2016 will go down as a year marked by the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union and the United States' surprise election of Donald J. Trump as president. From an investment perspective, it was a positive year for virtually every major asset class. US small cap stocks led the way gaining over 20% in 2016, much of which came in the 4th quarter. US large cap stocks also posted double digit returns, coming in at 11.9% for the S&P 500. With fears of China’s economic slowdown subsiding, Emerging Markets advanced over 11%, US bonds were up over 2% and International Developed markets surged in the month of December to a modest annual gain of 1%.
Interest rates were on the move with 10-year Treasury yields falling as low as 1.36% in July; only to reverse course, ending the year at 2.45%. The Fed raised rates last month for the first time in a year, with the likelihood of two or three more hikes expected in 2017.
It seems like a long time ago, but at this time last year, the news was the tumbling price of oil. Crude touched bottom back in February, sliding all the way to the mid-$20s, the culmination of an uninterrupted 19-month slide. Since then the price of oil has more than doubled.
There’s been much talk about legislative changes to tax policies in 2017. Until further details unfold, it’s best to wait rather than speculate on what may or may not happen. It was in 2008 when then Senator Obama actively campaigned on a sun setting of the Bush era tax cuts, only to extend them throughout his presidency.
2016 reminds us that we all need to operate with a healthy level of skepticism when consuming the news. We witnessed two historic political surprises that a vast majority of media prognosticators never saw coming. The constant siren of absolute certainty spewing from the mouths of pundits makes it more difficult than ever to separate speculation from reality. The good news is; an accurate forecast of the future isn’t a requirement for being successful investors. Like countless other examples throughout history, disciplined investors were rewarded in 2016. Financial markets are complex instruments, but the way they operate is fairly straightforward. They don’t choose which news to disseminate, they react positively or negatively to the collective body of information.
YTD=Year To Date performance through date listed above. Index Data: US Large Cap Stocks: S&P 500, US Small Cap Stocks: Russell 2000, Developed International Markets: MSCI EAFE Index, Emerging Markets: MSCI Emerging Markets Index, US Bonds: Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index
By Weston Wellington
Vice President, Dimensional Fund Advisors
In the days immediately following the recent US presidential election, US small company stocks experienced higher returns than US large company stocks. This example helps illustrate how the dimensions of expected returns can appear quickly, unpredictably, and with large magnitude.
Average returns for US small company stocks historically have been higher than the average returns for US large company stocks. But those returns include long periods of both strong and weak relative performance. Investors may attempt to enhance returns by increasing their exposure to small company stocks at what appear to be the most opportune times. Yet this effort to time the size premium can be frustrating because the most rewarding results often occur in an unpredictable manner. A recent paper1 by Wei Dai, PhD, explores the challenges of attempting to time the size, value, and profitability premiums.2 Here we will keep the discussion to a simpler example.
As of October 31, 2016, small company stocks had outpaced large company stocks for the year-to-date by 0.34 percentage points. To the surprise of many market observers, the broad stock market rose following the US presidential election on November 8, with small company stocks outperforming the market as a whole. In the eight trading days following the US presidential election, the small cap premium, as measured by the return difference between the Russell 2000 and Russell 1000, was 7.8 percentage points. This helped small company stocks pull ahead of large company stocks year-to-date, as of November 30, by approximately 8 percentage points and for a full one-year period by approximately 4 percentage points.
This recent example highlights the importance of staying disciplined. The premiums associated with the size, value, and profitability dimensions of expected returns may show up quickly and with large magnitude. There is no guarantee that the size premium will be positive over any period, but investors put the odds of achieving augmented returns in their favor by maintaining constant exposure to the dimensions of higher expected returns.
The size premium is determined by calculating the difference between the Russell 2000 Index, which represents small company stocks, and the Russell 1000 Index, which represents large company stocks. Frank Russell Company is the source and owner of the trademarks, service marks, and copyrights related to the Russell Indexes. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Indices are not available for direct investment; therefore, their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio.
1. Wei Dai, “Premium Timing with Valuation Ratios” (white paper, Dimensional Fund Advisors, September 2016). 2. Size premium: the return difference between small capitalization stocks and large capitalization stocks. Value premium: the return difference between stocks with low relative prices (value) and stocks with high relative prices (growth). Profitability premium: The return difference between stocks of companies with high profitability over those with low profitability. Past performance is no guarantee of future investment results. There is no guarantee an investing strategy will be successful. Small cap securities are subject to greater volatility than those in other asset categories. All expressions of opinion are subject to change. This article is distributed for informational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services. Dimensional Fund Advisors LP is an investment advisor registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The close of each calendar year brings with it the holidays as well as a chance to look forward to the year ahead.
In the coming weeks, investors are likely to be bombarded with predictions about what the future, and specifically the next year, may hold for their portfolios. These outlooks are typically accompanied by recommended investment strategies and actions that are aimed at trying to avoid the next crisis or missing out on the next “great” opportunity. When faced with recommendations of this sort, it would be wise to remember that investors are better served by sticking with a long-term plan rather than changing course in reaction to predictions and short-term calls.
Predictions and Portfolios
One doesn’t typically see a forecast that says: “Capital markets are expected to continue to function normally,” or “It’s unclear how unknown future events will impact prices.” Predictions about future price movements come in all shapes and sizes, but most of them tempt the investor into playing a game of outguessing the market. Examples of predictions like this might include: “We don’t like energy stocks in 2017,” or “We expect the interest rate environment to remain challenging in the coming year.” Bold predictions may pique interest, but their usefulness in application to an investment plan is less clear. Steve Forbes, the publisher of Forbes Magazine, once remarked, “You make more money selling advice than following it. It’s one of the things we count on in the magazine business—along with the short memory of our readers.” Definitive recommendations attempting to identify value not currently reflected in market prices may provide investors with a sense of confidence about the future, but how accurate do these predictions have to be in order to be useful?
Consider a simple example where an investor hears a prediction that equities are currently priced “too high,” and now is a better time to hold cash. If we say that the prediction has a 50% chance of being accurate (equities underperform cash over some period of time), does that mean the investor has a 50% chance of being better off? What is crucial to remember is that any market-timing decision is actually two decisions. If the investor decides to change their allocation, selling equities in this case, they have decided to get out of the market, but they also must determine when to get back in. If we assign a 50% probability of the investor getting each decision right, that would give them a one-in-four chance of being better off overall. We can increase the chances of the investor being right to 70% for each decision, and the odds of them being better off are still shy of 50%. Still no better than a coin flip. You can apply this same logic to decisions within asset classes, such as whether to currently be invested in stocks only in your home market vs. those abroad. The lesson here is that the only guarantee for investors making market-timing decisions is that they will incur additional transactions costs due to frequent buying and selling.
The track record of professional money managers attempting to profit from mispricing also suggests that making frequent investment changes based on market calls may be more harmful than helpful. Exhibit 1, which shows S&P’s SPIVA Scorecard from midyear 2016, highlights how managers have fared against a comparative S&P benchmark. The results illustrate that the majority of managers have underperformed over both short and longer horizons.
Exhibit 1. Percentage of US Equity Funds That Underperformed a Benchmark
Source: SPIVA US Scorecard, “Percentage of US Equity Funds Outperformed by Benchmarks.” Data as of June 30, 2016. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Indices are not available for direct investment; therefore, their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio. The S&P data is provided by Standard & Poor’s Index Services Group.
Rather than relying on forecasts that attempt to outguess market prices, investors can instead rely on the power of the market as an effective information processing machine to help structure their investment portfolios. Financial markets involve the interaction of millions of willing buyers and sellers. The prices they set provide positive expected returns every day. While realized returns may end up being different than expected returns, any such difference is unknown and unpredictable in advance.
Over a long-term horizon, the case for trusting in markets and for discipline in being able to stay invested is clear. Exhibit 2 shows the growth of a US dollar invested in the equity markets from 1970 through 2015 and highlights a sample of several bearish headlines over the same period. Had one reacted negatively to these headlines, they would have potentially missed out on substantial growth over the coming decades.
Exhibit 2. Markets Have Rewarded Discipline
Growth of a dollar—MSCI World Index (net dividends), 1970–2015
In US dollars. Indices are not available for direct investment. Their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. MSCI data © MSCI 2016, all rights reserved.
As the end of the year approaches, it is natural to reflect on what has gone well this year and what one may want to improve upon next year. Within the context of an investment plan, it is important to remember that investors are likely better served by trusting the plan they have put in place and focusing on what they can control, such as diversifying broadly, minimizing taxes, and reducing costs and turnover. Those who make changes to a long-term investment strategy based on short-term noise and predictions may be disappointed by the outcome. In the end, the only certain prediction about markets is that the future will remain full of uncertainty. History has shown us, however, that through this uncertainty, markets have rewarded long-term investors who are able to stay the course.
Source: Dimensional Fund Advisors LP. Diversification does not eliminate the risk of market loss. Investment risks include loss of principal and fluctuating value. There is no guarantee an investing strategy will be successful. All expressions of opinion are subject to change. This article is distributed for informational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services. 1. Excerpt from presentation at the Anderson School of Management, University of California, Los Angeles, April 15, 2003.
Over time we’ve learned much from financial science and the forces or factors that help to explain where expected returns come from. The momentum factor identifies the tendency for positively/negatively performing assets to continue their positive/negative trajectory for a short amount of time into the future. Essentially the “winners” tend to stay winners and the “losers” tend to stay losers for a period of time. So what does the research suggest and how can investors benefit?
First a bit of background: The momentum effect, first written about in the early 1990’s, leaves efficient market hypothesis (EMH) proponents such as myself with a realism that’s hard to rectify. For EMH advocates price is king. In laymen’s terms: The best judge of any particular assets inherent worth is its current price, thanks to the millions of market participants (buyers and sellers) actively voting with their dollars. Momentum on the other hand contradicts this notion, at least over the short term.
Why does it exist?
The majority of factors that we target in building portfolios commonly have a risk based explanation for their performance, i.e. stocks outperforming bonds, small companies outperforming large companies or value outperforming growth over time. Attempting to explain the momentum factor’s performance through the conventional risk based lens is difficult.
Like these other factors, momentum has been persistent across time, asset classes and geography. However, its performance is best explained from a behavioral perspective. Other theories exist as to why winners stay winners and losers stay losers for a period of time, but the idea that investors tend to either over react or under react to news is a leading hypothesis. This suggests that markets aren’t perfectly efficient, a point to which I would begrudgingly agree. Perfectly being the key word. While over long periods of time, markets usually get it right, in short spurts security prices seem to have a bit of “noise” built into them.
The investment application of momentum
When looking at the addition of any factor to a portfolio, investors should always start out as cynics, requiring large amounts of supporting evidence. First, academia must backup its inclusion with rigorous empirical research. Second, it can’t just look good on paper. Practical application dictates that investors must be able to capture the performance after any additional costs associated with targeting it. For a long time, this was a key issue with incorporating the momentum factor. Due to the frequent changes to the winners and loser’s categories, does the increased trading cost associated with buying and selling surpass the benefit? Furthermore, does its inclusion dilute the all-important diversification of the portfolio?
Not only must an investment vehicle exist, but the right vehicle has to be selected from a universe of thousands. Adding further complexity, is how it interacts and/or complements the rest of the portfolio. We believe that momentum is most effectively targeted through a low cost, quantitative, rules based methodology. This approach helps to lower cost and improve overall portfolio diversification. Investors commonly associate diversification with the benefits of different sizes and styles of asset classes which don’t always move in the same direction under different market conditions. Well, the same logic can in certain instances be applied to diversifying exposure to factors. Such is the case when momentum is properly paired with value due to their negative correlations with each other.
In sum, momentum has the ability to offer long term performance and diversification benefits when it is properly implemented. As a firm that specializes in factor based investing we remain dedicated to research and the practical application of it. This translates into ever evolving, globally diversified portfolios which target areas that drive expected return.
In 1958, economist Leonard Read published an essay entitled “I, Pencil: My Family Tree as Told to Leonard E. Read.”
The essay, narrated from the point of view of a pencil, describes the “complex combination of miracles” necessary to create and bring to market the commonplace writing tool that has been used for generations. The narrator argues that no single individual possesses enough ability or know-how to create a pencil on their own. Rather, the mundane pencil—and the ability to purchase it for a “trifling” sum—is the result of an extraordinary process driven by the knowledge of market participants and the power of market prices.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRICE
Upon observing a pencil, it is tempting to think a single individual could easily make one. After all, it is made up of common items such as wood, paint, graphite, metal, and a rubber eraser. By delving deeper into how these seemingly ordinary components are produced, however, we begin to understand the extraordinary backstory of their synthesis. Take the wood as an example: To produce wood requires a saw, to make the saw requires steel, to make steel requires iron. That iron must be mined, smelted, and shaped. A truck, train, or boat is needed to transport the wood from the forest to a factory where numerous machines convert it into lumber. The lumber is then transported to another factory where more machines assemble the pencil. Each of the components mentioned above and each step in the process have similarly complex backstories. All require materials that are sourced from far-flung locations, and countless processes are involved in refining them. While the multitude of inputs and processes necessary to create a pencil is impressive, even more impressive are the coordinated actions required by millions of people around the world to bring everything together. There is the direct involvement of farmers, loggers, miners, factory workers, and the providers of capital. There is also the indirect involvement of millions of others—the makers of rails, railroad cars, ships, and so on. Market prices are the unifying force that enables these millions of people to coordinate their actions efficiently.
Workers with specific knowledge about their costs, constraints, and efforts use market prices to leverage the knowledge of others to decide how to direct their own resources and make a living. Consider the farmer, the logger, and the price of a tree. The farmer will have a deep understanding of the costs, constraints, and efforts required to grow trees. To increase profit, the farmer will seek out the highest price when selling trees to a logger. After purchasing the trees, the logger will convert them to wood and sell that wood to a factory. The logger understands the costs, constraints, and efforts required to do this, so to increase profit, the logger seeks to pay the lowest price possible when buying trees from the farmer. When the farmer and the logger agree to transact, the agreed upon price reflects their combined knowledge of the costs and constraints of both growing and harvesting trees. That knowledge allows them to decide how to efficiently allocate their resources in seeking a profit. Ultimately, it is price that enables this coordination. On a much larger scale, price formation is facilitated by competition between the many farmers that sell trees to loggers and between the many loggers that buy trees from farmers. This market price of trees is observable and can be used by others in the production chain (e.g., the lumber factory mentioned above) to inform how much they can expect to pay for wood and to plan how to allocate their resources accordingly.
THE POWER OF FINANCIAL MARKETS
There is a corollary that can be drawn between this narrative about the market for goods and the financial markets. Generally, markets do a remarkable job of allocating resources, and financial markets allocate a specific resource: financial capital. Financial markets are also made up of millions of participants, and these participants voluntarily agree to buy and sell securities all over the world based upon their own needs and desires. Each day, millions of trades take place, and the vast collective knowledge of all of these participants is pooled together to set security prices. Exhibit 1 shows the staggering magnitude of participation in the world equity markets on an average day in 2015.
In US dollars. Global electronic order book (largest 60 exchanges). Source: World Federation of Exchanges.
Any individual trying to outguess the market is competing against the extraordinary collective wisdom of all of these buyers and sellers. Viewed through the lens of Read’s allegory, attempting to outguess the market is like trying to create a pencil from scratch rather than going to the store and reaping the fruits of others’ willingly supplied labor. In the end, trying to outguess the market is incredibly difficult and expensive, and over the long run, the result will almost assuredly be inferior when compared to a market-based approach. Professor Kenneth French has been quoted as saying, “The market is smarter than we are and no matter how smart we get, the market will always be smarter than we are.” One doesn’t have to look far for data that supports this. Exhibit 2 shows that only 17% of US equity mutual funds have survived and outperformed their benchmarks over the past 15 years.
Beginning sample includes funds as of the beginning of the 15-year period ending December 31, 2015. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Source: Dimensional Fund Advisors, “The US Mutual Fund Landscape.” See disclosures for more information.
The beauty of Leonard Read’s story is that it provides a glimpse of the incredibly complex tapestry of markets and how prices are formed, what types of information they contain, and how they are used. The story makes it clear that no single individual possesses enough ability or know-how to create a pencil on their own but rather that the pencil’s miraculous production is the result of the collective input and effort of countless motivated human beings. In the end, the power of markets benefits all of us. The market allows us to exchange the time we require to earn money for a few milliseconds of each person’s time involved in making a pencil. For an investor, we believe the lesson here is that instead of fighting the market, one should pursue an investment strategy that efficiently and effectively harnesses the extraordinary collective power of market prices. That is, an investment strategy that uses market prices and the information they contain in its design and day-to-day management. In doing so, an investor has access to the rewards that financial markets make available to providers of capital.
Leonard Read’s essay can be found here: http://econlib.org/library/Essays/rdPncl1.html.
Source: Dimensional Fund Advisors LP. There is no guarantee investment strategies will be successful. US-domiciled mutual fund data is from the CRSP Survivor-Bias-Free US Mutual Fund Database, provided by the Center for Research in Security Prices, University of Chicago. Certain types of equity funds were excluded from the performance study. Index funds, sector funds, and funds with a narrow investment focus, such as real estate and gold, were excluded. Funds are identified using Lipper fund classification codes. Correlation coefficients are computed for each fund with respect to diversified benchmark indices using all return data available between January 1, 2001, and December 31, 2015. The index most highly correlated with a fund is assigned as its benchmark. Winner funds are those whose cumulative return over the period exceeded that of their respective benchmark. Loser funds are funds that did not survive the period or whose cumulative return did not exceed their respective benchmark. All expressions of opinion are subject to change. This article is distributed for informational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services. Ken French is a member of the Board of Directors for and provides consulting services to Dimensional Fund Advisors LP.
Someone once told me that people vote with their wallets. If that’s truly the case, then whatever a person’s political persuasion happens to be, it’s likely the one they believe best suits their financial needs. In an election year you’ll find no shortage of opinions on the impact that one party’s candidate will have on your investments. The Clinton camp will cite strong US market performance during Bill’s presidency as evidence to suggest Hillary is capable of delivering similar results. Trump supporters will point to Donald’s real estate success and business acumen to demonstrate his abilities. The question on the minds of investors is: Do I need to worry if my candidate doesn’t win?
Growth of a Dollar Invested in the S&P 500: January 1926–June 2016
Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Indices are not available for direct investment; therefore, their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio. The S&P data is provided by Standard & Poor’s Index Services Group.
Financial markets are complex instruments, but the way they operate is fairly straightforward. They don’t choose which news to disseminate, they react positively or negatively to the collective body of information. Politicians will inevitably take credit when the news is favorable and deflect blame when it doesn’t support their narrative. For this reason, tying a single economic policy to market performance is an inadequate measurement of success. Even if sweeping changes in the tax code or regulatory environment take place, the impact can take years to play out.
During the 2008-09 downturn there was plenty of blame to go around. Financial institutions took most of the heat due to the irresponsible sale of mortgage backed securities worsened by the impact of being highly leveraged. Credit rating agencies didn’t escape responsibility when they failed to appropriately categorize the quality of various financial instruments.
Deregulation at the hands of politicians was not overlooked. Many felt this environment was ripened for catastrophe when Bill Clinton signed the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which was initially designed to limit the abilities of commercial banks and investment firms from crossing over into each other’s business’s. Decades earlier some could point to the relaxing of lending standards through the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, which was meant to encourage commercial banks to help meet the needs of borrowers with moderate to low incomes.
The simple truth is too many variables exist to attach responsibility to one political party or another because market expansions and recessions are never the result of a single decision. The one major agreement is there is no agreement.
Silver Lining for Investors No Matter Your Candidate
History has shown that if we look back to 1948, the likelihood of seeing 4 years of negative market returns is far-off. In fact, it’s only happened twice. (Nixon and Bush 43) During both periods the US economy was in a severe recession and as demonstrated above, it would be tough to tie either administration’s specific economic policies to the return of the S&P 500.
By and large, presidents have no control over financial markets. If any term comes to mind that’s indicative of a presidents impact it would likely be “victim of circumstance.” The collective history of markets is the most important thing to focus on. Since 1948 the S&P 500 has averaged double digit annualized returns. The vast majority of investors have retirement goals that extend far past 4 or 8 years of a presidential administration that they don’t favor. The good news is, regardless of the applause or blame for economic conditions under any president, they only get to stick around for so long.
We’ve come to that time of the year when election news dominates the headlines and not much else. Through 9 months of 2016 markets have remained resilient notwithstanding speculation on interest rates, Brexit fallout and political scrutiny. Despite a flat month of September, it was a solid quarter for US large cap stocks as the S&P 500 saw gains of nearly 4%. Developed international markets made a major come back following this summer’s Brexit frenzy, advancing 6.4% to move into positive territory of the year. Emerging markets rallied the most, up 9% for the quarter with US bonds managing to turn in a small .5% gain.
It wasn’t a terribly busy quarter as far as news was concerned. On September 21st, the Fed held a news conference to basically tell us that there was no news on interest rate moves as they elected to leave interest rates unchanged. To date, we have seen 23 press conferences and the Fed has raised interest rates a quarter of a percent. The lasts concluded with a “see you in December at the next press conference.”
Get ready to be dominated by election hoopla. At times like these, it’s essential to remember that no matter your political persuasion, by and large, presidents have no control over financial markets. Simply too many variables exist to give credit or lay blame to one individual or even political party. The collective history of markets is the most important thing to focus on. The vast majority of investors have retirement goals that extend far past 4 or 8 years of a presidential administration that they don’t favor. The good news is, regardless of the applause or blame for economic conditions under any president, they only get to stick around for so long.
YTD=Year To Date performance through date listed above. Index Data: US Large Cap Stocks: S&P 500, US Small Cap Stocks: Russell 2000, Developed International Markets: MSCI World EX US Index, Emerging Markets: MSCI Emerging Markets Index, US Bonds: Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index
All data is from sources believed to be reliable but cannot be guaranteed or warranted. This information is intended for educational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services. Diversification does not eliminate the risk of market loss. Investment risks include loss of principal and fluctuating value. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Indices are not available for direct investment; therefore, their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio.
With school back in session in most of the country, many parents are likely thinking about how best to prepare for their children’s future college expenses.
Now is a good time to sharpen one’s pencil for a few important lessons before heading back into the investing classroom to tackle the issue.
THE CALCULUS OF PLANNING FOR FUTURE COLLEGE EXPENSES
According to recent data published by The College Board, the annual cost of attending college in 2015–2016 averaged $19,548 at public schools, plus an additional $14,483 if one is attending from out of state. At private schools, tuition and fees averaged $43,921.
It is important to note that these figures are averages, meaning actual costs will be higher at certain schools and lower at others. Additionally, these figures do not include the separate cost of books and supplies or the potential benefit of scholarships and other types of financial aid. As a result, actual education costs can vary considerably from family to family.
Exhibit 1. Published Cost of Attending College
Source: The College Board, “Trends in College Pricing 2015.”
To complicate matters further, the amount of goods and services $1 can purchase tends to decline over time. This is called inflation. One measure of inflation looks at changes in the price level of a basket of goods and services purchased by households, known as the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Tuition, fees, books, food, and rent are among the goods and services included in the CPI basket. In the US over the past 50 years, inflation measured by this index has averaged 4.1% per year. With 4% inflation over 18 years, the purchasing power of $1 would decline by about 50%. If inflation were lower, say 3%, the purchasing power of $1 would decline by about 40%. If it were higher, say 5%, it would decline by around 60%.
While we do not know what inflation will be in the future, we should expect that the amount of goods and services $1 can purchase will decline over time. Going forward, we also do not know what the cost of attending college will be. But again, we should expect that education costs will likely be higher in the future than they are today. So what can parents do to prepare for the costs of a college education? How can they plan for and make progress toward affording those costs?
DOING YOUR HOMEWORK ON INVESTING
To help reduce the expected costs of funding future college expenses, parents can invest in assets that are expected to grow their savings at a rate of return that outpaces inflation. By doing this, college expenses may ultimately be funded with fewer dollars saved. Because these higher rates of return come with the risk of capital loss, this approach should make use of a robust risk management framework. Additionally, by using a tax-deferred savings vehicle, such as a 529 plan, parents may not pay taxes on the growth of their savings, which can help lower the cost of funding future college expenses.
While inflation has averaged about 4% annually over the past 50 years, stocks (as measured by the S&P 500) have returned over 9% annually during the same period. Therefore, the “real” (inflation-adjusted) growth rate for stocks has been around 5% per annum. Looked at another way, $10,000 of purchasing power invested at this rate for 18 years would result in around $24,000 of purchasing power later on. We can expect the real rate of return on stocks to grow the purchasing power of an investor’s savings over time. We can also expect that the longer the horizon, the greater the expected growth. By investing in stocks, and by starting to save many years before children are college age, parents can expect to afford more college expenses with fewer savings.
It is important to recognize, however, that investing in stocks also comes with investment risks. Like teenage students, investing can be volatile, full of surprises, and, if one is not careful, expensive. While sometimes easy to forget during periods of increased uncertainty in capital markets, volatility is a normal part of investing. Tuning out short-term noise is often difficult to do, but historically, investors who have maintained a disciplined approach over time have been rewarded for doing so.
RISK MANAGEMENT & DIVERSIFICATION: THE FRIENDS YOU SHOULD ALWAYS SIT WITH AT LUNCH
Working with a trusted advisor who has a transparent approach based on sound investment principles, consistency, and trust can help investors identify an appropriate risk management strategy. Such an approach can limit unpleasant (and often costly) surprises and ultimately contribute to better investment outcomes.
A key part of maintaining this discipline throughout the investing process is starting with a well-defined investment goal. This allows for investment instruments to be selected that can reduce uncertainty with respect to that goal. When saving for college, risk management assets (e.g., bonds) can help reduce the uncertainty of the level of college expenses a portfolio can support by enrollment time. These types of investments can help one tune out short‑term noise and bring more clarity to the overall investment process. As kids get closer to college age, the right balance of assets is likely to shift from high expected return growth assets to risk management assets.
Diversification is also a key part of an overall risk management strategy for education planning. Nobel laureate Merton Miller used to say, “Diversification is your buddy.” Combined with a long-term approach, broad diversification is essential for risk management. By diversifying an investment portfolio, investors can help reduce the impact of any one company or market segment negatively impacting their wealth. Additionally, diversification helps take the guesswork out of investing. Trying to pick the best performing investment every year is a guessing game. We believe that by holding a broadly diversified portfolio, investors are better positioned to capture returns wherever those returns occur.
Higher education may come with a high and increasing price tag, so it makes sense to plan well in advance. There are many unknowns involved in education planning, and there is no “one size fits all” approach to solving the problem. By having a disciplined approach toward saving and investing, however, parents can remove some of the uncertainty from the process. A trusted advisor can help parents craft a plan to address their family’s higher education goals.
Source: Dimensional Fund Advisors LP. All expressions of opinion are subject to change. This information is intended for educational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services. Diversification does not eliminate the risk of market loss. Investment risks include loss of principal and fluctuating value. There is no guarantee an investing strategy will be successful. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Indices are not available for direct investment; therefore, their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio. The S&P data is provided by Standard & Poor’s Index Services Group.
Lots of folks have heard me champion the cause for long term buy and hold investing. I freely acknowledge that on occasion this messaging gets slightly misinterpreted. Sometimes the passion of vehemently arguing against market timing and stock speculation can overshadow the massive body of research involved with portfolio evolution. To some the word passive in conjunction with investing is interpreted to mean stagnant, inactive or set it and forget it. Here’s why that characterization couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The financial industry often refers to any type of buy and hold or index style investing as passive, a terminology I’ve come to loath even though admittedly I myself am guilty of regularly using it. In truth, the research and portfolio management done at WealthShape has perhaps as many active characteristics as it does passive. Securities research is a science similar to any other science that values data and evidence. Experimentation leads to a hypothesis, which is published, critiqued and ultimately judged by the freethinking world. If ideas are well founded, there’s a strong likelihood that products will be developed to capitalize on them.
The growth of index investing
The argument for passive investing stems from decades of research into financial markets and the imperfect but solid job they do of incorporating all available information into stock prices. Ironically, what many fail to recognize is that indexes were not initially created for the sole purpose of investing; they were invented to measure the skill of active traders. When it became painfully evident that stock pickers overwhelmingly failed to outperform, products were created to mirror the index.
We’ve learned a lot over the last 60 years about factors that help to explain where investment returns come from. The standard market cap weighted methodology that’s applied to most indexing strategies has been significantly improved upon since it’s inception in the 1970’s, yet so many portfolios haven’t evolved with the research.
Suggesting a market cap weighted basic index portfolio is good enough, flies in the face of enlightenment. Research is meant to build upon itself. While I won’t knock investors who choose such an approach, I will knock those who suggest it’s good enough. For the first half of the 20th century either was a good enough surgical anesthetic and asbestos was a good enough building material. All sciences strive to uncover evidence that helps to provide further understanding. Financial science strives to learn more about security prices and the forces that drive them.
Your portfolio should evolve as research as research evolves. The Passive Investing vernacular really is a matter of semantics when you take into consideration the thousands of incremental decisions associated with investment selection, portfolio rebalancing and tax efficient application. WealthShape remains committed to the real life application of over 60 years of investment research. We believe our role is to take what financial science has given us, evaluate the strongest ideas and filter through thousands of solutions to find the best translation of those ideas. The result is broadly diversified portfolios that capture the power of naturally efficient markets and the factors that historically explain investment returns.
By Jim Parker
Vice President, Dimensional Fund Advisors
When news breaks and markets move, content-starved media often invite talking heads to muse on the repercussions. Knowing the difference between this speculative opinion and actual facts can help investors stay disciplined during purported “crises.”
At the end of June this year, UK citizens voted in a referendum for the nation to withdraw from the European Union. The result, which defied the expectations of many, led to market volatility as participants weighed possible consequences.
Journalists responded by using the results to craft dramatic headlines and stories. The Washington Post said the vote had “escalated the risk of global recession, plunged financial markets into free fall, and tested the strength of safeguards since the last downturn seven years ago.”1
The Financial Times said “Brexit” had the makings of a global crisis. “[This] represents a wider threat to the global economy and the broader international political system,” the paper said. “The consequences will be felt across the world.”2
It is true there have been political repercussions from the Brexit vote. Theresa May replaced David Cameron as Britain’s prime minister and overhauled the cabinet. There are debates in Europe about how the withdrawal will be managed and the possible consequences for other EU members.
But within a few weeks of the UK vote, Britain’s top share index, the FTSE 100, hit 11-month highs. By mid-July, the US S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average had risen to record highs. Shares in Europe and Asia also strengthened after dipping initially following the vote.
Yes, the Brexit vote did lead to initial volatility in markets, but this has not been exceptional or out of the ordinary. One widely viewed barometer is the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index (VIX). Using S&P 500 stock index options, this index measures market expectations of near-term volatility.
You can see by the chart above that while there was a slight rise in volatility around the Brexit result, it was insignificant relative to other major events of recent years, including the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the eurozone crisis of 2011, and the severe volatility in the Chinese domestic equity market in 2015.
None of this is intended to downplay the political and economic difficulties of Britain leaving the European Union, but it does illustrate the dangers of trying to second-guess markets and base an investment strategy on speculation.
Now the focus of speculation has turned to how markets might respond to the US presidential election. CNBC recently reported that surveys from Wall Street investment firms showed “growing concern” over how the race might play out.3
Given the examples above, would you be willing to make investment decisions based on this sort of speculation, particularly when it comes from the same people who pronounced on Brexit? And remember, not only must you correctly forecast the outcome of the vote, you have to correctly guess how the market will react.
What we do know is that markets incorporate news instantaneously and that your best protection against volatility is to diversify both across and within asset classes, while remaining focused on your long-term investment goals.
The danger of investing based on recent events is that the situation can change by the time you act. A “crisis” can morph into something far less dramatic, and you end up responding to news that is already in the price.
Journalism is often described as writing history on the run. Don’t get caught investing the same way.
1. “Brexit Raises Risk of Global Recession as Financial Markets Plunge,” Washington Post, June 24, 2016.
2. “Brexit and the Making of a Global Crisis,” Financial Times, June 25, 2016.
3. “Investors are Finally Getting Nervous about the Election,” CNBC, July 13, 2016.
Virtually every investment disclosure includes some variation of the following statement: “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Very few investors pay any attention to those words, but more should. Not only because they give further information about the data that’s being presented, but also because of the reason these statements are included. Is evaluating past performance the best way to select mutual funds?
Do Outperforming US Equity Mutual Funds persist?
The research offers strong evidence to the contrary. This chart illustrates the lack of persistence in outperformance among US equity mutual funds. The funds are evaluated based on their 10-year track records (2001-2010), and those that beat their respective benchmarks are re-evaluated in the subsequent five-year period (2011-2015). Among the 2,758 equity funds that began the initial 10-year period, only 20% outperformed—and among these 541 winning funds, only 37% continued to beat their benchmarks in the subsequent five-year period.
Some US equity fund managers may be better than others, but this evidence shows the extreme difficulties in identifying them in advance using track records alone. Returns contain a lot of noise, and impressive track records often result from good luck. The assumption that past outperformance will continue often proves faulty and leaves many investors disappointed.
Investment evaluation should embrace a variety of additional metrics including but not limited to the funds strategy: taking into account empirical rationale and economic intuition, cost, style drift and of course overall risk. It’s also critical that any evaluation take into consideration how your overall portfolio is impacted by the addition or subtraction of a fund.
The graph shows the proportion of US equity mutual funds that outperformed and underperformed their respective benchmarks (i.e., winners and losers) during the initial 10-year period ending December 31, 2010. Winning funds were re-evaluated in the subsequent five-year period from 2011 through 2015, with the graph showing winners (outperformers) and losers (underperformers). Fund count and percentages may not correspond due to rounding. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Data Source: Analysis conducted by Dimensional Fund Advisors using data on US-domiciled mutual funds obtained from the CRSP Survivor-Bias-Free US Mutual Fund Database, provided by the Center for Research in Security Prices, University of Chicago. Sample excludes index funds. Benchmark data provided by MSCI, Russell, and S&P. MSCI data © MSCI 2016, all rights reserved. Russell data © Russell Investment Group 1995-2016, all rights reserved. The S&P data are provided by Standard & Poor’s Index Services Group. Benchmark indices are not available for direct investment. Their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio. Mutual fund investment values will fluctuate, and shares, when redeemed, may be worth more or less than their original cost. Diversification neither assures a profit nor guarantees against a loss in a declining market.
By Jack Waymire
Perhaps you have read about a new Department of Labor regulation that mandates anyone who provides financial advice and services for retirement assets must be a fiduciary financial advisor. Retirement assets include qualified plans (401ks) and IRAs.
What does this mean and how does it impact you?
According to Wikipedia, a fiduciary is a person who holds a legal or ethical relationship of trust with one or more other parties (person or group of persons). Typically, a fiduciary prudently takes care of money or other assets for another person.
A financial advisor is a person or firm that is registered as a Registered Investment Advisor (firm) or Investment Advisor Representative (professional). This registration enables them to provide financial advice and services for fees. A financial advisor who holds one of these registrations is a fiduciary. Salesmen who claim to be financial advisors do not hold this registration.
Fiduciary is the highest ethical standard in the financial service industry. Financial advisors, who are fiduciaries, are required to put their clients’ financial interests first. Salesmen, who masquerade as financial advisors, are held to a lower ethical standard called suitability. They are supposed to make suitable recommendations, but this vague standard is very difficult to enforce.
Selecting a financial advisor who is a fiduciary should be a simple task, but it is riskier than you might think for these five reasons:
Protect Your Interests
There are five easy rules that will help you select a fiduciary financial advisor.
#1. Obtain written acknowledgement that the advisor is acting in a fiduciary capacity when providing financial advice and services.
#2. Make sure the advisor is a Registered Investment Advisor or an Investment Advisor Representative. Ask for written verification.
#3. Make sure the advisor is compensated with one or more of the three types of fees: Hourly, fixed, or asset-based (% of assets).
#4. Make sure the advisor provides ongoing advice and services – for example performance measurement reports.
#5. Go to FINRA.org/BrokerCheck to verify the advisor’s licensing, registrations, and compliance record.
As stated in #1, get all of the information you require to make a selection decision in writing. When your future financial security is at stake, it pays to trust what you see and not what you hear. Verbal information is usually a sales pitch that is designed to impress you. Documented information is more reliable because you have a permanent record.
Despite all the news coming from across the Atlantic, US stocks managed to turn in pleasantly positive numbers for the second quarter, with the S&P 500 returning 2.46%. US Small Cap stocks fared even better with gains of 3.79%. International Developed Markets were weak again, falling -1.05% for the quarter and Emerging Markets turned in a slightly positive .66%.
Interest rates fell again in the second quarter of 2016 resulting in gains for Fixed Income Markets. Over the last three months the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index Increased by 2.21% and has climbed 6.00% for the last year through 6/30/16. Municipal Bonds also saw significant gains of 2.61% for the last three months and 7.65% over the last year.
The turbulent end to the 2nd Quarter of 2016 is further evidence that the attempted timing of capital markets is never justified. The chart below indicates the brief but significant fluctuation in the S&P 500 from the June 23rd Brexit vote, to the June 30th quarter end.
Remaining disciplined in the face of unpredictability has always been one of the strongest tenants of successful investing. If you're portfolio is broadly diversified with exposure to multiple countries, sectors, industries and asset classes, you've already done everything you can to minimize the effects of Brexit and other expected events.
The Exchange Traded Fund marketplace has grown exponentially over the last 10 years. Almost 2,000 ETF’s are currently available with hundreds more in registration. In 2003, there was just over $200 billion dollars invested in these instruments. At the end of 2015 that number approached 3 trillion! Though many investors may be familiar with the features of ETF’s, few understand the mechanics behind how they work. It’s slightly complicated, but worth understanding. Here comes an ETF crash course.
What are ETF’s?
The first Exchange Traded Fund “SPY” was created by State Street Global Advisors in 1993. Today this basic S&P 500 index tracking ETF is still the largest on the market with over $180 billion in assets. Similar to mutual funds, Exchange Traded Funds offer investors a proportional share in a pool of stocks, bonds, or other assets. Unlike mutual funds, which are offered through a number of distribution channels, ETF’s trade throughout the day on the secondary market just like a stock. Hence the name “Exchange Traded.”
Mutual funds use forward pricing, which simply means the underlying basket of securities has a Net Asset Value (NAV) that gets calculated once a day. So, when you decide to buy a mutual fund during the day, its price is going to be the NAV at the next computation. An ETF’s NAV changes throughout the day as the underlying stock or bond prices change.
Their Key Selling Points
How do they really work?
ETF’s gain exposure to the market through a process know as creation/redemption. It all starts with a ETF provider such as iShares, Vanguard, or State Street deciding to create a fund. They must then assemble the list of underlying securities held inside the product. ETF’s are index-tracking products, so usually the list comes from an index provider like Standard & Poor’s, Russell, MSCI, etc.
The next step is to involve large institutional investors or market makers called authorized participants (APs). The APs role is to gather the list of underlying securities on the open market and deliver them back to the ETF provider. The provider then creates blocks know as creation units, generally in the amount of 50,000 shares per unit. Next, the ETF provider reengages the AP to place the units on the open market where retail investors can buy and sell shares.
Supply and demand dictates whether units need to be created or redeemed. If units need to be redeemed, the process works the same way in reverse. The AP can remove shares from the market by purchasing enough underlying securities to form a creating unit, delivering it back to the ETF provider in exchange for the same value in the underlying securities of the fund.
Wait a minute. Since ETF's trade like a stock throughout the day, doesn't that mean that prices could rise above the value of the underlying securities? The answer is yes. However, when this happens the AP has the ability to take action. If they see that an ETF is overpriced, the AP can purchase the underlying securities that make up the ETF and subsequently sell some of the ETF shares it holds on the open market. This process known as arbitrage represents a sort of a symbiotic relationship that keeps ETF share prices trading in line with the fund’s underlying NAV. The AP is motivated to take action because of the risk free profit they receive. The physical action of selling ETF shares can help to push current trading prices back in line with NAV. Both ETF and AP benefit.
Why are ETF's tax efficient?
A couple of reasons:
The creation redemption process allows the shareholders basis to remain intact. Owning a share is like owning your own fractional bundle of underlying securities that you can buy and sell on the open market. What’s the major difference from a mutual fund? When the fund manager decides to sell company XYZ, everyone sells it at the funds basis, and everyone shares in the capital gains or losses resulting from that sale.
Things to Consider
Investors often use them to speculate: I'm in favor of using ETF's in a buy and hold approach for disciplined investors. Unfortunately, their low cost and ease of trading make ETF's fashionable vehicles for market timing. It's the primary reason why most investors who invest in a specific ETF don't actually achieve the same level of overall return. Vanguard founder, John Bogle has been very vocal on the topic for years. In his own words, "We just haven't seen the collective ability to resist the urge to trade." In contrast, mutual funds don't eliminate this urge, but because they don't trade throughout the day, you could argue this behavior is less encouraged.
Some do have turnover: Most ETF’s have very low turnover because frankly, most indexes have very low turnover. However, when it comes to bond ETF’s, because the turnover tends to be higher due to the maturity constraints of an underlying index, you tend to see more buying and selling. You don’t see a whole a lot of ETF’s producing capital gains, but when you do, they usually come from bond ETF’s. Additionally, we are starting to see some more elaborate indexes, such as momentum tracking indexes, which require frequent reconstitution in an effort to capture a never changing subset of underlying companies. The regular shuffling of companies in and out also increases turnover potentially throwing off capital gains to investors.
The Reconstitution Effect: Admittedly, this is an issue for index investing in general, but since ETF's are most often public index tracking instruments, they may also be subject to the effect. In short, the goal of any index tracking fund is to track the underlying index as closely as possible. Therefore, when the index decides to add or subtract a company, so too must the fund. The issue is the fund publicly announces which companies are to be added and subtracted well in advance of doing so. The effect is increased trading volume in those companies to be added, thereby increasing the price at which the fund needs to buy them prior to it doing so. The same hold true for companies that are slated to exit the index. The fund may be forced to sell them at a depressed price due to heavier selling volume from investors in anticipation of the exit. Though this inherent inefficiency represents, what most academics consider, a modest return lag, it is certainly worth noting.
What does the future hold for ETF's?
While traditional open end mutual funds still have the lions share of assets it’s clear, exchange traded funds are widely popular. As more and more investors turn to index style investing partly due to the realization that the vast majority of active fund managers fail over long periods of time, my guess is their extraordinary growth will persist. The one thing that’s difficult to quantify is investor behavior. How much of the near $3 billion dollars invested in ETF’s is representative of buy and hold long-term investors? How much is represented by speculative day traders?
Despite their popularity, few investors still really understand how ETF's work, what makes them tax efficient, how they are created, how they are redeemed, etc. I hope this column helps to further the understanding of these easily marketed products, their benefits, and drawbacks. At the end of the day, as with any investment vehicle, prudence should always dictate their usage. Building a well diversified portfolio from the thousands of solutions available requires a degree of skill, diligence and discipline no matter the instrument.
A big thanks to Investopedia for a great interview. Check out the short video below:
A discussion on the Federal Reserve's perceived impact on interest rates.
A few days ago a working study was released talking about CNBC Mad Money host Jim Cramer’s inability to beat the market as measured by the S&P 500 over the last 15 years. It’s hardly the first time someone has taken a shot at him. I suspect it coincided with the timely release of the movie “Money Monster” where George Clooney plays a character said to be inspired by Cramer. The popular show which began in 2005 has included segments such as “Am I diversified”, Lightening Round” and “Pick of the week”. I get his shtick and have even been told by folks who know Jim that he’s an incredibly nice guy. What continues to boggle my mind is this: in spite of all the evidence, some viewers still look to the show for advice.
In his own words Cramer defines “mad money” as the money one “can use to invest in stocks ... not retirement money, which you want in 401K or an IRA, a savings account, bonds, or the most conservative of dividend-paying stocks.” The intention here isn’t to smear Jim Cramer or his popular show. There are certainly instances when sound logic is displayed. He’s openly suggested individuals should refrain from choosing actively managed mutual funds, sighting their underperformance vs. standard benchmarks over long periods of time. Unfortunately sound advice doesn’t keep viewers entertained for long.
Setting aside the overly dramatic antics that dominate the show, have viewers actually benefitted from his expertise? According to the study just released out of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Cramer’s Action Alerts Plus portfolio has underperformed the S&P 500 index in terms of total cumulative returns since its 2001. The portfolio he co-manages is a buy/sell strategy found on the financial website he started. The site also features a subscription service, which includes an exclusive Cramer market commentary.
You be the judge as to whether he helps or hinders investor behavior. I lean towards the latter, but give the guy credit for his high energy and entertainment value. Obviously he’s the main reason for the shows popularity. However, CNBC isn’t in the investment business. They don’t directly generate revenue from investment management or even advice. That comes from advertisers. Naturally, a larger viewing audience helps their cause.
The concept of 401(k) retirement funding is simple enough but very few truly understand how their plan actually works and why they should care. New light has been shed on these employer sponsored retirement plans with the recent passing of the department of labors (DOL) fiduciary rule. When the rule goes into full affect over the next year or so, all financial advice provided to retirement plans will require “Fiduciary” best interests practices. It’s clear; the DOL’s intention was to increase transparency in an environment where so much is unclear. For many investors’ 401(k)’s represent the primary retirement funding vehicle. This column will attempt to decode their complex components in plain English.
Plan Sponsor: Your Boss. The business owner at some point decided to establish a retirement plan for the benefit of their employees. Participants in the plan receive tax differed growth plus the added benefit of some percentage of employer matching contributions. The plan sponsor in turn gets a strong recruitment vehicle for attracting employees and tax deductions for plan contributions.
Record Keeper: Tracks the assets in retirement plans. They do a lot of other things but their main role is to track how much money you have and where it is allocated. Lot’s of types of money goes into the plan. The record keeper tracks what are salary deferrals (pre-tax or post tax), employer matching contributions, profit sharing contributions, rollovers etc.
Administrator: Their function is really the day-to-day operation of the plan including all paperwork, document filing, and testing to keep the plan compliant with all IRS non-discrimination requirements.
Financial Advisor: Selects the investments that go into the plan, monitors them for necessary changes and provides oversight and ongoing evaluations of the record keeper and administrator so that the plan sponsor can focus on the business.
Ok, so those are the players involved. Here’s where it gets confusing. The fees for these services are often blended together. One specific entity can act in multiple capacities and the cost of these services isn’t always explicitly stated. In most cases you have to dig deep to find out what you’re really paying, as there isn't always a separate invoice for each item. Whether paid by the employer, the employee of both, these costs are real. The trick is finding them. Here’s how.
408(b)(2) Fee Disclosure: Spells out the direct and indirect compensation paid to all service providers. Every plan has one of these documents. When the regulators passed this disclosure requirement a few year back, the intention was again transparency. While this is a great starting point, reading one of these things can look like hieroglyphics even to the trained eye. Nonetheless, it is solid reference for understanding the all in plan costs. It usually comes with the plans annual report which any HR department should have no trouble providing.
Fund Expense Ratios: If you still can’t figure out your plans expenses, here’s where you’re most likely to find the smoking gun. When you enrolled in your 401(k) you likely made selections from the list of investment options available. Every single one of those options has expenses associated with it, as indicated by the internal expense ratio. Well, not that entire fee is for the operation of the fund. Some of it is often parceled out to other parties such as the record keeper or administrator.
Additionally, I often see mutual fund share classes, which contain commissions or 12b-1 fees that end up going to the financial advisor attached to the plan. As mentioned previously, the DOL has focused its attention on the imprudence of adding commissionable products to retirement plans with the passing of the fiduciary rule requiring advisors to act in the best interest of the plan. In essence the fees for the service providers to the plan can be buried in the expenses of the very funds you select. This causes many participants to think they’re paying next to nothing for their 401(k) plans.
Just because fees are difficult to see, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. While I firmly stand as a staunch advocate for transparency, the bundling of these costs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given they're understandable and reasonable when compared to other plans that are similar to your own. 401(k)’s represent an estimated $4.4 trillion in retirement assets. For years the complexity associated with them has fueled the complacency of employers and employees. Today, I receive more questions than ever, as informed investors take a new interest in decoding their retirement plans.
Feature Investopedia Column
By Tim Baker
It’s the most sought after information in the investment world: where do returns come from?
“Expected return” represents the reward an investor can expect for the level of risk they’re willing to take. In truth, the pursuit of expected return really isn’t a search for return itself, but rather the reliable information that helps us to understand what determines it. The journey begins at the intersection of technology and financial science.
Thanks to technology’s evolutionary ability to harness massive amounts of data, we know more today than we ever have. With so many ways to evaluate any particular company, the question is: which factors matter most, and which provide the most credible evidence across time, geography and asset class?
The objective approach that financial science takes turns a blind eye to the name or even the reputation of any one company. It only cares about the search for reliable information that’s too concrete to dismiss. Over the last 60 years we’ve learned a lot about factors that influence expected return. Research has shown that over 90% of a diversified portfolio’s returns can be explained by its exposure to the market as a whole, to the relative size of the companies within the portfolio, and to their current market trading prices relative to the book value of all their assets.
Where Do Returns Come From? Let’s break that down. Why do these factors help us understand where expected return comes from? Start with this simple premise. There are two primary ways to invest in any stock exchange-listed company. Buy equity (stock), or buy debt (bonds). Basically, both are loans where investors supply a company with capital. Your incentive lies with the belief that a return on investment is probable. The tradeoff is your acceptance of risk, for the chosen company’s acceptance of funding.
Exposure to the market: So why are stocks riskier than bonds? Bond holders have priority claims at dissolution over stocks. All that means is if a company goes out of business, bond holders get paid first. Whatever’s left goes to the remaining stock holders. This is the generally accepted reason why stocks are riskier than bonds. Furthermore, it’s also the reason why investors should require a bigger potential reward for investing in them. Over the long history of capital markets, stocks have collectively outperformed bonds.
Exposure to small-cap stocks: Investing in the market is reasonable for most investors if they are willing to accept the risk/reward tradeoff. Now, what specific types of companies exhibit higher levels of risk? Consider the following scenario: Two companies: Joe’s Coffee Shop and Starbucks both walk into a bank. Both would like to apply for the exact same loan. If I’m the bank owner, which company gets the lower interest rate on their loan? Starbucks of course! They have a longstanding business model with worldwide distribution and tremendous brand recognition. Joe’s Coffee Shop is a small, one-man operation that nobody’s ever heard of outside of a five mile radius.
Reward for Risk It’s riskier to invest in the smaller company therefore; the bank should require a higher interest rate on the loan to Joe’s Coffee Shop. Investors have to be compensated for taking on the risk of investing in small companies versus big companies. Historically, the collective group of small company stocks has outperformed the collective group of large company stocks. They should. After all, they’re riskier.
Exposure to value stocks: Regardless of the actual size of the company, what about the perceived value of the company? On one end of the spectrum there are “growth companies,” loosely defined as firms whose earnings have grown faster than other’s and are expected to continue to do so. On the other end lies “value companies,” often represented as depressed or out-of-favor businesses whose price is low relative to the company’s actual net worth. Because these value companies have a depressed price, they exhibit higher levels of risk for most investors. This uncertainty requires compensation. As a whole, the collective group of what are deemed value companies has historically outperformed the group of growth companies. They should. After all, they’re riskier.
But diversification is still important! A diversified investment portfolio can eliminate the risk of any one particular company, country, sector or asset class from tanking an investor’s portfolio. There’s no such thing as a riskless stock or even a riskless investment. However, markets have historically rewarded different types of risk and therefore, risk helps to explain expected return.
How Returns and Information Are Linked The search for expected return is the search for information itself. Unfortunately, not all leads are credible. The financial industry regularly rushes products to market citing new research without thoroughly understanding its validity. The research I’ve mentioned has been published for decades and has multiple Nobel Prize winners attached to it.
Contrary to popular belief, there are very few “eureka” moments in the search for expected return. Today’s research more often than not stands on the shoulders of yesterday, building upon itself with incremental adjustments. For this reason, I generally recommend a healthy level of skepticism when the next big investment idea comes along. There’s a good chance it’s the same stuff we already know about just repackaged with attractive marketing.
WealthShape’s pledge is we don’t believe anything until it is thoroughly tested in a lot of differed ways. That means weeding through all the research and then the massive number of funds claiming to apply the research to find optimal portfolio solutions.
University of Chicago Booth Professor and Nobel prize winning economist Eugene Fama talks about the evolution of modern finance.
In the span of roughly 20 minutes the highly rated Mississippi offensive tackle, Laremy Tunsil dropped about 10 spots to the number 13 pick in the NFL draft. Moments before the draft began a video of Tunsil smoking an unknown substance from a bong surfaced on his twitter account. The tweet was deleted just minutes after posting but the damage was done. Some analysts estimate the incident may have cost him in the neighborhood of 7 million dollars in salary.
However, there was more on display here than costly twitter images. What the draft also demonstrated, was the speed at which information travels, and the subsequent market re-pricing based on new developments. In essence, Tunsil’s draft stock went from an exceptional, can’t miss growth prospect to distressed undervalued gamble.
In the weeks and months leading up to the draft, teams scrutinize over the most trivial details surrounding the athletic abilities, physical features and personal lives of potential draftees. 32 NFL franchises set the market for the 253 draft slots. Each team has its own unique set of needs with only a small talent pool to choose from. The consequences for missing with a boom or bust prospect are severe; often costing head coaches their jobs. Run-ins with the law, knee injuries and work ethic all represent elements of risk.
While Laremy Tunsil began the draft as an asset many were willing to sacrifice a costly number one pick for, he quickly became a discounted value choice for the eager Miami Dolphins, who never expected him to be around by the 13th pick. On the field few questioned his athletic ability. As a three-year starter in college football’s toughest conference, he kept some of the nations best pass rushers at bay with his size and agility.
Teams pay more for players with strong track records due to the expectations that consistent earnings, in the form of on field success, will persist. With Tunsil, the price teams were willing to pay changed in an instant because suddenly he became a heck of lot riskier. Time will tell is his transgressions were momentary lapses in judgment or demonstrations of deep seeded character flaws. In 3 years we’ll know if the 12 teams that passed on him dodged a bullet, or if the Dolphins landed a their next Pro Bowl player at a tremendous value.
On Wednesday April 6th the department of labor (DOL) announced a new fiduciary standard of care for brokers who provide retirement advice. Prior to the announcement commission based brokers were held to a less stringent standard of care, requiring only that advice or product offerings be “suitable” as opposed to “in the best interest” of the client. Many fought this decision every step of the way suggesting smaller clients would be adversely affected and compliance costs would sky rocket due to the change. For registered investment advisors like WealthShape, the announcement amplifies the message we’ve always had. For us, solely acting in a client’s best interest was never in question because we’ve been doing it all along.
Some believe that this rollout will take place with little fanfare, but not me. Over past few years, I’ve witnessed a change in the publics understanding of the complexities in the financial advisory landscape. Today, virtually all of the new clients coming to WealthShape come with a cursory understanding of the conflicted interests associated with product pushing brokers. You might say the industry was moving in the fiduciary direction anyway; the new rule just speeds up the process.
Of course there are exceptions
Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE): Essentially, the same commissionable and conflicted interest practices that were permitted before are still permitted. Here’s the catch. The client must agree to a BICE contract, which provides appropriate disclosure and transparency about the products and compensation received. My only issue with this is that the contract is likely to get buried in the monotony of paperwork just like everything else. Therefore, it is really up to the public to educate themselves on what they’re actually signing.
Why it all matters
While I’m confident a great many investors eyes have been opened, I know that many are still in the dark on these concepts. This rule will be highly publicized in thousands of media outlets, but lets face it, the word “fiduciary” isn’t exactly a household term. At least now, when the topic turns to financial advice, a greater number of people will ask tougher questions.
It’s too early to tell the long-term implications. Heck, with a new administration, the rule could even be overturned, although I think it would be a hard sell. Retirement advice and in particular, qualified plans such as 401k’s and 403b’s are likely to initially fall under a greater degree of scrutiny. Key parts of the rule don’t go into effect until April of 2017, followed by a transition period through January 1, 2018.
All in, this paves the way for a greater standard of care. It demands more transparency from brokers and shines a light on the “suitability” vs. “fiduciary” delineation. There were caveats to the rule that I wasn’t the biggest fan of; the largest being it only applies to retirement accounts and not taxable investment accounts along with the best interest contract exemptions. However, while I and others like me believe a fiduciary standard should apply to all investment advice, this appears to be an important step in that direction.
Following a rocky start to the New Year, most markets rebounded to end the first quarter of 2016 on a slightly positive note. The S&P 500 recovered during the last six weeks to post positive returns of 1.35% and emerging markets surged to a very strong opening quarter gaining 5.71%. US bonds also rallied with the Barclays Aggregate bond index up 3.03% for the quarter. US small companies and international developed markets finished in negative territory down -1.52% and -1.95% respectively.
Markets faced serious headwinds at the tail end of 2015 due to slowing economic growth around the world. Combined with rising interest rates, a strong dollar, and falling commodities prices, we faced a perfect storm of factors that ticked off a stock market correction. However, after falling by as much as 10.5% earlier in 2016, the S&P 500 gained 6.8% in March. Given the roller coaster ride we've had this year, the recent gains are a testament to the resilience of investors.
YTD=Year To Date performance through date listed above. Index Data: US Large Cap Stocks: S&P 500, US Small Cap Stocks: Russell 2000, Developed International Markets: MSCI World EX US Index, Emerging Markets: MSCI Emerging Markets Index, US Bonds: Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index
Wealthshape Audio Insight
By Tim Baker, CFP®
Advice and investment design should rely on long term, proven evidence. This column is dedicated to helping investors across the country, from all walks of life to understand the benefits of disciplined investing and the importance of planning.