Category Archives: Behavioral Finance

First Fed Hike & Stock Market

Interest RateGuest post by Contributing Editor, David R. Kotok, Cumberland Advisors.

There has been a lot of discussion about the Federal Reserve (Fed) and when it will move its interest rate to something higher than the present 0 to 0.25%. The Fed has been at the zero bound for years. My friend Jeff Saut at Raymond James noted that there are people who have been in this business over eight years and have never experienced a Fed rate hiking cycle. We have to look back more than a decade to recall what sequential hikes were like.

The questions are, when they will do it, by how much, in what sequence, for how long, to what level, and with what effect on the markets?

Bond market pundits think the Fed may raise rates quickly, as they did in other hiking cycles. Others, like our team at Cumberland Advisors, think they will take gradual steps in view of the fact that the US dollar is the strongest currency in the world. It is getting stronger, and worldwide interest rates are low and going lower. Approximately $4 trillion in total sovereign debt worldwide is now trading at negative interest rates. Additionally, the Fed does not see an inflation threat. It does see gradual recovery in the US and healing labor data.  Today’s employment report will add to the list of monthly improvements.  But the labor markets still have a long way to go to get to normal.  The Fed remembers the 1937 experience when they hiked interest rates too soon and dumped a recovering economy back into recession.

All that said, there is one question that remains. What happens to the stock market when the Fed raises interest rates?

Talley Léger is the co-author of our new book, the second (and revised) edition of From Bear to Bull with ETFs. He has published a study entitled “Don’t be too spooked by Fed rate hikes,” dated January 31, 2015. Talley has given us permission to share this Macro Vision Research piece with our readers. The link to his commentary is here.

We do not know what will happen in this particular cycle, since we are now in uncharted waters. We are coming out of the zero-interest-rate regime. We do know that the market has spent a lot of time and energy fretting about the prospect and the timing of rising rates. Our internal view at Cumberland Advisors is that the first rate hike will not trigger a market selloff. Further, we do not expect the bond market to sell off and interest rates to go shooting up when the Fed raises the interest rate from zero by an eighth or a quarter percent. And we expect the first rate hike to take place in the very latter part of this year or in early 2016.  In a few hours we shall see the newest labor data for the US.  We expect that it will validate this gradualist approach in our Fed forecast.

 

Disclosure:

The views set forth in this blog are the opinions of the author alone and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with whom he is affiliated. The data, information, and content on this blog are for information, education, and non-commercial purposes only. The information on this blog does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice and is limited to the dissemination of opinions on investing. No reader should construe these opinions as an offer of advisory services. Cumberland Advisors is not affiliated with FOLIOfn or The Portfolioist.

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Investing: What the heck is a Larry Portfolio?

PortfolioGuest post by Contributing Editor, Matthew Amster-Burton, Mint.com.

Recently, I wrote a three-part series on how to start investing.

Today, I want to look at an advanced topic. Generally, I avoid advanced topics in investing, for two reasons:

  1. Most people don’t even have a grasp of beginner-level investing yet.
  2. The vast majority of “advanced” investing techniques can’t beat a simple, diversified portfolio over time.

Today, I want to look at a possible exception. It’s called the Larry Portfolio, developed by a guy named (you guessed it) Larry Swedroe and presented in his short and readable new book, Reducing the Risk of Black Swans, cowritten with Kevin Grogan.

Like momentum investing, which I explored last week, the Larry Portfolio is a way to attempt to capture more return from your portfolio without taking more risk—the holy grail of investing. Spoiler alert: it’s a promising idea that may or may not be appropriate—or possible—to implement in your own investments.

This is fairly technical stuff, although I’ll leave the math out of it. If you’re interested in investing as a hobby, read on. If you just want a simple portfolio that will beat your stock-picking friends, that’s fine. Go back to my original series.

One kind of risk

Smart investors like to take smart risks.

Investing in just one company is a dumb risk. That company might go bankrupt in any number of unexpected ways. Investing in lots of companies (aka diversification) is a smart risk: you’re no longer exposed to the risk of one company flaming out.

