Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Is the Dow Jones Industrial Average Still a Relevant Stock Market Index?

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The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) of 30 large stocks has long been arguably the most watched index for those following the stock market.  As I write this IBM a long-time index component reported a major miss in its quarterly earnings.

The stock was down some 7% for the day and due to this decline the DJIA was been down most of the day.  The index finished up some 19 points but without the drag of IBM the index would have been up around 100 points according to a commentator on CNBC.  This begs the question is the Dow Jones Industrial Average still a relevant stock market index?

It’s just 30 stocks 

The DJIA is a weighted average (the actual weighting formula is very complex) of the price of the 30 stocks that comprise the index.  Originally the index was supposed to represent the stocks of large industrial companies.  Over the years the composition of the index has changed to reflect the changing nature of American business.

Here are the 30 companies that comprise the index:

Company

 

 

 

 

 

3M Co
American Express Co
AT&T Inc
Boeing Co
Caterpillar Inc
Chevron Corp
Cisco Systems Inc
E I du Pont de Nemours and Co
Exxon Mobil Corp
General Electric Co
Goldman Sachs Group Inc
Home Depot Inc
Intel Corp
International Business Machines
Johnson & Johnson
JPMorgan Chase and Co
McDonald’s Corp
Merck & Co Inc
Microsoft Corp
Nike Inc
Pfizer Inc
Procter & Gamble Co
The Coca-Cola Co
Travelers Companies Inc
United Technologies Corp
UnitedHealth Group Inc
Verizon Communications Inc
Visa Inc
Wal-Mart Stores Inc
Walt Disney Co

 

Certainly a nice mix of manufacturers, retail, financial services, and technology related companies.  Three major names absent from the index include Google, Facebook, and Apple.  While these are large and influential companies they do not represent the total focus of the investment universe.

Chuck Jaffe wrote this excellent piece on the topic of the Dow It’s time to ditch the Dow Jones Industrial Average  over at the Market Watch site.

Investing options are varied and global 

Of the major market benchmarks the broader S&P 500 seems to hold a lot more sway with many money managers and others in the finance and investing world.  I know that personally I am a lot more concerned with this index as a benchmark for large cap mutual funds and ETFs than the Dow.

The NASDAQ is also widely watched due to its heavy tech influence.  I think the bursting of the Dot Com bubble put this index on the radar to stay back in early 2000.

Other key benchmarks include the Russell 2000 for small cap stocks, the Russell Mid Cap, the EAFE for large cap foreign stocks and many others for various market niches.  Additionally there are any number of index mutual funds and ETFs that follow these and other key benchmarks for those who want to invest in these segments of the stock market.

While I’m guessing the Dow will remain a widely watched and quoted stock market indicator I and many others find it increasingly irrelevant.  It is always a good idea to benchmark your investments against the appropriate index for a single holding or a blended, weighted benchmark to gauge your overall portfolio’s performance.

Five Things to do During a Stock Market Correction

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As you may or may not know the stock market has been going through some tough days recently.  For example the S&P 500 Index is down about 8% from its all-time high reached in September of this year.  While we are not officially in correction mode (this is usually defined as a 10% or greater drop in an index) there has been a lot of volatility lately.  Here are five things you should do during a stock market correction.

Do nothing

Assuming that you have a financial plan with an investment strategy in place there is really nothing to do at this point.  Ideally you’ve been rebalancing your portfolio along the way and your asset allocation is largely in line with your plan and your risk tolerance.  Making moves in reaction to a stock market correction (official or otherwise) is rarely a good idea.  At the very least wait until the dust settles.  As Aaron Rodgers told the fans in Green Bay after the Packers 1-2 start, relax.  They have since won three straight.  Sound advice for fans of the greatest team on the planet and investors as well.

Review your mutual fund holdings

I always look at rough market periods as a good time to take a look at the various mutual funds and ETFs in a portfolio.  What I’m looking for is how did they hold up compared to their peers during the market downturn.  For example during the 2008-2009 market debacle I looked at funds to see how they did in both the down market of 2008 and the up market of 2009.  If a fund did worse than the majority of its peers in 2008 I would expect to see better than average performance in the up market of 2009.  If there was under performance during both periods to me this was a huge red flag.

Don’t get caught up in the media hype

If you watch CNBC long enough you will find some expert to support just about any opinion about the stock market during any type of market situation.  This can be especially dangerous for investors who might already feel a sense of fear when the markets are tanking.  I’m not discounting the great information the media provides, but you need to take much of this with a grain of salt.  This is a good time to lean on your financial plan and your investment strategy and use these tools as a guide.

Focus on risk

Use stock market corrections and downturns to assess your portfolio’s risk and more importantly your risk tolerance.  Assess whether your portfolio has held up in line with your expectations.  If not perhaps you are taking more risk than you had planned.  Also assess your feelings about your portfolio’s performance.  If you find yourself feeling unduly fearful about what is going on perhaps it is time to revisit your allocation and your financial plan once things settle down.

Look for bargains

If you had your eye on a particular stock, ETF, or mutual fund before the market dropped perhaps this is the time to make an investment.  I don’t advocate market timing but buying a good long-term investment is even more attractive when it’s on sale so to speak.

Markets will always correct at some point.  Smart investors factor this into their plans and don’t overreact.  Be a smart investor.

5 Reasons Investors Use ETFs

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Fidelity recently polled nearly 600 high net worth investors to gain a better understanding of their thinking about the market and where they plan to invest in 2014. Notably, 43% of investors said they are planning to increase their investment in ETFs over the next 12 months.

Fidelity created this graphic that highlights 5 reasons investors use ETFs (or don’t use them).

 5 Reasons Investors Use ETFs

Other key findings of the Fidelity study include:

  • Despite the small gains this year in the DJIA (1.6% as of June 5, 2014), 55% believe it will end the year up 5% or more.
  • When it comes to the U.S. economy, investors continue to feel cautious. The majority (71%) feels it’s headed in the right direction vs. 29% who say it’s stagnant or headed in the wrong direction.
  • 62% of investors also believe a market correction—when a major index declines by at least 10% from a recent high—is likely to happen in 2014.
  • The indicators that would motivate the most investors holding cash to re-invest into the market are a stronger U.S. economy (28%) and higher interest (12%). 25% report holding no cash on the sidelines.
  • Over half (59%) of investors prefer to grow their portfolio by investing in domestic equities vs. 18% in international equities.
  • Over a third (35%) invest in ETFs for broad market exposure (indexes), while 27% of investors don’t invest in ETFs because they need to learn more. 

Advantages of ETFs 

ETFs have several features that are advantageous to investors:

  • ETFs are generally transparent regarding their holdings.
  • ETFs can be bought and sold during the trading day.  This offers additional opportunities for investors.
  • Stop orders can be used to limit the downside movement of your ETFs.
  • ETFs can also be sold short just like stocks.
  • Many index ETFs carry low expense ratios and can be quite cheap to own.
  • Many ETFs are quite tax-efficient.
  • ETFs can provide a low cost, straightforward way to invest in core market indexes.  

Disadvantages of ETFs  

  • ETFs can be bought and sold just like stocks.  In some cases this could serve to promote excessive trading that could prove detrimental to investors.
  • ETF providers have introduced a proliferation of new ETFs in response to their popularity.  Some of these ETFs are excellent, some are not.  Many new ETFs are based on untested benchmarks that have only been back-tested.  Additionally there are a number of leveraged ETFs that multiply the movement of the underlying index by 2 or 3 times up or down.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with these products they can easily be misused by investors who don’t fully understand them.
  • Trading ETFs generally entails paying a transaction fee, though a number of providers have introduced commission-free ETFs in order to gain market share.  

ETFs have proven to be a great innovation for investors.  If used properly they are a great addition to your investing toolkit.  Like any investment make sure you understand what you are investing in (and why) before you invest.

Please check out our Book Store for books on financial planning, retirement, and related topics as well as any Amazon shopping needs you may have (or just click on the link below).  The Chicago Financial Planner is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.  If you click on my Amazon.com links and buy anything, even something other than the product advertised, I earn a small fee, yet you don’t pay any extra. 

Time for a Mid-Year Financial Review

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It’s hard to believe that the first half of the year has come and gone already.  We enjoyed having all three of our adult children home over the holiday weekend.

Financial Review

Mid-year is always a good time for a financial review and 2014 is no exception.  So far in 2014:

  • Various stock market indexes are at or near record high levels. The Bull Market in stocks celebrated its fifth anniversary earlier this year and through June 30 the S&P 500 Index is up 190% since the March 2009 lows.
  • Bond funds and ETFs have surprised us by posting some pretty decent returns.  This is contrary to what many expected, especially in the wake of weak performance in 2013.
  • After largely not participating in the in the strong equity markets of 2013 REITS have been a top performing asset class YTD through the second quarter.
  • Emerging markets equity lost money as an asset class in 2013 and has also staged a nice recovery YTD through the first half of 2014.
  • Small cap stocks have underperformed so far in 2014 after a very outstanding 2013. 

In just about any year at the midpoint there will be asset classes that outperformed and some that have underperformed expectations.  That’s completely normal.  As far as your mid-year financial review here are a few things to consider.  These apply whether you do this yourself or if you are working with a financial advisor.

Review your financial plan 

Whether you do this now or at some other point in the year you should review your financial plan at least annually.  Given the robust stock market gains of the past five years this is a particularity opportune time for this review.

  • How are you tracking towards your financial goals?
  • Have your investment gains put you further ahead than anticipated?
  • Is it time to rethink the level of investment risk in your portfolio? 

Adjust your 401(k) deferral

If you aren’t on track to defer the maximum amount of your salary allowed ($17,500 or $23,000 if you are 50 or over at any point in 2014) try to up the percentage of your salary being deferred to the extent that you can.  Every little bit helps when saving for retirement.

Rebalance your portfolio 

This should be a standard in your financial playbook.  Different types of investments will perform differently at different times which can cause your overall portfolio to be out of balance with your target.  Too much money allocated to stocks can, for example, cause you to assume more risk than you had anticipated.

While it is a good idea to review your asset allocation at regular intervals, you don’t want to overdo rebalancing either.  I generally suggest that 401(k) participants whose plan offers auto rebalancing set the frequency to every six months.  More frequent rebalancing might be appropriate if market conditions have caused your portfolio to be severely misallocated.

Note some investment strategies call for a more tactical approach which is fine.  If you are using such a tactical approach (perhaps via an ETF strategist) you will still want to monitor what this manager is doing and that their strategy fits your plan and tolerance for risk.

Review your individual investments 

Certainly you will not want to make decisions about any investment holdings based upon short-term results but here are a few things to take into account during your mid-year financial review:

  • If you hold individual stocks where are they in relation to your target sell price?
  • Have there been key personnel changes in the management of your actively managed mutual funds?
  • Are any of your mutual funds suffering from asset bloat due to solid performance or perhaps just the greed of the mutual fund company?
  • Are the expense ratios of your index mutual funds and ETFs among the lowest available to you?
  • Has your company retirement plan added or removed any investment options?
  • Is the Target Date Fund option in your 401(k) plan really the best place for your retirement contributions? 

Review your company benefits 

I know its July but your annual Open Enrollment for employee benefits at most employers is coming up in the fall.  This is the time where you can adjust your various benefits such as health insurance, dental, etc.  Take a look at your benefits usage and your family situation as part of your financial review to see if you might need to consider adjustments in the fall.

Review your career status 

How are things going in your current job?  Are you on a solid career path?  Is it time for a change either internally or with a new employer?

A key question to ask yourself is whether you feel in danger of losing your job.  Often companies will time their layoffs for the second half of the year.  Ask yourself if approached with a buyout offer to leave would you take it.

For most of us our job is our major source of income and the vehicle that allows us to save and invest to meet financial goals such as retirement and sending our kids to college.

Start a self-employed retirement plan 

If you are self-employed you need to think about starting a retirement plan for yourself.  The SEP-IRA and the Solo 401(k) are two of the most common self-employed retirement plans, but there are other alternatives as well.

You work too hard not to save for your retirement.  If you don’t have plan in place for yourself it is time to take action.

Mid-year is a great time for a financial review.  Take some time and take stock of your situation.  Failing to plan your financial future is a plan to fail financially.

Please check out our Book Store for books on financial planning, retirement, and related topics as well as any Amazon shopping needs you may have (or just click on the link below).  The Chicago Financial Planner is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.  If you click on my Amazon.com links and buy anything, even something other than the product advertised, I earn a small fee, yet you don’t pay any extra. 

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Are Alternative Investments the Right Alternative for You?

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Alternative investments are all the rage these days.  Mutual fund companies are falling all over themselves to sell financial advisors and their clients on “liquid alts” or hedge fund-like strategies with the daily liquidity offered in a mutual fund wrapper.  Hedge funds were allowed to advertise due to a change in the rules last year.  The financial press is filled with articles about alternatives and the fund companies are offering numerous webinars and conferences covering them.

Are alternative investment strategies right for your portfolio?  I have no idea but here are some questions to ask as well as some information for you to consider.

What is an alternative investment strategy?

Alternatives are basically investment vehicles that aren’t purely stocks, bonds, or cash. The purpose of alternatives is generally to diversify an investment portfolio.  Ideally these strategies will have a low correlation to other investment vehicles in your portfolio.  Examples of alternative strategies include:

  • Hedge funds
  • Unconstrained fixed income
  • Macro strategy funds
  • Commodities and managed futures
  • Real estate
  • Precious metals
  • Long/short equity
  • Convertible arbitrage
  • Private equity
  • Vulture funds
  • Venture funds
  • Merger arbitrage 

As mentioned above, these strategies are available in the more traditional hedge fund format, as mutual funds, ETFs, and as fund of funds in each of these formats.

Consider this before investing in alternatives 

Before buying an alternative fund or product here are a few questions to consider:

  • Do you understand the underlying investment strategy?
  • What benefit will this investment provide to your overall portfolio?  Reduced volatility?  Low correlation to other holdings?
  • What are the expenses? Are they justified given the expected benefit of investing in this alterative fund?
  • Are there any restrictions on redeeming your investment? Typically (but not always) with a mutual fund or ETF the answer is no, hedge funds may have a lockup period or other restrictions.
  • Have this fund’s performance been tested in real market conditions or just back-tested on a computer?
  • Who’s managing the fund?  What is their background and track record? 

I am actually a fan of alternatives and have used several mutual funds of this type for a number of years.

Remember though, large endowments like those of the Ivy League schools use alternative investments extensively and successfully.  Unlike you they have access to the expertise needed to perform proper due diligence. Does the financial advisor recommending these funds to you really understand them? Be sure that you do before investing in any alternative investment product.

Please check out our Book Store for books on financial planning, retirement, and related topics as well as any Amazon shopping needs you may have (or just click on the link below).  The Chicago Financial Planner is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.  If you click on my Amazon.com links and buy anything, even something other than the product advertised, I earn a small fee, yet you don’t pay any extra. 

 

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services

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What Do ETFs and Youth Soccer Have in Common?

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Another sign of spring here in the Chicago area is the appearance of lines on the local youth soccer fields.  All three of our kids played soccer and we still miss watching them play.

