The Volatility Scare

January 24, 2016

Last week I wrote that I smelled capitulation.  When the Dow Jones (DJIA) dropped more than 500 points on Wednesday, I smelled burnt barbeque.  Historically, there is a weak correlation between the price of oil and the stock market.  In the past few weeks the 20 day correlation between the oil commodity ETF USO and the SP500 is .97, meaning that they are chained to each other in lockstep.  If that relationship continues throughout the month, investors can expect a continued bumpy ride.

Several factors helped indexes recover in the latter part of the week. After dropping near $26 a barrel, oil rebounded above $30 at the end of the week.  Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank (ECB), indicated that the bank was prepared for additional stimulus.  Sales of existing homes climbed in December, indicating a level of confidence among U.S. families.

Since the first of the year, investors have withdrawn $26 billion from equity mutual funds and ETFs (Lipper), offsetting the $10 billion inflow into equities in the last week of 2015.  Fund giants Fidelity and Vanguard report that their customers have been net buyers of equities despite the turbulence.

Volatility (VIX or ^VIX at Yahoo Finance) in the last half of the week dropped to the 8 year average of about 22.  We have enjoyed such low volatility in the past few years (mid-teens) that investors are especially sensitive to price swings.  For a long term perspective, here is a chart showing some multi-year averages of volatility.

A few weeks ago, I noticed an acronym for the 2008 Global Financial Crisis – GFC.  The memory wound is still fresh for many. Older investors with their working years largely behind them may feel even more vulnerable in times of higher market volatility.

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Fund Fees

Employees in 401K plans may not know how much money they are paying in fees each year.  One of the charges is what is called a 12b-1 fee, and you will need to breathe slowly into a paper bag while you read about this one.  Each fund has an investment advisor to administer the fund’s investments and the fund pays a fee for this service.  In addition, under some plans, the advisor charges the fund holders a separate marketing and distribution fee, the so called 12b-1 charge, to promote the fund through sales materials or broker incentives.  Wait, you might ask.  Shouldn’t marketing expenses be part of the advisor’s fee? Well, you would think so.

The Annual Report that accompanies your 401K statement might list one of the funds you are invested in as “Blah-Blah-Blah Growth Fund, Class R-1,” hoping you are going to sleep.  The R-1 class means the fund is charging you 1% for marketing and distribution fees. Here is a glossary of the classes of mutual funds and the percentages of 12b-1 fees.  In addition, funds have  varying sales or redemption fees which are denoted by a letter class for the fund, i.e. Class A, B, C.  The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) explains these here.

The  SEC has a FAQ sheet explaining the various fees.  These charges might seem small but they add up over a working lifetime.  The SEC provides an example  of the 20% difference in value between a fund that charges 1.5% fee each year and one that charges .5%.  FINRA, the industry group that certifies and regulates financial planners, has a mutual fund expense calculator that enables an investor to compare fund expenses by their ticker symbols.

I compared an American Funds Class A Balanced Fund ABALX that might be found in a 401K with a Vangard Admiral Balanced Index Fund VBIAX over a ten year period.  Taking the default assumptions of a 5% return on an initial investment of $10K, I had $1670 more in the Vanguard fund after the ten year period, or an additional 3 years of return.

Some 401K plans make it more difficult to compare performance or fees.  They may list a fund whose ticker symbol is not listed on any exchange but is a “wrapper” for a fund that is listed.  The only way to find out that information would be to look at the prospectus or other materials for the 401K fund or visit the web site of the 401K plan administrator.  How likely are many participants to do that?  That’s the point.

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