Cash Back Credit Cards

Cash Back Credit Cards

I am a big fan of cash back credit cards for good reason: this past year I’ve gotten back $1,294.18 from my two personal credit cards. Both cards have no annual fee and I pay my balances off every month and pay no interest charges. We are moving away from cash payments with our spending today and so it makes sense to get cash back on money you would have spent anyways.

This has certainly been a big spending year, with our wedding last October and a trip to Europe this August. Additionally, we spent over $20,000 in renovations and furnishings for our two new Airbnb properties in Hot Springs. You can check out our listings here: The Owl House and The Boho Loft. So, all the spending adds up.

Two Percent Cash Back

There are a lot of cards that offer 1 to 1.5% cash back, and those should be pretty easy to find. Today’s top cards offer 2% cash back, and there’s a good list of 2% cards on the Nerdwallet site. I’ve had the Fidelity Rewards Visa Card for years. It has no annual fee and gives me 2% cash back, deposited automatically into a Fidelity brokerage account each month. I can then transfer the cash out to my checking at any time. (My brokerage accounts are all at TD Ameritrade – I only keep the cash back at Fidelity.)

I don’t really worry about the interest rates on these cards since I never carry a balance. If you do have a balance, you’re probably better off finding a zero-interest balance transfer card and working on paying off your principal. I do prefer a card with no annual fee. And I’m not a big fan of hotel points or airline miles. I know others who are loyal to one airline and prefer an airline credit card, but I believe the airlines have made it harder to redeem points in recent years. (If you’ve had a great – or a terrible – experience with airline cards, I’d love to hear about it. Please send me a message.)

Discover 5%

I’ve also had a Discover Card since 1999. It provides 1% cash back on everything and 5% cash back on a category that changes each quarter. So, I use my Visa for most purchases and the Discover card for the 5% categories. Here is the 5% Cashback calendar for 2022:

  • January-March: Grocery Stores and Gym Memberships
  • April-June: Gas Stations and Target
  • July-September: Restaurants and PayPal
  • October-December: Amazon and Digital Wallets

I don’t spend as much on Discover, except for the 5% categories. Customer service at Discover has been excellent.

Store 5% Cards

There are a number of store-branded credit cards which offer 5% discounts or credits. These may not be cash back, but if you frequent these stores, they may be a better deal than your 2% cash back credit card. Presently, the only one I have is the Target Red Card. The Red Card gives me an instant 5% discount off my purchases at Target. I set up the card to autopay from my checking each month and don’t think about it after that.

I’m also looking at three other 5% store cards. The Lowe’s Advantage Card gives a 5% discount on purchases. That’s definitely worth it if you are doing some big projects. Please note that if you get the 10% Military discount at Lowe’s (like my Dad), you cannot stack the 5% on top of the Military discount. However the 5% discount will apply to appliances, unlike the Military discount.

The second card I would consider is the TJX Rewards Card which offers 5% back in certificates to use at the store on future purchases. The card and rewards can be used at TJ Maxx, HomeGoods, or Marshalls. We’ve spent a bit there in the past year, but I’m not sure we need it going forward.

And third is the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa. It offers 5% back at Amazon and Whole Foods, plus 2% back on restaurants, gas stations, and drug stores. There’s 1% back on everything else, and no annual fee as long as you are already an Amazon Prime member. This one may make the most sense for us, given how much we use Amazon.

Spend Wisely

Cash Back Credit Cards are a good deal for consumers. I’ve been getting 2-5% cash back on my spending for years, and it helps. I’ve also added a 1.5% cash back card for my business this year, which I probably should have done years ago! Some people are worried that opening new credit cards will hurt their credit score, but this will probably have little or no effect. And if you aren’t planning to buy a house soon, you shouldn’t worry at all.

It pays to do a little research and find the right card for you. Over time, cash back cards put money back into your wallet. And then you can contribute more to your Roth IRA like I’ve been suggesting, right? Helping you become intentional with your money goals is important to me, even if it is something as small as which credit card you use. Little decisions create good habits that keep you moving forward.

Why Index Funds Are Better

Why Index Funds Are Better

Twice a year, Standard and Poor’s provides an analysis of why index funds are better than actively managed mutual funds. Their report is known as SPIVA, S&P Index Versus Active. It is compelling evidence that investors would be better off using index funds. We’re going to look at the most recent data, discuss the perils of fund benchmarks, and then explain our approach of using Factor-based strategies.

