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.

Money and Investing Celebrities

Jim Cramer, Suze Orman. Warren Buffett, Peter Lynch, Bill Gross, John Bogle. The first two are the closest to household investing celebrities and arguably have the biggest media presence. The latter four are perhaps the biggest names in investing when it comes to mutual funds.

While I occasionally enjoy Cramer’s style, I generally dislike his advice. I believe that his high-energy style encourages high turnover, higher trading costs, reduced tax efficiency, and decreased diversification. Suze’s style is more focused on emotion, spending habits, relationships. I believe she offers a kind of emotional support and tough love that can help folks get out of debt and overcome financial life challenges. Suze’s style is particularly well-suited towards women investors (I’ve heard this from several of my female friends). She has a good grasp of mortgages, credit, foreclosures, and debt management. However, when it comes to stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, 401Ks, and the like, I find her advice spotty, inconsistent, and occasionally wrong.

I have a better overall opinion of the advice of Lynch, Buffett, Gross, and especially Bogle. I’ve found Lynch’s books useful and I’ve liked his advice about almost everything except bonds. And the performance of the Fidelity Magellan Fund under his management was exceptional. Gross balances out Lynch, because Gross has an impressive track record of bond investing with PIMCO. Buffett also boasts an impressive investing and management record. Finally, Bogle popularized and perfected index investing through Vanguard Funds.

It’s a shame that there is no investing superstar celebrity that provides solid, clear, and broadly applicable investing advice. Perhaps that is because prudent investing advice is somewhat boring. So generating excitement is done through either stock-picking mania (which I consider imprudent) or human interest stories (which tend to be getting out of debt, or get-rich-quick). Another challenge is appealing to a wide range of investing situations and widely different levels of financial literacy.

I’m frequently looking for ways to make this finance blog appeal to a wider audience. That’s why I’m looking at investing celebrities today for clues to make this blog’s message more powerful. As of now, my biggest takeaway is that if I focus more on the emotional and relationship aspects of investing and spending, I may be able to more effectively connect with women investors.

Portfolio Construction ETFs

Just a quick chart, globally-exposed ETF building blocks with VTI, JNK, IGOV, and  EFA.

GRAPH:  Possible portfolio construction pieces

And on the short-side, ETFs: BIL, BWX, IEI, IEF, ISHG, ITE, and TLO.

GRAPH: Possible short-side (deconstruction) pieces

These ETFs are building blocks I’m considering for a long-short portfolio.  As you can see it would be a US-equity-long,  global-equity long, high-yield (junk bond) long, USD (United States Dollar) short portfolio.

I’m also very interested in call option writing to blunt some of the equity exposure, whilst still remaining equity-long.

8 Questions to Ask your Financial Advisor/Manager (or Self)

  1. What is the average weighted expense ratio for all my holdings?
  2. How much, if anything, did I pay in commissions in the last 12 months.
  3. What was my rate of return in the last 12 months? (post all fees and expenses)
  4. How does that compare to the to rate of return in the S&P 500 in the same time period. (inclusive of dividends)
  5. What is the 12-month standard deviation of my investment portfolio? (a measure of risk)
  6. What is my asset allocation between stocks, bonds, and other?
  7. Do any of my holdings have loads?  If so why?
  8. How diversified are my holdings?

Bonus: Please update me on my portfolio’s tax efficiency and tax efficiency strategy.

Feel free to take good notes, and, if you like, send the answers to me.  I’d be glad to give you my personal assessment/opinion.