Tough Job: 5% of Active Investment Managers Will Add Value

alpha200People always argue about how “efficient” the market truly is. Only academic, ivory-tower geeks believe in efficient markets right? My longstanding opinion is that no, markets are not 100% efficient, but it’s a tough, cutthroat world out there. Especially over the long run. Here’s yet another reminder to put in the anecdote folder.

This WJS article (paywall) talks about Jack Meyer, a superstar manager of the Harvard endowment that went on to run a high-profile hedge fund called Convexity Capital. Unfortunately, his hedge fund has lost over a billion dollars (!) of client money recently, in fact losing money every one of the last 5 straight years.

This recent bout of poor performance has altered Mr. Meyer’s worldview… of other managers (emphasis mine):

Mr. Meyer has often told smaller endowments and foundations that ask for advice to index 75% of their assets and use board connections to access world-class active managers for a sliver of their portfolios. He says he used to think 80% of active managers didn’t add value but now thinks it is closer to 95%.

Convexity is in that remaining 5%, he said.

Matt Levine of Bloomberg has a funny yet wise take on this:

I assert that 100 percent of active managers believe that only 5 percent of active managers add value, and that 100 percent of active managers believe that they are in that 5 percent, or at least say so in interviews. Otherwise why come to work every day? But that means that 95 percent of them are wrong. If you’re looking for the ones who are wrong, I guess one place to start would be among the ones who lose money five years in a row.

That 5% number reminded me of this quote from Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway (source):

I think it is roughly right that the market is efficient, which makes it very hard to beat merely by being an intelligent investor. But I don’t think it’s totally efficient at all. And the difference between being totally efficient and somewhat efficient leaves an enormous opportunity for people like us to get these unusual records. It’s efficient enough, so it’s hard to have a great investment record. But it’s by no means impossible. Nor is it something that only a very few people can do. The top three or four percent of the investment management world will do fine.

As Josh Brown puts it, edges are ephemeral. Okay, so somewhere around 4 out of 100 people *whose job it is to add value*… will actually add value. Sounds like a tough job, but something to consider when they come asking for your money.

Barron’s Best Stock Brokerage Rankings 2017

barrons2017Barron’s has released their 2017 annual broker rankings. Two major themes this year are (1) trade commissions dropping overall and (2) improved mobile app trading.

To analyze 2017’s top brokers, we took a hard look at the value they offer to clients, analyzing security, mobility, and social-media features as well as the depth of their investment tools and their trading capabilities. Our primary consideration in judging these 16 firms is how they work for our readers, who are high-net-worth active investors. Price-improvement statistics are built into our Trading Experience and Technology category.

Note that part about high-net-worth active investors, which may or may not describe you. Their overall winner this year was Fidelity Investments, which barely beat out last year’s winner Interactive Brokers. Thankfully, Barron’s also supplied separate rankings for novice investors, long-term investors, and those that value in-person service:

Top 5 Brokers for Novice Investors

  1. TD Ameritrade. Performed well in customer service & education, portfolio analysis, research tools, and mobile offerings. Free real-time quotes across desktop and mobile.
  2. Fidelity
  3. Merrill Edge
  4. E-Trade
  5. Charles Schwab

Top 5 Brokers for Long-Term Investing

  1. TD Ameritrade. The only broker to provide a wide range of commission-free ETFs from various providers based on popularity instead of in-house ETFs or paid placement).
  2. Fidelity
  3. Charles Schwab
  4. Merrill Edge
  5. E-Trade

Top 5 Brokers for In-Person Service

  1. Merrill Edge. This is mostly about physical branches, and Merrill Edge is technically Bank of America.
  2. Charles Schwab
  3. Fidelity
  4. TD Ameritrade
  5. E-Trade

If you really want to get into the details, another handy feature is Barron’s huge comparison chart with data from all the brokers surveyed. As in past years, Vanguard declined to participate in the survey.

Quick commentary. I agree that TD Ameritrade is good for long-term investors who want to use an independent brokerage. They combine a full brokerage feature set with a list of 101 commission-free ETFs based on overall popularity (which means they are the ETFs you’d actually want to buy).

There was no mention of the Robinhood free trading app. Does the lack of any competing free trading apps indicate that this business model isn’t viable?

I keep most of my long-term assets directly at Vanguard, while my individual stock trades are done through Merrill Edge. I’m happy with them so far. If you have $50,000 in assets across Merrill Lynch, Merrill Edge, and Bank of America accounts, you get 30 free trades per month. That’s already more trades than I need, but $100k in combined assets gets you 100 free trades per month.

Fundrise eREIT Quarterly Liquidity Details and Redemption Process

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I’ve been putting some side money into crowdfunded real-estate investments – see here and here – and I am now closing out my Fundrise eREIT investment. An important difference between most of these private real estate investments and publicly-listed REIT is liquidity. On most any given weekday, I can sell my public REIT (i.e. VNQ) for a price that an open market deems fair and within few days I will have cash in hand.

The Fundrise Income eREITs are private REITs that take advantage of new crowdfunding regulations open to all investors (not just accredited investors). The intended time horizon of this investment at least 5 years, but they also advertise “quarterly liquidity” as a feature (see below). I was interested to see how this feature worked, as many of the other asset-backed loans in which I am invested could take a year or longer to get my money back. I decided to test out this “emergency hatch”.

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The rules. You are allowed to make a redemption request once per quarter. For the full details on Fundrise quarterly redemption plans, please see the section of each eREIT Offering Circular titled, “Description of Our Common Shares—Quarterly Redemption Plan” at this link. It’s pretty dense, and I will only highlight this table which includes the “early withdrawal penalty” imposed if you redeem your shares within 5 years.

fundrise_redeem

In other words, if I redeem now after one year, I will pay a 3% penalty on the current net asset value (NAV). The NAV itself is a complex calculation of the underlying assets that I believe is only updated to investors once a quarter.

Note that you are not guaranteed to have liquidity of all your shares. If too many shareholders request liquidity at the same time, that might force them to sell assets at large discounts and harm other shareholders. Here is an excerpt from the Offering Circular:

Q: Will there be any limits on my ability to redeem my shares?

A: Yes. While we designed our redemption plan to allow shareholders to request redemptions on a quarterly basis, we need to impose limitations on the total amount of net redemptions per calendar quarter in order to maintain sufficient sources of liquidity to satisfy redemption requests without impacting our ability to invest in commercial real estate assets and maximize investor returns.
In the event our Manager determines, in its sole discretion, that we do not have sufficient funds available to redeem all of the common shares for which redemption requests have been submitted in any given month or calendar quarter, as applicable, such pending requests will be honored on a pro rata basis. […]

Redemption Process. The process of requesting a quarterly redemption was straightforward. Here’s a step-by-step rundown:

  • Contact Fundrise support and request a redemption (3/6 in my case). You need to make this request at least 15 days prior to the end of the applicable quarter.
  • They asked the reason for my redemption, and I told them. You don’t need to supply a reason, they just wanted feedback.
  • They sent over the official redemption form, which I was able to read and complete online. I received an e-mail confirmation of my redemption request.
  • At the end of the quarter (3/31 in my case), I received another e-mail confirmation that my redemption request was processed.
  • 12 days after the end of the quarter (4/12 in my case), I received another e-mail confirmation that the funds were being transferred to my bank account.

Complete Investment Timeline. Here’s a summary of cashflows from beginning to end.

  • December 29, 2015. Invested $2,000 into Fundrise Income eREIT (200 shares x $10 a share).
  • Held for 15 months. Received 5 quarterly income distributions on a timely basis in April, July, October 2016 and January, April 2017. Total of $234.79.
  • Early March 2017. Requested redemption of all 200 shares as of the end of quarter 3/31/17.
  • April 12, 2017. Received $1,908 in principal back. 100% of NAV would have been $1967.

Screenshot:

fundrise_final

So I invested $2,000 and after 471 days I collected a total of $2,142.79 for a total gain of 7.14%. The annualized return works out to 5.49%. That’s not amazing but better but not bad considering that I am basically bailing out of a 5+ year investment after only a year. I’m pretty confident that my returns would have been better if I waited out the full 5 years as real estate ownership investments take time to work out. (Traditional non-traded REITs are infamous for having huge penalties for early withdrawals where you get back less than 90 cents on the dollar.)

Hopefully this post answers some questions about the liquidity of Fundrise eREITs. If daily liquidity is important to you, I would still stick with publicly-traded REITs.

Bottom line. The Fundrise Income eREITs are meant as long-term investments with time horizons of at least 5 years. However, they advertise the availability of limited quarterly liquidity. I tested out this liquidity feature and was able to cash out subject to a 3% discount from net asset value. I would not recommend using this option unless necessary as it will significantly impair your overall return. In an extreme case, you might not be able to redeem early. In my case, my annualized return (after all fees and penalties) worked out to 5.49%. New investors can sign up on the Fundrise Income eREIT waiting list here.

Buy, Hold, Rebalance a Globally-Diversified Portfolio 2017

When I think about it, I am impressed with how different 2017 feels compared to when I started seriously learning about investing in 2003. Instead of only reading about it in few books mostly read by finance nerds, nowadays nearly every robo-advisor out there uses a globally-diversified mix of low-cost ETFs to build their portfolios. What used to be a relatively quiet alternative to buying 4-star active funds is now becoming the default choice.

We’ve seen from the Callan Investment Returns Table that the best-performing asset classes constantly change from year to year. In a industry magazine called Investments & Wealth Monitor, there was an article titled Why Global Asset Allocation Still Makes Sense by Anthony Davidow. (Found via AllAboutAlpha.)

Here’s an illustration of how a globally-diversified portfolio has outperformed. Below is a graphic from the article comparing a 100% S&P 500 portfolio, and 60/40 S&P 500/US Agg Bond portfolio, and a “globally diversified portfolio” using historical data from January 1, 2001 to December 31, 2016. Index values are used directly as opposed to actual ETFs or funds. The portfolio are rebalanced annually back to target asset allocation.

globaldiv

Their “diversified portfolio” had a rather finely-diced list of asset class ingredients:

  • 18% S&P 500 (US Large-Cap)
  • 10% Russell 2000 (US Small-Cap)
  • 3% S&P US REIT
  • 12% MSCI EAFE (International Developed)
  • 8% MSCI EAFE Small Cap
  • 8% MSCI Emerging Markets
  • 2% S&P Global Ex US REIT
  • 1% Barclays US Treasury
  • 1% Barclays Agency
  • 6% Barclays Securitized
  • 2% Barclays US Credit
  • 4% Barclays Global Agg EX USD
  • 9% Barclays VLI High Yield
  • 6% Barclays EM
  • 2% S&P GSCI Precious Metals
  • 1% S&P GSCI Energy
  • 1% S&P GSCI Industrial Metals
  • 1% S&P GSCI Agricultural
  • 5% Barclays US Treasury 3–7 Year

I do wish this portfolio was a bit more simple and easy to replicate. However, if you take a step back, you could simplify this asset allocation into the following:

  • 56% Global Stocks (50% US/50% Non-US)
  • 5% Global REIT (60% US/40% Non-US)
  • 34% Global Bonds (70% US/30% Non-US)
  • 5% Commodities

Now, we can’t necessarily expect a global portfolio to always outperform. One thing is usually doing better than another thing you own. Most recently, US stocks have outperformed International stocks quite significantly. Here’s an explanation from the article about the “free lunch” of diversification:

Diversification strategies do not guarantee capture of profits or protection against losses in any market environment, but they have been shown over time to provide a smoother ride. Rather than bearing the brunt of the 2000 Tech Wreck and the 2008 Great Recession, the diversified portfolio provided cushioning under the large market drop and was able recoup losses and grow over time.

Callan Investment Returns Ranked by Asset Class 1997-2017

callan2016clipWe’ve all been told that past performance is no guarantee of future returns, but it’s still hard to buy an investment that has been performing poorly. We need to remember the historical power of diversification and that even though something may look horrible now, good news may be just around the corner.

Callan Associates updates a “periodic table” annually with the relative performance of 8 major asset classes over the last 20 years. You can find the most recent one at their website Callan.com, with access to previous versions requiring free registration.

Every calendar year, the best performing asset class is listed at the top, and it sorts downward until you have the worst performing asset. Here is the most recent snapshot of 1997-2016:

callan2016

The Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns conveys the strong case for diversification across asset classes (stocks vs. bonds), investment styles (growth vs. value), capitalizations (large vs. small), and equity markets (U.S. vs. non-U.S.). The Table highlights the uncertainty inherent in all capital markets. Rankings change every year. Also noteworthy is the difference between absolute and relative performance, as returns for the top-performing asset class span a wide range over the past 20 years.

I find it easiest to focus on a specific color (asset class) and then visually noting how its relative performance bounces around. This year, I note that Emerging Markets (Orange) tends to either run really hot or cold. For the past 4 years, Emerging Markets has been near the bottom. MSCI EAFE (Developed Foreign Stocks, Light Grey) have also been doing relatively poorly. I still hold them as they will one day bounce back to the top.

Early Retirement Portfolio Income, 2017 Q1 Update

dividendmono225

While I understand the arguments for a “total return” approach, I also appreciate the behavioral reasons why living off income while keeping your ownership stake is desirable. The analogy I fall back on is owning an investment property that produces rental income. If you are reliably getting rent checks that increase with inflation, you can sit back calmly and let the market value fluctuate. The problem is that buy only things with the highest yields only increases the chance that those yields will drop. Therefore, I am trying to reach some sort of balance between the two approaches.

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 (linked below). 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 65% stocks and 35% bonds because I believe that will be my permanent allocation upon early retirement.

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (Taken 4/19/17) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
25% 1.88% 0.47%
US Small Value
Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF (VBR)
5% 1.83% 0.09%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
25% 2.75% 0.69%
Emerging Markets
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
5% 2.31% 0.12%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 4.42% 0.27%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWIUX)
17% 2.87% 0.49%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
17% 2.20% 0.37%
Totals 100% 2.50%

 

The total weighted 12-month yield on this portfolio has historically varied between 2% and 2.5%. This time, it was on the higher end of 2.50% mostly because inflation has picked up and thus the TIPS fund started to yield more. If I had a $1,000,000 portfolio balance today, a 2.5% yield means that it would have generated $25,000 in interest and dividends over the last 12 months. (The muni bond interest in my portfolio is exempt from federal income taxes.)

For comparison, the Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX) is a low-cost, passive 60/40 fund that has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.12%. The Vanguard Wellington Fund is a low-cost active 65/35 fund that has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.55%. Numbers taken 4/19/2017.

These income 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 projected annual expenses. If I used the actual numbers above, I am close but still short. Most people won’t want to use this number because it is a very small number. However, I like it for the following reasons:

  • Tracking dividends and interest income is less stressful than tracking market price movements.
  • Dividend yields adjust roughly for stock market valuations (if prices are high, dividend yield is probably down).
  • Bond yields adjust roughly for interest rates (low interest rates now, probably low bond returns in future).
  • With 2/3rds of my portfolio in stocks, I have confidence that over time the income will increase with inflation.

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. But as an aspiring early retiree with hopefully 40+ 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, 2017 First Quarter Update

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Here is an update on my investment portfolio holdings after the first quarter 2017. This includes tax-deferred accounts like 401ks, IRAs, and taxable brokerage holdings, but excludes things like our primary home, cash reserves, and a few other side investments. The purpose of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover our regular household expenses.

Target Asset Allocation

The overall goal is to include asset classes that will provide long-term returns above inflation, distribute income via dividends and interest, and finally offer some historical tendencies to balance each other out. I don’t hold commodities futures or gold as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly. I also believe that it is more important to have asset classes that you are confident you’ll hold through the bad times, as opposed to whatever has been doing well recently. The things that looked promising in 2000 were not the things that looked promising in 2010, and so on.

Stocks Breakdown

  • 38% US Total Market
  • 7% US Small-Cap Value
  • 38% International Total Market
  • 7% Emerging Markets
  • 10% US Real Estate (REIT)

Bonds Breakdown

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

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)
Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR)
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSIX, VGSLX)

Bond Holdings
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLTX, VMLUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWITX, VWIUX)
Vanguard High-Yield Tax-Exempt Fund (VWAHX, VWALX)
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX, VAIPX)
iShares Barclays TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)
Individual TIPS securities
U.S. Savings Bonds (Series I)

Commentary

In regards to my target asset allocation, I tweaked the stock percentages slightly so that I will end up with at least 5% overall in any given asset class when I reach my final ratio of roughly 65% stocks and 35% bonds in the next few years. Despite the recent outperformance of US stocks vs. the rest of the word, I am still keeping my 50/50 split between US and International holdings.

In regards to specific holdings, I did some tax-loss harvesting between my Emerging Markets and US Small Cap ETF holdings. I am also shifting towards dropping my WisdomTree ETFs and going to the more “vanilla” Vanguard versions: Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR) and Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO). This should lower costs and increase simplicity. Otherwise, there has been little activity besides continued dollar-cost-averaging with monthly income.

I’m still somewhat underweight in TIPS and REITs mostly due to limited tax-deferred space as I really don’t want to hold them in a taxable account. My taxable muni bonds are split roughly evenly between the three Vanguard muni funds with an average duration of 4.5 years. I may start switching back to US Treasuries if my income tax rate changes signficantly.

A rough 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 +7.73% for 2016 and +4.96% YTD (as of 4/17/17).

So this is what I own, and in a separate post I’ll share about how I track if I have enough to retire via dividend and interest income.

Simple Portfolio Rebalancing Spreadsheet Template (Google Drive)

gsheetsUpdated. Automated portfolio management services like Wealthfront and Betterment will help you manage a diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds for a fee. While I understand their appeal for those that wish to outsource that task, I choose to maintain my own diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds. I enjoy having full control of all investment decisions, and I like saving the management fee (and adding that money to my snowball).

An important part of this DIY portfolio management is staying close to your target asset allocation. I use a very simple Google Spreadsheet to track my portfolio. Here is the direct link and it is also embedded below. Yellow cells are those meant to be edited.

(Download a free copy: I am sharing this spreadsheet online – free of charge – in read-only format. However, please make a copy of it using the menu option File > Make a copy or download it as an Excel file using option File > Download as). Any requests for edit access to the original public spreadsheet will be denied, because you would be changing the appearance for everyone.)

 

Here are some guidance on how to use the spreadsheet:

1. Decide on a target asset allocation. Don’t use the generic one I put above. There is no perfect portfolio. You can find plenty that look great based on history at this moment, but that will not be the perfect portfolio 5, 10, 25 years down the line. The best portfolio is the one that you can stick through even after your fanciest asset classes have negative returns for 5+ years.

Here are a few model portfolios to get you started. Below is what I have settled on for myself. Details here. You only have to enter this once as long as your target asset allocation stays the same.

2. Enter your total balances for each asset class. The easiest way to grab my holdings from multiple brokerage accounts is to use a aggregation service like Personal Capital (review). If you don’t have that many accounts, simply log into each individual website and add up your totals by asset class.

You could solely rely upon a service like Personal Capital to manage your portfolio, but I tend to use some specific asset classes like “US Small Value” or “Emerging Markets Value” which Personal Capital does not recognize. I do enjoy the fact that it pulls in all of my holdings and balances automatically into one screen and is always updated.

3. Check out the actual breakdown vs. your target breakdown. The spreadsheet shows the current actual percentage breakdown vs. your target breakdown, as well as the dollar amounts of any differences. A positive number means you need to buy more to reach your theoretical target (negative means sell). In the fictitious example shown, I might feel that I was close enough that I wouldn’t really bother with any rebalancing. If things were really off, I could buy/sell as needed.

3. Rebalance with new cashflow, dividends, and interest. Choose your frequency of “forced” rebalancing. By using this spreadsheet, you can see which asset classes should be invested in currently to bring you back towards your target asset allocation. This is where you should invest any new cashflow (i.e. paycheck, dividends, rental income, or interest that your portfolio generates).

In addition, you can rebalance by selling some asset classes and then buying another. I try not to sell too often as to avoid capital gains taxes. You can do this on a set calendar basis such as annually on your birthday or quarterly. Another method is to only rebalance once your percentages are off by a certain amount, like a tolerance band of +/- 5%. I personally check in quarterly to see where I should invest any new cashflows, and if things are really off then I rebalance by selling something at most once a year. If you have sizable taxable holding, you could also attempt some tax-loss harvesting during these check-ins.

Recap. If you are managing your own portfolio, it is important not to stray too far from your target asset allocation. In order to know where you should invest new funds, I track my portfolio in two ways. First, I use Personal Capital for a real-time, daily snapshot of my holdings. Second, I manually update this spreadsheet each quarter and print out a copy for my permanent, physical records. This takes about 15 minutes every 3 months. Using these two methods, I maintain complete control over my portfolio and I don’t have to pay any management fees to a robo-advisor.

S&P 500 Histogram: Annual Returns Are Negative 1/3rd Of The Time

prepyourAs we stand today in early 2017, the performance of the US stock market since 2009 has been pretty impressive with only a few minor hiccups. I am not calling a market drop, but the best time to prepare is before an emergency or crisis occurs. Humans have a well-documented loss-aversion bias. We react to losing money much more severely than positive returns. Therefore, it is wise to remember that historically, the annual return of the S&P 500 index is negative approximately 1 out of every 3 years.

Here’s a histogram that organizes into “buckets” the historical annual returns of the S&P 500 Index* from 1825-2014. We see that negative returns occurred 29% of the time. Legend: DotCom bubble (grey), Great Depression (yellow), Housing bubble (blue). Source: Margin of Safety.

sp500_hist2014

(* For periods before the S&P 500 existed, the S&P Market Index is used. Before that, I have no idea!)

Here’s a similar chart that shows the annual percentage change of the S&P 500 index from 1927-2016. I counted that 28 out of 89 periods were negative (31.4%). Source: Macrotrends.

sp500_returndist

We should expect and accept that negative returns will come 1/3rd of the time. The drops are part of the package. Just like having a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake preparedness plan, you should have a market drop plan. Do you have a cash cushion so you don’t feel the need to sell temporarily-depressed shares? Do you have a high-quality bond or cash allocation that you can use to rebalance and buy even more stocks when they reach lower valuations?

The Full Spectrum of Financial Advisors

spectrum2Do you recommend Wealthfront? Betterment? WiseBanyan? Schwab Intelligent Portfolios? Vanguard Personal Advisor Services? The upstarts like to bash on the competition, making it seem like they are your digital savior while everyone else is evil. The truth is that they are more similar than different.

Morgen Beck Rochard of Origin Wealth Advisors recently created the helpful infographic below on the wide range of possibilities you can get when you hire a “financial advisor”. Found via The Big Picture. Click for full source image.

advisor_spectrum720

What does it mean? The term “financial advisor” tells you nearly nothing about:

  • Their level of training or years of experience.
  • The type of investment products that they sell (individual stocks, active funds, passive ETFs, whole life insurance, complicated annuities?)
  • How they are compensated (flat fee, percentage of assets, commissions).
  • Whether they are a fiduciary (legally required to always act in the client’s best interest)

Wealthfront, Betterment, WiseBanyan, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, and Fidelity Go are all in the space of “Fee-only Passive Management” near the top. They are all Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs), which amongst other things are fiduciaries legally required to act in your best interest. They all manage a diversified portfolio of low-cost, passively-managed funds. They all charge a fee based on assets managed. They all provide limited financial planning, mostly using software with inputs that you adjust yourself.

