The Long Game

April 16, 2017

Happy Easter!

Successful investing requires a far sighted vision. At the end of each year Vanguard sends its customers their long term outlook. This last one contained a few caveats: “the investment environment for the next five years may prove more challenging than the previous five, underscoring the need for discipline, reasonable expectations, and low-cost strategies.”

Vanguard’s ten year estimate of annualized returns is about 8% for non-US equities, 6.5 – 7% for the US stock market, 5% for REITs (real estate) and commodities, and 2% for bonds.

Vanguard’s team projects that a diversified portfolio of 60% stocks/ 40% bonds will return 5.6% annually over the next ten years. An agressive 80/20 mix they estimate at a 6.6% return, and a very conservative 20/80 mix at about 3.3%. Insurance companies typically adopt this safe approach. (Source)

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ANNUITIES vs. MANAGED PAYOUT?

Investors near or in retirement must often turn to their investments for supplemental income. Annuities are sold as a safe “set it and forget it” solution, but they come with upfront fees and currently pay low interest.

In early 2008, before the fianncial crisis, a 65 year old man could get an average annuity (the average of a 10 year and life) for 5.5% a year. That provided a guaranteed income that was more than the classic 4% “safe” withdrawal rate for retirees. That 4% withdrawal rule would normally ensure that a retiree did not run out of money before they died.

The average annuity rate for that same age is now half that interest rate (Source). For an investment of $100K, a 67 year old male living in Colorado can get a lifetime annuity of $7212 per year (CNN Annuity Calculator) For 14 years, the insurance company providing the annuity is essentially returning the investor’s money to them. If that male investor lived for 20 years till age 87, they would receive a total of $144K, an annual return of only 1.84%. If the retiree lived to 97, their annualized return would increase to 2.5% over the thirty year period. Clearly, an investor is paying for safety.

Wade Pfau is a CFP whom I have cited in previous blogs. Here he compares the advantages and disadvantages of investments vs. insurance. He makes an argument that an annuity that covers one’s essential needs allows a person to take more risk with the rest of their portfolio. The potentially higher return from the investment side of the portfolio can thus make up for the lower returns of the annuity, an insurance product. He does caution, however, that most annuities do not protect against inflatiion. A investor who needed $1000 extra dollars in monthly income in 2017, would need more than $2000 in 30 years at a 2.5% inflation rate.

Managed Payout?

One alternative is a managed payout fund. The Vanguard Managed Payout Fund VPGDX lists the fund’s holdings as 60% stocks with an almost 20% allocation to alternative strategies. Alternatives vary in volatility depending on the intent of the investment but let’s treat them as though they were mostly a stock, giving the fund a simple effective allocation of 75% stock, 25% bonds. This fund lost 43% from April 2008 through March 2009, less than the 50% loss of the SP500 index but not by much. A broad composite of bonds (BND) actually gained 3% in price during that time. Here is some info from the investing giant Black Rock on alternative investments.

The return of the fund since its inception in April 2008 is 4.28%. Vanguard’s broad bond composite fund VBMFX, with far less risk, had a ten year return of 4.12% and gained value during the financial crisis. Although some mutual funds have trade restrictions, the prospectus on this fund lists no such restrictions, so that one could set up a monthly withdrawal from the fund.

A Vanguard target date 2030 fund (VTHRX), which has an allocation of 70% stocks, 30% bonds, had a ten year return of 5.31%. That fund lost 45% during the eleven month downturn in 2008-2009, slightly more than the Managed Payout Fund.  The additional 1% annual return is the reward for that slightly greater drawdown. A 1/4 of that additional 1% return can be attributed to lower fees.

The advantage of a Managed Payout Fund – simplicity and regularity of income flows – does not outweigh the disadvantages of volatility and some tax inefficiency. An investor could conveniently set up a monthly withdrawal from a broad based bond fund and enjoy the same return with much greater safety of principal, lower fees, and control over the withdrawal amount, if needed.

When it comes to retirement income, most investors would prefer the simple arithmetic of our grade school years.  Both Social Security and traditional defined benefit pension programs use that kind of math.  Each year, a retiree gets ‘X’ amount that is adjusted for inflation.  No choices needed.  However, most employees today have defined contribution, not benefit, plans. A retiree owns their savings, the capital base used to generate that monthly income, and it is up to the retiree to  navigate the winding channel between risk and return.

The Weathervane of Growth

April 10, 2016

CWPI (Constant Weighted Purchasing Index)

March’s survey of Purchasing Managers showed a big upsurge in new orders for the manufacturing (MFR) sector. Export orders were up 5.5% in both the manufacturing and services (SVC) sectors and overall output increased 2% or more.  After contracting for several months, MFR employment may have found a bottom.  The total of new orders and employment is still growing but below five year averages.

The broader CWPI is still expanding but at a slightly slower pace for the past seven months.  The cyclic pattern of declining growth followed by a renewal of activity has changed. While there is no cause to make any strategic changes to allocation, it does bear watching in the months ahead.

