Is the Stock Market Casting a Spell on Investors?

After the financial markets posted another strong performance during the first half of this year, the word “magic” keeps coming to mind! And it’s not just because the word offers an apt description of the pretty wizardly stock market returns lately.

bull-markets-604cs030413My current interest in sorcery also comes from observing a noticeable shift in investor behavior. Just a few years ago, some investors were very apprehensive about stocks, and very reticent to take on very much risk in their investment plans. But in recent months, some of these folks seem to have come under a magic spell and have begun to appreciate the potential rewards (and the risks?) of equity investing.

It’s certainly understandable how the stock market’s performance may have brewed a mystical tonic to bring investors back to stocks. During the first half of 2014, the Standard & Poors 500 Index (the “S&P 500”), a well known and broad measure of the US stock market, gained 7.14% through June 30, 2014.

Hot Equity Market!
These returns came after two consecutive excellent years in 2013 and 2012 when that same index posted increases of 32.39% and 16%, respectively. Since the bear market bottom on March 9, 2009, the S&P 500 has gained a whopping 221.17% through June 30, 2014. The impressive results seem to be the investment equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat!

Earlier this year, I began to hear conservative investors expressing a desire to increase their equity investments. My personal observation of this apparent growing appetite for stocks, combined with other anecdotal evidence of such interest, raises important questions for all investors.

magicoDoes the more optimistic tone in business and among investors makes this a good time to seek out potentially greater investment rewards? Or, are investors setting themselves up to be potentially disappointed if the equity markets shift unexpectedly to a downward trend?

Of course, it is great news that there is more optimism in the air! A more positive economic outlook, an improving job market, and healthy stock returns reflect an environment that some thought just a few years ago could have only come about through economic sleight of hand!

And although there remain some concerns about the strength of the current economic recovery, the current financial climate is certainly far more encouraging than it has been for several years. But does that mean you should increase your exposure to equity investments?

That’s a question which wizards or financial advisors should not answer hastily. Any investment shift, especially a significant change, provides both risks and opportunities that should be evaluated based primarily upon an investor’s financial goals and circumstances, as well as that individual’s risk tolerance. Conversely, the decision should NOT be based on which investments have offered the best returns most recently.

Chasing Attractive Market Returns?
Unfortunately, investors, to their own detriment, sometimes pursue investments that have fared well in the short term, but which might not be priced to perform so well in the future. Some financial journalists have recently suggested that investors who want to reconsider their investment strategies or asset allocation might be acting irrationally, or adding risk to their portfolios at exactly the wrong time.

I don’t completely agree with that perspective since an investor might have valid reasons for re-considering their financial goals and/or their personal circumstances might have changed. Also, stocks might not be so outrageously priced relative to historical valuation models that would suggest a plunge is necessarily imminent (though a wizard would need a crystal ball to know with certainty).

Should You Change Your Investment Path?
iStock_000011359435XSmall appian bottomStill, prudence may likely be the order of the day. Investors should establish and stick with a disciplined asset allocation strategy and look for opportunities to “rebalance” back to your model. That discipline might suggest that selling some stock might be timely if your model is out of balance.

Although we all might wish for a magic wand to make profitable investment decisions, not even the best wizards can time the markets or guarantee investment outcomes. Instead, investors should consider using time-tested investment principles and potions in managing their portfolios. As always, if you have any financial or investment related questions, please send me an email message at or call at (925) 301-4086

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult me prior to investing.

Financial Choices: College, Retirement, or Both?

Life is full of choices. Should you watch Breaking Bad or Modern Family? Eat leftovers for dinner or order out? Exercise before work or after? Some choices, though, are much more significant. Here is one such financial dilemma for parents.

Should you save for retirement or college?
DSCN8976It’s the paramount financial conflict many parents face, especially as more couples start having children later in life. Should you save for college or retirement? The pressure is fierce on both sides.

Over the past 20 years, college costs have grown roughly 4% to 6% each year–generally double the rate of inflation and typical salary increases–with the price for four years at an average private college now hitting $192,876, and a whopping $262,917 at the most expensive private colleges.

Even public colleges, whose costs a generation ago could be covered mostly by student summer jobs and some parental scrimping, now total about $100,000 for four years (Source: College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2013 and assumed 5% annual college inflation). Many parents have more than one child, adding to the strain. Yet without a college degree, many jobs and career paths are off limits.

On the other side, the pressure to save for retirement is intense. Longer life expectancies, disappearing pensions, and the uncertainty of Social Security’s long-term fiscal health make it critical to build the biggest nest egg you can during your working years.

In order to maintain your current standard of living in retirement, a general guideline is to accumulate enough savings to replace 60% to 90% of your current income in retirement–a sum that could equal hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. And with retirements that can last 20 to 30 years or longer, it’s essential to factor in inflation, which can take a big bite out of your purchasing power and has averaged 2.5% per year over the past 20 years (Source: Consumer Price Index data published by the U.S. Department of Labor, 2013).

So with these two competing financial needs and often limited funds, what’s a parent to do?

conventional_wisdom_7-10-2012The prevailing wisdom
Answer: retirement should win out. Saving for retirement should be something you do no matter what. It’s an investment in your future security when you’ll no longer be bringing home a paycheck, and it generally should take precedence over saving for your child’s college education.

It’s akin to putting on your own oxygen mask first, and then securing your child’s. Unless your retirement plan is to have your children be on the hook for taking care of you financially later in life, retirement funding should come first.

And yet…
It’s unrealistic to expect parents to ignore college funding altogether, and that approach really isn’t smart anyway because regular contributions–even small ones–can add up over time. One possible solution is to figure out what you can afford to save each month and then split your savings, with a focus on retirement. So, for example, you might decide to allocate 85% of your savings to retirement and 15% to college, or 80/20 or 75/25, or whatever ratio works for you.

Although saving for retirement should take priority, setting aside even a small amount for college can help. For example, parents of a preschooler who save $100 per month for 15 years would have $24,609, assuming an average 4% return. Saving $200 per month in the same scenario would net $49,218.*

These aren’t staggering numbers, but you might be able to add to your savings over the years, and if nothing else, think of this sum as a down payment–many parents don’t save the full amount before college. Rather, they try to save as much as they can, then look for other ways to help pay the bills at college time. Like what?

file000195499258Loans, for one. Borrowing excessively isn’t prudent, but the federal government allows undergraduate students to borrow up to $27,000 in Stafford Loans over four years–a relatively reasonable amount–and these loans come with an income-based repayment option down the road.

In addition, your child can apply for merit scholarships at the colleges he or she is applying to, and may be eligible for need-based college grants. And there are other ways to lower costs–like attending State U over Private U, living at home, graduating in three years instead of four, earning credits through MOOCs (massive open online courses), working during college, or maybe not attending college right away or even at all.

In fact, last summer, a senior vice president at Google responsible for hiring practices at the company noted that 14% of some teams included people who never went to college, but who nevertheless possessed the problem solving, leadership, intellectual humility, and creative skills Google is looking for (“In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal,” New York Times, June 19, 2013). One more reason to put a check in the retirement column.

The Decision to Pay Off Your Mortgage in Retirement

For many homeowners, paying off a mortgage is a financial milestone. This is especially true when you are retired. Not having the burden of a monthly mortgage payment during retirement can free up money to help you live the retirement lifestyle you’ve always wanted.

To pay off, or not to pay off: that is the question
NRT-payoffmortgageQ413_02Some retirees are lucky enough to have paid off their mortgage before they reach retirement. For others, however, that monthly obligation continues. If you are retired, you may be wondering whether you should pay off your mortgage. Unfortunately, there’s no one answer that’s right for everyone. Instead, the answer will depend upon a variety of factors and how they relate to your individual situation.

Return on retirement investments vs. mortgage interest rate
One way many retirees pay off their mortgage is by using funds from their retirement investments. To determine whether this is a good option for you, you’ll need to consider the current and anticipated rate of return on your retirement investments versus your current mortgage interest rate. In other words, do you expect to earn a higher after-tax rate of return on your current retirement investments than the after-tax interest rate you currently pay on your mortgage (i.e., the interest rate that you’re paying, factoring in any mortgage interest deduction you’re entitled to)?

For example, assume you pay an after-tax mortgage interest rate of 4%. You are considering withdrawing funds from your retirement investments to pay off your mortgage balance. In general, you would need to earn an after-tax return of greater than 4% on your retirement investments to make keeping your money invested for retirement the smarter choice.

On the other hand, if your retirement funds are primarily held in investments that typically offer a lower rate of return than the interest rate you pay on your mortgage, you may be better off withdrawing your retirement funds to pay off your mortgage.

