Archives for July 2011

Fixing Social Security

I hope that you are having a great summer. It is amazing how fast the time goes. It feels like school just let out and now when I go into stores, I am seeing back to school signs!

In this issue of the Summit Financial Planning Newsletter, I am pleased to announce that we have successfully redesigned and launched our new website. We did this redesign to enhance our clients’ access to their personal investment data, to provide relevant information on today’s financial issues, and to better describe our services. Please click on the link below to see our new look.

Visit Summit’s New Website

Also, in this issue of our newsletter, we are featuring an article on the much debated topic of Social Security. This is a big concern that we hear about a lot in our office. Surprisingly, even the smallest steps that our government could take would make a big impact to solve the problem. Read on. I also encourage you to go to the link where you can play the “Social Security Game.” With this game, you are able to decide what YOU would do to solve the problem. It is really fun to do and eye opening!

Enjoy the rest of your summer.

Jennifer Luzzatto, CFA, CFP®

Social SecurityThese days, as Congress debates the debt ceiling issue, Social Security is suddenly front page news again. If you want to see the lighter side of the debate, click below:

Social Scrutiny Video

The first thing to understand is that there IS a solvency problem with Social Security. Alice Munnell, Director for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College University points out that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the Office of Management and the Budget and the Government Accountability Office, the benefits promised to future retirees exceed the scheduled taxes that are projected to be taken in. In fact, last year, Social Security began paying out more in benefits than it received in payroll taxes–years earlier than projected, due to the 2008 Great Recession.

The second thing to understand is that Social Security is not going away; too many people today and in the future depend on it for a crucial part of their retirement income. Munnell notes that Social Security accounts for 87% of non-earned income for the poorest third of households over age 65, 70% for the middle third and 37% for the highest third.

So the question becomes: how can Congress bring Social Security back into revenue balance. To help illustrate some of the trade-offs, the American Academy of Actuaries web site includes a game that allows all of us to fix Social Security–you can make your own adjustments by clicking on the link below:

$ Social Security Game $

You could, for example, move up by one year the day when people have to wait until age 67 to claim maximum benefits, and after that index the retirement age to maintain today’s ratio between expected retirement years and work years. This, alone, would solve 20% of the funding problem, and some would argue that it should have been done years ago.

As an alternative, you could reduce the annual cost of living adjustments in Social Security payments by half a percentage point. This would reduce the projected deficiency by 40%. Of course, it would also erode the purchasing power of elderly people who count on Social Security for a significant part of their income.

We could reduce benefits by 5% for future retirees, which would solve 31% of the problem.

Or we could reduce the benefit formula for the top half of earners, who theoretically are less dependent on Social Security in retirement. That would solve 43% of the projected Social Security deficit. It would also mean that people who are able to fund a comfortable retirement will get much less out of the system than they put into it.

On the other side of the ledger, we could incrementally increase the revenues going into the Social Security system. For instance, if we raised the payroll tax rate from the current 6.2% to 6.7% for employees and employers, 48% of the shortfall would go away. As an alternative, we could tax Social Security benefits like we do IRA and pension benefits, which would make up 14% of the projected shortfall.

As you can see, none of these proposals, by itself, will bring Social Security back to fiscal health. If you’re looking for an out-of-the-box solution to add to the mix, consider an article in the Christian Science Monitor, where former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich notes that a big (and largely undiscussed) problem with Social Security is the shifting balance of workers paying into the system to retirees collecting from it. Forty years ago, he says, there were five workers for every retiree; today, there are three. In 20 years, perhaps less, the ratio will be 2:1–that is, every two workers in America will have to pay whatever is required to support one retiree’s Social Security benefits.

As the deficit debate goes forward, you’ll hear a lot more about how to “fix” Social Security. Consider this a cheat sheet on the options that various parties will eventually put on the table.

Dimensional Fund Advisors: Who Are They and What Makes Them So Valuable to Investors? – Part 3

In my last blog, I focused on David G. Booth, one of the founding partners of Dimensional Funds. Today I will focus on his partner, Mr. Rex Andrew Sinquefield and his early years.

When I started writing these blogs, it seemed to me from my preliminary research that so much of whom DFA is and what makes them so special stems from the unique backgrounds of each of the founding partners. I have been especially intrigued with Mr. Sinquefield.

To me, Mr. Sinquefield embodies the true American dream. He has a real life rags to riches story that continues to unfold. I am amazed at how he overcame the obstacles of his childhood and used these experiences for the good. His could not have been the easiest of childhoods. Rex was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1945. At the age of 5, his father died. His mother fell into difficult financial times and as result, from the age of 8-14, Rex and his brother Jerry went to live at St. Vincent Home for Children in St. Louis, Missouri. Rex is quoted as saying that the orphanage was “a good family, a big extended family. It was a regimented orphanage. There, I developed a sense of responsibility and a work ethic.”   To this day, Mr. Sinquefield remains an active supporter of St. Vincent where he serves on the Board of Trustees. It is quoted that the most admirable character about him is that “he never forgot his roots and has compassion for the orphans that St. Vincent serves today.” It goes further to declare:  “How many wealthy people in this modern world will go back to serve honorably the orphanage where they grew? He has the worldly possessions but is full of compassion. He shares his wealth with the indigent and the needy.”

After leaving St. Vincent, Rex was reunited with his mother and older sisters. He remained in St. Louis where he graduated from Bishop DuBourg High School in 1962. In 1964, he enrolled in seminary, but left feeling that he “wasn’t settled yet” and ended up attending St. Louis University where he graduated in 1967 with a B.S. in Business.  Rex was also drafted and sent to Fort Riley, Kansas for two years. Rex ultimately “landed in a place where his life’s profession was found” by attending the University of Chicago.   He is quoted as saying, “I went to the University of Chicago for an MBA. There, I got my first heavy duty exposure to the notions of efficient markets, the notion capital markets really do work well. They’re informationally efficient. That influenced quickly what I wanted to do.” During his time at the University of Chicago, Rex studied and researched historical stock market returns and the emergent new academic field of index funds. “These theories have influenced the way investing has operated ever since”, Rex noted. He goes further to say: “I was in a fortunate position to start and operate the world’s first S&P index fund. That was an idea I had in business school. I wasn’t the only one who had that idea. For those of us who were hard core students of financial economics at the time-this is 1970-72-the idea of building a market portfolio was probably a very good strategy, but was nonexistent in the real world. It was quite a challenge to persuade those on the outside that this model made a lot of sense. It was a battle of ideas.”

Wow…am I really understanding this correctly? Rex Sinquefield was the first one to start and operate the world’s first S&P index fund?!!  Well, since the purpose of this series of blogs is to understand why Dimensional Funds is different, I would list this one as a big difference.  Their insight, creativity, and financial trend setting are some of the many things that separate them from other funds.

In my next blog, I will continue with Rex’s story and focus on the creation of Dimensional Fund Advisors and his time there.




– Sharon Kinter, Associate Financial Planner and Budget Coach, 09-July-2011