Comparing Your 529 In-State Tax Deduction vs. Better Out-of-State Plans

50statesI’m getting ready to put down a decent chunk of money into a 529 college savings plan, which means lots of research as there are a lot of options and nuances. A general plan for those without strong investment preferences would be to go with one of the age-based portfolios from a consistently top-rated plan by Morningstar, or your in-state plan if the tax deduction is juicy enough.

But how exactly do you compare them? The easiest way to calculate your in-state tax benefits is to use a tool from either Vanguard or SavingforCollege.com.

Let’s say you are a married Virginia resident making $100,000 in household taxable income and you want to contribution $4,000 a year to college. Here’s what the Vanguard tool says:

vg529tool

The big block of text explains the assumptions the tool had to make in order to keep things simple. Note that in addition to the state tax savings, you have to consider that you’ll have less state tax to deduct on your federal return (if you itemize deductions).

The SavingForCollege tool comes to the same conclusion regarding tax savings (minus a rounding difference). However, it also goes one step further and helps you quantify the relative value of your in-state tax deduction.

cs529tool

In order for the out-of-state 529 plan to make up the difference from the lost state tax benefit, it would have to achieve better net investment returns of 0.25% per year over the 18 year time period.

So if your in-state plan offers similar desired investments but with expense ratios that were 0.25% higher than the best out-of-state plan, you may actually want to forgo the tax deduction. Note that this number is also based on a set of default assumptions like an 18-year investment period and a 6% annual returns for both plans (you can edit these as you like).

But wait! Some state plans allow you to roll your assets over to another state after making the contribution, and keep the tax deduction. So you could make the contribution, grab the tax credit, and then roll it over into another state’s plan. (You are allowed to have multiple 529 plans.) However, many states have a recapture or “clawback” provision that will make you pay back the tax benefit somehow. For example, if you perform a rollover or non-qualified withdrawal from the Virginia 529 plan, the principal portion will be added back to your Virginia taxable income (to the extent of any prior deductions).

Index Funds vs. Hedge Funds: Buffett $1,000,000 Bet Update 2015

chips

It is now 7 years in on the 10-year bet between Warren Buffett and a successful hedge fund manager. In 2007, Warren Buffett challenged any hedge fund to a long-term bet against the S&P 500. He found a taker.

Fortune magazine announced “Buffett’s Big Bet”, where $1,000,000 would go to the charity chosen by the winner. The bet would run from 2008 to 2018. Buffett would take the S&P 500, represented by the Vanguard S&P 500 index fund (Admiral shares). Protégé Partners would stand behind hedge funds, represented by the average return of five hand-picked hedge funds.

Carol Loomis has just posted the 2015 update in Fortune. The hedge funds were in the lead early on, but started lagging behind in the 2012 update. In 2013, the performance gap widened to about 30%. The gap has widened even more. In 2014, the S&P 500 index fund went up 13.6%, whereas the hedge funds only rose 5.6%.

Through the entire 7-year period that runs through the end of 2014, the S&P 500 index fund is up 63.5%. The hedge fund marker only went up an average of 19.6%. That’s now a gap of over 40%. With three years left, the hedge funds have some serious catching up to do.

Through the seven years, Vanguard’s 500 index fund, as represented by its Admiral shares, is up 63.5%. That’s the portfolio carrying Buffett’s colors. Protégé’s five hedge funds of funds are, on the average—the marker the bet uses—up an estimated 19.6%. (The “estimated” takes into account that not all of the five funds have final figures for 2014).

Will this collection of hand-picked hedge funds be able to outperform a simple, low-cost index fund over the long run? Hedge funds may employ some bright minds but also charge hefty fees of roughly 2% of assets annually + 20% of any gains. At the start of the bet, the past performance of the hedge funds were excellent – from inception in July 2002 through the end of 2007, the Protégé fund gained 95% (after all fees), soundly beating the Vanguard S&P 500 index fund’s 64%. But lots of funds have good performance when looking backwards. It is much harder to pick out winning managers ahead of time (and harder on those managers when everyone is looking and there is too much money to deploy).

Read the terms of the bet and each side’s opening arguments at LongBets.org. This carefully-tracked bet was part of the inspiration for my transparent Beat the Market experiment. Too often, people are not honestly and accurately tracking the performance of their portfolios… again, starting ahead of time! It is natural to point out your winners and conveniently forget the losers.

