Archives for January 2020

Get new articles by email:

Oblivious Investor offers a free newsletter providing tips on low-maintenance investing, tax planning, and retirement planning.

Join over 21,000 email subscribers:

Articles are published Monday and Friday. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Investing Blog Roundup: Is Vanguard’s “At Cost” Model Even Good Enough?

Vanguard’s claim to fame is that it runs everything “at cost” because of its ownership structure (i.e., no external shareholders demanding a profit). And the benefit to Vanguard clients has been tremendous over the years.

In a recent article for Financial Planning, Allan Roth pointed out that Schwab is now basically able to run their entire asset management business below cost — offering what many would see as superior service, while charging fees as low or lower than Vanguard’s.

The key point is that Schwab simply has a different business model (most especially, a key other revenue source), so they are able to use their asset management business as a loss leader, whereas Vanguard must break even on theirs.

Other Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading!

Can I Change the Beneficiary of My 529 Plan/Account?

A reader writes in, asking:

“Can I create a 529 account, contribute to it with my daughter named as the beneficiary, and then change the beneficiary to another family member if we end up wanting to help fund somebody else’s education?”

The short answer is: it depends on who exactly the family member is, but probably yes.

Naturally, Code section 529 is where we’d find information about 529 plans.

There, we find that there are no income tax consequences to changing the beneficiary of a 529 account, provided that you change the beneficiary to somebody who is a “member of the family” of the existing beneficiary. Members of the family include:

  • A child or a descendant of a child (i.e., a grandchild);
  • A brother, sister, stepbrother, or stepsister;
  • The father or mother, or an ancestor of either (i.e, grandparent);
  • A stepfather or stepmother;
  • A niece or nephew;
  • An aunt or uncle;
  • A son-in-law, daughter-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, or sister-in-law;
  • An individual who, for the taxable year of the beneficiary, has the same principal place of abode as the beneficiary and is a member of the beneficiary’s household;
  • The spouse of any of the above people;
  • The spouse of the existing beneficiary; or
  • A first cousin of the existing beneficiary.

Reminder: When going through this list, remember that these relationships are with regard to the existing beneficiary — not with regard to you or to any other person(s) contributing to the account.

If you change the beneficiary to somebody who is not in one of the above categories, the distribution will be taxable as income and will be subject to a 10% penalty.

Finally, section 529 also notes that the gift tax and generation-skipping transfer tax shall apply unless the new beneficiary is:

  1. In the same generation as (or a higher generation than) the existing beneficiary, and
  2. A member of the family of the existing beneficiary (as described above).

For More Information, See My Related Book:

Book3Cover

Taxes Made Simple: Income Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • The difference between deductions and credits,
  • Itemized deductions vs. the standard deduction,
  • Several money-saving deductions and credits and how to make sure you qualify for them,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A testimonial from a reader on Amazon:

"Very easy to read and is a perfect introduction for learning how to do your own taxes. Mike Piper does an excellent job of demystifying complex tax sections and he presents them in an enjoyable and easy to understand way. Highly recommended!"

Investing Blog Roundup: State-by-State Economic Insecurity Among Americans Age 65+

This week I came across a recent study that looks at economic insecurity among older Americans. The paper discusses the typical amount of income necessary in each state for a person age 65+ (or a couple age 65+) to maintain independence and meet daily living costs while staying in their own homes (providing separate figures for renters, homeowners with a mortgage, and homeowners without a mortgage). Then it shows what percentage of people in each state in that age range are below that necessary income figure.

What struck me most was not so much the differences between states, but rather the differences between single people and couples.

Other Recommended Reading

Thanks for reading!

Why Longer-Term Bonds Have Greater Price Volatility (Interest Rate Risk)

A reader writes in, asking:

“I am aware that bonds and bond funds with longer duration have greater price changes in response to interest rate moves than shorter-term bonds do. And given that, I understand that longer-term bonds generally have higher yields because of that higher risk. That makes perfect sense.

What I have never been able to wrap my head around is why do the prices of longer duration bonds fluctuate more severely?”

A bond’s market price is really just the result of a net present value calculation. That is, the price of a bond at any given time is the sum of the present values of each of the cash flows from the bond (i.e., the present value of each interest payment plus the present value of the payment upon maturity).

