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.