Real Estate Crowdfunding: Realtyshares Foreclosure Process Example 2018

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Final update. I’ve invested in multiple real estate crowdfunding websites, including $2,000 into a single debt investment at RealtyShares. Unfortunately, this loan backed by a multifamily unit went into foreclosure and I outline what happened. There are risks in every investment, and my loss is your learning opportunity!


Initial investment details.

  • Property: 6-unit, 6,490 sf multifamily in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
  • Interest rate: 9% APR.
  • Amount invested: $2,000.
  • Term: 12 months with 6-month extension option.
  • Total loan amount $168,000. Purchase price $220,000 (LTC 76%). Estimated after-repair value $260,000. Broker Opinion of Value $238,000.
  • Loan secured by the property in first position. Personal guarantee from borrower.
  • Stated goal to rehab, stabilize, and then either sell or refinance.

Brief recap.

  • January 2016. Funds committed. Loan closed.
  • July 2016 to May 2017. Sporadic payment history for over a year. They would be on-time for a while, then there’d be a late payment, then things would brought back current, etc.
  • May 2017. Borrower stated that the property was under contract for $225,000 with final walk-through completed and expected close within 30 days.
  • June 2017. Borrower stopped paying. I guess the sale fell through (or they lied). Foreclosure process initiated by RealtyShares.
  • September 2017. Judgment granted in Wisconsin court. By law, there will be a 3-month redemption period where the borrower can still keep the house if they pay foreclosure judgment plus interest, taxes, and costs.
  • January 2018. The foreclosure sale was held and property ownership was reverted to RealtyShares. A judge still needs to confirm the sale.
  • February 2018. The judge confirmed the foreclosure sale, and RealtyShares is officially the owner of the property. Property can now be assessed and fixed up before sale.
  • April 2018. Property listed for $134,500 as per new BPO (Broker Opinion of Value).
  • June 2018. Property is under contract for sale. Exact price unknown.
  • July 2018. Property sold. Final disbursement of $1,133.73 received.

Final numbers. I invested $2,000 and got paid $210.84 of interest and $1,133.73 of principal for a total of $1,344.57. This means I only got back 67% of my money after more than 2 years. On the other hand, I have made over 50 different real estate-backed loans now, and it was only a matter of time before I got a full default. This was my first investment that finished foreclosure, but it won’t be my last.

The question is how often that happens and the size of those losses. When it came to Prosper or LendingClub, the interest rates might be higher but when a loan was 60 days late you were pretty much done. As an unsecured loan, you had nothing to fall back on if the borrower broke their promise (besides hurting their credit score). Sending it to collections typically only got you pennies on the dollar. In this case, I got back 57 cents on the dollar when you exclude interest.

Beforehand, RealtyShares told me that the foreclosure process in Wisconsin typically took about 12 months. That turned out to be a good estimate, as it was 12 months between foreclosure initiation and the property being under contract for sale.

Lessons. First, don’t put too much weight on a BPO (broker opinions of value). A broker thought this property was worth $238,000 in January 2016. Another broker thought the same property was worth only $134,500 in April 2018. The final sale price was probably closer to $100,000. That is a big gap.

Second, you should consider the local economic situation. This area is hurting, and if you do some digging you’ll see foreclosures all over the place. I didn’t know this at the time, but the low-income rental market in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was profiled in the NYT Bestselling book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (my review). Many of the properties mentioned in this book were literally down the street from this unit.

Third, you need to diversify. If this was my only investment, I might have an overly negative opinion of the asset class. If my successful Patch of Land loan was my only investment, I might have a overly positive opinion. Instead, this is one of 50+ investments for me (mostly at PeerStreet) and while I maintain a positive return higher than cash across my investments, there is the occasional foreclosure like this. Basically, when you read about my experience or someone else’s, you must take into account sample size.

Finally, I believe that some marketplace/crowdfunding sites may be better at sourcing and underwriting loans than others. As of November 2018, Realtyshares has stopped accepting new investments (they will continue to service existing investments). Even before that, they abruptly stopped doing residential loans to “focus” on commercial properties. I knew their specialty was more commercial real estate, but I didn’t want to commit $25k to a single commercial investment, so I went with this smaller residential loan. Since then, I have shifted my residential debt investing to PeerStreet as they allow me to split my investments into $1,000 minimums and they also have a slightly different model.

Communications quality. I would grade the online updates from RealtyShares as acceptable/good. They are relatively detailed and consistent, providing me a look inside the foreclosure process. Here are some sample updates:

October 9, 2017 We have identified a real estate broker to sell the property. The broker spoke with the previous property manager who was at the property a couple of weeks ago and who may be available for property preservation. The broker is going to take a contractor to the property to try and get an accurate cost estimate to complete the renovation.

September 21, 2017 Judgment was granted at the hearing. We expect the filed judgment from the court in approximately one week and will process it upon receipt. We should be able to schedule the sale in late October and it will be held after the redemption period expires—sometime in December. As soon as we receive the filed judgment order from the court we will have the exact 3 month redemption date. Sale cannot be held until the redemption period has expired.