Read my original 2008 blog post and halfway 5-year update here.

Viewing Stock Market Risk Over The Long Run

stockslongrun3The following is a chart that I usually like to pull out during a crisis when people are scared of investing in the stock market, but since I just found a nicely updated version of it, I had to share. It is taken from Jeremy Siegel’s book Stocks for the Long Run and found via this Vox article about how most people incorrectly view real estate as the best long-term investment*.

Here is a chart showing the historical range of real (after-inflation) returns for US stocks, long-term bonds (bonds), and short-term bonds (T-bills) from 1802 to 2012.

stockslongrun

The chart shows that over bried time periods, the stock market has been historically more of coin flip than anything else. Over a year, you could get anywhere from +70% to -40%. With bonds and cash, the swings are much less wild. But as you lengthen your holding period, your risk of losing money over that time decreases significantly. For time horizons of 20 and 30 years, only stocks never lost you money after inflation.

Note that the average annual returns for each respective asset class remains the same across all time periods. Via the CFA Institute:

stockslongrun2

This supports the advice that it doesn’t really matter as much what your plan is, but more that you pick one and stick with it. Going heavy on stocks and then bailing out when they are in a funk, or going heavy on bonds and bailing out when they are in a funk, all that is worse than doing NOTHING and simply riding it out. As they say, it’s not about timing the market, it’s about time IN the market.

I believe it was one of William Bernstein’s books that suggested that young folks who understand this should put as much money now into stocks as possible, as to increase your time horizon. Put 100% of your money into stocks now, and then as you get older put more of your money into bonds to get a balanced mix eventually. This can be hard though, as you’re asking the people with less experience and smallest assets to hold the thing that is most volatile. Going 80/20 or 70/30 from beginning to end is also a reasonable approach in my opinion (and personal experience with my own portfolio).

Now, another well-known professor Robert Shiller reminds us that the period above includes the most economically successful century of the most economically successful country in the world so far… and will not necessarily repeat itself. I’m not saying that you should expect 6% real returns from stocks. Shiller’s CAPE ratio model itself forecasts a 3% real return for stocks over the next decade. I’m focusing on the fact that stocks are investments in productive businesses and that the volatility of the pricing of such businesses will stabilize when held across longer holding periods.

* I would actually argue that the long-term return of real estate is actually not that far behind that of stocks, if you add in the imputed rent from the house. Yes, it may be true that the value of a house doesn’t increase that much over inflation over the long run. But houses are also productive in that they can create their own income! If the value of the rent that you could get from that house is included, that could add another 4% to 6% to the return historically. 5% real return would be smack dab between bonds and stocks.

Personal Capital Sign-Up Bonus: Free $10 Amazon Gift Certificate

perscapiphone2Update 2/23: $10 limited-time offer has expired.

Personal Capital is a free tool that allows you to connect all your financial accounts to track your spending, investments, and net worth. If you are familiar with Mint.com, it is somewhat similar but with more features that help you track your investment portfolio like performance, benchmarking, and asset allocation.

To encourage you to try them out, Personal Capital is offering special bonus if you sign-up for a new account and link at least one bank or investment account. Credit cards, debit cards, Paypal, and Coinbase account do not count. This is a refer-a-friend promotion, so I will get the same thing if you use my link (thanks!).

I don’t know exactly when this will expire, but I do know it is a limited-time promotion. They had a Black Friday deal that was similar and it was very popular (who doesn’t like free money?). You will receive the gift certificate code via e-mail, so be sure that is valid.

Note that if you provide a phone number, Personal Capital may call you to set up a free financial consultation as they make money by providing add-on paid financial advice. (Their management fees are 0.89% annually for the first $1 million, which is high in my opinion.) In my experience, if you are not interested just tell them so and they will not pressure you any further and they won’t call ever again. Or you could take a advantage of the free consultation to answer any money questions you have, as many of their advisors hold the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation.

In any case, the base financial tracking service remains completely free. When tracking net worth, I think it’s neat that you can set it to update your home value using a Zillow estimate. I definitely use the smartphone app much more often, as it allows a quick update and supports Touch ID for easy authentication if you have a recent iPhone. Selected fine print below:

Giveaway hosted by Personal Capital. A user must link at least one valid financial account. Credit or debit card, PayPal and Coinbase accounts do not count towards the giveaway. An Amazon.com Gift Card valued at $10.00 will be awarded to each new customer who link an account and the customer who refers new customer. All awards will be electronically delivered through Amazon to customer’s email provided in the registration process. The offer will apply only to the first time customer when a unique account is linked and will not be applied if the same account is linked multiple times in the same or additional accounts, or for any previous account, which was closed by the customer.

