Fidelity Spire Saving App, Fidelity Go Roboadvisor Pricing Changes

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Fidelity is gradually moving into the areas previously catered to by startups like Betterment and Wealthfront. Younger customers, more mobile features, lower fees, etc. It was only a matter of time, but now we will have to see which big brokerage firm can pull it off the best. Schwab? Fidelity? Vanguard?

Fidelity Spire is their new mobile app, which doesn’t require any Fidelity account at all (but of course will work with them and/or be a perfect place to open a new account). As with many other apps, you can link your external accounts, track balances, and set financial goals. Fidelity acquired fintech startup eMoney in 2015, and is using that technology for account aggregation. Spire is not the same as the official Fidelity app, and you can’t made trades yet. After downloading and poking around a bit, it feels a like many other goal calculators within fintech apps like Stash and Acorns.

They are offering a rather dinky little $5 if you download the app, sign-in, set up a goal, and link it to a Fidelity Cash Management Account (FCMA). You can open the FCMA in the app, and it has no minimums and no account fees (and horrible 0.01% APY interest). This may be some low-hanging fruit for existing Fidelity customers, but not really much of an enticement otherwise. You can refer your friends for $5 each for up to another $25 (up to 5 friends).

Fidelity Go, their robo-advisor service, is also changing their fee structure. There is still no minimum to open an account (they’ll start buying stuff with $10) and here are the new advisory fees:

  • $10,000 or less: No advisory fee
  • $10,000 to $49,999: Flat $3 a month
  • $50,000 or more: 0.35% annually

At $10,000 in assets, $36 dollars a year = 0.36% annually. At $49,999 in assets, $36 dollars a year = 0.07% annually. Basically, everything under $50,000 in assets is now cheaper than before (and simply priced so you can think of it as even cheaper than Netflix.)

In addition, they also state that there are “no commissions, trading fees, or underlying fund fees that you pay.” Fidelity actually created a new line of mutual funds especially for their fee-based portfolios. They are called Fidelity Flex Funds and are similar to their other passive and actively-managed mutual funds but with zero expense ratios. For example, there is a Fidelity Flex 500 Fund and a Fidelity Flex International Index fund. I take this to mean that your entire portfolio will now be created using this proprietary line-up of funds. Previously, I remember seeing iShares ETFs and such.

As with other roboadvisors, the portfolio they choose will be based on you filling out a relatively short online questionnaire. If you aren’t sure about the resulting asset allocation, I recommend going back and change your answers to see the effects. With Fidelity Go, you do not gain access to financial advice from a human advisor. However, you will still gain access to their phone/live chat customer service, which has traditionally been rated highly.

One factor that I think is often overlooked in these “starter” services – What happens if/when you want to move your money elsewhere? Will they force you to sell all your proprietary Flex funds? If so, that could be a huge tax hit on a taxable account and a form of “lock-in”. This question doesn’t just apply to Fidelity, but all robo-advisors.

This is why I prefer to DIY and construct a portfolio using “high-quality interchangeable parts” that I can keep forever, like the Vanguard Total US Market ETF (VTI). You could do this using any broker, or you can use something like M1 Finance if you wanted more automation while maintaining the ability to port out your investments at any time.

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Rational Expectations: Advanced, Specific, Practical Portfolio Advice

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The fourth and final book in the “Investing for Adults” series by William Bernstein is Rational Expectations: Asset Allocation for Investing Adults. In Book 1: The Ages of the Investor, I learned to take advantage of a lucky streak in stocks and stop when I’ve won the game. In Book 2: Skating Where the Puck Was, I learned why it’s so hard to find any “new and improved” asset classes. In Book 3: Deep Risk, I learned about the scenarios that have led to permanent capital loss.

This final book includes the most specific advice about constructing your retirement portfolio. The entire series is great (and honestly not very long even read back-to-back), but this final book is especially dense with additional practical ideas for those that are already comfortable with investing basics. This isn’t at all scientific, but upon counting my Kindle highlights, Book 4 had 75 highlighted passages vs. 33, 25, and 36 respectively for Books 1-3. I’m only going to touch on the few that directly impacted my own portfolio construction.

Stocks. Here is an excerpt regarding how much of your portfolio should be allocated to international stocks.

Deployment among stock asset classes is relatively easier. The obvious place to start is with the total world stock market, as mirrored reasonably well by the FTSE Global All Cap Index, which in early 2014 was split 48/52 between U.S. and foreign equities. From there, we make three adjustments to the foreign allocation, two down and one up. First, the downs: if you’re like most people, your retirement liabilities will be in dollars, so a 52% foreign allocation is inappropriately high. Second, foreign stocks not only are slightly more difficult and expensive to trade but also are subject to foreign tax withholding. This presents no problem in taxable accounts, since those taxes will offset your liability to the IRS, but you lose that deduction if you hold foreign stocks in a sheltered account.

The up adjustment is a temporary one, since foreign stocks, as was discussed in chapter 1, currently have higher expected returns. So at the time of this writing, a foreign stock allocation somewhere in the 30% to 45% region seems reasonable.

Simplifying all that, as of early 2014, the middle recommendation would be roughly 60/40 US/international while the world market cap weighting was roughly 50/50. A little home bias is recommended for US investors.

As of mid-2020, the world market cap weighting is 57% US and 43% International (source), which you might round to 60/40. The adjustments are mostly the same, except that foreign stocks probably have even slightly higher future expected returns as the US stocks keep climbing. If you want to maintain a slight home bias, I would speculate this might change the recommended range closer to 65/35 or 70/30?

Bonds. The recommended list includes short-term US Treasuries/TIPS, bank CDs, and investment-grade municipal bonds. Bernstein is not a fan of corporate bonds.

Sooner or later, we’re going to have an inflationary crisis, and in such an environment, long duration will be a killer. Stick to short Treasuries, CDs, and munis.

Own municipal bonds via a low-cost Vanguard open-ended mutual fund for the diversification. Own Treasury bonds and TIPS directly, as there is no need for mutual funds or ETFs since they all have the same level of risk. Own bank CDs and credit union certificates under the FDIC and NCUA insurance deposit limits.

Asset location. I found this advice about spreading your holdings across Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and taxable accounts to be very useful and practical. Importantly, this may be somewhat different that what you have read elsewhere. I don’t want to summarize incorrectly, so I will just use the excerpts:

To the extent that you wish to rebalance the asset classes in your portfolio, all sales should be done within a sheltered account. If possible, you should house enough of each stock asset class in a sheltered account so that sales may be accomplished free from capital gains taxes. Next, all of the REIT allocation certainly belongs in the sheltered portfolio, since the lion’s share of their long-term returns come from nonqualified dividends.

The real difference made by location occurs at the level of overall account returns. In terms of tax liability, Traditional IRA/Defined Contribution > Taxable > Roth IRA. This means that, optimally, you’d like to arrange the expected returns of each account accordingly, with the highest returns (i.e., highest equity allocation) optimally occurring in the Roth, and the lowest returns (i.e., lowest stock allocation) in your Traditional IRA/Defined Contribution pool. To the extent that this is true, it conforms with the stocks-in-the-taxable-side argument. That said, for optimal tax-free rebalancing, unless your Roth IRA is much bigger than your traditional IRA, you’re still going to want some stock assets in the latter.

It is definitely nice to be able to rebalance and not have to worry about picking stock lots, making sure you have the right cost basis at tax time, and paying capital gains taxes.

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Protecting Your Portfolio From Hyperinflation, Deflation, Confiscation, and Devastation

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The third book in the “Investing for Adults” series by William Bernstein is Deep Risk: How History Informs Portfolio Design. As before, I’m just trying to pull out a few practical takeaways rather than summarize the entire book. In Book 1: The Ages of the Investor, I learned to take advantage of a lucky streak in stocks and stop when I’ve won the game. In Book 2: Skating Where the Puck Was, I learned why it’s so hard to find any “new and improved” asset classes.

The main problem addressed in this book is “deep risk”, the permanent loss of real (inflation-adjusted) capital. This contrasts with “shallow risk”, in which the value of something usually rebounds within 5-7 years or less.

Here are some deep risks that you can offset by purchasing insurance (and be happy if you never have to use it!).

  • Death of income earner.
  • Long-term health disability.
  • Legal risk – lawsuit with large judgment.
  • Select types of asset loss (i.e. theft, building fire).

Unfortunately, there are other deep risks against which you can’t buy insurance.

  • Hyperinflation, prolonged and severe.
  • Deflation, prolonged and severe.
  • Confiscation by government.
  • Devastation (war).

Over an extended period of time, history has shown us that “safe” bonds are often more sensitive to deep risk than stocks. Many countries saw 100% losses for their bondholders, while partial ownership in a business survived wars and regime changes. An example given was in Germany after World War II. Bonds are also at risk for inflation, while a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (a negative bond) can be a great inflation hedge.

A portfolio of internationally-diversified stocks is the most practical way to protect yourself from both inflation and deflation. Historically, inflation is much more likely than deflation. You might have an event in one country, but it would be very rare to have a large majority of nations experience severe inflation and low stock returns all at the same time. In such a case you’d be looking at global devastation.

As for local confiscation and local devastation, you would be looking at foreign-held assets, foreign property, perhaps the right passports, and a plan to escape in a timely manner. This sounds like something that a billionaire might pay someone else to set up, but not so sure how practical it would be for most people.

Bernstein offers his own summary:

This booklet’s primary advice regarding risky assets is loud and clear: your best long-term defense against deep risk is a globally value-tilted diversified equity portfolio, perhaps spiced up with a small amount of precious metals equity and natural resource producers, TIPS, and, if to your taste, bullion and foreign real estate.

I admit that I am somewhat fascinated by worst-case scenarios, and I recommend reading the entire book for the full discussion. But in the end, my primary takeaway is that if you have a globally-diversified stock portfolio, you’ve done most of what you can in terms of deep risk. The rest is the same advice as before: consider TIPS if you have enough money, maximize Social Security, and keep some nice safe bonds and bank CDs for short-term needs (shallow risk).

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Free Social Security Tool for Optimal Benefit Claiming Strategy

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Update: The free Open Social Security tool has been updated to include a new “heat map” visualization that illustrates the relative values of claiming Social Security at different ages. Details here. Here is a sample graph for a couple with similar income histories and the same age:

For this situation, we see that the worst expected outcomes would occur if both individuals claimed really early. The best expected outcomes occur when one claims relatively early and the other claims relatively late.

Original post:

socialsecuritycardWhen to start claiming Social Security to maximize your potential benefit can be a complicated question, especially for couples. There are multiple paid services that will run the numbers for you, including Social Security Solutions (aka SS Analyzer) and Maximize My Social Security, which cost between $20 and $250 depending on included features.

Mike Piper of Oblivious Investor has created a free, open-source calculator called Open Social Security. To use the calculator, you will need to your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). This amount depends on your future income, so I would first consult this other free Social Security benefit estimator tool to more easily estimate your PIA. I believe the value you see at SSA.gov assumes that you will keep working at your historical average income until your claiming age (which won’t be the case for us).

Here are our results as a couple, assuming we were the same age (we are close) and with my expected benefit being slightly higher than hers:

The strategy that maximizes the total dollars you can be expected to spend over your lifetimes is as follows:

You file for your retirement benefit to begin 12/2047, at age 70 and 0 months.
Your spouse files for his/her retirement benefit to begin 4/2040, at age 62 and 4 months.

The present value of this proposed solution would be $657,749.

Basically, the tool says that my wife should apply as soon as possible, while I should claim as late as possible. I believe this is because this scenario allows us claim at least some income starting from 62, and if I die first after that, my wife would still be able to “upgrade” to my higher benefit.

The tool might take some time to run the calculations, depending on your browser. You can learn more and provide feedback at Bogleheads and Github.

I am not a Social Security expert, and am not qualified to speak to the accuracy of the results. However, Mr. Piper is the author of the highly-rated book Social Security Made Simple, has a history of doing thorough work, and the tool has been around a while now. If I were close to 62, I would probably also use the paid services for a second and third opinion. Why? Spending $100 now could save you many thousands in the future.

The best thing about this free tool is that it can introduce a lot of people to ideas that they would have not otherwise considered. Even if it lacks every bell or whistle, being free means it can help more people. Many spouses wouldn’t think of having one claim as early as possible (age 62), and then have the other claim as late as possible (age 70). It’s not common sense unless you understand the inner workings of Social Security.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

The Money Hamster Wheel, Part 2: Multiple Solutions, Not Just More Money

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In Part 1: Identifying the Problem, I shared Lawrence Yeo’s unique take on money and the hamster wheel metaphor, where we just keep spinning and can’t get off. Since then, I have thought more about how best to slow things down by instead attacking each step of the cycle. To be honest, I don’t know if I can properly explain Yeo’s concepts, so I came up with my own version of the hamster wheel. Here it is, rather hastily-drawn:

A common criticism of seeking financial freedom is that it’s all about money. Make more money. Spend less money. However, if you take a step back, money is just part of the flow between how you spend the time in your life. How are you making that money? Why do you want more money? Why are you spending the money?

Accordingly, here various ways that someone could lessen the impact of each part of the cycle.

