Best Interest Rates on Cash – January 2018

percentage2

Short-term interest rates are rising. Megabanks make billions by pay you nothing for your idle cash. Here is my monthly roundup of the best safe rates available, roughly sorted from shortest to longest maturities. Check out my Ultimate Rate-Chaser Calculator to get an idea of how much additional interest you’d earn if you switched over. Rates listed are available to everyone nationwide. Rates checked as of 1/7/18.

High-yield savings accounts
While the huge brick-and-mortar banks rarely offer good yields, there are a number of online savings accounts offering much higher rates. Keep in mind that with savings accounts, the interest rates can change at any time.

  • DollarSavingsDirect at 1.60% APY, CIT Bank at 1.55% APY, both with no minimum balance requirement. SalemFiveDirect 1.50% APY, Synchrony Bank 1.45% APY, GS Bank 1.40% APY.
  • I currently keep my “hub” account at Ally Bank Savings + Checking combo due to their history of competitive rates, 1-day external bank transfers, and overall user experience. I then move money elsewhere if the rate is significantly higher (and preferably locked in via CD rate). The free overdraft transfers from savings allows to me to keep my checking balance at a minimum. Ally Savings is now lagging a bit at 1.25% APY.

Money market mutual funds + Ultra-short bond ETFs
If you like to keep cash in a brokerage account, you should know that money market and short-term Treasury rates have been rising. The following money market and ultra-short bond funds are not FDIC-insured, but may be a good option if you have idle cash and cheap/free commissions.

  • Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund currently pays an 1.38% SEC yield. The default sweep option is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which has an SEC yield of 1.23%. You can manually move the money over to Prime if you meet the $3,000 minimum investment.
  • Vanguard Ultra-Short-Term Bond Fund currently pays 1.83% SEC Yield ($3,000 min) and 1.93% SEC Yield ($50,000 min). The average duration is 1 year.
  • The PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active Bond ETF (MINT) has a 1.68% SEC yield and the iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF (NEAR) has a 1.81% SEC yield while holding a portfolio of investment-grade bonds with an average duration of ~6 months. More info here.

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

  • CIT Bank 11-Month No-Penalty CD is at 1.55% APY with a $1,000 minimum deposit and no withdrawal penalty seven days or later after funds have been received. The lack of early withdrawal penalty means that your interest rate can never go down for 11 months, but you can always jump ship if rates rise. Full review. You can open multiple CDs in smaller increments if you want more flexibility.
  • Ally Bank No-Penalty 11-Month CD is paying 1.60% APY for $25,000+ balances and 1.25% APY for $5,000+ balances. Similar product, higher rate at the moment, higher balance requirement. Ally is a full-featured bank with checking/savings/etc.
  • Synchrony Bank has a 12-month CD is at 2.00% APY with a $2,000 minimum deposit. (Ally Bank had a similar rate that ended on 1/2/18, so I don’t know how long the Synchrony rate will last either.)

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

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

Prepaid Cards with Attached Savings Accounts
A small subset of prepaid debit cards have an “attached” FDIC-insured savings account with exceptionally high interest rates. The negatives are that balances are capped, and there are many fees that you must be careful to avoid (lest they eat up your interest). The offers also tend to disappear with little notice. Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do.

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

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

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

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

  • Advancial Federal Credit Union has their 18-month CD at 2.05% APY ($50k min) and a 24-month CD at 2.14% APY ($50k min). The early withdrawal penalty is 180 days of interest. Anyone can join with a $5 membership fee to the Connex Professional Network.
  • Ally Bank has a 5-year CD at 2.25% APY (no minimum) with a relatively short 150-day early withdrawal penalty and no credit union membership hoops. For example, if you closed this CD after 18-months you’d still get an 1.64% effective APY even after accounting for the penalty.
  • Northern Bank Direct has a 4-year CD at 2.51% APY with a $500 minimum. I had to mention this top rate, but watch out for the huge early withdrawal penalty of 3-years of interest! Hanscom Federal Credit Union still has their 4-year Share Certificate at 2.50% APY (180-day early withdrawal penalty) if you also have Premier Checking (no monthly fee if you keep $6,000 in total balances or $2,000 in checking). HFCU also offers a 3% APY CU Thrive “starter” savings account with balance caps. HFCU membership is open to active/retired military or anyone who makes a one-time $35 donation to the Nashua River Watershed Association.
  • United States Senate Federal Credit Union has a 60-Month Share Certificate at 2.76% APY ($60,000+), 2.70% APY ($20,000+), and 2.63% APY ($1,000+). Anyone can join this credit union via partner organization American Consumer Council for a one-time $10 membership fee. (ACC lets you become eligible for multiple credit unions.)

Longer-term Instruments
I’d use these with caution due to increased interest rate risk, but I still track them to see the rest of the current yield curve. (The yield curve has been flattening in recent months.)

