Emerging Markets ETF Comparison: Vanguard, iShares Core, and Schwab

The Vanguard Blog has an article Is price everything for ETFs? that reminds us that while low costs may be the most important factor in ETF selection, it is not the only factor. When there are multiple ETFs covering similar asset classes, the DIY investor should dig a bit deeper to get the complete picture.

For example, here is a comparison chart of the Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO), iShares Core MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (IEMG), and the Schwab Emerging Markets Equity ETF (SCHE). If you compare only with expense ratio, they are all pretty much the same with Schwab being the cheapest by a thin margin.


What’s actually inside? Underneath the ETF wrapper, you’ll see that VWO holds a larger number of companies and the average market cap is smaller at $15 billion. This means that Vanguard’s ETF holds many more of the smaller companies, if that additional diversification interests you. iShares still holds South Korean stocks, whereas Vanguard and Schwab has South Korea as a developed market.

Trade commissions. Transaction costs affect your personal return. You can trade Vanguard ETFs for free with an account direct at Vanguard.com. You can trade Schwab ETFs for free with an account direct at Schwab.com. iShares doesn’t have their own self-directed brokerage arm, but you can trade many iShares ETFs for free at Fidelity.com. You could also go through a broker that offers free trades on everything like Robinhood (no minimum) or Merrill Edge ($50,000+ in assets).

Average bid/ask spread. In addition to commissions, there is also a buy/sell gap where you can lose money. This is less important for gradual buy-and-hold investors, but you still want this gap to be as small as possible. The article doesn’t share this information, but you can look it up at sites like ETF.com, where the respective 45-day historical bid/ask spreads were VWO (0.02%), IEMG (0.02%), and SCHE (0.04%). Schwab has the lowest assets under management and lowest daily volume, making their bid/ask spread wider by a thin margin.

The Real Estate Crowdfunding Capital Stack: Equity vs. Debt

Before I share more about my real-estate crowdfunding experiments, I wanted to take a quick step back in order to provide better context. Just as ETFs and mutual funds are separated into stocks and bonds, real estate can be separated into two general types of investments:

  • Equity = an ownership interest in the asset.
  • Debt = a loan, typically collateralized by the asset itself or other assets of the equity owner.

In the business world, I could buy a piece of Amazon or Apple and participate in the ups and down of the business value, or I could invest in bonds issued by Amazon or Apple and get a fixed return as long as Amazon and Google keep making their interest payments within the stated period of time.

This is called the “capital stack”. In residential real estate, the stack can be quite simple. There is one homeowner and one mortgage-holder (debt). If they ever sell the house, any proceeds must first go towards the mortgage-holder. Anything left over goes to the homeowners. If the house gets sold for $400,000 and had a $300,000 mortgage, the homeowner would get $100,000. When you see the image below (source), imagine water filling up a container. The bottom layer gets paid first. If there isn’t enough “water”, the next layer doesn’t get paid. If there is excess “water”, that goes to the equity owner. (image source)


In commercial real estate, here are the four most common layers of the capital stack: common equity, preferred equity, mezzanine debt, and senior debt. Preferred equity, as its location suggests, is in between common equity and debt in terms of cashflow priority and return upside potential. It has a more senior position to cashflow than common equity, but it still junior to mezzanine and senior debt. Mezzanine debt can be explained as similar to when a homeowner might also take out a “home equity loan” that junior to the first mortgage (and thus usually at a higher interest rate). Both of these intermediate stacks are more complex in terms of how much extra return are you getting for how much extra risk, and thus I tend to avoid them. (image source)


The expected return of each layer is then adjusted based on its position in the stack. Keep in mind that as your expected return increases, so does the possibility that your actual return is zero or negative. (image source)


My equity investments. My initial feeling was that publicly-traded REITs do a pretty good job on the equity side. The big REITs hold big apartment complexes, hundreds of public storage facilities, etc. Is there an opportunity for higher returns from smaller properties? Perhaps, but the problem is that it takes years for equity investments to pan out. My plan is to invest another $1,000 into Fundrise eREITs and hold on to them for 5 years as a long-term experiment. As the dividends are paid and the net asset value is updated, I can compare side-by-side with the dividends and net asset value of the low-cost Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ).

My debt investments. I prefer the idea of providing short-term, 7%-9% loans backed by a hard asset like real estate. This is an area traditional referred to as “hard money loans”. I can’t replicate this type of deal with an ETF or mutual fund. I plan to increase my investment in PeerStreet to roughly $25,000 total as they focus 100% on the debt side and I like their platform so far. I invest only in notes with a term under 12 months, and in the first position (most senior). This remains under my “5% Speculative Portfolio” and will track my returns regularly.

The Stock Market Boom / Bust Cycle: Where Are We At Now?

There appears to be a trend of everyone is getting their “stocks are highly-valued” calls on record in so that when the next drawdown occurs, they’ll have their “I told you so” ready to go. I should probably do that too. Example: Goldman Warns That Market Valuations Are at Their Highest Since 1900.

Here’s the boom/bust cycle chart you may recall from the Housing Bubble era. Instead, this ValueWalk article places us very close to the top point of the cycle for the stock market:


The more valid point of the article is that sooner-or-later, there will be some fear and pain. We should be prepared for another opportunity like 2008/2009 to be “greedy when others are fearful”.

In hot pink, I decided to throw in my own bit of speculation. The other half of the Buffett quote is to be “fearful when others are greedy”. My opinion is that I am not hearing enough greed. Many people are more anxious than euphoric. I think we are actually closer to the “Thrill” point. In terms of the big picture, it’s not that different. We should still be careful. What do you think?

Best Interest Rates on Cash – December 2017


Short-term interest rates are rising. Don’t let a megabank pay you nothing for your idle cash. Here is my monthly roundup of the best safe rates available, roughly sorted from shortest to longest maturities. You could also use this information to make a bank CD ladder to replace bonds. I focus on rates that are nationally available to everyone (not restricted to certain geographic areas or specific groups). Rates checked as of 12/1/17.

High-yield savings accounts
While the huge brick-and-mortar banks rarely offer good yields, there are many online savings accounts offering competitive rates clustered around 1.1%-1.3% APY. Keep in mind that with savings accounts, the interest rates can change at any time.

  • Top rates: Incredible Bank at 1.55% APY (minimum $25,000). DollarSavingsDirect, SalemFiveDirect, and Redneck Bank/All America Bank (max balance $35k) all paying 1.50% APY.
  • More rates from banks with solid history of competitive rates: CIT Bank at 1.35% APY up to $250k. Synchrony Bank and GS Bank are at 1.30% APY.
  • I’ve experienced the “bait-and-switch” of moving to a new savings account only to have the rate lowered quickly afterward. Until the rate difference is huge, I’m sticking with a Ally Bank Savings + Checking combo due to their history of competitive rates (including CDs), 1-day interbank transfers, and overall user experience. (I will jump on CDs as the rate is locked in.) I also like the free overdraft transfers from savings that let’s me keep my checking balance at a minimum. Ally Savings is at 1.25% APY.

Money market mutual funds + Ultra-short bond ETFs
If you like to keep cash in a brokerage account, you should know that money market and short-term Treasury rates have been rising. It may be worth the effort to move your idle cash into a higher-yielding money market fund or ultrashort-term bond ETF. The following bond funds are not FDIC-insured, but if you want to keep “standby money” in your brokerage account and have cheap/free commissions, it may be worth a look.

  • Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund currently pays an 1.20% SEC yield. The default sweep option is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which has an SEC yield of 1.07%. You can manually move the money over to Prime if you meet the $3,000 minimum investment.
  • Vanguard Ultra-Short-Term Bond Fund currently pays 1.71% SEC Yield ($3,000 min) and 1.82% SEC Yield ($50,000 min). The average duration is 1 year.
  • The PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active Bond ETF (MINT) has a 1.59% SEC yield and the iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF (NEAR) has a 1.68% SEC yield while holding a portfolio of investment-grade bonds with an average duration of ~6 months. More info here.

Short-term guaranteed rates (1 year and under)
I am often asked what to do with a big wad of cash that you’re waiting to deploy shortly (just sold your house, just sold your business, legal settlement, inheritance). My standard advice is to keep things simple. If not a savings account, then put it in a short-term CD under the FDIC limits until you have a plan.

  • CIT Bank 11-Month No-Penalty CD is at 1.55% APY with a $1,000 minimum deposit and no withdrawal penalty seven days or later after funds have been received. The lack of early withdrawal penalty means that your interest rate can never go down for 11 months, but you can always jump ship if rates rise. You can even jump ship to another 11-month CD (details).
  • Ally Bank No-Penalty 11-Month CD is paying 1.50% APY for $25,000+ balances and 1.25% APY for $5,000+ balances. If you want a full-featured bank with checking/savings/etc.
  • GS Bank has a 12-month CD is at 1.65% APY with a low $500 minimum. For sizeable balances, Advancial Federal Credit Union has a 6-month CD at 1.75% APY ($50k min) and a 12-month CD at 1.90% APY ($50k min). If you don’t otherwise qualify, you can join with a $5 fee to Connex Professional Network and maintaining $5 in a Share savings account.

US Savings Bonds
Series I Savings Bonds offer rates that are linked to inflation and backed by the US government. You must hold them for at least a year. There are annual purchase limits. If you redeem them within 5 years there is a penalty of the last 3 months of interest.

  • “I Bonds” bought between November 2017 and April 2018 will earn a 2.58% rate for the first six months. The rate of the subsequent 6-month period will be based on inflation again. At the very minimum, the total yield after 12 months will be 1.29% with additional upside potential. More info here.
  • In mid-April 2018, the CPI will be announced and you will have a short period where you will have a very close estimate of the rate for the next 12 months. I will have another post up at that time.

Prepaid Cards with Attached Savings Accounts
A small subset of prepaid debit cards have an “attached” FDIC-insured savings account with high interest rates. The negatives are that balances are capped, and there are many fees that you must be careful to avoid (lest they eat up your interest). The other catch is that these good features may be killed off without much notice. My NetSpend card now only has an eligible balance up to $1,000.

  • Insight Card is one of the best remaining cards with 5% APY on up to $5,000 as of this writing. Fees to avoid include the $1 per purchase fee, $2.50 for each ATM withdrawal, and the $3.95 inactivity fee if there is no activity within 90 days. If you can navigate it carefully (basically only use ACH transfers and keep up your activity regularly) you can still end up with more interest than other options. Earning 4% extra interest on $5,000 is $200 a year.

Rewards checking accounts
These unique checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but with some risk. You have to jump through certain hoops, and if you make a mistake you won’t earn any interest for that month. Rates can also drop quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. But the rates can be high while they last.

  • Consumers Credit Union offers up to 4.59% APY on up to a $20k balance, although getting 3.09% APY on a $10k balance has a much shorter list of requirements. The 4.59% APY requires you to apply for a credit card through them (other credit cards offer $500+ in sign-up bonuses). Keep your 12 debit purchases small as well, as for every $500 in monthly purchases you may be losing out on 2% cashback (or $10 a month after-tax). Find a local rewards checking account at DepositAccounts.
  • Note: Northpointe Bank, mentioned previously, no longer has their Rewards Checking account on their website and is not accepting new applications. Unclear how long existing accountholders will be grandfathered. That’s just how it goes with these types of accounts.

Certificates of deposit (greater than 1 year)
You might have larger balances, either because you are using CDs instead of bonds or you simply want a large cash cushion. Buying finding a bank CD with a reasonable early withdrawal penalty, you can enjoy higher rates but maintain access in a true emergency. Alternatively, consider a custom CD ladder of different maturity lengths such that you have access to part of the ladder each year, but your blended interest rate is higher than a savings account.

  • Advancial Federal Credit Union (see above) has their 18-month CD at 2.01% APY ($50k min) and a 24-month CD at 2.10% APY ($50k min). The early withdrawal penalty is 180 days of interest.
  • Ally Bank has a 5-year CD at 2.25% APY (no minimum) with a relatively short 150-day early withdrawal penalty and no credit union membership hoops. For example, if you closed this CD after 18-months you’d still get an 1.64% effective APY even after accounting for the penalty.
  • Hanscom Federal Credit Union is offering a 4-year Share Certificate at 2.50% APY (180-day early withdrawal penalty) if you also have Premier Checking (no monthly fee if you keep $6,000 in total balances or $2,000 in checking). HFCU also offers a 3% APY CU Thrive “starter” savings account with balance caps. HFCU membership is open to active/retired military or anyone who makes a one-time $35 donation to the Nashua River Watershed Association.
  • Mountain America Credit Union has a 5-year Term Deposit CD at 2.80% APY ($500 minimum) with a 365-day early withdrawal penalty. They also offer the same rate on a “Term Deposit Plus” certificate which allows you to add more money later, but also requires a monthly $10 auto-deposit. Anyone can join this credit union via partner organization American Consumer Council for a one-time $5 fee.

Longer-term Instruments
I’d use these with caution, but I still track them to see the rest of the current yield curve.

  • Willing to lock up your money for 10+ years? You can buy certificates of deposit via the bond desks of Vanguard and Fidelity. These “brokered CDs” offer the same FDIC-insurance. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 10-year non-callable CD at 2.65% APY (Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs from Fidelity.) Unfortunately, current long-term CD rates do not rise much higher even as you extend beyond a 5-year maturity.
  • How about two decades!? Series EE Savings Bonds are not indexed to inflation, but they have a guarantee that the value will double in value in 20 years, which equals a guaranteed return of 3.5% a year. However, if you don’t hold for that long, you’ll be stuck with the normal rate which is quite low (currently a sad 0.10% rate). You could view as a huge early withdrawal penalty. You could also view it as long-term bond and thus a hedge against deflation, but only if you can hold on for 20 years. Too long for me.

All rates were checked as of 12/1/17.

Premier High Yield Savings

US vs. International Stocks: Historical Cycles of Outperformance

One major question in portfolio construction is how to allocate between US stocks and non-US stocks. Over the last 10 years, US stocks have outperformed International stocks significantly. However, as the following chart shows, they tend to take turns outperforming each other in cycles:


Chart is from Factor Investor, found via Abnormal Returns.

This is not a recommendation for market timing, as for starters you don’t know how long each cycle will last. For me, it is more of a visual reminder of why you might choose to diversify between US and non-US stocks. You don’t need as much as I do, but I think some is prudent. Things may not look great internationally right now, but that’s why valuations are also much lower, which in turns sows the seeds for a future bull market. Are you okay with your portfolio if the cycle shifts again?

Howard Marks Memo on High Stock Market Prices and Risk Management

marksbarronsThere seems to be a lot of angst about the stock market these days. It’s been going up, up, up. Is it too high? Will there be a crash? Accordingly, I just caught up on the most recent Howard Marks memos – There They Go Again… Again [pdf] and the follow-up Yet Again?. Everyone from Warren Buffett on down reads these memos to Oaktree Capital clients.

The first memo contains mostly cautionary advice about how asset prices are high, prospective returns are low, and high-risk behavior is commonplace. We are in the midst of high uncertainty in terms of central banks, politics, technology, future jobs, and more. Yet stocks are at historically high-valuations and risky bonds (junk corporate, emerging markets) are priced at historically-tiny premiums to Treasury bonds.

A common explanation for these thing is that interest rates are low, so the prices of stocks and bonds are justifiable. Therefore, I found this quote interesting:

The bottom line is that while the prices and prospective returns on many things are justifiable today relative to other things, you can’t eat (or spend) relative returns.

In other words, just because you can justify it doesn’t mean you should buy it.

The second memo tries to respond to criticisms and also provide additional guidance. It’s easy to point out flaws. It’s harder to lay out clear and actionable advice. Investing in low-cost index funds is not perfect and has many drawbacks. But what is better?

What should an investor actually DO with high asset values everywhere? Marks offers the following choices:

1. Invest as you always have and expect your historic returns.
2. Invest as you always have and settle for today’s low returns.
3. Reduce risk to prepare for a correction and accept still-lower returns.
4. Go to cash at a near-zero return and wait for a better environment.
5. Increase risk in pursuit of higher returns.
6. Put more into special niches and special investment managers.

For the most part, he dismisses #1, #4, and #5. This leaves:

For me the answer lies in a combination of numbers 2, 3 and 6.

After digesting these Howard Marks memos, here are my personal takeaways and opinions:

  • Adjust your future return expectations to be lower than historical averages.
  • Make sure your portfolio is stress-tested. If a 50% drop in your stocks would freak you out, then reduce your risk slightly by selling a bit of stocks and buying a bit of short-term, high-quality bonds (or cash). Don’t go 100% cash, but do take some risk off the table if necessary.
  • You might simply keep your portfolio the same. I’m sticking with 2/3rd stocks (globally-diversified) and 1/3rd bonds (on the shorter-term, higher-quality side).
  • If you are Howard Marks, you might look for “special niches and special investment managers”. If you are not Howard Marks, ignore this option because you’re most likely to do harm than good. If anything take 5% of your portfolio, manage it however you like, and compare your return honestly with your index funds.

Here’s a good quote from a 2007 memo as to the consequences of being cautious:

If you refuse to fall into line in carefree markets like today’s, it’s likely that, for a while, you’ll (a) lag in terms of return and (b) look like an old fogey. But neither of those is much of a price to pay if it means keeping your head (and capital) when others eventually lose theirs. In my experience, times of laxness have always been followed eventually by corrections in which penalties are imposed. It may not happen this time, but I’ll take that risk. In the meantime, Oaktree and its people will continue to apply the standards that have served us so well over the last [thirty] years.

Risk-taking in the capital markets is becoming widely accepted again. Therefore, the contrarian thing is to not increase your risk right now. You may have to give up some possible return, but it is wiser to be prepared. Marks is not a “perma-bear” that always call for an impending crash. If you read the Barron’s cover above it quotes Marks as saying “stocks are cheap” back in March 2013 (paywalled article). Not a bad call in hindsight. Bookmark this article for another hindsight check in 2021/2022.

You can read previous Howard Marks Memos online for free, or as a book with extra commentary in The Most Important Thing.

Stock and Bond Returns from 1926-2016: Rarely Average

The Vanguard Blog has an interesting scatter plot of annual stock and bond returns from 1926-2016. The vertical axis is bond returns (broad US bond indexes), with the blue shaded areas indicating bond returns between 3% and 7%. The horizontal axis is stock returns (broad US stock indexes), with the purple shaded areas indicating stock returns between 8% and 12%. Click to enlarge.


I don’t remember seeing this data presented in such a manner before. I think this is a good chart to keep in your head. Here’s why:

While we often keep an idea of “average” in our heads, the actual return in any given year could be all over the place. You could also have low stock returns and low bond returns, or high stock returns and high bond returns. It’s much more common to be “not” average than average.

Stock returns are much wilder than bond returns. Bond returns were in the 3% to 7% band only 30% of the time (27 out of 91 years). However, stock returns were in the 8% to 12% band only 7% of the time (6 out of 91 years). Also, the bond scale only goes from -5% to +35%. The stock scale goes from -50% to +60%.

While I liked the graphic, I didn’t really agree with the text of the linked post. Neither “desired return” nor “required return” would seem to be good benchmarks. The market doesn’t care what you want or need. You take what you get and you deal with it. I think using an appropriate Vanguard Target Retirement or LifeCycle all-in-one fund as a benchmark is reasonable because it is a real-world alternative to whatever custom mix of investments you decide to hold. Such a benchmark can help keep you honest with yourself.

Is Taking All Your Money Out of the Stock Market Ever A Good Idea?

timemoneylogoIf you enjoy financial success stories from people with modest incomes, check out the Time Money article I Took All My Money Out of the Stock Market and It Feels Amazing. Yes, the title is a bit clickbaity, but it’s still worth a read.

Rosalind Warren combined her personal savings with a modest inheritance, invested it in low-cost index funds, and left it alone for a long time. These are exactly the three things that the prudent DIY investor is supposed to do. (She even used Vanguard index funds. Future spokesperson?)

Here’s how $10,000 invested in the mentioned Vanguard Balanced Index Fund would have done since its 1992 inception (via Morningstar):


The frugal librarian is now age 62 with a paid-off house, no debt, and a “high six-figure” nest egg. However, she differs from the prototypical retiree in that she recently sold off all her stocks:

I once figured out exactly how much money I would need to live on — not lavishly, but comfortably — for the rest of my life. I promised myself that once I had that amount, I would actually do just that — take my money out of the market and live on it for the rest of my life.

Last week, I reached that goal.

I’m 62. I’ve spent decades caring about the market. I counted on it to make me enough money so that I’d be able to cash in my chips and walk away when I hit retirement age.

And so it did.

And now? It’s time for this librarian to declare victory and get the hell out.

Having zero stock holdings is not something that would usually be recommended by professional financial planners. Most would recommend at least some small allocation to stocks. But you know what? If you read the entire article, Warren shows that she has done her research and appears to understand the angles. She’s not stuffing the money in a mattress. She’s not panicking or predicting a crash. She’s shown that she can control her spending.

Her portfolio now consists of U.S. Treasuries, Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (or TIPS bonds), and laddered CDs. First, this shows she knows that the biggest danger of not having any stocks is inflation. Second, it also shows she has the financial knowledge to counter that risk. If she’s holding TIPS and laddering CDs with the top rates, her money should at least keep up with inflation (although she admits it won’t grow much past that).

Even if her portfolio only manages to barely keep up with inflation and she lives another 33 years to age 95, simple math shows that she can still theoretically take out 3% a year (100% divided by 33). I don’t know exactly what “high six-figures” means, but $800,000 times 3% = $24,000 per year. There is the possibility that she might need more money than that, but there’s also the possibility that stocks perform even worse than her bonds/CD portfolio. She’s also still working and not taking withdrawals yet.

I don’t see any problem with not holding any stocks in this specific situation. Rosalind Warren has a steady job she intends to keep working at, the ability to defer Social Security until age 70 (maxing out her lifetime inflation-linked benefit), no debt, a paid-off house, and another $20,000 to $30,000 a year she can withdraw in the future. Equally important, not having to pay attention to market fluctuations gives her peace of mind. What do you think?

Vanguard Interactive Ad: $1 Million Is Closer Than You Think


Vanguard has a new full-page interactive ad in the NY Times online with the heading $1 Million Is Closer Than You Think. This is one of those expensive ads that I feel ambivalent about as a investor-owner of Vanguard. I’d rather they rely on word-of-mouth (like from yours truly) and focus more on the customer experience. Will the slick design attract new money and lower expense ratios? At least it promotes the types of things that I support:

  • Save more. Increase your regular contributions. Track your overall saving rate.
  • Keep costs low. Watch your management fees and other costs affecting your portfolio.
  • Stay the course. Don’t react to the market and chase what’s hot.

Which Index Fund Companies Are Most Aligned With Individual Investors?

mstarlogoYou’ve decided that low-cost index funds are the way to go. Which index fund company do you pick? Morningstar has a new research paper titled Partnering With Passive Fund Sponsors That Have Your Back:

Successful investing hinges on putting yourself in the best position to maximize favorable outcomes. Beyond selecting a fund that tracks a well-constructed index and charges a low fee, choosing a fund sponsor that aligns its interests with its fundholders’ increases the odds of a positive investor outcome. Our research found that purveyors of passive funds that align their incentives with those of their fundholders have generated better category-relative risk-adjusted performance on average than funds from firms that seem to prioritize their own interests over investors’.

Here are the characteristics that they felt showed “alignment”:

  • Charging low expense ratios
  • Sharing a greater portion of generated securities-lending revenue
  • Maintaining a disciplined approach to product development
  • Investing in portfolio management infrastructure

After finishing the entire paper, my primary takeaway is that most of the big companies are doing a pretty good job. Vanguard, Fidelity, and Schwab are probably the most aligned. DFA is good in many areas but they do charge higher expense ratios for their factor-tilted passive funds (though past performance has also been higher). Blackrock has some good characteristics but also does a few questionable things like creating a cheap version of a successful ETF, which still charging as much as they can on the old ETF.

Index tracking quality. Here’s a chart of how well each firm tracked their underlying indexes over the past 5 years. Tracking errors are now very low across the board.


For the most part, competition is working and industry practices are converging. The paper notes that State Street has historically been the worst at lowering expense ratios over the last 10 years. The next thing I see? State Street announces their new suite of low-cost SPDR Portfolio ETFs.

TIAA is NOT a non-profit. The Morningstar paper states that TIAA is a nonprofit. However, according to this recent NY Times article, TIAA stopped being a non-profit in 1997 and has been accused of touting its “nonprofit heritage” while pushing higher-cost investment products:

Even though TIAA stopped being a nonprofit organization in 1997, many of its customers might think it remains one. The company’s website ends in a .org rather than a .com and TIAA repeatedly refers to its “nonprofit heritage.”

Most of TIAA is for-profit. Teachers Advisors, for example, is an investment advisory firm that receives compensation from each in-house mutual fund it manages. Nuveen, a mutual fund company purchased by TIAA in 2014, is also run on a for-profit basis. So is EverBank, a Florida banking institution TIAA acquired in June.

