MONEY investing strategy

Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Explains How to Dramatically Improve Your Investment Performance

rolling dice
Michele Galli—Getty Images

Stop thinking that you're smart enough to beat the market.

Beating the market is very difficult, and most investors are incapable of doing it. I’m extremely confident that I can beat the market, however. I know I’m better than the average, and am pretty sure my investing results would support that view, if I were to tally them all up.

Over the years, I’ve heard variations of the above response countless times whenever I’ve asked investors if they could beat the market. This composite response illustrates perfectly a main theme from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. All of us – whether you’re Warren Buffett or a struggling day trader – tend to overestimate our own investing abilities, while being extremely capable of assessing the weaknesses in others. Grasping this simple insight alone could dramatically improve your investment performance.

Being more humble isn’t just an admirable personality trait – it can literally save you money. Below are nine investing insights from Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman’s classic book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

1. “The best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high.”

Here, Kahneman is saying that we too often rely on our intuition and routine thinking for big decisions when we should actually slow down and become more analytical. This is especially true of those investors who are quick to trust their gut and overestimate their pattern recognition skills when deciding to buy or sell a particular stock.

Kahneman helps us better understand our thought processes by using the framework of System 1 thinking and System 2 thinking. The former operates automatically and quickly “with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” System 2, on the other hand, “allocates attention to effortful mental activities that demand it.” Quite simply, System 1 is fast thinking, and System 2 is slow thinking. For investors, it’s very important to know that System 1 is our default thinking style, and it can be a “machine for jumping to conclusions.” Knowing this will encourage you to try to shift to System 2 when faced with a difficult decision.

2. “There is general agreement among researchers that nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not – and few of them do – are playing a game of chance.”

Kahneman is skeptical about whether it’s possible for ordinary investors to beat the market. As an academic steeped in statistics and economics, he points to 50 years of research that shows “the selection of stocks is more like rolling the dice than like playing poker.”

Obviously, many of us might disagree, and that’s fine. I still believe it’s important to consider his view on this issue, however. Anyone who truly thinks they can beat the market, should be able to provide evidence of that skill by objectively analyzing their returns over a long timeframe. System 1 thinking is quite good at allowing you to fool yourself into thinking you might be better at stock picking than you really are.

3. “Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters optimistic overconfidence. In terms of its consequences for decisions, the optimistic bias may well be the most significant of the cognitive biases.”

Here again, we see how our System 1 thinking can play tricks on us. According to Kahneman, we often have a very unrealistic sense of our abilities and future prospects. This may explain why so many political and financial analysts are out there confidently making bad predictions on a daily basis.

The interesting part of this quote, for me, is Kahneman’s take on optimism. He believes that being optimistic is a good thing to be – many entrepreneurs are more confident than mid-level managers, according to one study, for example. The danger, Kahneman argues, is that optimists tend to underestimate risks. This might be a good thing for spurring action, but might not always be the best thing for your portfolio.

4. “Closely following daily fluctuations is a losing proposition, because the pain of the frequent small losses exceeds the pleasure of the equally frequent small gains. Once a quarter is enough for individual investors. In addition to improving the emotional quality of life, the deliberate avoidance of exposure to short-term outcomes improves the quality of both decisions and outcomes.”

This is one of the most helpful pieces of advice for investors in the entire book. Kahneman points to compelling research showing that checking individual investments on a frequent basis will lead to poor decision making. So why not save time and improve performance by turning off the daily market noise?

5. “The research suggests a surprising conclusion: to maximize predictive accuracy, final decisions should be left to formulas, especially in low-validity environments.”

This quote is potentially very helpful for investors. Remember, Kahneman believes that stock picking is a classic “low-validity environment.” So he’d likely argue that an inconsistent investing process would hurt performance over the long run. For illustration purposes, your belief that you know exactly when to increase (or decrease) your cash allocation might be a delusion that is hurting your overall returns.

If Kahneman is right about this, then relying on rules could be helpful. Putting money to work every single month, for example, regardless of what the market appears to be doing at that particular moment could be a smart technique. Holding stocks for five or even 10 years without selling could also be wise.

6. “Stories of how businesses rise and fall strike a chord with readers by offering what the human mind needs: a simple message of triumph and failure that identifies clear causes and ignores the determinative power of luck and the inevitability of regression. These stories induce and maintain an illusion of understanding, imparting lessons of little enduring value to readers who are all too eager to believe them.”

I know I’ve been guilty of this many times in the past. We see a successful business from the past, and assume that’s the magic formula for the future. Kahneman challenges us to be more skeptical. The excellent management book The Halo Effect makes a similar point.

