Beyond Bitcoin: Blockchain’s Role in Investing

Many people associate blockchain with the volatile cryptocurrency Bitcoin, but they’re not one and the same. And blockchain has implications for investors beyond what you might imagine.

Blockchain is a method of distributing encrypted information among members of a network, who themselves authenticate the information.

There are two types of blockchain: public and private. In a public blockchain, like Bitcoin, every member of the network houses data, makes decisions about its accuracy, and reconciles transactions. In a private blockchain, every member has access to data, but only certain members have permission to verify and reconcile it.

Many public companies (companies in which you can invest) are using blockchain to more efficiently exchange information among various points of a network, like a supply chain.

Walmart, for example, is using blockchain to monitor its food-delivery supply chain. Blockchain tells Walmart from which supplier a product came and on what date. This can help prevent food recalls and is so significant the vice president of food and safety at Walmart has said that “blockchain will do for food traceability what the internet did for communication.”

The trucking industry is also using blockchain to help transport goods from one point to another. This is a complex process that often involves a large number of transactions via email and phone calls, which can take days. Now, a trucking consortium hopes to make that process more efficient by using blockchain.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is even testing blockchain to exchange medical records, data from clinical trials, and health data gathered from wearable devices.

What does that mean for investors? Companies that use blockchain could become more efficient, and that could affect their profitability. While there are many factors involved in analyzing a company’s suitability for a portfolio, this is one to consider.

How to Prep Your Portfolio for a Market Downturn

Because we’re in the midst of a historically significant bull market, many investor portfolios have performed well for several years. That means it may be time to re-examine your portfolio.

The last bear market ended almost a decade ago. Since then, the rise we have seen in stocks is almost unprecedented. It is the second oldest without at least a 20% drop in the S&P 500 Index.

That may sound great. Who doesn’t like strong performance? Why make a change, when things are going so well?

But we will undoubtedly experience a market correction at some point, and you may want to start thinking about how you will position your portfolio then.

As hockey great Wayne Gretzky once said, you want to skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.

This doesn’t mean you should try to time the market; you may simply want to have a conversation with your financial advisor about how to best position your portfolio for now and the future.

Perhaps you focus more on capital preservation, for example. Or perhaps you consider how you might re-allocate among asset classes. That way, when there is an event such as a market downturn or a geopolitical shock, you are already ahead of it and can continue making changes.

The end of the year is a good time to have this conversation, because it is likely that you are already thinking about the changes you might make to your portfolio to keep it in tip-top shape over the coming year.

Explained: The 120 Rule for Allocating Your Investments

The topic of allocating retirement assets is a frequent source of questions. How much should you put into stocks, bonds, cash, and other asset classes?

There are a number of investment frameworks that can help you decide. You may be familiar with one, called the 120 Rule. This rule holds that you should subtract your age from 120, invest that percentage in stocks, and invest the rest in bonds. A 55-year-old would allocate 65 percent (120 minus 55) to stocks and 35 percent to bonds, for example.

The 120 Rule is based on a few key ideas. First, equities have a higher potential return than fixed income, which you need for growth, but also come with higher potential risk. When you are younger, you can tolerate this risk, so you can invest more in equities.

That changes as you age. So, as you age, you lower your equity allocation and move money to fixed income. (Interestingly, the 120 Rule used to be the 100 Rule, but was changed as the typical life span increased.)

Does the 120 Rule work? No investing “rule” is perfect, but even without more details about your individual financial goals and risk tolerances, it provides a guideline. Ideally, however, your investment plan would be more nuanced.

For example, the 120 Rule might specify a 65 percent allocation to stocks at age 55, but if you plan to retire within a year, you might want to dial down that allocation to minimize risk in your portfolio.

This is where an experienced financial professional can help by creating a portfolio that is customized for your situation.

How Couples with an Age Gap Can Plan for Retirement

From Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, marriages with age gaps have transcended generations.

In many marriages, spouses are aged one year apart or less. According to the 2013 U.S. Current Population Survey, this is true for roughly one-third of marriages. In around 10 percent of marriages, however, one spouse is 10 or more years older than the other. That may not seem significant, but some sources say the number of May-September romances is increasing, and with this increase comes the need for better financial planning.

When spouses have significant age differences, the question of when to retire becomes more important. Will the couple retire at the same time, or will the younger spouse continue to work while the older spouse retires?

This can affect the psychological dynamics of the relationship as well as the couple’s finances. Couples with an age gap, for example, may have different income levels and investment needs (with one spouse working and one spouse retired). How should assets be allocated to protect the spouse who needs a growing nest egg as well as the spouse who is worried about market volatility? A balance must be found to keep the older spouse’s current needs with the younger spouse’s extended time horizon.

