How Do Your 401(k) Stats Compare? Vanguard How America Saves 2022

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Vanguard recently released the 2022 edition of their annual How America Saves report, a 110-page report targeted at industry insiders which looks at the nearly 5 million 401k, 403b, and other defined-contribution retirement plans. If you wish to geek out on 401k stats, there is a great deal of information in this report. Here are a few highlights based on 2021 data:

Employee contributions. The average/median employee contribution rate amongst participants was 7.3%/6.1% in 2021. Median means that half of people were saving more, while half were saving less. Average is weighted more by absolute dollar savings. (Click to enlarge.)

Employer contributions (company match). The total average/median contributions by year was 11.2%/10.3% (employer and employee combined). This means that the average/median employer/company contribution was about 4%. (Click to enlarge.)

How much does Vanguard think we should be saving? I found this quote noteworthy:

We believe participants need to reach a total saving rate of 12% to 15% or more to meet their retirement goals.

Maxing it out! Overall, 14% of participants saved the maximum annual amount of $19,500 ($26,000 age 50+) for 2021. However, 58% of those with incomes of $150,000+ maxed out their contributions. Here is the full breakdown by income:

(Not really sure how the folks earning under $15k per year are doing it… maybe these income numbers are after subtracting the contributions?)

How are people investing? Asset allocation. This chart shows the trends in asset allocation as the participants age. The increased use of Target-date funds and other professional management options has changed it so that young people are less likely to hold cash. (Click to enlarge.)

Account balances. The average account balance was $141,542 for 2021; the median balance was $35,345. This disparity means that a small number of plans with very high balances skews this often-quoted average upward. (Click to enlarge.)

I don’t pay much attention to this stat because the average includes workers across different age groups, income levels, job tenures, and so on. If I just switched jobs and rolled over my old 401k into an IRA, technically my balance is zero no matter what.

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Retirement Income Green vs. Red Zones from Jim Otar

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Jim Otar is a retired engineer-turned-financial-planner who has written many books and articles about retirement income. I recently found an old bookmark and reread his article Lifetime Retirement Income: The Zone Strategy from RetirementOptimizer.com. One core principle of his retirement advice that you don’t plan using averages:

The averages don’t cut it. For proper retirement planning, you must base your retirement solutions and strategies on adverse outcomes and not average outcomes.

For example, you don’t plan for average life expectancy. You plan for reaching age 95 for both you and your spouse/partner if applicable.

Green Zone: You have enough money that you can simply live off a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds, even if returns are on the unlucky side of history and much lower than average. Here are the numbers for his calculated sustainable withdrawal rate until age 95:

For example, if you are 65 years old and need $40,000 of annual income from your portfolio (above Social Security and other income sources), then you would need a portfolio balance of $40,000 divided by 3.8% = $1,052,631. (Alternatively, multiply $40,000 by 26.3.) If you have more than this, you are in the green zone. You’ll have enough money even after a market run that is bad historically, and you’ll probably end up leaving a decent estate or be able to spend more later on.

Red Zone: You need guaranteed income. You don’t have enough to live off of a portfolio of stocks without a decent chance of running completely out of money. The most prudent advice is to buy annuities that will provide a guaranteed level of income and stretch your limited assets for the rest of your lifetime, no matter how long that is.

The advice is then to use your money to buy a single premium immediate life annuity with payments that are indexed to inflation (CPI). At the time of writing, such an inflation-indexed SPIA would pay more that the sustainable rate above. The effective “safe withdrawal rate” for the same 65-year-old above would be 4.5% to 4.9%. Unfortunately, this article was written back in 2007 and as of 2022 there are zero insurance companies that offer inflation-indexed immediate annuities.

However, the same overall concept still applies. The Red Zone means you need to take critical action. You should see how much guaranteed lifetime income you can receive from a single premium immediate annuity (SPIA), perhaps with an escalation rider that increases your payout 1%-3% every year. You will need to consider reducing expenses somehow (downsize home, relocate to lower cost-of-living area). You may need to find additional income (keep working, rent out property). You might need to do all three.

Grey Zone used to mean that you were between the 3.8% withdrawal rate of the Green Zone and the 4.5% withdrawal rate of the Red Zone. Today, I assume it simply means you are close to green, but not quite. You should take some of those Red Zone actions listed above.

I found the Green/Grey/Red Zone concept to be an interesting retirement planning framework to consider. If you don’t have enough, you shouldn’t just wing it with stocks and hope for the best. SPIAs can help you stretch your money for a more secure retirement. I believe that SPIAs aren’t discussed enough in personal finance, and if there were more demand, perhaps the competition would create better and higher-yielding SPIA products. The problem is that non-transparent products like indexed annuities that promise things like “market-linked returns with no downside risk” are both better sellers and offer higher commissions to most insurance salespeople.

