Schwab Target Date Index Funds Review

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Charles Schwab has announced Schwab Target Index Funds, a new series of “all-in-one” target date mutual funds that are made up entirely of in-house Schwab Index ETFs and a Schwab cash mutual fund. Their existing offering Schwab Target Funds differs in being significantly more expensive and including a mix of passive and actively-managed funds. Each fund will have a target date between 2010 and 2060, spaced in 5-year increments. Let’s take a closer look.

What’s inside? The portfolio for any given target year is composed of 9 different asset classes. Here is a graphical illustration of their “glide path”, or how the asset allocation changes relative to the target retirement date. (Source. Click image to enlarge.)

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Here’s a 2016 snapshot of what every fund is holding by target date (Source. Click image to enlarge.):

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Overall, the glide path conforms to industry norms, with high equity at younger ages and lower equity as you reach and pass retirement. Here are the ETFs and mutual funds that represent each asset class.

  • US Large Cap Equity – Schwab U.S. Large-Cap ETF (SCHX)
  • US Small Cap Equity – Schwab U.S. Small-Cap ETF (SCHA)
  • International Developed Equity – Schwab International Equity ETF (SCHF)
  • Emerging Markets Equity – Schwab Emerging Markets Equity ETF (SCHE)
  • Real Estate – Schwab U.S. REIT ETF (SCHH)
  • Short-Term Bond – Schwab Short-Term U.S. Treasury ETF (SCHO)
  • Intermediate-Term Bond – Schwab U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF (SCHZ)
  • Inflation-Protected Bond – Schwab U.S. TIPS ETF (SCHP)
  • Cash – Schwab Variable Share Price Money Fund — Ultra Shares (SVUXX)

How much do they cost? What are the investment minimums?

  • Individuals can buy Investor Shares with an expense ratio of 0.13%. The minimum initial investment is $100.
  • Employer-sponsored retirement plans can access the Institutional Shares with an expense ratio of 0.08%. There is no minimum initial investment.

An interesting thing to note is that the mutual funds technically have an extra layer of management fees and “other fees” on top of the expenses from the underlying ETFs and mutual funds. However, Schwab has agreed to cap the expenses at 0.13% for Investor Shares and 0.08% for Institutional Shares. This is supposed to stay in place “for so long as the investment adviser serves as the adviser to the fund”… they might want to re-word that.

In any case, even with the cap, the Investor Shares still cost more than the expenses from the underlying investments. You are basically paying 0.05% to 0.08% for some simple asset allocation. That means you could build your own portfolio using the same Schwab ETFs at a lower cost. You could also get rid of the (unnecessary in my opinion) cash component, which currently only yields 0.43% with another temporary fee waiver as of 8/26/2016. Personally, that’s what I would rather do, but I will admit that some folks will do better with an automated asset allocation.

How does it compare with Vanguard Target Retirement Funds? This is the natural comparison, as Vanguard’s target funds have the most assets and they used to be the cheapest before Schwab came along. Across the series, the expense ratio for their retail fund varies between 0.14% and 0.16%. You can now see why Schwab has priced their funds just below that at the “sale price” of 0.13%. Schwab loves to be cheaper by a basis point or two.

In terms of asset allocation and glide path, here are some side-by-side comparisons:

  • Vanguard has a equity split of 60% domestic and 40% international. Schwab has a equity split of 67% domestic and 33% international (if you consider the 4% US REITs as US stock).
  • Vanguard starts at 90% equity max and reaches 50% equity at retirement age. Schwab starts at 95% equity max and reaches 40% equity at retirement age.
  • Asset classes that Schwab includes specifically, which Vanguard does not: REITs, inflation-protected bonds (TIPS), and cash.
  • Asset classes that Vanguard includes specifically, which Schwab does not: International bonds.

Commentary. Schwab is definitely serious about index funds. They’ve built their own set of low-cost index mutual funds and index ETFs to compete with Vanguard and iShares. They already have an automated portfolio “robo-advisor” called Intelligent Portfolios, which uses these index funds as well as some “smart beta” funds. They’ve added these Target Index funds to grab the 401(k) and individual markets including IRAs. Put another way, they sell flour and butter, and they also sell pre-made pies and cakes.

This is a long-term play for Schwab, as they’ve all but admitted that the index ETFs themselves are currently losing money, while hoping to either make up the difference in other fees, services, or products somewhere down the line (like when interest rates rise again). Schwab will surely grab much more assets from employer retirement plans as a result of this move. In my limited experience with them, I have found Schwab to have solid customer service, at times in fact better than Vanguard. If they can leverage their customer service and human component, I think this is a smart move on their part.

However, if given the choice, I’d recommend my family to buy Vanguard Target Retirement funds first because Vanguard is not a for-profit company and I trust Vanguard more to keep customer interests first over the long run. (I believe that Schwab includes cash where it isn’t necessary in order to increase their future fees from money market funds, which are an important contributor to profits. This isn’t as significant here as in their robo-advisor product, but it will matter more as interest rates rise. More importantly, Vanguard doesn’t play such games.) However, big-picture-wise they are very similar. I’d gladly recommend that they buy a Schwab Target Index fund in their 401(k) or 403(b) plan as they are likely the best options if available. This is a positive development overall for individual investors.

SolarCity Bonds: 6.50% Interest for 18 Month Term

scty0bSome folks don’t like it when I write about investments that aren’t low-cost index funds. The thing is, when I find something intriguing, I like to dig deeper and then keep a record my findings. That way I can look back later and see how things turned out and compare with my opinions at the time. Just because I write about something doesn’t mean I recommend it, you have to read the entire post.

SolarCity is a company that installs and finances solar panels on commercial and residential properties. Back in October 2014, they started to allow individual investors to buy senior, unsecured corporate bonds directly from them online. You could invest as little as $1,000 in these SolarCity SolarBonds and pay no trade commissions or fees. The critical feature is that these “solar bonds” were backed only by the claims-paying abilities of the issuing company. If SolarCity fails, then you could lose your entire principal as well as any interest owed.

In general, the more confident you are that you’ll be paid back, the lower the interest rate the borrower has to pay. Other factors will come into play, such as the overall interest rate environment. With this in mind, check out the history of these bonds:

  • In 2014, SolarCity was issuing 7-year bonds paying a 4% annual interest rate.
  • In mid-2015, SolarCity was issuing 5-year bonds paying a 5% annual interest rate.
  • Currently in August 2016, SolarCity is offering a 18-month bond paying 6.5% annual interest rate. Ends August 30, 2016.

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Supposedly, SolarCity is passing on the savings of doing things in-house and not having to pay investment banker fees. I still declined to write about these SolarCity bonds in the past because the yield and term lengths were not good enough to grab my interest. But 6.5% in 18 months? Okay, you’ve at least gotten my attention.

Consider that as of 8/24/16, an 18-month Treasury bill yields approximately 0.70%. The highest 18-month FDIC-insured CD pays roughly 1.35%. Investment-grade (A) corporate bonds are averaging ~1.15% for a 2 year maturity. Even a junk bond ETF like JNK may have a 6.5% yield but an average maturity of over 6 years.

What’s happening? Well, SolarCity is struggling in several areas. It’s been losing money reliably, every year. Here’s the stock price chart:

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Perhaps more importantly, it has some big bills that are coming due soon. According to this TheStreet article, SolarCity has $3.25 billion in debt, with $1.23 billion due by the end of 2017. Note that date. At the same time, Tesla has offered to buy SolarCity in an all-stock deal.

Obviously Elon Musk and his SolarCity co-founder cousins want it to happen, as it has been widely-reported that they bought a big chunk of these bonds on their own. See Fortune, WSJ, and MarketWatch.

Why would they buy these bonds? My wild-guess opinion is that it looks like SolarCity is trying to extend its debt long enough so that Tesla can safely buy the company and then refinance things on better terms. I would say that if the deal closes, then these 6.5% bonds will pay off. I believe that Tesla will still be around in 18 months. However, if the deal doesn’t close for some reason, then SolarCity might be in big trouble.

Are these 6.5% bonds worth the risk? Given that Elon Musk and his cousins are a big shareholder in both companies and just bought $100 million of these bonds, that would seem to place your interest in line with theirs at this point. I’d actually rather hold these bonds for 18 months than be a shareholder for 18 months. However, you are still faced with the chance that the deal will hit some unforeseen obstacle, so it all depends on your confidence level. For me, the reward just isn’t high enough to justify the risk of permanent principal loss (I’d rather have a house as collateral), so I am going to pass and wait to see how it turns out.

MogulREIT: CrowdFunded Real Estate for Non-Accredited Investors

rmlogo200While the number of real estate crowdfunding sites keeps growing, most marketplaces still require you to be an accredited investor with high income and/or net worth requirements. However, options for non-accredited investors should improve shortly due to the expanded Regulation A+ per the JOBS Act, which allows the general public to invest in private companies under certain circumstances.

RealtyMogul.com just announced their offering called the MogulREIT I. Instead of being able to buy part of a specific shopping center or providing a loan against a specific apartment complex, these REITs take your money and the sponsors get to pick out a diversified pool of commercial estate. The investor has much less control, but easier diversification. Instead of putting $2,500 into one building, you can spread $2,500 across 20 or 30 properties. Here are more details from their website:

  • Fund intends to be diversified across property types, investment types, and geographies.
  • The Fund expects to pay quarterly distributions starting the second full quarter of operation.
  • The Fund will provide certain redemption opportunities, quarterly.
  • MogulREIT I is audited by Cohn Reznick and administered by Opus Fund Services.
  • $2,500 Minimum Investment.

Here’s what they have to say regarding expenses:

Investors in MogulREIT I will not be charged any sales commissions and the organization and offering expenses are anticipated to be approximately 3% of the target total raise of amount. Traditional non-traded REITs typically charge an average sales commission of 7% and organization and offering expenses of up to 15%**.

There are more details in the full SEC offering circular. Please do your own due diligence.

As I’ve said before, I would tell my family to invest in a low-cost, diversified, publicly-traded REIT fund before investing in any of these non-traded REITs with limited liquidity. For example, buying shares of the Vanguard REIT Index ETF (VNQ) will give you commercial real estate exposure with rock-bottom expenses and daily liquidity. VNQ and its mutual fund equivalents are where the vast majority of my commercial real estate exposure remains.

That said, I find this area of investing to be interesting. I like the idea of focused real estate but don’t enjoy being a landlord. I have invested $2,000 of “experimental money” into the similar Fundrise Income eREIT, as I prefer high-interest loans backed by real estate as collateral. Fundrise also has a Growth REIT which focuses more on real estate equity. The MogulREIT I is supposed to target both income and growth. I currently have no plans to invest in either the Fundrise Growth REIT or the MogulREIT.

Using Your 401(k) and Roth IRA as Emergency Funds

savebuttonbankWe’ve all heard that you should keep an emergency fund in case of unexpected expenses or unemployment. But what if you don’t have the cash? Personal finance author Jonathan Clements presents a mathematical argument for using your 401(k) as an emergency fund in his recent article The Terrible Twenties. Here’s how the math works.

Let’s say you are in the 15% federal income tax bracket and you put $2,000 in your employer’s 401(k) plan. Your out-of-pocket cost would be $1,700, thanks to the initial tax savings. At the same time, your employer matches your contributions at 50 cents on the dollar, with the matching contribution vested immediately. Result: Your $2,000 investment gets you a $1,000 match, bringing your account balance to $3,000.

If you are then laid off and forced to liquidate your retirement account to pay living expenses, you might lose 15% to federal income taxes, plus another 10% to the tax penalty for making a retirement account withdrawal before age 59½. That combined 25% hit would still leave you with $2,250, well above your $1,700 out-of-pocket cost.

To be fair, this isn’t nearly as radical as it seems. Most prioritized lists of “where I should put $XXX?” will put a 401(k) up to the company match as the #1 priority, even above a cash emergency fund.. A company match gives you a way to earn a 50% or 100% instant, risk-free return on your money. This is a rare opportunity that you shouldn’t pass up.

However, not mentioned is that after you exhaust any 401(k) match, you could also consider contributing to a Roth IRA and using that as your emergency fund. The primary reason for this is that Roth IRA contributions can be taken out at any time, without penalty. Unlike Traditional IRAs, withdrawals from Roth IRAs are subject to ordering rules (see Chapter 2 of IRS Pub 590-B), which state that you always withdraw your own contributions first.

In either case, since you can only contribute a certain amount to 401(k) and/or IRAs every year, it would be wise to take advantage of this tax-sheltered space as much as possible. Don’t make a withdrawal if you can avoid it, but if you have limited options, it can make sense to contribute first and hope you can keep the money invested for retirement.

The Vanguard Effect on ETF and Mutual Fund Expenses

vanguard_logoThe following chart taken from this Bloomberg article by Eric Balchunas shows the drastic difference in expense ratios when Vanguard has an offering in an asset class or not.

