Jack Bogle Full Interviews with CNN and Business Insider

boglecnn2If you haven’t gotten a dose of Jack Bogle wisdom recently, check out this full Business Insider interview transcript and this 16-minute CNN video interview. There is a lot of ground covered between them. Here are my selected notes:

S&P 500 dividend income reliability. Bogle seems to support the idea of relying on S&P 500 stock dividends to supplement Social Security:

The basic idea of retirement income is, to me, to get a check, two checks every month, one from your fixed income and one from equity account. And you want them to grow over time. Social Security is a cost-of-living hedge, and in the equity account dividends grow over time.

The record of the S&P 500 dividends is almost a complete up trend with only two big declines going back into the ’20s. One would be in 1930s — ’33 or ’34 — and the other is when the banks stocks eliminated their dividends, back in 2009. Those are really the only significant declines in the dividends.

Investors make a big mistake by thinking too much of the value of the account and not enough about the monthly income they want to get. We could have a significant decline in the market with dividends unchanged.

Here’s a chart of the S&P 500 dividend history via Multpl.com:

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Helping investors improve their behavior. For example, 401(k) plans were not designed to be your primary retirement vehicle, and thus have a lot of flexibility built into them. However, this flexibility means a lot of people take money out of their 401(k) when they switch jobs or for loans that never get paid back. A similar thing when people chase performance:

With actively managed funds, people have big behavior problems. With funds that have done well, they put their money in, and when it has done bad, they want to take it out. The index fund always gives you the market return. It may be bad sometimes — it will be bad sometimes — but there’s just no evidence that active managers can win [long term].

Why you don’t see performance-based incentive fees for fund managers. I didn’t know about the SEC symmetrical rule:

The active managers have their work cut out for them. One thing they could do is put in an incentive fee. Get 10 basis points or five [0.10% or 0.05%], unless they beat the market. We’re paying people to beat the market when they aren’t doing it, and when you think about it, that doesn’t make sense.

They can put their expense ratio at 5 [basis points, 0.05%] and get another 1% if they beat the market by X. But they have to, under the SEC rules, be symmetrical. So if they lost to the market by 1%, they would be out of pocket. Managers, at least in this context, are not stupid. They know perfectly well they are going to lose that bet.

What happens if index funds continue to grow in popularity:

Right now I believe indexing to be about 22% to 25% of the marketplace. It’s not disturbing anything. Could it go to 50% and not disturb anything? I believe it could. All you’re doing is immobilizing X percentage of the shares in the market. The remaining 50% can trade away to their hearts’ content.

Could it handle 90%? I think it could, but we’re so far away from that, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. The reality here, however, is that even if the market would reach a level of inefficiency, which everyone says then the active managers can win because then they can find underpriced stocks. [Laughs] It’s such a ridiculous argument it hardly bears refuting. The fact is, if the market is more inefficient, it would be easier for half of the managers to win and by definition easier for half of the managers to lose. Because every purchase is a sale and every sale is a purchase.

This is not a problem that I worry about very much. Markets stay relatively efficient because there continues to be big rewards for those that can figure out any small inefficiency, even for a short period of time. Those rewards aren’t going aways, so markets will stay efficient, and low costs will continue to matter.

Research Affiliates Custom Portfolio Expected Returns Tool

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Investment advisory firm Research Affiliates has updated their interactive Asset Allocation tool, which now provides estimates of expected returns for more than 130 asset classes and model portfolios. There are two expected return models, “valuation-dependent” and “yield-plus-growth”. In addition, you can input your own custom asset allocation.

My initial reaction is that while the tool got new bells and whistles, it also became more confusing to navigate and harder on the eyes. Here’s a screenshot of their scatter plot showing the expected risk and return for several asset classes under their valuation-dependent model.

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I created a custom portfolio “CustomMMB” using my current portfolio asset allocation and it is charted below on their risk/return map. In a separate window (not shown) you can see how each individual asset class contributes to the total expected return.

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As you can see, my portfolio did not offer the maximum expected return for its risk level. The RA efficient model portfolio that did includes an exotic mix of asset classes, including Emerging Markets bonds (non-local currency), Bank Loans, US Private Equity, European Private Equity, and direct investments into US Commercial Real Estate (not through REITs). Unfortunately, I’m not even sure how to access many of those asset classes.

I appreciate that they freely share their research methodology and results, specifically covering the valuation perspective. US Equities have historically high valuations, but interest rates are also at historically lows. The next 10 years should be interesting…

Another portfolio analysis tool that lets you input your specific asset allocation is PortfolioCharts.com Safe Withdrawal Rate calculator. This Research Affiliates tool says my expected 10-year real return is only 2.4% (equates to a nominal expected return of 4.6%). The PortfolioCharts.com tool says the same personal asset allocation has a historical perpetual withdrawal rate of over 4% over a 40-year timeframe.

PortfolioCharts.com Safe Withdrawal Rate Tool (Updated)

eggosI just noticed that PortfolioCharts.com has updated their Withdrawal Rate Calculator. It has improved visualizations and as a personal finance geek I even found it fun. You can enter your specific asset allocation slices down to 1% and see customized results.

The Withdrawal Rates calculator shows the safe withdrawal rate for any asset allocation over a variety of retirement durations based on real-life sequence of returns. Those looking to retire early or leave money to heirs can also see the perpetual withdrawal rate that protected the original inflation-adjusted principal.

You can read about the specifics behind these improvements here. You should also read all the assumptions here. For example:

The withdrawal rate is the percentage of the original portfolio value used for one year of retirement expenses. Each year, expenses are adjusted for inflation (not for portfolio size) to maintain constant purchasing power.

Briefly, a “safe” withdrawal rate (orange) allowed a portfolio to go as low as $1 but never hit zero at the end of the timeframe. In other words, the ride could have still gotten quite hairy for a while. A “perpetual” withdrawal rate (green) never ended up less than the initial principal, even adjusted for inflation. The author Tyler recommends the perpetual WR for early retirees or for people who desire to leave an inheritance for heirs.

Here is the specific chart for my current portfolio asset allocation:

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I would be quite happy with being able to confidently withdraw over 4% (+ inflation adjustments) of my portfolio for the next 40 years. The short-term drawdown paths can still be scary though. The usual caveats with using backtested data also apply.

Playing around, I noticed that the simplest way to change things up was by adding a healthy chunk (~20%) of gold instead of stocks. This seemed to significantly improve the perpetual withdrawal rates in the short-term (0 to 15 years). It’s too bad I still don’t have a firm fundamental understanding of gold. If you can’t maintain faith in it when things are scary, then you shouldn’t own it in your portfolio.

New Low-Cost Broad Commodity ETFs from GraniteShares

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Commodities are an asset class that some investors include in their portfolio for diversification purposes. Depending on the specific index, you might track the futures market for aluminum, coffee, copper, corn, cotton, crude oil, gold, diesel, lean hogs, live cattle, natural gas, nickel, silver, soybean meal, soybean oil, soybeans, sugar, unleaded gas, wheat, and zinc (image source).

In my experience, when commodities prices have been hot, you see them in a lot of portfolios. When commodities prices have been cold (as they have been recently), you don’t read about them as much. Via ETF.com, there are now a new wave of commodity ETFs that hope to gather assets as the next up-cycle begins.

Here are some of the reasons why people didn’t like commodity ETFs in the past (besides the volatility and poor past performance):

  • Higher costs. Expense ratios for most commodity ETFs were above 0.50% annually, with many closer to 1%
  • Late K-1 tax forms. Most commodities ETFs issued Schedule K-1 forms at tax time, which not only were an extra form to file but they also tended to come very late in the year. You might have all your 1099s by the end of January, but your K-1 might not trickle in until March or even April.
  • Some were actually exchange-traded notes (ETNs), which carried credit risk as they were technically unsecured debt obligations of the issuer. In contrast, ETFs hold securities separately in trust with a custodian. If an ETF issuer fails, you still own the underlying assets.

Here are two new ETFs that address the issues above with (1) have lower costs and (2) a new structure that doesn’t issue K-1 forms:

  • GraniteShares Bloomberg Commodity Broad Strategy No K-1 ETF (COMB) – This ETF is technically actively-managed, but is benchmarked against the Bloomberg Commodity Index (BCOM). It is structured as a 1940 Act funds and thus does not issue K-1s. The expense ratio is 0.25%. Fact sheet.
  • GraniteShares S&P GSCI Commodity Broad Strategy No K-1 ETF (COMG) – This ETF is technically actively-managed, but is benchmarked against the S&P GSCI commodity Index. It is structured as a 1940 Act fund and thus does not issue K-1s. The expense ratio is 0.35%. Fact sheet.

The 0.25% expense ratio of COMB makes it the cheapest broad commodity ETF available today. (The ETFS Bloomberg All Commodity Strategy K-1 Free ETF (BCI) has an expense ratio of 0.29%.) Now, the following bit from this ETFTrends article brings up the worry that this “no K-1 structure” might produce tracking error against the index.

In an attempt to help investors avoid K-1s, the ETFs do not invest directly in commodity futures but rather gains exposure to these investments by investing a portion of its assets in the GraniteShares BCOM Cayman Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Fund organized under the laws of the Cayman Islands. The subsidiary is not an investment company registered under the Investment Company Act of 1940 and has the same investment objective and will follow the same general investment policies and restrictions as the funds.

If you don’t buy the futures directly, what are you buying? Are you saying that you are buying a subsidiary that does buy the futures directly? How does that indirect structure change your investment performance? I don’t know and I don’t plan on buying either ETF, but I thought I’d point it out. ETF.com doesn’t seem to be worried:

Technically, both COMB and COMG are actively managed, but in practice, they are mostly passive funds. The futures portion of the portfolio, up to 25%, is held in a subsidiary based in the Cayman Islands and generally reflects the index, while the collateral is held in a cash portfolio holding fixed-income securities that is managed stateside.

The GraniteShares ETFs above only launched 5/22/17 and the last time I checked ETFdb.com only had about $2.5 million in assets so it is too early to make any judgments. The CEO of GraniteShares is William Rhind, who formerly worked at Blackrock/iShares and as the CEO of the popular SPDR Gold Shares ETF (GLD).

If you like low-cost access to the commodities asset class, this looks to be a positive development. I personally choose not to invest in this asset class as I think the long-term returns will be lower than that of equities. (Lower costs should improve the return outlook, however.) Commodities funds may offer the draw of being a diversification “hedge”, but I don’t want to pay the price of lower returns, high volatility, and higher complexity. There are many smart minds that disagree, so do your own research as well.

Don’t Switch Between Cheap Index Funds To Save Money (Try Cheap Milk Instead)

I’ve seen this Schwab commercial multiple times recently, where Schwab touts that one of its index funds costs “3X less than Fidelity” and “4X less than Vanguard”:

I already knew why it bugged me every time I saw it, but I finally ran the numbers. Never mind that this is one cherry-picked fund. Let’s play their game. The index fund in question is the Schwab S&P 500 Index fund at a 0.03% expense ratio. The comparison is the Vanguard 500 Index Fund Investor Shares (VFINX) with an expense ratio of 0.14%. On an investment of $5,000, this works out to $1.50 a year vs. $7 a year. That’s a difference of $5.50 a year, or under 50 cents a month.

But wait, there’s more. Once you reach a $10,000 balance, the Vanguard 500 Index Fund Admiral Shares (VFIAX) will automatically decrease to an expense ratio of 0.04%. Now the difference is $1 per year. That’s 8 cents a month. Schwab funds have been far more expensive than Vanguard for decades, and now that they are bragging about saving you less than 50 cents a month?

Finally, the only way that Schwab can do this is in the first place is that these index funds are a loss-leader. Here’s an excerpt from the Morningstar article Penny-Pinching Index Fund Investors May Pay a Price, which also warns fundholders before switching index fund providers as the tax hit could take decades to overcome.

Existing shareholders in these funds are clear winners in the fee war. But as this race to the bottom nears its inevitable ending (free beta), these investors’ savings will increasingly be measured in dollars and cents. In my mind, these latest exchanges will likely do more to move the needle for fund firms and brokerages like Schwab. In many settings, these low-cost building blocks are simply loss leaders, a cheap gallon of milk meant to entice consumers into the store in hopes that they’ll grab some Cheetos and a pack of gum before they get to the counter.

I think that Schwab has many positive attributes to point out overall, but this commercial was deceptive. I’m happy that low-priced, broadly-diversified index funds are more readily available, but the idea that Schwab is significantly cheaper than Fidelity or Vanguard is laughable. The real numbers show that you could save more money by regularly buying discounted milk than by switching $100,000 from Vanguard to Schwab.

If you haven’t started investing yet, you will most likely be fine with any low-cost provider – iShares, Vanguard, Fidelity, Schwab. If you’ve already started, the absolute cost difference is too small to warrant a change.

Real-World Example of Why High-Cost Index Funds Are The Worst

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Here’s another reminder that in the world of investing, having low costs is more important than owning “passive” index funds. Why? The simplest argument is that index funds can have high expense ratios.

Anyone can open an account at Vanguard, Schwab, Fidelity, or TD Ameritrade and purchase an S&P 500 index fund with expenses of about 0.05% a year. That works out to $50 a year on a $100,000 balance.

Meanwhile, the following companies have the most expensive S&P 500 index funds on the market. These happily charge you $1,000 to $2,300 a year on a $100,000 balance while investing in the same companies in the same amounts. Credit to Meb Faber for compiling this list.

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These could be considered the worst mutual funds out there. Why? If you buy an actively-managed stock-picker fund, at least you have the possibility of outperformance (for a little while at least). You bet on red in roulette even though there is zero and double-zero. With an expensive index fund, you have zero upside. You can’t win. You didn’t even bet on double-zero. Instead, you essentially lit 1% of your money on fire.

Let’s look at the real-world performance of Rydex S&P 500 Fund (RYSYX) and the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX). Here’s a Morningstar chart showing the relative performance of the Rydex S&P 500 Fund (RYSYX) and the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX) from the inception of the Rydex fund in mid-2006. This is a “Growth of $10,000” chart, and you can see how the gap just keeps widening over time.

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Here’s a quick takeaway from this chart:

  • Someone who invested $100,000 in the Rydex S&P 500 Fund (RYSYX) from 5/31/06 to 5/21/17 (~11 years ago) would now have $185,183.
  • Someone who invested $100,000 in the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX) from 5/31/06 to 5/21/17 (~11 years ago) would now have $235,948.
  • That is a difference of over $50,000 with no luck involved as both are passive funds that that legally promise in their prospectus to track the S&P 500 index.
  • Let me repeat: That’s a difference of $50,000 on a $100,000 starting balance over only 11 years! That is real money; actual dollars that someone will not have to spend in retirement. Imagine what that number could grow into over 30 years of saving.

Isn’t that horrible? Now, consider that the reason why someone would buy these funds in the first place was probably due to a human advisor putting their client in such a fund. Therefore, there is the possibility of another layer of advisor fees on top of the fund expense ratios. (Or they could be options in a bad 401(k) plan. It would be really scary if these were the best options on a plan menu.)

I can’t understand how these companies can get away with charging so much for doing so little. According to Morningstar, the State Farm S&P Index fund (SNPBX) currently has $1.4 billion in assets and the Invesco S&P 500 Index fund (SPICX) has $1 billion in assets. Billions of dollars? Why are so many people buying this stuff?!

Real-World Example of Sequence of Returns Risk

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The standard investment advice is the older you get, the more bonds you should hold in your portfolio. There are various rules of thumb like “Age in Bonds” or “Age minus 20 in Bonds”, and so on. On the other hand, stocks have higher historical long-term returns, so shouldn’t we keep as much in stocks as we can?

It’s not just about the long-term average return, you also have to worry about the sequence of returns. I’ve shared a hypothetical example of sequence of returns risk before, but Will Street Project has a great post called Why Drawdowns Matter that illustrates this effect using real-world numbers.

From 2000 to 2016, the overall total return of the S&P 500 Index (large US stocks) and the Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index (broad US bonds) was roughly the same. The sequence for stocks was bad then good. The sequence for bonds was basically a slow, gradual line upwards. Stocks thus lagged bonds for most of the period but caught up and even surpassed bonds a bit by the end.

Here’s what would have happened if you started with $100,000 in either the S&P 500 or the US Aggregate Bond Index and kept on buying $500 per month:

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Here’s what would have happened if you started with $100,000 in either the S&P 500 or the US Aggregate Bond Index and kept on selling $500 per month.

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The difference is that in the top chart you are adding money (and thus buying stocks at a lower price during the bear markets), while in the bottom chart you are taking out money (and thus selling stocks at a lower price during the bear markets).

It is important to note that things would look different if stocks shot up initially and then tapered off, as opposed to stocks struggling initially but then going back up at then end of the period. However, we can’t control the sequence of returns in our own retirements, so we have to be prepared.

One solution is to hold more bonds (or single-premium immediate annuities). Another solution is to use a dynamic withdrawal strategy so that you’re taking out less money during a down market.

If someone promises to pay you back, they probably won’t pay you back.

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Back in the stone age of P2P lending (aka 2006), I used to read through Prosper loan listings one-by-one. Borrowers would outline their monthly budgets showing how they could afford their loan payments, along with explanations of why they needed the money (credit card debt, home improvement, etc.) and why they would pay you back (steady job, good credit history, etc). I’m not sure if this is even an option anymore, but in any case, I wasn’t very good at it.

The New York Magazine article How to Predict If a Borrower Will Pay You Back (excerpted from the new book Everybody Lies) discusses an academic paper that actually analyzed keywords within past Prosper listings against their default history. Consider the following 10 phrases:

  • God
  • promise
  • debt-free
  • minimum payment
  • lower interest rate
  • will pay
  • graduate
  • thank you
  • after-tax
  • hospital

Half of them are used by people most likely to pay back the loan. The other half are used by people who are least likely to pay back the loan. Care to venture a guess which are which?

Generally, if someone tells you he will pay you back, he will not pay you back. The more assertive the promise, the more likely he will break it. If someone writes “I promise I will pay back, so help me God,” he is among the least likely to pay you back. Appealing to your mercy—explaining that he needs the money because he has a relative in the “hospital”—also means he is unlikely to pay you back. In fact, mentioning any family member—a husband, wife, son, daughter, mother or father—is a sign someone will not be paying back. Another word that indicates default is “explain,” meaning if people are trying to explain why they are going to be able to pay back a loan, they likely won’t.

The phrases used by folks who are most likely NOT to pay back their loans are God, promise, will pay, thank you, and hospital. If someone promises that they will pay you back, they probably won’t pay you back. The more emotions are involved, the less likely they are to pay you back.

This is an interesting wrinkle as lending is such a huge part of the investing world – mortgages, bonds, insurance, and so on.

Buffett and Munger: S&P 500 vs. Berkshire Hathaway

brk2016letInstead of watching the entire 6-hour Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) annual shareholder’s meeting, I first read through the WSJ highlights and then watched selected parts of the Yahoo Finance replay which interested me.

One interesting topic was about Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger’s directions to their heirs. Buffett has famously directed his wife to put 90% of her assets into a Vanguard S&P 500 index fund and 10% into US Treasuries. In contrast, Munger has told his family “not be so dumb as to sell” their Berkshire stock. Why do they differ?

You can see this question at the 1:39:55 marker in the video. Here are my notes:

  • Buffett initially tries to deflect this question by stating that 100% of his BRK stock will be given to charity. However, there would be nothing stopping her from buying BRK shares (or any other investment) at a later time, so that doesn’t really answer the question.
  • Both Buffett and Munger have previously stated that they believe that Berkshire will likely perform better than the S&P 500 in the future.
  • Buffett’s wife will have more money than she needs. Maximizing upside is not important. Downside protection is most important.
  • In terms of investment performance, both are quite unlikely to suffer permanent loss, but the S&P 500 is still a little bit more reliable than BRK. There is still some chance that there could be a change in culture or executive leadership that might damage the company. Someone might succeed in breaking up Berkshire into parts.
  • The 10% in short-term US Treasuries (essentially cash) goes even further, in case there is long severe depression or even if the stock exchange is closed, there will be cash on hand to handle things.
  • In terms of human issues, it would be a news event if she had BRK shares and sold them. The media would care. Talking heads would offer alternatives. However, if she holds the S&P 500 index fund, that is so boring that it is quite likely nobody will ever bother her again. From all that I have read, never being bothered again sounds like something she would enjoy. (Most people don’t even know her name or what she looks like.)
  • Munger concedes that the S&P 500 as well-constructed as a diversified portfolio of large companies. In terms of performance, it is “all but impossible for most people [to beat].” However, he’s still telling his family to stick with Berkshire.

Buffett and Munger are exceptionally rational as opposed to emotional. Therefore, both answers will most likely work out fine. Sometime in the next 50 years, the stock market will probably drop 50% again. The fact that Buffett thinks the S&P 500 is safer than even Berkshire is something to remember the next time there is a stock market crisis.

At the same time, Munger’s comments should make a current BRK shareholder feel more secure in holding shares for decades to come. Even with Buffett’s shares going to charity, there will still be a large chunk of shareholders with a long-term view.

Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting: Live Video and Transcript Links

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Although most of my portfolio is in a diversified mix of index funds, I also own individual shares of Berkshire Hathaway and collect advice from Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. I believe that understanding how to analyze individual businesses creates a better foundation for any self-directed investor. Saturday, May 6th is the 2017 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting in Omaha, Nebraska.

I’ve wanted to physically attend a meeting for several years now, but I suppose I haven’t wanted it badly enough (mostly too busy with the kids). Sometimes I reason that Buffett himself would perhaps invest another $500 to $1,000 into BRKB shares (grow that Snowball!) rather than spend it on airfare, hotels, and so on. This is especially true today as there are so many ways to keep up with the event:

  • Yahoo Finance Livestream. Watch the entire presentation and Q&A session as it happens if you’d like. Lots of related content is already up. I enjoyed this one with Todd Combs and Ted Weschler.
  • Live Blogs. Many media sites like Morningstar, Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, and CNBC will “liveblog” the event with short text blurbs.
  • Transcripts. After the meeting is over, several sources publish their own notes and transcripts from the event. Here are a few from the 2016 meeting: here, here, and here.
  • Book. Pilgrimage to Warren Buffett’s Omaha by Jeff Matthews was published in 2008 and presented a detailed personal account of his experiences at the meeting. It was a fun read that sparked my initial interest in attending the meeting.
  • Shareholder Letters. If you haven’t read it yet, check out Buffett’s 2016 Letter to Shareholders. Shareholder letters from 1977 to 2016 are available free to all on the Berkshire Hathaway website. You can also purchase all of the Shareholder letters from 1965 to 2016 for only $2.99 in Amazon Kindle format.

I wonder how early I have to book flights and hotel rooms if I want to attend in 2018…

Vanguard ETF & Mutual Fund Expense Ratio Changes (April 2017)

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Updated and revised. Here are the highlights from the April 2017 expense ratio update:

  • Vanguard Total Stock Market (VTI) is now 0.04%.
  • Vanguard 500 Index (VOO) is now 0.04%.
  • Vanguard Total Bond Market (BND) is now 0.04%. In April 2016, it was 0.05%. In April 2015, it was 0.07%.

