S&P Gains 100% from March 2020 Low: Now what?

S&P 500 marks 100% gain since March 2020

After hitting “rock bottom” following global shutdowns related to the coronavirus in March 2020, the S&P 500 has roared ever since delivering a 100% return. You read that right: 100%.

SIDEBAR: Someone out there is highlighting this past 18 month window in their investing masterclass, illustrating that in times of financial crisis, the best action for your portfolio is inaction. Don’t sell. Be patient. Ride it out. But we digress…

What now?

After living through the shortest bear market in history, we’re now witnessing company valuations being pushed to new heights only surpassed by the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. While this may sound unsettling, also consider that with interest rates so low, it would be equally worrying if equities weren’t expensive (reason: low interest rate yields push investors to equities).

So, at this juncture and with cash to invest, should you a) lean towards low interest fixed income that’s not (or barely) keeping up with inflation, or b) buy potentially overvalued equities? Pick your poison.

From our vantage point, choosing low interest debt or expensive equities is not an either/or proposition – everything comes back to diversification. Instead of chasing returns, we prefer the approach of aligning portfolio decisions to your unique life: your upcoming cash needs (and/or life transitions), your tax bracket, and your tolerance + ability to take risk.

While we’re not ones for reading the tea leaves, we did appreciate reviewing the latest JP Morgan Long-Term Capital Market Assumptions report. In it, they had a stark quote that stuck out:

“The price for dealing with the pandemic today comes at the cost of tomorrow’s returns in many conventional asset markets.”

Not exactly a glass half-full outlook for the road ahead.

The biggest challenges outlined by the report included:

  • Whether governments/business can rise to the climate challenge
  • Increased sovereign debt balances and an expectation for fiscal stimulus to continue
  • Stagnating globalization, companies shortening their supply chains
  • Era of US “exceptionalism” possibly coming to an end, leading to a weaker dollar

While we certainly believe that all challenges present opportunities, we feel equally strong that investors should prepare for muted annual returns over the next decade. We touched on this topic not long ago.

According to the same JP Morgan LTCMA report, over the next 10-15 years, inflation is anticipated to flatten at an overall rate of 2.0%. This is a tough pill to swallow when the same report projects compound return rates for the same period to be 1.10% for cash, 1.50% for intermediate Treasuries, and 2.50% for US investment grade corporate bonds.

For equities, the LTCMA report outlined the following predictions for the next 10-15 year investment time horizon:

  • 4.10% for US Large Cap
  • 4.60% for US Small Cap
  • 6.20% for US Value
  • 6.50% for US REITS
  • 5.20% for Euro equities
  • 6.10% for UK equities
  • 5.10% for Japanese equities
  • 6.80% for emerging market equity

Compare these expected returns to the 10% average annual return that the stock market has delivered over the last century. Not ideal.

Instead of guessing which asset class will perform best, or searching for the next Amazon to invest in, legendary investor and founder of Vanguard, John Bogle (who’s 3-fund “boring” portfolio outperformed the largest endowments in 2020, yet again), said it best:

“Don’t look for the needle in the haystack. Just buy the haystack.”

As evidence-based investors, we wholeheartedly agree with this approach.

Beware of Financial Scams

Scam Alert

A personal contact shared a story with us regarding their friend who recently fell victim to an online gift card scam.

The friend received an email from “Target” and was prompted to provide certain information to “verify their gift cards.” Unfortunately, the friend fell for the scam and within a few days had money withdrawn directly from their bank account. The impacted individual is now in the process of working with their bank to recover the stolen funds.

The State of Fraud

Scamming shows no signs of letting up. In its most recent report from the Internet Crime Complaint Center, the FBI saw the largest number of complaints, and the highest dollar losses, since the center was established 20 years ago. According to the FBI, the costliest scams involved business email compromise, romance or confidence fraud, and mimicking the account of a person or vendor known to the victim to gather personal or financial information.

