This article was originally published on January 18, 2017. It has NOT been updated or revised since that date, the new versions of the ad we’re now seeing have dropped the “Retirement Blackout” pitch about April 10, since that fiduciary rule change was delayed in Washington, but otherwise the “26(f)” pitch appears unchanged.
This ad is so ridiculous that I couldn’t convince myself to write about it when it first started running… but the questions are piling up, so it’s time to dig in.
Here’s the fear mongering that they start with:
“On April 10 2017, the Department of Labor will execute a controversial plan.
“It’s one that few knew was within their power.
“And they’re using an obscure clause buried in Title 29 of the US Labor Code to pull it off.
“CNBC warns this ‘will force major change’ on American retirement planning.
“The Wall Street Journal is reporting it ‘could cost American savers $80 billion.’
“And time is running out to prepare for the aftermath.”
Keith Fitz-Gerald says that a “unique class of investments” called “26(f) Programs” are “caught in the crosshairs” … so what does he mean by that? That’s what most of the questions I’ve been getting are about, our readers are asking what a 26f program is and how they can invest in these miraculous-sounding things. Here’s what Fitz-Gerald says these “programs” are:
“They Rose to Prominence During the Great Depression, Thanks to President Roosevelt’s Team That Also Created the FDIC and Social Security.
“26(f) Programs allow people to ‘enroll’ with one small investment stake.
“And they give investors the opportunity to earn aggressive monthly income combined with huge lump-sum payouts.
“You can potentially:
- Get paid $2,000… $5,000… even more… every month for the rest of your life.
- Then still grab six figures in one shot.
“And on top of that, there are 26(f) Programs that can operate as 100% legal tax havens.”
Then the ad runs through several stories that sound miraculous, but are really just success stories of people who saved for decades and were able to build up a next egg and pay for a reasonable standard of living in retirement.
Most of these are pulled from public news stories, I expect — I tracked down one example just to confirm that. Here’s how Fitz-Gerald pitched this person’s story:
“Roy Nair used to work for a natural gas distributor in Missouri.
“But today, he’s retired a millionaire.
“Like Darrow, Roy had his savings and a diversified investment portfolio.
“He also went BIG on 26(f) Programs.
“But he didn’t have to invest BIG to do so.
“He was only kicking in $300 a month.
“Yet it was key to his now seven-figure net worth.
“And the income he’s receiving from 26(f) Programs has helped give him complete financial freedom.
“Roy likes to live frugally, so he only needs about $50,000 a year.
“But he also likes to splurge on at least four trips a year to places like Chile and Jamaica.”
That’s a hyped version of the story of Roy Nash, which was covered in a “dream retirement” story by CNN a couple years ago. These stories run all the time in financial magazines, it’s kind of the worried midlifer’s version of pornography — you can see pretty pictures of happy families who are living well in retirement, and it gives you the idea that such a dream is not so crazy for you.
As with most of these stories, though, the key is lots of saving and steady investment in the stock market through fairly mainstream vehicles — these people don’t achieve “retirement dreams” by betting big on some secret kind of investment you’ve never heard of, it’s far more common for them to achieve these dreams by betting small on something very ordinary like an index fund, and doing so with as much as they can afford every week or every month. Compounded investment returns add up, but it all starts with saving and letting your money be at risk in the stock and bond markets instead of fearfully hiding your funds in a bank account (or worse, under your mattress).
The actual story of Roy Nash is that he retired at 55 with about $800,000 saved, grew it to a million over the next six years, and lives that travel and thrifty spending lifestyle — he taught himself investing when he was young, in his early 20s, and he put 10-15% of his income into a 401(k) every year… and also, as teased, put another $300 a month into other investing accounts, investing in a variety of dividend stocks and mutual funds, including closed-end and index funds, and reinvesting his gains into more stocks and funds. You can see it here, but I promise: There’s no secret.