Background. When you invest in a mutual fund or ETF, the fund company charges you a fee called the annual net expense ratio. If you hold a steady $10,000 in a hypothetical fund with a 1% expense ratio, that would result in an annual charge of $100. These expenses are actually deducted daily in tiny increments from the funds’ net asset value (NAV), and while the numbers can seem small they will compound quietly and relentlessly over time. Here is an illustration from the Vanguard website:

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Vanguard has a long history of lowering their expense ratios as their assets under management grow, whereas the industry average hasn’t changed very much.

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Recent announcement links and past highlights. Note that Vanguard chooses to delete their old announcements after 12 months. I started using ticker symbols for brevity.

  • April 2017. VTI, VOO, BND all down to 0.04%.
  • March 2017. VWENX down to 0.16%.
  • January 2017. VWIAX down to 0.15%. VTIP down to 0.07%. VTINX down to 0.13%.
  • December 2016.
  • April 2016. VTI, VOO, BND, VBR, all down.
  • February 2016. VTI, BNDX, VEU, VNQI all down.
  • January 2016. Target Retirement 2010-2060 Funds down to 0.14%-0.16%.
  • May 2015. VNQ up 0.12%.
  • April 2015. BND down to 0.07%.
  • February 2014. VXUS down to 0.14%. VWO down to 0.15%.
  • January 2013. Target Retirement 2010-2055 Funds down to 0.16%-0.18%.

The Vanguard Effect. In recent years as index funds have shot up in popularity, most of the major providers have introduced similar low-cost products (notably iShares, Fidelity, and Schwab). I think competition is great and even Vanguard needs to be kept on its toes. I have bought ETFs from other providers when they are the best available option.

However, you can’t ignore the fact that Vanguard is the true leader in the industry. The super-low-cost ETFs only exist where Vanguard has already established itself. If Vanguard hasn’t pushed the cost down in a specific area, their competitors know that and keep the costs high. Here’s a chart showing the “Vanguard Effect“.

My Portfolio Asset Allocation Thought Process

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A reader asked me to expand on the thought process behind my asset allocation choices. I don’t have a highly scientific answer, but here’s how I would explain it to a friend over drinks. Prepare yourself for some rambling…

I know that I could run simulations and backtest return data to figure out exactly which mix of assets have produced the best risk/return characteristics historically. I’ve also looked at various model portfolios based on such analyses. However, perfection can only be seen in retrospect and it is constantly changing. I just try to take away the big nuggets.

The overall goal is to hold 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.

Stocks Breakdown (Benchmark Ticker)

  • 38% US Total Market (VTI)
  • 7% US Small-Cap Value (VBR)
  • 38% International Total Market (VXUS)
  • 7% Emerging Markets (VWO)
  • 10% US Real Estate (VNQ)

To put it briefly, I am taking the total markets and increasing the portion of one additional asset class which I think has the highest diversification benefits. For example, Small Value is a subset of Total US market, and Emerging Markets is a subset of the Total International market.

38% US Total Market. Instead of “stocks” or “equities”, I prefer to call it “owning businesses”. It’s not just a ticker blip going up and down. I am buying a diversified mix of real businesses that are a critical part of a huge economy. A single company or even a handful of big companies might go bankrupt, but as a whole they are not going anywhere.

The Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI) holds 3,600 stocks to represent the entire US publicly-listed market from Apple ($770,000 million) to Bridgford Foods Corp. ($100 million). It is market-cap weighted, which means that the amount of each stock held is directly proportional to the total market value of the company. See my VTI review for details.

7% US Small-Cap Value. Historically, small-cap value stocks have produced a higher risk-adjusted return than the entire market. You could also argue that small companies a more representative of the private business market. Therefore, I choose to hold a little more of this asset class via the Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF (VBR).

You probably haven’t heard of 99% of the stocks in the Small Value index, which is kind of the point. Someone who invests in individual small cap stocks must be wary of that company going bankrupt (or effectively bankrupt). But by owning 828 of these stocks at the same time, I don’t have to worry about VBR ever going to zero (although it can be relatively volatile). Will VBR outperform VTI by a huge margin? Maybe, maybe not, but it probably won’t lag the overall market greatly either.