Additional considerations
As you weigh your options, you’ll also want to consider these additional points:

– Effect on retirement nest egg: If you rely on your retirement savings for most of your income during retirement, you should generally avoid paying off your mortgage if it will end up depleting a significant portion of your retirement savings. Ideally, you should pay off your mortgage only if you have a small mortgage balance in comparison to your overall retirement nest egg.

file00032137357– Tax consequences: Keep in mind that if you are going to withdraw funds from a retirement account to pay off your mortgage, there are some potential tax consequences you should be aware of. First, if you withdraw pretax funds from a retirement account, the amount you withdraw is generally taxable. As a result, you’ll want to be sure to account for the taxes you’ll have to pay on the amount you withdraw from pretax funds. Depending on your tax bracket, that could be a significant amount.

In addition, if you take a large enough distribution from your retirement account, you could end up pushing yourself into a higher income tax bracket. Finally, unless you are 59½ or older, you may pay a penalty for early withdrawal.

– Comfort with mortgage debt: For many retirees, a monthly mortgage obligation can be a heavy burden. If no longer having a mortgage would give you greater peace of mind, give the emotional benefits of paying off your mortgage some extra consideration.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing. The tax information provided is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax planning advice. We suggest that you consult with a qualified tax advisor.

Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2014

Should You Rollover a 401(k) to an IRA?

If you’re entitled to a distribution from your 401(k) plan (for example, because you’ve left your job, or you’ve reached age 59½), and it’s rollover-eligible, you may be faced with a choice. Should you take the distribution and roll the funds over to an IRA, or should you leave your money where it is?

Across the universe
file000290322202In contrast to a 401(k) plan, where your investment options are limited to those selected by your employer (typically mutual funds or employer stock), the universe of IRA investments is virtually unlimited. For example, in addition to the usual IRA mainstays (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and CDs), an IRA can invest in real estate, options, limited partnership interests, or anything else the law (and your IRA trustee/custodian) allows.*

You can move your money among the various investments offered by your IRA trustee, and divide up your balance among as many of those investments as you want. You can also freely move your IRA dollars among different IRA trustees/custodians–there’s no limit on how many direct, trustee-to-trustee IRA transfers you can do in a year. This gives you the flexibility to change trustees as often as you like if you’re dissatisfied with investment performance or customer service. It also allows you to have IRA accounts with more than one institution for added diversification.

However, while IRAs typically provide more investment choices than a 401(k) plan, there may be certain investment opportunities in your employer’s plan that you cannot replicate with an IRA. And also be sure to compare any fees and expenses.

Know the Distribution Rules
The distribution options available to you and your beneficiaries in a 401(k) plan are typically limited. And some plans require that distributions start if you’ve reached the plan’s normal retirement age (often age 65), even if you don’t yet need the funds.

file000478245189With an IRA, the timing and amount of distributions is generally at your discretion. While you’ll need to start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your IRA after you reach age 70½ (and your beneficiary will need to take RMDs after you die), those payments can generally be spread over your (and your beneficiary’s) lifetime. (You aren’t required to take any distributions from a Roth IRA during your lifetime, but your beneficiary must take RMDs after your death.) A rollover to an IRA may let you and your beneficiary stretch distributions out over the maximum period the law permits, letting your nest egg enjoy the benefits of tax deferral as long as possible.

The RMD rules also apply to 401(k) plans–but a special rule allows you to postpone taking distributions until you retire if you work beyond age 70½. (You also must own no more than 5% of the company.) This deferral opportunity is not available for IRAs. Note: Distributions from 401(k)s and IRAs may be subject to federal income tax, and a 10% early distribution penalty (unless an exception applies). (Special rules apply to Roth 401(k)s and Roth IRAs.)

Gimme shelter – Don’t Forget About Creditor Protection
file000419755272Your 401(k) plan may offer better creditor protection than an IRA. Assets in most 401(k) plans receive virtually unlimited protection from creditors under a federal law known as ERISA. Your creditors cannot attach your plan funds to satisfy any of your debts and obligations, regardless of whether you’ve declared bankruptcy. (Note: individual (solo) 401(k) plans and certain church plans are not covered by ERISA.)

In contrast, traditional and Roth IRAs are generally protected under federal law only if you declare bankruptcy. Federal law currently protects your total IRA assets up to $1,245,475 (as of April 1, 2013)–plus any amount you roll over from your 401(k) plan. Any creditor protection your IRA may receive in cases outside of bankruptcy will generally depend on the laws of your particular state. If you’re concerned about asset protection, be sure to seek the assistance of a qualified professional.