Like Walmart arriving in a new town, the entry of Vanguard into a particular investment area causes a collective gnashing of teeth as other fund managers are forced to drop their prices to compete. That dynamic is borne out in the table below, which shows the cheapest ETF fees for products that do or do not have a Vanguard-provided equivalent.

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This is the “Vanguard Effect”. Here’s my version of explaining how it works:

  • When Vanguard competes in an area, the expense ratios across the board are much, much lower.
  • Note that the cheapest expense ratios you see in those asset classes not necessarily from Vanguard itself. It is often from a competitor like Charles Schwab.
  • When Vanguard doesn’t compete, the expense ratios are much higher.
  • In those no-Vanguard asset classes, the competitor won’t lower prices just because they can. They’ll keep the profit margin as high as they can, as they are bound to serving the business owners as well as ETF share owners. The gap between what they can charge and what they must charge goes to business profits. They aren’t evil, they are just trying to serve their two masters.
  • At Vanguard, the business owner is the ETF share owner. (Vanguard uses the term “client-owned”.) For them, the most efficient way to pass on potential profits is to keep expenses as low as possible.

This is why you see DIY investors always wish Vanguard would offer something like an International Small Value ETF or a US Micro Cap ETF. By simply entering the ring, even the expense ratios of the ETFs we already hold from other providers will go down.

Hours of Work Needed to Buy S&P 500, Gold, and Oil

Here’s an interesting series of charts that measure how many hours of work it has taken to buy various things like the S&P 500 index, an ounce of gold, or a barrel of crude oil. You could see it as an alternative to adjusting historical prices by CPI inflation. Found on Twitter, done by @TheChartmeister.

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In July 2016, the average hourly earnings of a production worker according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics was $21.59 an hour. In January 1964, it was $2.50 an hour.

In July 2016, it would take roughly 100 hours of work to buy the S&P 500 index if it was in dollars. Back in 1964, it would have only taken roughly 30 hours of work.

Here are direct links to the tweets.

Reader Question: Good Time To Lower International Stock Exposure?

earth_apolloHere’s a reader question on international equities that reflects some of what I’ve been reading elsewhere and thinking about in my head:

I was doing my mid-year rebalance and noticed that international equity funds did terrible over the past 10 years, I have a fair amount of money in international equities, as do you. I’m considering lowering the % because they generally under perform US funds. Would love your thoughts.

First, let’s look back at some history (i.e. my old posts). Is it really true that US stocks historically perform better than International stocks? Also, the diversification benefit comes from the very fact that these asset classes don’t always move in sync (not perfectly correlated), allowing you to attain a higher risk-adjusted return by holding some of both as opposed to just one or the other.

From 1970-2006, foreign stocks outperformed US stocks, while the point of optimal risk-adjusted returns was a split of 76% US and 24% Foreign Developed (EAFE) (70% is a typo). The chart is taken from a past edition of A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton Malkiel.

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From 1970-2013, the same chart shows that US stocks now outperformed foreign stocks on average, with the point of optimal risk-adjusted returns at 70% US and 30% Foreign Developed. From Rick Ferri:

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From 1970 to 2015, the average annualized return of the S&P 500 has been 10.3%, while MSCI Europe has returned 10.0%. Sometimes US wins. Sometimes International wins. Here’s a chart from Ben Carlson of A Wealth of Common Sense showing the rolling 5 year over- and underperformance of U.S. stocks relative to European markets (MSCI Europe):

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This is an example of why “staying the course” sounds easy but it isn’t in real life. On one hand, some of the recent doubt about Europe and Emerging Markets has to be about performance chasing. Look at the recent divergence in two major mutual funds that track Total US (VTSAX) and Total International (VTIAX) indexes, taken from Morningstar. This shows the growth of $10,000 invested 5 years ago:

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On the other hand, there are real reasons behind the performance difference. The US economy has been more resilient and the future does look more bright. Europe and Emerging markets have more obvious problems without a visible solution. But that also means that US stocks are more richly valued, and International stocks are “cheaper”. Every model that uses historical data shows that International stocks have a higher future expected return. Here is Research Affiliates as one example:

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Summary. The formal advice is that you should have a written “investment policy statement” (IPS) that states why you hold your current asset allocation in the first place. In other words, what where the reasons behind your current allocation? Have they changed? For me, nothing has really changed about why I bought both US and international stocks in the first place. Their long-term historical returns remain similar, and while the US may be slightly ahead at this moment, this could easily change again in the next decade.

