Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Robo Advisors – A Brave New World?

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

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

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

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

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

Dynamics change as shift from Saving to Spending

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

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

Dollar Cost Ravaging

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

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

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

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

Robos ill equipped to link life to investment plan

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

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

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

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

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

Please feel free to contact me with your questions.  

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

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!

What I’m Reading – Jay Cutler Superstar Edition

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

What I’m Reading – Jay Cutler Superstar Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 RMD Pitfalls to Avoid by Christine Benz via Morningstar.

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

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

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

Is An Online Financial Advisor Right For You?

How To Manage A Cash Windfall

Tips For Managing Inflation In Retirement

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

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

Photo source:  Mike Shadle and Wikipedia

Tis the Season for Stock Market Predictions

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As I listen to CNBC in the background and read the financial press it is the season for the pundits to make their 2015 stock market predictions.  Some of these predictions relate to the level of the market in general, others include “hot stocks for 2015.”

Many of these people are pretty smart and I’m not dismissing their research.  What I am saying is that that I’m not so sure any of this is useful.  But in the spirit of the season here are my 2015 stock market predictions.

The stock market might go up 

The consensus seems to be that 2015 will be a good year for the stock market.  They might well be right.  The U.S. economy is improving, oil prices are low, etc.

The stock market might go down 

The experts could be wrong or worse there could be some sort of adverse event that spooks the market and perhaps the economy.

My official stock market predication is that I have no clue 

While this is all fun and provides something for the cable news talking heads to discuss, at the end of the day nobody has a clue what 2015 or any year holds for the stock market or the economy.

Focus on what you can control 

We have no control over what the financial markets will do or over how your stocks, mutual funds, ETFs, or any other holdings will do.  But as investors you can control a number of things including:

  • The cost of investment advice
  • The expense ratios of mutual funds and ETFs owned
  • Your asset allocation
  • Your overall investment strategy
  • How much you save and invest in our 401(k) and elsewhere
  • How much you spend.

I’m not denigrating the value of stock market research and analysis.  But for most of you reading this post I’m guessing that you are long-term investors versus being traders.  If that is the case you are, in my opinion, far better off controlling what you can control and investing in line with your financial plan than in trying to chase predictions and hot segments in 2015 or in any year.

Start 2015 out right, check out an online service like Personal Capital to manage all of your accounts all in one place.  Check out our Resources page for more tools and services.

8 Year-End Financial Planning Tips for 2014

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When I thought about this post I looked back at a post written about a year ago cleverly titled 7 Year-End 2013 Financial Planning Tips.  The year-end 2014 version isn’t radically different but it’s also not the same either.

Here are 8 year-end financial planning tips for 2014 that you might consider:

Consider appreciated investments for charitable giving 

This was a good idea last year and in fact always has been.  Many organizations have the capability to accept shares of individual stocks, ETFs, mutual funds, closed-end funds and other investment vehicles.  The advantage to you as the donor is that you receive a charitable deduction equal to the fair market value of the security on the date of the completed transfer to the charity.  Additionally you will not owe any tax on the gains in the investment unlike if you were to sell it.

This does not work with investments showing a loss since purchase and of course is not applicable for investments held in tax-deferred accounts such as an IRA.  I suggest consulting with a financial or tax advisor here.

Match gains and losses in your portfolio 

With the stock market having another solid year, though not nearly as good as 2013 was, year-end represents a good time to go through the taxable portion of your investment portfolio to review your gains and losses.  This is a sub-set of the rebalancing process discussed below.

Note to the extent that recognized capital losses exceed your recognized gains you can deduct an extra $3,000.  Additional losses can be carried over.  This is another case where you will want to consult a tax or financial advisor as this can get a bit complex.

Rebalance your portfolio 

With several stock market indexes at or near record highs again you could find yourself with a higher allocation to stocks across your portfolio than your financial plan calls for.  This is exposing your portfolio to more risk than anticipated.  While many of the pundits are calling for continued stock market gains through 2015, they just could be wrong.

When rebalancing take a look at all investment accounts including your 401(k), any IRAs, taxable accounts, etc.  Look at all of your investments as a consolidated portfolio.  While you are at it this is a good time to check on any changes to the lineup in your company retirement plan.  Many companies use the fall open enrollment event to also roll out changes to the 401(k) plan.

Start a self-employed retirement plan 

There are a number of retirement plan options for the self-employed.  Some such as a Solo 401(k) and pension plan require that you have the plan established prior to the end of the year if you want to make a contribution for 2014.  You work too hard not fund a retirement for yourself.

Take your required minimum distributions

If you are one of the many people who need to take a required minimum distribution from a retirement plan account prior to the end of the year you really need to get on this now.  The penalties for failing to take the distribution are steep and you will still owe the applicable income taxes on the amount of the distribution.

Use caution when buying mutual funds in taxable accounts 

This is always good advice around this time of year, but is especially important this year with many funds making large distributions.  Many mutual funds declare distributions near year-end.  You want to be careful to wait until after the date of record to buy into a fund in your taxable account in order to avoid receiving a taxable distribution based on a few days of fund ownership.  The better path, if possible, is to wait to buy the fund after the distribution has been made.  This is not an issue in a tax-deferred account such as an IRA.

Have a family financial meeting 

With many families getting together for the holidays this is a great time to hold a family financial meeting.  It is especially important for adult children and their parents to be on the same page regarding issues such as the location of the parent’s important documents like their wills and what would happen in the event of a long-term care situationWhile life events will happen, preparation and communication among family members before such an event can make dealing with any situation a bit easier. 

Get a financial plan in place 

What better time of year to get your arms around your financial situation?  If you have a financial plan in place review it and perhaps meet with your advisor to make any needed revisions.  If you don’t have one then find a qualified fee-only financial advisor to help you.  Just like any journey, achieving your financial goals requires a roadmap.  Why start the journey without one?

If you are more of a do-it-yourselfer, check out an online service like Personal Capitalor purchase the latest version of Quicken.

These are just a few year-end financial planning tips.  Everyone’s situation is different and this could dictate other year-end financial priorities for you.

The end of the year is a busy time with the holidays, parties, family get-togethers, and the like.  Make sure that your finances are in shape for the end of the year and beyond.  

What I’m Reading: Pre-Thanksgiving Edition

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It’s an overcast Saturday here in the Chicago area.  Watching some college football and relaxing.  We are looking forward to having everyone home this upcoming week.

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

Keli Grant asks Which country gives the most to charity? at CNBC.com.

Check out Barbara Freidberg’s first piece as a fellow contributor to Investopedia How Advisors Can Help Clients Stomach Volatility.

Jonathan Clements cautions that In retirement, a big house can lead to the poor house at Market Watch.

Sterling Raskie provides An End of Year Financial Checklist at Getting Your Financial Ducks in a Row.

Ben Steverman suggests Maybe You Don’t Need Long-Term Care Insurance After All at Bloomberg.

Mike Piper answers a reader question Are Dividends More Important Than Price Appreciation? at Oblivious Investor.

Here is my most recent contribution to Investopedia Financial Advisor Salary.

Enjoy your weekend, back to college football.  I’m hoping for a big Packer victory over the hated Vikings this weekend as well.  I wish you, your families, and loved ones a wonderful Thanksgiving.

What I’m Reading: Stock Market Highs – Trick-or-Treat Edition

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This past Friday was Halloween and that means trick-or-treaters dressed in all sorts of neat costumes.  We didn’t have a lot of kids ring the bell so the neighbor girl made out big-time when she and a friend came to the door later in the evening.

Of note in the financial markets on Friday was the fact that the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished at a record high level as did the S&P 500 Index.  The NASDAQ finished at its highest level since March of 2000.   No Dead Bodies Here: New Highs for the S&P 500, Dow; Small Caps Soar by Ben Levisohn in Barons provides a good recap.  The new stock market highs on Halloween capped some scary market swings during October which saw precipitous drops around the middle of the month.

Here are a few financial articles I suggest that you check out:

Investing Blog Roundup: Schwab “Intelligent Portfolios” is the latest edition of Michael Piper’s excellent weekly collection of good financial reads.

Barbara Freidberg answers a reader’s question in Should I Buy Bonds Now?

Ben Eisen writes Investors buy stock funds at fastest pace in a year. 

The Myth of the Dumb 401(k) Investor by Morningstar’s John Rekenthaler.

Managing Someone Else’s Emotions provides a nice discussion of one of the toughest parts of a financial advisor’s job via Ben Carlson.

3 Signs You Have a ‘Zombie’ 401(k) by Scott Holsopple.

I recently became a contributor to Investopedia.  Here are my two most recent articles:

5 Things You Need To Know About Index Funds

Closing In On Retirement? Read These Tips

It will be interesting to see where the stock market goes from here.  I’m hoping the rest of 2014 is not as volatile as the month of October has been.

Enjoy your weekend, back to college football and eating our stash of Halloween candy.

5 Mutual Fund Investing Lessons from the Bill Gross Saga

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The soap opera at PIMco that began with the departure of Co-CEO Mohamed El-Erian in January came to a head with the recent departure of PIMco flounder Bill Gross.   More than just being the founder of PIMco Gross managed the firm’s flagship mutual fund PIMco Total Return (PTTRX).  His high profile exit once again brings one of the pitfalls of investing in actively managed mutual funds to the forefront.  Here are 5 mutual fund investing lessons from the Bill Gross saga.

Know who is in charge of your fund 

Bill Gross was the very public face of PIMco and was known as the “Bond King.”  To his credit he built PIMco Total Return into the world’s largest bond fund and the fund did very well for investors over the years.  The question investors, financial advisors, and institutions are now asking themselves is what is the future of the fund without Gross?

While PIMco promoted two very able managers to take over at Total Return, the redemptions that have plagued the fund over the past several years as a result of its downturn in performance have continued and seem to be accelerating in the short-term.  Much of this I’m sure stems from the uncertainty over the direction of the fund under these new managers.

Succession planning is vital

While most fund manager changes don’t take place in this fashion if you invest in a mutual fund run by a superstar manager what happens if he or she leaves?  For example does Fidelity have a plan to replace Will Danoff when he decides to leave Fidelity Contra (FCNTX)?

One of the long-time co-managers of Oakmark Equity-Income (OAKBX) retired a couple of years ago.  This was planned and announced ahead of time.  Shortly after that the fund brought on four younger co-managers to help the remaining long-tenured manager manage the fund and more importantly to provide succession and continuity for the fund’s shareholders.

The investment process matters 

What makes an actively managed mutual fund unique is its investment process.  If the fund were to merely mimic its underlying index why not just invest in a low cost, passively managed index fund?  There have been a number of articles in the financial press in recent years discussing “closet index” funds.  These are actively managed funds that for all intents and purposes look much like their underlying benchmark.  This is fairly prevalent in the large cap arena with many funds mimicking the S&P 500.  Why invest in an actively managed fund that is really nothing more than an overpriced index fund?

An institutionalized investment process is key when a manager leaves a fund.  I can think of three small cap funds I’ve used over the years that transitioned to new managers seamlessly via the use of a solid investment process.  While it is expected that the new managers may make some changes over time, I’ve also seen well-known funds replace a superstar manager and essentially have the new manager start over.  The results are too often not what shareholders have come to expect.  To a point this is what has happened to Fidelity’s one-time flagship fund Magellan since the legendary Peter Lynch left a number of years ago.  Subsequent managers have never been able to come close to replicating the fund’s former lofty position.

Even the best managers have down periods 

Bill Gross has made a lot of money for shareholders in PIMco Total Return and other funds he managed over time.  However Total Return has lagged its peers over the past several years which has led to a lot of money flowing out of the fund and the firm in recent years.  It is not uncommon for a top manager to go through a few down years over the course of a solid long-term run.  The trick is to be able to determine if this is a temporary thing, or if this manager’s best days are in the past.  For example if the fund has grown to be too large the manager may have more money to manage than he or she can effectively invest.

Is an index fund a better alternative? 

To be clear I am not in the camp that indexing is the only way to go when investing.  There are a number of very good active managers out there, the trick is to be able to identify them and to understand what makes their strategy and investment process successful.

However before ever investing in an actively managed mutual fund, ask yourself what will I be gaining over investing in an index mutual fund or ETF?

It was sad for me to see Gross’ tenure at PIMco end as it did.  It is not always easy to go out on top.  Michael Jordan should have quit after sinking the winning shot to secure the Chicago Bulls’ last championship.  Perhaps the role model here is the late Al McGuire whose last game as the men’s basketball coach at Marquette ended with the Warriors winning the 1977 NCAA championship.

For more on Bill Gross and PIMco please check out my two most recent articles for Investopedia:   What To Expect From Pimco After Bill Gross and Pimco Investor? Consider This Before Bailing.  

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