- One thing income is not is wealth. This is the first confusion we might encounter: High income does not necessarily mean great wealth.
Savings is the source of income that protects our lifestyle when other income stops, but savings by itself, even significant savings, is not wealth.
Income and wealth are taxed differently, so let’s start with the basic understanding that there are two tax systems, not one.
No doubt income, wealth, and taxes will be in the forefront of the news and conversation in the coming year as a new administration settles into Washington. Money is always at the top of the list since taxes are the foundation of all government activity, but never more so than at the beginning of a new political season when campaign pledges bang up against reality.
I thought it might be helpful to review the basics of income, savings, wealth, and taxes—all very different things—so we might be better prepared to make sense out of much of the nonsense we’ll be hearing in the weeks and months to come.
Income is the Football
There’s an old story that Knute Rockne started each spring training season by holding aloft a ball and announcing, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” His record is proof you should always start at the beginning, not take anything for granted, and keep things as simple as you can thereafter. Works for personal finance, too.
Continue reading here…
- • Depending on where you are in the lifecycle, you likely will be better served managing savings or managing spending than managing the volatility of returns
- • Over a 30-year retirement, changes in interest rates and inflation can cause wide swings in the cost of retirement – the ever-changing present value of all future expenses
- • Only after aligning the portfolio so that the Floor covers expected future expenses while hedging interest rate and inflation risk do we look to the market for Upside
The Brexit vote and Friday’s and Monday’s market reaction dominated the news this week, and presented the opportunity to consider why these kinds of market gyrations are relatively unimportant to retirement planning. In fact, market gyrations may be relatively unimportant even to young people a long way from retirement as well.
This may seem way off-base since the commonly accepted view, and the historic message of the financial services industry, is that maximizing returns for growth is the purpose of investing…(click here to continue reading at SeekingAlpha.com)
Along with posting here and on www.RMAP-Planner.com, I write about retirement planning and retirement income on Seeking Alpha.com.
These client notes are meant to connect you with some of the things I am working on at the moment—don’t hesitate to reply to this note with questions or comment!
I’m in Chattanooga tonight travelling back to Sarasota, but the news is stunning regardless. The UK has voted to leave the European Union which is sending the futures markets reeling, with the S&P showing a 5% loss at Friday’s open as of midnight, the largest potential drop in a long time, probably since the Greek crisis in 2013. The Yen rose strongly against the dollar as the pound fell the most in its history. How the markets will behave Friday and over the next days and weeks, no one knows of course, but we do know markets do not like uncertainty. And all we have now with the Brexit leave vote is a big bunch of uncertainty—since indeed, nothing will actually happen for some time. And how much will actually change is also unclear.
So we can anticipate that the markets will be quite jumpy in the near term. How should we respond to this period of uncertainty?
First, some perspective. Despite the hysteria in the media—which is good for the media business—the UK is still exactly where it was yesterday. It’s hard to move a whole country ‘south’ except in the popular imagination. The US markets are up this month about 0.60% as of Thursday’s close, and a modest 3.5% for the year. More importantly, the US markets are just -2.5% from the all time high of a year ago. So the decline and bumpiness we may see in coming days comes on the heels of a recent recovery of about +14% since the mid-February low when US markets fell to -16.5% below last year’s high.
Europe, and emerging markets are still -20% off two-year highs, and Asia -15%, and all three will likely be driven down by the Brexit vote, but all three are up at least +5% this year over recent lows, so there’s a little headroom.
In other words, the coming declines and bumpiness may well fall within the range we’ve already travelled this year, and not be the kind of event that shakes markets to historic lows. But, as we say, no one knows where this will go. History always becons.
That’s why for the portfolios I manage, we operate with a different mindset. It starts with looking at each individual’s household balance sheet and finding the Upside on the balance sheet—the amount of liquid investable savings that exceeds the amount needed to cover all future expenses over the rest of the household life cycle. This Upside amount we can invest and expose to market risk for long-term growth without jeopardizing the savings needed to support the ongoing household lifestyle since there will not be pressure to sell when the market declines—expenses are covered by Floor and Reserves allocations, not Upside. So losses do not need to be realized.
Instead, since we know the portfolio’s Upside allocation from the household balance sheet, I can use value averaging to buy more Upside when the markets decline at a lower cost, which significantly improves growth over time. I do this both for new and existing portfolios. (Value averaging is a form of rebalancing using target percentages rather than a target dollar amount which is common in dollar averaging).
For new portfolios where we are still building out the allocations, I may increase the Upside allocation as regions within the global market fall below their allocation target to fill that regional target allocation. This works even for partial targets as the portfolio is built up over time before it is fully allocated.
For existing portfolios I rebalance when Upside regional allocations fall more than 20% outside of their regional target percentage. This rebalancing allow us to add to those regions in the global market portfolio that are now selling at a lower cost—buying low—while we sell at higher prices those regions that exceed their targets by 20% when that occurs. Buy low, sell high!