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IRA Standard of Care

Financial agents – investment advisors, stock brokers and insurance agents – have had different standards of care when they deal with their clients.  The first and highest standard is fiduciary: the agent should operate with the best interests of the client in mind.  Registered Investment Advisors (RIA) are registered with the SEC and follow this strict standard. The second and more lax standard is suitability: the agent should not sell the client anything that is not suitable for the client based on what the client has told them about their circumstances.  Here’s a short paper on the difference between the two standards.

This week the Obama administration issued new guidelines for agents servicing IRA account holders, requiring agents to maintain the higher fiduciary standard starting in 2017.  This requirement was left out of the Dodd-Frank finance reform bill because many in the investment industry lobbied against it.  Here is the first rule proposal in February.

Opponents will criticize the Obama administration for this “new” set of regulations but this policy has been recommended by some in the industry, on both sides of the political aisle, for at least 25 years.  During the 1980s Congress made several changes that made IRA accounts available to a wide swath of savers, most of whom were unfamiliar with the marketplace of financial products now available to them.

Some in the insurance and investment industries fought against the imposition of a stricter fudiciary standard because it would require more training and would likely reduce the sales commissions of agents.  The growing volume of tax deferred employee retirement plans has generated a steady stream of fees for those in the financial industry.

Keep in mind that the new policy only applies to retirement accounts.

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Debt

Banks are in the business of loaning money, meaning that they must loan money to stay in business.  Most of the time some part of the economy wants to borrow money.  Borrowers come in three types:  Household, Corporate and Government.  If households cut back on their borrowing, corporations may increase theirs.

A historical look at total debt as a percent of GDP shows several trends.  Keep in mind the leveling of debt since the financial crisis.  We’ll come back to that later.

In the thirty years following World War 2, debt levels remained fairly consistent with the pace of economic activity.  The three types of borrowers offset each other.  Households and corporations increased their borrowing while government, particularly the Federal government, paid down the high debt incurred to fight WW2.

In 1980 the Reagan administration and a Democratic House began running big deficits, contributing to a spike in the the total level of debt.  By 1993, when President Clinton took office, Federal and State Debt as a percent of GDP was about the same as it was at the end of WW2.

A combination of higher tax rates and cost cutting by a Republican House elected in 1994 led to a reduction in government spending as household and corporations increased their spending.  Total debt levels flattened during the late 1990s.

Following the 9/11 tragedy and a recession, government debt levels increased but now there was no offset in household borrowing as mortgage debt climbed.  Helping to curb the pronounced rise in total debt levels, a Democratic House at odds with a Republican president dampened the growth of government borrowing in the two years before the financial crisis.

Arguably the most severe crisis in eighty years, the financial crisis caused both households and corporations to cut back on their borrowing.  Offsetting this negative borrowing, the Federal government assumed an often overlooked role – the Borrower of Last Resort.  We are accustomed to the role of the Federal Reserve Bank as the Lender of Last Resort, but we might not be aware that some part of the economy has to be the Borrower.  That role can only be filled by the Federal government because the states and local governments are prohibited from running budget deficits.

Look again at the second chart showing the huge spike in government borrowing following the financial crisis.  Now remember the leveling off of total debt shown in the first graph.  The Federal government has increased its debt level by more than $10 trillion.  Almost $4 trillion of that has come from the lender of last resort, the Fed, but the rest of that borrowing has offset a significant deleveraging by corporations and households.  Had the Federal government not borrowed as much as it did, many banks would have experienced significant declines in profits to the point of going out of business.

There is a potential bombshell waiting in the $2 trillion in corporate profits that businesses have parked overseas to delay taxes on the income.  If Congress and the President were to lower tax rates so that corporations could “repratriate” these dollars, two things would happen: 1) corporations could lower their debt levels, using the cash to pay back the rolling short term loans they use to fund daily operations; and 2) the Federal government would lower its debt levels as the corporations paid taxes on those repatriated profits.

Great.  Lower debt is good, right?  Unless households were to step up their borrowing, total debt could fall significantly, causing another banking crisis.  Although politicians on both sides like to talk about bringing profits home, such a move will have to be done slowly so that the economy and the banking system can adjust in slow increments.

Partisans cheer when candidates express strong sentiments in rousing words, but cold caution must quench hot spirits. We can only trust that candidates for public office will temper their campaign rhetoric with prudence if entrusted with the office.

401K

In a 5/6/09 WSJ “Fund Track” article, Jennifer Levitz reviewed proposed changes to 401K retirement plans, which are the primary savings for 60% of workers.

One proposal is a listing of 401K fees on investors’ statements. A second proposal is a more automatic access to retirement plan participation. Obama’s budget “calls for the future establishment of a program in which all workers would be automatically enrolled in employers’ retirement plans.” There would also be a mandate for those employers without retirement plans to “enroll their employees in a direct-deposit individual retirement account.” Employees will have the choice to opt out of these plans.

Some industry proposals would limit equity investments in target-date funds. These funds are supposed to change their investment mix to be more conservative as the current date approaches the target date, when an investor presumably needs income from the fund. These funds are used for retirement and for college savings. This bear market revealed that some funds with target dates of 2010 had 60% of the fund in stocks, an inappropriately aggessive mix that prompted large declines in value as the stock market sank.

Other industry proposals are greater tax incentives for workers and employers who participate in 401K plans, and the creation of government insured annuities that would provide a dependable source of income for retired workers.