Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mutual Fund Investing: So what are mutual funds and how can they improve your life in 2011?

You have mutual funds if you have a 401(k). Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs)hold mutual funds as the primary investment and despite their use throughout the world of investment and retirement planning, too few people have a positive attitude about what this tool can do for them. Most of the negative propaganda comes in spite of the ease of use, often lower expenses than any other investment tool, accessibility, better transparency (or well on the way to providing better insight) and often, tax efficiency. Some do this with great effort; others revamp their portfolio only when an index is restructured.

So what are mutual funds and how can they improve your life in 2011? There are only two types: actively managed or those indexed to a specific grouping of investments. From there, it gets complicated but getting from there is where the whole traffic jam of ideas begins. It makes no matter, which school of thought you ascribe to if you do at all: everyone needs and actively managed group of mutual funds and a passive group if you expect to do anything worthwhile in 2011.

In the coming year, one which is predicted to be quite good despite my doubts, which I will put forth in couple of days with my year-end look at 2011, diversity will deliver more than simply chasing one ideology of the other. The "indexers believe that these sorts of funds are all you need to succeed in any year. Offset by relatively low costs, these funds make up for hoping that that through diversity they can achieve better than average returns for those who invest in them.

As a group, index investors are a fervent bunch. They espouse this investment as the be-all-to-end-all tool and in doing so, give those who chose the other camp - the actively invested mutual fund - to wonder if they may be right. There are reams of research that indexers point to as the reason why they believe this approach. But passively sitting back and letting the market determine your investment outcome is not for everyone.

Actively managed mutual funds are structured in the same way as index funds: a portfolio of investments (stocks, bonds or both), a manager (be it one, more than one or a computer), disclosure and regulatory rules that they must abide by, and performing as billed, if not better. The difference in who picks what is in the fund. Index funds are determined by an index published by such notables as Standard and Poors or Russell or Wilshire. Actively managed funds contain investments picked by management.

Both bring like-minded investors together to pool their money and in doing so, offset the risk and cost of having to build a similar portfolio on your own. Actively managed funds try and outperform their index counterparts in large part because it is these indexes, right or wrong, in which their performance is gauged and graded. If they do better than an index, investors notice, add their money and create increased opportunities for the fund manager to increase those returns with additional acquisitions.

It doesn't always work and some comparisons are unjust (how can you compare a fund with fewer than 100 holdings to one where 500 are held?) and do not paint a true picture of performance. But in tandem, they might work for different reasons for everyone interested in a more profitable 2011.

In times of turmoil, everyone feels pain. When the whole of the marketplace dropped precipitously in 2008, no investor escaped. Some were damaged more than others but as a group, we all felt pain in some form almost at the same time. Investors who simply plowed money into a 401(k) or loaded up on their own company's stock and thought that investing was a world of do-no-wrong, were given a rude awakening. Those that traded actively on their own and were beginning to feel some invincibility creep into their results were caught unaware as well.

And in the past year, investors in US stock funds did what they had done in the previous three, withdrew more than they invested, Called outflows, they impact mutual funds harder than the selling of shares from your own portfolio. These outflowing funds are produced with the sales of a portion of the portfolio. And every such move impacts the remaining shareholders in the mutual fund.

Inflows, or your money pouring into a mutual fund comes automatically in a 401(k), through deductions into an IRA and self-deposited by individual investors. Yet only a handful of people I speak with everyday likes the idea of a mutual fund as an investment and if last year was any indication, think fund focused on the US stock market alone is not the path to financial success.

Why? We want simple things to work extraordinarily well. Nothing does but we expect it of mutual funds. We want low fees, we want moderate risk and we want to know that our money is safe from market interruptions and taxes. And at the same time, we want growth, to retire early and to have our investments perform without hiccup for decades. Only mutual funds can do this - even if we dislike the idea.

Low fees, moderate risk, safety and tax efficiency is a tall order with three of the four fitting the index fund bill. Safety is subjective and safer, even more so. But no equity index fund alone can do this. No bond index fund alone can do it either. Target date funds, hybrids of other equity and bond funds (and often a basket of such funds from the fund family) promise all of the above but have yet to prove they can deliver.

Yet three out of four isn't bad. Put this type of fund in a Roth IRA and put as much as you can in it, consistently over 2011 and you will do as well as this year has done (which looks to be two back-to-back years of double digit gains for the S&P500 index). Even if you do half as well as the 20% plus gain in 2009, you'll be way ahead of where you'd be otherwise.

In the other group, looking for growth, outsized returns and freedom from hiccups, look to your 401(k) where your employer may be retuning to offering a match in 2011. If they do, this is not so much free money as hedged money. A 6% match added to your 6% contribution gives you a lot more room to assume risk that you probably are. Retiring early is a dream even as we acquiesce to work longer. But it can be closer to a reality if two things happen: you invest more and use actively managed funds in your 401(k) to get there and the market corrects a little in the first half of the year. This means buying more for less and positioning yourself for a good 2011. Not 2010, but close.

Whatever your outlook for 2011, a tandem approach to investing - using index funds and actively managed mutual funds might be the best approach in the next year. Be cautious of only two things: this isn't advise and be careful you don't over-expose yourself in any one sector.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Are you asking the right questions about your portfolio?

Most questions you should ask yourself about your retirement you do not ask. It isn't because you don't have the question in hand. In many instances you do but you simply fail to seek the answer. For example: when would like to retire is much different that when will you retire. Both queries speak to the same time in your life when your current working career shifts into another realm. But the answers, like the questions, are different.

Target date funds, the darlings of the skittish post-2008 investor, the new-hire and the plan sponsor who believes they are doing the right thing by their employees, the funds that pick a date in the far-off distant future, a point in time when your retirement is supposed to happen don't answer the question the way we all assume. In fact, they may not answer it at all.

Target date funds are designed with, among the obvious pick-a-date moniker, an asset allocation shift over time. If you buy into a fund, such as one that picks 2040 or 2050 as a retirement date, you will have, at least according to the sales pitch, an aggressive to conservative journey spanning the next 30 to 40 years. The idea is that your fund will find the right investments to gradually ease you from being exposed to equities and the potential growth they offer to fixed income and the protection they offer over that time period.