  • Willing to lock up your money for 10+ years? You can buy certificates of deposit via the bond desks of Vanguard and Fidelity. These “brokered CDs” offer the same FDIC-insurance. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 10-year non-callable CD at 2.75% APY (Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs from Fidelity.) Unfortunately, currently CD rates do not rise much higher even as you extend beyond a 5-year maturity.
  • How about two decades? Series EE Savings Bonds are not indexed to inflation, but they have a guarantee that the value will double in value in 20 years, which equals a guaranteed return of 3.5% a year. However, if you don’t hold for that long, you’ll be stuck with the normal rate which is quite low (currently a sad 0.10% rate). I view this as a huge early withdrawal penalty, so I avoid it. You could also view it as long-term bond and thus a hedge against deflation, but only if you can hold on for 20 years.

All rates were checked as of 1/7/18.


Premier High Yield Savings

S&P 500 Monthly Total Returns 1990-2017: First 14-Month Win Streak

I mentioned in my 2017 asset class roundup that the S&P 500 went up every single month in 2017 and how that was the first time that had ever happened. According to the WSJ Daily Shot, the S&P 500 is actually on a 14-month positive streak. Here’s a chart showing the monthly total returns of the S&P 500 from 1990 to 2017.

sp500streak

I wanted to save it for future reference, but I don’t have any good lessons from this chart. I suppose it is good to know that there are a few 10%+ drops within a month. Otherwise, I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Investment Returns By Asset Class, 2017 Year-End Review

yearendreview

Happy New Year! As the markets have closed for the last time in 2017, it’s time for a year-end review. While I do rebalance my portfolio quarterly, I only dig into performance numbers once a year. That’s a big change from a decade ago, when I would calculate my net worth down to the dollar multiple times a week. Here are the trailing 1-year total returns for select asset classes as benchmarked by passive mutual funds and ETFs. Data via Morningstar as of 12/31/17.

annual2017ret

annual2017ret2

Commentary. Most people who owned a diversified portfolio in 2017 had another year of solid returns. I hope you were on the ride. One of my “keep-it-simple” recommendations, the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 fund (roughly 90% diversified stocks and 10% bonds) was up about 21.4% in 2017. For the curious, you can compare with 2016 asset class returns.

Our personal portfolio, a more conservative mix of 70% stocks/30% bonds as we are close to living off it, was up about 15.1% in 2017. We are at the point where portfolio gains significantly outpaced our employee income this year.

As happens each year, many things happened that I did not predict. I thought 2016 was a pretty good year given higher valuations, but my 2017 returns were twice as high. I certainly did know that the S&P 500 was going to give a positive return every single month of 2017. (This was the first year that has happened, ever.) In addition, stock market volatility was near all-time lows at the same time the threat of nuclear war is probably the highest in my lifetime. Interesting times.

Instead, I have faith that a diversified basket of productive assets (stocks, private businesses, real estate, farmland) has the best probability to be worth more over the long run. In the short run, I will try to spend no more than a modest withdrawal rate of 3% a year, mostly dividends and interest that are automatically distributed. That way, my portfolio will still have the ability to rebound even after an extreme drop in value.

The goal remains to spend my time in a manner that is aligned with my values. I am thankful for another year of physical health, the opportunity to do work that I enjoy, and quality time with family and friends.

My Money Blog Portfolio Asset Allocation, 2017 Year-End Update

portpie_blank200

Here is a year-end update on my investment portfolio holdings for 2017. This is my last-minute checkup in case I need to rebalance to make another other tax-related moves. This includes tax-deferred 401k/403b/IRAs and taxable brokerage holdings, but excludes things like our primary home, cash reserves, and a few other side investments. The goal of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover our regular household expenses.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

I use both Personal Capital and a custom Google Spreadsheet to track my investment holdings. The Personal Capital financial tracking app (my review, join free here) automatically logs into my accounts, tracks my balances, calculates my performance, and gives me a rough asset allocation. I still use my custom Rebalancing Spreadsheet (instructions, download free here) in order to see exactly where I need to direct new investments to rebalance back towards my target asset allocation.

Here is my portfolio performance for the year and rough asset allocation (real estate is under alternatives), according to Personal Capital:

1712_pc1

1712_pc2c

Here is my more specific asset allocation, according to my custom spreadsheet:

1712_portpie

Stock Holdings
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSMX, VTSAX)
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VGTSX, VTIAX)
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
Vanguard 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)

Target Asset Allocation. Our 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 (or bitcoin) as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly. I also try to imagine each asset class doing poorly for a long time, and only hold the ones where I think I can maintain faith.

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

I have settled into a long-term target ratio is 67% stocks and 33% bonds (2:1 ratio) 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.

