Prosper Review for Investors: Understanding Risks and Returns

lcreview_logo200I lent out my first $25 to a stranger on Prosper nearly 8 years ago, in October 2007. Since then, the peer-to-peer (P2P) lending environment has undergone a variety of changes. I’ve made hundreds of P2P loans both hand-picked and algorithm-driven, sold them on the secondary market, and experienced the effect of defaults on my returns.

I’ve written several posts along the way, but here is my condensed (but still detailed) overview. Many of the other Prosper reviews tend to focus on the positives. While Prosper certainly has potential, I’d rather go deeper into the possible risks to an investor’s hard-earned money.

The attraction: Be the bank. Earn high interest rates. We’ve all seen the big banks charge mountains of interest, while us regular folks pay it. The average interest rate on credit card loans remains around 15% APR. The basic model for P2P loans is that anyone can become that bank and invest in loans to other individuals. Prosper will take a little cut for helping out, but the bulk of the interest (and risk) goes to the investor.

The reality: Higher net returns than other alternatives, but the risks hide in the details.

Detail #1: Significant loan defaults occur over time. The good news now that P2P loans have been around for a while is that you have more historical performance numbers to consider. Prosper lets you see this historical data in great detail, but you have to look carefully. Here’s a snapshot of what you’d see now at Prosper.com/Invest, labeled “Seasoned Returns*”.

lcreview_returns_10mo

Here’s what that asterisk means:

*Seasoned Return calculations represent historical performance data for the Borrower Payment Dependent Notes (“Notes”) issued and sold by Prosper since July 15, 2009. To be included in the calculations, Notes must be associated with a borrower loan originated more than 10 months ago; this calculation uses loans originated through May 31, 2012. Our research shows that Prosper Note returns historically have shown increased stability after they’ve reached ten months of age. For that reason, we provide “Seasoned Returns”, defined as the Return for Notes aged 10 months or more.

The initial interest rate on your notes is only a theoretical maximum return. For example, for the last quarter of 2015, the average interest rate was 11.06% for 36-months 15.47% for 60-month loans. Every time a borrower defaults – and trust me, if you buy any meaningful amount of notes, some will default on you – your return will go down. With loans as little as 10 months old, their quoted “increased” stability is not the same as stability.

Here’s a chart from competitor LendingClub showing how net annualized return has decreased with loan age (for different vintages of past loans). Note that the net return numbers still keep going down after 10 months.

lcreview_returns_vint

If anything, I would prefer to use this alternative table provided by Prosper. These estimated net numbers are more realistic. The table also includes a daily snapshot of their current inventory, which may give you an idea of relative availability by rating. Note that there are much fewer of the highest-risk, highest-expected return loans available.

prreview_returns_available

Finally, don’t forget that not everyone gets the average. You can’t buy a “Prosper index fund”. You may be above average, but be prepared for below-average returns as well.

Detail #2: Liquidity concerns. When you buy traditional mutual fund that holds investment-grade bonds, with just a few clicks, you can sell that investment on any given trading day. You will get a fair market price, and you will find a buyer for all of your shares.

If you invest in a Prosper note and you need to cash out before maturity, you will have to sell on the secondary market. Now, if you have pristine loans with a perfect payment history, today you’ll probably be able to sell your notes at near or even slightly above face value. But here are the possible haircuts:

First, you will have to pay a transaction fee of 1% of face value on all sales. Second, if you have loans that have ever been late or has a borrower whose credit score has decreased since loan origination (they track that), you will have a harder time finding a buyer and the price will probably be lower than face value. Finally, for Prosper if your loan is currently late, you can’t sell it on the secondary market for any price. You can’t even offload it for a penny.

In my experience, I liquidated ~85% of my loans at about a 0% net haircut, ~10% were sold at a slight loss due to their imperfect history, and ~5% could not be sold at all. While this is certainly better than having no liquidity at all (like a lot of real-estate crowdfunded debt), it also takes a few hours of work at least to maximize your selling prices on 100 or 200 loans.

All of these haircuts taken together can take a significant hit against your total returns. Also, just because you have buyers today doesn’t mean there will be buyers tomorrow. Therefore, I would not invest if you don’t expect to hold the loan until maturity. Some people try to arbitrage things by buying notes and selling them quickly on the secondary market to residents of states that can only buy notes on the secondary market.

Detail #3. Diversification is critical. A defaulted loan wipes out both principal and interest, resulting in a big hit on your overall return. Therefore, your best bet is to never put any more than the $25 minimum into any one note. Remember this statistic: For Notes purchased since July 2009, every Prosper investor with 100 or more Notes has experienced positive returns. In other words, no investor has lost money overall if they held at least 100 notes! 100 times $25 = $2,500 which I think is the minimum you should invest with.