So which fund do you pick if you can't or won't answer the either question? Imagine a 25-year old entering the workforce. They have the opportunity to pick a fund that reflects an investment arc spanning 40 years. Even if they don't understand how to invest or what to invest in, there is little likelihood that this employee will stick with this plan and this fund over that period. Few people buy any mutual fund and devote that sort of loyalty to a fund that almost predicts diminishing returns (all in the name of capital preservation).

As the worker ages, things change. Life happens and in the process, you become more educated, perhaps more risk tolerant (or averse), and you understand the markets better. This changes your investor approach to these funds. You begin to question their strategies, how they allocate the money you dutifully send each paycheck, and whether the fund is doing as advertised. And after all of that, you would have to aks yourself, when will I retire? And if I do, will I keep this fund?

Target date funds come with risks. Many of which are well-known even if they are not well understood. The Labor Department is looking to clear up this confusion for target date investors even if the information is already available - if under used.

Among those risks are disclosure of the fund's asset allocation. Depending on your time horizon, the fund you pick and how that mix of assets changes over time, every target date fund differs in their approach. Now keep in mind, most of us will encounter these funds in a 401(k) plan and have little ability to shop around for a target date fund that does better. Also keep in mind that "better" is a tough call. Any comparisons made between two similarly named funds ends right there.

The Labor Department would also like the the significance of the target date explained. Even the most novice of investors can grasp the target. What they can't wrap themselves around is the fund's investment policy. Few can and because of this, even fewer read this already published information. And what troubles the Labor Department the most about these funds, often given set-it-and-forget-it status in the minds of many of these investors is the inclusion of a including a statement that the fund could lose money - and it might happen close to retirement.

How could something so simple become so complicated? You pick a retirement year (simple) and the fund matures with you (simple) and because there are no guarantees (complicated) and no way of telling whether this is the right fund on the day you put your first dollar in it (even more complicated), how do you know?
Charles Jaffe of Marketwatch believes it is a "to or through" question. Will you have the fund at retirement invested as conservatively as possible or will you be keeping a couple of decades after you retire? Something this simple should be this complicated. The question is really to or through but "why bother"?

I have no problem with auto-enrollment of new hires. I have no problem with educating and offering these new employees some insight on how their 401(k) operates and what it offers. I do however have a problem with the perceived safety of the target date fund in the plan and the seemingly risk-free idea that this is a fund you keep  even if the employee will not stay with the company - or that particular fund - forever or at least until that retirement date.

Making target date fund reporting more transparent as the Labor Department proposes is not going to make the task of choosing easier for those considering this type of fund or who have been auto-enrolled in one. Most mutual fund investors know that there is risk - some can even describe it. Most know that there are no guarantees. Yet target date funds seem to offer a false assurance that time is on your side in a way that is not so for other retirement investors. And that is a problem.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Your 401(k) should have been your retirement savior

Despite the metaphors surrounding what retirement planning is supposed to be: a three legged stool, a three pronged approach, whatever visual cue you need to make sense of the process, your retirement is or at least should be, a lopsided financial affair. It should be something that works as a part of whole but not in any sort of equal sense. Social Security and the state of your financial affairs at the time you decide to quit working is really only supposed to be a small part of the retirement plan. In truth, the most prudent people who plan their retirement do so without any consideration of income from any outside source.

Not so in the years following the Great Recession. The vulnerabilities are now something we have seen first hand and many of us have recoiled in horror. Instead of relearning where we went wrong, we looked for the safest rock to hide under. Perhaps that is why, when the latest report from the Investment Company Institute was released this past November, your defined contribution plan or for most of you, your 401(k) was given equal stature amongst the other two "legs" of the retirement stool.

Social Security was designed to help keep those without from becoming destitute in retirement. Not surprisingly, the report points out this use of the program by those who are the least fortunate, the lower paid worker, as more reliant on those benefits than the higher paid worker. As they look at a post-ERISA world (the 401(k) actually came nto being in 1981), they conclude that this has always been the case and if it has, then so be it.

But the study wasn't designed to be much more than a good-old-boy pat-on-the-back. The ICI sees the distance between the demise of the pension as the sole means for retirement among workers in 1974 as a trip worth traveling. Coming out on the other end of that journey finds the lobby arm of the mutual fund industry rather satisfied. they point out that the median income from a defined contribution plan per person in 2009 was $6,000; in those same 2009 dollars, the same median was $4,500 in 1974.

It is not surprise that many of the remaining firms in the private sector still maintain them. But these plans are not considered a reason to work at these companies when it comes to the younger workforce. Pension breed company loyalty while 401(k)s allow workers to shift jobs when a better offer is available. On the other hand, pensions often leave this same group of workers with no retirement benefits, essentially, at least according to the ICI report, when vesting rules and the timing of benefit accural are used as a rodbloack to getting those benefits for time worked.

But during the time frame they used to conduct the comparisons (1975 to 2009), Social Security now makes up a larger share of retirement income even among those who had assets and other income sources. Based on per capita income at either end of the spectrum, with the lowest income group using just 2% of what the study calls asset income with an 85% reliance on Social Security compared with what the higher income group employs (20% assets and 33% of income from Social Security).

While the ICI celebrates the success of the defined contribution plan that replaced the private sector pension and they point out that those with DC plans are doing better than DB plan recipients in the past, one simple fact remains: we aren't doing enough.

While the answers seem clear: you need to invest more - probably much more than you would be comfortable in making, live smaller now while you are working, and hope that your health, inflation or taxes doesn't take a toll on those accumulated finances. In the face of such daunting news, you could expect a pull back. Instead of increased focus, we would get more ennui. Instead of an emphasis on better educated investment and financial decisions, we should expect more use of what we assume of are set-it-and-forget-it investments such as target date funds.

To answer the question in the title: was your 401(k) intended to be complimentary for retirement? I believe the answer was no. It should have been the investment savior, a Wall Street miracle. Trouble is, now many people. financial professionals included are looking for a way to provide the same guaranteed income that those long-shunned pensions provided. And when they do, we will wish it was 1975 all over again because it will come at a much higher cost than we imagined.

Monday, November 15, 2010

To Index or Not: Mutual Fund Investors still ask

It isn't like this would be a fair fight. But get two investors who believe in one or the other in the same room, and the index fund investor would declare their style the winner, based on low cost alone. While fees play an important role in the long-term objectives of any investor, particularly those using mutual funds for retirement, the idea of long-term has seen its day come and go. As Tom Lydon of ETFTrends suggested recently: "The notion of buy-and-hold investing shows signs of falling out of favor. Ten years ago, 80% of advisors’ portfolios were buy-and-hold. Today, that’s 30%."

