Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Great 401K Experiment and 16 Strategies for Creating Wealth

You have been diligently saving into your 401K looking forward to funding your retirement. You are 57 years old and you open your statement. You’ve lost half of your retirement investment. Suddenly retirement has been pushed back beyond age 65 and you are facing the prospect of having a part-time job when you retire. You have been diligently saving into your 529 college plan. Junior is about to turn 18 and instead of the one hundred thousand dollars you expected based on what you were told were the historic returns of the market, you have less than half of that. Now you have to have the conversation with Junior, valedictorian of his class, about going to the Junior College.

What if the first thing that your financial planner told you after the usual obligatory greeting was that you were about to embark on a great experiment? That experiment would require you to set a consistent amount of money aside for 30 years in a lock box controlled by investment banks and the United States Federal Government, limit your investment options to mutual funds and bonds, and hope that certain beliefs about long term historical returns hold true until you need your money at the end of your working life.

That is exactly the first conversation that I had with my financial planner 7 years ago. She said to me, “Ouida, these mutual funds, 401Ks and 529 college plans…this is all a great experiment Large groups of people have never retired or planned for college in this way before and we won’t know how this experiment is going to turn out for another 10 years or so.”

When I heard that, I thought how silly the television pundits and financial authors are who teach and preach that investors should invest for the long haul and dollar cost average. They simply articulated unproven strategies in an overall experiment that began in the late 1970’s when corporations began to shift the responsibility for retirement planning and pension funding onto employees. I thought about the meaningless conversations that I had with my erstwhile plumber about the latest hot mutual fund and whether or not he should buy Google. The Great 401K Experiment has turned the majority of employees into investors and turned the man on the street or the salesman behind the desk into a financial guru.

Wikipedia defines an experiment in the following manner:
In scientific inquiry, an experiment (Latin: ex- periri, "to try out") is a method of investigating causal relationships among variables. An experiment is a cornerstone of the empirical approach to acquiring data about the world and is used in both natural sciences and social sciences. An experiment can be used to help solve practical problems and to support or negate theoretical assumptions.

I wonder who ever thought that by diligently placing money in their 401K that they were “trying out” their retirement plan?

In scientific inquiry we use an experiment to determine an outcome. As a physician, I rely on the outcomes of well-designed experiments to determine the best therapeutic strategy for my patients. In health care, by the time an experiment involving a therapeutic intervention is carried out on human test subjects, basic assumptions about the therapeutic intervention have already been formulated and tested in the laboratory. In medicine, we know what the variables are and we control for them, we have specific outcome measures and, most importantly, we can stop the experiment if the outcome is out of line with expectations and proves to be harmful to patients.

Despite involving human test subjects, the goings on in the world of finance and retirement planning have nothing to do with a safe controlled experiment. No, in the world of personal finance and retirement planning, we have what is known as an observational study. In an observational study, people participate in a series of activities and we follow them long term to the, uh, end. Whatever that end is. We are simply along for the ride waiting to see what happens. In terms of retirement planning, that could mean a retirement lived in poverty or a retirement in which all of the financial needs are met. But this experiment does not guaranty the latter outcome.

Let’s look at the assumptions that financial planners and employees alike have made:
1) In retirement, expenses will go down. Therefore retirees will need only 75% of their pre-retirement income. This assumption basically means that a person with an annual income of $100,000 during their working years, should set enough aside to generate an annual income of $75, 000 in retirement. This assumption has one basic flaw: it ignores inflation. Current estimates are that retirees will need $250,000 to $300,000 dollars to handle health care expenditures alone. This basic tenet of retirement planning ignores the realities of many retirees, personal illness, the need to care for a sick spouse or adult children.
2) Stock market returns average 8% per year over the long haul. This is simply untrue. A quick trip to shows that the S&P has returned 8.76% since 1871. However that percentage drops to 6.56% when adjusted for inflation. If you could have been invested in the markets for the past 137 years you could have done okay. But 137 years really does challenge the idea of just what the long haul is. The long haul is certainly more than 10 years. From January 1, 1998 to December 31, 2008 market returns were 0.96%. Inflation-adjusted returns were -1.44%. As I discuss in my article, The Stock Market: The Second Greatest Financial Scam of the 20th Century, the long haul for stocks is more like 30 years. It becomes obvious, then, what you should do if you are 50, intend to retire at 65 and are contemplating putting money in the markets as an investment.
3) Home prices will always go up. This assumption made home ownership tantamount to putting money away monthly into a super-charged savings account. I’ve never seen a savings account lose value the way the housing market did during the Savings and Loan crash and this most recent financial downturn.
4) Capital gains are better than cashflow. The current economic environment is a prime example of what happens when people invest for capital gains alone. When the capital gains party stops wealth is devastated. With cashflow, however, businesses can operate as usual. It is estimated that 20 percent of real estate loans made during the housing boom went to investors. What if all of those investors had invested for cashflow? Price appreciation made cashflow impossible for most of the investor purchases that were made in the last 4 years of the most recent real-estate boom. Absent cash flow, investor money would have remained on the sidelines, fewer loans would have been made, property valuations would have remained in check and part of the speculation that drove the recent housing market would have been absent.

What happens when the basic assumptions of an experiment prove false? The experiment fails. In medicine, a failed experiment sends everyone back to the drawing board looking for answers. Not so in the world of personal finance. Personal Finance is called personal finance for a reason. You are the person and it is your finance. You are the only one who goes back to the drawing board usually with less money than you started with. The broker who sold you the stocks made his money. The fee-only planner that you were told to use by Smart Money Magazine made her money. The fund manager made his money.

What is the solution? Education. Education of the financial type. Every waking minute of every waking day. Yes this is work, but it is the only way. Those who don’t want to do this type of work should remain participants in the observational experiment to whatever end. My financial planner made sure that I stayed out of 529 plans, and that I did not invest in IRAs outside of my 401K plan. The way to wealth is simple and it is the following:
1) Live below your means
2) If housing prices in your area are too high, rent, but aim to keep total housing costs at less than 20% of income
3) Buy a quality car no more often than every 10 years and maintain that car. Car leases and frequent new car purchases are among the greatest drainers of household wealth
4) Eliminate consumer debt.
5) Obtain skills in writing, sales and marketing
6) Save
7) Invest savings into income-producing assets:
a) businesses such as network marketing
b) real-estate
8) Work with those assets once you do invest to make sure they produce income.
9) Protect all assets via entities
10) Find advisors and partners that you can trust who have your interests in mind. They are not hard to find
11) Understand yourself and your tolerance for risk. For many putting money into bonds and not giving financial education another thought is the best strategy.
12) Read a financial book per month and attend one business development seminar per year that teaches a specific skill
13) Stay away from mainstream financial magazines. They only offer the same pabulum that has left many high and dry, stripped of their wealth.
14) Subscribe to Investors Business Daily, The Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal
15) Stay away from personal development seminars but read personal development books
16) Implement the strategies and skills from the seminars and books

Your time investment will be at least 10 hours per week.

Are you ready to invest the time and get going?

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1 comment:

Simon Chan said...

This is very well written. One of the best blogs I have read in awhile. It is so true... we've been deceived by the hype and the mainstream CNN garbage and the Money magazines... Education is the key. We all need more financial intelligence! (including myself!)