What Baseball Can Teach You about Financial Planning
Spring training is a tradition that baseball teams and baseball fans look forward to every year. No matter how they did last year, teams in spring training are full of hope that a new season will bring a fresh start. As this year's baseball season gets under way, here are a few lessons from America's pastime that might help you reevaluate your finances.
Sometimes you need to proceed one base at a time
There's nothing like seeing a home run light up the scoreboard, but games are often won by singles and doubles that get runners in scoring position through a series of base hits. The one base at a time approach takes discipline, something that you can apply to your finances by putting together a financial plan. What are your financial goals? Do you know how much money comes in, and how much goes out? Are you saving regularly for retirement or for a child's college education? A financial plan will help you understand where you are now and help you decide where you want to go.
It's a good idea to cover your bases
Baseball players minimize the odds that a runner will safely reach a base by standing close to the base to protect it. What can you do to help protect your financial future? Try to prepare for life's "what-ifs." For example, buy the insurance coverage you need to make sure you and your family are protected--this could be life, health, disability, long-term care, or property and casualty insurance. And set up an emergency account that you can tap instead of dipping into your retirement funds or using a credit card when an unexpected expense arises.
You can strike out looking, or strike out swinging
Fans may have trouble seeing strikeouts in a positive light, but every baseball player knows that striking out is a big part of the game. In fact, striking out is much more common than getting hits. The record for the highest career batting average record is .366, held by Ty Cobb. Or, as Ted Williams once said, "Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer."
In baseball, there's even more than one way to strike out. A batter can strike out looking by not swinging at a pitch, or strike out swinging by attempting, but failing, to hit a pitch. In both cases, the batter likely waited for the right pitch, which is sometimes the best course of action, even if it means striking out occasionally.
So how does this apply to your finances? First, accept the fact that you're going to have hits and misses, but that doesn't mean you should stop looking for financial opportunities. For example, when investing, you have no control over how the market is going to perform, but you can decide what to invest in and when to buy and sell, according to your investment goals and tolerance for risk.
Warren Buffett, who is a big fan of Ted Williams, strongly believes in waiting for the right pitch. "What's nice about investing is you don't have to swing at pitches," Buffett said. "You can watch pitches come in one inch above or one inch below your navel, and you don't have to swing. No umpire is going to call you out. You can wait for the pitch you want."
Note: All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal.
Every day is a brand-new ball game
When the trailing team ties the score (often unexpectedly), the announcer shouts, "It's a whole new ball game!" Or, as Yogi Berra famously put it, "It ain't over 'til it's over." Whether your investments haven't performed as expected, or you've spent too much money, or you haven't saved enough, there's always hope if you're willing to learn both from what you've done right and from what you've done wrong. Pitcher and hall-of-famer Bob Feller may have said it best. "Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday's success or put its failures behind and start over again. That's the way life is, with a new game every day, and that's the way baseball is."
Business Owners: Don't Neglect Your Own Retirement Plan
If you're like many small business owners, you pour your heart, soul, and nearly all your money into your business. When it comes to retirement planning, your strategy might be crossing your fingers and hoping your business will provide the nest egg you'll need to live comfortably. But relying on a business to fund retirement can be a very risky proposition. What if you become ill and have to sell it early? Or what if your business experiences setbacks just before your planned retirement date?
Rather than counting on your business to define your retirement lifestyle, consider managing your risk now by investing in a tax-advantaged retirement account. Employer-sponsored retirement plans offer a number of potential benefits, including current tax deductions for the business and tax-deferred growth and/or tax-free retirement income for its employees. Following are several options to consider.
Unlike "qualified" plans that must comply with specific regulations governed by the Internal Revenue Code and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), SEP and SIMPLE IRAs are less complicated and typically less costly.
- SEP-IRA: A SEP allows you to set up an IRA for yourself and each of your eligible employees. Although you contribute the same percentage of pay for every employee, you're not required to make contributions every year. Therefore, you can time your contributions according to what makes sense for the business. For 2014, total contributions (both employer and employee) are limited to 25% of pay up to a maximum of $52,000 for each employee (including yourself).
- SIMPLE IRA: The SIMPLE IRA allows employees to contribute up to $12,000 in 2014 on a pretax basis. Employees age 50 and older may contribute an additional $2,500. As the employer, you must either match your employees' contributions dollar for dollar up to 3% of compensation, or make a fixed contribution of 2% of compensation for every eligible employee. (The 3% contribution can be reduced to 1% in any two of five years.)
Although these types of plans have more stringent regulatory requirements, they offer more control and flexibility. (Note that special rules may apply to self-employed individuals.)
- Profit-sharing plan: Typically only the business contributes to a profit-sharing plan. Contributions are discretionary (although they must be "substantial and recurring") and are placed into separate accounts for each employee according to an established allocation formula. There's no fixed amount requirement, and in years when profitability is particularly tight, you generally need not contribute at all.
- 401(k) plan: Perhaps the most popular type of retirement plan offered by employers, a 401(k) plan allows employees to make both pre- and after-tax (Roth) contributions. Pretax contributions grow on a tax-deferred basis, while qualified withdrawals from a Roth account are tax free. Employee contributions cannot exceed $17,500 in 2014 ($23,000 for those 50 and older) or 100% of compensation, and employers can choose to match a portion of employee contributions. These plans must pass tests to ensure they are nondiscriminatory; however, employers can avoid the testing requirements by adopting a "safe harbor" provision that requires a set matching contribution based on one of two formulas. Another way to avoid testing is by adopting a SIMPLE 401(k) plan. However, because they are more complicated than SIMPLE IRAs and are still subject to certain regulations, SIMPLE 401(k)s are not widely utilized.
- Defined benefit (DB) plan: Commonly known as a traditional pension plan, DB plans are becoming increasingly scarce and are uncommon among small businesses due to costs and complexities. They promise to pay employees a set level of benefits during retirement, based on a formula typically expressed as a percentage of income. DB plans generally require an actuary's expertise.
Total contributions to profit-sharing and 401(k) plans cannot exceed $52,000 or 100% of compensation in 2014. With both profit-sharing and 401(k) plans (except safe harbor 401(k) plans), you can impose a vesting schedule that permits your employees to become entitled to employer contributions over a period of time.
For the self-employed
In addition to the options noted above, sole entrepreneurs may consider an individual or "solo" 401(k) plan. These types of plans are very similar to a standard 401(k) plan, but because they apply only to the business owner and his or her spouse, the regulatory requirements are not as stringent. They can also have a profit-sharing feature, which can help you maximize your tax-advantaged savings potential.
The right plan for you and your business will depend on a number of factors. Consider reviewing IRS Publication 560, "Retirement Plans for Small Business," and consulting a qualified financial professional before making any decisions.
Distributions from pretax accounts and nonqualified distributions from Roth accounts will be taxed at then-current income tax rates. In addition, taxable withdrawals before age 59½ (in some cases age 55) will be subject to a 10% penalty tax unless an exception applies.
Bonds vs. Bond Funds: Which Is Better When Interest Rates Rise?
The Federal Reserve has said it expects to begin raising its target rate sometime in 2014. Since bond prices fall when interest rates rise, it may be a good time to pay increased attention to any fixed-income investments you have. Here are some factors to consider when you review your portfolio.
Maturity dates and duration
One way to address the threat of rising rates is through maturity dates. Long-term bonds may pay a higher coupon rate than short-term bonds, but when rates rise, long-term bond values typically suffer more. That's because investors may be reluctant to tie up their money for long periods if they expect a bond's interest payments may suffer by comparison when newer bonds that pay higher rates are issued. The later a bond's maturity date, the greater the risk that its yield eventually will be surpassed by that of newer bonds.
A bond fund doesn't have a maturity date, and your shares may be worth more or less than you paid for them when you sell. However, there is another way to gauge the sensitivity of either a bond or a bond fund to interest rates: its duration, which takes into account not only maturity but also the value of future interest payments. The longer the duration, the more sensitive a security is to interest rate changes.
To estimate the impact of a rate change, simply multiply a security's duration by the percentage change in interest rates. For example, if interest rates rise by 1%, a bond or bond fund with a duration of 3 years could be expected to lose roughly 3% in value, while one with a 7-year duration might fall by 7%. (Though interest rates currently have little room to fall, the same principle would apply; a 1% decline in rates should result in a 3% gain for a bond fund with a 3-year duration.) Though this hypothetical example doesn't represent the return of any specific investment, you can apply the general principle to your own holdings.
Since rising rates affect most bonds, diversification provides only limited protection against rate increases. To balance yields with the threat of rising rates, you can diversify across various segments of the bond market (for example, investment-grade corporate, high-yield, Treasuries, foreign, short/intermediate/long-term, and municipal debt). Bonds don't respond uniformly to interest rate changes. The differences, or spreads, between the yields of various types can mean that some categories are under- or over-valued compared to others. Funds may offer greater diversification within each segment at a lower cost than individual bonds, providing greater protection against the impact of a potential default by a single issuer. However, diversification alone doesn't ensure a profit or prevent the possibility of loss, including loss of principal.
Holding individual bonds allows you to sell a specific bond on your own timetable or hold it until it matures. That flexibility has two advantages. First, if you hold to maturity, unless a bond's issuer defaults, you know how much you'll receive when the principal is repaid. Rising interest rates may cause a bond's market value to fluctuate in the meantime, but if you hold it to maturity, that fluctuation may not be an issue for you, especially if predictable income is your highest priority.
Second, it can help you manage your tax liability; if a specific bond has lost value, you can sell it and declare the loss on your federal income tax return. You may be able to instruct your broker to sell specific shares of a bond fund to harvest losses for tax purposes, but in general it's more challenging to manage tax liability as precisely with bond funds. For example, capital gains or losses generated by a fund manager's trading are passed through to individual shareholders each year, which can affect your tax liability. Also, a bond fund's value can be affected by your fellow investors. Since an open-end fund must redeem investors' shares daily, strong selling can force a fund to sell holdings to meet redemption demands, which can have implications for other shareholders.
Laddering individual bonds also can help provide flexibility to adjust to rising rates. Laddering involves buying a portfolio of bonds with varying maturities; for example, a five-bond portfolio might be structured so that one of the five matures each year for the next five years. As interest rates rise, each bond that matures can be reinvested in a newer instrument that offers a higher yield.
A mutual fund will redeem your shares at the end of every business day. An individual bond traded on the open market may not have the same liquidity, and you could have difficulty finding a buyer who's willing to pay the asking price. However, individual bonds are priced and traded throughout the day; only closed-end funds and exchange-traded funds have that flexibility, not open-end mutual funds.
I've heard the term "ERISA fiduciary." What does it mean?
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) was enacted in 1974 to protect employees who participate in retirement and certain other employee benefit plans. There was particular concern at the time that pension plan funds were being mismanaged, causing participants to lose benefits they had worked so hard to earn. ERISA protects the interests of plan participants and their beneficiaries by:
- Requiring the disclosure of financial and other plan information
- Establishing standards of conduct for plan fiduciaries, and
- Providing for appropriate remedies, sanctions, and access to the federal courts
It's the fiduciary provisions of ERISA that protect participants from the mismanagement and abuse of plan assets. The law requires that fiduciaries act prudently, solely in the interests of plan participants and beneficiaries, and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits and paying reasonable expenses of administering the plan.
Fiduciaries must diversify plan investments to minimize the risk of large losses, unless it's clearly prudent not to do so. Fiduciaries must also avoid conflicts of interest. They cannot allow the plan to engage in certain transactions with the employer, service providers, or other fiduciaries ("parties in interest"). There are also specific rules against self-dealing.
Who is a plan fiduciary? Anyone who:
- Exercises any discretionary control over the plan or its assets
- Has any discretionary responsibility over the administration of the plan
- Provides investment advice for a fee or other compensation (direct or indirect)
Plan fiduciaries include, for example, discretionary plan trustees, plan administrators, investment managers and advisors, and members of a plan's investment committee.
Fiduciaries must take their responsibilities seriously. If they fail to comply with ERISA's requirements, they may be personally liable for any losses incurred by the plan. Criminal liability may also be possible.
Will rising interest rates impact my pension benefits?
If you're nearing retirement and plan to elect lifetime payments from your pension plan, rising interest rates won't have any impact on your benefits. But if you're considering a lump-sum payment, rising interest rates can be critical.
Pension plans calculate your lump sum by determining the present value of your future pension payments. The two primary components in this calculation are your life expectancy, and interest rates. Life expectancy is determined using IRS tables. These tables are unisex (that is, the same life expectancy factors apply to both men and women). This results in women getting lump sums that are slightly smaller than they would otherwise get based on true gender-based factors, and men getting slightly larger lump sums.
Until recently, the interest rate plans used to calculate lump-sum payments was the U.S. 30-year Treasury bond rate. However, employers can now use a higher corporate bond rate. What's important to understand is that the amount of your lump sum payment is inversely proportional to interest rates--that is, the higher the rate, the smaller your lump sum.
If your plan offers lump-sum payments, there are two questions you need to ask yourself. First, "Is a lump-sum right for me?" This is a difficult question, and the answer depends on a number of factors. Is the pension your primary source of retirement income? How is your (and your spouse's) health? Will you be giving up valuable subsidized benefits built into the plan's benefit payments, or cost-of-living increases? A lump sum gives you control over your retirement dollars and removes the risk of early death, but shifts the investment risk from the plan to you. Remember that you'll be giving up a benefit payment that's guaranteed for your (and if you're married, your spouse's) life. Will you be able to make your lump sum last for a retirement that may last 30 years or more?
If you decide a lump sum is the right choice, the second question is, "When should I take the money?" Interest rates remain near historic lows, and it's only a matter of time before they start heading back up. If you're approaching retirement and believe interest rates will rise in the near future, you may want to consider taking the lump sum sooner rather than later. Your plan can provide you with an estimate of your lump sum based on various interest rates.