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19 Jul

An Evidence-Based Approach to Sustainable Investing

Part I: Setting the Sustainable Stage

                               

If there’s one trait most of us share, it’s a desire to make the world a better place. No wonder there’s so much interest in sustainable investing. Who wouldn’t want to try to earn decent if not stellar returns, while contributing – or at least causing less harm – to the greater good?

But what is the greater good? What is a decent return? How do we make it all happen? Financial history leaves us optimistic that, over time, best practices are likely to emerge out of the bubbling brew that is our capital markets. For those who would rather not wait, it can be hard to identify a clear path forward. As a relatively new and fast-growing field, sustainable investing is crowded with opportunities and challenges, perspectives and priorities, strategies and terminology.

Let’s bring today’s sustainable investing into tighter focus.

Sensible Sustainability

As we grapple with integrating subjective values into objective financial planning, we are inspired by “Doing Good Better” author William MacAskill: “I believe that by combining the heart and the head – by applying data and reason to altruistic acts – we can turn our good intentions into astonishingly good outcomes.”

Let’s be clear: We are NOT here to direct your personal moral compass. Rather, we’d like to offer objective insights, rooted in our evidence-based investment approach. An evidence-based outlook helps confirm when a theory appears to be robust in reality. It also suggests when a promising plan may not pencil out as hoped for – no matter how well-intended it may be.

Equipped with solid evidence in an often emotionally charged arena, you will be better positioned to make the rational choices and informed decisions that best fit you, your heartfelt values, and your financial goals.

A Tangle of Terminology

First things first. While you’re likely to find various terms sharing similar definitions in this crowded field, we’ll refer to the broad subject as “sustainable investing.

Call it what you will, recent research has found that different investors embrace sustainable investing for different reasons. Your own priorities govern the type of sustainable investing that should best align with your personal goals:

  •      Financial Priorities – Some investors may not be as interested in investing “morally,” but may do so anyway if they expect to earn higher returns from stronger-performing companies.
  •      Impact Priorities – Other investors may not care whether sustainable investing brings higher expected returns, as long as they can shun “bad” companies and/or invest in “good” ones.

 

  •      Blended Priorities – Most investors fall somewhere in between: They want to earn solid returns (or at least not lose money) while investing in principled ways.

Next Up: Degrees of “Doing Good”  

Today’s piece sets the sustainable stage. We introduced a few key terms and summarized how sustainable investment priorities may vary depending on individual goals. In our next piece, we’ll explore how to quantify something as potentially subjective as “doing good.” We’ll also share some ideas on how to invest in ways that best balance your financial goals with your personal values.

Until then … be good.

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21 Jun

The Impact of Inflation

When the prices of goods and services increase over time, consumers can buy fewer of them with every dollar they have saved. This erosion of the real purchasing power of wealth is called inflation. Inflation is an important element of investing. In many cases, the reason for saving today is to support future spending. Therefore, keeping pace with inflation is a crucial goal for many investors. To help understand inflation’s impact on purchasing power, consider the following illustration of the effects of inflation over time. In 1916, nine cents would buy a quart of milk. Fifty years later, nine cents would only buy a small glass of milk. And more than 100 years later, nine cents would only buy about seven tablespoons of milk. How can investors potentially prevent this loss of purchasing power from inflation over time?

INVESTING FOR THE LONG TERM AND OTHER “TIPS”

As the value of a dollar declines over time, investing can help grow wealth and preserve purchasing power. Investors should know that over the long haul stocks have historically outpaced inflation, but there have also been short-term stretches where this has not been the case. For example, during the 17-year period from 1966–1982, the return of the S&P 500 Index was 6.8% before inflation, but after adjusting for inflation it was 0%. Additionally, if we look at the period from 2000–2009, the so-called “lost decade,” the return of the S&P 500 Index dropped from –0.9% before inflation to –3.4% after inflation.

Despite some periods where stocks have failed to outpace inflation, one dollar invested in the S&P 500 Index in 1926, after accounting for inflation, would have grown to more than $500 of purchasing power at the end of 2017 and would have significantly outpaced inflation over the long run. The story for US Treasury bills (T-bills), however, is quite different. In many periods, T-bills were unable to keep pace with inflation, and an investor would have experienced an erosion of purchasing power. After adjusting for inflation, one dollar invested in T-bills in 1926 would have grown to only $1.51 at the end of 2017.

While stocks are more volatile than T-bills, they have also been more likely to outpace inflation over long periods. The lesson here is that volatility is not the only type of risk that should concern investors. Ultimately, many investors may need to have some of their allocation in growth investments that outpace inflation to maintain their standard of living and grow their wealth.

One additional tool available to investors who are concerned about both stock market volatility and inflation are Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS). TIPS are guaranteed by the US Treasury and as such are considered by the marketplace to have low risk of default. The Treasury issues TIPS with a variety of maturities, and these securities are easily bought and sold. Unlike traditional Treasury securities such as T-bills, TIPS are indexed to inflation to protect investors from an erosion in purchasing power. As inflation (measured by the consumer price index) rises, so does the par value of TIPS, while the interest rate remains fixed. This means that if inflation unexpectedly rises, the purchasing power of any principal invested in TIPS should also increase.  Although they may not offer the long-term growth opportunities that stocks do, their structure makes TIPS an effective risk management tool for investors who are concerned with managing uncertainty around future purchasing power. However, like any security (even those issued by the government), if sold before maturity, the price is not guaranteed.

CONCLUSION

Inflation is an important consideration for many long-term investors. By combining the right mix of growth and risk management assets, investors may be able to blunt the effects of inflation and grow their wealth over time. Remember, however, that inflation is only one consideration among many that investors must contend with when building a portfolio for the future. The right mix of assets for any investor will depend upon that investor’s unique goals and needs. A financial advisor can help investors weigh the impact of inflation and other important considerations when preparing and investing for the future.

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24 May

It’s Time to Get Serious About Your Happiness

There’s a great quote by Jean-Paul Sartre: “We are our choices.” When it comes to our happiness and our overall success in life, that’s truer than you might have realized.

Taking time to examine the choices you make in your life and work each day and over the long term to make sure they are enhancing your well-being can do more than just make you happier. Working on enhancing happiness has actually been shown to have a tangible return on investment and can make you more successful.

Here’s one example from the business world. According to positive psychology researcher Shawn Achor, if you are happy and you have happy people around you in your organization, you can improve your organization’s performance and productivity by anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent. And if your team is happier, you will take better care of your clients and have greater impact on them—which in turn will enable your team to do well financially.

With that in mind, here are steps for increasing your happiness in ways that will lead to better results in your work and in your life. These come courtesy of Henry Miller—a truly exceptional trainer, coach and consultant who helps companies and organizations improve their performance and productivity. He spent years analyzing the growing research on well-being and synthesizing it into his book The Serious Pursuit of Happiness—an essential road map to greater happiness.

Understand the basics

Some people think they are predisposed to be happy or unhappy and that’s just how it goes. Not so. You can take steps to enhance your happiness and that of the people around you. Research using data from the Minnesota Twin Registry shows that around 50 percent of our level of happiness depends on our deliberate thoughts, attitudes and actions—great news for those of you who assumed your level of happiness is hard-wired.

To improve the drivers of happiness that are within our control, start with some basic ideas to guide you:

Happiness takes effort. Creating and enhancing happiness in your life, your family and your workplace is just like any other major initiative you undertake—it requires time and effort to get up and running smoothly.

Happiness is a numbers game. The frequency of positive events in your life matters more than the intensity of those events. You’ll have better results if you boost the number of small positive moments in your day instead of trying to have just a few instances that are hugely positive.

Happiness is a habit. Make happiness habitual—if you are not as naturally happy as other people, incorporate happy habits into your life while removing other habits.

Do more for other people. When you spend time doing things for other people and trying to make them happy, you actually end up happier than when you do things to please just yourself.

PROVEN PATHS TO HAPPINESS

Research has shown that basing your decisions on several imperatives will increase your happiness

1. Seek pleasure within limits. Real, lasting happiness doesn’t come by chasing lots of short-term pleasures. Happiness is not hedonism or doing your best to avoid all pain. The “high” from short-term pleasures doesn’t tend to stick with us very long, and if you keep doing nothing but those activities, the moments when you do feel down tend to overwhelm you.

2. Intentionally think happy. Avoid excessive self-focused rumination on the minutiae of your life. Focus on building resilience and taking control. A feeling of well-being arises when you do these things. There’s a quote often attributed to William James, the father of psychology: “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their moods by altering their states of mind.”

3. Intentionally act happy. Expressing gratitude for the good things you have shuts down feelings of envy and jealousy that block your path to more happiness. If you buy yourself a “gratitude journal” and write in it every Sunday night, you can increase your happiness by 25 percent, and the positive effects can last for six months. Other happiness-building actions to work on include forgiving people who have wronged you, staying fit through exercise and diet, and getting enough sleep.

4. Cultivate positive personality traits. Honesty, courage, perseverance, tolerance, generosity—all are universally seen as good character traits. Consider the best possible future for yourself as a person at home, at work and at play. Imagine yourself in a future where everything has gone as well as it could go. What might your best possible self and best possible future look like?

5. Embrace deep connections. Close relationships are vital—Facebook friends and water-cooler buddies aren’t enough.

Plan and act

Ultimately you need to act to achieve results. Here are three proven happiness-enhancing action steps you can start doing immediately.

1. Savor the future. Write a description of what your life will ideally look like five years from today. Your vision of your ideal future will actually act like a beacon, drawing you to it. But don’t just take this step—also notice how it makes you feel when you envision a great future. This is how you savor the future, and in doing so you will elevate your positivity.

2. Express gratitude for your past. Think of someone who has positively impacted your life and whom you have never properly thanked. Write down what they did for you and all the ways you are thankful to them for what they have meant to you over the years. The mere act of writing this type of letter has been shown to boost levels of happiness.

3. Demonstrate love. If you can, go out immediately after reading this report and get a flower or card for someone you love and give it to them, saying, “Just because I was thinking about you and what you mean to me.” You can also simply call someone you love—your spouse, a best friend—and tell them how happy you are that they’re in your life. Try to do more of these types of acts every week or month, and cut down on other activities to do so if necessary. Remember that habits and frequency of actions play big roles in elevating happiness.


