Category Archives: Investors

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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Is the Fed Really “Stealing from Savers”?

Federal ReserveIn a recent article on MarketWatch, Chris Martenson asserts that the Fed’s low interest rate policy and quantitative easing in recent years is deliberately stealing from savers. This article has elicited a big response, with almost 800 comments and almost 2000 likes on Facebook. The key point of the article is that the Fed’s policy of holding down interest rates to stimulate the economy has reduced the income provided by Treasury bonds, savings accounts, and certificates of deposit (CDs) to extremely low levels. In this way, the Fed’s policy can certainly be viewed as harmful to people trying to live on the income from bonds and other very low risk investments. This Fed-bashing rhetoric is far from the whole story, though.

The total impact of very low interest rates on savers and conservative investors is somewhat more complex than the MarketWatch piece suggests. Subdued inflation in recent years, one of the reasons that the Fed cites for keeping interest rates low, also means savers are seeing lower rates of price increase in the goods and services they buy. With very low current inflation, you simply don’t need as much yield as when inflation is higher. It would be wonderful for conservative investors to have low inflation and high yields from risk-free accounts, but that situation is effectively impossible for extended periods of time.  All in all, low inflation is typically a good thing for people living in a fixed income.

Another effect of continued low interest rates is that bond investors have fared very well. The trailing 15-year annualized return of the Vanguard Intermediate bond Index (VBMFX) is 5.4%, as compared to 4.5% for the Vanguard S&P 500 Index (VFINX).  Falling rates over this period have driven bond prices upwards, which has greatly benefitted investors holding bonds over this period.

One interesting related charge leveled by the MarketWatch piece (and also in a recent New York Times article) is that the Fed policy has exacerbated income inequality and that the wealthy are benefitting from low rates while less-wealthy retirees living on fixed incomes are being hurt. Low interest rates have helped the stock market to deliver high returns in recent years and it is wealthier people who benefit most from market gains. In addition, wealthier people are more likely to be able to qualify to refinance their mortgages to take advantage of low rates. The implication here is that less wealthy people cannot afford to take advantage of the benefits of low rates and that these people, implicitly, are probably holding assets in low-yield risk-free assets such as savings accounts or CDs. This is, however, somewhat misleading.  Poorer retired households receive a disproportionate share of their income from Social Security, which provides constant inflation-adjusted income.

While investors in Treasury bonds, savings accounts, and CDs are seeking riskless return, money held in these assets does not help to drive economic growth, and this is precisely why the Fed policy is to make productive assets (in the form of investments in corporate bonds and equity) more attractive than savings accounts and certificates of deposit. So, the Fed is attempting to drive money into productive investments in economic growth that will create jobs and should, ultimately, benefit the economy as a whole. One must remember that the Fed has no mandate to provide investors with a risk-free after-inflation return.

It is certainly understandable that people trying to maintain bond ladders that produce their retirement income are frustrated and concerned by continued low interest rates and the subsequent low yields available from bonds.  Given that inflation is also very low, however, low bond yields are partly offset by more stable prices for goods and services. It is true that the Fed’s policies are intended to get people to do something productive with their wealth like investing in stocks, bonds, or other opportunities. It is also the case that older and more conservative investors world prefer to reap reasonable income from essentially risk-free investments. Substantial yield with low risk is something of a pipe dream, though.  Investors are always trying to determine whether the yield provided by income-generating assets is worth the risk. We may look back and conclude that the Fed’s economic stimulus was too expensive, ineffective, or both, but this will only be clear far down the road.

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6 Reasons Why You Don’t Want to Invest Like a Professional Trader

Professional trader market analysisAs everyone with a computer knows, the web is shoulder-deep in brokerages, services, and publications that promise to help you invest just like the pros. That’s no surprise. It’s a logical step in the democratization of information. On a technological landscape where anybody can become a self-made journalist, filmmaker, or detective, what’s stopping anyone from becoming an armchair investment whiz? The availability of bargain-basement commissions on trades, broad access to research, and specialized trading platforms make it seem like Wall Street’s advantage over the individual investor has never been more negligible.

The only problem is, all those bells and whistles can obscure the fact that there’s still a big difference between what professional traders can do and what individual investors can—and should be doing.

Many of us are do-it-yourselfers by nature and find it rewarding to build our own investment portfolios. The key is to be mindful of the following caveats:

1. Individual investors have an awful track record with short-term trading.

There is research suggesting that different tactical strategies can improve returns.  Nonetheless, the performance history of individual investors clearly demonstrates that the majority of investors would be far better off by avoiding short-term trading and just consistently investing.

2. Your tools are no match for the pros.

The short-term behavior of markets is complex and there are thousands of highly-paid PhD quantitative analysts and MBAs spending all of their time figuring out how to gain an edge.  These people have lots of time and limitless computer power at their disposal.  The idea that a nifty new charting tool can somehow help you to beat these people is naive.

3. You need to win in the long-term not the short-term.

Professional traders focus on the short-term because they are judged and compensated based on recent performance.  Many probably realize that short-term trading has low odds of success, but that is the field in which they compete.  Individuals need to perform well in the long-term and don’t need to try to compete for short-term results.

4. Being a savvy consumer doesn’t make you a savvy investor in consumer stocks.

Peter Lynch famously advocated that people should ‘buy what they know.’  If you are an avid Facebook user and you see the growth potential, this might be a good reason to invest.  On the other hand, stocks of companies with great products often trade at very high prices relative to earnings.

5. Excessive short-term trading can leave you with a huge tax bill.

As detailed in last week’s blog, selling an investment that you’ve held for less than a year at a profit triggers short term capital gains, and you want to avoid that as much as possible. That’s because short term gains are taxed as ordinary income, while long-term gains are taxed at lower rates. For investors in the highest marginal income tax bracket, taxes on long-term capital gains top out at 20%, but short-term capital gains can reach 39.6%.

6. It’s tough to know the difference between skill and luck.

Almost everyone who lived through the .com bubble that ended in 1999 remembers people who thought that they were market whizzes because they owned tech stocks when the market was rising and went ‘all in’ on the tech boom.  The true test of expertise was choosing to get out when market levels reached ridiculous highs.  When you keep making winning bets in a rising market, it’s easy to convince yourself that you are a savvy trader.

Individual investors with a DIY approach can achieve superior results. With an up-close-and-personal eye on such issues as risk tolerance, cost, and tax consequences, individual investors may in fact be uniquely positioned to look after their own best interests. The key is in understanding what kind of investing will work best for you.  Investing for the long term with a steady, consistent hand is in your best interest. Trying to compete against Wall Street is not.

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Are My Investment Decisions Tax Efficient?

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

Am I Tax Efficient?With investment gains, as with other types of income, it’s not how much you make that ultimately matters, but how much you keep.   In other words, you only get to spend what’s left after you pay taxes.   There are various ways to make your investments tax efficient, and it’s crucially important that you know what they are.

To make sure you don’t incur an excessive tax bill from your investing, take the following steps:

1) Avoid realizing short term capital gains.

2) Make full use of tax-advantaged accounts.

3) Harvest your losses.

4) Match assets to account type.

5) Choose tax efficient mutual funds.

Avoid Realizing Short Term Gains

Selling an investment that you have held for less than a year at a profit triggers short term capital gains, and the tax rate for short term gains is markedly higher than for long term gains. Short term gains are taxed as ordinary income, while long-term gains are taxed at lower rates. The difference between the tax rate on your long term versus short term gains depends on your tax bracket, but it is usually sensible to hold investments for at least a year, although this must be considered in light of the need to rebalance.

Make Full Use of Tax-Advantaged Accounts

There are a number of types of investment accounts that have tax advantages. There are IRAs and 401(k)s, which allow investors to put in money before taxes.   These accounts allow you to defer taxes until you retire, whereupon you will be taxed on the money that you take out.   By paying taxes later, you get what amounts to a zero interest loan on the money that you would ordinarily have paid in taxes.

Another alternative is Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s.  In these accounts, you put money in after tax, but you are not taxed on the future gains.   If you have concerns that tax rates will be higher in the future, the Roth structure allows you to essentially lock in your total tax burden.

529 plans for college savings have tax advantages worth considering.  While you pay taxes on 529 contributions, the future investment gains are not taxes at all as long as the money is used for qualified educational expenses.   There may also be additional state tax incentives offered to residents, depending upon your home state.

Harvest Your Losses

If you make a profit by selling a security, you will owe taxes on the gain. However, if you sell security in a taxable brokerage account at a loss, the loss can be used to offset realized gains and can even offset up to $3,000 in ordinary income. If you then wait more than a month, you can buy the same position in the losing security and have reduced or eliminated your tax bill on the gain simply by selling the losing position and then waiting more than a month before buying that security back.   Alternatively, you might buy another similar security to the one that you took a loss on and then you don’t have to wait a month.   The key in this latter approach is that you can buy a similar but not functionally identical security if you want to take a loss and then immediately buy another security back.

It should be noted that tax loss harvesting does not eliminate taxes, but defers them into the future.   In general, paying taxes later is preferable to paying them today.

Matching Assets to Account Type

Different types of investment assets have different tax exposure, so it makes sense to put assets into the types of accounts in which taxes are lowest.   This process is sometimes referred to as selecting asset location.   Actively managed mutual funds are most tax efficient in tax deferred accounts, as are most types of bonds and other income producing assets.   The exceptions are those asset classes that have special tax benefits.   Income from municipal bonds, for example, is not taxed at the federal level and is often also tax free at the state level. Holding municipal bonds in tax deferred accounts wastes these tax benefits.   Qualified stock dividends are also taxed at rates that are lower than ordinary income, so qualified dividend-paying stocks typically make the most sense in taxable accounts.   Real estate investment trusts, on the other hand, are best located in tax deferred accounts because they tend to generate fairly high levels of taxable income.

Choose Tax Efficient Mutual Funds

When mutual fund managers sell holdings at a profit, fund investors are liable for taxes on these realized gains.  The more a fund manager trades, the greater the investor’s tax burden is likely to be.   Even if you, the investor, have not sold any shares of the fund, the manager has generated a tax liability on your behalf.   It is even possible for investors holding fund shares that have declined in value to owe capital gains taxes that result from one or more trades that the manager executed. You can minimize this source of taxes by either investing in mutual funds only in tax deferred accounts or by choosing funds that are tax efficient.   Index funds tend to be very tax efficient because they have low turnover.   There are also funds that are managed specifically  to reduce the investor’s tax burden.   One academic study found that funds engaged in tax efficient practices generate higher returns than peers even on a pre-tax basis.

Don’t Pay More Tax Than You Have To

Everyone needs to pay their fair share of taxes.  But if you manage your investments with a consideration of tax consequences, you can avoid paying more tax than is required.   If the various considerations outlined here seem too complicated, a simple allocation to a few index funds will tend to be fairly tax efficient.  That is a reasonable place to start.

An old adage about tax planning is that a tax deferred is a tax avoided. In general, the longer you can delay paying tax, the better off you are.   The various forms of tax deferred savings accounts are very valuable in this regard.

While it is more interesting looking for productive investment opportunities, spending a little time understanding how to minimize your tax burden can help to ensure that you actually get to spend the gains that you make.

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How Much am I Paying in Investment Expenses?

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

Hidden CostsIn my experience, I’ve found that many people have no idea how much they’re paying for the privilege of investing. And survey data supports my observations. Ignorance is not bliss. Analysis of investment expenses suggests that many people are probably losing a substantial portion of their potential lifetime investment gains to these expenses—and a considerable portion of them are avoidable.

To understand the true scope of investment expenses, you first need to know the different forms they can take. You’re not alone if you didn’t know about some of these costs.

  • Brokerage fees – Also known as trading commissions, these are what you pay when you buy or sell securities through a broker. Typically, brokerage costs accrue every time you make a trade, though there are a variety of fee structures.
  • Mutual fund stated costs – These are the fees that mutual fund management collects for running the fund. They are expressed as a mutual fund’s expense ratio.
  • Mutual fund trading costs – The costs that funds incur through trading their underlying securities are not included in the expense ratio. They are additional expenses that are passed along to fund investors.
  • Retirement plan administrative costs – In retirement plans, the costs associated with managing the plan itself are over and above the brokerage fees and mutual fund expenses.
  • Advisory fees – If you have a financial advisor, he or she may be paid on the basis of sales commissions, a percentage of your assets, or a flat fee.
  • Cash drag – Mutual funds tend to keep a certain percentage of their assets in cash to support fund share redemptions. These assets are doing nothing, but are still part of the assets subject to the expense ratio of the fund. This is not an explicit fee but it reduces the return of your investment, so I have included it here.
  • Taxes accrued by the mutual fund – Finally, it’s necessary to account for the tax burden that a fund creates for its investors through the fund’s trading.

The Impact of Fund Expenses

A 2011 Forbes article estimates that the average all-in cost of owning a mutual fund is 3.2% per year in a non-taxable account and 4.2% in a taxable account. This estimate is likely on the high end, but it’s certainly possible that it is accurate. A more recent article estimates that the average all-in cost of investing in an actively managed mutual fund is 2.2% per year, ignoring taxes. But rather than debate these numbers, the crucial question is how much you are spending in your own accounts.

While a 1% or 2% difference in expenses may seem small when compared to variability in fund total returns of 20% or more, the long term impact of those expenses is enormous.   Let’s do a little math to show how pernicious expenses can be.

Imagine that you can earn an average of 7% per year in a 60% stock/40% bond portfolio. The long term average rate of inflation in the United States is 2.3%. That means your real return after inflation is 4.7% (7% – 2.3%).  If your expenses in a taxable account are as high as the Forbes estimate, you’ll end up with only 0.5% per year in return net of inflation. This implies that the vast majority of returns from stocks and bonds could be lost to the various forms of expenses.

If you find that implausible, consider the fact that the average mutual fund investor has not even kept up with inflation over the past 20 years, a period in which inflation has averaged 2.5% per year, stocks have averaged gains of 8.2% per year.  The extremely poor returns that individual investors have achieved over the past twenty years are not just a result of high expenses, but expenses certainly must play a role given the estimates of how much the average investor pays.

A useful rule of thumb is that every extra 1% you pay in expenses equates to 20% less wealth accumulation over a working lifetime. If you can reduce expenses by 2% per year, before considering taxes you are likely to have a 40% higher income in retirement (higher portfolio value equates directly to higher income) or to be able to leave a 40% larger bequest to your family or to your favorite charity.

How to Get a Handle on Expenses

To estimate how much you are paying in expenses, follow these steps.

  1. Obtain the expense ratio of every mutual fund and ETF that you invest in. Multiply the expense ratios by the dollar amount in each fund to calculate your total cost.
  2. Look up the turnover of each fund that you invest in. Multiply the turnover by 1.2% to estimate the incremental expenses of trading. A fund with 100% annual turnover is likely to cost an additional 1.2% of your assets beyond the started expense ratio.
  3. If you use an advisor, make sure you know the annual cost of the advisor’s services as well as any so-called wrap fees of programs that the advisor has you participating in.
  4. Ask your HR manager to provide the all-in cost of your 401k plan.
  5. Add up all of your brokerage expenses for the past twelve months.

Collecting all of this information will take some time, but given the substantial potential impact of expenses on performance, it’s worth the trouble. If, when you add up all of these costs, your total expenses are less than 1% of your assets, you are keeping costs low. If your total expenses are between 1% and 2%, you need to make sure that you are getting something for your money. You may have an advisor who is providing a lot of planning help beyond just designing your portfolio, for example. Or you may be investing with a manager who you believe is worth paying a premium for. If your all-in costs are greater than 3% per year, you are in danger of sacrificing the majority of the potential after- inflation gains from investing.

Conclusions

It is hard to get excited about tracking expenses or cutting costs. The evidence clearly shows, however, that reducing your investment costs could make the difference between a well-funded retirement or college savings account and one that’s insufficient.

Future returns are hard to predict, but the impact of expenses is precisely known. The more you pay, the better your investments need to perform just to keep up with what you could achieve with low cost index funds. This is not an indictment of money managers but rather a reminder that investors need to be critical consumers of investment products and services.

For more analysis of the devastating impact of expenses, MarketWatch has an interesting take.

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