A Few 2015 Social Security Changes

Bigger payments. The 1.7 percent cost-of-living adjustment is expected to result in the typical retiree getting about $22 more per month. This change will increase the average monthly benefit for retired workers in January 2015 from $1,306 before the cost-of-living adjustment to $1,328 after. The average benefit for retired couples who are both receiving benefits is projected to increase by $36 to $2,176 per month. Social Security payments are automatically adjusted each year to keep up with inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers. Previous cost-of-living adjustments have ranged from zero in 2010 and 2011 to 14.3 percent in 1980. The 1.7 percent increase retirees will receive in January is similar to the 1.5 percent adjustment for 2014 and 1.7 percent increase in 2013.

Higher tax cap. Most workers pay 6.2 percent of every paycheck into the Social Security system until their earnings exceed the tax cap. The maximum taxable earnings will increase next year from $117,000 in 2014 to $118,500 in 2015. About 10 million of the 168 million workers who pay into Social Security are expected to face higher taxes as a result of this change. People who earn more than the taxable maximum do not pay Social Security taxes on that amount or have those earnings factored into their future Social Security payments.

Larger earnings limits. Social Security beneficiaries who are under age 66 can earn as much as $15,720 in 2015, before $1 in benefits will be withheld for every $2 earned above the limit. Retirees who will turn 66 in 2015 and have signed up for Social Security can earn up to $41,880 before every $3 earned above the limit will result in one benefit dollar being withheld. However, once a retiree turns age 66 there is no limit on earnings and Social Security payments are recalculated to give the retiree credit for the withheld benefits.

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Fight Fire With …….

“Far more money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections, or trying to anticipate corrections, than has been lost in corrections themselves.” This is a quote by famed Fidelity investor Peter Lynch. The annualized performance of the S&P 500 over the last seven years is 6.7% (thru 7.30.14). This includes one of the sharpest downturns in the last century. However, for those that held strong throughout that downturn, patience paid off and Peter Lynch’s quote was once again validated.

At Windsor, we don’t try to “guess” the direction of the stock market. Warren Buffett has stated many times that he doesn’t know what the market will do next week, next month or even next year, but over the long-term it trends up. For our clients, risk management is achieved by developing and maintaining your proper allocation, as well as systematically rebalancing.

As the markets decide the timing and extent of any type of pullback, we recommend reading the post below entitled “Swimming Against the Tide.” Making sure the allocation of your portfolio matches your needs and risk tolerance is what separates a roaring forest fire from a controlled burn. Both can spawn new growth, however recovery comes quicker from the latter.

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Swimming Against the Tide

The equity markets are off to a shaky start in 2014 after the smooth upward climb for the U.S. equity indexes in 2013. Currently, the Dow, Nasdaq, and S&P 500 are negative so far this year, while other asset classes, such as bonds, have moved higher.

Since 1928, the S&P 500 normally experiences a five-percent correction three or four times every 12 months. A decline of ten percent is more rare, but still seen once each rolling 12-month period. A bear market, down 20% or more, is seen once every three or four years. These are averages, and any one year can deviate from the norm, as we saw in 2013.

The question many investors and retirees ask is what, if anything, can (or should) they do about the normal levels of volatility we see in the equity markets? The answer to this question all depends on risk tolerance. One of the definitions Meriam-Webster’s dictionary gives of “tolerance” is the ability to accept, experience, or survive something harmful or unpleasant. If an investor panics and sells after every 5 to 10% decline in the market, equities are probably not for them. If the average market volatility (2nd paragraph above) can be tolerated, then having equities in your asset allocation plan is prudent as long as it aligns with your desired level of risk. In a year like 2013, such a plan might have seemed useless as we saw the U.S. equity indexes outpace pretty much everything. However, and this is important, you should not develop an asset allocation plan based on an outlier year. If you did, then you would have held zero equities after 2008 and 100% equities after 2013.

Sticking with a diverse and properly allocated investment plan could lower the overall volatility and increase comfort during normal, and inevitable, stock market corrections. To ensure your comfort level (sleep tolerance as Windsor calls it) remains steady, consistently rebalancing to maintain proper allocation is critical. Certainly after corrections or abnormally large market gains, bringing your asset allocation back in line with your desired level of risk is a proactive response. This is in stark contrast to the extreme reactive response by many retail investors who get out of the market after it goes down and jump back in to equities after markets have gone higher.

We understand these strategies are hard to implement since you are going against the tide of recent performance. However, risk-based asset allocation and rebalancing are time-tested and proven ways to increase your comfort level and help you avoid mistakes that many investors make.

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Filter the Noise

Below are recent predictions regarding 2014’s stock market performance:

MacNeil Curry, Head of Global Technical Strategy at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, says investors should get ready for as much as a 20% correction in the markets this coming year.

Goldman Sachs equity strategists forecast the S&P 500 would reach 1900 by the end of 2014, an 8% increase from current levels. “However, we estimate a 67 percent probability of a 10 percent drawdown at some point in 2014,” Goldman analysts wrote.

Jeff Kleintop, LPL Financial’s chief market strategist, forecast a 10 to 15 percent gain in the S&P 500 for next year, based on his expectation that the economy will grow at 3 percent and earnings at 5 percent to 10 percent.

There are many different predictions and assumptions out there. Don’t bet your retirement on any one “opinion.” Stay diversified, stay disciplined, and stick to an investment plan that is based on your specific needs and objectives.

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Roadblock to Retirement

Every year, BlackRock surveys over one thousand active defined contribution participants about retirement and their workplace retirement savings plans. Sometimes the survey confirms assumptions we’ve made; other times, it surprises us.

Here is one finding from the survey that is quite surprising:

46% of participants who are NOT saving for retirement say it is because they do not know how much they will need.

It’s easy to get frustrated with the reasoning here. Clearly, saving something, even if it isn’t enough, is going to be better than saving nothing. But if you think about what these participants are really telling us, it becomes clear what the stumbling block is. What they are saying is, not knowing leads to inaction.

In fact, another survey finding, that 77% of participants would increase their savings if they know how much they needed to save, more or less confirms this. Knowledge, in this case, equals motivation.

It’s safe to assume that if you are reading this blog post, you are probably motivated already, or, you’ve been successful at getting past this roadblock. But here is something to consider. When it comes to how much we will need in retirement, none of us know. The best we can do is to narrow down the uncertainty as much as possible, be prepared for the unexpected, and most importantly, stick to your well thought out plan.

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Diversification, Justification

Most people understand that a properly diversified portfolio will include multiple asset classes and will have several different types of investments. They also understand that the performance of these various asset classes should not always move in lockstep (hence, the benefits of diversification and non correlated assets). However, years like 2013 test an investor’s ability to stick with their asset allocation model. Why? Because in 2013, not only have we seen great degrees of variance among different equity classes (example: Domestic Large Cap Equities (SPY) up +17.67% YTD and Emerging Market Equity (EEM) down -10.02% YTD), but we’ve also seen great variances in the performance of equities vs. fixed income (example: Domestic Large Cap Equities (SPY) +17.67% and the Barclay Aggregate Index (AGG) -4.11%).

All that being said, it makes sense that an immediate end to the Fed’s policies would hurt bond returns in the short term, but help in the long term. While rising interest rates initially push down bond prices, they also increase expected returns from income thereafter. The pain from the price drop comes quickly, while the benefit of higher income accrues gradually over time.

Traditionally, most investors have owned bonds for income and stability, and to diversify equity-market risk. Short-term interest rates near zero and quantitative easing have pushed yields (especially Treasuries) to historic lows, so higher yields should be welcomed by most investors. These low rates have also created the potential for instability when the Fed Policies end, but the diversification benefit of bonds remains strong. Stability, cash flow support, and certainty are just a few of the benefits in having an allocation to bonds.

Whether to own bonds or stocks should not be a yes-or-no question. A properly diversified portfolio should almost always include both. Just as investors should have held onto their equity (stock) allocation through the downturn in 2008, today, investors should stay the course and remember why they have an allocation to bonds as well.

Performance numbers through 9/5/13

Posted in Investing

High, No….Rising, Maybe

In July of 2009 the Wall Street Journal asked fifty forecasters whether the interest rate on the 10-year treasury would be higher or lower a year later. At that time, the 10-year rate was 3.50%. Forty-three (86%) of them said rates couldn’t go lower, and predicted higher rates. Since then, we’ve seen the 10-year as low as 1.60%, and it now sits around 2.45%. While we can never remember purchasing a 10-year treasury, this rate is used by many as a barometer of overall interest rates. At Windsor, we’ve been planning for higher rates for some time now which is evident by the very low duration in our bond holdings, as well as the increased weightings in floating rate securities. While the media seems to promote a fear of higher rates, many retired fixed income investors should be welcoming higher rates (as long as duration is kept low). For years now, the public has been complaining about low rates, now they are worried about higher rates. For our clients with fixed income holdings and a need for better cash flow, we say “higher rates? Bring them on!”

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