Let’s stay together
Another reason to roll your 401(k) funds over to an IRA is to consolidate your retirement assets. This may make it easier for you to monitor your investments and your beneficiary designations, and to make desired changes. However, make sure you understand how Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) limits apply if you keep all your IRA funds in one financial institution.

Fools rush in
While some 401(k) plans provide an annuity option, most still don’t. By rolling your 401(k) assets over to an IRA annuity, you can annuitize all or part of your 401(k) dollars. Many 401(k) plans have loan provisions, but you can’t borrow from an IRA. You can only access the money in an IRA by taking a distribution, which may be subject to income tax and penalties.

Is the Stock Market Rigged?

file0001031687320Is the stock market rigged in favor of high-speed electronic trading firms? Perhaps, but that shouldn’t matter to most investors.

Last week, media reports and a new book by author Michael Lewis have focused on a form of high-frequency stock trading where professional traders use sophisticated computers and complex programming to see stock orders coming in and position themselves ahead of the orders as middlemen between existing buyers and sellers.

All of this is done very rapidly, over and over again, often netting the high-frequency trader a few pennies on the stock price. While short-term traders fight it out at lightning speeds over these pennies, long-term investors are generally above the fray. If you are an investor focused on the longer term fundamentals of an investment, generally speaking, you have little to fear over the very small price moves caused by high-frequency trading.

file7781266798375High-frequency trading has been gathering headlines for 15 years. But, in recent years, this trading has shown some signs of stressing the fabric of the markets, for example, with the May 6, 2010 “flash crash,” when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 1,000 points in just minutes, then rebounded by the end of the day. Investors should bear the risk of their investment; they should not have to bear the risk of whether the markets are functioning fairly or effectively. In response, regulators have taken some action.

The Dodd-Frank legislation, passed in 2010, effectively restricted high-frequency trading by the big banks. Yet, not everyone sees high-frequency trading as a negative; some mutual fund companies have publically noted that using such strategies reduces transaction costs and benefits the investors in their funds.

In short, high-frequency trading may create small inefficiencies over the short run, but for long-term investors it has little impact on achieving their financial goals.

As always, if you have questions, I encourage you to contact me at or at (925) 301-4086.

April 2014 Newsletter: Are You Ready to “Spring” Forward?

file7001235656807After a difficult winter which saw many parts of the Midwest and East Coast suffer through severe cold and snow, there is no doubt that much of the country is ready for Spring! And although many in California are likely wishing for our own winter-like conditions to ease the drought, there is still no denying the appeal of the new season.

Spring brings with it, of course, the blossoming of nature as the warmer temperatures and longer days have their desired effect. For some, the start of a new baseball season is also part of the appeal! But I think this particular Spring brings with it the possibilities for other kinds of renewal and regrowth that do not have to be limited to the natural world.

We are now five years past the 2008-09 Great Recession. The journey to the current economic recovery from that difficult time has not always been smooth or in a straight line, but a recovery has nonetheless occurred. And according to some economists, it is possible, if not likely, that the recovery in 2014 may even accelerate from the modest improvement we have seen in recent years.

This potentially more positive economic landscape may provide an exciting opportunity to seek out rejuvenation and new opportunities in your own life. For example, you could consider using this time to evaluate a different career path or new career/professional endeavors.

This could also be a great time to review your personal and financial goals and/or develop a comprehensive financial and investment plan if you have not recently done so. The seeds of those efforts, whether in your professional, personal, or financial life, could create your own Spring bounty in the future!

Earlier in March, we moved our clocks ahead for daylight savings time. Perhaps the following articles will help you “spring” forward to whatever changes you may be considering in 2014:

The Most Critical Step in Starting a Business
In today’s challenging world of traditional employment, starting your own business or endeavor might be an appealing career alternative, especially if you have an idea about how to fill an unmet market need. Here are some thoughts about preparing to make venture your fly! Read more…

Resources for Mid Life Professionals Going Back to School
It’s not unusual for people in the midst of professional change to consider going back to school to enhance their current knowledge or to enter an entirely new field. Learn about some resources that can help you evaluate such a change is right for you. Read more…

Baseball and Financial Planning
Spring training is a tradition that baseball teams and baseball fans look forward to every year. As this year’s baseball season gets under way, here are a few lessons from America’s pastime that might help you reevaluate your finances. Read more…

Impact of Health Care Costs on Social Security
Medical expenses, and particularly Medicare premiums, will likely reduce the money you receive from Social Security at the time you retire. Get the facts about the relationship between these two important US Government benefit programs, and how you can accurately plan for what you will receive from Social Security. Read more…

I hope that the turning of the season is positive for you and your loved ones, and that these articles may inspire you to move toward your goals in 2014! As always, please do not hesitate to contact me at (925) 301-4086 or send me an email if you have any questions about these or other financial topics!

The Impact of Health-Care Costs on Social Security

For many retirees and their families, Social Security provides a dependable source of income. In fact, for the majority of retirees, Social Security accounts for at least half of their income (Source: Fast Facts & Figures About Social Security, 2013). However, more of that income is being spent on health-related costs each year, leaving less available for other retirement expenses.

The importance of Social Security
NPT-HEALTHSSI0114_02Social Security is important because it provides a retirement income you can’t outlive. In addition, benefits are available for your spouse based on your benefit amount during your lifetime, and at your death in the form of survivor’s benefits. And, these benefits typically are adjusted for inflation (but not always; there was no cost-of-living increase for the years 2010 and 2011). That’s why for many people, Social Security is an especially important source of retirement income.

Rising health-care costs
You might assume that when you reach age 65, Medicare will cover most of your health-care costs. But in reality, Medicare pays for only a portion of the cost for most health-care services, leaving a potentially large amount of uninsured medical expenses.

How much you’ll ultimately spend on health care generally depends on when you retire, how long you live, your health status, and the cost of medical care in your area. Nevertheless, insurance premiums for Medicare Part B (doctor’s visits) and Part D (drug benefit), along with Medigap insurance, could cost hundreds of dollars each month for a married couple. In addition, there are co-pays and deductibles to consider (e.g., after paying the first $147 in Part B expenses per year, you pay 20% of the Medicare-approved amount for services thereafter). Your out-of-pocket yearly costs for medical care, medications, and insurance could easily exceed thousands of dollars.

Medicare’s impact on Social Security
Most people age 65 and older receive Medicare. Part A is generally free, but Parts B and D have monthly premiums. The Part B premium generally is deducted from your Social Security check, while Part D has several payment alternatives. In 2013, the premium for Part B was $104.90 per month.

file0001017820579The cost for Part D coverage varies, but usually averages between $30 and $60 per month (unless participants qualify for low-income assistance). Part B premiums have increased each year and are expected to continue to do so, while Part D premiums vary by plan, benefits provided, deductibles, and coinsurance amounts. And, if you enroll late for either Part B or D, your cost may be permanently increased.

In addition, Medicare Parts B and D are means tested, meaning that if your income exceeds a predetermined income cap, a surcharge is added to the basic premium. For example, an individual with a modified adjusted gross income between $85,000 and $170,000 may pay an additional 40% for Part B and an additional $11.60 per month for Part D.

Note: Part C, Medicare Advantage plans, are offered by private companies that contract with Medicare to provide you with all your Part A and Part B benefits, often including drug coverage. While the premiums for these plans are not subtracted from Social Security income, they are increasing annually as well.

The bottom line
The combination of rising Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket health-care costs can use up more of your fixed income, such as Social Security. As a result, you may need to spend more of your retirement savings than you expected for health-related costs, leaving you unable to afford large, unanticipated expenses. Depending on your circumstances, spending more on health-care costs, including Medicare, may leave you with less available for other everyday expenditures and reduce your nest egg, which can impact the quality of your retirement.

What Baseball Can Teach You about Financial Planning

Spring training is a tradition that baseball teams and baseball fans look forward to every year. No matter how they did last year, teams in spring training are full of hope that a new season will bring a fresh start. As this year’s baseball season gets under way, here are a few lessons from America’s pastime that might help you reevaluate your finances.

Sometimes you need to proceed one base at a time
NFP-Baseball0314_02There’s nothing like seeing a home run light up the scoreboard, but games are often won by singles and doubles that get runners in scoring position through a series of base hits. The one base at a time approach takes discipline, something that you can apply to your finances by putting together a financial plan.

What are your financial goals? Do you know how much money comes in, and how much goes out? Are you saving regularly for retirement or for a child’s college education? A financial plan will help you understand where you are now and help you decide where you want to go.

It’s a good idea to cover your bases
Baseball players minimize the odds that a runner will safely reach a base by standing close to the base to protect it. What can you do to help protect your financial future? Try to prepare for life’s “what-ifs.” For example, buy the insurance coverage you need to make sure you and your family are protected–this could be life, health, disability, long-term care, or property and casualty insurance. And set up an emergency account that you can tap instead of dipping into your retirement funds or using a credit card when an unexpected expense arises.

You can strike out looking, or strike out swinging
file3151239849849Fans may have trouble seeing strikeouts in a positive light, but every baseball player knows that striking out is a big part of the game. In fact, striking out is much more common than getting hits. The record for the highest career batting average record is .366, held by Ty Cobb. Or, as Ted Williams once said, “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”

In baseball, there’s even more than one way to strike out. A batter can strike out looking by not swinging at a pitch, or strike out swinging by attempting, but failing, to hit a pitch. In both cases, the batter likely waited for the right pitch, which is sometimes the best course of action, even if it means striking out occasionally.

So how does this apply to your finances? First, accept the fact that you’re going to have hits and misses, but that doesn’t mean you should stop looking for financial opportunities. For example, when investing, you have no control over how the market is going to perform, but you can decide what to invest in and when to buy and sell, according to your investment goals and tolerance for risk.

Warren Buffett, who is a big fan of Ted Williams, strongly believes in waiting for the right pitch. “What’s nice about investing is you don’t have to swing at pitches,” Buffett said. “You can watch pitches come in one inch above or one inch below your navel, and you don’t have to swing. No umpire is going to call you out. You can wait for the pitch you want.”

Note: All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal.

Every day is a brand-new ball game
When the trailing team ties the score (often unexpectedly), the announcer shouts, “It’s a whole new ball game!” Or, as Yogi Berra famously put it, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” Whether your investments haven’t performed as expected, or you’ve spent too much money, or you haven’t saved enough, there’s always hope if you’re willing to learn both from what you’ve done right and from what you’ve done wrong.

Pitcher and hall-of-famer Bob Feller may have said it best. “Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day, and that’s the way baseball is.”

Starting a Business: Make Sure You Have a Plan!

A Business Plan Is Your Vision of Success

business-plan-writerWhat is your business’s key to success? Unique products, flawless customer service, nimble operations–or something entirely different? As a business owner, you may instinctively know what makes your organization succeed in today’s competitive marketplace. A business plan helps you share that knowledge with important stakeholders–including key employees and potential investors and lenders.

A good business plan tells the story of your company, illustrating where you are now and where you hope to be in three to five years. It provides a detailed description of your organization’s current state and paints a picture of what it will look like in the future. Most important, it provides–in as few words as possible–the information others will need to make financial and strategic decisions, and is typically organized using the following sections.

Cover page and table of contents
The cover page is simply a title page for your business plan document. It should include the name of the company, address, phone number, owners’ names, and contact information. It should also include the date on which the document was finalized and published. The table of contents helps readers navigate through the document and identifies page numbers for each of the sections.

Executive summary
The executive summary is essentially your elevator pitch–an abridged version of the business plan that describes to readers why your business is worthy of their attention and possibly their investment. It should be no longer than one page, but should contain all pertinent details.

For this reason, it is often easier to write this section last. It should answer readers’ primary questions–i.e., are you looking for funding, is the document a roadmap for management, or both? As you draft your executive summary, keep in mind that many readers will decide whether the subsequent pages are worth reviewing based on this important section.

Business description
great-business-plan1This section should provide more detail on the nature of your business. What product or service do you provide, and how is it produced? Who are your key advisors and managers, and how does their experience benefit your organization?

What is your legal structure? Where are you located and why did you choose this location? You might also want to use this section to describe the genesis of your business–i.e., how and why you decided to launch the venture. Was there an industry gap you wanted to fill? A need you could meet? What makes your business idea worth pursuing?

Market analysis and marketing strategy
Perhaps the most influential section of your business plan, the market analysis is how you convince readers that your business will be successful. It should provide a specific and detailed analysis of your target market, including what you have done to maximize your opportunity within it. Who are your current and potential customers, and why?

Summarize any market research you have conducted to prove the viability of your business. How big is your potential market? Who are the major competitors, and what is your strategy for differentiating your company from them? If your business plan is intended for potential investors or lenders, this section will help convince them that you truly understand your market and are an expert in your industry.

If your plan is primarily designed to educate key employees, it will provide the basic information they need to strategize. This section should also summarize your marketing strategy, or how you will promote your products and services. Describe any planned advertising and communications tactics, as well as sales models.

This portion of the business plan is designed to help your readers understand where you are now, financially, and where you hope to be. You should include all current and projected (or “pro forma”) financial statements. These should include cash flow and income statements, as well as a balance sheet and break-even analysis. This section will likely be scrutinized the most, so be sure it is completed carefully. Its purpose is to educate readers about the use of resources–including any debt and equity financing you hope to get–proving to them that your company can and will manage money effectively.

Take time and care
Many business owners–particularly entrepreneurs just starting out–loathe spending time writing business plans, preferring instead to jump into the more exciting arenas of creating, selling, and managing their business. However, a business plan represents a critical opportunity to draw key stakeholders into your vision of a future filled with success. Be sure to devote the time needed to produce an effective and engaging document.

March 2014 Blog: Can You Win “Investment” Gold?

It’s not often that we can gain investment insights from an 18-year-old wunderkind.

1_3a104b11a55dd074a15f7c05a91b6a17Many of us marveled at the performance of American Mikaela Shiffrin at the Sochi Winter Olympics, where she became the youngest Olympic slalom champion. What makes Shiffrin remarkable is not only her success, but also her approach to the sport. Unlike many of her peers, while training she focused more on technique and practice — the discipline of ski racing — rather than on competing.

When Shiffrin lost footing and became airborne on the course, she was able to regain her position quickly as she had practiced her recovery many times before. Throughout all of her training, she took the long-term view. It can be difficult to take the long-term view in investing, particularly when we are challenged by bumps on the slope.

February, for example, provided investors with mixed signals. Colder and snowier-than-usual weather adversely affected many economic reports, causing uncertainty over the health of the economy to linger. Several high-profile companies also cited the negative impact of weather on future earnings.

Looking at the bigger picture, however, helps us regain our sense of balance. U.S. stock prices appear to be looking past weather disruptions and have rebounded back to near record highs following a soft start to the year. We see underlying strength in most economic indicators including a continued recovery in the housing market, which is supported by easier mortgage availability, limited home inventory, and near-record housing affordability.

20120121-RoyersfordPA-WinterStormLimerickSquare__5MF_Absent a severe storm in March, we expect more clarity on the health of the overall U.S. economy in April, when March economic data are released, and we still expect economic growth, as measured by real gross domestic product (GDP), to reach 3% in 2014, based upon many of the drags of 2013 fading, including U.S. tax increases and spending cuts and the European recession, and growth accelerating from additional hiring and capital spending by businesses.

The bond market also hit some bumps, as Puerto Rico was downgraded during the month by all three major credit rating agencies as a result of its large debt burden and multi-year recession. But municipal bond market investors have been thinking longer term and appeared to take the downgrades in stride by noting Puerto Rico is not reflective of the overall market.

Just last week, the broader bond market appeared to corroborate the move in stock prices by ignoring another batch of weather-impacted data and anticipating better growth. Bond investors also refocused on a Federal Reserve that remains on schedule to reduce bond purchases and eventually raise interest rates in late 2015.

Policymakers in Washington, D.C. appear to be taking the longer view as well by focusing less on partisan differences and more on overall economic health. Congress agreed to a “clean” debt ceiling increase without links to the Affordable Care Act or the Keystone XL pipeline.

This “clean” bill acted as a positive for the stock market, which may have rallied on the perception that a more business-friendly legislative environment may be developing. We continue to expect a 10-15% gain for U.S. stocks in 2014, as measured by the S&P 500 Index. (Derived from earnings per share for S&P 500 companies growing 5 – 10% and a rise of half a point in the price-to-earnings [PE] ratio.)

As we look back at the concerns we’ve had during the past month, we realize — just as Mikaela Shiffrin did on her gold medal run — that we’ve been here before. We know we can trust the discipline and practice of sound investing and stay focused on our long-term goals. Even those of us who are industry veterans can take a lesson from the young champion.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult me prior to investing. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and cannot be invested into directly. Unmanaged index returns do not reflect fees, expenses, or sales charges. Index performance is not indicative of the performance of any investment.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is a capitalization-weighted index of 500 stocks designed to measure performance of the broad domestic economy through changes in the aggregate market value of 500 stocks representing all major industries.

The economic forecasts set forth in this letter may not develop as predicted.

This research material has been prepared by LPL Financial.