Detail #4. Taxes. P2P notes are a somewhat different animal, and at year-end you’ll receive some tax forms that will be unfamiliar to most people. These may include:

  • 1099-OID
  • 1099-B (Recoveries for Charge-offs)
  • 1099-B (Folio secondary market)
  • 1099-MISC

If you file your income taxes yourself, it is not impossible to figure out but it will take some extra research and effort. Here is my Prosper tax guide that offers some guidance. If you pay a tax professional, they may charge extra for the added complication.

For the most part, the interest you receive will be taxed as ordinary income, the same rate as interest from bank savings accounts. This can be quite high depending on your income, so you may want to consider holding your Prosper notes inside a tax-sheltered IRA. Looking back, I wish I put my Prosper notes inside an IRA.

Detail #5. Automatic investing. The days of hand-picking loans are pretty much over. I recommend using the Quick Invest feature that Prosper offers in order to automatically filter through and buy the notes that fit your criteria. Loan supply is often limited, and this way you can actually get those loans before someone else buys them.

You can let Prosper pick the loans for you, or you can spend your time looking for “better” filters. There are some free tools out there that help sift through the past performance data. There are even paid services out there that do this for you, but I am uncertain how the cost/benefit would shake out.

Detail #6. Past performance vs. future possibilities. Although past returns are great, another economic recession may have a severe impact on your future loan returns. In the end, these are unsecured loans like credit card debt. If people lose their jobs, they will stop paying. Just because nobody has lost money in the past with 100+ loans, that doesn’t guarantee that you won’t lose money in the future. Unlikely does not mean impossible.

Traditionally, high-quality bonds are a diversifier to stocks. But Prosper notes are more like low-quality bonds. If the economy tanks, defaults will rise and your returns will drop. But if the economy tanks, your stocks will drop too. Are you ready for both to suffer significant drops during times of financial stress?

Detail #7. What if Prosper goes bankrupt? As a company, Prosper Marketplace Inc. (PMI) has historically had a hard time actually making a steady profit themselves. In 2013, Prosper started structuring their notes so that they are held in a new legal entity called Prosper Funding LLC (PFL). This remote entity is designed to stand alone and be protected from any creditor claims in the event that Prosper Marketplace, Inc. goes bankrupt. PFL can keep on running and servicing loans. This is a good move in my opinion, but it is still unknown how well this legal strategy will work, or if future lawsuits can put the assets of PFL at risk.

In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Due to #6 and #7, Prosper notes should only be a portion of your fixed income assets.

Summary. P2P loans are becoming a legitimate asset class, gathering billions of dollars from Wall Street and other institutional investors. Interest rates remain low, and thus the high yields and competitive past returns from these Prosper notes are still very attractive. Let’s face it, even a tempered expectation of 8% net annual return is hard to ignore! But before you make the jump, make sure you fully understand the risks and how to best mitigate them.

  • Understand that your final returns will be significantly less than your starting yield. Look at historical numbers for guidance.
  • Don’t invest money you will need before the loan ends (3-5 years).
  • Diversify across as many loans a possible (100+ notes).
  • P2P notes should only be a portion of your fixed income assets.
  • Expect to spend extra time to acquire notes and prepare taxes.
  • Consider holding notes inside a tax-sheltered IRA.

I hope that this information helps you decide whether investing in Prosper loans is right for you.

Investment Returns Ranked by Asset Class 1996-2015

In case you haven’t noticed, nobody knows what the stock market will do in the next 12 months. Every year, investment consultant firm Callan Associates updates a neat visual representation of 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 a snapshot of 1996-2015:

callan2015_trim

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. The ones that enjoy a stint at the very top are usually found on the bottom for just as long.

Investment Returns By Asset Class, 2015 Year-End Review

yearendreview

The problem with a lot of good advice is that you really don’t understand it without experience. For example, Jack Bogle always says “Stay the course”. I was lucky enough to trust in that advice, but it took me a while to really appreciate the power of investing in productive assets and then treating them with what I call beneficial neglect. That is, I make the most money when I fight off the urge to take action.

I managed again to do as very little during the hiccups, tantrums, seizures, or other bodily functions the markets had in 2015. As the year ends, we all like to take look back and assess the situation. Here are the trailing 1-year returns for select asset classes as benchmarked by passive mutual funds and ETFs. Return data was taken from Morningstar after market close 12/31/15.