Which leaves the actively managed mutual fund investor, often described as a resident of Lake Wobegon (where everyone is above average) as the beneficiary of this shift ininvestment style. The question that every index fund investor will ask every opportunity they get: how do you pick an actively managed mutual fund if so many underperform?

And it is a good question. But the problem is, how do you make that call if you are essentially comparing these sorts of funds to those that buy across a broad market? An index fund, for the sake of argument we'll use the S&P500 index as an example, buys the top 500 companies. These companies are in the top 500 due to market capitalization. But index funds don't buy all 500 equally, weighting their funds based on numerous criteria.

Among those are as I mentioned, market cap. To be eligible for this index, a company must have $5 billion of market worth (issued stock) with 50% of that stock available for the public to buy. They must be based in the US - it doesn't matter where they do business as long as the headquarters are on US soil, follow GAAP reporting practices and offer sector representation.

The weighting of an index like this, which many investors assume is done much more evenly, actually gives the top ten companies based on market cap, over 20% of the index, leaving the 490 remaining companies to fill out the rest of the index. How would this sort of style compare to a actively managed mutual fund that owns less than one hundred stocks in their fund? Talk to an indexer or as they often refer to their group as Bogleheads, after the man who brought the index fund into existence (there were attempts made earlier than Mr. Bogle's but the ability to do it correctly was dependent on the advent of the computer) and they would quip, there is no comparison.

Yet, this is the very comparison they make, time and again. Their argument does hold some merit. Index funds have lower fees because they trade only when the index changes. (This is an irony lost on many indexers as the these funds must divest any interest they might have in a stock taken from the index and purchase any security the index has added - a sort of counterintuitive move of selling losers and buying winners.) Many still charge 12b-1 fees even if they are in company sponsored plans and act as the default investment. Over five years, performance of the S&P500 index has been north of 15% and that was due to the large amount of value given those top stocks in the index and the dividends paid by many of these large businesses.

Actively managed funds do have more to contend with in terms of trading (more frequently but the best funds do so prudently without changing their whole portfolio in a given year) research (they aren't given a group of stocks to buy as the index publishers do) and their are management fees (the cost of hiring a professional to wade into the marketplace for you). Yes these do impact the overall returns of a fund and as investors focus more on these items, they have dropped significantly in recent years.

So what do you get with an actively managed fund that isn't there for indexers. Obviously, a bit more nimbleness, less buy-and-hold and if your fund manager is good, acceptable returns. Most investors do still look to the performance - and too often in the short-term, as in a year or even a quarter just past - as the tool most likely in their portfolio picks. Doing this at the exclusion of tenure - how long the manager has been at the helm - the fees - they should be low, under 1% with a portfolio turnover in any given year of less than 60% - and should be able to best their peers in both categories, if not the index they are often compared to, over five years or longer.

Indexed funds have pluses that seem outsized compared to actively managed funds. But too often, a one size fits all approach to investing is not suited for everyone and this is where actively managed funds fill the void left by that sort of approach.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Are Mutual Funds that Short a Good Idea?

Most investors don't understand the idea of a shorting an investment. The concept is relatively straightforward: an investor essentially bets that a stock will go down and if it does, profits from the fall. Going long does the opposite, wagering that a stock will move higher. This was formally the purview of the hedge fund, those high dollar investor clubs with equally high fees, that sought to use every market strategy available to gain ground for those investors.

As I said, this was formerly something of an investment style that was not available to mutual fund investors. But this is a different investment world and the mutual fund industry, in its own way, acknowledges that trend with a group of funds that offer a defensive footprint in the market. In other words, rather than simply assuming that all stocks will go higher, they believe their research and expertise can locate stocks that move in the opposite direction.

Studying an online MBA with an emphasis on finance can get you up to speed on mutual funds. If you don't have such a background, this information will help you understand shorting your investments.

The question is: is this a good investment for your portfolio and more specifically, how do you avoid the lure of their promise to do better than traditional funds or even ETFs? It's no easy feat launching a mutual fund and even though some appear new, they can take a year or more to hurdle regulatory requirements before the first share is offered.

In almost every instance, when it comes to investing in mutual funds, the basis for your decision rests on not only the tenure of the fund manager, but the length of the fund's performance. This backward looking approach doesn't always serve the investor well when it comes to picking a fund based on what it has done compared to where it is now, nor does this sort of comparison reveal the true nature of the fund's ability to best the overall marketplace, a field now numbering over 8,000 potential offerings.

When times are bad, as was the case twice during the last decade, good years can be wiped from the investors view, replaced with averages that make the fund appear lackluster.

New funds don't have that sort of problem. They're new, with no history and no track record. Just a charter and a manager. So new investors are forced to look at the fund family (which provides research and oversight) and the previous experience of the person(s) at the helm. This is no easy trick and requires a leap of faith. Not the soundest of advice; more like a word or two of caution.

According to Dan Culloton, associate director of fund analysis with Morningstar: "They're [long-short mutual funds] responding to the market fears and frustrations over the past 10 years. A lot of it is just pure-and-simple rearview mirror product management." One hundred and fifty new funds have decided that this is a market worth exploring.

Among the new offerings, seventeen are focused on emerging markets. This particular sector is teeming with potential and just as many problems. It is those problems, which can range from anything like political unrest to poor financial infrastructure are widely thought to be the main drivers in such an investment space. And the risks in some of those bets were indeed high. These new funds (some of which can be found here and do not constitute any recommendation to buy) have done quite well for themselves in the years following the downturn in the US stock market.

There is also opportunities to play both sides of the extremely volatile commodities markets. Many of us have watched with great interest the demand for some commodities and understand the risks involved. Yet we a lured by the potential returns this sector can offer, looking for some way to mediate those risks.

Enter the commodity mutual fund designed to play off of those investor fears, the world-wide demand for many commodities in short supply, and the ability to find profit where other investors may not yet be. And because they short securities as well, they bet some investors will not be there for long (the reasons vary from currency policy changes to the perception that something may be overbought and ripe for a bubble pop). You can find a list here.

But are these funds right for you? Yes and no. Yes if you are looking to fill a small corner of your portfolio, perhaps as little as 5-10%. There are great deal of more traditional investments that allow you to see where the fund has been and where it is headed. These still remains the best tools for making a decision on where to invest your money. And no, if you are easily swayed by the relatively high returns these funds have been providing investors over their short-life spans. That temptation can easily allow you to increase those percentages to too high a portion of your portfolio, eliminating the best diversity plans.

And since a vast majority of us will be using or retirement portfolios (401(k)s and IRAs) to do this sort of investing, special caution is worth considering.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The One Fee You don't need in your Mutual Fund

Mutual funds, as we all know, are a group effort. The thinking goes something like this: the more investors in the fund, the higher pool of available cash for investments. To attract this pool of investors, mutual funds advertise. A 12b-1 fee is essentially the cost of this advertisement. If you are buying a fund from a broker, chances are they were compensated by this fee. On the surface, this costs seems to be one of those cost-of-doing-business fees that for the greater good of the investor pool is levied on all the owners of the fund.

But what if the fund is charging you this fee inside your 401(k)? Should you pay for something that has already been marketed to your employer? This sort of fee was first introduced in the late seventies when investor distrust of the stock market was at an all-time high. Mutual fund companies argued that in order to keep their product viable, they needed to increase the number of investors and the only way to do this was to advertise their product.

Fast forward thirty some odd years later, past the greatest bull market, past the introduction of the 401(k), past the two big bubbles of the first decade of the 21st century, past the default investment in our retirement plans, and the fees still exist. According to SEC Chairman Mary L. Schapiro, the reasoning for these fees, which are paid by the investors in these funds has passed. In a press release detailing the SEC's examination of this fee, Ms. Schapiro writes: “Despite paying billions of dollars, many investors do not understand what 12b-1 fees are, and it's likely that some don't even know that these fees are being deducted from their funds or who they are ultimately compensating.” That lack of transparency at a time when we want to see what our fund dollars are doing when they are not generating returns is troubling.

So the SEC believes that the need for 12b-1 fees has passed. “Our [SEC] proposals would replace rule 12b-1 with new rules designed to enhance clarity, fairness and competition when investors buy mutual funds.” Yet, like all decisions of this nature, there are bound to be casualties. 12b-1 fees are still used by smaller fund families for the very reasons they were initially adopted: to grow the pool of investors. Larger funds families, who have household names and a firm foothold among investors still levy this cost on its shareholders.

Inside a 401(k), where you are essentially a captive audience, these fees offer no benefit. According to BIll Barker, writing for the Motley Fool "They are not used to improve the research of stocks bought for the fund, nor in any way to improve the performance of the money already invested in the fund." And because of that, he opposes them. So do I.

Without any identifiable benefit to existing and often long-term shareholder, the cost of this fee, often $2 on every $1,000 invested should go away. Inside a 401(k), this fee is something bordering on criminal. In a closed fund, one where the fund is no longer accepting new shareholder but still allows current shareholders to contribute to the fund, 12b-1 fees are an abomination, costing their fund participants millions of dollars. (A mutual fund can close for a variety of reasons, the most popular being that they simply have too many shareholders which makes investing according to the charter difficult.)

If you have funds in your 401(k), tell your plan sponsor to do something about it. This is fiduciary responsibility they may not have been aware they had. If your mutual funds still charge these fees and you agree with the investment community - the folks who put their hard-earned dollars in, not the people who sell these products, let the SEC know. You have until November 5th to voice your opinion. You can do so here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Overvalued Emerging Market

It is easy to be attracted to emerging market mutual funds in your portfolio. If you are investing through a 401(k), you have noticed in your last statement how well they have been doing. Your US equity funds have done well over the same quarter or even perhaps YTD. But the contrast with the mutual funds that might be available to you that invest in other countries might have caught your eye.

Return envy is still one of the primary weakness that investors have. They see a fund that has done well, in this case, almost the entire sector, and we jump, feet first without knowing whether there is a shallow bottom or not. In the world of emerging market mutual funds, that bottom might be closer than you realize.
Emerging market mutual funds have a great deal of headwind to navigate as they get those returns. And just like the days of yore - only two years ago or so - risk is the reason why. Those risks are numerous.

First is the money issue. No country can be considered a viable investment unless they have a good banking system. That statement could be the reason why many stateside investors have looked to other countries for their investment needs. But in truth, the US does have a better banking system than most countries abroad. In its defense, it is able to survive a serious economic blow, put together a plan to recover from it and, although it can be criticized for many of its moves of late, it will still survive even if it is has already shown much of its financial hand. The simplest way to do this si compare a developed and mostly mature system such as that of the US and those in that outperforming emerging market fund.

The second issue is politics. We might have what seems to be a chaotic and disagreeable political system. But because of that robustness, we can be assured that even though we don't know what taxes will be, the discourse on how much we pay will be discussed at length and resolved with compromise. In addition to how the government operates, it is still a business-centric governing body that even when it falters in doing what it considers right, it does what it considers best for the creation of jobs. And even if the US seems to be burdened with regulations, many of which are direct and legislative reactions to abuses, countries overseas have placed these sorts of restrictions before the fact. This keeps investments and innovation under the control and purview of whomever is in charge at the time.

The third issue is economic freedom. While we take capitalism for granted, it si not the case in the largest emerging markets. It is often difficult to comprehend that a country the size of China or India could be considered emerging. But the definition of emerging suggests that while growth seems to be on pace and often well-beyond that of the US and Europe, it is done without the transparency that we enjoy. If China has the ability to drop a trillion dollars in cash into its economy - something a developed country would need to borrow to do - this offers a glimpse of instability.

The fourth issue is risk. By risk I mean your ability to predict and project how much you might make and how much you might lose. Most of us don't do this sort of metric exercise prior to shifting our money from one place to another. We look at all of the basics: return, tenure, return, cost, return, risk, return. And then we buy.

Understanding the risk in an emerging market mutual fund is much harder because of the reasons I have already discussed. But risk comes in numerous forms and the one most likely to derail you is diversity. You may, through your target date funds, your index funds, and even your bond funds, all of which may bill themselves as domestic, may have placed some of your money in markets your are currently looking at with envious eyes. Diversity in a portfolio simply suggests that of there is trouble in one place, not all of the investments you own will be impacted the same. Some will fair better than others.

The fifth issue is investor impatience. Most emerging markets are not near maturity and therefore have a period of time to traverse before they become more reliable. Political unrest needs to be quelled, businesses need to feel as though their investments are safe from political unrest, money needs to be available to be borrowed and infrastructures are solid enough to make it all possible. This is difficult feat in developed and relatively stable economies. Imagine a country on less solid footing, unable to embrace different political outcomes and survive them more or less intact. Which means, the investor who is willing to pay the higher-than-normal fees for such funds, need to wait a much longer time to get back what they have invested in portfolio risk and cost.

This is not to say you shouldn't have emerging market funds. Ten to even twenty percent of a portfolio would be acceptable in most instances. Just be prepared for cloudy days and they will come and you will want to sell. But the developed world needs emerging countries to buy their goods. In that sense, the investment becomes symbiotic and over the long term, you will probably be pleased. But be warned.

(One final note: the exchange traded fund - ETF - market for emerging market investments has grown substantially. In this author's opinion, the risk of selling too frequently and chasing minute returns, as ETF investors are more likely to do,  poses just as much a risk as you would face if you simple held this investment for a longer period of time.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

More than Just Mutual Funds: A Peek Inside your 401(k)

There is no such thing as a simple choice.  We may be very familiar with the options available and we may know a large amount of details about those choices.  But when faced with making the decision, we often freeze, unable to decide and even questioning the whole process.

Just get behind someone at a fast food drive-up window and wonder how long does it take to order from a menu that rarely changes. Your 401(k), the defined contribution plan that many of us have, puts us in the retirement planning drive-up lane and forces us to make a choice.

Few people ever decide to drive on through without making a selection.  Once in the line, you are sandwiched in by the person in front of you, the car behind you and the prohibitive curb. This is your 401(k). This is your 401(k) menu.  Order now, pick-up at the second window, pay at the first and be satisfied with your choice in large part because there is no going back, no changing your mind or adding something else on to the pick you have made (without exiting your vehicle, which defeats the whole purpose).

This is where almost every 401(k) plan in this great nation fails.  Once you have been put in the drive-up lane, you are stuck. You are essentially given a select number of choices, many of which are easy to determine how much they cost in part because your plan is now loaded with index funds, which basically resembles your dollar menu.  Cheap and (portfolio) filing without a lot of extras.

Then the seniors portion of the menu, also bland (and bond-like), suggests that you can get value from your invested money by making sure you get your dollar back - or at least in theory. The kids menu has gotten smaller over the years your plan has existed because there is fear that if this portion of the menu were too large, you might find the restaurant liable for (actively managed mutual funds) choices that were too expensive and fraught with risk.  They could throw in a toy but you would want proof that you could purchase this item without ever being dissatisfied.

So they offer you menu items that you wouldn't expect.  These are items that would be better suited at a sit-down establishment where the big spenders go - not because they want to spend more, they just want to think they are more sophisticated than the general population.  This is the ETF (Echange Traded Funds) choice.

And then we have the value meals.  This portion of the menu dominates the process and in effect, bogs most of the line down if there should be someone who is indecisive. These are your target date funds, a combination of mutual funds tucked under one banner which suggest that you can pick a year in which to retire and the item you choose will not only be worthwhile, but will also fulfill its promise.

Everyday, folks drive up to their 401(k) plan and are forced to make a choice.  Everyday, your 401(k) plan is scrutinized by regulators. Everyday, 300,000 advisers go out to the field and, well for lack of a better word, advise.  That's 300,000 different drive-up windows, sponsored by just as many employers for millions of employees.  A daunting task indeed.  Which is why you are dissatisfied with the choices: you think that there is a better drive-up window someplace else.

Of those 300,000 advisers, the vast majority of them, according to Fred Barstein, the president of 401k Exchange "half have one employer plan. Half of those have at least three plans. Fifteen thousand or so, or about 5%, have at least five plans. Then there's the 5,000 or so elite advisers, who have at least 10 plans, $30 million and at least three years experience."  Mr. Barstein, who is also columnist for the Employee Benefits Adviser site, suggests that the fees that these advisers charge have dropped significantly in the past several years, which is good for the participants but makes it doubly difficult to make a living doing this sort of work.

Not only is the competition stiff, the drive towards least expensive and lowest risk has sliced the revenue stream in half. You might think this would be good for you, the 401(k) plan participant. Turns out, it hasn't been as good as you thought it was.  In this particular scenario, these sorts of plans have become more generic, less customized and inelegant.

When an adviser approaches your employer, the sell goes something like this: You want almost zero liability, almost zero costs, and near zero effort on your part and I, the adviser, will do this by offering target date funds and perhaps a huge basket of index funds and, if we can figure out how to squeeze one in, an annuity.  None of these offers your employees any guarantees, the adviser might suggest ,except for the annuity, which illustrates a distribution of retirement income and unfortunately comes with a cost (a trade-off of sorts).

Is it any wonder why you sit at the drive-up menu for longer than you should?  All of the choices look the same. And then there is the problem of getting you to order the product best suited for you. Here is where they suggest a sort of buy one get one free (or the matching contribution). By the time you get to the drive-up window, you may been sitting in line, waiting your turn for almost a year.  Then to get the other half of the buy one, get one free offer, you may have to wait an additional period of time (a vesting period that can be more time than you planned on staying with the company to get).

Then there is the super-fast lane where you are essentially put on a bus, driven through without access to the window at all.  The driver, your employer in this example, orders what they believe is best suited for you - take it or leave it. In this situation, you will be dropped into a target date fund and told that you can opt out (go hungry) or stay in and believe that this menu choice is probably the best one for you because someone thought it might be.  That someone is the adviser.

Now Mr. Barstein does suggest that at its rawest, it is about selling. Selling a plan involves training, partnering and a constant source of information. Much like fast food drive-up windows, who might consider your health as a passing interest in order to get you to come back, increase their bottom line with a salad and offset fears that their choices are not the best ones available (doing it yourself will always be more satisfying but more time consuming as well), your 401(k) plan is designed to fill you up.

The adviser and the plan sponsor hope you drive off happy and satisfied.  As long as you drive off and don't sue them.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Keeping that Balance and Maintaining It: Asset Allocation

Dan Solin is right when he suggests that no one ever brags about their ability to achieve optimum asset allocation. Its not all that sexy and quite frankly, lacks the sexiness that doing something extreme often nets you.  Something like not using asset allocation.

Asset allocation is something of a mystery to most of us although no writer worth her/his mettle would bypass the opportunity to tell you it is one of the keys to investment success.  You will hear those who use index funds as a primary driver in their portfolios selling the notion that once you embrace this passive sort of investment, asset allocation becomes second nature. It certainly becomes easier.

To allocate assets is to take and spread risk across many different stocks and bonds.  The idea here is that no market performs in tandem.  Some corners will remain sluggish while others shoot for the moon.  Asset allocation keeps you in both but keeps you involved in a measured way.

Too much of any asset class usually means that asset is doing really well. This is where the tough part comes in.  If that asset is doing so well, you probably should begin selling some of it in favor of the assets in your portfolio that aren't doing so well. This sounds sort of counterintuitive and I'll explain why it shouldn't.  Even if afterwards, it still does.

Because we are talking mutual funds and not individual stocks, and we will for the sake of the argument, use index funds as an example.  A large cap index fund may be in favor with investors because investors are looking favorably upon the companies in the index. But you also hold an index of small-cap companies that seem to be lagging behind - at least as a comparison. To continue to send money to the ever-rising fund, you should take some of the profit off the table and transfer it to your other allocations, balancing your investments at the point you began.

But, you stammer, that fund could go higher. Why sell a winner? Because that is what you do to make money: sell winners.  But in order to keep your allocation in balance you shift those dollars to the other funds in your portfolio, buying shares in those funds when they are less expensive.

Should you consider using actively managed funds in this process? Depends on your age and whether you plan on focusing on the balance among the funds in your portfolio. If you have a fifteen year or longer time horizon until you estimate you will begin to tap your account for income, feel free to take your chances.

Index fund users will never stop stressing the importance of fees and the low cost index funds have. And this is important.  But fans of the actively traded mutual fund are also focused on fees and equate performance against this measure. But the comparisons are difficult and calling this type of investing successful depends on numerous variables. (From which benchmark is being used to how many funds are spread across how many asset classes, the variables can astound and compound.)

The importance lies in keeping that balance and maintaining it. The only risk you can add to your portfolio is not adjusting your allocations at lest once a year. We are in for a volatile decade, as unemployment strings out, debt continues to be an issue and the tax debates continue and that is not without some pressures in the stock and bond markets.  This balancing act wil take time and effort.  But the person who bothers will end up with more years of positive returns than someone who fails at this decidedly unsexy task.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Old Mutual Fund vs ETF Argument or An Investment Stranger than Truth

Mark Twain once submitted an essay to a contest about the art of falsehood.  In it, he suggested that only children and fools tell the truth, citing what he thought of as an old proverb.  What really dismayed him wasn't the actual lie, he described that as: "as a Virtue, A Principle, is eternal; the Lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man's best and surest friend, is immortal, and cannot perish from the earth while this club remains" , it was instead the ability to deliver in a successful way. A noble art he called it. Which makes theETF lie all the more true.

What do we know about ETFs? We know they are low cost. But perhaps not as low cost as they might seem.  For the investor moving millions of shares, or even thousands, the costs are just as low for them as it is for the investor owning a single share.  They are basically index funds.  But they are also stocks.  And the lie that owning a single share is just as costly as owning a million or so is told so often, individual investors often become dismayed, even disillusioned by the security when they purchase or sell it.

ETFs are not meant to be a buy-and-hold investment. This is actually a truth designed to look like a lie. Folks who buy ETFs intend on selling them, sometimes at the close of the trading day only to buy them again at the beginning. You can do this when the quantities are huge.  But when they are small, you are left with some tough decisions.  Wait it out and hope that the big investors jump back in or sell on the movement?  Either way, you have bought and are left holding.

ETFs have made the market more democratic and safer. On the other hand, ETFs are responsible for the flash crash where the Dow dropped a 1000 points and regained 650 points. Perhaps not directly, but indirect selling in those ETFs and of those ETFs created more volatility than was needed. According to Chuck Jaffe at Marketwatch: "Many ETF investors set stop-loss orders — pre-scheduling a sale to protect profits if the share price drops to some pre-determined level — but that didn’t minimize their pain in the flash crash, as the market busted many of those orders, flying past the limits because there were no buyers at those prices." The truth was that just because you have something to sell, there will be buyers.  The lie: someone always wants what you have unless everyone is selling the same thing.

ETFs are not mutual funds. Except when they are. If it looks like a basket of stocks or bonds or whatever is popular and you can't afford to buy each and every company in the sector, you look to make a purchase as a group. That is a fund with a mutual benefit.  The fund goes down and everyone loses except when the smart ones get out first. And that is the peril with a fund acting like a stock and trading openly throughout the day.
Some folks just know more than you do and benefit from that. No, they are necessarily seers or prognosticators or even forecasters.  They are just intuitive and quick and you are at work and busy and about to lose more than you thought you could.

Markets are not scary, therefore ETFs aren't scary - its investors who are scary.  Investors often don't have time to be scared before they are scarred by their own inaction. ETFs create volatility because that is how they are designed. Suppose you knew that something big was about to happen in technology or pharmaceuticals. You being a smart investor wouldn't look for an individual stock; you would buy a basket. And soon as the news panned out, or didn't, out you would go.

ETFs in your 401(k) are a good idea. Perhaps one of the single biggest lies being told by retirement planners.  They tout the low-cost, the employee demand and anything else they think the poor guy or gal in HR or in the CFO's chair wants to hear.  But ETFs in a 401(k) drips commissions and fees to the plan sponsor and gives the employee the illusion of doing something they really aren't doing.

The ETF lie is true. Odysseus told numerous fictions to a wide variety of people, each crafted to the circumstance of the one receiving the falsehood. The Greeks may have given the liar his due, even their admiration of a lie well-told. But when it comes to your portfolio, when it comes to your circumstance and your willingness to hear what you need to hear, the ETF is crafty fiction indeed. Good for some who understand it. But for those who think they do, it is simply a deception.

This article originally appeared at and was written by Paul Petillo

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Which Mutual Fund is Better?

The world of conservative investing that has developed over the last couple of years has done so with sound reasoning.  People who buy fixed income believe that in doing so they are protecting their investments in the safety of debt.  That debt, be it from Treasuries or corporate bond issues has seen prices rise while yields drop.  yet they continue to put money in what many are now seeing as the next bubble.  But many equity fund managers are now suggesting that this bull market in bonds is about to end as unemployment continues and economies around the world still struggle.  Are equity funds worried about the investor or the fees they are (or are not) generating?

David Pauly, writing in Bloomberg pointed out that "These managers are concerned about their fees: On a dollar- weighted basis, stock funds on average collect 76 cents in fees for each $100 invested compared with 61 cents at bond funds." Even as money flowing into bond funds increases, PIMCO, the world's largest bond fund company predicts that this bull market in bonds is poised for collapse. When is subject to debate.