Performance, details, and commentary. According to Personal Capital, my portfolio has gained 15.08% overall in 2017 (with a few days left to go). In the same time period, the S&P 500 has gained 19.73% (excludes dividends) and the US Aggregate bond index has gained 3.53%. For the first time in a while, my sizable allocation to developed international and emerging markets stocks has boosted my overall return.

My stock/bond split is currently at 70% stocks/30% bonds due to the continued stock bull market. I continue to invest new money on a monthly basis in order to maintain the target ratios. Once a quarter, I also reinvest any accumulated dividends and interest. I don’t use automatic dividend reinvestment. This way, I can usually avoid creating any taxable transactions unless markets are really volatile.

For both simplicity and cost reasons, I am no longer buying DES/DGS and will be phasing them out whenever there are tax-loss harvesting opportunities. New money is going into the more “vanilla” Vanguard versions: Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR) and Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO).

I’m still somewhat underweight in TIPS and REITs mostly due to limited tax-deferred space as I 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.

529 Plans Will Allow Private School K-12 Tax-Free Withdrawals

529Starting in 2018, qualified educational expenses for 529 plans will include up to $10,000 a year in tuition and expenses for primary and secondary school expenses (public, private, or religious). Previously, you could only use it towards qualified college expenses. There were also some related changes to ABLE accounts for individuals with special needs – listed here.

Put simply, you can now pay for up to $10k a year of private K-12 school through a 529 plan. If this impacts you, you may consider making a 529 contribution now before December 31st, 2017 as you are allowed annual contributions of $14,000 per person ($28,000 per couple) while still avoiding gift taxes. You would then be able to make contributions in both 2017 and 2018.

Front-loading a 529 early and with a lot of money. The NY Times lays out a scenario where a wealthy family puts in $200,000 at birth (not sure why they use this amount as it would exceed annual gift tax limits even with front-loading) and then uses the money to pay for K-12 private school. This could theoretically save a wealthy family $30,000 in taxes.

If you have that kind of money, it may be worthwhile to explore front-loading, but be careful as their example assumes a reliable 6% return every single year. In the real world, investment returns can be quite volatile, and if you make a $10,000 withdrawal every year, you run the risk of depleting your account entirely before college. Other possible options are to start funding a 529 even before your child’s birth to start accumulating those future tax-free capital gains.

Using the 529 as a just-in-time passthrough. Around 30 states offer a in-state tax benefit on 529 plans. If you are paying for a private school anyway, you may be able to save some money by simply using the 529 as a passthrough account. Contribute to 529, grab the tax benefit, and then immediately withdraw (starting in 2018) to pay for K-12 tuition. Some states like Montana and Wisconsin specifically disallow this in-and-out practice, but most do not (although they could start).

Things can still change. This Reuters article points out that states may change their own laws in response. They could add minimum holding periods, cap their deductions, or add income restrictions. I am also curious as to what, if any public school “expenses” are technically eligible.

Personally, I don’t think this will change my 529 usage plans significantly. My state does not offer a tax benefit, so there is little benefit to the passthrough option. Maybe if short-term rates go up high someday and you can earn 5% in a bank account, it might become worth the effort to park some money in there temporarily. The other primary benefit is federal tax-free investment gains, and it takes a while for that compounding action to accumulate. If I get lucky and my balance gets really big, I could perhaps see taking some money out before college if they end up in private high school. Realistically though, I doubt my balances will greatly exceed four years of college tuition (times three kids!).

Infographic: 529 State Tax Deduction Value Comparison Map 2017

Amongst the many things to consider at years-end is a contribution to a 529 college savings account. (I just made my contribution for kid #3.) In addition to the federal tax-free growth towards qualified college expenses, more than 30 out of 50 states offer some level of tax deductions for 529 contributions. Some require you to contribute to the official in-state plan, while others let you contribute to any plan.

SavingForCollege.com offers a visual comparison of these state tax benefits in the following infographic. They assume a couple filing jointly with a $100,000 taxable income and contributing $100/month for each of two children. The darker the blue, the bigger the benefit.

529state_infog2

This may not apply exactly to your situation, but it can still provide you a quick take as to whether you should investigate further. They do have a calculator that churns out specific numbers, but unfortunately you must pay for a premium subscription. Here are some related posts:

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

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

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

em_etfs

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

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

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

The Real Estate Crowdfunding Capital Stack: Equity vs. Debt

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

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

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

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

recapitalstack1

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

recapitalstack3

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

recapitalstack4

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

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

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

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

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

cyclewhere

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

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

Best Interest Rates on Cash – December 2017

percentage2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Premier High Yield Savings

US vs. International Stocks: Historical Cycles of Outperformance

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

us_intl_cycle

Chart is from Factor Investor, found via Abnormal Returns.

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

Howard Marks Memo on High Stock Market Prices and Risk Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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