Month: June 2009

Confusion on Sources of Financial Advice

There are essentially two main sources of financial advice in the UK; Independent Financial Advisers and Tied Agents. The key difference between the two is that Independent Financial Advisers are required to act as the agent of the client and to select products from the whole of the market, whereas Tied Agents represent a single financial institution, or at best a limited number of companies. Independent Financial Advisers are also required to offer the option of being paid by a fee instead of taking commission when they arrange transactions on your behalf.

So, what does this matter? After all, both types of adviser put themselves forward as providing comprehensive financial planning, wealth management, tax and estate planning. Some Tied Agents even promote their fund management service as offering a ‘Best of Breed’ – take a look at this Google Search result page for a few examples.

Well, the chances are that you already own products from a variety of companies. Once the financial planning advice has been provided you are probably going to need to acquire some products in order to provide the security that you require and deliver your long term financial goals. With a Tied Agent you immediately encounter a couple of problems. They are not allowed to advise you on the products which you hold with other companies. Just as importantly, when it comes to putting the financial plan into action what choice do you get from a Tied Agent? If you have been following this so far, it will come as no surprise to learn that what you get are products from the companies that they represent.

Suppose you have gone ahead and bought a number of products from a Tied Agent and after a while you decide that their investment performance has not been up to scratch. You go to the Tied Agent and ask him what your options are. He can only offer other fund choices from the provider that he represents.

Independent Financial Advisers, in contrast, can advise on all products that you already hold. If you need to buy new products, they are required to search the whole of the market and recommend the most suitable one for your needs. They are strictly answerable to you and act as your agent and not that of a product provider.

Clearly it is a matter of personal choice. The following table may help you to decide which type of advice is best for you:

What type of advice is best for you?

If you do decide that Independent Financial Advice is best for you make sure that you check that is in fact what you are getting. Due to the obvious advantages Independence confers on consumers Tied Agents working for ‘Wealth Management’ companies will go to considerable lengths to fudge the issue. Ask them out right whether they are an Independent Financial Adviser. If in doubt check the Unbiased Register to see if their details are included.

Acts of Commission make you feel worse than Acts of Omission

Take a look at this 5 min video about Dollar Cost Averaging by Professor Kenneth French.

Dollar (UK investors should read Pound) Cost Averaging, in this case refers to lump sums available for  investment which, instead of  immediately being fully invested in the markets, are allocated over a series of months. The objective is to avoid being caught out by sudden market falls shortly after making the investment. In the UK we call this ‘Phased Investment’.

Interestingly, Prof French  reinforces the academically accepted view that Dollar Cost Averaging does not optimise returns, given the level of risk that an investor wishes to take. When considered purely from a finance perspective, if the right thing to do, in order to deliver a set of goals, is to invest in an equity portfolio, then it should be implemented in full, immediately. Market timing has been shown to contribute very little to returns and as a consequence there is no good reason to delay.

But, is this always right? Well ,Prof French observed that, from a behavioural finance point of view, it may be a good thing. People apparently feel worse about the negative outcomes from acts of comission (things they did) than they do about acts of ommission (things they didn’t do). Hence an investor feels a lot worse about the fact that his portfolio plummeted shortly after investing the money that he does about the returns which he failed to make because he didn’t invest the money.

On balance, Prof French concludes that, even with his finance professor’s hat on, the damage to prospective returns caused by Dollar Cost Averaging is very little, so it makes little difference whether investors use it or not. However, he observed that it may give them an experience that they feel better about.

Ultimately as investment professionals and, especially as financial planners, we do need to step outside of the theoretical world of optimised portfolios and look at things more closely from our client’s point of view. If doing things that are theoretically sub-optimal but not actually damaging makes our clients feel better about what they are doing then there is no good reason not to facilitate this. After all we are not on some kind of Evangelical mission to convert the pagan unwashed. Oh, and it is their money…. not ours.

Interesting huh!

Inadequate Protection When Final Salary Schemes Close

Final Salary Scheme Closures

In a recent survey nearly a third of employers indicated that they intend to freeze their final salary schemes to existing members and over 80% had already closed the schemes to new members. In addition, the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) recently indicated that collectively the UK’s final salary schemes have a shortfall against the amount needed to provide members benefits of £179.3Billion.

What is this article about?

This piece looks at the reality of the protection provided by the Pension Protection Fund. If you want to be spared my verbiage and cut to the Conclusions

Final salary schemes have traditionally been described as guaranteed on the grounds that the benefits provided by them are ‘guaranteed’ by the employer. In any case, if the employer went bust, benefits would be protected by the PPF. Correct?