Most Funds Lag Their Benchmark

Looking at 2021, 79.6% of US stock funds did worse than the overall market, as measured by the S&P 1500 Composite Index. It was a spectacularly bad year for active managers, even worse than most years. I focus on the long-term results, which are fairly consistent from year to year. For the 10 years ending 12/31/2021, 86% of US stock funds under-performed the market. Some of the funds which did out-perform did so by taking on much more risk. When we consider risk-adjusted returns, 93% of funds lagged.

The data is compelling and persistent. 80% or more of actively managed funds cannot keep up with their index over 10 or 20 years. And since that is the time frame that matters for long-term investors, the odds are in your favor if you use index strategies rather than active funds. It is extremely difficult for active managers to beat the index. There are many thoughts why this is the case:

  • Higher expenses. The cost of running a fund seems to wipe out any value they create through research and active management. Overall, market participants add up to the entire return of the stock market. That is the benchmark. But instead of being average (or actually Median) at 50%, the additional costs mean that 80% of funds trail the benchmark
  • Chasing performance. Active managers pay too much for hot stocks and ignore cheap stocks which are out of favor. Or they miss the handful of top performing stocks which are often the biggest drivers of market returns. Stocks, categories, and sectors go in and out of favor.
  • No information advantage. Today, analysts are smarter than ever and information is disseminated instantly online. The markets may have become so efficient that there are no “secret” stocks for active managers to uncover.
  • The 10-20% of managers who do outperform may have done so through luck, as they are typically unable to sustain out-performance from one period to another. Do we have data for that? Yes. It’s the S&P Persistence Scorecard.

Which Benchmark?

There are a lot of benchmarks and unfortunately, this can be confusing for investors. Sometimes, we might be comparing a fund to the wrong benchmark and not be making the most accurate comparison. Consider, for example, the Fidelity Contrafund. At $126 Billion in assets, it is one of the most successful active funds in history. And over the last 10 years, it has slightly beat the S&P 500 Index: FCNTX is up 282% through April 22, 2022, compared to 279% for the Vanguard 500 (VOO).

Unfortunately, that’s not the most accurate benchmark, because the Contrafund is a Growth Fund. As a better benchmark, you could have been invested in the Vanguard 500 Growth Index (VOOG). And VOOG was up 333% over the past 10 years. In this case, the active fund actually trailed the correct benchmark by 50% over 10 years. With Growth strategies dominating over the past 10 years, a lot of Growth funds look good compared to the S&P 500. But when we consider a Growth benchmark, you probably would have been better off in the index fund. (And for taxable accounts, the after-tax return of active funds are very often much lower than an ETF.)

Here’s another poor benchmark situation. This week, I was comparing two US Low Volatility ETFs with very similar strategies: the SPDR Large Cap Low Volatility (LGLV) and the Invesco S&P 500 Low Volatility (SPLV). Looking at a Morningstar report of 5-year performance, it showed that LGLV was in the 60th percentile while SPLV was better, at the 40th percentile. Unfortunately, the report was using two different benchmarks: large blend for LGLV and large value for SPLV. Their actual 5-year annualized returns were 14.01% for LGLV and 11.36% for SPLV. With different benchmarks, LGLV looked worse (60th percentile), even though it had actually out-performed SPLV by 2.65% a year! Which benchmark you use matters.

Using Factors To Look Forward

Although SPIVA shows why index funds are better, the harder part is deciding which index fund you want to invest in. You could just choose a World Index stock fund, like the Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT). And I am confident you would do better than most active managers over the next 10 or 20 years.

But, we don’t invest in an “all-in-one” fund.

Rather, my role as a portfolio manager is to determine the asset allocation for each model and level of risk. We decide which categories we want to own (large growth, small value, emerging markets, etc.) and what percentage to invest in each category. And rather than looking backwards at performance, we use today’s valuations to evaluate future performance. Once we have an asset allocation model, I can select an index fund to use to fulfill each category. It starts with the blueprint, not the funds themselves.

Rather than using generic index funds like a Total World Index fund, we buy 5-8 Index funds that invest using a “factor” strategy. This is a quantitative way of sorting stocks, using a characteristic such as Value, Size, Quality, or Low Volatility. They represent an Index or Benchmark, but have an additional screen to create a portfolio with specific qualities. There is evidence that Factors can outperform a benchmark over time, but clearly, they do not do so every year.

Today, we are concerned about some stocks’ high valuations. We have tilted our portfolios away from the large cap growth and technology names which have had such terrific performance that their values are so expensive today. Some of these stocks, such as Facebook (now called “Meta”) are down 45% year to date. That’s what can happen when a stock becomes too expensive and the market winds change direction.

