Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

The Bull Market Turns Seven Now What?

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On March 9, 2009 the market downturn fueled by the financial crisis bottomed out as measured by the S&P 500 Index. On that day the index closed at 677. Yesterday, on the bull market’s seventh birthday, the index closed at 1,989 or an increase of about 194 percent. According to CNBC the Dow Jones Industrial Average has increased 160 percent and the NASDAQ 267 percent over this seven-year time frame.

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With the bull market turning seven, now what? Here are some thoughts and ideas for investors.

How does this bull market stack up?

According to data from the most recent quarterly Guide to the Markets report from JP Morgan Asset Management, the average bull market following a bear market lasts for 53 months and results in a gain of 153%. By both measures this bull market is a long one.

Does this mean that investors should brace for an imminent market correction? Not necessarily but bull markets don’t last forever either.

There have been some speed bumps along the way, including 2011, a sharp decline in the third quarter of 2015 and of course the sharp declines we saw to start off 2016. Again this is not an indicator of anything about the future.

Winners and losers

A commentator on CNBC cited a couple of big winners in this bull market:

  • Netflix (NFLX) +1,667%
  • General Growth Properties (GGP) +9,964%

Additionally, Apple (APPL) closed at a split-adjusted $11.87 per share on March 9, 2009. It closed at $101.12 on March 9, 2016.

The CNBC commentator cited giant retailer Walmart (WMT) as a stock that has missed much of the bounce in this market, as their stock is up only 42% over this time period.

What should investors do now? 

None of us knows what the future will hold. The bull market may be getting long of tooth. There are factors such as potential actions by the Fed, China’s impact on our markets, the threat of terrorism and countless others that could impact the direction of the stock market. It seems there is always something to worry about in that regard.

That all said, my suggestions for investors are pretty much the same “boring” ones that I’ve been giving since I started this blog in 2009.

  • Control the factors that you can control. Your investment costs and your asset allocation are two of the biggest factors within your control.
  • Review and rebalance your portfolio This is a great way to ensure that your allocation and your level of risk stay on track.
  • When in doubt fall back on your financial plan. Review your progress against your plan periodically and, if warranted, adjust your portfolio accordingly.
  • Contribute to your 401(k) plan and make sure that your investment choices are appropriate for your time horizon and risk tolerance. Avoid 401(k) loans if possible and don’t ignore old 401(k) accounts when leaving a company.
  • Don’t overdo it when investing in company stock.
  • If you need professional financial help, get it. Be sure to hire a fee-only financial advisor who will put your interests first.

The Bottom Line 

The now seven-year bull market since the bottom in 2009 has been a very robust period for investors. Many have more than recovered from their losses during the market decline of 2008-09.

Nobody knows what will happen next. In my opinion, investors are wise to control the factors that they can, have a plan in place and follow that plan.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

Reverse Churning Are You a Victim?

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One of the best things about being a freelance financial writer and blogger is that I often learn new things in the course of my writing. A reader recently left a comment on a post here on the blog and mentioned reverse churning. Until that time, I had never heard this term, but after a bit of research its’s one more thing that clients of stock brokers and registered reps need to be aware of.

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What is churning?

Investopedia defines churning as “Excessive trading by a broker in a client’s account largely to generate commissions. Churning is an illegal and unethical practice that violates SEC rules and securities laws.”

Churning conjures images such as the boiler room in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross (actually they sold real estate) or the iconic 2002 ad by Charles Schwab (SCHW) in which a brokerage house manager is depicted as telling the brokers, “Let’s put some lipstick on this pig” in reference to a sub-par stock he wants them to pitch to clients.

What is reverse churning?

A 2014 piece by Daisy Maxey in The Wall Street Journal describes reverse churning as follows:

“The Securities and Exchange Commission says the practice of so-called “reverse churning”–putting investors in accounts that pay a fixed fee but generate little or no activity to justify that fee–is on its radar. Regulators will be watching for signs of double-dipping by advisers who generate significant commissions within a client’s brokerage account, then move that client into an advisory account and collect additional fees.”

Evidently this occurs in brokerage accounts that at one point generated significant commissions for the broker from the purchase and sale of individual stocks or other commission generating transactions. If the activity in the account tails off the broker makes little or nothing from this client.

As a way to generate continual fees from this type of client the broker may suggest moving to a fee-based advisory account, often called a wrap account.

Under this arrangement there is an ongoing fee based upon the assets in the account plus often trailing commissions in the form of 12b-1 fees from the mutual funds usually offered in this type of account. These generally include proprietary mutual funds offered by the brokerage firm or at the very least costly actively managed funds in share classes geared to offering broker compensation.

