Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On the Radio with a Behavioral Economist

Think you know yourself, the hidden investor inside? As a Boomer you would think so. On Monday's Financial Impact Factor we had Victor Ricciardi, professor at Goucher College and editor of Social Science Research network eJournal. His field of expertise is risk and the show focused on the numerous biases we as investors use when it comes to making financial decisions. His background in behavioral finance and related fields of investor psychology gave us some curiosity satisfying answers about what we can do moving forward with our retirement accounts, 401(k) plans and investing with skill.  

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Is it Magic?

I wanted to talk a little bit today about illusions and our brain. No doubt most of you are familiar with magic. We call falling in love with the right person magic. We think of good fortune as magical. Yet, magic is based on three key principles and these are best illustrated with the simplicity of a card trick.

Although I am not a magician I do know that every kind of magic hinges on the ability of the magician to create something your brain wants to believe. And this precarious attempt to fool you depends on you wanting to be fooled. In fact, every magic trick is based on this belief: that the magician can fool you. But noted magician Penn Julliette of Penn and Teller fame also is quick to point out that any sort of illusion, designed to fool the brain is a disaster waiting to happen. Surprisingly, attitude has everything to do with the success of any trick – not you attitude, but that of the magician.

Mr. Julliette explains that in a simple card trick, the key is for the magician to act as if he doesn’t care. He could care less whether or how much you shuffle the deck and his attitude portrays exactly that. Then, when you return the deck of newly shuffled cards to the magician, he or she then offers you a card, any card. You do and this also doesn’t matter. But where you put the card upon returning it after memorizing of course, it does.

Now the magician’s job isn’t finished. He or she does care where you put the card and uses any number of techniques to get the card back to the top of the deck. But your brain believes that it has controlled everything up until this point. In effect, the unwilling suspension of disbelief has taken over our thought processes. Even when the magician offers to have you re-shuffle the deck, you won’t.

Now I have been writing about the state of personal finance for over thirteen years. Which means I have spent a great deal of time with people who are looking to achieve the same financial success in their post-work life as they may have in their pre-retirement life. But our brains are working and I fear that we aren’t doing a very good job talking to those brains.

As financial educators, we are well aware of what the people we focus on do with the information we have. In fact, most of us find some sort of information, latch on to it and actually look for confirmation of that thought. In 2007, researchers at the University of California – San Diego found that once we expose ourselves to information, it becomes an acquired memory. Not permanent mind you. Your brain doesn’t work that way. Instead it seeks out information that permanently fixes it in our heads. This is what brain folks call spaced repetition. Given the right info your brain performs impressively. Given the wrong information, and your brain still performs impressively.

Another bit of research points to what is called retrieval. Seems your brain performs better if the memory you have stored there is pulled and examined. Each time we do, the memory gains some importance. We as financial people fail here as well. We do make those we deal with think about what they want and how they think it should be once they get it. But inevitably, we add to the problem by giving them something they hadn’t considered. The memory of what we thought we knew is still there. But now we have something else to remember.

The last problem we encounter is as financial educators is the act of dumbing down. We fail to do what some educators have found is the most important of functions: interleaving. We try to explain things in so simplistic a way that we actually confuse more than teach. We tend to piecemeal our lessons, a bit about debt here, something about insurance there and perhaps a little estate planning antidote thrown in for good measure. Yet we define them as parts of a whole instead of a whole. They are intertwined and we make the mistake of suggesting all too often that they are somehow pieces to be taken at their own worth, an approach that doesn’t seem to help according to the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Those we are hoping to help, according to this august publication would do better if we lumped it all together, somehow tying it up in a neat bundle of problems and issues instead of giving the whole process a linear feel. It can’t be helped in books, as as any editor or writer knows. One thing needs to lead to another.

And far too often, we break that linear explanation of money into something like this: hope, fear and confidence.

Unfortunately, hope for something better is dashed by the fear of what we don't know and ultimately, your confidence begins to wane. This is problematic for anyone who attempts to try and describe what they know, How do you parse the necessary information amongst the thousands of messages out there and make it meaningful across all readers?

Perhaps boiling it down, removing the illusions, forgetting the magic might work. Personal finance is no magic trick. It involves challenging what you know; not simply believing what you need to know. You need to save and invest and yet, even as you commit to those hopes, you are challenged by what you hear and this creates fear. Fear that perhaps you haven't done all you could do. Perhaps confidence stems from doing what you can with what you have to achieve what you are capable of. Lofty goal setting aside, you are the magician looking at the trick. Tell yourself what the magician tells you.

You are probably better off than you realized. You are probably capable of fixing the small things which in turn lead to the bigger solutions for the problem. Be the magician against the markets. All you need to know is how to your card on top.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Boomers: Do You Know Where Your Money Is?

Every second, a Boomer retires. This statistic alone should be a comforting thought. It is but not necessarily for Boomers. Billions of dollars of invested money will suddenly come under the direct control of this group and many simply don't know what to do. Yes they will want to ensure they don't run out of money. But they will have just as many opportunities to lose it all - in a scam that promises to make sure they don't run out of money.

On the Monday Financial Impact Factor Radio hosted by Paul Petillo we had Pat Huddleston, author of The Vigilant Investor: A Former SEC Enforcer Reveals How to Fraud-Proof Your Investments Mr. Huddleston is also a lawyer and CEO of Investors Watchdog LLC. As a former SEC Enforcer, he has seen more scams than you could imagine. With his new book, he takes those stories and the effect it has had on the victims and gives us the ultimate tell-all on how to spot what the people we may trust are actually doing - often right under our noses.

This is a must listen show for those on the cusp of retirement, those who have already retired and those who have elderly parents who are already retired. In other words, everyone stands to gain when they steel their hard-earned portfolios against a loss.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Can the 403(b) what it should be?

Labor Day has passed and the passing of that date signals the beginning of the school year with crosswalks filled with school aged kids - so be cautious out there. But inside the building, there are teachers in the crosswalks of retirement and their caution can cost them in terms of what future they envision.

Unlike the private sector workers with the 401(k) plan, a self-directed tax deferred plan the sometimes comes with a company match, teachers have the 403(b) plan. Also tax-deferred and almost always void of any school district matches, the 403(b) does a poor job of mimicking the attributes of the 401(k). So I thought I'd take a moment and make current and potential teachers (and those in no-profit institutions) aware of some of the pitfalls that await them.

In theory, as most things are when the thought materializes for the first time, the 403(b) plan should have been just as good as the 401(k). Of course, most 401(k) plans lack many of the features that would make them more worthwhile and yet, even with those problems, the retirement grass does seem greener in those plans when compared to 403(b)s. The reasons boil down to the same problems facing 401(k) plans.

Fees are always an issue. In 401(k) plans they can come from two directions: the cost of the investments and the administration of the plan. It is no different in the 403(b). Often it is worse. The administrative costs of running these plans is an haphazard affair. Unlike corporations who might assign a person to oversee the plan's direction, choosing from different administrators as they search for the best one, school districts often do not. Because of this, 403(b) plans often have numerous administrators and no real trained inner office personal to watch over the process.

In other words, the single most important aspect of the plan is often neglected. Without prudent guidance from the person in charge of the plan at company level (or in the case of a school, the district level) the investment houses they hire often charge whatever they feel the market will bear. They mask this effort with investments they claim are designed for the group but are often not suitable for any investor.

And the choices you have can be so vast as to be daunting. In California, teachers can pick from over 3,000 investment options spread amongst six providers. It is often common wisdom that choice is good. And it is often warned that too many choices is quite the opposite. Confusion and investing make awkward bedfellows. The average 401(k) plan could serve most of its participants with as little as 20 choices, most of which will come as index funds followed by some target date offerings. Too many choices actually raises the costs of administration and stifles active participation.

