Monday, May 30, 2011

Heard about Herds?

It has been decades since behavioral economics took hold as a science of investor actions. Designed to study the irrational decisions that we all are apparently hard-wired to make, the field grew into a respectable and well-quoted discipline. Which is fine. We know we have incredibly limited potential to redesign ourselves, despite the pushing and prodding in one direction, the look-in-the-mirror study of our own foibles and the instructions on how to improve this very human lot in life. But we muster on. And this is why, even despite the improved access to our 401(k) plans does our retirement still suffer.

Studies done quite recently suggested that most folks will simply accept the status quo if given a confusing situation. Investing is just such a case-study in chaos, less so for the experienced investor, but even for that group, a churning pool of information keeps them struggling to keep up. But the behavioralists  insisted that auto-enrollment in a retirement plan would create great strides for the plan and even greater rewards for those who may have - and still do have the option of - opting out.

Auto-enrollment we have found out is a trip through the wardrobe. We may all have taken the first step. But what awaits us on the other side, in almost every instance, is our irrational mind. And in almost every instance as well, a less-than-wonderful 401(k) plan. But more on the plan later. Let's just focus on what we have done recently as we embrace our biases, follow our illusions and believe in the fallacies.

There have been several alarms ringing on Wall Street and those who invest in mutual funds have turned a deaf ear. Herd mentality, the primitive instinct to follow the herd because doubt in the face of danger can present death was considered a valuable possession. Somewhere along the line though, things changed.

In our wonderful modern brains, this instinct has evolved into a trait, or so say the behavioralists, the makes us run towards the danger because everyone else is. What once once a survival instinct is now a suicidal tendency, at least in the world of investing. (Look at it this way: It would be similar to seeing a crash on the highway and deciding that driving your car into the pile would be in everyone's best interest, including your own.) Evidence of this is beginning to crop up and our big "modern" brains are at fault.

There are three types of mutual funds or mutual fund investment strategies that have shown a tendency to attract these kinds of investors: emerging markets, commodities and a category I'd be willing to wager you didn't realized existed, floating rate funds. (Amy Or of describes them as "Unlike fixed-rate loans, floating-rate loans can capture rising interest rates and are deemed a good inflation hedge" and with some uncertainty about when if sooner-not-later, interest rates begin to rise, these funds will be able to capture the change in market conditions.

Recent herd-like inflows of over $14B suggest that the usually high load fees and the underperformance of late matter little. It is where, these investors believe they should be. But because, as so often is the case with herds like this, so many have heard the siren's call, the opportunity to make any more moves to the upside have been hampered. That means a lot of people will eventually follow the herd off the cliff, ost of whom bought at the top.

When they aren't betting on debt, they are looking at commodities. These funds, focused on such tangibles as oil, silver and gold will to most of us, seem to be destined to go higher. And if you bought into this sector recently, you have  high hopes that it wasn't at the top. But silver suggested it was, as did oil, and the drop in prices found those same people scrambling to get out. Most bought in with expanded exposure in their supposedly well-balanced portfolios and are now paying the price for having believed that diversity was just another word for profit.

And emerging market investors are beginning to realize that perhaps they too have been failing to listen to the global heartbeat. Europe is not finished with its economic woes. Commodity prices may have fallen but they still remain uncomfortably high for countries looking to emerge and now, predictions of slowing growth at expanding powerhouses like China have begun to worry the savvy investor. You newbies are deeply embedded in the herd still.

You may have been auto-enrolled, but the walk through the wardrobe left you in the middle of the Serengeti. And you probably won't get the memo that you are in danger until it is too late. This thinking about getting you in, attempting to educate you, guide you, slip you into an ill-suited target date fund came by way of Thaler and Sunstein's book called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. In is not the same as knowing what to do or how to act when you arrive. The information tsunami hasn't lessened and may have even gained strength over the last several years and investors, particularly the neophytes, will still drown before they learn to swim.

How running with the herd once saved you only to become the complete opposite will remain a mystery. And getting people into these plans by using science to study our unpredictable-ness is still a good idea, even if it seems suspect. But once there, the status quo is good. But who says what the status quo is? You may never get a clear bead on the answer,  Until you realize the herd is leaving the room.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Good news/Bad news

While we have all been, on occasion, asked to choose between the good news and the bad news, when it comes to your 401(k), both sides of the question mean something. Today, I'd like to look at some of the good news, bad news that has been coming out of the world of the 401(k).

Good news: People continue to contribute to their 401(k). A recent Investment Company Institute report found that only 2.4% of investors using this sort of plan did not contribute in 2010. This is considered a generally good statistic for two reasons: the resurgence of the company match may have prompted more people to begin to contribute more in 2010 than they did in 2009 (3.4% ceased contributing) and two, the stock market rewarded these folks for doing so. This means that account balances also increased.

Bad news: Those who did continue to invest actually pulled money from the equity side of the investment equation. The ICI was confused by the pattern, which typically dictates that when the stock market does well, investors tend to increase their holdings rather than withdraw. The shift they suggest may point to a lower risk tolerance which doesn't necessarily explain why there was an increase in international exposure.

Good news: There is a much clearer understanding of the risks involved in the investment world. Although there are still a sizable number of senior investors (those at least 65-years-old) who are willing to take above average risks with their portfolios, most recognize the danger in doing so.

Bad news: too many younger folks are unwilling to assume risk via equity investments. While 10% of the 65-year-olds reported they take on above average risk, their counterparts in the  35-to-49 age group admitted that they do as well. Defining above average risk is often difficult to do. Related to a balance of investments, with popular sentiment suggesting a gradual decrease in more volatile investments (equities) to more conservative ones (bonds, fixed income), this group may be making these adjustments too soon in their investment lives. If, as popular sentiment suggests that we will work longer, a 35-to-49 age group could possibly be leaving a certain amount of aggressiveness untapped. If you are thinking that you will work until 70[years-old and beyond, a 35-year old should invest in much the same way as 25 year-old would have just ten-years ago.

Better 401(k) choices
Good news: There has been over the last several years, an acknowledgement of sorts from the plan sponsor world that better choices for their participants is directly correlated to the types funds offered. Fees dominated the conversations held by plan sponsors and administrators as those that used their plans turned their focus on how much each investment was costing them. Plan costs eat away at potential returns. So many plans reduced the number of funds offered and with those reductions, the types of funds offered. The shift to a larger selection of index funds and target date funds may have helped create a better investment environment for those using the plans.

Bad news: As fees were lowered amongst the plan's offering, the plan itself became more expensive. This change in how the fees are levied make both the newly low-cost funds offered simply appear as if this were a bait and switch. Fee disclosure will only increase in the coming years as the Department of Labor looks to better reporting of these costs. The trouble is you may not where to look and may be able to little about these costs. You can sue over poor investment choices. But unless you actually leave the company you work for, the 401(k) you have is what you are stuck with.
Good news: The turnover rate in the mutual funds offered by your company's 401(k) has dropped somewhat over the years. This is reflective in the choices. Index funds have near zero turnover, rebalancing only when the index shifts. Target date funds tend to shift in a similar way but don't offer the investor anyway of knowing how much is being turned over in the funds within the funds.

Bad news: While turnover is often equated with higher fees, a certain amount of this activity is generally considered acceptable if the rate of return is increased as a result. Most investors will shift their money into a fund based on the size. And the larger the fund, the more cumbersome investing becomes and because of that, the lower the turnover.

Target Date Funds
Good news: Target date funds have increased in plan usage from a scant $57 billion in 2000 to almost a trillion dollars invested in 2010. The good news here is limited to the success of the fund families marketing strategies and the required auto-enrollment of new hires. Add to that the financial debacle of 2007-2008 and numerous investors in 401(k)s simply saw the risk in these self-directed plans as too confusing. Turning to target date funds seemed on the surface to be the most logical conclusion for most.

Bad news: Target date funds still have some hurdles to jump through before they gain my seal of approval - no that they are necessarily currying my favor. They remain murky at best. Most target date funds, with the exclusion of those that comprise of index funds only, are a fund of funds. This suggests that a fund family, rather than close a poorly performing mutual fund, simply roll the fund into a target date fund. Because of this, there are still transparency issues. Add to that the suggested target date may not be your target, that no two target date funds are at the same point in investment holdings (risk) as a similarly dated cohort, that there is no fund manager who can offer conclusive evidence that this is the best method of rebalancing and lastly, that most users tend to set-it-and-forget-it.

Good news: As I mentioned, they have dropped over the last several years. But most investors still make assumptions that fall squarely into the "if it is an index fund, then it must cost less". This lower cost is mostly true and is  normally attributed to index funds, even though some smaller index funds that track the S&P 500 charge considerably more than their larger counterparts for the same investment. Even with that in mind, an investor can build not only a well-balanced portfolio using index funds alone, they will do so at a much lower cost than any other investment portfolio in their plan.

Bad news: Most target date funds act as if they can do what they do for less, they don't. Some target date funds have expenses and fees that are well north of 0.80%.

Good news: more folks are using their options across more age groups and accessibilities. Most mutual funds are held inside 401(k)s by twice compared to those held outside. Add to that the growing number of average to lower income households entering this market for the first time using this sort of investment.

Bad news: Education still has a long way to go. Trusting, finding or using an advisor is still the purview of the more affluent investor. The average balances in these plans increased but it suggests that was a result of an increase in the stock market value rather than an increase in participation or contributions.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mutual Funds and You: Not Always an Easy Relationship

Even if there wasn’t so much emphasis on the Baby Boomers with the threat that they will upset the whole of the investment apple cart by suddenly taking everything they have accumulated for retirement and flee the markets, mutual funds would still be what they are. In fact, they will always be what you believe they they are.
So what is the attraction? Convenience plays a huge role in why we continue to use this investment. These funds still play a major role in our retirement plans because of access via our 401(k) plans and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA). The mainstay of these plans give the average investor, the one who knows they need the markets but are still unsure about the concept of investing, the potential of growing their retirement contributions.
Acting as a collective, mutual funds give these investors broad access to investments they would otherwise not have been able to build on their own. The confusion begins with which mutual fund suits our needs.
In almost every 401(k) plan, even the ones deemed as not so good, the investor has access to index funds (tracking broad markets), target date funds (which target a retirement age or goal and invest using an aggressive to conservative approach) and actively managed mutual funds (those that employ a fund manager to find investments that seek to best the indexes or benchmarks and provide better growth). In a growing number of 401(k) plans, access to ETFs (exchange traded funds that trade like a stock but are essentially index funds) and stocks (individual equity investments) have allowed investors to pursue different investment strategies based on their own assessment of risk.
The ability to use these plans to allocate money towards future retirement goals on a pre-tax basis simply means that this investment will not go away anytime soon. The mutual fund market is considered mature by most standards. It has adjusted to investor concerns about fees (index funds and ETFs offer the lowest costs to investors but are often seen as a slower, or better, a vehicle with more steady growth), the ability to serve those retirement goals by creating built in diversity, and increased transparency. In doing so, they have recognized the threat that index funds and ETFs can do much of the same without the cost.
Behavioral finance, a two decade old study of why we do what we do, has increased our own awareness of risk. This academic and economic examination of us has uncovered numerous biases, the embracing of fallacies and of course or tendency to harbor illusions. This look at the investor mind hasn’t changed what we do all that much. In part because looking at ourselves in the mirror, identifying why we still follow the herd, still have loss aversions, understanding why we still think the past is some sort of indication of the future and continue to delude ourselves with what our concept of reality is rather than what it actually is (think of a mime), is not as easy as they portray it to be.
In other words we sell too late, buy too late, fail to understand that we believe what we see and hear, and attempt to translate those feelings into investment actions. Seasoned investors have a better grip on this inner investor; new investors bring most if not all of the problems investors want to avoid to every action they make.
Mutual funds offer a comfort zone of sorts. Even as we seek to embrace the simplest fallacy: that mutual fund managers know what they are doing because they are in charge of hundreds of millions of dollars. Mutual funds offer us a set-it-and-forget opportunity to participate in the activity of investing without bringing vast storehouses of knowledge about the markets or even ourselves to the experience.
But do they produce as promised? Not always and not always enough of what we expect. Our anticipation of future growth – often based on what has happened – tends to be the first mistake we make. We look at the past performance, the stars a rating agency such as Morningstar might give a fund, the tenure of the fund manager, the turnover (how many times in a given year the fund trades its portfolio; the higher the turnover the higher the costs) and the fees against those returns and make decisions. And then we hope.
Should hope even enter into the equation? It does because of who we are. We have no idea what inflation will offer in the years ahead. Taxes will increase as Social Security benefits may decrease. Which leaves us with two options: invest more and hope for the best. This means that we are using a current self-sacrifice as the template for future returns. I have suggested this on numerous occassions: if you want the “current” lifestyle you lead to be the lifestyle you have in retirement you can either increase your contributions significantly (which impacts how much you have to live on now) or expect to live on less.
So how do we invest using mutual funds? The quick and easy answer is use index funds, spread these investments out across as many varied sectors as your 401(k) offers and increase you contributions.
But you will still look at actively managed mutual funds with a wanton eye. You can buy these as well but do so with great care not to cross-invest. In other words, owning an S&P 500 fund and a large-cap growth fund would give you the same category of investments and the same underlying investments. You might look to making your small cap and mid-cap investments in actively managed funds, where managers tend to be more nimble in volatile markets.
Yet, as in many things in life, there is a bottom line. In mutual funds, it involves education. You should learn what your plan offers and why. You should understand how long you have to invest and for what goals (even if they are far-off in the future and can’t be quantified let alone verbalized). And lastly, that lackluster contributions will most certainly provide you with lackluster retirement benefits. Mutual funds may be what you believe they are but not knowing can cost you.