Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

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.

Do I Own Too Many Mutual Funds?

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In one form or another I’ve been asked by several readers “… do I own too many mutual funds?”  In several cases the question was prompted by the number of mutual fund holdings in brokerage accounts with major brokerage firms including brokerage wrap accounts.  One reader cited an account with $1.5 million and 35 mutual funds.

So how many mutual funds are too many?  There is not a single right answer but let’s try to help you determine the best answer for your situation.

The 3 mutual fund portfolio 

I would contend that a portfolio consisting of three mutual funds or ETFs could be well-diversified.  For example a portfolio consisting of the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index (VTSMX), the Vanguard Total International Stock Index (VGTSX) and the Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX) would provide an investor with exposure to the U.S. stock and bond markets as well as non-U.S. developed and emerging markets equities.

As index funds the expenses are low and each fund will stay true to its investment style.  This portfolio could be replicated with lower cost share classes at Vanguard or Fidelity if you meet the minimum investment levels.  A very similar portfolio could also be constructed with ETFs as well.

This isn’t to say that three index funds or ETFs is the right number.  There may be some additional asset classes that are appropriate for your situation and certainly well-chosen actively managed mutual funds can be a fit as well.

19 mutual funds and little diversification 

A number of years ago a client engaged my services to review their portfolio.  The client was certain that their portfolio was well-diversified as he held several individual stocks and 19 mutual funds.

After the review, I pointed out that there were several stocks that were among the top five holdings in all 19 funds and the level of stock overlap was quite heavy.  These 19 mutual funds all held similar stocks and had the same investment objective.  While this client held a number of different mutual funds he certainly was not diversified.  This one-time engagement ended just prior to the Dot Com market decline that began in 2000, assuming that his portfolio stayed as it was I suspect he suffered substantial losses during that market decline.

How many mutual funds can you monitor? 

Can you effectively monitor 20, 30 or more mutual fund holdings?  Frankly this is a chore for financial professionals with all of the right tools.  As an individual investor is this something that you want to tackle?  Is this a good use of your time?  Will all of these extra funds add any value to your portfolio?

What is the motivation for your broker? 

If you are investing via a brokerage firm or any financial advisor who suggests what seems like an excessive number of mutual funds for your account you should ask them what is behind these recommendations.  Do they earn compensation via the mutual funds they suggest for your portfolio? Their firm might have a revenue-generating agreement with certain fund companies.  Additionally the rep might be required to use many of the proprietary mutual funds offered by his or her employer.

Circumstances will vary 

If you have an IRA, a taxable brokerage account and a 401(k) it’s easy to accumulate a sizable collection of mutual funds.  Add in additional accounts for your spouse and the number of mutual funds can get even larger.

The point here is to keep the number of funds reasonable and manageable.  Your choices in your employer’s retirement plan are beyond your control and you may not be able to sync them up with your core portfolio held outside of the plan.

Additionally this is a good reason to stay on top of old 401(k) plans and consolidate them into an IRA or a new employer’s plan when possible.

The Bottom Line 

Mutual funds remain the investment of choice for many investors.  It is possible to construct a diversified portfolio using just a few mutual funds or ETFs.

Holding too many mutual funds can make it difficult to monitor and evaluate your funds as well as your overall portfolio.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions. 

Please check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

Are Brokerage Wrap Accounts a Good Idea?

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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

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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!

7 Retirement Savings Tips to Help Avoid Regret

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According to TIAA-CREF’s Ready to Retire Survey “…more than half of people approaching retirement (52 percent) say they wish they had started saving for the future sooner.”    Some key findings from the survey include:

  • “Many respondents say they wish they had made smarter financial decisions earlier in their career, including saving more of their paycheck (47 percent) and investing their savings more aggressively (34 percent).
  • Forty-five percent of participants age 55-64 say financial readiness is the most important factor in determining when they will retire, but only 35 percent say they saved in an IRA or met with a financial advisor.
  • By not making the most of these options, many Americans now feel uncertain about their financial futures, with 68 percent of those approaching retirement saying they are not prepared for what’s to come
  • These retirement savings challenges are causing Americans to reconsider their vision of retirement. Forty-two percent of survey respondents age 55-64 say they plan on working in a part-time job, and 39 percent say they’ll be more conservative about how much they spend on entertainment and other luxuries.” 

Here are 7 retirement savings tips to help you avoid regret as you approach retirement. 

Start early 

If you are just starting out in the workplace, enroll in your employer’s 401(k), 403(b), or whatever type of retirement plan they offer.  Contribute as much as you can.  If there is a match try to contribute at least enough to earn the full matching contribution from your employer, this is free money.  There is no greater ally for retirement savers than time and the magic of compounding.  As tough as it may be to save early in your career put away as much as you can reasonably afford as early as you can afford it.

Increase your contributions 

The maximum 401(k) contribution limits for 2015 are $18,000 and $24,000 for those 50 or over at any point in the year.  No matter what you are currently contributing to your plan try to increase it a bit each year.  If you are currently deferring 3% of your salary bump that to 4% or even 5% next year.  Increase a bit more the following year.  You won’t miss the money and every bit can help fund a comfortable retirement.

Start a self-employed retirement plan 

If during the course of your career you become self-employed it is still important that you save for retirement.  Starting a plan such as a SEP or Solo 401(k) can be a great way for you to put away money for retirement.  You work hard at your own business and you deserve a comfortable retirement.

Contribute to an IRA 

Anyone can contribute to an IRA.  Traditional IRAs are subject to income limits as far as the ability to make pre-tax contributions, but anyone can contribute on an after-tax basis with no income limits.  All investment gains grow tax-deferred you do need to keep track of any post-tax contributions however.  Roth IRAs can also be a good alternative; again there are income ceilings that can limit your ability to contribute.

Don’t ignore old retirement accounts 

Today it isn’t uncommon for people to have worked for five or more employers during their career.  It is important that you make an affirmative decision as to what you with your old 401(k) or other retirement account when you leave your employer.  Leave it where it is, roll it to an IRA, or to your new employer’s plan (if allowed) but don’t ignore this money.  Even smaller balances can add up especially if you have several such accounts scattered about.

By the same token make sure that you stay on top of any pensions that you might be eligible for from old employers.  Make sure these companies can find you and be sure to carefully evaluate any pension buyout offers you might receive from old employers.  These can often be a good deal for you.

Beware of toxic rollovers 

Recently I have read a number of accounts about brokers and registered reps looking for employees of large organizations and convincing them to roll their retirement accounts into questionable investments with their brokerage firms.  Certainly rolling your 401(k) into an IRA via a trusted financial advisor is a valid strategy but like anything else you need to vet the person suggesting the rollover and the investment strategy they are suggesting.

Avoid high cost financial products

Many financial advisors who make all or part of their income from the sale of financial products will often suggest high cost financial products to implement their financial recommendations.  These might include annuities, certain mutual funds, non-traded REITs, and others.  Be leery and ask about the costs and fees associated with these products.  There is nothing wrong with annuities, but many of them that are pushed by registered reps carry excessive fees and have onerous surrender charges.

In the case of mutual funds, index funds are not the end all be all.  But you should certainly ask the advisor why the large cap actively managed fund with an expense ratio of 1.25% or more that they are suggesting is a better idea than an index fund with an expense ratio of 0.15% or less.

At the end of the day starting early, investing wisely and consistently, and being careful with your retirement savings are excellent ways to avoid the regrets expressed by many of those surveyed by TIAA-CREF.

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.

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.

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.

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Six 401(k) Investing Mistakes to Avoid

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For many of us trying to save for retirement, our 401(k) plan is our main retirement savings vehicle.  Much has been written about the pros and cons of 401(k) plans, but the truth is that if utilized correctly the 401(k) is a powerful retirement savings tool.  Here are six 401(k) investing mistakes to avoid.

Not contributing enough 

Many plans will set a default salary deferral level for plan participants who don’t specify a salary deferral amount.  Often this is in the 1%-3% range.  While this is better than not contributing at all it is clearly not enough for most of us to build the retirement nest egg we will need.

A standard piece of advice is to be sure to defer a sufficient percentage of your salary to receive the maximum match from your employer.  While I concur with this advice, this doesn’t mean this amount is sufficient to accumulate the retirement nest egg you will need either.

Ignoring outside investments 

If you are early in your career your 401(k) might be your only investment account.  However if you are in mid-career or older you may have a number of accounts including your spouse’s retirement account, several old 401(k) accounts and IRA, or other investments in taxable accounts.  It is important that you view your current 401(k) as a part of your overall investment portfolio and not invest your 401(k) in a vacuum. 

Not investing appropriately for your situation 

This can take many forms.  I’ve seen numerous instances of younger investors in their 20s putting all of their contributions into their plan’s money market or stable value options.  Clearly these participants are not taking advantage of their long time frame until retirement.  It is doubtful that the returns on these investments will allow them to accumulate enough for retirement.

On the other side of the coin there were many stories of plan participants in their 50s who were too heavily invested in equities and who suffered devastating losses in 2008-2009.

The bottom line is that 401(k) investors should invest in a fashion consistent with their financial stage in life, in line with their goals and risk tolerance, in short in a fashion that is consistent with their overall financial plan. 

Over investing in company stock 

No matter how wonderful your company’s stock is investing an excessive percentage of your 401(k) dollars in company stock is risky.  Your livelihood is derived from your job so if the company has problems conceivably you could find yourself unemployed and holding a major portion of your 401(k) in the devalued stock of your now former employer.

As with any investment, having an inordinate percentage of your portfolio in any one holding is risky.  While there is no hard and fast rule, many financial advisors suggest keeping company stock to 10% or less of your overall portfolio. 

Using Target Date Funds incorrectly 

Target Date Funds are the default investing option QDIA) in many 401(k) plans for participants who don’t make an election as to how their salary deferrals are to be invested.  They are also growing in popularity by leaps and bounds as a vehicle for those participants who are uncomfortable allocating their accounts from among the other investment options offered by their plan.

TDFs can be a reasonable alternative if used correctly.  Target Date Funds are designed to be “one stop shops” so to speak.  In other words these funds are designed to be a participant’s only investment in the plan.  The idea here is that the fund will allocate your money in accordance with their glide path to and through the target date.

401(k) investors who use a Target Date Fund in conjunction with several of the other investment options in the plan run the risk of being too heavily invested in one sector or another.  If this is the path that you are choosing make sure you understand the overall allocation of your account that will result and that this is in accordance with your best interests.

Additionally investors considering Target Date Funds need to understand how the funds in the family invest and to understand that the fund with the target date nearest their anticipated retirement age may or may not be the best choice for them. 

Ignoring your 401(k) account when leaving your job 

By the time you are in your 40s you will likely have worked for several employers.  It is critical that when you leave a job that you don’t ignore your 401(k) balance.  It may make sense to leave your money in your old employer’s plan if the plan offers a menu of low cost, solid investment options.  Likewise it might make sense to roll your balance to your new employer’s plan if allowed assuming they offer a solid, low cost investment menu.  The other option to consider is rolling your account to an IRA.  This route will often allow a greater number of investment alternatives and can be a good way to consolidate this money with an existing IRA or to consolidate all of those retirement accounts you might have.

If you are retiring dealing with your old 401(k) is critical as well.  You will want to position your money in line with your needs including continued growth and any withdrawals you will be making from these funds.  If you have company stock as part of your plan don’t neglect to consider the NUA option as well.

Your 401(k) plan can be a great tool in winning the retirement gamble.  Like any investment you need to manage it to your best advantage.

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.

Investing: Time and Diversification are your Friends

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Each quarter Dr. David Kelly and his staff at JP Morgan Asset Management publish their Guide to the Markets.  This is a comprehensive chart book of investment and economic data that I find invaluable.

For the past several quarters the Guide has included this chart which as a long-term investor should be quite important to you.
 


The chart depicts the range of average annual returns for stocks, bonds, and a combination of the two over rolling 1, 5, 10, and 20 year periods from 1950 through 2013.  In my opinion every investor should understand the impact of diversification and time on their investments as depicted on the chart.

Understanding the chart 

The green bar depicts stocks, the light blue bar depicts bonds, and the grey bar depicts a 50-50 mix of the two.

As you can see the greatest volatility of return occurs over rolling 12 month periods.  The range of a 51% gain to a 37% loss in a 12 month period is huge.  The range for bonds is more compact and the range for a 50-50 mx of stock and bonds is slightly more compact.

As you move out to the 5, 10, and 20 year ranges you will note that the ranges from the largest gains to smallest (or a loss) become smaller with the passage of time.

Also of note is that in no 5, 10, or 20 year rolling time frame depicted does a 50-50 mix of stocks and bonds result in a negative return over the holding period.

What does this mean to you as an investor?

Diversification dampens the variability of your returns. As you can see from the chart stocks have a wider range of returns over all of the periods depicted than do bonds.  Combining the two tends to dampen the volatility of your portfolio.  Further enhancing the benefits of diversification is the fact that stocks and bonds are not highly correlated.

Taking this a step further, while an investment in an index mutual fund like the Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX) would have lost money if held over that 10 year period 2000-2009, a portfolio that was diversified to include fixed income, small and mid-cap funds, international equities, and other asset classes would have recorded gains during that same time period.

Time reduces the volatility of returns. I will leave any scientific explanation to those more attuned to this than myself, but certainly part of the reason are the ebbs and flows of market and business cycle factors that have an impact on stocks and bonds.  These might be recessions, interest rate movements, or other factors.

Implications for the future

The performance and characteristics of stocks and bonds might well differ in the future.  Diversification for most investors will likely mean holding more than just Large Cap domestic stocks and Intermediate Bonds as the graph depicts.  A few thoughts for the future, especially in this market environment of record highs for many stock market indexes:

  • Diversification reduces risk.
  • Diversification among assets with low correlations to one another further reduces risk.
  • Diversification is important because we have no way of knowing which investments or asset classes will perform well or poorly or when.
  • A longer holding period will generally serve you well as an investor in terms of smoothing out portfolio volatility. 

While every investor is different as is every investment environment, diversification and patience can be two of your greatest allies.

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 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.

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