The trick as I see it… if you insist on calling it a trick or a “secret”… is in saving consistently at a relatively high level, and not speculating too much on dumb things that have a high likelihood of going to zero (recovering from 100% losses that are gone forever is far harder than recovering from 20% drops in a normal “bad” stock or fund pick), and let time, dividend and capital gain compounding, and the general rising tendency of the stock market and the economy, grow your wealth.
After a few stories of folks like that, Fitz-Gerald jumps back into fear mongering:
“These People Are All Living Their Dreams…
“Yet, Come April 10, 2017, the Department of Labor Is Going to Make it Very Hard For Others to Join Them.
“This is when the Federal government will implement their retirement blackout.
“And there’s no way to stop it….
“But There Is Some Very Good News. You Can Make an Absolute Fortune from 26(f) Programs For the Rest of Your Life!
“And There Is Nothing Uncle Sam Can Do to Stop You!
“By taking one simple action today, you can get into 26(f) Programs before the blackout.
“And you could set yourself up to make $68,870 or more…
“Every single year…
“While also becoming able to earn an aggressive monthly income to help you live the retirement of your dreams.”
That “one simple action,” of course, is subscribing to Fitz-Gerald’s newsletter and putting your money into the investments he recommends — which, to be fair, are both easy and uncomplicated things to do (though the subscription is slightly sneaky, since they offer it at $39 but then auto-renew it each year at $79).
Then the ad tells us that there’s some secret way around this “invest starting in your 20s and wait for decades to reap the rewards” strategy that no one wants to hear about (both because it’s hard and boring for most people, and because many of us are not in our 20s and don’t have a time machine):
“You Don’t Have to Invest in a 26(f) Program in Your 20s or 30s… and Then Wait Around for Decades to Reap the Rewards Like a 401(k).
“Take Dane LaVoy of San Diego.
“For most of his life, Dane had a normal investment portfolio and savings plan.
“In fact, he didn’t enroll in a 26(f) Program until he was in his forties.
“But I bet he thinks that’s the best financial decision he’s ever made.
“Because it played a major role in Dane saving nearly $1.4 million for retirement in only eight years.
“Imagine having an extra $14,583 a month on average to spend as you choose.
“Well, Dane doesn’t have to imagine that.”
And wouldn’t you know, it turns out that this is, again, a real person (name changed to make it harder for the Thinkolator, naturally), and the story was taken from a Kiplinger’s article from 2011… and, though I hate to say “I told you so,” this is another story of a person with a high salary who saved a massive percentage of his income (in some years, saving as much as $250,000 a year) to build up that $1.4 million in eight years… and, yes, that money was invested in regular old stocks and mutual funds that were managed by his brokers, not in some “secret” 26(f) program that no one else knows about.
His name is actually Dane Lacey, if you’re curious, and that story from Kiplinger’s is here… it’s called “How to Stash $1 Million+ in Savings.”
So no, there is no secret 26(f) program that “played a major role” in Dane Lacy saving $1.4 million… what played a major role was his ability to save huge amounts of money, and his ability to invest it in the market in a sane and reasonable and diversified way.
Another example given, “Retired Army Major Joe McCord,” is, likewise, a story of someone who socked away a lot of savings by investing each month in mutual funds — that example is actually borrowing the story of Joe McLaughlin, who was covered in a CNNfn story called “Mutual-fund Millionaires” back in 1999 when there was a thread of hype going around about the “death of Mutual Funds” as investors started to buy stocks more directly into the internet boom… McLaughlin did it the old fashioned way, investing in funds each month, here’s a bit from that story on CNN’s website:
“McLaughlin has squirreled away money every month in mutual funds for 16 years, and he expects to become a millionaire in about three years.
“‘It’s been boring, really,’ said McLaughlin, 45, a retired U.S. Army major from North Carolina. ‘We don’t do junk bonds, pork bellies, Internet funds. It’s just dollar-cost averaging.'”
I don’t know if they ever went back and talked to Mr. McLaughlin to see if he did become a millionaire by 2003, but his story was that he put a rising amount of money into some diversified Fidelity mutual funds, and had returns averaging about 19 percent a year — that sounds like an exceptional return, but from 1995 to 1999 the broad market had returns of at least 20% a year, with several of those years well into the 30s. My guess would be that it took him a little longer to reach a million dollars because the market was so weak from 2000-2002… but if he kept up the monthly investing in those years, It’s certainly possible that he bounced back just fine in the mid-2000 bull years and probably did get to his million bucks.
So what are they saying, are these “26(f)” programs just mutual funds?
Here’s a bit more from the ad:
“Since Most 26(f) Programs Are Run by Big Banks and Financial Institutions, They Can Provide Instant Liquidity.
“You never have to wait for a buyer.
“The issuer is legally obligated to buy it back from you for full price.
“And what full price means isn’t up for debate either.
“It’s usually determined at the close of the market each day.
“And there are even 26(f) Programs that allow you to invest in the banks themselves.
“Between Last February and August, PNC Bank’s Stock Barely Had a Pulse… It Rose Only 1.62%!
A 26(f) Program Tied to PNC Though, Pummeled That Return by 1,351%!”
Fitz-Gerald (or, to be fair, his ad copywriter) uses this kind of example a bunch of times in the ad, but don’t be swayed by those “pummeled that return by 1,351%!” numbers — that just means that while PNC shares rose 1.62%, there was a mutual fund of some kind that owned PNC shares and that rose by 23% (that’s 1,351% higher than 1.62%). A fund going up 23% in a six month period is certainly nice, but it’s not life-changing or unheard-of (and it never keeps going that way for very long, unfortunately).
There are several references to the creation of these 26(f) programs back in the 1930s, and to buying stocks at a discount through 26(f) programs, so the made-up “26(f)” name is clearly just a very loose reference to mutual funds… including both closed-end funds (which typically sell at a discount to their net asset value) and open-ended funds (which almost all offer daily liquidity at net asset value).
Mutual funds do sometimes get in on pre-IPO investments, and they can buy a much more diversified portfolio of high-priced stocks than many investors can, particularly young investors who are starting with a small portfolio, and good, solid and well-managed mutual funds are very much a “buy and hold and compound” investment that may be under-appreciated in these days where most investors lust after either rapid trading profits in ETFs or the excitement of individual stocks and decry active management and the (sometimes) high management fees that mutual fund investors can be saddled with.
But, of course, they are not magic… and they are not being “phased out” or subject to a “government blackout” — the government is very much motivated to make sure that people can save and invest as much as possible, and mutual funds and retirement accounts are a big part of that. So what the heck is this “blackout” part from Fitz-Gerald’s ad? Do you have to be in by April to invest in mutual funds?
Here’s that scary bit from the ad:
“So What Happens After April 10, 2017 When the Retirement Blackout Goes into Effect?
“For those who don’t take matters into their own hands…
“For those who don’t learn everything they can about these 26(f) Programs…
“I fear they’ll never take advantage of them.
“The blackout could cause them to miss out on $68,870.
“Heck, this Retirement Blackout could cause them to miss out on 10 or 20 times that.
“The Federal government looks at 26(f) Programs as holdovers from another time.
“They certainly don’t want every day Americans utilizing something so powerful with so many tax benefits.
“They do have a $19 trillion federal debt tab to pay off, after all.
“The Good News Is, the Clock Hasn’t Struck Midnight on April 10th Yet.
“There Is Still Time to Act Before the Blackout.”
That’s all hogwash.
The change that’s coming on April 10 is that brokers and investment advisers will have to act in investors’ best interest when providing advice or, as is probably most common in these relationships, recommending a portfolio allocation or a particular mutual fund or similar investment. This is referred to as the “fiduciary rule,” and the big change is really that brokers will have to act in your best interest, not just offer reasonable products — which sounds like splitting hairs (is this fund the best one for you, or just a reasonable one that’s not inappropriate for you?) but is a substantial change, because many mutual funds are sold with front-end loads that are used to pay commissions to brokers who sell the funds. Some of those mutual funds are great, and for some investors the commission is a reasonable way to pay someone who is giving you good advice about where to put your money and how to manage your accounts… but some of those mutual funds are also expensive junk, and some brokers are selling only the highest-commission funds to their most uninformed customers.
Does that mean that the fiduciary rule will destroy the fund industry? Or that the government’s general push to make access to standardized or “robo” advice that’s cheaper than commission-fed advisers will mean that some investors are deprived of the personal attention of a financial adviser?
That’s not really clear yet, this change is certainly shaking up the industry but it will be a long time before we know whether, on balance, it was good or bad for more small investors. My guess is that it will end up being good, but that it could hurt some less-financially-savvy people who need someone to talk to but don’t have enough money or inclination to seek out a fee-only adviser, since those advisers and brokers may not be out hunting for and recruiting new small-money IRA clients if they can’t expect a solid commission income from them in future years… we’ll see.
You can certainly read plenty of opinions and predictions about the changed fiduciary rules on any financial website — mutual fund companies and financial advisers are the main advertisers on CNBC and Money Magazine and in many of the websites we all traipse by from time to time, and any threats to the livelihood of those money managers certainly get ample coverage in the financial press.
But yes, Keith Fitz-Gerald appears to just be recommending a variety of mutual funds, both open and closed-end (and probably some ETFs, too, though he doesn’t say as much), and he’s trying to scare you into buying in before April 10… because every newsletter promotion needs a fear factor or an imagined near-term catalyst. Without a deadline, you’re not going to subscribe right away… and if you don’t subscribe right away, and walk away and decide to think about it or research it for yourself, well, the odds of you buying a subscription to Money Map Report based on this pitch probably drop sharply the longer you get to think about it.
That bit about “The Wall Street Journal is reporting it ‘could cost American savers $80 billion.'” in the ad comes from an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal from when these rules were first being proposed — it quotes a report that was funded by an investment manager that “the cost of depriving clients of personalized human advice during a future market correction—merely one of the many costs not considered by the Labor Department—could be as much as $80 billion.”
That’s not the same as “reporting,” of course. That’s an opinion piece by someone critical of the new fiduciary standard.
How about that “CNBC warns this ‘will force major change’ on American retirement planning” bit? That’s probably a quote from an article or segment from CNBC, but CNBC also put out a detailed article entitled “New investment rule could save investors billions” last year. Major change is certainly hitting the investment management and retirement planning industry in the US with this rule, but they’ve had time to prepare for it and it will take time to see what the unintended consequences might be.
Perhaps Fitz-Gerald is speculating that small investors will be unable to get into better mutual funds if they aren’t told by their adviser to buy the overpriced up-front-commission versions of those funds, and that mutual fund companies may stop selling to small investors if they can’t distribute those funds as easily through investment adviser networks by using front-end load “commissions”… but that seems unlikely to me to bring an end to good mutual funds or decent access to those funds by investors who can come up with a couple hundred dollars a month to put away.
The people who are not savvy enough to seek out relatively strong mutual funds or be critical consumers of stuff that’s sold to them on commission are probably not the same people who buy investment newsletters or pour their leisure time into reading articles like this one. There will always be people who will manage money for you, even if it’s a relatively small amount of money to start, and as long as there’s competition and a level playing field the costs of that management should go down over time.
And most of us start out making mistakes, but just paying attention in those early years can help you to learn from your mistakes — I didn’t know anything about investing when I was in my early 20s and got a small windfall as a gift, and the stock market seemed completely foreign and inaccessible to me so I didn’t realize you could research mutual funds on your own… and I ended up paying one of those 5.75% commissions/loads on a small purchase of below-average mutual funds from a guy behind the desk at my bank. But seeing that money taken out in my statements, and following those investments to see what happened, spurred me to pay attention and learn more, and I did… doing something dumb when you’re 23 is a great opportunity for learning.
Which funds is Fitz-Gerald actually recommending? I have no idea. He does tease a few of them, but I don’t know that there’s any reason to believe that his mutual funds are dramatically better than others for folks who aim to be long-term wealth compounders. Go to Morningstar and check out their favored funds, weed out the most expensive ones, and you’ll likely be able to find a good list for yourself.
If you do want some ideas to get you started, Barron’s did a cover story on some of the better actively managed mutual funds a week or two ago, with the argument that in a softer market active management is likely to outperform index funds — the funds they pick are all “value” funds that did poorly in 2015 and very well in 2016, their list is:
AllianzGI NFJ Dividend Value (PNEAX)
DFA US Large Cap Value (DFLVX)
Dodge & Cox Stock (DODGX)
Sound Shore (SSHFX)
T. Rowe Price Equity Income (PRFDX)
Vanguard U.S. Value (VUVLX)
And I personally have some money invested in actively managed mutual funds, including Dodge & Cox Stock (DODGX), PrimeCap Odyssey Growth (POGRX), DoubleLine Shiller Enhanced CAPE (DSEEX)… and I’ll probably invest in others in the future. There are still quite a few very sold mutual funds, with below-average annual expenses and strong and consistent long-term records, but none of them are going to get you rich very quickly (the mutual funds that do have fantastic short-term results are generally those that are less diversified — which sometimes causes huge problems, as with Sequoia (SEQUX), a fund I had money in for a long time, allowing Valeant (VRX) to become more than 20% of the fund before VRX shares crashed during the accounting and pricing scandals… or, more prosaically, with funds like Ken Heebner’s CGM Focus Fund (CGMFX) that was everyone’s favorite in 2007 and 2008 as it soared on the strength of a few favored stocks in the highly concentrated 25-stock portfolio, but has dramatically underperformed the market in the eight years since then.)
But you don’t need a newsletter to pick a few solid mutual funds for you. Look for long management tenure, below average expense ratios, low turnover if you’re using a taxable account, and returns that are better than the market over the long term, and during the time that the current manager has been running the fund. People don’t beat the market by dramatic amounts by investing in mutual funds, but the best mutual funds can do a little better than the market for very long periods of time, and they can help to avoid some pitfalls and soften market crashes for you by diversifying or being judicious with cash balances… and, perhaps most importantly, they are a disciplined way to build a portfolio without watching the balance every second or becoming tempted to trade in and out of your stocks or sector ETFs whenever you feel the wind blowing in a different direction.
Most of us need to diversify away from our own market sentiments with a substantial chunk of our money; most of us would do better with a steady dollar-cost-averaging investment strategy that includes saving more money than you’re saving now, and putting it into a diversified set of mutual funds, either index funds or good actively managed funds; and most of us should do more saving and investing and less trading. Those are all reasonable things, and (good) mutual funds are a good way to gradually build up investment portfolios at $100 or $500 a month, because that’s what they’re designed for… and for almost all of us who are actively engaged in our finances, I’d argue that the likelihood is that April 10 will make no real difference at all.
So there’s your 26(f). Mutual Funds. And if you want to build up a huge portfolio, be prepared to save more, invest more into those funds, and let those investments compound for decades. It works, but there’s no magic to it and there’s no “blackout” coming in April. If folks are really interested I can sift through the clues in the ad and try to name a few of the actual funds Fitz-Gerald is recommending, but I expect there will be a lot of the same ones that Morningstar and Barron’s and the financial media in general approve of — lower fees, longer-term managers, relatively small initial investment requirements for small investors starting out, and relatively strong performance. Or, better yet, YOU can tell us which mutual funds you think are worth the money — just share your thoughts with a comment below.
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