MONEY

Why People Love Risky Investments

Shark Tank production still
As Shark Tank viewers know, an individual company can make for a compelling story. But investing in that story has its risks. Michael Ansell—ABC

Some of the safest-looking places for putting your money are more hazardous than they appear. Here's why that's true.

Which investment involves lower risk: Putting your money in one company? Or buying shares in an S&P 500 index fund?

Nearly all financial advisers and many clients know that the index fund is much more diversified and therefore has less risk. Yet it is easy for clients to forget this basic fact when the chance to invest in a particular company presents itself.

When clients ask me to evaluate opportunities to invest in a private company, the stories are often compelling at first. Clients have brought me opportunities ranging from a marketing company looking to lower its costs by buying in bulk to a niche social media company looking to grow its user base. Almost all of the investments come from a trusted source, such as a long-time friend. But once I dig deeper into a company, I usually find major red flags.

Most of the time, I convince clients to pass on individual company investments. Occasionally, we agree that a small investment is acceptable. And sometimes a client will choose, despite the risks, to invest more in a small company than I would recommend.

Why does this happen?

Why Clients are Tempted to Invest in Private Companies

I see a few reasons why concentrated investments in private companies may tempt clients — even those who fully understand the importance of diversification. A personal connection is powerful. If you believe someone to be a good person overall, you’re more likely to trust him and assume that he’ll make a successful business partner too. While viscerally reassuring, this familiarity may make investors overconfident in a company’s prospects. Even with good intentions, skill, and an attractive market, unforeseen problems can still ruin individual company investments.

Clients can also get a skewed perception of the success rate of individual-company investing for the same reason that it seems like your Facebook friends are always on vacation or eating great meals: It’s fun to talk about your winners. You can see this tendency on display in the TV show Shark Tank. After a wealthy “shark” invests in a company, the producers provide updates that highlight the successes but don’t mention the failures.

Financial advisers can sometimes share the blame for clients’ interest in individual company investing. We know that it’s important to focus on the big things in clients’ lives, such as how much they save and their overall asset allocation. As a result, we spend so much time talking about markets in the abstract that we sometimes forget to emphasize that markets and indices are composites of many individual companies. We talk about the forest, but clients don’t see any of the trees.

Refocusing on a Diversified Portfolio

If people are inclined to believe that the market as a whole is overvalued, it can be hard to convince them to invest broadly without telling a good story, with identifiable characters. Even if you allocate to broad index funds, that doesn’t mean there’s no story to discuss. Individual companies like Apple, Exxon or Procter & Gamble are large components of the S&P 500 that can easily make the investing story relatable for clients. While one company’s impact on a portfolio is likely negligible, discussing it in more detail can improve clients’ understanding of their investments and remove the false impression that private companies are the only ones that prosper.

If a client is insistent on a more concentrated portfolio, adding a small stake in a private equity fund might be an attractive alternative to directly investing in a private company. Although these funds are riskier than mutual funds, they still incorporate professional management and some diversification.

If a client wants to pursue individual company investments because they’ve gotten wrapped up in a compelling story, remind them that the most interesting investing stories can often result in expensive lessons. Discuss the specific investment’s risks, mention the biases that may be influencing their behavior, and — if all else fails — consider telling a better story.

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Benjamin Sullivan is a manager at Palisades Hudson Financial Group, where he helps the firm’s high-net-worth clients with their personal financial planning, investment and tax planning needs. He is a certified financial planner certificant, an IRS enrolled agent, and a member of the New York chapter of the Financial Planning Association.

MONEY Taxes

The Moves to Make Now So You Can Cut Taxes Later

A financial adviser explains that to maximize income, you need the right kinds of investment accounts, not just the right investments.

In my work with financial planning clients, I can see that people understand the merits of having a diversified mix of securities in an investment portfolio. Investment advisers have done a good job of explaining how diversification can improve clients’ risk-adjusted returns.

What can be a little harder for advisers to explain and clients to understand, though, is the value of “tax diversification” — having investments in a mix of accounts with different tax treatments. By having some securities in taxable accounts, others in tax-deferred accounts, and still others in tax-free accounts, people can maintain the flexibility that makes it easier to minimize their taxes in retirement.

The benefits of traditional tax-deferred retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, are easy for participants to see. Contributions reduce people’s current tax bills. And the benefits continue to compound over the course of the investors’ careers, since none of the income is taxable until withdrawals are made.

Yet what clients don’t often grasp is the price they’ll wind up paying for this tax benefit later in life. Distributions from tax-deferred accounts are treated as ordinary income. It can be more expensive to spend money from a traditional IRA than from a taxable account, since dividends and long-term capital gains in taxable accounts are taxed at more favorable rates. And IRS-mandated required minimum distributions from traditional retirement accounts can force a retiree to generate taxable income at times when he or she wouldn’t want to.

So how do you get clients to understand that traditional IRAs and 401(k)s may cost them more than they think? Sometimes it’s a matter of being blunt — saying that the $1 million they see on their account statement isn’t worth $1 million; they may only have $700,000 or less to spend after paying taxes.

Once clients understand that, they also understand the appeal of Roth IRA and Roth 401(k) accounts, since current income and qualified distributions are never taxable. Another advantage: The IRS also does not require distributions from Roth IRAs the way it does for traditional retirement accounts. For many high income taxpayers, $700,000 in a Roth IRA is more valuable than $1 million in a traditional IRA.

But Roth IRAs and 401(k)s aren’t perfect and shouldn’t be a client’s only savings vehicle either. Participants don’t receive any upfront tax benefit. And it’s conceivable that future legislation may decrease or eliminate the benefits of Roth accounts. If the U.S. or certain states shift to a consumption-based tax system, for example, a Roth IRA will have been a poor choice compared to a traditional IRA.

And it’s useful to have money in taxable accounts, too. People need to have enough in these accounts to meet their pre-retirement spending needs. In addition, holding some stock investments in taxable accounts allows people to take advantage of a market downturn by realizing capital losses and securing a tax benefit. You can’t do this with a retirement account.

Given that each type of investment account has advantages and disadvantages, advisers should encourage all their clients to keep at least some assets in each retirement bucket. That way, retirees have the flexibility to choose the source of their spending based on the tax consequences in a particular year.

In a low-income year, retirees may want to pull some money from their traditional IRAs to benefit from that year’s low tax bracket. Depending on the retiree’s income level, some traditional IRA distributions could escape either federal or state income tax entirely. In a high-income year, when investments in a taxable account have a lot of appreciation, it may make sense for the retiree to spend from a Roth account instead.

Since we don’t know what a client’s tax situation will look like each year in the future, diversification of account types is just as prudent as investment diversification.

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Benjamin Sullivan is a manager at Palisades Hudson Financial Group, where he helps the firm’s high-net-worth clients with their personal financial planning, investment and tax planning needs. He is a certified financial planner certificant, an IRS enrolled agent, and a member of the New York chapter of the Financial Planning Association.

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