Which feels exactly wrong if you’ve ever tried to do this yourself! No one wants to buy more when markets are falling—fear is a powerful motivator that is difficult to overcome unless you’ve done the math in advance and have the plan in place to act when the time comes. And no one wants to sell stocks that have gained so much they are over-allocated. “Let the winners run!” Wall Street says, and then they fall, and the selling/rebalancing opportunity is lost…
So a bumpy period is a busy period for me as a portfolio manager, but it is a satisfying busy-ness because it invariably adds value to the portfolios in the long run.
As these current events proceed, please let me know your concerns and questions. Meanwhile, think of periods like this as opportunities for long-term growth. And feel confortable that your needs for the short-term and beyond are well covered by a safely managed Floor that is not being tossed around by the news of the day.
Today was another down day, a reversal in the stock market. For those who use the market to support long-term financial goals, this is a good time. It is a good time, if your plan is based on your balance sheet, to consider adding to your Upside holdings by buying or rebalancing. If you’re beginning to wonder if you should be selling off and getting out, you may find that a strange comment. Let me explain why this is a good time.
I start any financial plan with a close look at the household balance sheet. I look at the current value of savings (financial capital) plus the present value (“PV”) of future employment earnings (human capital) and Social Security, pension, and other income (social capital). I compare that with the present value of estimated future expenses.
The amount of savings needed to cover the PV of future expenses is the Floor. Anything left over is Upside. You can afford to expose Upside to market risk for future growth because losses to Upside will not jeopardize your lifestyle—your lifestyle is covered by the Floor.
Upside is a simple name for the risk capacity—the ability to withstand losses—on your balance sheet. It’s a mathematical measure, not an emotional one. When you understand your balance sheet and know your Upside, you take the emotions out of investing.
Instead of always worrying about the market, you build a safe, risk-free Floor so that your lifestyle is covered and you can sleep at night. And instead of thinking about running for the exits when the market tanks, you think about adding to Upside to bring it back into balance with the rest of your plan.
The Upside of Upside
Today the broad US market closed about 14% off its all-time high last June, and is down almost 9% for the year. The upside of Upside increases when risky assets—stocks—are cheaper, as they are now.
So it’s a good time to be buying or rebalancing if you have a long-term plan that includes covering your lifestyle goals with risk-free Floor and only investing Upside in risky assets. You’re being smart by investing within your means, the same way you protect your lifestyle by spending within your means.
The investment guys talk about trying to catch a falling knife, meaning that buying a market that is down can be dangerous, since it could go down further. Yes, it can. It can also go up and then you haven’t bought in, either, and what was cheaper is now pricier. In fact, no one knows what the market will do. Not your “money guy,” not Goldman Sachs or Merrill-Lynch, not the Fed, not Donald Trump, not your insurance agent or your brother-in-law. No one. The market goes up, and it goes down. Timers lose more often than they win.
We don’t try to time the market. We aren’t trying to beat the market. We don’t have to. We’re using the market to support our long-term goals for growth. To get the best use of the market, we buy the whole market and then buy more if it when it’s cheaper. We get market returns, which typically are better than 2/3 of the results of those who are trying to beat the market.
In fact, we get something better than market returns. We get a rising return on our Upside investment by value averaging down. Let’s say you have a global allocation to five low-cost index ETFs in your Upside portfolio. Your average share price (cost or basis) of the largest fund—the US total market—is $100/share.
The price per share drops to $90. Your allocation is 10% down, so you rebalance by purchasing 10% more at $90 with cash from your Reserves, if your balance sheet affords it (we haven’t talked about Reserves; we’ll save that for another discussion).
Your average share cost is now $99 [the Excel math for that is =(90%100)+(10%90)]. You’ve lowered your cost by 1%, which will increase your return accordingly if and when the market recovers.
A week later the market falls another 10% from $90, to $81. The price is now 19% lower than your original basis. So you buy another 10% at $81, lowering your cost to $97.50.
Value Averaging Adds to Market Returns
This is called value averaging—investing to target percentages rather than by dollar amounts (“dollar averaging”). In this example, when the fund rises back to your old average cost of $100 a share, you’ll have gained 2.5%. If it falls even further first, and you value average down even more, then your gain will be even higher when it recovers. Value averaging down increases market returns by lowering your basis. Dividends increase the total return further.
That’s how you catch a falling knife without bleeding. And that’s why this is a good time for those who have a strong balance sheet and a long-term plan to manage Upside, Floor, Longevity, and Reserves.
–Michael Lonier, RMA
I am teaching another section of the Retirement Management Analyst course starting this week to financial planners and advisors through the Salem State University (MA) distance learning program. Learn more at the Retirement Income Industry Association site.
Most folks think investing is about picking stocks and dodging in and out of the market before the roof falls in. Maybe with play money. In real life, investing is about figuring out your life goals, how to pay for them, and then designing an investment approach that will get you to a successful outcome, the funding of your life goals.
In most plans, the key life goals are covered by Floor, Longevity, and Reserves. Floor covers annual expenses, Longevity provides insurance that you will still have income if you live longer than your portfolio (ie, run out of money!), and Reserves is for current spending and the unexpected. These three allocations are critical to managing the risks that can derail a retirement when you can no longer earn your way out of trouble.
What about the market?
The surplus after the critical goals are covered is your Upside. Upside is the amount you can afford to risk in the market for long-term growth without jeopardizing your lifestyle. It’s the risk capacity on your balance sheet when lifestyle (Floor), Longevity, and liquidity (Reserves) are covered, referencing Wade Pfau’s apt “four Ls.” Upside is legacy.
Most of us can afford a lot less risk than we think. A legacy might be a goal but it’s not essential to your lifestyle.
As we near and enter retirement, focus shifts from chasing the market—the preoccupation of the young and employed who can earn their way out of a downturn—to Floor. Building Floor. Covering a hopefully long future without a paycheck. You can live without Upside, but life without Floor is not a pretty sight. Risk is the enemy of Floor, so you won’t find risky assets in well-built Floor.
An effective way to build a Floor is to ladder out the first five to ten years of needed annual income using CDs, Treasury STRIPS, or TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Security) bonds matched to provide the income needed for the year they mature. The high cost of bonds during ZIRP (zero interest-rate policy) has created a rough patch for Floor builders the last few years, but prices have dropped a bit recently.
Here are some options today for a rung maturing in about five years on a Floor ladder:
- TIPS maturing 4/15/20, priced a bit below par at 99.20, with a real-yield-to-maturity of about .297%. That’s .297% above inflation over the next five years, whatever inflation turns out to be. TIPS protect against inflation risk.
- Treasury STRIPS (zero coupon bond) maturing 8/15/20, priced at 92.096, pays no interest but matures at 100, with a yield-to-maturity of 1.657%
- CapOne brokered original issue CD, maturing 8/19/20, no call, selling at 100, paying 2.4% to maturity.
If inflation averages more than 1.36% over the next five years, the TIPS beats the STRIPS. If it averages more than 2.1% over the next five years, the TIPS beats the CD. The TIPS provides a modest real yield above inflation no matter how high (or low) inflation is during the period, so in effect, it’s inflation insurance that pays for itself.
The one risk TIPS fail to cover is deflation—TIPS will loose the corresponding value of the inflation adjustment already accrued during periods of deflation, but will pay no less than par. Since this TIPS is selling slightly below par, with a small accrued adjustment, there’s little risk to capital from deflation with this TIPS bond. In short, the 4/15/20 TIPS today is a pretty good option for the 5 year rung of a Floor ladder, with interest rates and inflation likely on the rise.
Protecting Retirement Lifestyle
As you can see, the logic of creating a secure retirement Floor to protect your lifestyle is very different than coping with the up/down total return price action of risky assets in the market. A five to ten year Floor ladder built from CDs and TIPS provides a rock solid foundation Floor for a retirement lifestyle.
The more solid the Floor, Longevity, and Reserves allocations in your plan are, the more “safely” you can invest Upside in the market for long-term growth, without risking your critical goals. This approach manages the real risks to your lifestyle without adding market risk on top of the risks you can’t otherwise avoid.
Which would you choose to provide absolutely positively provide the income you need in five years—a TIPS, STRIPS, or a CD?
You know that the fees you pay to invest your savings matter, and that these costs, even tiny percentages, can significantly reduce your gains over a lifetime of saving and investing. You are probably also aware of the rise of “robo-advisors,” web-based automated do-it-yourself investment management sites like Wealthfront and Betterment that provide sophisticated, algorithmic portfolio management at a much low cost than most financial advisors.
Financial advisors have traditionally provided investment management services for 1% of assets annually, usually on a sliding scale of some sort. That’s $10,000 a year to manage a $1,000,000 portfolio, plus whatever underlying expenses the funds charge, which may average 1.25% for the “high performing” funds the advisor recommends. Heaven forbid the advisor puts you in A shares with a 5% front-end sales charge right off the top. Sales charges are more common if your advisor is a big bank or institution—some apparently still believe they can do this with impunity.
Independent advisors will likely use no-load funds as part of the value they offer as an alternative to the big guys, though the 1% management fee and 1.25% fund expenses remain. Traditionally, some superficial financial planning is provided “at no cost” to provide a basis for allocating the portfolio between stocks and bonds.
Digital Disruption Points to Free Asset Management
Robo-advisors, on the other hand, charge .15%-.25% for management plus underlying low-cost index fund expenses that run about .10%-.15%. That’s a fraction of the traditional cost for portfolio management and fund expenses—$1,500 to $2,500 a year for a million dollar portfolio instead of $10,000 for management, and a similar reduction for fund expenses.
