Archives for March 2016

Morningstar Individual Investor Conference 2016

mornconfMorningstar is holding a free online event this Saturday, April 2nd called the Individual Investor Conference. Starting at 9am Central, according the full agenda there will be six live streaming video sessions from their staff. You can chat with other attendees during the video stream, or also send in your own questions to miic@morningstar.com with the subject line “MIIC 2016: My Investing Question”. Here are the sessions that interest me:

10:00–10:50 a.m. CST “Securing Your Retirement: A Conversation with Christine Benz and Harold Evensky”

As pension plans wane and Social Security faces long-term cutbacks, more and more of individuals’ retirement security is in their own hands. How do they make it work? In this one-on-one interview, Morningstar director of personal finance Christine Benz and noted financial planner Harold Evensky (a pioneer of the “bucket approach” to retirement income) will discuss the key pillars to retirement security for individuals in every life stage–from early-career savers to those already in retirement.

1:30–2:20 p.m. CST “Portfolio Planning: Make a Lean, Mean, Tax-Efficient Machine”

Because we investors don’t know what headwinds will come, it makes sense to streamline everything else we can control–and that includes minimizing the drag caused by unnecessary tax exposure. In this presentation, Morningstar director of personal finance Christine Benz will help you craft a solid plan for tax efficiency–that means maximizing tax shelters, optimizing taxable portfolios, finding the best tax-smart investments, and building a tax-savvy retirement-drawdown plan.

It doesn’t look like are required to register or anything, just show up. These are relatively long sessions, so hopefully it will be a compilation of their “best stuff” on the given subjects.

Bank of America Overdraft Fee Refund

boansfUpdated. Although I originally wrote this post a few years ago, it (unfortunately) still gets regular traffic. Bank reforms instituted in 2010 made overdraft “protection” only applicable on an opt-in basis on ATM/debit card usage. Despite this fact, U.S. banks still collected over $6 billion dollars in overdraft fees in 2015.

The advice below on how to get a BofA overdraft fee refunded still works, as many positive e-mails and comments will attest. But you should also ask to turn OFF your overdraft protection as many people are confused on the actual meaning of the service. If you opt-out of overdraft protection and try to use your debit card with an insufficient balance, you will simply get denied with no fee. If you opt-in to overdraft protection and try to use your debit card with an insufficient balance, your purchase will go through but you will get charged a fee of roughly $35 on each instance. Now you know why I put quotation marks around “protection”.

Just Ask!

I was hit with an overdraft fee from Bank of America when I was trying to close out an account. Luckily, I was able to get it refunded to me. The answer is always no if you don’t ask, so don’t give up the opportunity to save hundreds of dollars with a 10-minute phone call! A few tips:

  • Be nice but firm. Customer service reps are people. This is not the time to outline all the reasons why their overdraft system is unfair. The employee is never going to be able to admit “Yes, they are unfair!”, and you’re only going to put them on the defensive.
  • Admit you made a mistake, and include your personal story. Perhaps you and your spouse had a miscommunication and lost track of the bank balance. Your contractor finally cashed a check from 8 months ago that you forgot about. A spokesperson from Bank of America said they “may waive unemployed consumers’ fees on a case-by-case basis.”
  • Help them find a reason to help you. Are you a first-time offender? Are you a long-time customer? Do you have other accounts with Bank of America? Credit card, loans, or business accounts? Show them you are a profitable customer worth keeping.
  • Try different communication avenues. I used to visit my local branch a lot, and have had some good success with going directly there. Your mileage my vary, but also try any combination of Live Chat, E-mail, and Telephone.

“Hi, I was recently charged an overdraft fee when an old check got cashed. I totally forgot about it and it was my fault. However, I’ve been with BofA for X years, and this is my first overdraft fee. I am calling to see if I am able to get this waived.”

Denied? Escalate!

If you’re not satisfied with your response, it has paid off for many customers to escalate your request to the “Executive Customer Relations” division of Bank of America. Read the many relieved comments below.

Call Executive Customer Relations:
Executive Customer Relations general line: 704-386-5687

E-mail a Bank of America Customer Advocate:
Melissa Russell
Customer Advocate
Office of the Chairman
800-669-2443 Ext 2809
melissa.d.russell@bankofamerica.com

Crystal R. Peterson
Customer Advocate
Office of the CEO and President
336-805-3126
crystal.peterson@bankofamerica.com

A sample success story:

Emailed the office of the chairman 2 weeks ago and received a call today from that office. They credited back $440 in overdraft fees. Issue was my fault since i made the purchases but the merchant submitted all transactions for 3 months on one day. Pretty happy with the result.

Write a snail-mail letter to the CEO:
Brian Thomas Moynihan
100 N. Tryon Street
Mail Code NC-1-007-18-01
Charlotte, NC 28255

Another success story:

Thank you, thank you, thank you. After reading the post about the BoA customer who got $280 in NSF fees refunded, I wrote BoA myself. They had charged me 7 NSF fees in succession (which sucked ass) and was my fault. […] So I wrote a formal letter of complaint to Kenneth Lewis. This past Saturday, they refunded all of the fees – even though it was my fault. I can’t believe it. That rocks. People do have the power.

Free FICO Score from Bank of America Credit Cards

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This post provides updated information and instructions regarding the free FICO score that is available to Bank of America credit card holders. (Thanks to reader Andy for the tip.)

Background. Bank of America started rolling out free FICO scores to select cardholders in late 2015, with a stated plan of increased rollout by the end of first quarter of 2016 (March 31st, 2016).

FICO Score details.

How to find the score. You can find the free FICO score on your online account access. The free FICO program is currently not available on mobile apps or the mobile website.

After logging into your BofA.com account, you must opt-in by first going to the “Tools & Investing” tab and clicking on “Learn about credit scores”. Then click on the “Enroll Now” button and accept the terms of the free FICO program.

Here are some screenshots from the website (click to enlarge):

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Here are screenshots of the actual score page (click to enlarge):

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Fine print:

You will be able to view up to a 12-month history of your FICO® Scores in Online Banking, starting when you enroll and for each month up to 12 months after enrollment. After 12 months the history display will re-start. Additionally, you will see two key factors affecting your most recent FICO® Score, except in limited circumstances where TransUnion does not provide us with both key factors. Customers with newly opened credit card accounts may not see their first FICO® Score in Online Banking for up to 60 days after enrollment. In certain circumstances, a FICO® Score may not be available from TransUnion for various reasons, e.g., having a limited credit history. If your Bank of America consumer credit card account(s) are closed by you or us, we reserve the right to end your participation in the FICO® Score Program. You can unenroll at any time by going to the Tools and Investing tab in Online Banking.

Here is additional information about other major credit card issuers with free FICO programs:

IRS Estimated Taxes Due Dates 2016

irsclipIf you have self-employment or other income outside of your W-2 paycheck this year, you may need to send the IRS some money before the usual tax-filing time. Here are the due dates for paying quarterly estimated taxes in 2016; they are supposed to be in four equal installments. This is for federal taxes only, state and local tax due dates may be different.

IRS Estimated Tax Payment Calendar for Individuals

Tax Year / Quarter Due Date
2016 First Quarter April 18, 2016 (Monday)
2016 Second Quarter June 15, 2016 (Wednesday)
2016 Third Quarter September 15, 2016 (Thursday)
2016 Fourth Quarter January 17, 2017* (Tuesday)

 
* You do not have to make the Q4 payment due January 17, 2017, if you file your 2016 tax return by January 31, 2017 and pay the entire balance due with your return.

Who needs to pay estimated taxes?
In general, you must pay estimated tax for 2016 if both of the following apply:

  1. You expect to owe at least $1,000 in tax for 2016, after subtracting your withholding and refundable credits.
  2. You expect your withholding and credits to be less than the smaller of
    • 90% of the tax to be shown on your 2016 tax return, or
    • 100% of the tax shown on your 2015 tax return. Your 2015 tax return must cover all 12 months.

If you forget to pay (like I’ve done before), then you should make a payment as soon as possible even though it is late. This will minimize any penalty assessed.

How do I pay? When does the payment count?

  • By check. Fill out the appropriate IRS Form 1040-ES voucher (last page of the PDF) and snail mail to the indicated address. The date of the U.S. postmark is considered the date of payment. No fees besides postage.
  • By online bank transfer. You can store your bank account information and pay via electronic funds transfer at EFTPS.gov or call 1-800-555-4477. It takes a little while to set up an online account initially, so you’ll need to plan ahead. For a quick one-time payment, you can also use IRS Direct Pay (just introduced in 2014) which does not require a sign-up but it also doesn’t store your bank account information for future payments. Both are free, there are no convenience fees. The date of payment will be noted online.
  • By debit or credit card. Here is page of IRS-approved payment processors. Pay by phone or online. Fees will apply, but the payment will count as paid as soon as you charge the card. You may also earn rewards on your credit card. Check if there is a discounted fee available via limited-time promotion.

How much should you pay in estimated taxes? You’ll need to come up with an expected gross income and then estimate your taxes, deductions, and credits for the year. The PDF of Form 1040-ES includes a paper worksheet to calculate how much in quarterly estimated taxes you should pay. You can also try online tax calculators like this one from H&R Block to estimate your 2016 tax liability, and divide by four quarters.

OpenSignal and Sensorly: Free, Crowdsourced Cellular Coverage and Data Speed Maps

sensorly_logoA common frugal tip is to lower your cellphone bill by switching to a cheaper provider. Many of the cheaper options use the T-Mobile and/or Sprint networks, which in general have fewer cellular towers and coverage density. But what should really matter is the quality of coverage where you actually need to use it. If T-Mobile, Sprint, or a T-Mobile/Sprint MVNO serves your needs adequately, why not switch and save hundreds of dollars per year?

OpenSignal and Sensorly both crowdsource their coverage maps directly from individual network users. You can drill down to your home, school, workplace, or commute route. It’s free to see their coverage maps online, but you should consider downloading their free smartphone apps so that you can also contribute anonymous information and improve the data quality for everyone. You can also see how often you connect to 4G data, as some MVNOs are cheaper if you stick with 3G data only. OpenSignal evens helps direct you if you want to walk towards a better signal.

From Sensorly (Android /iOS):

Precise and daily updated coverage & speed maps: with more than 300 wireless networks mapped across 50 countries available in the app, checking a carrier’s coverage & speed has never been easier for all 4G/LTE, 3G, CDMA, GSM and Wi-Fi technologies.

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From OpenSignal (Android / iOS)

Based on our community-generated data we are able to help keep you better connected by giving you a practical solution to the problems of slow mobile internet and dropped calls. Simply follow our signal compass to walk towards better phone signal or see our in-app coverage maps to work out which carrier is best for where you are, especially useful if you’re thinking about making a change. Our Wi-Fi maps help you to find local public-access wireless networks, helpful if you’re travelling abroad or just want to find a local cafe with free wifi.

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Book Review: Money for Something – A Free Investing Primer

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There is always a demand for starter books on investing and personal finance, especially as graduation season is coming up again. Although they often cover similar topics, the execution varies widely. For example, I found Tony Robbin’s “7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom” to be dense, unfocused, and it somehow ended up suggesting a complicated insurance product. Blech.

This is why I found it refreshing to read Money for Something – A Handy Field Guide for Turning Small Investments into Financial Freedom by Matt Henderson. This starter book was short, focused, and practical:

  • Short – The book consists of 17 brief chapters. In roughly the time it takes to read 17 of my blog posts, you can finish this book.
  • Focused – The world of investing is wide and deep, which makes it very tempting to explore every nuance. This book keeps the supporting material very tight.
  • Practical – The same holds true for the actual implementation of his plan. For examples, he gives you two options for model portfolios, he tells you where you can buy them, and that’s just enough to get you started.

Henderson has an engineering background and says the book is based on his own experiences. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

Hoping not to rely on luck, I began reading books about personal investment. What I discovered was very exciting—that practically anyone can achieve financial freedom.

I put the principles I learned into practice, and over the next 15 years confirmed that they work. It seems profoundly important that the path to financial freedom is so accessible—just by following a set of basic principles with discipline. At the same time, it seems profoundly sad that so many never find it, simply because they are unaware.

In terms of criticisms, it would be the same as with any starter investment book. Readers should take it as a rough roadmap, something motivational that shows a way to get from here (starting out) to there (financial freedom). But actually following the map will take many years, and there will be many distractions and moments that question your faith along the way. In my experience, you will need to keep learning in order to build up the required confidence in your (probably somewhat different) plan. It’s not that the original plan wasn’t good, more that you need something that you truly believe in. Don’t let that scare you off though, because the payoff is worth it!

This may also help… Money for Something is now available for free to read online, $5 in PDF format, and also available for purchase in Kindle format.

Recap. Concise and practical starter investing book. If you need a short roadmap, I recommend reading this book and doing additional research as needed. It’s free to read online, so that’s one less excuse!

Related: Another recommended starter book on personal finance is If You Can by William Bernstein, which is also free in PDF format and about $6 in paperpack. You can use the included recommended reading list for additional research.

Pay Taxes With Credit Card: Lowest Fee Rates and Limited-Time Promotions

1040clipWe all know that personal income tax filings are due soon, but so are the first round of quarterly estimated taxes for 2016. Many of us with freelance or side-gig income must makes these payments in order to avoid a tax penalty at the end of the year.

You can pay taxes with a credit card, but there is usually a convenience fee attached. So why would you bother?

  • You may wish to earn rewards for the purchase in the form of cash back, points, or miles. These rewards may be of greater value to you than the fee. (* See bottom of post for examples.)
  • You may want to pay off the balance more gradually, especially if you have a low interest rate offer like 0% for 12 months on purchases.

Here I’d like to keep track of the current rates for convenience fees, any limited-time promotions, as well as some credit card with rewards greater than the convenience fees.

Limited-time offer: 1.75% fee with Mastercard from Plastiq. I received an e-mail from Plastiq stating:

Taxes are due in less than a month, so make it easier on yourself by paying them through Plastiq. To make taxes even less painful, we’re offering a special promotion starting today. Get a 1.75% rate for all federal and state tax payments when you use your MasterCard!*

So get ahead of the game and pay your taxes now. This special rate will expire on April 18, 2016 a 5 p.m. PT, so sign in and take full advantage of this limited-time offer!

There is no landing page, but the offer is mentioned on their Twitter so I assume it is not targeted. You must initiate your purchase from this link, which ensures that you can only use the offer to pay federal or state taxes. The sub-categories include income taxes, payroll withholding taxes, self-employment taxes, business taxes, and more.

Standard convenience fee rates for 2016 start at 1.87%.

The IRS keeps a list of approved payment processors and updates it regularly. Here is the list, along with fees valid until December 31st, 2016. All of them accept Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and American Express.

Note that there is a frequency limit on how often you can make credit card payments. You can make credit card payments towards estimated taxes up to twice per quarter.

Screenshot:

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Are the fees tax-deductible? You may also want to take into consideration that the convenience fee may be tax-deductible or a business expense:

  • The fee is deductible for personal tax types as a miscellaneous itemized deduction. However, only those miscellaneous expenses that exceed 2% of adjusted gross income can be deducted. For more information, see IRS Publication 529.
  • For business tax types, the fee is a deductible business expense.

Personal experiences. I have used Plastiq to make credit card payments (though not tax payments yet), and I have used PayUSATax.com back when they were the cheapest option. Both experiences were positive with no issues. Your credit card statement will list this payment as “United States Treasury Tax Payment.” The convenience fee will be listed as “Tax Payment Convenience Fee” or something similar. Here’s what my statement looked like:

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Notably, I know of no reason why you would not just go with the cheapest available payment processor. If they are on the IRS list, they are all officially accepted by the IRS. In fact, in my testing I found the most expensive one to offer the worst in-browser user experience.

To avoid any headaches, I would take great care when making the payments to make sure they are properly designated, as the payments are not reversible or refundable by the processor.

Specific credit card examples. The following cards currently have the ability to offer cash back rewards equal or greater than 1.75%, meaning you can actually make money by paying your taxes with them. Please read my card-specific reviews for details.

New JetBlue Card Review from Barclaycard

JetBlue has announced two new consumer credit cards – the JetBlue Card (no annual fee) and the JetBlue Plus card ($99 annual fee). These are both issued by Barclaycard, as JetBlue recently ended its credit card relationship with American Express. Are they worth getting? Here’s my brief review of the card highlights and the value proposition breakdown.

Had the JetBlue Card from American Express? You do not need to apply again. Your AmEx card will automatically be replaced with the new JetBlue Rewards MasterCard, issued by Barclaycard, in late March 2016. The JetBlue Rewards MasterCard is slightly different that either card described below and is only available to grandfathered users. It has a $40 annual fee, but you can also request your card to be converted to one of the cards below.

Highlights of the new JetBlue card: (This offer is now EXPIRED)

  • 10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days
  • Earn 3 points per $1 spent on JetBlue purchases, 2 points per $1 at restaurants and grocery stores and 1 point per $1 on all other purchases
  • No blackout dates on JetBlue-operated flights & redeem for any seat, any time on JetBlue flights. Points required for an Award Flight will vary based on the published base fare at the time of booking
  • Points awarded in your TrueBlue account don’t expire
  • Earn and share points together with Family Pooling
  • 50% savings on eligible inflight purchases including cocktails, food and movies.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • Chip-card technology & $0 Fraud Liability protection

JBE_JB3_card_rCMY_Fee_BluePlus_WE_500x315Highlights of the new JetBlue Plus card:

  • Earn 30,000 bonus points after $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days
  • Earn 6 points per $1 on JetBlue purchases, 2 points per $1 at restaurants and grocery stores and 1 point per $1 on all other purchases
  • No blackout dates on JetBlue-operated flights & redeem for any seat, any time on JetBlue flights. – Points required for an Award Flight will vary based on the published base fare at the time of booking.
  • Points awarded in your TrueBlue account don’t expire.
  • Earn and share points together with Family Pooling
  • Earn 5,000 bonus points every year after your account anniversary
  • 50% savings on eligible inflight purchases including cocktails, food and movies & your first checked bag is free on JetBlue-operated flights
  • Enjoy Mosaic benefits for one year after you spend $50,000 or more on purchases after your anniversary date
  • Get 10% of your points back every time you redeem to use toward your next redemption
  • Get a $100 statement credit after you purchase a JetBlue Getaways vacation package of $100 or more with your JetBlue Plus Card.

What are the TrueBlue points rewards worth? You earn JetBlue TrueBlue points on your purchases, which are best redeemed for JetBlue flights. There are some other options like newspaper or magazine subscriptions, but I won’t cover them here.

  • JetBlue TrueBlue works on a revenue-based system. You can book any flight without blackout dates, but the points required depends on the current cash cost of the flight. This is different than a chart-based system, for example might require 25,000 points for any flight within the 48 contiguous states (subject to blackout dates and availability).
  • A reasonable estimate of value is 1 points = 1.4 cents towards a Blue, Blue Plus, or Blue Flex fare. The exact value may vary, but that is the average that I found and the variance is low. Ex. 10,000 points would cover $140 in airfare. See calculation example below.
  • The value of a free checked bag is $15 to $25 one-way, per person. Depending on fare level, JetBlue now charges for checked bags. If you buy it separately on a base fare, a checked bag will cost $20 one-way upfront or $25 one-way at the ticket counter. If you buy the Blue Plus fare which includes one checked bag, that usually costs $15 more one-way. At $30 to $50 roundtrip, the value of the free checked bag feature can add up quickly if you travel as a family or group.
  • Families can share and pool points together, with no transfer fees.
  • TrueBlue points don’t expire.

Every 10,000 points can be redeemed for $140 in airfare. This means 2X points back on restaurants and groceries can be redeemed for 2.8% back in the form of TrueBlue airfare. The 3X points back on Jetlue-operated flights can be redeemed for 4.2% back in the form of TrueBlue airfare. The 6X points back with the Plus card on Jetlue-operated flights can be redeemed for 8.4% back in the form of TrueBlue airfare.

This is in addition to the existing 3X points for TrueBlue members buying Blue airfare, and the 3X points for anyone booking JetBlue flights online. If you have Mosaic elite status, you also get another 3X points.

Calculating the value of a JetBlue TrueBlue points. You can test for yourself quite easily. Here is a randomly chosen, roundtrip San Francisco (SFO) to New York City (JFK) flight. Screenshots are below. It would have either cost $423.30 in cash, or 29,400 points + $11.20 in taxes. The value of a point comes out almost exactly to 1.4 cents per point:

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Recap. The new JetBlue Card from Barclaycard can be a good value for regular customers of JetBlue and their free DirecTV. You get extra savings when purchasing JetBlue airfare on the card, and the rewards are free JetBlue airfare. The standard version offers a limited-time sign-up bonus as well as perks with no annual fee. The Plus version with $99 annual fee is best for frequent fliers who can take advantage of the free checked bag feature and also the 5,000 point anniversary bonus. However, if you don’t fly JetBlue enough to have the opportunity to either earn or spend the points, then you should just stick with a more general travel rewards card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or a top cash back card like the Citi Double Cash.

Top 10 Financial Advisor Firms With Highest Misconduct Rate

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There is a famous quote that Charlie Munger uses as an example of the inversion technique:

Tell me where I’m going to die, so I won’t go there.

Instead of focusing on things we should to help us, we can also simply avoid doing things that will hurt us. Don’t do drugs. Don’t gamble.

I can’t provide a clear roadmap to finding a great financial advisor. But after reading through the SSRN research paper The Market for Financial Adviser Misconduct mentioned yesterday, I certainly know what to avoid. Here’s my version of the Munger quote:

Tell me where I’m most likely to be mistreated financially, and I won’t put my money there.

These are the top 10 firms ranked according to the percentage of advisors who been disciplined for misconduct, as based on the FINRA BrokerCheck database. This list is restricted to firms with at least 1,000 advsiors.

  • 20% Oppenheimer & Co.
  • 18% First Allied Securities, Inc.
  • 15% Wells Fargo Advisors Financial Network, LLC
  • 15% UBS Financial Services
  • 14% Cetera Advisors, LLC
  • 14% Securities America, Inc.
  • 14% National Planning Corporation
  • 14% Raymond James & Associates, Inc.
  • 13% Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Inc.
  • 13% Janney Montgomery Scott, LLC

Yes, you read that right, 1 in 5 advisors employed by Oppenheimer & Co have at least one misconduct-related disclosure in the their files. All of these firms above have incident rates roughly double that of the overall advisor population. Mix in the information we learned previously about the high likelihood of being repeat offenders, and it’s quite simple to avoid putting your hard-earned money anywhere near these firms.

Source screenshot:

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They May Not All Be, But Your Financial Advisor Should Be a Fiduciary

dol_logoRight now, there is a big debate in Congress about whether the fiduciary standard should be required for all financial advisors that manage retirement accounts. A fiduciary requirement would include the following:

  • They must exercise best efforts to act in the best interests of the client.
  • They must provide disclosure of any conflicts of interest.
  • They must clearly explain how they make their money (upfront fees, asset-based fees, commissions, etc.)

Most people probably think “Wait, don’t they do this already”? Nope. Even so, many still violate the current lower standards! Barry Ritholtz has some scary numbers in his Bloomberg article Brokers Behaving Badly:

  • 1 in 13 brokers have committed misconduct that resulted in disciplinary action.
  • Half of those brokers are fired, but nearly half simply move on to work for another firm within a year.
  • About a third of brokers are repeat offenders (multiple events of misconduct).

(Use the FINRA Broker Check tool to look up regulatory actions, violations or complaints for a specific person or firm.)

The worst part is that much of the financial industry continues to fight against the fiduciary standard. Even popular “guru” Dave Ramsey opposes the fiduciary proposal, and has been called out on Twitter for it. They claim it will “limit middle-class access to financial advice”, which roughly translates in my mind to “if we can no longer suck huge 8% commissions from small accounts, then we might not bother anymore”.

I enjoy managing my own investments. I also believe that hiring a good financial advisor would work well for many people. A “good” financial advisor needs to have hard knowledge, soft communication skills, and the proper alignment of interests.

Whoever wins this political fight, you as an individual still have the right to demand that your financial advisor be a fiduciary. Those letters after people’s name don’t all have the same value. Certain designations like Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) include a fiduciary standard component. You may also show them this Fiduciary Pledge and see how they respond. Being a fiduciary alone is not enough to find an appropriate advisor, but it does serve as a very simple and basic filter.

Index Funds vs. Hedge Funds: Buffett $1,000,000 Bet Update 2016

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We are now 8 years in on the 10-year bet between Warren Buffett and a successful hedge fund manager. In 2007, Warren Buffett challenged any hedge fund to a long-term bet against the S&P 500. He found a taker.

Fortune magazine announced “Buffett’s Big Bet”, where $1,000,000 would go to the charity chosen by the winner. The bet would run from 2008 to 2018. Buffett would take the S&P 500, represented by the Vanguard S&P 500 index fund (Admiral shares). Protégé Partners would stand behind hedge funds, represented by the average return of five hand-picked hedge funds.

Carol Loomis has just posted the 2016 update in Fortune. The hedge funds made up a little bit of ground in 2015, but overall still lag significantly:

  • Last year (2015) the S&P 500 index fund went up 1.36%, but the hedge funds went up 1.7%.
  • Since inception (2008 through 2015), the S&P 500 index fund is up 66%. The hedge funds went up 22%. The performance gap is over 40%.

Here are the historical annual breakdowns:

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An important aspect of this bet is that we are comparing performance after fees. Hedge funds may employ some bright minds but also charge hefty fees of roughly 2% of assets annually + 20% of any gains. That is like running into a heavy and persistent headwind. Meanwhile, the Admiral shares of the Vanguard 500 Index Fund charge only a flat 0.05% annually.

Another important lesson that it is easy to point on good performance in retrospect. It is MUCH harder to pick out winning managers ahead of time (and harder on those managers when everyone is looking and there is too much money to deploy). At the start of the bet, the past performance of the hedge funds were excellent – from inception in July 2002 through the end of 2007, the Protégé fund gained 95% (after all fees), soundly beating the Vanguard S&P 500 index fund’s 64%.

Finally, my last point is that it is hard to know when to drop a winning strategy gone sour. The handpicked hedge funds have some serious catching up to do. But there are two years left in the bet, so technically it is still anyone’s game. If you were invested in these hedge funds, would you stick it out or cut your losses?

Read the full terms of the bet and each side’s opening arguments at LongBets.org. See my original 2008 blog post and halfway 5-year update here.

Vanguard Target Date Retirement Funds: Embrace Your Inner Ronco Rotisserie Oven!

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I’m a fan of the Vanguard Target Retirement 20XX Funds. These Target Date Funds (TDFs) may not be perfect, but they are a low-cost, broadly-diversified, “set-it-and-forget-it” fund that I feel are consistently under-appreciated and easily maligned due to their inherent “one-size-fits-most” nature.

In a recent Vanguard blog post titled “TDF investors are not rotisserie ovens”, senior product manager John Croke felt the “set it and forget it” description “fuels the misperception that many investors in TDF strategies are disengaged, disinterested, and generally unaware of what they’re invested in.”

The subsequent points he makes are certainly valid, but I happen to think the rotisserie oven analogy should be worn as a badge of honor! As Jason Zweig writes in the WSJ article “Radical Investing Advice: Do Nothing, Nada, Zilch, Zippo”:

Target-date investors, says Jeff Holt, an analyst at Morningstar, “are less prone to take matters into their own hands and move their assets around when markets are gyrating.”

[…] research by Financial Engines found that participants with little or no money in target-date funds underperform them by an average of 2.1 percentage points annually.

You won’t see Vanguard Target Retirement funds being touted very much in the financial media. Their returns are rarely at the top since they are index-based, so magazines and newsletters won’t write about them. Most advisors are supposedly charging you for their “expert” advice, so they will of course recommend something more complicated. Even index fund enthusiasts like myself often don’t invest in them because we like to fine-tune and tinker (sometimes to our detriment). They never seem to be the “best” move, just something you settle for when you can’t think of anything better. I think this cartoon describes the situation well (found via @michaelbatnick):

ronco_truth

It is an unpleasant truth that most people would be better off just focusing their energy on savings rate and leaving the investing to a Vanguard Target Retirement Fund. Another example of the power of inaction: A person who bought the 30 largest US companies back in 1935 and did absolutely nothing after that would have outperformed the S&P 500 over the last 40 years.

Now, I should throw in a few quick points from the Vanguard blog post about what investors shouldn’t forget about:

  • TDFs will continue to hold a certain amount of stock risk after you reach your target retirement age.
  • Along the same lines, TDFs do not provide guaranteed income in retirement.

To summarize, don’t be insulted when being compared to a Ronco rotisserie oven. Be proud to “Set it and forget it”. Vanguard Target Retirement Funds even perform the chore of rebalancing between stocks and bonds for you automatically. Perhaps Vanguard could even use some tips from Ron Popeil about marketing their low, low pricing 😉