Can you Really “Tap Into” the “Social Security ‘Catastrophe Plan?'”

What's being teased by Yield Shark as a "Emergency Fund" green-lit by Congress in 1960?

By Travis Johnson, Stock Gumshoe, September 30, 2019

Robert Ross is peddling his Yield Shark newsletter from Mauldin Economics, and he’s doing it with an all-too-familiar “enroll in this income stream” kind of idea… in his case, he calls it the “Social Security Catastrophe Plan” and implies that it can “Boost Your Retirement by $185,040 Today.”

Like most such offerings, there’s an undercurrent of truth… but it’s so swamped by the hype and obscured by the things that are carefully left out (like how much you need to invest, how long it takes, or what the risks are) that you can’t really blame someone for thinking that their $49 Yield Shark subscription gets them access to secrets that will save their retirement and send them tens of thousands of dollars.

After all, even though we know there’s no such thing as a free lunch… we persist in believing that somehow, someone out there is getting one. So if only we had the right connections or the right secrets… maybe next time it could be us?

As is pretty much always the case with these “save your retirement” pitches, there are images of happy folks on sailboats… talk of taking your grandkids on vacation… hints that maybe you could buy a new set of golf clubs. Sadly, no photos of red convertibles in this one… maybe next time.

So let me jump to one of the conclusions: Nope, sorry, you don’t get checks by just asking for them. There’s still no secret “system” you can enroll in that will send you giant checks to supplement your Social Security income.

What’s being teased here are investments — you buy a piece of an asset or a piece of a business, or lend money to a business, and you get a return on your investment (assuming all goes well).

And how big are the checks? Well, we’ll go over some examples that he drops hints about… but this is an important time to check in on another old saying: We already know “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” … but let’s also remind ourselves that that it takes money to make money. For almost everything in the investing world, the most important determining factor for how much you earn is how much you invest.

Don’t be swayed by impressive-sounding big numbers like $185,040 — I can easily set up a portfolio that makes you $185,040 in “checks” on a regular basis if you give me four or five million dollars. If you make me start with the average 401(k) balance of someone in their 50s (roughly $175,000), then the task becomes dramatically harder and the risk you’d take in trying to get those returns is probably more than you can (or should) stomach.

But anyway, does he drop any real hints along the way about what this “Catastrophe Plan” really is? Let’s do some sampling from the ad — this part is actually from the order form, delineating what they’re promising:

“How to easily ‘enroll’ in the ‘Catastrophe Plan’ and collect as much as $185,040 on top of your normal Social Security payments…

“Answers to any questions you might have about the plan, your payout schedule, or how much money you’ll collect from your next “check”…

“How to sign up your spouse and children to the plan BEFORE the next payment, so they can enjoy a $185,040 boost to their retirement savings, too…”

Sounds lovely, right? We get some specific examples of people who have, we’re told, also tried this “catastrophe plan”….

“Just like Marvin Henderson, a retired consultant from Chicago.

“His Social Security benefits were cut by 25% because he couldn’t wait until he turned 67 and needed the money right away.

“Of course, for a man desperately trying to cover his bills, getting a smaller check from Washington isn’t a good thing.

“So, he searched for a way he could boost his retirement income by thousands of dollars every month…

“And since then, he’s used the Social Security ‘Catastrophe Plan’ to collect $50,000 already.

“He now says he has… ‘more time to enjoy life and try new activities’…

“And that… ‘The excess income I generate permits me to travel […] and it also enables me to give my children and grandchildren better gifts than previously possible.'”

Sound so nice, right? I hear from folks in retirement all the time, and those are just the kinds of things they want — a little excess income to assuage their worries, some nice gifts for the grandkids, a little travel… so how does one get that?

The ad continues…

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“All you need to do is spend the next six minutes reading the information below, and you’ll discover how to tap into the Social Security ‘Catastrophe Plan’ and start collecting your automated paychecks….”

And they throw in some intrigue and Washington stuff, to help make it believable that maybe this is one of those ridiculous government programs that maybe could benefit you…

“Of course, don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it before. Like most secretive Washington schemes…

“This Little-Known Plan Began in a Dark, Smoke-Filled Room….

“… in a small building just 984 feet from Capitol Hill, these 39 members worked for months…

“Through nights…

“And without the public knowing…

“To pass a secret bill that allows part of the private sector’s income to be paid out to individual citizens INSTEAD of collected by the IRS as taxes.

“It’s what we now call the Social Security ‘Catastrophe Plan.'”

So what is it? Well, as I mentioned above, it’s just a different way to invest. This “Catastrophe Plan” is “buy REITs!”

But maybe there’s more to it than that… let’s see a few other clues:

“This program is an incredible alternative that Social Security watchdog BenefitsPro declares the new ‘retiree’s income secret’…

“What Forbes calls ‘Terrific… for retirees and pre-retirees’…

“And what CNN says offers “hefty payouts”….

“In fact, according to Wilshire Funds Management, it could boost your retirement payouts by 40%!”

Yes, Wilshire Funds Management did publish a report that found increasing allocations to REITs would have helped to both increase income and returns and increase eventual portfolio balances over thirty years. Shockingly enough, this research was sponsored by the National Association of… wait for it… REITs.

That doesn’t mean it’s not true, of course, REITs have been a valuable addition to the toolbox for individual investors, and they have done extremely well, on average, particularly over the past 20-25 years or so… but a historical analysis of returns with lots of variables means you can tweak those variables lots of ways, and you will probably generally find that sponsors get the research outcome they prefer.

Sadly, Ross does not drop any hints about which specific REITs he’s recommending as this “Catastrophe Plan” — but Real Estate Investment Trusts have certainly had a great year, so as long as he’s not being foolish I imagine his REIT portfolio has done well recently.

What is a REIT, you ask? Sorry to have gotten ahead of things. REITs were in fact invented in 1960, in a tax law signed by President Eisenhower — the intent was to make real estate investment accessible to smaller investors, both for their benefit and to pool more capital to build offices and apartments and the like. They are basically tax pass-through investments for real estate — money is pooled into a REIT, often in the public markets (though there are private REITs that aren’t listed on the stock exchange, too), and that money is used to build or purchase real estate.

That real estate makes money from tenants, and as long as the REIT passes along 90% of its taxable income to shareholders, they don’t have to pay corporate income tax on that money. The tax burden, along with the cash, is passed through to shareholders, who then owe whatever their income tax obligation might be on that income.

In practice, almost no REITs even come close to failing to meet that 90% rule, because they get to deduct depreciation and amortization before they get to “taxable income,” so you’ll generally find that most REITs pay out much more in dividends than they actually report in GAAP Income — that’s because most REITs are constantly buying and selling properties and issuing new debt and equity in order to grow, so they do not actually set aside cash for depreciation, and they just roll over their debt instead of amortizing it — so most of the time you’ll see REIT results talked about in terms not of earnings, but of Funds From Operations (FFO), which is more of a cash flow measure.

And they usually pay out their dividend based on some “payout ratio” of that FFO that typically ranges from 60-90% for healthy REITs (at least in my experience). REIT managers know that they are valued by investors based largely on the size and safety of that dividend, and that they will need to come back to the public markets and sell more stock if they wish to buy or build more properties and grow, so they make an effort to grow that dividend to make it seem ever more appealing and attract more investors.

The average yield, however, is short of fantastical. If you go by the Vanguard Real Estate ETF (VNQ), the current income yield for REITs is about 3.1% — though that’s skewed a bit low by the fact that some of the huge and less-traditional REITs make up a big part of that ETF now, and some of the largest REITs have pretty low current dividend yields. The largest holding in the fund is American Tower (AMT), with its 1.65% yield, and data center giant Equinix (EQIX) is also in the top ten and yields just 1.7%… those are both REITs with high expectations for dividend growth, which is why investors have traded them up to such high valuations on current dividends. There are some other more traditional REITs in the top holdings, too, like gigantic apartment complex owner AvalonBay (AVB, 2.8%), mall operator Simon Property Group (SPG, 5.3%), warehouse and logistics property owner ProLogis (PLD, 2.5%) and healthcare REIT Welltower (WELL, 3.8%). You get the idea.

So yes, REITs have done very well as folks have flocked to the sector for perceived safety and for the dividend yield, which even at 3% sounds kind of appealing in a world where the 10-year Treasury Note has a 1.7% yield and “safe” stuff like CDs or money market funds are in that same neighborhood. After all, the REIT dividends will probably keep rising, on average, at least enough to keep up with whatever inflation might arise.

And you can’t really argue with how successful the REIT sector has been for buy-and-hold investors, this is what the total return from VNQ index has looked like this year, compared to the S&P 500:

VNQ Total Return Price Chart

Though in the time since the VNQ ETF was created, the outperformance has not always been as remarkable as it was over this past year:

VNQ Total Return Price Chart

I like REITs, I own several and often keep an eye out for others that might be appealing, but the real benefit comes from buying when the price is relatively appealing and letting the dividends compound (reinvesting them into more shares each quarter, into new shares that themselves will earn future dividends), and being pretty patient… and I don’t own a lot of traditional office or apartment building REITs, I tend to prefer the oddball ones. Some of the ones I currently own, for what it’s worth, are Innovative Industrial Properties (IIPR, an odd high-risk one in the cannabis sector), Medical Properties Trust (MPW, a long term position that owns hospitals), Office Properties Income Trust (OPI, a short term speculation as it recovers from disaster), Coresite (COR, a data center REIT, sort of like a much smaller Equinix), and Crown Castle (CCI, a cell tower REIT that I prefer over larger and lower-yielding American Tower). (There are also a few littler and odder ones in the Real Money Portfolio, but that’s most of them). I think REITs are an important part of an investment portfolio, but I also think they are, in general, pretty expensive right now.

So from that, the only thing I can tell you is that Ross likes REITs and calls them his “Social Security Catastrophe Plan.” If you want to make $185,000 in income from a REIT, though, you’d better start out with a huge portfolio or be prepared to wait for decades. If the average REIT yields 3%, and you could probably build a decent portfolio of REITs that yields closer to 5%, then getting $185,000 in annual income from REIT dividends would require you to invest something in the neighborhood of $3.5-6 million. Of course, he might be spreading that out and saying that’s 10 years of income or something else, or a lifetime of income, I don’t know — but it’s those big numbers that jump out, so I like to check them against something rational.

And remember that “Marvin Henderson” fella who was trotted out as “using the Social Security ‘Catastrophe Plan’ to collect $50,000 already?” I think he’s actually a real person, but his name is actually Marvin Najbert, and we know the details of his story (and the copywriter did quote him exactly) because he wrote a letter to the editor of Barron’s back in 2006 detailing his experience. You can see that letter here if you like. He had a good run for a few years in building up his portfolio for retirement income using things like REITs and Canadian Royalty Trusts (which don’t really exist anymore), and I hope his portfolio held up OK into the financial crisis a couple years later. That’s not unusual, copywriters love to cite stories of people who were featured in personal finance magazines and newspaper stories to give examples of success, usually changing their names a bit and often implying, but not quite stating, that those people followed this particular newsletter’s strategy.

Like most income-focused newsletters, Yield Shark presumably recommends other kinds of income-generating investments beyond REITs, too, and he talks up the other “checks” that his subscribers have been getting… again with the implication that you just “enroll” and you’ll start getting these kinds of checks…

“For example, one income stream called Dividend Achievers handed my Yield Shark readers a $38,110 check.

“It was a staggering amount, yet soon after, I urged my readers to get into a Mexican airport stock for an underground payday not covered by a single mainstream media outlet. Within months, we collected another $31,816.

“Then, we had another shot at siphoning a pile of cash from a private airline Regular Joes like you and me will never get to fly on. And, just as my system predicted, it handed readers over $29,580.

“If you’ve ever experienced paydays like this, you know just how exciting it can be. Especially when you cash your first 5-figure check.

“And I can tell you: this happens time and time again inside Yield Shark.”

This is the great way that many of these yield and income inewsletters mislead: They take advantage of our perspective. For most people who read lower-cost investment newsletters like this, $31,816 from an airport stock is indeed an exciting amount of money. As is $29,580 from a private airline. But when it comes to income investments, the level of income is, of course, directly tied to the size of the investment — and while you’re thinking of your portfolio in your head, that isn’t necessarily the size portfolio that Yield Shark is talking about in these examples.

For example, there are three pretty substantial Mexican airport stocks that trade in the US — Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico (PAC), Sureste (ASR) and Centro Norte (OMAB). All have done very well over the past decade, handily beating the S&P 500, the REIT index (using VNQ) and the Mexican Stock Market (EWW).

OMAB Total Return Price Chart

But did they return $31,816 to investors in the form of “checks?” Well, if you held at the right time you could have certainly generated a profit of that size from your capital gains, assuming you invested at least $10,000 for 5-10 years.

If you’re talking about just income, however, which is what the ad makes you feel like you’re receiving, you need to get a $31,816 “check” from dividends. This chart shows what the trailing dividend yield was for each of these stocks over the past decade:

OMAB Dividend Yield (TTM) Chart

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