Financial Advisors Can Improve Portfolio Performance by 3% a Year?


alphaAt a major ETF industry conference, Vanguard CIO Tim Buckley shared a preview of an upcoming report from by Vanguard Research. The general idea is that a good financial advisor should be able to affect the performance of client’s portfolio by three full percentage points. That’s a really big number, and I’m sure it has many advisors excited. Here’s how that 3% breaks down:

  • 1.5% – Controlling client behavior. Avoid market timing. Don’t chase performance. Stick with asset allocation. Stay the course and keep investing during market downturns.
  • 0.60% – Efficient tax management. Maintain optimal asset location (not allocation) to minimize tax costs. When money is needed, determine which assets and when to sell.
  • 0.50% – Keeping costs low. You have the ability to choose investments with low expenses.
  • 0.40% – Rebalancing. Rebalance regularly back to target asset allocation.

Buckley used the terms “controlling alpha”. Alpha is defined as excess risk-adjusted return above a benchmark, usually involving things like timing asset class movements and careful stock selection to make the difference. In contrast, the four factors listed above are less about being smarter than everyone else and more about avoiding simple mistakes.

This is still helpful advice, as these are the areas in which you should realistically expect assistance when looking for a financial advisor. It’s quite unlikely that the friendly person in the office building downtown is the next Warren Buffett. However, he or she may be the calming voice that you need to stay the course. I don’t know about 3%, but I do think a good advisor can invest better than many people on their own. As long as the advisor costs less than their “advisor alpha” benefit, you’ll come out ahead. The hard part, as always, is to find one of these “good” advisors.

Of course, being a DIY investor I feel I can do all these things myself. I also can’t help but notice again that many of these aspects are already rolled up into a nice balanced fund like the Vanguard Target Retirement 20XX Funds. By being all-in-one, the fund discourages trading and encourages doing nothing. The funds rebalance back to their target asset allocations automatically. The costs are extremely low. The only area where they come up short is tax-efficiency. However, for many individual investors the vast majority of their retirement assets are located in tax-advantaged accounts like IRAs and 401ks. In those cases, the benefits of tax-management are minimal.

It will be interesting to read the methodology behind the full report when it is published.

Sources: InvestmentNews (registration req’d),

Prosper P2P Loans Class Action Settlement

P2P lender was sued because the defendants “allegedly violated securities laws due to Prosper’s selling securities without qualifying or registering them and acting as an unlicensed broker-dealer” (they later registered with the SEC). I was just notified that the case was settled without admission of wrongdoing for $10 million (1/3rd will go to lawyers of course). Details at

You are eligible for a portion of this settlement if you purchased notes from Prosper between January 1, 2006 and October 14, 2008. This period is sometimes referred to as “Prosper 1.0″. You used to be able to bid on loans, and many early investors lost money while this new model was being tested out (their loan collection methods back then were horrendous). Accordingly, settlement payouts will be made “in proportion to the aggregate amount of losses”.

It appears that you don’t have to file a claim to get your share of the settlement. However, if you have changed e-mails since buying since investing in a Prosper loan, you may not have gotten this notice. Also, if you moved you should update your address on record to make sure you get that check.

1994-2013 Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns


Reader Ben shared this in the comments, and I think it deserves a separate mention. 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 (click to view PDF), which covers 1994 to 2013. 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.

You can try to find some patterns, but I doubt you’ll find anything significant. Sometimes an asset class has a hot streak that last a few years, and other times an asset class is on top one year and bottom the next. Most recently, Emerging markets equities were on top in 2012, and bottom in 2013.

Also, while the table compares relative performance, you can also note that absolute performance changes all the time as well. In 2013 the best asset class returned +43% while the worst asset class returned -2%. Contrast this with 2008, when the best asset class returned +5% while the worst asset class returned -53%. Sometimes you just can’t lose, and other times you just can’t win.

So I won’t bother predicting what will happen in 2014, and will instead continue owning multiple, less-correlating asset classes using low-cost passive investments. Oh, and I make sure to rebalance them regularly.

Estimate Your Portfolio Personal Rate of Return – Calculator

Updated and revised for 2014. Some of you may be wondering how well your specific portfolio performed last year (or over any specific period of time). Let’s say you started the year with $10,000 and put in another $5,000 through 10 different deposits spaced throughout the year, and ended up with $16,000. What was your rate of return? Your main goal is simply to separate the effect of new deposits (or withdrawals) and your actual return from investments.