September 8, 2017 The partner has declined to go forward with the purchase of the property. On the foreclosure front, the judgement hearing is scheduled for September 18th. If the judgement is successful, there is a 6-month right of redemption period during which the property can not be sold. During this period we will identify a property preservation firm and a commercial broker to sell the property.

August 25, 2017 A minority partner has stepped forward and has asked for a week to visit the property with the idea of making a paydown in exchange for an extension. We have agreed to speak next week after his inspection.

August 22, 2017 Service has been completed on the foreclosure. The defendants were personally served with the summons and complaint on August 2, 2017. The statutory answering time will expire on August 22, 2017. The judgment hearing will be scheduled at that time.

June 29, 2017 Due to the borrower’s inability to stay current, we have decided to start the foreclosure process for payment default. The foreclosure will run parallel with the sales process, meaning if the sponsor can sell the property and pay us off before the foreclosure is complete we will stop the process, if not we will take over the property. Typically, foreclosures in Wisconsin take up to 12 months.

Bottom line. Investing in real-estate backed loans means that if the borrower doesn’t pay up, you can foreclose and take over the property. But what is that really like? The purpose of this post is to provide real-world dates and numbers for a completed foreclosure on a marketplace real-estate investment site. I haven’t seen any other similar resources.

My current active investments are at PeerStreet ($1,000 minimums, accredited-only, debt-only) and Fundrise eREIT ($500 minimum, open to everyone, equity and debt).

Morningstar Top 529 College Savings Plan Rankings 2018

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Investment research firm Morningstar has released their annual 529 College Savings Plans analyst ratings for 2018. While the full research paper appears restricted to paid premium members, this is still useful as while there are currently over 60 different 529 plan options nationwide, the majority are mediocre and there is really no reason to put your hard-earned money into them since anyone can invest in any state’s 529 plan.

Here are the Gold-rated plans for 2018 (no particular order). Morningstar uses a Gold, Silver, or Bronze rating scale for the top plans and Neutral or Negative for the rest.

All 4 of these plans were Gold last year as well. There were no new additions or subtractions.

Here are the consistently top-rated plans from 2011-2018. This means they were rated either Gold or Silver (or equivalent) for every year the rankings were done from 2011 through 2018. These were also the same as last year. No particular order.

  • T. Rowe Price College Savings Plan, Alaska
  • Maryland College Investment Plan
  • Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan, Nevada
  • CollegeAdvantage 529 Savings Plan, Ohio
  • CollegeAmerica Plan, Virginia (Advisor-sold)
  • My529, formerly the Utah Educational Savings Plan

The “Five P” criteria.

  • People. Who’s behind the plans? Who are the investment consultants picking the underlying investments? Who are the mutual fund managers?
  • Process. Are the asset-allocation glide paths and funds chosen for the age-based options based on solid research? Whether active or passive, how is it implemented?
  • Parent. How is the quality of the program manager (often an asset-management company or board of trustees which has a main role in the investment choices and pricing)? Also refers to state officials and their policies.
  • Performance. Has the plan delivered strong risk-adjusted performance, both during the recent volatility and in the long-term?
  • Price. Includes factors like asset-weighted expense ratios and in-state tax benefits.

State-specific tax benefits. Remember to first consider your state-specific tax benefits via the tools from Morningstar, SavingForCollege, or Vanguard. Morningstar estimates that an upfront tax break of at least 5% can make it worth investing in your in-state plan even if it is not a top plan (assuming that is required to get the tax benefit).

If you don’t have anything compelling available, anyone can open a 529 plan from any state. I would pick from the ones listed above. Also, if you have money in an in-state plan now but your situation changes, you can roll over your funds into another 529 from any state. (Watch out for tax-benefit recapture if you got a tax break initially.)

My picks. Overall, the plans are getting better and most Gold/Silver picks are solid. If your state doesn’t offer a significant tax break, I would recommend these two plans to my friends and family:

  • Nevada 529 Plan has low costs, solid automated glide paths, a variety of Vanguard investment options, and long-term commitment to consistently lowering costs as their assets grow. (It is not the rock-bottom cheapest, but this is often because other plans don’t offer much international exposure, which usually costs more.) This is only plan that Vanguard puts their name on, and you can manage it within your account. This is the keep-it-simple option.
  • Utah 529 plan has low costs, investments from Vanguard and DFA, and has highly-customizable glide paths. Over the last few years, the Utah plan has also shown a history of passing on future cost savings to clients. This is the option for folks that enjoy DIY asset allocation. Since I like to DIY, I have the majority of my family’s college savings in this plan.

Morningstar offers their own additional insight into the Gold-rated plans. I feel that a consistent history of consumer-first practices is most important. Sure, you can move your funds if needed, but wouldn’t you rather watch your current plan just keep getting better every year?

Savings I Bonds November 2018 Interest Rate: 2.32% Inflation Rate, 0.50% Fixed Rate

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Update 11/1/18. The fixed rate will be 0.50% for I bonds issued from November 1, 2018 through April 30, 2019. The variable inflation-indexed rate for this 6-month period will be 2.32% (as was predicted). The total rate on any specific bond is the sum of the fixed and variable rates, changing every 6 months. If you buy a new bond in November 2018, you’ll get 2.82% for the first 6 months. See you again in mid-April 2019 for the next early prediction.

Original post 10/14/18:

Savings I Bonds are a unique, low-risk investment backed by the US Treasury that pay out a variable interest rate linked to inflation. You could own them as an alternative to bank certificates of deposit (they are liquid after 12 months) or bonds in your portfolio.

New inflation numbers were just announced at, which allows us to make an early prediction of the November 2018 savings bond rates a couple of weeks before the official announcement on the 1st. This also allows the opportunity to know exactly what a October 2018 savings bond purchase will yield over the next 12 months, instead of just 6 months.

New inflation rate prediction. March 2018 CPI-U was 249.554. September 2018 CPI-U was 252.439, for a semi-annual increase of 1.16%. Using the official formula, the variable component of interest rate for the next 6 month cycle will be 2.32%. You add the fixed and variable rates to get the total interest rate. If you have an older savings bond, your fixed rate may be very different than one from recent years.

Tips on purchase and redemption. You can’t redeem until 12 months have gone by, and any redemptions within 5 years incur an interest penalty of the last 3 months of interest. A known “trick” with I-Bonds is that if you buy at the end of the month, you’ll still get all the interest for the entire month as if you bought it in the beginning of the month. It’s best to give yourself a few business days of buffer time. If you miss the cutoff, your effective purchase date will be bumped into the next month.

Buying in October 2018. If you buy before the end of October, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.30%. You will be guaranteed a total interest rate of 2.52% for the next 6 months (0.30 + 2.22). For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.30 + 2.32 = 2.62%.

Let’s look at a worst-case scenario, where you hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you theoretically buy on October 31st, 2018 and sell on October 1, 2019, you’ll earn a ~2.09% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, for which the interest is also exempt from state income taxes. If you held for three months longer, you’d be looking at a ~2.20% annualized return for a 14-month holding period (assuming my math is correct). Compare with the best interest rates as of October 2018.

Buying in November 2018. If you buy in November 2018, you will get 2.32% plus a newly-set fixed rate for the first 6 months. The new fixed rate is unknown, but is loosely linked to the real yield of short-term TIPS, which has been rising a bit. The current real yield of 5-year TIPS now about ~1.00%. My best guess is that it will be 0.50% or 0.60%. Every six months, your rate will adjust to your fixed rate (set at purchase) plus a variable rate based on inflation.

If you have an existing I-Bond, the rates reset every 6 months depending on your purchase month. Your bond rate = your specific fixed rate (set at purchase) + variable rate (minimum floor of 0%).

Buy now or wait? In the short-term, these I bond rates will not beat a top 12-month CD rate if bought in October, and probably won’t if bought in November unless inflation skyrockets. Thus, I probably wouldn’t buy in October. I haven’t bought any savings bonds yet this year, and will wait until November to see what the new fixed rate will be. If it greatly lags the real yield on short-term TIPS, then I will probably just buy TIPS instead. However, if it is close, I will probably buy some savings bonds as a long-term investment given the unique benefits below.

Unique features. I have a separate post on reasons to own Series I Savings Bonds, including inflation protection, tax deferral, exemption from state income taxes, and educational tax benefits.

Over the years, I have accumulated a nice pile of I-Bonds and now consider it part of the inflation-linked bond allocation inside my long-term investment portfolio.

Annual purchase limits. The annual purchase limit is now $10,000 in online I-bonds per Social Security Number. For a couple, that’s $20,000 per year. Buy online at, after making sure you’re okay with their security protocols and user-friendliness. You can also buy an additional $5,000 in paper bonds using your tax refund with IRS Form 8888. If you have children, you may be able to buy additional savings bonds by using a minor’s Social Security Number.

For more background, see the rest of my posts on savings bonds.

[Image: 1946 Savings Bond poster from US Treasury – source]

Household Equity Ownership Percentage vs. Future Stock Market Returns

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Below is a chart that tracks two simple numbers over the years, each with their own vertical scale (click to enlarge):

  • The average household’s equity ownership share, as a percentage of total equity and credit (bond) assets. (Left-axis)
  • The subsequent 10-year average annual return of the S&P 500 index. (Right-axis)

Kind of eery, right? As the relative demand for stocks goes up, their future return goes down. This is the most up-to-date version of the chart that I’ve seen – credit @TihoBrkan via Abnormal Returns. The first time I recall seeing this chart was 5 years ago in this in-depth Philosophical Economics article.

Since then, this 2016 academic paper by Yang and Zhang found that “Household Equity Share” was a better predictive tool than the CAPE or PE10 ratio. Most recently, OfDollarsandData had a thoughtful piece on why using this correlation to time the market would be very difficult (you’d have to be out of the market for a long time, and during some great bull markets). Here’s another way to show this relationship:

(I’m not sure the x-axis labels on this last chart are correct, as it doesn’t agree with the first chart that tops out at 55% household equity share.)

This will be an interesting chart to track over time. Overall, it is yet another indicator that points to the average return of US stocks for the next 10 years to be rather muted (in the low single digits!). But again, anything could happen – both higher or lower – in the short-term.

Bond Market Risks: Keeping It Short, Simple, and Safe

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A recurring theme in my asset allocation philosophy is to stick with simple and safe bonds in your portfolio. The problem is, there will be other bonds that outperform safe, shorter-term US Treasury bonds and you might start to question your decision. I try to remind myself to consider how they fit into your entire portfolio. I would rather take on risk with stocks due to their big upside potential and use bonds for stability in times of stress.

Here is an older WSJ article The Case for Minimizing Risk in Your Bond Holdings by William Bernstein on the subject. If you run into a paywall, I discuss the article here.

Recently, there have been more articles about the riskier bond options out there.

Corporate bonds – hidden risks? Credit ratings agencies continue to have the conflict of interest where they are paid by the bond issuers themselves – remember the financial crisis and those AAA-rated subprime bonds? These days, companies are loading up on debt, but they still really really really want their bonds to be rated as “investment-grade”. More than 50% of the corporate bond market is now rated BBB, just barely “investment grade” as opposed to “junk”, according to the Bloomberg article A $1 Trillion Powder Keg Threatens the Corporate Bond Market:

That’s a lot of borderline debt that will eventually have to be refinanced at higher rates.

Actively-managed bond funds – what’s really inside? In addition, I recommend reading this Forbes interview with bond manager Jeffrey Gundlach: The Bond King Speaks: Doubleline CEO Jeffrey Gundlach Offers His Best Investing Advice. There are many interesting insights, and here are some excerpts on bond index funds and the active bond fund competition:

On the fixed-income side, active bond managers have by and large outperformed the intermediate-term bond benchmark, the Barclays Bloomberg Aggregate Bond Index (the “Agg”).

What helps the active manager to outperform the index is that it’s quite possible in bonds to do things very differently from what’s in the traditional bond indexes. The Agg has no foreign bonds, certainly no emerging markets bonds, no below-investment-grade bonds, no bank loans, no structured finance to speak of like ABS or CMBS, all of which are viable asset classes. But the index doesn’t include them. Active bond managers can buy these things and increasingly over the last couple of decades have done so.

Active funds are being measured against an investment-grade U.S.-only index. The active funds can own tons of emerging markets, junk bonds, bank loans — some of them even own 10 or 15% equities. Obviously, if a manager is allowed to own equities against the bond index in a world where bond returns over the last two years are nearly zero on a total return basis, you can see there’s a lot of ways that bond managers can game an index more than a stock manager.

Is a stock manager really going to measure themselves against the S&P 500 and own 50% bonds? I doubt it. The industry’s evolved in a way that has given us an advantage.

That’s probably going to turn into the opposite soon, where these activities outside of the boundaries of U.S.-only, intermediate-grade only bonds will start hurting. Junk bonds are getting crushed. Investment-grade corporate bonds are doing horribly over the last year. Typically, these are systematically overweighted by the majority of active bond managers. Not us, not Doubleline.

You could categorize the industry fairly accurately with a broad stroke by saying most firms are perpetually overweight corporate credit, underweight treasuries and they even have some stocks with below-investment-grade ratings. When you get to a world where the lower quality material like junk bonds or emerging markets are starting to come under stress due to falling equity prices, and perhaps a slowing global economy, well, suddenly, these games that are often played don’t help.

As noted recently, Total Bond ETFs that track the AGG index have 60-80% of their holdings that are backed by the US government, and the rest are investment grade US corporate bonds. Overall it is mostly high-quality stuff. Meanwhile, an actively-managed bond fund can include riskier corporate bonds, complex asset-based securities, or bonds from Emerging Markets countries with much higher yields. Basically, bond managers can take on a lot of extra risk and get paid for it while the party lasts. This will make them look like they are beating the AGG benchmark, while their holdings are nothing like the benchmark.

With actively-managed bond funds, it’s always a question of the manager adding enough value to compensate for the higher expenses. Bill Gross used the be “Bond King”. Now it’s Gundlach. Maybe Gundlach will continue to successfully time his purchases in and out of various bonds. I choose not to depend on a specific manager’s skill. Instead, I stick with US Treasury bonds, investment-grade municipal bonds from a conservative bond manager, or FDIC-insured bank certificates of deposit for the bond portion of my portfolio.

My Money Blog Portfolio Income – October 2018

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”


For a young person making a plan to reach financial independence at a very early age (under 50), I think using a 3% withdrawal rate is a reasonable rule of thumb. For someone retiring at a more traditional age (closer to 65), I think 4% is a reasonable rule of thumb. However, life is less stressful when you are spending just the dividends and interest generated by your portfolio. The analogy I fall back on is owning a rental property. If you are reliably getting rent checks that increase with inflation, you can sit back calmly and ignore what the house might sell for on the open market.

Therefore, I track the “TTM Yield” or “12 Mo. Yield” from Morningstar, which the sum of a fund’s total trailing 12-month interest and dividend payments divided by the last month’s ending share price (NAV) plus any capital gains distributed over the same period. (Index funds have low turnover and thus little in capital gains.) I like this measure because it is based on historical distributions and not a forecast. Below is a very close approximation of my portfolio (2/3rd stocks and 1/3rd bonds).

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (Taken 10/21/18) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
25% 1.71% 0.43%
US Small Value
Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF (VBR)
5% 1.96% 0.10%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
25% 2.86% 0.72%
Emerging Markets
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
5% 2.56% 0.13%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 4.30% 0.26%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWIUX)
17% 2.90% 0.49%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
17% 3.30% 0.56%
Totals 100% 2.69%


The 2.7% trailing income yield is up slightly than in recent updates, mostly due to increased bond interest. The fact that interest rates are now reliably above inflation across the yield curve is good in my opinion, even if it means some of my bond prices drop. The relative contribution of US stocks is down, as US stock prices are slightly up. The relative contribution of International stocks is up, as International stock prices are down. In this way, tracking yield adjusts in a very rough manner for valuation.

We are a real 40-year-old couple with three young kids, and this money has to last us a lifetime (without stomach ulcers). This number does not dictate how much we actually spend every year, but it gives me an idea of how comfortable I am with our withdrawal rate. We spend less than this amount now, but I like to plan for the worst while hoping for the best. If we both lose our jobs, we should have manageable expenses such that we still won’t need to spend more than 2.7% to 3%. For now, we are quite fortunate to be able to do work that is meaningful to us, in an amount where we still enjoy it and don’t get burned out.

Life is not a Monte Carlo simulation, and you need a plan to ride out the rough times. Even if you run a bunch of numbers looking back to 1920 and it tells you some number is “safe”, that’s still trying to use 100 years of history to forecast 50 years into the future. Michael Pollan says that you can sum up his eating advice as “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” You can sum up my thoughts on portfolio income as “Spend mostly dividends and interest. Don’t eat too much principal.”

My Money Blog Portfolio Asset Allocation, October 2018

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”


Here’s my quarterly portfolio update for Q3 2018. These are my real-world holdings and includes 401k/403b/IRAs and taxable brokerage accounts but excludes our house, cash reserves, and a few side investments. The goal of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover our household expenses. As of 2018, we are “semi-retired” and have started spending some dividends and interest from this portfolio.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

I use both Personal Capital and a custom Google Spreadsheet to track my investment holdings. The Personal Capital financial tracking app (free, my review) automatically logs into my accounts, tracks my balances, calculates my performance, and gives me a rough asset allocation. I still use my custom Rebalancing Spreadsheet (free, instructions) because it tells me exactly how much I need in each asset class to rebalance back towards my target asset allocation.

Here is my portfolio performance for the year and rough asset allocation (real estate is under alternatives), according to Personal Capital:

Here is my more specific asset allocation broken down into a stocks-only pie chart and a bonds-only pie chart, according to my custom spreadsheet:

Stock Holdings
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSMX, VTSAX)
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VGTSX, VTIAX)
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR)
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSIX, VGSLX)

Bond Holdings
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLTX, VMLUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWITX, VWIUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Treasury Fund (VFITX, VFIUX)
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX, VAIPX)
iShares Barclays TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)
Individual TIPS securities
U.S. Savings Bonds (Series I)

Target Asset Allocation. Our overall goal is to include asset classes that will provide long-term returns above inflation, distribute income via dividends and interest, and finally offer some historical tendencies to balance each other out. I personally believe that US Small Value and Emerging Markets will have higher future long-term returns (along with some higher volatility) than US Large/Total and International Large/Total, although I could be wrong. I don’t hold commodities, gold, or bitcoin as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly.

I believe that it is important to imagine an asset class doing poorly for a long time, with bad news constantly surrounding it, and only hold the ones where you still think you can maintain faith.

Stocks Breakdown

  • 38% US Total Market
  • 7% US Small-Cap Value
  • 38% International Total Market
  • 7% Emerging Markets
  • 10% US Real Estate (REIT)

Bonds Breakdown

  • 50% High-quality, Intermediate-Term Bonds
  • 50% US Treasury Inflation-Protected Bonds

I have settled into a long-term target ratio of 67% stocks and 33% bonds (2:1 ratio) within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and occasionally rebalance. With a self-managed, simple portfolio of low-cost funds, we minimize management fees, commissions, and taxes.

Holdings commentary. On the bond side, as Treasury rates have risen, last quarter I sold my shares of Vanguard High-Yield Tax Exempt and replaced it with Vanguard Intermediate-Term Treasury. I liked the slightly higher yield of that (still pretty high quality) muni fund, but as I settle into semi-retirement mode, I don’t want to worry about the potential of state pension obligations making the muni market volatile. In addition, my tax bracket is lower now and the Federal tax-exempt benefits of muni bonds relatively to the state tax-exempt benefit of Treasury bonds is much smaller now. On a very high level, my bond portfolio is about 1/3rd muni bonds, 1/3rd treasury bonds, and 1/3rd inflation-linked treasury bonds (and savings bonds). These are all investment-grade and either short or intermediate term (average duration of 6 years or less).

No real changes on the stocks side. I know that US stocks have higher valuations, but that’s something that is already taken into account with my investment plan as I own businesses from around the world and US stocks are only about 30% of my total portfolio. I have been buying more shares of the Emerging Markets index fund as part of my rebalancing with new dividends and interest. I am considering tax-loss harvesting some older shares with unrealized losses against another Emerging Markets ETF.

The stock/bond split is currently at 68% stocks/32% bonds. Once a quarter, I reinvest any accumulated dividends and interest that were not spent. I don’t use automatic dividend reinvestment.

Performance commentary. According to Personal Capital, my portfolio now slightly down in 2018 (-2.7% YTD). I see that during the same period the S&P 500 has gained 5% (excludes dividends), Foreign (EAFA?) stocks are down 8.2%, and the US Aggregate bond index is down 2.4%. My portfolio is relatively heavy in international stocks which have done worse than US stocks so far this year.

An alternative benchmark for my portfolio is 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) and 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX), one is 60/40 and one is 80/20 so it also works out to 70% stocks and 30% bonds. That benchmark would have a total return of +0.07% YTD (as of 10/16/18).

I’ll share about more about the income aspect in a separate post.

Total Bond ETF Review: iShares Aggregate Bond ETF (AGG) or Vanguard Total Bond ETF (BND)

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

One of the major building blocks of your portfolio is probably a bond mutual fund or ETF. The most popular bond benchmark is the Bloomberg Barclays Aggregate Bond Index (AGG), which basically tracks all U.S. taxable investment-grade bonds. These popular index funds all track some variation of this index:

  • Vanguard Total Bond Market Fund (VBTLX/VBMFX) and ETF (BND). The biggest bond mutual fund. This fund is also inside all Vanguard Target Retirement 20XX or LifeStrategy All-In-One funds.
  • iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF (AGG). The biggest bond ETF.
  • Schwab U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF (SCHZ).

What’s inside a Total Bond fund? A recent Vanguard Blog post provides some insight into the components that make up the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Index from 1977 to 2017:

  • US Treasury. Bonds issued and backed by the US government, including Treasury notes and bonds. (Nominal only, TIPS are not included.)
  • US Government-related. Securities issued by a Federal Agency or a government-sponsored enterprise like Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. These are either explicitly or implicitly backed by the US government.
  • Securitized (MBS). Mortgage-backed securities, backed by residential mortgages and packaged by Ginnie Mae, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and others including private issuers.
  • Securitized (ex-MBS). Asset-backed Securities, backed by things such as consumer auto loans, credit card debt, and home equity loans.
  • US Corporate. Securities issued by corporations with investment-grade ratings from the major ratings agencies.

The first thing to note is that the bottom three layers are essentially all backed by the US government. When considered in this chart format, you can see that these bottom three layers consistently make up about 60% to 80% of the AGG. Thus, historically you can estimate that roughly 2/3rds of the index is backed by the US government and 1/3rd is privately-backed by securitized assets or corporations.

How much more does a Total Bond fund yield than a Treasury Index fund? Here’s how much the AGG Total Bond index yields above a Treasury index historically:

So the ingredients are little riskier overall than 100% US Treasury bonds, but you also earn a little higher yield.

Which is better? For the most part, I agree with this William Bernstein list of what kinds of bonds should be in an individual portfolio. I slightly prefer either 100% Treasuries, municipal bonds, or bank CDs – all depending on the after-tax yield. The idea is to pick the safest bonds that are hopefully the least correlated with your stocks. For example, the expectation is that Treasuries are more likely to go up when stocks are dropping.

But for the most part, I think a total bond fund is just fine as well. You can see it’s still pretty safe and you get extra interest in exchange for the extra risk that the market has decided is the proper compensation.

First things first – Buying a low-cost total bond index fund is very likely to return more over the long run than an expensive actively-managed bond fund. Choosing between Treasuries and a Total Bond fund is a secondary decision.

Bottom line. Lots of people own bond funds and ETFs that track the US Aggregate Index (AGG). These charts help show you what’s held inside such Total US Bond funds and how much more they yield than 100% Treasury bonds.

Owning Businesses Around the World: Global Market Cap Breakdown 1990-2018

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When you’re deciding where to invest your money, a good starting point is to consider every single business that you can invest in around the world. I still find it amazing that with a few clicks, you can own a share of Alibaba in China, Nestle from Switzerland, and Apple in the US.

Inside a post about investing in Emerging Markets stocks at Bps & Pieces, I came across this chart that tracks how all the investable stocks in the world could be broken down by total value (“market cap”) between the US, non-US Developed Markets, and Emerging Markets since 1990 (click to enlarge):

How much international stocks should you own? There is not a consensus amongst “experts” as to the optimal ratio, but I personally don’t deviate from this breakdown very much. My portfolio stock allocation has been set at 50% US and 50% non-US (including both Developed and Emerging Markets) for a while. Vanguard and Fidelity, which manage huge retirement funds, have settled on something closer to 70% US and the rest international.

Keep in mind that investable value is not the same as gross domestic product (GDP). China’s GDP is roughly 60% that of the US, but the total investable business value in China only makes up about 5.5% that of the US (about the same as Canada). Foreigners can’t invest in every public business in every country, and many countries don’t have stable public markets in the first place. In many ways, 50% US might even be too little if you really wanted to track the world’s business value.

Again, I go back to the classic Jack Bogle quote: “Don’t look for the needle in the haystack. Just buy the haystack.” I don’t know which companies will be the most successful in the future, or in which country they will be located. If it’s in the US, I will own them. If it’s not, I will hopefully own them as well. I hope that stable and transparent equity markets spread across the globe over time. I just want to sit back as a part-owner and earn a share of the profits.

If you care about valuations, you are probably aware that right now the US is “expensive” based on historical prices. Emerging Markets and Developed non-US are “cheaper”. But as usual, that is because US businesses are making lots of money (especially after tax cuts) and look strong, while the rest of the world has struggled on relative basis. Cheaper valuations could be taken as another reason to at least invest some of your holdings into international stocks.

Does Robinhood Brokerage Make Money in Shady or Questionable Ways?

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Robinhood has gotten a lot of buzz as the smartphone app that offers free stock trades. From the very beginning, the most common question was “How Will They Make Money?” Here’s what Robinhood says in their Help Center:

Robinhood Financial makes money from its margin trading service, Robinhood Gold, which starts at $6 a month. Additionally, Robinhood earns revenue by collecting interest on the cash and stocks in customer accounts, much like a bank collects interest on cash deposits.

However, there is another source of revenue that they don’t mention in their FAQ, but they do disclose in SEC filings (since it is legally required).

Selling order flow. When you make an order to buy or sell stock at a retail broker, the broker usually decides which market-maker can fulfill your request. In turn, market makers are allows to pay brokers like Robinhood, E*Trade, or TD Ameritrade for this “order flow”. This is common practice in the industry. If you have a sophisticated brokerage account, you can choose to direct exactly where your order will go. (Being able to direct your orders isn’t necessarily better unless you know what to look for, i.e. tracking Level 2 quotes.)

Robinhood gets paid 10 times the rate of TD Ameritrade and E*Trade for their order flow? Then came an article Robinhood Is Making Millions Selling Out Their Millennial Customers To High-Frequency Traders where the author Logan Kane made the following observations (via @JBrown6109):

  • These days, the people paying for order flow are often high-frequency trading (HFT) firms.
  • TD Ameritrade made $119 million last quarter from selling order flow. Payments were about a 1/10th of a cent per share.
  • E*Trade made $47 million last quarter from selling order flow. Payments were about a 1/10th of a cent per share.
  • Robinhood does not have to disclose their revenue from order flow as they are private company. (And they don’t.) Payments averaged about $0.00026 per dollar of executed trade value. At $50 average share price, this equates to about a cent per share.
  • This means that Robinhood is getting paid roughly 10x that of E*Trade and TD Ameritrade for the same amount of order flow.

Why? Here are some possibilities:

Theory #1: Robinhood is letting HFT “front-run” their customers, resulting is worse trade execution. If an HFT could give you 2 cents less per share, it would be worth paying 1 cent per share for that order. (Evil laugh.) However, this is countered by the SEC rule of National Best Bid and Offer (NBBO), which says that brokers must trade at the best available bid and ask prices when buying and selling securities for customers. This law may be hard to enforce by the millisecond, but would Robinhood or the HFT really blatantly break the law in this manner? Is it worth the risk to their business?

Honestly, I doubt it. Here’s the SEC Rule 606 Disclosure for Robinhood that shows where the orders are routed (source):

Yes, the names like Citadel and Virtu are well-known HFT firms. But Vanguard Brokerage doesn’t sell any order flow at all, yet most of their orders still go through Citadel (source):

Theory #2: Robinhood customers are broke and cheap, so they mostly trade a lot of stocks with low share prices. A lot of this argument is based on the amounts reported on the 606 disclosures. If you change the estimate for average share price traded to $4 a share, then Robinhood would get paid the same amount as the other firms. With zero commissions, anyone can afford to trade a few bucks of stock back and forth.

Theory #3: Robinhood’s order flow is somehow inherently more valuable than that of TD Ameritrade. Big brokers can fill some orders internally (one person is buying at the same time another is selling on the same platform) and they get to keep the market-maker profit. This rebuttal article says that Robinhood internalizes nothing and sells 100% of their orders. Maybe this “unfiltered” order flow is more valuable? Maybe the fact that their customers are younger and mostly non-professional traders make the order flow more valuable? More odd lots? More trades of single shares? More market orders instead of limit? Maybe Robinhood packages the data in some way that makes it more palatable to HFT firms?