Instead, we are looking ahead in anticipation of a reversion to the mean in categories such as Value, Small Cap Value, International and Emerging Markets. That’s no prediction that any of these will be up this year, it’s a long-term proposition. When I look at the S&P 500 Index today and see how expensive some of the names have become, I find it hard to stomach. And so, we are looking for ways to take advantage of passive, low cost, tax-efficiency of ETFs, but in a smarter manner than just throwing it all in a generic, market cap weighted index fund.

Once we understand why index funds are better, we are still left with two questions. Which benchmark to use and how do we want to invest? We are fortunate today to have easy access to many low cost index funds. Factor-based funds can help us establish potentially positive characteristics to our portfolios even compared to regular index funds.

We Bought An Airbnb

We Bought An Airbnb

In January, we bought a house in Hot Springs, Arkansas and have listed it on Airbnb. This is a new venture for us and I wanted to share my evolving thoughts about debt, inflation, cash, and real estate. Although the stock market has been down so far in 2022, don’t think that this means I am giving up on stocks as an investment. Not at all!

If you want to check out our property, here is the listing on Airbnb. My wife, Luiza, has done a great job of decorating and furnishing the house. And I owe a big thank you to my parents who spent three weeks helping us with renovations. It has been live for one week now, and we have eight bookings in April and May. Let me know what you think about the listing!

We Went Into Debt

Prior to this purchase, we were debt free and we purchased our new property with a mortgage. I could have sold investments and paid cash for the house, but I think that would have been a bad idea. Taking a mortgage is the better choice.

Leverage can be a tremendous tool, when used properly. Taking on debt to buy appreciating assets and cash flowing investments can have a multiplier effect. This is “good” debt. Bad debt would be spending on depreciating assets like cars, or using credit card debt to fund a lifestyle. I eventually realized that being debt-free would actually slow down our growth versus taking on some smart debt.

For Airbnb investors, a property evaluation is often based on the “Cash on Cash” return. What does that mean? Let’s consider a $200,000 house which produces a hypothetical $14,000 a year in profit. If you purchase the property with $200,000 cash, your Cash on Cash return is 7%. But if you put only 20% down ($40,000) and make $8,000 (net of the monthly mortgage), your cash on cash return is 20%. In other words, it can be a fairly attractive investment because of the leverage. Without the debt, the returns are not that compelling compared to stocks, for example. And if you use mortgages, you can buy $1 million of properties with $200,000 down. That could grow your wealth much faster than just buying one property for $200,000.

Debt, Inflation, and Government Spending

Beyond the numbers for this particular house, I think the world is now favoring debtors. Our government spending has been growing for years. And then when the pandemic hit, spending shot up dramatically and shows little sign of returning to its previous trajectory.

Our government, and many others, are running massive deficits and have no intention or ability to reduce spending. They will simply never pay off this debt. It will only grow. (See: the US Debt Clock.) We now have inflation of over 7%. I don’t think inflation will stay this high, but I also don’t think it will go back to 2%. Governments will have to inflate their way out of debt. There is an excellent video from billionaire hedge fund manager Ray Dalio: the Changing World Order. He documents historical civilizations who expanded debt and saw resultant inflation. It is a brilliant piece if you want to understand today’s economy.

Inflation favors debtors and penalizes holders of cash and bonds. 7 percent inflation over 5 years will reduce the purchasing power of $1000 to $600. The holder of a bond will see a 40% depreciation of the real value of their bond. And the debtor, such as the US government or a mortgage holder, will benefit on the other side.

I reached the conclusion that I should be a debtor like our government. Staying in cash and a lot of bonds, would be a poor choice long term. I didn’t sell any stocks to buy our investment property, but I did reduce cash and bonds. Today, we can borrow at 3-5% while inflation is at 7%. And if interest rates do come back down to 2%, I can always refinance the mortgage.