The digital disruption now impacting financial services is driving the cost of portfolio management rapidly towards…free. It’s becoming free because asset allocation is no longer a “secret” that can be credibly defended as a uniquely valuable service proprietary to an advisory firm. Consider this table of relative costs:
|Advisor managed 60/40 stock/bond portfolio
|Robo-advisor algorithmic 60/40 portfolio
|Vanguard 60/40 LifeStrategy targeted risk fund*
|*A managed global portfolio of four Vanguard low-cost stock and bond index funds
The traditional advisor has to beat the indexes by about 2% to cover these cost differences. We know from over a decade of S&P SPIVA (S&P Indices vs Active) Scorecard studies that about 60%-80% of all portfolio managers do not even equal their benchmarks each year, yet alone beat them by 2%. And fewer and fewer can equal the indices year after year. And we don’t know who they will be until the year is over. It is, as Charlie Ellis has called it, a loser’s game.
The message of the robo-advisory onslaught isn’t that robo-advisors are a great deal. The message is that it’s increasingly difficult to justify paying anything more than the low annual expenses—and no management fee—of an indexed targeted-date or targeted-risk fund as the core for a life-long investment portfolio. Even robos charge too much!
What Should You Pay an Advisor For?
The era of paying high fees for investment management is ending. Girding for the robo-battle that is underway, traditional investment managers are recasting their services as “wealth management,” and beginning to move beyond a focus centered on investments.
The question you need to ask of your advisor is has he or she moved far enough? Is wealth management as they practice it just another guise for expensive investment management with a few bolt-on sidebars, or has your advisor fully embraced conscientious financial planning as a valuable service in its own right? Conscientious is a deliberate word choice here instead of the more common comprehensive, since it implies a right-minded or even fiduciary responsibility to the client that comprehensive does not.
What is the value of conscientious financial planning? A recent post by Wade Pfau, a professor at American University, looks at Vanguard and Morningstar studies of this question. Pfau sets the stage by observing that “It’s important to remember and easy to forget that the end goal of comprehensive financial planning goes beyond choosing investments.”
The Vanguard paper focuses on the advisor’s value for improving investment results through asset allocation, asset location, lower costs, rebalancing, and coaching. Vanguard says that more expert investment management, while still challenged to make up the management fee that low-cost indexing avoids, offers about a 3% better annual return than naively doing it yourself with typical mutual funds. Pfau points out this 3% additional return just fills the hole the inexperienced digs for himself. The pro still faces the perennial problem making up the 2% cost drag discussed above, just to match market returns. Focused as it is on the professional’s impact on investment management, the Vanguard paper represents the trailing-edge defense for old school investment management, or at least is a justification for Vanguard’s new low cost planning service.
Morningstar is more in the vanguard of this issue with its fuller consideration of the value of “intelligent” financial planning and its impact on retirement income rather than investment returns.
Pfau summarizes the five key strategies from the Morningstar study and adds a sixth for optimizing Social Security benefits:
- Asset allocation based on the full household balance sheet including lifetime human capital (income from work)
- Dynamic funding of annual expenses in retirement, not a fixed rule for withdrawals
- An allocation to Longevity risk management to provide lifetime income from low-cost annuities
- Tax efficiency from managing asset location and withdrawals that minimize tax consequences
- Matching goals (expenses) with reliable assets rather than chasing performance
- Enhanced social capital on the household balance sheet by optimizing Social Security benefits
The value of the first five from the study is an increase of almost 23% more retirement income annually. With Social Security optimization, the six strategies provide over 30% more annual income each year in retirement!
That’s FIFTEEN TIMES the 2% additional annual returns that traditional investment managers struggle to eke out each year to justify their high management fees.
Pay for a High Value Conscientious Financial Plan not for Traditional Asset Management
The five items in the Morningstar study plus Social Security optimization are clearly worth more to you than specious promises of higher returns made by traditional asset managers. If you can’t do these six things yourself either because you are too busy in your career or because you lack the specialized knowledge necessary for some of the tasks involved, find a conscientious financial planner who can and pay him or her a reasonable fee to provide these valuable professional services. 30% more income in retirement is well worth the expense of conscientious planning.
A conscientious financial plan should be based on your household balance sheet, not investment theories for higher returns. Your balance sheet will show the amounts that your plan should allocate to the different techniques for managing major household risks:
- A Floor allocation to manage lifestyle risk by matching safe assets to expenses (Morningstar #5)
- A Longevity allocation to manage the risk of outliving your money with lifetime income from deferred income annuities and optimized Social Security benefits (Morningstar #3&6)
- A Reserves allocation to cash to manage near-term expenses and risks of chance including long-term care (Morningstar #2)
- An Upside allocation that can be safely exposed to market risk for long-term growth without jeopardizing the Floor (Morningstar #1)
The implementation of the plan should look across all your accounts, tax-deferred, tax-free, and taxable (Morningstar #4) for tax efficient asset location and conversion to income. And finally the plan should also include an estate plan that meets your legacy goals (a bonus 7th plan strategy!).
What do you think, is conscientious financial planning worth more than investment management? Is the era of paying advisors high fees for investment management coming to an end?
