Friday, June 24, 2011

The Lure of ETFs

I know two things about exchange traded funds (ETFs). There is a high degree of likelihood that your 401(k) will soon have these investments available to you and that some of the basic selling points of why they might be a good choice will be too tempting to pass up. But you should consider the consequences of biting that ETF apple, not just from the consideration of whether the investment is worth the effort, but also from whether you are the investor you think you might be.

So let's first ask whether you understand what ETFs are. At first glance, they seem to be a good choice. They, at least on the surface offer exactly what index funds do and at times, a great deal more. They claim to be less expensive and more tax efficient that actively managed mutual funds and they are. Actively managed mutual funds, even as they have reduced their overall fees in order to placate those who worry that cost is an issue, still charge more than ETFs.

Actively managed mutual funds still dominate the 401(k) world and with good reason. Investors seem to understand, even after several years of concerted efforts by the investment community, that some risk is worth paying for. This is not always the case. The deduction of those fees against any returns you may have had illustrate why these funds are often criticized. Comparing them to an index fund, while often not necessarily fair, further shows that had you paid less in fees using an passively managed index fund you probably would have been a little bit closer to what you think of as profitable.

Passively managed funds such as index funds have passionate advocates. They believe that investing in the low-cost (because they rarely trade and do so only rebalance when the index changes) and in the case of the S&P 500 index, reinvest dividends (over 350 companies in the 500 index do) you have achieved the tax advantage, the fee advantage and because of that, a more profitable retirement dollar.

Both of the descriptions of the two most commonly used types of funds in a retirement account portray the investment possibilities facing most investors. It should be noted that not all 401(k) plans have index funds available to their participants, the option is growing. But also entering the fray is the exchange traded fund.

Now these investments will be tempting. They tout their tax efficiency suggesting that it is even better than an index fund offers. They advertise their transparency and ease of trading (they trade on an exchange just like a stock). And they never fail to tell you that these investment offer the world in a way that has never before been offered to 401(k) investors, a chance to invest in commodities, emerging markets and anything in-between. And because of this ease of maneuvering in and out on a whim, they claim to lower risk as well.

But do they do what they claim they will do? This is debatable. First, they are not index funds. They do not necessarily purchase all of the stocks in an index even as they suggest they might. Instead, many ETFs create their own indexes to follow and seek to invest in places where indexes have yet to trod. Mark P. Cussen, a financial planner for the military wrote recently about a little understood method employed by ETFs to get gains that seem better than the index they are suggesting they mimic. He wrote: "Most of these funds are usually leveraged by a factor of up to three, which can amplify the gains posted by the underlying vehicles and provide huge, quick profits for investors. Of course, leverage works both ways, and those who bet wrong can sustain big losses in a hurry." Leverage is another word for borrowing.

If there is an asset class, there is an ETF looking to exploit it. if you are hearing a lot about a certain class, such as precious metals, the temptation to join in the fray might be too hard to avoid. ETFs allow you to jump in "with the herd" and sell "with the herd". neither are necessarily a good idea and if you keep in mind, the low cost and tax efficiency of doing so are mostly wiped away. In order for ETFs to be both of those, you need to buy in large lots, offsetting the cost of the trade (commission) and you need to hold them for over a year. Small traders, which is the vast majority of us do neither - and won't if you buy them.

I mention "the herd". This mentality os what will drive you to consider this investment once it makes its debut in your plan. Instead, consider the vanilla index fund and what has become known as the tactical strategy. This employs a portion of your plan to just such whims while keeping the larger portion in the funds that will do the best with the least cost.

A tactical strategy might look something like this for young to middle aged investors: seventy percent of your assets in three to six index funds and thirty percent allocated to ETFs or even actively managed funds. Older investors might do the same but keep in mind that many major economic watchdog groups have warned that ETFs could be the next global financial troublemaker. And if that happens and happens quickly, the losses on that side of your portfolio close to retirement might find you less likely to retire when you want.

You will be tempted. And many of you will bite. But don't think that this investment can't bite back. It can and it might and unless you plan for such an occurance, the teethmarks it leaves in your plan might be long-term and scarring.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

TDF: Still not Convinced about Target Date Funds

I have a box and it is blue. By description you can imagine exactly what you need to understand that what I have, although key details about size and shape are left blank and the shade of blue is not fully described. But you get the idea that there is a container and the color is one of the primary ones evoked by light having a spectrum dominated by energy with a wavelength of roughly 440–490 nm.

Suppose I have a target date fund and it suggests I will retire in 20-years. Much like the blue box, most of what you need to know about this mutual fund is essentially portrayed in the name. Unlike other mutual funds, whose name seeks to tell you how the fund manager(s) will invest your hard-earned cash in a confusing jumble of confusing terms, target date funds convey a simple message of here and then. Here is the fund you want to get you to a then you need.

Unlike the blue box, there is far more at stake and because of that, a simple title for the investment is easy to understand but at the same time, so deeply layered and nuanced, that it makes the real investors wary and new investors complacent. Recently, Scott Holsople, president and CEO of Smart 401(k) wished that something as simple as a name could do it all for everyone. he wrote: "At Smart401k, we spend much of our time thinking about how to explain things in a manner that’s relatable to the average participant (i.e., someone who doesn’t live and breathe investing and its terminology)."

Don't be jealous Scott. I have yet to find a single redeeming quality in TDFs. Cobbled together and containing questionable funds, they are hoisted on the 401(k) public as the be-all-to-end-all investment, making not only the plan sponsor feel a fiduciarially warm and fuzzy but giving the plan participant the impression that they need do nothing more.

Three things wrong with target date funds that folks choose to ignore.
1. The target is often wrong. If you are young, just starting out and auto-enrolled (which is how these things became popular and abundant in the first place), the target date you choose has little to do with your actual retirement date. It still hinges on the seemingly outdated 65 years old-and-done thinking. Which leads me to...

2. Everybody's target is different. If you are a blue-collar worker for example, the target might be accurate; but not so if you can work beyond. So the glide path, a nice word for "we don't know what we are doing and it has never been done before so use this imagery to explain it how we're going to get you from point A to point B", doesn't apply. Which leads me to...

3. What these fund managers do, none of whom will stay with the fund until it reaches retirement, none of whom invest in the fund and none of whom can explain exactly where the fund is relative to the benchmark (that doesn't really exist) is charge more than a similar portfolio of index funds or even a balanced fund and do so without a track record. Give us your underinvested, your newbies and your (by-choice) dumb investors and we will give them the way and the light, they seem to suggest. Suppose twenty years done the road you find yourself with far less than you assume. What then?

Only a few people have the nerve to speak out against these investment because they seem okay on the surface, they do get folks involved and the risks seem low. But they are going to disappoint more people than they help and I'd be willing to wager that in the next 10-years, folks will sour on the notion and realize that investing in the markets needs to be as simple and as low cost as possible and while TDFs seem simple, they are really just dumbed down versions of what could be something far more engaging. TDFs are an excuse for not educating yourself about where your money is going. Which in and of itself is a bit of a shocker.