Berkshire Hathaway 2015 Annual Letter by Warren Buffett (Live Webcast Reminder)

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Reminder: BRK Annual Meeting Live Webcast starts Saturday, April 30th at 10am Eastern. Always wanted to attend the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting? This year, anyone can watch the Buffett and Munger Q&A session live without flying to Omaha, Nebraska. I don’t know if it will be available for later repeated viewing.

Charlie and I have finally decided to enter the 21st Century. Our annual meeting this year will be webcast worldwide in its entirety. To view the meeting, simply go to https://finance.yahoo.com/brklivestream at 9 a.m. Central Daylight Time on Saturday, April 30th. The Yahoo! webcast will begin with a half hour of interviews with managers, directors and shareholders. Then, at 9:30, Charlie and I will commence answering questions.

Rest of original post:

Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) released their 2015 Letter to Shareholders [pdf] over the weekend. As always, the letter is 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.

I’m sure many people smarter than me will offer their responses to this letter, but here are my notes.

Berkshire share value. As usual, the letter addresses the different ways to value BRK shares. First, there is the market value, as seen on any BRK stock quote. Second, there is the book value, which is an accounting term defined as total assets minus intangible assets and liabilities. Third, there is the intrinsic value, which is what Buffett believes is the true value. Buffett has repeatedly stated that BRK will buy back shares if the market value drops to 120% of book value.

Over time, this asymmetrical accounting treatment (with which we agree) necessarily widens the gap between intrinsic value and book value. Today, the large – and growing – unrecorded gains at our “winners” make it clear that Berkshire’s intrinsic value far exceeds its book value. That’s why we would be delighted to repurchase our shares should they sell as low as 120% of book value. At that level, purchases would instantly and meaningfully increase per-share intrinsic value for Berkshire’s continuing shareholders.

This suggests that Buffett believes BRK is worth signficantly more than 1.20x book value. As I write this, the BRK stock is roughly 1.3x book, and it has dropped as low as 1.25x book in January 2016. As a (tiny) shareholder, I also use this as a rough measure of whether the company is under- or over-valued (or out-of-fashion vs. in-fashion). My holdings are mostly meant as a future educational tool for my children. I don’t know how BRK will perform as compared to the S&P 500, but it is great example of a money-making machine.

Individual stock holdings. As BRK has moved from mostly holding parts of public companies to holding entire private companies, there is less for the individual stock picker to sift through. For example, you and I can no longer buy shares of Precision Castparts or BNSF Railroad directly. He is still confident in his “Big Four” investments of American Express, Coca-Cola, IBM and Wells Fargo:

These four investees possess excellent businesses and are run by managers who are both talented and shareholder-oriented. Their returns on tangible equity range from excellent to staggering. At Berkshire, we much prefer owning a non-controlling but substantial portion of a wonderful company to owning 100% of a so-so business. It’s better to have a partial interest in the Hope Diamond than to own all of a rhinestone.

Even though the outlooks for AmEx and IBM is not as positive as they were few years ago, Buffett must still view them also as reliable money-making machines. Reading through this and older letters are a great way to learn about important concepts like earnings growth, dividend payouts, and share buybacks.

Optimism. A good portion of the letter was devoted to optimism about the American economy.

It’s an election year, and candidates can’t stop speaking about our country’s problems (which, of course, only they can solve). As a result of this negative drumbeat, many Americans now believe that their children will not live as well as they themselves do.

That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.

Indeed, most of today’s children are doing well. All families in my upper middle-class neighborhood regularly enjoy a living standard better than that achieved by John D. Rockefeller Sr. at the time of my birth. His unparalleled fortune couldn’t buy what we now take for granted, whether the field is – to name just a few – transportation, entertainment, communication or medical services. Rockefeller certainly had power and fame; he could not, however, live as well as my neighbors now do.

Shareholder letters from 1977 to 2015 are available free to all on the Berkshire Hathaway website. You can also purchase all of the Shareholder letters from 1965 to 2014 for only $2.99 in Amazon Kindle format. Three bucks is a very reasonable price to have an official copy forever stored in electronic format. (Updated paperback will be re-stocked in mid-April for about $20. Don’t overpay for a stale physical copy.)

The 2014 Annual Letter discussed the power of owning shares of productive businesses (and not just bonds). The 2013 Annual Letter included Buffett’s Simple Investment Advice to Wife After His Death.

Real Estate Crowdfunding Experiment #1: Patch of Land Final Update

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pol_final0My first investment into real estate crowdfunding has completed. In April 2015, I invested $5,000 into a fix-and-flip loan at the site Patch of Land. There are more details in my initial update, but here’s a quick recap of the loan details:

  • Single-family home in West Sacramento, California
  • Loan secured by property, in the first position. Backed by personal guarantee from borrower.
  • 6-month expected term (roughly April 15th to October 15th). Fix-and-flip.
  • Loan-to-value is 75% per independent 3rd-party appraisal.
  • 11% APR interest, paid monthly.
  • $5,000 invested.

Here are the initial and final numbers on the property itself:

  • Developer Purchase Price: $155,000
  • Estimated Remodel Costs: $55,000
  • Developer Contribution $31,000 + closing costs + origination fee
  • Developer Loan Request: $179,000
  • Independent 3rd-party After-Repair-Value: $238,000
  • LTV based on Independent ARV: 75%
  • Developer estimated selling price: $275,000 to $300,000
  • Actual selling price: $300,000

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Here are the final numbers for my partial investment:

  • 4/20/15 – $5,000 invested.
  • Proceeded to collect $45.83 of interest on the 15th of every month (pro-rated on partial months).
  • 9/23/15. Loan extension granted.
  • Kept collecting $45.83 of interest on the 15th of every month (pro-rated on partial months).
  • 3/15/16. Notified that house in under contract for $300,000.
  • 3/30/16. Loan was paid in full.

The loan term was supposed to be for 6-months (one of the main reasons I chose it) but the process took longer than expected and the total loan period ended up being nearly 12 months. My total interest payments were $517.91. I also received an additional $75 fee for the loan extension. I thus received a total of $5592.91 over 346 days, for an annualized return of 12.5%. Without the extra $75 penalty fee, my interest payments would be right at the promised 11% APR.

Takeaways from the process:

  • Be patient but decisive when selecting your investment. You should be comfortable with the local market situation as well as the numbers like loan-to-value ratio. You should know what you want, ignore anything that doesn’t fit your criteria, and act quickly when you see something that does. This is really the only part of the process where you have control, so use it wisely.
  • Understand the contract. Just because there is a “6-month expected term” doesn’t mean you’ll get your money back in 6 months. You should read the terms carefully to see what options are available to the borrower if they can’t make that date. Is an extension automatically granted? Is there an increased interest rate? How long does the extension last?
  • Liquidity and more patience. One of the defining features of this type of investment is that it is highly illiquid. If I buy a mutual fund, I can sell the entire thing and get fair market value as cash in my bank account in a few business days. With an investment like this, the borrower could pay it back early, take their sweet time, or even default entirely and they’d have to liquidate the home before I get my principal back. That could take another several months. You should not need this money any time soon.
  • Low-maintenance. The good part of having no control is that you don’t have to do anything. I just sat back and had the interest automatically swept to my bank account each month. I received a simply 1099-INT for the interest earned through this loan, and it was quite easy to deal with at tax time.
  • Updates. I did not receive constant updates on this loan, but I think the updates were adequate. I was given a couple of photos on the remodel progress and updates on loan extension, house listing, house listing changes, and house being under contract. You do not have any two-way contact with the developer.

I will admit that I was nervous for a little bit on this house. I could track the house listing on real estate sites like Zillow and I questioned some of the cosmetic choices that the developer made, including painting the house an gunmetal-grey stucco. I also questioned the high listing price of $325,000, which I thought they’d never get and would scare off potential buyers. It all ended well as the house was repainted into a neutral beige and the developer agreed to sell at a good price.

Will I invest again? Well, I can’t help but be satisfied with my 12%+ annualized return, but things could also have dragged out a lot longer. I will probably invest again, but at a different real estate site, if only to see how they might handle things differently. I’m in it to make money, but I’m also in it to learn as this is my “experimental money” fund (even Burton Malkiel and Jack Bogle have such accounts).

Account screenshot:

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Higher Savings Rate vs. Higher Risk Portfolio

An article on the Vanguard Advisors Blog discussed the trade-offs involved in adjusting an investor’s savings rate and the risk level of their portfolio – Investor success: Measured in dollars, not (per)cents.

A portfolio’s value can grow through both capital contributions and return on capital, but only capital contributions can grow wealth reliably. Saving is our contribution to our own investment success and, importantly, unlike the investment returns we seek, its benefits are both more certain and within our control.

The chart below shows projected outcomes based on savings rate (4% or 6%) and portfolio risk level (conservative, moderate, or aggressive). You can see visually that the combination of 6% savings rate and moderate risk (50% stocks/50% bonds) has both a higher average outcome and fewer poor outcomes than the combination of 4% savings rate and aggressive risk (80% stocks/20% bonds)

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Part of this should be expected – you’re saving 50% more in dollars when going from a 4% to 6% savings rate. But on an absolute level, perhaps that amount of dollars is something you can swing.

Vanguard did a similar study called Penny saved, Penny earned back in 2011 that compared three levers: savings rate, portfolio asset allocation, and also starting to save earlier. Take the following baseline scenario:

  • Investor begins working at 25, but starts saving at age 35.
  • 12% savings rate
  • Moderate asset allocation (50% stocks and 50% bonds)
  • Salary starts at $30,000 but increases with age

Now, here are three ways in which a worker could increase their final savings balance at retirement (age 65).

  • Option #1. Invest more aggressively with an asset allocation of 80% stocks and 20% bonds, while keeping your 12% savings rate and starting age of 35.
  • Option #2. Raise your savings rate to 15%, while keeping your starting age of 35 and 50/50 asset allocation.
  • Option #3. Start saving at age 25 instead of 35. while keeping your 12% savings rate and and 50/50 asset allocation.

Which single option do you think has the most impact? The results are based the median balance found after running Monte Carlo computer simulations based on 10,000 possible future scenarios for each option.

Scenario Median Balance at age 65 % Increase vs. Baseline
Baseline $474,461
Option #1
(Aggressive asset allocation)
$577,133 22%
Option #2
(Raise savings rate)
$593,077 25%
Option #3
(Start saving earlier)
$718,437 51%

 

Between the three “levers” you could pull, starting to save earlier wins by a significant margin, which is an important truth but minus a time machine today is the earliest we can start saving more. After that, a higher savings rate is a more reliable path to improving your odds for success. Investing with significantly more risk performs somewhat similarly on a median basis, but actual results will vary the most widely.

I suppose my version of this is that an investor should keep working hard to maximize their savings rate, but only work hard to find a “good” asset allocation once and then let it be. My definition of “good” asset allocation is one that considers your financial needs, your knowledge, and as a result is something that you can keep forever. Don’t look for the “perfect” asset allocation, as these can only be known after the fact and are constantly changing. Too often, they are based on data mining and recent performance. Look at any asset allocation with growing popularity, and the asset classes that make it hot have probably done well in the past decade. You can quote “long-term” numbers from long periods like 1970 to 2015, but these numbers are still strongly influenced by recent past performance.

Early Retirement Portfolio Income Update, April 2016

dividendmono225I like the idea of living off dividend and interest income. Who doesn’t? The problem is that you can’t just buy stocks with the absolute highest dividend yields and junk bonds with the highest interest rates without giving up something in return. There are many bad investments lurking out there for desperate retirees looking only at income. My goal is to generate reliable portfolio income by not reaching too far for yield.

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 quote pages. 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 60% stocks and 40% bonds because I believe that will be my permanent allocation upon early retirement.

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (Taken 4/14/15) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
24% 1.94% 0.46%
US Small Value
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
3% 2.80% 0.09%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
24% 2.82% 0.66%
Emerging Markets Small Value
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
3% 3.03% 0.10%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 4.21% 0.24%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWIUX)
20% 2.90% 0.60%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
20% 0.82% 0.26%
Totals 100% 2.31%

 

The total weighted 12-month yield was 2.31%. This means that if I had a $1,000,000 portfolio balance today, it would have generated $23,100 in interest and dividends over the last 12 months. Now, that is 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 have previously used as a rough benchmark. I’ll note that the muni bond interest in my portfolio is exempt from federal income taxes.

Given the volatility of stock returns, the associated sequence of returns risk, and current high valuations, I still like the income yield measuring stick. I feel that the income yield number does a rough job of compensating for market valuations (valuations go up probably means dividend yield go down) as well as interest rates (low interest rates now, probably low bond returns in future). With 60% stocks, I am hoping that the overall income will keep up with inflation and that I will never have to “touch the principal”. Over the last 15 years or so, the annual growth rate of the S&P 500 dividend averaged about 5%.

As noted previously, a simple benchmark for this portfolio is Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX) which is an all-in-one fund that is also 60% stocks and 40% bonds. That fund has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.12%. Taken 4/14/2016.