Read more: Inflation Investments

Thoughts on Real Estate Investing

  1. Real Estate is a business, not a passive investment. Managing an Airbnb is time consuming and can have headaches of dealing with people and problems. We have spent a huge amount of time (and about $14,000) improving our property and furnishing it for Airbnb. Buying an Index Fund does not carry as much risk or time commitment!
  2. It is the leverage which makes real estate attractive. Without the mortgage, not so much. (Imagine if we could buy $100,000 of an S&P 500 Index fund with only 20% down. That would be incredible over the long term.)
  3. Higher inflation can help real estate prices and rent prices, while our mortgage stays fixed. Besides the cash flow, we also benefit from: 1. Paying down the mortgage and building equity. 2. Increasing home value over time. 3. Some tax benefits such as depreciation.
  4. Your personal residence is still an expense, not an investment. More pre-retirees should be looking into House Hacking. This will enable many to retire years earlier.
  5. I like the returns on short-term rentals. With elevated prices today, many long term rentals have mediocre cash flow potential. Especially if we have some repair expenses and vacancy.

So far, we are happy to have bought an Airbnb. It fits well with our willingness to take risks, start a business, and do repairs ourselves. We are looking to buy another. But we know it’s not for everyone. If this is something which interests you, I am happy to discuss it with you and share what I know.

Investment Themes for 2022

Investment Themes for 2022

Let’s look ahead to 2022 and consider what investment themes we believe should be incorporated into our portfolio models. This process is not meant to be a prediction of whether markets will be up or down. I don’t think anyone can time the market successfully. (Here is my letter to clients from March 21, 2020 for reference.) Rather, my goal is to add value to our investment process in three ways.

One, we want to tilt towards areas of relative value. That means when one category is cheap and another is expensive, we want to have more of the cheap stocks and less of the expensive stocks. This sounds obvious, but many investors chase performance without regard to valuation. Inadvertently, they load up on expensive stocks. Tilting towards cheaper categories is inherently contrarian as we are often buying what has recently lagged.

Two, we aim to identify Satellite categories which are attractive under the current market environment. Unlike our Core positions, Satellite positions are temporary and may be removed in future years. Satellite investments are stocks or bonds in a smaller, more focused niche than our core funds. For example, a Floating Rate Bond fund would be a satellite fund, whereas an Investment Grade Bond Index fund would be a core position. We select satellite funds with the goal of enhancing returns.

Three, to diversify our portfolios better, we include Alternative investments. We are looking for investments outside of the usual stock and bond categories which might offer an acceptable return, but with low correlation to the risks of stock markets or interest rates. This could include Real Estate, Hedge Fund Strategies, Preferred Stocks, Convertible Bonds, Commodities, Managed Futures, etc. Typically, these provide some ballast when stocks have a Bear Market, so their primary purpose is to reduce risk, rather than to increase return.

Stocks in 2022

Today, we are looking at our investment themes for stocks for 2022; next week we will cover bonds and alternative investments. Needless to say, there is a lot of uncertainty about the stock market going into 2022. As investors, we have to come to terms with the fact that markets do not always provide us with a clear and obvious direction. Uncertainty is the normal state.

No one knows what will happen with the virus or with the Federal Reserve trying to slow inflation without hurting the economy. Those are the two big questions facing stock investors at the end of 2021. However, those are known unknowns. Often, markets are surprised more by the unknown unknowns – the risks we aren’t even considering right now.

Over the past 50 years, the S&P 500 Index was down 12 years, up 37 years, and exactly at 0% in 2011. The 10-year return of the S&P 500 is 16% a year. Being negative on stocks has proven to be a losing bet over time. Yes, you can lose money on stocks and past performance is no guarantee of future results. With that disclaimer, I see no reason to attempt to try to time the market today and withdraw from stocks.

Tilts: Value, International, Small

Here is what I am doing for 2022: weighing relative valuations between stock categories. There are stocks which have gone way up and are probably overvalued. But there are also stocks which have lagged and are relatively cheap. We can break this down three ways: Growth versus Value stocks, US versus International Stocks, and Large versus Small companies.

Growth has lead the markets for more than a decade. As a result, the spread between value and growth categories has widened to historic levels. In fact, the difference today between Value and Growth is equal to what it was during the Tech bubble in 1999. For 2022, we are increasing our tilt towards Value. While we have little in pure Growth funds, we will be reducing our cap weighted index funds, which have become concentrated in Growth names.

US Stocks have led international for a long-time and there is now a wide gap in valuations. US stocks, especially Growth, are expensive. Most US investors have a significant home bias. For 2022, we will shift a small percentage from US to International. We are already overweight in Emerging Markets, and are not adding to our positions in EM.

Small versus Large has been very interesting in 2021. In the US, Small Value has had a great year and looks promising for 2022. US Small Growth, however, lagged Large Growth by more than 20%. In other developed markets, small cap lagged large cap by a small amount. In Emerging Markets, small cap outperformed large cap by more than 20% year to date. There is not a uniform trend here, except that Small Value has done better than Small Growth. In terms of diversifying and looking for cheap stocks, our small cap selection will lean towards value rather than core or growth.