How to avoid

  1. Beware of suspicious email address and fake invoices/attachments: Fraudsters are masters of deception. It’s not uncommon for them to send emails from addresses that might look familiar to you but which contain one spelling difference, or end in .net instead of .com. Never open links or attachments from email addresses that are unfamiliar. Additionally, if you receive a link or attachment that you weren’t expecting from what appears to be recognizable/legitimate email address, it never hurts to send a quick call or text to the sender to confirm.
  2. Ignore scammers pretending to be from the government: Most of us have probably received one of these phone calls. Someone reaches out on a phone call claiming to be from the IRS. In some cases, most recently, the caller will claim you are eligible for an “additional stimulus check.” In others, they’ll say you owe money and will warn that non-payment will result in legal recourse and penalties. Take note: the IRS will never make first contact via a phone call or request payment details for money-owed over the phone. If you receive a call, simply hang up the phone. The same goes for calls from the Social Security Administration and other government organizations.
  3. Be aware of the Social Security scam: Also done via phone call, the caller says your Social Security number has been linked to a crime involving drugs and/or sending money out of the country illegally. They inform you that your Social Security number is blocked and that by simply confirming your SSN and paying a small fee, it can be reactivated. Again: Hang up! The Social Security Administration will never call you on the phone and ask for your Social Security number.
  4. Scammers will tell you how to pay: All successful scams entail coercing the victim to part with sensitive information or to pay the scammer. Scammers may insist that you pay by sending money through a money transfer company. Others may suggest putting money on a gift card and then giving them the number on the back. Some will send you a check (that will later turn out to be fake), tell you to deposit it, and then send them money.
  5. Don’t fall for online pop-up warnings: Tech support scammers may try to lure you with a pop-up window that appears on your computer screen. It might look like an error message from your operating system or antivirus software. It may also use logos from trusted companies or websites. The message in the window warns of a security issue on your computer and directs you to call a phone number to get help. Simply ignore. If you are unsure of whether the message was legitimate, you can use your antivirus software to run a scan or contact the soliciting organization directly.

What to do if you are scammed

Anyone can fall victim to these scams. If you have paid someone, call your bank, money transfer app, or credit card company and see if they can reverse the charges. The Federal Reserve Board notes that if you report the fraud within two business days, liability is limited to $50. If you report it after that, you could face liability of up to $500, and if you report it after the 60-day window, subsequent fraudulent charges can wipe out your account entirely.

Final thoughts

Whether online or via phone, stay vigilant. Avoid clicking on suspicious links, and never give out personal information to a stranger over the phone. For online accounts, steer away from using short passwords which can be easily hacked by password cracker software. Instead, use strong passwords that are at least 12 digits long and contain numbers, letters, special characters, and a mix of lowercase and uppercase letters.

If you know someone who has been impacted, Identitytheft.gov is a great resource for mapping out a recovery plan.

Should I Be Worried About Inflation?

Inflation

The topic of inflation is getting lots of attention these days.

Inflation, for starters, is defined as the decline in purchasing power of a given currency. So, as an example, if the US Dollar experienced 2% inflation over a given period, the purchasing of $1 gets reduced to $0.98. Because a dollar is worth less, you must spend more to fill your gas tank, buy a gallon of milk, get a haircut etc. In other words, inflation increases your cost of living.

Is inflation good or bad?

Inflation can be a tricky economic indicator: If it is too high, it erases the purchasing power of consumers; if it is too low, it can reduce economic growth. Inflation can also be bad for stock markets as it often leads to higher interest rates, meaning big firms have to pay more to service their debts which can then erode their earnings.

What is causing inflation now?

Over the past 10 years inflation has basically held steady, averaging a bit under 2%.  However, over the past year, inflation has increased at a rate of 5%, well above the ten-year average.  While it is easy to point the finger at the Federal stimulus plans that pumped money back into the economy as the world came to a halt, the real cause of inflation seems to be a bit more nuanced.

Members of the Federal Reserve, along with a chorus of economists, argue that most of the inflation we are experiencing now can be attributed to bottlenecks in a variety of supply chains as demand surges with a reopening economy.

Translation: Consumers have cash to burn and suppliers are struggling to meet demand! The overwhelming majority of recent inflation is derived from spikes in industries that were hammered by the pandemic. Demand has skyrocketed in a few notable areas: raw materials, energy, metals, food, used automobiles, appliances, and travel.

Where does inflation go from here?

Whether inflation is transitory (i.e. brief, short-lived) or not is a common question being asked. If employment reports start to outpace analyst estimates, or, if inflation gets too high, the Federal Reserve may pull back on their $120B monthly bond purchases and eventually raise interest rates.

At their June meeting, the Fed moved up their targeted interest rates increase from 2024 to sometime in 2023. There are some members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) that believe the U.S. should start raising rates as early as 2022.

What’s it mean for you?