So how am I doing? Staying invested throughout the last 10 years has been good to me. Using the 2.31% income yield, the combination of ongoing savings and recent market gains have us at 88% of the way to matching our annual household spending target. 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. From that perspective, a 2% spending rate seems like a conservative number, even with the many current predictions of modest future returns.

Early Retirement Portfolio Asset Allocation Update, April 2016

portpiegenericIt has been a while, so here is a 2016 First Quarter update on my investment portfolio holdings. This includes tax-deferred accounts like 401ks, IRAs, and taxable brokerage holdings, but excludes things like our primary home and cash reserves (emergency fund). The purpose of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover household expenses.

Target Asset Allocation

aa_updated2015

I try to pick 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. In addition, I have doubt that I would hold them through an extended period of underperformance (i.e. don’t buy what you don’t can’t stick with).

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

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)
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
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 terms of the big picture, very little has changed. I did not accomplish my plan of relocating my holdings of WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES) and WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS) into tax-deferred accounts. I pretty much left them where they have been, inside a taxable brokerage account. I am currently leaning towards simply selling them completely and making my overall portfolio more simple. I would just have Total US, Total International, and US REITs for stocks. I would technically still hold a “small value tilt” on my holding in my kid’s 529 college saving plan asset allocation.

As for bonds, I’m still somewhat underweight in TIPS mostly due to lack of tax-deferred space as I really don’t want to hold them in a taxable account. (I noticed that shares of TIP are actually up 4% this year, less than 4 months in). My taxable bonds are split roughly evenly between the three Vanguard muni funds. The average duration across all of them is roughly 4-5 years.

A simple 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 -0.87% for 2015 and +1.42% YTD (as of 3/31/16).

I like tracking my dividend and interest income more than overall market movements. In a separate post, I will update the amount of income that I am deriving from this portfolio along with how that compares to my expenses.

Real Estate Crowdfunding Experiment #2: Fundrise Income eREIT Review

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Update 1st Quarter 2016. I have received my first dividend income “check” for my investment in the Fundrise Income eREIT. Based on my $2,000 investment on 1/6/16, I received $20.99 on 4/12/16 (sent directly to linked bank account). Here is a screenshot from my account:

fundrise2016q1

It was also reported that the Income eREIT earned approximately a 9.7% annualized return during the first quarter of 2016 and issued approximately a 4.5% annualized dividend to investors for this period. The income percentage matches my numbers: $20.99 / $2,000 x 365 days / 85 days invested time = 4.5% annualized.

This is the first complete quarter of activity, so the dividend size is expected to increase once funds are fully invested. The portfolio currently includes 13 commercial real estate assets from across the country in 8 different metropolitan areas, with approximately $31.5 million committed as of March 31, 2016. So far in Q2 they added one more property. I am simply sharing my own results, not making an investment recommendation as I don’t know your situation. This is a higher-risk, speculative investment.

Original post:

I’ve made my second real estate crowdfunding investing “experiment”, placing $2,000 into the Fundrise Income eREIT. (REIT = Real Estate Investment Trust.) Their investment claim is being the “first ever low-fee, diversified commercial real estate investment available directly online to anyone in the United States, no matter their net worth.”

Fundrise is one of the first real estate companies taking advantage of the recent JOBS Act that allow certain crowdfunding investments to be offered to everyone, as previously it was limited only to accredited investors. You must be a US resident and your investment cannot exceed the greater of 10% of your gross annual income or net worth.

Here’s a quick overview of the features:

  • Low investment minimum ($1,000)
  • Quarterly cash distributions
  • Quarterly liquidity (you can request to sell shares quarterly, but liquidity is not always guaranteed)
  • Low Fees (claimed to be roughly 1/10th the fees of similar non-traded REITs). Until Dec 31, 2017, you pay $0 in asset management fees unless you earn a 15% annualized return.
  • Transparency (you get to see exactly what properties are held)

Essentially, instead of investing in a single condo building, I am now putting my money into a pot of money that will invest in a basket of different commercial real estate properties.

Why not just invest in the Vanguard REIT index fund? Well, I happen to think most everyone should invest in VNQ if they want commercial real estate exposure. I own a lot more of VNQ than this Fundrise investment. VNQ invests in publicly-traded REITs, huge companies worth up to tens of billions of dollars. VNQ offers wide diversification and you have daily liquidity. But as publicly-traded REITs have grown in popularity (and price), their income yields have gone down.

As with other crowdfunding sites, Fundrise deals with specific, smaller deals with (hopefully) higher risk-adjusted returns. This eREIT diversifies your money across multiple properties, but we’re still talking examples like a $2 million townhouse complex, or a $2 million boutique hotel. An analogy might be made with “micro-cap” investing. From their FAQ:

Specifically, we believe the market for smaller real estate transactions (“small balance commercial market or SBC”) is underserved by conventional capital sources and that lending in the market is fragmented, reducing the availability and overall efficiency for real estate owners raising funds. This inefficiency and fragmentation of the SBC market has resulted in a relatively favorable pricing dynamic which the eREIT intends to capitalize on using efficiencies created through our technology platform.

A positive feature is the ability to request liquidity on a quarterly basis, but it is not guaranteed that you can withdraw all that you request (similar to some hedge funds). Here’s a comparison chart taken from the Fundrise site:

fundrise_ereit1

Why Fundrise? It can be hard to differentiate between the various crowdfunding websites. One way that I feel that Fundrise differs is they are more picky about the deals they choose to fund. The CEO Ben Miller often talks about “high standards” in his public remarks. Talk is one thing, but I’ve been tracking them for a while, and Fundrise really does offer far fewer deals than the other competitor sites I have signed up with. For about a year now, every deal that I’d been interested in has been gone well within 24 hours.

Even this eREIT has a 10,000+ person waitlist just to get the chance to buy into this investment. I had to sign up on the waitlist early, wait my turn, and then commit my $2,000. My guess is that they can’t grow it any faster because they only have 7 underlying properties at this time. Will this selectivity last? I don’t know, I hope so. Will their selectivity produce higher, safer returns? I don’t know, I hope so.

My first quarter hasn’t ended yet, so I have no performance numbers to report yet. Here’s a screenshot from my account page:

fundrise_ereit3

I think the Fundrise Income eREIT is an interesting concept. It appears that they will start another “Growth” eREIT next, with more focus on capital appreciation and less on regular income. This is a speculative investment with limited liquidity. I threw a small percentage of my net worth in there, and as with my other experiments I’ll provide updates as to my investment returns.

Here is the full Offering Circular at SEC.gov.

Under Armour, Nike, and Owning The Haystack

haystacknikeIf you’re a basketball fan, you may have read this ESPN article about how Under Armour beat out Nike to get an endorsement deal for Stephen Curry. As one of the hottest athletes in the world, this single deal could shift billions of dollars towards Under Armour, especially if the Warriors win 73 games and defend their NBA championship. All for a company that just starting making shoes 10 years ago.

Under Armour (UA) is currently worth about $10 billion (at a very high P/E ratio), just 10% of Nike (NKE) at roughly $100 billion. What will things look like in another 10 or 20 years? Will they maintain their momentum? Athletic apparel is a huge and growing industry, but fashion moves quickly and I am only getting older! Under Armour didn’t even exist when I was begging my parents for Nike Air Jordans in high school.

I see myself as an investor in these companies through the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund. I know that as a market-cap weighted fund, the amount of each stock held is directly proportional to the total market value of the company. Right now, I own roughly 10 shares of Nike stock to every 1 share of Under Armour stock. If the current trends continue, I could one day be owning 10 shares of UA stock for every share of NKE. All without having to pay attention to trends, comb through any financial statements, or trade a single share of stock.

In the future, I will own shares of the company selling whatever kinds of clothing and shoes all the kids covet, be it Nike or Under Armour or something being sketched right now in a garage somewhere. (My own athletic wear logos are dependent on what is on sale under $10 at Ross…) I’ve repeated this well-known quote from Vanguard founder Jack Bogle before:

Don’t look for the needle in the haystack. Buy the entire haystack.

In the end, I sleep better at night because I know that I will own the haystack. I will own all the winners in relative amounts. In exchange, I will give up the opportunity to earn a very high return from betting on the top winner, I will give up the risk of picking the losers, and I won’t have to pay anyone to pick them for me.