ACKNOWLEDGMENT: This article was published by the BSW Inner Circle, a global financial concierge group working with affluent individuals and families and is distributed with its permission. Copyright 2018 by AES Nation, LLC.

This report is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute a solicitation to purchase any security or advisory services. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. An investment in any security involves significant risks and any investment may lose value. Refer to all risk disclosures related to each security product carefully before investing. Investment Advisory Services are provided by Investment Advisor  Representatives of FMB Wealth Management and FMB Retirement Services. FMB Wealth Management and FMB Retirement Services are both Registered Investment Advisors and are affiliated entities with common ownership.

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17 Apr

Sailing with the Tides

Embarking on a financial plan is like sailing around the world. The voyage won’t always go to plan, and there’ll be rough seas. But the odds of reaching your destination increase greatly if you are prepared, flexible, patient, and well-advised.

A mistake many inexperienced sailors make is not having a plan at all. They embark without a clear sense of their destination. And once they do decide, they often find themselves lost at sea in the wrong boat with inadequate provisions.

Likewise, in planning an investment journey, you need to decide on your goal. A first step might be to consider whether the goal is realistic and achievable. For instance, while you may long to retire in the south of France, you may not be prepared to sacrifice your needs today to satisfy that distant desire.

Once you are set on a realistic destination, you need to ensure you have the right portfolio to get you there. Have you planned for multiple contingencies? What degree of “bad weather” can your plan withstand along the way?

Key to a successful voyage is a good navigator. A trusted advisor is like that, regularly taking coordinates and making adjustments, if necessary. If your circumstances change, the advisor may suggest you replot your course.

As with the weather at sea, markets can be unpredictable. A sudden squall can whip up waves of volatility, tides

can shift, and strong currents can threaten to blow you off course. Like a seasoned sailor, an experienced advisor will work with the conditions.

Once the storm passes, you can pick up speed again. Just as a sturdy vessel will help you withstand most conditions at sea, a well-diversified portfolio can act as a bulwark against the sometimes tempestuous conditions in markets.

Circumnavigating the globe is not exciting every day. Patience is required with local customs and paperwork as you pull into different ports. Likewise, a lack of attention to costs and taxes is the enemy of many a long-term financial plan.

Distractions can also send investors, like sailors, off course. In the face of “hot” investment trends, it takes discipline not to veer from your chosen plan. Like the sirens of Greek mythology, media pundits can also be diverting, tempting you to change tack and act on news that is already priced in to markets.

A lack of flexibility is another impediment to a successful investment journey. If it doesn’t look as though you’ll make your destination in time, you may have to extend your voyage, take a different route to get there, or even moderate your goal.

The important point is that you become comfortable with the idea that uncertainty is inherent to the investment journey, just as it is with any sea voyage. That is why preparation and planning are so critical. While you can’t control every outcome, you can be prepared for the range of possibilities and understand that you have clear choices if things don’t go according to plan.

If you can’t live with the volatility, you can change your plan. If the goal looks unachievable, you can lower your sights. If it doesn’t look as if you’ll arrive on time, you can extend your journey.

Of course, not everyone’s journey is the same. Neither is everyone’s destination. We take different routes to different places, and we meet a range of challenges and opportunities along the way.

But for all of us, it’s critical that we are prepared for our journeys in the right vessel, keep our destinations in mind, stick with the plans, and have a trusted navigator to chart our courses and keep us on target.

 

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. There is no guarantee an investing strategy will be successful. Diversification does not eliminate the risk of market loss.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change. This article is distributed for informational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services.

Dimensional Fund Advisors LP is an investment advisor registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.


©2018 Dimensional Fund Advisors LP. All rights reserved. Unauthorized copying, reproducing, duplicating, or transmitting of this material is prohibited.

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02 Apr

10 Things To Do Right Now While Markets Are (Not Really)Tanking

“This is a test; this is only a test. Had this been an actual emergency …”

The truth is, the markets are not tanking as we write this piece. In fact, overall market temperatures have been so mild for so long, many newer investors have yet to weather a perfect market storm. Even if you have, you may have forgotten how panic-inducing those times can be.

This worries us. Experience and evidence alike show us how severely bear markets test investor resolve, sabotage otherwise solid plans, and just plain hurt. We’ve also seen how damaging it can be to act on rash fear rather than rational resolve during market downturns.

So let’s pretend, shall we? Just as we prepare for other emergencies by practicing how to avoid deadly blunders in the heat of the moment, here are 10 timely actions you can take when financial markets are tanking … and, frankly, even when they’re not.

  1.     Don’t panic (or pretend not to). It’s easy to believe you’re immune from panic when the financial sun is shining, but it’s hard to avoid indulging in it during a crisis. If you’re entertaining seemingly logical excuses to bail out during a steep or sustained market downturn, remember: It’s highly likely your behavioral biases are doing the talking. Even if you only pretend to be calm, that’s fine, as long as it prevents you from acting on your fears.

“Every time someone says, ‘There is a lot of cash on the sidelines,’ a tiny part of my soul dies. There are no sidelines.” – Cliff Asness, AQR Capital Management

 

  1.     Redirect your energy. No matter how logical it may be to sit on your hands during market downturns, your “fight or flight” instincts can trick you into acting anyway. Fortunately, there are productive moves you can make instead – such as all 10 actions here – to satisfy the itch to act without overhauling your investments at potentially the worst possible time.

