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Dow drops 1,400 points in two days? Ho-hum

The stock market plunges over two days! Volatility ripples around the world! Do rising interest rates signal the end of bull market? Pardon me if I yawn. After 20 years in the investment business and 14 years as a financial reporter at a daily newspaper I get bored with breathless news reports of impending catastrophe every time the stock market has a normal and expected hiccup.  I’m sorry, but a 1,400-point decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average just doesn’t get my blood flowing anymore. This week’s decline in stocks shouldn’t be upsetting to an experienced, focused investor. One reason is that 1,000 Dow points ain’t what they used to be, because the index has reached almost 27,000 in the past year. The higher it gets, the less 1,000 points means in percentage terms. This week’s drop amounted to a 5.2% decline. Compare that to a real decline, like the Oct. 19, 1987...

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Play the Social Security Waiting Game and Improve Your Retirement

Social Security gives you a broad range of options: Take the monthly payment as early as age 62, wait until “full” retirement age (age 66 for those retiring in the next few years), or wait until as late as age 70 to claim your benefit. The factor that makes this decision tough is the size of the benefit: Take it early and it will be reduced by as much as 25% from your full retirement age benefit (again, for most retirees now, at age 66). Delay the benefit until age 70 and get a payment that is 76% higher than the age 62 benefit. A good part of the claiming decision depends on your definition of the purpose of Social Security. Some workers see it as extra play money that is a reward for living to age 62. Others see it as an endangered benefit that could be reduced or eliminated in...

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A $1 million bet against the market goes sour

Last year marked the end of a 10-year, $1 million bet between New York hedge fund consultant Tom Seides and Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. In 2007 Seides bet that hedge funds – exclusive investment pools for sophisticated investors – could beat the stock market over a ten-year period. Buffett bet that the Standard & Poors 500 Index, which tracks the largest U.S. stocks, would come out ahead. Seides selected five top hedge funds as the proxy for his bet. He had reason to be hopeful: hedge funds are run by some of the smartest and most-highly-paid investment professionals. They are allowed to invest in a broad range of securities and to make changes on a moment’s notice in response to movements in markets, interest rates, and economic conditions. Hedge fund managers believe that by being nimble they can stay one step ahead of other investors. It was a rocky period...

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Skynet is controlling the markets!

Fans of the “Terminator” series of movies may have reason to worry that Skynet, the world-wide computer network that waged robotic war on mankind in the dystopic future, currently controls the world’s stock markets. In a way that’s what has been happening since last week, when stocks started a frantic headlong tumble. Within several days all of January’s stock market gains were wiped out as U.S. stocks, measured by the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, fell at least 8% from their recent highs. It is most likely that the large segment of the market controlled by automated trading algorithms caused the sharp volatility that halted a seemingly relentless 13-month rise in stock values. An algorithm is simply a set of rules that a computer uses to accomplish a specific end. When it comes to the markets, more and more speculative portfolios are traded automatically by algorithms that respond to changes in market...

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Why doesn’t my portfolio track the market?

Are you feeling frustrated on days when you hear the “market” has risen sharply but the gain in your portfolio doesn’t match popular market averages? You shouldn’t: If you have a well-diversified portfolio, it is probably doing just what it’s supposed to do. Always remember that there is a big difference between a diversified portfolio and “the market.” A diversified portfolio should include a mix of big and small stocks, domestic and international stocks, emerging markets stocks, government, corporate and/or municipal bonds, and commercial real estate investment trusts. “The market” is a measure that should include all of the publicly traded securities in the world. However, there is no easily accessible and long-term measure meeting those criteria. Most market indexes cover just a small portion of the world’s publicly-traded investment assets. For instance, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Stocks Index tracks the 500 largest stocks of U.S. companies. It leaves out thousands of...

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One step per month brings you closer to retirement

Workers in their fifties are headed toward eventual retirement but aren’t there quite yet. However, this is the time to start seriously preparing for an eventual departure from the full-time workforce. Decisions made now will have a positive or negative impact in five or ten years when it is time to retire. Here is a monthly guide for 2018 that will help you take steps now to ensure a comfortable retirement later. January: The holiday hubbub is behind you and now you can spend some time daydreaming about what you want out of retirement. Do you want to stay in your current home and community and travel? Do you want to downsize to a smaller home? Or do you want to move to another part of the country? Picturing your ideal retirement will help you take specific steps over the coming years to help you realize your dream. February: Check up on...

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Bitcoin buyers should prepare for disappointment

I’ve sometimes fantasized that every investor should have a mental version of the robot from the 1960s television series “Lost in Space,” so that when the investor gets a bright idea the robot can wave its arms and yell “Danger Will Robinson, Danger!” That robot is frantic today but few are listening. Instead, they are pouring money into bitcoin, the now-famous crypto-currency whose incredible gain in value may prove to be one of the biggest financial follies of the last 100 years. In case you don’t read through to the end of this story, let’s make the point up-front:  Bitcoin’s meteoric rise this year has all the hallmarks of the classic speculative bubble that could burst and wipe out lots of individual buyers. Investors are suddenly interested in bitcoin AFTER it has gained over 1,700% since the beginning of the year. Where were they in January? I don’t believe this is an extreme...

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Nobel economics prize recognizes the financial impact of irrational behavior

We may think we are making a considered, sober decision when buying a stock, taking out a home mortgage, or deciding how much to save for a future purchase. It’s not necessarily so, according to voluminous research in the burgeoning field of behavioral economics. This year the Nobel Prize committee decided to honor the work of one of the pioneers of the field, Richard H. Thaler of the University of Chicago. Previously it had awarded the same prize to Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University. Both economists have made it their life work to explain how human beings are generally irrational decision-makers. The rest of us should pay attention to their research before making our next big financial decision. Thaler was recognized for developing the theory of “mental accounting,” which argues that we try to simplify decision-making by creating separate accounts in our minds, which allows us to focus on the narrow impact...

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Social Security benefits rise by most in three years

Social Security recipients have a rare surprise to look forward to in 2018: a 2% increase in benefits, the Social Security Administration announced this month. It will be the biggest increase in benefits since 2011, when those collecting Social Security benefits saw a 3.6% increase. Benefit hikes are tied to changes in a measure of prices for food, housing, clothing, transportation, energy, medical care, recreation, and education. The increase of about $27 a month will boost the average retired worker’s benefit to $1,404, Social Security said. That will be a welcome change compared to the last two years: benefits were unchanged in 2016 and went up by just 0.3% this year. Increases in Social Security benefits have been relatively modest since U.S. consumer inflation was tamed in the mid-1980s. Before that there were several double-digit increases, with the biggest being a 14.3% jump in benefits in 1980. Social Security said another change will affect...

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Most stocks don’t even beat Treasury Bills

Stocks outperform bonds over the long-term, right? Isn’t that the message every investing article has been drilling into us for many years? The answer is, yes, it’s true, but only in the aggregate: most individual stocks have not beaten the low, short-term interest rates offered on U.S. Treasury Bills. The stock market has done better than T-Bills over the years, but that’s only because a handful of stocks have had disproportionately spectacular returns, found a study by a professor at Arizona State University. “The entire net gain in the U.S. stock market since 1926 is attributable to the best-performing 4 percent of stocks, as the other 96 percent collectively matched one-month Treasury Bills,” wrote Hendrik Bessembinder, a finance professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business. Unfortunately, some investors draw the wrong conclusion from this research. They argue Bessembinder’s findings suggest that investors should actively search for the few stocks that will...

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