Well, not quite. Whilst those who had already retired and reached their scheme’s normal pension age when their employer went bust will receive 100%of their entitlement, others will receive 90% of a their entitlement subject to maximum pension of £28,742.68. This equates to the maximum pension an individual earning £43,115 would receive after 40 years service assuming that their entitlement builds up at 1/60th per year of service (which is commonly the case with this type of scheme). Individuals with a greater pension entitlement than this will have their benefits reduced to £28,742.68.

Many readers who are not lucky enough to be on high earnings or who don’t have a large pension entitlement may conclude that they are pretty well protected by the scheme since it provides 90% of their pension entitlement. Unfortunately, especially for those with some time to go, before they are due to retire, there are a couple of other catches with the ‘protection.’ One of these is that the option of early retirement is lost. PPF Benefits are only payable at the original scheme’s normal retirement age, typically 65. Forget heading to Spain at age 55!

The other catch, which is more subtle but, in the long run highly damaging to the level of benefits actually paid out, relates to the level at which the pension entitlement increases in the time before retirement. Since the Social Security Act 1990 came into effect all benefits must be increased between leaving service and retirement by RPI, subject to a 5% pa cap. This means that deferred pensions are substantially inflation proofed. However if the scheme comes under the auspices of the PPF the rate at which deferred pensions increase is capped at 2.5% per annum.

In common with many financial calculations, the effect of a 1-2% reduction to pension increases in deferment may be difficult to see. However, this is perhaps best illustrated by the rate of return (commonly called the ‘Critical Yield’) required to match final salary scheme benefits given up in the event of a transfer. Without going into the full details of final salary pension transfers, returns of 6-7%pa are usually required to match scheme benefits in the event of a transfer. However, in a number of cases I have recently looked at, returns of around 3-4% are required to match PPF benefits. This means that the PPF benefits, which need to be targetted, are substantially lower than the original entitlement. In addition, whilst it may be borderline to transfer for the purpose of beating original benefits, even for relatively risk averse individuals the chances are fairly good that PPF benefits would be exceeded.

It would be remiss of me not to point out there there is a great deal more to final salary pension scheme transfers than this and it is essential that professional advice from an appropriately qualified pension specialist be sought before making any changes to pension benefits.

Summary

The Pension Protection Fund provides limited protection at best in the event that an employer with a final salary pension scheme goes bust. Benefits are capped and higher earning employees could stand to lose a substantial amount. Early retirement is not available and benefit increases, before and after payment, are subject to a low cap. PPF benefits are funded by way of levies from other pension funds and if there is a shortfall benefits could be reduced.

Conclusion

Anyone with final salary benefits should arrange for these to be reviewed by a specialist pension consultant, especially if they are fearful of the financial strength of their ex-employer. Once an employer goes bust it is too late.

Pension savers miss out on £720 million

Research recently published by Unbiased has revealed that UK pension savers are missing out on £720 Million in tax relief by failing to top-up their employers’ pension schemes. Higher rate tax payers who make additional contributions are entitled to tax relief at up to 40% on contributions, which they make to improve their retirement income. These can be to the employer’s scheme or to a private arrangement.

With many schemes under pressure and reducing the rate at which future benefits build up, or even ceasing to provide future benefits, it has never been more important for people to take personal responsibility for their retirement planning. Tax breaks are available for pension contributions as well as for other forms of saving. Unbiased have provided a tax waste calculator to help you find out whether you are making full use of the relief available to you. Find out how much tax you are wasting here

Two Professors of Finance discuss the future of the markets

In this clip Dean of University of Chicago Booth School of Business Edward Snyder and Professor Eugene Fama discuss common questions on the efficient markets hypothesis, the credit crisis, and the business of business schools.

The topics discussed are core to our understanding of how the markets work and therefore the way in which we construct portfolios. The clips lasts just under an hour but it is time well spent for anyone interested in hearing an academic rather than a marketing hype view of how the markets work.

Chris Wicks CFP
I help you achieve your lifetime goals for reasons that are important to you

Active Fund Management is a Zero Sum Game

In this video, Professor Kenneth French explains about why active fund management is always doomed to under-perform the market.

Chris Wicks CFP
I help you achieve your lifetime goals for reasons that are important to you

A step by step approach to producing a financial plan

Financial planning is the process of meeting your life goals through the proper management of your finances. Life goals can include buying a home, saving for your child’s education, planning for retirement or estate planning. The financial planning process consists of six steps that help you take a “big picture” look at where you are financially. Using these six steps, you can work out where you are now, what you may need in the future and what you must do to reach your goals.

The Benefits of Financial Planning

Financial planning provides direction and meaning to your financial decisions. It allows you to understand how each financial decision you make affects other areas of your finances. For example, buying a particular investment product might help you pay off your mortgage faster or it might delay your retirement significantly. By viewing each financial decision as part of a whole, you can consider its short and long -term effects on your life goals. You can also adapt more easily to life changes and feel more secure that your goals are on track.

Can You Do Your Own Financial Planning?

The simple answer is yes. Some personal finance software packages, magazines or self-help books can help you do your own financial planning. However, you may decide to seek help from a professional financial planner if:

• you need expertise you don’t possess in certain areas of your finances. For example, a planner can help you evaluate the level of risk in your investment portfolio, adjust your retirement plan due to changing family circumstances or provide tax advice that will contribute to the planning process.

• You want to get a professional opinion about the financial plan you developed for yourself

• You don’t feel you have the time to spare to do your own financial planning.

• You have an immediate need or unexpected life event such as a birth, inheritance or major illness.

• You feel that a professional adviser could help you improve on how you are currently managing your finances.

• You know that you need to improve your current financial situation but don’t know where to start.

How To Make Financial Planning Work For You

You are the focus of the financial planning process. As such, the results you get from working with a financial planner are as much your responsibility as they are those of the planner. To achieve the best results from your financial planning arrangement, you will need to be prepared to avoid some of the common mistakes by considering the following advice:

Set measurable goals.

Set specific targets of what you want to achieve and when you want to achieve results. For example, instead of saying you want to be “comfortable” when you retire or that you want your children to attend “good” schools, you need to quantify what “comfortable” and “good” mean so that you’ll know when you’ve reached your goals.

Understand the effect of each financial decision.

Each financial decision you make can affect several other areas of your life. For example, an investment decision may have tax consequences that are harmful to your estate plans. A decision about your child’s education may affect when and how you meet your retirement goals. Remember that all of your financial decisions are interrelated.

Re-evaluate your financial situation periodically.

Financial planning is a dynamic process. Your financial goals may change over the years due to changes in your lifestyle or circumstances, such as an inheritance, marriage, birth, house purchase or change of job status. Revisit and revise your financial plan as time goes by to reflect these changes so that you stay on track with your short and long-term goals.

Start planning as soon as you can.

Don’t delay your financial planning. People who save or invest small amounts of money early and often, tend to do better than those who wait until later in life. Similarly, by developing good financial planning habits such as saving, budgeting, investing and regularly reviewing our finances early in life, you will be better prepared to meet life changes and handle emergencies.

Be realistic in your expectations.

Financial planning is a common sense approach to managing your finances to reach your life goals. It cannot change your situation overnight; it is a lifelong process. Remember that events beyond your control such as inflation or changes in the stock market or interest rates will affect your financial planning results.

Realise that you are in charge.

If you’re working with a financial planner, be sure you understand the financial planning process and what the planner should be doing. Provide the planner with all of the relevant information on your financial situation. Ask questions about the recommendations offered to you and play an active role in decision-making.

Chris Wicks CFP
I help you achieve your lifetime goals for reasons that are important to you

Keydata goes into administration

According to this article Keydata, the purveyor of ‘guaranteed equity’ and other derivative based products has gone into administration.

For further information, investors should contact PWC

Chris Wicks CFP
I help you achieve your lifetime goals for reasons that are important to you

Why Active Investing is a Negative Sum Game

In this article well known academics Eugene Fama and Kenneth French reflect on Nobel Laureate William F Sharpe’s 1991 article on the arithmetic of active fund management. This has already been discussed on this blog and you can see a copy of that article here

Cutting through the slightly complex jargon that is used by Fama and French,the essence of what they are saying is that the combined portfolios all active investors have the same weighting in shares as the market as a whole. This means that the combined portfolios can only perform the same as the market, less their costs. It also means that the only way in which an active investor can outperform the market is to do so at the expense of other active investors.

In contrast, passive investors also all hold the same weighting in shares as the market as a whole. This means that their portfolios should perform the same as the market, less their costs. However, as their costs are less than those of active investors, passive investors as a group must outperform active investors.

This article does not seek to deny that some active investors do outperform the market. It is just that their gains have been made at the expense of other equally clever active investors. Other research has shown that winners tend not to repeat and that on the whole, they do not tend to remain winners for very long.

When considering whether to invest actively or passively you have to answer the question ‘Are you feeling lucky?’ For active investors the answer must be ‘Yes’ – in the face of the evidence. For passive investors the answer is ‘No – but at least I will be assured of returns that essentially replicate the market less my costs which are substantially less than for active portfolios’.

From a financial planning point of view, investing should not be seen as a game. Investments are not an end in themselves. Instead they are the means by which individuals fund for the serious financial goals, which they need to achieve in order to lead the future lifestyles that they desire. Speculation on which fund manager is likely to provide better returns than another, in the face of evidence that this is likely to be an unsuccessful strategy, has no place in this process.

Chris Wicks CFP
I help you achieve your lifetime goals for reasons that are important to you