There is a possibility, not a certainty, that inflation may impact the everyday investor. Even if inflation moderates, as the Fed anticipates, it is still expected to run at almost 2.5% over the next five years, resulting in a negative inflation-adjusted return on Treasuries. With all that said, though, the economy is an incredibly complex and unpredictable system.

Should you be concerned? For those in, or nearing, retirement who live on a fixed income, any reduction in purchasing power can be unsettling. While there is no way to truly “inflation-proof” your portfolio, there are strategies that can lessen the blow:

  1. Maintain a globally diversified portfolio!
  2. Hold a portion of fixed income in Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS)
  3. Consider Real Estate Investment Trusts as a hedge against inflation and underperforming equities (rents and values tend to increase when prices do)
  4. Avoid fixed income assets that have long durations (5+ years)
  5. Prioritize fixed rate debt > adjustable rate debt, and/or consider converting adjustable rate debt to fixed rate where practical.

Cryptocurrency: Should I invest?

Crypto’s place in a portfolio:

Cryptocurrency has an identity crisis. Depending on who you ask, some view it as a security (like a stock), a commodity (like gold/oil), or a currency (like the US Dollar). Instead of adding to the semantics, we at wHealth Advisors take a more macro approach to crypto and view it simply as an “alternative asset.”

Besides cryptocurrency, some other examples of alternative assets are real estate investment trusts (REITs), art/collectibles, venture/angel/private equity investing, and commodities – to name a few.

Alternative assets can certainly have a place in the portfolio, however we always suggest minimizing personal expectations for investment returns. If you assume your alternative investment goes bust, how much does that hurt you (emotionally, financially etc.)? Does the loss impact your future goals, or is it just another blip on the radar? Similar to gambling, when it comes to alternative assets, only consider risking money that you are comfortable losing.

Depending on individual preferences/circumstances, an allocation of 0-10% of the overall portfolio to alternative assets can make sense. Additionally, and perhaps no surprise, but alternative assets are best suited for those with longer time horizons and/or higher tolerances for taking risk.

 So, should cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin be a part of your portfolio?

For starters, investing in crypto is incredibly speculative. As we have seen over the past few weeks, a single tweet by a person of influence can spark extreme volatility. When taking a step back, there’s an argument to be made that cryptocurrency – and really, blockchain technology as a whole – is in its infancy a la the internet in the 80s/90s.

In some ways this is promising: the space will evolve, new entrants will emerge (and thus create new opportunities), and transactions will become more and more cost/energy efficient.

On the other hand, the larger and more mainstream this technology and way of transacting becomes, the more scrutiny it will be under (by domestic regulatory agencies and sovereign nations alike).

Before investing in cryptocurrencies, it is important to begin with the basics:

  • Have an emergency fund that is funded with 3-6mths (or more!) of living expenses.
  • Pay off any high interest debt.
  • Invest at least 15% of your gross income towards your long-term future (utilizing diversified mutual funds & ETFs).
  • Invest in your human capital i.e. your skills/career.

If, after satisfying the basics, you are willing to take on higher levels of risk and believe cryptocurrencies may be the next big thing, consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • How much am I willing to risk (i.e. between 0-10% of overall portfolio)?
  • What’s my endgame? How long will I hold? Or, at what target price will I sell?
  • Do I have a rudimentary understanding of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology?

If the answer to the last question is no – begin there.

Some resources to begin self-educating:

[PODCAST] Invest Like the Best: Chris Dixon and the potential of blockchain technology

[PODCAST] The Tim Ferriss Show: Balaji Srinivasan on the future of Bitcoin and Ethereum

[BOOK] Cryptocurrency Investing for Dummies

Estimating Returns: Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Between 1926-2020, the US stock market return was basically 10% per year.

While it’d be great to bank on 10% per year, it unfortunately does not work that way. For those that want consistency over the long haul, they will have to accept lower returns (think: CDs, bonds). For those that truly want higher returns over the long haul, they’ll have to accept more volatility (i.e. the stock market, other speculative investments). Either way, you can never fully escape risk.

Interestingly, though, is how infrequent annual US stock market returns actually fall within the long-term 10% average.

If we look at the calendar year returns +/- 2% from the 10% average (so 8% to 12%), this has happened in just five calendar years (1926-2020). So around 5% of all years since 1926 have seen what would be considered “average” returns. In fact, there have been just as many yearly returns above 40% as returns in the 8% to 12% range. Just 18% of returns have been between 5% to 15% in any given year.

