Highland at 25

When Highland Consulting Associates opened its doors on December 1, 1993, there were associates, technically speaking. But only three of them. And instead of operating out of well-appointed offices overlooking a bustling, mixed-use lifestyle center, they worked in an office park looking out at a major interstate.

To further elaborate, they punched a hole through the wall between two of the offices. (Who had money for an intercom system? Texting? What’s that?) Highland’s office furniture was the best money could buy—from a used office equipment warehouse.

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Building a MODEL Investment Committee

The composition of the investment committee is as important as the development of a nonprofit’s investment policy and its portfolio design. Without thoughtful and intentional planning, the committee appointed to expand a nonprofit’s influence and reach can sometimes encumber the organization and limit its impact—an outcome to which no one aspires.

Using MODEL as an acronym helps us consider the essential elements for building an effective investment committee.

Membership

The size of the committee can either improve its agility or slow it considerably. Our experience suggests seven or fewer members tends to work best, keeping in mind that an odd number of formal voting members will ensure the committee’s never locked in the stalemate of a tied vote.

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Twists and Churns: Annuities No Sure Path to Retirement Readiness

On every path to retirement security, there should be a blinking sign that reads: “Annuities This Way: Proceed at Your Own Risk.” Which is an entirely appropriate retirement planning thought.

What’s your appetite for investment risk? If you’re risk averse, it would appear that annuities are an iron-clad, guaranteed, safe investment option. They may be. They may also rope the plan participant into needlessly long investment commitments for which investors pay excessive fees. But not always.

That’s the problem with annuity contracts: too few investors know exactly what they’re buying. And that makes the annuities route to retirement a difficult one to navigate.

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Who will inherit your wealth? Your heirs or the IRS.

Consider these three facts:

  1. Americans held $7.9 Trillion in IRAs by the end of 2016. (2017 Investment Company Institute Fact Book)
  2. With more than 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day, we are on the cusp of an historic intergenerational wealth transfer that could total as much as $3.2 trillion. (RBC Wealth Management Survey.)
  3. As much as 30-80% of an estate could be made up of IRAs or other retirement plan assets according to most estimates.

And, let’s add a fourth fact that is worth considering: Only 3 in 10 of families have a wealth transfer strategy in place.

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How the Ivies Grow

Over the last five years, when the average college endowment fund earned an annualized 5.9%, a typical investor choosing a low-cost 60-40 index fund realized an average return of 8.2 %, a difference of 2.3%. So why weren’t more endowment funds passively managed? Why not park those billions in an index fund?

That’s a question raised (and criticism implied) of the Ivy Leagues’ largest endowments from their own graduates and investment gurus like Warren Buffet in his 2016 investor letter.

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There’s No Time like the Present, and other lessons on…

Defined Benefit Funding Levels, Contribution Relief, and Unintended Consequences

At the close of 2012, pension funding levels for a broad set of defined benefit plans sat in the high-seventies. Sponsors had weathered the massive equity losses of the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC), and subsequent plummeting interest rates, and they seemed poised to recoup their losses. The markets would be kind to investors over the next half-decade with the S&P 500 nearly doubling in price, generating a cumulative total return in excess of 100%, and outpacing long duration fixed income (a proxy for pension liabilities) substantially.

Figure 1

So how did sponsors fare? Not as well as one might expect, given the data above.

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The Latest ERISA Lawsuit Target: Hidden Fees

The central complaint of lawsuits filed against ERISA plan sponsors since 2006 has shifted with the financial markets like a seesaw.

When the markets were anemic and participants’ savings suffered, lawsuits alleging failures in diversification and offerings of poor-performing funds soared. When participant accounts began to benefit from bull-market returns, complaints shifted to allegations of excessive fees.

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Are your windows clean?

First law of window cleaning…the dirt is always on the other side.” Anonymous

With the arrival of spring, I find myself thinking of this quote. It’s too true for me. And in my profession, I regularly meet people who tell me they feel the same way about making financial decisions. Just when they decide to get into the market, it plummets. When they sit on the sidelines, the market roars back to life.

Many people feel they’re on the wrong side of the financial markets—the wrong side of the glass.

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Alarmed by the 401(k) Auto Enroll Headlines? Just Opt Out

Following the January 2018 meeting of the American Economic Association (AEA), the Wall Street Journal and other business publications ran these alarming headlines:

Major Problem Reported With 401(k) Auto Enrollment

Downside of Automatic 401(k) Savings: More Debt

401(k) Auto-enrollment Doesn’t Stop Workers from Taking on More Debt

And the sub-headings were nearly as alarming. Consider this one: “New research finds employees auto-enrolled in retirement plans borrow more than they otherwise would have, offsetting savings.” We’d like to propose another headline that our interpretation of the research would support: 401(k) Auto Enrollment Increases Net Worth.

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What Gives: The Impact of the 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on Charitable Giving

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed into law in late December inspired a spate of commentary, particularly concerning the doubling of the standard deduction and the expected impact of that on nonprofits.

The new tax law doubles the standard deduction to $12,000 for individuals and to $24,000 for couples filing jointly, meaning millions of middle income taxpayers will find it easier and financially beneficial to take the standard deduction when filing their taxes rather than submitting itemized deductions. (Today, roughly 30 percent of taxpayers itemize deductions for things like mortgage interest, state and local taxes, medical expenses and charitable giving.)

For this group of people, the financial incentive inherent in itemized charitable contributions goes away. For higher income individuals (those with the ability to claim more than the standard deduction of $12,000 or $24,000) the value of itemizing deductions (including those for charitable contributions) remains.

The new law gave rise to some dire predictions for nonprofits at year-end.

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