Top 5 Retirement Savings Tips from John Oliver

John Oliver again tackled personal finance on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, this time exploring retirement savings. (He previously covered credit reports.) Here is the full video link, embedded below:

It is truly hard to present this stuff in an entertaining manner, so I was interested to see how they would approach things and who’d they pick on. It’s not bad considering it runs 20 minutes – quite long for an internet video. If you skip to roughly the 17:55 mark, you’ll get the best bits – a satirical reply to widely-promoted Prudential commercials (one, two) and his top 5 retirement savings tips:

  1. Start saving now.
  2. Invest in low-cost index funds.
  3. Ask if your adviser is a fiduciary.
  4. As you get older, gradually switch some of your stocks into bonds.
  5. Keep your fees under 1%.

Nothing new to most financially-savvy folks, but hopefully it helps steer some people in the right direction.

Fidelity Portfolio Advisory Service (PAS) Fee Schedule

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From time to time, people ask to send me details of their current portfolio for some advice. I usually decline respectfully as I don’t feel qualified to provide specific investment advice, but I did accept a copy of the general fee schedule for Fidelity Portfolio Advisory Services (PAS) as of March 30, 2016. Here is a scan of the Annual Advisory Fee Schedule:

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Note that the Net Advisory Fee = Gross Advisory Fee – Credit Amount. From the client agreement:

Your Gross Advisory Fee does not include underlying fund expenses charged at the individual fund level for any funds in your Account. These fund expenses, which vary by fund and class, are expenses all fund shareholders pay. Some of these underlying fund expenses may be paid to Strategic Advisers or its affiliates and will be included in a Credit Amount, described below.

In other words, the credit amount is the fees and compensation that your advisors get paid in exchange for picking those investments over the other investments that may not pay such fees. It doesn’t make much difference, as these fees are usually passed onto the retail customers anyway, just indirectly through the mutual fund annual expense ratios. As a result, the gross advisory fee is still the minimum amount that the end customer will pay.

Let’s take a look at what this means:

  • For a $1 million portfolio invested in a Fidelity Model asset allocation, you’d be paying 1.27% of your assets to Fidelity on an annual basis in exchange for them managing your portfolio. That’s $12,700 a year automatically deducted from your account.
  • For a $1 million portfolio invested in a Fidelity “Index-Focuced” asset allocation, you’d be paying 0.85% of your assets to Fidelity on an annual basis in exchange for them managing your portfolio. That’s $8,500 a year automatically deducted from your account.
  • The annual fee above does not include underlying fund expenses. The brochure did not include any specific asset allocations, but this will add another layer of expenses. For example, their Fidelity Strategic Advisers® Core Fund (FCSAX) has an expense ratio of 0.67%.

Consider that many institutions believe that for the next 10-20 years, you’d be somewhat lucky to get a 4% return on balanced portfolio after adjusting for inflation. Put another way, let’s say your $1,000,000 portfolio might provide 4% in inflation-adjusted annual income, or $40,000 a year. With Fidelity PAS, your annual advisory fee of 1.2% would equal $12,700. That would already eat up over 30% of that theoretical income and is before fund expenses. All-in, you’re looking at close to 40% of your potential pre-tax return eaten up by management fees.

Now for my personal thoughts. Briefly, in my opinion, the Fidelity PAS marketing materials (sample brochure) promote their high number of sub-advisors and complexity to suggest that they offer something worth paying a lot of money for. In my opinion, I do not see any evidence that one will receive enough additional return to offset the relatively high fees. While I am a Fidelity self-directed brokerage client and use some of their other products and services, I would not invest my own money in this Portfolio Advisory Service. There are many managed portfolio services like Betterment, Wealthfront, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, and even all-in-one funds like Vanguard Target Retirement funds which I would recommend my own family members first if they chose not to learn how to do-it-yourself.

Reasons For Owning High-Quality Bonds

pie_flat_blank_200Here are some helpful resources on owning only bonds of the highest credit quality as part of your portfolio asset allocation.

  • David Swensen in his book Unconventional Success argued that alignment of interests is important. With stocks, the exectives want to make profits, and you want them to make profits. With stocks, your interests are aligned. In contrast, the job of bond issuers is to look as creditworthy as possible, even if they are not. This keeps the interest rates they pay lower. With bonds, your interest are not aligned. The safety ratings of bonds usually only get worse – usually quickly and unexpectedly as we saw with subprime mortgages. Ratings agencies are not very good at their jobs, mostly in a reactionary role, and are often paid by the same people they rate.
  • Larry Swedroe at ETF.com:

    However, he also observes that the primary objective of investing, at least in stocks, is to make money. On the other hand, he makes an important distinction when it comes to the primary objective of investing in bonds, which is to help you stay invested in stocks when the inevitable bear markets arrive.

    And that leads to his conclusion to invest the fixed-income portion of your portfolio in only the safest bonds (such as Treasurys, FDIC-insured CDs and municipals rated AAA/AA).

    The overall idea to is own the safest thing possible when it comes to bonds.

  • Daniel Sotiroff at The PF Engineer:

    The primary reason most investors own fixed income securities (bonds) is their ability to limit declines in portfolio value during periods of poor stock performance. From this perspective there is another dimension to safety in the fixed income universe that needs to be understood.

    […] Almost all of the non-Treasury securities experienced a drawdown during 2008 which peaked around October and November. Investors holding corporate bonds, intermediate and longer term municipal issues, and inflation protected securities were no doubt disappointed that their supposedly safe assets posted losses. Corporate bonds in particular have the unfortunate stigma of behaving like stocks during crises. Adding insult to injury those disappointed investors were also faced with taking a haircut on their fixed income returns if they wanted to rebalance and purchase equities at very low prices. Thus there is more to risk than the more academic standard deviation (volatility) of returns.

    My interpretation is that he concludes that intermediate-term Treasury notes are good balance of safety and interest rate risk, while short-term Treasury bills are for those that really don’t want any interest rate risk.

  • Also see this previous post: William Bernstein on Picking The Right Bonds For Your Portfolio

529 Plan Interactive Comparison Map and Tax Deduction Calculator

The Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan (based in Nevada but open to all state residents) is one of the consistent Morningstar top-ranked 529 plans and one of my three personal finalists when choosing a plan for myself.

While poking around the site, I also came across this interactive map tool that helps you compare your in-state plan with the Vanguard/Nevada plan. Although created by Vanguard, it still offers a lot of useful information and I’m okay with then Vanguard plan being used as a benchmark.

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Below is an example screenshot for Utah. Note that it will tell you if you have an in-state tax benefits, and also if that tax benefit is restricted to contributions to your in-state plan only. Where applicable, it also links to Vanguard’s 529 tax deduction calculator. Finally, if you click on “Full Comparison” you can dig even deeper.

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As an example of why Vanguard is highly-regarded, I was recently notified that Vanguard once again lowered the expense ratios on many of their 529 investment options. This matches the same trend with their regular mutual funds and ETFs.

Effective May 3, 2016, the expense ratios for all Vanguard 529 Plan investment options went down, affirming Vanguard’s ongoing commitment to lowering costs for our clients. Now you’ll be saving even more. The cost of our age-based options decreased from 0.19% to 0.17%, which is 67% less than the industry average.* And the expense ratios of our individual portfolios dropped from a range of 0.19% to 0.49% to a range of 0.17% to 0.45%.

Here are some similar resources I’ve shared before: 50-state 529 tax benefit comparison (uses a common hypothetical family) and SavingForCollege tax benefit calculator.

Investing 1% Of Your Portfolio Into Gold

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A reader recently sent me a set of articles by Scott Burns about a person he calls the Rational Gold Investor here and here. I’ve been a long-time reader of Scott Burns because while he has been a steady proponent of passive and low-cost investing, he isn’t afraid to consider other investment alternatives.

Shayne McGuire manages gold investments for the Texas Teachers Retirement Fund, is the 18th largest pension fund in the world with over $120 billion in assets. He does not believe in gold as only a “armageddon” asset, but something that everyone should own a little of as part of a diversified portfolio.

Read the full article, but here are highlights from the interview:

  • Gold has never been more under-owned as an asset.
  • The supply of gold is difficult to increase.
  • Financial leverage in the world economy has never been higher.
  • Gold is an asset class that competes against equities and other asset classes, generally on a weaker footing becausen the long run (periods like 25 years) it cannot outperform stocks, bonds or real estate.
  • Gold tends to like bad news. If houses go down, it tends to go up. It makes you feel like you’re betting against the home team.
  • A lot of peculiar people seem to like gold and that makes people not want to be like them.

In other words, there are legitimate reasons to own some old, even if you don’t believe that the collapse of fiat money is imminent. At the same time, I think it is important to focus on the real numbers:

  • The pension fund invests less than 0.5% percent of their assets in gold, and this number has never been higher than 1%.
  • The value of all the gold in the world is about 0.6 percent of all financial assets. In 1980, the number was 2.5%.

In other words, the Texas Teachers Retirement Fund only keeps roughly a world market-cap weighting of gold, even if that amounts to roughly $70 million. Here that number is stated as 0.6%, while the previous source I quoted had it at 1.3%. Let’s split the difference and call gold’s world market-cap at roughly 1%.

If you had a $100,000 portfolio, 1% would work out to $1,000, which you could round off to a single 1 oz. gold American Eagle or Canadian Maple Leaf. They also make 1/2 oz, 1/4 oz, and 1/10 oz versions. I like the idea of holding physical gold here because you would have zero ongoing management fees (unlike an ETF), you maintain full control of the gold (away from any government), and you’d be more likely to hold it for the long-term (buy/sell spreads are big). Even if you had a million-dollar portfolio, a 1% allocation to gold would weigh less than a pound and fit inside your clothes or virtually any hiding place.

Buy a little bit of gold, put it somewhere secure, and rest easier knowing you have a slightly more diversified portfolio and a bit of insurance. At the same time, most of your money is still invested in productive assets like solid companies around the world or a rental property.

WiseBanyan Review: Free Portfolio Management Experiences & Screenshots

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Updated May 2016. WiseBanyan has made some changes to their product. The highlights:

  • New logo, mobile-responsive site design, and smartphone apps.
  • Tax-loss harvesting now available as paid feature. WiseHarvesting is their first premium add-on feature, running 0.25% of assets annually with a $20/month cap.
  • Now accepting IRA, Roth IRA, and 401(k) rollovers.
  • Free financial planning software called Milestones. More thoughts below.

WiseBanyan is an online portfolio advisory service similar to better-known competitors like Betterment and Wealthfront. Differentiating feature: WiseBanyan charges no advisory fees, no trading commissions, and no minimum opening deposit. They will design, buy, hold, and rebalance a basket of low-cost ETFs for free, and all you are left with are the ETF expense ratios which you’d have to pay anyway if you DIY’ed.

Thanks in part to your interest as readers, I was able to get off their waitlist and open an account with $10,000 of my own money back in March 2014. As of May 2016, there is currently no longer a waitlist. Here is my review as an actual user for roughly a year; I have since liquidated my holdings in all robo-advisor platforms.

Application process. The account opening process was similar to other discount brokers and online portfolio managers. You must provide your personal information including Social Security number, net worth, income, investing experience, etc. No credit check. They do check identity, so they may ask for supporting documents if you just moved or something.

There is then a risk questionnaire. The questions can seem mundane but take it seriously, as the 10 answers you provide will directly determine the portfolio asset allocation that they choose for you. There will be no follow-up surveys, e-mails, or phone calls. Here is a screenshot and example question (old interface):

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Funding. You can fund your deposit electronically, using your bank routing and account number. (They only accept bank wires as an alternative, no paper checks.) The money gets sucked from your bank and the portfolio is bought immediately when they get the money.

Fractional shares. WiseBanyan uses FolioFN as their broker-dealer (separate company that hold your assets in the background) which means they can use their ability to keep track of fractional shares. Most discount brokers and other online portfolio managers require you to own whole shares, so you’ll often have something like $57 sitting in cash.

Recall that WiseBanyan has no required minimum deposit or portfolio balance. If you really did open account with $100, they will actually buy less than one share of several low-cost diversified ETFs and you’ll own tiny, tiny portions of thousands of companies with no idle cash. With a normal discount brokerage, that might not even buy you one share of anything (VTI is over $100 a share on its own).

Portfolio asset allocation. I was assigned a portfolio risk score of 7.7, which corresponded to a stocks/bond ratio of 70%/30%. Screenshot from the old interface:

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Here is the target asset allocation that I was assigned:

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My portfolio was constructed using the following seven ETFs:

  • Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI)
  • Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF (VEA)
  • Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
  • iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF (LQD)
  • Vanguard Intermediate-Term Government Bond ETF (VGIT)
  • Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ)
  • iShares TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)

My general opinion is that the ETF allocations from all “robo-advisors” are at least 80% the same, and with the remaining 20% you can’t really tell who’s going to win performance-wise anyway. They are all backtested using some form of Mean-Variance Optimization (MVO) and Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT).

While not exactly what I would have chosen for myself, I personally think the portfolios they create are fine. The ETFs have low costs and come from large, respected providers in Vanguard and iShares. All of the major asset classes are covered. There are no commodities futures or natural resource ETFs, which some experts think are useful and other experts think are useless. Note that REITs are considered to be in the bond category.

Website user interface and smartphone apps. The interface has been updated to essentially look like everyone else. It is simple, clean, and mobile-responsive. I like it. There are also companion iOS and Android apps. User reviews for both apps are overall positive. Screenshot from new interface:

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Statements and ongoing communication. Electronic statements are free, but paper statements will cost $5 each and paper trade confirmations $2 each.

New Milestones feature. WiseBanyan has a new service called Milestones which helps you direct your investments into specific goals like retirement, emergency funds, college, or vacations. Works in desktop and mobile. You can give a target number and timeframe, and it will recommend a portfolio and a monthly savings amount that theoretically should reach your goal. It will initiate recurring deposits so that things are automated. While I think such basic guidance can be helpful to get you a ballpark figure, I would also be careful on relying too closely on the forecasts as nobody really knows what the stock or bond market will return in the short-term. Screenshot from new interface:

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Free is nice, but how will they make money? Future concerns? According to various sources, the demographics of the average WiseBanyan client is both younger and of more modest means (opening balances under $10,000) than their competitors. They plan on offsetting the costs of maintaining free accounts with their premium add-on features, but will it work? Will enough people pay up for tax-loss harvesting? It remains to be seen if the “Freemium” model can work in this environment.

Bottom line. WiseBanyan is fully functional and delivers on its promise of free automated portfolio management. I joined them in early 2014 when they were still working out some minor kinks, but two years later they are offering a much more polished product. I would even say that their aggressive pricing has helped “nudge” many of their competitors to lower their starting minimums as well.

The main thing that would worry me is that their path to sustainable profitability is not clear. If WiseBanyan is eventually taken over in the event of a merger or takeover, a new owner may charger much higher fees. If you leave for another robo-advisor, there may also be tax consequences. On the positive side, WiseBanyan is not affiliated with any ETF sponsor and can thus invest in the “best-in-class” ETFs without conflict of interest. In the current group of robo-advisors, I would classify them as plucky underdogs.

I wouldn’t let a small sign-up incentive convince you to choose one robo-advisor over another, but new users can get a $15 bonus if they open an account with a referral link.

If The Best Investors Do Nothing, Are the Next Best on Target Fund Auto-Pilot?

tdfautoThis is becoming a recurring theme around here, but I came across an interesting tidbit in this ProPublica article on how your brain plays tricks on you. Emphasis mine:

Fidelity did a study of all their accounts to see what types of investors performed the best. They found that the best investors were the people who had either forgotten they had an account in the first place — or were dead! In other words, most investors succeed in doing the exact opposite of what they set out to do with their money (presumably, make more of it).

In other words, the best investment performance came from doing nothing. That means no buying what looks obviously good, no selling what looks obviously bad, no “taking profits”, no “taking money off the table”.

If doing nothing is best, then you should probably invest in something that encourages inactivity. That’s exactly what a Target Date Fund (TDF) does, manage your asset allocation in an emotionless manner as you age. Auto-pilot.

This Morningstar article appears to confirm this idea: Target-Date Funds: Good Behavior Leads to Better Results. Emphasis mine:

Investor returns, a dollar-weighted return that takes into account cash inflows and outflows to estimate the returns that investors actually experience, gives clues to how target-date investors have fared according to these concerns. The news is good. Whereas most other broad categories show the effects of poor timing–investors tend to buy high and sell low–target-date investors largely avoid that fate.

Investors of target-date funds tend to invest part of every paycheck into employer plans like 401(k)s, and are either (1) lazy and put there by default, which suggests future laziness, or (2) actively chose to be invested in an auto-pilot fund, which suggests they accept that inactivity on their part is a good idea. (I should admit that I did neither and use the self-directed brokerage option… but only to buy TIPS. Honest!)

There is nothing wrong with focusing on your savings rate and using the auto-pilot!

