Monday, March 16, 2009

Madoff-Proof Your Money

Bernie Madoff is the latest in a long list of criminals, large and small, who have stolen trusting investors' money. So how can you protect yourself from someone stealing your hard-earned nest egg? It's actually really, really easy.

Only put your money in an account that has your name and only your name on it. And don't give anyone besides you (or trusted family member) the right to withdraw the money. Make sure the account is at a major firm.

If you want to have someone else manage your investments, you can still do this. Simply open up an account - in your name - at a brokerage firm like Fidelity or Schwab and then give the investment adviser the power to invest for you but not take the money out. You give this by signing over a Limited Power of Attorney - never a full power of attorney. That's it.

Put another way - if someone asks you to deposit money in any account that does not have only your name (and maybe your spouse's name) on it, just run the other way. He's probably a criminal.

Disclaimer: The above should go a long way towards protecting your money. However it is not guaranteed and your money cannot be considered 100% safe from theft. Neither I, Robert Horowitz, nor my firm Robert V Horowitz, LLC can be held liable for any theft.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

So, Should I sell?

Everyone seems to be asking this question. And usually getting the same very unsatisfying answer of "No, you need to ride it out for the long term" blah, blah.... I was caught on TV saying the very same thing. Its an over simplistic, sound bite response. In answering "Should I sell", we really need to address at least 3 questions:
1. Should I sell a portion? The depends on whether you have enough safe investments (money markets, cd's, savings account or short term plain vanilla bond funds) set aside to cover the next 3 years of living expenses. If you don't you probably need to sell enough to build up a 3 year emergency fund or have another fall back plan. With unemployment above 8% and probably heading towards 12%, there is a reasonable chance of facing extended unemployment. If you are retired, you should always have at least 3 years of expenses set aside.
2. Should I sell everything and just move on with my life? Only if you are planning to sell forever. This makes sense if you've decided that you simply don't want to live with the risks of the stock market. Put all your money in inflation protected bonds or short term municpal bond funds and never worry about it again. This is a perfectly reasonable, albeit not very profitable, long term strategy. The other reason to sell forever is is that you believe that this is the end of global capitalism, the end of America as a powerful player in the world and that we are entering a period which will make the Great Depression look like a picnic.
3. Should I sell and then buy back later? This is what most people want to do - skip the losing money part and get back in for the fun making money part. Its what the financial advisory world calls market timing and its far riskier and more difficult than it appears. Far from reducing risk, market timing usually increase risk as the hapless investor gets caught in a cycle of buying high and selling low. If this is your motivation, you are almost certainly better off just riding things out.

We are probably living through the greatest investment opportunity in our lifetimes. Consider that here have been two 19-year periods during the last 80 years in which the real returns from stocks was zero. One started at the peak of the market in 1929 and the other at the peak in 1965. The current bear market started in March 2000. To simply equal the zero return of the two earlier 19-year periods, stocks will have to more than double during the next 10 years. I believe they will do a lot better than that and should at least triple in value. So, for most long term investors, the best advice is to hang on and ride it out.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Canary in the Coal Mine

The stock market is down over 20% so far this year and that is very bad news for the economy. The stock market leads the economy - what happens in the stock market, happens in the general economy around 6 to 12 months later. So with this year's slide, we can be fairly sure that the forecasts for the economy - and unemployment - to bottom out in late Summer were excessively optimistic.

What do things look like now: Unemployment is now running at around 8%. Its looking like that number will get to around 12% later this year - that is a huge amount of jobs lost. To put it in perspective, think of all the people you know who have lost a job in the last year. Now double that number. That is how many people are likely to be unemployed by year end.

Since no-one is really immune, its a good idea to have a "Plan B" in case any of us are among the unfortunate 12%.