 

“My advice to a prospective active do-it-yourself investor is to learn to golf. You’ll get a little exercise, some fresh air and time with your friends. Sure, green fees can be steep, but not as steep as the hit your portfolio will take if you become an active do-it-yourself investor.” – Terrance Odean, behavioral finance professor

 

  1.     Remember the evidence. One way to ignore your self-doubts during market crises is to heed what decades of practical and academic evidence have taught us about investing: Capital markets’ long-term trajectories have been upward. Thus, if you sell when markets are down, you’re far more likely to lock in permanent losses than come out ahead.

“Do the math. Expect catastrophes. Whatever happens, stay the course.” – William Bernstein, MD, PhD, financial theorist and neurologist

  1.     Manage your exposure to breaking news. There’s a difference between following current events versus fixating on them. In today’s multitasking, multimedia world, it’s easier than ever to be inundated by late-breaking news. When you become mired in the minutiae, it’s hard to retain your long-term perspective.

“Choosing what to ignore – turning off constant market updates, tuning out pundits purveying the latest Armageddon – is critical to maintaining a long-term focus.” – Jason Zweig, The Wall Street Journal

 

  1.     Revisit your carefully crafted investment plans (or make some). Even if you yearn to go by gut feel during a financial crisis, remember: You promised yourself you wouldn’t do that. When did you promise? When you planned your personalized investment portfolio, carefully allocated to various sources of expected returns, globally diversified to dampen the risks involved, and sensibly executed with low-cost funds managed in an evidence-based manner. What if you’ve not yet made these sorts of plans or established this kind of portfolio? Then these are actions we encourage you to take at your earliest convenience.

“The key to successful investing is to get the plan right and then stick to it. This means acting just like the lowly postage stamp that does one thing but does it well. It sticks to its letter until it reaches its destination. The investors’ job is to stick to their well thought out plan (if they have one) until they reach their destination. And if they don’t have a plan, write one immediately.” – Larry Swedroe, financial author

  1.     Reconsider your risk tolerance (but don’t act on it just yet). When you craft a personalized investment portfolio, you also commit to accepting a measure of market risk in exchange for those expected market returns. Unfortunately, during quiet times, it’s easy to overestimate how much risk you can stomach. If you discover you’re miserable to the point of breaking during even modest market declines, you may need to re-think your investment plans. Start planning for prudent portfolio adjustments, preferably working with an objective advisor to help you implement them judiciously over time.

“Our aversion to leverage has dampened our returns over the years. But Charlie [Munger] and I sleep well. Both of us believe it is insane to risk what you have and need in order to obtain what you don’t need.” – Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway

 

  1.     Double down on your risk exposure – if you’re able. If, on the other hand, you discover you’ve got nerves of steel, market downturns can be opportunities to buy more of the depressed (low-price) holdings that fit into your long-range investment plan. You can do this with new money, or by rebalancing what you’ve got (selling appreciated assets to buy the underdogs). This is not for the timid! You’re buying holdings other investors are fleeing in droves. But if you’re able to do this and hold tight, you’re especially well-positioned to make the most of the expected recovery.

“Pick your risk exposure, and then diversify the hell out of it.” – Eugene Fama, Nobel  laureate economist

 

  1.     Tax-loss harvest. Depending on market conditions as well as your own circumstances, you may be able to use tax-loss harvesting to turn financial lemons into lemonade during market downturns. A successful tax-loss harvest lowers your tax bill without substantially altering or impacting your long-term investment outcomes. This action is not without its tricks and traps, however, so it’s best done in alliance with a financial professional who is well-versed in navigating the challenges involved.

“In investing, you get what you don’t pay for.” – John  C. Bogle, Vanguard founder

 

  1.     Revisit this article. There is no better time to re-read this article than when today’s “safety drill” is no longer an exercise but a real event. Maybe it will take your mind off the barrage of breaking news.

“We’d never buy a shirt for full price then be O.K. returning it in exchange for the sale price. ‘Scary’ markets convince people this unequal exchange makes sense.” – Carl Richards, Behavior Gap

 

  1.  Talk to us. We don’t know when. We don’t know how severe it will be, or how long it will last. But sooner or later, we expect the markets will tank again for a while, just as we also expect they’ll eventually recover and continue upward. We hope today’s drill will help you be better prepared for “next time.” We also hope you’ll be in touch if we can help. After all, there’s never a bad time to receive good advice.

“In the old legend the wise men finally boiled down the history of mortal affairs into the single phrase, ‘This too will pass.’ Confronted with a like challenge to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture the motto, MARGIN OF SAFETY.”

Benjamin Graham, economist, “father of value investing”

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28 Feb

Charitable Giving Under New Tax Laws: Understanding the Donor-Advised Fund (DAF)

No matter how the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) may alter your tax planning, we’d like to believe one thing will remain the same: With or without a tax write-off, many Americans will still want to give generously to the charities of their choice. After all, financial incentives aren’t usually your main motivation for giving. We give to support the causes we cherish. We give because we’re grateful for the good fortune we’ve enjoyed. We give because it elevates us too. Good giving feels great – for donor and recipient alike.

