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Special Report: Year-End Portfolio To-Do List for Retirees

Christine Benz
Jeremy Glaser

Christine Benz: Hi, I'm Christine Benz for Morningstar.com. Welcome to our special webcast for premium members of Morningstar.com. I'm going to be talking about a year-end portfolio to-do list for retirees. Over the course of the next hour, I'll share with you my thoughts on what should be on your punch list as 2017 winds down. We're also going to be taking some of your questions. If you have a question, please do use the chat module at the bottom of your screen to submit your questions. Toward the end of the presentation, toward the end of this hour, my colleague Jeremy Glaser will be coming out and we will be discussing some of your questions toward the later part of the presentation.

Let's get right into an overview of the presentation. I have six key to-do's that should be on your radar as 2017 winds down. The first is to do what I think of as kind of a wellness check for your retirement portfolio plan. The key thing you want to keep your eyes on is your withdrawal rate. I'll talk about how to gauge your withdrawal rate and how to look at whether that withdrawal rate makes sense given where you are in your retirement life cycle and given your portfolio's asset allocation.

I'll talk about how to use Morningstar tools to assess your portfolio's positioning and to troubleshoot problem spots. I think we have great analytics on Morningstar.com, specifically with our X-Ray feature. I'll talk about how to use that tool and how to think about improving your portfolio as the year winds down.

I'll talk about how to tee up liquid reserves for the next couple of years. As many of you know, I am big believer in the bucket strategy for retirement portfolio planning. I'll talk about how to gauge whether your cash reserves are adequate and not too high, because, as we all know, with cash yield so low, there is a significant opportunity cost to having too much cash today. I'll talk about where to go for cash if you determine that you are actually light on liquid reserves relative to where you should be.

I'll talk about taking required minimum distributions. This is a category that many retirees love to hate. I often hear from affluent Morningstar.com users about how their RMDs represent a loss of control in their retirement portfolio plans. I'll talk about how to use your RMDs to actually improve your portfolio. I am a big believer in strategically pruning your RMDs in an effort to improve your portfolio's risk/reward profile.

I'll spend a little bit of time on tax management. As we all know, there is a tax reform bill wending its way through Congress as we speak. There is a lot that we don't know about investment-related taxes in the years ahead. I'll share some tips, when you are looking at your portfolio, whether for 2017 or in the years ahead, some things to think about with an eye toward reducing your investment-related tax bill.

Charitable contributions are top of mind for all of us as 2017 winds down or as any year winds down. I'll share some tips for retirees specifically. Again, I'll talk about how to improve your investment portfolio at the same time you are making charitable contributions.

Then I have three to-do's that I think of in the category of "nice to do" if you have additional time in these waning days of November and December. At the top of the list would be to take a look at re-shopping your Medicare coverage. This one is a little more time-sensitive than the other items. You actually have only until Dec. 7 if you want to re-enroll in a different Medicare Part D or Medicare Advantage plan. My colleague and Morningstar contributor Mark Miller has written extensively about this issue. I'll touch on some of the key things to know before you re-shop your Medicare coverage.

Organizing paperwork for 2017 tax season. It will be here before we know it. Those 1099s will start to roll in. I'll talk about how to get organized so that you can file your taxes as efficiently and painlessly as possible.

Finally, a subset of retirees are eligible to continue to make retirement plan contributions even though they are effectively retired. I'll talk about how to do this and some ways to think about making those additional contributions and who might be eligible, because there is a lot of confusion about that particular issue.

Now, let's get right into checking up on the sustainability of your retirement portfolio plan. When you were accumulating assets for retirement, the key thing you wanted to look at obviously was your savings rate and your spending rate. When you are retired, you are focusing mainly on your portfolio withdrawal rate and thinking about whether how much you are pulling from your portfolio is sustainable given your life stage and given the complexion of your investment portfolio. There are a couple of key calculations that you want to focus on as you attempt to the get your arms around your withdrawal rate.

The first is simply looking at how much you've actually taken out of your portfolio. Start with how much you've spent so far in 2017 or expect to spend for the whole year; subtract from that amount any certain nonportfolio sources of income that you have coming in the door. That means Social Security; it might be rental income for some of you; it might be income from work; it might be a pension. You are subtracting all of those nonportfolio items. The amount that you are left over with is your actual portfolio withdrawal. Armed with that withdrawal amount, you can then divide that amount by your portfolio balance at the beginning of 2017, and the amount that you are left over with is your withdrawal rate for 2017.

Let's take a quick look at an example of how this would work with some real-life numbers. Let's assume that Jean is 67, and she is spending $66,000 in 2017 or she expects to spend that much. She is lucky in that she has fairly significant certain sources of income, nonportfolio sources of income. She has some work income amounting to about $17,000, and she also has a nice Social Security paycheck. Together, those two items account for $43,000 of her spending needs. That means that she is spending from her portfolio $23,000. She wants to marry that number with her portfolio value at the beginning of 2017 to arrive at her withdrawal rate. That $23,000 divided by $760,000, that's what we are assuming her portfolio balance was, comes out to a withdrawal rate of 3%.

Now, the question is, as you arrive at that figure, is that number sustainable. Well, in Jean's case, I would say, yes. Many financial planners use as kind of good starting metric when determining sustainable withdrawal rates is the 4% guideline. What that means is that you withdraw 4% of your portfolio in year one of retirement and then you can give yourself a little bit of a raise to account for inflation as the years go by. Given that basic starting metric, Jean with her 3% portfolio withdrawal is actually in pretty good shape. Run through this yourself, but bear in mind that your portfolio withdrawal should step up as you age or certainly can step up as you age. Keep that in mind. Also bear in mind what we are talking about when we are talking about sustainability. There we're typically assuming that given a certain withdrawal that that portfolio would have a high probability of lasting for a 25- or 30- or 35-year time horizon.

It's also important to understand what we are talking about when we are talking about withdrawals. Basically, that means anything you are pulling from your portfolio and spending counts as a withdrawal. That includes income distributions, dividend distributions, capital gains distributions that you are spending, certainly outright portfolio withdrawals--all of those things count toward your withdrawal rate. Bear that in mind. I sometimes run into retirees who say, well, my portfolio is yielding 3%. Does that mean I can take an additional 4%? It actually doesn't, 4% is your all-in number for withdrawals wherever they are coming from.

Another thing to keep in mind before we leave this topic of withdrawal rates is that they are not "set it and forget it." In fact, there has been a lot of great research in the realm of retirement portfolio planning, and one key takeaway has been that ideally your withdrawal rate should be somewhat flexible and should be something that you revisit.

It's something that you want to revisit as market conditions change, and that might mean that you can take more in good markets and you have to take less in bad markets. It means you want to build in a little bit of flexibility for yourself based on your own spending needs. You might have high spending years either due to fun stuff like travel or not such fun stuff like new roofs that you need to put on your houses. You want to make sure that your portfolio can accommodate a little bit of lumpiness in your own expenditure pattern.

You also want to think about your time horizon. As I mentioned, the withdrawal rate can in fact trend up as you get older. I often use my mother-in-law, who will be 85 in January, as a good example of this. I'm comfy with her taking more than 4% of her portfolio because as much as I love her she probably doesn't have a 25 or 30-year time horizon. She can safely take more from her portfolio than the 4% guideline.

Another thing to bear in mind is that you want to think about your own asset allocation. The 4% guideline is based on a balanced portfolio that has a significant stake in equities. If for whatever reason you want to run with a more conservative portfolio than that, the only way you can sleep at night is to have more in cash and bonds, you actually need to have a more conservative withdrawal rate as well.

All of these factors figure into the mix when setting your withdrawal rate and determining its viability, but in particular, be ready to revisit your spending rate as the years go by.

Let's get into portfolio positioning and how to use Morningstar tools to check your portfolio positioning. Before I get into this though, sometimes people say I am super time-pressed. As a given year winds down, I have got a lot of holiday stuff going on. Why should I check my portfolio? There are a couple of key reasons to do so. One, admittedly, it's a little less relevant in 2017 than it might be in other years, but one reason is to see if you have tax losses in your portfolio that you can use to offset gains in your portfolio and possibly offset ordinary income if you have a lot of losses. In 2017, probably not so relevant for most investors but that's one reason to try to conduct your portfolio checkup before yearend. 

Another thing that can figure into the mix is that if you are in the 10% or 15% tax bracket, you can take advantage of what's called tax gain harvesting. I'll spend a little bit of time on the specifics of tax gain harvesting later on in the presentation. It can be a really attractive opportunity for people who are in that 10% or 15% tax bracket.

Another reason to look at your portfolio positioning at year end is if you are actively taking distributions from your portfolio, especially if you are taking required minimum distributions, doing that portfolio review in advance of taking those distributions can help you figure out where to pull from. I'll spend some time talking about the specifics of doing that, specifically as it relates to required minimum distributions later on in the presentation.

In terms of using Morningstar tools to help you conduct a portfolio review, the bottom line is that you've got to get your holdings into the site in some fashion in order to be able to use our X-Ray functionality. I know that many of you are using our Portfolio Manager tool, in which case, you can click on the X-Ray bar to view an X-Ray of your portfolio. If you haven't yet saved your portfolios on the site, you can use our Instant X-Ray tool. In fact, I think it's a quick way to enter your portfolio holdings into the tool. You would go to the tools cover page on Morningstar.com and click on that Instant X-Ray to go through the process of entering your portfolio holdings. This is the baseline step in order to take a look at your portfolio's x-ray view.

If you have gone through the process of entering your portfolio holdings, the next step is to check up on your portfolio positioning. The key thing I would focus your attention on is that pie chart in the left-hand top side of your screen if you are looking at X-Ray. You'll see what your portfolio's total asset allocation looks like and ideally, if you are looking at your retirement portfolio, you'd be looking at all of your retirement portfolio holdings together. That gives you a snapshot of your portfolio's current apportionment across stocks, bonds and cash. And the reason I would focus your attention there is because that asset allocation will tend to be the most important determinant of how your portfolio behaves.

The key thing to know as we look on asset allocations today is that if you've been a hands-off investor--and I think many of us have been inclined to be quite hands-off--if you have been hands-off during the current market rally, if you haven't made many changes, even if you haven't been actively shoveling money into stocks, your portfolio has been getting more equity heavy. One statistic that really jumps out at me is that if you had 60% of your portfolio in some sort of a total market index fund and another 40% in a Barclays Aggregate Index bond fund at the outset of current rally and early March 2009, at this point you'd be about 83% equity, 17% bond. That's if you have done nothing.

The problem too is that we're all almost nine years older since this current rally began, and that means that for many us, especially if we are getting close to retirement or in retirement, that means that our portfolios are more risky than would be ideally the case, especially at this late stage of the current bull market. Keep that in mind. This is a particular risk factor if you're someone who is just embarking on retirement, and I know that many people are eyeing their portfolio balances as they've enlarged and wondered whether retirement could be closer at hand than they initially expected.