It’s not fun to hold these international stocks right now, but I focus on the fact that European and Emerging Markets valuations are relatively cheaper and the dividend payout rates are relatively higher. By owning a globally-diversified passive portfolio, I choose to rely on the markets to work themselves out over time.

Early Retirement Portfolio Income, 2016 Mid-Year Update

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 portfolio income that will keep up with inflation.

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 7/31/16) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
24% 1.83% 0.44%
US Small Value
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
3% 2.98% 0.09%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
24% 2.71% 0.65%
Emerging Markets Small Value
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
3% 3.14% 0.09%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 3.21% 0.19%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWIUX)
20% 2.82% 0.56%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
20% 0.82% 0.16%
Totals 100% 2.18%

 

The total weighted 12-month yield was 2.18%. This means that if I had a $1,000,000 portfolio balance today, it would have generated $21,800 in interest and dividends over the last 12 months. (I will note that the muni bond interest in my portfolio is exempt from federal income taxes.) For comparison, the Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX) is an all-in-one fund that is also 60% stocks and 40% bonds. That fund has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.04%, taken 7/31/2016.

Both of those 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 current annual expenses. If I used the actual numbers above, I am still slightly short. 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.

I still like this income yield calculation as very conservative lower bound that adjusts for stock 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). As an aspiring early retiree with hopefully 40 or even 50 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, 2016 Mid-Year Update

portpie_blank200Here is a roughly mid-year 2016 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

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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 don’t have enough “faith” in their fundamentals to 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-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)
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
Since my last quarterly update, I’ve done the “just keep swimming, just keep swimming” thing and continued dollar-cost-averaging into the same investment mix. Nothing seems like a great deal, but I remain optimistic. I have not made any sell transactions. I still hold WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES) and WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS), as I still like the idea of holding a bit extra of those asset classes even though the ETFs available are not all that great.

I’m still somewhat underweight in TIPS mostly due to limited tax-deferred space as I really don’t want to hold them in a taxable account. (I should note that shares of TIP and VIPSX are up roughly 7% YTD, but the forward real yield is now negative). 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 +6.61% YTD (as of 7/31/16).

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.

Home Country Bias in Stock Market Investing

Vanguard has a new research paper about global asset allocation. One of their findings was that market-cap-weighted indexed portfolios provided higher returns and lower volatility than the average actively managed fund. Thus, they suggest that a good starting point for all investors is a portfolio that is weighted according to the world’s relative market values.

However, in every country that they examined, investors on average had a home-country bias, tending to own more equity from the country they live in than the market-cap weighting would suggest. The chart below is rather striking. Found via Reformed Broker and Abnormal Returns.

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Americans on average hold roughly 80% in US stocks, while the US market makes up 50% of the global market. However, the average Canadian resident holds roughly 60% in Canadian stocks while only making up 3% of the global market. Australian residents hold roughly 66% in Australian stocks while only making up 2% of the global market. I find this very interesting.

This is where I should state proudly that my stock holdings are split 50% US and 50% International, with equal amounts of the Vanguard Total US ETF (VTI) and Vanguard Total International ETF (VXUS) or their mutual fund equivalents. However, I admit that I do worry about the political and economic environments of other countries, especially given current events. On the other hand, I worry that I am being influenced by recent past performance. I usually end up telling myself that I am buying the haystack and letting the markets work themselves out over the long run.

The Vanguard paper also offers a guide to weighing various factors in deciding the amount of your home bias. Here’s a summary chart:

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The Power of Default Settings: 401(k) Auto-Enrollment

A new ProPublica article by Lena Groeger discusses the power of default settings in our life – from organ donations to computer font settings. Included was an interesting case study of a company who implemented automatic enrollment into the company 401(k) for new employees. Here’s the drastic difference in the 401(k) participation rate (vs. time at company) for the two groups, auto-enrolled (AE) and not:

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Keep in mind, in both cases the employees could have changed their participation status at any time. No change was ever required, only the default initial setting was changed.

The study cited also points out the auto-enrolled default settings could also make some employees save less than they would have otherwise. For example, if the initial deferred percentage is only set at a 2% savings rate however, many people will just stick to that number whereas if they picked on their own it would be higher. People may believe the default setting to be the “expert recommended” or “popular” choice.