Fee-based is not fee-only

Fee-based is often confused with fee-only. I suspect the brokerage industry likes it this way.

Fee-only compensation, which I wholeheartedly support, means that the financial advisor earns no compensation from the sale of financial products including trailing fees and commissions. Their fees come from their clients. These can be hourly, a flat-fee or as a percentage of the assets under management.

Fee-based compensation, also called fee and commission by some, is a mix of the two forms of advisor compensation. A common form of the fee-based model entails the client paying the advisor to do a financial plan and then if the client chooses to have the financial advisor implement their recommendations this will often be via the sale of commission-based products.

The version with fee-based advisory accounts associated with reverse churning by brokers and registered reps arose out of a 2007 rule that prohibits the charging of fees in brokerage accounts. Many broker-dealers have a registered investment advisor (RIA) arm which runs these accounts.

Buyer beware 

If you are working with a stock broker or registered rep and they propose moving to a fee-based or wrap account, you should take a hard look at what you are being offered. What is the wrap fee? What types of investments are used in the account? Are they expensive actively managed mutual funds that throw off 12b-1 fees in addition to wrap fees? What is the track record of the manager of the account that the advisor is proposing?

The Bottom Line 

I can’t recall hearing about a case of churning in recent years. Reverse churning is a new term to me, but from the perspective of a broker or registered rep fee-based advisory accounts make a ton of sense. They provide ongoing fee income and frankly require little attention from them. If your broker proposes a wrap account to you make sure you understand how this arrangement benefits you the client.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

Denver Wins! Time to Go to Cash?

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The Denver Broncos just won Super Bowl 50 and its looking like Peyton Manning will go out a winner. Good news and a feel good story? Not for investors. The Super Bowl Indicator says a win by an AFC team is a bad omen for the stock market for the year. 

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Super Bowl Indicator

The Super Bowl Indicator says that if a team from the old American Football League (AFL) wins the Super Bowl that the stock market will finish down for the year.

This indicator has held true for 40 of the previous 49 Super Bowls played prior to this one, including the past seven years.

The New York Giants, one of the earliest teams from the NFL, won the Super Bowl in 2008 but as we all recall the stock market had its worst year since the Great Depression with the S&P 500 being down 37% for the year. I guess a little thing like the mortgage fueled financial crises trumps a “sure fire” stock market predictor like the outcome of the Super Bowl.

The January Effect 

The Stock Trader’s Almanac says that if the month of January is down then 75% of the time the stock market will be down for the year.

The January Effect says that stocks that were sold off in December for tax-loss harvesting purposes will rally in January when investors buy them at reduced prices.

With the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average both down over 5% for the month this clearly didn’t happen.

Time to go to cash? 

Clearly investors should not peg their actions to any type of indicator like the Super Bowl Indicator or any of the others of a similar nature that have cropped up over the years.

The best course for investors has always been to have a financial plan, have an investing strategy and stick to their plan.

The Bottom Line 

The Super Bowl Indicator is fun and part of the Super Bowl hype. At the end of the day there is really no correlation between the performance of the stock market and who wins the Super Bowl. Investors should invest based upon their goals, their time horizon and their risk tolerance. I will say this, however. The market will be way up in 2017 after my Green Bay Packers bring the Lombardi Trophy back to its rightful home, Lambeau Field. OK no predictions, I have no idea what the market will do after the Packers win (which is a sure thing, I hope).

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

6 Investment Expenses You Need to Understand

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Investment expenses reduce your investment returns. While nobody should expect investment managers, financial advisors or other service providers to offer their services for free, investors should understand all costs and fees involved and work to reduce investment expenses to the greatest extent possible.

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Here are 6 investment expenses you need to understand in order to maximize your returns.

Mutual fund and ETF expense ratios

All mutual fund and ETFs have expense ratios. These fees cover such things as trading costs, compensation for fund managers and support staff and the fund firm’s profit. Expense ratios matter and investors shouldn’t pay more than they need to.

Vanguard’s site, as you might expect, deals with this topic at length. In one example, it shows the impact of differing levels of fees on a hypothetical $100,000 initial account balance over 30 years with a yearly return of 6%. After 30 years the balance in the account would be:

$574,349 with no investment cost

$532,899 with an investment cost of 25 basis points

$438,976 with an investment cost of 90 basis points

These numbers clearly illustrate the impact of fund fees on an investor’s returns and their ability to accumulate assets for financial goals like retirement and funding their children’s college educations.

