Category Archives: Wealth Building

Huge Difference Between Millionaire and Billionaire

Would you like to build up a million-dollar nest egg by the time you retire? For middle-class earners, that goal is challenging but possible if you start at age 25 and save $1750 a month. Many married couples could do this by maxing out their 401(k) contributions. Or you could take the route that many people follow and build a small business into a million-dollar asset.

What if you want to accumulate a billion-dollar nest egg instead? Starting at the same age of 25, you would need to save $21 million a year. Good luck with getting any employer match on that.

There’s a vast difference between a million and a billion. It’s completely misleading when activists, politicians, and the media refer glibly to “millionaires and billionaires” as if the two are almost interchangeable. Someone with a net worth of one million dollars isn’t even close to being in the same category as someone worth one billion.

Here are a few more examples to clarify the difference:

• One million seconds from now is about 11 and a half days away. One billion seconds from now is about 31 and a half years in the future.

• A million hours ago was 114 years in the past, early in the 20th century; our ancestors were using electricity and telephones. A billion hours ago was over 114,155 years in the past; our ancestors had evolved into Homo sapiens but were still using primitive stone tools.

• Put one million ants on one side of a scale and a female Asian elephant on the other side. The million ants, at around six pounds, would hardly register against the elephant’s three tons. Put a billion ants on the scale, however, and they would balance or even outweigh the elephant.

• One million pennies stacked on top of each other would make a tower nearly a mile high. One billion pennies stacked on top of each other would make a tower almost 870 miles high.

• If you earned $45,000 a year and stashed it all under your mattress, you’d have one million dollars at the end of 22 years. To accumulate one billion dollars at that same rate, you’d need the help of your many-times-great grandchildren, because it would take 22,000 years.

In today’s world, being a millionaire represents financial security, not vast wealth. At a withdrawal rate of 3%—the amount most experts consider sustainable—an investment portfolio of one million dollars will provide an income of $30,000 a year. Combined with Social Security, that would be enough to live comfortably but not lavishly in retirement.

Three percent of one billion dollars, on the other hand, will furnish an income of $30 million a year; definitely private jet and gated estate territory.

If millions and billions aren’t challenging enough, here’s a quick look at trillions. One trillion is a million millions, or a thousand billions. It would take one thousand elephants to balance the weight of one trillion ants. Astronomers estimate the number of stars in our Milky Way galaxy between 100 billion and 400 billion; not even close to a trillion. No wonder it’s so hard for most of us to wrap our minds around information like, “The current US national debt is more than 18 trillion dollars.”

Becoming a millionaire? It’s not only achievable, but wise if you want financial security in old age. Becoming a billionaire? You’d better plan to invent something amazing, write several dozen international best-sellers, or build an incredibly successful business. Becoming a trillionaire? Don’t waste your time thinking about it. For good reason, the word isn’t even in the dictionary.

Dangers of Comparing Diversified Portfolio to US Stock Market Returns

It may be entertaining to watch Donald Trump point his finger and curtly say, “You’re fired!” When a client says the same thing to me, it isn’t so funny.

I’m especially not amused if a client fires me because their diversified portfolio is underperforming the US stock market and they abandon the strategy. The result is often a financial travesty.

The February issue of “Inside Information,” Bob Veres’ financial newsletter, puts a name to this phenomenon: “frame-of-reference risk.” The term is used by Roger Gibson, Chief Investment Officer, and Christopher Sidoni, Director of Investment Research, of Gibson Capital in Wexford, PA. Veres reported on a presentation they gave at the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) Personal Financial Planning conference in Las Vegas in January.

Gibson describes “frame-of-reference risk” as clients’ tendency to compare the performance of their diversified portfolios with current returns in the US stock market. He points out, “If the discrepancy gets too painful, they will fire you and abandon a diversified approach at the wrong time.”

Based on the emphasis the media gives the US stock market, one could easily conclude US stocks must be the largest, most important asset class in the world. Not at all. US stocks represent less than 10% of the world’s wealth and make up 10% to 20% of most diversified portfolios.

Neither do US stocks consistently produce the best returns. In the 1970’s, commodities dwarfed US stock returns. In the 1980’s, international stocks led the way. In the 1990’s, US stocks were the stars. In the 2000’s, the leader was real estate.

Yet most investors judge the performance of their portfolios by US stocks. They may compare the returns of a diversified portfolio with news reports about the S&P 500 and the Dow, which together include only 530 companies.

Between 1994 and 1999, Gibson’s multi-asset class strategy delivered a 13.05% return, which paled in comparison to the US market’s 23.55% return. He lost one-third of the assets he managed in 1999, as clients fired him. They abandoned their diversified investment strategy at just the wrong time to save themselves from the 2000-2002 US stock market downturn, when real estate and commodities soared. Gibson’s multi-asset class portfolios did 9.96% from 2000 to 2005, when US stocks rang up losses.

This pattern, familiar to many financial planners, is the sad consequence of frame-of-reference risk.

Another aspect of that risk is our human tendency to stay in a comfort zone where most of our neighbors are doing pretty much what we’re doing. One client even told Gibson, “I would rather follow an inferior strategy that wins when my friends are winning and loses when my friends are losing, than follow a superior strategy that at times causes me to lose when they’re winning.”

Unfortunately, this tendency can lead us into disasters. Diversified portfolios are once again underperforming the US stock market. Predictably, an increasing number of investors are abandoning diversification, right in time to get nailed.

Gibson and Sidoni’s conclusion seems to be that educating clients to stay the course is a no-win game. In their view, advisors need to craft a less efficient, lower-return long-term strategy that clients will consistently follow rather than a more efficient strategy that clients may abandon in mid-stream.

While that view seems pragmatic, it really misses the mark. Instead of dumbing down portfolios to match client’s dysfunctional money scripts, it would be a better outcome if advisors concentrated on helping their clients uncover and modify the money scripts that are driving their self-sabotaging behaviors. This approach can help keep clients from saying “You’re fired!” at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.

Passive Investing: Lower Costs, Lower Risk, Better Returns

“Buy low and sell high.” That was my simple approach when I was a smart young investment advisor. I poured over a company’s balance sheet, earnings statements, and forecasted returns. Then I bought those companies that were bargains and waited for my gains to roll in. More times than not, they did—eventually.

The problem came with the “not” and “eventually.” A majority of my picks did go up in value, but the minority that were “nots” still lost enough to have a negative impact on my bottom line. Even more frustrating, some of my “nots” turned into gains “eventually” after I sold them.

My investment returns were similar to findings from Dalbar, Inc., a financial services research firm. Dalbar’s studies have shown that average active investors barely beat inflation over the long term. They significantly underperform investors who put their money in an index fund of stocks and leave it alone.

So much for my early investment brilliance. Continue reading

Finding the Right Path to Wealth

After three decades as a financial planner, working with successful wealth-builders, you’d think I would have a clear idea of the right path for creating wealth.

Instead, what I’ve learned is that there is no such thing. Here are just a few of the paths that aren’t the sure routes to wealth they might seem to be:

1. Education and career choices. Going into a field like law or medicine might seem to guarantee financial success. Not necessarily. I’ve seen many physicians, for example, who have accumulated significant wealth. I’ve seen just as many who live paycheck to paycheck.

2. High earnings. Again, this isn’t the reliable predictor of wealth it would seem to be. Continue reading

What Is a Middle Class Income?

The middle class. Marketers target it. Politicians champion it. Economists talk about it. Most of us consider ourselves part of it.

Yet, when I’ve asked for a clear definition, I have not found anybody yet that really can tell me what “middle class” is.

I recently posted on Twitter that $90,000 was a middle-class household income and that it would take a nest egg of $3 million to generate that income in retirement.

A couple of my colleagues responded that my figures were way too high and accused me of being out of touch. As a lifelong South Dakotan, I’m used to being seen as “out of touch,” but the idea that $90,000 was beyond a middle-class income intrigued me.

I figured a few minutes with Google would point me to a definition of “middle class.” It wasn’t that simple. I soon discovered that neither politicians, economists, sociologists, nor financial advisors can agree on what makes someone middle class. It is a little easier to define a middle class income.

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Insurance Industry Should Protect Itself From BYOB Schemers

It’s impossible for a financial columnist to please all of the readers all of the time. My recent column criticizing the Be Your Own Banker scheme drew the ire of several fans of whole life insurance. Two of them in particular, in a letter to the editor and a guest editorial published in the Rapid City Journal, disparaged my integrity, my professional qualifications, and my math skills.

Part of the problem is that these readers interpreted my warning about BYOB, which I called “one step from being a scam,” as an attack on whole life insurance in general. That was not the case.

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of whole life as an investment. The purpose of life insurance, in my view, is not to provide retirement income or cash value, but to replace income when someone dies. For most people, the best and cheapest way to do this is through term life insurance. Obviously, someone who sells insurance will have a different opinion.

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The Art of Getting Value

People who successfully build wealth have one trait in common: they understand the art of frugality.

These unassuming millionaires know how to live on much less than they make, and they know how to save money. But those behaviors alone aren’t enough. Not spending money today does not always result in having more money tomorrow.

Frugality for its own sake can result in doing without things that matter to you, failing to take care of basic needs like your health, and living with a sense of deprivation. It can also lead to spending more money, not less, in the long run.

Frugality for the sake of enhancing your life, on the other hand, features an eye for value. Most people who build wealth are masters at the art of getting value.

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