2015annualret2

2015annualret1

Stocks. The Total US Stock Market (VTI) ended up mostly flat, while the rest of the world’s markets (VXUS) dropped a little bit (~4%). Emerging Markets (VWO) did the worst, with a -15% total return. US REITs (VNQ) were up a little bit (~2%). If you were like most people and owned mostly US stocks with perhaps a little international exposure, you were probably close to breaking even.

Bonds. The Total US Bond Market (BND) and short-Term Treasuries (SHY) went up a little bit. Long-Term Treasuries (TLT) and Inflation-linked Treasuries (TIP) went the other way, going down a little bit instead. There were no huge moves, despite all the talk about interest rates.

Gold dropped around 10%, joining the other industrially-useful commodities in having a down year.

Another year, another batch of predictions into the shredder. How many people were saying that oil prices, already said to be “too low” at $50, would drop another 30% in value? Did anyone listen to me when I said not to speculate with the USO ETF? A funny book that came out this year was The Devil’s Financial Dictionary by Jason Zweig. Here’s how he defines forecasting:

Forecasting (n.) The attempt to predict the unknowable by measuring the irrelevant; a task that, in one way or another, employs most people on Wall Street.

Most people who owned a diversified portfolio in 2015 had their money go nowhere or perhaps lost a little bit of money. The 2015 total return of my personal investment portfolio was roughly -1.5%, right in that “meh” range. I imagine the people who like to focus on dividends, interest, and rental income collected them happily and went about their lives. That sort of mental framework is becoming increasingly appealing to me.

529 Plan Qualified Expenses Now Include Computer Hardware, Software, and Internet Access

macbook_smallThe government just passed the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015, which had a few notable provisions for 529 college savings plan participants. Some of them need to be taken advantage of quickly.

  • Laptops, computers, and related technology and services are now a qualified higher education expense. As defined by the new IRS code, this includes peripheral equipment, computer software, and internet access. They must be purchased for use primarily by the beneficiary of a 529 college savings plan during any years the beneficiary is enrolled at an eligible educational institution. Previously, certain computer purchases counted only when they were explicitly required by the school for course enrollment.
  • You are now allowed to re-contribute qualified withdrawals from a 529 plan that are later refunded by an eligible educational institution into a 529 plan without tax penalty. For example, you may receive a tuition refund after leaving school due to sickness or other reason. Except for a special case for 2015 (see below), you have 60 days from the date of the refund to redeposit the money.
  • Accounting rules were updated to eliminate distribution aggregation. This mainly eases burdensome recordkeeping requirements for plan administrators. Hopefully this will lead to lower administrative expenses for accountholders.

All of these actions are retroactive to January 1, 2015. So if you’ve already made a qualifying computer, software, or internet access expense in 2015, you can take out some more money tax-free. You must initiate this withdrawal by December 31, 2015.

Account owners who received a refund of Qualified Higher Education Expenses between January 1, 2015, and December 18, 2015, the date the law was enacted, have until February 16, 2016 — 60 days from the enactment date for the PATH Act of 2015 — to redeposit the money. Account owners who receive a refund of Qualified Higher Education Expenses on any date after December 18, 2015, have 60 days from the date of the refund to redeposit the money.

Qualified expenses for 529 plans still include tuition, fees, textbooks, supplies and equipment. Room and board also counts up to the greater of (1) the school’s official housing cost estimate or (2) the actual cost of school-operated housing. In all cases, keep good receipts and/or documentation.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit was also made permanent. This provides up to $2,500 in tax credits on the first $4,000 of qualifying educational expenses on up to 4 years of post-secondary education, and increased the phase-out limits to $80,000 (single) and $160,000 (married filing jointly) of modified adjusted gross income.

Sources: CollegeAdvantage, Kansas City Star, UESP e-mail to accountholders.

My 529 Plan Asset Allocation, Part 3: Final Decisions

college_shirtAfter probably too much thought, I have settled on an investment plan for our two 529 college savings plans (one per kid). My circumstances and preferences are unique and likely different than yours, but as usual I will share my process and final decision. Based on my conclusions from Part 1 and Part 2, here are the general requirements:

  • Each 529 portfolio will be similar but separate from my retirement portfolio. Similar means a low cost, balanced portfolio of roughly 60% stocks and 40% bonds.
  • I want the stocks to have a long holding period. I plan to front-load my contributions early on, and then not touch it for 10 years. After that, I will gradually shift the portfolio to short-term bonds and cash.
  • Low maintenance is good. Zero maintenance would be even better, where I wouldn’t even rebalance annually.
  • Since 529 plans are tax-deferred with tax-free qualified withdrawals, I have the ability to play a little bit with higher-turnover or higher capital-gains strategies. No tax paperwork until withdrawal time.
  • My state has no special tax benefits for 529 contributions, so I should pick from any nationally-available plan.