The same thing applies for escalation of savings over time. If there is no auto-escalation feature that increases the savings rate as income increases, some people will stay at the initial default savings setting for years or decades.

Suggested Best Practices. By combining their findings, the following best practices are presented as an example.

  1. Auto enroll all current and future employees into the plan.
  2. Set the initial deferral percentage at no less than 6 percent.
  3. Employ an automatic increase of a 1 or 2 percent deferral rate, to a maximum of no less than 15 percent.

Most of have a lot of great goals (eat better, save more, waste less time), but it will always be hard to make the best decisions all the time. We should respect the power of default settings, and use the same concept to help keep us on the right path for the future. For example, at our company retirement plan, we have an auto-escalation feature but we must opt-in manually. If I invest the energy to turn that option on today, we’ll have a better default for future years, knowing we might get lazy in the future.

Housing Investment Returns = Price Appreciation + Rental Dividends

Professer Robert Shiller has a new NY Times article entitled Why Land and Homes Actually Tend to Be Disappointing Investments. He computes the historical, long-term inflation-adjusted returns for both farmland and housing:

Over the century from 1915 to 2015, though, the real value of American farmland (deflated by the Consumer Price Index) increased only 3.1 times, according to the Department of Agriculture. That comes to an average increase of only 1.1 percent a year — and with a growing population, that’s barely enough to keep per capita real land value unchanged.

According to my own data (relying on the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, which I helped create), real home prices rose even more slowly over the same period — a total increase of 1.8 times, which comes to an average of only 0.6 percent a year.

Over the same time period (1915 to 2015), the total inflation-adjsuted return of the S&P 500 index including dividends is roughly 6.7% annualized. Here is a recent version of his famous Home Price chart:

shilller2016

Shiller is a smart guy and so I’m sure he knows this, but he always seems to leave out the fact that most people don’t just buy a chunk of land and let it sit there idle until they are ready to sell it again.

  • People use farmland to grow stuff. You know, things like apples and corn and cows. Or you could charge rent to farmers.
  • People either charge rent to others or avoid paying rent themselves on residential housing.

These are all additional sources of investment return beyond just price. Therefore, even if you assume your home’s price will only rise between 0% and 1% above inflation over time, you are still getting more “return” from it in the form of either rent or imputed rent.

Rent will rise roughly with inflation. Indeed, the biggest portion of the Consumer Price Index is housing as shown in the graphic below (source). The great majority of the Housing component is “rent of primary residence” and “Owners’ equivalent rent of primary residence”.

cpi_pie_chart

From FRED, here’s the rent part of CPI divided by overall CPI for as far back as the data series goes (1947). Sometimes rent grows faster than CPI, sometimes rent grows more slowly than CPI. Mostly, it evens out, as one might expect.

cpirent1

For most of the last 20 years, rent has increased faster than CPI inflation:

cpirent2

Estimating your “rental dividend” return. If you have a house that costs $200,000 that would otherwise be rented for $1,000 a month, that is a price-to-annual-rent ratio of 16.7. The inverse of that number is a rough idea of the annual “rental dividend” you could get from the house. That is, $12,000 divided by $200,000 is 6%. Now, a proper real estate investor would take out things like property taxes, insurance, repairs and maintenance. Let’s continue to be very rough and call that 3%. Now, if you assume both rent and expenses will rise roughly in step with inflation, that is an additional 3% real return.

Adding the two parts together, and you’re getting a very rough 3% to 4% real (inflation-adjusted) return. Now, most people acknowledge that housing is local and your specific return can vary widely. Your housing price return if you bought a house in Detroit in 1985 and a house in Mountain View, California is quite different. At the same time, your current housing rental dividend return is going to be a lot higher in Detroit than in Mountain View, California.

(I’m not nearly as familiar with farmland, but I do know people who rent out their property to farmers and ranchers. They seem satisfied with the arrangement. I’m also not including all the psychic rewards of owning your home like being able to remodel and customize things as you wish, nor am I including the costs of doing that remodel.)

If you look at various broad estimates of future stock and bond returns, they are not forecasting much more than 3% to 4% real returns on a diversified and balanced 60/40 stock/bond portfolio. Do housing prices only go up? No. Is every house a good investment? No. However, I also don’t agree with the broad statement that land and homes are disappointing investments.

I’ve explored my own situation and income tax effects more in the previous post Mortgages, Imputed Rent, and Early Retirement.