Sales of fixed annuity climbed to $107 billion last year up 60% from 2007, according to the Beacon Research Fixed Annuity Premium Study.

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The IRA: A Case Study in Present-Event Bias and Government Response

As a way to encourage individuals to save for retirement, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 established the first Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), which eventually gave birth to other tax-favored retirement plans such as 403(b)s, 401(k)s, SEPs etc. The basic format for these qualified retirement programs is a tax deduction on deposits and tax-free accumulation; distributions taken in retirement are then taxable as ordinary income.

Over the past three decades, the ongoing logic for participating in qualified retirement plans has been straightforward. Because retirement is projected to be a period of lower income, distributions taken from IRAs or similar accounts will be taxed at a lower rate. Thus, receiving a tax deduction now (against a higher tax rate), and paying tax later (at a lower rate) is a financial advantage. At some time, every proponent of qualified retirement plans has intoned “You should have an IRA because you’ll be in a lower tax bracket in retirement.”

The financial advantage of IRAs was predicated on several present-event biases. First, that income tax rates would remain the same. Second, that retirement living expenses would be less than while one was working. Over time, both of these variables have changed. Income taxes have both increased and decreased for segments of the population. And retirement expenses, especially medical costs, have dramatically increased. In short, what was thought to be always the same has changed.

In response to these on-going changes, government has continually tweaked the rules, trying to keep IRAs and other qualified retirement accounts beneficial for participants. But often, even the best government responses are a step slow.

Take for example the recently implemented one-year reprieve in required minimum distributions (RMDs). In order to capture some of the tax eventually due on IRAs, previous IRA regulations required individuals over age 70½ to make mandatory minimum withdrawals from retirement accounts each year. But in December 2008, lawmakers suspended this provision for 2009, hoping to give investors a chance for their “accounts to rebound after a brutal year in the markets,” according to a February 11, 2009 Wall Street Journal article (“New IRA Law Bewilders Investors”). Instead of being forced to sell investments to take their RMD, account holders will be able to sit tight and wait for a possible recovery of their account values.

However, retirees still had to take their RMD for 2008 or face a stiff penalty from the IRS. Thus, in a year when major US stock indexes had declines of 30% or more, account holders still had to sell out at low prices to meet the RMD requirement. In other words, a one-year suspension of RMDs might have been more beneficial last year instead of this one.

In addition, the one-year RMD suspension has created both aggravation and confusion for account holders. Financial institutions holding IRA funds are scrambling to establish procedures for contacting RMD recipients (some are contacting only those receiving monthly checks, others not planning any contact until April, 2009, and still others are automatically suspending payments). Company administrators of 401(k)s are trying to determine if they first must amend their plan documents. In addition to the unresolved detail, there is uncertainty as to whether the reprieve will be extended for 2010.

Because IRA policy is often present-event driven, more changes – and more uncertainty – seem likely in the future. (Although assuming that government will “always” be a step behind might be a present-event bias as well. Maybe one day, the politicians will get it right in advance.)

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The "Sage of Omaha" is Optimistic

LISTEN: mp3 audio (2:09 min)

Some quotes from noted investor Warren Buffett, from his Chairman’s Comments section of the Berkshire-Hathaway 2008 annual report, published February 2009…

“Amid this bad news, however, never forget that our country has faced far worse travails in the past. In the 20th Century alone, we dealt with two great wars (one of which we initially appeared to be losing); a dozen or so panics and recessions; virulent inflation that led to a 21½% prime rate in 1980; and the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment ranged between 15% and 25% for many years. America has had no shortage of challenges.

Without fail, however, we’ve overcome them. In the face of those obstacles – and many others – the real standard of living for Americans improved nearly seven-fold during the 1900s, while the Dow Jones Industrials rose from 66 to 11,497. Compare the record of this period with the dozens of centuries during which humans secured only tiny gains, if any, in how they lived. Though the path has not been smooth, our economic system has worked extraordinarily well over time. It has unleashed human potential as no other system has, and it will continue to do so. America’s best days lie ahead.”

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Disability Income Insurance

Non-Cancelable, Guaranteed Renewable:

Special language that protects the insurance that protects your income

LISTEN: Audio mp3 (22:42 min)

Disability income insurance policies can vary greatly as to contract language. Unlike life insurance in which death is easy to define, disability insurance contains different definitions of disability, and the definition plays a large role in determining how and when benefits are paid. Besides the definition of disability, one other feature is unique to disability insurance: The renewability feature. While life insurance premiums are based on set premiums for specified periods of time, not all disability policies have the same premium structure. There are basically three types of renewability clauses for disability insurance: renewable at the option of the insurer, guaranteed renewable, and non-cancelable guaranteed renewable. Renewable at the option of the insurer allows the insurance company to change rates, contract language, and even cancel the plan. Many group and association disability insurance programs, such as those offered through employers, are renewable at the option of the insurance company. If claims are too high or some other factors make the coverage unprofitable, the insurance company can revoke the coverage. With a guaranteed renewable contract the insurance company is obligated to renew the contract but does not have to guarantee the premium structure. This format allows you to keep the coverage as long as premiums are paid, but you run the risk of eventually being priced out of the protection. This is what one disability expert calls the “Vicious Circle of Disability Coverage:” Premiums are set; claims exceed expectations, so premiums must be adjusted upward. Healthy people leave the plan, new members do not sign up, leaving only older and less healthy people in the group. Claims exceed expectations; premiums must be adjusted upward again. A non-cancelable guaranteed renewable disability policy means the insurance company cannot change the premium or the contract regardless of claims, health of the insured, changes in occupation, etc. Only the insured can make changes to the contract or cancel it. This is the standard format for most individual disability policies, and from an insurance perspective, it is the best renewability feature to have. It should be no surprise that the renewability feature in a policy has a big impact on the premium. Coverages that appear to offer the same benefits often have a substantial disparity in premium because of the non-cancelable guaranteed renewable clause. However, the end result of not having a non-cancelable guaranteed renewable feature is usually much more costly – and risky. With a non-cancelable guaranteed renewable policy, you not only have certainty about future premiums and benefits, but you also have some protection against the devaluation of premiums already paid. Consider this example:

10 years ago, you established a non-cancelable guaranteed renewable policy, paying $200/mo. for a $3,000 monthly benefit in the event of your disability. Today, the value of the $3,000 benefit has been diminished by inflation, but so has the cost of the premium, because the ratio of $200/mo-to-$3,000/mo. has stayed the same.

However, if you elected a disability contract with fluctuating premiums, it’s quite likely the ratio of premium to benefits has changed as well as has been devalued by inflation. You may continue to pay more to get less.

When you make a decision to protect your human capital, make sure your disability insurance decision is about more than price. The degree of protection hinges greatly on the soundness of the features.

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THE ISSUE IS INCOME

LISTEN: Audio mp3 (22:42 min)

The bottom-line objective of any individual financial program is to provide an ongoing stream of income to meet the necessities and pleasures of life.

Market values for different assets might add up to significant net worth, but net worth doesn’t buy groceries, pay the bills or take you out to dinner; your income does. People pray “give us our daily bread,” not “give us asset appreciation.”

This post emphasizes the primary position of generating income in your financial programs, because income is what makes all other financial decisions possible.

How Long Can Your Human Asset Keep Paying Dividends?

When it comes to asset values, we know the numbers are ugly. How ugly?

  • In the 2008 calendar year, the S & P 500 stock market index registered a 37% decrease, its worst calendar year performance since 1931. From January 1, 2009 to March 19, 2009 the index has declined an additional 15%.
  • Meanwhile, the Federal Housing Finance Agency reported on February 24, 2009 that home prices dropped 8.2% from a year earlier, the largest annual decline on record since 1991.
  • In total, the Federal Reserve reported that the wealth of American families plunged nearly 18% in 2008 – a loss of net worth estimated to be around $11 trillion.

But guess what? As securities and real estate markets have taken a pounding, another asset has returned to prominence. Featured on the cover of the March 23, 2009 paper version of Time magazine is the headline “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” And according to Time, the No. 1 world-changing idea is…

…Jobs Are the New Assets.

That’s right; you – and your ability to deliver a steady income by working – are the “new” asset class that can make a difference during this down economy. Here’s an excerpt from the article, written by Barbara Kiviat:

“Houses and stocks – those were the things we paid attention to, the things that gave us the confidence to be good American consumers (Hello, home-equity lines of credit). At the same time, the percentage of income we saved dropped and dropped and dropped – until, thanks to the power of credit cards and other debt – it went negative in 2005. That was neatly explained away by the ‘wealth effect’: we spent money we didn’t have because we felt – and technically were – richer because of our assets.

All the while, we blissfully ignored a little concept economists like to call human capital. The cognition you’ve got up there in your head – your education and training – it’s worth something. We can extract value not just from our homes and our portfolios but from ourselves as well. The mechanism for extracting that value? A job. ‘The income you earn from working is like the stream of interest income you might get from owning a bond,’ says Johns Hopkins University economist Christopher Carroll. ‘Think of it as a dividend on your human wealth.'”

While it might make for nice headlines, identifying human capital as the core of financial prosperity isn’t a new idea. From ancient cultures that penned proverbs extolling the value of work (“Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings…”) to 20th century champions of free enterprise and capitalism like Ayn Rand (“Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think.”), human capital has always been recognized as the key ingredient in creating wealth. Real estate doesn’t gain value on its own – it has to be developed. An increase or decrease in stock prices ultimately reflects the decisions and productivity of the people in the company – both the employees and owners.

Given the media infatuation over the past decade with other assets, the article provides some much-needed financial perspective. Too often the most overlooked or undervalued financial asset is you and your abilities. Your ability to produce a regular income makes you a powerful dividend-paying asset, and it’s the type of asset that satisfies the basic objective of an individual financial program: to provide an ongoing stream of income to meet the necessities of life – and hopefully afford some of the luxuries as well.

When stock market and housing values were soaring, some people lost this focus on income production, because prevailing sentiment said you could always turn value into income at a later date by selling or borrowing against the assets. But when values decline and borrowing standards tighten, the assets don’t have the same convertibility.

Building Up Your Human Capital
This sounds obvious, but in a time when other asset classes are faltering and the economy is struggling, steady income from a job is critically important to your long-term financial well-being.
And like any other business that wants to remain profitable, your human capital must remain competitive in the market place. You may need to consider an investment in continuing education, or an upgrade in your technology skills. And “under-employment” – i.e., working in a position below your qualifications – may be better than not working, because of the future opportunities that may arise from connections with other productive people.

But even if you remain employed, there are other threats to your human-capital dividend production. Your human capital doesn’t last forever. At some point, you may get tired or break down. Eventually age takes some or all of your productive capacity. So unless you die young, it isn’t reasonable to expect you will remain fully productive for your entire life. This is the biggest financial challenge in using human capital to provide an ongoing income: At some point, there will need to be a transition from income/dividends from your human capital to income/dividends from other capital. But when?

The Longevity of Human Capital
The statistical realities of human capital in developed nations are eye-opening.

First, consider life expectancy. According to the Social Security Administration, a 40-year-old American male has an average life expectancy of another 37.28 years. (See Fig. 1 for life expectancies at other ages). And the older you are now, the greater your life expectancy – while an average 40-year-old male can expect to live until 77, an average 60-year-old male can expect to live to 80.

But there’s a distinction between being alive and being healthy enough to work. In most cases, people will not be able to work as long as they are alive. To account for this distinction, longevity statisticians have developed a Healthy Life Expectancy (HALE) calculation. HALEs (pronounced haleys), are defined as the average number of years that a newborn can expect to live in “full health,” and are used by statisticians to adjust life expectancies for the amount of time spent in poor health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) provides a HALE calculation for each country in the world. In the United States, the current HALE is 67.0 years for males and 71.0 years for females. When compared with current life expectancies for newborn Americans, the difference is 8 years for males and 9 years for females. From this data, it might be possible to consider average human capital to be “used up” 8 or 9 years before the end of one’s life.

But this data is for newborns – those born today. Other current information, while not providing an apples-to-apples comparison with the HALE data, is even more sobering

The following statistics come from reports issued by the Urban Institute in December 2008 and February 2009:

  • About one-third of all Americans develop a health-related limitation in their fifties and sixties.
  • Four in 10 workers in their fifties have jobs with some physical demands, which they might not be able to meet as they grow older.
  • Even for workers in jobs that aren’t strenuous, health problems can keep many from working. More than a quarter of adults age 65 to 69 have a health problem that limits the work they can do.
  • As a result, 37% of American workers do not retire on their own timetable, but rather are forced into retirement due to layoffs, illnesses or injuries.

In other words, human capital, while the key to all wealth production, is a fragile asset. It needs to be protected, and eventually, must be replaced by other assets.

Protecting Your Human Capital
Some of the best protection for your human capital is simple self-maintenance. Eating sensibly, exercising, and avoiding bad habits are not guarantees of a long HALE, but all evidence points to a clear correlation. Good health is essential to maximizing the value of your human capital. The longer you can produce an income, the greater the likelihood of financial security.

The rest of your human capital protection issues are best handled through insurance.

In the insurance business, there’s an old analogy that compares your human capital to a business machine that generates thousands of dollars in income per year. Considering its value, it makes sense to insure the machine (you) for direct damages, as well as coverage for lost income if the machine were broken or worse yet, if it were destroyed. Life, health and disability insurance exist to protect against the risks to your personal wealth-generating machine.

If you are unable to work due to sickness or injury, health insurance is designed to cover “repair” costs, as well as provide an ongoing income during the period you are “out of service.” If your injury or illness is more long-term, disability insurance helps supplement your lost income. And if you are no longer able to provide for your dependents because of death, life insurance is designed to provide assistance for final expenses and ongoing income.

Because a major medical incident has the potential to cause the most immediate financial damage, health insurance seems to be a front-and-center issue for workers, employers and politicians. But the current obsession with solving the health-care crisis shouldn’t obscure the need to address individual disability and life insurance issues as well.

Don’t Undervalue Your Human Capital
A lot of space in the popular financial press is consumed with dissecting the fallout from the decline in asset values. Experts are trying to determine when the stock and real estate markets will rebound. Individuals are trying to decide if they should continue to buy-and-hold or cash out. These are important issues and legitimate financial concerns because assets, cash, stocks, bonds, and real estate have a place in your financial life.

But perhaps current events are also helping to reshape their importance of these types of assets in relation to the essential position human capital holds in every individual’s financial program. Developing and protecting your human capital sets the stage for long-term financial success – in all types of economic conditions. More than any prognostication or rearrangement of your other assets, your human capital is the one asset most likely to carry you through tough economic times.

This awareness should prompt some assessment of the condition of your human capital.

  • Should your human capital be upgraded through education or the acquisition of new skills?
  • Is your human capital healthy, or should you implement a better maintenance plan?
  • Have you adequately protected your human capital?
  • Is now a good time to use other assets to improve your human capital?

WHEN OTHER ASSETS START TO SLIDE, YOU WANT TO BE SURE YOUR BEST ASSET IS ON SOLID GROUND. DOES YOUR HUMAN CAPITAL NEED AN “ASSET CHECK?”

A Longevity Annuity as “Income Insurance”

Here’s an intriguing financial transaction:
A 60-year-old man places a small portion of his retirement savings in an annuity that will produce a guaranteed income once he reaches an advanced age, say 85. Based on current assumptions, here are some details: On a deposit of $50,000, the annuity is guaranteed to pay $5,211 a month, beginning at age 85 – for the rest of his life – no matter what happens to interest rates or mortality costs in the future.

If you do some future value calculations, the rate of return of the $50,000 placed in the annuity seems pretty high; at 6% annual interest, it would take more than $1 million in assets to provide an equivalent ongoing income. But even over 25 years, $50,000 would have to earn an average annual return of almost 13% to equal $1 million. So how does a longevity annuity achieve this result?

One key feature: If the policy holder dies before age 85, the annuity expires without value. Heirs receive nothing.

As John Olsen, a Chartered Life Underwriter from Kirkwood, MO writes in the January 2009 issue of the trade publication Life Insurance Selling,

“Why would anyone buy such a thing? Why buy a policy that won’t pay him a penny for 25 years and if he doesn’t make it that long, he loses his entire investment? Sounds like a very bad investment.”

But Olsen goes on explain this annuity, known as an advanced life delayed annuity, or longevity annuity, is not an investment. “It’s a risk transfer instrument – a pure insurance play. The risk that the purchaser transfers to the issuing insurer is the risk he’ll run out of money at an advanced age (when he cannot expect to earn income).”

The structure of longevity annuities are not limited to deposits at age 60 and payments at age 85. Deposits can be made as early as age 40, and payments can begin earlier as well. Earlier deposits will generate higher payments. Payment at younger ages will result in lower monthly amounts.

Longevity annuities are relatively new products in the marketplace, but have received some surprisingly positive reviews from the popular press, all because of the guaranteed income feature. In a January 21, 2008, Money article, senior editor Walter Updegrave writes:

To my mind the concept behind longevity annuities makes a lot of sense. In effect it’s like buying a homeowners or health insurance policy that has a very large deductible. You’re insuring yourself against a catastrophic risk you can’t handle on your own – in this case, running out of money late in life – while holding your premium to a minimum.

You guarantee yourself an income to cover your spending late in retirement while leaving more of your savings available to you today (or available to your heirs if you die young). And you can comfortably spend down a greater portion of your savings earlier in retirement, knowing that those longevity annuity payments will eventually kick in.

Martha Hamilton, writing in the Washington Post (“Live Long and Prosper,” August 12, 2007), emphasizes the cost-effective way that insurance can handle the need for income later in life.

You buy insurance because you get protection from a possible disaster at a reasonable cost. Same thing with a longevity annuity. It’s insurance that you won’t end up living on nothing but Social Security if it turns out that there’s more life at the end of your money than money at the end of your life.

The Spend-Down Concept Behind the Longevity Annuity
In examples used to illustrate the financial effectiveness of a longevity annuity,
the hypothetical policy buyer allocates between 5-15% of his/her current accumulation to a longevity annuity; a 60-year-old with a $1 million portfolio sets aside $50,000-$150,000.

Even though buying this “protection” decreases the overall account balance, having the longevity annuity allows one to “spend down” assets over a specific period of time instead of living only on interest or investment earnings and preserving principal. The insurance allows other assets to be spent more efficiently – in other words, more income is derived from the assets.

According to an online article from CNN/Money (money.cnn.com/retirement), putting 10% to 15% of retirement savings into a longevity annuity “provides roughly the same spending power as devoting 50% to 60% of savings to an immediate annuity, according to a paper by Jason S. Scott, retirement research director for Financial Engines of Palo Alto, Calif.”

Another Way to Accomplish the Spend-Down Concept
For those who own permanent life insurance, the spend-down concept may be executed even more efficiently. A life insurance policy that is in force in old age may have a significant value as a cash asset, as investors or financial institutions might be willing to make either payments or a lump sum to the insured based on a collateral assignment agreement – in exchange for rights to some or all of the life insurance proceeds at death, the insured receives money now. Having the life insurance available as a back-up (a whole life insurance death benefit may grow in value as you grow older), you are free to spend more of your accumulated assets.

Further, the insured does not have to live to a specified age to enter into a collateral assignment or life settlement agreement. If certain health situations precipitate the need for additional assets, an Accelerated Benefit Agreement will provide payments directly from the insurance company – no investor or other third party is needed. And of course, if the insured dies before needing to enter into a collateral assignment or similar agreement, the life insurance proceeds are distributed income tax-free to heirs.

If you understand the spend-down concept behind the longevity annuity structure and already have permanent life insurance, it might make economic sense to allocate 5-15% of your annual retirement income to permanent life insurance premiums. If you don’t have life insurance or find yourself uninsurable, a longevity annuity may be a suitable alternative.

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