So what do ETFs and youth soccer have in common?  From our experience as the parents of three travel soccer players, including one who was a ref for several years, very few parents understand the rules of the game which sadly too often leads to some really bad behavior on their part.  From many of the questions that I get and from what I read many investors don’t understand ETFs all that well either.  This post will attempt to highlight some of the basics of ETF investing for those readers who may be unclear or have a few questions.

(One example of some over the top soccer parents occurred when our now 23 year daughter was playing in a 9 year old game.  Some parents from the other team came over to our side of the field and started a fight.  My wife ended up as a witness in soccer court and two dads ended up being banned from any Illinois youth soccer game or practice for two years.) 

 

 

What is an ETF? 

According to the NASDAQ site:

“In the simplest terms, Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are funds that track indexes like the NASDAQ-100 Index, S&P 500, Dow Jones, etc. When you buy shares of an ETF, you are buying shares of a portfolio that tracks the yield and return of its native index. The main difference between ETFs and other types of index funds is that ETFs don’t try to outperform their corresponding index, but simply replicate its performance. They don’t try to beat the market, they try to be the market. 

ETFs have been around since the early 1980s, but they’ve come into their own within the past 10 years.”

In simple terms ETFs are essentially mutual funds that trade on the stock exchanges much like shares of common stock such as Apple or IBM.  They are bought and sold during the trading day just like stocks.

While it is true that the first ETFs were index tracking products, actively managed ETFs are coming into play with perhaps the most successful active ETF so far being the ETF version of PIMco’s Total Return bond fund (ticker BOND).

Advantages of ETFs 

ETFs have several features that are advantageous to investors:

  • Most ETFs are transparent as to their holdings.
  • ETFs can be bought and sold during the trading day.
  • Stop orders can be used to limit the downside movement of your ETFs.
  • ETFs can also be sold short just like stocks.
  • Many of the index ETFs carry low expense ratios and can be quite cheap to own.
  • Due to their structure, many ETFs are quite tax-efficient.
  • ETFs provide a low cost, straightforward way to invest in core market indexes. 

Disadvantages of ETFs 

  • ETFs can be bought and sold just like stocks.  In some cases this could cause investors to trade in and out of ETFs when perhaps they shouldn’t.
  • The popularity of ETFs has caused ETF providers to introduce a proliferation of new ETFs, some are excellent, some not so much.  Many new ETFs are based on untested indexes that have only been back-tested.  Additionally there are a number of leveraged ETFs that multiply the movement of the underlying index by 2 or 3 times up or down.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with these products they can easily be misused by investors who don’t fully understand them.
  • Trading ETFs generally entails paying a transaction fee, though a number of providers have introduced commission-free ETFs in order to gain market share. 

All ETFs are not created equal 

Much of the growth in ETFs was fueled by basic index products such as the SPDR 500 (ticker SPY) which tracks the S&P 500 index.  Vanguard, ishares, and the SPDRs all started with products that tracked core domestic and international stock and bond indexes.  The popularity of ETFs grew in the wake of the financial crisis and ETF providers have been falling all over themselves to bring new ETFs to market.

Some of these new vehicles are good, but others track questionable indexes or benchmarks.  These products are essentially made up in a lab, reminiscent of Gene Wilder, Terri Garr, and Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein.

There is a site with an ETF Deathwatch section listing various ETFs and other exchange traded products that are on life support.  This Bloomberg article comments on some ill-fated ETFs as well.

Free trades are good or are they? 

Fidelity and Schwab most notably have offered platforms that allow commission-free ETF trades for their own branded ETFs and a select menu of other ETFs.  This is fine as long as these are the ETFs that you want to own.  Note I’ve found that several of the Schwab ETFs are very low cost and track core indexes so they can be good choices.

Additionally you can trade Vanguard’s ETFs commission-free if you trade in an account at Vanguard.

At the end of the day you should buy the ETFs that are best for your situation.  This assessment should include the underlying ETF benchmark, the expense ratio, and the liquidity.  If you can trade it commission-free so much the better.

Overall ETFs can be a great investment vehicle for both traders and long-term investors.  As with any investment vehicle it is incumbent upon you to understand what you are buying and how it fits into your investment strategy.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss  all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.

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I use Morningstar extensively for investment research and portfolio analysis in my practice.  While I have subscribed to several of their services geared to financial advisors over the years, I have maintained my premium subscription to morningstar.com.  Click on the banner (also an affiliate link, no extra cost to you) below to get a free trial for their wide array of premium services which includes extensive research and information about ETFs.


Morningstar Stock Fund Investment Research

 

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3 Considerations When Opening an IRA Account

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As we head toward April 15 it is now high IRA season for the major brokerage and financial services firms.   You will undoubtedly see many TV commercials and ads by these firms touting the benefits of opening an IRA with their firm.  Here are 3 things to consider as you evaluate your best IRA account options.

Understanding your retirement

How much will this cost me? 

Some firms may charge a fee just to have the account.  This might be on the order of $25 or $50 annually.  If your balance is relatively low this can be a significant bite.  Sometimes these fees are based on the size of your account balance.

Additionally you will want to understand any and all transaction fees.  This might include trading fees for buying and selling stocks, ETFs, or other exchange-traded investment vehicles.  Certain mutual funds might carry a transaction cost as well.

If you are working with a commission-based financial advisor understand how he or she is compensated.  Will the funds in the IRA account they are advocating carry sales charges or high internal fees to compensate them?

Is this custodian a good fit with my investing needs? 

This runs the gamut.  Certainly the fees mentioned above are part of this.  Beyond this look at how you invest and the vehicles in which you invest.

For example if you use ETFs extensively does this custodian offer any commission-free ETFs?  If so are these the ETFs that you would use?

As an example if you were planning on using Vanguard mutual funds exclusively it might make sense to house your IRA there.  On the other hand if you were looking to use funds from a variety of families perhaps a custodian that is more of a fund supermarket like Schwab or Fidelity is more appropriate for you.

Beyond an IRA account is this custodian a good fit for my needs in terms of other types of accounts such as a taxable brokerage account?  Do they offer the full array of services that I might need?  In my experience having an IRA at one custodian plus other accounts scattered around several other custodians is rarely a good idea.

Should I roll my 401(k) to an IRA or leave in my old employers plan? 

One of the primary reasons that investors open an IRA during the year is to roll their old 401(k) account over when leaving a job.

If you are leaving your employer whether to roll your 401(k) balance over to an IRA, leave it in your old employer’s plan, or roll it to your new employer’s plan (if applicable) is a critical decision.

There are good  reasons to move your account balance to an IRA which could include:

  • Your old employer’s 401(k) plan is lousy (as is your new employer’s if applicable).
  • A desire to consolidate all of your various retirement accounts into a single IRA to make management of your investments easier.
  • Access to a wider selection of quality investment options than might be available via your old employer’s plan.
  • Perhaps you are working with a trusted financial advisor and the rollover with allow them to better integrate this money with your overall investment strategy. 

On the other hand two reasons to consider either leaving your money in your old employer’s plan or rolling it into your new employer’s plan (if applicable):

  • The plan offers a menu of low cost institutional investments that might not be available to you via a rollover IRA.  This is often the case with very large employers with tremendous buying power, but also with smaller plans who use a competent outside investment advisor.
  • Similar to the last bullet, the plan offers specific investment options that you would be unable to match in an IRA. 

An IRA, either Traditional or Roth, is a great vehicle to help you win the retirement gamble.  Before opening an IRA account you need to do your homework just as with any investing decision.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss  all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services. 

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ETF Price Wars: A Good Thing or Just More Hype?

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Fidelity has fired another salvo in the ongoing ETF price wars with the introduction of a number low cost sector ETFs.   Schwab, TD, Blackrock, Vanguard, and others have also participated in this price war in one form or another over the past couple of years.  Low ETF expenses and low or no transaction fees are a good thing, but should they be the deciding factor in your decision where to invest?

Walmart on Black Friday 2009

Understand what you are buying 

As we’ve learned from the PBS Frontline special The Retirement Gamble among other sources, low investment costs are a key determinant accumulating a sufficient retirement nest egg.  The first and most important factor in choosing an ETF to include in your portfolio is to understand what the ETF invests in.

An ETF that tracks an index such as the S&P 500 is pretty simple.  However ETF providers are introducing new products seemingly every day.  According to Chuck Jaffe in a MarketWatch article, a Vanguard report found that “1,400 U.S. listed ETFs track more than 1,000 different indexes. But more than half of these benchmarks had existed for less than six months before an ETF came along to track it.”

Beyond commissions and expense ratios 

Fidelity recently published an excellent piece on its site, Beyond Commissions: An ETF’s Price Matters.  According to the article:

“Commissions aren’t the only cost to consider when buying an ETF. Most investors compare expense ratios, but a less appreciated—yet important factor—is the bid-ask spread, which is the difference between the highest price a buyer is willing to pay for an asset (bid) and the lowest price at which a seller is willing to sell (ask). While investors should consider the Net Asset Value (NAV) of an ETF, the price you pay is a seller’s ask price, which can be at a discount or premium to the NAV.

“It’s important to remember that not all ETFs are created equal,” says Ram Subramanium, president of Fidelity brokerage services. “So, investors may want to look for ETFs with established track records and low bid-ask spreads relative to their peers.”

As an interesting aside here, one of the low cost sector ETFs that Fidelity recently introduced was its materials ETF Fidelity MSCI Materials ETF (FMAT).  This ETF competes directly with the Vanguard Materials ETF (VAW) and has an expense ratio of 0.12% vs. 0.14% for the Vanguard ETF.  However the recent bid/ask spread for the Fidelity ETF was 11.68% vs. 1.57% for the Vanguard ETF (according to Morningstar).  The passage above from the Fidelity article might indicate that the older, more established Vanguard ETF is a better choice here.

Other factors to consider

  • Unless you are a frequent trader or you are purchasing ETFs in small dollar amounts trading commissions really shouldn’t be a major factor in your ETF investing decisions.
  • Consider the full breadth of the investment products available to you as well as your investing objectives when choosing an investment custodian.  ETF price wars are much like loss leaders in retailing.  Major custodians such as Fidelity are using low cost ETFs to get you in the door and to hopefully entice you to use their services to invest in mutual funds, stocks, and other investment products via Fidelity.
  • Are the commission-free ETFs the right ones for your portfolio?  For example a number of the ETFs offered on Schwab’s commission-free platform are not ones that I would generally choose for my client’s portfolios.
  • How cheap is cheap?  I doubt that selling one ETF and buying another to save say 0.02% on the expense ratio makes sense, especially if there are transaction costs or capital gains to consider when selling.
  • How well does the ETF track it’s benchmark index?  I’m often surprised by the variations when comparing two ETFs that I would assume to be identical other than the name of the ETF provider.

Are ETF price wars a good thing for investors?  Yes.  Are ETF price wars being used by major custodians and ETF providers to create hype in the financial press in order to lure investors?  Again yes.  The bottom line here is that your financial plan and investment strategy should guide your choice of ETFs, mutual funds, or any investment vehicle, not a slightly lower cost or the lure of free trades.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.   

Photo credit:  Flickr

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5 Things You Should Know About ETFs

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English: Wall Street sign on Wall Street

ETFs continue to gain ground as an investment of choice among many individual and institutional investors.  ETFs are similar to mutual funds in that they are pooled investment vehicles and to closed-end funds in that they are traded on a stock exchange like individual stocks.  ETFs, though popular, are often misunderstood by investors.  Here are 5 things you should know about ETFs.

Not all ETFs use conventional underlying benchmarks

The first ETFs were largely index products such as the SPDR S&P 500 (ticker SPY) which tracks the S&P 500 index.  SPY remains one of the most traded ETFs day and day out in terms of volume.

An ETF like SPY is pretty easy to understand.  The underlying holdings mirror the S&P 500 index and performance generally tracks the index less the ETF’s expenses (0.09% according to Morningstar).

With the popularity of ETFs, the growth and proliferation of new vehicles is quite high.  Many of these new ETFs track some “funky” benchmarks.   Market Watch’s Chuck Jaffe cited a Vanguard report that found “1,400 U.S. listed ETFs track more than 1,000 different indexes. But more than half of these benchmarks had existed for less than six months before an ETF came along to track it.”   

I suspect this issue will become more prevalent as ETF providers continue to introduce new ETFs in a bid to capture market share and assets.

Some ETFs are based on fads or gimmicks 

The Winklevoss twins (of Facebook fame) recently announced the proposed launch of a new ETF tracking Bitcoin.  Bitcoin is virtual currency that exists outside of governmental regulation.  The ETF faces many hurdles and may never get off of the ground.

Should the ETF ever become available for trading this would be the ultimate in gimmicky ETFs.  I find Bitcoin itself a bit hard to understand.  An ETF tracking this at best undeveloped market would in my mind be a stretch.  As an investor this is the type of ETF that I would seriously question.

There are any number of ETFs and other Exchange Traded Products (ETPs) that just don’t work out.  You can find many of these on the monthly ETF Deathwatch listing.

ETF Liquidity is complicated.

With stocks liquidity and the trading volume of the equity are closely correlated.  While a thinly traded ETF might result in a little less liquidity the real determinant of liquidity with an ETF is the liquidity of the underlying investments that make up the ETF.

For example the SPDR S&P 500 is made up of the 500 largest domestic stocks.  These stocks are highly liquid and generally all have substantial daily trading volume.

By contrast we’ve seen some fairly wide spreads between the underlying net asset value and the market prices of some emerging market ETFs of late.  This is in large part a function of a lack of liquidity of the underlying holdings of these ETFs.

Not all ETF structures are identical

Vanguard’s ETFs are structured as another share class of their mutual funds in most cases.  Many popular ETFs are structured as open-end funds, others are structured as Unit Investment Trusts (UIT).  Many single commodity ETFs are structured as Grantor Trusts.  Exchange Traded Notes (ETN) are actually debt instruments linked to the performance of a currency, a commodity, or an index.

Each of these structures have different characteristics and these characteristics may have an impact on the tax treatment of gains or distributions.  For example some commodity based ETFs have a different ongoing tax treatment than say an equity-based index ETF.

It is important that you understand any such factors of your ETF or ETN to avoid nasty surprises at tax time or undo risks that may be associated with the product’s structure. 

Free commission ETFs may not be the best deal for you 

Schwab, Fidelity and others are offering a number of ETFs that trade commission free.  That’s a good thing, but before jumping on one these offers make sure the ETFs offered for free are the best deal for you.

The benefit of free commissions can quickly be negated by high ongoing expenses.  Trading costs are relatively low at most online and discount brokers so unless you are a frequent trader this really shouldn’t be a factor in the decision as to which ETFs belong in your portfolio.

Additionally buying an ETF that doesn’t fit your investment objectives just to save a few dollars in trading costs is absurd.

ETFs can offer a low cost vehicle to build a portfolio.  I use index ETFs extensively for their low costs and adherence to an investment style as a key building block in my client asset allocation strategies.

Like anything else, however, it is vital that you understand what you are buying and that you invest in ETFs that are appropriate for your investment plan.

I want to thank local ETF expert Christian Magoon for his contributions to this post. 

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a free 30-minute portfolio review consultation and to discuss all of your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.   

For you do-it-yourselfers, check out Morningstar.com to analyze your ETF and all of your investments and to get a free trial for their premium services.  Please check out our Resources page for links to some additional tools and services that might be beneficial to you.  

Photo credit:  Wikipedia

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