I narrowed it down to my top three combos:

1. Utah Educational Savings Plan and DFA Global Allocation 60/40 Portfolio (DGSIX)

Pros

  • The Utah Plan is a top rated plan, with many low-cost investment options and probably the best customization tools.
  • Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA) applies academic research to try and capture a more “efficient” portfolio to focus in on size and value factors. More here.
  • The DFA Global Allocation 60/40 Portfolio is their all-in-one portfolio that includes domestic and international stocks as well as high-quality bonds.
  • This allows me to “scratch the itch” of investing in a DFA fund without having to deal with any tax drag on performance or additional paperwork.

Cons

  • DFA’s methods are more expensive than Vanguard’s cap-weighted indexes. The total expense ratio is 0.49% annually, vs. roughly 0.26% for a similar Vanguard portfolio. I may or may not experience enough extra return to offset the higher fees.

2. Ohio CollegeAdvantage Direct Plan and Vanguard Wellington Fund

Pros

  • The Ohio Plan is a top rated plan with many low-cost investment options, some of which are relatively hard to find like the Wellington Fund and TIPS.
  • The Vanguard Wellington Fund is an actively-managed fund that has a target allocation of roughly 65% stocks and 35% bonds. Run by Wellington Management, it has been around since 1928 and is run with a conservative, long-term view. There is plenty of information elsewhere on this fund. The stocks are usually dividend and value-oriented, and the bonds are actively picked for moderate income.
  • This allows me to “scratch the itch” of investing in the Wellington Fund without having to deal with the tax concerns of owning an actively-managed fund (higher turnover, capital gains distributions).

Cons

  • The Wellington Fund is very cheap for an actively-managed fund, but is still slightly more expensive than Vanguard’s cap-weighted indexes. The total expense ratio is 0.35% annually, vs. roughly 0.22% for a similar Vanguard portfolio. I may or may not experience enough extra return to offset the higher fees.

3. Nevada Vanguard Plan and Custom Mix of Vanguard Index Funds

30% US Total Stock Market Index
30% International Total Stock Market Index
20% US Total Bond Market Index
20% US Inflation-Protected Securities

Pros

  • The Vanguard 529 Plan is a top rated plan with many low-cost investment options, some of which are relatively hard to find like TIPS.
  • Simplicity. If you already have a Vanguard account, you wouldn’t have to add another monthly statement or online account login to your financial life.
  • This portfolio would most closely match my existing retirement portfolio.
  • The total cost would be 0.28%. This is a bit higher than other pre-made portfolios since I like to have a higher amount of international stocks and TIPS which are slightly more expensive than the traditional default options.

Cons

  • I don’t like any of their pre-made static portfolios, so I would have to make my own and rebalance periodically.

In the end, I went with the DFA 60/40 fund. My reasoning is that I have the potential for some higher returns using their strategies, and if I don’t, the passive structure prevents returns that lag too far behind the overall market. The most likely result is a slight win or slight loss. Obviously, I hope for the former but I can tolerate the latter. However, I think any of the options above (or something similar) will also work out just fine.

Bogle 10-Year Stock and Bond Return Forecasts, December 2015

As a follow-up to Vanguard founder Jack Bogle’s 2015 stock market prediction paper and related Morningstar article, here are a few selected slides from the presentation deck by Jack Bogle at the Bogleheads XIV conference in October 2015.

bogle2015_1

bogle2015_2

The formula for predicting future stock market returns is:

Future stock returns = Current dividend yield + Predicted earnings growth ± (Reversion to long-term average P/E ratio)

The formula for predicting future bond market returns is:

Future bond returns = Current yield to maturity

At 6% nominal for stocks and 3% nominal for bonds, both 10-year numbers are below long-term averages. However, the 10-year breakeven inflation rate based on TIPS and Treasury yields is roughly 1.5% as of now (late 2015). Using those inflation numbers would result in 4.5% real returns for stocks and 1.5% real returns for bonds, a brighter picture than that painted by other forecasts.

Admittedly it is not a large sample size, but here is a plot of how the 10-year predictions have done so far (1990-2014):

bogle2015_3

As noted previously, I like to keep track of these forecasts along with those provided by:

GMO 7-Year Asset Class Return Forecasts, December 2015

As 2015 winds down, here is a snapshot of the asset class forecasts provided by GMO and the most recent market commentary by co-founder Jeremy Grantham. You can access both of these at GMO.com, although some items require free e-mail registration.

Here is a snapshot of their 7-year expected future returns by asset class, inflation-adjusted, published in mid-December 2015 and using data as of November 30, 2015.

gmo_7year_1511

The chart represents real return forecasts for several asset classes and not for any GMO fund or strategy. These forecasts are forward-looking statements based upon the reasonable beliefs of GMO and are not a guarantee of future performance. Forward-looking statements speak only as of the date they are made, and GMO assumes no duty to and does not undertake to update forward-looking statements. Forward-looking statements are subject to numerous assumptions, risks, and uncertainties, which change over time. Actual results may differ materially from those anticipated in forward-looking statements. U.S. inflation is assumed to mean revert to long-term inflation of 2.2% over 15 years.

I like to keep track of these forecasts along with those provided by:

Here are some reasons why I like keeping track of these types of forecasts:

  • The projections are based on fundamental, historical, and valuation-based models. This is not to say they can’t be wrong, but the strategy is at least unemotional and provides a reasonable range of expectations.
  • They usually provide support for rebalancing and buying more of beaten-down and unpopular asset classes. Currently, Emerging Markets stocks would fit that description.
  • They usually temper the mass enthusiasm for putting all your money in hot and popular asset classes. Currently, US stocks would fit that description.

My 529 Plan Asset Allocation, Part 2: Glide Path

This is a continuation of Part 1: Extension of Retirement or Standalone Portfolio?

If you’ve chosen a standalone portfolio for your 529 plan, every provider will offer you age-based portfolio that automatically adjusts based on the age if your child. In general, it starts out with mostly stocks and over time becomes mostly bonds and cash. This preset plan is called the glide path.

My biggest gripe about the glide path of most age-based default portfolios is their short holding periods for stocks. Nearly every one starts with a ton of stocks, and then quickly shifts to a ton of bonds. You’re basically hoping for big stock returns over a short window of time, which is more gambling than investing. Allow me to explain…

Here is the glide path for Moderate Age-Based Option of the Vanguard 529 plan, Nevada (click to enlarge):

vg529aa_2

You start at 75% stocks, and then at 6 years old you are down to 50% stocks, and then at age 11 you are down to 25% stocks. So 25% of your portfolio only holds stocks for at most for 6 years. (Imagine if you contributed money at age 5.) Another 25% is only held at most for 11 years.

If you contributed equal amounts of money every year to this Nevada 529 moderate age-based plan, your average hold time for half your portfolio (2/3rds of the stock portion) is around 4-5 years in stocks. If you did a lump-sum in the beginning, the average hold time for half your portfolio would be 8.5 years.

Here is the glide path for Moderate Age-Based Option of the UESP 529 plan (Utah):

utah529aa_1b

You start at 80% stocks, and then at 7 years old you are down to 60% stocks, and then after another 3 years (age 10) you are down to 40% stocks. At age 13, you are at 20% stocks. That means 20% of your portfolio only holds stocks for at most 7 years. Another 20% only holds stocks at most for 10 years. Another 20% holds stocks at most for 13 years.

If you contributed equal amounts of money every year to this Utah 529 moderate age-based plan, your average hold time for 60% your portfolio (75% of all your stock holdings) is around 5 years in stocks. If you did a 100% lump-sum in the beginning, your average hold time for 40% of your portfolio would be 8.5 years.

Hold time vs. Investment returns

Here is a customized chart from PortfolioCharts.com that shows how past returns varied by holding period for the US stock market. (More info on these charts here).

Note that within 5-year and 10-year periods, there are lots of white and red squares which indicate periods of zero or negative inflation-adjusted returns. The longest drawdown was 10 years. Wouldn’t you like to have ridden that out with a longer holding time?

529pixel_720

Side note: Some people have criticized the sharp step-downs in the glide path. Vanguard addressed this concern in their 529 whitepaper [pdf]. They ran back-tested simulations and found little difference between a smoothed and stepped glide path (click to enlarge).

vg529_stepped

They concluded asset allocation was more important, which I agree with, but I wasn’t satisfied with the amount of evidence supporting their short stock holding periods. Sure, on average things look good, but in any given 5-year period things could be quite bad.

My alternative plan is more slow-and-steady, just like my overall retirement portfolio. I will start out with a balanced allocation at roughly 60% stocks and 40% bonds, as opposed to 75%, 80% or 100% stocks. I will then stay that way as long as I can so the stock portion will have a long holding period. Probably 6 years out from college, I will convert 10% from stocks to bonds/cash. So 60/40 > 50/50 > 40/60 > 30/70, and so on until I am at 100% cash at age 18.

I will also front-load my contributions so that they are within the first few years. I know not everyone can do that. This means I will hold all of my stocks for a minimum period of 10 years, with the average holding time closer to 15 years. Look again at the green/red chart above with a 15-year holding period.

I haven’t quite decided on the exact fund mix, but I have settled on using the Utah 529 plan, as it allows full customization and scheduling of your own glide path with a pretty solid menu of low-cost and passive investment options. Last part of this series will have the full implementation.

My 529 Plan Asset Allocation, Part 1: Extension of Retirement or Standalone Portfolio?

529I’m finally getting around to setting up 529 college savings plans for my kids. It remains my opinion that you should make sure your retirement savings are on track before worrying about college savings. The government let me borrow over $50,000 in student loans for college, but they won’t let me do that again for retirement.

(Related: Top-ranked nationally-available 529 plans and state-specific tax benefits.)

Other than deciding how much money you’ll contribute, the big question is what do you invest it in? The most common default investment choice is an all-in-one fund that adjusts automatically based on the age of the beneficiary. Essentially, a tweaked target-date retirement fund. Under this model, each child of different age would then have their own standalone asset allocation.

However, I ran across an interesting discussion on the Bogleheads forum where some people used their 529 plans as an extension of their primary retirement portfolios. As the 529 offers tax-deferred growth and tax-free withdrawals for qualified educational purposes, you could treat it like an IRA and put some tax-inefficient assets inside. For example, I could squeeze in some riskier stuff like real estate (REITs), small value stocks, and/or emerging markets stocks for a couple of decades. Or safe stuff like TIPS. You wouldn’t have to adjust for beneficiary age, just rebalance things whenever you spend it down.

This gets a little tricky because even if you start early, you’re typically going to save up a bunch of money over 15-20 years and then spend it all within 4 years. Contrast this with retirement, where you typically save up over 30-45 years and spend it over another 20-35 years. Also, if you don’t spend the funds in a qualified manner, your withdrawals may be subject to both income tax and an additional 10% penalty.

In my opinion, an important factor to consider is your personal tuition assistance philosophy.

Are you going to cover a certain percentage of your child’s tuition, no matter what? Some parents will promise to cover 50%, 75%, or 100% of college expenses, regardless of actual 529 balance. In that case, the 529 plan is less of a savings bucket as it is just another way to gain some extra return via tax sheltering. Perhaps then it makes sense to consider your 529 as a piece of the bigger picture.

Let’s say you invest solely in 100% risky stocks for the entire 15 years, and there is a last-minute crash where you lose 50% of your value. If your final 529 balance is much less than expected, the rest of your portfolio probably did better and you can fulfill your commitment with other assets. (The same thing could happen if you invested solely in 100% safe bonds. The return might be so low that your final balance is quite disappointing.)

Are you treating the 529 plan as a piggy bank? “Here, I saved this much money for you. You handle the rest.” In this case, you are setting aside a fixed amount, labeling it “college funds”, and you’re done. It is separate in your mind. So why not invest it separately? You probably do want to make your investments diversified initially and also more conservative as your child gets close to college. Having the value drop in half at the very end could force your child to take on a significantly larger amount of debt.

After some thought, I am taking a hybrid approach. I am committed to covering at least a “good chunk” of my kids’ college expenses, without limiting it to a fixed amount. (I won’t guarantee 100% as I am wary as to how colleges use their huge sticker prices.) First, we have the financial means, even if it means working a little longer. Second, we feel an obligation to pay it forward because my parents covered a big portion of my own tuition and my wife’s parents covered all of her tuition. My goal is to have my kids feel free to take some career risk in their 20s, although I am not opposed to them having a little debt (“skin in the game”).

My plan is to make my 529 a miniature copy of my retirement portfolio. If my retirement portfolio asset allocation is 60% stocks and 40% bonds, then the 529 portfolio will also be 60% stocks and 40% bonds. So the 529 will be a standalone portfolio, but it will grow at the same rate as my retirement portfolio. Once the time comes, I will spend the 529 money and also withdraw from my retirement portfolio if needed (hopefully not). However, in the meantime, I won’t have to constantly rebalance across two additional smaller accounts.

My kids are 1 and 3 right now. I plan on keeping my cloned asset allocation setup for at least the next 10-12 years, and then taper down over the last 5 years so that it is 100% cash or short-term bonds by age 18. This differs from most age-based default options offered, as they taper steadily over the entire 18-year period. More details on why I like my way better in Part 2 tomorrow.

How To View Your Spouse’s Account Within Vanguard

vanguard_logoMy wife and I both hold IRAs at Vanguard.com, and we each have our own usernames and passwords. This used to work out fine – I would login to either one when I needed to update our portfolio-tracking spreadsheet. But after enabling two-factor authentication, it became a nuisance as the security code would be sent only to her cell phone and she’d then have to forward it back to me within 10 minutes.

I’m sure we are not the only household where one person wants to view their spouse or partner’s investment information. There are now two ways to deal with this situation.

Vanguard now allows you to add a secondary phone number for two-factor authentication. You can now add a second phone number and choose between receiving your security codes by voice message or text message. This way, both my wife and I will get a text when either of us logs into one of our accounts.

Vanguard lets you grant direct view-only access another Vanguard account holder. With this option, now my wife’s IRA holdings show up on my primary account view right next to my own IRAs. So convenient! As the family’s CIO, I now only have to log into the other account to make our annual IRA contribution. This is exactly what I’ve wanted for a while.

Instructions. First, log into the account that you wish to share. Then, click on “My Accounts”, and then “Account maintenance” as shown below:

vgshare1

Next, scroll down a bit and click on “Account permissions”:

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Since we were already joint owners on a taxable brokerage account, the process was quite streamlined and only took a few clicks. Otherwise, you may need to provide the full name, account number, and other personal information in order to identify the correct target account.

Here is a screenshot showing exactly what you can and can’t do with this authorization. Essentially, it is “view-only access” as opposed to be being able to alter account settings and initiate any buy or sell transactions. (Click to enlarge.)

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Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor Book Review

mungercompleteI’ve just finished reading new book Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor by Tren Griffin. For the unaware, you can read the Wikipedia for Charles T. Munger, otherwise probably best know as the Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and partner of Warren Buffett. The book is meant to corral all the various sources of Munger teachings into a “unified theory” of investing. As is my practice, here are my favorite highlights of the book followed by a quick review. I will try to clearly separate what are Munger quotes and Griffin book excerpts.

First, some good sentences on why learning from reading is awesome (Griffin):

The point is not to treat anyone like a hero, but rather to consider whether Munger, like his idol Benjamin Franklin, may have qualities, attributes, systems, or approaches to life that we may want to emulate, even in part. This same process explains why Munger has read hundreds of biographies. Learning from the success and failure of others is the fastest way to get smarter and wiser without a lot of pain.

Munger on efficient markets:

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.

The book also serves as a good introduction to value investing based on Benjamin Graham’s teachings. Griffin emphasizes the fact that it is about patience and waiting around a mispriced asset to appear. It is not about forecasting the future. Griffin:

Successful Graham value investors spend most of their time reading and thinking, waiting for significant folly to inevitably raise its head. Although Graham value investors are bullish about the market in the long term, they do not making investing decisions based on short-term predictions about stocks or markets.

What kind of qualities does any person owning stocks need (even index funds)? Here’s what Munger said when once asked about how much he worried about a big drop in the value of Berkshire:

Zero. This is the third time Warren and I have seen our holdings in Berkshire Hathaway go down, top tick to bottom tick, by 50%. I think it’s in the nature of long term shareholding of the normal vicissitudes, of worldly outcomes, of markets that the long-term holder has his quoted value of his stocks go down by say 50%. In fact you can argue that if you’re not willing to react with equanimity to a market price decline of 50% two or three times a century you’re not fit to be a common shareholder and you deserve the mediocre result you’re going to get compared to the people who do have the temperament, who can be more philosophical about these market fluctuations.

Why professional money managers don’t make big alpha (Munger):

For most professional money managers, if you’ve got four children to put through college and you’re earning $400,000 or $1 million or whatever, the last thing in the world you would want to be worried about is having gumption. You care about survival, and the way you survive is just not doing anything that might make you stand out.

Munger has been talking about the link between behavioral psychology and investing before it was popularized by books and mainstream media. There are many sources of misjudgments, but I like that he covers many of the more subtle ones that I put under “help me live a good life” more than “help me make more money”. Take envy and jealousy (Munger):

The idea of caring that someone is making money faster [than you] is one of the deadly sins. Envy is a really stupid sin because it’s the only one you could never possibly have any fun at. There’s a lot of pain and no fun. Why would you want to get on the trolley?

On drug and alcohol addiction, this is Griffin writing about Munger:

His timeless advice is to avoid situations with a massive downside and a small upside (negative optionality). Why play dice with something that can ruin your life forever?

Commentary. This book was a solid, short introduction to the world of Charlie Munger from an investing point of view. It has a ton of Munger quotes, but Griffin also does a solid job weaving in quotes from other famous investors like Warren Buffett and Seth Klarman. If you are a fan of Warren Buffett, you will like this book.

Of course, what makes Munger special to me is that he talks about stuff beyond investing, like ethics and morality. For example, I liked that he points out the lifetime benefits of simply “being reliable”. So many workers are just not reliable. Therefore, for a more complete picture, I recommend reading Poor Charlie’s Almanack, which includes transcripts of all his talks, lectures, and public commentary. Reasons for why it is not more popular include the length (really long) and the cost ($50+). After reading and digesting it all, I feel it was fifty bucks well spent. However, if you choose to skip the Almanack, I’d say you’d get $15 of value out of this book.

Realty Mogul Review: Fractional Investment Property Ownership, Hard Money Lending

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Added bonus for new sign-ups. I’ve been a registered member of RealtyMogul for a while, and they recently emailed me that if I referred a friend, we’d both get a $150 Amazon gift card just for completing the registration process (i.e. zero investment required). Here is a screenshot. The restriction is that you must be an accredited investor, which means either a single income of $200,000, joint income of $300,000, or net worth of $1 million excluding primary residence. I’ve registered at a few of these sites, and you may need to send in a scanned W-2 (was allowed to remove SSN) or brokerage statements for verification.

This is a nice carrot if you are already interested in hard money lending or fractional real estate ownership. You must either use this special sign-up link or use the promo code JONATHANP7 during registration. Offer expires 12/31/15.

*The referrer and the referred will each receive a $150 gift card (redeemable at Amazon.com) upon successful completion of the investor registration process at RealtyMogul.com by the referred party. Gift cards will be mailed within 30 business days to the address on file. This promotion is limited to 6 referrals per referral code and is only valid until December 31, 2015.

Original post from mid-2013 below:

Realty Mogul is a new “crowdfunding” start-up that lets you invest in residential investment property for as little as $5,000. You either take a partial ownership position in a property, or you become a lender to (experienced) house flippers. The new thing here is that you can do it completely online with a few mouse clicks (no mortgage brokers, real estate agents, or tenants) and again that low minimum $5,000 investment. (Thanks to reader Johnson for the tip.)

Taking an equity ownership position means that you own a little slice of a single-family home or multi-unit complex while a professional does the buying, fixing up, renting out, and eventual selling. Realty Mogul only has done one deal like this so far (fully funded) and the intended timeframe is 5-7 years. You earn rent while the house hopefully appreciates in value, and cash out when the house sells.

Being a lender looks very similar to the age-old practice of hard money lending, just with smaller chunks. You lend the money to a house flipper who needs a short-term loan (3 months to a year) and doesn’t want to deal with traditional mortgage lenders and their closing costs and long underwriting delays. The loan is backed by a personal guarantee (not too special, you can try to sue and/or hurt their credit score) and more importantly you usually have a first position lien on the property (if they don’t pay, the lender gets the title to the house). Most of the previously funded loans have an annualized interest rate of 8%.

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Realty Mogul states that they differentiate themselves from other similar startups like FundRise and Prodigy Network by (1) outsourcing the real estate expertise to vetted professionals and (2) keeping a focus on cashflow, either via rent or interest payments. Right now they’ve only had about 7 investments, but they seem to open a new one up after the last one fully funds.

Currently, the SEC limits this type of investment to accredited investors, which means either a single income of $200,000, joint income of $300,000, or net worth of $1 million excluding primary residence. When I tried the application, the only screening process was to check a few boxes and state that you qualify. Supposedly, the recently passed JOBS Act will allow them to drop this requirement later this year.

If given the option, should I drop $5,000 into this to try it out just like with person-to-person lending? $5,000 is still a lot of money to put into an investment where you are not able to do much due diligence. Getting good returns on a single investment project is all about the skill of that particular rehab team. Will the teams that sign up for capital via Realty Mogul always be the good ones, or those that are having a hard time getting funding from elsewhere? I thought that hard money lending rates were more in the 10%+ range; I don’t know if I’d be happy with 8% but maybe that’s the going rate now. Even if you have collateral, recouping your principal in case of a bad loan can get complicated and time-consuming. At least with P2P lending I can spread $5k over 200 different loans such that even though I am certain to get some defaults, it is unlikely I will get a negative return overall.

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