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Indexing Strategy Will Work… Until It Doesn’t

Indexing is all the rage these days. Investors are realizing that they are paying a lot of fees to fund companies to provide average rates of return (below average in some cases). They’ve done the math and see that they can do better by investing in cheap no load ETFs and similar products that track the index. Vanguard has been pushing this strategy for decades now and has really seen traction grow in this area over the last 15 years or so, along with the growth of ETFs (not a coincidence).

As this strategy gains more traction and becomes even more common, I start asking a lot of questions to myself. Will it have an effect on the markets? Will it cause mispricing? Could the stocks in an index respond differently simply because they are part of an index? Could this strategy inadvertently increase risk and volatility if it became too popular?

Could this be the start of an Index Bubble? Everyone flocked to real estate, then flocked to bonds. Are investors now moving to indexes?

The problem is not the tools used to construct the portfolio (ETFs in this case). In fact, ETFs and other low cost, passive investments offer unique advantages that allow investors to access markets in a way they never could before. There seems to be an ETF for just about everything out there.

I see the problem in using passive investments with a passive strategy, or in other words a “buy and hold” strategy using low cost Index ETFs with periodic rebalancing to a specific allocation. For example, you have a portfolio consisting of 5 specific ETFs that are rebalanced annually to a specific percentage.

Never before have investors had the opportunity to completely remove judgement from investment decisions and be completely passive. Just 10 years ago, many investors used active investments (mutual funds where the fund manager is selecting investments) with a passive strategy (buy and hold).

It’s too early to tell how this will unfold and how this could affect the individual investor.

This strategy will work for many investors, but it may be the popularity of the strategy that ultimately leads to its downfall.

Social Security Strategies

If you are retiring soon, don’t expect the Social Security Administration (SSA) to give you the best advice on how to start collecting your benefits.  In fact, they have been known to give out poor advice.  I recently heard a story of the SSA sending a letter to a 65 year old, who was not currently collecting social security, which said something to the effect of the following:

“Did you know you could have taken social security at the age of 62? We are offering a lump sum to you for the three years of payments you have missed.”

On the surface it seems great – It sounds like free money. But as you continue to read the letter, you learn that future benefits going forward would be based on if the individual were 62 (about a third less than if the person waited until their full retirement age).

The SSA is doing this to lower their obligations and many individuals will take the SSA up on their offer, only to realize that it was a mistake.

Here are few strategies to help you maximize your social security benefits, but please consult with your financial advisor before you make any decisions.  This is a complicated situation that you should not try to navigate on your own.

1) Instead of looking at maximizing the monthly benefit, look to maximize the total benefit over your lifetime and your spouse’s lifetime. This will help you compare the different options you will develop and determine which one will be best for your situation.

2) To do this you’ll need to approximate how long you and your spouse will live. SSA’s calculator can help link to article. But use your own intuition – if your family has a history of living longer, then factor that into your thinking.

3) Calculate the total benefits using a few different scenarios: Both collect at age 62, both collect at full retirement age (FRA), and both collect at 70, are the easiest to calculate. Hybrid options become more difficult and can best be described as follows: The lower earner collects his or her own reduced benefits at age 62, and unreduced spousal benefits at FRA, while the higher earner collects at age 70. In order for this to work, the higher earner must file and suspend at FRA. There are limitations to this example, so be sure to consult with a financial advisor.

4) With numbers in hand, you can compare the options.  Look at total benefits and the breakout between husband and wife.  You may realize that between two options with similar total benefits, one is better if there is an early death or one lives until 100.  That will be the hardest part as you will see that the longevity assumptions are very important to consider.

It may be wise to enlist the support of a financial advisor who can help in putting together these strategies and determining which one is most appropriate.  We have recently started using a third-party program that illustrates this clearly for our clients.  Email us and we can help run some of the numbers for you.

Tweaking a Buy and Hold Strategy

One of the most common investment strategies is called “Buy and Hold”, which usually consists of mutual funds or other securities held for the long term and rebalanced occasionally.  These funds are held during the best and worst performing years.  The theory is that you can never predict the future performance of the market or time your trades to sell at the top or buy at the bottom. Instead you ride the waves, knowing that there will be ups and downs.

After the recession of 2008 and 2009, the “Buy and Hold” strategy started to lose favor.  Investors could not tolerate such significant declines in their portfolio. It caused many investors to give up on their strategy, sell out of their portfolios at the wrong time (the bottom) and move to cash to wait for better days, more optimism and more clarity.

And so they sat. and sat. and sat.

Here we are, four years later and the S&P 500 has now returned a total of 130% (3/9-12/12). There is a pattern here. American Funds released a newsletter that has a chart on page 2. It highlights the returns for the subsequent 10 years following the major declines of 1939 and 1974. The returns for those two ten year periods were in the 15% range, well above the 11% average for the S&P 500.

It turns out, this sort of return is not unique when compared to historical performance.

For those investors that stayed invested, they are watching their portfolios return to previous levels and grow even more. But, unfortunately many investors are still sitting on the sidelines wondering how to get it.

Maybe “Buy and Hold” is not dead after all!  Although, it may not be right for everyone.

If you are one of the millions of investors who sold out close to the bottom and still reluctant to get back in, consider these strategies:

1 – Limit the amount of news you watch. So much of it is noise and simply a distraction.  Take it with a grain of salt.

2 – Periodically review your statements and make calculated decisions.  It’s easy to react quickly if you see a bad news report and then review your statement.

3 – Keep the course.  Despite all the voices in your head that tell you to sell, hold on to your strategy. It may be hard, but that’s why you have a strategy in the first place.

4 – Stay diversified.  Invest in different asset classes to spread your risk out.  If you are holding too much in one specific stock or mutual fund, consider moving some of it elsewhere.

5 – Consider dollar cost averaging.  If you’re trying to time when to get back in the market or when to make contributions, dollar cost averaging may help.  With most fund companies and broker/dealers, you can establish rules to invest a specific amount each week/month. That may reduce the risk of buying a security only to see it drop shortly after you purchase it. It allows you to ease back into the markets, instead of jumping in.  Keep in mind, this method does not ensure a profit and does not protect against loss in a declining market, so investors should consider their willingness to continue purchases during a declining or fluctuating market.

6 – Get help. It is becoming more and more complicated to invest with more options and increasingly complex products that may not be right for you unless you talk to a professional.

But if you read this, and you feel that even with those changes, you can’t stomach another decline like before then you may need a new strategy all together.  We had several client that express their concern and have developed a model portfolio to meet their needs. It looks to capture profits when trends within a variety of asset classes are positive and sit in cash when the trends are negative.  You can read more about it here.

Our Take on the “4% Rule” for Retirement Withdrawal

Many advisors tell their clients, as a rule of thumb, a client can withdraw about 4% of their portfolio each year, without it affecting the principal. We have been telling our clients this for years. In fact, this rule of thumb dates back a few decades and was determined after a lot of research.

And then a few weeks ago, an article written in the WSJ called into question the validity of the rule of thumb. Its premise is quite simple: if you retire and then your portfolio drops like it did in 2008, then a withdrawal rate of 4% of the original balance would most likely not be able to sustain you through retirement. You would then need to reduce your withdrawal rate. In the investment and financial community, this was quite a statement to make and has caused many individuals to question their current withdrawal rate.

It’s important to consider a few points that the article touches upon, but are overlooked:

1) The “4% Rule” is a rule of thumb, a guide, a rough figure to help investors determine how much they can withdraw from their portfolio in retirement.

2) A client should only take what they need from their portfolios. They should keep as much invested as possible, so their assets can continue to appreciate. An extra $1,000 sitting in a checking account earning next to nothing, should probably stay in invested where it can generate a decent return.

3) The “4% Rule” does account for some of the long tail risks. When this rule of thumb was calculated in the 90’s, it did use data points going back to the depression. Of course, there are scenarios where the “4% Rule” will not work, but these are the outlier scenarios. They are economic situations that happen every 75 years or so. Fortunately, we are recovering from one of them right now.

The most important point to take away from this post and the article is to remember that the “4% Rule” should be renamed “4% Rule of Thumb”. Maybe then investors will understand that withdrawals will have to fluctuate depending on market conditions and their needs.

If you’re interested in some additional information on this topic, Vanguard has a few interesting pieces on the topic.

 

A New Strategy. A New Approach.

This is the final part of a series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

If your portfolio is still sitting on the sidelines in cash as you wait for the right time to enter the market, you may want to consider a new strategy. There is always a headline out there to suggest that the market is about to go down. Here are a few strategies we suggest you consider:

1) Turn off the TV. 95% of what you hear and read about the economy is noise. A recent article on the front page of Yahoo.com reports that actress “Mila Kunis Rotates From Cash to Stocks”. We’re not putting the link there, because that’s the noise we’re talking about.

2) Put a multi-year plan together. Step 1 – Decide what the funds will be used for and when you expect to need them. Step 2 – Determine the amount of risk you need to take in order to reach your goals. If not, there are many strategies that can be used to help you. Maybe you need to save more, or maybe you need a new investment portfolio and investment strategies.

3) Stick to it. It’s important to remain committed to the plan, with periodic tweaks and changes. All to often, we see plans used for only a short period of time before old habits come back.

4) Get a second opinion. It’s important to remember to tap the expertise of a financial advisor when developing your plan. When prospective clients ask us for help, we dig deep to make sure all their investments and assets (including their 401(k), IRA, ROTH IRA, bank accounts) are working well together. We look at a few key areas for each portfolio: proper diversification, fees & expenses, performance, and volatility within the portfolio. Each of these is important and is driven by a client’s personal situation and risk tolerance. Most importantly, we look to see if this portfolio could achieve the client’s financial goal.