How to protect your 401(k) in a frothy market

iStock_000002401817XSmallReader Claudia asks how she can lock in her recent investment gains:

“Is there a way to protect the growth on a 401K? From your post, it doesn’t appear that there is. It appears that the initial investment along with any growth is left to the mercy of the economy, market, etc.”

You actually can “take some money off the table” by switching it to the lower-risk options in your account, such as stable value funds, short-term bond funds and money market funds. The problem is that you won’t get much if any growth on that money going forward. And most of us will need a lot of growth if we want to retire someday.

Everyone’s 401(k) got hammered in 2008-2009. The people who made the damage permanent, though, were the ones who bailed out of the stock market and missed the subsequent run-up.

Investing in the stock market is scary, but over the long run stocks outperform every other type of investment and give us the inflation-beating growth we’ll need to retire.

So rather than trying to time the market, which doesn’t work, consider putting your anxiety to good use by reviewing your asset allocation—your mix of stocks, bonds and cash—and see if it makes sense given your goals.

How do you know the right balance? Your HR department may have resources, or you can use an online resource such as Financial Engines or Jemstep to give you advice. Another option is to simply use the “lifestyle” or “target date” options your 401(k) probably offers. These funds do all the heavy lifting for you, allocating your money and rebalancing automatically so your portfolio doesn’t get too far out of whack.

Investing in stocks: what you need to know

Dear Liz: I currently have a 401(k) and an IRA, but want something more. A longtime CPA, who is very close to our family, recommended that I buy some stocks, but I’m unsure how to go about this.

Answer: When you’re investing, it’s important to be diversified. That means you should spread your money among different types of investments so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket, so to speak.

You’d need hundreds of thousands of dollars to be properly diversified with individual stocks. When you’re just starting out, it’s a lot smarter to buy mutual funds or exchange-traded funds that invest in a wide variety of stocks. Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF, for example, invests in more than 3,600 companies and has an ultra-low expense ratio of just 0.05%.

The fees you pay for your investments are important, since high expenses can dramatically reduce your total returns. Funds that try to beat the market, rather than match it, often engage in a lot of trading that drives up costs. Funds sold through full-service brokerages can carry high expenses as well.

So look for a discount brokerage that allows you to invest with minimal fees and commissions. Or consider one of the new breed of online advisors, such as Betterment or Wealthfront, that offers a low-cost basket of investments that are selected, monitored and rebalanced using sophisticated technology.

Stick to an investment plan for best results

Dear Liz: If I plan to stay invested for more than 15 years and I can tolerate the ups and downs of the market, why would I want to put any of my 401(k) money into bonds instead of putting it all in various stock funds? The bond funds in my 401(k) have a five-year return of 5% to 6% whereas the other funds are 8% to 13%.

Answer: If you look at the more recent performance of those bond funds, you’ll notice that their returns are considerably worse. Many have been losing money lately as interest rates have risen. That poor performance may worsen if the economy improves and rates continue to rise.

But you need to consider more than recent performance when allocating your portfolio. Bonds and cash can cushion your account against big downturns in the stock market. That can help keep you from panicking and selling at a bottom.

If you’re as risk tolerant as you think and decades away from retirement, you might be able to put as little as 10% of your portfolio into bonds and cash. If you’re 15 to 20 years from retirement, a 20% bond allocation may be more prudent. A fee-only financial planner can help advise you about sensible asset allocations, or you can check out the stock and bond mixes of target date funds offered by leading mutual fund companies (such as the Vanguard Target Retirement 2030 Fund, if you’ll be retiring around 2030).

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Credit card backgroundHidden credit card charges, moving on from Grandpa’s investment strategy, and why everyone should plan to retire early.

Hidden Credit Card Charges: Are You At Risk?
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How to Improve Your Credit History
Credit mistakes don’t have to follow you forever.

Four Ways Not to Invest Like Your Grandfather
An ever-changing economy may require a different portfolio strategy.

Why Everyone Should Aspire to Early Retirement
How planning ahead for retirement keeps you financially focused

10 Dumb Things You Do With Credit Cards
Small mistakes could have big consequences.

“Permanent” employment? No such animal

Dear Liz: My spouse has tenure at a university. Given that one of us will always be employed, should we change the way we look at the amount of money we keep in an emergency fund or our risk tolerance for investments?

Answer: Even tenured professors can get fired or laid off. Tenure was designed to protect academic freedom, but professors can lose their jobs because of serious misconduct, incompetence or economic cutbacks, such as when a department is eliminated or a whole university is closed. About 2% of tenured faculty are dismissed in a typical year, according to the National Education Assn.’s Higher Education Department.

That’s more job security than in most occupations, of course. Your spouse also may have access to a defined benefit pension, which would give him or her a guaranteed income stream in retirement. Those factors mean you reasonably can take more risk with your other investments.

As for your emergency fund, you may be fine with savings equal to three months of expenses. But consider that if your spouse were to be dismissed, he or she probably would have a tough time finding an equivalent position. If the institution starts having financial difficulties or if there is any reason to suspect that he or she could be dismissed, a fatter fund could come in handy.

High, safe returns don’t exist

Dear Liz: I’m getting about $500,000 from the sale of my business this year and next year will be getting an additional $1 million. What’s the best way to invest the money so I can make $150,000 to $200,000 a year? I am 55 years old and will have no other income than what I can earn with this money.

Answer: You probably know that “guaranteed” or “safe” returns are very low right now. If you’re getting much more than 1% annually, you’re having to take some risk of loss. The higher the potential returns, the greater the risk.

So even if you could find an investment that promised to return 10% to 13% a year, there are no guarantees such returns would last, plus you would be at risk of losing some or all of your investment. A down draft in the market or an extended vacancy in your real estate holdings could cause you to dig into your principal.

That’s why financial planners typically advise their clients not to expect to take more than 4% a year or so out of their portfolios if they expect those portfolios to last. If you try to take much more out or invest aggressively to earn more, you run a substantial risk of running out of money before you run out of breath.

Playing it safe could mean losing money

Dear Liz: The certificate of deposit I owned in my Roth IRA recently matured. I’ve put the money into a Roth passbook account until I can figure out what to do with it. I’m a public school teacher and have a 457 deferred compensation plan to which I contribute monthly. I am 57 and will need to work until I am at least 65. What should I do with the money in my Roth?

Answer: As a public school teacher, you probably have a defined benefit pension that will give you a guaranteed monthly check for life once you retire. Depending on how long you’ve taught and where, this pension could cover a substantial portion of your living expenses.

The guaranteed nature of this pension means that you may be able to take more risk with your other investments. That would mean your Roth could be invested in stock mutual funds or exchange-traded funds that offer potential for growth. CDs and other “safe” investments can’t offer that — in fact, your money loses purchasing power since you’re not earning enough interest to even offset inflation.

Since you’re so close to retirement, you should invest a few hundred dollars in a session with a fee-only financial planner who can review your situation and offer personalized advice.

About to retire? Get some help

Dear Liz: I am approaching being able to retire in three years at 56, but I’m really concerned with the current market conditions. I have around $320,000 in 401(k) and 457 accounts now, all of it invested in stocks. Should I scale this back to more moderate allocations? My pension will pay me around $5,200 a month, so I do not anticipate needing to withdraw from my investments before age 59.

Answer: Even if you’ve been a die-hard do-it-yourself investor until now, it’s time to get help. Retirement decisions can be incredibly complicated, and you may not have time to recover from mistakes.

A fee-only financial planner would ask, among other things, what your current living costs are and what additional expenses you expect, such as buying another car, taking trips and so on. Those details can help determine whether your savings are adequate. The planner also would ask you how you plan to pay for healthcare in retirement, since Medicare doesn’t kick in until age 65, and an individual policy at your age could eat into that pension check. Even with Medicare, Fidelity Investments estimates, a 65-year-old couple retiring this year would need $240,000 to cover medical expenses throughout retirement — not counting any money they might need to pay for nursing home or other custodial care.

What a planner probably wouldn’t do is approve having 100% of your investments in stock at any age, even with a nice pension. You may have time to ride out another market downturn, but watching half of your life savings disappear might increase the chances you’d sell out in a panic. Having a more moderate allocation that includes bonds and cash could help cushion those market swings and keep you invested.

You can get referrals to fee-only planners who charge by the hour at the Garrett Planning Network, http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com. If you’re looking for fee-only planners who charge a retainer or a percentage of assets, you’ll find those at the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, http://www.napfa.org. NAPFA has tools for consumers at http://www.napfa.org/consumer/Resources.asp and the Financial Planning Assn. has tips on choosing a financial planner at http://www.fpanet.org/FindaPlanner/ChoosingaPlanner/.

High fees can break your nest egg

Dear Liz: We have $130,000 invested in mutual funds, but the returns the last few years have been less than 4%. With the financial advisor taking 2% as a fee annually, we are not satisfied with the growth. A co-worker suggested buying blue-chip stocks with a strategy to hold and reinvest the dividends. If this is done in a self-directed plan to avoid the fees, we could be netting 4% plus. Is this a good plan or should we trust the advisor’s optimism that our returns will improve soon?

Answer: You don’t mention your age, your investment mix or your goals for this money. But if your portfolio isn’t doing significantly better this year — after all, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock market benchmark is up about 30% over the last 12 months — you have cause for concern.

Even if your returns were better, a 2% fee is pretty high. Small investors need to keep an eagle eye on costs, since expenses can have a huge effect on your nest egg. Paying even 1% too much could shave more than $100,000 off your returns over the next 20 years.

That doesn’t mean, however, that an all-stock portfolio is a better choice. Individual stocks typically are much riskier than a diversified portfolio of mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

What might make more sense is consulting a fee-only financial planner who can design a low-cost portfolio for you. You can get referrals to planners who charge by the hour at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

Is a 3% withdrawal rate too conservative?

Question: In a recent column you repeat advice I have often read that withdrawing about 3% of my investment capital will reduce the chances of my running out of money in retirement. But that doesn’t make sense to me. I have been retired for over 19 years and I have sufficient data now to extrapolate that I could live for 100 more years with so meager a drawdown because, through good and bad times, my earnings after inflation and taxes always exceed 3%. If I am missing something, I must be extraordinarily lucky because it hasn’t hurt me yet, and at age 77 I think it unlikely to do so in my remaining years. Can you explain this discrepancy between my experience and the consequences of your advice?

Answer: Sure. You got extraordinarily lucky.

You retired during a massive bull market, which is the best possible scenario for someone who hopes to live off investments. You were drawing from an expanding pool of money. Your stocks probably were growing at an astonishing clip of 20% or more a year for several years. Although later market downturns probably affected your portfolio, those initial years of good returns kept you comfortably ahead of the game.

Contrast that with someone who retires into a bear market. She’s drawing from a shrinking pool of money as her investments swoon. The money she takes out can’t participate in the inevitable rebound, so she loses out on those gains as well. All that dramatically increases the risks that she’ll run out of money before she runs out of breath.

It’s the first five years of retirement that are crucial, according to analyses by mutual fund company T. Rowe Price, which has done extensive research on sustainable withdrawal rates. Bad markets and losses in the first five years after withdrawals begin significantly increase the chances that a person will run out of money during a 30-year retirement.

Some advisors contend that a 3% initial withdrawal rate, adjusted each subsequent year for inflation, is too conservative. If you retire into a long-lasting bull market, it may well be. But none of us knows what the future holds, which is why so many advisors stick with the 3%-to-4% rule.