Portfolio Two Updated December, 2018

Portfolio Two is over 14 years old.  The beneficiary contributed $7500 and the trustee $15,200 for a total of $22,700.  The current value is $38,227 for a gain of $15,527 or 68%, which is 6.3% / year when adjusted for the timing of cash flows.  Go here or to the link on the right for details.

Portfolio two has switched to ETF’s which mostly track the US and world wide markets.  This portfolio also has $12,568 in cash, which is almost 1/3 of the portfolio.  The portfolio is doing OK in the current market downturn.

Portfolio Two Updated July, 2018

Portfolio two is almost 14 years old.  The beneficiary contributed $7000 and the trustee $14,200 for a total of $21,200.  The current balance is $39,012 for a gain of 84% or ~8% / year when adjusted for the timing of cash flows.  You can see the detail here or at the link on the bottom.

This portfolio is unique because it has moved to ETF’s and ~ 25% cash position.  The ETF’s have been doing well, with a large position in VTI (total US market) and a split between VEU (all world non US) and HEFA (all world non US hedged against the US dollar to get local market performance).  There also is a small biotech position (IBB) and gold ETF position (IAU).

When we moved to ETF’s from individual stocks in 2016, we also purchased a 2 year CD which paid 1.55% interest, because our money market fund was essentially offering “zero” interest on our money and we wanted to keep about $10,000 or so in cash and yet get some sort of return on the money.  This CD recently redeemed into cash in the account.  We could buy a new CD, but we are currently getting 1.85% return in our money market so we can just leave it there because the 2 and 3 year CD’s aren’t offering much more than that, and interest rates seem more likely to go up than down.  Thus we are planning (for now) to just leave cash in the money market instead of buying a CD because the incremental interest is negligible.

I want to have the beneficiary contribute now and have the trustee match, make our investments for summer 2018, have everything clear, then move the fund out of UTMA status and to the beneficiary (like we did with Portfolio One).  Then we can give the (technically former) trustee “agency” capabilities so that we can still take advantage of my free trades (which apply to the accounts that are under me or I have agency capabilities for).

 

Basic Investing Plan Updated June 2018

This is an update to my “basic investing plan” to take into account market shifts.  As always do your own research and make your own investing decisions.

This is a plan for a reasonably sophisticated investor; the goals include:

  • Diversity among investing classes
  • A few representative investment choices to allow for differing levels of risk
  • Aiming for very low costs
  • International options
  • Taking into account the impact of currency risk (rise and fall of the US dollar)

Fixed Income:

In my prior plan I recommended brokerage CD’s.  At the time (near zero interest rates), these were the only (almost) risk-less options to get a return above zero.  However, short term interest rates have shifted and it is now a viable option to leave money in money market accounts which should yield near 1.75%.  The current yield curve (as of June 2018) looks like this:

  • Base rate (no CD, leave in money market) – 1.75%
  • 1 year CD – 2.30%
  • 2 year CD – 2.80%
  • 3 year CD – 3.00%
  • 5 year CD – 3.30%
  • 10 year CD – 3.40%

ETF Options:

ETF’s are recommended due to their (generally) very low annual expenses and their tax efficiency (they do not generate gains unless you sell them).  The following ETF’s are good considerations for any portfolio:

Vanguard – Total US stock market (VTI)  – Provides exposure to all classes of US public stocks (over 3000 stocks).  They are “market weighted”, meaning that you are investing money based on the relative value of each stock.  This means that the top tech stocks (Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet (Google), Amazon and Facebook) comprise over 10% of the total investment (as of year end 2017).
VTI Top Ten

Vanguard – All-world except US stock market (VEU) – Provides exposure to all major non-US stock markets.  This index is also market weighted, and includes stocks from Europe, Asia (including China) and other major markets.

VEU_Top_Ten

iShares – Large and Mid-Capitalization Non-US stocks, Hedged vs. US Dollar (HEFA) – moves in the US dollar can significantly impact the return of foreign ETF’s like VEU, above.  For instance, if the dollar rises 20% against a basket of foreign currencies over a period of time (which has happened multiple times, along with reversals), this rise could completely wipe out the underlying return of these stocks.  Essentially the VEU international ETF above is maybe half a bet on the US dollar vs. a basket of foreign currencies, and a bet on the underlying performance of these foreign stocks.  If you want to get the “pure” return of these assets, HEFA should be seriously considered for your portfolio.  This ETF has slightly higher expenses than the other ETF’s listed above, but this is due to the added hedge costs, and is still a reasonably 0.7%.

iShares – Gold Trust (IAU) – tracks the short term price of gold.  Can be viewed as a hedge against market volatility and (potentially) likely to hold its value in a time of inflation or a debased US currency.  Does not offer a return in terms of dividends or stock returns.

Grayscale – Bitcoin Investment Trust (GBTC) – as of mid June 2018, this is the only ETF (like) way to participate in the crypto space directly.  It has a 2% annual expense ratio.  This product trades like an ETF and can be bought or sold easily on an exchange.  There are unique tax implications to owning this investment – here is the document that they provided with 2017 taxes.  Not recommended unless you want to deal with additional complexity.

Auditors for Major ETF Families

For some individuals who work for large accounting and financial professional service firms, they are not able to purchase shares of stocks in the companies that are audited by the firm.  Since there are essentially only four major worldwide audit / consulting firms (E&Y, Deloitte, KPMG and PWC), you will encounter issues with investing depending on which firm you work for.  The exact rules depend on your level and the type of work that you are doing and vary by firm – however, it is worth keeping this in mind as you join one of these firms.

I am not saying that these rules make sense per se or justifying them in any way, especially since all of the major ETF firms offer roughly equivalent products (the expenses vary a bit, and some offer unique products such as hedged ETF’s), but these rules exist and often as an employee you have no choice but to comply.  The theoretical reason for this is that as an employee of a large firm doing an audit you may have a financial incentive that outweighs your professional judgement; this seems implausible for areas like an S&P 500 index but that is outside the scope of this blog.

Here are the audit firms that audit the large ETF firms as of mid 2018:

  • Blackrock / iShares – D&T
  • Vanguard – PWC
  • State Street Advisors – E&Y
  • Invesco – PWC
  • Charles Schwab – D&T

Portfolio Two Updated August 2017

Portfolio Two is our second longest lived portfolio.  This portfolio has been converted to ETF’s and a CD.  Beneficiary investment is $6500, trustee investment is $13,000 for a total of $19,500.  Current value is $34,290 for a gain of $14,790 or 76%, which is 7.8% over the life of the fund annualized.  Go here or to the link on the right for the portfolio detail.

This portfolio is different from the others in that there is a 1.55% CD for $10,000 and the rest are ETF’s.  The largest ETF is VTI (US total index) with VEU (all world ex US) and HEFA (non US, hedged).  We also have a small position in IBB for biotech.  All seem to be doing well.

It is a symptom of ZIRP that our CD returns less than the US or European stock funds, which are around 2.5% / year.

On Investing

Investing has changed significantly during the 25 or so years that I have been following both the market and also the tools available for an investor to participate within the market.  The following trends are key:

  • The cost of trading and investing has declined significantly.  Trades used to cost more than $25 and now are essentially free in many cases.  Mutual funds used to have “loads” of 5% or more standard when you made an investment, meaning that $100 invested only went to work for you as $95.  These sorts of up-front costs have almost totally been eliminated
  • ETF’s have (mostly) replaced mutual funds.  ETF’s “trade like stocks”, meaning that you can buy and sell anytime (mutual funds traded once a day, after being priced with that days’ activity) and they don’t have income tax gains and losses unless you actually make a trade (mutual funds often had gains due to changes in the portfolio that you had to pay taxes on even if you were just holding the fund)
  • CD’s and Government Debt are all electronic.  You used to have to go to a bank for various governmental bond products or to buy a CD.  Now you not only can buy all of this online, you can choose from myriad banks instantly rather than settle for whatever your main bank (Chase, Wells Fargo, etc…) offers up to you
  • Interest Rates are Near Zero.  One of the key concepts in investing is “compound interest”, where interest is re-invested and even small, continuous investments held for a long time can end up amounting to large sums (in nominal terms, because inflation often eats away at “real” returns).  However, with interest rates basically near zero, you need to earn dividend income or take on more risk (i.e. “junk bonds”) in order to receive any sort of interest income.  There is no “safe” way to earn income any more
  • Currency Fluctuations Matter.  When the Euro initially came out it was $1.30 for each US dollar, and then it went to 70 cents per dollar, and now it is about $1.10 per dollar.  At one point the dollar fell 30-40% against many currencies world wide (when “commodity” currencies like the Canadian and Australian dollar were surging).   For many years currencies were relatively stable against one another but that era seems to be ending, and thus the change in relationship between the US dollar and their currency can be much greater than the return that is earned on the international investments
  • Active Trading Has Mostly Been Beaten By Passive Trading.  While there are many exceptions, initially the majority of investments were “active”, but over the years many of the “active” managers have substantially under-performed the market, wilst charging investors more in fees (it is cheaper to run a “passive” index).  As a result, there has been a massive shift away from active investors to passive investors like Vanguard
  • Correlation Among Stocks and Investment Classes Is Much Higher.  Correlation means that stocks or asset classes tend to “move up” together or “move down” together.  It is not unusual for me to look at a portfolio of 20 stocks and 19 or 20 of them have all gone up or down on a single day.  This is related to active managers being unable to “beat” the market (see above)
  • The “Risk Premium” for Lower Quality Debt is Small.  The amount of extra interest required for low quality borrowers over the US Treasury benchmark is very small.  Investors are taking on a lot of risk to just earn a few more percentage points of return.  If there is a downturn in the economy (such as what happened only recently in US oil companies), there are likely to be significant declines in junk bond values that wouldn’t justify the modest risk premium you receive for holding these types of assets
  • ETF’s Provide an Easy Way to Participate in Commodity Markets.  It was more difficult to buy and invest in commodities like gold and crude in the past, and it was often limited to relatively sophisticated investors or those willing to hold on to physical commodities like gold (which can be risky since they need to be stored and protected due to high value and inability to trace once stolen).  Today you can easily buy a liquid ETF to participate in the commodity markets for key areas like precious metals (gold and silver) and crude oil / natural gas
  • Fewer Companies are Going Public and the Market is Shrinking (in terms of issuers, not total value) – It is easy for start up companies to access private capital (venture funds) and they tend to “go IPO” at high values, making a further upside (after the initial IPO) more difficult.  The total market is shrinking in terms of listings due to M&A (companies buying other companies) faster than the new IPO’s and many companies are “buying back” shares which also reduces the total value of the public markets
  • Bonds have had a Gigantic Bull Market that is Nearing It’s End – Bond prices move inversely to yield; thus if you held on to a 5% low risk bond (which would have been available everywhere in the early 2000’s), that bond would currently be priced at much more than 100 cents on the dollar today.  Interest rates peaked around 20% near 1980 and now are not far from zero; in this sense bonds are part of an enormous “bubble market” that has not yet peaked.  But given how low rates are (they are even negative), it seems like this bull run is about to come to an end
  • Ensure That You Include Dividends and Total Return.  A common mistake is to look at performance just in terms of stock or asset prices, and avoid including the compounding impact of dividends received, especially since dividends often rise each year.  Dividend income can make up a significant portion (25% and up) of total return, so selecting assets that provide dividend income is critical.  Finally, dividends provide favorable tax rates when compared to interest income

What does all of this mean?  I would sum it up in two ways:

  1. It is easy for individual investors to set up a simple and low cost way to track the market – the “basic plan” that I set up as a simple example can be used by anyone and it does what it says.  Here is a second plan that also includes some hedging of the non-US investment
  2. You will need to save much more (or take on more risk) because interest rates are low – with near zero interest rates, you can’t make much money on low risk interest bearing products (like CD’s, savings accounts, and simple government debt).  If you are earning risk income, you likely are taking on substantial risk of default because there is no “free lunch”.  As a result, you need to put more cash into stocks in order to earn dividends or see real returns, but this also could lead to significant losses if there is a market crash like 2008-9.

I try to promote financial literacy and have helped many friends and some family members when they ask questions.  Ideally we would actually drive financial literacy through school and into the university.  Even those who have a degree in finance or accounting often lack practical advice on personal finance and don’t know how to approach these issues.

One key concept is “net worth”.  Net worth isn’t how much you earn in salary, it is what remains in savings after taxes (or through long term deferral of taxes).  The only “assets” that count are those that you can turn into cash if needed, and they are “net” of the debt (such as on your house).  Most people have a negative or near-zero net worth, which is also linked to the concept that they are essentially a couple of missed paychecks away from very bad outcomes such as having to take out a payday loan or borrow money from relatives.

Another key concept is trying to avoid excessive student debt.  Unlike all other forms of debt (loans on your house, your car, or credit card debt) your student debt cannot be discharged through bankruptcy.  You essentially have no options except to repay your loans, and if you miss payments or fall behind the fees and penalties will greatly increase your balance due.  Student financial literacy is critical because they are making decisions that will impact themselves and their families for the rest of their lives and they must be made thoughtfully and with the end in mind (if you are taking out all of this debt, you must be driven in your career to make money in order to pay it off and get on with building net worth).

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz