Fundrise Starter Portfolio eREIT vs. Vanguard REIT ETF Review – Updated April 2018

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Updated April 2018. This post tracks my experiment comparing a Fundrise eREIT portfolio and the Vanguard REIT ETF. In Fundrise, we have a start-up that bought a concentrated basket of roughly 20 properties chosen from the private market. In Vanguard, we have a one of the largest real estate ETFs in the world that owns a passive slice of 184 public-traded REITs. I invested $1,000 into both in October 2017 and hope to let them run for 5 years.

Fundrise Starter Portfolio background. Despite the name, the Fundrise Starter Portfolio is actually a simple 50/50 mix of their first two eREITs: the Fundrise Income eREIT and the Fundrise Growth eREIT. Learn about other Fundrise portfolios here. This private eREIT utilizes recent crowdfunding legislation that allows all investors to own a basket of individual real estate properties (not just accredited investors with high net worth). The minimum deposit is $500. You must buy shares directly from Fundrise, and there are liquidity restrictions as this is meant to be a long-term investment. Here’s a recent map of locations for the holdings. Most are apartment complexes, condominiums, and hotels.

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Vanguard REIT ETF background. The Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ) is one of the largest index funds to invest in publicly-traded real estate investment trusts (REITs). You can purchase it via any brokerage account. You have the liquidity of being to sell on any day the stock market is open. A single share currently costs about $76, not including an trade commission. You are holding a tiny slice of (tens of?) thousands of office buildings, hotels, nursing homes, shopping centers, apartment complexes, and so on. Here are the recent top 10 holdings:

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Expenses. The Fundrise Starter Portfolio waived their advisory fees until 12/31/17 and is now 0.15% annually. Each underlying eREIT will also have their own internal fees and costs for managing the properties. The Vanguard REIT ETF has an expense ratio of 0.12%, with each public REIT having their own internal costs to manage their properties. Due to scale, I would expect the net effect of fees to be significantly higher for the Fundrise assets than for the Vanguard ETF. We will see if Fundrise can provide higher net returns for this concentrated holding.

Five-year time horizon. Both Fundrise and VNQ usually announce dividend distributions on a quarterly basis. Vanguard updates the NAV daily, but Fundrise only updates their NAV quarterly. Fundrise NAVs are only estimates as there is no daily market value available (similar to your house). Therefore, I plan on holding onto this investment for 5 years at the minimum. This will allow the investments to “play out” and also avoid any early redemption fees. I will withhold final judgement until both investments are cashed out, but will provide quarterly updates.

Fundrise Portfolio performance updates. Screenshot of my most recent statement:

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  • 10/20/17: $1,000 initial investment – 50 shares @ $10.00/share Income eREIT and 48.78 shares @ $10.25/share Growth eREIT.
  • 1/9/18: 2017 Q4 dividends of $17.98 total distributed. Total value $1,018.72.
  • 3/31/18: NAV values of $9.81/share for Income eREIT and $10.71/share for Growth eREIT.
  • 4/11/18: 2018 Q1 dividends of $16.13 total distributed.
  • 4/11/18: Total Fundrise value $1,049.44 (includes reinvested dividends).

Vanguard REIT ETF performance updates. I own VNQ and the mutual fund equivalent VGSLX (same underlying holdings) in my retirement portfolio, but will be using Morningstar tools to track the performance of a $1,000 investment bought on the same date of 10/20/17.

  • 10/20/17: $1,000 initial investment – 11.9545 shares at $83.65/share.
  • 12/27/17, VNQ distributed a gain of $0.012 per share, return of capital of $0.37 per share, and a dividend of $0.88 per share.
  • 1/9/18: Total VNQ value $971.45 (includes dividends). Share price $80.45.
  • 3/29/18: VNQ distributed a dividend of $0.71 per share.
  • 4/11/18: Total VNQ value $915.52 (includes reinvested dividends).

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The net asset value of the major US REIT indexes has dropped since 2018 started. Again, I wouldn’t put too much stock into the short-term movements as the accuracy of the Fundrise NAV is inherently limited, but this is the best information that I have available. Once a year has passed, I can also include a trailing 12-month yield.

You can learn more about all Fundrise eREIT options here. I have written about my past experiences in my Fundrise eREIT review and Fundrise Liquidity and Redemption review.

Firstrade Commission-Free ETF Program Review – Includes Vanguard, iShares Core, Schwab Index ETFs

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Online brokerage Firstrade just announced a new Commisssion-Free ETF program that includes 700+ ETFs from 40 fund families. This is a bold move as it includes both a lot of ETFs (quantity) but also the best ETFs (quality) from providers like Vanguard, iShares, WisdomTree, SPDR State Trust, and Schwab.

Firstrade already cut their standard trade commission to $2.95 per trade in 2017. The program is designed for long-term investors and the ETFs must be held for at least 30 days (if less than 30 days, the commission is the standard $2.95). Leveraged ETFs are not included. There is no need for any special enrollment for this ETF program.

Low-cost, broadly-diversified ETFS across major asset classes. Here is a partial list of ETFs that I noticed:

Vanguard (52 ETFs total)

  • Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO)
  • Vanguard Total International Stock ETF (VXUS)
  • Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (VIG)
  • Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF (VBR)
  • Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF (VEA)
  • Vanguard FTSE All-Wld ex-US ETF (VEU)
  • Vanguard Global ex-US Real Est ETF (VNQI)
  • Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
  • Vanguard Short-Term Infl-Prot Secs ETF (VTIP)
  • Vanguard Total International Bond ETF (BNDX)

Notably absent: Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI)

iShares (173 ETFs total)

  • iShares Core S&P Total US Stock Mkt ETF (ITOT)
  • iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV)
  • iShares Core MSCI Total Intl Stk ETF (IXUS)
  • iShares Core US REIT ETF (USRT)
  • iShares Core MSCI EAFE ETF (IEFA)
  • iShares Core MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (IEMG)
  • iShares Core Dividend Growth ETF (DGRO)
  • iShares Core US Aggregate Bond ETF (AGG)
  • iShares Core International Aggt Bd ETF (IAGG)
  • iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF (NEAR)

Schwab (20 ETFs total)

  • Schwab US Broad Market ETF (SCHB)
  • Schwab US Dividend Equity ETF (SCHD)
  • Schwab Emerging Markets Equity ETF (SCHE)
  • Schwab International Equity ETF (SCHF)
  • Schwab US REIT ETF (SCHH)
  • Schwab US TIPS ETF (SCHP)
  • Schwab US Aggregate Bond ETF (SCHZ)

With this move, they take the title of “Largest Commission-Free ETF Program” from TD Ameritrade. Here’s their comparison chart.

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My take. Overall, competition is good and I always like to see lower prices for long-term ETF investors. Additional considerations:

  • Sustainable? This list is very similar to what TD Ameritrade used to offer commission-free, at least in terms of offering the most popular ETFs. However, TD Ameritrade eventually went for quantity over quality, dropping most of their widely-held ETFs and replacing them with niche ETFs and index ETFs from SPDR. One can only assume this is a loss-leader offering for Firstrade. Will it last?
  • Truly simple portfolios can just stick to the source. If you really want to construct a simple portfolio, you can open an account at Vanguard, Fidelity (iShares), and Schwab and buy ETFs (limited to their family) with no commission. The benefit is that in-house discounts are much more likely to stay free.
  • Tax-loss harvesting. A potential benefit of using a brokerage account is if you do tax-loss harvesting with ETFs. For example, you could sell iShares Core S&P Total US Stock Mkt ETF (ITOT) and buy Schwab US Broad Market ETF (SCHB), all commission-free and in the same account. With the big list above, ETF pairing for almost every asset class are available.

New account promotions. Firstrade is also offering the following new account cash + free trades promotions based on opening deposit. You can get up to $300 cash and 500 free trades. They will also cover up to $200 in account transfer fees when you switch from another broker and $25 in wire fees when you wire money to Firstrade.

Bottom line. Firstrade has a new Commisssion-Free ETF program that offers both quantity (700+ ETFs from 40 fund families) and quality (top-rated and popular ETFs from Vanguard, iShares, and others) for long-term investors (30-day minimum holding period). The standard commission on other stocks and ETFs is $2.95. This sure looks nice, but I hope it is sustainable. We recently saw TD Ameritrade cut back on their Commisssion-Free ETF program.

Savings I Bonds May 2018 Interest Rate: 2.22% Inflation Rate, Possible Fixed Rate Increase?

sb_posterSavings I Bonds are a unique, 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 the May 2018 savings bond rates a couple of weeks before the official announcement on the 1st. This also allows the opportunity to know exactly what a April 2018 savings bond purchase will yield over the next 12 months, instead of just 6 months.

New inflation rate prediction. September 2017 CPI-U was 246.819. March 2018 was 249.554, for a semi-annual increase of 1.11%. Using the official formula, the variable component of interest rate for the next 6 month cycle will be 2.22%. 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.

Tips on purchase and redemption. 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. If you miss the cutoff, your effective purchase date will be bumped into the next month.

Buying in April 2018. If you buy before the end of April, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.1%. You will be guaranteed a total interest rate of 2.58% for the next 6 months (0.10 + 2.48). For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.10 + 2.22 = 2.32%.

Let’s look at a worst-case scenario, where you hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you theoretically buy on April 30th, 2018 and sell on April 1, 2019, 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 ~2.10% annualized return for a 14-month holding period (assuming my math is correct). Compare with the best interest rates as of April 2018.

Buying in May 2018. If you buy in May 2018, you will get 2.22% plus a newly-set fixed rate for the first 6 months. The new fixed rate is unknown, but is loosely linked to the real yield of short-term TIPS, which has been rising a bit. The current real yield of 5-year TIPS is ~0.56%. My best guess is that it will be 0.20% or 0.30%. Every six months, your rate will adjust to your fixed rate (set at purchase) plus a variable rate based on inflation.

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 (set at purchase) + variable rate (minimum floor of 0%).

So, which one? Buying in April 2018 would lock in a 11-14 month return equal to the top 12-month CD rates, which isn’t bad (plus the interest is exempt from state and local income taxes). If inflation picks up in the next year, you could still keep the bond and have potential upside. I would choose this option if I was treating savings bonds as short-term CD alternatives. However, if you buy in May 2018, your (real) fixed rate may be higher. This helps in the long run if you intend to keep these savings bonds indefinitely. I am a long-term holder (see below), so I am waiting until May.

Unique features. Due to their annual purchase limits, you should still consider their unique advantages before redeeming them. These include ongoing tax deferral (you don’t owe tax until redemption), exemption from state income taxes, and being a hedge against inflation (and even a bit of a hedge against deflation). There are also potential benefits when using the proceeds for college.

Over the years, I have accumulated a nice pile of I-Bonds and now consider it part of the inflation-linked bond allocation inside my long-term investment portfolio.

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 with 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.

[Image: 1946 Savings Bond poster from US Treasury – source]

My Money Blog Portfolio Asset Allocation, March 2018

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Here is a First Quarter 2018 update for my primary investment portfolio. These are my real-world holdings, not a recommendation. It includes tax-deferred 401k/403b/IRAs and taxable brokerage accounts and excludes our primary home, cash reserves, and a few side investments. The goal of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover our regular household expenses. As of 2018, we have started the phase of “early retirement” where we are spending some of the dividends and interest from this portfolio.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

I use both Personal Capital and a custom Google Spreadsheet to track my investment holdings. The Personal Capital financial tracking app (free, my review) automatically logs into my accounts, tracks my balances, calculates my performance, and gives me a rough asset allocation. I still use my custom Rebalancing Spreadsheet (free, instructions) because it tells me where and how much I need to direct new money to rebalance back towards my target asset allocation.

Here is my portfolio performance for the year and rough asset allocation (real estate is under alternatives), according to Personal Capital:

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Here is my more specific asset allocation, according to my custom spreadsheet:

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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)
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
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)

Target Asset Allocation. Our 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 personally believe that US Small Value and Emerging Market will have higher future long-term returns (along with some higher volatility) than US Large/Total and International Large/Total, although I could be wrong. I don’t hold commodities futures or gold (or bitcoin) as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly. I also try to imagine each asset class doing poorly for a long time, and only hold the ones where I think I can maintain faith.

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

I have settled into a long-term target ratio is 67% stocks and 33% bonds (2:1 ratio) 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.

Real-world asset allocation details. For both simplicity and cost reasons, I am no longer buying DES/DGS and will be phasing them out whenever there are tax-loss harvesting opportunities. New money is going into the more “vanilla” Vanguard versions: Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR) and Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO).

I’m still a bit underweight in TIPS and REITs mostly due to limited tax-deferred space as I 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 have been seriously thinking of going back to US Treasuries due to changes in relative interest rates and our marginal income tax rate.

My stock/bond split is currently at 69% stocks/31% bonds. I continue to invest new money on a monthly basis in order to maintain the target ratios. Once a quarter, I also reinvest any accumulated dividends and interest that we did not spend. I don’t use automatic dividend reinvestment. First of all, we spend some of our dividends now. In addition, I can usually avoid creating any taxable transactions unless markets are really volatile.

Performance and commentary. According to Personal Capital, my portfolio has basically broken even so far in 2018 (-0.70% YTD). I see that during the same period the S&P 500 has lost 0.63% (excludes dividends) and the US Aggregate bond index has actually lost 1.55%.

An alternative 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 -0.98% YTD (as of 4/9/18).

In a separate post, I’ll share about more about the income aspect.

Blooom Review: Flat Fee Financial Advice (CFP) + Free 401k Analysis

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The numbers tell us that you probably have a 401k and you’re probably managing it yourself. Blooom (yes, with three Os) is a new company that focuses on providing advice for 401k, 403b, 457, and TSP accounts with modest balances, charging a flat $10 a month fee that includes the following services:

  • Fee analysis. Each mutual fund you own charges a “hidden” expense ratio that is quietly taken out of your balances daily. There may also be administrative fees charged by your provider (not to mention they may get a cut of those mutual fund expense ratios).
  • Asset allocation advice. They will provide a suggested stock and bond mix based on your retirement goals.
  • Rebalancing service. Blooom will rebalance your assets periodically back towards your target values.
  • Chat with Certified Financial Planners. You can e-mail or Live Chat with a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) about any financial topic, not just 401ks.
  • Fiduciary advice. Blooom is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) and takes on a fiduciary duty to give advice in your best interest only.

Free 401k analysis screenshots. Blooom offers a free upfront 401k analysis, and these are my results. There is nothing to cancel, and they won’t ask for credit card information.

1. They ask you for name, birthdate, and retirement age. You don’t need to be super-specific here, they just want your age and target retirement age to help create your target asset allocation.

2. Provide your login credentials. Blooom will automatically pull in your 401k holdings and other information when you provide them your username and password. (Similar the account tracker at Personal Capital.) You can opt-out, but in that case it skips to asking you questions about your investing behavior and will not analyze your 401k. It took them a couple of minutes to crunch everything. It looks like many 401k providers are included, but I would make sure they can connect with your provider first.

3. Analysis results and screenshots. They first give you an overall report card. Now, I don’t actually own company stock. Perhaps they make that assumption as I have a brokerage window with non-standard holdings.

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Next, they told me about the fees that I am paying. It’s true, this 401k does have limited options that can be expensive, but most of my money is actually invested through a Schwab brokerage window.

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They should analyze your asset allocation using a similar system to Personal Capital (also free), figuring out what is inside each of the mutual funds and assigning the proper asset class. Here is their advice about asset allocation:

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Finally, as you might expect, they make a pitch for why you should hire them to help you manage your 401k.

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My take. My main gripe from this analysis is that it only takes into account your 401k. If your 401k is your only retirement savings, then this is fine. However, my 401k is only a portion of my overall portfolio. In addition, I use tax-efficient asset placement, so my 401k mostly holds REITs and TIPs. In addition, they were not able to analyze most of my 401k account anyway as I use a self-directed brokerage window. Together, this prevents me from getting value out of this service.

Their asset allocation advice seems pretty industry-standard for robo-advisors, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of people have holdings all over the place. Too much in employer stock. Too much money in expensive funds with hot recent performance. Too much cash. Completely ignored. The “standard advice” is often an improvement. The standard advice is low costs and passive indexing. The standard advice is for a mix of stocks and bonds that are appropriate for your age and time horizon. The standard advice is diversification across asset classes like US stocks, international stocks, small caps, etc.

Cost. Blooom has settled on a flat $10 a month fee for ongoing 401k management and advice. This is the same if you have $10,000 or $10 million. Flat fees end up being a high percentage of small accounts though, for example on $10,000 that ends up being 1.2% a year. If anything, you’d get the most value out of the free analysis and avoiding expensive funds. My personal opinion is that if you only have a thousand dollars or less, you should buy the cheapest S&P 500 index fund in your 401k and focus on increasing your contribution rate. Asset allocation isn’t as important yet. Of course, the financial advisor access may be worth more than $10 a month by itself (see below).

While flat fees don’t work out mathematically for small accounts, you will start to save money as your account grows when compared to a percentage-based fee. I personally like the idea of a reasonable fee that stays flat as my assets grow. If there was a robo-advisor that would take a holistic view of all my accounts and rebalance things for a flat fee, I would seriously consider it. Emotionless rebalancing is a feature that I feel in under-appreciated.

Now, if you had a solid low-cost, diversified Target Retirement fund from Vanguard, Fidelity Index Series, or Schwab Index Series, you may not need to pay for extra advice. The asset allocation, rebalancing, and growing more conservative over time is all baked in already at an expense ratio about 0.20%. The problem is that there are a lot of bad Target Retirement funds out there that have added layers of fees, stuffed with expensive questionable funds, and chase performance.

CFP advice for $10 a month? The most intriguing part is the ability to Live Chat (text) or e-mail with Certified Financial Planners with no minimum balance requirement.

DID YOU KNOW blooom clients have access to a CFP? Just ping us on chat, email, Morse code, singing telegram, Pony Express… well, you get the idea, we are accessible.

They also seem to welcome questions about topics outside your 401k:

Ask our advisors any financial questions you have… even beyond 401ks! […] We go beyond retirement advice. Thinking about how a puppy or new car might affect you financially? Give us a whirl! Whether it’s $20 or $20,000, we want all our blooom members to make smart decisions about their finances.

It’s hard to measure how helpful it would be to have somebody with a industry-standard financial planning certificate to talk things out with. Access with no asset minimum is rare. For example, Betterment won’t let you have CFP access until you have $100,000 held with them (401k assets don’t count). You could always pay $10 for the first month and see how you like the CFP advice, as there is no contract.

Bottom line. Blooom may be appropriate for you if your 401k (or 403b/similar) contains the majority of your retirement assets and you are looking for low-cost, unbiased financial advice. They will manage your 401k funds and provide chat/e-mail access to a Certified Financial Planner for a flat $10 a month, regardless of your balance. However, I would make sure they can actually analyze your 401k correctly first. Get your free 401k/403b analysis here.

Graphic: The Fall of Pensions, The “Rise” of 401ks and IRAs

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Above is a historical chart of US household retirement assets that helps visualize the shift from mostly pensions to mostly a combination of defined contribution plans (401k, 403b, etc) and IRAs. Pension share has gone from nearly 80% of total assets in the 1980s to about 40% today. The blips upwards in 2001 and 2009 are more a function of stock market drops than anything else. I find it interesting that annuity use is not increasing at all, i.e. people are not creating more “DIY pensions”. Found via WSJ Daily Shot.

Below is a graphic of the percentage of households who have any retirement plan at all, grouped by income percentile. This means it counts any family with one person with any retirement plan of any type with any amount saved. Via Bloomberg article about state-mandated Roth IRAs.

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My big-picture concern is – What happens when those who started jobs in the 1980s and 1990s retire in the 2030s and 2040s with no pensions? As shown above, the majority of the lowest-income workers have no retirement plan at all. If you include the highest-paid workers, the average 401(k) at retirement age is currently about $100,000. In contrast, I ran an annuity quote and a pension that pays $50,000 a year inflation-adjusted is roughly the equivalent of having $1,000,000 saved in a 401(k).

More individuals are finding themselves in charge of their own retirement every day, whether they like it or not. This is a very serious responsibility. Warren Buffett has a plaque in his office with the following saying on it:

A fool and his money are soon invited everywhere.

Lots of money floating around means lots of “helpers” will pop up. Big banks. Start-up smartphone apps. Even Overstock.com now wants to help you with investing. Read the Gotrocks parable and beware high-fee helpers.

From Retired Couple Next Door to Lottery-Hacking Millionaires

scratchoffBack in 2011, a Boston Globe article came out about how a few folks repeatedly won tens of thousands of dollars on a Massachusetts lottery ticket game due to how the jackpot rolled over if it went unclaimed long enough. Essentially, at certain times the odds showed a expected positive return for everyone, but you’d have to buy a lot of tickets to even out the chances of bad luck. (This is why folks can win in the short-term in Las Vegas casinos, but the house always wins over a large number of bets.)

Mark Kon, a professor of math and statistics at Boston University, calculated that a bettor buying even $10,000 worth of tickets would run a significant risk of losing more than they won during the July rolldown week. But someone who invested $100,000 in Cash WinFall tickets had a 72 percent chance of winning. Bettors like the Selbees, who spent at least $500,000 on the game, had almost no risk of losing money, Kon said.

The Globe article basically made the bettors out to be villains, the “rich” against the “poor”. This Felix Salmon article argues that the game was fine, as technically everyone had the same odds (rich or poor) and the game actually generated a lot of money for the state. Buying that many tickets also took a lot of work:

As a result, while some people did indeed essentially treat Cash WinFall as a full-time job, it wasn’t necessarily a particularly lucrative or easy job for any given individual: it would take one couple ten hours a day, for ten days, to sort through their tickets to find the winners, the proceeds from which would then be shared among 32 consortium members. On top of that, every member of every consortium could reasonably expect to be audited by the state Department of Revenue every year. Which isn’t exactly fun.

A new HuffPost longform article takes a deeper, more personal look at the retired “couple next door” who discovered the edge and eventually made millions off of it. All that it required was “6th grade math”, according to Jerry and Marge Selbee:

The brochure listed the odds of various correct guesses. Jerry saw that you had a 1-in-54 chance to pick three out of the six numbers in a drawing, winning $5, and a 1-in-1,500 chance to pick four numbers, winning $100. What he now realized, doing some mental arithmetic, was that a player who waited until the roll-down stood to win more than he lost, on average, as long as no player that week picked all six numbers. With the jackpot spilling over, each winning three-number combination would put $50 in the player’s pocket instead of $5, and the four-number winners would pay out $1,000 in prize money instead of $100, and all of a sudden, the odds were in your favor. If no one won the jackpot, Jerry realized, a $1 lottery ticket was worth more than $1 on a roll-down week—statistically speaking.

“I just multiplied it out,” Jerry recalled, “and then I said, ‘Hell, you got a positive return here.’”

How much did they win?

By 2009 they had grossed more than $20 million in winning tickets—a net profit of $5 million after expenses and taxes—but their lifestyle didn’t change. Jerry and Marge remained in the same house, hosting a family gathering each Christmas as they always had. Though she could have chartered a private jet and taken everyone to Ibiza, Marge still ran the kitchen, made her famous toffee candy and washed dishes by hand. It didn’t occur to her to buy a dishwasher.

Would you have done the same thing if you knew about this edge? In my opinion, this is what makes the story fascinating. First, you have to find the inefficiency. Then you have to trust your findings enough to bet on them. You must risk your time and money upfront, throw in some ingenuity, and profit only if you are right. Then you have to bet big enough to make your winnings significant before the edge disappears (and they all eventually do). Putting all those things together is quite difficult. I’d be willing to bet some other people discovered the positive expected return, but still didn’t take the risk.

With Cash WinFall, if you had a knack for math, you could get an edge. If you were willing to spend the money, you could get an edge. If you put in the hours, you could get an edge. And was that so terrible? How was it Jerry’s fault to solve a puzzle that was right there in front of him? How was it Marge’s fault that she was willing to break her back standing at a lottery terminal, printing tickets?

Berkshire Hathaway 2017 Annual Letter by Warren Buffett

brk2016Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) has released its 2017 Letter to Shareholders. Instead of reading various media coverage about one aspect, I recommend reading the entire thing straight from the source. It’s only 17 pages long and (as always) written in a straightforward and approachable fashion. Even if you aren’t interested in BRK stock at all, reading the letter can be educational for individual investors of any experience level. Here are my personal notes with quoted exceprts.

Never use borrowed money to invest (leverage).

Our aversion to leverage has dampened our returns over the years. But Charlie and I sleep well. Both of us believe it is insane to risk what you have and need in order to obtain what you don’t need. We held this view 50 years ago when we each ran an investment partnership, funded by a few friends and relatives who trusted us. We also hold it today after a million or so “partners” have joined us at Berkshire.

There is simply no telling how far stocks can fall in a short period. Even if your borrowings are small and your positions aren’t immediately threatened by the plunging market, your mind may well become rattled by scary headlines and breathless commentary. And an unsettled mind will not make good decisions.

Lack of acquisitions. Berkshire hates paying too much for a company. They are also quite patient. Right now, there are many other competing buyers willing to pay high prices, so that is why their cash hoard keeps growing.

The less the prudence with which others conduct their affairs, the greater the prudence with which we must conduct our own.

Cash (Treasury Bills) is king.

During the 2008-2009 crisis, we liked having Treasury Bills – loads of Treasury Bills – that protected us from having to rely on funding sources such as bank lines or commercial paper. We have intentionally constructed Berkshire in a manner that will allow it to comfortably withstand economic discontinuities, including such extremes as extended market closures.

At yearend Berkshire held $116.0 billion in cash and U.S. Treasury Bills (whose average maturity was 88 days), up from $86.4 billion at yearend 2016. This extraordinary liquidity earns only a pittance and is far beyond the level Charlie and I wish Berkshire to have. Our smiles will broaden when we have redeployed Berkshire’s excess funds into more productive assets.

Be patient.

The light can at any time go from green to red without pausing at yellow.

Wells Fargo and Bank of America stock. If you’re looking for individual stock ideas, many people copycat the holdings of Berkshire Hathaway.

Charlie and I view the marketable common stocks that Berkshire owns as interests in businesses, not as ticker symbols to be bought or sold based on their “chart” patterns, the “target” prices of analysts or the opinions of media pundits.

I would also consider the overlap between the holdings of Berkshire Hathaway and Daily Journal Corporation (Chairman Charles Munger). Both have significant stakes in Wells Fargo and Bank of America in an approximate 3:2 ratio. (Both also own a much smaller amount of US Bancorp.) Keep in mind these are bought for the long run:

Stocks surge and swoon, seemingly untethered to any year-to-year buildup in their underlying value. Over time, however, Ben Graham’s oft-quoted maxim proves true: “In the short run, the market is a voting machine; in the long run, however, it becomes a weighing machine.”

Hedge fund bet. As expected, the S&P 500 index fund won against a group of actively-managed hedge funds, but there were some interesting details in the final results. Something to discuss further in a separate post.

Risk vs. time horizon.

Investing is an activity in which consumption today is foregone in an attempt to allow greater consumption at a later date. “Risk” is the possibility that this objective won’t be attained.

I want to quickly acknowledge that in any upcoming day, week or even year, stocks will be riskier – far riskier – than short-term U.S. bonds. As an investor’s investment horizon lengthens, however, a diversified portfolio of U.S. equities becomes progressively less risky than bonds, assuming that the stocks are purchased at a sensible multiple of earnings relative to then-prevailing interest rates.

Past shareholder letters.

Recent Timeline of Stock Market Corrections

The currently-accepted definition of a “market correction” is a price drop of 10% from its peak. There have now been five corrections to the S&P 500 stock index since the bear market of 2009 (seven if you count the 9.8% and 9.9% drops). Here’s a nice visual timeline from the NY Times.

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Here’s a corresponding list of all the cited reasons from Bloomberg for the corrections and near-corrections.

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If you look at all of those concerns, they all seemed pretty legitimate and scary at the time. The general idea of these articles is that corrections happen regularly, so don’t freak out. Of course, I could also repeat another one of those investing truisms: “A bear market is coming. I’m not saying it’s now… but you know, there will be another bear market in the future.”

This is another item in my big folder of things that are “interesting but not going to change my investment plan”. My plan remains still to buy, hold, rebalance, and keep collecting those dividends and interest payments. David Merkel has a nice summary of how to create a portfolio that allows this hands-off attitude:

[…] my final point is this: size your position in risk assets to the level where you can live with it under bad conditions, and be happy with it under good conditions.

Robinhood App Review: Free Stock Trades, Free Options Trading, No Minimum Balance

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Updated. The Robinhood app just announced free Bitcoin trading, which expands their suite of services to the following:

  • Unlimited free stock and ETF trades with no minimum balance requirement.
  • Free options trading. No commission and no per contract fee, plus no exercise or assignment fees.
  • Trade Bitcoin & other cryptocurrencies, 24/7 & commission-free. I’m not into Bitcoin myself, but hey y’all are adults.
  • Sleek smartphone app (Android and iOS) + Robinhood for Web option + API integration.
  • Free real-time market data.
  • Free share of stock for new users with referral.

Also, check out this new Bloomberg article Brokerage App Robinhood Thinks Bitcoin Belongs in Your Retirement Plan.

Background. I’ve been Robinhood beta user since mid-2014. I was skeptical as I’ve been an long-time early adopter of free trading platforms (read: cheapskate investor). In August 2015, they rolled out both iOS and Android app and reported processing over 2 million free trades. As of 2017, they have over a million users and processed $30 billion in trades. According to Bloomberg, they recently raised money at a $1.3 billion valuation.

Application process. You must provide your personal information including Social Security number, net worth, income, investing experience, etc. This is the same as any other brokerage firm, but this may also be the first such account for many users. Everything was done online; there were no paper documents that required mailing or faxing.

Core features review.

  • Legit. Robinhood Financial is a member of the SIPC which protects the securities in your account up to $500,000. Data is encrypted with SSL. Apex is their clearing firm.
  • $0 commission trades. Yes, it works, all with no minimum balance requirement. You could open an account, put in five bucks, and buy a single share of Zynga (ZNGA) if you wanted to (maybe two on a bad day…).
  • Market orders, limit orders, stop limit orders, and stop orders available. Certain orders may be entered as good for the day or good till canceled (GTC).
  • Individual cash or margin accounts available.
  • Free options trading: No commission and no per contract fee upon buying or selling options, as well as no exercise or assignment fees. Level 2 self-directed options strategies (buying calls and puts, selling covered calls and puts) as well as Level 3 self-directed options strategies such as fixed-risk spreads (credit spreads, iron condors), and other advanced trading strategies are available.
  • Customer service details. You are encouraged to go through their e-mail “support@robinhood.com”, but they have added a phone number now during market hours (9:30am – 4:00pm EST) at (650) 940-2700.

Funds transfers. You can manually link any bank account with your routing number and account number, but you can also directly use your username and password at these banks: Chase, Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, Charles Schwab, PNC, Silicon Vally Bank, and USAA. ACH transfers are free and take approximately 3 business days (same as other brokerages). There is also a automatic deposits feature where you can schedule ACH transfers on a weekly, biweekly, monthly, or quarterly basis.

ACAT account transfers. Robinhood now accepts incoming stock transfers from outside brokerage accounts. To do this, go your app account menu, select “Banking”, then select “Stock Transfer” and follow the on-screen instructions. Incoming transfers are free. Outgoing transfers will incur a $75 fee.

Robinhood Instant. Robinhood Instant is a free upgrade that gets you a “limited margin account” that has the following features:

  • Immediate access to funds from selling stock. That means you can reinvest those funds without waiting two days for settlement. (All brokerage margin accounts offer this.)
  • Limited instant deposits. Use up to $1,000 of your pending bank deposits right away. No waiting 2-3 days for a bank transfer to complete.

What’s the catch? Getting free trades is great, but be aware of the following:

  • Although they announced that a web interface is available, I have been on the waitlist since early November (currently #600,000 in line). Full rollout is not scheduled until some time in 2018. Everyone can access their account via a mobile Apple iOS or Android device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android phone, Android tablet).
  • There are unofficial sites that use the Robinhood API to provide web access, but I would be wary of sharing your login credentials with a 3rd-party.
  • I’m currently on a wait list for the free options trading as well.
  • Broker-assisted phone trades are $10 each, according to their fee schedule.
  • Electronic statements are the default and only free option. I don’t even see an option to enable paper statements in the app, but according to their fee schedule paper statements cost $5 a pop.

How do they make money? First, Robinhood will make some money the same way other brokers do: collect interest on your idle cash, charge you interest for margin loans, and sell order flow. The most innovative prospect is to the plan to sell API access to other financial apps.

The fact that Robinhood sells order flow may leave you with a slightly worse execution price as compared to other brokers with more complex order routing. If you are making large value trades, then this small percentage difference may add up to something significant that matters more than commission price. With my tiny order volume, I am fine with them selling my order flow if they are giving me commission-free trades.

Robinhood Gold is their premium service tier that gives you extending trading hours and interest-free margin for $10 a Month. My Robinhood Gold review.

User interface. Over the last 10 years, I’ve opened an account at the majority of the “discount” brokerage firms. I’ve had $0 trades before, along with $2 trades, $2.50 trades, $4.95 trades and so on. What makes Robinhood special is their modern, app-centric approach. I agree with this quote from Wired:

But the app’s simplicity is meant to be about more than style. Ease of access and understanding is meant to make Robinhood compulsively engaging for a new generation of investors that don’t find the stock market very accessible from the mobile screens at the center of their lives.

Screenshots.

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Recap. Robinhood delivers on their $0 stock trades promise with no minimum balance. The app interface is clean and intuitive. Customer service is on the lean side, but my requests were responded to within a day or so. They continue to make incremental improvements. They’ve been open to the public since March 2015, which is honestly longer than I expected. They announced a web interface on November 1, 2017. They announced free options trading in December 2017.

Sign up for Robinhood with my referral link and get a free share of stock, and I’ll get one too. Details on this promotion here.

Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns 2018

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 should remember the historical power of diversification and that even though something may look horrible now, good news may be just around the corner. We also need to remember that whatever is hot today won’t stay that way forever.

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. 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 1998-2017:

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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 asset class (Color) and then visually noting how its relative performance bounces around. Last year, I noted that Emerging Markets (Orange) and MSCI World ex-US (Light Grey) have been near the bottom for a while and I was still holding them and waiting for them to bounce back. In 2017, my diversification and patience paid off and they were indeed at the top again.

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ICYMI: E-Trade Super Bowl 2018 Commercial “This Is Getting Old”

E-Trade’s newest commercials (remember the baby?) have the basic premise of (1) you don’t have enough money and (2) to solve this, you should open an E-Trade brokerage account. The Super Bowl commercial was more specific: Don’t be 85 years old and #stillworkin. Here’s the full commercial from YouTube: