You're probably already wise to many schemes designed to separate you from your money—emails from Nigerian princes, phishing scams, and the like. But does your BS detector go off when confronted with slick come-ons for perfectly legal but dubious investments? To see, check out these five pitches that are often targeted to people investing for retirement.
1. "What you need is a self-directed IRA." If the people pushing self-directed IRAs recommended that you self-direct your IRA dough into low-cost index funds, I'd urge you to sign on. But the companies and advisers pushing self-directed IRAs typically tout them as a way to invest your retirement dollars in "alternative" or "nontraditional" investments that can range from cattle and fishing rights to restaurant franchises and bankruptcy claims, all in the name of diversification. "Di-worse-ification" is more likely. State securities regulators even warn that some promoters may step over the line into illicit investments or activities.
If you've got a huge retirement stash and want to take a flier with a teensy-weensy percentage of it in legal-but-exotic alternatives, fine. Good luck with it. But if you're dealing with money you'll be relying on to get you through retirement, stick with a good old, if slightly boring, diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds.
2. "I can get you high yields safely!" Given today's low interest rates, who wouldn't take this bait? Problem is, the combination of high yields and low risk is an oxymoron. Fatter yields and higher returns always come with greater risk, even if that risk isn't apparent or is being downplayed by the person peddling the investment. Which means pushing the envelope for more yield can backfire. Just think back to 2008, when investors got burned in auction-rate securities, bank loan funds. and other investments that were marketed as cash equivalents.
When it comes to the portion of your savings that you must have ready access to and don't want to put at risk, you need to play it safe. So resist the siren song of tempting yields offered by private investment notes, promissory notes, commercial mortgage notes, and the like and limit yourself to top-paying FDIC-insured savings accounts and short-term CDs. Granted, they're not yielding much, but at least you won't be in for any nasty surprises.
3. "Don't risk your money on the volatile stock market—buy gold." The gold fanatics haven't been out in force lately because the stock market has been doing so well, up an annualized 20% or so for the past three years. But the gold bugs will resurface big time once stocks hit an extended period of turbulence or experience a major 2008-style meltdown. That's when you'll hear phrases like "nothing holds its value like gold" and "gold provides a safe haven against stock market volatility."
When you hear those lines, remember this. Gold can fluctuate just as wildly as stocks. Gold recently traded at around $1,200 an ounce. Which means anyone who bought gold three years ago at a price of $1,700 an ounce is sitting on a loss of almost 30%. There may be other reasons to put a bit of your savings in gold—diversification, a hedge against inflation, or a weak dollar (although I'm not a big gold fan even for these reasons). But if it's stability of principal you seek, gold is not where you'll find it.
4. "For retirement peace of mind, buy yourself guaranteed income." There's actually a lot of truth to this statement. Research shows that retirees who get a monthly check for life from a traditional pension are more content than those who have the same level of wealth but only a 401(k). The problem is that many of the people touting the virtues of guaranteed income are often peddling variable annuities with income riders that can carry bloated fees of 2% to 3% a year, and are devilishly complicated to boot.
If you would like more guaranteed lifetime income than Social Security alone will provide, consider putting a portion of your savings into a type of annuity that's easier to understand, less costly, and that you can comparison shop for on your own: an immediate annuity. Then invest the remainder of your nest egg in a mix of stocks and bonds that can provide additional income, plus long-term growth.
5. Forget bonds—you can live off stock dividends! Unfortunately, it's not just wrong-headed advisers who spout the line that dividend-paying stocks are a reasonable substitute these days to bonds. Many of my compadres in the financial press also create the impression that putting more money into dividend stocks is an acceptable way to generate extra income now that bond yields are so low. Granted, bond yields are anemic. And when interest rates rise (whenever that may be), bond prices will take a hit, with longer-maturity bonds getting whacked more than short- to intermediate-term issues.
But none of that means that dividend-paying stocks are less risky than bonds. Stocks that pay dividends are still stocks, and thus far more volatile than bonds. If you doubt that, consider this: From its high in May 2007 to its low in March 2009, the iShares Select Dividend ETF lost more than 60% of its value compared to just over 50% for the broad stock market. That's an extreme case. But the point is that dividends or no, stocks have a much bigger downside potential than bonds.
So by all means include dividend stocks as part of the stock allocation in your portfolio. But don't let anyone sell you on the idea that dividend stocks can be a substitute for bonds.
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