Kahneman believes the key variable that is never considered by observers is “luck.” Because luck is so important, “the quality of leadership and management practices cannot be inferred reliably from observations of success.” Another important principle is regression to the mean. He notes a study of Fortune‘s “Most Admired Companies” showing that the worst-rated companies actually earned higher stock returns than the most admired firms over a 20-year timeframe.

7. “Success = talent + luck; Great Success = a little more talent + a lot of luck.”

These formulas illustrate an important theme in the book. Kahneman feels that luck “plays a very large role in every story of success.” A big challenge for investors, of course, is distinguishing between skill and luck. I’ve noticed that the most successful investors rarely acknowledge the latter as playing any role whatsoever until they have a bad year.

8. “The core of the illusion is that we believe we understand the past, which implies that the future also should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less than we believe we do.”

As a former history teacher, I believe this to be true. Our knowledge of the past is imperfect at best, and yet, we often make important decisions based on this imperfect understanding.

This insight is very important for investing. Is 2014 really like 1938? Or is it more like 2007? Does that mean you should sell or buy stocks or load up on gold? Kahneman would urge you to be careful here — each of us has an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

9. “The satiation level beyond which experienced well-being no longer increases was a household income of about $75,000 in high-cost areas…The average increase of experienced well-being associated with incomes beyond that level was precisely zero.”

This is such a great insight for me. Beyond a certain point, earning more money won’t make you any happier. For investors, it’s encouraging to know that growing a realistic pot of capital over a long timeframe will likely be enough to result in a happy retirement.

I can’t recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow enough to all investors. For me, it’s one of the best investing-related books that I’ve ever read.

MONEY Investing

The Easy Fix for an Incredibly Common and Costly Retirement Mistake

New proof that just showing up is half the investing game.

Writing about retirement inevitably turns you into the bearer of bad news. But last week brought a positive development: The downward trend in the percentage of workers participating in an employment-based retirement plan reversed course in 2013. The number of workers participating is now at the highest level since 2007, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (ERBI).

Which means, unfortunately, that from a wealth-building perspective, the timing of the nation’s workforce is actually pretty terrible.

The ERBI has only been tracking participation rates since 1987, a relatively short window, but still a bad pattern has clearly emerged: Workers are less likely to participate after the stock market drops, so they lose out when the market recovers.

The participation of wage and salary workers peaked in 2000 at 51.6%, right before a 3-year bear market that saw the compound annual growth rate (the CAGR, which includes dividends) of the S & P 500 declining 9.11% in 2000, 11.98% in 2001, and 22.27% in 2002. In 2003 however, the S & P rebounded up 28.72%, but retirement plan participation rates continued to decline, hitting a low of 45.5% in 2006 before finally beginning to rise.

Then the same thing happened again after the financial crisis. Participation rates had peaked at 47.7% in 2007, before declining in 2008 when the S & P 500 dropped a whopping 37.22%. Even though the market began to bounce back immediately in 2009, participation rates continued to decline down to 44.2% until that trend finally reversed in 2013 according to the EBRI data released last week. With each stock market shock, the participation rate fell but never fully reached its previous high, so that the 2013 rate of 45.8% is still lower than the 46.1% participation rate seen in 1987.

This bears repeating: The participation rate in an employment-based retirement plan in 2013 was lower than it was in 1987. I don’t think I need to tell you what has happened to the S&P 500 from 1987 to 2013.

Now of course one could argue that it’s harder to save for retirement if your salary has been frozen, or your bonus was cut, or especially if you were forced to take a lower-paying job, as many who were able to stay employed throughout the recession experienced. Employers have also been scaling back or eliminating entirely company matches, which further disincentives workers from participating. But waiting until you start making more money to save for retirement is a losing game, especially if you subscribe to the new theory put forth by Thomas Piketty in his much-discussed but I suspect less-widely read book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Piketty’s thesis is that the return on capital in the twenty-first century will be significantly higher than the growth rate of the economy and more specifically the growth of wages (4% to 5% for return, barely 1.5% for wage growth.) Furthermore, the return on capital has always been greater than economic (and wage) growth, except for an anomalous period during the second half of the twentieth century when there was an exceptionally high rate of growth worldwide. It is the inequality of capital ownership that drives wealth inequality, a phenomenon that cannot be reversed as long as the rate of return continues to exceed the rate of growth, or as Piketty helpfully provides, R>G. (Full disclosure: I only read the introduction and then used the index to find sections that most interested me.)

If you apply R>G to retirement planning, it follows that it’s more important to be in the market than to wait for a raise or to reach the next step on the career ladder to start participating in a plan. The usual caveats apply: First you must get rid of any high-interest debt and create a three-month cushion for emergencies. But once you’re in a plan, if the economy—and your income along with it—hits some major bumps, it’s even more important to continue to contribute lest you miss out on the upside. Just remember: R>G.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

More on retirement investing:

Should I invest in bonds or bond mutual funds?

What is the right mix of stocks and bonds for me?

How often should I check my retirement investments?

Read next: Why Americans Can’t Answer the Most Basic Retirement Question

MONEY funds

George Soros Bets $500 Million On Bill Gross

George Soros
Billionaire George Soros, 84, is giving Bill Gross $500 million to invest for him. Rex Features via AP Images

Hedge fund titan George Soros is wagering half a billion dollars that bond king Bill Gross will excel in his new role at Janus.

Things are looking rosy for star bond fund manager Bill Gross, whose September departure from PIMCO—the fund company he founded—was accompanied by reports of tensions between Gross and other executives at the firm.

Now that Gross has moved to Janus Capital, where he manages the $440 million Global Unconstrained Bond Fund, it seems he’s getting a fresh start—plus some.

Not only did Janus see more than a billion dollars of new investments flow in last month, following Gross’s arrival, but the company also announced Thursday that hedge fund titan George Soros would be investing $500 million with Gross.

Quantum Partners, a vehicle for Soros’s investment, will see its money managed in an account that’s run parallel to but separate from the Unconstrained Bond Fund. That’s so Soros will be protected from sudden inflows or outflows caused by other investors, S&P Capital IQ mutual-fund research director Todd Rosenbluth told the Wall Street Journal.

Gross tweeted: “I & my team will manage your new unconstrained strategic acct. 24h/day. An honor to be chosen & an honor to be earned as well.”

Watch this video to learn more about what bond fund managers do:

MONEY Financial Planning

How Families Can Talk About Money Over Thanksgiving

Family Thanksgiving dinner
Lisa Peardon—Getty Images

Holiday get-togethers are a great time for extended family members to discuss topics like estate planning and eldercare. Here's how to get started.

While most Americans are focused on turkey dinners and Black Friday sales, some financial advisers look to Thanksgiving as a good time for families to bond in an unlikely way: by talking about money.

The holiday spirit and together-time can make it easier for families to discuss important financial matters such as parents’ wills, how family money is managed, retirement plans, charity and eldercare issues, advisers say.

While most parents and adult children believe these discussions are important, few actually have them, according to a study conducted last spring by Fidelity Investments. Family members may avoid broaching these sensitive subjects for fear of offending each other.

That is where advisers can shine.

“When you help different generations communicate and cooperate on topics that may keep them up at night, it bonds them as a family,” says Doug Liptak, an Atlanta-based adviser who facilitates family meetings for his clients. It can also help the adviser gain the next generation’s trust.

Advisers can encourage their clients to call family meetings. They can also offer to facilitate those meetings or suggest useful tips to families that would rather meet privately.

Talking Turkey

Family meetings should not be held over the holiday table after everyone has had a few drinks, but at another convenient time.

“That may mean in the living room the next afternoon, over dinner at a fun restaurant, or at a ski lodge,” says Morristown, N.J.-based adviser Stewart Massey, who has vacationed with clients’ families to help them hold such mini-summits.

It is critical to have an agenda “and be as transparent as possible,” he says. Discussion points should be written out and distributed to family members a few weeks ahead to avoid surprises. Massey also suggests asking clients which topics are taboo.

Liptak likes to meet one-on-one with family members before the meeting. If you can get to know the personalities and viewpoints of each family member and make everyone feel included and understood, you will be more effective, he says.

“You might have two siblings who are terrible with or ambivalent about money, while the youngest is financially savvy, but you can’t give one person more say,” says Liptak.

It also helps to get everyone motivated if the adviser brings in the client’s children or other family members ahead of time to teach them about money management topics, like how to invest, says Karen Ramsey, founder of RamseyInvesting.com, a Web-based advisory service.

Sometimes the clients are the adult children who are afraid to ask how the parents are set up financially or where documents are, she says.

Ramsey says advisers can help by letting clients and their families know that a little discomfort may come with the territory. She will say, and encourages her clients to say: “There’s something we need to talk about and we’ll all be a little uncomfortable, but it’s okay.”

The adviser can kick off a family meeting by asking leading questions, such as “What one thing would you like to accomplish as a family in 2015?” says Liptak. Then the adviser can take notes and continue to facilitate the discussion by making sure everyone gets heard and pulling out prepared charts and data when necessary.

Massey suggests families build some fun around the meetings. His clients often schedule them around the holidays and in the summer, often tucked into a vacation or weekend retreat. It is a good practice to have them regularly, like board meetings, he says.

And if the family has never had a meeting before?