The New Financial Bundle: Checking + Savings + Credit Card + Brokerage + Retirement Advice

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Last week, Ally Financial announced that they are acquiring TradeKing. What made this interesting was that they didn’t refer to TradeKing as a discount brokerage firm, but a “digital wealth management company”. This another move from independent start-up (TradeKing merged with Zecco earlier) to big, corporate “bundle”. The traditional communications bundle includes TV, home internet, home phone, cellular phone, and cellular data. The new financial bundle will include:

  • Checking account – Daily cash management, paycheck target, online bill payment, ATM access, debit cards.
  • Savings account – Liquid savings, higher interest rate.
  • Credit card – Easily-accessed credit line.
  • Self-directed brokerage account – DIY investments including individual stocks, options trading.
  • Professional portfolio management – Managed accounts including advice regarding asset allocation, taxes, retirement income, and more. Both lower-cost robo-advisor and higher-touch human advisor platforms.

Here’s my opinionated rundown on some of the bigger firms in this new area. Some of the “pros” aren’t that strong, and some of the “cons” aren’t that bad, but it helps organize my thoughts.

Ally Financial / TradeKing

  • Pros: Competitive interest rates on checking and savings, ATM fee reimbursements, $5 brokerage trades.
  • Cons: No physical branches. No credit cards (yet). Robo-advisor program is still relatively small and new.

Bank of America

  • Pros: Huge physical branch and in-house ATM footprint. Merrill Edge commission-free trades starting at $25k minimum asset balance, $6.95 trades otherwise. Credit card rewards bonus with minimum asset balance.
  • Cons: Low interest rates on banking products. Merrill Lynch advisor network is big and uses traditional fee system, so I’m not a huge fan but others may like it. No robo-advisor program (yet).

Fidelity

  • Pros: Decent cash management account with ATM fee reimbursements, selected commission-free ETFs, somewhat limited but low-cost index fund selection, $7.95 trades otherwise, 2% cash back credit card.
  • Cons: Low interest rates on banking products, human-based Portfolio Advice is relatively expensive and pushes expensive actively-managed funds. Lower-cost robo-advisor is probably coming soon, but yet released.

Schwab

  • Pros: Decent cash management account with ATM fee reimbursements, commission-free Schwab ETF trades with low-cost index options, $8.95 trades otherwise, 1.5% cash back American Express, low-cost robo-advisor via Intelligent Portfolios.
  • Cons: Low interest rates on banking products.

Vanguard

  • Pros: Large selection of low-cost funds and ETFs, commission-free Vanguard ETF trades for all, $7 non-Vanguard ETF/stock trades (or less based on asset level). Portfolio advice includes robo-component plus available human representative.
  • Cons: Limited availability and features on banking accounts. Limited portfolio support for buying non-Vanguard products. No credit cards.

I still believe that the self-directed investor is best off picking individual products a la carte, but it will be interesting to see how things change in the coming years. Each financial mega-institution will likely improve upon their weaknesses, and offer significant perks and discounts for keeping all your money with them.

New Rules on Fiduciary Duty for Retirement Account Advice

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The Department of Labor has released their final rule on reducing conflicts of interest on retirement savings advice. As expected, the new rule now requires any person who provides investment advice on retirement accounts like 401(k) or IRAs to act as fiduciaries and put their client’s best interest first. The goals are to save investor money otherwise directed to hidden fees and commissions, while helping even the playing field for the financial advisors have been acting as fiduciaries all along.

Commentary. Lots of people have most of their retirement savings in 401k plans, which are often eventually rolled over into IRAs. There are entire firms of salespeople who try to capture this money and skim off huge commissions, and now they will have to act as fiduciaries.

While it can be touted as an overall “win” for consumers, there are still plenty of grey areas. The final rule requires firms to be compliant on several broader provisions by April 2017 and fully compliant by Jan. 1, 2018. Existing investments are grandfathered in. Small 401(k) plans are exempt from some of the rules. Firms can still technically sell you things like high fee variable and indexed annuities in IRAs and brokers can continue to recommend proprietary products, there just has to be a believable shred of reason behind it.

I’m going to be honest, I read about 20 articles on this subject and my head hurt with all the little details. This rule could have really blown up large parts of the industry, but you can tell they really tried not to disrupt anything significant. Try reading some for yourself:

Department of Labor Official Page
Department of Labor Press Release Fact Sheet
White House Fact Sheet [PDF]
NY Times 1, NY Times 2
WSJ 1, WSJ 2

In other words, the nastiest stuff with the highest hidden fees and commissions will probably go away. So it’s a win around the edges. For the savvy DIY investor or the person with their money with a trustworthy registered investment advisor (RIA) that was already a fiduciary, the effect will likely be small if anything.

Hopefully, if you decide to have someone help you manage your investments, they are already a fiduciary, have been for a while, and don’t need someone to tell them to act in your best interest.

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.

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.