Callan Inflation Hedge Comparison, 10-Year Return Forecast 2016

Another source of investment research and market commentary that I track is from Callan Associates. You may recall the name from their annual Callan Periodic Table of Returns. In addition to that, Callan offers free access to their entire Research Library with your e-mail address. Their focus is on institutional investors, but there are often things of interest for motivated individual investors. Some of my highlights from their 1st Quarter 2016 papers:

A discussion of investing in “real” assets such as real estate, TIPS, and commodities. As they point out, the best time to consider an inflation hedge is when the risk is considered low. Here a chart of 15-year historical returns vs. volatility for various asset classes.

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I would note that it can be very difficult (if not impossible) for an individual investor to get low-cost, diversified, direct access to certain asset classes like timberland and farmland. There are some ETFs being marketed, but they do not provide pure exposure. If you have many millions if not billions, not a problem.

10-year capital market projections. Each year, they share 10-year projected returns for major asset classes. They also go out on a limb and make predictions about expected standard deviation and correlations, which I think is rather bold (and thus I shall ignore it). Below is a partial snapshot (click to enlarge). Download their full report for the test.

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Returns are nominal, and their inflation projection is 2.3%. If you are looking for a more optimistic outlook, Callan’s projections are overall higher than many others I have seen. If the predictions of +7.4% annualized returns for US Stocks, +7.6% for International Stocks, and +3% for US Bonds all hold, I will be a happy camper.

Real Estate Crowdfunding Experiment #3: Apartment 6-Plex in Wisconsin with RealtyShares

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Here are details of my 3rd real estate crowdfunding investment, a $2,000 loan for a 6-unit apartment complex in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This follows my $5,000 Patch of Land loan in a single-family house in California, and a $2,000 Fundrise Income eREIT investment into their diversified basket of commercial properties. Here are the quick stats:

  • Site: RealtyShares
  • Property: 6-unit, 6,490 sf multifamily in Milwaukee, WI.
  • Interest rate: 9% APR, paid monthly.
  • Amount invested: $2,000.
  • Term: 12 months, with 6-month extension option.
  • Total loan amount is $168,000. Purchase price is $220,000 (LTC 76%). Estimated after-repair value is $260,000. Broker Opinion of Value is $238,000.
  • Loan is secured by the property, in the first position. Also have personal guarantee from borrower.
  • Stated goal is to rehab, stabilize, and then either sell or refinance.

Property details. I chose this property because it is different from my other past “experiments”. I have never lived in or visited Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Where I live, parking spaces have sold for more than this apartment complex. As a result, I have never invested in an apartment complex. Also, reading through the other properties in the developer’s portfolio, I suspect the goal is to eventually refinance and then keep these as cashflow rentals. All units are 2 bed/1 bath, currently fully rented for ~$600 a month each. I don’t know the net operating income numbers, but this place earns roughly $43,000 in gross annual rents with a purchase price of $220,000. Annual property taxes are $3,000 a year. Even if half of the rent is spent on expenses, that is still a cap rate of 10%.

realtyshareslogoExperience so far. At least for this investment, it was not “pre-funded” by RealtyShares before the “crowd-funding” takes over. That means you have to wait until they secure enough committed money before the deal can go forward.

My timeline… I committed to this loan in December 2015 and $2,000 was debited from my Ally bank account on 12/29/15. However, the funding goal was not reached until 1/13, during which I earned no interest during this two-week period. I was then told the following:

We are writing to inform you that we have received all investor funds as of today, January 13, 2016, for the 135 E Keefe Avenue investment. You should expect to receive your first monthly payment by February 15th and this will cover the period from 1/13/16 to 2/10/16.

My first monthly interest payment did not arrive until another two weeks later on 3/3. My subsequent interest payments were posted on schedule on 3/17, 4/18, and 5/15. Due to the fact that there was no pre-funding to get the ball started early, there was essentially 3 month period between the time where they first took my money and I received my first interest check. Other than the interest payments, I have received no property updates since January, although I don’t necessarily expect any at this point.

As I’ve said before, this is an experiment, not necessarily a recommendation. I am learning that although I do like loans backed by hard assets, you do need a lot of patience with these sort of investments.

Some account screenshots:

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Vanguard ETF and Mutual Fund Expense Ratios (Last Updated May 2016)

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May 2016 Update. Added announcement links for April 2016, which included expense ratio reductions in their biggest and most popular funds. Highlights from this latest update:

  • Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund. The largest stock fund, with $418.0 billion in assets, reported an expense ratio reduction for Investor Shares of one basis point, to 0.16%.
  • Vanguard 500 Index Fund. The second-largest stock fund and the industry’s oldest stock index fund, with $227.5 billion in assets, reported an expense ratio reduction for Investor Shares of one basis point, to 0.16%.
  • Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund. The world’s largest bond fund, with $158.0 billion in assets, reported expense ratio reductions for Investor Shares of four basis points, to 0.16%; for Admiral™ Shares of one basis point, to 0.06%; for ETF Shares of one basis point, to 0.06%.
  • Vanguard Total Bond Index II Fund. The second-largest bond fund, with $96.3 billion in assets, reported expense ratio reductions for Investor Shares of one basis point, to 0.09%, and for Institutional Shares of three basis points, to 0.02%. (This fund is only available inside
  • Many other ETFs had slight price drops, for example the Small Cap Value ETF (VBR) and Admiral Shares dropped to 0.08%.
  • Vanguard clients now pay an average asset-weighted expense ratio (the average shareholders actually pay) of 0.13%.

Background. When you invest in a mutual fund or ETF, the fund company charges you a fee for managing that basket of stocks or bonds. This is called the annual net expense ratio, usually expressed as a percentage. 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 day 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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You don’t need to track every little change as an investor, but I subscribe to updates of their expense ratio change announcements anyway. Vanguard runs their funds “at cost”, so sometimes as their costs go up, the expense ratios can also rise a bit. I’ll try to keep this list updated, along with some brief highlights.

2015/2016 Announcement Links

  • April 2016. Lower expense ratios for 88 mutual fund and ETF shares.
  • February 2016. Lower expense ratios for 42 mutual fund and ETF shares.
  • January 2016. Lower expense ratios for 35 mutual fund and ETF shares.
  • December 2015. Lower expense ratios for 53 mutual fund shares, including 21 ETFs.
  • May 2015. REIT Index fund expense ratios went up. VNQ went up to 0.12%.
  • April 2015. Total Bond Market ETF (BND) and Total Bond Market Index Admiral Shares (VBTLX) dropped to 0.07%.
  • March 2015. Only one change: Lower expense ratio for Vanguard Convertible Securities Fund.
  • February 2015. Lower expense ratios for 6 international ETFs.
  • January 2015. Expense ratio changes for several actively managed funds.

Past Highlights

  • April 2016. Total US Stock, 500 Index, Total US Bond, and Small-Cap Value all lowered expense ratios in one or more share classes.
  • February 2016. Total International Stock, Total International Bond, FTSE All-World ex-US, and Global ex-US REIT funds all lowered their expense ratios.
  • January 2016. Target Retirement 2010-2060 Funds saw their expense ratio drop by 2-3 basis points to 0.14%-0.16%.
  • February 2014. Total US Stock ETF (VTI) was unchanged at 0.05%. Total International Stock ETF (VXUS) dropped to 0.14%. FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO) dropped to 0.15%.
  • January 2013. Target Retirement 2010-2055 Funds saw their expense ratio drop by a basis point to 0.16%-0.18%.
  • May 2012. Vanguard REIT Index Fund, and Vanguard’s Short / Intermediate / Long-Term Investment-Grade Funds, Vanguard’s Short / Intermediate / Long-Term Treasury Funds, and a few other bond funds had expense ratio drops.
  • April 2012. Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund, Total Bond Market Index Fund, 500 Index Fund, Balanced Index Fund, Extended Market Index Fund, Small-Cap Value Index Fund, Total Stock Market Index Fund, and Value Index Fund had share classes with expense ratio drops.
  • February 2012. Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index, FTSE All-World ex-US Index, Total International Stock Index, and Total World Stock Index funds amongst others had share classes with expense ratio drops.

(Note that Vanguard chooses to delete their old announcements after about a year, so everything 2014 and before is now gone.)

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 the competition is great and even Vanguard needs to be kept on its toes. However, with my own money, I think Vanguard has both the past history and better ongoing structure to keep costs low over the long haul. I have used both Fidelity Spartan funds and iShares ETFs as alternatives.

Grantham GMO Q1 2016 Quarterly Letter Highlights

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Here are my notes and takeaways from the GMO Quarterly Letter for Q1 2016, released May 10th, 2016. I always pick up something educational when reading these letters (previous editions may require free registration.) I already discussed their Q1 2016 Asset Class Forecasts with the previous Q4 2015 letter, but in the future I’ll try to align the same quarterly information into one post.

GMO investment philosophy is that asset prices will eventually mean-revert back to their historical valuation levels. However, “eventually” can mean prices moving in the opposite way for a very long time periods. Right now is one of those periods:

It’s no secret that the last half decade has been a rough one for value-based asset allocation. With central bankers pushing interest rates down to unimagined lows, ongoing disappointment from the emerging markets that have looked cheaper than the rest of the world, and the continuing outperformance from the U.S. stock market and growth stocks generally…

Of course, such deviations are exactly the source of potential excess returns for such value investors. GMO still believes in long-term value-based asset allocation.

A quick primer on how future returns work for bonds. Excerpt:

It is universally understood (I hope) that a 10-year Treasury note yielding 1.84% held for 10 years will give a return pretty close to 1.84%. It is not quite so widely known that the rate of return of a dynamic portfolio of such bonds – a “constant maturity strategy” – is also pretty well fixed for certain time horizons.

To take the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond index (Agg) as an example of a dynamic portfolio, with a duration of a little over five years and a current yield of 2.17%, the range of possible returns over the next seven years is not very wide. We are not guaranteed to get 2.17%, but the return if the yield were to gradually drop to zero over that period would be about 2.9% per year, and if the yield were to gradually double, it would be about 1.5% per year. No matter what happens to yields over the next seven years, returns are going to be something pretty close to 2.17% on the Agg.

Wrong prediction on oil prices. In 2005, Grantham made a rough 10-year prediction that rising oil prices were not in a bubble, but instead actually a “paradigm shift” where oil prices would stay high permanently. He also predicted that we would start to run out of other finite resources, resulting in higher commodities prices. As it turns out, we saw that oil prices have crashed along with other commodities. Grantham outlines again why he made the prediction, what he got wrong, and of course goes ahead and makes another set of predictions:

– Oil stocks should do well over the next five years, perhaps regaining much of their losses. But, after 5 years, prospects are more questionable, and, beyond 10 years, much worse.

– Mineral resource stocks are unlikely to regain their losses, but from current very low prices they will probably outperform based on historical parallels following similar major crashes.

– Farmland is likely to outperform most other assets. It is still my first choice for long- term investing.

– Forestry should perform above aggregate portfolio averages and be less volatile than equities.

Why should we listen to this new forecast when his last one was wrong? It all goes back to the first point of the letter. These are all long-term calls based on history and a bit of common sense. Grantham is telling you to buy exposure into finite resources – oil, minerals, farmland, and timber. Sooner or later, if you have something that everyone needs like oil and is also selling at historically very low prices, prices are going to go back up eventually.

The problem is “eventually” could be this year, or it could be another 10 years or more.

High US housing prices are more worrying than high US stock market prices. Housing prices are certainly bouncing back…

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…the threshold for a bubble level for the U.S. market is about 2300 on the S&P 500, about 10% above current levels…

… Thus, unlikely as it may sound, in 12 to 24 months U.S. house prices – much more dangerous than inflated stock prices in my opinion – might beat the U.S. equity market in the race to cause the next financial crisis.

Climate change warning.

Let me just make the point here that those who still think climate problems are off topic and not a major economic and financial issue are dead wrong. Dealing with the increasing damage from climate extremes and, just as important, the growing economic potential in activities to overcome it will increasingly dominate entrepreneurial efforts in future decades. As investors we should try to be prepared for this.

You read this letter for Grantham’s opinions, and you definitely get them. Personally, I don’t see anything that would change my boring portfolio. If anything, I would make sure to have some international exposure to emerging markets stocks as they have low historical valuations and are also correlated with commodities.

Stash App Review: Simplified Investing on Your Smartphone

stash1Updated: Android app now available, new $5 offer for new client sign-ups. Got five bucks, a smartphone, and a bank account? You’re just a few taps from investing and owning a piece of hundreds of businesses.

Stash is a new smartphone app with a real brokerage account underneath that lets you invest in a curated selection of roughly 30 different ETFs. You can start with as little as $5 and add more in any increment via fractional share ownership. The app interface is nice and shiny, but I took some time to look under the hood a bit.

What do you need to sign up?

  • Download the app. Now available on both iOS and Android.
  • Your personal information (name, address, SSN), same as with all SIPC-insured brokerage accounts.
  • Fill out a short risk questionnaire to help guide towards an appropriate investment.
  • Pick your investment, which you can change later. See below for details.
  • Fund with any bank account. Verification can be done via two small test deposits. For selected banks, you can expedite the linking process by using your bank login credentials instead.

Portfolio details. You can choose from about 30 different “investments”, which are really just re-labelled exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that anyone can buy with any brokerage account. The idea is to make things more approachable and not to scare you away with things like ticker symbols, limit orders, and so on. Here are some pairings of their investment names and the underlying ETF.

  • Aggressive Mix – iShares Core Growth Allocation ETF (ticker AOR)
  • Moderate Mix – iShares Core Moderate Allocation (AOM)
  • Blue Chips – Vanguard Mega Cap ETF (MGC)
  • Park my Cash – PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active ETF (MINT)
  • Roll with Buffett – Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Class B Shares (BRK.B)
  • Slow & Steady – PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility ETF (SPLV)
  • Home Sweet Home – SPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF (XHB)
  • Clean & Green – iShares Global Clean Energy ETFm (ICLN)
  • Global Citizen – Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT)
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Based on a risk questionnaire, you will be identified as either a Conservative, Moderate or Aggressive investor. Some of the options, like the Aggressive Mix / iShares Core Growth Allocation ETF are essentially a old-fashioned balanced fund with 60% stocks and 40% bonds. (Moderate Mix is only 40% stocks and 60% bonds.) Others, like just buying shares of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK), are more focused and potentially volatile. You will only be shown options that are below or at your designated risk level.

I personally like Global Citizen – Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT) as you basically own a slice of all of the world’s largest businesses. Warren Buffett fans may enjoy an easy way to build up a Berkshire position in $5 increments.

Fractional shares are used. That means you can invest odd numbers like $7 or $217 and still have it fully invested in something that costs $100 a share. Based on their FAQ, dividends are not automatically reinvested. Dividends are deposited as cash and will stay there until you decided to invest it.

You cannot invest in individual stocks (unless they happen to be listed an investment).

Fees. Free for the first 3 months. After that, $1 per month for balances below $5,000. Once you reach $5,000, it switches over to 0.25% of your balance per year. (Example. $10,000 x 0.25% = $25 per year.) Fees are taken from your bank account, not from your Stash investment portfolio. Stash does not charge monthly subscription fees if your account balance is $0.

Each underlying ETF has their own embedded expense ratio. No commission fee for stock trades. No fee for deposits or withdrawals via electronic bank transfer.

I installed the app and started the account opening process, but didn’t actually open account. I usually would, but with all these new robo-brokers I’ve been getting a flood of 1099-B forms with lots of tiny little tax lots. That gets tiresome at tax filing time.

This and that. After reading through their FAQs and disclosures, here are other notable items:

  • You can only link one bank account at a time to Stash. If you wish to make a change, you must e-mail them at support@stashinvest.com.
  • Online statements are free. Paper statements are $5 each.
  • You may only deposit up to $10,000 per day via online bank transfer. You cannot deposit physical checks.
  • you may only withdraw up to $10,000 per day via online bank transfer. You cannot request a withdrawals via physical check.
  • Stash uses Apex Clearing as their custodian firm. Many other similar brokerage sites use Apex.

Final thoughts. I may be too old to be a Millennial, but I can still appreciate the power of a good smartphone app. I will even counter the people that point out that $1 a month on even a $600 balance is a 2% management fee. Yes, 2% would be a lot of money a $500,000 portfolio. But $1 is also how much people pay for a song or silly game. The more important question is – will this app start a habit of saving and investing? I don’t know, but this BuzzFeed article describes how Stash used focus groups to suggest their “make-things-not-so-scary” approach will get newbie investors over the hump. It’s hard to get less scary than just $5 a week.

Perhaps nearly as important – Stash already has some serious competition. The Robinhood app also has a nice user interface on top of a traditional brokerage account (no fractional shares) that lets you trade any stock with no commissions (with no simplification or investment guidance). The “invest in your interests” idea and fractional share ownership is also available at Motif Investing. The Acorns app adds a behavioral trick where it rounds up your daily purchases and sweeps the “spare change” over automatically.

Stash reached out to me and if you click through this special link, Stash will give new clients $5 to make an investment of your choice.