The only way to truly take the randomness out of the stock market is to have a multi-decade time horizon. The best 30 year return was 13.6% per year from 1975-2004. And the worst 30 year return was 8.0% per year from 1929-1958.

 What you can do about it:

It’s impossible to say if the next 30 years will be as kind to investors as the previous 30 were. For those that are still on the journey towards financial independence, it would be best to assume lower returns going forward. Instead of relying on continued 8-10%+ average annual returns (something beyond your control), personal savings and frugality are parts of the money equation that are more in your control and have a 100% chance of being as effective in the future as they are today.

As Morgan Housel, author of the “Psychology of Money” writes, “You can build wealth without a high income, but have no chance of building wealth without a high savings rates, it’s clear which one matters more.”

The Latest Investment Craze: Non-Fungible Tokens

Over the past month nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, have been all over the news. Saturday Night Live even got involved.

 What are they?

NFTs are cryptographic assets that are on the blockchain with unique identification codes and metadata that distinguish them from each other. Since they are unique, they cannot be traded or exchanged at equivalency, which differs from cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, which are identical to each other and therefore can be used in transactions (i.e. you can now buy a Tesla with Bitcoin).

 Why buy an NFT?

People are spending millions of dollars on NFT collectibles including artwork, digital images, sports cards, GIFs, music, video games, and other forms of creative art. By purchasing an NFT, you have a secure certificate of ownership over a digital object. As a collector, you are hoping that the value of the purchased item increases in value. For those that still remember the non-blockchain days, think of NFTs as a modern form of purchasing and collecting baseball cards. You buy them for your personal enjoyment and they may/may not appreciate in value.

 How to buy:

NFT’s can be bought on a variety of platforms, such as Nifty Gateway, Rarible, Open Sea, and The Sandbox. Each platform has an online gallery where you can browse, purchase, or bid on items in a similar fashion as an auction house. A purchase or winning bid is paid for with cryptocurrency. A digital wallet is necessary to store your purchase.

 Final thoughts:

NFT’s are relatively new. The current market is largely speculative and as with all markets, prices will fluctuate. In the modern and digital world we live in, NFTs will be another option for artists, creatives, and others to monetize their work, for collectors to purchase direct with fewer intermediaries, and for brands to establish their presence in the growing metaverse. Some further reading:

Lessons from 2020

Lessons from 2020

2020 will be a year we will never forget. From a global pandemic and civil unrest, to an economic downfall that we continue to battle through today, it has been a challenging year that has impacted millions of individuals around the world. For investors, as we reflect on the past year, it’s critical we revisit some lessons learned to better ourselves moving forward. While it’s unlikely we’ll ever experience a year like 2020 again, many of the principles outlined below are timeless, and can serve as foundational reminders that are applicable every year.

 Having an investment philosophy you can stick with is paramount

While there is no silver bullet, understanding how markets work and trusting market prices are good starting points. By adhering to a well-thought out investment plan, ideally agreed upon in advance of periods of volatility, investors may be better able to remain calm during periods of short-term uncertainty. 

Create an investment plan that aligns with your risk tolerance

You want to have a plan in place that gives you peace of mind regardless of the market conditions. Over time, capital markets have rewarded investors who have taken a long-term perspective and remained disciplined in the face of short-term noise.

Don’t try and time the market

The 2020 market downturn offers an example of how the cycle of fear and greed can drive an investor’s reactive decisions. Back in March, there was widespread agreement that COVID-19 would have a negative impact on the economy, but to what extent? Who would’ve guessed we would’ve experienced the fastest bear market in history in which it took just 16 trading days for the S&P 500 to close down 20% from a peak only to be followed by the best 50-day rally in history?

Stay disciplined through market highs and lows

Financial downturns are unpleasant for all market participants. When faced with short-term noise, it is easy to lose sight of the potential long-term benefits of staying invested. While no one has a crystal ball, adopting a long-term perspective can help change how investors view market volatility.

Focus on what you can control

To have a better investment experience, people should focus on the things they can control. It starts with creating an investment plan based on market principles, informed by financial science, and tailored to your specific needs and goals.

2020: Market Review

Market Review 2020 Cover

The year 2020 proved to be one of the most tumultuous in modern history, marked by a number of developments that were historically… wait for it… unprecedented. But the year also demonstrated the resilience of people, institutions, and financial markets.

The novel coronavirus was already in the news early in the year, and concerns grew as more countries began reporting their first cases of COVID-19. Infections multiplied around the world through February, and by early March, when the outbreak was labeled a pandemic, it was clear that the crisis would affect nearly every area of our lives. The spring would see a spike in cases and a global economic contraction as people stayed closer to home, and another surge of infections would come during the summer. Governments and central banks worked to cushion the blow, providing financial support for individuals and businesses and adjusting lending rates.

On top of the health crisis, there was widespread civil unrest over the summer in the US tied to policing and racial justice. In August, Americans increasingly focused on the US presidential race in this unusual year. Politicians, supporters, and voting officials wrestled with the challenges of a campaign that at times was conducted virtually and with an election in the fall that would include a heightened level of mail-in and early voting. In the end, the results of the election would be disputed well into December. As autumn turned to winter, 2020 would end with both troubling and hopeful news: yet another spike in COVID-19 cases, along with the first deliveries of vaccines in the US and elsewhere.

For investors, the year was characterized by sharp swings for stocks. March saw the S&P 500 Index’s1 decline reach 33.79% from the previous high as the pandemic worsened. This was followed by a rally in April, and stocks reached their previous highs by August. Ultimately, despite a sequence of epic events and continued concerns over the pandemic, global stock market returns in 2020 were above their historical norm. The US market finished the year in record territory and with an 18.40% annual return for the S&P 500 Index. Non-US developed markets, as measured by the MSCI World ex USA Index,2 returned 7.59%. Emerging markets, as measured by the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, returned 18.31% for the year.

EXHIBIT 1 – Highs and Lows

MSCI All Country World Index with selected headlines from 2020

2020 Market Review

As always, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Fixed income markets mirrored the extremity of equity behavior, with nearly unprecedented dispersion in returns during the first half of 2020. For example, in the first quarter, US corporate bonds underperformed US Treasuries by more than 11%, the most negative quarterly return difference in data going back a half century. But they soon swapped places: the second quarter was the second-most positive one on record for corporates over Treasuries, with a 7.74% advantage.3 Large return deviations were also observed between US and non-US fixed income as well as between inflation-protected and nominal bonds.

Global yield curves finished the year generally lower than at the start. US Treasury yields, for example, fell across the board, with drops of more than 1% on the short and intermediate portions of the curve.4 The US Treasury curve ended relatively flat in the short-term segment but upwardly sloped from the intermediate- to long-term segment. For 2020, the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Indexreturned 5.58%.

EXHIBIT 2 – Sharp Shifts

US Credit minus US Treasury: Quarterly Returns, March 1973–December 2020

2020: Market Review

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

Uncertainty remains about the pandemic and the broad impact of the new vaccines, continued lockdowns, and social distancing. But the events of 2020 provided investors with many lessons, affirming that following a disciplined and broadly diversified investment approach is a reliable way to pursue long-term investment goals.

 

Market Prices Quickly Reflect New Information about the Future

The fluctuating markets in the spring and summer were also a lesson in how markets incorporate new information and changes in expectations. From its peak on February 19, 2020, the S&P 500 Index fell 33.79% in less than five weeks as the news headlines suggested more extreme outcomes from the pandemic. But the recovery would be swift as well. Market participants were watching for news that would provide insights into the pandemic and the economy, such as daily infection and mortality rates, effective therapeutic treatments, and the potential for vaccine development. As more information became available, the S&P 500 Index jumped 17.57% from its March 23 low in just three trading sessions, one of the fastest snapbacks on record. This period highlighted the vital role of data in setting market expectations and underscored how quickly prices adjust to new information.

One major theme of the year was the perceived disconnect between markets and the economy. How could the equity markets recover and reach new highs when the economic news remained so bleak? The market’s behavior suggests investors were looking past the short-term impact of the pandemic to assess the expected rebound of business activity and an eventual return to more-normal conditions. Seen through that lens, the rebound in share prices reflected a market that is always looking ahead, incorporating both current news and expectations of the future into stock prices.

Owning the Winners and Losers

The 2020 economy and market also underscored the importance of staying broadly diversified across companies and industries. The downturn in stocks impacted some segments of the market more than others in ways that were consistent with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on certain types of businesses or industries. For example, airline, hospitality, and retail industries tended to suffer disproportionately with people around the world staying at home, whereas companies in communications, online shopping, and technology emerged as relative winners during the crisis. However, predicting at the beginning of 2020 exactly how this might play out would likely have proved challenging.

In the end, the economic turmoil inflicted great hardship on some firms while creating economic and social conditions that provided growth opportunities for other companies. In any market, there will be winners and losers—and investors have historically been well served by owning a broad range of companies rather than trying to pick winners and losers.

Sticking with Your Plan

Many news reports rightly emphasized the unprecedented nature of the health crisis, the emergency financial actions, and other extraordinary events during 2020. The year saw many “firsts”—and subsequent years will undoubtedly usher in many more. Yet 2020’s outcomes remind us that a consistent investment approach is a reliable path regardless of the market events we encounter. Investors who made moves by reacting to the moment may have missed opportunities. In March, spooked investors fled the stock and bond markets, as money-market funds experienced net flows for the month totaling $684 billion. Then, over the six-month period from April 1 to September 30, global equities and fixed income returned 29.54% and 3.16%, respectively. A move to cash in March may have been a costly decision for anxious investors.

 

EXHIBIT 3 – Cash Concerns + Global Equity Returns

2020: Market Review

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

 

It was important for investors to avoid reacting to the dispersion in performance between asset classes, too, lest they miss out on turnarounds from early in the year to later. For example, small cap stocks on the whole fared better in the second half of the year than the first. The stark difference in performance between the first and second quarters across bond classes also drives home this point.

 

A Welcome Turn of the Calendar

Moving into 2021, many questions remain about the pandemic, new vaccines, business activity, changes in how people work and socialize, and the direction of global markets. Yet 2020’s economic and market tumult demonstrated that markets continue to function and that people can adapt to difficult circumstances. The year’s positive equity and fixed income returns remind that, with a solid investment approach and a commitment to staying the course, investors can focus on building long-term wealth, even in challenging times.

FOOTNOTES

  1. 1S&P data © 2021 S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global. All rights reserved. Indices are not available for direct investment.
  2. 2MSCI data © MSCI 2021, all rights reserved. Indices are not available for direct investment.
  3. 3US corporate bonds represented by the Bloomberg Barclays US Credit Bond Index. US Treasuries represented by the Bloomberg Barclays US Treasury Bond Index. Bloomberg Barclays data provided by Bloomberg. Indices are not available for direct investment.
  4. 4ICE BofA government yield. ICE BofA index data © 2021 ICE Data Indices, LLC.
  5. 5Bloomberg Barclays data provided by Bloomberg. All rights reserved. Indices are not available for direct investment.

DISCLOSURES

The information in this document is provided in good faith without any warranty and is intended for the recipient’s background information only. It does not constitute investment advice, recommendation, or an offer of any services or products for sale and is not intended to provide a sufficient basis on which to make an investment decision. It is the responsibility of any persons wishing to make a purchase to inform themselves of and observe all applicable laws and regulations. Unauthorized copying, reproducing, duplicating, or transmitting of this document are strictly prohibited. wHealth Advisors accepts no responsibility for loss arising from the use of the information contained herein.

 

Cosigning a Student Loan: Pros & Cons

Student Loan Cosigner

Cosigning a Student Loan: Pros & Cons

The process of taking SAT/ACT exams, sending out handfuls of college applications, and eventually deciding on your school of choice is an emotional rollercoaster ride for even the most prepared and least anxious of students. At the very end of this arduous process, students (and parents!) find themselves at the very beginning of the next undertaking: financing a college education.

For lucky students, their parents or extended relatives are there to help. For many others, student loans are oftentimes the only viable option. As an immediate family member, extended relative, or family friend of someone pursuing a university-level education, you may be approached to cosign a student loan.

Much attention is given to student loans, however little attention is given to the impact of cosigning a student loan. For anyone that is considering a role as a cosigner, besides acknowledging the obvious benefit to the student borrower (i.e. they’ll be able to qualify for the loan!), it’s also necessary to know what’s at stake for you.

Who can cosign a student loan:
More often than not, a cosigner can be anyone with a strong credit history who has a willingness to help the student in question.

All lenders have their own cosigner requirements, however many institutions require cosigners to have a credit score of 670 or better and sufficient income to pay back the loan in the event the primary borrower defaults and is unable to repay. There are cases when lenders will go a step further to get a better sense of the cosigner’s overall stability – this can include reviewing the cosigner’s job history, how long they’ve lived in their home, and whether they’ve been in their job for at least a year.

Additionally, one of the least discussed (yet most important!) topics for deciding who should cosign a loan is the cosigner’s health. Many private lenders include language in the lending agreements that allow them to demand that the loan be paid in full upon the death of the cosigner. This is a point that deserves more attention considering that it’s not uncommon for grandparents (many who are older and may not be in their best health) to serve as cosigners.

What does it mean to cosign a student loan:
Personally, I’ve never encountered a student fresh out of high school who met the requirements to take out a student loan without a cosigner. This is likely due to their limited income and minimal (often non-existent) credit history. As the cosigner of a student loan, you are guaranteeing repayment of the debt. As cosigner, you hold a legal obligation to take over debt repayment in the event the borrower cannot keep up.

When banks lend money to borrowers for real estate in the form of a mortgage, the property itself serves as collateral. If the borrower is unable to keep up with their payments, the lender has peace of mind knowing it can cut its losses by seizing the property and selling it to a new buyer.

Considering that student loans are not backed by any physical collateral that can be seized and resold, a cosigner is a bank’s best option to recover an owed student debt.

Naturally, many students look towards their financially-stable family members to cosign student loans.

When parents or family friends of the borrower ask me for my thoughts on cosigning a student’s debt, I ask two questions:

  • Are you prepared for the responsibility to pay off this debt if the borrower cannot keep up with payments?
    • If no, DON’T cosign!
    • If yes, next question…
  • Do you, personally, have any large upcoming purchases/investments that will require borrowing a large sum of money (such as a new home purchase/mortgage or business loan)?
    • If yes, maybe don’t cosign. REASON: The cosigned loans will show up on your credit report and may complicate/restrict your ability to borrow.
    • If no, consider the borrower, your relationship with that person, and your confidence that they will be responsible in repaying the debt. If you accept the risks of being a cosigner and trust the borrower’s explicit commitment to repay the debt – go for it.

Benefits of cosigning a student loan:
For starters, the student borrowers are the primary beneficiaries of a cosigned loan. Cosigners allow students who would otherwise not qualify for a student loan to qualify and secure the funding needed to pursue their education. Additionally, if the cosigner is someone with stellar credit and strong income, the lender may take these facts into account and offer loans with lower, more competitive interest rates.

Many borrowers need cosigners for student loans due to not having much (if any) credit history. By having a student loan in their name and staying consistent on their monthly repayment, student borrowers are making significant (albeit unintentional) strides in establishing a personal credit history.

For cosigners, there’s little personal benefit to cosigning a loan (besides seeing a potential loved one pursue their dreams).

Drawbacks of cosigning a student loan:
A cosigner’s credit score will be impacted if the primary borrower misses a payment. Despite effectively serving as co-borrowers, cosigners rarely ever receive any formal notice that the primary borrower (i.e. the student) has missed payments. Unfortunately, missed payments are a common occurrence that frequently occur when borrowers are not setup for autopay or when a new loan servicer assumes the loan.

Another drawback to cosigning a loan is its impact on the cosigner’s debt-to-income ratio. As discussed before, the cosigned loan will show up on a cosigner’s credit report and may therefore reduce the cosigner’s ability to qualify for a personal loan or mortgage. Even if able to qualify for the loan, the increased debt-to-income ratio may result in the cosigner ending up with a less competitive interest rate.

In the event that the borrower is unable to repay the loan, collection agencies will look to the cosigner for payment. For most cosigners, this is the most significant drawback to cosigning a student loan and the one that must be most seriously considered when deciding to serve as a cosigner.

Even in the best of circumstances, a borrower and cosigner’s financial entanglement leaves the door wide open for relational stress.

How to decide whether to cosign a loan:
Making the final decision whether or not to cosign is personal. At a minimum, cosigners should have a sincere conversation with the prospective borrower to ensure the borrower understands the implications, and risk, to a) themselves and b) the cosigner.

It’s recommended that prospective cosigners also take an inventory of their own finances during this process. Be sure to consider your credit and to factor in whether or not any upcoming expenses will require a loan.

How to get a cosigner release:
Unfortunately, loan servicing companies never voluntarily let borrowers or cosigners know when they qualify for a cosigner release. Getting a cosigner release for a student loan typically requires that the borrower has graduated from school, has made at least 12 on-time payments, and has a sufficient credit score (credit score > 600) and income to repay the debt on their own. Additionally, it’s also typical that loan servicers will request the borrower (not the cosigner) to initiate the release process.

As a financial planning firm, we have clients who are the borrowers and others who are the cosigners. Regardless of borrower/cosigner status, we always work to have cosigners released as soon as possible.

  • Benefit of cosigner release to borrowers: Many private student loan promissory notes have provisions that allow the servicer to place the borrower in default (even if payments have been made on time) if the cosigner dies or files for bankruptcy. Releasing the cosigner as early as possible can prevent borrowers from experiencing surprise defaults and student loan balances automatically being due in full that are no fault of their own.
  • Benefit of cosigner release to cosigners: A parent or family member opts to cosign a student loan so that the borrower can pursue an advanced education. From the very beginning, it should be understood that releasing the cosigner should be a priority following the borrower’s graduation. Getting released as a cosigner means the former cosigner’s credit will no longer be impacted by missed payments and that the original borrower will be fully accountable for the debt.

The Consumer Federal Protection Bureau (CFPB) offers sample letter templates that borrowers/cosigners can send to servicers to request a consigner release.

For additional reading, our co-founder, Dennis McNamara, was featured in Forbes on this topic: https://www.forbes.com/advisor/student-loans/pros-and-cons-of-co-signing-a-student-loan/

Webinar: Financial Crash Course For DOCTORS

Medical Professionals

FINANCIAL CRASH COURSE FOR DOCTORS

wHealth Advisors is excited to announce a free webinar to help doctors (and those in training) get on a path towards financial independence.

Financial independence? Say what?

In a nutshell, financial independence means being financially secure enough that you continue working because you want to, not because you need to. Everyone’s situation is unique. Just as a good salary does not guarantee financial independence, mountains of student debt does not disqualify you.

For some, financial independence will mean making sacrifices. To others, it’s life as usual. In any case, it requires a vision, setting intentions, and having a roadmap that can evolve with you over time.

When: The Financial Crash Course for DOCTORS webinar will be given FOUR times (live) each Wednesday at 5pm (EDT) through the month of May. Seating is limited to 100 participants per webinar. We ask that you register using your work/school email – priority will be given to medical professionals.

What we’ll cover: Timely and timeless topics including:

  • COVID-19 Legislation: The impact on stimulus checks, student loans (including PSLF), and mortgages.
  • The NINE money mistakes doctors keep making
  • Fundamentals of Fiscal Fitness
  • Building a rock-solid financial foundation
  • The Juggle: Investing vs. student loan repayment
  • Physician mortgages: When they make sense (and when they don’t!)
  • Human capital: Investing in yourself

Why doctors? wHealth Advisors was founded on serving the medical community. While we can’t provide the resources they need most during this time (namely, PPE), we can offer what we know best: objective, evidenced-based financial guidance with no sales agenda or conflicts of interest.

The intended audience for this webinar includes those who are:

  • Medical/dental students
  • Interns/residents/fellows
  • Attendings or established docs that graduated medical/dental school within past 15 years

FIGS Giveaway: Following each webinar we will be randomly selecting a winner for a $25 FIGS gift card. Registering for the event is an automatic entry. Also – be sure to tag friends, classmates, and colleagues on our webinar-related Instagram posts (@whealthadvisors). More tags = more entries (limit = 10 total).

For any questions, please feel free to contact us at hello@whealthfa.com.

Follow links below to register on preferred date:

May 6, 2020 5:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

  • https://webinar.ringcentral.com/webinar/register/WN_eZ7hj5awSyaVwOqBejqDOg

May 13, 2020 5:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

  • https://webinar.ringcentral.com/webinar/register/WN_O2-njPcSQ_OeyH_H_57FJw

May 20, 2020 5:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

  • https://webinar.ringcentral.com/webinar/register/WN_tX3J4IHTSh6IyNEqVNZtRw

May 27, 2020 5:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

  • https://webinar.ringcentral.com/webinar/register/WN_FvLsh_flRRWpOf2GdV6SjQ

 

Terms & Conditions

Additional Resources:

Student Loans:

  • freestudentloanadvice.org: Great resource and created to ensure that all consumers have access to fair, free, student loan advice and dispute resolution.
  • www.nslds.ed.gov: National Student Loan Data System – best place to go when creating an inventory of your Federal loans.
  • www.annualcreditreport.com: Best place to go when creating an inventory of your private student loans.
  • Gradaway.com: Affordable student loan refinancing/consolidation company
    • $248 for balances < $100k
    • $349 for balances $100k – $250k
    • $449 for balances over $250k

Stimulus Checks:

NAPFA-Advisor-Checklist: NAPFA Checklist for interviewing Financial Advisors

Five Fundamentals of Fiscal Fitness