Archives for October 2020

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Investing Blog Roundup: Social Security — Becoming a Near-Term Problem

It’s no secret that Social Security is insufficiently funded. For as long as I’ve been dealing with personal finance, the Trustees (of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund) have been putting out an annual report that the fund is expected to deplete somewhere around 2033, give or take a couple of years.

As Tara Siegel Bernard notes this week, the pandemic will have a negative effect on that projection as well, due to the reduced tax revenue this year (if a person is out of work, they aren’t paying payroll tax). The sooner we enact a solution, the less drastic the solution will have to be.

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What is a Rollover IRA? (Rollover IRA vs. Traditional IRA)

A reader writes in, asking:

“At my primary brokerage firm I have two IRAs: a traditional IRA and a rollover IRA that holds assets that came from my prior employer’s 401-k plan. What is the difference between the two?”

“Rollover IRA” is just a subcategory of “traditional IRA.” In other words, a rollover IRA is a traditional IRA. Specifically, rollover IRAs are traditional IRAs that contain nothing but assets that came from an employer-sponsored plan.

Because a rollover IRA is a traditional IRA, it gets all the same tax treatment as a normal traditional IRA. That is, distributions from the account are generally taxable; you can do a Roth conversion of the assets in the account; it’s treated the same way with regard to aggregation rules as other traditional IRAs; and so on.

Rollover IRAs are designated as such (rather than just being called regular traditional IRAs) for two reasons.

Reason #1: some employer plans only accept rollovers from an IRA when the IRA contains only assets from another employer-sponsored plan. So keeping those assets separate in their own IRA (rather than combining them with other assets in a traditional IRA) could preserve your ability to roll those assets into a different employer plan at a later date. But fewer and fewer employer plans have this policy every year, so this distinction is becoming less relevant.

Reason #2: assets in an employer-sponsored plan have unlimited creditor protection in bankruptcy under federal law. In contrast, IRA assets are only protected up to a certain limit ($1,362,800 as of 2020). If assets from an employer-sponsored plan are rolled into an IRA and kept separate (i.e., kept in a separate “rollover IRA”), they continue to receive that unlimited protection. If the assets get commingled with other assets in a traditional IRA, then they might lose that unlimited protection and “only” be protected up to the $1,362,800 limit.

That said, some people make the case that if you have good records and could prove that the assets in question came from an employer plan, you would still have unlimited protection for those assets. Also, many states provide additional protection to IRA assets beyond what federal law provides. And of course most people’s IRA assets are never going to exceed the federal protection limit anyway.

To summarize, a rollover IRA is a traditional IRA and is taxed as such, but there are two reasons for keeping rollover IRA assets separate from other traditional IRA assets. It may well be the case, however, that neither of those two reasons is particularly applicable to your own circumstances.

Investing Blog Roundup: Expected and Unexpected Returns

On Monday we discussed the expected return from the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund.

This week I came across an article from esteemed economist Kenneth French discussing the expected and unexpected returns of Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Alphabet (i.e., Google).

A key point about expected returns is that, except for a few specific types of investments (e.g., Treasury bonds that we intend to hold to maturity), we don’t actually expect to get the expected return. That is, we will almost always get more or less than the expected return (i.e., there will be some level of positive or negative unexpected return — we just don’t know how much).

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*After the account fraud scandal and auto insurance scandal, I don’t understand why anybody still trusts this company with their money.

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Will a Total Bond Fund Keep Up With Inflation?

In reply to the previous article about fixed-income options in a low-yield environment, a reader wrote in with the following question:

“Would Vanguard’s Total Bond Market fund (or the equivalent) be expected to match inflation over time?”

For a bond (or bond fund), the best estimate for its expected return is its yield. Right now, the SEC yield for Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund is 1.19% You can find this on either the “Overview” or “Price & Performance” tab on the fund’s page on the Vanguard site.

But there are two important points of note here.

First point of note: that’s the expected return over the fund’s average duration. We can click over to the “Portfolio & Management” tab to find the fund’s average duration: 6.5 years. So what we’re seeing here is that the fund’s expected return over the next 6.5 years is 1.19%.

For periods shorter or longer than 6.5 years, there’s a greater degree of uncertainty about what the actual return will be.

For shorter periods, 1.19% is still probably the best expected return estimate, but the actual return is going to be primarily affected by price movements (i.e., whether the bonds’ prices move up or down as a result of interest rate changes). See any of the following articles for a discussion of how bond prices respond to changes in interest rates:

For longer periods, 1.19% is (again) likely the best guess, but we (again) have a lower degree of certainty. In this case, a major cause of the uncertainty is that, as we look at longer and longer periods, we simply don’t know what bonds are going to be in the fund’s portfolio. For example, imagine that we were concerned with the expected return over the next 20 years. Given the fund’s average effective maturity of 8.5 years, most of the bonds currently held by the fund will have matured before the 20-year period is even halfway over. In other words, the return earned by the fund over the next 20 years will be hugely affected by the yields on bonds that it hasn’t even bought yet — and which haven’t even been issued yet. And since those bonds don’t even exist yet, we have absolutely no way to know what their yields will be.

Second point of note: because this is a nominal bond fund, the 1.19% figure is a nominal yield (i.e., before inflation) and therefore a nominal expected return.

A good way to get a rough estimate of the market’s expectation for inflation over a given period is to find the difference in yields between TIPS and nominal Treasury bond for the period in question. For example, since our expected return is for a 6.5-year period, we could look at the yields for 7-year TIPS and 7-year Treasuries. Right now, the yield on 7-year TIPS is -1.10%, and the yield on 7-year Treasuries is 0.55%. That’s a difference of 1.65%, which tells us that the market is expecting inflation of roughly 1.65% over the next seven years.

So, in summary, with an expected nominal return of 1.19% over the next 6.5 years and expected inflation of roughly 1.65% over the next 7 years, we can say that the expected return for Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund is about 0.46% below inflation over the next 6.5 years.

But that’s just an expected return. The actual nominal return could be meaningfully different from the 1.19% figure. Or inflation could be meaningfully different from the 1.65% figure. And as discussed above, for periods shorter or longer than 6.5 years, there’s an even greater degree of uncertainty.

Investing Blog Roundup: Open Social Security Widow(er) Update

A quick announcement about the Open Social Security calculator: it now has full functionality for widow/widower scenarios (including mother/father benefits as applicable).

To be clear, the calculator has always accounted for survivor benefits, but it was not built to provide guidance to people who are already widows/widowers at the time they are using the calculator.

When I first created the calculator, my line of thinking was that such wasn’t necessary because the analysis for a surviving spouse is usually very straightforward. In fact, in the absence of complicating factors, there are only two options worth considering, as compared to the 96 options for a single person to consider or 9,216 options for a married couple.

But of course, that’s “in the absence of complicating factors.” And in real life, complicating factors do apply in many cases. (The earnings test is the complicating factor most likely to dramatically affect the analysis for a widow/widower.)

So, as of last week, the calculator now provides guidance for widows/widowers, with all of the same features as in other cases.

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