That said, a tax break can feel good too, and it may help you give more than you otherwise could. Enter the donor-advised fund (DAF) as a potential tool for continuing to give meaningfully and tax-efficiently under the new tax law.

What’s Changed About Charitable Giving?

To be clear, the TCJA has not eliminated the charitable deduction. You can still take it when you itemize your deductions. But the law has limited or eliminated several other itemized deductions, and it’s roughly doubled the standard deduction (now $12,000 for single and $24,000 for joint filers). With these changes, there will be far fewer times it will make sense to itemize your deductions instead of just taking the now-higher standard allowance.

This introduces a new incentive to consider batching up your deductible expenses, so they can periodically “count” toward reducing your taxes due – at least in the years you’ve got enough itemized deductions to exceed your standard deduction.

For example, if you usually donate $2,500 annually to charity, you could instead donate $25,000 once each decade. Combined with other deductibles, you might then be able to take a nice tax write-off that year, which may generate (or be generated by) other tax-planning possibilities.

What Can a DAF Do for You?

DAFs are not new; they’ve been around since the 1930s. But they’ve been garnering more attention as a potentially appropriate tax-planning tool under the TCJA. Here’s how they work:

  1. Make a sizeable donation to a DAF. Donating to a DAF, which acts like a “charitable bank,” is one way to batch up your deductions for tax-wise giving. But remember: DAF contributions are irrevocable. You cannot change your mind and later reclaim the funds.

 

  1. Deduct the full amount in the year you fund the DAF. DAFs are established by nonprofit sponsoring organizations, so your entire contribution is available for the maximum allowable deduction in the year you make it. Plus, once you’ve funded a DAF, the sponsor typically invests the assets, and any returns they earn are tax-free. This can give your initial donation more giving-power over time.

 

  1. Participate in granting DAF assets to your charities of choice. Over time, and as the name “donor-advised fund” suggests, you get to advise the DAF’s sponsoring organization on when to grant assets, and where those grants will go.

Thus, donating through a DAF may be preferred if you want to make a relatively sizeable donation for tax-planning or other purposes; you’d like to retain a say over what happens next to those assets; and you’re not yet ready to allocate all the money to your favorite causes.

Another common reason people turn to a DAF is to donate appreciated stocks in kind (without selling them first), when your intended recipients can only accept cash/liquid donations. The American Endowment Foundation offers this 2015 “Donor Advised Fund Summary for Donors,” with additional reasons a DAF may appeal – with or without its newest potential tax benefits.

Beyond DAFs

A DAF isn’t for everyone. Along the spectrum of charitable giving choices, they’re relatively easy and affordable to establish, while still offering some of the benefits of a planned giving vehicle. As such, they fall somewhere between simply writing a check, versus taking on the time, costs and complexities of a charitable remainder trust, charitable lead trust, or private foundation.

That said, planned giving vehicles offer several important features that go beyond what a DAF can do for a family who is interested in establishing a lasting legacy. They also go beyond the scope of this paper, but we are happy to discuss them with you directly at any time.

How Do You Differentiate DAFs?

If you decide a DAF would be useful to your cause, the next step is to select an organization to sponsor your contribution. Sponsors typically fall into three types:

  1.     Public charities established by financial providers, like Fidelity, Schwab, TD Ameritrade and Vanguard
  2.     Independent national organizations, like the American Endowment Foundation and National Philanthropic Trust
  3.     “Single issue” entities, like religious, educational or emergency aid organizations

Within and among these categories, DAFs are not entirely interchangeable. Whether you’re being guided by a professional advisor or you’re managing the selection process on your own, it’s worth doing some due diligence before you fund a DAF. Here are some key considerations:

Minimums – Different DAFs have different minimums for opening an account. For example, one sponsor may require $5,000 to get started, while another may have a higher threshold.

Fees – As with any investment account, expect administration fees. Just make sure they’re fair and transparent, so they don’t eat up all the benefits of having a DAF to begin with.

Acceptable Assets – Most DAFs will let you donate cash as well as stocks. Some may also accept other types of assets, such as real estate, private equity or insurance.

Grant-Giving Policies – Some grant-giving policies are more flexible than others. For example, single-entity organizations may require that a percentage of your grants go to their cause, or only to local or certain kinds of causes. Some may be more specific than others on the minimum size and/or maximum frequency of your grant requests. Some have simplified the grant-making process through online automation; others have not.

Investment Policies – As touched on above, your DAF assets are typically invested in the market, so they can grow tax-free over time. But some investments are far more advisable than others for building long-term giving power! How much say will you have on investment selections? If you’re already working with a wealth advisor, it can make good sense to choose a DAF that lets your advisor manage these account assets in a prudent, fiduciary manner, according to an evidence-based investment strategy. (Note: Higher minimums may apply.)

Transfer and Liquidation Policies – What happens to your DAF account when you die? Some sponsors allow you to name successors if you’d like to continue the account in perpetuity. Some allow you to name charitable organizations as beneficiaries. Some have a formula for distributing assets to past grant recipients. Some will roll the assets into their own endowment. (Most will at least do this as a last resort if there are no successors or past grant recipients.) Also, what if you decide you’d like to transfer your DAF to a different sponsoring organization during your lifetime? Find out if the organization you have in mind permits it.

