Vanguard Target Date Retirement Funds: Embrace Your Inner Ronco Rotisserie Oven!

ronco200b

I’m a fan of the Vanguard Target Retirement 20XX Funds. These Target Date Funds (TDFs) may not be perfect, but they are a low-cost, broadly-diversified, “set-it-and-forget-it” fund that I feel are consistently under-appreciated and easily maligned due to their inherent “one-size-fits-most” nature.

In a recent Vanguard blog post titled “TDF investors are not rotisserie ovens”, senior product manager John Croke felt the “set it and forget it” description “fuels the misperception that many investors in TDF strategies are disengaged, disinterested, and generally unaware of what they’re invested in.”

The subsequent points he makes are certainly valid, but I happen to think the rotisserie oven analogy should be worn as a badge of honor! As Jason Zweig writes in the WSJ article “Radical Investing Advice: Do Nothing, Nada, Zilch, Zippo”:

Target-date investors, says Jeff Holt, an analyst at Morningstar, “are less prone to take matters into their own hands and move their assets around when markets are gyrating.”

[…] research by Financial Engines found that participants with little or no money in target-date funds underperform them by an average of 2.1 percentage points annually.

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). They never seem to be the “best” move, just something you settle for when you can’t think of anything better. I think this cartoon describes the situation well (found via @michaelbatnick):

ronco_truth

It is an unpleasant truth that most people would be better off just focusing their energy on savings rate and leaving the investing to a Vanguard Target Retirement Fund. Another example of the power of inaction: A person who bought the 30 largest US companies back in 1935 and did absolutely nothing after that would have outperformed the S&P 500 over the last 40 years.

Now, I should throw in a few quick points from the Vanguard blog post about what investors shouldn’t forget about:

  • TDFs will continue to hold a certain amount of stock risk after you reach your target retirement age.
  • Along the same lines, TDFs do not provide guaranteed income in retirement.

To summarize, don’t be insulted when being compared to a Ronco rotisserie oven. Be proud to “Set it and forget it”. Vanguard Target Retirement Funds even perform the chore of rebalancing between stocks and bonds for you automatically. Perhaps Vanguard could even use some tips from Ron Popeil about marketing their low, low pricing 😉

Making Your Nest Egg Last: Safe Withdrawal Rates vs. Sustainable Withdrawal Rates

eggosReading Warren Buffett’s Annual Letter always reminds me that stocks are not just some numbers that bop up and down, but are shares of real businesses with land, factories, knowledge, and hard-working people. This helps reassure me that the value of those companies taken together will never go to zero, and will eventually rebound and grow over the long term. At the same time, once you stop working and start selling shares, the prospect of going to zero is real. If you combine a prolonged bear market and forced withdrawals at depressed prices, you risk permanently impairing your portfolio.

According to a Merrill Lynch survey of wealthy families with $5+ million (not just people on the street!), 39% of them thought you could spend 6% or more from your portfolio indefinitely. The reality is closer to 3%.

When you see the term safe withdrawal rate, it almost always refers to how much money you can safely withdraw from an investment portfolio each year without running out of money. Usually, this number is set during the first year, and is adjusted annually for inflation. The key phrase is “without running out of money”. You could start out with a $800,000 dollars, but as long as you end with at least $1 and never drop below zero, you’re considered “safe”. In the real world, having your portfolio nosedive while you’re still relatively young may cause you to panic prematurely.

pc_panic

Since I last mentioned PortfolioCharts.com, the creator Tyler has released a new tool called the Withdrawal Rates Calculator. It is quite cool, at least for an asset allocation geek like myself. You can enter your own custom asset allocation, and it will show both the historical safe withdrawal rate and the sustainable withdrawal rate. As defined there, a sustainable withdrawal rate is one where you must end the period with your initial principal amount, for example you must both start and end with $800,000 dollars.