Figuring out your exact personal rate of return requires you to know the exact dates of all your deposits and withdrawals, along with a financial calculator or spreadsheet program with an IRR function (example here). However, for a quick and simple estimate of your returns, try this calculator instead:

Initial Balance: $
Total Deposits: $
Total Withdrawals: $
Final Balance: $
Time period:   year(s)
Your estimated annualized rate of return:   %


  1. Get your initial balance. This is probably from your brokerage statements. Try January of last year.
  2. Tally up any deposits or withdrawals. For example, let’s say you know you put $3,000 in your Roth IRA and also 5% of your $40,000 salary into a 401(k). That would be $3,000 + $2,000 = $5,000. That’s it, you don’t need to worry about looking up the specific dates and amounts.
  3. Get your final balance. Your December statement is probably available already.
  4. Find the time elapsed (in years) between your initial and final balances.
  5. Hit Calculate. An estimate of your annualized return is instantly given.

How Accurate Is This Estimate?
The calculator assumes that the inflows and outflows are spread evenly around the middle of the year. I originally saw this method in the book The Four Pillars of Investing (review). However, unless the deposits and withdrawals are very large as compared to the initial balance, the estimates are actually pretty good.

For example, let’s say that you start with $100,000 on 1/1/13, and end up with $120,000 on 1/1/14. If you had net deposits of $10,000 during the year, the calculator above would estimate your return at 9.52%. If the $10,000 was actually deposited all at once on one of these specific days, you would get the following exact returns:

Deposit Date Exact Return
1/1/13 (very first day) 9.1%
6/04/13 (middle of the year) 9.5%
1/1/14 (very last day) 10%
Estimate 9.5%


Also check out the rest of my Tools and Calculators.

Another Reason Why Vanguard Target Retirement Funds Are Underrated


Index funds are growing increasingly popular. Yet Carl Richards tweets that over the last 15 years, the actual investor return for the popular Vanguard S&P 500 index fund (VFINX) lags nearly 2% a year behind the fund’s official return. That works out to a final balance that is 24% less. This means that if you account for the timing of actual dollar inflows and outflows, the average investor in the fund actually earned a lot less than they might think. (More explanation on investor returns vs. advertised returns here.)

Here’s the data taken straight from Morningstar. The longer the time period, the worse the relative performance:

As Abnormal Returns put it, “indexing is no panacea“. I think part of the problem is that people use the S&P 500 as a proxy for the overall stock market and thus trade it much more frequently… and poorly. If you were really afraid during the 2008 financial crisis, it was really tempting to sell your stock shares and keep it in something “safe” instead like bonds or cash. You may still be in cash today after missing out on the rebound.

But what about the Vanguard Target Retirement 20XX Funds, which are basically just a mix of different index funds? Specifically, let’s take the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund (VTIVX). It’s mostly stocks, and mostly US stocks at that, so it should behave similarly to VFINX. Check out the 10-year growth chart comparison with the S&P 500 fund:

However, the average investor returns for the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund are much closer to the fund returns. The investor return over the 10-year period is actually better than the fund return, although some of that may have to do with the small asset base in 2004.

Why is this? My opinion is that people who own the Vanguard Target Retirement fund trade a lot less frequently. Part of this is self-selection. If you buy this fund, you desire simplicity. Also, if you own an all-in-one fund that holds both stocks and bonds together, you don’t have the problem of seeing one investment drop while the other rises. This is the benefit of buying a “balanced” fund.

You won’t see Vanguard Target Retirement funds being touted very much in the financial media. Their returns are rarely at the top since they are index-based, so magazines and newsletters won’t write about them. Most advisors are supposedly charging you for their “expert” advice, so they will of course recommend something more complicated. Even index fund enthusiasts like myself often don’t invest in them because we like to fine-tune and tinker (sometimes to our detriment).

Despite their boring nature and lack of publicity, I have long recommended Vanguard Target Retirement funds to members of my family. They are simple yet diversified, have very low expenses, and designed to be left alone. You don’t even have to rebalance your holdings; it is done for you automatically. Could you do better? Maybe. Could you do worse? Definitely.

Stock-Picking Mutual Funds Still Lacking in Persistence

It is very tempting to invest in an actively-managed mutual fund that advertises above-average historical returns. Why would you bother investing in the ones with below-average returns? However, there’s something behind the whole “past performance does not guarantee future results” fine print. While there will always be funds that outperform looking backwards, that fact just doesn’t reveal very much about the future.

Index provider Standard & Poor’s publishes something called the S&P Persistence Scorecard twice a year, which examines the persistence of mutual fund performance over consecutive and overlapping time periods. By using quartiles, relative performance is compared, not absolute performance. Do the funds that had top returns in the past continue to have top returns?

The most recent December 2013 study [pdf] reaffirms the general conclusions of many other similar studies on persistence of actively-managed mutual fund performance, namely that it is often nowhere to be found when compared with random chance.

Very few funds can consistently stay at the top. Our studies show that as time horizons widen,the performance persistence of top quartile managers declines. Of the 692 funds that were in the top quartile as of September 2011, only 7.23% managed to stay in the top quartile at the end of September 2013. Similarly, 5.28% of the large-cap funds, 10.31% of the mid-cap funds and 8.15% of the small-cap funds remain in the top quartile.

For the three years ended September 2013, 19.25% of large-cap funds, 20.1% of mid-cap funds and 26.8% of small-cap funds maintained a top-half ranking over three consecutive 12-month periods. It should be noted that random expectations would suggest a rate of 25% and small-cap funds was the only category to exceed the repeat rate.

A good analogy I’ve read is that you don’t drive by only looking at your rearview mirror.

More: Barron’s, Rick Ferri/Forbes

ETF vs. Mutual Funds: Tax Efficiency, Capital Gains, and Index Funds

2013 was a great year for US stocks, and that also means that many mutual funds distributed (taxable) capital gains to their shareholders. ETFs are hot right now and there are many articles like this one which tout the tax-efficiency aspect of ETFs as to why they are superior to mutual funds.

Yes, it is true that ETFs have an inherent structural advantage over mutual funds in avoiding the production of capital gains. (I won’t explain it here, but here is one explanation.) However, the primary reason that mutual funds tend to distribute more capital gains is that most ETFs are passive and thus trade sparingly, while actively-managed funds by definition buy and sell much more frequently (what else are you paying them to do?).

But if you hold a good index fund, it will have very low turnover and thus you’ll rarely have to deal with capital gains either way. For example, both the Vanguard S&P 500 Index Fund (VFINX) and the Fidelity Spartan 500 Index Fund (FUSEX) had zero capital gains distributions in 2013 despite being up over 30% for the year.

On top of all that, at Vanguard their mutual funds and ETFs of the same name are structured as different share classes of the same basket of securities. That means the mutual funds and ETFs have exactly the same level of tax-efficiency. From the Vanguard website:

Are there tax advantages to owning Vanguard ETFs?
Because Vanguard ETFs are shares of conventional Vanguard index funds, they can take full advantage of tax-management strategies available to conventional funds and to ETFs. Conventional index funds can manage tax liabilities by selling high-cost securities to realize losses to offset realized gains. Vanguard ETFs can also limit a fund’s potential capital gains exposure by using in-kind redemptions to eliminate stocks with high built-in capital gains from the portfolio. This advantage gives our Vanguard ETFs management team more flexibility in implementing tax-management strategies.

For example in 2013, both the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index mutual fund (VBMFX) and ETF version Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF (BND) distributed a small long-term capital gain 0.076% of NAV.

Bottom line: If you hold passively-managed index funds, it really won’t matter much tax-wise if you pick ETF or mutual fund. If you hold Vanguard funds, it won’t matter at all. There are other factors like expense ratio differences or intra-day pricing availability that may sway you to either mutual fund or ETFs.

If you hold actively-managed funds, you will be less tax-efficient and that will be an additional drag on performance unless you hold them in tax-advantaged accounts.

S&P 500 Total Dividend Growth Charts


While dividend size is not the primary driver of my investment decisions, I still love seeing dividend distributions arrive in my brokerage account and consider them a critical part of my portfolio’s total return.

Eddy Elfenbein of Crossing Wall Street created the chart below, plotting both the S&P 500 index value (blue) and its dividends (red). The vertical axes are scaled 50:1, so that when they cross the dividend yield is 2%. We see that while dividends don’t always go up in the short term, they have been bouncing back and growing along with stock prices today (unlike during the dot-com boom).


If you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, has a chart showing the dividend growth for the S&P 500 on a real (inflation-adjusted) basis since 1870. While the dividend yield remains at historical lows, the total amount of dividends still appear to grow faster than inflation over longer (10+ year) periods. Note the vertical axis is on a log-scale.

Retirement Portfolio Update – Year-End 2013


Here’s a 2013 year-end update of our retirement portfolio, which includes employer 401(k) plans, self-employed retirement plans, Traditional and Roth IRAs, and taxable brokerage holdings. Cash reserves (emergency fund), college savings accounts, experimental portfolios, and day-to-day cash balances are excluded. The purpose of this portfolio is to eventually create enough income on its own to cover all daily expenses.

Target Asset Allocation

This has been mostly the same for over 6 years, although I did make some slight tweaks in my last June 2013 update.