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Maxing Out the 401k Company Match: How Many Actually Do It?

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At the top of many personal finance “To-do Lists” is to max out the employer match offered in your 401k/403b retirement plan. It’s usually the first “savings” step after paying down high-interest debt and keeping up with your bills. Here’s a screenshot from the Standardized Personal Finance Advice Flowchart via Reddit:

And here it is again from JP Morgan Asset Management, right after building up an emergency fund:

I’ve read this advice so many times, but how many people even complete this Top 3 item on the list? To be clear, this is just contributing enough to maximize your employer match contribution, not maxing out your allowable employee contribution. (That’s on the list of standardized advice as well, but at a slightly lower priority level.)

Vanguard recently released its How America Saves 2022 report with tons of data about the retirement accounts that they help manage. Let’s see what they found.

First of all, what does it take to max out your 401k company match? Roughly a 6% contribution rate over the years.

So… how many people actually max out their 401k company match? Roughly 70% of participants contributed at least the max match rate in 2021. For participants in plan with an auto-increase feature, this number goes up to 77% overall after three years.

If you aren’t at least maxing out the company match and getting your “free money”, hopefully this stat provides some peer pressure. Over 2/3rds are doing it! You don’t want to be below-average, do you?? 😱

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Reader Question: Buying Individual Corporate Bonds on Secondary Market At 6% APY?

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Here’s a good question from reader Elizabeth in response to yesterday’s post about buying Treasury bonds on the open secondary market:

One thing I’m interested in is on that same table you shared – Corporate bonds rated BBB are around 6% for 5 years. Can you write about this? What are the pros and cons?

Here’s my thought process. Yes, us “retail” investors can also buy individual corporate bonds via major brokers with a fixed income desk like Fidelity. (Bond trading is rare on newer trading apps like Robinhood.) The bonds are judged by various rating agencies and usually separated by their grading. Right now, I see a Moody’s BAA3-rated corporate bond with 5 years left until maturity paying 6.78% interest (click to enlarge):

However, corporate bonds are not within my circle of knowledge. The special thing about every single US Treasury bond is that they are all fully-backed by the US government. Same with an FDIC-insured bank CD or NCUA-insured credit union certificate. It’s like comparing all 16 oz. jars of JIF brand peanut butter; I know all of them are the same, so I can just buy on price.

Once you venture into the world of corporate bonds, things get a lot more complicated. There is wide range of potential credit risk from the issuing company. If the company fails, you may not receive your initial principal back. There is call risk from callable bonds where the issuer can redeem your bond early (to their benefit), not to mention several other early redemption wrinkles like “make whole call”, “sinking fund protection”, and “special optional redemptions”.

Baa3 and BBB- rated bonds are still technically “investment-grade”, but they are just one notch above “below investment-grade”, aka “junk”, aka “high-yield” bonds. Here is a quick table of bond ratings from Investopedia:

If take a closer look at the available bonds above, you’ll see that only one bond is paying over 6.7% and it doesn’t even have an S&P rating, which means there might be something funny going on. The rates quickly go back down to the 5.XX% range.

Do I know why one bond has to pay 6.7% interest rate to entice a buyer, while another one only has to offer 4.8%? I must admit that I really have no idea.

Bonds are for safety. In addition, I should remember my reason for holding bonds. They are my safety blanket. They are my next 10 years of expenses that are guaranteed to be there even if bad things happens. What if Russia bombed a NATO country tomorrow? The US would be obligated to go to war. China might then feel that it has to back Russia. Who knows. Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.

My goal with bonds is to maximize yield without sacrificing safety.

Stocks are for growth and upside potential. Let’s take the bottom bond highlighted – an Ally Financial corporate bond paying 5.6% yield for the next 5 years. Ally Bank is familiar to me, and I am a longtime customer. Why not buy that bond? Well, if I bought that bond, the most that it will ever pay me back is the bond face value and interest. Worst case is still that Ally goes bankrupt and I lose all or most of my entire investment and end up with zero. This has happened, and to much larger companies than Ally.

Up to 6 days before their eventual collapse, Lehman Brothers had an A investment grade rating. The eventual recovery on their bonds was 21 cents on the dollar.

However, I could also buy Ally Financial stock (ticker ALLY). Right now, it is trading at only a 4.72 P/E ratio and is even paying a dividend yield of 3.54%. Five years from now, I could be sitting on a +50% or +100% or +200% total return. In other words, if you want to take on risk for a higher return, you are competing with stocks. There is ongoing debate about the inclusion of high-yield bonds in a portfolio, but I prefer to take risks with stocks and keep my bonds as safe as possible.

Consider a low-cost, diversified mutual fund or ETF. The benefit of holding riskier corporate bonds inside a mutual fund/ETF is that any one corporate bankruptcy won’t wipe you out. You can be diversified across hundreds of companies. Now, you can’t control the maturity as tightly, you’ll still lose some yield to management costs, and you’re still subject to interest rate risk. If you own the Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF (BND) or any Vanguard Target Retirement Fund, you already own corporate bonds inside a fund.

If I had to buy corporate bonds and wanted a stream of higher income without a reckless amount of credit risk, I would consider the Vanguard High-Yield Corporate Fund Investor Shares (VWEHX, $3k min) or Vanguard High-Yield Corporate Fund Admiral Shares (VWEAX, $50k min). VWEHX has a 0.23% expense ratio and a 30-day SEC yield of 6.71% as of 07/18/2022. VWEAX has a 0.13% expense ratio and a 30-day SEC yield of 6.81% as of 07/18/2022.

You are buying a basket of nearly 700 bonds that straddle the line between investment-grade and below investment-grade. This is a bond fund that I would own for the income stream, not if I needed the entire amount in cash soon as it can drop quite a lot during times of market stress. The expense ratio on this Vanguard fund is much lower than the industry average. Just a suggestion for further research. I don’t own this fund. In fact, I don’t own any corporate bonds at all.

Hope that helps!

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MMB Portfolio 2022 2nd Quarter Update: Dividend & Interest Income

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Here’s my quarterly update on the income produced by my Humble Portfolio (2022 Q2). I track the income produced as an alternative metric for performance. The total income goes up much more gradually and consistently than the number shown on brokerage statements (price), which helps encourage consistent investing. I imagine them as building up a factory that churns out dollar bills. You can still track your dividend and interest income with a total return portfolio. You don’t need a bunch of high-yield stocks, MLPs, leveraged REITs, or covered call ETFs.

Background: Overall stock market dividend growth. Stock dividends are a portion of net profits that businesses have decided to distribute directly to shareholders, as opposed to reinvesting into their business, paying back debt, or buying back shares directly. The dividends may suffer some short-term drops, but over the long run they have grown faster than inflation.

In the US, the dividend culture is somewhat conservative in that shareholders expect dividends to be stable and only go up. Dividend cuts tend to be avoided. Thus the starting yield is lower, but it can grow faster. Here is the historical growth of the trailing 12-month (ttm) dividend paid by the Vanguard Total US Stock ETF (VTI), courtesy of StockAnalysis.com. Currently, 31% of VTI’s net earnings are sent to you as a dividend. Notice how it grows gradually, with the current annual dividend 76% higher than in September 2013:

European corporate culture tends to encourage paying out a higher (sometimes fixed) percentage of earnings as dividends, but that means the dividends move up and down with earnings. Thus the starting yield is higher but may not grow as fast. Here is the historical growth of the trailing 12-month (ttm) dividend paid by the Vanguard Total International Stock ETF (VXUS). Currently, 47% of VXUS’s net earnings are sent to you as a dividend. Notice how it stays more stable (but also dropped during 2020 due to COVID), with the current annual dividend only 25% higher than in September 2013:

The dividend yield (dividends divided by price) also serve as a rough valuation metric. When stock prices drop, this percentage metric usually goes up – which makes me feel better in a bear market. When stock prices go up, this percentage metric usually goes down, which keeps me from getting too euphoric during a bull market. Here’s a related quote from Jack Bogle (source):

The true investor will do better if he forgets about the stock market and pays attention to his dividend returns and to the operating results of his companies.

My personal portfolio income history. I started tracking the income from my portfolio in 2014. Here’s what the annual distributions from my portfolio look like over time:

  • $1,000,000 invested in my portfolio as of January 2014 would have generated about $24,000 in annual income over the previous 12 months. (2.4% starting yield)
  • If I reinvested the income but added no other contributions, today in 2022 it would have generated ~$48,000 in annual income over the previous 12 months.

This chart shows how the annual income generated by my portfolio has changed.

TTM income yield. To estimate the income from my portfolio, I use the weighted “TTM” or “12-Month Yield” from Morningstar, which is the sum of the trailing 12 months of interest and dividend payments divided by the last month’s ending share price (NAV) plus any capital gains distributed (usually zero for index funds) over the same period. The trailing income yield for this quarter was 2.99%, as calculated below. Then I multiply by the current balance from my brokerage statements to get the total income.