VTI can be roughly broken down into 85% Large-Cap companies, 10% Mid-Cap companies, and 5% Small-Cap companies. My blend of 85% VTI and 15% VBR is still roughly 72% Large-Cap and 19% Small-Cap. I have “tilted” the amounts, but it’s still predominantly composed of huge businesses like ExxonMobil, Google, and Johnson & Johnson.

International Total Market. The United States is not the only place where businesses create value. Many brands that you deal with every day are listed in foreign countries – Nestle, Shell, Samsung, Toyota, GlaxoSmithKline, Anheuser-Busch InBev. (Bud Light is a foreign company!) The Vanguard Total International Stock ETF (VXUS) holds over 6,000 stocks from around the world according to market-cap weight. See my VXUS review for details.

I also keep to close to the world market-cap split with 50/50 US/non-US. If you want to go 70/30 or 60/40, that’s perfectly fine with me. Again it’s more important that you stick with it than any specific ratio.

Emerging Markets. Within the foreign markets, I choose to put extra money towards Emerging Markets – countries that currently include China, Taiwan, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Russia, Thailand, and Malaysia. Again, this asset class is more volatile but also has higher historical returns. The Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO) allows me to track this asset class in an efficient and low-cost manner. If there were better options for International Small Value stocks, I would have been open to that.

VXUS is 43% Developed Europe, 30% Developed Pacific, 19% Emerging Markets, and 7% Canada. My blend of 85% VXUS and 15% VWO is 37% Developed Europe, 26% Developed Asia, 31% Emerging Markets, and 6% Canada. Again, it’s not a huge tilt.

(Exit option: If something happened to me and my wife wanted to simultaneously simplify the portfolio, reduce the overall risk level, and generate cash, she could simply sell off my US Small Value and Emerging Markets positions that make up ~10% of the entire portfolio. The resulting portfolio would still be diversified.)

Real Estate. The Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ) holds publicly-traded real estate investment trusts (REITs) which hold things like office buildings, hotels, apartment complexes, nursing homes, self-storage units, and shopping malls. I choose not to be active in residential real estate other than owning my own home, so I like the diversification and income that this asset class provides.

I am sticking with domestic REITs for both simplicity and lower costs. REITS only make up about 7% of my overall portfolio. I might include foreign REITS if it was a larger holding, but I’m going to bother splitting up 7%.

Bonds Breakdown

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

I keep roughly 30% of my portfolio in bonds. This is meant to be the stable ballast of my portfolio, but it should also generate some level of interest income. Bonds are debt, so I only lend money to the places that I think will pay me back most reliably:

  • US government, which can both tax residents and print the world’s reserve currency. This includes US Treasuries, FDIC-insured bank accounts, and US Savings bonds. Treasury Inflation-Protected bonds also offer an interest rate that adjusts with inflation.
  • Local municipalities, which can tax residents. If you don’t pay your property taxes, they take your house. “Muni bonds” currently offer the best tax-effective yield for my situation. I hold them through low-cost, actively-managed funds like Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund Investor Shares (VWITX). See, I’m not only about index funds!

I exclude investment-grade corporate bonds because I don’t see enough benefit in taking on extra risk in this manner. I’d rather get 3% dividend yield through stock ownership (which includes unlimited upside potential) than get paid 3% interest (with no upside potential). Corporate bonds don’t have the company interests aligned with you – they want to appear stable and pay as little interest as possible. I’m not overly trusting of bond rating agencies in general.

I also exclude international bonds because what’s the point of diversifying to get a significantly lower interest rate? Vanguard US Total US Bond Market ETF (BND) has a current SEC yield of 2.43%. Vanguard Total International Bond ETF (BNDX) has a current SEC yield of 0.74%. Blech!

Recap. At a basic level, I own baskets of US businesses, international businesses, real estate, and high-quality debt. I plan to eventually spend the dividends from the businesses, rent from the real estate, and interest from the loans. I expect the stock dividends and rent to increase faster than inflation. I expect that the bond interest will at least keep up with inflation. This mix makes sense to me and I believe I can hold it through the ups and downs. It is not perfect but it is good enough.