Additionally, these couples must understand the rules for withdrawing assets. For example, required minimum distributions (RMDs) from retirement accounts are typically calculated based on the Uniform Lifetime Table. But if your spouse is 10 or more years younger, instead you must use the Joint Life and Last Survivor Expectancy table, which will result in smaller RMDs (and lower your taxable income).

There is also end-of-life planning to consider. If the older spouse has children from a prior relationship, it is important to have a strong estate plan that balances the younger spouse’s financial needs with the desire to leave children an inheritance.

To strike a balance among all of these needs, consult with your financial professional to develop a personalized retirement plan.

Understanding Retirement Account Distribution Rules

When it’s time to take a distribution from your employer-sponsored retirement plan, you have several options.

1. Leave the money in the plan. Depending on your employer’s retirement plan rules, you may be able to leave your savings in your employer’s plan until you reach age 70 1/2 or retire. Why choose this option? This makes sense if you have other sources of retirement income such as a taxable account or a working spouse, and you want to continue to obtain tax-deferred compounding interest on your investments.

2. Move your money to another tax-qualified retirement account. You can roll the money in your employer-sponsored retirement plan over to another retirement account, such as an IRA. This can be done as a direct rollover or by taking a cash distribution and depositing it in another tax-qualified retirement plan within 60 days. Why choose this option? This route works well if you have other sources of retirement income and want to continue to obtain tax-deferred compounding interest on your investments, but you are seeking more varied investment options.

3. Take a distribution. You can also receive a lump-sum payment or take distributions in installments. Why choose this option? You may simply want your money, or you may want to invest it in a taxable account. Remember, however, that you will have to pay income taxes on the money withdrawn, and if you are under age 59 1/2, you will have to pay an additional 10 percent penalty.

Whatever you choose, the tax regulations around distributions of retirement accounts are complex, so it is best to consult a financial professional.

Retirement Spending and the 4 Percent Rule

The 4 percent rule, which is used to determine how much you should withdraw from your retirement account each year so you don’t outlive your savings, is much loved by some and much hated by others. How effective is it, really?

How it works is simple but often misunderstood. You don’t withdraw 4 percent of your retirement savings each year in retirement; you withdraw 4 percent in the first year of retirement. In subsequent years, you increase the value of your annual withdrawal by the inflation rate.

So, as an example, if you have $2 million in retirement savings, you would withdraw $80,000 in the first year (4 percent of $2 million). Then, in the second year, when the inflation rate is 2 percent, you would withdraw $81,600 (the original $80,000 plus 2 percent).

But the 4 percent rule is more of a guideline than an absolute. The rule is intended to provide a schedule of withdrawals that will ensure that your retirement savings will last at least 30 years. When William Bengen developed it in the 1990s, that seemed to be the case. But some financial planners now argue that the 4 percent rule might not provide the same margin of safety as it did in the past, since stock returns and bond yields have declined since the 1990s.

The fact is, it has always been impossible to know with absolute certainty that the 4 percent rule will prevent you from outliving your retirement savings. Even the most careful planning cannot account for every scenario and surprise.

So how do you choose a withdrawal rate? It may be more art than science. Start with the 4 percent rule; but if you seem to be running through your savings too quickly, withdraw less. If you seem to have some wiggle room, withdraw more. Continue to monitor your investments and make adjustments as needed.

It’s certainly a conversation worth having with a financial professional who knows your individual financial circumstances and goals. This expert can help you fine-tune your retirement withdrawals to achieve a healthy balance between spending and saving.

Revisiting Yield in a Rising Rate Environment

Interest rates are rising, but rates are still relatively low, and many investors are looking for conservative investments – such as bond funds – that will generate a suitable level of income.

How can you find one?

The U.S. Federal Reserve raised the federal funds rate target in June for the second time this year and the seventh time since the end of the financial crisis. The last time the rate topped its current level – 2% – was late in the summer of 2008, when the Fed was cutting rates. They would remain near 0% for years.

But that’s still low. The federal funds rate topped 20% in 1981 and was around 5% leading up to the financial crisis. So if you are looking for a bond fund that will generate a suitable level of income, you may want to look at one of two commonly quoted yield figures.

The first, dividend rate (also called distribution yield), indicates what a bond fund pays in distributions. The figure is typically calculated by taking a bond fund’s income in the most recent month, multiplying by 12, and dividing by a recent fund share price.

Because that number assumes that a fund’s distributions remain constant for a year, which may not be the case, you may want to consider SEC yield.

This seeks to accurately reflect a bond fund’s income-producing potential over time by looking at the “yield to worst” of all the individual holdings in the fund’s portfolio.

Both figures provide useful information, but which is a better indicator of a fund’s actual yield depends.

SEC yield takes into account the eventual decline of a higher-trading bond. However, it includes some worst-case assumptions, so some investors prefer dividend rate.

Which figures you rely on can depend on personal preference and your individual portfolio. A financial professional can help you understand what kind of yield you should look at and help you accurately compare and contrast the figures.

529 Plans: How to Leverage Them to Your Advantage

529 savings plans offer a compelling means of tax-advantaged savings – but are they right for you? Named after a section of the U.S. tax code, 529 plans allow you to save money before it is taxed, with earnings that are also free from taxes.

What’s the catch? The money you save must be used to pay for qualified educational expenses, which include tuition and room and board at an accredited educational institution (and supplies and approved equipment the student needs in order to study at the college).

That may be compelling, given that the average annual cost of college tuition, fees, and room and board for the 2017-2018 school year was $20,770 for a four-year in-state public college and $46,950 for a four-year private college, according to the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center.

Typically, a parent or grandparent will open a 529 account and name a child or grandchild as the beneficiary. Unlike a custodial account, which eventually transfers ownership to the child, a 529 plan gives the account owner (not the child) control.

The IRS doesn’t specify annual contribution limits to 529 plans, but the annual gift-tax exclusion applies. In 2018, up to $15,000 gifted per person qualifies for the tax exclusion. So if you and your spouse have two grandchildren, you can gift a total of $60,000 without tax consequences.

If this piques your interest in 529 plans, ask a financial professional about these options. He or she can guide you through your state-specific 529 plans and help you set up a winning strategy to cover future education costs.

The Emergence of Emerging Markets

Given their potential volatility, emerging markets aren’t for fainthearted investors, and many people avoid them. But emerging markets aren’t the vast unknown they used to be.

What are they? Emerging markets are countries that are still developing, usually by means of rapid industrialization. It may surprise you to hear that some economic powerhouses – such as China – fall into this category. Others, such as Thailand and Indonesia, are less surprising.

The primary reasons to consider emerging markets are diversification and growth potential. Emerging-market stocks may perform well when developed-market stocks are performing poorly. And in some cases, emerging markets offer unique growth opportunities. For example, China is transitioning from an industrial economy into a digitally led economy, with a high number of graduates in technology fields, significant venture-capital funding, and tax credits that support innovation.

Of course, emerging markets aren’t for everyone. The main risk is volatility. Any political- or currency-related crisis in an emerging market could devastate its stocks. Another concern is the potential impact of US interest-rate hikes, which can lead to a stronger US dollar. In such an environment, conventional wisdom holds: emerging markets underperform. Others point out that emerging markets have outperformed developed markets during most rate-tightening cycles since 1969, with exceptions occurring only when the rate increases came sooner than the market anticipated or were stronger than the market anticipated.

That said, a bout of volatility in the first quarter of 2018 stress-tested emerging markets, and they held up fairly well, as evidenced by flows. In other words, investors kept investing.

If you would like to discover the potential for portfolio diversification and growth through emerging markets, schedule a conversation with your financial professional. He or she can point you in the right direction based on your individual financial circumstances and goals.

Five Healthy Finance Habits to Fortify Your Future

Financial advice is often directed at the very young or very old: spend less than you earn every month, and don’t put too much of your retirement savings in stocks as your retirement progresses. But what about the rest of us – those of us in our working years who are approaching retirement? Here are five tips to keep us on track.

Track your income and expenses. Do it while you’re working. Do it in retirement. Knowing what you earn and what you spend is the key to financial freedom.

Save part of your income every month. In your working years, save for retirement. In your retirement, save for a rainy day. Take advantage of automatic paycheck deductions, if they’re available.

Take advantage of your employer’s tax-savings plans. If you have a 401(k) plan, a pretax transportation plan, or a health savings account, use them. Every little bit of tax savings helps.

Be diligent. Open bills when you get them. Review your bank and credit card statements for errors. Pay your bills on time (and online when possible; it can help keep you on track). Pay attention to interest rates on mortgages and other loans. Plan your dinner menus in advance, and shop accordingly. Read all contracts before signing.

Don’t overspend. Keep the money in your wallet to a minimum. Avoid buying on impulse by making a shopping list and sticking with it. Gifts are no exception. They may seem like they don’t count, but your generosity shouldn’t threaten your financial security.