Deciding on Your Definitive DAF

Selecting an ideal DAF sponsor for your tax planning and charitable intent usually involves a process of elimination. To narrow the field, decide which DAF features matter the most to you, and which ones may be deal breakers.

If you’re working with a wealth advisor such as FMB, we hope you’ll lean on us to help you make a final selection, and meld it into your greater personal and financial goals. As Wharton Professor and “Give and Take” author Adam Grant has observed, “The most meaningful way to succeed is to help others succeed.” That’s one reason we’re here: to help you successfully incorporate the things that last into your lasting, charitably minded lifestyle.

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13 Feb

5 Hallmarks of Great Financial Advice

You may think the best financial advice is that which makes you the most money. Think again. You may get lucky on bad advice but at some point, the luck will run out, putting your financial future into jeopardy. Separate the good from the bad by making sure the financial advice you’re receiving checks all five of these boxes.

  1. It’s aligned with your goals. If your financial advisor doesn’t know what your investment goals are, how can you be certain that advice is right for you? If your advisor doesn’t ask about these goals—such as when you want to retire and how—your plan will not be customized to your distinct needs. A good relationship and easy communication with your financial advisor is also essential to ensure your plan is updated with your latest milestones and growth goals in mind.
  2. It sounds reasonable. Free or cheap financial advice is usually a telltale sign of bad financial advice. After all, becoming an investment professional requires school, certification exams and continuing education. Another red flag is when an advisor promises unrealistic returns. As the old adage goes: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  3. Compensation is transparent. Investment professionals are paid through fees, commissions or both. According to the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA), fee-only advising is the most transparent and objective, and in fact, NAPFA members aren’t allowed to accept commissions for their work. That doesn’t mean commissions are a sign of bad advice, though. The proof is in how transparent the advisor is willing to be. If he or she is not forthcoming about details, that could be a red flag.
  4. It serves your best interests. Believe it or not, many investment professionals do not have a fiduciary duty to act in their customers’ best interests. Many brokers, for example, operate under a suitability standard—the advice they give is suitable for a customer like you, but not necessarily specific to you. This advice can be harmful to your portfolio if the financial advisor has his, not your, best interests at heart. According to a 2015 report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers, non-fiduciary advice can cost investors 1 percentage point of their return annually. The quickest way to find out if your financial advisor is a fiduciary is to ask. If the answer isn’t straightforward, you might seek advice elsewhere.
  5. It’s easy to understand. Be wary of economic jargon designed to get you to say, “OK, that’s over my head, but I trust you.” Good investment advice is something you can understand. If you can’t understand it but want to, a good investment professional will work with you until you do.

Your relationship with your financial advisor is an important one that impacts the fate of your finances, retirement savings, and family legacy. It is important to trust the management of your wealth to a financial advisor who is reliable, honest, and has your best interests at heart.

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19 Jan

Protecting Investment Accounts from Cyberattacks

Hackers have dismantled hospitals, held a North Carolina county’s computer system hostage, and stolen the personal information of basically half of all Americans. And that was just in 2017.

Who’s to say they won’t go after investment accounts next? Lucky for you, the industry is already on it.

Sheltered Harbor, which launched quietly as an idea in 2014, is a not-for-profit, industry-led initiative to enhance the protection of the retail financial services industry. It’s so under the radar there’s not even a Wikipedia page about it. But rest assured, some of the nation’s biggest financial institutions, clearing houses, core processors and industry associations have been working diligently to create standards and test its process with early adopters to prepare for the worst-case scenario—a cybersecurity attack on U.S. bank and brokerage accounts.

The voluntary Sheltered Harbor Specification (detailed here) went live last year. In a nutshell, it pairs up banks and brokerage firms to support each other as “restoring institutions” in the event of a disabling attack. Participating organizations do this by standardizing their data formats and uploading their customer data daily to a secure data vault.

The data will stay intact and accessible if needed—exactly as when it was archived,” explains the organization. “Think of this as a fall-out shelter for customer data, with each institution providing its own data vault.”

It’s not so much a safeguard for the bank or brokerage firm, but for the customer, who can gain basic access to their accounts and funds through the restoring institution. (In other words, no need to panic.)

According to a December 2017 Bloomberg article, banks, credit unions and brokerages representing 400 million accounts—or 70 percent of the U.S. retail accounts and 60 percent of brokerage accounts—have signed up to participate.

According to another Bloomberg article from this month, Sheltered Harbor is expected to expand to cover retirement accounts, like 401ks, soon, although the organization is mum for now on any details.  

The expansion makes sense to many, considering that a recent Investment Company Institute report pegged total U.S. retirement assets at $27.2 trillion, with $7.7 trillion in all employer-based defined contribution retirement plans and $5.3 trillion in 401ks.

Some cybersecurity experts say participation in Sheltered Harbor, which is fee-based, doesn’t look all that different from having a solid backup and recovery plan in place. There are, however, some skeptics who say that Sheltered Harbor may just be a marketing tool in disguise. No matter which you believe, there is no doubt that some sort of security measure for your nest egg is vital.

A call to your financial institution should let you know if they participate—or plan to. If the answer is no, it’s still a good idea to understand their consumer account protection offerings.

Your FMB Wealth Management advisor can also help you understand what these safeguards mean for your accounts.

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21 Dec

Cryptocurrency: What’s It All About?

Have you caught cryptocurrency fever, or are you at least wondering what it’s all about? Odds are, you hadn’t even heard the term until recently. Now, it seems as if everybody and their cousin are getting in on it.

Psychologists have assigned a term to the angst you might be feeling in the heat of the moment. It’s called “FoMO” or Fear of Missing Out. Education is the best first step toward facing FoMo and making informed financial choices that are right for you. So before you make any leaps, let’s take a closer look.   

What is cryptocurrency?

Crytpocurrency is essentially a kind of money – or currency. Thanks to electronic security – or encryption – it exists in a presumably secure, sound and limited supply. Pair the “encryption” with the “currency,” and you’ve got a new kind of digital asset, or electronic exchange.

Well, sort of new. Cryptocurrency was introduced in 2009, supposedly by a fellow named Satoshi Nakamoto. His Wikipedia entry suggests he may not actually be who he says he is, but minor mysteries aside, he (or possibly “they”) is credited with designing and implementing

bitcoin as the first and most familiar cryptocurrency. Ethereum is currently its second-closest competitor, with plenty of others vying for space as well (more than 1,300 as of early December 2017), and plenty more likely to come.

Unlike a dollar bill or your pocket change, cryptocurrency exists strictly as computer code. You can’t touch it or feel it. You can’t flip it, heads or tails. But increasingly, holders are receiving, saving and spending their cryptocurrency in ways that emulate the things you can do with “regular” money.

How does cryptocurrency differ from “regular” money?

In comparing cryptocurrency to regulated fiat currency – or most countries’ legal tender – there are a few observations of note.

First, since neither fiat nor cryptocurrency are still directly connected to the value of an underlying commodity like gold or silver, both must have another way to maintain their spending power in the face of inflation.

For legal tender, most countries’ central banks keep their currency’s spending power relatively stable. For cryptocurrency, there is no central bank, or any other centralized repository or regulator. Its stability is essentially backed by the strength of its underlying ledger, or blockchain, where balances and transactions are verified and then publicly reported.

The notion of limited supply factors in as well. Obviously, if everyone had an endless supply of money, it would cease to have any value to anyone. That’s why central banks (such as the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of Canada, and the Bank of England) are in charge of stabilizing the value of their nation’s legal tender, regularly seeking to limit supply without strangling demand.

While cryptocurrency fans offer explanations for how its supply and demand will be managed, it’s not yet known how effective the processes will be in sustaining this delicate balance, especially when exuberance- or panic-driven runs might outpace otherwise orderly procedures. (If you’re technically inclined and you’d like to take a deep dive into how the financial technology operates, here’s one source to start with.)

Why would anyone want to use cryptocurrency instead of legal tender?  

For anyone who may not be a big fan of government oversight, the processes are essentially driven “by and for the people” as direct peer-to-peer exchanges with no central authorities in charge. At least in theory, this is supposed to allow the currency to flow more freely, with less regulation, restriction, taxation, fee extraction, limitations and similar machinations. Moreover, cryptocurrency transactions are anonymous.

If the world were filled with only good, honest people, cryptocurrency and its related technologies could represent a better, more “boundary-less” system for more freely doing business with one another, with fewer of the hassles associated with international commerce.

Unfortunately, in real life, this sort of unchecked exchange can also be used for all sorts of mischief – like dodging taxes, laundering money or funding terrorism, to name a few.

In short, cryptocurrency, blockchain technology, and/or their next-generations could evolve into universal tools with far wider application. Indeed, such explorations already are under way. In December 2017, Vanguard announced collaborative efforts to harness blockchain technology for improved index data sharing.

That said, many equally promising prospects have ended up discarded in the dustbin of interesting ideas that might have been. Time will tell which of the many possibilities that might happen actually do.  

Even if I don’t plan to use cryptocurrency, should I hold some as an investment?

If you do jump in at this time, know you are more likely speculating than investing, with current pricing resembling a fast-forming bubble destined for collapse.

Bubble or not, there are at least two compelling reasons you may want to sit this one out for now. First, there are a lot of risks inherent to the cryptocurrency craze. Second, cryptocurrency simply doesn’t fit into our principles of evidence-based investing … at least not yet.

Let’s take a look at the risks.

Regulatory Risks – First, there’s the very real possibility that governments may decide to pile mountains of regulatory road blocks in front of this currently free-wheeling freight train. Some countries have already banned cryptocurrency. Others may require extra reporting or onerous taxes. These and other regulations could severely impact the liquidity and value of your coinage.

Security Risks – There’s also the ever-present threat of being pickpocketed by cyberthieves. It’s already happened several times, with millions of dollars of value swiped into thin air. Granted, the same thing can happen to your legal tender, but there is typically far more government protection and insurance coverage in place for your regulated accounts.

Technological Risks – As we touched on above, a system that was working pretty well in its development days has been facing some serious scaling challenges. As demand races ahead of supply, the human, technical and electric capital required to keep everything humming along is under stress. One recent post estimated that if bitcoin technology alone continues to grow apace, by February 2020, it will suck away more electricity than the entire world uses today.

That’s a lot of potential buzzkill for your happily-ever-after bitcoin holdings, and one reason you might want to think twice before you pile your life’s savings into them.

Then again, every investment carries some risk. If there were no risk, there’d be no expected return. That’s why we also need to address what evidence-based investing looks like. It begins with how investors (versus speculators) evaluate the markets.

What’s a bitcoin worth? A dollar? $100? $100,000? The answer to that has been one of the most volatile bouncing balls the market has seen since tulip mania in the 1600s.

In his ETF.com column “Bitcoin & Its Risks,” financial author Larry Swedroe summarizes how market valuations occur. “With stocks,” he says, “we can look at valuation metrics, like earnings yield. With bonds, we can use the current yield-to-maturity. And with assets like reinsurance or lending … we have historical evidence to make the appropriate estimates.”

You can’t do any of these things with cryptocurrency. Swedroe explains: “There simply is no tangible relationship between any economic or financial parameters and bitcoin prices.” Instead, there are several ways buying cryptocurrency differs from investing:

  •      Evidence-based investing calls for estimating an asset’s expected return, based on these kinds of informed fundamentals.
  •      Evidence-based investing also calls for us to factor in how different asset classes interact with one another. This helps us fit each piece into a unified portfolio that we can manage according to individual goals and risk tolerances.
  •      Evidence-based investing calls for a long-term, buy, hold and rebalance strategy.

Cryptocurrency simply doesn’t yet sync well with these parameters. It does have a price, but it can’t be effectively valued for planning purposes, especially amidst the extreme price swings we’re seeing of late.

What if I decide to buy some cryptocurrency anyway?

Even though it is far more of a speculative than investment endeavor, you may still decide to give cryptocurrency a go, for fun or potential profit. If you do, here are some tips to consider:

(1)  Think of it as being on par with an entertaining trip to the casino. Nothing ventured, nothing gained – but don’t venture any more than you can readily afford to lose!

(2)  Use only “fun money,” outside the investments you’re managing to fund your ongoing lifestyle.

(3)  Educate yourself first, and try to pick a reputable platform from which to play. (CoinDesk offers a pretty good bitcoin primer.)

(4)  If you do strike it rich, regularly remove a good chunk of the gains off the table to invest in your managed portfolio. That way, if the bubble bursts, you won’t lose everything you’ve “won.” (Also set aside enough to pay any taxes that may be incurred.)

Last but not least, good luck. Whether you win or lose a little or a lot with cryptocurrency – or you choose to only watch it from afar for now – we remain available to assist with your total wealth, come what may.

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07 Nov

Understand the Ins and Outs of Medicare

If you’re turning 65 soon, it’s time to learn the ins and outs of Medicare, the federal health insurance program for seniors that is run by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). Currently, 57 million beneficiaries—or about 17 percent of the U.S. population—are enrolled in Medicare. And that number is expected to soar to 79 million by 2030, according to the AARP.

To fully understand Medicare, here’s what you need to know:

The Parts of Medicare

There are four components, or parts, to Medicare:

  • Part A covers hospitalizations, hospice, skilled nursing care and home health.
  • Part B covers outpatient care, preventive care and medically necessary services and supplies, like wheelchairs or walkers.
  • Part C, or Medicare Advantage, is private insurance that offers Medicare Part A and Part B services, and usually additional coverage, like vision, dental, hearing and prescription drug coverage.
  • Part D is prescription drug coverage, which is separate from Part A and Part B, but is sometimes covered in Part C.

You may also have heard of a Medicare Supplement, which covers what Part A and Part B won’t, including copayments, coinsurance and deductibles.

How much does Medicare cost?

Becoming eligible for Medicare is one of the biggest selling points of turning 65. But Medicare isn’t free. While most people won’t pay a premium for Part A coverage (that came out of your paycheck all those years), the other parts carry premiums that are typically much lower than private insurance premiums.

Part B premiums are based on income from two years ago. So, if you recently retired, you might pay more because of your income. Monthly premiums range from $134 to $428.60, depending on your income level.

Part D is also based on income—sort of. In addition to a monthly premium, which MyMedicareMatters.org says is $34 on average, CMS may also tack on an income-related monthly adjustment amount (IRMAA), based on your tax return from two years prior. The IRMAA kicks in for individuals making more than $85,000 and joint filers making more than $170,000. The more you make, the higher the IRMAA, which ranges from $13.30 to $76.20.

If you’re nearing 65 and have a Health Savings Account, make sure the contributions stop once you enroll. The good news is you can still use the funds to pay for qualified medical expenses, even if you’re on Medicare.

How do I sign up?

When you’re first eligible for Medicare, you have a seven-month initial enrollment period to sign up for Part A and/or Part B. This enrollment period begins three months before your birthday month and ends three months after the birthday month. If you don’t enroll during the period, you may have to pay a penalty for the rest of the time you’re on Medicare. CMS gives you a little more time to secure Part D coverage—63 days after the initial enrollment period ends—before paying a permanent monthly penalty.

Every year, Medicare Part D and/or Medicare Advantage enrollees can review their coverage and choose another option during the Medicare open enrollment period, which runs this year through Dec. 7.

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