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield Yield Contribution
US Total Stock (VTI) 25% 1.61% 0.40%
US Small Value (VBR) 5% 2.12% 0.11%
Int’l Total Stock (VXUS) 25% 3.87% 0.97%
Emerging Markets (VWO) 5% 3.35% 0.17%
US Real Estate (VNQ) 6% 3.14% 0.19%
Inter-Term US Treasury Bonds (VGIT) 17% 1.25% 0.21%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds (VTIP) 17% 5.59% 0.95%
Totals 100% 2.99%

 

Commentary. My ttm yield is now ~3%. Both US and international stock prices have gone down, and my ttm dividend yield has gone up. The price of my Treasury bonds have also gone down as nominal rates have gone up, but the yield will eventually go up as the money is reinvested into new bonds at higher rates. My TIPS yield has gone up significantly as CPI inflation has spiked. Of course, the NAV on my TIPS has also gone down, as real yields have gone up (again will be better as money is reinvested). TIPS are a bit complicated like that.

Use as a retirement planning metric. As a very rough goal, I support the simple 4% or 3% rule of thumb, which equates to a target of accumulating roughly 25 to 33 times your annual expenses. I would lean towards a 3% withdrawal rate if you want to retire young (before age 50) and a 4% withdrawal rate if retiring at a more traditional age (closer to 65). It’s just a target, not a number sent down from a higher being. During the accumulation stage, your time is better spent focusing on earning potential via better career moves, improving in your skillset, and/or looking for entrepreneurial opportunities where you can have an ownership interest.

Even if do you reach that 25X or 30X goal, it’s just a moment in time. The market can shift, your expenses can shift, and so I find that tracking income makes more tangible sense in my mind and is more useful for those who aren’t looking for a traditional retirement. Our dividends and interest income are not automatically reinvested. They are another “paycheck”. Then, as with a traditional paycheck, we can choose to either spend it or invest it again to compound things more quickly. Even if we spend the dividends, this portfolio paycheck will still grow over time. You could use this money to cut back working hours, pursue a different career path, start a new business, take a sabbatical, perform charity or volunteer work, and so on. This is your one life and it only lasts about 4,000 weeks.

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.

MMB Humble Portfolio 2022 2nd Quarter Update: Asset Allocation & Performance

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portpie_blank200Here’s my quarterly update on my current investment holdings as of 7/8/22, including our 401k/403b/IRAs and taxable brokerage accounts but excluding real estate and side portfolio of self-directed investments. Following the concept of skin in the game, the following is not a recommendation, but just to share an real, imperfect, low-cost, diversified DIY portfolio. The goal of this “Humble Portfolio” is to create sustainable income that keeps up with inflation to cover our household expenses.

“Never ask anyone for their opinion, forecast, or recommendation. Just ask them what they have in their portfolio.” – Nassim Taleb

TL;DR changes: Went from 67/33 stocks/bonds ratio to 64/36, so buying more US and International Stocks with available cashflow.

How I Track My Portfolio
I’m often asked how I track my portfolio across multiple brokers and account types. (Morningstar also recently discontinued free access to their portfolio tracker.) 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 different accounts, adds up my various balances, tracks my performance, and calculates my overall asset allocation daily.
  • Once a quarter, I also update my manual Google Spreadsheet (free, instructions) because it helps me calculate how much I need in each asset class to rebalance back towards my target asset allocation. I also create a new tab each quarter, so I have snapshot of my holdings dating back many years.

July 2022 Asset Allocation and YTD Performance
Here are updated performance and asset allocation charts, per the “Allocation” and “Holdings” tabs of my Personal Capital account.

Target Asset Allocation. I call this my “Humble Portfolio” because it accepts the repeated findings that individuals cannot reliably time the market, and that persistence in above-average stock-picking and/or sector-picking is exceedingly rare. Costs matter and nearly everyone who sells outperformance, for some reason keeps charging even if they provide zero outperformance! By paying minimal costs including management fees and tax drag, you can actually guarantee yourself above-average net performance over time.

I own broad, low-cost exposure to productive assets 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 have faith in the long-term benefit of owning publicly-traded US and international shares of businesses, as well as the stability of high-quality US Treasury and municipal debt. My stock holdings roughly follow the total world market cap breakdown at roughly 60% US and 40% ex-US. I add some “spice” to the vanilla funds with the inclusion of “small value” ETFs for US, Developed International, and Emerging Markets stocks as well as additional real estate exposure through US REITs.

I strongly believe in the importance of knowing WHY you own something. Every asset class will eventually have a low period, and you must have strong faith during these periods to truly make your money. You have to keep owning and buying more stocks through the stock market crashes. You have to maintain and even buy more rental properties during a housing crunch, etc. A good sign is that if prices drop, you’ll want to buy more of that asset instead of less. I don’t have strong faith in the long-term results of commodities, gold, or bitcoin – so I don’t own them.

I do not spend a lot of time backtesting various model portfolios, as I don’t think picking through the details of the recent past will necessarily create superior future returns. Usually, whatever model portfolio is popular in the moment just happens to hold the asset class that has been the hottest recently as well.

Find productive assets that you believe in and understand, and just keep buying them through the ups and downs. Mine may be different than yours.

I have settled into a long-term target ratio of roughly 70% stocks and 30% bonds (or 2:1 ratio) within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and occasionally rebalance. This is more conservative than most people my age, but I am settling into a more “perpetual income portfolio” as opposed to the more common “build up a big stash and hope it lasts until I die” portfolio. My target withdrawal rate is 3% or less. Here is a round-number breakdown of my target portfolio.

  • 30% US Total Market
  • 5% US Small-Cap Value
  • 20% International Total Market
  • 5% International Small-Cap Value
  • 10% US Real Estate (REIT)
  • 20% High-Quality bonds, Municipal, US Treasury or FDIC-insured deposits
  • 10% US Treasury Inflation-Protected Bonds (or I Savings Bonds)

Commentary. According to Personal Capital, my portfolio down about 16% for 2022 YTD. My US and International stocks have dropped enough that all new cashflow is being placed into buying more of those asset classes. Simple as that. Keep on truckin’.

Since that was so short and boring, here a quick fact that I keep in my head. Using the “Rule of 72”, we know that if your portfolio returns 7% a year, it will double roughly every 10 years. $10,000 invested for 10 years will double to $20,000. However, $10,000 invested for 20 years will quadruple into $40,000. $10,000 invested for 30 years will octuple into $80,000. That provides a sense of the power of compounding and how it starts slow but kicks into turbo mode later on. I’ve been investing for about 20 years, so I’m getting to the good part! 😉

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

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.

Fidelity Solo FidFolios: DIY Custom Direct Indexing (Similar to M1 Finance)

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Fidelity just announced a new feature called Fidelity Solo FidFolios. You can make a custom index with up to 50 individual stocks, or a custom asset allocation portfolio using ETFs. You can then buy into your custom portfolio all a once using flat dollar amounts and Fidelity will juggle the fractional shares. For example, your $50 purchase could be split into 50 different individual companies.

“Now more than ever, investors want the peace of mind of trading, monitoring, and rebalancing custom stock portfolios in a simple way,” said Robert Mascialino, head of Fidelity’s retail brokerage business. “With the ability to align to a specific theme or individual values, Fidelity Solo FidFoliosSM helps leverage the power of direct indexing to build a customized portfolio while simplifying how investors manage what they own.”

Costs. Flat $4.99 per month, with a 90-day free trial. No stock commissions. Works within your usual Fidelity brokerage or IRA account. If you stop paying the fee, you just end up holding those individuals stocks and/or ETFs.

Note that this is different from their Fidelity Managed FidFolios, which is professionally managed by Fidelity and more about using tax-loss harvesting to gain a slight after-tax advantage. The cost for Managed Fidfolios is 0.40% annual management fee with a $5,000 initial minimum.

This may sound familiar, as it is pretty much what the start-up M1 Finance first introduced years ago, with the important distinction that M1 Finance is free (so far). Motif Investing also ran something similar before they shut down and their technology was acquired by Schwab.

I believe that a “custom robo-advisor” feature is going to be widespread in the future. Many DIY folks would like the ability to make your own customized all-in-one Target Retirement Fund. It’s really not that technically difficult to allow everyone to create their own custom glide path. I explored this with a small investment in M1, but in practice I have found it trickier to implement if you have to rebalance across various 401k plans, IRAs, and taxable brokerage accounts. Still, I’d rather use M1 Finance or this Solo Fidfolio over another robo-advisor that changes their model portfolios every few years to match up with whatever is currently trendy.

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.

Schwab Hidden Fees: $187 Million Penalty For Intelligent Portfolios Robo-Advisor

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Schwab has agreed to pay a $187 million SEC settlement due to being sneaky about the fees charged by their robo-advisor product, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios (SIP). Schwab used “free” but quietly forced its own customers to hold a lot of cash in an high-cost form where they can skim off fees (and you get paid less interest). It was a relatively open secret in the financial planning industry, as noted in my own Intelligent Portfolios review:

Schwab makes a ton of money on your idle cash, and it is NOT an accident that they force you to own cash in their automated portfolios.

However, the details of this SEC settlement show that their behavior was even worse than I initially thought. As explained by Matt Levine in Money Stuff, Schwab literally decided how much profit they wanted first, and then worked their model asset allocations around that number. The technical version:

Each of SIP’s model portfolios held between 6% and 29.4% of clients’ assets in cash. The amount of cash that each SIP model portfolio contained was pre-set so that Respondents’ affiliate bank would earn at least a minimum amount of revenue from the spread on the cash by loaning out the money. …

In order to offer SIP without charging an advisory fee, Schwab management decided that the SIP portfolios would collectively hold an average of at least 12.5% of their assets in cash. To meet that goal, management set the exact amount of cash in each of SIP’s model portfolios, with the most aggressive portfolio containing 6% cash and the most conservative portfolio 29.4%, based in large part on its analysis that Schwab Bank would make a minimum amount of revenue at these levels. Management then provided these pre-set cash allocations to CSIA. In building the SIP model portfolios, CSIA treated the cash allocations provided by management as constraints and did not alter or adjust the cash allocations in any way. …

On February 18, 2015, weeks before the SIP launch, two articles were published in the media that were critical of SIP, claiming that the drag from the high cash allocations was a hidden cost of the program. In reaction to these articles, Schwab management directed that the SWIA ADV brochure be re-written, and that a public relations campaign be launched to explain the SIP cash allocations. …

While the ADV brochures disclosed that Schwab Bank earned income from the cash allocation for each investment strategy, SWIA’s and CSIA’s ADV brochures stated that the cash allocations in the SIP portfolios were “set based on a disciplined portfolio construction methodology designed to balance performance with risk management appropriate for a client’s goal, investing time frame, and personal risk tolerance, just as with other Schwab managed products.” This was false and misleading because the cash allocations were actually pre-set in order to reach minimum revenue targets for the Respondents.

Here it is more accurately summarized in this Reuters quote:

“Schwab claimed that the amount of cash in its robo-adviser portfolios was decided by sophisticated economic algorithms meant to optimize its clients’ returns when in reality it was decided by how much money the company wanted to make,” SEC enforcement chief Gurbir Grewal said.

Here’s what Schwab says in their press release:

We are proud to have built a product that allows investors to elect not to pay an advisory fee in return for allowing us to hold a portion of the proceeds in cash, and we do not hide the fact that our firm generates revenue for the services we provide.

Really, you don’t hide the fact? Let’s look at your product page now as of 6/15/2022. This is what you see without clicking further:

We believe cash is a key component of an investment portfolio. Based on your risk profile, a portion of your portfolio is placed in an FDIC-insured deposit at Schwab Bank. Some cash alternatives outside of the program pay a higher yield.

What else is not mentioned on their product page? The actual interest rate paid. The APY is not mentioned anywhere on that page, even through a link or fine print. You must go searching for this link, where you will find that SIP actually holds special “Sweep Shares” of the Schwab Government Money Fund (SWGXX) with a annual expense ratio of 0.44% and SEC yield of 0.38% as of 6/15/22. In comparison, Vanguard’s default cash sweep is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund (VMFXX) with a net expense ratio of 0.11% and SEC yield of 0.76% as of 6/15/22.

If you click further, you find their new fine print:

Assume a $100,000 account with a 10% Cash Allocation ($10,000), which would be a moderate—aggressive investment portfolio allocation. Using market interest rates from the first quarter of 2022, Schwab Bank earned about 1.03% on an annual basis on the cash it invested net of what it paid to clients in the Program. Schwab Bank would have received about $103 ($10,000 x 1.03%) on that cash deposit, annualized, which equates to 0.103% or 10.3 basis points ($103/$100,000) of the total client investment of $100,000.

However, the true cost to investors is not just the fees that Scwhab gets. Cash is not necessarily ideal for long-term portfolios. By dictating cash, you ignore other higher-yielding and arguably more appropriate options like their own Schwab Short-Term U.S. Treasury ETF (SCHO, 0.04% ER, 2.60% SEC yield) and Schwab Short-Term Bond Index Fund (SWSBX, 0.06% ER, 2.98% SEC yield).

Schwab customers are at this very moment, losing significant money from their high-cost cash drag instead of a low-cost, high-quality money market and/or short-term bond fund. Schwab customers should note that this quiet profit via cash holding motive runs throughout the company. The Schwab Bank “High Yield” Investor Savings account pays 0.05% APY. Uninvested bank sweep cash in your Schwab brokerage and retirement accounts pays a measly 0.01% APY.

I would bet that if you did a poll of all Schwab IP customers and asked them about it, a majority would have no idea about this arrangement.

Bottom line. After reading the details of this SEC settlement, the fact that Schwab put profit first and the actual design of the product second is the most offensive. I’d much rather you sell me a great product at a fair price. Schwab’s reputation is now lower in my mind. They have some good products, but I would not recommend Schwab Intelligent Portfolios (or any Schwab managed product based on their behavior here) for my family or friends.

