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3 Ways Out of Today's Financial Turbulence

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Guest columnist Jennifer Openshaw is CEO of Family Financial Network, Chief Consumer Advisor for Lending Club, and a personal finance professor at New York University. She is also author of The Millionaire Zone (Hyperion) and a longtime columnist for Dow Jones' MarketWatch.

Do the recent stock market twists and turns have you scared? You're not alone. A new survey by pollster Penn, Schoen & Berland reports that 65% of Americans are more concerned about their futures than they were at the beginning of the crisis two years ago. For the first time in some 30 years, according to the Investment Company Institute, Americans have withdrawn money from stock mutual funds for three consecutive years.

What does that mean? It means we're tired of being left holding the bag for Corporate America's financial mismanagement.

It's getting worse, too. The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) reports that more of today's workers report having no savings at all. The numbers are scary: More than half of workers (54%) report that the total value of their household's savings and investments, excluding the value of their primary home and any defined benefit plans, is less than $25,000.

That won't get you very far in retirement.

Indeed, two key sources of America's wealth, stocks and real estate, are projected to provide little to no growth -- no new wealth -- anytime soon. Safe 10-year Treasury bonds yield less than 3%, with most other savings vehicles yielding far less.

So what are the alternatives? Here are three ideas for earning more in today's environment with fewer ups and downs:

1. Dividend paying stocks
Right now cash is king, and most companies have been cutting costs hand over fist to achieve whatever short-term profits they can find -- and socking away tons of cash along the way. So they can afford to throw a few bread crumbs to long-suffering shareholders, and many are choosing to do so.

Dividend stocks provide a stream of income while allowing you to participate in whatever economic growth there is. Good "blue-chip" payers with healthy yields above 3% include Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) at 3.5%, Procter & Gamble at 3.2%, and Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) at 3.3%.

Another strategy for many retirees and other income-oriented investors is utility stocks. You kept paying your utility bills through tough times, right? In fact, the utility sector has held up strongest through the downturn experienced in the second quarter of 2010. The utility sector also tends to have above-average dividends compared to other sectors, with many yielding much more than the S&P 500's average, such as Duke Energy and its 5.6% dividend yield. Exelon (NYSE: EXC  ) , the largest nuclear producer in the U.S., has a yield of about 5%.

Investors could let someone else drive the bus -- and get broader diversification -- by investing in an exchange-traded fund (ETF) like the iShares Dow Jones Select Dividend Index ETF (NYSE: DVY  ) , which has a 3.7% trailing yield and gives a chance for growth, too.

As with any investment, there are potential downsides. (Remember, reward only comes with risk!) The downsides shouldn't scare you away, but it is important to keep them in your back pocket. So I'll give the downside for each of my recommendations, starting with dividend-paying stocks.

For dividend-paying stocks, it's pretty simple. You must keep in mind that dividends are at the discretion of the company and are increased or decreased as the board of directors sees fit. Even financially strong companies can see their dividends eliminated altogether, as BP did amid public pressure and crisis management in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. So don't put all your dividend investing eggs in one basket.

2. Annuities
Want to reduce market risk? With guaranteed income? You may want to consider annuities. They're complicated, but may be worth learning about these days.

Variable annuities guarantee a fixed minimum income while allowing some participation in the markets and economy. Fixed annuities simply provide the income with no market participation. As an example, in speaking with a representative at Fidelity Investments, I learned if a 60-year-old couple could put $100,000 into a growth and guaranteed income variable annuity, they'd get a guaranteed income, upon retirement, of 4% or $4,000 per year for life. If the value of the annuity grows, so can their payout. Yet in a declining market, the checks won't decrease even if the value of the principal does.

Now, the downside: Annuities are complex, and are often sold by salespeople placing their own interests (i.e., commissions) ahead of yours. First, you must consider the fees. The Fidelity option mentioned above, for instance, has fairly high annual annuity charges of about 2%, on top of about 1% for management costs of the underlying investment portfolio. Second, most annuities have hefty "surrender" charges that can bite if you need to cash out earlier than expected. Third, you must assess the long-term survival of the insurance company behind the annuity. Bottom line: Annuities can do a lot to stabilize your finances long term, but you must do your homework and shop carefully.

3. Consumer notes
Named one of the "20 Breakthrough Business Ideas for 2009" by Harvard Business Review, this is a new breed of investments made possible -- once again -- by the Internet.

Issued by Lending Club, for which I act as chief consumer advisor, Prime Consumer Notes have the advantage of offering moderate risk -- far lower than the stock market and on par with other bonds -- with an impressive 9.6% net annualized return (net of fees and defaults).

How is this possible? Consumer Notes allow investors -- individuals and institutions -- to capture the spread on consumer debt. Lending Club offers loans to creditworthy borrowers looking to fund their business or pay off their high-interest credit cards. Many of these borrowers are simply looking for an alternative when their bank couldn't -- or wouldn't -- extend credit. Their loss, your gain.

Investors buy Prime Consumer Notes -- each one representing a fraction of a loan -- and build a diversified portfolio across hundreds or even thousands of borrowers. As borrowers pay back the loans, you receive monthly payments comprised of interest and principal that you can choose to reinvest or withdraw. You can choose the Notes individually or buy part of a bundle, rated "A" through "G" based on risk and return. You get transparency and diversification at the same time, and can also make them part of your tax-advantaged IRA. Sound complicated? Lending Club makes investing in Consumer Notes transparent and easy.

The downsides include some degree of credit risk, but that's not unlike other fixed-income securities and also depends on how you set up your notes. Also, like annuities, it can be difficult to get out of a note on a moment's notice if you don't hold it until it matures, typically in three or five years. Again, it's a question of understanding the product, its risks, and how it applies to your specific financial situation.

So, as you watch all the news, don't think you're locked into a bumpy landing in the world of stocks, bonds, and other "traditional" investing products. With a little homework, you can reduce the risks, grow your money, and create a smooth landing as you head into retirement.

Learn more about retirement investing from the Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter. A free trial gives you no-holds-barred access for 30 days.

Guest columnist Jennifer Openshaw does not own shares of any companies mentioned. Exelon and Intel are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Duke Energy, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble are Income Investor recommendations. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Intel and a diagonal call position on J&J. The Fool owns shares of and has written covered calls on Procter & Gamble. The Fool owns shares of Exelon, Intel, and Johnson & Johnson. We tell you all this because The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (1) | Recommend This Article (5)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 21, 2010, at 4:48 PM, 123spot wrote:

    Please sort this out for me: ETF digest (among many ie Prechter,etc.) keeps reiterating that "investor bullishness" is at dangerous levels, but this article (and others) says investors have fled equities for bonds. Is it only professional investors who are bullish on equities while us "commoners" are scared towards bonds? THX

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