Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Understanding Your Bond Fund’s Duration

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Interest Rates

For most of the past 30 years bonds and bond mutual funds have had the proverbial wind in their sails. Interest rates have steadily headed downwards. Bond prices and interest rates have an inverse relationship.

Last week, however, the Fed increased interest rates by 25 basis points (0.25%). They also indicated that they would continue to raise rates this year as, in their view, our economy has reached a new phase. This is part of an overall tightening of the money supply to keep the economy from overheating, including an effort to keep inflation in check.

Many investors may be wondering what this means for their bond mutual funds ETFs. A key number that all holders of bond funds and ETFs must know and understand is the fund’s duration.

What is duration? 

Bond mutual funds and ETFs are a portfolio of individual bonds.

According to Morningstar, “Duration is a time measure of a bond’s interest-rate sensitivity, based on the weighted average of the time periods over which a bond’s cash flows accrue to the bondholder.” A bond’s cash flows include the value received at maturity, generally $1,000 per bond, and the periodic interest payments received by the holder of the bond. A bond’s duration is expressed in years and is generally shorter than its maturity.

All things being equal, a bond with a longer time to maturity will have a higher duration meaning its price is more sensitive to changes in interest rates. Likewise, the higher the bond’s coupon rate (the stated interest rate paid by the bond) the lower the bond’s duration. Bonds with a shorter time to maturity and a higher coupon rate will have a lower duration and their price will be less sensitive to changes in interest rates.

The duration of a bond fund or ETF can be found on the fund’s fact sheet usually posted on the fund company’s site, or the portfolio tab on the fund’s listing on Morningstar.com.

What does bond fund duration tell us? 

The largest bond fund, Vanguard Total Bond Market Index (ticker VBMFX), has an effective duration of 6.05 years according to Morningstar. This tells us that if interest rates rise by 1% the value of the underlying bonds held by the fund would likely decline by around 6.05%.  Note this number is an approximation and bond prices are impacted by factors other than changes in interest rates. This fund roughly tracks the aggregate U.S. bond market.

By comparison Vanguard Long-Term Investment Grade (ticker VWESX) has longer duration of 13.31 years and would see a greater impact from rising interest rates.

The Vanguard Short-Term Bond Index ETF (ticker BSV) has a duration of 2.76 years.

The actively managed Double Line Total Return Bond Fund I (ticker DBLTX), managed by Jeffrey Gundlach who many call the “bond king,” has a duration of 3.98 years.

What should I do now?

As mentioned above, duration is a good indicator of the potential impact of a change in interest rates upon the value of your bond fund, but other factors also come into play. In 2008, many bond funds saw outsized losses and investors moved their money into Treasuries as a safe haven during the financial meltdown.

Many high-quality bond funds suffered major losses that year based only upon this flight to quality by investors.

Longer term the total return of a bond fund or ETF is driven by income payments as well as the direction of interest rates. Lower coupon bonds will be replaced by bonds with higher coupon rates over time.

Bonds are traded on the secondary market and prices are a function of supply and demand much like with stocks.

Bond mutual funds and ETFs offer the advantage of a managed portfolio.  On the flip side unlike an individual bond, bond mutual funds and ETFs never mature.

Is it time to get out of bond funds?  The point of this article is not to advocate that you do anything differently, but rather that you understand the potential duration risk in any bond mutual funds or ETFs that you currently hold or may be considering for purchase.

Bond funds and ETFs still have a place in diversified portfolios, but for many investors the characteristics of the fixed income portion of their portfolios may need an adjustment. This might mean shortening up on bond fund duration and looking at other, non-core types of bond funds.

The landscape of the financial markets is continually evolving and interest rates are a part of this evolution. As investors we need to understand the potential implications on our portfolios and adjust as needed.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? 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.  

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Investing Seminars – Should You Attend?

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It must be the season for investing and retirement dinner seminars. I’ve received a number of these invitations in the mail recently.

Typical was one from a local investment firm “___ Cordially Invites You to Attend an EXCLUSIVE Dinner Gathering!” Wow, me invited to anything that was exclusive?  The only brokerage sponsored investment “seminar” that I have ever attended featured legendary market guru Joseph Granville who among other things played the piano in his boxer shorts. It was in a movie theater in Milwaukee back in grad school, no food was involved.

Opening the invitation, it was from a well-known brokerage firm. The topic of the seminar is “Strategies for helping build a stronger portfolio.” The areas to be covered include:

  • Outlook for Domestic/International Stock & Bond Markets
  • Focus on distributions:  strategies for managing your retirement income
  • Developing a systematic process to help GET and STAY on the right financial track
  • Strategies to help take advantage of upside market potential while planning for a possible downside

So far this all sounds great. Reading on I noticed that while the session is sponsored by two brokers from the firm, the featured speakers were from a mutual fund company that offers funds that are often sold by commissioned reps while the other speaker was from an insurance company who is big in the world of annuities.

Should you attend? 

Clearly the objective is to sell financial products to the attendees, this is reinforced by the choice of speakers. That said there might be some good information available, the topics are certainly timely especially for Baby Boomers and retirees.

Consider attending one of these seminars only if you feel that you can resist a sales pitch. In the case of this session, the restaurant is a pretty good one that is close to my home. I am often tempted to check out one of these seminars out of professional curiosity, a free meal at a good restaurant would be an added bonus.

What are you hoping to gain from attending? The brokers are likely spending a fair amount of money on this session and expect a return on their investment. There will be a good deal of sales pressure at the very least to schedule a follow-up session with them.

Think about your real objective 

If you want a good meal and perhaps a little bit of knowledge, go ahead and attend.

If you are serious about finding a financial advisor to guide you to and through retirement, perhaps you should forego the meal and try to find someone who is a good fit for you. I strongly urge that you seek a fee-only advisor who sells only their knowledge and advice. NAPFA (a professional organization for fee-only advisors) has published this excellent guide to finding a financial advisor.

A free meal is great, but in the end as they say, there are no free lunches.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if you are invested properly for your situation? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Do you do your own financial planning? Looking to get you all of your finances organized? Want to be sure that you are on the right path for retirement? Check out Personal Capital’s retirement planning tools to be sure you are on track. (Note this is an affiliate link, I receive a fee if you enroll at no extra cost to you)

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

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Annuities: The Wonder Drug for Your Retirement?

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Annuities: The Wonder Drug for Your Retirement?

Annuities are often touted as the “cure” for all that ails your retirement.  Baby Boomers and retirees are the prime target market for the annuity sales types. You’ve undoubtedly heard many of these pitches in person or as advertisements. The pitches frequently pander to the fears that many investors still feel after the last stock market decline. After all, what’s not to like about guaranteed income?

What is an annuity?

I’ll let the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) explain this in a quote from their website:

“An annuity is a contract between you and an insurance company that is designed to meet retirement and other long-range goals, under which you make a lump-sum payment or series of payments. In return, the insurer agrees to make periodic payments to you beginning immediately or at some future date.

Annuities typically offer tax-deferred growth of earnings and may include a death benefit that will pay your beneficiary a specified minimum amount, such as your total purchase payments. While tax is deferred on earnings growth, when withdrawals are taken from the annuity, gains are taxed at ordinary income rates, and not capital gains rates. If you withdraw your money early from an annuity, you may pay substantial surrender charges to the insurance company, as well as tax penalties.

There are generally three types of annuities — fixed, indexed, and variable. In a fixed annuity, the insurance company agrees to pay you no less than a specified rate of interest during the time that your account is growing. The insurance company also agrees that the periodic payments will be a specified amount per dollar in your account. These periodic payments may last for a definite period, such as 20 years, or an indefinite period, such as your lifetime or the lifetime of you and your spouse.

In an indexed annuity, the insurance company credits you with a return that is based on changes in an index, such as the S&P 500 Composite Stock Price Index. Indexed annuity contracts also provide that the contract value will be no less than a specified minimum, regardless of index performance.

In a variable annuity, you can choose to invest your purchase payments from among a range of different investment options, typically mutual funds. The rate of return on your purchase payments, and the amount of the periodic payments you eventually receive, will vary depending on the performance of the investment options you have selected.

Variable annuities are securities regulated by the SEC. An indexed annuity may or may not be a security; however, most indexed annuities are not registered with the SEC. Fixed annuities are not securities and are not regulated by the SEC. You can learn more about variable annuities by reading our publication, Variable Annuities: What You Should Know.”

What’s good about annuities?

In an uncertain world, an annuity can offer a degree of certainty to retirees in terms of receiving a fixed stream of payments over their lifetime or some other specified period of time. Once you annuitize there’s no guesswork about how much you will be receiving, assuming that the insurance company behind the product stays healthy.

Watch out for high and/or hidden fees 

The biggest beef about annuities are the fees, which are often hidden or least difficult to find. Many annuity products carry fees that are pretty darn high, others are much more reasonable. In general, the lack of transparency regarding the fees associated with most annuity contracts is appalling.

There are typically several layers of fees in an annuity:

Fees connected with the underlying investments In a variable annuity there are fees connected with the underlying sub-account (accounts that resemble mutual funds) similar to the expense ratio of a mutual fund. In a fixed annuity the underlying fees are typically the difference between the net interest rate you will receive vs. the gross interest rate earned.  In the case of an indexed annuity product the fees are just plain murky.

Mortality and expense charges are fees charged by the insurance company to cover their costs for guaranteeing a stream of income to you. While I get this and understand it, the wide variance in these and other fees across the universe of annuity contracts and the insurance companies that provide them makes me shake my head.

Surrender charges are fees that are designed to keep you from withdrawing your funds for a period of time.  From my point of view these charges are heinous whether in an annuity, a mutual fund, or anyplace else. If you are considering an annuity and the product has a surrender charge, avoid it. I’m not advocating withdrawing money early from an annuity, but surrender charges also restrict you from exchanging a high cost annuity into one with a lower fee structure. Essentially these fees serve to ensure that the agent or rep who sold you the high fee annuity (and the insurance company) continue to benefit by placing handcuffs on you in terms of sticking with the policy.

Who’s really guaranteeing your annuity? 

When you purchase an annuity, your stream of payments is guaranteed by the “full faith and credit” of the underlying insurance company.  This differs from a pension that is annuitized and backed by the PBGC, a governmental entity, up to certain limits.

Outside of the most notable failure, Executive Life in the early 1990s, there have not been a high number of insurance company failures. In the case of Executive Life, 1,000s of annuity recipients were impacted in the form of greatly reduced annuity payments which in many cases permanently impacted the quality of their retirement.

Insurance companies are regulated at the state level; state insurance departments are generally the backstop in the event of an insurance company failure. In most cases you will receive some portion of the payment amount that you expected, but there is often a delay in receiving these payments.

The point is not to scare anyone from buying an annuity but rather to remind you to perform your own due diligence on the underlying insurance company.

Annuities and the DOL fiduciary rules

The Department of Labor’s fiduciary rules that will govern which financial products financial advisors use for clients in their retirement accounts do not prohibit the use of annuities, but the new rules do require much more disclosure and justification when they are used. The final draft of the rules also cover indexed annuities which is different from drafts of the rules prior to the final version.

Should you buy an annuity? 

Annuities are not a bad product as long as you understand what they can and cannot do for you. Like anything else you need to shop for the right annuity. For example, an insurance agent or registered rep is not going to show you a product from someone like Vanguard that has ultra-low fees and no surrender charges because they receive no commissions.

An annuity can offer diversification in your retirement income stream. Perhaps you have investments in taxable and tax-deferred accounts from which you will withdraw money to fund your retirement. Adding Social Security to the mix provides a government-funded stream of payments. A commercial annuity can also be of value as part of your retirement income stream, again as long as you shop for the appropriate product.

Annuities are generally sold rather than bought by Baby Boomers and others. Be a smart consumer and understand what you are buying, why a particular annuity product (and the insurance company) are right for you, and the benefits that you expect to receive from the annuity. Properly used, an annuity can be a valuable component of your retirement planning efforts. Be sure to read ALL of the fine print and understand ALL of the expenses, terms, conditions and restrictions before writing a check.

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.  

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5 Tips to Manage Taxable Mutual Fund Distributions

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With the end of the year in sight it’s time for year-end mutual fund distributions. If you hold mutual funds in taxable accounts, these distributions will be taxable to you.

taxable mutual fund distributions

Even with the weakness in the stock market to start the year, the Bexit vote in United Kingdom and recent pre-election weakness many mutual funds have gains embedded from a seven-year plus bull market.

Short of selling the funds, which may or may not a good idea, here are 5 tips to manage taxable mutual fund distributions.

Don’t buy the distribution 

During November and December mutual fund companies will publish information about fund distributions on their websites. If you are looking to add to a position or start a new mutual fund position in a taxable account it is important that you know the dates of these distributions and take the anticipated distribution into account. You don’t want to buy a fund shortly before a significant distribution and then owe taxes on the distribution only having owned the fund for a short time.

Even if you reinvest distributions on mutual funds held in a taxable account the distributions are still taxable in the year received. These distributions can be added to your cost basis in fund which can take a bit of the sting out of this.

Consider tax-loss harvesting to offset capital gains distributions 

As you go through your taxable accounts near the end of the year consider selling holdings with a loss to offset some of the capital gains distributions from your funds.

Just as with gains and losses generated from the sale of investments, long-term capital gains are matched against long-term capital losses and likewise with short-term capital gains and losses.

Tax-loss harvesting or any tax strategy should only be used if it makes sense from an investment point of view.

Index funds are not a cure-all for taxable mutual fund distributions

Index funds tracking standard broad-market indexes are generally pretty tax-efficient. That doesn’t mean that this will be the case each and every year. Further index funds and ETFs tracking small and mid-cap indexes may need to make more transactions in order to track their respective indexes.

As smart beta products become more popular they will likely be less tax-efficient than more common market-cap weighted index products. Smart beta funds will likely need to buy and sell more frequently in order to rebalance to the their underlying benchmark than more standard index products, potentially resulting in larger capital gains distributions.

Don’t let the tax tail wag the investment dog 

While it is aggravating to receive large taxable mutual fund distributions, it is rarely a good idea to sell an investment holding solely for tax reasons.

Mutual fund distributions are one of three types:

  • Dividends
  • Short-term capital gains
  • Long-term capital gains

All three have different tax implications.

Ordinary dividends and short-term capital gains are taxed at your highest marginal ordinary income tax rate. Long-term capital gains are taxed at preferential rates ranging from 15% to 20% with higher income tax payers subject to the 3.8% Medicare tax. Qualified dividends are taxed at these same rates as well.

That said it is important to pay attention to the tax efficiency of the mutual funds that you are using in your taxable accounts. 

Consider distributions when looking to rebalance 

Year-end is a good time to look at rebalancing your entire portfolio, both taxable and tax-deferred accounts.  As you look to rebalance your portfolio consider reducing positions in taxable mutual fund holdings that continually throw off large distributions. If the fund is a good holding look for ways to own it in a tax-deferred account if possible.

The decision with regard to the taxable portion of your portfolio always involves taxes to one extent or another. If you were looking to reduce your position in the fund anyway it can make sense to sell it prior to the record date for this year’s capital gains distribution. If selling the fund would result in a capital gain, offsetting the gain against a realized loss on another holding could be a good strategy.

The Bottom Line

With the gains in the stock market over the past few years many investors may find themselves the recipient of large distributions this year in spite of weakness in the markets over the course of the past year. When possible consider tax-efficiency when buying mutual funds in a taxable account.

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.  

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3 Financial Products to Consider Avoiding

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Before buying ANY financial product make sure that this product is right for you in terms of your unique, personal financial situation.  Financial products are tools and just like your projects around the house you should use the right tool for the job, not the tool that the financial rep wants to sell to you.

Here are three financial products that you should consider avoiding.

Equity-Indexed Annuities 

Equity-Indexed Annuities are an insurance-based product where the returns are tied to some portion of the performance of an underlying market index such as the S&P 500.  They are also called fixed-index insurance products and indexed annuities. Your gains are limited to a portion of what the index gains and there is generally some sort of minimum return to limit (or eliminate) your risk of loss.  As you can imagine these were pitched heavily to Baby Boomers and retirees after the last market downturn and are still being sold based upon fear today.

Two problems here are generally high internal expenses and surrender charges that keep you locked in the product for years. Worse yet, these internal expenses can be hard to isolate. If you decide to go ahead with the purchase of an Equity-Indexed Annuity be sure that you understand all of the details including the level of index participation, expenses, surrender charges, and the health of the underlying insurance company. Check out FINRA’s Investor Alert regarding Equity-Indexed Annuities for more cautionary information.

Proprietary Mutual Funds

It is not uncommon for registered reps and brokers to suggest mutual funds from the family run by their employer. In many cases they are incentivized or even required to do so. While some of these funds are perfectly fine, all too often in my experience they are not.  Whether via high fees and/or low performance these are often investments to be avoided.

A lawsuit against Ameriprise Financial brought by a group of participants in the company’s retirement plan alleged the company breached its Fiduciary duty by offering a number of the firm’s own funds in the plan and that these funds then paid fees back to Ameriprise and some of its subsidiaries as revenue sharing. The suit was ultimately settled.

JP Morgan also settled a suit by some retail investors over the bank steering clients into their more expensive proprietary funds over those of other families.

Load Mutual Funds

It is important that you understand the ABCs of mutual fund share classes.  In the commissioned/fee-based world reps often sell mutual funds that offer compensation to them and to their broker-dealers.  A shares charge an up-front commission plus a trailing fee (often a 12b-1) of somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.25% or more.

B shares charge no up-front commissions, but carry an additional back-end load as part of the ongoing expense ratio.  This can amount to an addition 0.75% or more added to the fund’s annual expenses.  In addition these shares also contain a surrender charge that typically starts at 5% if your sell the fund before the end of the surrender period.  B shares have been largely phased out by most fund providers.

C shares typically have a permanent 1% level load added to the fund’s expense ratio and carry a one year surrender period.

These sales loads ultimately reduce the amount of your investment and are an expensive form of advice. Nobody expects financial advisors or any other professional to provide financial advice for free. Unless the person to whom you are paying these pricey loads is providing extraordinary advice, this is a very expensive way to go.

The DOL fiduciary rules

The fiduciary rules introduced by the DOL (Department of Labor) in April of 2016 impose a far greater level  of disclosure on financial advisors. The rules require financial advisors to act as fiduciaries when providing advice to clients on their retirement accounts such as IRAs.

The fiduciary rules require advisors to have their client sign a disclosure document for many financial products with sales charges and trailing commissions if used in a retirement account. Load mutual funds and proprietary mutual funds will most likely require a BICE (Best Interest Contract Exemption) disclosure. Additionally Equity-Indexed Annuities were not exempted from these disclosures in the final draft of the rules as they had been in earlier drafts.

It will remain to be seen how the fiduciary rules will impact these three products, both within retirement accounts and overall. As an example, broker Edward Jones recently announced that mutual funds and ETFs will no longer be offered to clients in retirement accounts where commissions are charged.

Before making any financial or investment decision review your specific situation. Consult a fee-only financial advisor if you feel that you need financial advice.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? 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.  

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Avoid these 9 Investing Mistakes

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Investing is at best a risky proposition and sometimes even the best investment ideas don’t work out. However avoiding these 9 mistakes can help improve your investing outcomes.

Avoid these 9 Investing Mistakes

Inability to take a loss and move on 

It’s difficult for many investors to sell an investment at a loss. Often they prefer to wait until the investment at least gets back to a break-even level. I think its part of our competitive nature. Investing is not a competitive sport, leave that for our Olympians.  When reviewing your investments ask yourself “Would I buy this holding today?” If the answer is no, it’s time to sell and invest the proceeds elsewhere.

Not selling winners

I’ve seen many investors over the years refuse to sell highly appreciated holdings, all or in part. There is always the risk that you’ll sell and the price will keep going up. But sometimes it’s best to protect your gains and sell while you’re ahead or at least consider selling a portion of the holding and reinvesting the proceeds elsewhere. The latter can be part of your portfolio rebalancing process.

Investing without a plan

When you take a road trip in your car you generally have a map to help you to get to your destination. Investing is a means to an end, a road map to achieve your goals such as providing a college education for your children or funding your retirement.

Without a financial plan how will you know how much you need to accumulate to achieve your goals?  How much risk should you take?  What types of returns do you need to shoot for? Are on track toward your goals?  Essentially investing without a plan is much like hopping in the car without any idea where you are headed. 

Trying to time the market

It’s difficult to predict when the market will rise and fall. Even if the stock market is following a general trend, there will be up and down trading days. Trying to buy and sell based on those daily fluctuations is difficult. While there are professional traders who do this for a living, for most of us this is a losing proposition.

Worrying too much about taxes

Taxes can consume a significant portion of your investment gains for holdings in a taxable account. While nobody wants to pay more tax than needed, in my opinion paying taxes on a gain is almost always better than dealing with an investment loss.

Not paying attention to your investments

Your portfolio needs to be evaluated and monitored on a periodic basis.  You should reevaluate a stock when the company changes management, when the company is acquired by or merges with another company, when a strong competitor enters the market, or when several top executives sell large blocks of stock.

This applies to mutual funds as well. Manager changes, a dramatic increase or decrease in assets under management or a deviation from its stated style should all be red flags that cause you to evaluate whether it may be time to sell the fund.

Failure to rebalance your holdings  

This goes hand in hand with having a financial plan. Ideally you have an investment policy for your portfolio that defines the percentage allocations of your investments by type and style (stocks, bonds, cash, large stocks, international stocks, etc.).  A typical investment policy will set a target percentage with upper and lower percentage ranges for each style. It is important that you look at your overall portfolio in terms of these percentages at least annually.

Different investment styles will perform differently at various times.  This can cause your portfolio to be out of balance. The idea behind rebalancing is to control risk. If stocks rally and your equity allocation has grown to 75% vs. your target of 60% your portfolio is now taking more risk than you had planned. Should stocks reverse course, you could be exposed to over-sized losses.

Assuming recent events will continue into the future 

The first 15 plus years of this century have been tough on investors. The market tumbled during the 2000-2002 time frame and then again in 2008-2009. More recently the stock market dropped steeply and suddenly in the wake of the Bexit vote in the U.K. These events have instilled fear into many investors. It’s hard to blame them.

However this fear and the assumption that recent events will continue into the future might also be keeping you from investing in the fashion needed to achieve your financial goals. Taking the events of recent years into account is healthy, however letting these events paralyze you can be destructive to your financial future. This holds true for stock market drops as well as protracted bull markets.

Building a collection of investments instead of a well-crafted portfolio

Are you investing with a plan or do you simply own a collection of investments?  Great football teams like my beloved Green Bay Packers have a better chance of winning when everyone embraces and executes their role in the game plan for that week.  In my experience you will increase your chances for investment success when all of the holdings in your portfolio fulfill their role as well.

Nothing guarantees investment success.  Avoiding these 9 investing mistakes as well as others can help you increase your odds of being a successful investor.

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.

401(k) Fee Disclosure and the American Funds

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With the release of the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rules for financial advisors dealing with client retirement accounts, much of the focus has been on the impact on advisors who provide advice to clients on their IRA accounts. Long before these new rules were unveiled, financial advisors serving 401(k) plan sponsors have had a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of the plan’s participants under the DOL’s ERISA rules.

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Starting in 2012, retirement plan sponsors have been required to disclose the costs associated with the investment options offered in 401(k) plans annually.

As an illustration, here’s how the various share classes offered by the American Funds for retirement plans stack up under the portion of the required disclosures that deal with the costs and performance of the plan’s investment options.

American Funds EuroPacific Growth

The one American Funds option that I’ve used over the years in 401(k) plans is the EuroPacific Growth fund.  This fund is a core large cap foreign stock fund.  It generally has some emerging markets holdings, but most of the fund is comprised of foreign equities from developed countries.  The R6 share class is the least expensive of the retirement plan share classes.  Let’s look at how the various share classes stack up in the disclosure format:

Share Class Ticker Expense Ratio Expenses per $1,000 invested Trailing 1 year return Trailing 3 year return Trailing 5 year return
R1 RERAX 1.59% $15.90 -10.54% 1.77% 0.89%
R2 RERBX 1.57% $15.70 -10.55% 1.79% 0.90%
R3 RERCX 1.13% $11.30 -10.13% 2.24% 1.37%
R4 REREX 0.84% $8.40 -9.89% 2.55% 1.66%
R5 RERFX 0.53% $5.30 -9.60% 2.86% 1.97%
R6 RERGX 0.50% $5.00 -9.56% 2.90% 2.01%

3 and 5 year returns are annualized.  Source:  Morningstar   Data as of 4/30/2016

While the chart above pertains only to the EuroPacific Growth fund, looking at the six retirement plan share classes for any of the American Funds products would offer similar relative results.   

The underlying portfolios and the management team are identical for each share class.  The difference lies in the expense ratio of each share class.  This is driven by the 12b-1 fees associated with the different share classes.  This fee is part of the expense ratio and is generally used all or in part to compensate the advisor on the plan.  In this case these would generally be registered reps, brokers, and insurance agents.  The 12b-1 fee can also revert to the plan to lower expenses. The 12b-1 fees by share class are:

R1                   1.00%

R2                   0.74%

R3                   0.50%

R4                   0.25%

R5 and R6 have no 12b-1 fees.

Share classes matter

The R1 and R2 shares have traditionally been used in plans where the 12b-1 fees are used to compensate a financial sales person.  This is fine as long as that sales person is providing a real service for their compensation and is not just being paid to place the business.

With all of the publicity generated by the new DOL fiduciary rules one has to wonder if the expensive R1 and R2 share classes might go by the wayside at some point

If you are a plan participant and you notice that your plan has one or more American Funds choices in the R1 or R2 share classes in my opinion you probably have a lousy plan and you are overpaying for funds that are often mediocre to poor performers.  It is incumbent upon you to ask your employer if the plan can move to lower cost shares or even a different provider. The R3 shares are a bit of an improvement but still pricey for a retirement plan in my opinion. That evaluation has to be made in the context of the plan’s size and other factors.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for more detailed advice about your situation.

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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.

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Do I Own Too Many Mutual Funds?

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

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

The 3 mutual fund portfolio 

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

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

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

19 mutual funds and little diversification 

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

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

How many mutual funds can you monitor? 

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

What is the motivation for your broker? 

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

Circumstances will vary 

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

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

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

The Bottom Line 

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

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

Please 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.  

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