Mutual fund expense ratios are an example of where paying more doesn’t get you more. Case in point, Vanguard Growth Index Adm (VIGAX) has an expense ratio of 0.09%. The Morningstar category average for the large cap growth asset class is 1.21%. For the three years ending January 31, 2016 the fund ranked in the top 32% of all of the funds in the category; for the trailing five years the fund placed in the 19% and for the trailing ten years the top 17% in terms of investment performance.

Sales loads and 12b-1 fees

Front-end sales loads are an upfront payment to a financial advisor or registered rep. Front-end sales loads reduce the amount of your initial investment that actually goes to work for you. For example, if a rep suggests investing in a mutual fund like the American Funds EuroPacific Growth A (AEPGX) for every $10,000 the investor wants to invest, $575 or 5.75% will be deducted from their initial investment balance to cover the sales load. Over time this will reduce the investor’s return versus another version of the same fund with a similar expense ratio that doesn’t charge a sales load.

Some will argue that this load is a one-time payment to the advisor and their firm for their advice. This strikes me as dubious at best, but investors need to decide for themselves whether the advice received in exchange for paying a sales load warrants this drain on their initial and subsequent investments. This share class has an expense ratio of 0.89% which includes a 12b-1 fee of 0.21% (see more on 12b-1 fees below).

Deferred sales loads associated with B shares are largely a thing of the past. Carrying the American Funds example forward, the EuroPacific Growth B (AEGBX) which has been closed to new investors since 2009, was purchased at NAV with a deferred sales charge of 5%. The fund carried a surrender charge over a period of years whereby if the investor sold the fund during this time they would be assessed a surrender charge (see below for more on surrender charges) on a declining basis. In order to compensate the advisor for not receiving an upfront sales commission the fund’s expense ratio is 1.69% which includes a 0.99% 12b-1 fee which compensates the advisor. After a set period of time B shares are supposed to convert to the lower cost A shares. If you are still in a B share of any fund you should aggressively ask why this is and demand to have the shares converted to A shares if eligible.

Level loads are associated with C shares. The American Funds EuroPacific Growth C (AEPCX) fund has a level load of 1% in the form of a 12b-1 fee and an overall expense ratio of 1.61%. Brokers and registered reps love these as the level load stays in place for eight years until the funds convert to a no load share class of the fund. There is a 1% surrender charge if the fund is redeemed within the first year of ownership.

12b-1 fees are a part of the mutual fund’s expense ratio and were originally designated to be marketing costs. They are now used as trialing compensation for financial advisors and reps who earn compensation from selling investment products. They can also be used to provide revenue-sharing in a 401(k) plan. While 12b-1 fees don’t increase expenses as they are part of the fund’s expense ratio, typically funds with a 12b-1 fee will have a higher expense ratio than those that don’t in my experience.

401(k) expenses

For many of us our 401(k) plan is our primary retirement savings vehicle. Beyond the expense ratios of the mutual funds or other investments offered, there are costs for an outside investment advisor (or perhaps a registered rep or broker who sold the plan) plus recordkeeping and administration among other things. If your employer has these costs paid by the plan they are coming out of your account and reducing the return on your investment.

Add to this mutual funds that may be more expensive than needed to compensate a brokerage firm or insurance company and all of a sudden the expenses associated with your 401(k) plan are a real drag on your investment returns.

Financial advice fees

Fees for financial advice will vary depending upon the type of financial advisor you work with.

Fee-only financial advisors will charge fees for their advice only and not tied to any financial products they recommend. Fees might be charged on an hourly basis, on a project basis for a specific task like a financial plan, based on assets under management or a flat retainer fee. The latter two options would generally pertain to an ongoing relationship with the financial advisor.

Fee-based or fee and commission financial advisors will typically charge a fee for and initial financial plan and then sell you financial products from which they earn some sort of commission if you choose to implement their recommendations. Another version of this model might have the advisor charging a fee for investment management services, perhaps via a brokerage wrap account, and receiving commissions for selling any insurance or annuity products. They also would likely receive any trailing 12b-1 fees from the mutual funds used in the wrap account or from the sale of loaded mutual funds.

Commissions arise from the sale of financial and insurance products including mutual funds, annuities, life insurance policies and others. The financial advisor is compensated from the sale of the product and in one way or another you pay for this in the form of higher expenses and/or a lower net return on your investment. Additionally, financial sales types are incented to sell you products for which they are compensated, it is highly unlikely they will push a low-cost Vanguard index fund.

Investors need to understand these fees and what they are getting in return. In fact, a great question to ask any prospective financial advisor is to have them disclose all sources of compensation that they will receive from their relationship with you.