And the choices they do get include annuities. This escalates the concern for fees amongst retirement plan advocates. These plan participants could be paying not only upfront sales charges of the annuities they are purchasing, deducted directly from savings. But also could be faced with higher than anticipated surrender charges. While some 401(k) plans would do well to offer some annuities to their plan participants, the 403(b) has been doing so and with little success for the participants.

Even as the government has mandated that these plan be better monitored, you the investor needs to stand-up and complain. It often works in these plans. Asking for low cost alternatives is serving to cull some of the bad plan providers from the mix.

And you the investor, once you get the low cost you seek, need to invest more often, with or without the match.

With only 10% of the school districts throwing a match their way, and expect that number to go down, not up, retirement investors need to make up the shortfall. If the typical match is 3% and you planned on investing 6%, you will need to make your investment 9% of your pre-tax income to come even. And even the best of calculations, over a thirty year career will not give you more than 50% of your current income in retirement worth that investment contribution.

If you do get a low cost plan, invest with diversity. Even as we hear stories about how the S&P 500 essentially was flat over the last decade, investing in six different index funds including that large cap fund would have given you over 8% - provided you didn't panic in 2008-2009 and held tight.

If the plan is not low-cost enough, consider investing in an IRA (which is tax deductible) or a Roth IRA (which is funded with after-tax contributions). But you must do something.

Yes it might put a crimp in your current lifestyle. And yes, it won't be easy to bring not only your retirement outlook into focus while reining in your financial house at the same time. And yes, try as it might, 403(b) plans won't ever be 401(k) plans. But no plan is worth its while if you don't use it.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of and a fellow Boomer.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Five W's of Retirement Planning

Most of you recognize those five Ws from a class on journalistic writing. Or perhaps it is simply a process of decision making that you have developed on your own. Either way, retirement poses the same questions, queries that everyone needs to answer at some point.

Who - There is no pat answer to the question of who should or shouldn't retire. For some, a career choice made decades ago will simply not allow you to go beyond the traditional retirement age. Those folks have always known that they not only should retire, But that they have to. And even as debates seem to suggest that working longer is an option, I fear that these folks who simply can't seem to muster the physical willpower to go another day are being left out of the conversation.

It is more than a simple blue-collar equation, one where your physical work life has been such that your body will fight you each morning the alarm clock rings. For others, who consider themselves white-collared but doing the mundane tasks that are mentally draining, the same sense of not being able to go on another day, the answer to the question is now.

To answer the who might be easy. But to answer the other questions, not so much. If you are fortunate enough to have some kind of career that allows you a few extra years of income production, you will benefit mightily. For those who can't, a couple of expectation adjustments will be necessary.

What - Most folks don't project what retirement will look like until they are so close that the options have been culled to the point where only few choices remain. This question needs to be answered long before the "age" approaches. This might involve a cold, hard look at where you live and if staying where you are is do-able. While it seems as if we are getting ahead of our questions, what retirement will look like is unknown and only somewhat subject to plans. Yet, some conversation about what you expect is in order as you approach fifty. Once at that age and beyond, tailoring your "what" should be the focus of your equation.

When - If you have answered who and what you are, the when would seem to be easier to answer. But often it is a coordinated affair, aligning your retirement with your spouse or perhaps with a certain work goal. But retirement doesn't and shouldn't be a stop sign on a road well lived. It should be more of a yield, a merger into into another place in the journey. It might look like work to an outsider. But to you, when should mean the ability to segue nto something you have always wanted to do. If there is a paycheck involved - great. If not, just as wonderful.

Where - For some reason, this is a very stressful decision. If you live somewhere you really like for whatever reason, where is a moot point. You will be happier staying put and living your life surrounded by those people, places and things that your pre-retirement life found enriching. But if it is the other way around, spend some time, preferably before you work your last day, examining your options.

It would probably be wise to involve your family in your thought processes if only to give them time to prepare. Why? Life happens fast and sometimes things go wrong. It will be your family that will help you through this trying time and they should know as much in advance of your decision to prepare as well.

Why - This might simply be answered by a question: why not. No one can make this determination for you but you.