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.

Chart: Every S&P 500 Bear and Bull Market in History

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Even though I don’t check my retirement account balances daily (or weekly, or often monthly) it can still be nearly impossible to tune out all the market noise. I was promptly notified via e-mail press release that the S&P 500 index officially reached “Bear Market” status today 6/13/2022. A bear market is defined as a 20% drop from previous high, ending when the index reaches a low and subsequently rises by 20%.

The email also included this handy list of every bear market in the history of the S&P 500 index (since 1928). Credit to S&P Dow Jones Indices:

Takeaway: You should always be prepared for a drop of 50% in your stock holdings. Enduring such uncomfortable volatility is the price of investing in stocks, and if you don’t pay it, you don’t get the full returns.

I’ve yet to find anyone with a clear way to avoid these swings. Beyond buy-and-hold, perhaps the only thing is to wait only for the “fat pitches”, which are rare and far between. Even then, will you have the guts to swing? This is why I think of my primary portfolio as the “Humble Portfolio”.

Here is list of every bull market in history. A bull market is defined as 20% rise from the previous low, ending when the index reaches a high and subsequently drops by 20%.

Takeaway: The bull markets more than make up for the bear markets over the long run. At some point, you will be reminded that in order to make up for a 50% drop, stocks would have to go up by 100% just to break even again. That’s sounds like a lot, but in fact that has happened repeatedly and then some. You can see in the chart that this most recent bull market was a +400% change, and that doesn’t even include dividends.

Every one needs to find a good balance through education and experience where they can hold the risky stuff through the bad times, while also be happy holding the boring stuff through the “but my neighbor got rich daytrading crpyto” times. We are currently going through another period of heightened uncertainty. How do you feel about your portfolio today?

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” – attributed to Mark Twain

Photo credit: Unsplash

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.

Stacking VTI or VOO: Get Excited About S&P 500 and US Total Market Stock ETFs

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A satoshi, or “sat” for short, is the smallest unit of the cryptocurrency bitcoin. “Stacking Sats” is a popular term for gradually accumulating bitcoin by purchasing small amounts of bitcoin at a time. (100 million sats = 1 bitcoin.) The idea is that you should be excited about adding any amount to your stack, focusing on that forward progress instead of the current market price.

If only it would be as trendy for folks to “stack VOO” or “stack VTI”. A low-cost S&P 500 or US Total Market index ETF is a tax-efficient way to build up your ownership of a share of excellent American businesses. Unfortunately, there is always something shinier next to this vanilla product. Factor ETFs, themed ETFs, sector ETFs, and so on. John Rekenthaler of Morningstar has an interesting series of articles comparing the long-term returns of various alternatives to Vanguard index funds. See Vanguard’s Other Index-Fund Invention.

Even way back in 1992, Vanguard started offering “Value” and “Growth” index funds, essentially splitting the US stock market into two halves based on price/book ratios. Essentially, these were the first variation on the plain S&P 500 index fund. You might think one was better than other. (Most academics would have guessed Value would win.) So what happened over the next 20 years? Not very much! (Plus Growth won slightly.)

Of course, I would not be surprised at all to see Value squeak out a slight win over Growth after another 10 or 20 years. One is always going to be winning slightly, but take a step back and you can argue they are effectively tied. Why not just own the S&P 500 index fund and get the average?

(Quick reminder: The Rule of 72 says that 10% annualized means your money will double every 7.2 years. That means $10,000 will have doubled three times in about 21 years. $10k doubled to $20k, then doubled to $40k, then doubled to $80k!)

What if you rebalanced regularly between Value and Growth? If you rebalanced between the two funds every single month, your annual return would have increased by 0.10%. If you rebalanced between the two funds only once every 5 years, your annual return would have increased by 0.28%. But really, who rebalances only once every 5 years? In view, these numbers are still low enough to be in the noise range, and the extra return is not dependable.

What if you bought a low-cost actively-managed fund from Vanguard instead? Due much to Vanguard’s extremely low costs on their active funds, some actively-managed funds did do better, but others did worse. If you chose to buy the funds with the highest trailing returns, or the best Sharpe ratios, or the most popular funds (most assets), all that Ivy League brainpower and decades of investing experience would have still lagged behind a simple index fund portfolio. Only with the power to see the future would you have picked the index-beating funds.

As the saying goes, don’t let the pursuit of perfect be the enemy of the good. As someone sitting on a relatively big pile of VTI after 15+ years of stacking it share by share, I am certainly relieved that I didn’t get too distracted by all of the other shiny objects out there. Instead of remembering your highest portfolio value ever from your monthly statement, remember the number of shares of VTI or VOO that you own. Every $200 saved = 1 share of VTI. But in the end, as long as you get excited about stacking something of high-quality with long-term productive value, you’ll likely end up in a good place.

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.

Don’t Anchor Yourself To Your Portfolio High-Water Mark

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Inside various financial forums, I am seeing the “anyone else worried?” 😓 posts as most portfolios are down double-digits. For a retiree with a $1 million portfolio, seeing $100,000 or $200,000 of value evaporate is understandably stressful. However, much of this is because you are comparing to your portfolio’s all-time high, or high-water mark, which is a relatively arbitrary number. Just because at one moment in time, there were a few willing buyers of your assets for a given price doesn’t mean you should anchor yourself to that number.

Step back and have some perspective. I would offer up this historical performance chart of the Vanguard Target Retirement 2050 Fund (VFIFX) as evidence that things really aren’t that bad if you take a step back. This chart tracks the growth of a $10,000 investment place in 2012 in this all-in-one Target Date Fund. Taken 5/30/22.

  • As of 5/30/22, the 10-year trailing return for VFIFX is 10.28% annualized even after the recent drop. Can you reasonably ask for more than 10% average annual returns for a decade?
  • If you invested in January 2020, right before the COVID pandemic started, you are still up 18.7% if you held through today.
  • If you invested funds anytime between January and August 2020, those funds are up even more than that!
  • The last time your investment value was this low was… March 2021. That’s it.

Things might get much worse, things might get better and never look back, I don’t know the future. This is another reason why I no longer check my portfolio balance on a daily basis. How can I say that, when his whole blog was once based on the idea that I would share my net worth every month?! Back then my savings rate was much more significant than my portfolio performance. Side hustle money made a big difference and I felt in control. These days, the opposite is true. The portfolio movement overwhelms our savings contributions.

Track something better. If you keep staring at that portfolio balance, you’ll get overly excited when you hit an arbitrary number like $50,000 and then get really depressed if it drops below and stays there for a while. You need to track something better. If you are still in the accumulation phase, your metric for success could be:

  • Your 401(k) contribution rate. A reasonable target might be 15% or higher.
  • Your overall savings rate. Heck, if you are tracking this number at all, you are probably way ahead of the game.
  • Your side hustle monthly total. If your day job has a fixed salary, you might focus on the side income instead.
  • Your portfolio’s 2-year trailing average or similar. Anything that has a longer time horizon and offers more perspective.

If you are in the spending phase, you could track something like your spending rate as a percentage of portfolio, and if that’s still reasonable then go back to enjoying your life. You may also explore a dynamic spending strategy.

Bottom line. Your quoted portfolio value in November or December 2021 doesn’t matter. If you tell yourself stuff like “I’ve lost $XX,000” since December 2021, you are experiencing the anchoring cognitive bias.

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.

Investment Portfolio First Aid for Older Relative, Part 1: Assess The Situation

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Although I enjoy managing my own investments, I’ve generally avoided managing other people’s money. That always felt like such an important responsibility to take on. Below is the real investment portfolio of an older family member (over 75) that is professionally managed by an large “brand name” financial firm. Understandably, the recent market volatility has hurt the balance and there is some concern, so I took a look.

Before opening up the statement, I joked to myself “There better not be that ARK ETF in there!”…. and there it was. Down 66%! 😱 Deep breaths! My thoughts went to the four basic steps to performing emergency first aid:

  1. Assess the situation
  2. Plan for interventions
  3. Implement first aid
  4. Evaluate the situation.

Here are some anonymized screenshots (with permission) that show holdings, balances, performance, and rough asset allocation breakdown.

Why in the world does this portfolio only have 10% in bonds, at least according to the pie chart above? What exactly are those “alternatives”? I created a Google spreadsheet and started collecting more data from Morningstar:

The Goldman Sachs “multistrategy” fund turns out to consist of roughly 50% net stocks and 50% net cash/bonds. So the overall asset allocation is about 80% stocks and 20% bonds. Perhaps they confused the “age in bonds” rule of thumb with “age in stocks”? 🤔

I don’t know all the details and communications that took place before the creation and implementation of this portfolio, but my first impression is not positive. In addition to an overly-aggressive asset allocation, I see a mishmash of high-cost mutual funds. There isn’t a single penny in a low-cost index fund as a core holding! I don’t believe that you need 15 different funds to be “diversified”. While a relatively small holding, the fact that ARK ETF holdings are down 67% also means they decided to buy in after all of the initial outperformance. In other words, performance chasing.

Speaking of performance, the portfolio is down 25% from the initial purchase amounts. That’s seems like a lot for someone in their 70s, and we haven’t even technically hit a bear market in the S&P 500 yet.

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.