Archives for October 2019

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Why It’s Hard to Pick Stocks

A friend (who works in a field as far removed from finance as a field can be) recently asked me why I do not invest in individual stocks. Rather than trying my normal direct explanation, I replied with the following analogy. It’s not perfect, but I think it got the point across. Hopefully you’ll find it entertaining or useful.

Imagine that a friend asks you to go with him to an antique show/fair that’s going to be in town this weekend. It’s a decent-sized one. There’s going to be several thousand items for sale.

You’re not particularly interested in acquiring anything for your own use. But you decide to go along, hoping that you can find a “deal” — something that’s significantly underpriced, which you can sell on eBay for considerably more than you’ve paid for it.

What’s going to affect your likelihood of finding such a deal?

Here are a few factors that I can think of:

  • How early you arrive.
  • How many other shoppers there are.
  • How well informed the other shoppers are.
  • Whether you have any relevant expertise (e.g., if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of rare coins, that could be helpful).

You arrive at the market as soon as it opens, Saturday morning.

But you promptly learn that your friend misread the advertisement. The show opened yesterday. Thousands of shoppers — including many experienced antique bargain hunters — have already been through, picking over all the items.

In fact you learn from another shopper that many of the vendors themselves shopped around at other booths, buying items they thought were underpriced, and then putting them back up for sale at their own booths, at higher prices that they considered more appropriate.

How optimistic are you at this point that you’re likely to find a bargain worth buying?

Not very, probably.

That’s the stock market. Except in the case of the stock market, the market has already been open for many years. There are literally millions of other shoppers. Thousands of professional bargain hunters, shopping every day. And there’s a good chance that you have no particularly relevant expertise.

Investing Blog Roundup: Finding Good Financial Advice, at a Fair Price

How do I find a financial advisor? How much should financial planning services cost? How do I evaluate financial advisor candidates?

These and other similar questions come up a lot in my email inbox.

Jim Dahle recently provided a balanced take on the topic of finding/evaluating an advisor.

From the article:

“The rule of thumb is that high-quality financial advice costs a four-figure amount per year, ie, between $1,000 and $10,000. If you are paying more than $10,000 per year, you can almost surely get the same (or better) advice and service for less money. If you are paying less than $1,000 per year, you are unlikely to actually be receiving high-quality, personalized advice.”

I’ve never heard such a rule of thumb before, but I think it’s pretty good — not perfect, but helpful in most cases.

Other Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading!

Vanguard’s Upcoming “Digital Advisor” Program

In the last couple of weeks several readers have requested that I discuss Vanguard’s upcoming Digital Advisor program.

So far, we don’t really have any information other than what is included in the brochure Vanguard filed with the SEC with regard to the program.

As far as what the program is, it looks like a standard robo-advisor platform, which in this case implements portfolios consisting of the ETF versions of Vanguard’s four “total market” funds (i.e., Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF, Vanguard Total International Stock ETF, Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF, and Vanguard Total International Bond ETF).

The program has a 0.20% all-in cost (i.e., advisory fee + cost of underlying ETFs) regardless of what allocation you have, which means that the advisory fee is roughly 0.15%.

Relative to the existing Vanguard Personal Advisor Services platform, noteworthy differences are:

  • It costs about half as much,
  • It’s robo-only (no human advisor), and
  • It has a smaller account minimum ($3,000 instead of $50,000).

In terms of the underlying holdings, it’s super similar to Vanguard’s LifeStrategy or Target Retirement funds. It would be slightly more expensive than such a fund. (The difference in cost would grow if the LifeStrategy and/or Target Retirement funds eventually get less expensive due to switching to underlying ETFs or Admiral Shares instead of Investor Share versions of index funds.)

What will the Digital Advisor program offer that one of those all-in-one funds doesn’t offer?

The brochure includes the following statement:

“When requesting that Digital Advisor manage your enrolled accounts, you’ll have the ability to impose reasonable restrictions on the management of your Portfolio by personalizing the inputs into your retirement accumulation goal beyond standardized defaults.”

It’s hard to tell without seeing the interface and without anybody actually having gone through the program, but the above makes it sound to me like there will be some option to customize the allocation among those 4 funds somewhat. (For example, I personally would appreciate the option to reduce the allocation to the international bond fund. It sounds like that would probably be a choice, but it’s not super explicit.)

One thing that the new program will offer is implementation of a basic asset location plan. The brochure includes the following statement:

“For Portfolios containing both taxable and tax-advantaged accounts, our investment strategy will aim to optimize the tax efficiency of the Portfolio by recommending or allocating investments strategically among taxable and tax-advantaged accounts. The objective of this ‘asset location’ approach is to hold relatively tax-efficient investments, such as broad-market stock index products, in taxable accounts while keeping relatively tax-inefficient investments, such as taxable bonds, in tax-advantaged accounts.”

So based on the incomplete information available at this time, it largely strikes me as “LifeStrategy/Target Retirement replacement for people with assets in taxable accounts” or “LifeStrategy/Target Retirement replacement for people who want some allocation among those 4 underlying holdings that is not available via those all-in-one funds.”

But I suppose we’ll learn more once the program is actually available.

Investing Blog Roundup: Problematic Probability of Ruin

There are plenty of ways to evaluate a retirement plan. (For instance, here’s a paper from Wade Pfau, Joe Tomlinson, and Steve Vernon discussing 8 different metrics for evaluating retirement spending/portfolio strategies.) By far the most common though is “probability of running out of money.”

But as Dirk Cotton discusses in a recent article, that metric leaves out a ton of useful information. In addition, it’s questionable how accurate such a metric can be, for any strategy that includes stocks.

Other Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading!

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