A Bond Primer

We have been adding individual bonds and CDs across many accounts since December, as we looked to reduce our equity exposure and take advantage of higher yields now available in short-term, investment grade fixed income. When you are an owner of individual bonds, you are likely to encounter some terminology that may be new, even if you’ve been investing in bond funds for many years. Here are some important things to know:

Bonds are generally priced in $1,000 increments. One bond will mature at $1,000. However, instead of quoting bond prices in actual dollars, we basically use percentages. A bond priced at 100 (note, no dollar sign or percentage symbol is used) would cost $1,000. 100 is called its Par value. If you are buying newly issued bonds, they are generally issued at Par (100). This is called the Primary Market – where issuers directly sell their bonds to the public. We also buy bonds in the Secondary Market, which is where bond desks trade existing bonds between each other. 

In the Secondary Market, bond prices are set by market participants. A bond priced at 98.50 would cost $985, and would be said to be at a discount to Par. A bond priced at 102 would cost $1,020, called a premium. As interest rates rise, the value of existing (lower yielding bonds) will fall. There is an inverse relationship between price and interest rates – when one rises, the other falls.

Bonds have a set Maturity date. That is when the issuer will return the $1,000 they borrowed from the bondholder and cancel the debt. Some bonds are also Callable, which means that the issuer has the right to buy the bond back before its maturity date. This benefits the company, but not the bondholder, because when interest rates are low, companies can refinance their debt to a lower rate.

Most bonds pay interest semi-annually (twice a year). We call this the Coupon. A bond with a 4% coupon would pay $20 in interest, twice a year. If the bond is priced exactly at Par, then the coupon is the same as the effective yield. However, if the bond is priced differently, we are more interested in its Yield to Maturity, commonly listed as YTM. This is very helpful for comparing bonds with different coupons. 

Most bonds pay a fixed coupon, although some pay a step coupon, which rises over time, and others are floating, tied to an interest rate index, or inflation. When we purchase a bond between interest payments, the buyer will receive all of the next payment, so the buyer will also pay the seller Accrued Interest, which is the interest they have earned calculated to the day of sale.

For bonds which are callable, we also have the Yield to Call (YTC), which measures what your yield would be if the bond is called early. Generally, if we are buying a bond at a discount, Yield to Call is attractive. If we buy at 96 and they redeem at 100, that’s a good thing. But if we buy a bond at a premium, we need to carefully examine if or when it might be callable. Yield to Worst (YTW) will show the worst possible return, whether that is to maturity or to a specific call date. 

Some bonds do not pay a coupon and are called Zero Coupon Bonds. Instead, they are issued at a discount and grow to 100 at maturity. Treasury Bills are the most common type of zero coupon bonds. US Government Bonds include Treasury Bills (under one year), Treasury Notes (1 to 10 years), and Treasury Bonds (10 to 30 years). There also are Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), which are tied to the Consumer Price Index, and Agency Bonds, which are issued by government sponsored entities, such as Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

In addition to Government Bonds, we also buy Corporate Bonds – those issued by public and private companies, Municipal Bonds issued by state and local governments, including school districts, and Certificates of Deposit (CDs) from Banks. 

Most Municipal Bonds are tax exempt, at the Federal and possibly at the state level. If you live in New York, any Municipal Bond would be tax-free at the Federal Level, but only NY bonds would be tax-free for NY state income tax. In states with no income tax, such as Texas, a tax-exempt bond from any state will be tax-free for Federal Income Tax purposes. 

To make their bonds more attractive, some municipal bonds are Insured, which means that if they were to default, a private insurance company would make investors whole. Those municipal insurers got in trouble in the previous financial crisis, and some are still weak today. My preferred insurer is Assured Guaranty (AGMC).

Please note that some Municipal Bonds are taxable; we sometimes buy these for retirement accounts. In addition to the types of bonds we’ve discussed, there are thousands of bonds issued outside of the US, in other currencies, but we do not purchase those bonds directly. 

There are several agencies that provide credit ratings to assess the financial strength of the issuer. Standard and Poor’s highest rating is AAA, followed by AA+, AA, AA-, A+, A, A-, BBB+, BBB, BBB-. These are considered all Investment Grade. Below this level, from BB+ to C are below Investment Grade, often called High Yield or Junk Bonds. D means a bond has Defaulted. Moody’s ratings scale is slightly different: Aaa is the highest, followed by Aa1, Aa2, Aa3, A1, A2, A3, Baa1, Baa2, and Baa3 for Investment Grade. Junk Bonds include Ba(1,2,3), B(1,2,3), Caa(1,2,3), Ca, and C.

There are about 5,000 stocks issued in the US, but there are probably over a million individual bonds issued, each one identified by a unique CUSIP number. Every week, there are bonds which mature and new ones which are issued. 

Our approach for individual bonds is to buy only investment grade bonds, and ladder them from one to five years with diversified issuers. We also sometimes invest in other types of bonds, such as floating rate bonds, mortgage backed securities, emerging markets debt, or high yield. For those categories, we will use a fund or ETF because it’s more important to diversify very broadly with lower credit quality.  

How to Get Paid for Limit Orders

When we place an order for a stock or Exchange Traded Fund (ETF), there are a couple of ways we can make a purchase. The easiest is a Market Order, which simply instructs our custodian (TD Ameritrade Institutional) to purchase the specified number of shares at the current market price.

Sometimes, however, we may want to purchase shares at a lower price or wait until the market falls to a specific level. This can be achieved through a Limit Order – which says that we will buy our position only at or below a price we indicate. Of course, the challenge with a Limit Order is that there is no guarantee that the price will in fact fall to our target!

Many investors who use Limit Orders, especially in a Bull Market like we’ve had in recent years, see prices move up and their orders never fill. Then they are faced with the ugly choice of having to buy at a higher price than if they had just used a Market Order at the beginning. And instead of participating in the growth of the market, they sit on the sidelines in cash. So there can be a real opportunity cost to Limit Orders. In reality, Limit Orders are a type of market timing, where an investor thinks they can predict short term moves and profit from those fluctuations.

There is a third, more complicated option, which most investors don’t know how to do. Like a Limit Order, we can select a target price that we would like buy a stock or ETF within a certain time frame. And like a Limit Order, if the price falls to or below this level, we will buy the shares at our target price. Unlike a Limit Order, we can get paid for our willingness to buy these shares, regardless of whether or not the order fills, by using options.

It is done by selling a Put. A Put is an option which requires you to buy a security for a specific price (called the “strike price”) before or at the expiration of the option (typically one month to one year). When you sell a Put, you receive a premium upfront in exchange for agreeing to buy shares at the strike price. One options contract equals 100 shares.

Let’s walk through an example. You are looking to buy the iShares Emerging Markets Index, ticker EEM. As of the Friday August 17 close, you could have bought EEM at the market at $42.21. 100 shares would have cost $4,221. But maybe you thought it could go lower, so instead, you enter a Limit Order for $40. Now, if EEM falls to $40, you will buy your 100 shares for $4,000.

Alternatively, you could sell a November $40 Put on EEM for $83. That means you would get paid $83 in exchange for the right for someone else to make you buy 100 shares of EEM for $40 a share between now and November 16, 90 days from now. If EEM falls to $40 or below, you will buy 100 shares for $4,000 just like in the limit order, plus you made the $83. Even if EEM stays above $40, you keep the $83 no matter what.

I know that $83 isn’t much, it represents about 2% of the price of EEM. That’s over 90 days, so if we consider the value of selling this option on an annualized basis, it is a bit over 8% a year. That’s a lot better than using a limit order and not making anything.

Let’s consider the difference between a market order, a limit order, and selling a Put using two different scenarios, at 100 shares. Today’s price is $42.21 and I’m disregarding commissions and taxes in these examples.

1. The price rises to $45. If you bought at the market ($4,221), you would have a profit of $279. If you placed a limit order at $40, your order never filled and you have nothing. If you sold the put, you would not have any shares, but you would have the $83.

2. The price of EEM falls over time to $38 a share. If you bought 100 shares at the market ($4,221), your shares are now worth $3,800 and you are down $421. If you set a limit order at $40, you would have bought 100 shares for $4,000 and you are now down by $200. If you sold a put, you’d also buy 100 shares at $4,000, but since you collected the $83, you now have a lesser loss of $117.

So whether the price goes up or down, selling a Put is generally going to be better than a limit order. The only example where this might not occur is if a stock has a big gap down overnight – for example, it is at $41 one day and the next morning opens at $38. In this case, your limit order will fill at the open at $38. This does happen sometimes, but it is fairly unusual. Most limit orders, if they fill, end up being executed right at your limit price.

Who is taking the other side of the option? The buyer of a Put is likely a “hedger”: they are buying the Put as protection to preserve their money in case the stock goes down. Or they are a speculator who is betting that the stock will fall. Both are bad bets, statistically. When the expected return of the market is only 8%, paying an 8% annualized premium to hedge your position is in effect giving away all of your potential upside.

Instead, I’d rather be the person selling them this insurance and be the seller of the Put. I’ve spent may years selling Puts (and Calls, too) and am not recommending this is something you try to do on your own. Not every stock or ETF has an active options market and you should be very careful with thinly traded options.

But this is a strategy we use with some of our clients in place of Limit Orders and I wanted to share with all of you an very brief overview of how it works. Please note that options are only available on securities which trade on the exchange and not on mutual funds. What I do not recommend is selling Puts as a speculative bet. Only sell Puts for shares you want to buy and own as a long-term investment. Additionally, to sell Puts, you must either have either cash in the account or a margin account. If you’re interested in learning more about selling Puts in place of limit orders, please reply to this email.

Note: accounts must be approved for options before trading can begin. Please see The Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options for more information.

Increase Returns Without Increasing Your Risk

In theory, Return and Risk are linked – you cannot get a higher rate of return on an asset allocation without taking more risk. However, portfolios can be inefficient and there are a number of ways we can improve your return without adding risk or changing your asset allocation. Here are five ways to increase your returns:

1. Lower Expense Ratios. Many mutual funds offer different “share classes” with different expense ratios. The holdings are the same, but if one share class has 0.25% more in expenses, those shareholders will under perform by 0.25% a year. Here at Good Life Wealth Management, we have access to Institutional shares which have the lowest expense ratio. Generally, these funds are available only to institutions or individuals who invest over $1 million. We can buy these shares for our investors, without a minimum, which frequently offer savings of 0.25% or more versus “retail” share classes.

2. Increase your Cash Returns. If you have a significant amount of cash in your holdings, make sure you are getting a competitive return. Many banks are still paying 0% or close to zero, when we could be making 1.5% to 2% elsewhere.

3. Buy Treasury Bills. If you have a bond mutual fund and it charges 0.60%, that expense reduces your yield. If the bonds they own yield 2.8%, subtracting the expense ratio leaves you with an estimated return of 2.2%. Today, we can get that level of yield by buying Treasury Bills, such as the 26-week or 1-year Bill, which have a short duration and no credit risk. If you are in a high expense bond fund, especially a AAA-rated fund, it may be preferable to own Treasury bonds directly and cut out the mutual fund expenses. We participate in Treasury auctions to buy bonds for our clients.

4. Buy an Index Fund. If you have a large-cap mutual fund, how has it done compared to the S&P 500 Index over the past 5 and 10 years? According to the S&P Index Versus Active report, for the 10-years ended December 2017, 89.51% of all large-cap funds did worse than the S&P 500 Index. Keep your same allocation, replace actively managed funds with index funds, and there’s a good chance you will come out ahead over the long term.

5. Reduce Taxes. Two funds may have identical returns, but one may have much higher capital gains distributions, producing higher taxes for its shareholders. If you’re investing in a taxable account, take some time to look at the “tax-adjusted return” listed in Morningstar, under the “tax” tab, and not just the gross returns. Even better: stick with Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) which typically have much lower or even zero capital gains distributions. This is where an 8% return of one fund can be better than an 8% return of another fund! We prefer to hold ETFs until we can achieve long-term capital gains, and especially want to avoid funds that distribute short-term gains. We also look to harvest losses annually, when they occur, to offset gains elsewhere.

How can we help you with your investment portfolio? We’d welcome the chance to discuss our approach and see if we would be a good fit with your goals.

Skin In The Game

Leading up to the last financial crisis, bankers made hundreds of millions by packaging together mortgages and selling them. They were paid upfront and had no repercussions when those mortgages went into foreclosure and both the homeowners and investors lost money.  The asymmetry that bankers had an enormous upside to sell something but shared none of the downside risk led to catastrophic losses.

This is the subject of Skin In The Game, a new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, perhaps the foremost writer on risk and the practical application of the mathematics of probability. I’ve just finished the book and while it was not an easy read, its ideas are relevant to investors.

Skin in the game – having shared risks and rewards – is essential for investors to achieve better outcomes with their advisors and investment managers. Taleb points out interesting and not always obvious situations where these asymmetries present potential pitfalls in investing, politics, economics, and everyday life.

Investors would be well-served to think about whether their advisors have skin in the game and aligned interests, or if they are like the bankers who win regardless of whether their clients profit or not.

Before starting my own firm, I worked at two companies for 10 years. I had one colleague, who in spite of making a lot of money over many years, actually had less than $50,000 in investments. His top priority was paying down his mortgage. He talked about investments all day long yet had almost no interest in putting his own money in what he recommended to clients.

Another colleague invested significant sums every month and became one of the three largest clients of the firm. And every purchase was into the exact same funds as our clients. Which of those Financial Advisors would you prefer to manage your money? One who didn’t want to invest or one who couldn’t get enough of the funds we bought for clients?

Strangely, to me at least, clients rarely ask questions about Skin In The Game. I became a Financial Advisor because I was fascinated with investing and found myself spending all my evenings and weekends reading everything I could find and investing every dime I could scrape together. I opened my firm with one purpose: to treat every client as I would want to be treated.

That’s why I’d encourage investors to think and ask about Skin In The Game. Here are some ways to do that:

1. Doing not Saying. If you really want to know what people believe, find out what they do, rather than what they say. Understanding the difference is a BS-detector. Do you invest in this fund? How much of your net worth is in this strategy? Have you bought this investment for your mother’s account? Those answers, if you can get an honest one, are more telling than any pitch. In other words, don’t buy a Ford from someone who drives a Toyota.

2. Appearances. Taleb is trying to choose between two surgeons: one has an Ivy League undergraduate diploma, and wears immaculate bespoke suits. The other wore rumpled clothes, was a bit slovenly, and came from a middle class background. Taleb suggests choosing the latter surgeon, because he had to work much harder to achieve his career and is therefore likely more skilled. The first was more successful in looking like a surgeon rather than being the best possible surgeon.

(Thank you to all the clients who have hired a former music teacher to manage millions of their dollars. I used to get up at 5 am for years to study for the CFP and then CFA exams before going to work. It hasn’t been an easy road.)

3. Simple is better than complex. Complex solutions are sometimes created as a hook to sell something. Often, a simple, well-tried approach is more effective. Convoluted structures conceal many flaws, hidden fees, and conflicts of interest. If something seems unnecessarily complex, that’s a red flag.

4. “Scientism”. Facts and book knowledge can be bent to your point of view. Consider for example: “homeowners have 30-times the wealth of renters”. I heard this statement this week, along with the conclusion that buying a house therefore causes wealth. Correlation is not causation! You could also reach the opposite conclusion: you have to be very wealthy to afford a house in America.

Both are flawed because the thought process of going from the fact to the conclusion is biased. If I got an apartment, would I become poor? No, of course not. Taleb calls this “Scientism”, dangerous ideas which sound scientific, but don’t actually follow the objective hypothesis-testing process demanded by real science.

You cannot become wealthy without taking risks. The best way of ensuring a good outcome is through the fairness of symmetry and shared risks. That means both sides have an upside and a downside.

I don’t have a crystal ball about what the market will do, but I do invest in the same ETFs and Funds as my clients (I use our Growth Portfolio Model). By having Skin In The Game, I think it does provide an important motivation to spend extra time on due diligence, think carefully about risks, and follow our positions closely.

Manager Risk: Avoidable and Unnecessary

You can choose between two funds, A or B. If Fund A has an 85% chance of beating Fund B over five years, would those be good enough odds for you to want to pick Fund B?

More and more investors are realizing that using active equity managers is a bad bet. This is Manager Risk, which is the risk that your portfolio fails to achieve your target returns because of the active managers you selected. When there is a significant probability that a manager lags an index fund and only a small chance that a manager beats that index, taking that risk is going to be a losing proposition for the majority of investors.

Here are three ways Manager Risk can bite you:

1. Performance chasing doesn’t work. Top funds often have a good story about their “disciplined process”, or “fundamental research” approach, but there are so many reasons why today’s leader is often tomorrow’s laggard:

  • Massive in-flows of cash into popular funds make it more difficult for managers to be nimble and to find enough good investment ideas to execute.
  • It’s possible that the fund’s specific approach (style, size, sector, country, etc.) was in-favor recently and then goes out of favor.
  • With thousands of funds, some are going to be randomly lucky and have a period of strong performance that is not repeatable or attributable to skill.

2. The data is clear: over a long-period, the vast majority of funds do not keep up with their index. According to the Standard and Poors Index Versus Active (SPIVA) report: 84.23% of large cap funds failed to keep pace with the S&P 500 Index over the five-years through December 29, 2017.

If 17 out of 20 large cap funds do worse than the S&P 500, why do people bother trying to pick a winning fund, instead of just investing in an Index Fund? I think some of it is that over shorter periods, it can be pretty easy to fund funds that are out-performing and people mistakenly think that recent leaders are going to continue their winning streak.

Consider, amazingly, that nearly 85% of Small Cap Growth funds did better than their benchmark in 2017 according to SPIVA. What a great environment for active managers, right? They must have a lot of skill! But let’s look back further: over the past 15 years, 98.73% of those Small Cap Growth funds lagged their index. That is the worst performance of any investment category in the SPIVA report.

If your odds of outperforming the index over 15 years is only 1 in 100, you’d be crazy to bet on an active manager. It’s a risk that isn’t worth taking.

3. In some categories, there are 10-20% of managers who do outperform the benchmark over five or more years, which means that there might be dozens of funds which have done a nice job for their shareholders. Why not just pick one of those funds?

Standard and Poors also produces The Persistence Scorecard, which evaluates how funds perform in subsequent periods. Let’s look at two five year periods, in other words, the past 10 years. Imagine that five years ago, you looked at the top quartile (the top 25%) of all US Equity funds. How did those top funds do over the next five years (through December 2017)?

25.34% remained in the top quartile
21.56% fell to the 2nd quartile
18.87% fell to the 3rd quartile
23.45% sank to the bottom quartile (the worst 25% of all funds)
10.24% were liquidated or merged, which is the way fund companies make their lousy funds’ track records disappear.

So, if you picked a top quartile fund, you had about only a one-in-four chance (25.34%) that your fund stayed in the top quartile (which is no guarantee that you outperformed the index, by the way). But, you had a one-in-three chance (33.69%) that your fund fell to the bottom quartile or was liquidated and didn’t even exist five years later. Again, those are not odds that are in your favor.

This is why fund companies are required to state, Past performance is no guarantee of future results. We can look backwards at fund history, but that information has no predictive value for how the fund will perform going forward.

It’s an unnecessary risk for investors to use actively managed funds. And that’s why I have moved away from trying to pick 5-star actively managed funds, and have embraced using Index funds.

From time to time, you may hear, “this is a stock picker’s market”, because of volatility, or concentrated returns, or whatever. Don’t believe it. Even when active managers are able to have a good month, quarter, or year, the vast majority remain unable to string together enough good years in a row to beat their benchmark.

There’s enough risk in investing as it is. Let’s reject Manager Risk and instead recognize that an Index Fund is the most likely way to beat 80, 90% or more active funds over the long-term.

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

Vanguard’s Measure of Our Value

We create value for you through holistic financial planning, looking at your entire financial picture to create a comprehensive approach to investing your money, gaining financial independence, and safeguarding you from risks. This sounds great, but let’s face it, it’s pretty vague. The numerical benefits of hiring a financial advisor can be difficult to evaluate. Since 2001, Vanguard has spent considerable resources in measuring how I can add value for investors like you.

Their study is called Vanguard Advisor’s Alpha and they have identified areas where financial advisors create tangible value. Their aim is to quantify how much a client might benefit from each process a financial advisor could offer. Vanguard’s conclusion is that an advisor like me can add 3% a year in benefits through effective Portfolio Construction, Behavioral Coaching, and Wealth Management.

Their recommended approach in these areas very much reflects what I do for each client. Not all advisors use these steps with their clients. If your advisor isn’t talking about these actions, you could be missing out. Vanguard has analyzed how much a client might gain from each step in our financial planning process. Benefits, below, are measured in basis points (bps), where 1 bp equals 0.01% in annual benefits.

1. Portfolio Construction

  • Suitable Asset Allocation / Diversification >0 bps
  • Cost Savings (Expense Ratios) 40 bps
  • Annual Rebalancing 35 bps

Our approach is to create long-term, diversified investment strategies for each client. We start with a top-down asset allocation and use ultra low-cost ETFs and institutional-class mutual funds to implement our allocation. Portfolios are rebalanced annually.

2. Behavioral Coaching

  • Estimated Benefit 150 bps

There is a huge benefit to coaching and that’s why we prefer to write about behavioral finance topics than giving you “weekly market updates”. You can’t control what the market does, but you can control how you respond. And how you respond ends up being one of the biggest determinants of your long-term results.

We take the time to create a solid plan, educate you on our approach, and reinforce the importance of sticking with the plan. There are real risks to having a knee-jerk reaction to a bear market, chasing performance, or buying into bitcoin or whatever fad is currently making the headlines. Based on Vanguard’s calculations, the value of Behavioral Coaching is actually greater than investing steps like asset location or rebalancing.

3. Wealth Management

  • Asset Location 0 to 75 bps
  • Spending Strategies (withdrawal order) 0 to 110 bps
  • Total Return versus income approach >0 bps

Asset location is creating tax savings by placing certain investments in retirement accounts and certain investments in taxable accounts. Spending Strategies, for retirement typically, are another area of considerable attention here at Good Life Wealth. Go to our Blog and you can find all of our past articles (currently 197). In the upper right, use the Search bar and you can find several articles explaining these concepts and how we implement them.

Vanguard lists some of these benefits as 0 bps with the explanation that the value can be “significant” but is too individual to quantify accurately. When they do add up the benefits we can achieve in Portfolio Management, Behavioral Coaching, and Wealth Management, Vanguard believes we are adding 3% a year in potential benefits for many clients.

We hope this may help those who are on the fence, wondering if it is worth it to hire us as your financial advisor. There is a value to what we offer or I wouldn’t be in this profession. The Vanguard study doesn’t consider our benefits in helping you with tax planning, risk management, estate planning, college funding, or other areas. They also don’t consider intangible benefits, such as peace of mind, saving time by hiring an expert versus trying to do it yourself, or the fact that investors who create a retirement plan with an advisor save 50% more than those who do not.

We offer two distinct programs to meet you where you are today and help you get to where you want to be. We are welcoming new clients for 2018. Do you have questions about how we might add value for you? Let’s talk.

Premiere Wealth Management
Comprehensive financial planning and portfolio management
Cost is 1% annually, for clients with $250,000 or more to invest

Wealth Builder Program
Subscription program to build your net worth with expert financial planning in the areas you need
Cost is $99/month, for clients with $0 to $249,999

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 concentrated position in one stock. The best choice is to not have too much in any one stock, including that of your employer.

6. Breaking Your Plan (Wrath)
Anger, frustration, and despair were what investors felt in 2008 and 2009, and we will undoubtedly feel the same way when the next bear market occurs. Some investors threw in the towel near the bottom and missed out on much of the rebound. The best way to prevent future frustration is to make sure you have the right asset allocation and understand how your portfolio might perform in up and down years. When you begin with a smart plan and take the time to educate yourself, it is much easier to understand the importance of staying invested rather than allowing emotions to get the best of us.

7. Failing to Monitor (Sloth)
Even for passive investors, you still need to do some work monitoring and managing your portfolio on a regular basis. Rebalancing annually or when funds move a large amount is important to maintain your target risk levels and to create a process to “buy low and sell high”. Additionally, too many investors have stayed with poorly performing active funds and variable annuities they don’t understand, paying high expense ratios, unnecessary 12-b1 fees and sales loads, without having any idea about how they are doing. You only have three or four decades of work and investing, you can’t let 5 or 10 years go by without knowing if your plans are on track. It’s your money, surely you can spend a handful of hours every quarter to analyze your situation and make changes when they are needed.

Successful investing is not complicated, but it can be difficult to have the patience with how boring it can be most of the time and how unpredictable it can be other times. Establish a diversified asset allocation that will help you achieve your long-term goals, then invest in low-cost, tax-efficient vehicles with a good track record. Focus on what you can control: your allocation, costs, and diversification, and don’t worry about the short-term movements of the market.

We all face the temptation of these seven investing sins. Maybe the greatest attribute for an investor is faith. Do what is right, do what is smart, but then to let go of the worry about what will happen today or tomorrow. Market returns will be whatever the market returns. We have no control over the market, but we can focus on our own saving (frugality), patience, and positive thoughts. In the end, the true measure of wealth is more about our faith and gratitude than it is about the dollars and cents.

Introducing our Ultra Equity Portfolio

We are launching a new portfolio model for 2018, Ultra Equity, a 100% stock allocation. Previously, our most aggressive allocation was 85% stocks and 15% bonds. This type of approach clearly is not for everyone, but if you want the highest possible long-term return and can ignore short-term volatility, Ultra Equity might make sense for you.

Bond yields remain very low today, and bond investors face rising risks, including interest rate risk, that rising interest rates depress bond prices, and purchasing power risk, that inflation eats up all your yield. While defaults have been quite low in recent years, as interest rates rise, it will be increasingly difficult for distressed companies, municipalities, and countries to meet their obligations. The level of debt globally has swelled enormously with the cheap access to capital since 2009, and yet the bond market is acting if all this debt hasn’t changed risks at all.

While the Federal Reserve raised the Fed Funds rate again this week, income investors have been disappointed that there are not more attractive opportunities in bonds today. Unfortunately, the rising rates have not benefited all types of fixed income vehicles equally. On the short end, yes, yields are up. We can now access short-term investment grade bonds with yields of around 1.5% to 2%.

However, the yields on longer bonds have barely moved. The 10-Year Treasury is at 2.35% and the 30-Year remains shockingly low at 2.71%. As a result, we have a “flattening” of the yield curve where short-term rates have increased, but long-term rates are virtually unchanged.

I expect this trend to continue in 2018: rising short-term rates and a flattening yield curve, which means there will continue to be a dearth of opportunities for yield-seeking investors. As a point of reference, the historical rate of return for intermediate bonds was 7.25%, but today, you can’t find anything at even half of that rate. We are always thinking about how we can position portfolio allocations to aim for the best possible return with the least amount of risk and the maximum amount of diversification. But at this point, bonds offer little potential for high returns. Instead, we have to think of bonds as risk mitigators, that the primary purpose of our bonds is to offset the risk we have with our equity holdings.

I’ve been reluctant to roll out a 100% equity allocation with the stock market at an all-time high in the US, because it risks falling into the behavioral trap of becoming too enamored with stocks during a bull market, and ignoring stocks’ volatility and potential for losses. For investors with a horizon of more than 10 or 20 years, there is little possibility that a bond allocation will increase your rate of return. If you are comfortable with ignoring volatility, I think some younger investors may want to invest 100% in equities.

Consider this: the expected return on intermediate bonds is only 3.5% over the next 10 or so years. If you have a 60/40 portfolio and earn 3.5% on your bonds, you will need to make at least 11% on your stocks to reach an overall return of 8%. Many investors are coming to the conclusion that to achieve their goals, the optimal allocation to bonds may be zero.

If you are making regular contributions to an equity allocation, you also have the opportunity to dollar cost average, and buy more shares at a lower price, if the market does drop at some point. And while dollar cost averaging does not guarantee you will not experience losses, it is nevertheless an effective way to accumulate equity assets and possibly benefit from any volatility that does occur.

Our Ultra Equity portfolio will differ from our other portfolio models in that we are not looking to reduce risk or to achieve the best “risk-adjusted” returns. Instead, we will invest tactically in areas where we believe there is the greatest potential for strong long-term rates of return. We will always be diversified, investing in ETFs and mutual funds with hundreds or thousands of different securities, but will have no requirement to hold any specific category of investments.

We cannot know how a portfolio like this will fare over the near term, and there will undoubtedly be times when the stock market is down, sometimes even down significantly. If your attitude is that those drops represent opportunity, rather than adversity, then you should ask us more about Ultra Equity to see if it might be right for you.

Advantages of Equal Weight Investing

The four largest stocks in the United States are all tech companies today: Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. For 2017, these stocks are up significantly more than the overall market, 49%, 38%, 55%, and 52% respectively.

These are undoubtedly great companies, but as a student of the markets, I know you can look at the top companies of previous decades and notice two things. First, top companies don’t stay at the top forever, and second, the market goes through phases where it loves one sector or industry more than it should. (Until it doesn’t…)

And this is the knock on index funds. Because they are weighted by market capitalization, an index will tend to own a great deal of the over-valued companies and very little of the under-valued companies. The top 10 stocks of the S&P 500 Index comprise nearly 20% of its weight today. If you go back to 1999 and look at the valuation of the largest tech companies like Cisco, you can see how those shares were set up for a subsequent period of substantial and prolonged under-performance.

In spite of this supposed flaw in index funds, the fact remains that typically 80% of all actively managed funds perform worse than their benchmark over any period of five years or longer. If the index is hampered by all these over-valued companies, why is it so difficult for fund managers to find the under-valued shares? One possible reason is that the higher expense ratio of an active fund, often one percent or more, eats up the entire value added by the manager.

But there is an interesting alternative to market cap weighting, which avoids over-weighting the expensive stocks. It’s equal weighting. If you have 500 stocks, you invest 0.2% in each company. Your performance then equals that of the average stock, rather than being dependent on the largest companies. To remain equal weight, the fund will have to rebalance positions back to their 0.2% weight from time to time.

There have been extensive studies of the equal weight process, most notably by Standard and Poors which calculates an equal weight version of their S&P 500 Index, and by Rob Arnott, of Research Affiliates, who wrote about equal weighting in various papers and in his 2008 book “The Fundamental Index.”

But even better than studies, there has been an Equal Weight ETF available to investors since April 2003, a 14-year track record through Bull and Bear Markets. The results have been compelling.

– Since inception in 2003, the S&P 500 equal weight fund has had an annual return of 11.21% versus 9.53% for the cap-weighted S&P 500 Index.
– Equal Weight beat Market Cap over 57% of the one-year periods, on a rolling monthly basis since the fund started in 2003. However, the fund out performed over 84% of the five-year periods and 100% of the 10-year periods.
– You might think that by reducing the supposedly over-valued companies, the fund would have lower volatility, but that has not been the case. Instead, the fund has had a slightly higher standard deviation and actually lost more in 2008 than the cap weighted index. It’s no magic bullet; it’s primary benefit appears to be return enhancement rather than risk reduction.

We plan to add an Equal Weight fund to our portfolio models for 2018. Although some of our concern is that today’s tech stocks dominating the index are over-valued, we should point out that there is no guarantee that Equal Weight will be better than the Cap Weighted approach in 2018 or in any given year. However, for investors with a long-term outlook, the approach does appear to offer some benefits in performance and that’s the reason we are adding it to our portfolios.

Before August, the cheapest fund offering an equal weight strategy had an expense ratio of 0.40%. However, there is a new ETF that offers the strategy at an ultra-low cost of only 0.09%, which makes it very competitive with even the cheapest cap weighted ETFs.

If you have any questions on the approach, please feel free to email or call me. For positions in taxable accounts, we have significant gains in many portfolios. In those cases, we will not be selling and creating a taxable event. But we will be purchasing the new fund in IRAs and for purchases going forward.

Source of data: Morningstar.com and from Guggenheim Investments All Things Being Equal dated 9/30/2017.