One thing to know if that describes you and describes your situation is that you need to be particularly sensitive to what retirement researchers call "sequence of return risk." Basically, that means the possibility that you could encounter a really bad market environment at the outset of your retirement. If your portfolio is too aggressive at that stage, and you need to spend from the parts of your portfolio that are declining, that can really put a crimp in your portfolio's viability and its sustainability over your long retirement time horizon.

For that cohort, I think it's particularly important to review your portfolio's asset allocation, reflect on your winnings so far in your equity stake, but be willing to consider paring it back in an effort to improve your portfolio's viability for the years that lie ahead. That means potentially adding more to cash, that means adding more to bonds, that means also, as we just discussed, being prepared to lower your withdrawal rate if that bad market environment hits early in your retirement years.

How to assess whether your asset allocation is on track: This might seem really black-boxy to a lot of you. There are a couple of ways to do this. One thing that I often recommend is that people look for Morningstar's lifetime allocation indexes. Those are put together by my colleagues in Morningstar Investment Management. I think those provide good benchmarks for asset allocations. Of course, they won't suit everyone, but I think they can be a good starting point.

I often recommend target-date funds as another useful tool just to check the sensibility of an asset allocation program. Two target-date series that Morningstar analysts like are the Vanguard Target Retirement Series, as well as BlackRock's Life Path Index Series. Both are really well-constructed target-date series and can provide another baseline for you when you're assessing your portfolio's asset allocation.

Another thing I like to do, and many of you know I'm a big fan of this bucket approach to retirement portfolio planning, is to look at your planned portfolio withdrawal amounts and use that to stage your portfolio. In all of my model portfolios on Morningstar.com, the bucket portfolios, I've typically set aside two-years' worth of portfolio withdrawals in cash investments, another eight years' in high-quality bond investments and then the remainder of the portfolio can go into assets with higher growth potential. That will be mainly stocks, potentially higher-risk fixed income asset classes like emerging-markets bonds or junk bonds. That can be a good way to back into an appropriate asset allocation mix given your planned expenditures from your portfolio.

I've just sketched out a simple example on this slide. Let's assume that someone is using the 4% guideline and they have $1 million portfolio. They're withdrawing $40,000 a year from their portfolio. If we multiply that $40,000 times 2, that's the cash allocation, that's the amount in bucket number one. If we multiply the portfolio withdrawal by 8, that's the amount that we would stake in high-quality bonds. Then any additional retirement portfolio assets can go in high-growth assets.

In this particular case, you can see that actually the lion's share of the portfolio, 60%, is going into equity assets. This is a nice way to come up with a sensible asset allocation framework given the particulars of your plan. If you're someone who is lucky enough to have, say, a pension and Social Security supplying a lot of your income needs, you may find that actually your allocations to cash and bonds are quite low based on this particular framework. Of course, you want to bear in mind your own risk tolerance, your own tolerance for volatility in your portfolio when using a system like this. I think it can be a good starting point.

What do you do if you're heavy on stocks? As I mentioned, this is a case for a lot of us as 2017 winds down. The problem is that stocks are not as cheap as they once were. It does make sense to pare back on equity allocations. If you're taking withdrawals from your portfolio, start there in terms of taking those withdrawals. If you need to make additional adjustments to rebalance your portfolio back to your targets, that means that you'll have to pull away from your equity holdings and move money into cash and bonds.

My bias, if you're investing in fixed income today, is to think about parking the bulk of your fixed-income assets in high-quality bond products that aren't taking a lot of interest-rate risk. That doesn't mean that everything needs to be short or even ultrashort, but I probably wouldn't venture out on the long-term end of the interest-rate spectrum at this point in the game. I would probably keep the bulk of my fixed-income portfolio in short and intermediate-term bonds.

Another key thing to bear in mind at this point in time is the tax implications of doing any rebalancing. If you've determined that your portfolio is heavy on stocks relative to where you need it to be, one key thing to keep in mind is that you want to focus any rebalancing efforts within your tax-sheltered accounts. Don't touch your taxable accounts if you can help it, because there could be capital gains implications for you by selling appreciated equity holdings. My bias, and I'll touch on this a little later on, is we talk a little bit more about tax planning, is to let the market do the rebalancing of your taxable portfolio rather than being too aggressive in terms of rebalancing there at this late stage of the current bull market.

On this next slide, I've just compiled a short list of some of Morningstar's analysts' favorite core bond funds. At the top of the slide, I've got a couple of our favorite short-term bond funds, as well as some of our favorite core intermediate-term funds. I've populated the model portfolios that I've created on Morningstar.com with several of these holdings. This is a handy list and indeed the Morningstar Medalist funds are a handy starting point. If you determine your portfolio is light on a given area, you can look to the analyst highly rated funds within the area that you need to top up for additional ideas.

What if the opposite happens, if you run through this exercise and you determine that your portfolio is light on stocks? This is certainly the case with many retirees. In fact, it happened with a couple of the retirees in the portfolio makeovers that I did a couple of weeks ago, where after running the numbers on the portfolios and looking actually at their certain sources of income, in particular, some of the portfolio makeover subjects had substantial pensions that they were lucky enough to be bringing into retirement, we determined that the portfolios were actually light on stocks. What if this describes you?

Well, this is tricky, because as I mentioned, stock valuations aren't what they once were. When we look at the price to fair value for the typical company in Morningstar's coverage universe today, it's slightly above fair value. One point I would make though before we leave this particular point is that our analysts tend to be a little bit cautious. They have been judging stocks as roughly fairly valued for a couple of years now. Of course, as you know, if you've had stocks in the market, you know that the prices have actually escalated over that period. This is one piece of intelligence to bear in mind.

My advice is, if you determine that your portfolio is notably light on equity exposure at this point in time, move cautiously, move deliberately. The safe way to go is certainly to employ a dollar cost averaging strategy. Look at how much you want to put to work in the equity market, and then invest fixed sums at regular intervals, whether it's monthly or quarterly or whatever you choose in order to top up your equity exposure.

If you are more contrarian, if you have ice running through your veins and if you feel like you can comfortably put money to work when things are falling, you might take an even more contrarian tack. You might look for the S&P to drop by certain levels in order to be an impetus for you to put the money to work. This is kind of a personal decision, but my advice rather than moving a bunch of money into the market at this point in time would be to stage your contributions over a period of months. If it's a very large sum, you actually may want to stretch it out over a couple of years.

Another thing to think about is the market, while it's been strong, it hasn't lifted every boat equally. We've seen large-cap growth stocks in particular and funds that focus on them perform really, really well. At the same time, we've seen value-oriented strategies perform not so well. We've also seen more quality-conscious strategies not perform quite as well so far in 2017 as lower quality strategies. If you're deploying new money into the equity market, think about that as well when you're directing new money into your portfolio. You may want to invest a little more in higher-quality and/or value-leaning names.

On the next slide, I've just compiled some of Morningstar's favorite Gold and Silver-rated finds. This is a grab bag of funds that employee either value-oriented strategies or quality conscious strategies. In some cases, a little bit of both. These are ideas that are worthy of further research. They may be things that are already in your portfolio, and you may consider deploying new monies into them.

I have also run a screen, and this is one that I like to run periodically just to see what looks expensive or what looks cheap at any given point in time. I screened for companies, individual stocks that our analysts rate as having 4 or 5 stars, wide moats, meaning that our analysts think that they are generally pretty high-quality companies, and companies where we've got a low fair value uncertainty rating--what that means is the analyst feels like he or she is pretty capably able to predict what a company's future cash flows will look like.

As of a couple of days ago, the screen surfaced these few investment ideas. You can see that there are a few consumer-related names, a few pharma names and a few energy-related names. Again, for those of you who are individual stock investors, just a handful of companies, a pretty short list actually today, of companies that are worthy of further research.

Also on your to-do list for 2017 should be to tee up your liquid reserves. As I mentioned, I'm a fan of keeping at least some cash in reserve in retiree portfolios. I talked about how to bucket your portfolio. When I think about right-sizing cash stakes, I typically think of anywhere from six months' worth of portfolio withdrawals to two years' worth of portfolio withdrawals. I don't espouse the idea of getting too fancy with this portion of the portfolio, keep it in plain-vanilla savings accounts, CDs, checking accounts. Online savings accounts can be a source of decent, although not spectacular yields today. Think about using, if you're doing some rebalancing in your portfolio, think about taking money from highly appreciated positions and moving that into your cash bucket to refill it. You can also use required minimum distributions to fulfill your cash bucket, and you might also look at having your income distributions--whether from bond income or dividend income, from equities--have that spill directly into your cash bucket as well to kind of top it up on an ongoing basis as the year goes by. Take a look at your cash reserves. In my model portfolios, I have typically recommended six months' to two years' worth of portfolio withdrawals.

Also, on your to-do list for 2017 in the waning days of this year is to take a look at your required minimum distributions. I'll just run through the basics really quickly. Many of you know that RMDs must commence after you turn age 70 1/2. Before your first RMD, you actually can delay until April 1 of the year following the year in which you turned age 70 1/2, But thereafter, you have to take your RMDs by year-end of every year. This is a deadline that you don't want to mess around with, because if you happen to miss your RMD, you will pay a penalty equal to 50% of the amount that you should have taken, but didn't take, and you will also pay ordinary income tax.

A couple of other points to make on RMDs. One is that the types of accounts that are subject to them include traditional IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, 457 plans. Also, Roth 401(k)s, simple IRAs, SEP-IRAs. Roth IRAs are one key category that are not subject to required minimum distributions. That's one reason why we always tell accumulators, if you're still building assets for retirement, think about setting aside some money in Roth accounts, so that that you know you will have some withdrawals coming out tax-free.

Traditional tax-deferred account RMDs are taxable as ordinary income. One interesting thing to point out is that you must calculate your RMDs for each type of plan separately, but you can actually roll up your RMDs for all of your IRAs. If you have multiple IRAs, as long as you take the right amount, you actually can use some strategy here to pull your RMDs from specific accounts or in fact specific positions that you would like to lighten up on. 

I just want to spend a little bit of time on using RMDs to improve your portfolio. The first step is to go through that portfolio review process, enter your portfolio on Morningstar.com, and take a look at any areas that you'd like to address in terms of repositioning your portfolio. If you've determined that there are some areas that you'd like to lighten up on, you can use your required minimum distributions to help enact that change.

I think about when I would help my parents, take their required minimum distributions, I'd always simply pull from the accounts that had appreciated the most in the previous year. You can use your own strategy here, but the idea is that you're taking your RMDs with an eye toward improving your portfolio's risk/reward profile. For a lot of us, that means pruning appreciated stocks. If you have growth-oriented holdings in your portfolio, you might want to concentrate your energies there. If you have technology stocks or ETFs or mutual funds focused on the tech sector, you might find those are ripe for pruning.

Another area that we've seen go on a tear so far in 2017 has been emerging markets. There was a fallow period leading up to this recent run-up in emerging markets, but emerging markets have run up very quickly recently, There may be still some gas left in the tank, but emerging markets are really volatile. If you have a standalone emerging-markets holding, you may consider pruning there as well to help meet your RMDs. You can also use your RMDs, as I said, to refill your cash bucket and to make charitable gifts, and I'll just spend a second on that later on in the presentation.

One question that often comes up from Morningstar.com readers and from audiences that I speak to of retirees is they are in this high-class situation where they have more RMDs than they actually need to spend. A key thing to bear in mind is, how RMDs actually escalate as you age. As you know if you are subject to RMDs that you need to calculate your RMD based on life expectancy factor, the net effect of that life expectancy factor is that you're taking more from your portfolio as you age.

When you begin taking RMDs, they are comfortably under 4%; but by the time you hit age 85, they are up near 7%. Take a look at that if your portfolio withdrawal, if your IRA withdrawal is going to take you over your planned withdrawal amount, you need to reinvest the money in your portfolio. For a lot of folks who are subject RMDs, the only choice is to invest in a taxable account, but if you're in a situation of having earned income or your spouse has earned income, you can actually get the money into a Roth IRA as long as your earned income covers your contribution amount. That's something to keep in mind. You can also direct your RMDs to charity via a qualified charitable distribution if you are lucky enough to have your RMDs be more than you actually need to live on.

Another category to look at--and as I mentioned, there so much influx regarding the tax reform--but another category to look at is identifying opportunities to reduce your tax bill either in 2017, or in the years ahead. I am going to spend a little bit of time on mutual fund capital gains distributions on a subsequent slide.

Another thing to look for is scouting around for tax-loss candidates. As I mentioned, as many of us look upon our portfolios, upon our taxable portfolios, we're probably not going to find a lot on the way of tax-loss candidates. One category though that I would urge you to take a look for would be any equity energy positions or master limited partnership positions. Those categories have all slumped so far in 2017. You might be able to do some tax loss harvesting there. You can use those tax losses to offset any capital gains in your portfolio. This is not something to worry about for your tax-deferred portfolio though. This is only something that you can do with your taxable accounts.

Another thought is to defer capital gains realization. As I mentioned, even though I am a big fan of the idea of rebalancing, if it turns out that your taxable portfolio is out of balance, I would really proceed slowly in terms of making big changes to bring your asset allocation back into alignment. Let the market do the rebalancing for you rather than pre-emptively realizing a big capital gains bill.

Another point to bear in mind is tax gain harvesting. This is another something I am going to spend a little bit of time on a subsequent slide. Finally, I wanted to mention, if you're in a low tax bracket temporarily--and this might be because you've just retired, but required minimum distributions haven't yet commenced--this is actually a good time to see if you can use some techniques to maybe lower your tax bills in the future. You might think about tax gain harvesting, and again, this is something I am going to talk about in just a second. Roth IRA conversions, you may be able to convert enough of your traditional IRA to Roth to fill up your tax bracket. You can also look potentially at expedited IRA distributions before RMDs commence in order to lighten your RMDs. Eventually, you may be able to expedite some of your IRA distributions.

Those are some techniques to think about if you find yourself in what Vanguard's Maria Bruno calls the "sweet spot" of retirement--after retirement pre-RMDs, you have more tools in your tool kit to manage your tax bill. I would say with all of these items, check with someone who is knowledgeable about tax matters before proceeding on any of these endeavors, whether that's a tax-savvy financial advisor or an investment-savvy tax advisor. Get some guidance before you make big changes here.

Just quickly, mutual fund capital gains distributions, we've been rounding up capital gains distributions on Morningstar.com. It does look like it's shaping up as another lousy year for mutual fund shareholders. This is happening for a couple of reasons. One is that as many of you know, investors have really been trading out of actively managed funds, and they've been buying index products and exchange-traded fund products, instead. The net effect of that is that that has prompted some fund managers to have to do some selling in order to meet shareholder redemptions. If you are a shareholder who has stuck around, you've been socked with these capital gains distributions and in some cases, if there has been selling, the distributions are getting distributed across a smaller base.

In our preliminary look at capital gains distributions for mutual funds in 2017, it does look like it's going to be another not-so-great year for fundholders. Large-cap growth holdings look to be some of the biggest culprits in terms of making sizable capital gains distributions. We've also seen certain shops that, for whatever reason, have gotten big redemptions, those too are making sizable capital gains distributions. Do your homework.

The problem is, is that as a fund shareholder, you don't have that many tools in your tool kit in terms of dodging these capital gains distributions. You sometimes hear from investors who say, I am going to sell out early and not get socked with the distribution. The problem with that strategy is that you have, if the security has appreciated over your holding period, you could trigger your own capital gain by preemptively selling in order to avoid the distribution. This generally isn't advisable. One thing I would say is that we've seen some funds--and I had one in my personal portfolio--we've seen some funds be serial distributors of these capital gains, what happens when you get a capital gains distribution that you reinvest is that your cost basis actually increases.

When I looked at this particular holding in my taxable portfolio, what I saw was that even though it had been really nasty from a tax standpoint, we had been paying capital gains along the way, our cost basis had been getting adjusted upward, and at this point, it wasn't that different from the current net asset value of the fund. Do your homework, check your cost basis, whatever method you are using for calculating cost basis, and compare it to the fund's NAV. The tax cost of giving your portfolio a little bit of a tax-efficient makeover may actually not cost you that much, if anything at all.

I want to just spend a little bit of time on tax gain harvesting because I do think this can be a terrific strategy, especially if you are in the 10% or 15% tax bracket. We've got the thresholds for that on this slide, the 2017 thresholds. The idea is that you are pre-emptively selling securities that have appreciated, and because you're in that 10% or 15% income tax bracket, that means you pay capital gains tax at a 0% tax rate. The virtue of pre-emptively selling those appreciated holdings and even rebuying them is that if eventually you are subject to capital gain tax, you will have reset your cost basis to a new higher level. If stocks drop from here, you may even open yourself up to being able to take tax losses on those positions. This can be a really neat strategy.

One point before we leave this slide is to check with the tax professional before embarking on any pre-emptive capital gains realization because you wouldn't want to inadvertently trigger a tax bill in an effort to improve your tax position going forward. Also, the gains that you realize could have an effect on your income as well. You want to make sure that you are staying within the 10% and 15% income-tax brackets.

Making charitable contributions should also be on everyone's to-do list as 2017 winds down. Retirees actually have a few more tools in their tool kits than people who are still accumulating assets for retirement. A couple of strategies for giving assets to charity, the really basic strategy and certainly nothing wrong with it is writing a check to charity or using a credit card to donate to charity. You can actually get your investment portfolio into the mix as well.

Let's say, you have highly appreciated holdings within your taxable account. If you actually gift those shares to charity, you will remove the tax burden associated with those holdings from your account, and you will also help the charity. The charity won't owe taxes as well. You may also be able to remove a highly concentrated position from your portfolio without any tax implications for you. This is a great strategy to consider. Again, with all of these strategies, check with an accountant, especially if you are talking large sums of mone. but this can be a really nice strategy to consider.

Another idea, and donor-advised funds are increasing in popularity, but you can actually contribute cash or shares to a donor-advised fund. The beauty of the donor-advised fund is that you can take your time in terms of putting the money to work with charities. In the meantime, while you make your charitable selections, while you do research on charities, you can take the tax deduction and you can also see your account grow a little bit before you deploy the assets. This is a nice strategy to consider as well. I think some people might hear donor-advised fund and might think that you really need to be a high roller to consider this strategy, but actually, some donor-advised funds have fairly low minimums. My colleague Karen Wallace has just completed a helpful round of articles where she has looked at some of the big shops' donor-advised funds. I would urge you to check it out if you are interested in this particular technique for making charitable contributions.

Another tool in the tool kit, and one that I've referenced before, is this idea of qualified charitable distributions. If you are an RMD-subject investor, taking a portion of your RMD or all of your RMD up to $100,000 and shifting it to the charity of your choice. This strategy can be really effective in terms of helping you reduce your adjusted gross income because you've never received a check for the RMD, but instead shunted it straight over to a charity, it doesn't touch your AGI. This can be a nice effective strategy and maybe more beneficial than pulling the money out of your IRA to meet your RMD obligations and then writing a check to charity. This is one to consider as well.

In years past we were all sort of on tenderhooks as the year wound down waiting to see whether Congress would renew this QCD provision. As of a couple of years ago, it's permanent, so, it's one that you can proceed with and work with your financial provider to work with the charity of your choice or charities of your choice to enact the qualified charitable distribution.

I just want to quickly cover a couple of other items that should be on your to-do list. Re-shopping your Medicare coverage is another thing to keep in mind. As I mentioned, this one is more time-sensitive than some of the other items. Here you are re-shopping your Medicare Part D or prescription drug coverage. If you participate or are covered by a Medicare Advantage Plan, this is also your opportunity to re-shop that coverage as well.

Mark Miller, a Morningstar contributor, has been writing about Medicare open enrollment. He and I typically do a video on this topic as well. He has got some helpful tips on this, but one of his pieces of advice is to do this because many people, if they simply stick with their existing choices, will see some sort of premium increase in 2017--not large increases in many cases, but some increase. Take a look at your current coverage, take stock of the drugs that you take and re-shop your coverage. This can be a way to save yourself some money for 2017.

Also, getting organized for 2017. Tax return season is also top of mind. Tax day in 2018 is April 17 this year. It's one of those things that seems to come upon us very quickly. It's a great time of year to take stock of all of your tax-related paperwork, whether actual paperwork or virtual paperwork. Find some sort of receptacle to keep track of all this stuff--whether it is your deductible expenses, charitable contributions, medical deductible expenses. Also, find some good place to store your 1099 forms as they roll in.

While you're at it, I would also put in a plug for some nontax-related pieces of paperwork that it's a great idea to have in your retirement tool kit. One that I often talk about is this idea of a master directory, which is a password-protected file that enumerates all of your assets and some important details about your account. This is important at any life stage, but especially in retirement. That way if you're not able to manage your investments at a certain point in time, for whatever reason, you will have left a paper trail for your loved ones to be able to do so.

Centralized password manager is also something that I advocate. There are some great freemium programs that you can use to centralize your password. This is a safer way to protect your information online. It's something that I would advise everyone to do regardless of life stage, but as well as in retirement.

Finally, this is a good time of year, if you're checking up on your portfolio holdings, if you're checking up on individual accounts, take a look at your beneficiary designations and make sure that they square with how your life is situated currently and how you would like to distribute your assets if something should happen to you.

Finally, just a quick shout out about additional retirement plan contributions. Retirees can still make retirement contributions in some instances. It's important to know that once required minimum distributions commence at age 70 1/2, you won't be able to contribute to a traditional IRA, and in reality, it doesn't really make sense to do so because you're pulling money out. But you can, if you have earned income, as I said, you can make contributions to a Roth IRA up to the limit and certainly, as a retiree, you're eligible for the catch-up contributions, which for 2017 and 2018 is $6,500.

Health savings account contributions are also something to consider if you're in the situation of being covered by a high deductible healthcare plan and you're not yet covered by Medicare, you can make additional HSA contributions as well. In 2017, the contribution limit for singles is $4,400 and for married couples or families is $7,750. But again, this is for people who are covered by a high deductible plan.

Another thing to point out is that if you are still working and covered by some sort of a company retirement plan, whether a 401(k) or some other employer-sponsored plan, you can typically continue to contribute to that even if you are past RMD age. That's something to look into. I know increasingly retirees are working and earning at least some sort of paycheck in retirement. This is a way to think about making additional contributions if you're in the enviable position of having more money than you actually need to live on in retirement.

That ends my prepared remarks. I know that some questions have been rolling in as I've been talking and I'm happy to be joined here by my colleague Jeremy Glaser, who has been compiling questions and is going to lay some of them on me.

Jeremy Glaser: Christine, thank you for a great presentation. Lots of good information there. Tons of questions. We'll get to them in a second. Just a reminder, if you have more questions, definitely submit them into chat. We'll try to get to as many. And also, the presentation slides are available to download and there's links in the player as well.

Christine, the first question we got is from David, which is about tax reform. He asks, specifically about qualified charitable deductions, but I think more broadly we can talk about what impact tax reform could have on any of these to-do's. Anything you really need to get done before the end of this year because the code could change in 2018?

Christine Benz: Yeah, it's a really confusing time. Regardless of your life stage, there are a lot of different things swirling around. I know many people have been trying to stay plugged into what's going on in Congress, but, of course, things are changing very, very quickly.

One thing I would say, I did an interview with Tim Steffen from Baird a couple of weeks ago, where we reviewed where the tax plan was at that time. His point, I think, is a good one and still pertains to where we stand today with Congress, is that the traditional advice on managing gains and deductions is to accelerate any deductions into the current year if you possibly can and defer any gains. It seems like the outlines of that general advice make sense now more than ever, in part because if there is a higher standard deduction, we'll all get less bang from itemizing than we do currently. That would be a case for, if you have any itemizable things to put on your tax return and to accelerate in 2017, that that's something to keep in mind.

Regarding QCDs, I haven't seen the outlines of where the QCD stands in relation to where the tax plan is currently. Certainly, it's alive and well for 2017, andI know anecdotally, it's something that retirees really find to be a great win-win where they know they have to take their RMDs, but they're also charitably inclined. As far as 2017 is concerned, I'd say, go for it.

Jeremy Glaser: In the period of uncertainty, it doesn't make sense to do any radical maneuvers based on a bill or based on a proposal. You should still maybe make tweaks, but not radical changes.

Christine Benz: I think that's absolutely right, Jeremy. I think based on the speed at which this is all proceeding, we may actually have more details within the space of a couple weeks, certainly within the space of a month. I think it's a good bet that retirees should wait until there are more details before making any changes.

Jeremy Glaser: Let's talk about RMDs. We talked about the QCD as a potential vehicle for them. But we have a question here from Ray about where to actually get the cash for the RMDs. He is wondering if it makes sense to use dividends that you might have gotten from stocks or from funds versus maybe selling a position. How do you make that decision of where that cash would come from?

Christine Benz: Yeah, really good point. I think you could broaden this point, even people who aren't subject to RMDs, they might wonder about, well, if I'm supposed to hold six months' to two years' worth of cash in my portfolio, where do I get that. When I do bucket portfolio maintenance discussions, I typically do recommend the idea sending any dividend or income distributions over into that cash bucket. You have a balanced say, 60-40 portfolio and you're not really stretching for yield, that will get you about halfway to 4% currently. You might be able to pull, say, a 2% yield from a portfolio without really stretching for it. Then at the end of every year, I would take a look at the portfolio and see, are there areas that have maybe performed really well and are perhaps a little bit overextended. I would use rebalancing to pull from those positions. I think that strategy, that general framework in terms of refilling the cash bucket makes sense whether you're subject to RMDs or not.

Jeremy Glaser: Our next question is from Bob who asks us about annuities. He says that they are a couple that are 70 years old and 67 years old, solid financial base. How do you make that decision about if it's the right time, or when is the right time to buy single premium annuity versus keeping that money in your portfolio and investing it?

Christine Benz: This is such a good question and one question is, for whom is an annuity appropriate. I think maybe that's a good starting point. In the handful of situations, certainly, there are more than a handful, but in a situation where someone has a lot of their income needs coming from pensions and Social Security and other certain sources of income, that's a group of individuals for whom I would say there's much less need to consider an annuity. You think about many of baby boomers coming into retirement, many of them don't have very high fixed pools of income that they're bringing into retirement. That's the cohort that I think should take the hardest look at some sort of an annuity product.

The single premium annuity product is certainly the one that a lot of the academic research would point to as being beneficial to a portfolio. The beauty is that you get that lifetime income stream if you purchase such an annuity, and it adds to whatever lifetime income you're getting from Social Security. I would take a look at that.

Regarding timing, that's a really tough question. One issue that has been a headwind for annuities over the past couple of decades really, but certainly over the past five years, is that yields have been really, really low, payouts from annuities have been really low because they get keyed off of where interest rates are currently. With interest rates as low as they currently are insurers know that if they take in annuitants' money, that they cannot deliver a very high fixed stream of income. That's the problem.

One idea, if someone is in the position to make a significant buy of some sort of an annuity product is maybe to think about laddering annuities. I know this is something Harold Evensky, who is a great financial planner, has espoused this idea of putting fixed sums into various annuities over a period of a few years. The idea is to try to experience different interest-rate climates. Another salutary benefit of doing that is that you can park your money with different insurers, and so help reduce the insurance company-specific risk as well. That's an idea to keep in mind, if say, you have determined that you want to put $100,000 into an annuity, perhaps making five smaller buys or three smaller buys of that product.

Jeremy Glaser: We've been talking a lot about retirees who are of more of traditional retirement age, but we have a question here from Mario about resources, or how do you think about retiring earlier. He is thinking in his 50s. What would that look like? Any changes to strategy or what early retirees should be thinking about right now?

Christine Benz: Yeah, really good question, and I think that's coming up more and more. We've had the market perform so well for so long that many people are looking at their plumped-up balances and saying, maybe I could do this sooner than I thought I could. A few things that I would keep your eye on. As I mentioned, we have to plan to be flexible. If you are looking at withdrawal rates, you certainly want to set the bar much lower than that 4% initial portfolio withdrawal. Say, you are planning for like a 40-year time horizon in retirement, you'd probably need to be down in the 2%, 2.5%, maybe 3% at the high-end range. You also need to be prepared to stay flexible in terms of your withdrawals.

To me, it also argues for making sure that you have adequate liquid reserves. We talked about sequence of return risk being such a big risk factor for people who have just retired. You need to plan to be able to ratchet down your spending rate. You also want to be comfy holding a sizable equity position. The longer your retirement time horizon, the more equity-heavy your portfolio needs to be. All of those things taken together, I think, argue for being more conservative on withdrawals and being more aggressive in terms of the portfolio composition and complexion.

Jeremy Glaser: We have another RMD question from George, he has multiple retirement accounts, a 401(k), an IRA, and he is wondering, do you need to take the RMDs from each account every year or is it an aggregate total and you can take them from any account that you like?

Christine Benz: You have to calculate your RMDs for each account type separately and take it separately. To use a simple example, let's say, someone has a 401(k) and an IRA, you'd need to calculate and take those RMDs individually. A little bit of art comes into play though if you have multiple IRAs. That's where you can do some aggregations. As long as you take the right amount out of those IRAs in aggregate, you can actually kind of cherry pick the specific holdings that you want to pull your distributions from. A good question, and I do think that this is one way that retirees can improve their portfolios while they are also fulfilling the IRS's obligations.

Jeremy Glaser: We have a question here from John about stable value funds. Stable value investments are often available in workplace plans--TSP for the federal government has a good one. Any chance of those being offered individual to IRA accounts? If not, what are some good alternatives if you are looking for a place to maybe park some medium-term-ish or short-term-ish money that you don't want in cash?

Christine Benz: Really good question, and just to cover what stable value funds are--they are investments offered in a retirement plan construct. The basic idea there is that it's kind of a cash alternative, but typically, yields are much better because they don't invest in true cash investments, but actually invest in high-quality bond investments. They have insurance wrappers that keep their net asset value stable. This is one asset that actually argues for maybe hanging on to your 401(k) in retirement because it can be really valuable to have something that yields a lot better than your cash investments.

You used to be able to buy these products outside of a 401(k) construct. You are no longer able to. Whether that's on the table to re-allow them, I'm not sure. In the meantime, there's not a great proxy for these investments. One larger point I would make, Jeremy, is just that, I think the opportunity cost for investors in holding cash even though the equity market has been so strong, I would argue that it's almost never been lower, that given the run-up we've had in the equity market, given that the differential between what bonds yield and what cash yields is just not that much, I just don't think you are getting paid to take on a lot of interest-rate and/or credit quality risk with your fixed-income portfolio.

My bias--and granted I would have said this three years ago--but my bias is just to not try to do anything fancy with my fixed-income portfolio in an effort to extract higher yield. I just don't think it's the time for it.

Jeremy Glaser: Bill has a question about Roth conversions. He converted a traditional IRA to a Roth before he hit that 70 1/2 birthday. Does that mean that RMDs are off the table for him, because once you are in that Roth then no RMDs are needed?

Christine Benz: Repeat the question?

Jeremy Glaser: I am sorry. He already has done a conversion before he hit the RMDs on the traditional, so he does not have to worry about RMDs anymore because he has already done that conversion.

Christine Benz: That's right. As long as you get money over into the Roth category before RMDs commence, those assets would not be subject to RMDs. I mentioned Maria Bruno, our friend at Vanguard, such a great thinker on retirement planning, she does say that this post-retirement pre-RMD period, she calls it the sweet spot, is a great time to explore some ideas, like Roth-IRA conversions. You may look at accelerating some of the distributions from your tax-deferred accounts that would otherwise be subject to RMDs. Take a look at some things you can do to help take advantage of those few years when you have a lot of control over your tax bill.

Jeremy Glaser: One final question here, as we are running out of time, is about income limits on contributing to Roth IRAs. Those are still in place even after you are past 70 1/2, that those same limits are going to apply?

Christine Benz: Absolutely right. So, check that. The income limits do trend up on a year-to-year basis. Certainly, for Roth IRA contributions, they are higher than the income limits for deductible traditional IRA contributions. But if you're, I would say, it's probably a pretty rare subset of individual who is post 70 1/2, who has a very high income, but there certainly are some. Check those income limits and make sure that, in fact, you are coming in under those thresholds to make the Roth IRA contributions post any age, but especially 70 1/2.

Jeremy Glaser: Christine, thanks for tackling these questions and for a great presentation today.

Christine Benz: Thank you, Jeremy.

Jeremy Glaser: Thank you for joining us. Just as a reminder, we will have a replay of this event available soon if you missed any of it or want to watch it again. Thanks, again.

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