Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Robo Advisors – A Brave New World?

Share

The piece below is written by Doug Dahmer and originally appeared under the title “Robo-Advisors” – rise of the machines on Jon Chevreau’s site Financial Independence Hub.  Jon is at the forefront of a movement he calls “Findependence.”  This is essentially looking at becoming financially independent so that you can pursue the lifestyle of your choosing.   Jon is a Canadian author and journalist, check out his book Findependence Day.  Jon has contributed several prior posts here as well. 

I know Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, I read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and I love the Terminator movies (I’ll be back!).

From all this I know three things: Robots are very smart. Robots always start off to help you. Robots have a tendency to turn on you.

One of the newest crazes and buzzwords in personal finance is: “Robo-Adviser.” If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to investment management by algorithm in the absence of human input.

With a “Robo” you are asked to complete an on-line risk assessment questionnaire. Your responses determines the prescribed portfolio of ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds) with a built-in asset allocation best suited to your needs. Once a year the portfolio is rebalanced to this prescribed asset allocation recipe. 

Dynamics change as shift from Saving to Spending

The “Robo” approach relies heavily upon a basic “buy/hold/rebalance” investment strategy. This passive strategy can work to your advantage during your accumulation years. These are the years when time is your friend, and dollar cost averaging through market cycles offers the opportunity to give your returns a boost.

However, as we get older and begin to prepare for and transition into our spending years, things change. Unfortunately, too few people realize that the investment strategies that served us well during our savings years turn on their head and work to our disadvantage as the flow of funds reverses and savings turns to spending. 

Dollar Cost Ravaging

Suddenly time changes from friend to foe where “dollar cost averaging” turns to “dollar cost ravaging” or what we call, the Mathematics of Catastrophe. (More about which in our next Hub blog). During the second half of your life the simplistic money management approach followed by “Robo- Advisers” can start to look like a “deed of the devil.”

Another concern is that “Robos” are unable to deal with the reality of expense variability. If you believe that in retirement, a fixed, annual withdrawal rate from a diversified portfolio will address your income needs I can with confidence suggest you are at best short-changing yourself and at worst setting yourself up for a cataclysmic financial failure.

I have been in this business a long time and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a properly constructed life plan is very important in the second half of your life. It is only when you know what you want to do, when you want to do it and what it will cost to do it, that you can start to build the financial framework to make it happen.

Only through your life plan are you able to anticipate years of surplus and years of deficits and take the steps to bend them to your benefit. You need to bring together cash flow optimization, tax management and pension style investment management to make it happen and in the process add hundreds of thousands of dollars to your lifetime assets and cash flow. 

Robos ill equipped to link life to investment plan

Linking your life plan to your investment plan is the secret to success, but “robo investing” is not equipped to handle the nuances of that linkage. A Retirement Income Specialist knows that the type of money management you need is much more complex where the cash-flow demands outlined in your life plan need are linked to your investment plan. Tax planning, income optimization and risk mitigation means it is dangerous to leave your investment management running on auto-pilot.

Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics holds that: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

“Robo-adviser” firms would do well to review this law. When it comes to investors heading into the second half of their lives, “Robo Advisers” may well be about to break it. 

Doug Dahmer, CFP, is founder and CEO of Emeritus Retirement Income Specialists. With offices in Toronto and Burlington, Emeritus’ C3 process is one of the industry’s most comprehensive retirement planning processes. 

Online financial advisors or Robo Advisors are popping up all over the place and if you believe the financial press they are the future of financial advice.  In part I believe they are or will at least shape the future of financial advice.  I weighed in on this topic recently via  Is An Online Financial Advisor Right For You? for Investopedia.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions.  

Check out an online service like Personal Capital  to manage all of your investment and retirement accounts all in one place. Please check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

What I’m Reading NFL Conference Championship Edition

Share

Its conference championship weekend in the NFL. The winners of the two games on Sunday will play in two weeks in the Super Bowl.  The Indianapolis Colts play the New England Patriots in the late game.  The first game has my beloved Green Bay Packers visiting the defending champs the Seattle Seahawks.  A tough place to win so I’m hoping Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the team are up to the task.

While you are waiting for the game or if you are not into football here are a few financial articles I suggest for some good weekend financial reading:

Jim Blankenship tells us why Debt Consolidation Loans Don’t Work (But You Might Get it to Work For You!) at Getting Your Financial Ducks in a Row.

Ryan Guina asks When Will I Get My Tax Refund? 2014 Tax Year Refund Schedule at Cash Money Life.

Mike Piper answers Why is Currency Risk Bad? at Oblivious Investor.

Barbara Friedberg discusses Monthly Pension Or Lump-Sum: Which Is Better? At Investopedia.

Josh Friedman writes Pimco’s Assets Declined 10% in Quarter After Gross Exit at Bloomberg.

Cliff Goldstein discusses The best time to start taking Social Security at Market Watch.

Alan Roth warns Non-Traded REITs – Warning, Danger Ahead on the AARP Blog.

I continue in my role as a contributor to Investopedia and here are my most recent articles for them:

Why Retirement Advice Is Better But Still Lacking

How To Explain Portfolio Rebalancing To Clients

What To Do When Your Client Behaves Badly

How Financial Advisors Can Help Gun-Shy Investors

Enjoy the rest of your weekend.  Let’s Go Packers!

Please feel free to contact me with your questions. 

Check out an online service like Personal Capital to manage all of your accounts all in one place.  Please check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

 

Are Brokerage Wrap Accounts a Good Idea?

Share

A reader recently emailed a question regarding a brokerage wrap account he had inherited from a relative.   He mentioned that he was being charged a one percent management or wrap fee and also suspected that he was incurring a front-end load on the A share mutual funds used in the account.

Upon further review we determined that the mutual funds were not charging him a front-end load.  Almost all of the funds being used, however, had expense ratios in excess of one percent plus most assessed 12b-1 fees paid to the brokerage firm as part of their expense ratios.

Are brokerage wrap accounts a good idea for you?  Let’s take a look at some questions you should be asking.

What are you getting for the wrap fee? 

This is the ultimate question that any investor should ask not only about wrap accounts but any financial advice you are paying for.

In the case of this reader’s account it sounds like the registered rep is little more than a sales person who put the reader’s uncle into this managed option.  From what the reader indicated to me there is little or no financial advice provided.  For this he is paying the brokerage firm the one percent wrap fee plus they are collecting the 12b-1 fees in the 0.25 percent to 0.35 percent on most of the funds used in the account.

Before engaging the services of a financial advisor you would be wise to understand what services you should expect to receive and how the adviser and their firm will be compensated.  Demand to know ALL aspects of how the financial advisor will be compensated.  This not only lets you know how much the relationship is costing you but will also shed light on any potential conflicts of interest the advisor may have in providing you with advice.

What’s special about the wrap account? 

While the reader did not provide me with any performance data on the account, from looking at the underlying mutual funds it would be hard to believe that the overall performance is any better than average and likely is worse than that.

Whether a brokerage wrap account or an advisory firm’s model portfolio you should ask the financial advisor why this portfolio is appropriate for you.  Has the performance of the portfolio matched or exceeded a blended benchmark of market indexes based on the portfolio’s target asset allocation?  Does the portfolio reduce risk?  Are the fees reasonable?

What are the underlying investments? 

In looking at the mutual funds used in the reader’s wrap account there were a few with excellent returns but most tended to be around the mid-point of their asset class.  Their expenses also tended to fall at or above the mid-point of their respective asset classes as well.

Looking at one example, the Prudential Global Real Estate Fund Class A (PURAX) was one of the mutual funds used.  A comparison of this actively managed fund to the Vanguard REIT Index Fund Investor shares (VGSIX) reveals the following:

Expense ratios:

PURAX

VGSIX

Expense Ratio

1.26%

0.24%

12b-1 fee

0.30%

0.00%

 

 Trailing returns as of 12/31/14:

1 year

3 years

5 years

10 years

PURAX

14.03%

14.47%

11.12%

6.66%

VGSIX

30.13%

16.09%

16.84%

8.41%

 

While the portfolio manager of the wrap account could argue the comparison is invalid because the Prudential fund is a Global Real Estate fund versus the domestic focus of the Vanguard fund I would argue what benefit has global aspect added over time in the real estate asset class?  Perhaps the attraction with this fund is the 30 basis points the brokerage firm receives in the form of a 12b-1 fee?

Looking at another example the portfolio includes a couple of Large Value funds Active Portfolios Multi-Manager A (CDEIX) and CornerCap Large/Mid Cap Value (CMCRX).  Comparing these two funds to an active Large Value Fund American Beacon Large Value Institutional (AADEX) and the Vanguard Value Index (VIVAX) reveals the following:

Expense ratios:

CDEIX

CMCRX

AADEX

VIVAX

Expense Ratio

1.26%

1.20%

0.58%

0.24%

12b-1 fee

0.25%

0.00%

0.00%

0.00%

 

Trailing returns as of 12/31/14:

1 year

3 years

5 years

10 years

CDEIX

10.01%

NA

NA

NA

CMCRX

13.11%

19.30%

12.98%

5.78%

AADEX

10.56%

21.11%

14.73%

7.57%

VIVAX

13.05%

19.98%

14.80%

7.17%

 

Again one has to ask why the brokerage firm chose these two Large Value funds versus the less expensive institutionally managed active option from American Beacon or the Vanguard Index option.  I’m guessing compensation to the brokerage firm was a factor.

Certainly the returns of the overall wrap account portfolio are what matters here, but you have to wonder if a wrap account uses funds like this how well the account does overall for investors.

The lesson for investors is to look under the hood of any brokerage wrap account you are pitched to be sure you understand how your money will be managed.  I’m not so sure that my reader is being well served and after our email exchange on the topic I hope he has some tools to make an educated evaluation for himself.

The Bottom Line 

Brokerage wrap accounts are an attempt by these firms to offer a fee-based investing option to clients.  As with anything investors really need to take a hard look at these accounts.  Far too many charge substantial management fees and utilize expensive mutual fund options as their underlying investments.  It is incumbent upon you to understand what you are getting in exchange for the fees paid.  Is this investment management style unique and better?  Will you be getting any actual financial advice?

The same cautions hold for advisory firm model portfolios, the offerings of ETF strategists and managed portfolios offered in 401(k) plans.  You need to determine if any of these options are right for you.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions. 

Check out an online service like Personal Capital to manage all of your accounts all in one place.  Also check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

What I’m Reading NFL Wildcard Edition

Share

Its Wild Card weekend, in plain English the first round of the NFL Playoffs.  The Carolina Panthers are on the verge of beating Arizona in game one.  I’m rooting for the hated Detroit Lions so that my Packers can face the Panthers next weekend at Lambeau Field.

Here are a few financial articles I suggest for some good weekend financial reading:

Ben Carlson shares Updating My Favorite Performance Chart  at his blog A Wealth of Common Sense.

Victor Reklaitis thinks the Big threat to your portfolio is overpaying for active funds, not being misled by index funds at Market Watch.

Mary Childs wrote Pimco Total Return Fund suffers worst year of redemptions in history at the Globe and Mail.

Barbara Friedberg shares her Top 5 Money Tips for 2015 at her blog Barbara Friedberg Personal Finance.

Troy Onik offers Paying For College: 7 Myths And Mistakes Costing Families Thousands at Forbes.

Kay Bell writes Two giant lottery jackpots await lucky winners, tax collectors at her blog Don’t Mess with Taxes.

I continue in my role as a contributor to Investopedia and here is my most recent article for them:

Pros And Cons Of Annual Tax-Loss Harvesting

Enjoy the rest of your weekend.  Here’s hoping that 2015 is a year of health, happiness and prosperity for you and your family.  As far as the NFL playoffs its Let’s Go Packers!

What I’m Reading – Jay Cutler Superstar Edition

Share

Far too much time on the local newscasts has been devoted to the demotion of quarterback Jay Cutler to backup for this week’s game against the Detroit Lions.  The Bears have had a dismal season and the very sub-par play of Cutler has been cited almost universally among fans and the media as a main cause.

What I’m Reading – Jay Cutler Superstar Edition

For those who don’t follow the NFL it should be noted that Cutler signed a huge contract extension just this past January that made him the highest paid quarterback in the league.  This means he makes more than Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees to name a few.

As a finance blogger how could I refer to him as anything less than a superstar, a financial superstar to be precise?  His agent clearly did a masterful selling job on the Bears. This is likely why the Bears last great quarterback was a gentleman named Sid Luckman back in the 1940s.

Full disclosure I am an avid Green Bay Packers fan and love the dysfunction that is the Chicago Bears.

In the spirit of Jay Cutler’s superstar agent here are some financial articles that you might find interesting.

3 Reasons Not to Raid Your Retirement Accounts by Eric McWhinnie via Retirement Cheat Sheet.

Retirement vs College Saving in a Nutshell by Jim Blankenship at his blog Financial Ducks in a Row.

The World Economy In 2015 Will Carry Troubling Echoes Of The Late 1990s according to The Economist via Business Insider.

Opinion: The hidden truth about rebalancing your portfolio by Mark Hulbert via Marketwatch.

5 RMD Pitfalls to Avoid by Christine Benz via Morningstar.

Why Does Everybody Recommend Complex Portfolios? by Mike Piper at his blog Oblivious Investor.

14 Holiday Activities to Build Wealth and Memories by Barbara Friedberg at her blog Barbara Friedberg Personal Finance.

I continue in my role as a contributor to Investopedia and here are my last three articles for them:

Is An Online Financial Advisor Right For You?

How To Manage A Cash Windfall

Tips For Managing Inflation In Retirement

Here’s hoping for a long Packers run through the playoffs.  Is that Jay Cutler I hear laughing all the way to the bank?

Check out an online service like Personal Capital to manage all of your accounts all in one place or purchase the latest version of Quicken.  Check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

Photo source:  Mike Shadle and Wikipedia

Dow 18,000 – A Big Deal?

Share

In February of 2013 I wrote Dow 14,000 – Big Deal or Just a Number?  Today the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 17,778 after a 421 point gain.  This is on the heels of a better than 200 point rise yesterday marking the average’s largest two day gain in 12 years.  Dow 18,000 looks like it will not be far off.

Just as I thought Dow 14,000 was a pretty meaningless number, I also think Dow 18,000 is equally meaningless.  In fact there are many, including yours truly, who think the Dow Jones Industrial Average isn’t all that meaningful as a benchmark.

Rather than focusing on the level of the market you should focus on your portfolio and your investment strategy.  Some specific action steps you might consider:

Rebalance your portfolio

You should have a strategy to review your overall portfolio on a regular basis (annually, semi-annually etc.) to ensure that your asset allocation is within your target allocation.  Invariably certain asset classes will outperform or under perform.  Bringing your portfolio back into balance forces you to sell off some winners and fund those asset classes that have underperformed.

Market leaders and laggards shift periodically and this approach adds a level of discipline to your strategy.  Mostly rebalancing helps mitigate investment risk.

Keep expenses low 

You can’t control how the markets will perform.  You can control your investment expenses.  Specifically:

  • Mutual fund and ETF expenses.
  • Trading costs at your custodian.
  • The cost of financial advice

Revisit your investment strategy 

I view market highs as a great time to revisit your investment strategy and your financial plan.  If you’ve been fully and properly invested your portfolio has hopefully risen along with the markets.

Where does this leave you in terms of progress towards achieving your financial goals?  This is a good time to revisit your financial plan.

The Bottom Line

Is Dow 18,000 a big deal?  Not in my book and frankly I wonder if anyone besides the financial news media really cares.  I suggest focusing on the details of your portfolio and your strategy and ignoring the hype.

Check out an online service like Personal Capital to manage all of your accounts all in one place.   Check out our Resources page for more tools and services.