Why You Shouldn’t Bet on Higher Oil Prices Using the USO ETF

fuel

Does this sound familiar? Perhaps you’ve heard it around the water cooler, or considered it yourself?

  1. Crude oil has dropped to $50 a barrel.
  2. You just know oil prices will go up eventually.
  3. The futures market is kinda complicated… I know! I’ll buy an ETF like USO.
  4. Profit!?!?

Here are a few things you should know first about the United States Oil Fund (USO) and similar oil ETPs.

You aren’t the only one who’s thought of this. Over $7 billion dollars have already gone into oil ETFs in the last two months alone. Read this series of Businessweek articles on the subject, all by different authors:

The usual market timing questions apply. Sure, the price will go up, but how long is “eventually”? It might be 1,3,5, or 10 years. If you have a specific time-frame in mind, then you can go out on the futures market and then buy a specific contract. But if oil hasn’t risen enough at that time – maybe it peaked earlier and dropped, or it peaks further in the future – you’ll have lost money.

If you buy the ETF, when is a good time to sell? $80 a barrel? $100? $120? What if you sell and then it rises another 50%?

What if it takes a while? The longer you have to hold these ETFs, the less likely they will track the price of oil (see below). Meanwhile, the ETF provider is happily collecting their annual expense ratios of 0.50% to 1%. At the current asset level of $1.28 billion times the 0.45% management fee, that’s $5.8 million a year in fees.

Your commodities futures ETF may not track the price of oil very well at all. To properly track the price of oil, you’d need to buy some oil and store it somewhere (and pay storage and security costs). These ETFs don’t do that, instead they buy oil futures contracts and keep rolling them over into new ones when they expire. That’s not the same thing. USO is designed to track daily price movements in the price of oil, not long-term movements!

Visually, here are a chart from Attain Capital that compares the change in USO share price (purple) as compared to the spot price of crude oil (red) when oil prices doubled between the start of 2009 and the end of 2010 (blue line adjusts USO underperformance for roll costs):

uso1

Further, consider these stats from Businessweek (emphasis mine):

Since USO launched in April 2006, it has returned -71 percent, while the spot price of oil returned -26 percent. The last time oil roared back from a bottom was in 2009, when it returned 78 percent on the year. USO returned just 14 percent.

If you don’t understand the terms “backwardation”, “contango”, and “roll costs” then you don’t understand commodities futures. If you don’t understand something, you probably shouldn’t buy it. Take it straight from a USO executive:

John Hyland, chief investment officer of USO, says the fund is a “tactical trading vehicle predominately used by professional traders,” and not meant to be a buy-and-hold investment.

In the end, such a play is a speculative bet and it may just pay off, who knows. But it certainly isn’t a wise investment, especially if the tool you’re using doesn’t even do what you want it to do.

This Is Why My Retirement Portfolio Is Simple and Balanced

Via The Reformed Broker, investment manager Research Affiliates shares how a simple, balanced 60/40 portfolio (specifically 60% S&P 500 stocks, 40% 10-Year US Treasuries) did pretty darn good in the past 100, 50, and 25 years:

ra2

It even did well over the last 10 years, considering that “blip” we had in 2008. The 60/40 portfolio outperformed 9 of 16 core asset classes, all while maintaining lower-than-average volatility.

ra3

Of course, they also predict (using sound reasoning, in my opinion) that the same 60/40 portfolio will only produce a 1.2% inflation-adjusted return for the next 10 years. Still, I don’t know of any better options.

529 College Savings Plans Now Allow Two Investment Changes Per Year

529Here’s a quick note about a change in 529 college savings plans. Up until recently, you were only allowed one investment change per year, per beneficiary. Starting in 2015, a change in federal law means that you are now allowed two investment changes per calendar year, per beneficiary.

Specifically, this is due to a provision of the new ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) Act. For those that like history lessons, this Fairmark article has more background on why 529s restrict investment changes at all.

