It’s time to improve your 401(k) by ditching your Target Date Fund and utilizing some other lesser known tools in your 401(k).
Everyone is familiar with 401(k) and 403(b) plan by now. They have essentially replaced defined-benefit plans in the American retirement landscape. Most people take a set-it and forget it attitude towards these accounts, picking some funds and then ignoring it for years until they either switch jobs or are getting close to retirement. This is the wrong attitude to take with such an important account. This article will show you some things you can do to repair and improve your 401(k), not only through the investment selection but also with some other features that you may not have even heard of.
Target Date Funds – Are they any good?
Target Date Funds have been the go to investment for most 401(k) participants since the early 2000’s. This is mostly because they are the default investment option for most retirement plans. Basically, you are automatically invested in them unless you say otherwise. The concept is that your portfolio will automatically adjust over time as you grow closer to retirement – shifting from stocks to bonds. They simplify investing down to one single criteria, your age. They theory being that you are more conservative as you get older therefore bonds, typically thought of as a more conservative investment, are a more appropriate asset for your portfolio. In general, this theory holds true but there are so many other variables to consider besides your age that in real life, the Target Date fund allocation is rarely the “best” allocation for you.
Besides your age, you should be considering your risk profile, cash flow needs, income/expenses, current net worth, and other financial goals. Tweaking any one of these could lead to a very different recommended portfolio. If the Target Date Fund gets your allocation wrong you are either taking on more risk than you should be or leaving money on the table. For example, someone who is one year out from retirement may have a portfolio that is nearly all bonds if using a Target Date Fund. In reality, this soon-to-be retiree may greatly benefit from a higher allocation to stocks, improving their overall financial position and may be very well be comfortable taking on the additional risk.
As well, the amount and type of bonds held within the target date portfolio can vary dramatically from one fund to the next even though they are “targeting” the same investment year. As an example, I’ll compare two well-known fund manager’s 2030 Target Date Funds. First, the Vanguard 2030 Target Retirement Fund (VTHRX). This fund has a 27% allocation to bonds at the time of this article’s writing (remember the allocation changes over time). And of that allocation the bonds have a “Medium” quality rating and a “Medium” Interest Rate Sensitivity Rating according to Morningstar and seen in the below style box. They take a moderate amount of risk.
The T. Rowe Price 2030 Retirement Fund (TRRCX) has only a 21% allocation to bonds and a low-quality bond rating and Medium Interest Rate Sensitivity. So not only is there less bonds but the bonds they hold take more risk than the Vanguard fund. Remember these two funds are targeting the exact same retirement year so in theory have the same goals. It just looks like they go about it in a different way. Which strategy and allocation is right for you?
For all their faults Target Date Funds are not all bad. Prior to the advent of Target Date Funds, many 401(k) plans had cash (or cash equivalent) as the default investment selection. This would lead many participants to dramatically underperform the markets overtime, hindering their chance at a successful retirement and requiring many more working years before quitting your job. The overall message is these funds are good but you can do better. See: Target Date Mutual Funds – Is it really that Easy?
To Roth or Not to Roth
Most 401(k)’s now have an option to contribute with after-tax dollars to what is called a Roth IRA. It combines the higher limits of a 401(k) with the after-tax deferral of a Roth IRA. The question is how do you choose between the Roth or Traditional 401(k)? There aren’t any clear cut answers but the decision comes down to your current tax situation and your expected future tax situation. If you are in a lower tax bracket now you might want to consider the Roth 401(k) as the value of the tax deduction from a Traditional 401(k) would be less. Then in the future, if you are in a higher tax bracket you can get your money out tax free. If on the other hand, you are in a high tax bracket now a Traditional 401(k) might be a better choice as you will receive a tax deduction at this higher rate. Then in retirement when your tax rate is lower you will be able to get the money out at a favorable tax rate. It is actually a good idea to have both a Roth Assets and a Pre-Tax Assets. This will allow you to be flexible about when and which account you draw money from. During retirement your tax brackets often fluctuate so using a dynamic approach to drawing retirement funds could save you a lot in taxes. This might mean contributing to a Roth 401(k) early in your career when you income is lower and then switching to pre-tax contributions as your income pushes you into higher tax brackets.
Some companies even allow their employees to make additional “after-tax” (not specifically Roth) contributions, up to $35k, to a 401(k). This means you can contribute a maximum of $53k to your 401(k) in any given year ($59k if over age 50). This allows you to essentially make “Super-Roth” contributions since the after-tax portion can be rolled over to a Roth IRA in the Future. See: Tools of the Rich and Why to Avoid Them.
