Inflation Investments

Inflation Investments

With the cost of living on the rise in 2021, many investors are asking about inflation investments. What is a good way to position your portfolio to grow and maintain its purchasing power? Where should we be positioned for 2022 if higher inflation is going to stick around?

Inflation was 5.4% for the 12 months ending in July. I share these concerns and we are going to discuss several inflation investments below. Before we do, I have to begin with a caveat. We should be cautious about placing a lot of weight in forecasts. Whether we look at predictions of stock market returns, interest rates, or inflation, these are often quite inaccurate. Market timing decisions based on these forecasts seldom add any value in hindsight.

What we do know for sure is that cash will lose its purchasing power. With interest rates near zero on most money market funds and bank accounts, it is a frustrating time to be a conservative investor. We like to consider the Real Yield – the yield minus inflation. It would be good if bonds were giving us a positive Real Yield. Today, however, the Real Yield on a 10-year Treasury bond is negative 4%. This may be the most unattractive Real Yield we have ever seen in US fixed income.

Let’s look at inflation’s impact on stocks and bonds and then discuss three alternatives: TIPs, Commodities, and Real Estate.

Inflation and Stocks

You may hear that inflation is bad for stocks. That is partially true. Rising inflation hurts companies’ profitability and consumers’ wallets. In the short-term, unexpected spikes in inflation seem correlated to below average performance in stocks.

However, when we look longer, stocks have done the better job of staying ahead of inflation than other assets. Over five or ten years, stocks have generally outpaced inflation by a wide margin. That’s true even in periods of higher inflation. There are always some down periods for stocks, but as an asset class, stocks typically have the best chance of beating inflation over a 20-30 year horizon as an investor or as a retiree.

We can’t discuss stocks and inflation without considering two important points.

First, if there is high inflation in the US, we expect that the Dollar will decline in value as a currency. If the Dollar weakens, this would be positive for foreign stocks or emerging market stocks. Because foreign stocks trade in other currencies, a falling dollar would boost their values for US investors. Our international holdings provide a hedge against a falling dollar.

Second, the Federal Reserve may act soon to slow inflation by raising interest rates. This would help slow the economy. However, if the Fed presses too hard on the brake pedal, they could crash the economy, the stock market, and send bond prices falling, too. In this scenario, cash at 0% could still outperform stocks and bonds for a year or longer! That’s why Wall Street has long said “Don’t fight the Fed.” The Fed’s mandate is to manage inflation and they are now having to figure out how to keep the economy growing. But not growing too much to cause inflation! This will prove more difficult as government spending and debt grows to walk this tightrope.

Inflation and Bonds

With Real Yields negative today, it may seem an unappealing time to own bonds, especially high quality bonds. Earning one percent while inflation is 5% is frustrating. The challenge is to maintain an appropriate risk tolerance across the whole portfolio.

If you have a 60/40 portfolio with 60% in stocks and 40% in bonds, should you sell your bonds? The stock market is at an all-time high right now and US growth stocks could be overvalued. So it is not a great buying opportunity to replace all your bonds with stocks today. Instead, consider your reason for owning bonds. We own bonds to offset the risk of stocks. This gives us an opportunity to have some stability and survive the next bear market. Bonds give us a chance to rebalance. So, I doubt that anyone who is 60/40 or 70/30 will want to go to 100% stocks in this environment today.

Still, I think we can add some value to fixed income holdings. Here are a couple of ways we have been addressing fixed income holdings for our clients:

  • Ladder 5-year Fixed Annuities. Today’s rate is 2.75%, which is below inflation, but more than double what we can find in Treasury bonds, Municipal bonds, or CDs.
  • Emerging Market Bonds. As a long-term investment, we see attractive relative yields and improving fundamentals.
  • Preferred Stocks, offering an attractive yield.

TIPS

Treasury Inflation Protected Securities are US government bonds which adjust to the CPI. These should be the perfect inflation investment. TIPS were designed to offer a return of inflation plus some small amount. In the past, these may have offered CPI plus say one percent. Then if CPI is 5.4%, you would earn 6.4% for the year.

Unfortunately, in today’s low yield environment, TIPS sell at a negative yield. For example, the yield on the Vanguard short-term TIPS ETF (VTIP) is presently negative 2.24%. That means you will earn inflation minus 2.24%. Today, TIPS are guaranteed to not keep up with inflation! I suppose if you think inflation is staying higher than 5%, TIPS could still be attractive relative to owning regular short-term Treasury Bonds. But TIPS today will not actually keep up with inflation.

Instead of TIPS, individual investors should look at I-Bonds. I-Bonds are a cousin of the old-school EE US Savings Bonds. The I-series savings bonds, however, are inflation linked. I-bonds bought today will pay CPI plus 0%. Then your investment is guaranteed to keep up with inflation, unlike TIPS. A couple of things to know about I-bonds:

  • You can only buy I-bonds directly from the US Treasury. We cannot hold I-Bonds in a brokerage account. There is no secondary market for I-bonds, you can only redeem at a bank or electronically.
  • I-Bond purchases are limited to a maximum of $10,000 a year in electronic form and $5,000 a year as paper bonds, per person. You can buy I-bonds as a gift for minors, and the annual limits are based on the recipient, not the purchaser.
  • I-bonds pay interest for 30 years. You can redeem an I-bond after 12 months. If you sell between 1 and 5 years, you lose the last three months of interest.

Commodities

Because inflation means that the cost of materials is rising, owning commodities as part of a portfolio may offer a hedge on inflation. Long-term, commodities have not performed as well as stocks, but they do have periods when they do well. While bonds are relatively stable and consistent, commodities can have a lot of volatility and risk. So, I don’t like commodities as a permanent holding in a portfolio.

The Bloomberg Commodities Index was up 22% this year through August 31. Having already had a strong performance, I don’t think that anyone buying commodities today is early to the party. That is a risk – even if we are correct about above average inflation, that does not mean we are guaranteed success by buying commodities.

Consider Gold. Gold is often thought of as a great inflation hedge and a store of value. Unfortunately, Gold has not performed well in 2021. Gold is down 4.7% year to date, even as inflation has spiked. It has underperformed broad commodities by 27%! It’s difficult to try to pick individual commodities with consistent accuracy. They are highly speculative. That’s why if you are going to invest in commodities, I would suggest a broad index fund rather than betting on a single commodity.