  • Find better-paying work that is equally fulfilling and stimulating. Try to save the excess. Don’t make yourself more unsatisfied for more money.
  • Find more fulfilling and stimulating work, even if it pays less. Be happier, and thus need to spend less to replace that happiness.
  • Engage in non-work activities that provide meaning and stimulation. If you need a better job, work on a new skill. If you need more stimulation, start a side business and keep your current job. Or just find a new hobby/sport/language. Taking action is the key, as the right activities will energize you.
  • Reduce your intake of low-quality media. Stop consuming things that make you feel worse about yourself. The wrong activities will drain you, which encourages more spending.
  • Exercise more (try outdoors or with other people) and eat better food. This gives you more energy all day long.
  • Spend less money on the things that don’t matter, so you need less money. Cut out the mindless and unhelpful spending.
  • Spend more money on the things that truly matter to you. Now that you cut the mindless, you can spend more on improving interpersonal relationships, or energizing activities (see above).
  • The more you learn to control this cycle, the more you can use the concept of “Enough” to widen the gap between money in and money out. Decouple earning and spending. Invest in enough productive assets so that your required income is less and less.

Addressing the problem from one angle, helps free you up to attack it from another angle later. For example, if you eat and exercise better, you might have enough energy to take corrective action, and not just fantasize about that side business when you really just turn on the TV after a long day at work.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

The Money Hamster Wheel, Part 1: Identifying The Problem

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I started looking into financial independence because I simply couldn’t imagine doing what I was doing every weekday at that time for another 30 or 40 years. Some people know exactly what they want to spend their life doing, and it also pays the bills and then some. I was always envious of those folks. Strangely, I never really felt that making more money was the final answer. I saved diligently in order to quit my job and go back to school and explore alternate paths.

This week, I’ve been pondering a longread by Lawrence Yeo about his philosophy of money at How Money Forever Changed Us. It’s a very high-level exploration of how money both solves and causes various conflicts in our lives. This culminates into what he calls the Money Hamster Wheel:

The questions posed are slightly different than you may have seen elsewhere. Does working a job that doesn’t fulfill our need for purpose and meaning really take something away from our identity? Is that identity loss what we are really trying to replace by spending money? Why is it so rare to find people that are truly happy and aligned with their work and the rest of their lives?

You’ll have to read the entire article to understand all the spokes of his wheel (although I’m still not sure I do completely), and while Yeo admits that it is not possible to fully “get off the wheel”, you can do something:

When I look at each spoke on the wheel, I view them as potential opportunities to slow the whole thing down. If we are aware of each mechanism, we can notice when we’re operating under them, and lessen their impact in turn.

The hamster wheel is a great metaphor. Over time, I’ve accepted that financial independence will always be rare. I used to think that higher income = more wealth = more stability. But then I noticed that certain things don’t change when people make $75k vs. $150k vs. $300k a year. The neighborhood changes. The car changes. Yes, even average net worth changes (but rarely enough to 33x expenses before age 65). Unless they hit a huge windfall in the multi-millions, most of them will work until they are 65 or older. Most will say they like their job okay, but they would never do it for a 25% pay cut. Most will never be able to handle an extended period of unemployment. Earn more, spend more. Still spinning on the wheel. Maybe that’s just how it’s meant to be? Yeo presents a solution:

But if we take the time to look closer, we’ll see that a middle-ground exists. A place where our fears could be calmed, and our desires could be curtailed. A place where the quest for money falls only to what is essential.

In a world where neither scarcity nor abundance will do, perhaps the closest solution to the great paradox comes down to one principle:

The ability to recognize when we have enough.

Sounds easy, but shockingly hard. “Enough” is not encouraged in our culture. I still struggle with it as well, or at least I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep up the fight forever.

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In Defense of Working One More Year (OMY)

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In early retirement discussion forums, you’ll often see the term OMY, which refers to people who have reached their calculated retirement savings target, but decide to keep working “One More Year”. Sometimes that one more year becomes two more years, three more years, and so on. This leads to OMY being seen as an irrational behavioral quirk like hedonic adaptation. However, are the potential benefits of working one more year being under-appreciated?

In the Medium article How important is asset allocation versus withdrawal rates in retirement?, EREVN (he lives in Vietnam) compares the power of picking the optimal asset allocation vs. saving more money. Investors often worry about whether they own the right mix of stocks and bonds. Do you own enough stocks, as to get a high enough return? Do you own enough bonds, so you don’t freak out during a market drop?

EREVN points out that historically, the optimal asset allocation in terms of having your portfolio last the longest is almost always 100% stocks. (98% of the time.) Even including the other 2%, how much of a benefit is it to hold the optimal asset allocation?

Read the entire article for full understanding of the assumptions taken, but here is the summary of his experiments. We usually optimize asset allocation based on highest return, but that’s not exactly the same as withdrawal rate. Note: Whenever you see “4% withdrawal rate”, that’s the same as having 25 times your annual expenses. 3% withdrawal rate = 33.3x expenses, 2% withdrawal rate = 50x expenses, etc. I added the stuff in the brackets [].

Even with perfect hindsight, choosing the best possible asset allocation is only equivalent to going from a 4% withdrawal rate to a 3.7% or 3.8% withdrawal rate. [25x expenses to 26x or 27x expenses.] In other words, saving 1 or 2 extra years of expenses dominates getting the asset allocation decision perfectly correct. In reality, we don’t have perfect hindsight and our asset allocation will be sub-optimal.

The powerful conclusion:

Instead of stressing about trying to pick “the right” asset allocation, you’re better off picking anything reasonable and ignoring every other asset allocation internet discussion for the rest of your life… and then working an extra six or twelve months to pad out your retirement fund before retiring.

I like the paring of working one more year and being able to drop the worry about asset allocation now and forever! You don’t want to work forever, but this does make OMY have multiple benefits (existing portfolio can grow another year, might even save more, stop worrying about asset allocation).

Here are a few related posts on “Saving More vs. XXX” from the archives:

Image via GIPHY.

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William Bernstein and Safe Withdrawal Rates

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A recurring theme in investing is that you start out learning the simple basics, then you feel like you can optimize things and spend a lot of effort trying to do so, and eventually you realize that simple is probably just fine. No matter how closely you mine the past, you can’t predict the future. As the Buffett quote goes, “If past history was all there was to the game, the richest people would be librarians.” That’s what came to mind when I read William Bernstein on safe withdrawal rates in retirement:

Even the most sophisticated retirement projections contain so much uncertainty that the entire process can be summarized as follows: Below the age of 65, a 2% spending rate is bulletproof, 3% is probably safe, and 4% is taking chances. Above 5%, you’re taking an increasingly serious risk of dying poor. (For each five years above 65, add perhaps half of a percentage point to those numbers.)

Source: The Ages of the Investor: A Critical Look at Life-cycle Investing.

Something to keep in mind when you become obsessed about getting from a 98% success rate to a 99% success rate on a simple retirement calculator from Vanguard or a fancy one like FIRECalc. (Not that I’ve done that, ever, of course…)

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The Role of Luck in Long-Term Investing, and When To Stop Playing The Game

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I am re-reading a series called “Investing for Adults” by William Bernstein. By “Investing for Adults”, Bernstein means that he assumes that you already know the basics of investing and that he can skip to more advanced insights. There are four parts:

A commonly-cited part of the first book The Ages of the Investor is the question “Once you have won the game, why keep playing?”. If you have enough money to buy a set of safe assets like inflation-adjusted annuities, delayed (and thus increased) Social Security payments, and a TIPS ladder to create enough income payments for life, you should seriously considering selling your risky assets and do exactly that. (This is referred to as a liability-matching portfolio, or LMP. You can keep investing any excess funds in risky assets, if you wish.)

A wrinkle to this plan is that you won’t know exactly when the stock market will help make that happen. Before you reach your “number”, you’ll most likely be buying stocks and hoping they grow in value. Let’s say you saved 20% of your salary and invested it in the S&P 500*. How long would it take you to “win the game”?

Historically, it could be as little at 19 years or as long as 37. That’s nearly a two-decade difference in retirement dates! Same savings rate, different outcomes.

This paradigm rests on too many faulty assumptions to list, but it still illustrates a valid point: You just don’t know when you’re going to achieve your LMP, and when you do, it’s best to act.

If, at any point, a bull market pushes your portfolio over the LMP “magic number” of 20 to 25 times your annual cash-flow needs beyond Social Security and pensions, you’ve won the investing game. Why keep playing? Start bailing.

If you don’t act, the market might drop and it could take years to get back to your number again. This is one of the reasons why some people should not be holding a lot of stocks as they near retirement. Some people might need the stock exposure because the upside is better than the downside (they don’t have enough money unless stocks do well, or longevity risk), but for others the downside is worse than the upside (they DO have enough money unless stocks do poorly, or unnecessary market risk).

I find the concept of a risk-free liability-matching portfolio (LMP) much harder to apply to early retirement, as it is nearly impossible to create a truly guaranteed inflation-adjusted lifetime income stream that far into the future. Inflation-adjusted annuities are rare, expensive, and you’re betting that the insurer also lasts for another 50+ years if you’re 40 years old now. Social Security is subject to political risk and may become subject to means-testing. TIPS currently have negative real yields across the entire curve, and only go out to 30 years. (As Bernstein explores in future books, you’ll also have to avoid wars, prolonged deflation, confiscation, and other “deep risk” events.)

* Here are the details behind the chart:

As a small thought experiment, I posited imaginary annual cohorts who began work on January 1 of each calendar year, and who then on each December 31 invested 20% of their annual salary in the real return series of the S&P 500. I then measured how long it took each annual cohort, starting with the one that began work in 1925, to reach a portfolio size of 20 years of salary (which constitutes 25 years of their living expenses, since presumably they were able to live on 80% of their salary). Figure 11 shows how long it took each cohort beginning work from 1925 to 1980 to reach that retirement goal.

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Vanguard Digital Advisor Services (VDAS) Review: Only Slightly More Expensive Than Target Date Fund

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Updated. Vanguard has increased the marketing and added some details about their new portfolio management service, Vanguard Digital Advisor Services (VDAS). Here is the new full PDF brochure. After reading through the entire brochure (again!), here are a few new things that I noticed:

Glide path is now more personalized. Instead of just having a single glide path for everything headed for retirement in the same year, VDAS will customize your asset allocation glide path depending on: your selected risk attitude, when you think you will retire, your assessed loss aversion (if any), marital status, if your portfolio has low or high single stock exposure, retirement savings rate, and expected retirement income.

Joint accounts with rights of survivorship are currently not allowed. This is expected to change in the future.

You may need to sell or move your existing investments first to enroll in VDAS. VDAS requires $3,000 specifically to be held in the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which is their default cash sweep. In addition, your brokerage account can’t contain anything else. They want a clean slate of cash, and only then will they invest it for you. Most other robo-advisors don’t like to mix old assets either, but I expect that Vanguard will have a lot of potential customers with existing holdings. I was hoping they could somehow adjust for that.

Emergency savings goals. In the near future, you will be able to get guidance as to how much to set aside as emergency savings, and they’ll help manage that for you.

Here are the things I noted previously that still hold:

Key differences between the VDAS and VPAS:

  • Vanguard Personal Advisor Services (VPAS) – Both human and online communications. $50,000 minimum. 0.30% annual advisory fee (on top of ETF/fund expense ratios).
  • Vanguard Digital Advisor Services (VDAS). Online-only communication. $5,000 minimum for retail accounts ($5 minimum for 401k). Target 0.15% annual advisory fee (on top of ETF/fund expense ratios).

VDAS can work across multiple enrolled Vanguard accounts. (Eligible account types include: individual, joint accounts with rights of survivorship, traditional IRA, Roth IRA, 401(k), and Roth 401(k) accounts authorized by plan sponsors). If you have a Vanguard-managed 401k, you could then move your taxable and IRA balances over to Vanguard and have them manage everything together. Betterment and Wealthfront have a relatively tiny footprint in the 401k space. I suppose you could also just buy the same Target Retirement fund across all your accounts.

VDAS takes advantage of tax-efficient asset location, prioritizing tax-inefficient assets into IRAs and 401k plans. Wealthfront and Betterment will also do tax-efficient asset location, but again they are unlikely to manage your 401k so you’ll still have to do some work yourself. With an all-in-one Target Retirement fund, it’s the same everywhere and you can’t separate the stocks from the bonds.

VDAS will provide online financial planning tools where you enter your personal details to create a personalized, goal-based financial plan. Wealthfront, Betterment, and every other robo-advisor will do the same thing (using their own algorithms of course). These forward-looking charts are pretty to look at, but really it’s all just a big guess.

VDAS will only use these four Vanguard ETFs: Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF, Vanguard Total International Stock Market ETF, Vanguard Total Bond Market Index ETF, and Vanguard Total International Bond Index ETF. (401k accounts will be more flexible, working within the available investment options.) Retail accounts will not include any recommendations to purchase individual securities or bonds, CDs, options, derivatives, annuities, third-party mutual funds, closed-end funds, unit investment trusts, partnerships, or other non-Vanguard securities. When cash is recommended as part of the strategic asset allocation target (usually only for those close or in retirement), the Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund will be used.

That makes the basic ingredients of a VDAS portfolio the exact same as a Vanguard Target Retirement 20XX fund. It’s even possible that the asset allocation will be identical. However, it’s important to note for expense reasons (see below) that VDAS holds the cheapest ETF versions while the Target fund holds the most expensive Investor Shares.

VDAS is only about 0.05% more expensive than the equivalent Vanguard Retirement Fund. VDAS promises that the all-in fee (advisory + ETF expense ratios) will be 0.20% annually. Since the ETFs are only about 0.05%, that works out to a net advisory fee of 0.15%. Meanwhile, the all-in fee for the Vanguard Target Retirement fund currently varies from 0.15% to 0.12% because it holds the more expense Investor Shares of mutual funds. Vanguard has noted elsewhere that mutual funds are more expensive to maintain on their side, and so they charge more.

VDAS and VPAS both rebalance your portfolio within 5% bands. According to a previous article, VPAS checks your portfolio quarterly and then rebalances if a 5% threshold band is exceeded. According to this brochure, VDAS also rebalances only when an asset class (stocks, bonds, or cash) is off the target asset allocation by more than 5%. However, VDAS will check daily instead of quarterly. This isn’t a big deal to me, but an interesting difference to note. Rebalancing will be done in a tax-sensitive manner.

The Vanguard Target Retirement funds handle the rebalancing internally, and every other robo-advisor will have a similar rebalancing feature. Automated rebalancing is an important and sometime under-appreciated benefit of a managed portfolio over a DIY portfolio. Us DIY folks all think we’ll rebalance the same way without emotion, but sometimes… in times of stress… we don’t.

VDAS will only buy Vanguard ETFs, which means they won’t be doing any ETF tax-loss harvesting with similar pair of ETFs. (The legality of that practice has yet to be tested in court if its use becomes widespread.)

VDAS will not buy fractional shares of ETFs. A minor note, but an increasing number of brokers offer fractional shares, like M1 Finance. This can be helpful if you invest in smaller amounts, for example via dollar-cost-averaging with each paycheck.

Fee comparisons. The VDAS 0.15% advisory fee is very competitive. It’s cheaper than the base offerings of Betterment and Wealthfront of 0.25%. Schwab’s Intelligent Portfolios says it is “free” but from a cash drag perspective the effective fee is an estimated 0.12% (others estimate 0.20%). Betterment and Wealthfront have the head start in terms of technology and a modern design interface, but can Vanguard close the gap?

I was a bit surprised at how little VDAS costs more than a Vanguard Target Retirement fund. I have been a fan of Vanguard Target Retirement funds because they are basically a robo-advisor rolled into a simple mutual fund. But why are they still so expensive?

As DIY person, I would remind folks that you can always buy the exact same ETFs at any low-cost broker. A new broker M1 Finance offers free commissions, free rebalancing, and fractional shares. Now you have the same portfolio at an all-in cost of 0.05%.

Bottom line. Vanguard Digital Advisor Services is definitely going to make a dent in the robo-advisor field. The competition is far from over.

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Morningstar Target Date Retirement Fund Rankings 2020: Not All The Same

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The default option inside many employer-sponsored retirement plans are Target Date Funds (TDFs), which adjust their portfolio holdings automatically over time based on a specific target retirement date. Morningstar just released their 2020 Target-Date fund report. You’ll need to provide your name and e-mail to download the free full report. There is a lot of in-depth analysis for industry insiders, although many individual investors are basically stuck with the one fund series that is available in their 401k/403b plan. Besides looking up your fund, here are a few broader takeaways.

Here is the average glide path across 53 different TDF series (taken from 2019 report). On average, most TDFs have an asset allocation close to 90% equity and 10% bonds in the early years, with the equity percentage dropping (and bond percentage rising) as time goes on. At the year of retirement, the average asset allocation is roughly 45% equity and 55% bonds.

Glide paths stick closer to the average across funds during the early accumulation years, but differ much more as you near retirement. Near-retirees take notice! The chart below shows the historical percentage difference in quarterly return between funds with the same target dates. (All the 2020 funds were compared, all the 2030 funds were compared, etc.) You can see that during the “COVID crash” in Q1 2020, the biggest difference in performance actually came from the funds meant for those in retirement.

Some TDFs maintain a higher equity allocation and keep lowering it gradually “through” the retirement date, while others decrease more sharply right up “to” the retirement date and then hold things steady. For a 2020 fund, this could mean a 15% difference in the amount of stocks being held in 2020 (ex. 45% stocks vs. 30% stocks). The situation actually flips a decade after retirement and the “through” funds end up holding less stocks on average.