You’re still exposed to the risk of the market as a whole, and that’s the risk that investors can expect to get paid for over time.

Investors call this total-market risk beta. Beta measures the volatility of the stock market as a whole. Generally speaking, to get more return, you have to take more risk: Treasury bonds have low beta and low expected returns; stocks have high beta and higher expected returns. A total stock market portfolio has a beta of 1. (Let’s talk about low-beta stocks another time, please!)

So you might imagine that the best possible portfolio would look something like this:

  • Low-risk bonds (Government bonds from stable governments, high-quality corporate bonds, CDs)
  • A total world stock market fund

Mix them in whatever proportion suits your risk tolerance. One popular formula is 60/40: 60% stocks, 40% bonds.

Many kinds of risk

Then, in the early 1990s, two professors at the University of Chicago, Kenneth French and Eugene Fama, took another look at the data. They found that beta couldn’t explain all of a portfolio’s returns.

Two other factors seemed to be important, too. A portfolio taking these factors into account could, some of the time, beat a total-market portfolio without being riskier. These factors are:

Size. Small company stocks tend to have higher returns than large company stocks.

Value. “Value” stocks, essentially stocks with low prices, tend to have higher returns than growth stocks. How do you decide which stocks are value stocks? Use a measure like price-to-earnings ratio.

Value stocks are essentially stocks in mediocre, boring companies. This seems like an odd way to make money, but it’s a highly persistent effect. (Value is believed to be a stronger effect than size.)

You can now easily buy mutual funds concentrating on small or value stocks, and many investors choose to “tilt” their portfolios toward these factors, hoping for bigger returns without bigger volatility.

It’s a reasonable hope, because beta, size, and value have low historical correlation. When you have multiple stocks in your portfolio that are exposed to different risks, we call that diversification. The same can be said for having multiple factors in your portfolio.

The Larry Portfolio

Now, what if the stock portion of the portfolio was made up of entirely small value stocks?

That would give plenty of exposure to beta (because small value stocks are still stocks, and correlate with the wider stock market), and also maximum exposure to the small and value premiums. It’s also reasonably well-diversified, because there are thousands of stocks that fit the profile.

This sounds like a risky stock portfolio, and it is: high risk, high expected return.

Larry Swedroe’s insight was: what if we mix a little of this very risky (but intelligently risky) stock portfolio with a lot of very safe bonds? Say, 30% small value stocks and 70% bonds?

The result is the Larry Portfolio, a portfolio with similar expected return to to 60/40 portfolio I described, but lower risk, because the portfolio is mostly bonds—the kind of bonds that did just fine during the Great Depression and the recent financial crisis.

Swedroe warns in the book that there are no guarantees in investing. “[A]ll crystal balls are cloudy—there are no guarantees,” he writes. The research behind the Larry Portfolio may be sound, but “we cannot guarantee that it will produce the same returns as a more market-like portfolio with a higher equity allocation.”

Is it for you?

I took a look at my portfolio. It looks almost exactly like the portfolio Swedroe describes in the first part of the book, a diversified 60/40 portfolio with plenty of exposure to beta but no exposure to the size or value premiums.

So I asked him the obvious question: should I have a Larry Portfolio?

“There is no one right portfolio,” Swedroe told me via email. “The biggest risk of the LP strategy is the risk called Tracking Error Regret.”

Tracking Error Regret is a nasty thing. Here’s what it means.

Inevitably, the Larry Portfolio will sometimes underperform a 60/40 portfolio. If the stock market is soaring, it might underperform it for years at a time. A Larry Portfolio holder might look around and say, “Dang, everyone is making a ton of money but me. This portfolio sucks.”

Then you jump off the Larry train and back into a 60/40 portfolio—probably right before a market crash that decimates your stock portfolio. (That’s the Black Swan in the book title.) “Oh no—Larry was right!” you conclude, and buy back in, but it’s too late: now you’re selling cheap stocks to buy expensive bonds.

There really isn’t any cure for Tracking Error Regret. You can write an investment policy statement (IPS) to remind yourself that you’re a long-term investor and shouldn’t be watching the market too closely, because it’ll only raise your blood pressure.

The worst way to address the problem is to assume that you’re too smart or tough to experience it.

Can we build it? Maybe we can

Finally, there’s one other reason the Larry Portfolio might not be for you: it requires using mutual funds that might not be available in your retirement plan.

If most of your money is in a 401(k) plan, and that plan doesn’t have a US small value fund and an international small value fund, you can’t really build a Larry Portfolio. You might be able to build a watered-down version, but it won’t have the same risk-return characteristics as the real thing.

I haven’t decided yet whether the Larry Portfolio is for me. If you’ve read this far, however, you’ll probably enjoy Swedroe’s book. And if you already use a Larry Portfolio or are considering one, please let me know in the comments.

Disclosure:

The views set forth in this blog are the opinions of the author alone and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with whom he is affiliated. The data, information, and content on this blog are for information, education, and non-commercial purposes only. The information on this blog does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice and is limited to the dissemination of opinions on investing. No reader should construe these opinions as an offer of advisory services. Mint.com is not affiliated with Folio Investing or The Portfolioist.

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Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart's LawGuest post by Leo Chen, Guest Contributor to Cumberland Advisors.

Goodhart’s Law

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

-Charles Goodhart

When it was first introduced in 1975, Goodhart’s Law focused mainly on social and economic measures. Since then, many financial market indicators have lost their forecasting power and succumbed to Goodhart’s Law. Nevertheless, Goodhart’s Law in no way depreciates the value and importance of market indicators; it simply means that investors are unlikely to be able to consistently generate abnormal returns over time using popular measures that are publicly available to the entire market. A clear example is what has happened to the CBOE Volatility Index, or VIX.

The Volatility Index

The Volatility Index (VIX) was a groundbreaking product when the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) released it in 1993. Also referred to as the fear index, VIX measures the expected underlying volatility in the S&P 500 over the next 30-day period on a real-time basis. Using various measures of VIX such as the two-week mean, the 30-day rolling standard deviation, etc., VIX traders and portfolio managers developed strategies that were initially profitable. However, over time it has become extremely difficult to profitably forecast the market by simply observing the movement in VIX.

While the history of the VIX demonstrates how a market gauge lost its predictive power once it caught investors’ attention, the CBOE Low Volatility Index, LOVOL, provides an even better illustration of how an indicator can lose its forward-looking power very quickly. CBOE began calculating the Low Volatility Index on March 21, 2006, and started disseminating LOVOL data on November 30, 2012. The forecasting ability of LOVOL immediately plunged to almost zero within a month. In fact, Goodhart’s Law has captured nearly all of the CBOE volatility indexes as prisoners. These fallen angels are no longer useful tools for forecasting purposes.

Another prominent index, developed in the late 1960s, that uses extremes in its value to signal that a market may soon change direction is the Arms Index (TRIN). As predicted by Goodhart’s Law, while technical indicators such as TRIN were able to successfully predict market returns in the past, their loss of forecasting power was only a matter of time when every technician used these ratios for trading purposes. Even the Federal Reserve was no exception. The pre-FOMC announcement drift was found to explain the equity premium puzzle in 2011. But this 24-hour window disappeared soon after the research was published.

Investors Beware

On one hand, Goodhart’s Law teaches us that a smart investor should not rely on any single factor known by the general public to be “powerful”; on the other hand, it does not negate the significance of any indicator.

The following figure is a ratio brought up by Chairman and Chief Investment Officer David Kotok of Cumberland Advisors. The CBOE SKEW Index measures S&P 500 tail risk, while the VXTH Index hedges “black swan” events such as Black Monday in 1987. Lagging and scaling both indexes by the lagged VIX, we are able to track the daily SPX with a correlation that can top 90%, comparable to the correlation between the S&P 500 and GDP. Nonetheless, a high correlation is not necessarily equivalent to strong forecasting power. While one could use this chart for long-term investing strategy, the accuracy of using these daily ratios to predict the daily market movement is approximately 51%, not economically significant enough for forecasting purpose.

3-5-2015

Figure 1. Correlations between SPX and Volatility Indexes

Conclusion

The list of captives of Goodhart’s Law is clearly longer than just the indicators mentioned above. High-quality research should be able to produce positive abnormal returns as long as there is information that can be exploited; however, superior research alone is no longer synonymous with outperformance – time is also of the essence. Because of technological innovation in financial markets, the time frame in which Goodhart’s law operates today is much shorter than it was in earlier decades. Just as Moore’s Law predicts that chip performance will double every 18 months, investing methodologies must continually evolve in order to remain profitable, due to Goodhart’s Law.

Disclosure:

The views set forth in this blog are the opinions of the author alone and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with whom he is affiliated. The data, information, and content on this blog are for information, education, and non-commercial purposes only. The information on this blog does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice and is limited to the dissemination of opinions on investing. No reader should construe these opinions as an offer of advisory services. Cumberland Advisors is not affiliated with Folio Investing or The Portfolioist.

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Oil, Markets, Volatility

Guest post by Contributing Editor, David R. Kotok, Cumberland Advisors.

Oil, Markets, VolatilitySharply lower oil prices have occasioned a huge discussion about their impact. We see it play out daily in newspapers, on TV and radio, at websites, on blogs, and in market letters. The range of forecasts runs from one extreme to another.

On one side, pundits predict a recession resulting from a US energy sector meltdown that leads to credit defaults in energy-related high-yield debt. They predict trouble in those states which have had high growth from the US energy renaissance. These bearish views also note the failures of Russian businesses to pay foreign-denominated debt held by European banks. And they point to sovereign debt risks like Venezuela.  These experts then envision the geopolitical risk to extend to cross-border wars and other ugly outcomes.

Geopolitical high-oil-price risk has morphed to geopolitical low-oil-price risk. That’s the negative extreme case.

The positive forecasts regarding oil are also abundant. American’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) drops robustly due to energy-price ripple effects of $50 oil. We are still in the early stages of seeing these results in US inflation indicators. There is a lot more to come as the lower energy price impacts a broad array of products and service-sector costs.

A big change in the US trade balance reflects the reduced imported oil price. We are also seeing that appear in the current account deficit plunge. In fact, both of those formerly strongly negative indicators are reaching new lows. They are the smallest deficits we have seen in 15 years. Action Economics expects that the current account deficit in the first quarter of 2015 will be below $80 billion. That is an incredible number when we think about gross flows history.

Remember that the current account deficit is an accounting identity with the capital account surplus.  Net $80 billion goes out of the US and turns around and comes back.  These are very small numbers in an economy of $18 trillion in size.

Think about what it means to have a capital account surplus of $80 billion, driven by a current account deficit of $80 billion. That means that the neutral balancing flows into the United States because of transactional and investment activity are now small. Therefore the momentum of US financial markets is driven by the foreign choices that are directing additional money flows into the US.

In the end the equations must balance. When there is an imbalance, it affects asset prices. In the present case, those asset prices are denominated in US dollars. They are desired by the rest of the world.  They are real estate, bonds, stocks, or any other asset that is priced in dollars and that the world wants to accumulate. In the US, where the size of our economy is approaching $18 trillion, the once-feared current account deficit has become a rounding error.

How bad can the energy-price hit be to the United States? There are all kinds of estimates. Capital Economics says that the decline in the oil price (they used a $40 price change, from $110 to $70 per barrel) will “reduce overall spending on petroleum-related liquids by non-oil-producing businesses and households by a total of $280 billion per year (from $770 billion to $490 billion).” Note that the present oil price is $20 a barrel lower than their estimated run rate.

That is a massive change and very stimulative to the US non-energy sector. The amount involved is more than double the 2% payroll-tax-cut amount of recent years. In fact it adds up to about 3/4 of the revised US federal budget deficit estimate in the fiscal year ending in 2015.

Let me repeat. That estimate from Capital Economics is based on an average price of $70 a barrel in the US for all of 2015. The current price of oil is lower. Some forecasts estimate that the oil price is going much lower. We doubt that but the level of the oil price is no longer the key issue.  It is the duration of the lower price level that matters.  We do not know how long the price will fall, but there is some thought developing that it will hover around $55 to $60 for a while (average for 2015).

There is certainly a negative impact to the oil sector. Capital spending slows when the oil price falls. We already see that process unfolding. It is apparent in the anecdotes as a drilling rig gets canceled or postponed, a project gets delayed, or something else goes on hold.

How big is the negative number? Capital Economics says, “The impact on the wider economy will be modest. Investment in mining structures is $146 billion, with investment in mining equipment an additional $26 billion. Altogether investment in mining accounts for 7.7% of total business investment, but only 1% of GDP.”

At Cumberland we agree. The projections are obvious: energy capital expenditures will decline; the US renaissance in oil will slow, and development and exploration will be curtailed. But the scale of the negative is far outweighed by the scale of the positive.

Let’s go farther. Fundstrat Global Advisors, a global advisory source with good data, suggests that lower oil will add about $350 billion in developing-nation purchasing power. That estimate was based on a 28% oil price decline starting with a $110 base. The final number is unknown. But today’s numbers reveal declines of almost 50%.  Think about a $350 billion to $500 billion boost to the developing countries in North America, Europe, and Asia. Note these are not emerging-market estimates but developing-country estimates.

It seems to us that another focal point is what is happening to the oil-producing countries. In this case Wells Fargo Securities has developed some fiscal breakeven oil prices for countries that are prominent oil producers. Essentially, Kuwait is the only one with a positive fiscal breakeven if the oil price is under $60 per barrel. Let’s take a look at Wells Fargo’s list. The most damaged country in fiscal breakeven is Iran. They need a price well over $100 in order to get to some budgetary stability. Next is Nigeria. Venezuela is next. Under $100 but over $60 are Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Let’s think about this oil battle in a geopolitical context. BCA Research defines it as a “regional proxy war.” They identify the antagonists as Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is that simple when it comes to oil. Saudis use oil as a weapon, and they intend to weaken their most significant enemy on the other side of the water in their neighborhood. But the outcome also pressures a bunch of other bad guys, including Russia, to achieve some resolution of the situation in Ukraine.

There are victims in the oil patch: energy stocks, exploration and production, and related energy construction and engineering. Anything that is tied to oil price in the energy patch is subject to economic weakness because of the downward price pressure. On the other hand, volumes are enhanced and remain intact. If anything, one can expect consumption to rise because the prices have fallen. Favoring volume-oriented energy consumption investment rather than price-sensitive energy investment is a transition that investing agents need to consider. At Cumberland, we are underweight energy stock ETFs. We sold last autumn and have not bought back.  We favor volume oriented exposures, including certain MLPs.

We believe that the US economic growth rate is going to improve. In 2015, it will record GDP rate of change levels above 3.5%. Evidence suggests that the US economy will finally resume classic longer term trend rates above 3%. It will do so in the context of very low interest and inflation rates, a gradual but ongoing improvement in labor markets, and the powerful influences of a strengthening US dollar and a tightening US budget deficit. The American fiscal condition is good and improving rapidly. The American monetary condition is stabilizing. The American banking system has already been through a crisis and now seems to be adequately protected and reserved.

Our view is bullish for the US economy and stock market. We have held to that position through volatility, and we expect more volatility. When interest rates, growth rates, and trends are normalized, volatilities are normalized. They are now more normal than those that were distorted and dampened by the ongoing zero interest rate policy of the last six years.

Volatility restoration is not a negative market item. It is a normalizing item. We may wind up seeing the VIX and the stock market rise at the same time. Volatility is bidirectional.

We remain nearly fully invested in our US ETF portfolios. We expect more volatility in conjunction with an upward trend in the US stock market.

High volatility means adjustments must be made, and sometimes they require fast action. This positive outlook could change at any time. So Cumberland clients can expect to see changes in their accounts when information and analysis suggest that we move quickly.

Disclosure:

The views set forth in this blog are the opinions of the author alone and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with whom he is affiliated. The data, information, and content on this blog are for information, education, and non-commercial purposes only. The information on this blog does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice and is limited to the dissemination of opinions on investing. No reader should construe these opinions as an offer of advisory services. Cumberland Advisors is not affiliated with FOLIOfn or The Portfolioist.

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Saving Through the Ages

Guest post by Contributing Editor, Matthew Amster-Burton, Mint.com.

Saving through the agesReputable financial advisors, websites and your mom say to save for retirement, college, a down payment for a home and emergencies.

  • A typical response might be, “Yeah, but how much?” and “When?”

Libraries of books have been written on this subject. The implication is that determining your proper savings rate involves solving differential equations, brushing up on Excel functions, and reading the entire US tax code. If you’re not ready to do that, just turn everything over to an expert. Right? Not really.

Let’s talk about three things that may get in the way of people saving—and then set those obstacles aside and make it easy to do on your own, no matter your age or stage of life.

  • It’s hard. Perhaps you don’t make enough money to save aggressively or it’s psychologically difficult to set aside money instead of spending it. For most of us, it’s a combination.
  • 401(k). IRA. Roth IRA. 529 college savings plan. Savings account. Savings bonds. Why do we have so many boxes to put our money in? In three letters: the IRS. The government encourages us to save by giving us a tax break when we do.  Unfortunately, we now have so many savings vehicles to choose from that the easiest option is to just say, “I’ll think about it next month.” And we haven’t even talked about investment options yet!
  • Nobody knows the future. What if I save for college and my kid has other plans?  What if I max out my 401(k) and then need the money before I retire? Again, the easiest response is, “I’ll figure this out later.”

Pick a number

But here’s one thing to realize: choosing the wrong type of account or making a wrong guess about the future is a small mistake. Failing to save anything is a big mistake. Here are a few rules of thumb when it comes to saving through the ages.

  • If you’re young, save 25%. That’s 25% of your gross pay, before taxes. You can count debt repayment as savings, and repaying student loans should be a priority. The rest of the money can go toward a down payment fund, college fund, and retirement savings.
  • If you have kids in college, you probably can’t afford to save unless you’re exceptionally wealthy. Get your 401(k) match, avoid parent loans, and send the rest of your money to the bursar’s office.
  • If you’re 50 to 65, save 30% or more. This is the age when most people do most of their retirement savings. Tuition bills are a bad memory. The kids are out of the house. You can downsize. Plenty of families squander this opportunity. But not you, right?

These numbers are probably higher than you’ve seen elsewhere. That’s because they’re not designed for the best-case scenario. They’re designed with enough of a cushion that if everything goes right, you’ll end up with even more money that you’ll need for retirement.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.

Disclosure:

The views set forth in this blog are the opinions of the author alone and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with whom he is affiliated. The data, information, and content on this blog are for information, education, and non-commercial purposes only. The information on this blog does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice and is limited to the dissemination of opinions on investing. No reader should construe these opinions as an offer of advisory services. Mint.com is not affiliated with FOLIOfn or The Portfolioist.

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Is My Portfolio at the Right Risk Level?

This is the fifth installment in our series on how individual investors can assess their financial health.

RiskAt every stage of investing, you should periodically ask yourself how much risk you can realistically tolerate. The primary way to measure the risk level of your portfolio is to look at its allocation of stocks vs. bonds.  Although some stock and bond ETFs  are riskier than others, your first decision has to be how much of your investments to put in stocks and how much in bonds.

One standard rule of thumb that’s a good place to start is the “age in bonds” axiom. According to this guideline, you invest a percentage of assets equal to your age in a broad bond index, and the balance of your portfolio in a diversified stock portfolio.  The idea here is that your portfolio should become more conservative as you get older. This makes sense for two reasons:

  1. You tend to get wealthier as you age, so any given percentage loss from your portfolio represents an increasingly larger dollar value.
  2. You are gradually converting your human capital (your ability to work and earn money) into financial capital (investments) as you age. And as you get older, your financial assets represent a larger and larger fraction of your lifetime wealth potential.

For these reasons, it makes sense  to manage this pool of assets more conservatively as time goes by.

Beyond “Age in Bonds” – Choosing Your Allocation of Stocks and Bonds

The past decade provides a powerful example of the tradeoffs between risk and return.  The table below shows the year-by-year returns for portfolios comprising different mixes of an S&P 500 ETF (IVV) and a broad bond ETF (AGG).  The returns include the expense ratios of the ETFs, but no adjustment is made for brokerage fees.

2004-2013 Allocation Performance

Source: Author’s calculations and Morningstar

Over the 10-year period from 2004 through 2013, a portfolio that is entirely allocated to the S&P 500 ETF has an average annual return of 9.2%.  In its worst year over this period, 2008, this portfolio lost almost 37% of its value.  As the percentage of the portfolio allocated to stocks declines, the average return goes down. But the worst 12-month loss also becomes markedly less severe.

We cannot say, with any certainty, that these statistics for the past ten years are representative of what we can expect in the future, but they do provide a reasonable basis for thinking about how much risk might be appropriate.

Ask yourself: If these figures are what you could expect, what allocation of stocks vs. bonds would you choose?  Would you be willing to lose 37% in a really bad year to make an average of 9.2% per year?  Or would you prefer to sacrifice 1.5% per year to reduce the potential worst-case loss by one third?  If so, the 70% stock / 30% bond portfolio provides this tradeoff.

Planning around Improbable Events

One might object that 2008 was an extreme case, and that such a bad year is unlikely to recur with any meaningful probability.  One way to correct for this potential bias towards extreme events is to assume that returns from stocks and bonds follow a bell curve distribution, a common way to estimate investment risk.  Using the data over the last ten years to estimate the properties of the bell curve (also known as the “normal” or Gaussian distribution), I have estimated the probabilities of various levels of loss over a 12-month period.

9-30-2014b

Estimated 12-month loss percentiles for a ‘normal’ distribution (Source: author’s calculations)

When you look at the figures for the 5th percentile loss, you can see what might be expected in the worst 5% of 12-month periods for each of the five portfolio types. For example, the 100% stock portfolio has a 1-in-20 chance of returning -21% or worse over the next twelve months. Note that a loss of 35% for stocks, similar to 2008, is estimated to have a probability of 1-in-100.

It’s important to point out that the ability to calculate the probability of very rare events is very poor.  Perhaps 2008 really was a 1-in-100 probability event, but we don’t know that with any certainty.  The most catastrophic events (what Nassim Taleb has famously dubbed “Black Swans”) are so severe and outside our normal range of experience that they tend to catch us totally off guard.

Moshe Milevsky, a well-known retirement planning expert, suggests that rather than thinking in terms of probabilities, it’s sensible to set your portfolio’s risk to a level that ensures that the worst case outcomes are survivable. Based on that, it’s prudent to choose a portfolio risk level that won’t ruin you if there’s another year like 2008. If you can survive a 12-month loss of 23% (the average of the worst loss for this allocation over the past ten years and the estimated worst-case 1st percentile return), for example, you can afford to hold a 70% equity portfolio.

Final Thoughts

If your investments in stocks don’t approximate the S&P 500, the stock portion of your portfolio may be considerably riskier than the table above implies.  Allocations to emerging markets, small companies, and technology stocks can be very volatile. The examples shown here provide a starting point in determining risk.  Combining a wider range of asset classes can provide important diversification benefits beyond their individual risk levels, but this topic is beyond my scope here.

The past ten years have provided examples of very high returns and very low returns from stocks. This period gives us a useful basis for testing our tolerance for volatility.  Many readers, I imagine, will find that their risk tolerance—self-diagnosed from looking at the tables above—corresponds reasonably well to the “age in bonds” rule. If your choice of risk levels is too far from these levels, a closer look is needed—and perhaps a talk with an investment advisor.

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Am I Better Off Investing or Paying Down Debt?

Emergency Fund vs. Paying Off Debt - Which should you contribute to first?This is the fourth installment in our series on how individual investors can assess their financial health.

A common dilemma in personal finance is whether to use funds to pay down debt faster or to invest more. The question crops up in various forms:

 

  • Should I pay off all credit card debt or make smaller payments while saving more for retirement?
  • Should I pay extra on my mortgage or invest in securities?
  • Should I pay down my student loans faster or invest more?

Financial health requires both savings and control over debt. But when these two goals seem to be in conflict, what’s the best way to balance them? Consider these six ways to prioritize.

  1. Make sure you get your employer match. If you’re lucky enough to have an employer that matches your contributions to the workplace 401(k) plan, your first priority is to maximize the employer match. It’s too good to pass up. Contribute any less than what’s matched, and you’re refusing the offer of free money.
  2. Tackle costly credit card debt. Once you are saving enough to secure your entire employer match, you can focus on paying down debts faster. The goal is to pay off all credit card debt as quickly as possible. The interest rates on credit card debt are typically so high that nothing else you do with your money is likely to be as profitable.
  3. Beef up your emergency fund. When you’re beyond the hurdle of credit card debt, consider building out your emergency fund.  If you don’t have sufficient emergency savings to cover a serious car repair, a trip to the emergency room or other not-so-infrequent disasters, this is the next focus.
  4. Save enough in retirement accounts. Assuming you have no credit card debt and decent emergency savings, you can move on to the next set of priorities. If you are saving less than 10% of your pretax income in retirement accounts, ramping up your contributions is probably a better bet than paying extra on your student or auto loans or mortgage. Contributions to retirement accounts are tax advantaged, and it is almost impossible to catch up if you delay retirement savings.
  5. Decide whether to save more or pay down your mortgage. Only when you have no credit card debt, a healthy emergency fund, and you’re saving at least 10% of your pretax income should you consider making additional investments or speeding up your mortgage payments.

But when you compare the cost of having a mortgage to the possible returns from investing elsewhere, don’t forget the tax deduction on mortgage interest. Because of that deduction, your effective (after-tax) interest rate on your mortgage is lower than your actual mortgage rate. There are handy online calculators that can quickly calculate the effective interest rate on your mortgage, accounting for tax benefits.

If you are confident that you can invest at a rate of return that’s at least as high as your effective mortgage rate, you may want to hang on to the mortgage and invest more.  Over the past few years, many consumers have taken out mortgages with effective interest rates of 3% or less.  At this level of interest, there are investment alternatives that make more sense.

Also remember that extra principle payments come with liquidity risk. That is, if you need a source of cash, it may be easier to sell a security investment. To take cash out on your mortgage, you will have to refinance or open a line of credit.  Either of these may come with a higher cost than your current mortgage, not to mention origination fees.

  1. Decide whether to save more or pay down college debts. If your income is below $75,000 per year ($155,000 for a couple filing jointly), some or all of the interest that you pay on college loans may be tax deductible. So the effective rate of interest on your college loans may be lower than the actual rate. Take that into account when you compare your loan interest with potential investment earnings.

An additional consideration may be whether a parent or grandparent cosigned your student loans.  If you become disabled or die—or you’re simply unemployed for a long period of time, your consignors may have to pay your college loans.  That risk may make it worthwhile to pay off college loans faster.

Accounting for Uncertainty

If you could be sure that you’ll never lose your job and that you’ll always be able to open a low-cost line of credit, the decision to pay off debts would be much easier.  But you have to look beyond comparing interest rates on debt to the expected returns from investments. You have to consider that credit may not always be available at today’s rates.

With mortgage rates as low as they are now, paying down a mortgage does not look like the most attractive choice. Once you’ve paid off all high-cost revolving credit (e.g. credit cards), have a solid emergency fund, and you’re saving 10% of your income in retirement accounts, however, it’s worth considering paying down college debts.

Putting non-retirement money into risky investments like stocks before you have accomplished the milestones listed above makes your overall financial situation more risky.  Whether or not this is too much risk depends on you.

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The brokerage with a better way. Securities products and services offered through FOLIOfn Investments, Inc. Member FINRA/SIPC.