We have near zero interest rates, the housing market continues to see price stagnation and there doesn't seem to be any concerted effort by the government to get back into the stimulus game.  Unfortunately, it is the stimulus provided by government that has allowed us to get this far, even if "this far" is still short of where we should be in this economic recovery.

Because investors still see the potential for yet another slide into recession, bond fund inflows have increased as a compared to their equity counterparts.  While these investors are doing so because the believe that bonds still are far less risky than stocks, they may simply be kidding themselves.  Risk, the much needed element in any portfolio seeking to grow, is not something bond investors necessarily believe they are taking when they channel their money into these investments.

That risk is the price.  Bonds are priced based on the willingness of investor to pay for safety and the more they believe this, the higher the price goes.  As the price goes up, the yield falls.

Should the economy double dip, this bet will be worth taking.  But if investors (even if they are prompted by their money managers to get back into the stock market - as Mr. Pauly suggests because of better fees charged by the equity funds they represent) decide at some point that the economy is improving, the sell-off will leave a lot of late-to-the-game investors holding losses they didn't think possible.

Mark Trumball, writing in the CSMonitor outlines this risk: "It's hard to predict when a shift will occur, but at some point, many investment strategists warn, Treasury bonds will become the worst-performing bonds of all. That's precisely because these bonds are considered to be among the safest investor havens during hard times. If a crisis mind-set eases, Treasuries have run up so far in price that they have the furthest to fall."  Should this shift occur suddenly, not only will individual investors be in trouble, but large pensions funds who have difficulty moving quickly, will also suffer.

Inflation also plays a role.  Bond investors will demand some compensation for the increase in inflation, something that has been so far, benign. Robust recoveries usually indicate an increase in inflationary pressures and there is no indication that this recovery could be described that way. Bond gurus also point out that if the bond bubble should burst, should inflation suddenly spike, the retreat away from bonds will not mirror that sudden retreat investors in equities often exhibit.

Vanguard points out that the safety in bonds is likely to be less dramatic in large part because as bond prices drop, yield will increase. And this will keep many investors with a choice: keep the bonds they have flocked to or sell them for the rising opportunities in the equity markets. But Vanguard's prediction that investors will simply freeze may not take into account the nature of investor behavior. They are in bonds because they were frightened of losing their hard-earned money.  But if they see a return to out-sized gains in the stock markets, they may just vote with their feet again.

Vanguard argues that in no matter what happens, bond investors will still do good. In a bad economic situation, the point to historic likelihoods by suggesting the investors who stayed in bonds saw a high relative return.  In a good one, they point out the higher nominal returns will occur. They point out that the rise in interest rates will affect the short-term bond more than the long-term.  Their analysts see a rise (over the next five years) in 2-year Treasuries from 0.81% to 5.28% (rates for longer termed bonds will rise less dramatically from 4.43% to 5.56% over the same five year period).

But this depends on numerous factors including a steady inflation rate, the continued purchase of US debt by foreign banks, predictable increases in the Feds fund rates, modest GDP increases and you. If you hold steady, these predictions will probably come to fruition.  But if things improve in the equity markets and you panic, the bond bubble will burst, albeit slowly, in spite of Vanguard's argument that you will still do okay if you had done nothing.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of

Monday, July 5, 2010

Not Paying Attention to the Cost

“To live is to choose,” writes Kofi Annan adding that “to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there”.  No, Mr. Annan wasn’t trying to offer suggestions on how to run a 401(k) plan for his employees or even what to do when faced with a plan that suggests you can be somewhere it has no intentions of taking you to in retirement. Yet we repeat this thought when we approach our retirement options: choice is good, regardless.
We all understand the importance of preparing for retirement and using the tools at our disposal in our 401(k) is often placing at our efforts at risk in the markets.  What we don’t understand is the cost of that risk.  More here.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Mutual Funds and Performance Based Fees

Investors talk a good story when it comes to fees. While much of the conversation is begun by those who advocate index funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs are index funds that trade like stocks), the question of fees, how they should be paid and even more importantly, how much is usually based on why they (actively managed mutual funds) charge the rate they do. If mutual fund fees are so important to the investor, why haven’t they pushed harder for performance based fees?
Often referred to as the fulcrum fee, this method of charging the investor based on how well the fund manager actually did has been attempted in the past (and is currently being adopted by the Janus fund family) but has not received much more than a luke warm embrace. Is it because we simply don’t invest the way the wealthy do?
by Paul Petillo, Managing Editor of

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Do You Know Where Your Muni Bond Fund is?

The vast majority of us who own municipal bonds, do so inside of a mutual fund.  But munis may be in a bot of trouble with more on the horizon.

We want to believe it simply isn’t so. Municipal bonds or munis, those hometown or home state, often tax exempt debt instruments which are favored among the 
retired, the soon-to-be retired or those looking for a conservative but well-paid return may be facing a little headwind. But truth be told, you should have noticed.

When you buy a municipal bond, you are essentially buying a project believed to be worthwhile for the city, county or state issuing the debt. They are rated in much the same way as a corporate bond is with a single exception worth noting. If a municipality issues a bond and has difficulty paying the coupon, they often simply raise the local tax rate to cover the shortfall. But like all sorts of funding, the increased tax revenue that would pay for the bond payment shortfall is also in short supply.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mutual Fund Fees

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when mutual funds were not highly regarded. They did provide the average investor with the opportunity to purchase their segment of the stock market with the guidance of a fund manager and comfort of knowing that others felt the same way you did. After all, they were giving this fund their money as well.
But not all investors were thrilled with the arrangement and in the day before the internet, the only way you could find out if your fund was charging too much for their services, was to dig. Not all of us were inclined to do so. We were average investors.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Comparing Mutual Funds to ETFs

If you wonder whether the comparisons most often made between ETFs (exchange traded funds) and mutual funds are done without bias, you would be wrong.  To understand why these traded index funds continue sell their attributes based on cost alone is to miss the point.  While they do have very low fees, as all passively traded funds should, the believers in this investment tool trumpet their attributes but do so not by comparing them to the benchmarks they mimic but to a completely different type of mutual fund, the actively traded variety.
The actively traded mutual fund can be costly.  The reasons for these costs are often quite simple to grasp.  Actively traded mutual funds incur additional costs due to trading more frequently, the research required to make those trades, the assumed risk involved and of course the increased management of those portfolios.  Although it is common practice to use benchmarks as a way of determining performance of actively managed mutual funds, it is not often indicative of what the fund is attempting to accomplish and how many underlying securities are in the portfolio.
Actively traded mutual funds own only a portion of the benchmark (indexes such as the Russell 2000 or 3000, the S&P 500, or total market). More on this unfair comparison.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Make Your Retirement Work the Way You Want: Self-Directed IRAs

Many Boomers may have rolled their 401(k) in an IRA (I hoping you didn't cash it out) and in doing so, was faced with which investments were best.  Some of us already have IRAs but still crave a little more control and possibly, greater returns.  There is a way to do all of these things.

Today we are going to tackle the self-directed IRA. We all know what an Individual Retirement Account or IRA is. Briefly, it is the retirement tool for those of us who may not have access to a 401(k) that defers taxes for retirement. The deferring part is not really as complicated as it seems. In a 401(k), you have your contribution taken out before you pay taxes; in an IRA, you pay with after-tax money and then take the deduction when you file, basically subtracting the taxes from your contribution to be paid later.

How is a regular IRA different than a self-directed IRA?
The differences are not as obvious as the title of these products sounds. An IRA is an investment chosen by you and you direct the funds to it for your retirement. It seems like this should be called self-directed but in reality, it is very different from what the IRS views as a self-directed IRA.

In a self-directed IRA, you become the manager of the whole process. Rather than simply sending money to a mutual, fund company, the most common sponsors of IRAs, you direct the underlying investments. In the previous example, the institution is the middleman. In a self-directed IRA, the institution, whomever or whatever one you chose, does what you tell them to do.

While it might seem complicated and finding good help at a reasonable cost is not that easy, the rules are relatively straightforward. Following to the letter is something you have assumed was done for you in the past; not it is up to you.

Find a Trustee for your Self-Directed IRA
A person looking to open a self-directed IRA is in the same position as someone who is opening a Solo 401(k), which we discussed a couple months ago in our retirement planning for small business owners. You need to find a company that will open the self-directed IRA and act as a Trustee, essentially doing whatever you tell them to do. Then you sign broker-to-broker papers and you are done.

Keep in mind, that if you have a Solo 401(k) for self-employed investors, this process was already completed. If you have what is known as Customized Business Pension, you are also ready to take the next step. Sometimes, a self-directed IRA is referred to as checkbook IRA and the rules may require you to open an LLC or limited liability company. Either of these plans removes the custodian and that makes the investment possibilities immediate and up-to-you.

This is relatively easy and worth the effort. But you do have to be careful. Be sure that whatever the self-directed IRA profits from is paid to the trust and not to you directly. This will be the same as a distribution before they are done without penalty. This means that any gains in the IRA will be tax-deferred. So what you are doing is making your money work harder for you now than it might have been in the past.

You can invest it virtually anywhere: a franchise, rental property, annuities, you name it. You are in charge. The only two things you cannot invest in are life insurance and collectibles.

The Rules
There are few rules to follow when choosing your investments. One, you can’t invest in yourself or the spouse of the IRA owner. For that matter, the Internal Revenue Code or IRC prohibits you from investing with any of your lineal descendants and ascendants. This also includes an entity with combined ownership greater than 50% by a disqualified person(s), a 10% owner, officer, director or highly compensated employee of such entity or a fiduciary of the IRA or person providing services to the IRA.

You can’t sell your assets to the IRA either. You can’t use it to loan money to your kids or pay yourself fees for the work you have done. And you can’t use it to buy the home you live in now.

Opportunities for the Post-Recession World
This types of retirement plans opens a whole slew of possibilities for someone who as an IRA or possibly has been rolled over into one because of a job loss. There are some hard fast rules, which you can check last week’s show link to hear about, but done right, this can create outsized gains your plan may not have created otherwise.
First off, I want to caution you. Not so much about following the rules, but understanding right away, that every investment involves risk and investing in real estate can involve quite a lot of it.

The money in this IRA can be used to buy anything from Single family and multi-unit homes, apartment buildings, co-ops, condominiums, commercial property or land, improved or unimproved, leveraged or not.

The goal here is to find income producing property and have it pay your IRA. Whether you buy the property outright or finance it, the IRA owns the asset, not you.

Can You Finance this sort of loan with your IRA?
Because the IRA owns the property and the property’s value is the collateral for the loan, the only thing you have to figure out is how to pay off the loan. If the property is producing income, it pays the IRA which in turn pays the mortgage holder. Sometimes you can use other assets in the IRA or permissible contributions can be made. This is what is known as a non-recourse loan because you cannot extend credit to your own IRA.

The whole transaction needs to flow through the IRA as if it were separate from you, which it sort of is.
The cost is broken down into two categories. Management fees that the custodian charges. Not all firms who manage retirement accounts can so your choices are limited. I’ve included a few links to begin your research but by no means are these companies recommended. This is relatively small, niche market with only about 2% of the almost $4 trillion invested in IRAs under management.

And the cost of property management, taxes, and repairs is another fee the IRA must pay. With any luck, the property will be able to cover these costs with the rental or lease payments.

Some might say “buyer beware”.
Whenever you have such a small marketplace, oversight is not always done the same way it is done among bigger segments of the investment world. I expect that this particular segment of the world will begin to grow rapidly as folks realize that their old job isn’t coming back, their unemployment insurance is about to run out and they haven’t borrowed from their IRA – so far.

Another reason you should be careful is more about what you know. Buying real estate with your retirement money is actually done best by folks who have some prior knowledge about what they are getting into. Perhaps they were involved in the business before. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but the more you bring to the game, the better your chances of winning.

You might also look into a franchise with this money. You can also buy debt. Your IRA can become a lender of sorts buying notes on cars, Treasury bills, even lending money to companies looking to raise capital. Always wanted to invest in a hedge fund, with a self-directed IRA, it can invest. Want to invest in precious metals, foreign stock or partnerships and/or joint ventures; your IRA can do this as well.

A couple of simple pieces of adviceObviously there is the risk factor, which makes this not the be-all-to-end-all for all investors. But if you know what you are investing in and the pitfalls of that investment, you can calculate the costs in advance, this can be like heaven-sent. If you are looking at real estate, the potential is there for people who have the money to pursue some amazing bargains. 

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of