Surrender charges

Surrender charges are common with annuities and some mutual funds. There will be a period of time where if the investor tries to sell the contract or the fund they will be hit with a surrender charge. I’ve seen surrender periods on some annuities that range out to ten years or more. If you decide the annuity is not for you or you find a better annuity the penalty to leave is onerous and costly.

Taxes 

Taxes are a fact of life and come into play with your investments. Investments held in taxable accounts will be taxed as either long or short-term when capital gains are realized. You may also be subject to taxes from distributions from mutual funds and ETF for dividends and capital gains as well.

Investments held in a tax-deferred account such as a 401(k) or an IRA will not be taxed while held in the account but will be subject to taxes when distributions are taken.

Tax planning to minimize the impact of taxes on your investment returns can help, but investment decisions should not be made solely for tax reasons.

The Bottom Line

Fees and expanses can take a big bite out of your investment returns and your ability to accumulate a sufficient amount to achieve your financial goals. Investors should understand the expenses listed above and others and take steps to minimize these costs.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

4 Things To Do When The Stock Market Drops

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The stock market has started out the new year with some hefty declines. We are seeing firsthand the impact that China has on our markets. CNBC is calling this the worst start to a new year in almost a century. What should you do now? Here are 4 things to do when the stock market drops.

4 Things to do When the Stock Market Drops

Breathe 

Cable news networks like CNBC have a field day during steep, sudden stock market corrections like we are seeing this week. It’s easy to get caught up in all of this hype. Don’t let yourself be sucked in.

Step back, take a deep breath and relax.

Take stock of where you are 

Review your accounts and see the extent of the damage that has been done. Depending upon how you are invested it may be minor or a bit more significant. Investors who are well-diversified have probably been hurt but not to the extent of those with a heavy allocation to equities and other areas that have been hit.

Review your asset allocation 

Has your portfolio weathered this storm and the declines of this past summer as you would have expected? If so your allocation is likely appropriate. If not, then perhaps it is time to review your asset allocation and make some adjustments. Proper diversification is great way to reduce investment risk.

Go shopping 

Market declines can create buying opportunities. If you have some individual stocks, ETFs or mutual funds on your “wish list” this is the time to start looking at them with an eye towards buying at some point. It is unrealistic to assume you will be able to buy at the very bottom so don’t worry about that.

Before making any investment be sure that it fits your strategy and your financial plan. Also make sure the investment is still a solid long-term holding and that it is not cheap for reasons other than general market conditions.

The Bottom Line 

The stock market declines we’ve seen since the start of 2016 have been steep and unnerving. Don’t panic and don’t let yourself get caught up in all of the media hype. Stick to your plan, review your holdings and make some adjustments if needed. Nobody knows where the markets are headed but those who make investment decisions driven by fear usually regret it.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email.

8 Portfolio Rebalancing Tips

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My last post discussed 4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing. This post continues on the rebalancing theme and looks at some ways to implement a rebalancing strategy. Here are 8 portfolio rebalancing tips that you can use.

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Set a target asset allocation 

Your asset allocation should be an outgrowth of a target asset allocation from your financial plan and/or a written investment policy. This is the target asset allocation that should be used when rebalancing your portfolio. 

Establish a time frame to rebalance 

Ideally you are reviewing your portfolio and your investments on a regular basis. As part of this process you should incorporate a review of your asset allocation at a set interval. This might be semi-annually for example. I generally suggest no more frequently than quarterly. An exception would be after a precipitous move up or down in the markets.

Take a total portfolio view 

When rebalancing your portfolio take a total portfolio view. This includes taxable accounts as well as retirement accounts like an IRA or your 401(k). This approach allows you to be strategic and tax-efficient when rebalancing and ensures that you are not taking too little or too much risk on an overall basis.

Incorporate new money 

If you have new money to invest take a look at your asset allocation first and use these funds to shore up portions of your asset allocation that may be below their target allocation. A twist on this is to direct new 401(k) contributions to one or two funds in order to get your overall asset allocation back in balance. In this case your will need to take any use of your plan’s auto rebalance feature into account as well. 

Use auto pilot 

For those with an employer sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k), 403(b) or similar defined contribution plan many plans offer an auto-rebalancing feature. This allows you to select a time interval at which your account will be rebalanced back to the allocation that you select.

This serves two purposes. First it saves you from having to remember to do it. Second it takes the emotion and potential hesitation out of the decision to pare back on your winners and redistribute these funds to other holdings in your account.

I generally suggest using a six-month time frame and no more frequently than quarterly and no less than annually. Remember you can opt out or change the interval at any time you wish and you can rebalance your account between the set intervals if needed.