Real Estate

With home prices up 20% in many markets, Real Estate is certainly a popular inflation investment. And with mortgage rates at all-time lows, borrowers tend to do well when inflation ticks up. Home values grow and could even outstrip the interest rate on your mortgage, potentially. I’ve written at length about real estate and want to share a couple of my best pieces:

While I like real estate as an inflation hedge, I’d like to remind investors that the home price changes reported by the Case-Schiller Home Price Index do not reflect the return to investors. Read: Inflation and Real Estate.

Thinking about buying a rental property? Read: Should You Invest In Real Estate?

With cash at zero percent, should you pay off your mortgage? Read: Your Home Is Like A Bond

Looking at commercial Real Estate Investment Trusts, US REITs have had a strong year. The iShares US REIT ETF (IYR) is up 27% year to date, beating even the S&P 500 Index. I am concerned about the present valuations and low yields in the space. Additionally, retail, office, apartments, and senior living all face extreme challenges from the Pandemic. Many are seeing vacancies, bankrupt tenants, and people relocating away from urban development. Many businesses are rethinking their office needs as work-from-home seems here to stay. Even if we do see higher inflation moving forward, I’m not sure I want to chase REITs at these elevated levels.

Inflation Portfolio

Even with the possibility of higher inflation, I would caution investors against making radical changes to their portfolio. Stocks will continue to be the inflation investment that should offer the best chance at crushing inflation over the long-term. Include foreign stocks to add a hedge because US inflation suggests the Dollar will fall over time. Bonds are primarily to offset the risk of stocks and provide portfolio defense. We will make a few tweaks to try to reduce the impact of inflation on fixed income, but I would remind investors to avoid chasing high yield.

As satellite positions to core stock and bond holdings, we’ve looked at TIPS, Commodities, and Real Estate. Each has Pros and Cons as inflation investments. At this point, the simple fear of inflation has caused some of these investments to already have significant moves. We will continue to evaluate the inflation situation and analyze how we position our investment holdings. Our focus remains fixed on helping clients achieve their goals through prudent investment strategies and smart financial planning.

Preferred Stock Dividends

Preferred Stock Dividends

As part of our Core and Satellite portfolio models, our investors have received Preferred Stock Dividends for several years. Preferred Stocks are different from Common Stock as they are a hybrid security which combines the features of a stock and a bond. Like a stock, preferreds trade on an exchange and pay a quarterly dividend. Like a bond, preferreds are issued at a Par Value ($25) and can be called or redeemed by the issuer in the future for $25.

If you’d like a primer on Preferred Stocks, check out my previous article, Preferred Stocks Belong In Your Portfolio. Or check out Forbes, What is Preferred Stock?

The Role of Preferreds

The preferreds we own have yields from 4-6% or more. Today, with the yield on 10-year Treasury Bonds around 1.25%, preferred stock dividends offer a nice rate of return compared to bonds but without all of the volatility of common stocks. And with the current high valuations on US Stocks, Preferred Stocks offer us an alternative that complements our stock and bond holdings. It’s a nice way to diversify our holdings, but preferreds remain a small, niche investment that most people have never owned.

Presently, our Premiere Wealth Portfolios have between 7-11.5% in Preferred Stocks. In our Defensive Managers Select portfolio, we have a 20% position in Preferred Stocks. Those are significant weights for a satellite position, but it remains a small piece of our overall allocation.

We buy a basket of individual Preferred Stocks. For each client, we will own a minimum of 5 and as many as 15 individual Preferred Stocks. As of today, our largest holdings include Capital One, Wells Fargo, Regions Financial, JP Morgan, and Brookfield Finance. Most preferreds are issues by financial companies, although there are some issued by real estate and utilities, too.

I prefer to own individual preferreds to have better control over the portfolio and keep costs down. Generally, I like to buy Exchange Traded Funds. And there is an ETF for preferreds: PFF from iShares. Two problems. First, the ETF owns many preferreds trading at a very large premium to Par. That means you would be buying a preferred at $27 that could be redeemed at $25 within 5 years. We have to look at the Yield to Call to understand this. Second, the ETF has an expense ratio of almost half a percent (0.46%), and that would reduce investors’ return. In a sector where the expected return is only 4-5%, that expense ratio would be a big drag on returns.

Managing Preferreds

Within our baskets of preferreds, we’ve had quite a few trades this summer. Generally, for most of my clients, we own preferreds in IRAs, since they create taxable income. In an IRA, we can trade without any capital gains impact. With yields falling this year, there has been a high demand for Preferred Stock Dividends. And this has pushed up the price of many Preferred Stocks. This is not a good time to just blindly buy any Preferred Stocks – many are very expensive.

So, we have been rotating from preferreds with higher prices to those with lower prices. In some cases, a Preferred with a high dividend payment actually has a low Yield to Call. If you are paying $27 for a preferred that is callable for $25, you are paying an 8% premium. And that premium will decline to the call date, creating a loss of capital that will eat into your total return. I am finding opportunities to improve our preferred stock dividends with some careful trades.

Trading and Upgrading

There are a couple of scenarios where we have placed trades to replace one preferred with another.

  1. Price comparison. Here are two preferreds with the same coupon of 4.45% and similar credit ratings and call dates. The Schwab (series J) is trading at $26.57, while Regions Financial (series E) is at $25.60. This is an opportunity to sell an expensive share and use the proceeds to buy more shares of the lower priced preferred.
  2. Same company, different series. Capital One’s series L has a coupon of 4.375% and the series N is at 4.25%. Both have the same call date of September 2026. There is a one-eighth of a percent difference in coupon. So, when the L’s were trading for 2.5% more than the N’s, that is too big of a difference. We sold the L’s and bought the N’s. Then this week, the prices swapped and we were able to sell the N’s and buy back the higher yield L’s for less. Many companies have multiple series of preferred stocks. Sometimes one is more expensive and the other is less expensive, for no logical reason. We’ve also swapped between the Goldman Sachs series C and D, which both have a 4% coupon.
  3. New issues. We can buy IPOs of Preferred Stocks. We’ve bought a new JP Morgan preferred at $25 this summer and it is now up to $25.56. Other times, we have been able to buy preferreds for below $25 for a few days after the IPO, when the issue was undersubscribed. We’ve bought shares of Regions Financial and Texas Capital Bancshares at a discount this way. Over a few weeks, new issues usually move to where similar preferreds are priced.

Long-Term Outlook

I’ve been looking at all types of income securities for the last 17 years. Not just Preferred Stocks, but Closed End Funds, MLPs, REITs, and individual corporate and municipal bonds. It’s a lot of time to manage individual securities correctly, and it takes skill and knowledge that takes years to develop.

I like the idea of Preferred Stock Dividends to add income to our portfolio models. And that’s the purpose behind our Alternatives sleeve to the portfolio: to seek investments with a better return than bonds, and lower correlation and volatility compared to stocks.

For now it’s working as I had hoped. What might change this? If we see the Federal Reserve start to raise interest rates and see the long-end of the yield curve move up, this would be negative for preferreds. That’s why this is a Satellite holding and not a Core. There may well come a day that we liquidate the preferreds for another asset class with better prospects. Even though we are buy and hold, long-term investors, by no means is the approach a purely passive portfolio. Rather than looking in the rear view mirror, we construct portfolios looking forward at the challenges we see facing markets today.

Have a question about Preferred Stock Dividends? Curious about your Retirement Income? Let’s talk about our portfolios and how they might work for you. Click Contact on the top of this page to get in touch!

10 Year Expected Returns

10 Year Expected Returns

With the market rising so fast in the past year, investors are wondering if the 10 year expected returns are still attractive. Are we in a speculative bubble? Other investors see certain stocks soaring and are driving prices even higher. Will recent returns continue? While it’s natural to fret about the future of the stock market, we suggest investors resist the temptation to try to time the market.

It may be helpful, however, to evaluate current valuations and consider how to weight a diversified, buy and hold portfolio. Based on present levels and projected growth, the Vanguard Capital Markets Model calculates the 10 year expected returns for various asset classes. We use this information both in our portfolio construction as well as in our financial planning calculations.

Expected returns today are lower than historical returns. The stock market has risen much faster than corporate earnings. Now, companies need to catch up with their stock valuations. Dividend Yields are lower than historical, as well as economic growth and inflation. All of these are components of projected future Equity returns.

Vanguard recently updated their 10 year expected returns, based on market levels on December 31, 2020. You can compare these figures to six months ago, when I last wrote about Vanguard’s estimates.

Vanguard’s 10 Year Expected Returns

  • US Stocks: 3.0% to 5.0%
  • International Stocks: 6.1% to 8.1%
  • US Growth: -0.1% to 1.9%
  • Value: 4.4% to 6.4%
  • Large Cap: 2.9% to 4.9%
  • Small Cap: 3.2% to 5.2%
  • US REITs: 3.0% to 5.0%
  • US Aggregate Bonds: 0.8% to 1.8%
  • International Bonds: 0.6% to 1.6%
  • Emerging Markets Bonds: 1.5% to 2.5%

These estimates are 10 year annualized projections and are not guaranteed. There will undoubtedly be down years and this is not meant to suggest returns over the next year or in the short-term. Investing involves risk of loss of capital. Source: Vanguard Market Perspectives, March 2021.

Key Takeaways

  1. 10 year expected returns are lower than historical returns. I have cautioned in the past about using historical returns in financial planning projections. We use projected returns. Based on the midpoint of Vanguard’s figures, a 60/40 portfolio with 30% US Stocks, 30% International Stocks, and 40% US Aggregate Bonds has a projected return of 3.85% a year. This may cause some investors to rethink their allocations.
  2. US Growth Stocks are overvalued. US Value is more attractive for a long-term investor today. Be careful of chasing 2020’s hot stocks! We have already built a sizeable position in Value stocks in our models.
  3. International Stocks are more attractive than US Stocks. Be diversified and don’t invest in just US companies. Presently, International Stocks make up 43% of the World Index. If you don’t have at least 43% of your equities in International, you have a Home Bias. This may have worked well in the past decade, but appears less likely to be the case for the next 10 years.
  4. US Small Cap may offer a diversification benefit to Large Cap. REITs on the other hand, have the same return profile as US Stocks, but are riskier (higher volatility). So, we are avoiding REITs in our models.
  5. Bonds and Cash serve primarily as portfolio defense today. They offer little return potential. Vanguard projects inflation will be 1.1% to 2.1% over the next 10 years. Bond and cash returns may be less than inflation, which means you are losing purchasing power. Still, fixed income offers some benefits to rebalance when things are volatile. On their own, bonds are not making much of a positive contribution to portfolio returns.
  6. Preferred Stocks, Convertible Bonds, and Emerging Markets Bonds offer an attractive return potential compared to expected returns on core categories like US Stocks or US Aggregate Bonds. We have expanded our Alternative holdings in 2020 and again in 2021. Read more: Investment Themes for 2021.

Stay Diversified, Don’t Speculate

While we do tilt portfolios towards areas of relative value, it is important to remain diversified. Don’t put all your eggs in the one basket with the highest expected return. There’s no guarantee that Vanguard’s projected returns will become reality. Regardless of short-term market movements, our investment strength comes from keeping costs low, using Index strategies, staying diversified, and tax-efficiency.

The stock volatility over the past 12 months has been remarkable. But, it’s not unprecedented, though. I remember the Tech Bubble in 1999 and the rebound 12 years ago, from March of 2009. Both of those created rampant speculation, which we see today in certain growth stocks, cryptocurrency, and in the options market. Have we not learned the painful lessons of previous day-traders and those who gambled on stocks? Recently, individual investors have been asking me about trading options, Penny Stocks, and day trading stocks with the money they have set aside for a house down payment in one year.

Even as Vanguard is lowering its 10 year expected returns, people are getting greedy, with the fear of missing out on their chance to get rich. They know someone who got lucky over the past year and made a great trade. The lesson from the past is that everyone is a genius in a Bull Market. You could do no wrong in the past year, as long as you did something. Things won’t always be that easy, and that’s why you need a plan. Please make your investment choices about the next 10 years, and not the next 10 hours or 10 days.

Investment Themes for 2021

Investment Themes for 2021

Today we are going to discuss our top Investment Themes for 2021. I’ve stated that predictions are generally worthless, and 2020 certainly proved this point. 12 months ago, no one anticipated the massive impact of the Coronavirus. And the lightning speed of the stock market recovery remains shocking.

From its highs in February, US Stocks fell 35% to March 23. The recovery saw a 65% rally, with the S&P 500 Index ending the year up 17.6%. It was a mind-boggling year for investors, but I think we can count our blessings. This was the fastest Bear Market and recovery in history. Compared to the previous two Crashes, investors felt compelled to stay the course this year. And this proved wise.

(Here’s what I wrote to investors on March 21: Stock Crash Pattern.)

So, where do we go from here? Will 2021 unwind all the gains of 2020? My philosophy remains that we do not need to predict market movements or time the market to be successful. As a long-term investor, my approach to tactical investing is based on over-rebalancing. Think of rebalancing – trimming categories which rose (and became expensive) and adding to what became cheap. We overweight the assets which are cheaper.

We remain fully invested in our target allocation, but the weighting of funds can change from year to year. In some years, we own assets which lag other categories. That’s okay. That’s part of being a diversified investor. We want to avoid chasing performance.

Trades for 2021

  1. US large cap growth has become very expensive. For 2021, we are shifting some of our large cap growth to a mid cap growth fund. The valuations there are not as elevated.
  2. US small cap appears to have turned. Q4 of 2020 was the best quarter for small cap in 30 years. We added to small cap in our Growth and Aggressive models.
  3. Emerging Markets have a high expected long-term return. We remain overweight in EM.
  4. Value stocks lagged growth names again in 2020. (Growth stocks performance was highly concentrated in a small number of tech stocks such as Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet, and Tesla.) We are committed to our Value Funds and believe that they are compelling today.
  5. Bond yields fell in 2020 to all-time lows. The US Aggregate Bond Index had a return of 7.4%, but most of that was from prices increasing. Less than 2% came from yield. So, we finished 2020 with terrible yields – less than 1% on a 10-year Treasury bond.
  6. Yields were up in the first week of 2021, and bond investors are seeing falling prices. We are positioned towards the short-end of the yield curve and want to avoid chasing high yield today.
  7. Fixed Annuities remain a good substitute for CDs and Bonds for investors who don’t need liquidity. We can get a 5-year annuity at 3.0%.
  8. There are relative values within municipal bonds and Emerging Markets debt. Other than that, we expect very low returns from bonds. Own them for diversification. They provide ballast if your stocks are down and give you the ability to rebalance.
  9. We trimmed some short-term bonds and added to Preferred Stocks. Although many are priced at par today, we can get yields of 4-6%. This is an attractive middle ground between the volatility of stocks and the 0-1% yields of bonds.
  10. Both stocks and bonds are at all-time highs right now, and that makes alternatives compelling. In addition to Preferred Stocks, we have positions in Convertible Bonds and a Hedge Fund Strategy mutual fund.

Adding Value

We certainly hope markets will rise in 2021, but there’s no guarantee that will happen. I can say that we added value in 2020 in three other ways:

  • In March, we harvested losses in taxable accounts. For example, we sold one large cap ETF and immediately replaced it with a different large cap ETF. Losses will offset capital gains distributions and will carry forward indefinitely.
  • We rebalanced in March, trimming bonds and buying stock ETFs which were down. These trades proved profitable, although they didn’t feel so good when the market was crashing.
  • We stayed the course throughout the year. Selling during a panic like March would have been disastrous. We believe that planning and behavior are fundamental to success.

Our investment themes for 2021 are not predictions. We can’t control what the market will do. Our focus is to think long-term, stay diversified, and keep costs and taxes down. Still, our portfolio models are not static. We make changes to the weightings of our Core positions based on their relative valuations. And we add or remove Satellite positions that are attractive for the current environment.

Investments are a tool to grow your wealth and achieve your financial and life goals. While I enjoy discussing investments, more of my conversations with clients are around their objectives and making sure they are on track. And that’s how it should be.

Behind the scenes, a lot of research, thought, and analysis goes into our investment management decisions. If you’d like to ask about your portfolio and how we invest, please give me a call.

When To Sell A Fund

When to Sell a Fund

As part of monitoring your investments, you should have defined reasons when to sell a fund. It is important to distinguish between market timing and valid reasons for selling. Don’t sell an index fund and buy an actively managed fund just because the active fund has outperformed recently. That is performance chasing – and you need to guard against this.

There are a couple of scenarios when you might want to sell a fund, primarily if it is to fix your portfolio. There is probably not a bad time to do this, although investors often agonize over the timing of moves. We cannot predict the future. If you know your portfolio has problems, make those changes and move on.

Three Sales to Fix Your Portfolio

First, if you have narrow funds, such as a sector fund, I would suggest you sell those and get into a broader index fund. If you are up, and have a nice gain, go ahead and sell. Don’t wait until the fund or stock has tanked. If it has tanked, take your loss and learn a lesson. You may hope that it will come back, but hope is not a good investment rationale. While you are waiting for it to come back, perhaps you could be growing your portfolio in an index fund.

I’m not going to recommend that you try to own individual stocks in your portfolio. That is speculative and a distraction for most investors to growing your wealth. I know many millionaires who invest in funds, but not many who got there with individual stocks. The majority of people who are trading stocks have tiny accounts. According to the NY Times, the popular trading app, Robinhood has only an average account of $4,800. Focus on your accumulation and being a market participant, not a speculator. If you’ve had good luck with individual stocks, take your gains and get into index funds. 

Second, if you are invested in a fund or product that has high expenses, switch to a low-cost index fund. For example, if you have an actively managed fund, an A-share mutual fund with 12b-1 fees, or a fund in a Variable Insurance product, your expense ratio might be 0.75%, 1.00% or more a year. An index fund might be one-tenth of that, 0.10% or less for many categories. When your goal is long-term growth through market participation, costs are a direct drag on your performance. That’s a good reason to sell.

Interestingly, the average active manager often (slightly) beats their benchmark before fees. It’s just that the drag of a 1% expense ratio, in a market that returns 5% or 10%, eats up all the benefits the managers can create. Over time, low expenses are correlated with better performance.

Third, you may want to sell some of your funds to establish your target asset allocation. Most of your performance is based on your overall asset allocation. I see many younger investors who start out 100% in stocks and as they grow their wealth, eventually realize that they need some bonds. Other investors have some bonds, but no target allocation to use for rebalancing. So, start with your recipe first and adjust your funds to fulfill your target allocation. Otherwise, you end up with a poorly diversified portfolio.

Staying Invested

If you are already invested in a low cost, diversified index fund, why sell it ever? I can think of two good reasons: rebalancing and tax loss harvesting. Outside of that, investors can do quite well by having little or no turnover and sticking with low cost Index funds for not just years, but decades.

What aren’t reasons for a long-term investor to sell? Coronavirus. Elections. Business cycles. News.

Sure, those things can impact stock prices in the short-term. But staying the course in an Index Fund seems to work better than any other strategy. So, yes to selling sector funds, single stocks, and high-expense funds to replace them with an Index Fund. Yes to the occasional sale for rebalancing or tax loss harvesting. Outside of those reasons, try to keep your diversified allocation and stick with your index funds. Now, if you are within five years of retirement and are concerned about risks to your retirement income, let’s talk about how to make sure you are on the right path.

I am posting this because right now volatility seems to be picking up into the election. And over the next two months, I worry that a lot of investors are going to feel spooked. You’re going to hear a lot of opinions about what is going to happen. And markets could, indeed, go down. That’s always a possibility. That’s the inescapable reality of being an investor. But, our approach is to stay the course in turbulent times and be patient. As unique as today’s challenges are, there were unique challenges before. Markets prevailed.

Do You Need Bonds?

Do You Need Bonds?

With ultra low yields today, more investors are asking if you really need to have bonds in your portfolio. It’s going to depend on your objectives for your overall plan. First, let’s take a look at expected returns and how this impacts your allocation.

The primary role of bonds is to reduce the risk of a stock portfolio. Bonds fluctuate a lot less and most are relatively low risk. The trade-off is that they have a lot lower return than stocks. Of course, the stock market has a negative return in approximately one of every five or so years. From 1950 through 2019, 15 of 70 years had a negative return in the S&P 500 Index. Bonds are more consistent, and they can help smooth out your overall returns. In years when stocks are down, you can rebalance by selling some bonds and buying stocks.

The more bonds you have, the more you reduce stock risk, but also the more you probably lower your long-term returns. With the 10-year Treasury bond yielding only 0.721% this week, bonds offer almost no return on their own. Bonds used to offer safety and income, but today, you are really only owning them just for safety.

Portfolio Asset Allocation

We describe a portfolio by the percentage it has in stocks versus bonds. A 70/30 portfolio, for example, has 70% stocks and 30% bonds. Our asset allocation models target different levels of stock and bond exposure:

  • Ultra Equity (100% Equity)
  • Aggressive (85/15)
  • Growth (70/30)
  • Moderate (60/40)
  • Balanced (50/50)
  • Conservative (35/65)  

Expected Returns

Next, let’s consider what Vanguard projects for the next 10 years for annualized asset returns, as of June 2020: 

  • US Equities: 5.5% to 7.5%
  • International Equities: 8.5% to 10.5%
  • US Aggregate Bond Market: 0.9% to 1.9%

Let’s calculate hypothetical portfolio returns using these assumptions. If we take the midpoint of stock projected returns, we have 6.5% for US Stocks and 9.5% for International Stocks. If we invest equally in both, we’d have an 8% return. For our bond return, we will take the midpoint of 1.4%. Now, here’s a simple blend of those expected returns when we combine them in a portfolio.

PortfolioProjected 10 Year Return
100% Equities8.00%
90% Equities / 10% Bonds7.34%
80% Equities / 20% Bonds6.68%
70% Equities / 30% Bonds6.02%
60% Equities / 40% Bonds5.36%
50% Equities / 50% Bonds4.70%
40% Equities / 60% Bonds4.04%
30% Equities / 70% Bonds3.38%
20% Equities / 80% Bonds2.72%
10% Equities / 90% Bonds2.06%
100% Bonds1.40%

If you simply want the highest return without regard to volatility in a portfolio, you could invest 100% into stocks. Moreover, any addition of bonds should reduce your long-term returns. Of course, this assumes that returns are simply linear. In a real portfolio, there would be up years and down years in stocks. That’s when you would rebalance, which could be beneficial.

For young investors, in their 20’s, 30’s, or 40’s, you probably should be more aggressive in your asset allocation. For some, it may even make sense to be 100% in stocks. If you have 20 or more years to retirement, and aren’t scared of stock market fluctuations, being aggressive is likely going to offer the highest return.

The 10-year expected return of stocks is not bad, 8% combined today. That’s a little bit lower than the historical averages, but still an attractive return. Bond returns, however, are expected to be very weak. Consequently, 60/40, 50/50, and more conservative portfolios, are expected to have much lower projected returns.

Retirement Planning and Your Need for Bonds

For those closer to retirement, low yields are a challenge. You want to have less volatility but also want good returns. If you are within five years of retirement, you probably want to reduce the risk of a stock market crash hurting your retirement income. Now, if the hypothetical 8% stock returns were guaranteed, our decision would be easy. But getting out of bonds today, with the market at an all time high, seems too risky. This week has certainly been a reminder that stocks are volatile.

I think most pre-retirees will want to keep their current allocation through their retirement date. After that, they may want to consider gradually reducing their bond exposure by selling bonds. There is evidence that this strategy, The Rising Equity Glidepath, is a beneficial way to access retirement withdrawals. It allows retirees to benefit from the higher expected return of stocks, while reducing their risks in the crucial 5-10 years right before and at the beginning of retirement.

Some retirees have a high risk capacity if they have ample sources of income and significant assets. If their time horizon is focused on their children or grandchildren, they can also consider a more aggressive allocation.

We want to calculate your asset mix individually. I wanted to show you what the blend of stocks and bonds is projected to return over the next decade. We’ve had strong returns from fixed income in recent years because falling interest rates push up bond prices. Going forward, it looks like bond returns are going to be quite low. We do have to consider these projected returns when making allocation decisions.

If you’re looking for advice on managing your investment portfolio today, let’s talk. Our planning process will help you address these questions and have a better understanding of your options.

How to Increase Your Yield

How to Increase Your Yield

Opportunities for a Low Yield World, Part 2

Last week, we discussed how not to increase your yield today: by replacing safe bonds with high yield bonds. That’s because the potential for rising defaults today in junk bonds could have a major drag on what would otherwise appear to be a healthy yield. While the typical default rate for single-B and double-B bonds is 2-4% a year, in a crisis it could go much higher. In 2009, for example, global high yield bonds saw a 13% default rate that year.

It’s important to understand the risks in your bond portfolio and know what you own. There are four opportunities today for investors to improve their yields today, without simply trading down to junk bonds. None of these are home runs, but offer a bit more yield. And in the current low interest rate environment, increasing your yield by even one percent could be doubling your rate of return from your bonds. Some investors will choose to skip bonds altogether and add to their equities, but that would take on a lot of additional risk. For investors who want the risk and return profile of say a 60/40 portfolio, there’s no substitute for the safety of bonds.

1. Cash: Online Savings Account, not a Money Market Fund

Today, the Federal Reserve has lowered rates to basically zero. There is almost no yield on T-Bills, bank accounts, and short-term CDs. I see a lot of investors who park significant cash in a money market fund or in a Bank savings account. Those rates may have been near two percent a year ago, but many are now at 0.01%. That’s a whole one dollar of interest for a $10,000 investment each year! Not only are you not growing your cash, you probably aren’t going to keep up with inflation either. Your purchasing power is likely to decline with each passing year.

Instead of a money market at 0.01%, park your cash in an online savings account. You can link it to your primary checking account, and transfer money as needed. Most are FDIC insured, and several have no account minimums and no monthly fees. The one I use: Marcus.com from Goldman Sachs Bank. The current rate is 1.05%, with no minimums and no fees. You can open an account in about 1 minute and there’s an app for iOS and Android. I cannot think of any reason to not do this if you are presently earning 0.01% on a money market.

2. Buy Insured Municipal Bonds, not Taxable Corporates

The Coronavirus didn’t just hurt companies. Municipal Bonds – which are issued by cities, states, schools, and local entities – depend on taxes or revenues. Revenues from Stadiums, Toll Roads, etc., are down and so are taxes from sales, restaurants and bars, gasoline, income, and everything else which is taxed. The municipal bond market really doesn’t know how to evaluate this unprecedented problem. Compounding this issue is the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of different bonds, issued by 50,000 different entities. Some of these bonds are so small that they rarely trade.

The result is that we can now buy a tax-free, A-rated municipal bond with a higher yield than we can buy an A-rated corporate bond which is taxable. This doesn’t help retirement accounts, like a 401(k) or IRA, but if you are buying bonds in a taxable account, taxes matter. Imagine two bonds both yield 2%. One is tax-free and the other one is going to cost you 22 to 37 percent in income taxes. That’s a big difference when we consider after-tax returns!

It is unusual to find yields on tax-free municipal bonds being higher than on corporate bonds of a similar credit quality and duration. For folks in a high tax bracket, taking profits on your corporate bonds and shifting to munis can make sense. (Profits on your appreciated, high-priced corporate bonds can qualify for long-term capital gains rate of 15%, a lower tax rate than receiving the bond’s income and waiting for them to mature at par.)

If you are concerned about the credit quality of municipal bonds, look for bonds which are insured. Bond insurers offer protection to muni bond holders to cover losses of income and principal, should a municipality default. At this point, defaults on municipal bonds remain much lower than from corporate bonds. The highest rated insurer is AGMC, and those bonds remain AA- rated.

We build portfolios of individual municipal bonds for clients with taxable accounts over $250,000. For investors with smaller portfolios, you can achieve a similar benefit with an intermediate municipal bond fund.

3. Buy 5-year Fixed Annuities, not 5-year Bonds

Where are the yields of 5-year fixed income products this week? The 5-year Treasury bond has a yield of 0.27%. The best rate I have on a 5-year CD is 0.55%. I see an A- rated 5-year corporate bond from JP Morgan at 0.95%. Munis are better, but still only 1.0 to 1.3% tax-free for an A-rated bond.

The best place to park money for five years remains a fixed annuity. Today I see several annuities in the 3.0 and 3.1 percent range for a five year product. That’s basically triple the yield of corporates and about 6-times the yield from CDs. A fixed annuity is guaranteed, both for the rate of return and your principal. There is a trade-off with annuities. They charge very steep surrender charges if you need to access your money early. However, if you aren’t going to tap the account for 5+ years, it can make sense to put some money into an annuity.

Whenever people ask me how they can earn more while keeping their money safe, I discuss the pros and cons of an annuity. For today’s bond investors, a Multi-Year Guaranteed Annuity (MYGA) can be a way to increase your yield while keeping high credit quality.

4. Buy Preferred Stocks, Not a High Yield Fund

The High Yield ETF (HYG) currently has an SEC yield of 5.06%. There are a couple of reasons I prefer to own preferred stocks, besides the default risks I shared last week. First, I can save the ETF expense ratio of 0.49%. This is actually low compared to most high yield funds. When you own Preferreds directly, you might be saving one-half to one percent versus paying the expense ratio of a fund. At a 5% yield today, that is a 10-20% improvement. Yields are very low today, but expense ratios have not come down. Now, expenses eat up a larger portion of your return, leaving you with less income.

Second, preferreds today are offering a yield of 5-7%, which is attractive compared to bonds from the same company. For example, AT&T has preferred which yields 4.8% and is callable in 5 years. The February 2030 AT&T regular bond, however, yields less than 2.25% today. First Horizon Bank sold a 6.5% preferred this year, callable in five years. Their five year bonds, today, are available for a purchase with only a 1.865% yield.

Generally, the bonds are “safer” than preferreds, as they would rate higher in a bankruptcy liquidation. That’s one reason for the different yields, as well as the longer duration of the preferreds. Still, if you are comfortable with the credit risk of a company, the Preferreds may be trading at a significantly higher yield than the bonds of the company. That’s an opportunity today.

Why do we write so much about fixed income? For many of our investors who have achieved their accumulation goals, moving from growth into preservation and income is important. And there is an opportunity for us to add value through our fixed income choices: to increase yield, improve credit quality, or to reduce your risks. While it is relatively easy and fast to trade equity ETFs, buying individual bonds can require hours of research and trading.

Stocks have gotten all our attention this year, but don’t ignore your fixed income. The great return of fixed income in recent years has largely been the result of falling yields increasing the value/price of your bonds. Today, at nearly zero, yields could prove disappointing going forward. Our goal is to help you get more yield without simply taking on a lot of credit or duration risk.

Of these four ideas, you can certainly do #1 on your own. For #2 through #4, though, I think you will want to work with a financial professional. If you’d like to learn about individual municipal bonds, fixed annuities, or Preferred Stocks, please give me a call.

The High Yield Trap

The High Yield Trap

Opportunities for a Low Yield World PART 1

Everyone wants their investments to make more money, but we have to be careful to avoid the High Yield Trap. Since the Coronavirus Crash, central banks have been lowering interest rates to near zero. Last year, I was buying CDs at 2-3%. This week, I’m looking at the same CDs with yields of 0.1% to 0.2%. To which, my client innocently asks: What can we buy that will make more than a couple of percent with low risk?

Nothing, today. The five-year Treasury Bond currently yields 0.22%. That’s unacceptable for most investors, and it will push them out of safe fixed income, like Treasuries, CDs, and high quality municipal and corporate bonds. The yields are just too darn low.

Where will they go in pursuit of higher yields? Oh, there are plenty of bonds and bond funds with higher yields today. Credit quality has been plunging, as rating agencies are trying to keep up with downgrading firms that are being devastated by the shutdown or low commodity prices. In fact, through June 16, $88 Billion in BBB-rated bonds were downgraded to Junk Bond status this year. Each downgrade causes selling, which lowers the price of the bond, and the yield goes up (at least for new buyers).

Why It’s Called Junk

Before you get too excited, there are reasons to be concerned about buying lower grade bonds. In an average year, 2% of BB bonds and 4% of single-B rated bonds will default. That’s why high yield bonds are called junk bonds.

When those companies file for bankruptcy, the bond holders won’t be getting paid back their full principal. They will have to wait for a bankruptcy court to approve a restructuring plan or to dissolve the company. According to Moody’s, the median recovery is only 24 cents on the dollar when a bond defaults.

And while a 2-4% default rate might not sound too bad, that’s in an average year. In a crisis, that might rise to 8-10% defaults. In 2009, global high yield bonds had a 13% default rate in that year alone. These are historical rates, and it could be worse than that in the future. Additionally, the possibility of default increases as a company gets downgraded. If your BB-rated bond gets cut to CCC-rated, the chance of default is now a lot higher than 2%. And the price will probably go down, which creates a difficult choice. Do you sell for a loss or hold on hoping that the company can pay off your bond?

Here in Dallas, we are seeing a lot of companies go bankrupt, pushed over the edge by the Coronavirus. Big names like J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus, Pier One, Chuck E. Cheese, Bar Louie, and others have filed for bankruptcy in 2020. Most of these companies were issuers of high yield bonds and had a lot of debt. When they got into trouble, they could not keep up with their debt payments and had to fold. Expect more retailers, oil companies, and restaurants to go under before the end of 2020. Bond holders in those companies could lose a lot. (In all fairness, stock holders will do even worse. There is usually zero recovery for stock holders in bankruptcy.)

Funds versus Individual Bonds

If you are investing in a high yield bond fund, you may own hundreds or thousands of bonds. The fund may have a 7 percent yield, but don’t get too excited. A high yield fund is not a CD. You are not guaranteed to get your principal back. It’s likely (even more likely in the current crisis), that your return will get dinged by 2-4% in defaults and losses due to credit downgrades.

If you own individual high yield bonds, it can be even more precarious. Either the bond defaults or it doesn’t. Having the potential for an 75% loss, while earning an average 5-7% annual yield, is dangerous game. Everything is fine until you have a default. A single loss can wipe out years of interest payments. That’s why I generally don’t want to buy individual high yield bonds for my clients.

The quoted yield of 5-7% for high yield bonds does not reflect that some of those bonds will default. If you consider a 2-4% default rate, your net return might be more like 3-5%. That’s the High Yield Trap. Your actual returns often fall short of the quoted yield.

High Yield bonds are issued by companies. Stocks are companies. If companies do poorly – really poorly – both the stocks and bonds can get walloped at the same time. That’s the opposite of diversification. We want bonds to hold up well when our stocks are doing poorly. In finance jargon, we would say that there is a high correlation between high yield bonds and stocks. We want a low correlation.

Instead of High Yield?

What I would suggest, if suitable for an investor, would be a 5-year fixed annuity at 3% today. That would give you a guaranteed rate of return and a guaranteed return of your principal. That’s not super exciting, but it’s what investors need from fixed income: stability and dependable income. Don’t buy bonds for speculation. And above all else, Bonds should avoid the possibility of massive losses.

Be wary of the High Yield Trap. The yields appear attractive in today’s super low interest rate environment. But let’s be careful and not take unnecessary high risks. All bonds are not created equal. When you reach for yield, you are taking on more risk. Defaults have the potential to drag down your performance in a fund. In individual bonds, they could almost wipe out your original investment.

High Yield bonds are not inherently bad. If you bought at the bottom in 2009, they recovered very well. But I am very concerned that today’s yields are actually not high enough to compensate for the potential risk of defaults. We’ve already started to see corporate bankruptcies in 2020 and it’s possible we will have above average defaults in the near future. Until we have a real fire sale in high yield bonds, I’d rather stay away.

We will discuss ways of improving your yield next week. Yes, it’s a low interest rate world, but there are ways we can incrementally improve your portfolio while maintaining good credit quality. We will also discuss financial planning strategies for low rates in an upcoming post. If you’d like a free evaluation of your portfolio, to better understand your risks, please send me a message for an online meeting.

Have stocks risen too fast?

Have Stocks Risen Too Fast?

Many investors today are asking, Have stocks risen too fast? We’ve had a terrific rebound off the lows of March and US stock indices are largely back in positive territory for the year. It has been quite a roller-coaster ride.

Unfortunately, uncertainty about Coronavirus remains high. We have neither a cure nor do we have the contagion under control in the US. The economic fallout from unemployment, consumer spending, and falling corporate profits remains unknown. It’s easy to make a case that the stock market has gotten ahead of itself and is being too optimistic.

That could be the case. But we shouldn’t be surprised that stocks are up. The stock market is a leading economic indicator. Traders are betting on things that they expect to happen, not waiting to respond to things that have already happened. Yes, the market is pricing in things improving. And if the market is wrong, stocks could respond negatively.

What should investors do? Run for cover? Buy gold and guns? No, I don’t think we should attempt to time the market. Trades based on what we think might happen in the next 12 or 24 months are not likely to add any value, in my opinion.

While our approach is focused on long-term results, I do not think investors should be complacent today. There are steps we are taking, without trying to bet on the short-term direction of stocks. Here are six strategies:

Stock Strategies for Today

  1. Rebalance. When there’s a big move in the market, up or down, rebalance to your original allocation. This creates a process to buy low and sell high.
  2. Re-examine your risk profile. Did the March collapse make you realize that your portfolio is too aggressive? If so, let’s take a closer look at your overall risk profile. This shouldn’t be guesswork. We use FinaMetrica, a leading Psychometric evaluation tool, to measure each client’s risk tolerance. If you should be less aggressive, now is a good time to make trades. Not when there is panic like March.
  3. Consider your return requirement. Two people could have the same risk tolerance. But if one has $100,000 and the other has $2 million, it is possible that they need different returns to meet their goals. One might need growth and the other might favor more stability and income. You only need to get rich once.
  4. Add alternative sources of return. The more we can diversify your portfolio, the better. Investments that have a lower correlation to stocks and less volatility can help create a smoother overall performance. That’s why we have taken the time to educate our clients about investments such as Preferred Stocks and Convertible Bonds.
  5. Look to lagging parts of the stock market. US Large Cap Growth is leading the rebound since March. Other areas are not yet back to even. For example, international stocks, or US Mid Cap Value. Today, some parts of the market are more expensive than others. If all you are doing is buying the best recent performers, you are looking in the rear view mirror. Instead, look at the fundamentals. Which stocks are less expensive today and a better relative value going forward?
  6. Lower your expense ratio. If your expected return on stocks is less today, a lower expense ratio will help you keep more of the market’s returns. That’s a big advantage of Index Funds. But we also like actively managed funds from companies like Vanguard, who recognize the importance of low costs.

Fixed Income

As you are worrying if stocks have risen too fast, don’t neglect your fixed income. Yields are way down in 2020. The good news is that the price of bonds has risen, which has helped your portfolio. Now, the problem is that people aren’t looking at the current yields. Money markets are yielding 0.01%. The five year Treasury Bond was at 0.22% this week. Your Investment Grade bond fund may be at 1.25% or less.

What worked in fixed income over the last 1-2 years is unlikely to produce much return going forward. We have ideas to upgrade the yields on your fixed income – from cash to intermediate bonds – while maintaining your credit quality and risk. That won’t have any impact on what stocks do, but your fixed income can create safety and income that gives you a smoother portfolio result.

The fact is that no one knows if stocks have risen too fast. It’s unknowable. We should resist the temptation to try to time the market today. We prefer to focus on what we can control: our asset allocation, good diversification, implementing portfolio alternatives, and keeping expenses and taxes low.

Investing During Coronavirus

Investing During Coronavirus

Investing during Coronavirus has exposed many flaws in portfolios, investor behavior, and advisor services. There’s a saying that everyone is a genius in bull market. Unfortunately, the previous 10 glorious years in the stock market masked a lot of risks for investors.

Since the March stock market crash, investors are discovering these problems and realizing that their portfolios may need a tune-up. Here are 9 investment pitfalls which were exposed by the Coronavirus.

9 Investment Pitfalls

  1. No Risk Analysis. Don’t wait until a Bear Market to assess what level of risk is appropriate for you and your goals.
  2. No target asset allocation. You can not rebalance if you do not begin with an objective such as a 60/40 or 70/30 allocation.
  3. Not diversified. Being concentrated in individual stocks or sectors can create wildly different results than the overall market. Diversification is valuable.
  4. Changing Direction. In March, investors wanted to sell at the low. However, in hindsight, they should have been buying. Stick with your plan and resist the temptation to time the market.
  5. Performance Chasing. We want to believe that the best strategies in the recent years will remain winners. Evidence, however, suggests that top active funds are unlikely to continue to outperform.
  6. Not using Index Funds. Everytime there is a crisis, I hear the argument that active fund managers can be more defensive than an index fund. However, when I look at industry data, such as SPIVA, the majority of active funds still have worse long-term results than their benchmark.
  7. Ignoring expenses and taxes. We can often create significant savings in expenses and taxes with good planning.
  8. Only focusing on investment returns. Investing is important, but your financial plan should address more. What about your savings rate, debt management, emergency fund, employee benefits, life insurance, estate planning, or college savings goals?
  9. Bad service from an advisor. Are you getting rebalancing, monitoring, and adjustments to your portfolio? Are you receiving timely financial planning advice? Is your advisor available to meet and able to add value?

Financial Planning Process

What investors need to understand about investing during Coronavirus are the benefits of a financial planning process. There is a science to financial planning and portfolio management. That is to say, there are best practices and important steps which individual investors often miss on their own. We can’t avoid market volatility, but having a disciplined process can make sure you are well prepared to avoid these nine problems.

Read more: Good Life Wealth Management Financial Planning Process

Why Good Life Wealth Management?

  • Fiduciary: our obligation is to place client interests first.
  • Fees, not commissions. Transparent costs means you know exactly what and how we are paid. As a result, we think this better aligns our interests, reduces conflicts of interest, and benefits clients with independent ideas.
  • CFP(R) Professional. Only about 25% of advisors in the industry hold the Certified Financial Planner designation. For more than 30 years, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certification has been the standard of excellence for financial planners. CFP® professionals have met extensive training and experience requirements, and commit to CFP Board’s ethical standards that require them to put their clients’ interests first. That’s why partnering with a CFP® professional gives consumers confidence today and a more secure tomorrow.
  • CFA, Chartered Financial Analyst. The CFA Program provides a strong foundation in advanced investment analysis and real-world portfolio management skills. CFA charterholders occupy a range of investment decision-making roles, typically as a research analyst or portfolio manager. 

When you have an important need, you seek professional advice. Our process is designed to help you achieve your financial goals and avoid the pitfalls that are often not seen until a crisis occurs. Did March reveal some problems with your portfolio and your financial plan? If so, give me a call and we can help you get back on track.