Category Archives: Mutual Funds

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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Am I Effectively Diversified?

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

Diversified FolioDiversification is a perennial topic among investors, and if it seems controversial at times, that may be due to the fact that people don’t always share the same understanding of what it means. But diversification isn’t about investing in a certain number of securities or funds. And it’s not about investing in every possible security under the sun.

 

Diversification and Risk

Simply put, diversification is the process of combining investments that don’t move in lockstep with each other. For example, Treasury bonds tend to do well when stocks are falling, and vice versa.  Combining stocks and bonds thus helps to limit risk.  Bonds also reduce the risk of a portfolio because they tend to be less risky on a standalone basis than stocks.

This brings us to an important point: the aggregate risk/return properties of a portfolio depend not only on the risk and return of the assets themselves, but also on the relationships between them.  Determining the right balance among these three factors (asset risk, asset return, and diversification benefit) is the challenge of diversification.

A Diversification Self-Assessment

The starting point in the determining whether your portfolio is properly diversified is to come up with a risk level that matches your needs.  I discussed risk estimation in last week’s blog.  Assuming you have a target risk level for your portfolio, you can then attempt to determine how to combine assets so as to achieve the maximum expected return for this risk.

The word “expected” is crucial here.  It is easy to look back and to see, for example, that simply holding 100% of your assets in U.S. stocks would have been a winning strategy over the past five years or so.  The trailing five year return of the S&P 500 is 15.7% per year and there has not been a 10% drop in over 1,000 days.  Over this period, holding assets in almost any other asset class has only reduced portfolio return and risk reduction does not look like a critical issue when volatility is this low.  The problem, of course, is that you invest on the basis of expected future returns and you have to account for the fact that there is enormous uncertainty as to what U.S. stocks will do going forward. Diversification is important because we have limited insight into the future.

Many investors think that they are diversified because they own a number of different funds.  Owning multiple funds that tend to move together may result in no diversification benefit at all, however.  A recent analysis of more than 1,000,000 individual investors found that their portfolios were substantially under-diversified.  The level of under-diversification, the authors estimated, could result in a reduction of lifetime wealth accumulation of almost one fifth (19%).

Additional Diversifiers

Aside from a broad U.S. stock index (S&P 500, e.g., IVV or VFINX) and a broad bond index (e.g., AGG or VBMFX), what other asset classes are worth considering?

  • Because the S&P 500 is oriented to very large companies, consider adding an allocation to small cap stocks, such as with a Russell 2000 index (e.g. IWM or NAESX).
  • There is also considerable research that suggests that value stocks—those stocks with relatively low price-to-earnings or price-to-book values—have historically added to performance as well. A large cap value fund (e.g. VTV, IWD, VIVAX) or small cap value fund (e.g. VBR, RZV) may be a useful addition to a portfolio.
  • In addition to domestic stocks, consider some allocation to international stocks (e.g. EFA or VGTSX) and emerging markets (e.g. EEM or VEIEX).
  • Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) invest in commercial and residential real estate, giving investors share in the rents on these properties. There are a number of REIT index funds (e.g. ICF, RWR, and VGSIX).
  • Utility stock index funds (e.g. XLU) can be a useful diversifier because they have properties of stocks (shareholders own a piece of the company) and bonds (utilities tend to pay a stable amount of income), but have fairly low correlation to both.
  • Preferred shares (as represented by a fund such as PFF) also have some properties of stocks and some of bonds.
  • Another potential diversifier is gold (GLD).

 

Diversification Example

To help illustrate the potential value of diversification, I used a portfolio simulation tool (Quantext Portfolio Planner, which I designed) to estimate how much additional return one might expect from adding a number of the asset classes listed above to a portfolio that originally consists of just an S&P 500 fund and a bond fund.

Diversification

Risk and return for a 2-asset portfolio as compared with a more diversified portfolio (source: author’s calculations)

The estimated return of a portfolio that is 70% allocated to the S&P 500 and 30% allocated to an aggregate bond index fund is 6.4% per year with volatility of 13%.  (Volatility is a standard measure of risk.)  Compare that to the more diversified portfolio I designed, which has the same expected volatility, but an expected return of 7.3% per year, as estimated by the portfolio simulation tool.  The diversified portfolio is not designed or intended to be an optimal portfolio, but rather simply to show how a moderate allocation to a number of other asset classes can increase expected return without increasing portfolio risk.[1]

The process of analyzing diversified portfolios can get quite involved and there are many ideas about how best to do so.  But the range of analysis suggests that a well-diversified portfolio could add 1%-2% per year to portfolio return.

Conclusions

I have observed that the longer a bull market in U.S. stocks goes on, the more financial writers will opine that diversifying across asset classes is pointless.  We are in just that situation now, as witnessed by a recent article on SeekingAlpha titled Retirees, All You Need is the S&P 500 and Cash.

On the other hand, there is a large body of research that demonstrates that, over longer periods, diversification is valuable in managing risk and enhancing returns.  That said, a simple allocation to stocks and bonds has the virtue of simplicity and can be attained with very low cost.  Diversifying beyond these two assets can meaningfully increase return or reduce risk, but an increase in average return of 1%-2% per year is not going to take the sting out of a 20%+ market decline.  What’s more, a diversified portfolio is quite likely to substantially under-perform the best-performing asset class in any given time period.

But over long periods of time, the gain of 1%-2% from diversification is likely to increase your wealth accumulation over 30 years by 20%-30%.  This is consistent with the analysis of 1,000,000 individual investors cited above, from which the authors concluded that under-diversified portfolios were likely to reduce lifetime wealth accumulation by 19%.

For investors seeking to diversify beyond a low cost stock-bond mix, there are a number of simple portfolios that include a range of the asset classes discussed here and that have fairly long track records.  These are worth exploring as a template for further diversifying your own portfolio.

[1] For details on how the model estimates risk and return for different asset classes and for portfolios, see the whitepaper I wrote on the subject.

 

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How Am I Doing? An 8-Point Financial Checklist

How am I doing?A question that nags at many people is whether they are on track financially.  Even an average financial life can seem remarkably complex.  How does anyone know whether he or she is doing the right things?  A range of studies on how people manage their money suggests that many, if not the majority, are making choices that look decidedly sub-optimal.  Americans don’t save enough money and when they do save and invest, they often make basic mistakes that substantially reduce their returns.  More than 60% of self-directed investors have portfolios with inappropriate risk levels.  Almost three quarters of Americans have little or no emergency savings.  The solution to these problems starts with an assessment of where you are and where you need to be.

The key, as Einstein once said, is to make things as simple as possible but no simpler.  In an attempt to provide a checklist that’s in line with this edict, I offer the following questions that each person or family needs to be able to answer.

The first three questions focus on consumption and saving:

  1. Am I saving enough for to meet personal goals such as retirement, college education, and home ownership?
  2. Am I saving enough for contingencies such as a job loss or an emergency?
  3. Am I investing when I should be paying down debt instead, or vice-versa?

The next five questions deal with how you invest the money that you save:

  1. Is my portfolio at the right risk level?
  2. Am I effectively diversified?
  3. Am I aware of how much am I paying in expenses?
  4. Are my financial decisions tax efficient?
  5. Should I hire an investment advisor?

Anyone who can answer all eight of these questions satisfactorily has a strong basis for assessing whether he or she is on track. Odds are there are more than a few questions here that most of us either don’t have the answer to or know that we are not addressing very well.

Part of what makes answering these questions challenging is that the experiences of previous generations are often of limited relevance, especially when it comes to life’s three biggest expenditures: retirement, college, and housing.

For example, older people who have traditional pensions that guarantee a lifetime of income in retirement simply didn’t need to worry about choosing how much they had to save to support themselves during retirement.

The cost of educating children has also changed, increasing much faster than inflation or, more crucially, household income.  For many in the older generation, college was simply not a consideration. It has become the norm, however, and borrowing to pay for college is now the second largest form of debt in America, surpassed only by home mortgages.  Children and, more often their parents, must grapple with the question of how much they can or should pay for a college education, along with the related question of whether a higher-ranked college is worth the premium cost.

The third of the big three expenses that most families face is housing costs. Following the Second World War, home buyers benefitted from an historic housing boom.  Their children, the Baby Boomers, have also seen home prices increase substantially over most of their working careers.  Even with the huge decline in the housing crash, many Boomer home owners have done quite well with real estate.    Younger generations (X, Y, and Millenials), by contrast, have experienced enormous volatility in housing prices and must also plan for more uncertainty in their earnings.  And of course, what you decide you can afford to spend on a home has implications for every other aspect of your financial life.

In addition to facing major expenses without a roadmap provided by previous generations, we also need to plan for the major known expenses of everyday life. It’s critically important to determine how much to keep in liquid emergency savings and how to choose whether to use any additional available funds to pay down debts or to invest.  There are general guidelines to answering these questions and we will explore these in a number of future posts.

The second set of questions is easier to answer than the first.  These are all questions about how to effectively invest savings to meet future needs.  Risk, diversification, expenses, and tax exposure can be benchmarked against professional standards of practice.

What can become troubling, however, is that experts disagree about the best approach to addressing a number of these factors.  When in doubt, simplicity and low cost are typically the best choices.  Investors could do far worse than investing in a small number of low-cost index funds and choosing the percentages to stocks and bonds based on their age using something like the ‘age in bonds’ rule.  There are many ways to try for better returns at a given risk level, and some make far more sense than others.  Even Warren Buffett, arguably the most successful investor in the world, endorses a simple low-cost index fund strategy.  Upcoming posts will provide a number of straightforward standards for addressing these questions.

Investors who find these questions  too burdensome or time consuming to deal with may wish to spend some time on the eighth and final question: whether they should hire an investment advisor to guide them.  Investors may ultimately choose to manage their own finances, search out a human advisor, or use an online computer-driven advisory service.

While financial planning can seem complex and intimidating, our series of blog posts on the key issues, as outlined in the eight questions above, will provide a framework by which individuals can effectively take control and manage their financial affairs.

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Understanding How Fund Performance Comparisons Overstate Returns

May 13, 2014

Every investor has, I hope, read the standard disclaimer on mutual fund and ETF performance documents that ‘past performance does not predict future performance,’ or other text to that effect. Still, when you read a fund company’s statement that ‘x% of our funds have out-performed their category average’ or that ‘x% of our funds are rated 4- and 5-star by Morningstar,’ this seems meaningful. Similarly, if you read that the average small value fund has returns ‘y’% per year over the last 10 years, this also seems significant. There is a major factor that is missing in many of these types of comparisons of fund performance, however, that tend to make active funds look better than they really are (as compared to low-cost index funds) as well as making a mutual fund family’s managers look more skillful than they might actually be.

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Economic Inequality

Income inequality is increasingly acknowledged as a key economic issue for the world.  The topic is a major theme at Davos this year.  Economic inequality is also an increasingly common topic in U.S. politics.

A new study has found that economic mobility does not appear to have changed appreciably over the past thirty years, even as the wealth gap has grown enormously.   The authors analyzed the probability that a child born into the poorest 20% of households would move into the top 20% of households as an adult.  The numbers have not changed in three decades.

On the other hand, there is clearly a substantial accumulation of wealth at the top of the socioeconomic scale.  The richest 1% of Americans now own 25% of all of the wealth in the U.S.  The share of national income accruing to the richest 1% has doubled since 1980.  In contrast, median household income has shown no gains, adjusted for inflation, since the late 1980’s and has dropped substantially from its previous peak in the late 1990’s.

Why is this happening?

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More Unconventional Failure

Guest post by Richard (Rick) A. Ferri, CFA, founder of Portfolio Solutions.

Unconventional success from an investment strategy leads to failure for most investors. The excess gains earned by the early adopters of a new investment idea quickly dissipate as growing crowds become increasingly unsophisticated and push down returns. It doesn’t take long before the average return from the strategy falls well below a simple portfolio of index funds. Continue reading