I try to pick asset classes that are likely to provide a long-term return above inflation, as well as offer some historical tendencies to be less correlated to each other. I don’t hold commodities futures or gold because theoretically their prices should only match inflation. In addition, I am not confident in them enough to know that I will hold them through an extended period of underperformance (and if you don’t do that, there’s no point). 2013 turned out to be a tough year for both gold and commodities funds.

Our current ratio is about 70% stocks and 30% bonds within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and rebalance. With low expense ratios and low turnover, we minimize our costs in terms of paying fees, commissions, and taxes.

Actual Holdings

Here is our year-end asset allocation snapshot:

Stock Holdings (Ticker Symbol)
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 High-Yield Tax-Exempt Fund (VWAHX, VWALX)
PIMCO Total Return Institutional* (PTTRX)
Stable Value Fund* (2.6% yield, net of fees)
iShares Barclays TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)
Individual TIPS securities
US Savings Bonds

The holdings haven’t changed through the latter half of this year, just some additional purchases of existing funds.

In terms of performance, in general stocks had a great year while bonds pretty much went nowhere or slightly down. I don’t expect everything to go up every year, not to mention my portfolio is bigger than I could have expected just a few years ago, so I can’t complain. Here are some 2013 YTD total returns for selected representative funds as of 12/27/13:

Total US VTI +33%
Total International VXUS +14%
US Small Cap Value DES +37%
Emerging Market Small Cap Value DGS -5%

Short-term Muni VMLUX +0.5%
Intermediate-term Muni VWALX -3%
Inflation-protected bonds -9%

Robinhood App: Unlimited Free Stock Trades… But Will It Work?


Is the endgame for stock commissions really free trades? Silicon Valley startup wants to try, this time in smartphone app form. Recently approved by finance regulatory agency FINRA to become a broker-dealer, this comparison chart shows their ambitious plan to offer unlimited free trades with no minimum balance requirement.

This has been tried before. Zecco stood for Zero Cost Commissions. They had no physical branches, free trades had to be placed online. They had a “lean engineering team”. They used social media. They tried to make enough money from margin interest and order flow to cover everything else. But it wasn’t enough, and they gradually had to raise commissions.

I have my theories why. If your main selling point is “free commissions”, you’re going to get a lot of inexperienced “newbie” investors. Being a broker-dealer has a lot of compliance and regulatory overhead, so together you’ll need a lot of call center workers to provide good customer service. Skilled employees cost a lot of money. (Sometimes I think it was actually efficient for Scottrade to spread these people out in physical branches.) Plus, newbies with low balances won’t generate much order flow and are unlikely to pay much margin interest.

Many free online services and apps can get away with minimal staff because they can effectively just ignore the high-maintenance customers and hope they go away. Robinhood won’t be able to do that.

I want Robinhood to succeed. I signed up on their early access waitlist (use my link and supposedly I’ll move up in line) and I’ll likely open an account to try them out. But I just don’t see where the alternative revenue will come from.

Added 12/26: Their fee schedule includes a $50 account closure fee. This is not a common fee and hopefully some public pressure will get them to remove it?

Added 1/8/14: The $50 account closure fee is no longer shown on the fee schedule.

Visualizations of Investment Performance by Asset Class 2011-2013


The blog Short Side of Long has a nice post discussing the relative performance of several different asset classes over the last few years. The charts especially caught my eye, and I went over to to make my own with the asset classes that I prefer to follow.

Here are 2013 year-to-date price charts for selected major asset classes (using representative ETFs): total US stock market (ticker VTI), total international stock market (ticker VXUS), total US bond market (ticker BND), inflation-protected US bonds (ticker TIP), and gold (ticker GLD). Dividends are not included. As mentioned earlier, 2013 was year where assets didn’t move in sync (lower correlations).

(click to enlarge)

The chart below shows the same ETFs over all of 2012. Looking back, it felt like every asset class ended positively and everything was recovering in 2012.

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Picking Municipal Bond Funds & The Importance of Low Fees


Due to a lack of tax-deferred space, my current tax bracket, and the current interest rate spread over US Treasury bonds, I started investing part of my portfolio in Vanguard’s tax-exempt municipal bond funds. As a result, I try to read every single muni bond article that Vanguard puts out. In this month’s blog post Municipal debt, Detroit, and diversification, one of the topics covered was the importance of minimizing fund fees.

Research shows that lower-cost mutual funds have tended to perform better than higher-cost funds over time. So instead of worrying about things we can’t control (e.g., how a judge in a municipal bankruptcy is going to decide a case), we should focus on controlling the one variable that we can, which is cost.

The article included the chart below, which plots the net fund expense ratios of municipal bond funds against their 5-year annualized returns.

Source: Vanguard Blog, Morningstar

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