HFT firms are using the data to build complex algorithms for their own trading, so they want to understand market behavior. Getting unlimited access to raw order data would certainly be key to understanding the behavior of “dumb money”.

Personally, I think it’s maybe a little #2, but more #3. Robinhood was founded by former HFT software engineers. They know exactly what type of information would be valuable to HFT firms. In fact, I think selling customer data (in aggregate) was a big part of their business model to pull off free trades from the very beginning. So they optimize the selling of your data quietly, while also making money on idle cash and margin subscriptions. It’s also a big money saver when they only answer customer service questions via e-mail and don’t have a phone number.

The bigger question: Do you care? Okay, so Robinhood gets paid by selling your order data. They get paid a penny per share. Some firm will know you bought 10 shares of Nvidia and sold 10 shares of AAPL exactly 54 minutes and 12 seconds after the new iPhone announcement. In some indirect way, this arrangement might give the HFT firms a greater trading edge in the future. In exchange, you get free stock trades today. Is this a bad deal?

They’ve also helped inspire more free trade competition:

Bottom line. I view Robinhood as “free” in the same way that Gmail is “free” and Facebook is “free”. They make money via traditional means, but your personal data and behavior patterns are also part of the true price. The theme of this entire decade is that our personal data is the most undervalued asset (by us). Google, Facebook, Amazon, Visa, every major corporation – they are perfectly aware of the value of data. As the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

P/E Ratios Don’t Predict Anything Over The Next Couple of Years

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Here are some charts from a Credit Suisse research report that you should keep in mind when reading articles about high valuations and future returns. I first saw the highlighting done by WSJ Daily Shot, but I can’t find the post anymore.

Here is a chart plotting the starting Forward P/E ratio and the subsequent 10-year annualized returns for US Stocks (S&P 500). As of September 2018, the Forward P/E ratio is approximately 17. As you can see, this is higher than the historical average, with the trendline suggesting that the average expected future return is about 5% annually. Chart like this explain why many articles warn of low returns ahead.

However, step back and you see that the historical range has varied from -1% to 8%. Over 10 years, that’s a big spread. It’s the difference between $100,000 turning into $90,000 or $215,000. Focusing on the line gives you a false sense of accuracy.

Here is a chart plotting the starting Forward P/E ratio and the subsequent ONE-year annual return for US Stocks (S&P 500). In the next year, just about anything could happen! You should shoot up 30%+ or drop 30%+. (There appears to be a typo with the vertical axis missing some zeros. I believe the range should be from -60% to +60%.)

P/E ratios are not reliable for market timing. Yes, P/E ratios are something to watch and consider, especially to keep reasonable expectations for long-term returns. But when people sell all their stocks, they feel a drop is coming soon, not 10 years out. That crash might happen. But it might not. As the John Maynard Keynes quote goes, “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.”

In my opinion, it is a much more reliable bet to maintain broad exposure to stocks for decades. You can do some trimming around the edges if that helps you minimize regret.

Big Picture: Is Compounding Growth Working For or Against You?

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

I’m a finance geek and like to dig around in the details like asset allocation or tax strategies. However, sometimes I read some news that reminds me to step back and look at the big picture. Half of all Americans don’t own any stocks at all. Before the 2008 financial crisis, about 2/3rds of US adults had some skin in the stock market, but that number dropped significantly and hasn’t rebounded. From a Gallup poll:

Even out of the half of Americans with some amount of stock ownership, most of them have no idea about stock market performance. Betterment conducted a survey [pdf] asking people to estimate the US stock market performance since December 2008, and Axios made it into a nice chart. Note that all of the respondents in the Betterment survey stated they had at least $1 invested in the stock market.

About half of respondents either thought the stock market dropped or stayed the same over the last 10 years. The correct answer is that the stock market is up over 200%. Only 8% of people who own stock got this right.

I worry that this means that only a small percentage of people are aware of the potential power of investing in productive assets like businesses. Sure, 200% is a lot, but over 10 years it’s not an insane number. At 12% annual growth, your money doubles in 6 years and thus quadruples in 12 years. At 8% annual growth, your money doubles in 9 years and thus quadruples in 18 years. Even at 6% annual growth, your money will double in 12 years and thus quadruples in 24 years.

Owning productive assets like public companies, real estate, or private business ownership gets you on the train powered by compounding exponential growth. Debt like student loans, credit card balances, even a home-equity loan for a new kitchen remodel, that’s like putting the compound interest engine in reverse. I know that it is easier said than done, but one of my favorite quotes from Mr. Money Mustache is that you should treat “debt as an emergency”. The difference between even putting a $50 into stocks a week, versus paying $50 week in interest to carry your debt each month can become the difference between having choices and the treadmill lifestyle forever.

If someone realizes the power of compounding, then they are more likely to covet that rental property or share of Apple stock as much as a new BMW lease or Viking stove. I love buying new shares of VTI. It gives me a dividend gift every quarter. This appreciation is the key to the constant accumulation of productive assets and not stuff.