When I think about the phrase “high-tech portfolio”, I don’t think tech stocks. Instead I think about using technology to build a smarter portfolio. Most actively-managed portfolios are constructed, in full or part, using 50-year-old “modern portfolio theory” methods. I’m working to change this by bringing superior portfolio technology to market.
So, while writing for this financial blog remains a passion of mine, I will likely be spending much more time refining software and building a financial software business. Much of that effort will be off-line at first. Occasionally, however, I will provide business and software updates on the Sigma1 Financial Software Blog.
Developing portfolio-optimization software combines two of my long-term passions: software development and finance.
Rest assured, that I will keep this blog up and going. I think it contains some hidden gems that are worth discovering. I will also continue to blog here when inspiration strikes.
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.
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!]