Turn on Automatic Increases
If you’re not maximizing your 401(k) contributions yet there is a painless way to ensure you get there quickly. Many plans allow the option to set up an automatic increase in your salary deferral. Basically if you are currently contributing 10% of your salary you can set it up so that after one year it goes up to 12%, and then the next year 14%, until you get to the $18,000 maximum for 2017. By setting it up ahead of time the increases will go through without you even knowing it happened.
Think your Falling Behind Utilize the Catch-up Contribution
If you’ve just turned 50 and you still don’t think you have enough saved for retirement, the IRS allows for a catchup contribution to help fill that gap. In 2017, you can contribute an extra $6,000 to your 401(k) and it can be either pre-tax or after-tax dollars. If you are eligible, you can also add another $1,500 per year to your IRA or Roth IRA. This increases your total 401(k) contribution to $24,000 and $59,000 if making after-tax “Super Roth” contributions. This should help you fill in any leftover gaps in your retirement before it comes time to actually quit your job.
The big idea is to not just ignore your 401(k). With defined-benefit pensions becoming a thing of the past, it’s one of the most powerful tools you have in achieving a successful retirement. Some of the features mentioned above have not been around to that long so take a little time and review your employer plan.
About The Author
Phillip Christenson, CFA, is the co-owner of Phillip James Financial, an independent Fee-Only Financial Planning company located in Plymouth, MN. He helps individuals and families with wealth management, investments, tax planning, and tax preparation. He also writes on his own personal blog, here, about the markets, investments, and personal finance.
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I rarely write opinion pieces. I’m not sure why to be honest, but I prefer to stick to facts, figures, and strategies. Opinion pieces are far more grey, rather than clear cut “dollars and cents” type stuff.
Last month the Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule was supposed to go into effect. I’m both infuriated and ecstatic all at the same time. I suppose I’m somewhat bipolar when it comes to the new fiduciary rule.
Why so emotional? The rule is great for investors, bad for brokers, and neutral to negative forc current fiduciaries. It’s a hot bed of “what ifs” and “what could be” when it comes to how financial advisors interact and guide their clients.
What Is A Fiduciary
The term “fiduciary” is at the heart of the matter. Just what is a “fiduciary”?
A fiduciary is someone who holds a special responsibility to act only in the best interests of someone else. Above all else, a fiduciary must put the best interests of the person receiving the advice, guidance, or services first and foremost no matter what!
Your doctor is a fiduciary. They must put your interests above their own. Your attorney and your accountant also hold a fiduciary responsibility. They must always act in your best interests regardless of their own personal financial gain or loss.
For example, your doctor must take action to ensure your health is their primary goal. This means they can’t recommend a procedure or prescription unless they can honestly say it’s the right thing for you. Even if one procedure or prescription pays them more money, they must do what’s right for you at all times.
The same goes with your attorney. They have an obligation to act in your best interests at all times. Your accountant is no different. They must provide advice and guidance which is ultimately in your personal best interests.
The underlying – and unwavering – theme here, is a fiduciary must do what’s right for you regardless of any compensation, perks, or benefits they receive. If investment product B is better than investment product A, but pays the advisor less, they must recommend the use investment product B.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a “fiduciary advisor”, I bet this all comes as a shock to you! You’ve likely always assumed your investment advisor (or financial planner or whatever you want to call them) was providing guidance solely in your best interests. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The reason this is such a hot button topic, is most financial advisors are held only to a “suitability standard”. What exactly is a “suitability standard”? It’s not much actually.
As industry pioneer Michael Kitces says (my own paraphrasing) “When you go buy a suit, the salesman will sell you one that fits. That’s a suitability standard. The fiduciary standard would prompt the salesman to make sure it looks good on you too!”
Do you want your suit to look good? Or just fit?
Until now, the financial industry has been held solely to a suitability standard. Any financial advisor or investment
manager must have reason to believe an investment or insurance product is simply “suitable”. They have no responsibility to make sure it’s the best solution for you.
In other words, the investment product must generally be a fit. It doesn’t have to be the best fit however.
This allows brokers and financial advisors to sell you products which may be OK, but pay them a lot more money than investments which may be best for your situation.
The scary part about the suitability standard, is anything can be “suitable” if it’s spun right. Any
reasonably intelligent broker or advisor can make a case for whatever product they’re hocking at
any moment in time.
The bar is set too low!
All financial advisors are currently held at a minimum to a “suitability standard”. The “fiduciary standard” is not a requirement (currently).
A pure fiduciary standard is simply something that elite advisors (like my friend Brian at Landmark Wealth Management) have embraced as “the right way to help clients succeed”.
But America’s retirement crisis overwhelming. People have to work longer, harder, and then retire with less.
You can double that for couples. The average couple would get about $2,600 a month then, which is more than half of most retirees income.
For 21% of married couples (and 43% of singles), Social Security payments make up over 90% of their income. The numbers are staggering, and scary.
No matter where your politics lie, the Obama Administration recognized this, and in my opinion was the first Presidency to do anything about the financial industry’s apathy towards investor success.
Enter The Fiduciary Rule
Let me start by explaining what the fiduciary rule is. Under the direction of the Obama Administration, the Department of Labor set out to provide parameters within which financial advisors could provide financial advice.
Why did they target advisors? Frankly, it’s our business to help people plan and prepare for a successful retirement. We hold an important power over the relative financial success our clients enjoy.
The problem is some financial advisors (brokers) are getting rich off other peoples struggles!
The biggest issue is the fees charged to investors. It’s far too common to see fees of 2% to 4% per year and more!
Many of those retirement account investments pay brokerage commissions of 3% to 10% as well. Those commissions aren’t free, they come out of your pocket somehow. The broker get’s rich, while you pay the price!
So the Fiduciary Rule was crafted to reduce the amount of excessive commission and outrageous fee products. Why? Because how a financial advisor gets paid directly leads to conflicts of interest and directly impacts your bottom line (negatively).
If they can recommend product A which pays them a 7% commission, or product B which pays them 1% per year, they may likely opt for the 10% commission EVEN if product B is more appropriate and better performing. That’s a major conflict of interest!
So the DOL Fiduciary Rule was drafted to remove those conflicts of interest. If the financial advisor still wants to use an investment product which may not be the most appropriate, it must comply with the BICE carvout.
What is BICE?
BICE is the “Best Interests Contract Exemption. The DOL views any financial advisor as giving advice for a fee as a fiduciary. If the financial advisor’s compensation is derived at all from commissions, they’re engaging in a prohibited transaction.
Essentially, all retirement accounts (IRA’s 401k’s etc.) must be on a fee arrangement, NOT a commission arrangement. If they’re on a commission arrangement at all, they must follow certain requirements.
First, the advisor must have a contract with the investor. That contract must acknowledge their fiduciary responsibility. This opens the financial advisor – and their employer – to a greater level of litigation.
This is the main reason brokers and their firms hate the DOL Fiduciary Rule. It’s highly likely they’ll get sued much more often than prior. It also means they’ll earn less, while you keep more!
Second, the financial advisor must be able to articulate why a certain product is the best alternative for the investor. Most importantly, the financial advisor must document the various options for the client, and note why their option is the best solution and in the best interests of the investor.
This means when a client leaves an employer, the advisor must be able to clearly articulate why rolling that plan over to an IRA is the best solution.
Your regular brokerage accounts, investment accounts, insurance policies, etc. do not fall under the rule. It’s “business as usual” for those investors, and those parts of an investors portfolio.
The BICE exemption is another hang up. It allows for some creativity in explaining why product A is better than product B. It’s a good start, but again, any financial advisor skilled in the art of investment management and financial planning can make a case for one solution over another.
I suspect we’ll see some highly creative arguments as to why an indexed annuity is a better alternative for an investor than leaving the rollover in a 401k plan at lower costs.
Would You Really Want A Financial Advisor FORCED into doing the right thing?
We’ve embraced our fiduciary responsibility for years and years! We weren’t forced into doing the right thing by our clients.
I don’t know about you, but to me the answer is clear. I’d rather have a firm who has always been a fiduciary versus one who was required to change the way they do business because of a new law.
In the end…
Regardless, the DOL fiduciary rule is a good thing. It’s a step in the right direction for investors. It’s certainly no silver bullet, and it appears the Trump Administration is going to delay it and water it down even further. Nonetheless, it’s a good start.
The irony in this is why aren’t financial advisors held to the highest fiduciary standard anyway? Shouldn’t the person who helps you manage, grow, and protect your wealth do what’s right by you first and foremost?
The brokerage world has fought the fiduciary rule for years now. They hate it! They hate it because it’s going to force their financial advisors into doing the right thing:
#1, if your financial advisor is held to a fiduciary standard, their paycheck will likely suffer relative to the commissions they were earning prior.
#2, they’re opening themselves up to a much greater level of liability. Lawsuits will start flying, and next thing you know you’ll see a lot more brokerage world types on tv as defendants in lawsuits.
Find yourself a quality fiduciary financial advisor from the beginning. Find one who wasn’t forced to do the right thing, like my friend Brian! You’ll thank yourself down the road!
About The Author
Greg Phelps, CFP®, CLU®, AIF®, AAMS® is the president of Redrock Wealth Management
in Las Vegas. He’s been in practice 22 years, and has extensive experience
with the brokerage world. He’s also an author, a speaker, and writes for his financial
and investment advice blog RetireWire.
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