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.  

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

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.  

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.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services. 

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 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.

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

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

 Photo credit:  Flickr

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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?

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

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 with your investing and financial planning questions. 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.

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