Here are the results for the Classic 60/40 portfolio:

60% Total US Stock Market
40% Total US Bond Market

pc_6040

Here are the results for the Swensen Portfolio, on which my portfolio is loosely based:

30% Total US Stock Market
15% International Developed
5% Emerging Markets
15% 5 Year US Treasuries
15% US TIPS
20% US REIT

pc_swensen

For the Classic 60/40 portfolio, the rough numbers for a 40-year period are 4% for Safe WR and 3.4% for Sustainable WR. For the Swensen portfolio, the rough numbers for a 40-year period are 4.6% for Safe WR and 4.2% for Sustainable WR. If you were to focus on the sustainable numbers, that’s a surprising result of 24% higher withdrawals with the Swensen portfolio (and other asset allocations do even better!)

Can you depend on these historical differences to persist into the future? I would be careful about looking at things too finely, as correlations are always shifting. However, I do prefer using the sustainable withdrawal rate number for my own early retirement planning, and I am thankful to have this tool to tinker with.

(You may also be interested to know that a 100% US stock portfolio, despite its higher historical average returns, has a slightly lower 30-year sustainable withdrawal rate that either of the options above.)

Real World IRA Asset Allocations vs. “Age in Bonds”

As a follow-up to my last post on 100% stocks forever, the referenced NYT article had some neat data that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. This chart shows how the overall asset allocation of IRAs held by Vanguard change according to the age of the investor. The glide path of Vanguard Target Retirement mutual funds is also included for comparison.

nyt_100stocks_glide

Eyeballing things, it appears that past age 65, Traditional IRAs settle at roughly 58% stocks, while Roth IRAs settle at roughly 67% stocks. This “real world glide path” declines much more gradually than ones from the major all-in-one fund providers, and also stays flat from retirement age onward. For comparison, here are additional glide paths for Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, Blackrock, and American Century, taken from a Morningstar paper. (For this chart, retirement age would be roughly 2015.)

target1_full

I don’t know any studies that have found the real reason behind the “real world” numbers. I would suggest as a possible explanation that the average percentage must be asset-weighted, and “rich” people have more assets in aggregate. The “rich” don’t need to make big withdrawals (unless required by law), and so they don’t need to spend every penny before they die. They will leave a chunk of money to heirs and thus have a long time horizon. In turn, this longer time horizon would support the holding of more stocks. Roth IRAs are especially useful as an inheritance vehicle as they don’t have required minimum distributions (RMDs), which could also explain why they are even more strongly weighted in stocks.

Meanwhile, if you need to spend down your assets during retirement, then the asset allocation suggested by Vanguard Target Retirement funds (and all the other major target-date funds) would make more sense. But it’s certainly a good point that these one-size-for-all solutions will not apply to everyone.

If you like low costs, diversification, and simplicity but want more control, I would suggest the option of switching to a Vanguard LifeStrategy all-in-one fund that stays fixed at 40%, 60% or 80% stocks. I use the 60/40 LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX) as a benchmark for my own long-term portfolio asset allocation.

Best Asset Allocation Plan: 100% Stocks, Forever?

The NY Times had a provocative two-part series on portfolio asset allocation by David A. Levine, former chief economist at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company:

I enjoyed reading his opinions, but didn’t agree with all of his points. The heart of my argument is that when the writer says “most people”, he seems to be talking about his Wall Street peers with multi-million dollar retirement portfolios, where most of it will eventually be passed onto heirs or charity. Instead, “most people” are actually trying to make something like a $200,000 nest egg last as long as it possibly can.

Time horizon vs. asset size. The first article brings up the topic of “time horizon”:

This consensus view, though, rests on a fallacy: the belief that as people grow older, their investment horizon shortens and, therefore, their ability to withstand volatility diminishes considerably.

I would argue, instead, that there is an insufficient appreciation of just how apt the metaphor of the “investment horizon” is. Just as a sailor sees but never reaches the horizon, the same is true for nearly all investors.

[…] But what if there’s a bear market? “No big deal,” I say. As long as you don’t panic and sell most of your holdings at the worst times, your annual withdrawals are limited. As a result, you should not really worry about fluctuations in the stock market.

A rule of thumb is that stocks can drop 50% in any given year. Again, let say all you have is $200,000 and you’re withdrawing 4% of that ($670 a month) to supplement your Social Security and/or pension income. If your balance drops to $100,000 due to a economic crisis, and you still need that $670 a month to pay the bills, yes you are going to panic.

If you have a $10 million portfolio, and a market crash means that you simply reign in some of your discretionary purchases, then your stress level is going to be lower. As my own portfolio has grown, I now only hold 70% stocks but also worry less about the stock portion as I know can ride out a bad sequence of returns.

As Josh Brown reports on The Reformed Broker:

Having worked directly and indirectly with investors from all walks of life and every region of the country over the last 18 years, I can promise you that almost no one can endure – emotionally speaking – the volatility and drawdowns that an all-equity portfolio brings to the table.

Long-term performance vs. asset allocation. The second article makes the point that the historical long-term performance of stocks has been higher than all types of bonds, over many different holding periods:

nyt_100stocks_bonds

In my opinion, the logical conclusion from such tables as above is limited to saying that if you are going to invest in stocks, you need to hold them for 20+ years. So if your portfolio is 60% stocks, keep that portion in stocks for 20+ years. The table doesn’t take into account withdrawals or timing risks where you are forced to take out money to meet spending needs during a period of negative returns.

In addition, Warren Buffett is used as an example because he stipulated 90% S&P 500 stocks and 10% Treasury Bills for his wife’s trust upon his passing. Buffett is worried about the long-term returns, not the risk of his wife running out of money. Do you think her withdrawal rate will be anywhere near 4%? It’s going to be a tiny fraction of 1%. I’d bet big bucks that Buffett would not have set the same asset allocation if she only had $500,000 to live on.

In the end, I guess what I am saying is that your asset allocation also depends on your asset size. Your time horizon matters, but also how close you are to missing a rent payment matters too. Products like target-date retirement funds don’t adjust based on if your balance is $10 million or $10,000. Nor should they really, as they don’t know your future spending needs either. Investors themselves (or their advisors) need to take both of these factors into account.

Of course, it would be great not to have to worry about keeping a balance greater than zero. With a big asset base and modest spending levels, you could indeed have an indefinite time horizon and keep 60% in stocks forever, much like a traditional pension plan. I’d require some enormous amount like $10+ million to be 100% stocks forever, though.

Real Estate Crowdfunding 10-Month Update – Patch of Land

pol_house200Here’s an update on one of my real estate crowdfunding experiments. In mid-April 2015, I invested $5,000 into a loan for a single family fix-and-flip in West Sacramento, California. The loan was supposed to be for 6-months (one of the main reasons I chose it). (More details in my initial update.) Well, the short version is that the fix part happened, but it has now been 10 months and the house is still on the market. The borrower took the option of a month-to-month extension. The loan is still current. Here’s a screenshot and some more thoughts:

pol_feb16

Interest received in a timely manner. So far, I’ve been receiving my $45.83 every month ($550 annualized) on my $5,000 initial investment (11% APR). I enabled the option of having my interest automatically swept to my bank account each month. So far, this investment has required zero maintenance.

Read your contract. Just because there is a “6-month expected term” doesn’t mean you’ll get your money back in 6 months. You should read the terms carefully to see what options are available to the borrower if they can’t make that date. Is an extension automatically granted? Is there an increased interest rate? How long does the extension last?

Liquidity, liquidity, liquidity. One of the defining features of this type of investment is that it is highly illiquid. If I buy a mutual fund, I can sell the entire thing and get fair market value as cash in my bank account in a few business days. With an investment like this, the borrower could pay it back early, take their sweet time, or even default entirely and they’d have to liquidate the home before I get my principal back. You must be prepared for all scenarios.

Be happy with your loan-to-value ratio. I personally believe the house is listed for too high a price, but that part is not under my control. What was under my control was choosing to invest only in a loan where I was comfortable with the collateral. For example, they may be asking ~$320,000 but the loan amount was only for $179,000. As I am (one of the folks) in first position lien on the property, the house would need to sell for under $179,000 in net proceeds for me to lose principal.

In other words, have an adequate cushion so that you don’t lose sleep about it at night. It also helps that I’ve already earned 8.6% of my initial investment back over the last 10 months, cash in hand. Finally, I will repeat that this is a speculative investment using “experimental money” that makes up a very small portion of total assets. (Even Burton Malkiel and Jack Bogle have such “funny money” accounts.)

Tax documents. I received a 1099-INT for the interest earned through this loan. The 2015 form was made available in a timely manner on January 27, 2016. As such, it should be rather easy to add this in at tax time.

Dilbert’s Financial Advice on an Index Card

Scott Adams continues to convert wise observations about the workplace into clever and funny comics. Occasionally, he tackles investing and personal finance, like in this recent Dilbert comic:

scottadams_ret

This older comic is more subtle but reflective of why market timing is so alluring:

scottadams_mt

Recently, Ron Lieber of the New York Times profiled a new book about financial advice that fits on an index card. Included was a link to Dilbert’s One-Page Guide to Personal Finance. Looking back on it, I would have to say that Adams’ list stands up to the test of time. I might put #7 about emergency funds a little bit higher on the list, but that’s just nitpicking. For the vast majority of people, sticking to such simple advice would be more than adequate. Certainly much better than Wally’s “above-average” plan!

The Big Short: Movie Notes and Real World Follow-Up

bigshortpost

I managed to catch the movie The Big Short (trailer) before it left the theaters. Having read the book with great interest back in 2011, I wondered how it would remade for the big screen. Isn’t it hard to believe that the events described started roughly an entire decade ago? There are plenty of reviews at all the big media sites, but here are my notes:

  • The original book The Big Short by Michael Lewis was classified as non-fiction.* The movie, however, is only “based on a true story”. As such, many of the individual names were changed. Steve Eisman (real person) became Mark Baum (movie character). Ben Hockett became Ben Rickert. Charles Ledley & James Mai became Charlie Geller & Jamie Shipley. Cornwall Capital became Brownfield Capital. For some reason, the names of Dr. Michael Burry and his firm Scion Capital went unchanged.
  • The director, Adam McKay, is probably best known for his comedies with Will Ferrell in Anchorman and Talladega Nights. Oh, and the classic short The Landlord (censored version). I suppose The Big Short could be called a dark comedy.
  • In retrospect, it might seem like betting against the housing market was an easy and obvious bet. While the movie might dramatize things, it did take courage and conviction. They had to put up millions of dollars to place the bet, and then more millions to keep the derivative bets running. Most other investors thought they were stupid, and tried to get them to reverse the bets. The banks also tried to make them sell their positions before they could realize profits. They were risking their own money, their family and friends’ money, and their entire careers.
  • The movie does a good job showing you how the bubble persisted for so long because everyone was incentivized to keep it going. Wall Street workers made money by packaging and selling the bonds. The pension funds and large institutions got to buy “safe” high-interest bonds. The money managers got to collect their fees. The mortgage brokers and real estate agents collected commissions. Homeowners saw their equity grow. Everyone was happy.
  • In contrast, the people who did the contrarian bet were all on the margins, outsiders, even a little weird. Hedge funds run by a guy who avoided human contact and wore cargo shorts and a free t-shirt everyday. (Christian Bale actually asked the real Michael Burry to take off his cloths and give them to him.) Another one based out of their parent’s garage.
  • The revolving door between the regulators and the industry that they regulate remains open. People go from big paychecks on Wall Street, to smaller paychecks at the SEC and other government roles, and then go back to big paychecks on Wall Street. People usually don’t like to burn bridges with future employers. See this Michael Lewis interview.
  • * As the book was non-fiction, CDO manager Wing Chau actually sued Michael Lewis for libel. Chau’s defamation lawsuit was dismissed and his appeal was denied. The SEC actually investigated him and his firm, found them both liable for fraud, banned him personally from the industry, and fined them $3 million in total. He probably didn’t like how he was portrayed in the movie, either.
  • Where are they investing now? In a January 2012 post, I wrote about the current investments of Michael Burry and Steve Eisman. Burry’s water investments seem like a long-term play, but Eisman’s bet against for-profit education is already starting to unfold. In May 2015, Corinthian College and twenty four of its subsidiaries (i.e. Heald College, WyoTech) filed for bankruptcy after challenges by both US and Canadian governments.

If you can’t watch some great acting performances by Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell, you could always get a refresher course via cartoon stick figures instead. :)

SavingForCollege.com Top 529 Plan Rankings 2015

sfc5capSavingforcollege.com is a popular privately-run site for researching and comparing 529 college savings plans. They released their updated ratings this month, which represents their “opinion of the overall usefulness of a state’s 529 plan based on many considerations.” The judgement criteria include:

  • Performance. They selected similar “apples-to-apples” portfolios with 7 different asset allocations from each plan and rated them based on historical performance. Rankings are updated each quarter.
  • Costs. Total average asset-based expense ratios among plans are compared, in addition to separately considering program manager fees, administrator fees, and annual account maintenance fees.
  • Features. This includes other factors that affect participants, including the ability of the plan change their investment options quickly if called for; creditor protection under the sponsoring state’s laws; availability of FDIC-insured options; minimum and maximum contribution restrictions.
  • Reliability. The appears to measure the likelihood of a good plan staying a good plan. Do they have experienced program managers? Does the plan have a good amount of assets? What is the quality of the documentation and reporting? How restrictive are the withdrawal and rollover processes?

Here is the full list of 5-Cap Ratings for each state, on a scale of 0 to 5 Caps. Note that there are separate ratings for in-state and out-of-state residents. The following plans received a 5-Cap Rating for in-state residents (alphabetical order):

  • California: The ScholarShare College Savings Plan
  • Colorado: Direct Portfolio College Savings Plan
  • Colorado: Scholars Choice College Savings Program – Advisor Plan
  • Illinois: Bright Start College Savings Program – Direct Plan
  • Iowa: College Savings Iowa
  • Maine: NextGen College Investing Plan – Direct Plan
  • Maine: NextGen College Investing Plan – Advisor Plan
  • Michigan: Michigan Education Savings Program
  • Nebraska: Nebraska Education Savings Trust – Advisor Plan
  • Nebraska: Nebraska Education Savings Trust – Direct Plan
  • New York: New York’s College Savings Program – Direct Plan
  • Ohio: Ohio CollegeAdvantage 529 Savings Plan
  • Rhode Island: CollegeBoundfund – Direct Plan
  • South Carolina: Future Scholar 529 College Savings Plan – Advisor Plan
  • South Carolina: Future Scholar 529 College Savings Plan – Direct Plan
  • Utah: Utah Educational Savings Plan (USEP)
  • West Virginia: SMART529 WV Direct College Savings Plan
  • Wisconsin: Edvest

Out of the 100+ different plans they rated, here are the 4 programs that attained the top 5-Cap Rating for out-of-state residents (alphabetical order):

  • California: The ScholarShare College Savings Plan
  • Maine NextGen College Investing Plan – Direct Plan
  • New York’s College Savings Program – Direct Plan
  • Ohio CollegeAdvantage 529 Savings Plan

Consistently top-rated plans. The last time I noted these rankings was 2012, and the following plans were 5-Cap rated back then and also now: California, New York, and Ohio.

I should point out that the SavingForCollege Top-rated 5-Cap plans are different than the Morningstar Top-rated Gold plans. In fact, there is no overlap at all! Two of my favorite Gold-rated plans, the Vanguard 529 Savings Plan (Nevada) and Utah Educational Savings Plan received 4.5 out of 5 Caps, although I am not exactly sure why.

However, in general the top 15 or so plans are pretty much the same for both. With that in mind, I see nothing wrong with most Morningstar Silver Plans and/or the 4.5 Cap SavingForCollege plans, if their investment options meet your needs. Here were my personal finalist 529 plans and asset allocations.

Finally, here is another resource about comparing the state-specific tax benefits that may be available to you.

Exceeding $500,000 SIPC Insurance Limit at Vanguard (or any Brokerage)

sipcThis post is for the fortunate folks who may possibly exceed the often-quoted $500,000 limits for SIPC insurance ($250,000 for cash). The way this insurance works wasn’t necessarily obvious to me, and although it is often compared to the FDIC insurance of banks, there are many important differences.

The Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) is a federally-mandated and member-funded organization that provides insurance to customers against the insolvency of broker-dealers. If needed, the SIPC can borrow from the US Treasury to meet its obligations. All broker-dealers are required to be members, including Vanguard (brokerage accounts, not mutual fund-only accounts), Fidelity, Schwab, TD Ameritrade, E-Trade, TradeKing, Robinhood, Betterment, Wealthfront, and so on.

Your assets, for examples shares of Apple stock or an S&P 500 mutual fund, are required by federal law to be held separately from the broker’s assets at all times. Broker-dealers are subject internal and external audits, surprise regulatory examinations, and weekly and monthly reporting requirements. Thus, in the vast majority of cases, there are no missing securities and the primary role of the SIPC is to oversee the transition of assets from the failed brokerage firm to another solvent firm. If there are missing assets, then the SIPC will cover of up $500,000 of missing assets ($250,000 maximum for missing cash), per legal entity.

What is a separate legal entity? Per Wealthfront:

The following would qualify as separate legal entities, each subject to the $500,000 limit: your individual account, your trust, your IRA, your spouse’s individual account, trust and IRA, your joint account, as well as a custodial account for a child. Two IRA accounts held by the same client would be considered one legal entity and thus are combined for purposes of insurance coverage. The same combination occurs when a single client holds two individual taxable accounts.

Another way is to simply hold your assets at two different broker-dealers. If you had an individual taxable account at TD Ameritrade and another at Fidelity, that would be two accounts with $500,000 at each.

How often has SIPC insurance actually been exceeded? Only in less than 0.1% of claims. Here are some stats from a Betterment article based on the SIPC 2014 annual report [pdf]:

Since the inception of SIPC in 1971, fewer than 1% of all SIPC member broker-dealers have been subject to a SIPC insolvency proceeding. During those proceedings, 99% of total assets distributed to investors came directly from the insolvent broker-dealer’s assets, and not from SIPC. Of all the claims ever filed (625,200), less than one-tenth of a percent (352) exceeded the limit of coverage.

Example of meeting and/or exceeding SIPC limits. So for example, you could have $2 million of non-cash assets at a failed firm in a single taxable account. If 75% of assets are recovered from the failed firm, you get $1.5 million back from the firm and $500,000 from the SIPC. If only 50% of the assets are recovered, that’s $1 million back from the firm, $500,000 from SIPC, and you’d be out $500,000 unless there are additional recoveries in the future.

Again, a recovery rate as low as 50% is highly unlikely based on historical failures. Per the SIPC annual report, the average recovery rate for insolvencies is 99%. Most examples that I’ve seen use a 90% recovery rate as a conservative example.

However, if you altered the scenario above to have your $2 million separated in to $500,000 in your individual taxable account, $500,000 in your spouse’s individual taxable account, and $1,000,000 in a joint taxable account, then even in that unlikely 50% recovery rate you’d be made whole.

Situations covered by SIPC insurance

  • Brokerage firm insolvency or bankruptcy.
  • Unauthorized trading. SIPC covers securities may have been “lost, improperly hypothecated, misappropriated, never purchased, or even stolen” by the broker-dealer.

Situations NOT covered by SIPC insurance

  • Market price drops. Fluctuations in the market value of your investments are not covered. In the event of a claim, you will receive the value of the securities held by the broker-dealer as of the time that a SIPC trustee is appointed.
  • Claims in excess of insurance limits. See above.
  • Certain investment types are not covered. As summarized by FINRA:

    Not all investments are protected by SIPC. In general, SIPC covers notes, stocks, bonds, mutual fund and other investment company shares, and other registered securities. It does not cover instruments such as unregistered investment contracts, unregistered limited partnerships, fixed annuity contracts, currency, and interests in gold, silver, or other commodity futures contracts or commodity options.

  • Certain other types of fraud. For example, if a scam artist tricked you into buying a penny stock which is now worthless, that is not connected to an insolvency by the broker-dealer, and is thus not covered by SIPC insurance.

Excess of SIPC Insurance. Many brokerage firms pay for optional, additional insurance on the private market for their clients called “excess of SIPC” insurance in the unlikely situation where a client may exceed SIPC insurance limits. You should contact your brokerage firm or look through their boring annual notices.

For example, I have the majority of my assets held in a new “merged” account at Vanguard Brokerage Services. Looking through their VBS semi-annual notice, you can find the following:

VMC [Vanguard Marketing Corporation] has secured additional coverage for your account, which applies in excess of SIPC, through certain insurers at Lloyd’s of London and London Company Insurer(s) for eligible customers with an aggregate limit of $250 million, incorporating a customer limit of $49.5 million for securities and $1.75 million for cash.

Note the total aggregate limit of $250 million, though. Last time I checked Vanguard mutual funds had over $3 trillion in assets under management. $250 million divided by $3 trillion is only 0.01%. Of course, most of those assets are not held in Vanguard Brokerage Services (but in institutional funds and other mutual fund accounts outside of VBS). Still, $250 million across all of their accounts doesn’t seem like very much. A few big fish with $50 million accounts and most of that would already be used up.

Additional ways to reduce your risk. The basic idea here is that the only way you’ll lose a big amount of money is a spectacular failure. In the past, the brokerage firms that have had spectacular failures have shared a few common traits – bad behavior. Don’t do anything that would foster such bad behavior.

  • Don’t hold your money at a firm that does proprietary trading. If a broker-dealer trades with their own money, there is a greater chance a bad trade will bankrupt them. Also, there may be a greater temptation to “borrow” some client funds to cover any unexpected cashflow needs.
  • Don’t use margin accounts, stick with cash accounts. In a margin account, technically your broker is often allowed to “borrow” your securities for their own purposes (usually loaning it to other broker-dealers). In a cash account, there is no such permission given. This is a bit extreme in my opinion, but perhaps something to consider.
  • Don’t invest in exotic, non-transparent strategies. If your brokerage firm only sells plain vanilla investments, it is much harder to hide any shady business. Mutual funds and ETFs are highly regulated by the SEC. Hedge funds are not nearly as closely-regulated.
  • Keep good records. You should keep copies of trade confirmations. You should keep copies of your latest monthly or quarterly statement of account from your brokerage firm. A trustee may ask you to supply copies of these documents in the case of erroneous statements or trades.

My two cents. Purely my opinion, but this is how I see it:

  • Keeping your accounts to each stay under the $500,000 limit (and not hold cash in excess of $250,000) is the only way to know that you’ll be 100% covered in the cases listed above. Just because something hasn’t happened in the past, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Unlikely is not impossible.
  • If your account has between $500,000 and $5,000,000 in it, and you’re holding traditional mutual fund or ETFs inside, you’d need a bankrupt firm with less than a 90% recovery rate to lose any money (possibly much less). That is admittedly quite rare. You will have to weigh the risk against the added hassle of splitting your accounts by either institution or legal entity.
  • If you have more than $5,000,000 at a single account type at one broker-dealer, I think it starts to definitely become worth the extra effort to split your assets by either institution or legal entity. The risk may be small, but the potential losses are big. If you have this much, why mess around?
  • I wouldn’t put too much faith into excess SIPC insurance. They usually come with an aggregate limit and you have no idea how close the firm’s current assets are to exceeding that value. The amount of protection you’d receive is not under your control.

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.