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.

Coronavirus Stock Market

Coronavirus Stock Market Damage

Welcome to the Coronavirus Stock Market. After setting an all-time high on February 19, the market plummeted last week, and is down nearly 15% from its highs. As the virus spreads, the economic impact is growing. Companies are sending employees home, shuttering manufacturing, leading to less travel, less restaurant meals, and lower consumer spending.

As an investor, what should you do, given that we don’t know how much worse the contagion will grow? I don’t know. No one knows. No one has a crystal ball to know how the disease will spread or how the economies or markets will be impacted. Recognizing that this is unknowable information is the key to understanding what to do.

A history lesson may help. Big drops of 3.5% in a day are somewhat rare and they are felt as being quite shocking. We had a couple of days like that this week. Over the past 33 years, there have been 55 days of a 3.5%+ drop. In 45 of those instances, the market was higher 12 months later. Much higher, on average 20% higher. In only 10 of 55 drops was the market lower a year later. (Source: Barrons) Those aren’t bad odds, and the reward for staying invested could be worthwhile.

What I did this week

If it helps, let me share what I did in my own portfolio this week. I did not sell anything. However, I did have a couple of bonds which were called. With the new cash in my account, I revisited my asset allocation. Since equities are down, I was presently underweight to my target percentage of stocks. So, I purchased more shares of stock Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) that I own.

Sure, it’s possible that the purchases I made this week will be even lower next week. But I’m not trying to time the market. No one can tell you when the Coronavirus stock market carnage will cease and it will be safe to invest again. We are stuck with uncertainty no matter when we make a decision. So the optimal decision, I think, is to stick to a disciplined process. Create a diversified target asset allocation and hold that portfolio regardless of epidemics, elections, wars, or any other human events. Rebalance your portfolio periodically, when you have cash to add, or when your allocation has shifted.

If you made any recent purchases in taxable accounts, consider harvesting your losses. Immediately repurchase another fund to maintain your target allocation. This is solely to lock in a capital loss for tax purposes, so be careful to not change your asset allocation.

The Pain of Losses

There’s an old saying on Wall Street that stocks take the stairs up but the elevator down. Gains are slow and plodding, but losses are straight down. That’s definitely what happened this week. From a psychological perspective, the pain of a 10% loss is more acute than the thrill of a 10% gain. This increases likelihood of making investment errors.

Everyone agrees that we shouldn’t try to time the market when the market is rising. But when the market is down, we have to really resist the urge to go to cash, when our amygdala is screaming Run! Hide! Get out of the market before you lose everything! That biological mechanism may have helped our ancestors avoid being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, but is a detriment to long-term investing.

Bonds and Alternatives

While stocks have been falling, investors seem to be buying bonds no matter how low the yield. As money floods into bonds, prices go up and yields go down. The 10-Year Treasury reached an all-time low yield on Friday of 1.09%. Unbelievable, and yet this didn’t even make any headlines this week. With low rates, expect virtually all of your callable corporate and municipal bonds to get called. And then good luck finding a replacement – I’m seeing 2% yields at 10+ years. That’s terrible for a BBB-rated credit.

This is a good time to refinance your mortgage. If you can save 1 percent or more, it is probably going to be worth the change. That’s just about the only benefit of the low interest rates.

Today’s yields make bonds quite unappealing and dividend stocks more attractive. Some good companies are down significantly (why is Chevron down 25% this year?). We were buying stocks at higher prices last month, and if you like those companies, you should like them even better when they are on sale. Bonds won’t even keep up with inflation and the low interest rates will push more investors into stocks.

Stocks have much higher risks than bonds, and it is simply unacceptable for most investors to be 100% in stocks. Fixed, multi-year guaranteed annuities have better yields than treasury, corporate, and municipal bonds and are also guaranteed. We can get over 3% on a 5-year annuity, versus 0.87% for a 5Y Treasury or 1.6% on a 5Y CD. Annuities remain very unpopular, but I think they are a better fixed income investment than bonds if you do not need liquidity. I suggest laddering fixed annuities over a 5-year maturity, 20% into five sleeves.

Our Alternative Investment in Preferred Stocks were down a couple of percent this week, but nothing like the bloodbath in stocks. Some preferreds that were trading near $26 are now trading near $25. With a $25 par price, this is an excellent entry point for investors.

The Coronavirus stock market impact has been shocking. Investors are not going to be happy when they open their February statements. Realizing that we cannot predict the future, we need to avoid the “flight” response. The challenge for an investor remains to keep the discipline to stick to their plan of a diversified allocation. Rebalance and hold.

Will There Be A Recession?

There has been a lot of talk recently about a recession, with concerns about slowing economic growth, the Federal Reserve cutting interest rates, an inverted yield curve, a trade war with China, and so on. A recession is two or more quarters of economic contraction, of negative growth of a country’s economy. Several European countries recently reported one quarter of negative growth and may well be on their way towards a recession this quarter. 

So… will there be a recession in the US? Yes, there will. When? I have no idea.

Please excuse my glib answer. I could put a lot of thought and analysis into the question, but statistically, it’s not predictable with accuracy or certainty. Recessions are an inevitable part of the economic cycle, winter to the summer season of expansion. Unfortunately, unlike December 22, the first day of winter, it is not possible to determine when the first day of a recession will occur. Economists only calculate recessions in hindsight and it would be foolish, and likely even detrimental, for investors to try to change their investments based on today’s recession fears. 

While the US Stock Market made new highs in July, August saw a pullback with increasing worries about a recession. A recession would be negative for investors in the short run, but I think it is very important for investors to stay focused on the long run. The temptation is to think that if we could go to cash before a recession that our returns would be better and we’d avoid losses. As appealing and rational as those thoughts may be, the reality is that attempting to time the market is exceedingly difficult. In my experience, investors who try to time the market rarely do better than those who remain invested and they often would have been better off making no changes.  

Thankfully, I don’t think you need a crystal ball to be a successful investor. Let’s keep a healthy perspective on recessions. Here are some thoughts which may help you to stay invested.

1. If you’re a young investor, contributing monthly to your 401(k) or IRA, and have three or four decades before you retire, you should want a recession! That’s the stock market throwing you a fire sale. You get to buy shares when they are down maybe 20% or more! While Dollar Cost Averaging cannot guarantee a profit, I can tell you that the shares of mutual funds which your colleagues bought in 2008 or 2001 have probably been enormously profitable. If you bought an S&P 500 Index fund 10 years ago, you’d be up about 320% today. 

Recessions have occurred every 5-10 years since 1900. If you are investing for many decades, I wouldn’t be worried about what happens in 2019 or 2020. If the market goes down, keep buying shares of a diversified asset allocation and be glad to buy shares with a very low cost basis.  

Do, however, avoid betting heavily on an individual stock. While the overall stock market has recovered very nicely from previous recessions, there can always be individual companies like Lehman Brothers or Enron, which don’t survive. Those companies may be present in an Index Fund, but if your fund owns 500 or 1000 companies, the impact of one company blowing up is often inconsequential.

2. Think in percentages, not dollars, and study stock market history. A 20%+ drop in the market does occur from time to time, maybe even two or more times a decade. Knowing this, you should be prepared for a drop of this magnitude if you’re in an aggressive allocation. But let’s rephrase this in dollar terms: once you have a $500,000 portfolio, could you stomach a drop of $100,000? That sounds a lot worse than a 20% drop! Of course, when the market goes up 20%, like it did from December 2018 to the highs of July, that would also be a $100,000 gain. 

Seeing performance in dollar terms may feel harsher than looking at performance as percentages which fluctuate greatly from year to year. When you have a big account, you are going to see big swings. This can be difficult to get used to and that’s why I want to look at percentages instead.

If you understand that a market cycle includes up and down years, you will understand that a drop is often only temporary until the market rebounds. If you sell when the market is down and go to cash, you are locking in that loss and eliminating the possibility of participating in a future up cycle. While there’s no guarantee this cycle will always occur in the future, it has been the historical pattern, and I think you have to embrace this tenet of investing if you are to be successful over time. 

3. We build highly diversified portfolios and rebalance. If your target allocation is 60% stocks and 40% bonds (60/40) and the market drops, your weighting to stocks decreases. We will sell some bonds and buy stocks that are down. We have a built-in mechanism to respond to market fluctuations already. Just by maintaining a target allocation and rebalancing, we will be buying stocks when they are on sale and trimming stocks when they have run up. That won’t prevent a loss when the market does drop, but rebalancing can help to potentially smooth returns and maintain your target level of risk for your portfolio.

4. Investors who are getting closer to retirement undoubtedly feel the most pressure about near-term performance. In part, this is due to an oversimplification of the retirement planning process, by using something like the “4% rule”. Then, if your portfolio drops 20% in the year before retirement, it would appear to be devastating. If you were expecting $40,000 a year in income from a $1 million portfolio, a drop to $800,000 would reduce your 4% withdrawal rate to just $32,000 a year. 

That’s why we should be careful about using a “rule of thumb” approach as being the ultimate guide in retirement planning. For someone who is 65 and healthy, we should be planning for a 20-30 year time horizon, not for the next 1-2 years. As retirements become longer, it is a reality that you are going to experience multiple recessions. Looking at a retirement date of 1-3 years away does not mean that you automatically have a short-term investment horizon. We need to think long-term and have a plan that isn’t going to be derailed by performance in the last year or two before retirement. 

5. If you’re retired and taking 4% withdrawals, consider this: The dividends in our US stock market ETFs are around 2% and higher for our foreign ETFs, often in the 3% range. Even with today’s low interest rates, your bonds are overall yielding 2% or more. Regardless of your allocation, you’ve already covered at least half of your annual 4% withdrawals from stock dividends and bond interest. In terms of sales, you might be dipping into principal by only 2% a year or less. If the market is down for a year or two, you’re not going to run out of money. For my clients who are taking distributions, we set dividends and interest to pay out in cash and I generally only have to sell a small number of shares once a year.

I’m not looking forward to a recession or a Bear Market, but I’m not really all that worried either. Knowing that recessions are a natural part of the economic cycle doesn’t make them any less painful, but if you can step back and take a longer-term view, you will be more comfortable with accepting that being an investor requires patience, perseverance, and a positive attitude.  We’ve built our portfolios for all environments, but that doesn’t mean that risk can be avoided or eliminated. Rather, we can choose how much risk we take and to avoid unnecessary risks of being overweight one stock, sector/country funds, or being undiversified. Whether you are a new investor or a retiree, I don’t want you to make knee-jerk reactions because of talk about a future recession. Recession talk may play well on cable news, but it’s not a useful input for long-term investment success. 

When To Get Out Of Equities

Look at each time the S&P 500 Index fell by 8% since 1928, and you will find two very different types of outcomes. 85% of the time, an 8% drop resulted in only a shallow correction, an average of 13%, which the market recovered from, on average, in just 106 days. That’s tolerable.

However, in 15% of the 8% drops, the stock market was headed into a severe Bear Market, suffering an average decline of 43%, which took 1090 days to recover.* That’s three years – from the bottom – just to get back to even. Anyone who invested through the Tech Bubble in 2000-2001 and the Crash of 2008-2009 needs no reminder that Bear markets have always been a part of investing.

Given a choice, wouldn’t you rather be on the sidelines when things are falling apart? Investors of all ages feel this way, but for those who are closer to retirement, we don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, I can just Dollar Cost Average since I don’t need to touch this money for 30 years”.

Most sources say you cannot time the market. That’s because people usually base their decisions on sentiment and worthless forecasts. We are blind to our own confirmation bias, where we look for opinions that support our prejudices, rather than looking objectively at all evidence.

Without a crystal ball, how can you tell when a small drop is just a brief correction versus the first weeks of a longer Bear Market?

To remove human emotion and look solely at the price movement of the market is the objective of Technical Analysis. Let’s consider a chart of the historical prices of the S&P 500 Index. One of the ways to examine the larger trend of market is through a Moving Average (MA). This is simply a measure of the average price over a number of days, such as 20, 60, 120, or 200 days. A Moving Average with small number of days responds quickly to changes in market prices, whereas a MA based on a large number of days is smoother and slower to react.

When the market is boldly moving up (like in 2017), a chart will have these characteristics:

  • The 60-day moving average is above the 120-day moving average, and both have an upwards slope, gaining each day.
  • The current price of the market is above the moving averages, pulling the averages higher.

When we are in a prolonged decline (like in 2008), a chart will typically have the reverse characteristics:

  • The 60-day moving average is below the 120-day moving average, and both have a downwards slope, sinking each day.
  • The current price of the market is below the moving averages, pulling the averages lower.

A brief drop, like we experienced in February, is a temporary blip in the market price and has little impact on the longer 60 or 120 day moving averages. Technical Analysis suggests that a Bear Market may be starting when there is a crossover – when the 60-day MA goes from being above the 120-day MA to being below it.

Crossovers are considered a major shift in the direction of the market, and often do not occur for years at a time. Crossovers occurred relatively early in the previous two Bear Markets and if you had used that signal to sell, you would have significantly reduced your losses. The reverse crossover, when the 60-day breaks above the 120-day MA, is considered a Bullish indicator that the downwards trend has broken. That’s the Buy signal to get back into the market.

A few caveats are in order: these signals will not pinpoint the top or bottom of the market. With a 60-day lag, the market could have already have suffered significant losses before we get a “Sell” signal. Similarly, at the bottom, the market could have rebounded by a substantial percentage before we get the “Buy” signal to get back in. In a shorter Bear Market, these indicators might have you get out at a loss and then buy back in at a higher level, adding insult to injury.

Looking at back-tested funds which use this approach, however, they would have had lower losses in the past two Bear Markets. While it’s nice to avoid the losses, what is even more compelling is how well the strategy performs over 10 or more years. After studying this for nearly two years, we are now going to offer this strategy to our clients, calling it the Equity Circuit Breaker.

This does not change what we purchase in our portfolios. Investors will have the choice of adding the Equity Circuit Breaker or not. If you want to participate, we will track these moving averages and when a crossover occurs, we will sell your equity positions and move the proceeds into cash or short-term Treasuries. When the Bullish crossover occurs, we will buy back into your equity funds, returning to your target asset allocation.

The goal is to reduce losses then next time we have a Bear Market. While there is no guarantee this program will work exactly as it has in the past, you might prefer to have a defensive strategy in place versus the alternative of staying invested for the whole ride down and back up.

I am making this optional for two reasons. First, some investors have a long enough time frame to accept market volatility and prefer a simpler approach. Second, taxes. Selling your equity positions in a taxable account could generate capital gains.

But let’s take a closer look at the tax question. Let’s say you have a 50% gain in your equity positions. You started at $200,000 and it has grown to $300,000. If we were to sell those positions and create $100,000 in long-term capital gains, you’d be looking at 15% tax, or $15,000. (Long-Term Capital Gains could be as high as 23.8% for those in the top tax bracket.) That is a substantial amount of tax, but could still be worth it. If we avoid a 20% drop, you would have prevented $60,000 of losses.

Paying some taxes along the way also will increase your cost basis and basically just pre-pay taxes you would otherwise pay later. For example, Investor A buys a fund for $10,000, sells it at $15,000 after year two and generates a $5,000 capital gain. Then she buys back into the fund with the $15,000 and sells it at $18,000 at year five, for a $3,000 gain. Investor B buys a fund for $10,000, holds it for the same five years, and then sells for $18,000. Both investors will pay the same tax on $8,000 in capital gains. Investor A just split that tax into two segments whereas Investor B paid the tax all at the end.

Of course, if your accounts are IRAs, we could trade without any tax consequences. If you’d like to add the Equity Circuit Breaker to your Good Life Wealth Management Portfolio, there is no additional cost, just reply to this email. We also offer the option of limiting the Equity Circuit Breaker to your IRAs and not to your taxable accounts. I’ll be talking with clients individually throughout the Spring about the new program.

As of today, we have not had a crossover, so there is not yet a trigger for us to sell. I will be looking at this on a regular basis. Investors should make the decision about participating well in advance of the trigger occurring. Once the losses have already started, it is harder to make a decision. I think the best use of this approach is passive – to consider it carefully in advance, turn it on (or not), and then leave it alone. We will do the work for you.

If today’s market is making you nervous, the Equity Circuit Breaker may help you sleep better at night. You have been telling us “we want to participate in the upside, but want to step aside when things get ugly.” If that’s what you’ve been thinking, feeling, or wishing, we can provide you with a plan that’s based on a disciplined process.

*Market Pulse, Goldman Sachs Asset Management, February 2018

The Seven Deadly Sins of Investing

Successful investing is as much about managing our personal tendencies and behaviors as it is about picking funds. You don’t have to be a financial whiz to be a thriving investor, but you do have to avoid making mistakes. Investing errors do not mark you as a novice or as unintelligent; even professionals can easily fall into these traps. Mistakes are easier to see in hindsight, but in the present moment, the choices we face may not be so obvious.

Here are what I consider to be the Seven Deadly Sins of Investing. I firmly believe that if we can avoid these errors, we will have a much higher chance of success as long-term investors.

1. Not Accepting Losses (Pride)
If you’ve made a losing investment, sell it and move on. Too many investors are unwilling to do this, hoping that if they wait long enough, they will be proven correct or at least get their money back. Unfortunately, this may not occur, and even if it does, there may be an opportunity cost in waiting. With today’s strong markets, you might not have losses, but if you have high-expense funds that are under-performing the market, you should recognize that this too is a mistake and move on.

2. Market Timing (Greed)
Speculating to make as much profit as possible and trying to avoid temporary market drops drives many people to move in and out of the market in a largely futile attempt to improve returns. Neither individual investors nor professionals have demonstrated any success in market timing, although great time and effort are spent in the process. The reality is that market returns are a good return, but when investors say “I want more, I need more”, they are very often rewarded with lower returns rather than higher returns.

3. No Asset Allocation (Lust)
Did you pick the funds for your 401(k) by selecting the options with the best one-year performance? If so, you likely will end up with a poor investment plan, because you are investing based solely on past performance. Don’t fall in love with today’s hot funds, those are the ones that will break your heart at the next downturn, when you discover how much risk they were taking. At any given point in time, one or two categories may dominate returns, fooling investors to think that owning 10 different technology funds makes you diversified. Start with a globally diversified asset allocation and then pick funds that represent each category. Yes, even buy those segments which are out of favor and under-performing today. That’s how you build a better portfolio.

4. Performance Chasing (Envy)
With thousands of mutual funds and ETFs at our disposal, it takes only a few clicks to find a “better performing” fund than the ones currently in your portfolio. There are hundreds of funds which have outperformed their benchmark over the past year. Of course, that number will fall dramatically over time, and typically 80% or more of funds fail to match their benchmark over five or more years. But even still, that means some funds have beaten the index. Unfortunately, there is no predictive power in past returns of actively managed funds, so even those that beat the mark over the last five years are unlikely to continue their streak over the next five years.

Perhaps even more dangerous is when investors “discover” that a sector or country is outperforming. Maybe it’s a technology fund, or Argentina ETF, which has rocketed up in the past six months, and they switch from a diversified fund to a narrow investment. Performance chasing creates a lot of risk which may go unnoticed until it’s too late. We avoid single sector and country funds; almost every argument for these funds is some version of performance chasing.

5. Single Security Risk (Gluttony)
Most of the heart-breaking investing stories I’ve heard from the past 20 years were caused by investors having a large investment in a single company. The 55-year old Nortel employee who had his whole retirement account in his company stock and rode it down from $1 million to $100,000. The Cisco employee who exercised $600,000 in stock options, but kept the shares to try for long-term capital gains; the shares tanked, and he didn’t know he would owe AMT on the original $600,000. The IRS had a lien on his house while he paid them $200,000 over five  years.

Diversification is the only free lunch in investing. The average stock will return about the same as the index by definition, but you take on tremendous risk when you have a conce