Tag Archives: Stock

The Biggest Myth About Index Investing

Reader Mailbag: Dividend Investing vs Index Investing

John Bogle has done a great job of “selling” index investing.  He started the Vanguard group with the promise that you could invest in the stock market “on the cheap.”  It’s the thing that made the Vanguard group the second biggest fund family in the country.

Selling things based on price is always popular with the public.  It’s the key to the success of Wal Mart,  Amazon, and a lot of “Big Box” stores.

But Bogle based his sales pitch not just on price, but also the promise that if you bought his funds you would do better than if you bought his competition.  He cites statistics to show that the average mutual fund has under-performed the index, so why not buy the index?

The resulting popularity of index investing has had one big, unfortunate side-effect.  It has created the myth that they are safe.

A government employee planning to retire in the near future asked this question in a forum:

“I plan to rollover my 457 deferred compensation plan into Vanguard index funds upon retirement in a few months. I currently have 50% in Vanguard Small Cap Index Funds and 50% in Vanguard Mid Cap Index Funds and think that these are somewhat aggressive, safe, and low cost.”

The problem with the Vanguard sales pitch is that it’s worked too well.   The financial press has given index investing so much good press that people believe things about them that are not true.

Small and Mid-cap stock index funds are aggressive and low cost, but they are by no means “safe.”  For some reason, there is a widespread misconception that investing in a stock index fund like the Vanguard 500 index fund or its siblings is low risk.  It’s not.

But unless you get a copy of the prospectus and read it carefully, you have to bypass the emphasis on low cost before you get to this warning:

“An investment in the Fund could lose money over short or even long periods. You should expect the Fund’s share price and total return to fluctuate within a wide range.”

The fact is that investing in the stock market is never “safe.”  Not when you buy a stock or when you buy stock via an index fund.  There is no guarantee if any specific return.  In fact, there is no guarantee that you will get your money back.  Over the long term, investors in the stock market have done well if they stayed the course.  But humans have emotions.  They make bad decisions because of misconceptions and buy and sell based on greed and fear.

My concern about the soon-to-be-retired government employee is that he is going to invest all of his retirement nest-egg in high-risk funds while believing that they are “safe.”  He may believe that the past 8 years can be projected into the future.  The stock market has done well since the recovery began in 2009.  We are eventually going to get a “Bear Market” and when that happens the unlucky retiree may find that has retirement account has declined as much as 50% (as the market did in 2008).  At some point he will bail out and not know when to get back in, all because he was unaware of the risk he was taking.

Many professional investors use index funds as part of a well-designed diversified portfolio.  But there should be no misconception that index investing is “safe.”  Don’t be fooled by this myth.

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What does “diversification” mean?

 

Diversification is key - Wealth Foundations

To many retail investors “diversification” means owning a collection of stocks, bonds, mutual funds or Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).  But that’s really not what diversification is all about.

What’s the big deal about diversification anyhow?

Diversification means that you are spreading the risk of loss by putting your investment assets in several different categories of investments.  Examples include stocks, bonds, money market instruments, commodities, and real estate.  Within each of these categories you can slice even finer.  For example, stocks can be classified as large cap (big companies), mid cap (medium sized companies), small cap (smaller companies), domestic (U.S. companies), and foreign (non-U.S. companies).

And within each of these categories you can look for industry diversification.  Many people lost their savings in 2000 when the “Tech Bubble” burst because they owned too many technology-oriented stocks.  Others lost big when the real estate market crashed in late 2007 because they focused too much of their portfolio in bank stocks.

The idea behind owning a variety of asset classes is that different asset classes will go in different directions independent of each other.  Theoretically, if one goes down, another may go up or hold it’s value.  There is a term for this: “correlation.”  Investment assets that have a high correlation tend to move in the same direction, those with a low correlation do not.  These assumptions do not always hold true, but they are true often enough that proper diversification is a valuable tool to control risk.

Many investors believe that if they own a number of different mutual funds they are diversified.  They are, of course, more diversified than someone who owns only a single stock.  But many funds own the same stocks.  We have to look within the fund, to the things they own, and their investment styles, to find out if your funds are merely duplicates of each other or if you are properly diversified.

You need to look at a “portfolio x-ray” which will show you how much overlap there is between two or more mutual funds.

Only by looking at your portfolio with this view of diversification can you determine if you are diversified or if you have accidentally concentrated your portfolio without realizing it.

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The Liquidity Trap – Or How to Lose $4.5 Billion

Liquidity is defined in the Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms as “the ability to buy or sell an asset quickly and in large volume without substantially affecting the asset’s price.”

In layman’s terms it means being able to get to your money quickly and without a major loss.  Liquid assets are things like checking accounts and money market funds.  They can also include mutual funds and stocks in large companies that trade on a major stock exchange, although in times of severe financial stress even these may see major price swings.

But there are lots of things people own that are not liquid.  The typical family’s home is a large part of their wealth.  Homes are not liquid; they can’t be sold quickly and converted to cash in times of need.  What a home can be sold for is a guess; something that millions of people learned when the housing bubble burst in 2008.  Families found that the value of their home was tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars less than their mortgage.

Besides a home, many stocks are not liquid.  Shares in small companies with a few shares outstanding may not be liquid.  Even the very wealthy are finding out that the liquidity trap can turn them from billionaires to paupers in short order.  Forbes Magazine listed Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos,  as America’s richest self-made woman last year with a fortune estimated at $4.5 billion.  The most recent listing gave her net worth at zero.  The reason for this is fairly simple.  Her net worth was based on the value of one stock: Theranos.  The stock was not publicly traded and if she had tried to sell some of it the share price would have plummeted because it would show a lack of confidence in the future of the company.

So when Theranos ran into serious problems Holmes could not get out and her fortune literally disappeared into thin air.

The average person can avoid the liquidity trap by following a few simple rules.

  1. Do not put too much of your personal wealth in things – like homes – that can’t be easily sold.
  2. Do not put too much of your personal wealth in one stock. You do not want your net worth to evaporate because of poor decisions by corporate management.
  3. Smart investors spread their financial assets widely.  Realizing that they cannot accurately predict the future, they own stocks and bonds, domestic and foreign.  If they don’t have the means to diversify using individual stocks and bonds they use mutual funds or ETFs.
  4. Get an advisor. Most smart people use professionals when they need medical, legal or financial advice.

For more information, contact us.

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Norfolk Southern beats the street

From the AP:

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ Norfolk Southern Corp. (NSC) on Thursday reported first-quarter earnings of $387 million.

On a per-share basis, the Norfolk, Virginia-based company said it had profit of $1.29.

The results beat Wall Street expectations. The average estimate of 11 analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research was for earnings of 97 cents per share.

The railroad posted revenue of $2.42 billion in the period, also surpassing Street forecasts. Three analysts surveyed by Zacks expected $2.4 billion.

Norfolk Southern shares have decreased slightly more than 2 percent since the beginning of the year, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 index has risen slightly more than 2 percent. In the final minutes of trading on Thursday, shares hit $82.63, a decline of 19 percent in the last 12 months.

 

NSC shares rose 4.8% in after-hours trading.

 

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Ending a bad habit

Did you ever hear about the famous feud between the Hatfield and the McCoys?  They lived in the mountains on the West Virginia/ Kentucky border in the late 1800s.  It all began in a dispute over a hog and led to the death of two dozen people over a 20 year period.  As time passed the original reasons were lost and the feud became a deadly habit.

Most people are creatures of habit.  Some habits are a good thing.  It’s a substitute for rethinking a lot of things we do automatically: we shower, brush our teeth and eat breakfast mostly out of habit rather than spending time wondering if we should.  It makes our lives easier.

The habit of saving money for retirement is also a good thing.  It’s a habit that leads to financial success.  But what we do with that money can lead to bad habits.  Getting into the habit of investing in the same thing year after year can lead to bad results.

For example, Microsoft (MSFT) has made some people – like its founder Bill Gates – one of the richest men in the world.  Adjusted for stock splits, it was $0.10 /share in 1986; today it’s about $54/ share, a gain of over 54000%.  However, if you had bought it in 1999 hoping to see that trend continue you could have paid $59/per share.  You would still be waiting to break even, having lost money over a 17 year period.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of habit that so many investors exhibit.   They may buy stock in a company they work for and develop the habit of sticking with it even if the company has problems.  General Electric (GE) has tens of thousands of employees who bought its stock.  They saw the price drop from $60/share to $6/share between 2000 and 2009.

They may read about a mutual fund in a magazine or on-line and buy it without doing the appropriate research and add to it out of habit.  Habits are a substitute for thinking about our actions.  Some habits, like exercise and punctuality are good.  But we should avoid falling into the trap of making investment choices out of habit.  To do so can lead us to the same fate of the investor who bought Microsoft 17 years ago or GE 16 years ago and is still waiting to get even.

One way to avoid the trap of using habits to make investment choices is to regularly re-examine your investments.  Ask yourself if you had cash, would you buy the same things you currently have in your portfolio?  If you don’t know the answer, this is the time to get professional guidance from an investment professional, a trusted fiduciary who has your best interests at heart.

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Up and down Wall Street

As we write this, the stock market is up.  After the volatility of the past two months we decided to look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average stocks to see how that index fared.

Of the 30 stocks in the DJIA, year-to-date nine stocks are up and twenty-one are down.

The five biggest winners (as of this moment) are

  1. Wal-Mart +11%
  2. Verizon +11%
  3. 3M +5%
  4. Exxon +4%
  5. Procter & Gamble +3%

The five biggest losers are

  1. American Express -21%
  2. Boeing – 19%
  3. Goldman Sachs – 18%
  4. Intel -15%
  5. JP Morgan -14%

Please note that this is not a recommendation, suggestion of solicitation of any kind.  We just thought it was interesting to see which stocks were affecting the DJIA so far this year.

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Active vs. passive managers

Amateur investors continue to move money into passively managed funds.  However, according to Ignites Research, elite professionals are largely using actively managed funds, favoring active managers by a ratio of 4 to 1.

What explains this contrarian approach? The answer is risk control. Passively managed funds don’t have the ability to use judgment, being required to continue to match an index no matter what. And as the markets have become increasingly volatile, passive funds are at the mercy of traders who don’t care about fundamental values.

When markets are going up consistently, a case can be made for passive index investing. However, when the market is roiled by rumor and headlines that have little to do with economic fundamentals, passive funds are at the mercy of short term traders. Actively managed funds can take advantage by shopping for bargains. Active managers can raise cash to ride out temporary storms, something that passive funds don’t do.

Amateur investors are attracted to passive investing after years of being sold on low fees and performance claims. However, low fees – measured as fractions of a percent – do little to help the investor watching his or her investments drop by 10, 15, or 20% during bear markets.

And those performance claims assume that the alternative to an index fund is the average of all actively managed funds. This is simply not the case. One leading portfolio manager puts it this way:

“It’s a myth that you can’t find outperforming active managers who can beat their benchmarks over time. So for us, sorting out and tracking the best active fund managers is a worthwhile pursuit and helps add value for our clients.”

We agree. At a time of increased volatility and lowered expectations it’s a good time to get a professional review of your portfolio.

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Are You an “Affluent Worker?”

Forbes magazine recently had an article about some of our favorite clients. They call them the “High Net Worker.” These are people who are successful mid-level executives in major businesses. They range in age from 40 to the early 60s. They earn from $200,000 per year and often more than $500,000. They work long hours and are good at their jobs.

According to the Forbes article, many have no plans to retire. Our experience is different; retirement is definitely an objective. But many have valuable skills and plan to begin a second career or consult after retiring from their current company.

At this time in their lives they have accumulated a fair amount of wealth, own a nice home in a good neighborhood, and may be getting stock options or deferred bonuses. That means that at this critical time in their lives, when they are focused on career and have little time for anything else, they have not done much in the way of financial planning.

When it comes to investing, most view themselves as conservative. But because of their compensation their investments are actually much riskier than they think. It is not unusual for executives of large corporations to have well over 50% of their net worth tied to their company’s stock. Few people realize the risks they are taking until something bad happens. For example, the industrial giant General Electric’s stock lost over 90% of its value over a nine year period ending in 2009. The stock of financial giant UBS dropped nearly 90% between May 2007 and February 2009. These companies survived. There are many household names, like General Motors and K-Mart whose shareholders lost everything.

The affluent worker’s family usually includes one or more children who are expected to go to college. Many of these families have a 529 college savings plan for their children. Most have IRAs and contribute to their company’s 401k plan, but because many don’t have a financial planner they do not have a well thought out strategy for this part of their portfolio.

At a time when many less affluent families are downsizing, many families in this category are either looking to upgrade their homes, buy a bigger home, or buy a second – vacation – home. They may even help their adult children with down-payments.

If you are an Affluent Worker, give us a call and see what we can do for you. If you already have a financial advisor, it may be time to get a second opinion.

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Paying a million dollars in taxes?

It’s time to pay our taxes and for many people it’s a painful chore. Whether you’re getting a refund or sending the US Treasury a check, the amount of money the government takes from our hard-earned income is never pleasant.

But I have told people that one year I would like to actually have to pay the government $1 million in taxes. Why? Because it means that I probably earned in the neighborhood of $2 million and that’s a nice neighborhood.

I have had a number of conversations this year with clients who have to write big checks to the government. The question always comes up “is there a way to pay less?” The answer is “yes” but the trade-off is not always to their advantage.

Tax free bonds (“munis”) have been a traditional way of avoiding taxes. Unfortunately the Federal Reserve’s zero interest rate policy has reduced the yield on munis to the very low single digit range. A triple A rated Virginia muni maturing in 10 years yields a touch over 1.5%. Unless you are very taxaphobic the idea of tying your money up for a decade at a rate below inflation is not very attractive.

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) have been touted for their tax efficiency. That’s true, but unless you buy and hold them forever, at some point you will have to sell them to get money for living expenses.  That’s when the tax comes due. And the tax rate could actually be higher.

The same argument goes for buying individual growth stocks. At some point, you will want to turn them into cash that you can spend for, say, a new car, travel, or all the other things you need money for and that’s when the tax man wants his share. Keep in mind that today’s growth stock can be tomorrow’s bankruptcy. Trees don’t grow to the sky and at some point even Apple may find that there’s a worm in the core. Individual stocks are fine, but lack of diversification is one of the biggest risks to wealth.

The US tax rate reached 94% during WW II in 1944. In the years that followed the rate never dropped below 70% until 1981. Investments were offered whose primary goal was to shelter income from taxes. These were often extremely poor investments. One shelter I recall was an investment in an aircraft leasing company that owned used aircraft. When the price of fuel rose, these planes were sidelined for more efficient models.  Some of the used planes were sold for parts.  Most investors eventually broke even … after a decade or so. The lesson here is that you should not let tax avoidance drive your investment decisions.

Top federal tax rates
These “tax shelters” mostly dried up during the Reagan era when top tax rates dropped to 28% in 1988.

They have been rising gradually since then.

Regular garden variety mutual funds have been getting a bad press because their capital gains distributions are not predictable. However, they have two advantages: (1) they focus on the primary objective of growth of capital rather than secondary issues, and (2) they allow you to pay your taxes as you go. The benefit of that is that when you want to turn your mutual funds into cash to pay for groceries – or whatever is you need money for – most of your tax may already have been paid and the tax man will take a smaller bite.

The desire to avoid taxes is natural, but the best way to manage money is to focus on avoiding major losses and getting a fair return. If taxes bother you, vote for the candidate who you think will lower the tax rate. That’s the smart way to manage your taxes.

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Apple Joins the Dow

From the Wall Street Journal

 

Apple will join the Dow Jones Industrial Average this month, a long-anticipated change that adds the world’s most-valuable company to the 119-year-old blue-chip index.

The move is the latest milestone for Apple, which has emerged in recent years as the standard-bearer for a resurgent U.S. technology sector. The Cupertino, Calif., company in January reported latest-quarter net income of $18 billion, the largest quarterly profit on record, fueled by roaring sales of iPhones.

Apple will replace telecommunication giant AT&T, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices, the unit of McGraw Hill Financial Inc. that owns the Dow.

This will affect the Dog of The Dow since AT&T is currently the highest yielding DJIA stock.

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