“Don’t start with the heavy stuff,” says Liptak. “It’s a good time to focus on giving and generosity, like charities the family can contribute to.

“You can collaborate on an agenda for later for the bigger issues.”

MONEY stocks

Virtual Reality Makes Investing — Yes, Investing — Dangerously Fun

StockCity
StockCity from FidelityLabs

A new virtual reality tool from Fidelity makes navigating the stock market feel like a game—for better or worse.

There’s no question: Strapping on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and exploring StockCity, Fidelity’s new tool for investors, is oddly thrilling.

Admittedly, the fun may have more to do with the immersive experience of this 3D technology—with goggles that seamlessly shift your perspective as you tilt your head—than with the subject matter.

But I found it surprisingly easy to buy into the metaphor: As you glide through the virtual city that you’ve designed, buildings represent the stocks or ETFs in your portfolio, the weather represents the day’s market performance, and red and green rooftops tell you whether a stock is down or up for the day. Who wants to be a measly portfolio owner when you can instead be the ruler of a dynamic metropolis—a living, breathing personal economy?

Of course, there are serious limits to the tool in its current form. The height of a building represents its closing price on the previous day and the width the trading volume, which tell you nothing about, say, the stock’s historical performance or valuation—let alone whether it’s actually a good investment.

And, unless you’re a reporter like me or one of the 50,000 developers currently in possession of an Oculus Rift, you’re limited to playing with the less exciting 2D version of the program on your monitor (see a video preview below)—at least until a consumer version of the headset comes out in a few months, priced between $200 and $400.

Those flaws notwithstanding, if this technology makes the “gamification” of investing genuinely fun and appealing, that could be big deal. It could be used to better educate the public about the stock market and investing in general.

But it also raises a big question: Should investing be turned into a game, like fantasy sports?

There are dangers inherent in ostensibly educational games like Fidelity’s existing Beat the Benchmark tool, which teaches investing terms and demonstrates how different asset allocations have performed over various time periods. If you beat your benchmark, after all, what have you learned? A lot of research suggests that winning at investing tends to teach people the wrong lesson.

“Investors think that good returns originate from their investment skills, while for bad returns they blame the market,” writes Thomas Post, a finance professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and author of one recent study on the subject.

In reality, great performance in the stock market tends to depend more on luck than skill, even for the most expert investors. That’s why most people are best off putting their money into passive index funds and seldom trading. It also means there’s not a lot of value in watching the real-time performance of your stocks—in any number of dimensions.

MONEY financial advice

Tony Robbins Wants To Teach You To Be a Better Investor

Tony Robbins vists at SiriusXM Studios on November 18, 2014 in New York City.
Tony Robbins with his new book, Money: Master the Game. Robin Marchant—Getty Images

With his new book, the motivational guru is on a new mission: educate the average investor about the many pitfalls in the financial system.

It might seem odd taking serious financial advice from someone long associated with infomercials and fire walks.

Which perhaps is why Tony Robbins, one of America’s foremost motivational gurus and performance coaches, has loaded his new book Money: Master The Game with interviews from people like Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, investor Carl Icahn, Yale University endowment guru David Swensen, Vanguard Group founder Jack Bogle, and hedge-fund manager Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates.

Robbins has a particularly close relationship with hedge-fund manager Paul Tudor Jones of Tudor Investment Corporation.

“I really wanted to blow up some financial myths. What you don’t know will hurt you, and this book will arm you so you don’t get taken advantage of,” Robbins says.

One key takeaway from Robbins’ first book in 20 years: the “All-Weather” asset allocation he has needled out of Dalio, who is somewhat of a recluse. When back-tested, the investment mix lost money only six times over the past 40 years, with a maximum loss of 3.93% in a single year.

That “secret sauce,” by the way: 40% long-term U.S. bonds, 30% stocks, 15% intermediate U.S. bonds, 7.5% gold, and 7.5% commodities.

Tony’s Takes

For someone whose net worth is estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars and who reigned on TV for years as a near-constant infomercial presence, Robbins—whose personality is so big it seemingly transcends his 6’7″ frame—obviously knows a thing or two about making money himself.

Here’s what you might not expect: The book is a surprisingly aggressive indictment of today’s financial system, which often acts as a machine devoted to enriching itself rather than enriching investors.

To wit, Robbins relishes in trashing the fictions that average investors have been sold over the years. For instance, the implicit promise of every active fund manager: “We’ll beat the market!”

The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of active fund managers lag their benchmarks over extended periods—and it’s costing investors big time.

“Active managers might beat the market for a year or two, but not over the long-term, and long-term is what matters,” he says. “So you’re underperforming, and they look you in the eye and say they have your best interests in mind, and then charge you all these fees.

“The system is based on corporations trying to maximize profit, not maximizing benefit to the investor.”

Hold tight—there’s more: Fund fees are much higher than you likely realize, and are taking a heavy axe to your retirement prospects. The stated returns of your fund might not be what you’re actually seeing in your investment account, because of clever accounting.

Your broker might not have your best interests at heart. The 401(k) has fallen far short as the nation’s premier retirement vehicle. As for target-date funds, they aren’t the magic bullets they claim to be, with their own fees and questionable investment mixes.

Another of the book’s contrarian takes: Don’t dismiss annuities. They have acquired a bad rap in recent years, either for being stodgy investment vehicles that appeal to grandmothers, or for being products that sometimes put gigantic fees in brokers’ pockets.

But there’s no denying that one of investors’ primary fears in life is outlasting their money. With a well-chosen annuity, you can help allay that fear by creating a guaranteed lifetime income. When combined with Social Security, you then have two income streams to help prevent a penniless future.

Robbins’ core message: As a mom-and-pop investor, you’re being played. But at least you can recognize that fact, and use that knowledge to redirect your resources toward a more secure retirement.

“I don’t want people to be pawns in someone else’s game anymore,” he says. “I want them to be the chess players.”

MONEY Health Care

The 7 Biggest Health Problems Americans Face—And Who is Profiting

Bottles of prescription medicine in cabinet
Kim Karpeles—Getty Images/age fotostock

Here are the most-prescribed drugs in America.

Americans include two health-related issues among the 10 most important problems facing the U.S., according to a recent Gallup survey. Healthcare in general ranked fourth on the list, with Ebola coming in at no. 8. But is Ebola really among the biggest health problems for Americans? Not when we look at the chances of actually being infected.

So, what are the actual biggest health problems that Americans face? One way to answer this question is to look at what drugs are prescribed the most. Here are the seven top health problems based on the most-prescribed drugs in the U.S., according to Medscape’s analysis of data provided by IMS Health.

1. Hypothyroidism

AbbVie’s ABBVIE INC. ABBV 0.5531% Synthroid ranks at the top of the list of most-prescribed drugs. Synthroid is used to treat hypothyroidism, a condition caused by an underactive thyroid gland.

The American Thyroid Association estimates that 2%-3% of Americans have pronounced hypothyroidism, while 10%-15% have a mild version of the disease. Hypothyroidism occurs more frequently in women, especially women over age 60. Around half of Americans with the condition don’t realize that they have hypothyroidism.

2. High cholesterol and high triglycerides

Coming in at a close second on the list is AstraZeneca’s ASTRAZENECA PLC AZN 1.3664% Crestor. The drug is used to help control high cholesterol and high triglyceride levels.

According to the American Heart Association, nearly 99 million Americans age 20 and over have high cholesterol. Elevated cholesterol levels are one of the major risk factors for heart attacks and strokes. The problem is that you won’t know if you have high cholesterol unless you get tested — and around one in three Americans haven’t had their cholesterol levels checked in the last five years.

3. Heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease

AstraZeneca also claims the third most prescribed drug in the nation — Nexium. The “purple pill” helps treat hearburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, also commonly referred to as acid reflux.

Around 20% of Americans have GERD, according to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. A lot of people take over-the-counter medications, but that’s not enough for many others. Medscape reported that over 18.6 million prescriptions of Nexium were filled between July 2013 and June 2014.

4. Breathing disorders

The next two highly prescribed drugs treat breathing disorders. GlaxoSmithKline’s GLAXOSMITHKLINE PLC GSK 0.3869% Ventolin HFA is used by asthma patients, while the company’s Advair Diskus treats asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

More than 25 million Americans have asthma. Around 7 million of these patients are children. Meanwhile, COPD, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, ranks as the third-leading cause of death in the U.S.

5. High blood pressure

Novartis NOVARTIS AG NVS 1.3081% claims the next top-prescribed drug with Diovan. The drug treats high blood pressure by relaxing and widening blood vessels, thereby allowing blood to flow more readily.

Around one-third of American adults have high blood pressure. Many don’t know that they are affected, because the condition doesn’t usually manifest symptoms for a long time. However, high blood pressure can eventually lead to other serious health issues, including heart and kidney problems.

6. Diabetes

Several highly prescribed drugs combat diabetes, with Sanofi’s SANOFI S.A. SNY 0.6654% Lantus Solostar taking the top spot for the condition. Lantus Solostar is a long-acting basal insulin that is used for type 1 and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

According to the National Diabetes Statistics Report released in June 2014, 29.1 million Americans had diabetes in 2012. That’s a big jump from just two years earlier, when 25.8 million Americans had the disease. Diabetes ranks as the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.

7. Depression and anxiety

Eli Lilly’s ELI LILLY & CO. LLY 1.6043% Cymbalta fell just below Lantus Solostar in number of prescriptions. Cymbalta is the leading treatment for depression and generalized anxiety disorder.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 14.8 million Americans ages 18 and older suffer from a major depressive disorder each year. Around 3.3 million have persistent depressive disorder, a form of depression that lasts for two or more years. Generalized anxiety disorder affects around 6.8 million adults in the U.S.

Common thread for common diseases

One thing that stands out about several of these common diseases affecting millions of Americans is that many people have one or more of these conditions — but don’t know it. This underscores the importance of getting a checkup on a regular basis.

Regardless of what the Gallup survey found, the odds of you getting Ebola are very low. On the other hand, the chances of you or someone in your family already having one of these seven conditions could be higher than you might think. Perhaps the truly biggest healthcare challenge facing Americans is knowing the status of their own health.

MONEY Kids and Money

4 Costly Money Mistakes You’re Making With Your Kids

parents cheering softball players
Yellow Dog Productions—Getty Images

Help your kids become financially literate.

When you’re a parent, it’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day money issues: Which brand of milk is a better value? Is Old Navy having a school uniform sale? How much lunch money is left in the kids’ accounts? But parenting is ultimately about the long view, with the goal of raising capable, self-sufficient adults. Dealing with daily details, we sometimes neglect important money issues that can have a huge impact on our kids — and on our finances — as they prepare for college and adult life.

The mistake: Not talking enough about money

Too many parents don’t talk about money with their kids at all. Others skirt topics they don’t know much about, like investing and debt. Parents are the main source of money information for children, but 74% of parents are reluctant to discuss family finances with their kids, according to the 2014 T. Rowe Price Parents, Kids, and Money Survey. That’s too bad, because ignorance about money can set your kids up to make bad decisions — and eventually pass those bad habits on to your grandkids.

The solution: Make financial literacy a family value

In her book, Do I Look Like an ATM?: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Financially Responsible African American Children, Sabrina Lamb details “the business of your family household.” Lamb, founder and CEO of WorldofMoney.org, says all families should work together on five financial topics: learning, earning, saving, investing, and donating time or funds to causes you value. She recommends a daily diet of business news, occasional meetings between the kids, your banker, and other financial advisors, and support of your older kids’ entrepreneurial goals.

The mistake: Believing in the “Scholarship Fairy”

A lot of parents pin their hopes on pixie dust when it comes to funding their kids’ college educations. Eight in 10 parents think their kids will get scholarships. In the real world, less than one in 10 U.S. students receive private-sector scholarship money — an average of $2,000 apiece, according to FinAid.org.

Even more unrealistic is the myth that great grades and high test scores will lead to a full scholarship. The truth, per scholarship portal ScholarshipExperts.com, is there are many more 4.0-GPA students than there are full-tuition awards, and only one-third of one percent (0.3%) of all U.S. college students earn a full-ride scholarship each year. The time to learn this hard truth is now, not when college acceptance letters start arriving.

The solution: Save something now (or accept that you can’t)

There’s a considerable body of literature out there on the merits of 529s, trusts, and other college savings options. Don’t let the details distract you from the real issue, which is that if you want to help finance your child’s higher education, you must save regularly, starting now.

If there’s no money to save, be honest with your kids about it. You can start educating them about ways to finance college through loans and cut costs with community college transfer credit and placement tests. It’s perfectly acceptable to expect your kids to take responsibility for their own higher learning as long as you prepare them properly to face that reality.

The mistake: “Investing” in extracurricular activities

Everyone’s heard about overscheduled kids with too many after-school activities. Not as much is said about the huge dent extracurriculars can put in your budget — hundreds or thousands of dollars each year for lessons, league fees, uniforms, and more. If you’re sacrificing because you think these activities will pay off when your child gets an athletic scholarship, remember that the Scholarship Fairy is rarely seen. The odds of any particular student getting even a small athletic scholarship at a Division 1 school aren’t significantly better than the odds of a student getting a full-ride academic scholarship.

The solution: Treat extracurricular activities as extras

If your child loves soccer, piano, or hip-hop and you have the time and money to spare, that’s ideal. But if it’s a choice between paying for extras and saving for college, save for college. Find cheaper after-school options for now, and don’t apologize for making that decision.

The mistake: Not teaching your kids to negotiate

There’s a big distinction between a child who’s been taught how to speak up when appropriate and one who’s been trained to be passive in the face of authority. The kids who know how to negotiate tend to earn more money as adults, even when they’re doing the same jobs as those who keep quiet. Salary.com found last year that workers who negotiated a raise every three years earned a million more dollars over the course of their careers than workers who simply accepted whatever they were offered.

The solution: Teach your kids how to deal

Show your kids the ins and outs of deal making through trading games, doing some haggling at garage sales, and expecting them to keep their word. You can find specific age-appropriate suggestions here.

By talking about money and business a little each day, being realistic about college planning, and giving your kids the skills to advocate for themselves, you’ll give them long-term advantages when it comes to understanding and earning money. That’s a valuable legacy to pass from one generation to the next.

MONEY Warren Buffett

Why Warren Buffett Just Bought Duracell

Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images

All signs indicate that Buffett has once again found another wonderful business at a fair price.

The last few months have been a busy for Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and today we learned its buying spree continued.

It was announced this morning Berkshire has come to an agreement with Procter & Gamble THE PROCTER & GAMBLE CO. PG 1.7327% to buy battery manufacturer Duracell in exchange for the $4.7 billion worth of Procter & Gamble shares Berkshire held.

The details

At the end of June, Berkshire held roughly 53 million shares of Procter & Gamble worth nearly $4.2 billion, and since then P&G has seen its stock rise by almost 15%, explaining the $4.7 billion price tag.

When P&G released its earnings for the first quarter of fiscal 2015, it also announced that it would be exiting the Duracell business, preferably through the creation of a stand-alone company. At the time of the announcement, P&G’s CEO A.G. Lafley said:

We greatly appreciate the contributions of our Duracell employees. Since we acquired the business in 2005 as part of Gillette, Duracell has strengthened its position as the global market leader in the battery category. It’s a business with attractive operating profit margins and a history of strong cash generation. I’m confident the business and its employees will continue to thrive as its own company.

Then, P&G noted the reason behind the move was “consistent with its plans to focus and strengthen its brand and category portfolio,” and that “its goals in the process of exiting this business are to maximize value to P&G’s shareholders and minimize earnings per share dilution.”

Today, P&G noted that the $4.7 billion price tag for Duracell would represent an adjusted earnings before interest taxes and depreciation, or EBITDA, of seven-times fiscal year 2014’s.

The rationale

So, why would Buffett make such a move?

First, as highlighted by many news outlets like Bloomberg, similar to Berkshire’s previous deals in acquiring an energy subsidiary from Phillips 66 earlier this year, by exchanging P&G stock for the entirety of Duracell, Berkshire will be able to abstain from paying any capital gains taxes as if the P&G shares had been sold for cash.

Considering that the P&G stake stood on Berkshire’s books at a cost basis of just $336 million at the beginning of this year, the tax savings alone are a compelling value proposition for Berkshire Hathaway and its shareholders.

Also, knowing at heart Buffett’s always been a proponent of buying businesses at an appropriate price, the fact that the market traded at an 11.5-times EBITDA multiple in January of this year, according to the Stern School of Business at NYU, and the consumer electronics industry traded at nine-times EBITDA, then the $4.7 billion price tag seems more than reasonable.

In last year’s letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Buffett wrote that “more than 50 years ago, Charlie [Munger] told me that it was far better to buy a wonderful business at a fair price than to buy a fair business at a wonderful price.”

So, the consideration of the deal must extend beyond just the financial aspects of it. And Buffett’s words regarding the deal are quite telling.

In today’s announcement Buffett said:

I have always been impressed by Duracell, as a consumer and as a long-term investor in P&G and Gillette. Duracell is a leading global brand with top quality products, and it will fit well within Berkshire Hathaway.

It is of note that Buffett mentioned the Duracell brand first. One of my favorite Buffett quotes is:

“Buy commodities, sell brands” has long been a formula for business success. It has produced enormous and sustained profits for Coca-Cola since 1886 and Wrigley since 1891. On a smaller scale, we have enjoyed good fortune with this approach at See’s Candy since we purchased it 40 years ago.

And how is this applicable to Duracell?

Consider for a moment in its ranking of the Best Global Brands in 2014, Interbrand estimated that the brand value of Duracell stood at $4.9 billion, ahead of MasterCard ($4.8 billion) and narrowly trailing both Chevrolet and Ralph Lauren.

Said differently, Buffett paid less for Duracell — the company — than what one company estimated its brand value alone is worth.

Also, it isn’t just the Duracell brand that is compelling, but its business, too. P&G noted in its annual report that Duracell maintains over 25% of the global battery market share. And Interbrand noted in its report on the company:

Duracell continues to respond to consumer demands through innovation and new product launches. New technologies in rechargeable batteries, longer lasting energy storage times (Duralock) and synergies with wireless iPhone charging (PowerMat) demonstrate responsiveness to a changing marketplace. Duracell is working to further increase its presence by forging retailer-specific partnerships and nudging competitors out of view in the process.

Clearly, the company isn’t afraid of innovation, and it is responding to changing demands and desires of consumers.

The charge to the bottom line

We don’t know the details of how Duracell will fit in the massive empire that Berkshire Hathaway has become. But there is one thing we do know — to the delight of Berkshire’s shareholders — all signs indicate that Buffett has once again found another wonderful business at a fair price.

MONEY 401(k)s

The Big Flaws in Your 401(k), and How to Fix Them

Falling Short book cover

Badly designed 401(k) plans are a key reason Americans are headed towards a retirement crisis, a new book explains. Here are three moves that can help.

Every week seems to bring a new study with more scary data about the Americans’ looming retirement crisis—and it’s all too easy to tune out. Don’t. As a sobering new book, Falling Short, explains, the crisis is real and getting worse. And if you want to preserve your chances of a comfortable retirement, it’s time to take action.

One of the most critical problems is the flawed 401(k) plan, which is failing workers just as they need more help than ever. “The dream of the 401(k) has not matched the reality,” says co-author Charles Ellis. “It’s turned out to be a bad idea to ask people to become investing experts—most aren’t, and they don’t want to be.”

When it comes to money management, Ellis has plenty of perspective on what works and what doesn’t. Now 77, he wrote the investing classic Winning the Loser’s Game and founded the well-known financial consulting firm Greenwich Associates. His co-authors are Alicia Munnell, a prominent retirement expert who heads the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, and Andrew Eschtruth, the center’s associate director.

What’s wrong with the 401(k)? For basic behavioral reasons, workers consistently fail to take full advantage of their plans. Most enroll, or are auto-enrolled, at a low initial savings rate, often just 3% of pay— and they stay at that level, since few plans automatically increase workers’ contributions. Many employees borrow money from their plans, or simply cash out when they change jobs, which further erodes their retirement security. Even if investors are up to the task of money management, their 401(k)s may hamper their efforts. Many plans have limited investing menus, few index funds, and all too often saddle workers with high costs.

When you add it up, investor mismanagement, along with 401(k) design and implementation flaws, have cost Americans a big chunk of their retirement savings, according to a recent Center for Retirement Research study. Among working households headed by a 55- to 64-year-old, the median retirement savings—both 401(k)s and IRAs—is just $100,000. By contrast, if 401(k)s worked well, the median amount would have been $373,000, or $273,000 more. As things stand now, half of Americans are at risk of not being able to maintain their standard of living in retirement, according to the center’s research.

Can the 401(k) be fixed? Yes, the authors say, if employers adopt reforms such as auto enrollment, a higher automatic contribution rate, and the use of low-cost index funds. But even those changes won’t end the retirement crisis—after all, only half of private sector workers have an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Moreover, Americans face other economic challenges, including funding Social Security, increased longevity, and rising health care costs.

To address these problems, authors discuss possible policy changes, such as automatic IRAs for small businesses and proposals for a new national retirement plan. Still, major reforms are unlikely to happen soon. Meanwhile, there’s a lot you can do now to improve your odds of a comfortable retirement. The authors highlight these three moves to get you started:

Aim to save 14%: The best way to ensure that you actually save is to make the process automatic. That’s why few people consistently put away money without help from a company retirement plan. If you save 14% of your income each year, starting at age 35, you can expect to retire comfortably at age 67, the authors’ research shows. Start saving at age 25, and put away 12%, and you may be able to retire at 65. If you get a 401(k) matching contribution, that can help your reach your goal.

Choose low-cost index funds. One of the smartest ways to pump up your savings is to lower your investment fees—after all, each dollar you pay in costs reduces your return. Opt for index funds and ETFs, which typically charge just 0.2% or less. By contrast, actively managed stock funds often cost 1.4% or more, and odds are, they will lag their benchmarks.

Adjust your goals to match reality. You 401(k) account isn’t something you can set and forget. Make sure you’re saving enough, and that your investments still match your risk tolerance and goals—a lot can change in your life over two or more decades. The good news is that you can find plenty of free online calculators, both inside and outside your plan, to help you stay on course.

If you’re behind in your savings, consider working a few years longer if you can. By delaying retirement, you give yourself the opportunity to save more, and your portfolio has more time to grow. Just as important, each year that you defer your Social Security claim between the ages of 62 and 70 will boost the size of your benefit by 8% a year. “You get 76% more at age 70 than you will at age 62,” says Ellis. If working till 70 isn’t your idea of an dream retirement, then you have plenty of incentive to save even more now.

More on 401(k)s:
Why Millennials are flocking to 401(k)s in record numbers
Why your 401(k) may only return 4%
This Nobel economist nails what’s really wrong with your 401(k)

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser