Free Morningstar Analyst Reports Via Public Library Card

mstar_logo2Let’s say you are a DIY investor and doing some research on municipal funds. You decide to learn more about the Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt mutual fund. You pull up the Morningstar quote pages (ticker VWITX and VWIUX) and find some useful numbers, plus an analyst report hidden to the public as a “premium” feature.

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You see a 14-day free trial and after some more clicking around, you discover that a premium membership to Morningstar costs $199 a year or $24 a month.

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Now, I’d like to read the rest of that analyst report, but I’m not sure if it is worth the fee. Well, you may already have access to those analyst reports through your payment of local and state taxes. Yup, the good ole’ public library!

Many public libraries have a subscription to what is called the Morningstar Investment Research Center database. Most offer instant, online access via your library card number and PIN. You should look under the “Databases” or “Resources” section. Some only have a limited amount of offsite licenses, so you’ll have to either ask for a password or you’ll have to read them in a branch. Here’s a screenshot of my free report accessed from the comfort of my home, with all the good stuff blurred out of course:

mstar_fullreview

You can access their analyst reports for stocks, mutual funds, and ETFs, as well as the premium version of tools like Portfolio X-Ray.

Now, if your local library system doesn’t provide this access, you can also look around for other libraries in the region for which you are eligible. Finally, there are some public libraries that offer library cards to non-residents for an annual fee. For example, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina offers library cards by mail for $45 a year (Seniors 62+, $35 a year).

Non-residents of Mecklenburg County can obtain a Charlotte Mecklenburg Library card for an annual fee of $45.00. This amount is approximately equal to the annual property tax a Mecklenburg County resident pays to support the Library. A non-resident library card entitles you to the full services of the Library at all locations.

They also offer access to the Morningstar database. $45 a year is still significantly less than $199 a year, and you’ll get all the other library benefits like access to Overdrive eBooks. Also check out the Library of Fairfax County, Virginia which offers non-resident library cards for $27 a year.

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William Bernstein: Picking The Right Bonds For Your Portfolio

pie_flat_blank_200Author and investment advisor William Bernstein wrote a thoughtful WSJ piece on bonds, which I think is useful for the DIY investor. The overall theme is that you should take minimal risks with the bonds in your portfolio. Taken in isolation, some types of bonds are likely to provide higher long-term returns than others. However, you should consider how they fit into your entire portfolio. Historically, it has been more efficient to take your risk with stocks and use your bonds for their stability. Bonds become the “dry powder” you can use to buy more stocks after a crash (rebalance!).

I found myself breaking down the article into three main categories. The types of bonds he recommends most, the ones he considers acceptable, and the rest which should be avoided. These are my short notes; read the article for the supporting arguments.

PREFER

  • Individual US Treasury bonds, manually laddered.
  • US Treasury bond mutual funds, for smaller balances.
  • Top-yielding FDIC-Insured Certificates of Deposit, manually laddered.
  • Short-term or intermediate-term, higher-quality municipal-bond funds, for large taxable balances.

OKAY

  • “Total bond index” mutual funds, as they consist mainly of high-grade, government-backed bonds.
  • US Treasury bond mutual funds for larger balances.

AVOID

  • All corporate bonds, but especially avoid lower-grade and/or longer-term corporate bonds.
  • Lower-grade and/or longer-term municipal bonds.

I would point out that inflation-protected bonds (TIPs) are not mentioned directly, I guess because they aren’t directly comparable to these nominal bonds. Either that, or he just considered them to be the same as traditional Treasuries. He talks about TIPs a lot elsewhere (including his books), so a little specific advice would have been helpful.

My other opinion is that running your own bond ladder is quite doable but only the most DIY of DIY investors would do it better than a low-cost bond fund. I own individual TIPS and it’s not hard but not a ton of fun either to keep track of auction dates and avoid cash drag. Vanguard charges only 0.12% annually for their short-term government bond ETF (VGSH) and Admiral fund equivalent. $12 a year per $10,000. $120 a year for $100,000. I’d rather just pay that unless I had millions or I had a lot more free time. However, if you’re already paying a financial advisor, I would let them manage an individual bond ladder as part of their fee.

Owning a McDonald’s Franchise: Purchase Cost vs. Annual Profit

mcfranchise_logoDespite their negative media attention, the McDonald’s franchise that I drive past every day is packed all the time. I rarely eat there (especially since my diet bet), but I used to think to myself that if I were going to buy a franchise, I’d buy a McDonald’s. My impression was always that McDonald’s were always pretty clean with consistent food (even if you consider it consistently unhealthy), while Burger King’s were often dirty with inconsistent food.

A common knock against purchasing a franchise is that you are “buying a job”. A recent Businessweek article broke down the gross sales, gross profits, and net profits of the average McDonald’s franchise in the US. I found the numbers very interesting:

mcfranchise_income

Average annual profit per franchise: $150,000 a year, roughly. Okay, but how much does this franchise cost? From the official McDonald’s franchise website:

Initial Costs
$45,000 Initial Fee paid to McDonald’s

Equipment and Pre-Opening Costs
Typically these costs range from $944,352 to $2,172,045. The size of the restaurant facility, area of the country, pre-opening expenses, inventory, selection of kitchen equipment, signage, and style of decor and landscaping will affect new restaurant costs. These costs are paid to suppliers.

Average cost of new franchise: At least $1 million roughly, with a minimum of $500,000 in cash and non-borrowed resources. Other sources state $750,000 minimum in liquid assets. You must be able to cover 40% of the costs of a new franchise location. You must be able to pay cash for at least 25% of the cost of an existing franchise, with the rest financed over at most 7 years.

Average hours of work per week as an owner/operator? I could not find reliable statistics, but here is an excerpt from a Reddit AMA from a businessperson from New Zealand who has owned a total of three McDonald’s franchises and recently sold the last one.

How much work was required of you per week on average? If my goal were to own one McDonalds and do the minimum amount of work possible, while also running it well, how low do you think I could get that weekly number of hours? And what would I be doing in that time?

I would work 9am – 5pm, 6 days a week. Mostly I’m at my office sorting problems remotely from there. I liked to pop down to my couple stores at least a couple times a day and check on them – make sure they’re clean, and to check on the Restaurant Manager about any issues. Typically I used to work hard for 4-6 hours a day, with the rest out in the stores just checking on them.

Exit / Selling price? One would imagine that if your franchise is doing well and churning out good numbers, someone else would readily buy it. If your business is struggling, then both your annual income and total business value will drop. The same Reddit user above reported selling for “just above” NZ $1.4 million, or US $916,000. I’m a bit confused by the purchase price, but it appears that he paid NZ $550,000 via business loan, 12 years ago.

In the end, owning a McDonald’s franchise is still a business which means you take on risk for potentially significant gains or losses. But if you spend 40 hours a week and only keep tabs on one location, it might really feel like you bought a job. These statistics help explain why most franchisees own multiple locations; Businessweek says the average is six.

Ideal Diversification Between US and International Stocks?

earth_apolloOne of the decisions a DIY investor needs to make is how much international stock exposure to add to their portfolio. Recently, the US stock market has had much higher returns than non-US stocks overall, including Emerging Markets. But this Vanguard article reminds us of the diversification benefits of adding international stocks. Somewhere between 20% and 50% is the historical sweet spot:

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Vanguard says 60/40 is best. Over the past year or so, Vanguard has shifted their “ideal” stock asset allocation to 60% US and 40% international. This is the breakdown used for their Target Retirement 20XX funds, their LifeStrategy funds, and also their 529 College Savings Age-Based portfolios. Part of their justification is that the expense ratios for their international funds has dropped as well.

World market cap weighting is at 52/48. What do the global capital markets have to say? The world market cap weighting has shifted to 52% US and 48% non-US, as tracked by the Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT). VT tracks the FTSE Global All Cap Index which is a free-float-adjusted, market-capitalization-weighted index.

I like simplicity and symmetry, so I am sticking with 50/50. I’m just one amateur, but I feel the trend is towards a market-cap weighting. 50/50 isn’t all that far from 60/40, especially because my overall asset allocation will soon by 60% stocks and 40% bonds. 50/50 is also really easy to rebalance and makes my portfolio looks nice and symmetrical.

Want some support to own international stocks? If the recent poor performance of international stocks has you down, Research Affiliates recently updated their Expected Returns Chart (mentioned previously) and it shows Developed European, Developed Asian, and Emerging Market stocks having a much better outlook than US stocks:

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They use a mix of different historical valuation techniques to make these forecasts, so they aren’t just pulled out of thin air.

Want some support to NOT own international stocks?
While it is hard to argue against the historical diversification benefit of owning some international stocks, I don’t know if it is absolutely necessary. If you bought big chunk of the S&P 500, and a smaller chunk of US Treasuries, and ignored it for 30-40 years, you’d probably come out pretty happy. Some big names would agree:

One argument is that many US companies already make a huge chunk of their money from their international operations anyway.

So there you have it. I hope you are sufficiently confused. :)

Simple Portfolio Rebalancing: Year-End vs. Random Day

I’m catching up on some reading. James Picerno of The Capital Spectator did some backtesting of simple portfolio rebalancing where once a year you go back to your target asset allocation. Does it matter if you rebalance at the end of every year, or just pick any random date once a year? His test portfolio was a globally diversified portfolio made up 60% stocks and 40% bonds (11 different funds).

Here’s a chart of his results:

rebalance1510

His comments:

The basic message: rebalancing is a valuable tool for generating superior risk-adjusted performance. But it seems that tapping into this value-added service doesn’t require a lot of intellectual firepower for a standard asset allocation strategy. Letting a monkey choose the rebalancing dates over a period of years works as well if not better than automatically rebalancing at the end of each year.

My version: Rebalancing helps you maintain your desired risk profile, and it may even improve your risk-adjusted returns (it did in the last decade). Get the benefit with minimal fuss by rebalancing once a year. It doesn’t really matter what day, just make sure to do it once a year. However, I find it easier to stick with the same one every year so you can put it on your calendar. (First business day after Christmas, July 1st, your birthday, etc.)

Finametrica Risk Tolerance Assessment Review + Discounts

riskprofile0Spend any time researching investments, you’ll eventually run across the concept of “risk tolerance”. If you don’t hold an investment through both the ups and downs, then you won’t enjoy its average returns, either. So how can you predict your behavior ahead of time?

What the financial industry uses is a risk tolerance survey, or risk questionnaire. You are asked a series of multiple choice questions based on theoretical scenarios to find your risk tolerance. You or a hired professional can then use that information – along with other factors like risk required and risk capacity – to determine your portfolio. I’ve taken several of these online assessments, but can someone really know how they would react to a 50% drop in their net worth in an environment of mass panic, without actually experiencing it? It is the real-world behavior that matters.

If a risk survey is the best tool available, what is the best risk survey? Which one is most carefully-written, backed by academic research, and historically vetted? From what I can tell, that is the Finametrica Risk Profiling Survey. Normally the cost is $40 for an individual to take the test, but I ran across a discount in this CNN Money article:

You can get a more accurate gauge of your appetite for risk by completing a risk tolerance questionnaire. Vanguard has a good asset allocation tool that’s free, while FinaMetrica offers a more comprehensive version for $40 (although given recent market turbulence FinaMetrica is offering the test and the nine-page report that comes with it for $4 until the end of September). Both tests recommend an investment portfolio based on your answers.

Okay, four bucks, I can handle that. (The promo has been extended to October 31st, as well.) I paid, answered 25 multiple choice questions, and I was done in under 10 minutes. Of course, a few more minutes of poking around and I discovered the same test for free by clicking here. Pfft. What’s up with that?

(Update: Reader Jason points out that the free version doesn’t accept free e-mails like “gmail.com”. I would suggest trying various free e-mail forwarding services if you want a workaround. Just google “disposable e-mail”.)

Questions. I took screenshots of the entire survey but I won’t post the specific questions here. They do share these sample questions, which I can confirm are actual questions from the paid test.

1. Compared to others, how do you rate your willingness to take financial risks?
Extremely low risk taker.
Very low risk taker.
Low risk taker.
Average risk taker.
High risk taker.
Very high risk taker.
Extremely high risk taker.

2. How easily do you adapt when things go wrong financially?
Very uneasily.
Somewhat uneasily.
Somewhat easily.
Very easily.

3. When you think of the word “risk” in a financial context, which of the following words comes to mind first?
Danger.
Uncertainty.
Opportunity.
Thrill.

The general idea is that the questions poke and prod you from various directions, trying to avoid having one misunderstood question alter your overall results. The questions were all brief and multiple choice, except for the last one which asked you to predict your own risk tolerance score relative to the overall population.

Results. Well, I guessed that my score would be 50 out of 100. My actual score was 54 out of 100, which they say is “slightly-higher-than-average” and actually in the 64th percentile. (So the score isn’t a percentile even though they are on a bell curve? I’m not good at statistics.)

riskprofile1

According to your risk, you are assigned one of 7 Risk Groups. You are then told the “typical attitudes and values” for people of your Risk Group, as well as if you differed significantly in any specific areas. Here’s how people in my Risk Group 4 would have picked their overall portfolio:

riskprofile3

So my risk tolerance peers would pick Portfolio 4, but in reality I am between a Portfolio 5 and 6.

Finally, you are provided a summary chart. Here’s mine:

riskprofile2

Final impressions.

  • Relatively good risk tolerance survey. I’ve already expressed my view that these surveys are only one limited piece of the puzzle. But as far as risk surveys go, this one did feel like it went more in-depth than others that I have tried. However, I would have enjoyed more interactivity and/or questions using charts and/or graphs.
  • Best as a tool to help communicate your personality to others, like spouse or financial advisor. I didn’t feel the report was very useful to me. I already know that I am a relatively conservative investor who also knows that I have to take some risks to beat inflation. The real value of this survey is that it would help describe my investment personality to my spouse, partner, kids, or financial planner. So if it’s just you, I don’t know if I can recommend it. If you want to educate a family member, then it may be worth the time and money. If you have an advisor, get them to pay for it. :)
  • $40 price point is high for individuals. As a DIY investor, I would not have paid $40 to answer 25 multiple choice questions about myself. I can definitely see an advisor paying that much on behalf of their client as part of their service (and many do). At the discounted $4 rate, I thought it was worth it. Of course, free would have been even better…
  • Don’t expect any specific portfolio recommendations. The CNN article promised a “recommended investment portfolio based on your answers”. I don’t think that is an accurate statement (see table above). I would say you just get a very high-level breakdown of what other people of a similar risk level “would prefer”. They don’t even use the words “stocks”, “bonds”, or “cash”.

BullionDirect Bankruptcy: Buyer Beware With Gold Storage Companies

2015goldBullionDirect.com sold gold and silver bullion and even offered to store it in a vault for you for free. How nice of them. Unfortunately, they lied. From a Austin American-Statesman article with lots of customer interviews:

By the time auditors and lawyers got access to Bullion Direct’s 14th-floor offices six weeks ago, there were only a handful of gold and silver coins in an office safe. A second vault it had recently rented held only slightly more.

An estimated $30 million in cash, metal bullion and valuable coins, meanwhile, had vanished.

Here’s another snippet from a CoinWeek article (more detailed updates here):

Bullion Direct filed a declaration that stated that “when a customer placed an order, the precious metal was not actually purchased unless the customer agreed to take actual delivery of the product.” In other words, they never bought the metal customers purchased if it was to be stored.

This story is not about whether or not to buy gold. The lesson is that if you buy physical gold from a dealer and they either never deliver it to you or they say they’ll store it for you but the vault is really empty and say “oops we’re bankrupt!”… there is no government insurance mechanism that guarantees your assets. They can say they have “layers of insurance” and “regular, independent audits”, but they could also be lying to your face. If you have your gold stored somewhere, do you know the actual name of the insurance company they are using, and have you verified with that company about what exactly that policy covers?

From what I can tell, you could just replace “gold storage” with “pink teddy bear storage” to get an approximate idea of your level of protection. You can sue for your lost teddy bears, but if the company is broke and criminally stole your money, you may not get much if anything back even after liquidating any remaining assets.

This is very different from keeping assets under set limits at an FDIC-insured bank or holding regulated securities at an SIPC-insured brokerage firm. If you hold cash at a FDIC-insured bank and it fails, you’ll get your money back (subject to limits of $250k per account designation). If you hold Vanguard mutual funds in a TD Ameritrade account, those shares are also structured as to be protected if either Vanguard or TD Ameritrade has financial problems. (To be clear, your number of shares is protected up to limits, but the market value of those shares is not guaranteed.)

If I was to buy gold, so far my plan would be to buy 1 oz. American Eagle coins direct from a US Mint Authorized Purchaser, and then test them again myself with this Fisch gold coin tester. There is a premium over spot price for coins, but it would improve liquidity. Perhaps it is even worth paying the 3% markup for paying with credit card, especially if you can earn at least 2% in cash back or points, and then chalk up the net 1% markup as a form of purchase protection. Of course, storing it yourself has its own set of potential issues.

Charts: Municipal Bond to US Treasury Yield Ratio

I’ve been investing in tax-exempt municipal bonds for a few years now. I made the change due to a combination of reasons. For one thing, I started running out of room in my tax-deferred accounts for US Treasury bonds, TIPS bonds, and REITs. Second, I believe that buying muni bonds through a Vanguard actively-managed mutual fund gives me a diversified mix of high-quality bonds. Third, the effective after-tax yields on muni bonds can be very attractive when compared to US Treasury bond yields. In many time periods, muni yields have been as high as Treasury yields, even before any tax considerations. This was very rare pre-2008 financial crisis, with the historical average being a 80% ratio.

Here are a few charts that track the relationship between the yields on US Treasury and Investment-grade municipal bonds. Notice that the ratio of Muni-to-Treasury has kept close to 100% in the last few years. I’ve tried to dig up enough to cover a continuous timeline, but let me know if you have a better graph.

muni_timing3

Source: Wealthmanagement.com

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Source: Financial-Planning.com

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Source: ValueWalk.com

Although it can be tempting to use these charts as timing tools, I try to focus on the overall picture. Due to the tax-exempt advantage, I am happy as long as the muni rates are roughly the same as Treasury rates.

As of September 9, 2015, the SEC yield of Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Investors Shares (VWITX) was 1.78% while the SEC yield of Vanguard Intermediate-Term Treasury Investor Shares (VFITX) was 1.43%. Both are hardly exciting and the muni fund is considered a little more risky (how much riskier is quite difficult to quantify), but for my own portfolio I think the higher yield is worth it especially considering the muni interest is exempt from federal income taxes.

Muni bonds are a somewhat different from other asset classes because they are owned mostly by individuals as opposed to institutions. Based on Morningstar investor returns, us individuals haven’t shown any superior skill at market timing their buys.

muni_timing

However, the performance gap is similar to that of the Vanguard Treasury fund of similar duration. So perhaps that gap is just due to the effect of natural cashflow timing (i.e. regular investments over time) rather than failed attempts at chasing performance.

Do Financial Advisors Really Keep Portfolios and Clients Disciplined?

I written about Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA), a mutual fund family that is powered by top academic research. Another things that makes DFA unique is that they are only sold through approved financial advisors. You can’t buy them with just any old brokerage account. (Exceptions are certain 401(k)-style retirement plans and 529 college savings plans.) Allan Roth has new article about DFA funds in Financial Planning magazine, which is a trade publication targeted to financial professionals.

Why not sell directly to Average Joe investor? Here is David Butler, head of DFA Global Financial Advisor Services:

DFA has no intention of bypassing the advisor channel and offering its funds directly to retail investors. “We think advisors help keep investors disciplined,” Butler says.

In my previous post The True Value of a Real, Human Financial Advisor, I wrote about this concept. A good client advisor will help you keep your cool when the next disaster comes. Vanguard says that the biggest “value add” from good advisors is their “behavioral coaching”. A good financial advisor keeps you from making the “Big Mistake” that derails your plans.

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But later in the same Allan Roth article, the idea of advisors as disciplinarians is called into question.

But do investors get better returns? I tested Butler’s claim that DFA advisors help keep investors disciplined by asking Morningstar to compare the performance gap between the two fund families. The performance gap is the difference between investor returns (dollar weighted) and fund returns (geometric).

Over the 10 years ending Dec. 31, 2014, the DFA annualized performance gap stood at 1.28% versus only 0.22% for Vanguard. When I showed these figures to Butler, he responded, “It’s hard to make an argument about the discipline of advisors based on these figures.

Here’s a primer on investor returns vs. fund returns. Investor returns are the actual returns earned by investors, based on the timing of their buying and selling activities.

The next step was to compare the investor returns of DFA’s largest fund, DFA Emerging Markets Value I Fund (DFEVX) with $14B in assets with the closest Vanguard competitor, Vanguard Emerging Markets Index Fund (VEMAX) with $54B in assets. I personally think a better comparison would be with their DFA Emerging Markets Core Equity I Fund (DFCEX), so I’m throwing that in as well.

DFA fund returns are often higher relative to index fund competitors. Here’s a Morningstar chart comparing the growth of $10,000 invested 10 years ago in each of the three funds. You can see the DFA funds do slightly better in terms of fund returns. Click to enlarge.

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But what about investor returns? I took some screenshots of their respective Morningstar Investor Return pages.

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We see that after accounting for the timing of actual cashflows, the average investor in the DFA fund actually lost money with an annualized return of -1.01% and -2.04%! Meanwhile, the average Vanguard investor earned over 6% annualized.

The three mutual funds don’t have the exact same investment objective, but they do both all pull from the overall Emerging Markets asset class. The DFA funds try to focus ways to earn greater long-term return by holding stocks with a higher “value” factor, but it also has a higher expense ratio. The Vanguard fund just tries to “buy the haystack” and passively track the entire index.

Let’s recap. The stated reason why DFA is only sold through advisors is that they offer more discipline. We are told that such behavioral coaching is where human advisors provide their greatest value. However, the evidence available suggests that DFA advisors are less good at trading discipline than when a similar fund is completely open to retail investors.

I found this rather surprising. I used to think that restricting my potential advisors to those were affiliated with DFA was one way of getting an “above-average” advisor. But after doing my own research, I found that even though DFA investments are generally lower-cost, the additional fees charged by individual advisors ranged widely from reasonable to quite expensive.

I am confident there are financial advisors that can provide the proper behavioral coaching that makes them well worth the cost. At the same time, clearly many are not providing the advertised guidance and discipline. The problem remains – how does Average Joe investor find the good ones? I still know of no clear-cut way.

Lifetime Income vs. Lump Sum Payouts: You May Live Longer Than You Think

My parents are in the midst of planning their retirement payout structure. I don’t know about everyone else, but in my mind I tend to plan to live to pretty much exactly age 80. Early death is depressing to think about (even though I have term life insurance), but what about the other end? The Statistical Ideas blog had a timely post about longevity risks and lump-sum payouts which contained a “death table” (horrible name) for people born in 1950. I’m going to paraphrase the explanation in a way that makes more sense to me.

1950longevity

  • Out of every 100 people born in 1950, roughly 1/3rd are expected to die by age 65. (Blue)
  • If you are in the group alive at 65, your life expectancy is now age 79. That is, half of that group will die before 79. (Green)
  • But, that also means you have a 50% chance of living past 79. If so, you will live to somewhere between 80 to 110. In other words, possibly a really long time! (Red)

If you are a couple, then the odds of at least one of you living a really long time is even higher. Let’s take a couple, one male and one female, who are both age 65. According to this Vanguard longevity calculator, there is an 89% chance at least one will reach age 80, and a 45% chance at last one will reach age 90. If you are younger, your life expectancy is even longer; enter your age(s) into the calculator.

Here’s my mental shortcut. For an individual that is 65 today, there is roughly a 50/50 chance they will reach age 80. For a couple both at 65, roughly a 50/50 chance that at least one person will reach age 90. Putting it this makes make either scenario equally likely and would push me to plan accordingly. On one side of the coin flip, you have to enjoy life now! On the other side, you need to be prepared.

This longevity risk needs to be accounted for when you give up pensions or annuities that offer you a guaranteed income for life. A lump sum payout may sound attractive, but be very careful. Have any annuity and pension buyout offers analyzed and checked by an unbiased third-party. It is a big decision and may be worth paying an expert for their time.

Here’s a sad story of lowball buyout offers for lead-paint victims. Not to say all lump-sum offers are this bad, but it serves as a warning to make sure you understand what you are giving up.

Stock Investing: Taking Your Money Off The Table Until Things Calm Down?

Like most articles you’ve seen about about the recent market gyrations, I think people with long-term investments should act like it and not do anything special. But really, the past several days was nothing compared to real fear and uncertainty. In early 2009, a phrase I heard often was “I’m just going to take some money off the table until things calm down. Why risk it?”

Well, here’s a chart from FiveThirtyEight.com comparing the results of a “cautious, play-it-safe” investor and the “do-nothing” investor:

538_markets

Imagine two people who each invested $1,000 in the S&P 500 at the beginning of 1980. The first one buys once and never sells. The second one is slightly more cautious: He sells any time the market loses 5 percent in a week, and buys back in once it rebounds 3 percent from wherever it bottoms out. At the end of last week, the first investor’s holdings would be worth $18,635. The second investor would have just $10,613.

Remember, the only two possibilities for the stock market are all-time high or a drawdown. The highs you don’t really feel. The drawdowns are quite painful. Here’s a nice chart from Doug Short illustrating the drawdowns since 2009. Lots of painful drawdowns, but during that time the market is up over 200%.

538_dshort2

This is also why financial advisors tell you to create an investment policy statement. That’s where you write down ahead of time “If the markets drop 10% in a week or two, I will do [action or lack of action] because [reason].” Then when the drop actually happens, you break out that piece of paper to remind yourself what the calm, rational version of yourself would have done.

Robinhood App Review: Free Stock Trades With No Catch?

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Updated review in August 2015 to include new Android app, new order types, and more.

Fintech start-up Robinhood wants to “democratize the financial markets” by creating a mobile-first brokerage that offers unlimited free trades with no minimum balance requirement. That is a pretty bold move, and I was skeptical when they started getting noticed in late 2013.

I started out as a beta user in mid-2014 with their beautiful but manually-installed iPhone app. They officially opened to the public in March 2015. As of August 2015, they have both an Apple iOS (and Apple Watch) and Android app and have processed over 2 million free trades. Here’s my updated review based on my experiences with them.

Application process. You must provide your personal information including Social Security number, net worth, income, investing experience, etc. This is the same as any other brokerage firm, but this may also be the first such account for many users. Everything was done online; there were no paper documents that required mailing or faxing.

Core features.

  • Yes, the app really gives me $0 commission trades with no minimum balance requirement. That means you could open account, put in five bucks, and buy a single share of Zynga (ZNGA) if you wanted to (maybe two on a bad day…).
  • Robinhood now supports market orders, limit orders, stop limit orders, and stop orders. Certain orders may be entered as good for the day or good till canceled (GTC).
  • You can open an individual cash or margin account.
  • Customer service is best through their e-mail support@robinhood.com, but they have added a phone number now during market hours (9:30am – 4:00pm EST) at (650) 940-2700.

Along with all the other legit brokerage firms, Robinhood Financial is a member of the SIPC which protects the securities in your account up to $500,000. Data is encrypted with SSL. Apex is their clearing firm.

Funds transfers. You can manually link any bank account with your routing number and account number, but you can also directly use your username and password at these banks: Chase, Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, Charles Schwab, PNC, Silicon Vally Bank, and USAA. ACH transfers are free and take approximately 3 business days (same as other brokerages).

Robinhood recently added an automatic deposits feature where you can schedule ACH transfers on a weekly, biweekly, monthly, or quarterly basis.

What’s missing? Getting free trades is great, but I think it’s also important to know what you won’t get, at least right now:

  • You must access your account via a mobile Apple iOS or Android device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android phone, Android tablet). Web interface is “coming in 2015”.
  • Broker-assisted phone trades are $10 each, according to their fee schedule.
  • Electronic statements are the default. I don’t even see an option to enable paper statements in the app, but according to their fee schedule paper statements cost $5 a pop.
  • As of August 2015, Robinhood does not support ACAT transfers, so you can’t move over your existing assets from an outside brokerage. (Or move out your assets via ACAT either, I’m guessing.)

How do they make money? For now, Robinhood will make money the same way other brokers do: collect interest on your idle cash, charge you interest for margin loans, and sell order flow. The most innovative prospect is to the plan to sell API access to other financial apps.

The fact that Robinhood sells order flow may leave you with a slightly worse execution price as compared to other brokers with more complex order routing. If you are making large value trades, then this small percentage difference may add up to something significant that matters more than commission price. With my tiny order volume, I am fine with them selling my order flow if they are giving me commission-free trades.

User interface. Over the last 10 years, I’ve opened an account at the majority of the “discount” brokerage firms. I’ve had $0 trades before, along with $2 trades, $2.50 trades, $4.95 trades and so on. What makes Robinhood special is their modern, app-centric approach. I agree with this quote from Wired:

But the app’s simplicity is meant to be about more than style. Ease of access and understanding is meant to make Robinhood compulsively engaging for a new generation of investors that don’t find the stock market very accessible from the mobile screens at the center of their lives.

Even though I don’t trade frequently, I still check the app all the time. More often than my primary Vanguard account. Why? Because it’s so easy. One tap on the Robinhood app logo, and either a quick 4-digit PIN or thumbprint with a newer iPhone. It’s a pet peeve of mine to have to type in a 16-character password on a tiny keyboard just to check a balance. I think other finance apps can learn a lot from Robinhood in this respect. I think only Mint and Robinhood support Touch ID on my phone.

Screenshots.

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Recap. Robinhood delivers on their free stock trades with no minimum balance promise. The app-only user interface is clean and intuitive. Customer service is a bit lean, but my requests were responded to within a day or so. They continue to make incremental improvements every month. I’m still skeptical about whether they can make the economics work over the long run, but they do appear to be streamlining wherever they can.

More: Fee Schedule, Official FAQ, Techcrunch, Buzzfeed