(See this article if you haven’t encountered the concept of present value before. It’s worth a read, as it’s one of the most fundamental concepts in finance.)

As a reminder, the present value of a given cash flow is calculated as follows:

PV = FV / (1 + r)^n

where:

PV = present value
FV = future value (i.e., the dollar amount of the cash flow in question)
r = annual discount rate
n = number of years before the cash flow is received

The greater the number of years, the greater the impact of the discount rate. Compare the two following examples.

Example 1: Given a discount rate of 2%, the present value of a $1,000 cash flow to be received one year from now is $980. If we raise the discount rate to 3%, the present value falls to $971, a change of $9.

Example 2: Given a discount rate of 2%, the present value of a $1,000 cash flow to be received five years from now is $906. If we raise the discount rate to 3%, the present value falls to $863, a change of $43.

Point being, a 1% increase in the discount rate had a much larger effect on the cash flow that was further in the future.

When we’re calculating the present value of a bond, the discount rate is the return that investors could expect to earn from other bonds with similar risk (i.e., other bonds with the same credit rating and same duration).

So when interest rates change, the discount rate changes. And the further in the future the cash flow is to be received, the greater the change in present value (i.e., market price).

So, the longer the duration of a bond (i.e., the further in the future its cash flows will be received, on average), the greater the change in present value (i.e., market price) when interest rates change.

Single Premium Immediate Annuity: Why They’re Useful and When to Buy Them

The following is an excerpt from my book Can I Retire? Managing a Retirement Portfolio Explained in 100 Pages or Less.

Most annuities are a raw deal for investors. They carry needlessly high expenses and surrender charges, and their contracts are so complex that very few investors can properly assess whether the annuity is a good investment.

That said, one specific type of annuity can be a particularly useful tool for retirement planning: the single premium immediate annuity (SPIA).

What’s a SPIA?

A single premium immediate annuity is a contract with an insurance company whereby:

  1. You pay them a sum of money up front (known as a premium), and
  2. They promise to pay you a certain amount of money periodically (monthly, for instance) for the rest of your life.

A single premium immediate annuity can be a fixed annuity or a variable annuity. With a single premium immediate fixed annuity, the payout is a fixed amount each period. With a single premium immediate variable annuity, the payout is linked to the performance of a mutual fund. For the most part, I’d suggest steering clear of variable annuities. They tend to be complex and expensive. And because they each offer different bells and whistles, it’s difficult to make comparisons between annuity providers to see which one offers the best deal.

In contrast, fixed SPIAs are helpful tools for two reasons:

  1. They make retirement planning easier, and
  2. They allow for a higher withdrawal rate than you can safely take from a portfolio of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds over the course of a potentially-lengthy retirement.

Retirement Planning with SPIAs

Fixed SPIAs make retirement planning easier in exactly the same way that traditional pensions do: they’re predictable. With such an annuity, you know that you will receive a given amount of income every year, for the rest of your life — no matter how long you might live. With a traditional stock and bond portfolio, retirement planning is more of a guessing game.

SPIAs and Withdrawal Rates

Fixed SPIAs are also helpful because they allow you to retire with less money than you would need with a typical stock/bond portfolio. For example, even with the low interest rates that prevail as of this writing, according to immediateannuities.com (a website that provides annuity quotes from various insurance companies), a 65-year-old male could purchase an annuity paying 5.88% annually.

If that investor were to take a withdrawal rate of 5.88% from a typical stock/bond portfolio (and continue spending the same dollar amount each year going forward), there’s a meaningful chance that he’d run out of money during his lifetime—especially given the current environment of low interest rates and high stock valuations. That risk disappears with an annuity.

How is that possible? In short, it’s possible because the annuitant gives up the right to keep the money once he dies. If you buy a SPIA and die the next day, the money is gone.* Your heirs don’t get to keep it — the insurance company does. And the insurance company uses (most of) that money to fund the payouts on SPIAs purchased by people who are still living.

In essence, SPIA purchasers who die before reaching their life expectancy end up funding the retirement of SPIA purchasers who live past their life expectancy.

But I Want to Leave Something to My Heirs!

For many people, it’s a deal-breaker to learn that none of the money used to purchase an annuity will go to their heirs.

The relevant counterpoint here is that, depending on how your desired level of spending compares to the size of your portfolio, choosing not to devote any portion of your portfolio to an annuity could backfire. That is, there’s a possibility that, rather than resulting in a larger inheritance for your kids, the decision results in you running out of money while you’re still alive, thereby causing you to become a financial burden on your kids.

Inflation Risk

Another important downside of single premium immediate annuities is that they are exposed to inflation risk. That is, the amount of income that the annuity pays each year is fixed, thereby leaving you with a purchasing power that will be eroded over time via inflation.

It is possible to purchase an annuity with a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) each year. But that naturally requires paying a higher initial premium. Also, the COLA is a fixed percentage (e.g., the income increases by 2% annually), so you are still exposed to the risk of high inflation eating away at your purchasing power.

Not too long ago, it was possible to purchase a SPIA that had a COLA that was linked to the consumer price index (i.e., the actual rate of inflation), thereby eliminating inflation risk. But in 2019, the last insurance company offering such products decided to stop selling them. Will they be available again in the future? It’s possible, but I wouldn’t count on it.

It’s worth noting that for some people the lack of inflation protection may not be a problem at all. Some people explicitly desire to spend more per year in early retirement than in late retirement. A fixed nominal dollar amount may actually be a good fit for people with such a preference (because it has the effect of front-loading spending, when we measure spending in terms of actual purchasing power).

Annuity Income: Is It Safe?

Because the income from an annuity is backed by an insurance company, financial advisors and financial literature usually refer to it as “guaranteed.” But that doesn’t mean it’s a 100% sure-thing. Just like any company, insurance companies can go belly-up. It’s not common, but it’s certainly not impossible. However, if you’re careful, the possibility of your annuity provider going out of business doesn’t have to keep you up at night.

Check Your Insurance Company’s Financial Strength

Before placing a meaningful portion of your retirement savings in the hands of an insurance company, it’s important to check that company’s financial strength. I’d suggest checking with multiple ratings agencies, such as Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s, or A.M. Best. (Note that each of these companies uses a different ratings scale, so it’s important to look at what each of the ratings actually means.)

State Guaranty Associations

Even if the issuer of your annuity does go bankrupt, you aren’t necessarily in trouble. Each state has a guaranty association (funded by the insurance companies themselves) that will step in if your insurance company goes insolvent.

It’s important to note, however, that the state guaranty associations only provide coverage up to a certain limit. And that limit varies from state to state. Equally important: the rules regarding the coverage vary from state to state.

For example, the guaranty association in Connecticut provides coverage of up to $500,000 per contract owner, per insurance company insolvency. But they only provide coverage to investors who are residents of Connecticut at the time the insurance company becomes insolvent. So if you have an annuity currently worth $500,000, and you move to Arkansas (where the coverage is capped at $300,000), you’re putting your money at risk.

In contrast, the guaranty association in New York offers $500,000 of coverage, and they cover you if you are a NY state resident either when the insurance company goes insolvent or when the annuity was issued. So moving to another state with a lower coverage limit isn’t a problem if you bought your annuity in New York.

Minimizing Your Risk

In short, annuities can be a useful tool for maximizing the amount you can safely spend per year. But to maximize the likelihood that you’ll receive the promised payout, it’s important to take the following steps:

  1. Check the financial strength of the insurance company before purchasing an annuity.
  2. Know the limit for guaranty association coverage in your state as well as the rules accompanying such coverage.
  3. Consider diversifying between insurance companies. For instance, if your state’s guaranty association only provides coverage up to $250,000 and you want to annuitize $400,000 of your portfolio, consider buying a $200,000 annuity from each of two different insurance companies.
  4. Before moving from one state to another, be sure to check the guaranty association coverage in your new state to make sure you’re not putting your standard of living at risk.

*There are some exceptions. For example, you can buy a SPIA that promises to pay income for the longer of your lifetime or a given number of years. But purchasing such an add-on reduces the payout, thereby reducing the ability of the SPIA to do what it does so well—provide a relatively high payout with very little risk.

Simple Summary

  • If you desire a larger “floor” of safe income than you will receive from Social Security (and pension, if applicable), a single premium immediate fixed annuity may be a good idea.
  • Such annuities allow for a higher level of spending than would be safely sustainable from a typical portfolio of other investments.
  • In exchange for this safety, you give up control of the money as well as the possibility of leaving the money to your heirs.
  • Another drawback of single premium immediate annuities is that they leave you exposed to the risk that inflation will significantly erode your purchasing power over time.
  • Before buying an annuity, check the financial strength of the insurance company and make sure you’re familiar with the rules and coverage limits for your state’s guaranty association.

Retiring Soon? Pick Up a Copy of My Book:

Can I Retire Cover

Can I Retire? Managing a Retirement Portfolio Explained in 100 Pages or Less

Topics Covered in the Book:
  • How to calculate how much you’ll need saved before you can retire,
  • How to minimize the risk of outliving your money,
  • How to choose which accounts (Roth vs. traditional IRA vs. taxable) to withdraw from each year,
  • Click here to see the full list.

A Testimonial from a Reader on Amazon:

"Hands down the best overview of what it takes to truly retire that I've ever read. In jargon free English, this gem of a book nails the key issues."

Why Invest in Index Funds?

The following is an adapted, excerpted chapter from my book Investing Made Simple: Investing in Index Funds Explained in 100 Pages or Less.

Pay less for a product or service, and you’ll have more money left over afterwards. Pretty straightforward, right? For some reason, many investors seem to think that this rule doesn’t apply to the field of investing. Big mistake.

Index Funds 101

A bit of background: Most mutual funds are run by people picking stocks or other investments that they think will earn above-average returns. Index funds, however, are passively managed. That is, they seek only to match (rather than beat) the performance of a given index.

For example, index funds could be used to track the performance of:

  • The entire U.S. stock market,
  • Certain sectors of the U.S. stock market (the pharmaceutical industry, for instance),
  • Various international stock markets,
  • The bond market of a given country, or
  • Just about anything else you can think of.

Most Actively Managed Funds Lose.

The goal of most actively managed funds is to earn a return greater than that of their respective indexes. For example, many actively managed U.S. stock funds seek to outperform the return of the U.S. stock market. After all, if an active fund doesn’t beat its index, then its investors would have been better off in an index fund that simply tracks the market’s return.

Interestingly, most investors actually would be better off in index funds. Why? Because — due to the high costs of active management — the majority of actively managed funds fail to outperform their respective indexes. In fact, according to a study done by Standard and Poors, for the ten-year period ending 12/31/2019:

  • Less than 11% of U.S. stock funds managed to outperform their respective indexes,
  • Less than 23% of international stock funds managed to outperform their respective indexes, and
  • Less than 25% of taxable bond funds managed to outperform their respective indexes.

Now, lest you think that this particular period was an anomaly, let me assure you: It wasn’t. Standard and Poors has been doing this study since 2002, and each of the studies has shown very similar results. Actively managed funds have failed in both up markets and down markets. They’ve failed in both domestic markets and international markets. And they’ve failed in both stock markets and bond markets.

Why Index Funds Win

The investments included in a given index are generally published openly, thereby making it easy for an index fund to track its respective index. All the fund has to do is buy all of the stocks (or other investments) that are included in the index.

When you compare such a strategy to the strategies followed by actively managed funds (which generally require an assortment of ongoing research and analysis, in order to try to buy and sell the right investments at the right times) you can see why index funds tend to have considerably lower costs than actively managed funds.

Common sense (and elementary school arithmetic) tells us that:

  • If the entire stock market earns, say, a 9% annual return over a given decade, and
  • The average dollar invested in the stock market incurs investment costs (such as brokerage commissions and mutual fund fees) of 1.25%,

…then the average dollar invested in the stock market over that year must have earned a net return of 7.75%.

Now, what if you had invested in an index fund that sought only to match the market’s return, while incurring minimal expenses of, say, 0.1%? You would have earned a return of 8.9%, and you would have come out well ahead of most other investors.

It’s counterintuitive to think that by not attempting to outperform the market, an investor can actually come out above average. But it’s completely true. The math is indisputable. John Bogle (the founder of Vanguard and the creator of the first index fund) referred to this phenomenon as “The Relentless Rules of Humble Arithmetic.”

Why Not Pick a Hot Fund?

Naturally, many investors are inclined to ask, “Why not invest in an actively managed fund that does beat its index?” In short: because it’s hard — far harder than most would guess — to predict ahead of time which actively managed funds will be the top performers.

In addition to their “indices versus active” scorecards, Standard and Poors also puts out “persistence scorecards” from time to time. In the most recent one (published December 2019), they found that of the funds that had a top-quartile ranking for the five years ending September 2014, only 31.75% maintained a top-quartile ranking for the following five-year period. Pure randomness would suggest a repeat rate of 25%. In other words, picking funds based on superior past performance was usually unsuccessful and proved to be only slightly better than picking randomly.

In another study, Morningstar’s Russel Kinnel looked at the usefulness of expense ratios and star ratings (which are based on past performance) at predicting future performance. Kinnel summarized his findings:

Investors should make expense ratios a primary test in fund selection. They are still the most dependable predictor of performance. […] Stars can be helpful, too, particularly in identifying funds that might be merged out of existence.

In other words, past performance can be useful for identifying future poor performers. (That is, the worst performing funds tend to continue to perform poorly, and they are often shut down by the fund company running them.) But if you’re looking to pick a future top performer, picking a low-cost fund is your best bet. And looking for low-cost funds naturally leads to the selection of index funds as likely top-performers.

Taxes Are Costs Too.

If you’re investing in a taxable account (as opposed to a 401(k) or IRA), index funds can help you not only to minimize costs, but to minimize taxes as well. With mutual funds, you pay taxes each year on your share of the capital gains realized within the fund’s portfolio.

Because most active fund managers buy and sell investments so rapidly, a large percentage of the gains end up being short-term capital gains. Because short-term capital gains are taxed at your ordinary income tax rate (as opposed to long-term capital gains, which are currently taxed at a maximum rate of 20%), you’ll end up paying more taxes with actively managed funds than you would with index funds, which typically hold their investments for longer periods of time.

Not All Index Funds Are Low-Cost.

Do not, however, invest in a fund simply because it’s an index fund. Some index funds actually charge expense ratios that are close to — or sometimes even above — those charged by actively managed funds. It’s a good idea to take the time to check a fund’s expense ratio and compare it to the expense ratios of other funds in the same category before investing in it.

When Index Funds Aren’t an Option

Unfortunately, in many investors’ primary retirement account — their 401(k) or 403(b) — they don’t have the option to select any low-cost index funds. If you find yourself in such a situation, my strategy for picking funds would be as follows:

  1. Determine your ideal overall asset allocation (that is, how much of your overall portfolio you want invested in U.S. stocks, how much in international stocks, and how much in bonds).
  2. Determine which of your fund options could be used for each piece of your asset allocation.
  3. Among those funds, choose the ones with the lowest expense ratios and the lowest portfolio turnover. (For funds in your 401(k) or 403(b) this information should be available in the plan documents.)

Simple Summary

  • Because of their low costs, index funds consistently outperform the majority of their actively managed competitors.
  • A fund’s past performance (even over extended periods) is not a reliable way to predict future performance.
  • Not all index funds are low-cost. Before investing in an index fund, take the time to compare its expense ratio to the expense ratios of other index funds in the same fund category.
  • If you don’t have access to low-cost index funds in your retirement plan at work, look for low-cost, low-turnover funds that fit your desired asset allocation.
Disclaimer: By using this site, you explicitly agree to its Terms of Use and agree not to hold Simple Subjects, LLC or any of its members liable in any way for damages arising from decisions you make based on the information made available on this site. I am not a registered investment advisor or representative thereof, and the information on this site is for informational and entertainment purposes only and does not constitute financial advice.

Copyright 2021 Simple Subjects, LLC - All rights reserved. To be clear: This means that, aside from small quotations, the material on this site may not be republished elsewhere without my express permission. Terms of Use and Privacy Policy

My new Social Security calculator (beta): Open Social Security