In the last two posts we’ve looked at how holding multiple actively managed mutual funds and/or holding a number of individual stocks is not diversification. Instead, holding multiple funds, which is essentially holding multiple investment strategies, multiplies the odds of under-performance, and holding individual stocks expands exposure to specific business risk without spreading it out far enough to meaningfully reduce it.
Two Free Lunches—Diversification and Compound Growth
Why is proper diversification so important? Let’s start at the beginning. We don’t invest for thrills or easy money or the dream of beating the market. We invest because we want our money to work as hard as we do. Essentially, we are looking for the compound annual growth of invested capital. As invested capital grows over time, it grows faster and faster since any added growth also grows along with the contributed capital—it compounds. Compounding growth allows us to meet our financial goals. It’s why we invest instead of stuffing money in a mattress.
Compound growth is a “free” lunch because the original investment provides the basis for the compounded growth.
Diversification removes the specific business risk of owning individual companies or following active strategies from this process. It allows us to reliably take what the market offers—market returns—year in and year out, while keeping our eye on our goals and not on the stock market.
True diversification is a free lunch because a broad selection of uncorrelated assets may have a higher average returns over time than any single asset class by itself.
We save and invest so that our capital grows over time sufficiently to pay for future goals like college tuition, a new house, and the largest lifetime goal we face, providing income throughout a potential 30-year retirement. Proper planning and a robust savings habit allow us to meet these goals with the least risk to capital possible.
Start with the Household Balance Sheet
To meet our goals, we don’t just invest all of our capital or whatever amount we feel comfortable investing in the stock market. The later is what Wall Street calls “risk tolerance,” which is just another guess about risk and the stock market. We can do better than guess about how much capital we should expose to market risk.
If we step back and focus on the whole household balance sheet, and not just the investment portfolio, the picture changes. The balance sheet puts financial capital in the same column as the present value of human capital (income from work) and social capital (Social Security benefits and pensions). In the other column the balance sheet puts the present value of all future expenses. The PV of expenses net the PV of human and social capital is the Income Floor that must be covered by financial capital to maintain the household lifestyle over the lifetime of the plan (Floor = PV of Expenses – (PV of Human + Social Capital)). It’s the amount of financial capital we need to pay the bills for the rest of our lives. That is why the Floor is the centerpiece of a successful financial plan, not the investment account.
Understanding the Floor on the balance sheet provides the most powerful “investment” insight available to anyone—the amount of Upside on the household balance sheet. Upside is the amount of financial capital above the Floor not needed to cover future expenses (Upside = Financial Capital – (Floor + Reserves)). Upside is the amount that can be exposed to market risk for growth without jeopardizing household lifestyle.
Investing the Upside Portfolio
Once the Floor is identified and protected, the question becomes, what is the best way to invest Upside for growth? To support our financial goals, we need to continue saving and investing Upside for compound growth based on reliable returns with the least risk.
We’ve seen that mutual fund investment strategies and stock picking do not provide reliable returns year in and year out. How to get reliable returns?
Own the whole market! And then market returns will follow, year after year. This is where diversification comes in. A global market portfolio diversifies away specific business risk while delivering the whole stock market’s equity risk premium—the annual return that stocks provide above the risk-free rate (Treasury bond interest), comprised of dividends + market risk.
Market risk (beta) is the risk of investing in the global market rather in individual businesses. Market risk cannot be diversified away—we hedge market risk by investing only Upside in the market and investing the Floor in risk-free assets to protect the household standard of living.
Bearing market risk delivers the equity risk premium as the reward for investing in an Upside global equity portfolio. The long-term historical average for the equity risk premium is about 6-8% compounded annually (depending on how you slice it). That’s the expected growth for Upside investing over a long horizon. The market may go down and not recover for many years, which is why only Upside is exposed to market risk, particularly for those in or nearing retirement, who cannot afford to wait while accessing their portfolio for income. The Floor provides risk-free income, not Upside.
What is a global market portfolio? The easiest way to build a global market Upside portfolio is with broad, passively managed low-cost index ETFs (exchange traded funds). An Upside portfolio can be as simple as owning a single index ETF, the Vanguard Total World Stock Fund (VT), for example, which follows the FTSE Global All Cap Index.
Or we can use a number of ETFs and build an Upside global market portfolio from individual index components, such as VTI (US Total Stock Market), VB (US Small Cap), VGK (Europe), VPL (Pacific), VSS (International Small Cap), and VWO (Emerging Markets). There are many similar ETFs available. In edition, we might carve out 10-15% of the total to add in global real estate with VNQ and VNQI and commodities with DBC.*
Whether one, a couple, or many ETFs, the costs are a fraction of the fees that Wall Street firms charge for strategies that do not consistently deliver market returns.
What to do: Determine Floor and Upside from the household balance sheet. Build a global market portfolio based on Upside. Contribute savings monthly. Reinvest dividends. Check the household balance sheet once a year or so to adjust the Upside and Floor allocation. Plan for the future.
