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Smart Beta ETFs the Next Big Thing?

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

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

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

Smart Beta Defined 

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

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

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

Factor investing 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A growth area 

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

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

Who uses smart beta ETFs? 

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

Reasons to use Smart Beta 

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

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

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

What does this mean for individual investors? 

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

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

For financial advisors 

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

The Bottom Line 

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

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

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.

Not sure if you are invested properly for your situation? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

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.  

Why Using Home Equity to Invest in the Stock Market is a Bad Idea

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Not that I needed one but an email newsletter that I received from attorney Dale Ledbetter recently served as an excellent reminder what a poor idea using home equity to invest in stocks really is.  From his email:

Strong stock market encourages the resurrection of a bad practice – borrowing money against the value of your home to play the market. The horror story set out below is likely to be repeated if these practices continue.

A married couple, both of whom were in their late 80s, was persuaded by their bank to take out 100% value equity line of credit against their home. They were then persuaded to turn these “borrowed assets” over to the bank’s securities subsidiary where they were told the return would easily exceed the cost of the credit line. 

The broker then advised the couple to put 95% of the total proceeds into a single stock. The securities account tanked, resulting in an almost 100% loss. In the meantime, the house dropped in value by $100,000, resulting in a foreclosure proceeding. The bank then refused to permit a $150,000 short sale to bona fide buyers. 

The husband died. The wife, who now lives in a constant care facility, is entering bankruptcy to force the bank to take the house. 

Of course, the bank and their securities subsidiary blame it all on the elderly couple who they described as “sophisticated investors.” Both husband and wife had been schoolteachers and had no training or experience in the securities industry or in investment strategies. The fact that both were in their late 80s and suffering from diminished capacity, was not enough to deter the aggressive sales tactics of their “trusted advisors.” 

Aside from what would seem to be blatant investment fraud on the part of the bank and their advisory unit, this piece reiterates why using your home equity to invest in the stock market is such a bad idea.  Here are a few specific reasons that I discourage this practice.

Did you really forget the 2008 housing market crash this soon? 

For those with short memories an overinflated housing market crashed and triggered a meltdown in the economy and drastically reduced the value of many homes.  We are still recovering from this and although home values have improved in many parts of the country we learned that home prices will not always go up and that real estate is not the safe store of value we were led to believe.

To put this another way let’s say you tap your home equity to invest in the stock market.  What if the value of your home decreases 10 percent, 20 percent or more?  Now you have to pay back that home equity loan on a house that isn’t worth nearly as much as when you took out the loan.  You could find yourself underwater on your home or worse in foreclosure.  You could also find that your plans to fund a comfortable retirement or your children’s college education are out the window.

What if your investments tank?

Much like these poor folks in Mr. Ledbetter’s example above, not all investments are a sure thing.  What happens if you borrow against your home equity to invest in the stock market and things don’t work out?  If the specific investments you or someone else chose drop in value you are now stuck with investments worth less than your original investment and you will be stuck paying off the loan which is still based upon the amount borrowed.

Even if you went with a few index funds and the stock market drops you will find yourself in the same boat.  Again this is a great strategy to ruin your otherwise well-planned financial future.

Who exactly is suggesting this idea? 

Like the poor folks in Mr. Ledbetter’s example take a look at anyone suggesting this idea to you with a very jaundiced eye.  What is in it for them?  Are you the only one with any real skin in the game?

In the example above the bank won at last twice.  They got the interest on the loan and their brokerage unit made money via fees and perhaps other sources on the investment side.  They had no skin in the game and will likely come out whole even after the foreclosure.  

The Bottom Line

Generally, in my opinion, anyone who would suggest this idea to an investor is motivated by greed and does not have the best interests of their clients at heart.  Using your home’s equity to invest in the stock market is just not a sound idea.

There might be instances where tapping home equity to invest can be a good idea, but these are very limited and should only be undertaken by truly sophisticated investors who fully understand the risks involved.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions. 

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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.

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.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

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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. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

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.  

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 recent articles for Investopedia:   What To Expect From Pimco After Bill Gross and Pimco Investor? Consider This Before Bailing.  

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New Money Market Rules – How Will They Impact You?

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The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently passed new rules governing money market funds.  These rules are designed to combat liquidity problems should the economy experience another period of crisis such as in 2008.

New Money Market Rules – How Will They Impact You?

I’ve read a few articles on this issue but I do not claim to fully understand all of the implications for investors.  I will likely do a follow-up to this post at some point in the future when I know a bit more. Here are a few items from these new money market rules that might impact you.  You might also check out this excellent piece by Morningstar’s John Reckenthaler.

Floating NAV – Institutional Money Market Funds 

For institutional money market funds the stable $1 net asset value (NAV) per share will be gone.  The NAV of these funds will be priced out to four decimal places and will be allowed to float.  Your shares may be worth more or less than what you paid for them upon redemption.

Again this applies to institutional money market funds.  Retail money market funds, defined as funds owned by natural persons, along with government and Treasury-based money funds will retain their stable $1 NAV.  From what I have been told, money market funds owned by participants within a 401(k) or similar retirement plan are considered to be retail funds as well.  I’m not quite as sure with regard to an institutional share class money market fund held by an individual investor.

Liquidity Fees and Redemption Gates 

Both retail money market funds, again excluding funds investing in government and Treasury instruments and institutional funds, will be subject to liquidity fees and redemption gates (restrictions) under certain circumstances.

  • If liquid assets fall below 30%, a fund’s board may impose a 2% fee on redemptions.  This is at their discretion.
  • If liquid assets fall below 10%, a fund’s board must impose a 1% fee on redemptions.  This fee is mandatory under the new rules.
  • If liquid assets fall below 30%, a fund’s board may suspend redemptions from the fund for up to 10 days. 

How will these new money market rules impact you? 

Money market funds will have two years from the date the final SEC rules appear in the Federal Register to be in compliance with the floating NAV, liquidity fee, and redemption gate rules.

According to Benefits Pro:

“Nearly $3 trillion is invested in money-market funds. As of July 3, 2014, more than $800 billion was held in the institutional money-market funds affected by today’s reforms, according to the SEC.” 

Among the main users of institutional money market funds would be pension plans, foundations, and endowments.  They will be the ones directly impacted by the change to a floating rate NAV; however the beneficiaries of these funds will ultimately be impacted should this change have a negative impact on the underlying portfolio.

The liquidity fees and redemption gates will directly impact individual investors.

A 1% or 2% fee on redemptions would be quite a hit to your balance, especially if viewed in terms of today’s interest rates on money market funds in the range of 0.01%.

The ability to delay redemptions up to 10 days could also have an impact especially if you had written a check off of that account to pay your mortgage or some other bill.

The true test will be if we experience the extreme conditions like those that marked the 2008-09 economic down turn.  None the less as an investor it would behoove you to ask your bank, custodian, or financial advisor how these changes might impact any money market funds you hold and also if it makes sense to switch to another cash option.

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