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Financial Resolutions: Making Them Work

February 6, 2017

Marcus Winbush, CFP® — CEO, True North Capital Alliance

Are you among the many Americans who began 2017 with financial resolutions you hope to achieve by year end? If so, I applaud your forethought: Setting a goal is key to making progress in any area of life—none more so than personal finances. According to a survey of consumers conducted for Fidelity Investments in October 2016, 37 percent of Americans made financial resolutions for 2016, and about the same number will likely make financial resolutions for 2017.

If you haven’t set financial goals for the year, now is a great time to do so.

Top Financial Resolutions for 2017

In addition to the survey cited above, Student Loan Hero and GoBankingRate.com also surveyed consumers to gather insights about their priorities and prior success with New Year’s resolutions. All three surveys are remarkably consistent in identifying the top five financial resolutions for 2017:

  • Save more (spend less).
  • Pay down (or pay off) debt.
  • Build an emergency fund.
  • Improve credit.
  • Save for retirement.

These are admirable goals, but without proper preparation, the odds may work against bringing them to fruition. After all, New Year’s financial resolutions usually require significant change in a person’s attitude and lifestyle, and change is seldom easy.

Do New Year’s Financial Resolutions Really Work?

Contrary to popular opinion, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.” Many survey participants reported considerable success in sticking to their resolutions from year to year. For example, almost half of those participating in the Fidelity Investments survey said they had “managed to achieve 80 percent or more of their goal” from the previous year. Therefore, they were quite optimistic about the goals they set for 2017.

From the outset, it’s important to count the cost, lay out a game plan, review progress regularly, and make changes if something isn’t working. People who make and keep their resolutions have identified several keys to success:

  1. Write your goals down. Someone famously said, “Goals that are not written down are just wishes.” Studies show that people who write their goals are more apt to accomplish them; there is a certain power in taking the time to formulate clear, precise goals for yourself. In the case of your new year’s financial resolutions, you may simply need to refine your goals to be sure they are specific enough for you to take action and measure your progress along the way. If one of your financial resolutions is to save for retirement, for instance, you would do well to consult with a trusted financial advisor who can help you frame such a long-term goal and create a comprehensive plan.
  2. Refine your goals if necessary. Goals should be specific and measurable. It’s not enough to say, “I want to save more money this year.” A more useful goal would be, “I want to save $200 each month this year.” Or “I want to build an emergency fund equivalent to two months’ take-home pay by the end of the year.” Specific goals are very powerful motivators; they help us envision what it is we want to achieve, and they seem to pull us into the process. The more specific your goal, the easier it is to know what you need to do. For instance, for your savings goal, you might set up automatic transfers from your checking account to your savings account based on your pay schedule. You may also identify other funds to help you realize your goal (e.g., a percentage of your income tax refund or bonus).
  3. Share your goals with someone you trust. Having an accountability partner is another critical success factor. In the Fidelity Investments survey, 53 percent of the participants said, “Talking with friends or family can help you stay focused on your goal.” The person you choose may be a trusted friend, family member, or financial advisor—someone who wants to help you succeed and who can give sound advice if needed.
  4. Check your progress regularly, but give yourself room to “fall.” Major life changes usually do not proceed in a straight line. Expect some setbacks, and be prepared to rebound should you experience setbacks. Draw on your own resilience and support from your accountability partner(s) to help you get back on track as quickly as possible.
  5. Reward yourself along the way. Pursuing a financial goal requires sacrifice, and behavior changes are never easy. Keep your focus on achieving your big goals, but reward yourself when you reach checkpoints along the way. Set up rewards that are meaningful to you without taking you off your financial goals.

Finally, learn as much as you can about what it takes to win in this important area of life—personal finance. From time to time, we publish informative posts on personal finance topics such as getting out of debt, monitoring credit information, and retirement planning/investing. And, of course, you can find reputable tools and information sources online to address your specific areas of interest.

Feel free to contact me if you have questions (marcus@truenorthcap.com).


True North Capital Alliance is registered as an investment advisor with the states of Minnesota and Texas. The firm only transacts business in states where it is properly registered, or is excluded or exempted from registration requirements. Registration as an investment advisor does not constitute an endorsement of the firm by securities regulators nor does it indicate that the advisor has attained a particular level of skill or ability.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change. This content is distributed for informational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services.

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Beware of Tax Scams

January 25, 2017

Marcus Winbush, CFP® — CEO, True North Capital Alliance

The Internal Revenue Service has started accepting and processing 2016 federal individual income tax returns. They expect more than 153 million returns to be filed this year. For most taxpayers, the process will be routine and uneventful. However, the IRS warns taxpayers to be aware that the tax-filing season is also prime time for tax scams.

Tax scams take many forms, and criminals continue to refine their tactics for taking advantage of unsuspecting taxpayers. Be alert for these common telephone and email phishing scams.

Callers Pretending to Be IRS Agents

In the last few years, taxpayers have reported an increasing number of automated calls from people claiming to be IRS agents. Typically, these callers leave a voicemail message urging taxpayers to call immediately to settle their tax bill or face drastic consequences. Often the caller claims that this message is the final warning before the IRS or another agency takes legal action against the taxpayer. These callers can be aggressive and threatening. According to the IRS, taxpayers also receive live calls from scammers claiming to be IRS agents demanding tax payments via “prepaid debit cards, iTunes, and other gift cards or wire transfer.” In another variation of this scam, IRS impersonators call taxpayers claiming they have the person’s tax return and need to verify some information before the person’s return can be processed.

Unless you are expecting a follow-up call from the IRS, these calls are almost certain to be scam attempts as our post, “Is the IRS Calling You?” explained.

Phishing

The IRS reported roughly a “400-percent surge in phishing and malware incidents in the 2016 tax season.” To “phish,” scammers create emails that appear to be an official communication from a well-known organization such as the IRS, other government agency, or business. A tax-related phishing email may claim, for example, that you are entitled to an unexpected refund that requires you set up a special “e-Refund” account to have funds transferred to your bank account. For phishing to work, scammers must get you to go from the phony email to a website they control. Thus, phishing emails almost always include a website link for you to click on. If you do so, it takes you to their site and asks you to provide personal information such as account numbers or passwords, which can then be used fraudulently. These sites may also have malware that can infect your computer allowing criminals to access your files and track your keystrokes to gain information.

Like phone scams, phishing scams are designed to gain access to your personal information. Taxpayers should be aware that the IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email, and legitimate businesses do not request personal or financial information by email.

Identify Theft

In all these tax scams, the goal is to get you to provide personal and financial information such as your social security number, bank account numbers, or credit card numbers. In the hands of criminals, your personal information can be used to file fraudulent tax returns or to open accounts in your name—perhaps using your identity for countless fraudulent transactions.

Be Vigilant

The best offense is a strong defense to protect your essential data. If someone claiming to be an IRS agent contacts you requesting personal information or demanding immediate payment of taxes, the IRS recommends the following actions:

  • Hang up immediately and report any suspicious call as outlined below.
  • Do not give out any personal and financial information over the phone or respond to requests via email.
  • Instead of responding to a phishing email supposedly from the IRS, forward the email to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov.
  • For suspicious phone calls, file a report on the IRS’s Impersonation Scam Reporting site, or call 800-366-4484. Report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission using their FTC Complaint Assistant. Be sure to add “IRS Telephone Scam” in the notes.

Scammers continue to modify their approaches, so vigilance is essential.

I encourage you to share this information with others in your circle of influence—particularly those who may be especially vulnerable to the deceptive, high-pressure tactics that scammers use.


True North Capital Alliance is registered as an investment advisor with the states of Minnesota and Texas. The firm only transacts business in states where it is properly registered, or is excluded or exempted from registration requirements. Registration as an investment advisor does not constitute an endorsement of the firm by securities regulators nor does it indicate that the advisor has attained a particular level of skill or ability.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change. This content is distributed for informational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services.

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A Look Back at 2016

January 18, 2017

Weston Wellington, Vice President, Dimensional Fund Advisors

Down to the Wire

Every year brings its share of surprises. But how many of us could have imagined that 2016 would see the Chicago Cubs win the World Series, Bob Dylan receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Donald Trump elected president, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average close out the year a whisker away from 20,000?

The answer is very few—a lesson that investors would be wise to remember.

At year-end 2015, financial optimists seemed in short supply. Not one of the nine investment strategists participating in the January 2016 Barron’s Roundtable expected an above-average year for stocks. Six expected U.S. market returns to be flat or negative, while the remaining three predicted returns in single digits at best. Prospects for global markets appeared no better, according to this group, and two panelists were sufficiently gloomy to recommend shorting exchange-traded emerging markets index funds.1)Lauren Rublin, “Peering into the Future,” Barron’s, January 25, 2016.

Results in early January 2016 appeared to confirm the pessimists’ viewpoint as markets fell sharply around the world; the S&P 500 Index fell 8% over the first 10 trading sessions alone. The 8.25% loss for the Dow Jones Industrial Average over this period was the biggest such drop throughout the 120-year history of that index.2)www.djaverages.com, accessed January 6, 2017. For fans of the so-called January Indicator, the outlook was grim.

Then things seemingly got worse.

Oil prices fell sharply. Worries about an economic debacle in China re-entered the news cycle. Stock markets in France, Japan, and the UK registered losses of more than 20% from their previous peaks, one customary measure of a bear market.3)Michael Mackenzie, Robin Wigglesworth, and Leo Lewis, “Stock Exchanges across the World Plunge into Bear Market Territory,” Financial Times, January 21, 2016. Plunging share prices for leading banks had many observers worried that another financial crisis was brewing. As U.S. stock prices fell for a fifth consecutive day on February 11, shares of the five largest U.S. banks slumped nearly 5%, down 23% for 2016.

The Wall Street Journal reported the following day that “bank stocks led an intensifying rout in financial markets.”4)Tommy Stubbington and Margot Patrick, “Banks Drop as Global Rout Deepens,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2016. A USA Today journalist observed that “The persistent pounding global stock markets are taking seems to be taking on a more sinister tone and more dangerous phase, with emotions and fear taking on a bigger role in the rout, investors questioning the ability of the world’s central bankers to calm the market’s frayed nerves, and a volatile environment in which selling begets more selling.”5)Adam Shell, “Market Tumult Charts New Waters,” USA Today, February 12, 2016.

February 11, 2016 marked the low for the year for the U.S. stock market. While prices eventually recovered, as late as June 28 the S&P 500 was still showing a loss for the year. Meanwhile, a number of well-regarded professional investors argued that the next downturn was fast approaching. One prominent activist in May predicted a “day of reckoning” for the U.S. stock market, while another reportedly urged his fellow hedge fund managers at a conference to “get out of the stock market.” A third disclosed in August a doubling of his bearish bet on the S&P 500.6)Dan McCrum and Nicole Bullock, “Growing Bears Provide Soundtrack for Investors,” Financial Times, May 21, 2016.

Throughout the year, some observers fretted over the pace of the economic recovery. The New York Times reported in July that “Weighed down by anemic business spending, overstocked factories and warehouses, and a surprisingly weak housing sector, the American economy barely improved this spring after its usual winter doldrums.”7)Nelson D. Schwartz, “US Economy Stays Stuck in Low Gear,” New York Times, July 29, 2016.