Avoid everything below! Stay away from the yellow, orange, and red boxes. Complicated universal life insurance and equity-indexed annuities. Expensive mutual funds with expense ratios of 1% or higher. Using the principle of inversion, by simply avoiding these products you’re already doing above-average (with below-average fees).

Meanwhile, at the very top is what I cynically call “unicorn land”. Who doesn’t want a qualified human advisor that puts your interests first, provides comprehensive financial planning, and charges a reasonable fee? The paradox we get is that if a high-touch human financial advisor is good at what they do, chances are that they won’t look at your account unless you have over $1 million. Also, they tend to be more expensive. Looking at the Form ADV of Origin Wealth Advisors for example, over 75% of clients are “high net worth” and the portfolio management fee is 1.5% annually unless you have more than $5 million. There is nothing wrong with targeting high net worth clients and charging a premium fee for premium service. A human advisor that keeps you on course and prevent market timing or panic selling could create “advisor alpha“. But 1.5% annually is expensive, any way you cut it.

There are qualified, reasonably-priced human advisors out there, but you won’t find them on every street corner. In contrast, anyone with $500 can click on over the Betterment or Wealthfront and get a solid portfolio built and rebalanced regularly for them. At 0.25% annual fee, a $100,000 portfolio will cost $250 a year. Most people don’t even have $100,000 saved up.

If I had to start all over from the beginning, I’d probably do this. First, save up cash until you get $1,000. Then buy and keep investing in a Vanguard Target Retirement mutual fund. At the same time, learn about investing, behavioral psychology, and market history. Read, read, read. Then manage my own portfolio. But that’s not for everyone.

If you can keep putting money into your Target Retirement fund even during market panics with no other authority figure (robo or human) to help you out, then you could just keep your money there indefinitely. Give it a decade or three, and it will work fine. If you want to hire a low-cost robo-advisor to manage your portfolio, that will also work fine (if you also let it be). The more complicated robo-portfolios might create a slightly-higher risk-adjusted return, and automated tax-loss harvesting could offset part or all of the advisory fee. Remember that you are picking between different shades of blue on the above spectrum. You’re doing pretty good. Don’t become a victim of paralysis by analysis. The enemy of a good plan is a perfect plan.

Betterment Review 2017: Updated Features List

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Betterment is one of several automated portfolio managers that will manage a diversified mix of low-cost index funds and help you decide how much you’ll need to save for retirement. We’re still in the early stages of this “robo-advisor” evolution, with new features announced every few months. Here is an updated feature list for Betterment along with my commentary.

Diversified portfolio of high-quality, low-cost ETFs. Their portfolios are a diversified mix of several asset classes including: US Total, US Large Value, US Mid Value, US Small Value, International Developed, Emerging Markets, US Corporate Bonds, US Total Bond, Inflation-Protected Treasuries, Muni Bonds, International Bonds, and Emerging Market Bonds. Primarily low-cost Vanguard and iShares ETFs are used.

Betterment has a more pronounced tilt towards the size premium and value premium than portfolio that tracks the traditional cap-weighted market. You could argue the finer points of whether this will really create higher risk-adjusted returns, but overall it is backed by academic research. As long as you can stick with it during bear markets, I think it will work out fine.

Retirement planning software with external account balances. RetireGuide is Betterment’s retirement planning software, launched in April 2015. This service links your external accounts from other banks, brokerages, and 401k plans (similar to Mint and Personal Capital) in order to see your balances without having to manually input them. According to their methodology guide, they don’t analyze your transactions to estimate savings rate, they are just pulling in balances.

How much do I have invested elsewhere? Am I saving enough money? How much estimated income will I have in retirement? Your future Social Security income is estimated for your based on your chosen retirement age and birthdate. You can change many of the variables as you like. Screenshots below:

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Account types. Betterment now supports taxable joint accounts, trust accounts, 401k rollovers, Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, SEP IRAs, and Inherited IRAs.

Tax-efficent asset location. They will place different asset classes in your taxable accounts vs. tax-deferred accounts (IRAs, 401ks) for a higher after-tax return. In addition, if you have multiple types of accounts at Betterment (i.e. both IRA and taxable), it will manage multiple accounts as a single portfolio, placing assets that are taxed more into more favorably taxed accounts (like IRAs). Note that this only works across accounts that are held at Betterment. It does not adjust for non-Betterment accounts. This is called their Tax-Coordinated Portfolio.

Use dividends and new contributions to rebalance. They will use your dividends and new contributions to rebalance your asset classes in order to minimize sells and thus minimize capital gains.

Daily tax-loss harvesting. Betterment’s “Tax-loss Harvesting+” software monitors your holdings daily and attempts to find opportunities to harvest tax losses by switching between “similar but not substantially identical” ETFs. If you can delay paying taxes and reinvest them, this can result in a greater after-tax return. The exact “tax alpha” of this practice depends on multiple factors like portfolio size and tax brackets. You can read the Betterment side of things in their whitepaper. Here is an outside viewpoint arguing for more conservative estimates.

In the end, I do believe there is long-term value in tax-loss harvesting (and I do think daily monitoring can capture more losses) but it’s probably wise to use a conservative assumption as to the size of that value. (Now, you can perform your own tax-loss harvesting as well on a less-frequent basis. I do it myself as there is value, but it’s rather tedious and I’m definitely not doing it more often than once a year. I would gladly leave it to the bots if it were free.)

Invest your excess cash automatically. Automatic contributions are good, but perhaps you don’t want to commit to a set amount each month. (Ideally, you do commit to a set amount, and this service invests more money on top of that.) Called SmartDeposit, you link your checking account and choose your Checking Account Ceiling and Max Deposit amount. If your checking account balance goes above the ceiling, Betterment will automatically sweep over money and invest it for you. Betterment will account for future scheduled deposits so you don’t over-contribute.

Fee schedule, including tiers with human financial planning advice. In January 2017, Betterment announced a fee structure change that included premium tiers with access a pool of human advisors. Here is a summary of the new plans:

  • Betterment Digital. Their original product with digital portfolio management and guidance. Now at a flat 0.25% annually (no more tiers). No minimum balance. There is no longer be a $3/month fee if you don’t make monthly auto-deposits. The management fee on any assets over $2 million is waived.
  • Betterment Plus. Digital features above + unlimited e-mail access + an annual planning call from a “team of CFP® professionals and licensed financial experts who monitor accounts throughout the year.” The plan is a flat 0.40% annually. $100,000 minimum balance required.
  • Betterment Premium. Digital features above + unlimited e-mail access + unlimited phone access to a “team of CFP® professionals and licensed financial experts who monitor accounts throughout the year.” The plan is a flat 0.50% annually. $250,000 minimum balance required.

(Betterment’s previous fee structure for Digital was 0.35% for balances under $10,000 with $100/mo auto-deposit (or a flat $3 a month without), 0.25% for balances of $10,000 to $100,000, and 0.15% for balances above $100,000. This means that with the new flat 0.25% fee structure, people with balances under $10k will end up paying less while those with $100k+ will be paying more after this change. Those customers with $100k+ were understandably upset at receiving a price hike. Existing customers on the 0.15% tier will stay on that fee structure until June 1st, 2017.)

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Summary. As a DIY investor willing to do most things myself, my thoughts on robo-advisors have often focused on weighing their feature set vs. the additional advisory fee. I don’t like the idea of giving up control, but I find myself keeping track of each improvement in their software capabilities.

In terms of comparing with other robo-advisors, Betterment has recently added the following features: Retirement planning software that syncs account balances from external accounts, tax-coordinated portfolio (when you have both IRA/401k and taxable at Betterment), access to human financial advisors at additional cost, and SmartDeposit which automatically invests excess cash from your checking account.

Current new customer promotions. From March 1st to April 18th, new customers who deposit at least $100,000 into a taxable Betterment account will receive a free Canary home security device ($199 retail). Offer excludes tax advantaged accounts such as IRAs and 401ks.

Wealthfront Review 2017: Updated Features List

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There are now several automated portfolio managers that will manage a diversified mix of low-cost index funds at portfolio sizes previously ignored by human advisors. As a result, these “robo-advisors” have been rolling out additional features to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Wealthfront is one of the largest independent robo-advisors (i.e. not tied to a specific brand of funds like Vanguard or Schwab). With a younger target audience (20s to 40s), their offering is for folks that are comfortable having nearly all interactions via smartphone or website. Here’s their updated feature list along with my commentary:

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Diversified portfolio of high-quality, low-cost ETFs. Their portfolios are a diversified mix of several asset classes including: US Total, US Dividend, International Developed, US Corporate Bonds, Muni Bonds, Emerging Market Bonds, REITs, and Natural Resources. Primarily low-cost Vanguard and iShares ETFs are used. You could argue the finer points of a specific portfolio, but overall it is backed by academic research (Chief Investment Officer is Burton Malkiel).

Financial planning software with outside account integration. Path is Wealthfront’s new financial planning software, launched in February 2017. This service links your external accounts from other banks, brokerages, and 401k plans (similar to Mint and Personal Capital) in order to see your entire picture without having to manually input your balances and transactions. How much do I have invested elsewhere? How much am I spending? How much am I saving? How much can I spend in retirement?

Path can forecast your saving rate using the last 12 months of transactions. Investment returns are estimated using Monte Carlo analysis. It also accounts for your household income, birthdate, and chosen retirement age to estimate how Social Security will affect your retirement income needs. You can change up the variables and see how it will affect your retirement outlook. See Path intro video here, screenshots above and below:

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As of June 2017, Path now includes College Planning. You can select a college for real-time expense projections, get a customized estimate of financial aid, and receive a personalized college savings plan to cover the difference. This works with or without their own Wealthfront 529 College Savings account.

Account types. Wealthfront now supports taxable joint accounts, trust accounts, 401k rollovers, Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and SEP IRAs. They also offer a 529 College Savings account.

Tax-sensitive account transfers. This is good news if you already have an existing portfolio with unrealized capital gains. Other robo-advisors may have a “switch calculator” to help you decide whether to move over or not, but Wealthfront will actually accept your existing investments and manage it for you alongside your new investments.

If you want to switch advisors or move your brokerage holdings into a diversified portfolio, you typically have to sell all your holdings and move in cash. This means you will more than likely have a large tax bill. Instead of selling your holdings, Wealthfront will directly transfer them into a diversified portfolio tax efficiently, saving you that tax bill.

Tax-efficent asset location. They will place different asset classes in your taxable accounts vs. tax-deferred accounts (IRAs, 401ks) for a higher after-tax return. However, they do not treat them holistically (i.e. putting all one of one asset in IRA and none in taxable). Non-Wealthfront accounts are also not taken into consideration.

Use dividends and new contributions to rebalance. They will use your dividends and new contributions to rebalance your asset classes in order to minimize sells and thus minimize capital gains.

Concentrated holding of a single stock? Wealthfront caters to the tech start-up crowd with a unique Selling Plan service for people with much of their net worth tied up in a single stock. They’ll help you sell your positions gradually in a tax-efficent manner. Currently available to shareholders of: Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Arista Networks, Box, Facebook, Pure Storage, Square, Twilio, Twitter, Yelp, Zillow.

All of the above are good things to do. If you are willing to read and learn, you can do many of the things listed above on your own. Build a portfolio of high-quality, low-cost ETFs. Track your income and expenses using aggregation software. Tax-efficient asset location. Rebalance regularly, using dividends where possible. Don’t sell your existing positions all at once if they have large capital gains. However, something that I wouldn’t want to do is monitor a hundred of little tax lots. Some things are just better left to software.

Daily tax-loss harvesting. Wealthfront software monitors your holdings daily and attempts to find opportunities to harvest tax losses by switching between “similar but not substantially identical” ETFs. If you can delay paying taxes and reinvest them, this can result in a greater after-tax return. The exact “tax alpha” of this practice depends on multiple factors like portfolio size and tax brackets. You can read the Wealthfront side of things in this whitepaper and Schwab comparison. Here is an outside viewpoint arguing for more conservative estimates.

In the end, I do believe there is long-term value in tax-loss harvesting (and I do think daily monitoring can capture more losses) but it’s probably wise to use a conservative assumption as to the size of that value. (Now, you can perform your own tax-loss harvesting as well on a less-frequent basis. I do it myself as there is value, but it’s rather tedious and I’m definitely not doing it more often than once a year. I would gladly leave it to the bots if it were free.)

Direct indexing. If your account is over $100,000, Wealthfront will buy all the stocks in the S&P 500 individually and commission-free. ETF expense ratios are pretty low now, so this is mostly used as an opportunity for more tax-loss harvesting. No other robo-advisor offers this feature. Here is whitepaper that details their position. The net benefit mostly weighs the potential index tracking error against the tax-loss benefits.

Portfolio Line of Credit. If your taxable balance is over $100,000, Wealthfront will automatically give you a line of credit of up to 30% of your balance. There is no application, no fees, low interest rates, and you can get cash in as little as 1 business day. Manage it wisely though, as this is a margin lending product and they may force you to sell your investments if a margin call occurs.

Fee schedule. The fee schedule for Wealthfront is pretty simple. The first $10,000 is managed for free. Assets above that are charged a flat 0.25% advisory fee annually. All of the features listed above are included.

If you sign up via a special invite link, you can get your first $15,000 managed for free, forever (an additional $5k). You can then invite your own friends for more savings (each also gets $15k managed for free, and you get another $5k managed for free for each referred friend.)

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Summary. As a DIY investor willing to do most things myself, my thoughts on robo-advisors have often focused on weighing their feature set vs. the additional advisory fee. I don’t like the idea of giving up control, but I find myself keeping track of each improvement in their software capabilities.

In terms of comparing with other robo-advisors, Wealthfront currently differentiates themselves in the following ways: Financial planning software that incorporates external accounts, account transfers that accepts your existing investments and then sells them tax-efficiently, direct S&P 500 indexing, 529 college saving plan and guidance software, portfolio line-of-credit, and assistance with selling single company stock. You may or may not find any of these useful to your specific situation, but notice that many of these used to be reasons to pick a (usually more expensive) human advisor.