Archives for April 2017

The Growing Popularity of Index Funds and Higher Stock Valuations

bogleonmfI recently read (and re-read) a post at Philosophical Economics titled Diversification, Adaptation, and Stock Market Valuation, which serves both as an educational resource and an interesting argument for a new shift in stock investing. It’s rather lengthy and not written for novices, but it doesn’t require a finance or math degree either. I recommend reading it in full, but here are my notes.

#1 Diversification is good. Buying a single stock exposes you to the risk of your investment going to zero. Lots of companies have gone to zero. For a long-time, most people either bought individual stocks or bought funds that owned a limited number of individuals stocks. High risk leads to lower valuations and thus higher expected returns.

Buying a diversified basket of stocks provides good returns with greatly minimized risk of permanent capital loss. Here’s the dividend history of the S&P 500 from 1926-2016, adjusted for inflation:

indexrise2

#2 People are realizing that diversification is good. When Jack Bogle published Bogle on Mutual Funds in 1993, Vanguard was considered a big success after reaching $100 billion in assets. (I recently bought a first edition for my collection.) Today, Vanguard manages over $4 trillion in assets. Yes, 40 times as much.

In 2000, under 10% of asset were in index funds. Today, roughly 25% of the US stock market is now held in index funds with no signs of retreat. Nearly everyone has the ability to buy a basket of 500 to 3,000 stocks for just $5 a year per $10,000 invested.

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#3 We are also seeing higher average equity valuations. Correlation or causation? If everyone starts to agree that low-cost index funds (and “closet” index funds) makes investing less risky, then shouldn’t lower expected risk lead to higher valuations, and thus lower future expected returns? It won’t be a straight line, but it could be a powerful overall trend.

A couple of excerpts:

My argument here is that the ability to broadly diversify equity exposure in a cost-effective manner reduces the excess return that equities need to offer in order to be competitive with safer asset classes. In markets where such diversification is a ready option–for example, through low-cost indexing–valuations deserve to go higher. But that doesn’t mean that they actually will go higher.

To summarize: over time, markets have developed an improved understanding of the nature of long-term equity returns. They’ve evolved increasingly efficient mechanisms and methodologies through which to manage the inherent risks in equities. These improvements provide a basis for average equity valuations to increase, which is something that has clearly been happening.

Definitely food for thought.

Back Again! Free Website Reveals Your Address History and Names of Relatives (Opt Out)

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Update April 2017. It appears that the same people behind the website mentioned below have created another nearly-identical website. Even if you opted-out last time, all of your sensitive personal information is up again on this website. You must opt-out again by clicking on “Privacy” at the bottom and then the “record removal link” (alternatively, try this) and then following the directions. This one allows reverse address and phone lookups as well.

Original post:

If you don’t like the idea of anyone being able to look up your address history and the names of all your relatives, you may want to enter your name into this website. Depending on the information it has gathered on your from public records, it may list personal information about you such as:

  • Your current and past addresses.
  • Names and birth years of your parents, siblings, cousins, and in-laws.
  • All of their current and past addresses.
  • Any variations of your name ever used.

While all of this information is technically in the public domain, I don’t know of any other website that has it organized in such an accessible manner that is both free and does not require any registration. The website was so detailed that it included addresses that even I had forgotten about, as well as name of relatives that I barely know (which is the intended upside, I suppose). I’m more worried about the downside.

The good news is that the website will delete your information upon request. First, you may want to save whatever information they collected about you into a PDF. Next, I would try visiting this opt-out link directly and following the directions carefully. Alternatively, you can follow the opt-out instructions in this Time article. It only takes a minute, and my name record was removed within 48 hours as promised. Found via Bogleheads.

Tough Job: 5% of Active Investment Managers Will Add Value

alpha200People always argue about how “efficient” the market truly is. Only academic, ivory-tower geeks believe in efficient markets right? My longstanding opinion is that no, markets are not 100% efficient, but it’s a tough, cutthroat world out there. Especially over the long run. Here’s yet another reminder to put in the anecdote folder.

This WJS article (paywall) talks about Jack Meyer, a superstar manager of the Harvard endowment that went on to run a high-profile hedge fund called Convexity Capital. Unfortunately, his hedge fund has lost over a billion dollars (!) of client money recently, in fact losing money every one of the last 5 straight years.

This recent bout of poor performance has altered Mr. Meyer’s worldview… of other managers (emphasis mine):

Mr. Meyer has often told smaller endowments and foundations that ask for advice to index 75% of their assets and use board connections to access world-class active managers for a sliver of their portfolios. He says he used to think 80% of active managers didn’t add value but now thinks it is closer to 95%.

Convexity is in that remaining 5%, he said.

Matt Levine of Bloomberg has a funny yet wise take on this:

I assert that 100 percent of active managers believe that only 5 percent of active managers add value, and that 100 percent of active managers believe that they are in that 5 percent, or at least say so in interviews. Otherwise why come to work every day? But that means that 95 percent of them are wrong. If you’re looking for the ones who are wrong, I guess one place to start would be among the ones who lose money five years in a row.

That 5% number reminded me of this quote from Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway (source):

I think it is roughly right that the market is efficient, which makes it very hard to beat merely by being an intelligent investor. But I don’t think it’s totally efficient at all. And the difference between being totally efficient and somewhat efficient leaves an enormous opportunity for people like us to get these unusual records. It’s efficient enough, so it’s hard to have a great investment record. But it’s by no means impossible. Nor is it something that only a very few people can do. The top three or four percent of the investment management world will do fine.

As Josh Brown puts it, edges are ephemeral. Okay, so somewhere around 4 out of 100 people *whose job it is to add value*… will actually add value. Sounds like a tough job, but something to consider when they come asking for your money.

Barron’s Best Stock Brokerage Rankings 2017

barrons2017Barron’s has released their 2017 annual broker rankings. Two major themes this year are (1) trade commissions dropping overall and (2) improved mobile app trading.

To analyze 2017’s top brokers, we took a hard look at the value they offer to clients, analyzing security, mobility, and social-media features as well as the depth of their investment tools and their trading capabilities. Our primary consideration in judging these 16 firms is how they work for our readers, who are high-net-worth active investors. Price-improvement statistics are built into our Trading Experience and Technology category.

Note that part about high-net-worth active investors, which may or may not describe you. Their overall winner this year was Fidelity Investments, which barely beat out last year’s winner Interactive Brokers. Thankfully, Barron’s also supplied separate rankings for novice investors, long-term investors, and those that value in-person service:

Top 5 Brokers for Novice Investors

  1. TD Ameritrade. Performed well in customer service & education, portfolio analysis, research tools, and mobile offerings. Free real-time quotes across desktop and mobile.
  2. Fidelity
  3. Merrill Edge
  4. E-Trade
  5. Charles Schwab

Top 5 Brokers for Long-Term Investing

  1. TD Ameritrade. The only broker to provide a wide range of commission-free ETFs from various providers based on popularity instead of in-house ETFs or paid placement).
  2. Fidelity
  3. Charles Schwab
  4. Merrill Edge
  5. E-Trade

Top 5 Brokers for In-Person Service

  1. Merrill Edge. This is mostly about physical branches, and Merrill Edge is technically Bank of America.
  2. Charles Schwab
  3. Fidelity
  4. TD Ameritrade
  5. E-Trade

If you really want to get into the details, another handy feature is Barron’s huge comparison chart with data from all the brokers surveyed. As in past years, Vanguard declined to participate in the survey.

Quick commentary. I agree that TD Ameritrade is good for long-term investors who want to use an independent brokerage. They combine a full brokerage feature set with a list of 101 commission-free ETFs based on overall popularity (which means they are the ETFs you’d actually want to buy).

There was no mention of the Robinhood free trading app. Does the lack of any competing free trading apps indicate that this business model isn’t viable?

I keep most of my long-term assets directly at Vanguard, while my individual stock trades are done through Merrill Edge. I’m happy with them so far. If you have $50,000 in assets across Merrill Lynch, Merrill Edge, and Bank of America accounts, you get 30 free trades per month. That’s already more trades than I need, but $100k in combined assets gets you 100 free trades per month.

Fundrise eREIT Quarterly Liquidity Details and Redemption Process

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I’ve been putting some side money into crowdfunded real-estate investments – see here and here – and I have decided to test out the quarterly liquidity window of my Fundrise eREIT investment (review). An important difference between most of these private real estate investments and publicly-listed REIT is liquidity. On most any given weekday, I can sell my public REIT (i.e. VNQ) for a price that an open market deems fair and within few days I will have cash in hand.

The Fundrise Income eREITs are private REITs that take advantage of new crowdfunding regulations open to all investors (not just accredited investors). The intended time horizon of this investment at least 5 years, but they also advertise “quarterly liquidity” as a feature (see below). I was interested to see how this feature worked, as many of the other asset-backed loans in which I am invested could take a year or longer to get my money back. I decided to test out this “emergency hatch”.

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The rules. You are allowed to make a redemption request once per quarter. For the full details on Fundrise quarterly redemption plans, please see the section of each eREIT Offering Circular titled, “Description of Our Common Shares—Quarterly Redemption Plan” at this link. It’s pretty dense, and I will only highlight this table which includes the “early withdrawal penalty” imposed if you redeem your shares within 5 years.

fundrise_redeem

In other words, if I redeem now after one year, I will pay a 3% penalty on the current net asset value (NAV). The NAV itself is a complex calculation of the underlying assets that I believe is only updated to investors once a quarter.

Note that you are not guaranteed to have liquidity of all your shares. If too many shareholders request liquidity at the same time, that might force them to sell assets at large discounts and harm other shareholders. Here is an excerpt from the Offering Circular:

Q: Will there be any limits on my ability to redeem my shares?

A: Yes. While we designed our redemption plan to allow shareholders to request redemptions on a quarterly basis, we need to impose limitations on the total amount of net redemptions per calendar quarter in order to maintain sufficient sources of liquidity to satisfy redemption requests without impacting our ability to invest in commercial real estate assets and maximize investor returns.
In the event our Manager determines, in its sole discretion, that we do not have sufficient funds available to redeem all of the common shares for which redemption requests have been submitted in any given month or calendar quarter, as applicable, such pending requests will be honored on a pro rata basis. […]

Redemption Process. The process of requesting a quarterly redemption was straightforward. Here’s a step-by-step rundown:

  • Contact Fundrise support and request a redemption (3/6 in my case). You need to make this request at least 15 days prior to the end of the applicable quarter.
  • They asked the reason for my redemption, and I told them. You don’t need to supply a reason, they just wanted feedback.
  • They sent over the official redemption form, which I was able to read and complete online. I received an e-mail confirmation of my redemption request.
  • At the end of the quarter (3/31 in my case), I received another e-mail confirmation that my redemption request was processed.
  • 12 days after the end of the quarter (4/12 in my case), I received another e-mail confirmation that the funds were being transferred to my bank account.

Complete Investment Timeline. Here’s a summary of cashflows from beginning to end.

  • December 29, 2015. Invested $2,000 into Fundrise Income eREIT (200 shares x $10 a share).
  • Held for 15 months. Received 5 quarterly income distributions on a timely basis in April, July, October 2016 and January, April 2017. Total of $234.79.
  • Early March 2017. Requested redemption of all 200 shares as of the end of quarter 3/31/17.
  • April 12, 2017. Received $1,908 in principal back. 100% of NAV would have been $1967.

Screenshot:

fundrise_final

So I invested $2,000 and after 471 days I collected a total of $2,142.79 for a total gain of 7.14%. The annualized return works out to 5.49%. That’s not amazing but not bad considering that I am bailing out of a 5+ year investment after only a year. I’m confident that my returns would have been better if I waited out the full 5 years as real estate ownership investments take time to work out. (Traditional non-traded REITs are infamous for having huge penalties for early withdrawals where you get back less than 90 cents on the dollar.)

Hopefully this post answers some questions about the liquidity of Fundrise eREITs. I received my money, as requested, in about a month. If instant/daily liquidity is important to you, I would still stick with publicly-traded REITs.

Bottom line. The Fundrise Income eREITs are meant as long-term investments with time horizons of at least 5 years. However, they advertise the availability of limited quarterly liquidity. I tested out this liquidity feature and was able to cash out subject to a 3% discount from net asset value. It worked as promised, howewer I would not recommend using this option unless necessary as it will impair your overall return. In an extreme case, you might not be able to redeem early. You can sign-up and learn about currently-available Fundrise eREITs here.

Buy, Hold, Rebalance a Globally-Diversified Portfolio 2017

When I think about it, I am impressed with how different 2017 feels compared to when I started seriously learning about investing in 2003. Instead of only reading about it in few books mostly read by finance nerds, nowadays nearly every robo-advisor out there uses a globally-diversified mix of low-cost ETFs to build their portfolios. What used to be a relatively quiet alternative to buying 4-star active funds is now becoming the default choice.

We’ve seen from the Callan Investment Returns Table that the best-performing asset classes constantly change from year to year. In a industry magazine called Investments & Wealth Monitor, there was an article titled Why Global Asset Allocation Still Makes Sense by Anthony Davidow. (Found via AllAboutAlpha.)

Here’s an illustration of how a globally-diversified portfolio has outperformed. Below is a graphic from the article comparing a 100% S&P 500 portfolio, and 60/40 S&P 500/US Agg Bond portfolio, and a “globally diversified portfolio” using historical data from January 1, 2001 to December 31, 2016. Index values are used directly as opposed to actual ETFs or funds. The portfolio are rebalanced annually back to target asset allocation.

globaldiv

Their “diversified portfolio” had a rather finely-diced list of asset class ingredients:

  • 18% S&P 500 (US Large-Cap)
  • 10% Russell 2000 (US Small-Cap)
  • 3% S&P US REIT
  • 12% MSCI EAFE (International Developed)
  • 8% MSCI EAFE Small Cap
  • 8% MSCI Emerging Markets
  • 2% S&P Global Ex US REIT
  • 1% Barclays US Treasury
  • 1% Barclays Agency
  • 6% Barclays Securitized
  • 2% Barclays US Credit
  • 4% Barclays Global Agg EX USD
  • 9% Barclays VLI High Yield
  • 6% Barclays EM
  • 2% S&P GSCI Precious Metals
  • 1% S&P GSCI Energy
  • 1% S&P GSCI Industrial Metals
  • 1% S&P GSCI Agricultural
  • 5% Barclays US Treasury 3–7 Year

I do wish this portfolio was a bit more simple and easy to replicate. However, if you take a step back, you could simplify this asset allocation into the following:

  • 56% Global Stocks (50% US/50% Non-US)
  • 5% Global REIT (60% US/40% Non-US)
  • 34% Global Bonds (70% US/30% Non-US)
  • 5% Commodities

Now, we can’t necessarily expect a global portfolio to always outperform. One thing is usually doing better than another thing you own. Most recently, US stocks have outperformed International stocks quite significantly. Here’s an explanation from the article about the “free lunch” of diversification:

Diversification strategies do not guarantee capture of profits or protection against losses in any market environment, but they have been shown over time to provide a smoother ride. Rather than bearing the brunt of the 2000 Tech Wreck and the 2008 Great Recession, the diversified portfolio provided cushioning under the large market drop and was able recoup losses and grow over time.

Callan Investment Returns Ranked by Asset Class 1997-2017

callan2016clipWe’ve all been told that past performance is no guarantee of future returns, but it’s still hard to buy an investment that has been performing poorly. We need to remember the historical power of diversification and that even though something may look horrible now, good news may be just around the corner.

Callan Associates updates a “periodic table” annually with the relative performance of 8 major asset classes over the last 20 years. You can find the most recent one at their website Callan.com, with access to previous versions requiring free registration.

Every calendar year, the best performing asset class is listed at the top, and it sorts downward until you have the worst performing asset. Here is the most recent snapshot of 1997-2016:

callan2016

The Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns conveys the strong case for diversification across asset classes (stocks vs. bonds), investment styles (growth vs. value), capitalizations (large vs. small), and equity markets (U.S. vs. non-U.S.). The Table highlights the uncertainty inherent in all capital markets. Rankings change every year. Also noteworthy is the difference between absolute and relative performance, as returns for the top-performing asset class span a wide range over the past 20 years.

I find it easiest to focus on a specific color (asset class) and then visually noting how its relative performance bounces around. This year, I note that Emerging Markets (Orange) tends to either run really hot or cold. For the past 4 years, Emerging Markets has been near the bottom. MSCI EAFE (Developed Foreign Stocks, Light Grey) have also been doing relatively poorly. I still hold them as they will one day bounce back to the top.

Apple iWork Suite, iMovie, and GarageBand Now Free on Mac and iOS

iworkIf you have an older Mac OS or iOS device, it may be nice to know that Apple has made their iWork productivity suite, iMovie, and GarageBand apps free to download for all users. These apps come free with new hardware, but users with old hardware had to pay $5 to $20 for each individual app. For example, a family member is still using my Mac Mini from 2009 just fine. Visit the Mac or iOS App store to download.

iWork competes with Microsoft Office. Pages is a word processor app like Microsoft Word. Numbers is a spreadsheet app like Microsoft Excel. And Keynote is a presentation app like Microsoft PowerPoint. iMovie edits video and GarageBand edits music.

Early Retirement Portfolio Income, 2017 Q1 Update

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While I understand the arguments for a “total return” approach, I also appreciate the behavioral reasons why living off income while keeping your ownership stake is desirable. The analogy I fall back on is owning an investment property that produces rental income. If you are reliably getting rent checks that increase with inflation, you can sit back calmly and let the market value fluctuate. The problem is that buy only things with the highest yields only increases the chance that those yields will drop. Therefore, I am trying to reach some sort of balance between the two approaches.

A quick and dirty way to see how much income (dividends and interest) your portfolio is generating is to take the “TTM Yield” or “12 Mo. Yield” from Morningstar (linked below). Trailing 12 Month Yield is the sum of a fund’s total trailing 12-month interest and dividend payments divided by the last month’s ending share price (NAV) plus any capital gains distributed over the same period. SEC yield is another alternative, but I like TTM because it is based on actual distributions (SEC vs. TTM yield article).

Below is a close approximation of my most recent portfolio update. I have changed my asset allocation slightly to 65% stocks and 35% bonds because I believe that will be my permanent allocation upon early retirement.

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (Taken 4/19/17) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
25% 1.88% 0.47%
US Small Value
Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF (VBR)
5% 1.83% 0.09%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
25% 2.75% 0.69%
Emerging Markets
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
5% 2.31% 0.12%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 4.42% 0.27%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWIUX)
17% 2.87% 0.49%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
17% 2.20% 0.37%
Totals 100% 2.50%

 

The total weighted 12-month yield on this portfolio has historically varied between 2% and 2.5%. This time, it was on the higher end of 2.50% mostly because inflation has picked up and thus the TIPS fund started to yield more. If I had a $1,000,000 portfolio balance today, a 2.5% yield means that it would have generated $25,000 in interest and dividends over the last 12 months. (The muni bond interest in my portfolio is exempt from federal income taxes.)

For comparison, the Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX) is a low-cost, passive 60/40 fund that has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.12%. The Vanguard Wellington Fund is a low-cost active 65/35 fund that has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.55%. Numbers taken 4/19/2017.

These income yield numbers are significantly lower than the 4% withdrawal rate often quoted for 65-year-old retirees with 30-year spending horizons, and is even lower than the 3% withdrawal rate that I usually use as a rough benchmark. If I use 3%, my theoretical income would cover my projected annual expenses. If I used the actual numbers above, I am close but still short. Most people won’t want to use this number because it is a very small number. However, I like it for the following reasons:

  • Tracking dividends and interest income is less stressful than tracking market price movements.
  • Dividend yields adjust roughly for stock market valuations (if prices are high, dividend yield is probably down).
  • Bond yields adjust roughly for interest rates (low interest rates now, probably low bond returns in future).
  • With 2/3rds of my portfolio in stocks, I have confidence that over time the income will increase with inflation.

I will admit that planning on spending only 2% is most likely too conservative. Consider that if all your portfolio did was keep up with inflation each year (0% real returns), you could still spend 2% a year for 50 years. But as an aspiring early retiree with hopefully 40+ years ahead of me, I like having safe numbers given the volatility of stock returns and the associated sequence of returns risk.

Early Retirement Portfolio Asset Allocation, 2017 First Quarter Update

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Here is an update on my investment portfolio holdings after the first quarter 2017. This includes tax-deferred accounts like 401ks, IRAs, and taxable brokerage holdings, but excludes things like our primary home, cash reserves, and a few other side investments. The purpose of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover our regular household expenses.

Target Asset Allocation

The overall goal is to include asset classes that will provide long-term returns above inflation, distribute income via dividends and interest, and finally offer some historical tendencies to balance each other out. I don’t hold commodities futures or gold as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly. I also believe that it is more important to have asset classes that you are confident you’ll hold through the bad times, as opposed to whatever has been doing well recently. The things that looked promising in 2000 were not the things that looked promising in 2010, and so on.

Stocks Breakdown

  • 38% US Total Market
  • 7% US Small-Cap Value
  • 38% International Total Market
  • 7% Emerging Markets
  • 10% US Real Estate (REIT)

Bonds Breakdown

  • 50% High-quality, intermediate-Term Bonds
  • 50% US Treasury Inflation-Protected Bonds

Our current target ratio is 70% stocks and 30% bonds within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and rebalance. With a self-managed, simple portfolio of low-cost funds, we minimize management fees, commissions, and income taxes.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

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Stock Holdings
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSMX, VTSAX)
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VGTSX, VTIAX)
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR)
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSIX, VGSLX)

Bond Holdings
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLTX, VMLUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWITX, VWIUX)
Vanguard High-Yield Tax-Exempt Fund (VWAHX, VWALX)
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX, VAIPX)
iShares Barclays TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)
Individual TIPS securities
U.S. Savings Bonds (Series I)

Commentary

In regards to my target asset allocation, I tweaked the stock percentages slightly so that I will end up with at least 5% overall in any given asset class when I reach my final ratio of roughly 65% stocks and 35% bonds in the next few years. Despite the recent outperformance of US stocks vs. the rest of the word, I am still keeping my 50/50 split between US and International holdings.

In regards to specific holdings, I did some tax-loss harvesting between my Emerging Markets and US Small Cap ETF holdings. I am also shifting towards dropping my WisdomTree ETFs and going to the more “vanilla” Vanguard versions: Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR) and Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO). This should lower costs and increase simplicity. Otherwise, there has been little activity besides continued dollar-cost-averaging with monthly income.

I’m still somewhat underweight in TIPS and REITs mostly due to limited tax-deferred space as I really don’t want to hold them in a taxable account. My taxable muni bonds are split roughly evenly between the three Vanguard muni funds with an average duration of 4.5 years. I may start switching back to US Treasuries if my income tax rate changes signficantly.

A rough benchmark for my portfolio is 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) and 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX), one is 60/40 and one is 80/20 so it also works out to 70% stocks and 30% bonds. That benchmark would have a total return of +7.73% for 2016 and +4.96% YTD (as of 4/17/17).

So this is what I own, and in a separate post I’ll share about how I track if I have enough to retire via dividend and interest income.

Simple Portfolio Rebalancing Spreadsheet Template (Google Drive)

gsheetsUpdated. Automated portfolio management services like Wealthfront and Betterment will help you manage a diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds for a fee. While I understand their appeal for those that wish to outsource that task, I choose to maintain my own diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds. I enjoy having full control of all investment decisions, and I like saving the management fee (and adding that money to my snowball).

An important part of this DIY portfolio management is staying close to your target asset allocation. I use a very simple Google Spreadsheet to track my portfolio. Here is the direct link and it is also embedded below. Yellow cells are those meant to be edited.

(Download a free copy: I am sharing this spreadsheet online – free of charge – in read-only format. However, please make a copy of it using the menu option File > Make a copy or download it as an Excel file using option File > Download as). Any requests for edit access to the original public spreadsheet will be denied, because you would be changing the appearance for everyone.)

 

Here are some guidance on how to use the spreadsheet:

1. Decide on a target asset allocation. Don’t use the generic one I put above. There is no perfect portfolio. You can find plenty that look great based on history at this moment, but that will not be the perfect portfolio 5, 10, 25 years down the line. The best portfolio is the one that you can stick through even after your fanciest asset classes have negative returns for 5+ years.

Here are a few model portfolios to get you started. Below is what I have settled on for myself. Details here. You only have to enter this once as long as your target asset allocation stays the same.

2. Enter your total balances for each asset class. The easiest way to grab my holdings from multiple brokerage accounts is to use a aggregation service like Personal Capital (review). If you don’t have that many accounts, simply log into each individual website and add up your totals by asset class.

You could solely rely upon a service like Personal Capital to manage your portfolio, but I tend to use some specific asset classes like “US Small Value” or “Emerging Markets Value” which Personal Capital does not recognize. I do enjoy the fact that it pulls in all of my holdings and balances automatically into one screen and is always updated.

3. Check out the actual breakdown vs. your target breakdown. The spreadsheet shows the current actual percentage breakdown vs. your target breakdown, as well as the dollar amounts of any differences. A positive number means you need to buy more to reach your theoretical target (negative means sell). In the fictitious example shown, I might feel that I was close enough that I wouldn’t really bother with any rebalancing. If things were really off, I could buy/sell as needed.

3. Rebalance with new cashflow, dividends, and interest. Choose your frequency of “forced” rebalancing. By using this spreadsheet, you can see which asset classes should be invested in currently to bring you back towards your target asset allocation. This is where you should invest any new cashflow (i.e. paycheck, dividends, rental income, or interest that your portfolio generates).

In addition, you can rebalance by selling some asset classes and then buying another. I try not to sell too often as to avoid capital gains taxes. You can do this on a set calendar basis such as annually on your birthday or quarterly. Another method is to only rebalance once your percentages are off by a certain amount, like a tolerance band of +/- 5%. I personally check in quarterly to see where I should invest any new cashflows, and if things are really off then I rebalance by selling something at most once a year. If you have sizable taxable holding, you could also attempt some tax-loss harvesting during these check-ins.

Recap. If you are managing your own portfolio, it is important not to stray too far from your target asset allocation. In order to know where you should invest new funds, I track my portfolio in two ways. First, I use Personal Capital for a real-time, daily snapshot of my holdings. Second, I manually update this spreadsheet each quarter and print out a copy for my permanent, physical records. This takes about 15 minutes every 3 months. Using these two methods, I maintain complete control over my portfolio and I don’t have to pay any management fees to a robo-advisor.

Savings I Bonds May 2017 Update: 1.96% Inflation Rate

savbonds4Savings I Bonds are a low-risk investment backed by the US Treasury that pay out a variable interest rate linked to inflation. You could own them as a replacement for cash reserves (they are liquid after 12 months) or bonds in your portfolio. New inflation numbers were just announced at BLS.gov, which allows us to make an early prediction of May 2017 savings bond rates a couple of weeks before the official announcement on the 1st. This also allows us the opportunity to know exactly what a April 2017 savings bond purchase will yield over the next 12 months, instead of just 6 months.

New Inflation Rate
September 2016 CPI-U was 241.428. March 2017 CPI-U was 243.801, for a semi-annual increase of 0.98%. Using the official formula, the variable component of interest rate for the next 6 month cycle will be approximately 1.96%. You add the fixed and variable rates to get the total interest rate. If you have an older savings bond, your fixed rate may be very different than one from recent years.

Purchase and Redemption Timing Reminder
You can’t redeem until 12 months have gone by, and any redemptions within 5 years incur an interest penalty of the last 3 months of interest. A known “trick” with I-Bonds is that if you buy at the end of the month, you’ll still get all the interest for the entire month as if you bought it in the beginning of the month. It’s best to give yourself a few business days of buffer time though, since if you wait too long your effective purchase date may be bumped into the next month.

Buying in April 2017
If you buy before the end of April, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.0%. You will be guaranteed the current variable interest rate of 2.76% for the next 6 months, for a total 0.00 + 2.76 = 2.76%. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.00 + 1.96 = 1.96%.

Let’s say we hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you theoretically buy on April 30th, 2017 and sell on April 1, 2018, you’ll earn a ~2.04% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, for which the interest is also exempt from state income taxes. If you held for three months longer, you’d be looking at a ~2.02% annualized return for a 14-month holding period. Compare with the current highest 1-year bank CD rates of roughly 1.5% and online savings accounts rates of roughly 1%.

Buying in May 2017
If you wait until May, you will get 1.98% plus an unknown fixed rate for the first 6 months. The fixed rate is likely to be either zero or 0.1%. Every six months, your rate will adjust to the fixed rate plus a variable rate based on inflation. If inflation picks up, you’ll get a hiked rate earlier than versus buying in April.

The primary reason to wait until May is that the current fixed rate is zero and it has a small chance of going up in May. I would personally rather lock in the solid 12-month return by buying in April rather than chase a possible 0.1% long-term bump. I plan on buying my annual limit this week, and I intend to hold these indefinitely for the reasons listed below.

Existing I-Bonds and Unique Features
If you have an existing I-Bond, the rates reset every 6 months depending on your purchase month. Your bond rate = your specific fixed rate + variable rate (minimum floor of 0%). Due to their annual purchase limits, you should still consider their unique advantages before redeeming them. These include ongoing tax deferral, exemption from state income taxes, and being a hedge against inflation (and even a bit of a hedge against deflation).

Annual Purchase Limits
The annual purchase limit is now $10,000 in online I-bonds per Social Security Number. For a couple, that’s $20,000 per year. Buy online at TreasuryDirect.gov, after making sure you’re okay with their security protocols and user-friendliness. You can also buy an additional $5,000 in paper bonds using your tax refund (see IRS Form 8888). If you have children, you may be able to buy additional savings bonds by using a minor’s Social Security Number.

For more background, see the rest of my posts on savings bonds.