And stop worrying about the stock market. Next we’ll start a series on three kinds of Floor—At-Risk, Rolling, and Dedicated.
For more information about risk allocation from the household balance sheet, visit the RIIA (Retirement Income Industry Association) essential readings page.
–Michael Lonier, RMA
*Disclosure: The author and clients of LFA LLC invest in these and similar funds in their Upside portfolios as part of their lifetime or retirement policy allocation.
In the last post we saw that market returns (the mean) are higher than average fund returns (the median) because the majority of mutual funds under-perform the market average. We also saw that mutual funds are packaged investment strategies, which are actively managed bets designed to beat market returns. And finally we saw that the common notion of holding multiple funds to “diversify” multiplies the odds of underperforming the market. Owning multiple bets on the market is not diversification. Winning multiple bets all at the same time is less likely than winning a single bet. No one knows the future. You can’t consistently equal or beat the market by guessing the future. Winning big once in a while is not a plan for growing wealth, it’s playing the lottery with the stock market.
Holding Lots of Individual Stocks
Today we look at a second common misunderstanding about diversification:
2). A diverse selection of twenty or fifty individual stocks is not diversification.
I once saw a popular TV host “coaching” a listener about how well the listener had diversified his portfolio of six or seven stocks across a couple industrial sectors. Gagging entertainment, maybe, but not diversification. Other gurus are on the record that owning twenty stocks is plenty—just pick twenty good ones and you’re all set. When the market is going up, finding twenty good stocks seems pretty easy. Some focus on dividend stocks—a good barometer, they say, of reliable earnings or value, or both (that’s discussion for another time).
Seems to make sense, right up until one of the twenty has a legal problem, and another has a major product problem, and still another sees a promising market—already “priced in”—stolen by a new competitor. A senior manager becomes embroiled in a scandal, and so on, the daily roll of business headlines. It might average out, it might not—hardly a reliable investment strategy to bet your retirement on. You might not lose your shirt, but you probably won’t beat the market over any length of time. If you do, the small increment may hardly be worth the effort of choosing and managing twenty or more holdings.
Owning a stock is not an investment strategy. It represents an ownership interest—an investment—in a specific company to make money over time. It’s an investment in growth of capital. When we invest in a company, we throw in with its management in that quest, and we take on the specific business risk that affects that company. Owning twenty or fifty companies does not diversify away that specific business risk—it multiplies it by the specifics of the twenty or fifty businesses we are holding. Owning a small number of stocks does not diversify away specific business risk.
If owning a small number of stocks diversified away specific business risk, then most mutual funds, which often hold a hundred or a few hundred companies, would deliver at least market returns every year. We have seen that this is not the case.* It’s too small a sample to spread—to diversify away—specific business risk.
Specific business risk is among the least rewarded of all investing risks because it involves choosing against all uncertainty which few companies out of thousands will prosper and which will not. No one knows the future and which companies will prosper or why, and which will not.
A Guess with a Bias
Owning individual stocks, whether based on reported fundamentals, chart pattern voodoo, or just a hunch, is simply a guess with a bias, a bet. Picking twenty or fifty stocks is neither diversification nor a particularly winning strategy—it’s a bet that the chosen set of specific business risk will equal or beat market returns which account for all business risk.
Holding a number of mutual funds and/or individual stocks are examples of micro-diversification. Rather than diversifying away business risk, they multiply it, making it harder to equal market returns, which exceed the returns of the average mutual fund. At the end of the day, this kind of diversification is counter-productive. Next time—The Two Free Lunches—Diversification and Compound Growth.
–Michael Lonier, RMA
*No less an authority than the people who bring you the S&P500 offer this analysis: https://us.spindices.com/resource-center/thought-leadership/spiva/
S&P Indices Versus Active (SPIVA®) measures the performance of actively managed funds against their relevant S&P index benchmarks.
-The SPIVA® U.S. Mid-Year 2014 Scorecard: “The past five years have been marked by the rare combination of a remarkable rebound in domestic equity markets and a low-volatility equity environment. This combination has proven to be difficult for domestic equity managers, as over 70% of them across all capitalization and style categories failed to deliver returns higher than their respective benchmarks.”
-The Persistence Scorecard: December 2014: “An inverse relationship exists between the measurement time horizon and the ability of top-performing funds to maintain their status. It is worth noting that less than 1% of large- and mid-cap funds managed to remain in the top quartile at the end of the five-year measurement period. This figure paints a negative picture regarding the lack of long-term persistence in mutual fund returns.”
ANTONIO Believe me, no: I thank my fortune for it,
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year:
Therefore, my merchandise makes me not sad.
SALARINO Why, then you are in love.
–Act I, Scene I Venice. A street, The Merchant of Venice
There are some surprisingly, ah, diverse ideas in finance about what diversification is and is not and why it is or is not a good idea. Common wisdom from Ecclesiastes to Shakespeare says simply not to put all your eggs in one basket. The diversity of opinion seems to hover around how many eggs and what kind of baskets.