The past performance of TDFs often hinges on recent stock market performance and which funds are holding the most stocks (or most domestic stocks). Both the “through” and “to” methods have their pros and cons, but one might fit your own preferences better. I personally think that people do respond differently to market drops after they stop working completely and have fully exhausted their “human capital”. (Once you can’t make any more money, you start to stare at your balance more often…) Perhaps the gradual “through” funds would work better for those that also stop working gradually, while the “to” funds would be better for those that stop work completely.

You can adjust your volatility level by picking a different date. You probably only have one TDF series as opposed to a wide menu. If it’s too stock-heavy for you, then just pick a retirement date that is earlier. If it holds too many bonds, then just pick a retirement date that is earlier. There is no rule that you have to pick your actual retirement year, or even any single one.

Gold or Silver-rated Target Date Funds. Morningstar changed up their ratings methodology in November 2019. A very detailed explanation and full rankings are in the report. Here are the gold/silver-rated funds and whether they are “through/to”:

  • Blackrock LifePath Index (To)
  • JPMorgan SmartRetirement Blend (To)
  • Fidelity Freedom Index (Through)
  • Fidelity Freedom (Through)
  • JPMorgan SmartRetirement (To)
  • State Street Target Retirement (Through)
  • Vanguard Target Retirement (Through)
  • American Funds Target Date Retirement (Through)
  • T. Rowe Price Retirement (Through)

All other things equal, I’d still prefer a passive index approach with rock-bottom costs, but I’m glad to see even the actively-managed TDFs have lower expense ratios now than before.

Some of these TDF series are not available to retail investors outside of a employer-sponsored retirement plan. The Vanguard Target Retirement fund series remains the most popular with a 37% market share as of March 2020, and is also available to retail investors with a $1,000 minimum investment.

Bottom line. Although we often don’t have much choice in the matter, the good news is that every year the average target date fund gets cheaper and more competitive. Any of the gold/silver fund series above are able to provide a simple all-in-one solution. Added together, these “top-rated” options make up 78% of all TDF assets. However, it is still important to understand how your fund’s asset allocation changes as it nears the target retirement year, and know that you can pick a different year to adjust your risk level. If your fund is one of the bottom-dwellers, you may want to use this report to bug the HR department.

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Savings I Bonds May 2020 Interest Rate: 0.00% Fixed, 1.06% Inflation Rate

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sb_poster

Update May 2020. The fixed rate will be 0.00% for I bonds issued from May 1, 2020 through October 31st, 2020. The variable inflation-indexed rate for this 6-month period will be 1.06% (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 between May 2020 and October 2020, you’ll get 1.06% for the first 6 months. See you again in mid-October for the next early prediction for November 2020.)

Original post 4/13/20:

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 BLS.gov, which allows us to make an early prediction of the May 2020 savings bond rates a couple of weeks before the official announcement on the 1st. This also allows the opportunity to know exactly what a April 2020 savings bond purchase will yield over the next 12 months, instead of just 6 months. You can then compare this against a May 2020 purchase.

New inflation rate prediction. September 2019 CPI-U was 256.759. March 2020 CPI-U was 258.115, for a semi-annual increase of 0.53%. Using the official formula, the variable component of interest rate for the next 6 month cycle will be 1.06%. 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 April 2020. If you buy before the end of April, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.20%. You will be guaranteed a total interest rate of 0.20 + 2.02 = 2.22% for the next 6 months. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.20 + 1.06 = 1.26%.

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 April 30th, 2020 and sell on April 1, 2021, you’ll earn a ~1.55% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, for which the interest is also exempt from state income taxes. Comparing with the best interest rates as of April 2020, you can see that this is lower than a current saving rate or 12-month CD.

Buying in May 2020. If you buy in May 2020, you will get 1.06% 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. In the past 6 months, the 5-year TIPS yield has dropped to a negative value! My best guess is that it will be 0.00%. 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 (total bond rate has a minimum floor of 0%).

Buy now or wait? In the short-term, these I bond rates will definitely not beat a top 12-month CD rate if bought in April, and most likely won’t if bought in May either unless inflation skyrockets. Thus, if you just want to beat the current bank rates, I Bonds are not a good short-term buy right now.

If you intend to be a long-term holder, then another factor to consider is that the April fixed rate is 0.2% and that it will likely drop at least a little in May in my opinion. You may want to lock in that higher fixed rate now, which is higher than the real yield on TIPS right now.

Honestly, I am not too excited to buy either in April or May, but if I liked the long-term advantages of savings bonds (see below), I would consider buying now in April rather than May due to my guess of a higher fixed rate. You could also wait, as things might change again during the next update in mid-October.

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 TreasuryDirect.gov, 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]

My Money Blog has partnered with CardRatings and Credit-Land for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.