Bottom line. Morningstar did not provide final rankings, but my interpretation of Morningstar data is that these firms show the most investor-aligned practices: Vanguard, Fidelity, and Schwab. Based on my own observations, I would be most comfortable having my money held with these firms as well. DFA and Blackrock are not that far behind.

Morningstar Top 529 College Savings Plan Rankings 2017

mstarlogoInvestment research firm Morningstar has released their annual 529 College Savings Plans Research Paper and Industry Survey. While the full survey appears restricted to paid premium members, they did release their top-rated plans for 2017. This is still useful as while there are currently over 60 different 529 plan options nationwide, the majority are mediocre and can quickly be dismissed.

Here are the Gold-rated plans for 2016 (no particular order). Morningstar uses a Gold, Silver, or Bronze rating scale for the top plans and Neutral or Negative for the rest.

The Bright Start College Savings Plan from Illinois was upgraded to Gold this year due to a manager change and thus an entire new set of investment options and age-based tracks. The new plan is cheaper and removed a $10 maintenance fee. The other 3 plans were Gold last year as well.

Here are the consistently top-rated plans from 2011-2017. This means they were rated either Gold or Silver (or equivalent) for every year the rankings were done from 2011 through 2017. No particular order.

  • T. Rowe Price College Savings Plan, Alaska
  • Maryland College Investment Plan
  • Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan, Nevada
  • CollegeAdvantage 529 Savings Plan, Ohio
  • CollegeAmerica Plan, Virginia (Advisor-sold)
  • Utah Educational Savings Plan

The “Five P” criteria.

  • People. Who’s behind the plans? Who are the investment consultants picking the underlying investments? Who are the mutual fund managers?
  • Process. Are the asset-allocation glide paths and funds chosen for the age-based options based on solid research? Whether active or passive, how is it implemented?
  • Parent. How is the quality of the program manager (often an asset-management company or board of trustees which has a main role in the investment choices and pricing)? Also refers to state officials and their policies.
  • Performance. Has the plan delivered strong risk-adjusted performance, both during the recent volatility and in the long-term? Is it judged likely to continue?
  • Price. Includes factors like asset-weighted expense ratios and in-state tax benefits.

State-specific tax benefits. Remember to first consider your state-specific tax benefits that may outweigh other factors. If you don’t have anything compelling available, you can open a 529 plan from any state (I would pick from the ones listed above). Also, if you like an in-state plan now but your situation changes, you can roll over your funds into another 529 from any state.

My picks. Overall, the plans are getting better and most Gold/Silver picks are solid. If your state doesn’t offer an significant local perks, I narrow things down and recommend these two plans to my friends and family:

  • Nevada 529 Plan has low costs, solid automated glide paths, a variety of Vanguard investment options, and long-term commitment to consistently lowering costs as their assets grow. This is only plan that Vanguard puts their name on, and you can manage it within your Vanguard.com account. This is the keep-it-simple option.
  • Utah 529 plan has low costs, investments from Vanguard and DFA, and has highly-customizable glide paths. Over the last few years, the Utah plan has also shown a history of passing on future cost savings to clients. This is the option for folks that enjoy DIY asset allocation.

I feel that a consistent history of consumer-first practices is most important. Sure, you can move your funds if needed, but wouldn’t you rather watch your current plan just keep getting better every year?

Tulip Fever Movie: Love and Economic Bubbles

tulipIf you’ve read enough investing books, you know about the “Dutch Tulip Mania” of the 1600s (Wikipedia) and how it was considered one of the first documented economic bubbles. At one point, 12 acres of land were exchanged for a single tulip bulb.

I was catching up on my Bloomberg magazines and saw this: Finance Geeks Will Love This New Movie About the Tulip Bubble. The official trailer would indicate it’s mostly a romantic drama, but the article suggests that it weaves in the tulip mania, the “nature of money”, and what “love and money have in common”:

The critic reviews weren’t that great, so perhaps it will end up on Amazon Prime Video or Netflix soon enough.

I believe I first read about tulip mania in the Burton Malkiel classic A Random Walk down Wall Street as an example of the Greater Fool Theory, where you buy something for a high price not due to its intrinsic value, but solely because you think someone else will buy it from you for an even higher price. (Does this apply to iPhone X pre-orders?)