Top 6 Investment Innovations in Recent Decades

These are my top picks for innovations that most benefit personal investors.

#6:  Decimal pricing.    Do you remember when stocks were priced in fractions?  Like 23 and 3/8?  This was not cool.  Not only was it clunky, but it meant that bid/ask spreads were usually stuck at 1/8 of a dollar per share, or 12.5 cents per share.  Luckily, today most investments are priced in decimals.  Some exceptions include bonds and the interest rates on most mortgages.  How archaic!

#5: Free online investment info.   Information used to largely come in paper form, and cost money.  Or you could pay tons of money for Quotron… really not practical.

#4: Discount online brokers.   My Dad used to pay $50-$100 per stock trade — over the phone with a broker.  Today some of my ETF trades are free, many of my trades average about $1, and my most expensive trades cost $8.

#3: Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs).  ETFs fix most of the problems with mutual funds such as high(er) expenses and lack of intra-day trading.  ETFs also open up a wide variety of investment options including access to commodities, leveraged funds, and precious metals.

#2: Index investing.  Index investing brings two huge advantages.  First, incredibly low costs.  Second, maximum diversification.  Index investing has, and continues to revolutionize the investing playing field.

#1: 401(k)s (and IRAs).   Named after a once-obscure IRS code, 401(k)s, or 401Ks, offer investors decades of tax-deferred growth opportunity.  IRAs offer a similar advantage.  Finally Roth IRAs offer similar tax-deferral opportunities where the tax benefit is back-loaded.

Stock Beta Computation, 6 Closing Thoughts

When I wrote about computing stock betas in 2010, I had no idea it would be this blog’s third most popular topic. I wrote a handful of blog posts about stock beta, but my heart wasn’t in them.  Today, driving home from the airport, I was inspired to blog about beta for perhaps the last time.  Previously I held back and focused on the mechanics of beta computation, and the discrepancies I was seeing between various website’s beta values.  This time I provide an example beta-computation spreadsheet and don’t hold back on the math or the theory.  Before I launch into this final word on beta, here a few highlights.

  1. Beta is easy to find online.  Not all sites agreed on value, but the delta seems less than it was 2 years ago.   Why compute beta when you can simple look it up?
  2. Beta is less useful if it has a low R-squared.  Luckily, sites like Yahoo! Finance provide R-squared values.
  3. Even with a high R-squared, beta is not a very useful risk measure.  Standard deviation is better in many ways.
  4. In theory high-beta stocks (>3) should go up dramatically when the market goes up.  In practice this is often not the case.
  5. In theory low-beta stocks (<0.5) should be “safer” than the market.  Again not so true.
  6. In theory low-beta stocks (<0.5) should “under-perform.”  Not necessarily.

If you are still interested in beta, simply click to read the full-beta blog.

5 Ways to “Show Me the Money”

Ask whether these people are showing you the money. Hold them accountable for your money.

1. Your boss/company. Ask yourself first if you had a good year. If so, do some research on at you should expect to be earning.  Try starting with Glassdoor.  If you are not making what you want and are not moving in the right direction, consider moving to another company.  But, be sure to do through research and then line up a job (in writing) before giving your notice.

2. Politicians.  Are you getting reasonable benefit for your taxes?  Grade by region.  Here’s my grading:  City C, County B, State B+, Federal D.   If your grade is C or less, consider voting the bums out!

3. Social Security.  Ever work out the rate of return on your projected Social Security payments versus the amount you have and will put in.  Mine is about 0% return.  And that is *if* I ever get *any*.  Not much you can do about it, but something to consider when planning your own retirement…. What if I get nothing from Social Security when I retire?

4.  Investment Adviser.  How does my return stack up to A) The S&P500 total return (including dividends)?  B) A 100% bond profile such as Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund Admiral Shares (VBTLX)?  If, overall, it is under-performing both, fire your adviser.  If it beats one… ask questions like why it didn’t do better.   If it beats both, ask “what risks are you taking with my money!”?  If you are your own investment adviser ask yourself the same questions.  And, if you decide to fire yourself, consider getting advice from someone reputable and sane like Vanguard.

5.  Your credit score.  Know your credit score (FICO score).  Guess what?  If it’s below 711, it’s below average! [Technically below “median”, but let’s not split hairs.]  720 used to be golden, but today 750 is the new golden score.  In some cases 770.  If your score is below where you’d like it to be, start getting financially fit.  And remember, success doesn’t happen overnight.  Success takes time.

Financial Toolkit: The Rule of 72

The rule of 72 is an easy way to make fast financial calculations in your head (or on a sheet of paper)… no calculator is necessary.  The idea is that you can determine how fast money will double based on an interest rate or rate of return.  Divide 72 by the interest rate and that is the number of years it will take for the investment to double.

For example if a CD (Certificate of Deposit) is paying 6% it will double in 12 years because 72/6 = 12.

The rule of 72 can be used for decreases in value, such as inflation.  If inflation is 4%, money under a mattress loses 4% per year in value.  Because 72/4 = 18, that money’s value will be cut in half in 18 years.   So positive returns divided into 72 tell how long it will take your investment to double and negative returns how long to lose half its value.

The rule of 72 provides convenient illustration of how fees can effect an investment.  Let’s say you are considering two investments in your IRA managed by your brother-in-law Sam.  Option A is to buy and hold SPY, an index fund that has an expense ratio of virtually 0% (0.09% actually) or option B tracking the same index  but managed by the Sam’s company with a 2% expense ratio.  Sam says “Hey buy my index and I get a commission and a chance to win a boat.” Using the rule of 72 you see that 72/2 is 36, meaning Sam’s index will only be worth half of SPY in 36 years.  If you are 29 years old and want to retire at 65 (in 36 years) that’s half of your retirement money!  Tell Sam to find some other sucker to win his stupid boat.

Rule of 72

Cost of 2% based on the Rule of 72

Finally you can use the rule of 72 together with inflation and expected return to plan your financial future.  If you expect a 7% (nominal) return on your retirement portfolio and 3% inflation, that’s a 4% annual return, so your money will double — in inflation-adjusted terms — in 18 years.  Now if inflation is 4% your real return is 3% and your real investment value will double in 24 years; that’s a whole 6 years longer.  Possibly 6 more years until you retire.  Add a 1% management fee and your real return drops to 2% and doubling time is now a whopping 36 years.  Yes, even a 1% fee can cost you 12 more years until you retire!

The example above shows the destructive power of inflation and why even a 1% annual inflation underestimation can be a big deal.  For tax payers that means tax brackets (based on the government’s CPI-U) gradually form an increasingly tight straight-jacket around your take-home pay.  For Social Security recipients this means cost of living adjustments that simply don’t keep up with real world expenses.

The rule of 72 is a powerful tool for financial estimation.  The rule of 72 is not perfectly accurate, but it is generally pretty close to the target.  It is, however, easy to use and can be used to explain financial concepts to people that aren’t that “mathy”.  It is a great way to start explaining finance to kids; while being a tool powerful enough that is also used by Wall Street pros.

401k Plan Redux (Coming Soon to Your Company?)

Poker Chips (financial asset allocation)My current employer is radically revamping its 401K plan.  I have noticed that companies tweak their 401K plans about annually, and dramatically change them every 5-7 years.  This time it’s big. One of the choices allows for both ETF and mutual funds purchases.  The EFT option has me excited.

So far in my career I have worked for three Fortune 500 technology companies.  Long story short, I have two 401Ks and a couple IRAs.  Between them I have about 8% invested in ETFs and the rest in mutual funds.  After the 401K redux, I’ll likely have about 30/70 ETF to mutual fund mix.  I’ll keep my asset allocation largely the same, but I’ll work out a bit of math here and there to do so.  Some mutual funds stay, some funds go, some switch to higher expense-ratio versions, and some are frozen from new money after a certain date.  Over time my retirement assets may approach a 50/50 ETF-to-mutual-fund ratio.

A similar 401K change may be coming your way soon.  The booming ETF trend is continuing unabated with over $1 trillion dollars in assets under management in 2010; some predict that doubling by 2015.  Why?  1) Institutional investors like ETFs, 2) retail investors like ETFs, 3) exchanges like ETFs, 4) brokerages like ETFs.  Generally for the same reason: lower costs.

The upside of more options is access to better options and greater potential for diversification.  The downside is trading fees for ETFs… $7.95 under the new 401K paradigm.  Wise, infrequent purchases can mitigate trading costs.  This requires a bit of financial planning, but is not really a big deal for serious investors.  And there are ~25 ETFs that trade for free.  One can invest in them every paycheck (like buying EEM for free) then periodically, every 6 months or one year, bite the bullet to sell EEM (for free) and buy the better ETF VEU.  Brilliant — low fees and true dollar-cost averaging.  [Not my idea, but a good one.]

In summary, fear not the change to more ETF-centric investing.  Your particular company may pull a fast one on you… but in many cases not.   Read ALL the fine print before determining the case.  I’m glad I did, and I sense greater investing opportunity.

Modern Marvels of Finance

Much rhetoric today is focused against “Wall Street”, bankers, hedge funds, and speculators.  People are upset about the effects of the Great Recession, but are often misguided about the causes.  I submit the idea that the foremost cause of the Great Recession was the business cycle (or economic cycle).    If we are to blame the people and institutions behind the business cycle for the Great Recession we must also applaud them for the periods of growth between recessions.  To one degree or another we are all participants in the business cycle.

Of course, there have been behaviors ranging from ethical violations to fraud, particularly in the arena of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, and (MBS) credit default swaps.

While there are flaws and imperfections in the US financial system, the accomplishments of the system deserve some attention.  The United States represents an economic marvel of the 20th century and 21st century financial achievements of the American financial system.  Like Rome, the United States incorporates the best of other systems.  The stock exchange did not originate in the United States, but the US and Europe improved upon it.  To the best of my knowledge, the index fund and the ETF both originated in the US.

Right now, today, US investors have access to:

  1. Low cost online brokerage accounts.   It is easy to find brokerage accounts that charge less than $8 per trade and have a list of commission-free ETF trades.  With effort, it is possible to find accounts with trades costing less than $5, or even lower.
  2. Free stock and ETF market data. (For example Yahoo! Finance and Google Finance).
  3. Superb ETF offerings. (SPY, VTI, SCHB, BND, VEA, VEU…)
  4. Excellent order fulfillment and pricing (with most brokers).

Just imagine a world without stock exchanges.  Could you imagine placing a classified ad or holding a garage sale to trade stock certificates?  Ludicrous, right?

The current US financial system is indeed a modern marvel.   English, Canadian, and  European exchanges have been similarly efficient and successful.  Other exchanges around the world are playing catch up, and doing so quickly.

The global world of finance is constantly evolving, but as of today the options available to US investors are quite spectacular.  We are wise to take advantage.

Thinking about Asset Allocation

In my blog post Financial Toolkit: Indexing the World I discussed 5 ETF building blocks for diversified investment portfolio construction.  In this financial blog post I’m going discuss a hypothetical investing situation:

Deborah is a 40-year-old woman with a $100,000 401K who just changed jobs.  She transferred her 401K to an IRA, and has $100,000 now sitting in cash.  Deborah’s new job pays $60K/year and she plans to contribute $10K/year to her new 401K.  How might she invest her IRA funds?

As a proponent of diversified index investing, I suggest the following category questions… What percent  1) Domestic vs. foreign?  2) Stock versus bond?

I put forward the suggestion that Deborah’s choices in regard to these two questions will predict 80-90% of the performance of her chosen portfolio.  (Don’t believe it, then read this asset allocation paper sometime when you are afflicted with insomnia.)

Let’s say Deborah decides that a 80/20 domestic versus foreign allocation, and 60/40 stock versus bond allocation are right for her.  Working out the math that’s $80,000 for US investments and $20,000 for foreign investments.  Applying the second stock vs bond ratio to each yields the following: $64,000 for US equities, $16,000 for US bonds, $12,000 for foreign equities, and $8,000 for foreign bonds.

The US part is pretty easy to achieve.  Plunk $64,000 in a low-cost, broad-market ETF (or mutual fund) like SCHB, and $16,000 into a total (aka aggregate) bond ETF like BND.  The foreign stock component is easy too; but $12,000 into VXUS.  Only the foreign bonds require two ETFs because there are no foreign total bond ETFs (to my knowledge); thus I suggest $4000 in a foreign government-bond ETF like IGOV and $4000 in a foreign corporate-bond ETF like IBND.

There you have it.  A simple example of asset allocation.

My personal opinion is that an initial asset allocation process can be very simple and effective.  Notice that I was able to avoid several secondary asset allocation measures such:

  • Value vs Growth (stocks)
  • Large-cap vs Small-cap (stocks)
  • Sector allocation (stocks)
  • Developed vs Emerging markets (stocks and bonds)
  • Short-term vs Long-term (bonds)
  • Average Maturity or Duration (bonds)
  • Government vs Corporate (bonds)
  • Investment-grade vs non-investment grade (bonds)
  • Average credit rating (bonds)

All of these “secondary asset allocation factors” can be side-stepped by purchasing “total” stock and bond funds as outlined above.  Such total (or aggregate) ETFs seek to own a slice of the total, investable, market-cap-weighted investing universe.  Essentially, a total US stock fund seeks to own a piece of the whole US stock market.  Similarly with a total US bond fund, etc.

In summary, if you have a diversified, low-cost investment portfolio, the two biggest ratios to know are domestic/foreign and stock/bond.    [If you don’t have a diversified, low-cost investment portfolio you might want to think about changing your strategy and your financial adviser!]

Choose your Fear: Motivating Financial Choices

I freely admit fear is a motivating factor behind my financial decisions.  High on my list of fears (worries, concerns) is inflation.  For a variety of valid economic reasons, long-term bond returns are generally worse than equity returns in an inflationary environment.  In other words, an uptick in inflation hurts bonds more than it hurts stocks.

Fear of market volatility steers me away from stocks, fear of inflation steers me away from (long-term) bonds.   In the current interest rate environment, real rates of return on short-term Treasury debt are negative.  High-quality corporate bonds are only paying a pittance.  And as I have recently blogged, TIPS based on the CPI-U, are not looking so good either.

What options are left to the anxious investor?  Some remaining choices are:  foreign-debt ETFs (as a hedge against US and US dollar inflation), foreign-equity ETFs, and junk bonds.  Perhaps, value stocks as well.  Unfortunately each of these options comes with their own particular set of risks and worries.

The moral of this stories is there are few low-anxiety options for the investor who fears volatility, uncertainty, and inflation.  Retirees looking to reinvest expiring bonds and CDs are finding few good investment options.

There remains on strategy to fall back on to help ease financial anxiety: diversification. Diversifying between equities, bonds, and cash.  Diversifying between US and foreign equity. – Diversifying between large-cap and small-cap. Diversifying between long-term and short-term debt.  Diversifying between high-quality and high-yield (junk) debt.  And, yes, even diversifying between value and growth.

Still, I choose my fears.  Inflation is number 1.  Volatility is number 2.  Fear of missing gains is number 3.  Inflation concerns and dismal interest rates are motivating me to hold more equities (via low-cost equity ETFs) than I otherwise would.

Smart People, Dumb Investments

When I started this financial blog a couple years ago, I wondered if I would run out of ideas to blog about.  Luckily, so far anyhow, I have had a different problem — How to choose amongst all of the ideas that pop into my head.

Thing train of thought takes me to consider what explains the relative success and failure — the investing fates if you will — of various investors.  It would be foolish (and wrong) of me to make the blanket statement that smart people make poor investors.  On the contrary I believe that successful investors are very smart people — John Bogle, Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim, Peter Lynch, Bill Gross.

What is interesting and occasionally baffling to me are the poor choices that I see smart people making.  For whatever reason, people tend to share two things with me:  personal information and personal investing information.  If I had to guess why, it is for two reasons.  1) I am actually interested, fascinated in fact. 2) I am very discrete.  Still this doesn’t quite explain why relative strangers tell me these things.

One thing is for sure.  I listen. And on thing I have learned is that people love to tell of their investing success and are hesitant to share their investing misses.  I feel privileged to hear both types of stories.

For the record there is, perhaps, no such thing as a bad (or good) investment in the present.  The “goodness” or “badness” of a given investment is only truly realized when the position is closed and the gains and/or losses are counted.   There are, however, in my opinion, poor portfolio decisions.

Here is my overall impression of the types of under-performing (aka bad) portfolio decisions that smart people make.  Most notably rationalizations for extreme non-diversification.

1) I work in field X.  I understand field X.  I believe the outlook for field X is tremendous, therefore I’m going to pick my favorite stocks that participate in X.  [I heard this all the time during the tech/dot-com pre-bubble and bubble].  I’m going to focus my portfolio in X…. meaning I’m going to severely underweight all other sectors.

2) I’ve followed fund manager, fund company, or my investment manager Y, and I trust and believe in them.  I’m going to put most/all of my money in their hands.

3) I understand the economy, the markets, and what’s going on.  I’m going to make my own decisions, and cut my losses when appropriate.  I’m going to manage my own money, and I’m not going to sheepishly follow conventional wisdom (things such as time-horizon-based asset allocation and CAPM models).  I’m going to bet big and win big on what I believe in.

Over the years I’ve seen that hubris and pride are subject to positive self-reinforcement.  When bets pay off, bettors place bigger bets.  In most cases though, luck eventually runs out and large losses are realized.  This is soul searching time.  Some respond by becoming hyper-conservative for a while (I will only save money in the bank and in T-Bills), some by becoming moderate for a while (I will own some stocks, but mostly bonds), and some by doubling down.

I understand these impulses.  In fact I see that impulse control is a key factor in rational investing.  I understand that smart people are accustomed to being correct.  It is instinctual to believe that this extends to investment decisions.  I’m saying, “If you believe you are orders of magnitude smarter than ‘the market’, think twice.” Or put another way, it is better to be wise than smart when it comes to investing.

To summarized, I know first hand that smart people sometimes make very dumb portfolio decisions.  They believe that their personal academic and career success will translate directly to investment success.  I also know that many such very smart people have been burned, to the tune of $100,000+ (if not millions) of losses directly attributable to non-diversification.

And finally, as to my personal investments, I happily say that I have been relatively steadfast in my Boglehead-like investing style.  So far it has paid dividends.