Now, the rules have always permitted a change in investment options any time you change the account’s beneficiary, so people have also used this as a workaround although it may not be wise to abuse it. Changing your asset allocation all the time usually isn’t a good idea either, but now you have a little more flexibility (i.e. you can undo a change you regret making!).

Tax-Free 529 Savings Plans For Disabled Children and Young Adults

This won’t apply to everyone, but it could be significant if it does. I didn’t know about this until recently.

The Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act used the structure of 529 college savings plans to create similar tax-sheltered accounts for the benefit of caring for disabled children and young adults. In addition to healthcare, qualified expenses would include education, housing, transportation, and employment support. The legislation has passed, but it doesn’t look like any states have actually created plans that you can open yet. More info here.

Investment Returns Ranked Annually by Asset Class 1995-2014

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 below (view as PDF), which covers 1995 to 2014. For each year, the best performing asset class is listed at the top, and it sorts downward until you have the worst performing asset. You can find previous versions here.

callan2014full

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. international). 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 like focusing on a specific color (asset class) and then visually noting how its relative performance has bounced around for a few years. The ones that enjoy a stint at the very top are usually found on the bottom eventually.

So instead of trying to predict one asset class that will outperform this year, why not commit to holding a multiple, productive asset classes that will balance each other out over time. Pick ones that will have a long-term positive return, but in any given year might perform poorly. Hold them in a low-cost manner, and rebalance your holdings if they get out of whack.

Back to Basics: Simplify and Automate Your Savings

automateLet’s take a step back and focus on some actionable tips to simplify and automate your savings. Think of it as knocking out your New Year’s Resolution in just 10 minutes or less.

New Year’s resolutions fail because willpower is like a muscle. If you keep having to choose the “right thing” that does not provide immediate gratification, your willpower muscle starts to fatigue. Eat the healthy kale thing instead of the nachos? Yes for a few times, but after a month no no no. Take 15% of your paycheck and set it aside? You’ll forget. The key is to take away the decision = no willpower fatigue.

First, consider your paycheck. Is it bi-weekly, semi-monthly, or monthly? Let’s say it is biweekly and you get paid this Friday, January 9th. That means you know you’ll get paid on January 23rd, February 6th, and so on. You just need to schedule a transfer for 15% of your paycheck for each of those days directly into an online savings account. Here are screenshots and tips for some specific providers:

Auto-save with your 401(k) plan.
This allows you to get any company match, grow your money faster with tax advantages, and also takes the money out before it even reaches your paycheck. Our provider is TransAmerica, which like many others now offer an option for annual auto-increases as well. The only frequency option is every pay period.

save_trs

Auto-save with Ally Bank Savings Account.
This is my go-to savings account, and it has the most flexible list of frequency options: weekly, bi-weekly, every 15 days, weekly, every 2 weeks, every 4 weeks, monthly, every 2 months, every 3 months, every 6 months, every year, the first business day of each money, or the last business day of each month. With a competitive interest rate, no minimum opening balance, and no monthly fees, and other features – see my Ally Bank Savings Account Review for details.

save_ally

Auto-save with Capital One 360 Savings Account.
Formerly ING Direct, this is the original no minimums, no monthly fee online savings account. The frequency options include weekly, bi-weekly, semi-monthly, monthly, or quarterly. You can even set up special sub-accounts and name them things like “Vacation” or “Next Car”. See my Capital One 360 Savings Account Review for more details.

save_capone360

Auto-save with Vanguard IRA and mutual funds.
The best place for low-cost investing in an IRA. Under “Automatic Investments”, you can schedule investments for mutual funds in either IRA or taxable accounts. You’ll need to have the fund already established with the minimum initial investment. The frequency options include weekly, monthly, bi-weekly, or semi-monthly.

save_vanguard

What if I need the money? Well, if you put in an online savings account, if you really need the money, you can transfer it back. But even transferring back out of your savings account will take a conscious effort, so you’re less likely to do it. You can’t easily withdraw from a 401k or IRA, so you’ll just have to make the commitment.

The key here is to combat laziness. If you like this idea, take action today and you’ll be on autopilot the rest of the year!

Early Retirement Portfolio Income Update, Year-End 2014

When investing, should you focus on income or total return? I like the idea of living off dividend and interest income, but I also think it is easy for people to reach too far for yield and hurt their overall returns. But what is too far? That’s the hard part. Certainly there are many bad investments lurking out there for desperate retirees looking for maximum income. If possible, I’d like to invest for total return and then live off the income.

A quick and dirty way to see how much income (dividends and interest) your portfolio is generating is to take the “TTM Yield” or “12 Mo. Yield” from Morningstar quote pages. Trailing 12 Month Yield is the sum of a fund’s total trailing 12-month interest and dividend payments divided by the last month’s ending share price (NAV) plus any capital gains distributed over the same period. SEC yield is another alternative, but I like TTM because it is based on actual distributions (SEC vs. TTM yield article).

Below is a close approximation of my most recent portfolio update. I have changed my asset allocation slightly to 60% stocks and 40% bonds because I believe that will be my permanent allocation upon early retirement.

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (1/5/14) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
24% 1.76% 0.42%
US Small Value
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
3% 2.68% 0.08%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
24% 3.4% 0.81%
Emerging Markets Small Value
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
3% 3.17% 0.09%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 3.60% 0.22%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLUX)
20% 1.68% 0.34%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
20% 2.24% 0.45%
Totals 100% 2.41%

 

The total weighted 12-month yield was 2.41%, as opposed to 2.49% and 2.31% the previous two quarters. This means that if I had a $1,000,000 portfolio balance today, it would have generated $24,100 in interest and dividends over the last 12 months. Now, 2.41% is significantly lower than the 4% withdrawal rate often recommended for 65-year-old retirees with 30-year spending horizons, and is also lower than the 3% withdrawal that I prefer as a rough benchmark for early retirement. But in theory the total return will be much greater due to share appreciation.

As noted previously, a simple benchmark for this portfolio is Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) which is an all-in-one fund that is also 60% stocks and 40% bonds. That fund has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.09%. Keep in mind that the muni bond interest in my portfolio is exempt from federal income taxes.

So how am I doing? Using my 3% benchmark, the combination of ongoing savings and recent market gains have us at 91% of the way to matching our annual household spending target. Using the 2.41% number, I am only 73% of the way there. Consider that if all your portfolio did was keep up with inflation each year (0% real returns), you could still spend 2% a year for 50 years. From that perspective, a 2% spending rate seems like a very conservative lower bound.

Early Retirement Portfolio Asset Allocation Update, Year-End 2014

Here’s a final update on my investment portfolio holdings for 2014. This includes tax-deferred accounts like 401(k)s and taxable brokerage holdings, but excludes things like physical property and cash reserves (emergency fund). The purpose of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover all of our household expenses.

Target Asset Allocation

aa_updated2015

I try to pick asset classes that will provide long-term returns above inflation, distribute income via dividends and interest, and finally offer some historical tendencies to balance each other out. I don’t hold commodities futures or gold as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly. In addition, I am not confident in them enough to know that I will hold them through an extended period of underperformance (i.e. don’t buy what you don’t understand).

Our current ratio is roughly 70% stocks and 30% bonds within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and rebalance. With a self-directed portfolio of low-cost funds and low turnover, we minimize management fees, commissions, and taxes.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

aa_pie_2014final

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 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)

Notes and Benchmark Comparison

There was very little activity during the last quarter of 2014. I’ll need to do some rebalancing in the beginning of 2015. I did change my asset allocation tree above to reflect that my bond holdings have a weighted duration of close to 4 years now. It used to say “shorter-term” but really now it is more “intermediate-term”. I’ve been putting my new bond money into VWIUX, which holds intermediate-term high-quality municipal bonds. I haven’t sold any of my limited-term holdings. Overall, it’s a little longer in maturity and a little higher yield, but nothing drastic. I don’t really listen to future rate predictions; they’ve been wrong more than they’ve been right.

I’ve already noted the 2014 performance of each individual fund here along with my overall portfolio total return of roughly 6.5% for 2014.

A simple benchmark for my portfolio is 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) and Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX), one is 60/40 and one is 80/20 so it also works out to 70% stocks and 30% bonds. That would have returned about 7.1% for 2014. One reason for my portfolio’s relative underperformance to this benchmark is my inclusions of TIPS bonds which returned 3.5% whereas the Vanguard Total International Bond Index Fund (BND) returned 6% for the year. I’m still happy to hold TIPS. If I had more tax-advantaged space and/or a lower tax rate I’d hold BND instead of muni bonds but I’m still happy with my muni funds as well.

In a separate post, I will update the amount of income that I am deriving from this portfolio along with how that compares to my expenses.