Make charitable contributions with appreciated assets 

If you are charitably inclined consider gifting shares of appreciated holdings in taxable accounts such as individual stocks, mutual funds and ETFs to charity as part of the rebalancing process. This allows you to forgo paying taxes on the capital gains and provides a charitable tax deduction on the market value of the securities donated.

Most major custodians can help facilitate this and many charities are set-up to accept donations on this type. Make sure that you have held the security for at least a year and a day in order to get the maximum benefit. This is often associated with year-end planning but this is something that you can do at any point during the year.

Incorporate tax-loss harvesting

This is another tactic that is often associated with year-end planning but one that can be implemented throughout the year. Tax-loss harvesting involves selling holdings with an unrealized loss in order to realize that loss for tax purposes.

You might periodically look at holdings with an unrealized loss and sell some of them off as part of the rebalancing process. Note I only suggest taking a tax loss if makes sense from an investment standpoint, it is not a good idea to “let the tax tail wag the investment dog.”

Be sure that you are aware of and abide by the wash sale rules that pertain to realizing and deducting tax losses.

Don’t think you are smarter than the market 

It’s tough to sell winners and then invest that money back into portions of your portfolio that haven’t done as well. However, portfolio rebalancing is part of a disciplined investment process.  It can be tempting to let your winners run, but too much of this can skew your allocation too far in the direction of stocks and increase your downside risk.

If you think you can outsmart the market, trust me you can’t. How devastating can the impact of being wrong be? Just ask those who bought into the mantra “…it’s different this time…” before the Dot Com bubble burst or just before the stock market debacle of the last recession.

The Bottom Line 

Portfolio rebalancing is a key strategy to control the risk of your investment portfolio. It is important that you review your portfolio for potential rebalancing at set intervals and that you have the discipline to follow through and execute if needed.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email.

4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing

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As we move into the last month of the year and look forward to the new year many of us look to get our financial situation in order. One of the most important things you can do is to ensure that your investments are properly allocated. Portfolio rebalancing is something that all investors should do periodically. Here are 4 benefits of portfolio rebalancing.

4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing

Balancing risk and reward

Asset allocation is about balancing risk and reward. Invariably some asset classes will perform better than others. This can cause your portfolio to be skewed towards an allocation that takes too much risk or too little risk based on your financial objectives.

During robust periods in the stock market equities will outperform asset classes such as fixed income. Perhaps your target allocation was 65% stocks and 35% bonds and cash. A stock market rally might leave your portfolio at 75% stocks and 25% fixed income and cash. This is great if the market continues to rise but you would likely see a more pronounced decline in your portfolio should the market experience a sharp correction.

Portfolio rebalancing enforces a level of discipline

Rebalancing imposes a level of discipline in terms of selling a portion of your winners and putting that money back into asset classes that have underperformed.

This may seem counter intuitive but market leadership rotates over time. During the first decade of this century emerging markets equities were often among the top performing asset classes. Fast forward to today and they are on track for their third year of losses.

Rebalancing can help save investors from their own worst instincts. It is often tempting to let top performing holdings and asset classes run when the markets seem to keep going up. Investors heavy in large caps, especially those with heavy tech holdings, found out the risk of this approach when the Dot Com bubble burst in early 2000.

Ideally investors should have a written investment policy that outlines their target asset allocation with upper and lower percentage ranges. Violating these ranges should trigger a review for potential portfolio rebalancing.

A good reason to review your portfolio

When considering portfolio rebalancing investors should also incorporate a full review of their portfolio that includes a review of their individual holdings and the continued validity of their investment strategy. Some questions you should ask yourself:

  • Have individual stock holdings hit my growth target for that stock?
  • How do my mutual funds and ETFs stack up compared to their peers?
    • Relative performance?
    • Expense ratios?
    • Style consistency?
  • Have my mutual funds or ETFs experienced significant inflows or outflows of dollars?
  • Have there been any recent changes in the key personnel managing the fund?

These are some of the factors that financial advisors (hopefully) review as they review client portfolios.

This type of review should be done at least annually and I generally suggest that investors review their allocation no more often than quarterly so perhaps the full-blown portfolio review would not be done each time you do a rebalancing review.

Helps you stay on track with your financial plan 

Investing success is not a goal unto itself but rather a tool to help ensure that you meet your financial goals and objectives. Regular readers of The Chicago Financial Planner know that I am a big proponent of having a financial plan in place.

A properly constructed financial plan will contain a target asset allocation and an investment strategy tied to your goals, your timeframe for the money and your risk tolerance. Periodic portfolio rebalancing is vital to maintaining an appropriate asset allocation that is in line with your financial plan.