Taxes Matter

We will be making trades to our portfolios for 2022. Even after these trades, a 60/40 portfolio is still going to have about 60% in stocks and 40% in bonds. But the weightings of the positions will change slightly and some of the funds used may change. Our goal is to reduce risk and stay broadly diversified, while using low-cost investments that are transparent and have a good track record.

Throughout the process, we aim for tax efficiency. Changes are easy to incorporate in IRAs and that is always our first choice. In taxable accounts, we harvested losses in March of 2020, which carried forward to 2021. That can also allow us to make some changes without creating additional taxes for the year. And while I could automate the trading process, I am looking at this one client at a time, to do what is best for you, not easiest for me.

Next week, we will discuss our investment themes for 2022 for bonds and alternatives. Then we will be placing trades at the end of December and into January for most clients. I should note that even without making any changes to the portfolio models, we would still be looking to rebalance here at the end of the year. We will do both steps at the same time – rebalancing and any changes to the model – to avoid any unnecessary trades.

I examine investments all year round, but try to limit changes to once a year to avoid short-term trading. Each year, in the fourth quarter, I go through a process of reviewing all our holdings and our allocations. Here is what I wrote last year, looking ahead to 2021: Investment Themes for 2021

Have concerns about your investment portfolio or specific investments? Will your portfolio be sufficient to achieve your goals? How will you transition your accumulation portfolio to spending it down? These are uniquely individual questions and where our conversations can be the most valuable.

Year End Tax Planning 2021

Year End Tax Planning 2021

Let’s discuss some of the key year end tax planning strategies for 2021. It has been a remarkable year with markets soaring, inflation picking up, and the economy booming as we recover from the Pandemic crash last year. A year and a half ago, there were losses everywhere. Now, investors in stocks, real estate, cryptocurrency, and other assets are facing significant gains. Taxes are a major concern.

Here are 10 tax steps to consider before December 31.

Capital Gains Considerations

1. Beware of active mutual funds distributing large capital gains in December. If you have active funds in a taxable account, then make sure you are NOT reinvesting dividends. Better to take that cash and invest in a more efficient ETF or to rebalance.

2. Harvest losses, if you have any for 2021. We harvested losses via tax swaps last year and carried forward tremendous tax benefits into 2021 for our clients. This will help us as we look to rebalance portfolios at year-end.

3. If you are in the 12% tax bracket, your long-term capital gains rate is zero. You can harvest long-term gains and pay no tax. Rather than harvesting losses, you should harvest gains! Then, you can immediately buy back your ETF or fund and reset your cost basis higher. This will help protect you against future taxes. Don’t hold on to gains until future years.

Who is in the 12% bracket? For 2021, this includes single filers with taxable income under $40,525 and married filers under $81,050. Taxable income is after you subtract your standard deduction. So, add back the standard deduction of $12,550 for single or $25,100 married, and you could have gross income of up to $53,075 (single) or $106,150 (married).

4. If you anticipate you will itemize for 2021, bunch deductions as possible before the end of the year.

IRAs and Retirement Contributions

5. If you are able, increase your automatic contributions for 2022. While IRA contributions remain at $6,000 for 2022 ($7,000 if 50+), 401(k) contributions are increased to $20,500 or $27,000 if 50+. Health Savings Accounts are bumped up to $3,600 or $7,200 for a family.

6. Washington wants to eliminate the Backdoor Roth IRA. If you are eligible for 2021, I would do it right away. It may be gone in 2022!

7. Alternatively, if you are in a low tax bracket, consider making Roth Conversions before the end of the year to convert within your low bracket. The key to making this work is making small conversions over many years. Not sure how much to convert? Then let’s talk.

Giving Strategies

8. Even if you do not itemize, you can take an above-the-line deduction for a cash charitable donation of up to $300. For couples, this is doubled to $600. This is only for 2021. In 2022, you will have to itemize to deduct any charitable donation. Above this amount, we suggest donating appreciated securities from a taxable account rather than cash.

9. Consider using your annual gift tax exclusion of $15,000 for personal gifts or for funding a 529 Plan for 2021.

10. If you are 72 or older, don’t forget to complete your Required Minimum Distributions for 2022! Congress waived RMDs for 2020 but they are back this year. If you are over 70 1/2, you can make Qualified Charitable Distributions from your IRA which will count towards your RMD. Be