Over the next three days, I post three short notes, the first two on what is not diversification, and the last on the most effective way to put diversification to work in an Upside portfolio.
Multiplying Risk with Multiple Funds
Here is the first of two simple examples of what diversification is not:
1). Diversifying investment strategies is not diversification.
Mutual funds are essentially pre-packaged investment strategies. You pay an annual fee—sometimes preposterously high—for a share of the results from the strategy the fund manager runs in the fund (the fund’s bet). So maybe owning ten or twenty really interesting high-powered (“well-advertised”) mutual funds with promising strategies or past records of beating the market improves the odds of winning the bet. On the surface, investing in a “diverse” selection of funds and strategies seems like a smart thing.
Here’s the problem without putting too fine a point on it. Anywhere from 60%-70% of mutual funds fail to produce average returns each year depending on the type of fund.* That means mutual funds lag market returns accordingly, since the average fund’s return (median) is lower than the whole market’s return (mean).
So then holding many of them will improve my odds, right?
Not exactly—if one fund has a 40% chance of beating the average, then two funds have only a 16% chance (40% x 40% = 16%). And twenty funds? 0.0000011%. There is essentially no chance that twenty funds will produce anywhere near market returns. Each of the twenty funds has the same 40% chance of beating the market—which is less than random luck (50/50). The chances of picking twenty that will somehow cumulatively beat the average is infinitesimally tiny. You might as well buy twenty lottery tickets.
Sure, the top twenty funds each year out of the thousands available beat the average, but sadly, it’s a different twenty every year, all but a certainty not the twenty you own, and there’s no way of knowing which twenty it will be this year or next. Only hindsight shows that.
That bears repeating—there’s no way to know. No one knows the future and which strategy will win or lose. Last year’s winners, statistically, do worse than average in subsequent years. Some, of course, continue to do well. But over five years, less than 1% of the top quartile performers remain in the top quartile.*
If you hold a bunch of funds, do not be blinded by the one winner that never seems to let you down. One winner out of six or ten or twenty sub-performers is not market beating portfolio performance. This is true whether the funds are held in a 401(k), and IRA, or a brokerage account.
Holding lots of mutual funds is not diversification. It’s counter-productive. You can do better.
The remedy is not to toss out the losers and put your money in new “better” mutual funds—new guesses about “winners.” That’s a long-term strategy for underperforming the market. Tomorrow we’ll look at a second not-diversification—Individual Stocks, Is That a Good Idea?
—Michael Lonier, RMA
*No less an authority than the people who bring you the S&P500 offer this analysis: https://us.spindices.com/resource-center/thought-leadership/spiva/
S&P Indices Versus Active (SPIVA®) measures the performance of actively managed funds against their relevant S&P index benchmarks.
- The SPIVA® U.S. Mid-Year 2014 Scorecard: “The past five years have been marked by the rare combination of a remarkable rebound in domestic equity markets and a low-volatility equity environment. This combination has proven to be difficult for domestic equity managers, as over 70% of them across all capitalization and style categories failed to deliver returns higher than their respective benchmarks.”
- The Persistence Scorecard: December 2014: “An inverse relationship exists between the measurement time horizon and the ability of top-performing funds to maintain their status. It is worth noting that less than 1% of large- and mid-cap funds managed to remain in the top quartile at the end of the five-year measurement period. This figure paints a negative picture regarding the lack of long-term persistence in mutual fund returns.”
“A mere madness, to live like a wretch, and die rich.”
—Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621
My mother used to say that a gentleman lived on the interest from his principal. That didn’t apply to our circumstances, not by a long shot (substitute “sweat of brow” and you’re closer to fact). I suspect this comes from the English notion of the landed gentry in the era of Edmund Burke, and has been in decline for quite awhile, as the popularity of Downton Abbey attests.
We’re a long way from Dicken’s Micawber who spelled the difference between happiness and misery as saving forty pence from his annual income of twenty pounds. Dickens didn’t have a $250 monthly FiOS bill, tennis lessons, a travelling soccer league, and three cars to finance.
The Landed Gentry, Living Off Principal
But the notion lives on, strikingly so, with many as they traipse into retirement. The idea is to look for high yield, whether in stocks or bonds, and live off the interest and dividends without ever touching their principal, and so never risk running out of money. At least that’s the theory.
Like many financial ideas, especially those that are weak on their own, this idea works best if you have lots of money. And eat kibbles and bits for lunch and dinner so your expenses will never reach a level of concern.
This notion has such strength among some that sound strategies designed to extend a portfolio and decrease longevity risk are dismissed out of hand—like spending down tax-deferred (401(k) and IRA) savings while deferring Social Security until age 70, ahead of the Required Minimum Distribution tax bite, to maximize lifelong inflation-adjusted benefits you cannot outlive. No! Not my principal, you’ll have to pry it out of my cold dead hands! I’d rather run out money first (paradoxically, but we’ll get to that)!