Despite all this noise, the S&P 500 returned 11.9% for the year, and international stocks 8)Source: MSCI International stocks represented by the MSCI All Country World ex US IMI (net div). returned 4.4% for U.S. dollar investors (6.9% in local currency) 9)Local currency return calculation represents the price appreciation or depreciation of index constituents and does not account for the performance of currencies relative to a base currency such as the U.S. Dollar. Local currency return is theoretical and cannot be replicated in the real world., helping to illustrate just how difficult it is to outguess market prices. Once again, a simple strategy of embracing sensible asset allocation and broad diversification was likely less frustrating than fretting over portfolio changes in response to news events.


Past performance is no guarantee of future investment results. Indices are not available for direct investment; therefore, their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio.

Diversification does not eliminate the risk of market loss. Investment risks include loss of principal and fluctuating value. There is no guarantee an investing strategy will be successful.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change. This article is distributed for informational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services.

True North Capital Alliance has no affiliation with DFA; however, the firm uses DFA funds and strategies in developing its investment models.

True North Capital Alliance is registered as an investment advisor with the states of Minnesota and Texas. The firm only transacts business in states where it is properly registered, or is excluded or exempted from registration requirements. Registration as an investment advisor does not constitute an endorsement of the firm by securities regulators nor does it indicate that the advisor has attained a particular level of skill or ability.

Dimensional Fund Advisors LP is an investment advisor registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

References   [ + ]

1. Lauren Rublin, “Peering into the Future,” Barron’s, January 25, 2016.
2. www.djaverages.com, accessed January 6, 2017.
3. Michael Mackenzie, Robin Wigglesworth, and Leo Lewis, “Stock Exchanges across the World Plunge into Bear Market Territory,” Financial Times, January 21, 2016.
4. Tommy Stubbington and Margot Patrick, “Banks Drop as Global Rout Deepens,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2016.
5. Adam Shell, “Market Tumult Charts New Waters,” USA Today, February 12, 2016.
6. Dan McCrum and Nicole Bullock, “Growing Bears Provide Soundtrack for Investors,” Financial Times, May 21, 2016.
7. Nelson D. Schwartz, “US Economy Stays Stuck in Low Gear,” New York Times, July 29, 2016.
8. Source: MSCI International stocks represented by the MSCI All Country World ex US IMI (net div).
9. Local currency return calculation represents the price appreciation or depreciation of index constituents and does not account for the performance of currencies relative to a base currency such as the U.S. Dollar. Local currency return is theoretical and cannot be replicated in the real world.
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December Jobs Report: Gained 156,000 Jobs; Wages Tick Up

January 10, 2017

Marcus Winbush, CFP® — CEO, True North Capital Alliance

At its December 2016 meeting, the Fed’s Policy Committee voted unanimously to raise the federal funds rate to a range of 0.50 to 0.75 percent—its first increase since December 2015. Fed Chair Janet Yellen noted that this decision was a vote of confidence in the strengthening U.S. economy as well as an expectation that the economy would continue to progress.

It would seem that the jobs report issued on Friday, January 6th corroborates the Fed’s assessment of the U.S. economy and does nothing to deter the Fed from considering future rate increases. Although job creation was slightly less than economists expected, the report showed continued tightening in the labor market and a long-awaited uptick in wages. All in all, the report confirms that the U.S. economy ended 2016 on a strong note.

Highlights of December 2016 Jobs Report

The December jobs report issued by the Department of Labor shows a tightening labor market, which some Fed officials believe may be approaching “full employment.”

In December, nonfarm payroll employment rose by 156,000 jobs with the strongest growth in health care (up 43,000) and social assistance (up 20,000). Employment continued a modest upward trend across broad segments of the economy including food services, transportation and warehousing, financial activities, and manufacturing. However, mining, construction, and trade showed little change in December. In total, the economy added 2.2 million jobs in 2016, which is less than the increase of 2.7 million jobs in 2015.

The unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 4.7 percent from its November low of 4.6 percent. However, at 4.7 percent, unemployment stands at its lowest year-end level in a decade.

In deliberations leading up to its December rate increase, the Fed closely scrutinized measures that might indicate lingering slack in the labor market. For example, Fed Chair Yellen, was particularly concerned about the number of persons identified as “involuntary part-time workers.” This term refers to individuals who would prefer full-time employment, but are working part-time because their hours have been cut or because they are unable to find a full-time job. Although the December number of involuntary part-time workers remained unchanged at 5.6 million, the number of workers in this category declined by 459,000 over the year.

The number of people participating in the labor market continued to hold steady at 62.7 percent, unchanged over the year. Likewise, the number of long-term unemployed individuals (i.e., those jobless for 27 weeks or more) held steady for the month at 1.8 million; however, the total declined by 263,000 over the course of the year. Both these indicators point to continued tightening in the labor market.

Perhaps, one of the brightest spots in this report is in the earnings data, which shows the best gains since 2009. In December, average hourly earnings rose by 0.4 percent, which led to a 2.9 percent increase in earnings for the year. This represents a 7-year high.

Are the Fed’s 2017 Projections on Track?

Following the release of the December jobs reports, several Fed officials reiterated their expectation that rates will rise again this year in line with projections in their December 2016 policy meeting minutes. In her January 6th interview with Fox Business, Cleveland Fed President Loretta J. Mester called the December jobs report “decent” and “in line with what we’ve been seeing.” Her further assessment of the jobs market is “that we’re basically at full employment from the point of view of the monetary policy goal, one of our dual mandate goals.”

The Fed will continue to monitor economic conditions and react accordingly: “In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.” As it stands now, the Fed projects a federal funds rate of 1.4 percent by the end of 2017, which likely translates into three rate increases.

The Policy Committee meets again on January 31-February 1; however, most analysts do not expect the Fed to raise rates at that meeting.


True North Capital Alliance is registered as an investment advisor with the states of Minnesota and Texas. The firm only transacts business in states where it is properly registered, or is excluded or exempted from registration requirements. Registration as an investment advisor does not constitute an endorsement of the firm by securities regulators nor does it indicate that the advisor has attained a particular level of skill or ability.

Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change. This content is distributed for informational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services.

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Market Prediction Season in Full Swing

January 3, 2017

Marcus Winbush, CFP® — CEO, True North Capital Alliance

new-years-eve-1886397_960_720-1

The close of each calendar year brings with it the holidays as well as a chance to look forward to the year ahead.

In the coming weeks, investors are likely to be bombarded with predictions about what the future, and specifically the new year, may hold for their portfolios. These outlooks are typically accompanied by recommended investment strategies and actions intended to help investors avoid suffering the next crisis or missing out on the next “great” opportunity. When faced with recommendations of this sort, it would be wise to remember that investors are better served by sticking with a long-term plan rather than changing course based on predictions and short-term calls.

Predictions and Portfolios

One doesn’t typically see a forecast that says: “Capital markets are expected to continue to function normally,” or “It’s unclear how unknown future events will impact prices.” Predictions about future price movements come in many shapes and sizes, but most of them tempt the investor into playing a game of outguessing the market. Examples of predictions like this might include: “We don’t like energy stocks in 2017,” or “We expect the interest rate environment to remain challenging in 2017.” Bold predictions may pique interest, but their usefulness in application to an investment plan is less clear.

Steve Forbes, the publisher of Forbes Magazine, once remarked, “You make more money selling advice than following it. It’s one of the things we count on in the magazine business—along with the short memory of our readers.”1)Excerpt from presentation at the Anderson School of Management, University of California, Los Angeles, April 15,2003. Definitive recommendations often attempt to identify value not currently reflected in market prices. Though they may give investors a sense of confidence about the future, how accurate do these predictions have to be in order to be useful?

Consider a simple example where an investor hears a prediction that equities are currently priced “too high and now is a better time to hold cash.” If we say that the prediction has a 50% chance of being accurate (equities underperform cash over some period of time), does that mean the investor has a 50% chance of being better off? It is crucial to remember is that any market-timing decision is actually two decisions.

In this example, if you decided to change your allocation and sell equities, you would be making a decision to get out of the market, but you would also have to determine when to get back in. If we assign a 50% probability of the investor getting each decision right, that would give the investor a one-in-four chance of being better off overall. Even if we increase the chances of the investor being right to 70% for each decision, the odds of the investor being better off would still be shy of 50%. Still no better than a coin flip. You can apply this same logic to decisions within asset classes, such as whether to be invested in stocks only in your home market vs. those abroad. The lesson here is that the only guarantee for investors making market-timing decisions is that they will incur additional transaction costs due to frequent buying and selling.

The track record of professional money managers attempting to profit from mispricing also suggests that making frequent investment changes based on market calls may be more harmful than helpful. Exhibit 1, which shows S&P’s SPIVA Scorecard from midyear 2016, highlights how managers have fared against a comparative S&P benchmark. The results show that the majority of managers underperformed over both short and longer horizons.

Exhibit 1. Percentage of U.S. Equity Funds That Underperformed a Benchmark

exhibit-1-percentage-of-us-equity-funds

Source: SPIVA® U.S. Scorecard, “Percentage of US Equity Funds Outperformed by Benchmarks.” Data as of June 30, 2016. (SPIVA®, S&P Indices Versus Active, measures the performance of actively managed funds against their relevant S&P index benchmarks.)

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Indices are not available for direct investment; therefore, their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio. The S&P data is provided by Standard & Poor’s Index Services Group.

Rather than relying on forecasts that attempt to outguess market prices, investors can rely on the power of the market as an effective information processing machine to help structure their investment portfolios. Financial markets involve the interaction of millions of willing buyers and sellers. The prices they set provide positive expected returns every day. While realized returns may be different than expected returns, any such difference is unknown and unpredictable in advance.

Over a long-term horizon, the case for trusting in markets and using discipline to stay invested is clear. Exhibit 2 shows the growth of a U.S. dollar invested in the equity markets from 1970 through 2015, and it highlights a sample of several bearish headlines over the same period. An investor who reacted negatively to these headlines would have potentially missed out on substantial growth over the coming decades.

Exhibit 2. Markets Have Rewarded Discipline. Growth of a dollar–MSCI World Index (net dividends), 1970-2015

exhibit-2-predictions

In U.S. dollars. Indices are not available for direct investment. Their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. MSCI data © MSCI 2016, all rights reserved.

Conclusion

As the new year begins, it is natural to reflect on what went well last year and what you may want to improve upon this year. Within the context of an investment plan, it is important to remember that investors are likely better served by trusting the plan they have put in place and focusing on what they can control, such as diversifying broadly, minimizing taxes, and reducing costs and turnover. Those who make changes to a long-term investment strategy based on short-term noise and predictions may be disappointed by the outcome.

In the end, the only certain prediction about markets is that the future will remain full of uncertainty. History has shown us, however, that through uncertainty, markets have rewarded long-term investors who are able to stay the course.


Source: Dimensional Fund Advisors LP.

True North Capital Alliance has no affiliation with DFA; however, the firm uses DFA funds and strategies in developing its investment models.

True North Capital Alliance is registered as an investment advisor with the states of Minnesota and Texas. The firm only transacts business in states where it is properly registered, or is excluded or exempted from registration requirements. Registration as an investment advisor does not constitute an endorsement of the firm by securities regulators nor does it indicate that the advisor has attained a particular level of skill or ability.

Diversification does not eliminate the risk of market loss. Investment risks include loss of principal and fluctuating value. There is no guarantee an investing strategy will be successful.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change. This article is distributed for informational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services.

References   [ + ]

1. Excerpt from presentation at the Anderson School of Management, University of California, Los Angeles, April 15,2003.
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