The Bottom Line 

Regular portfolio rebalancing helps reduce downside investment risk and ensures that your investments are allocated in line with your financial plan. It also can help investors impose an important level of discipline on themselves.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email.

Smart Beta ETFs the Next Big Thing?

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For those of us involved in financial services it is hard to check your Twitter stream or visit an industry website without seeing the term smart beta. ETF providers have really taken to this trend and have introduced many new ETFs based on some aspect of smart beta.

Nobody follows a trend quite like the folks who market mutual funds or ETFs and smart beta is the hip thing that all of the “cool kids” are doing. At a recent ETF industry conference sponsored by Morningstar (MORN) this was virtually all anyone was talking about in the sessions I attended.

What is smart beta and is it really smart?  Are smart beta ETFs the next big thing in ETF investing?

Smart Beta Defined 

According to Investopedia (for whom I am a frequent contributor):

“Investment managers that follow a smart beta investment strategy seek to passively follow indices, while also taking into account alternative weighting schemes such as volatility. That’s because smart beta strategies are implemented like a typical index strategies in that the index rules are set and transparent. Smart Beta strategies will differ from standard indices, such as the S&P 500 or the Barclays Aggregate, in that the indices focus on areas of the market that offer an opportunity for exploitation.” 

We will attempt to expand on that definition a bit below. 

Factor investing 

Most smart beta ETFs take an aspect or a factor from a traditional index. Traditional index ETFs passively track a market value weighted index like the S&P 500.  Some popular factors include low volatility, momentum; equal-weighted indexes, dividends and quality are common factors. An equal-weighted index would give equal weighting to a huge stock like Apple (APPL) and to the smallest stock in terms of market capitalization in the S&P 500 Index.

An example of a smart beta ETF based on a factor is the Powershares S&P 500 Low Volatility ETF (SPLV).

This ETF invests in the 100 stocks in the index that have exhibited the lowest volatility over the past 12 months. A sound idea in theory and perhaps ultimately in practice.

Like many smart beta ETFs the inception date of SPLV was May 5, 2011 over two years after the low point of the markets during the financial crises. The index the ETF follows was essentially created in the lab via back-testing, much like the Peter Boyle character in the movie Young Frankenstein. This means that most of the “history” of this ETF is via back-testing and not real performance data. As a presenter at the Morningstar conference said, he’s never seen a back-test that did not yield a positive result.

Looking at SPLV’s results, the ETF trails the S&P 500 index in terms of trailing three year returns 12.95% to 14.77% on an average annual basis for the period ending 10/19/2015. However for the year-to-date period through the same date SPLV has gained 1.27% versus 0.41% for the index.

Looking at another measure, standard deviation of return which measures the variability of the ETF’s returns (up and down) over the three year period ending 9/30/2015, the standard deviation for SPLV is +/- 9.63% versus +/- 9.74% for the index. My guess is that a selling point of this ETF would be lower volatility but over the past three years the smart beta ETF is only fractionally less volatile than the index and an investor would have considerably less money if they had held SPLV over a more traditional ETF like the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY).

Is an investment in SPLV a bad idea? I don’t know because I have no idea how this ETF will hold up in a pronounced bear market. Yes it has performed better than the full index so far in 2015 including the volatility in August and September. How will it do if we hit a rough patch like 2000-2002 or 2008-2009? Good question.

A growth area 

According to data from Morningstar as of 6/30/2015:

  • There were 444 smart beta products listed in the U.S.
  • These products accounted for $540 billion in assets under management which was 21% of all U.S ETF assets.
  • Of the new cash flows into ETFs over the past 12 months, 31% went into smart beta products.
  • The assets in these products grew 27% over the same period.
  • A quarter of new ETF launches over the past five years were smart beta products.

Who uses smart beta ETFs? 

From what I have heard and read smart beta ETFs are being used largely by financial advisors and institutional investors versus individuals. You might say so what? These folks are likely investing your money either via your relationship with a financial advisor who may use them in a portfolio or use a TAMP (turnkey asset management program) program offered by a third-party to manage your money.

Reasons to use Smart Beta 

Morningstar cites several reasons investors and advisors might consider smart beta ETFs:

  • To manage portfolio risk
  • To enhance portfolio returns
  • For tactical asset allocation, meaning an allocation that is based in part on the advisor’s assessment of market conditions
  • Reducing fees versus actively managed mutual funds
  • To use an active strategy grounded by an index core

Many, including me, view strategic beta as a form of active management. A presenter at the Morningstar conference suggested that any smart beta ETF with an expense ratio of 50 basis points or higher should not be considered as this is the lower end of the fee range for the better actively managed mutual funds offering an institutional share class.