Never mind that RMDs after age 70 can push Social Security benefits up to the level of full taxation (85%) while raising income over the Part B Medicare threshold into higher premium land. Maybe there is perverse “logic” in taking dramatically lower Social Security benefits early (75% less than if deferred to age 70!) so there won’t be enough Social Security income to worry about taxes.
Hopefully, you recognize this is back-asswards. If you have lots of money (for the sake of argument, let’s say north of $3 to $5 million), you can ignore this and go on with whatever it is that got you to this point. Congratulations. For the rest of us, let’s acknowledge the dangers in the interest-first, principal-never approach.
The Fading Dividend Aristocrat
Some put their trust in dividend stocks, and are shocked when their blue chip gets blue lighted by the market. Then, at just the wrong time after a significant drop in share price (“principal”), the company cuts its dividend, and with it their income. To make it up, they have to sell something, perhaps at distress prices. If you don’t have a plan to use your capital (principal) effectively, you may end up squandering it at the worst of times. What Shakespearean irony to run out of money because you hoarded it so dearly until the market snatched it away!
Dividends are not forever. Long time paying dividend “aristocrats” that some favor may actually be getting a bit long in the teeth, like an old country house, competitively speaking. The essential problem with a dividend stock strategy is that your income depends on unhedged, risky assets that are not well-diversified. The hook you’ve hung your income hat on is totally exposed to business risk.
I remember the jet mechanic quoted in a Forbes article I read long ago who shrugged and said, “There will always be a Pan Am,” and so I bought another round lot. It’s still around here somewhere, if you want it. It was a cheap lesson. The well-funded don’t need to gamble with their future—and most don’t. So why do those who aren’t so well-funded feel compelled to gamble in the name of preserving principal?
Then there is the allure of interest bearing bonds, somewhat less alluring now that investment grade issues pay little more than gas money. At least that’s improved somewhat in the last month—the gas money part, not the interest payments, quite the opposite. Once again, for the well-funded, it’s a no-brainer. A ladder of TIPS bonds buys inflation protection and risk-free income for the duration. For the fortunate landed gentry, this is how our proverbial gentleman lives.
The Yield Chasing Fox Hunt
But the rest of us are probably not so fortunate that we can live off the scant interest from whatever capital we’ve accumulated. Those obsessed with hoarding principal are left chasing after high yield, pushing out on the credit curve, buying junk bonds, junk loans, and junk preferred stocks, like a crazed hound chasing the fox. And as with equities, when the inevitable crisis comes and the market falls, so does the high yield and, sadly, the principal along with it, with same potential for a bad ending.
High yield (junk) debt is just inches above equity in the corporate capital structure. When push comes to shove, it falls like a bad stock, and punishes invested capital in the same way. The fox is the market, and it just ate your lunch. That’s no way to live in retirement.
The issue isn’t dividends and interest—every properly diversified portfolio will have both as a matter of course. The issue is that a retirement income plan should not be built on a diet composed solely of dividends and high yield while hoarding capital that could otherwise be used to securely fund the household lifestyle. It’s just not a reliable way to pay for the future.
The smart thing to do is to put the household capital to work. All of it. Many are fearful of doing that, if only because they’re not sure how to do it—and don’t have a good plan—and so are more than reluctant to do anything except “live off principal” following the footsteps of the long-gone English gentry.
The irony is that while desperately trying to prevent the loss of capital, chasing yield and investing in high dividend payers, they put that capital at risk and the income stream it must provide to sustain the retirement period. It goes almost without saying that those “planners” and “advisors” who are pushing high-yield products like non-traded REITS or junk funds with a high sales load should be avoided like the plague they are, even if they dress like aristocrats.
Living Off the Household Balance Sheet
A good plan starts with the household balance sheet, not dividends and interest. The plan looks at all future income and expense cash flows, and determines how well covered those expenses are, and how much capital is needed to cover them beyond Social Security, pensions, and any earned income. The amount of capital needed to cover all future expenses is called the Income Floor.
Any capital above the Floor plus some amount for Reserves is Upside. Upside can be sensibly invested in the market for growth without jeopardizing the household lifestyle. Depending on the strength of the balance sheet (how much Upside is available), the Floor is invested in risk-free and guaranteed assets such as CDs, Treasury bonds, and simple income annuities. If there’s plenty of Upside, then the Floor can be invested at-risk in bond funds like a conventional balanced portfolio.
If the Floor is under-funded, then we know that some additional planning work is needed—cutting expenses, working longer, and so on. Retirement is all about having a dependable, safe plan for the Floor, not one that only works for dead English noblemen.
You can learn more about allocating Upside, Floor, Longevity, and Reserves from the household balance sheet by checking out the reading list at the Retirement Income Industry Association.
If you’d like more information about goals-based planning and lifecycle savings and investing from the household balance sheet, please feel free to contact me at [email protected].
–Michael Lonier, RMA®