What does this mean for individual investors? 

Again I suspect that most of the money invested here will be institutional or via financial advisors. As an individual investor working with a financial advisor who suggests using smart beta ETFs in your portfolio, you should ask them to explain their rational. Why are these ETFs a better choice than an asset allocation strategy using more traditional index products?

If you will using smart beta ETFs on your own, be sure that you fully understand the underlying index which was likely created post-financial crises via back testing. Understand that smart beta strategies may look good on paper but in reality they can take a number of years to prove themselves.  Lastly understand that strategies that look good in testing may not work as well when millions of dollars are actually invested there real-time.

For financial advisors 

Most financial advisors that I know are very deliberate in testing new products and investing ideas before using them with clients. With the rise of third-party advisors such as TAMPs and ETF strategists, financial advisors still need to understand the underlying products and strategies being used to invest their client’s hard-earned money.

The Bottom Line 

Smart beta is the next evolution of ETF investing or so say the firms trying to gather assets into these products. I’m not saying that smart beta isn’t an enhancement or that I am against new investing inovations. I am leery of any investment vehicle designed to solve a problem or fill a role in portfolios that have not gone through a full stock market cycle. With any investment vehicle that you are considering, be sure to fully understand the benefits, the risks and the costs. How smart is smart beta? We really won’t know until the market goes through a full cycle that includes a significant correction.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner.

How Much Apple Stock Do You Really Own?

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Apple (AAPL) stock has been a great investment over the years. Based upon its stock price and the number of shares outstanding it is the largest U.S stock based upon market capitalization.  This means it is the largest holding in popular index mutual funds and ETFs like Vanguard 500 (VFINX) and the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY).

Chuck Jaffe recently wrote an excellent piece for Market Watch discussing the impact that a recent drop in Apple stock had on a number of mutual funds that hold large amounts of Apple.  He cited a list of funds that had at least 10% of their assets in Apple.  On a recent day when Apple stock fell over 4% these funds had single day losses ranging from 0.22% to 2.66%.

The point is not to criticize mutual fund managers for holding large amounts of Apple, but rather as a reminder to investors to understand what they actually own when reviewing their mutual funds and ETFs.

Stock overlap 

In the late 1990s a client had me do a review of their portfolio as part of some work I was doing for the executives of the company. He held 19 different mutual funds and was certain that he was well-diversified.

The reality was that all 19 funds had similar investment styles and all 19 held some of the popular tech stocks of the day including Cisco (CSCO), Intel (INTC) and Microsoft (MSFT). As this was right before the DOT COM bubble burst in early 2000 his portfolio would have taken quite a hit during the market decline of 2000-2002.

Understand what you own 

If you invest in individual stocks you do this by choice. You know what you own. If you have a concentrated position in one or more stocks this is transparent to you.

Those who invest in mutual funds and other professionally managed investment vehicles need to look at the underlying holdings of their funds.  Excessive stock overlap among holdings can occur if your portfolio is concentrated in one or two asset classes. This is another reason why your portfolio should be diversified among several asset classes based upon your time horizon and risk tolerance.

As an extreme example someone who works for a major corporation might own shares of their own company stock in some of the mutual funds and ETFs they own both inside their 401(k) plan and outside. In addition they might directly own shares of company stock within their 401(k) and they might have stock options and own additional shares elsewhere. This can place the investor in a risky position should their company hit a downturn that causes the stock price to drop.  Even worse if they are let go by the company not only has their portfolio suffered but they are without a paycheck from their employer as well.

Concentrated stock positions 

Funds holding concentrated stock positions are not necessarily a bad thing. A case in point is Sequoia (SEQUX) which has beaten its benchmark the S&P 500 by an average of 373 basis points (3.73 percentage points) annually since its inception in 1970.  Sequoia currently has about 26% of its portfolio in its largest holding and another 8% in the two classes of Berkshire Hathaway stock.  Historically the fund has held 25-30 names and at one time held about 30% of the portfolio in Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A).  Year-to-date through August 14, 2015 the fund is up 16.5% compared to the benchmark’s gain of 2.88%.

The Bottom Line 

Mutual fund and ETF investors may hold more of large market capitalization stocks like Apple and Microsoft than they realize due to their prominence not only in large cap index funds but also in many actively managed funds. It is a good idea for investors to periodically review what their funds and ETFs actually own and in what proportions to ensure that they are not too concentrated in a few stocks, increasing their risk beyond what they might have expected.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions, comments or suggestions about this article or anything else on The Chicago Financial Planner. Thank you for visiting the site.

What is a Hedge Fund?

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The term hedge fund is used often in the financial press.  I suspect, however, that many investors do not really know what a hedge fund is.

What is a Hedge Fund?

 

 

 

 

Investopedia defines a hedge fund as follows:

“An aggressively managed portfolio of investments that uses advanced investment strategies such as leveraged, long, short and derivative positions in both domestic and international markets with the goal of generating high returns (either in an absolute sense or over a specified market benchmark).” 

Here are a few basics about hedge funds to help you understand them.  Note this is certainly not meant to be an in-depth tutorial but rather is meant to provide an introduction to hedge funds.

Who can invest in hedge funds? 

In order to invest in a hedge fund you must be an accredited investor.  The current definition of an accredited investor is someone with a net worth of $1 million (excluding the equity in their home) and at least $200,000 in income ($300,000 with a spouse) over the past two years.  Many hedge fund investors are institutional investors such as foundations, endowments and pension plans.  About 65 percent of the capital invested in hedge funds comes from institutional investors.

What is the minimum investment? 

The minimum required to invest is often $1 million or more though some smaller hedge funds and funds of funds may have lower minimums.  New companies like Sliced Investing are seeking to change these high minimums by allowing investors to invest as little as $20,000.

Do I have access to my money? 

Unlike mutual funds, ETFs, closed-end funds and individual stocks hedge funds typically do not offer daily access to your money.

Some hedge funds allow investors to subscribe (invest) or redeem their money monthly, for others this might be quarterly or based upon some other time period.  Most hedge funds will require advanced notice for redemptions which might be as long as 180 days.  This allows the fund managers time to raise sufficient cash and allows for an orderly sale of fund investments especially if the redemption is a significant amount.

Some hedge funds also require a lock-up which means that there are no redemptions allowed during this initial period.  A typical lock-up period is one year, though some are as long as two years.  In some cases the lock-up period is “soft” meaning that redemption can be made but there will often be a penalty ranging from 2 percent to as high as 10 percent. 

Some hedge funds may also have the ability to enforce “gates” on redemptions which means they can decide to process only a portion of the redemptions requested.  This provision came into focus during the 2008-2009 market downturn as hedge fund redemptions requests swelled as many investors sought to raise cash.

What types of fees are charged? 

The fees charged by hedge funds vary widely.

Many hedge funds charge a management fee of 2 percent or more.

There might also be incentive fees of 10 to 20 percent of the fund’s profits or more.  This rewards the fund manager for superior performance.  The flip side of this is that the manager generally only collects an incentive fee if the fund’s performance exceeds its former highs, known as a high water mark.

If a fund loses 5 percent in a given year, no incentive fees will be paid to the manager the following year until the 5 percent loss is made up.

The term two and 20 is a common one in the hedge fund world meaning that the fund would charge a 2 percent management fee and a 20 percent incentive fee.  This may seem pricey but if the performance is stellar then investors won’t mind paying it. 

What types of investment strategies are available? 

There is a vast range of investment strategies across the hedge fund landscape.  These might include long-short, global macro, market neutral, convertible arbitrage, distressed securities and many others.  Additionally there are a number of fund of funds offered which means that the fund offers a collection of strategies and fund managers under one umbrella.   

What should I consider before investing in a hedge fund?

From reading the above you might ask yourself why would I invest in hedge funds?  Let’s remember that hedge funds are considered alternative investments.  Ideally they will have a relatively low correlation to the traditional long-only equity and fixed income investments in your portfolio.  At their best well-managed hedge funds can add balance and reduce the overall risk of your portfolio, in some cases the strategies are designed to provide absolute returns across all investing environments.

Before investing in a hedge fund or any alternative investment make sure you have considered and fully understand the following:

  • The fund’s investment strategy.
  • How this investment strategy fits with your overall portfolio and investing strategy.
  • What the fund “brings to the table” that you can’t get with more traditional long-only stock and bond investments.
  • Who is managing the fund and their history and investment track record.
  • The required minimum investment.
  • Any redemption restrictions and/or lock-up periods.  Make sure that you won’t need to tap this money during this time period. 

The Bottom Line 

Like any investment option you might consider it is important to understand the pros and cons of hedge funds in general and any specific fund or strategy that you might be considering for your portfolio.

Disclosure: This blog post was written for Sliced Investing pursuant to a paid content arrangement I have with the company’s representatives as part of an effort to raise awareness about alternative investment options. All views expressed are entirely my own, and were not influenced or directed by Sliced Investing.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia