New Here? Get the Free Newsletter

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.

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.

Dividend Reinvestment FAQs

I thought I’d do something different with today’s article. Below are a few questions — from different readers — about various aspects of reinvesting dividends. None of them required a long enough answer to constitute its own article, but the topics in question are likely to be of interest to other readers.

“I’ve read that from 1960 until now, 82% of the stock market’s overall return is from reinvesting dividends. But I’ve also seen that dividends are usually only 2-3% in a given year, whereas the market’s overall return might be something closer to 8%. I guess what I’m asking is why are dividends so much more important than the increasing price, even though they are a small part of the return?”

It’s not that the dividends are more important than the price appreciation. It’s simply that they are a significant part of the return, and leaving off a significant part of the return dramatically reduces the overall accumulation over an extended period. (This is the same reason that mutual fund expense ratios are super important.)

The longer the period in question, the more pronounced this effect. For example, a $1 initial investment that grows at 8% per year for 75 years will come out to about $321. Reduce the return to 7% instead, and the final result is just $160. In other words, reducing the return by one eighth cut the final value by half. If you instead reduce the return from 8% to 6%, you end up with just $79 — a one-quarter reduction in return reduced the final value by more than three quarters.

That’s why when you read about statistics regarding the importance of dividends over several decades, you see very pronounced effects. Any change to the rate of return will have a magnified impact on the ending value. The effect is smaller if we look at periods that are shorter but still significant over a person’s lifetime (e.g., 20 years).

To reiterate, dividends are important, because they are a significant part of the overall return. But the idea that they are far more important than the price appreciation is simply a misunderstanding of the math involved.

“Why does the price of a mutual fund fall when it pays a dividend?”

In short, the price falls because the fund has less assets, which means it’s less valuable. (The same thing happens with individual stocks, by the way.)

For example, imagine that a fund has a net asset value (NAV) of $25 per share on a given day, made up of $24 worth of various stocks holdings and $1 of cash. Then the fund declares a $1 cash dividend.

Anybody who buys the fund before the ex-dividend date will essentially be getting $24 worth of stocks and $1 of cash. Anybody who buys after the ex-dividend date will be getting just the $24 worth of stocks. Point being: the price should fall by $1 on the ex-dividend date. (Of course in the real world it’s messier than that, because the prices of the various underlying stocks would also be moving around from one day to the next.)

To be clear, the fact that the price falls on the ex-dividend date doesn’t mean that you lose something when your fund declares a dividend. The price falls, but you now have an equivalent amount of cash in your brokerage account. (Or, if you reinvest the dividend, you’re in exactly the same place as before, tax considerations notwithstanding.)

“Should I set my mutual fund to automatically reinvest dividends?”

Maybe.

Having dividends automatically reinvested means that your money begins to earn a return sooner, which is a good thing.

But, if the account in question is a taxable account, it also means that there’s more tracking to be done, because you’ll have a greater number of dates and prices at which you purchased shares. But if you aren’t tracking your cost basis yourself anyway (e.g., you’re using the “average cost” method, and you are relying on your brokerage firm to calculate such for you), then the additional complexity doesn’t much matter. (To be clear though, I would encourage you to keep your own cost basis records, rather than completely relying on another party.)

You should also be aware that automatic reinvesting of dividends could result in a wash sale if you sell the investment in question at what would otherwise be a loss. Generally, this would not be a major reason not to reinvest dividends, as the effect would usually be small. But it’s something to be aware of so that you can report your taxes appropriately.

“How do I calculate the gain or loss on a sale of a mutual fund when I have had dividends and capital gains reinvested? Last year I invested $40,000 in a mutual fund, and it was worth about $40,500 at the end of the year. My dividends and taxable gains for that year, all of which were reinvested, were about $1,700 according to my online statements. Let’s say my fund’s value is $40,500 when I sell it this year. What would be my gain or loss?”

Because you have the account set to reinvest dividends and capital gains, you actually purchased $1,700 worth of shares over the course of last year. So your total basis at the end of the year was $41,700.

So if at the beginning of this year (i.e., before any new money gets invested or distributions get reinvested) you had sold all of the shares for a total of $40,500, then you would have a capital loss of $1,200 (i.e., $40,500 realized on the sale, minus $41,700 cost basis).

If further dividends/capital gains had been reinvested this year before the sale, those would be added to your cost basis as well.

Whether or not you could actually claim this loss would depend on whether or not it’s a wash sale — which it could be, if you own other shares of this same investment (or something else that is “substantially identical”) in another account.

2019 Edition: Social Security Made Simple | Adding a Fund to Improve Diversification

Quick announcement: the 2019 edition of Social Security Made Simple is now available on Amazon. To be clear, there haven’t been any major changes to Social Security since the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, so as with last year’s edition, the updates are relatively minor.

For anybody who has not read the book, the outline is as follows:

Part One: Social Security Basics
1. Qualifying for Retirement Benefits
2. How Retirement Benefits Are Calculated
3. Spousal Benefits
4. Widow(er) Benefits
Part Two: Rules for Less Common Situations
5. Social Security for Divorced Spouses
6. Child Benefits
7. Social Security with a Pension
8. The Earnings Test
Part Three: Social Security Planning (When to Claim Benefits)
9. The Claiming Decision for Single People
10. When to Claim for Married Couples
11. The Restricted Application Strategy
12. Age Differences Between Spouses
13. Accounting for Investment Returns
Part Four: Other Related Planning Topics
14. Social Security and Asset Allocation
15. Checking Your Earnings Record
16. How Is Social Security Taxed?
17. Do-Over Options
Conclusion: Six Social Security Rules of Thumb
Appendix A: Widow(er) Benefit Math Details
Appendix B: The File and Suspend Strategy
Appendix C: Restricted Applications with Widow(er) Benefits

You can find the print edition here and the Kindle edition here.


A reader writes in, asking:

“I started a Roth IRA last year, and I currently own the Vanguard Target Retirement 2060 fund. I am planning to add a second fund this year to improve diversification. What would your suggestion be?”

Short answer: I probably wouldn’t add a second fund.

When the entire portfolio is allocated to an all-in-one fund (such as a target date fund or a Vanguard LifeStrategy fund), you don’t have to do any rebalancing, because the fund does it for you automatically. Once you add a second fund to the mix, you will have to rebalance. And once you’ve decided that you don’t mind rebalancing periodically, you might as well just go with a DIY allocation of individual index funds/ETFs anyway, so that you can get the lower expense ratios relative to an all-in-one fund.

Second, adding a new fund would probably not improve diversification in the sense of spreading your money out over a greater number of underlying securities. With a Vanguard Target Retirement fund, you already own four different “total market” funds (U.S. stocks, international stocks, U.S. bonds, and international bonds). For example, adding an allocation to the Vanguard Value Index Fund or the Vanguard Small-Cap Index Fund wouldn’t add any more stocks to the portfolio, because the stocks owned by those funds are already owned by the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (and therefore owned by your Target Retirement fund).

That said, some people have allocation preferences that are different from “total market” weightings (e.g., they prefer to overweight small-cap stocks relative to their market weighting). And some people have different allocation preferences among the four “total market” components (e.g., they prefer a larger or smaller allocation to international stocks or bonds than what you’d have in your Target Retirement fund).

But target retirement funds are explicitly designed with the goal of being suitable for the “typical” investor. If you can’t articulate something that would make your needs/preferences different from most other people — if you can’t already articulate a particular reason for you to stray from a simple total market allocation such as the one in your Target Retirement fund — then there’s generally no need to do so.

Why Stock Prices Are Still Volatile in an Efficient Market

A reader writes in, asking:

“Last month Facebook’s price fell because the new European privacy law hurt their advertising revenue. I always see the ‘experts’ saying that we shouldn’t invest in individual stocks because an ‘efficient market’ makes it impossible to pick winners and losers. But the idea that every stock is perfectly priced all the time seems wrong on its face. I can tell you right now that if the U.S. passes a similar privacy law, Facebook’s share price will fall again.”

The idea of an efficient stock market isn’t that the stock market can predict the future. Nobody knows what is ultimately going to happen (either with Facebook or with any other company/industry/country).

That is, the market price for a stock doesn’t mean that this is where the price will stay; it’s simply the consensus best estimate, given the information that is currently available.

By way of analogy, imagine that I’m hosting a raffle, in which the winner gets $100. I’m going to sell exactly 100 tickets to the raffle. How much is each ticket worth?

Each ticket is worth $1, because each ticket has a 1% chance of winning $100. (That is, $100 prize x 1% probability of being the winning ticket = $1 value.)

Of course, the reality is that, of the 100 tickets, 99 of them will turn out to be completely worthless, and one lucky ticket will turn out to be worth $100. But we don’t know in advance which ticket will be the lucky one, so until the raffle actually happens, each ticket is worth $1. (In probability/finance jargon, we say that each ticket has an “expected value” of $1.)

The point of the efficient market concept isn’t that an efficient market would successfully predict which raffle ticket will be the winning ticket. Rather, the point is that an efficient market would successfully price each ticket at $1 prior to the raffle.

With regard to Facebook, there’s a possibility that new regulation will come along that impedes the company’s profitability, in which case the stock will be worth significantly less than it’s worth right now. Or, maybe no such event will occur, and the company’s stock price will rise back to what it was before all the hullaballoo.

But because we don’t yet know what’s going to happen, an “in the middle” price is the current consensus price, even though everybody knows it will ultimately turn out to be wrong (i.e., even though everybody knows the value of the company will ultimately turn out to be more or less than the current market value — just like everybody knows that none of the raffle tickets will ultimately be worth $1).

Investing in Your Earning Potential

A reader writes in, asking:

“Does it ever make sense to slow down the rate at which I’m saving for retirement, or even put it on hold completely, in order to direct money toward expenditures that could increase my income? I suspect that putting money toward additional education in my field would have a good payoff. But I also know that saving and investing is particularly powerful when I’m young. How would one actually go about doing such an analysis?”

To the first question: yes.

Investing in your own earnings potential is often a very good idea (e.g., by getting a particular certification, license, or degree in your line of work, or by putting money into a business that you’re starting), even if it means putting off saving for retirement for a brief period. This is especially true for people early in their career, because the increased earnings will be in effect for many years.

I did this myself, a little over 10 years ago. There was a period of almost two years (around age 23-24) when my wife and I saved nothing for retirement, because we were putting money into my publishing business. The business was growing, and it seemed likely that additional funding would pay off — and it has. The resulting increase in our income has significantly exceeded the return that we would have achieved via additional 401(k) savings. (Plus, now I get to do work that I find much more enjoyable than what I was doing before.)

How to Calculate a Projected Return

If you want to actually make a comparison of rates of return, you first need to come up with a year-by-year estimate of the cost and the payoff from the investment you’re considering. In some cases you may be able to find good statistics on the topic (e.g., how much more, on average, do people in your field with a particular certification earn than people without that certification?).

Then you can use the IRR function in Excel to calculate the rate of return from the projected cash flows. The tutorial in the previous link explains how to use it, but it’s pretty straightforward. You type the projected cash flows in a column of cells, with the cash outflows (i.e., the money you expect to spend) as negative values and the cash inflows as positive values.  Then, in another cell, you use the “IRR” function, selecting the range of cells that includes your projected cash flows (e.g., “=IRR(A1:A17)”).

Then you can compare the calculated return from your projection to the return you would expect from additional investment in your portfolio. (Important note: in each case, you want to adjust the cash flows to account for taxes. For example if you expect an additional $10,000 per year of income, and you have a 25% combined state/local marginal tax rate, you’d enter $7,500 as the expected cash inflow in each cell.)

It varies quite a bit from one case to another, but it’s not at all rare for the rate of return from career-related expenditures to greatly exceed the rate of return you could expect from regular stock/bond investing.

How Risky Is It?

It is important, however, to recognize that comparing a projected rate of return from career-related spending to the rate of return you would expect from additional retirement savings isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, as the risk level may be quite different.

For instance, if you’re a 23-year-old accountant, getting your CPA certification is very likely to substantially improve your earnings over the course of your career. Frankly, this is probably less risky than putting money into a stock index fund.

Conversely, investing a lot of money into an entrepreneurial endeavor can be super high-risk. You’re essentially buying a single stock (i.e., an undiversified investment), and it’s a riskier stock than your typical publicly traded company. (See, for instance, this cautionary tale I recently encountered of a man whose failed restaurant endeavor cost him his house.)

But, in summary, yes, investments in your own earnings potential are worth considering, even if they would require you to put saving for retirement on pause for a brief period. And this is especially true if:

  1. You are early in your career, and
  2. The hoped-for increase in earnings is very likely to actually occur (i.e., it is not especially speculative).

Worrying about Market Declines and High Valuations

A reader writes in, asking:

“The stock market’s tumble over the last week combined with the fact that stock valuations are still so high makes me wonder about the appropriate way to respond. Time to take some money off the table? I suspect I know what you’ll say, but I’m interested to hear anyway.”

The total U.S. stock market (as measured by the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund, VTSMX) fell by less than 10% last week. If that made you super nervous, that’s a good indication that your stock allocation is too high. A 10% decline should not be a big deal — especially when it comes after a 9-year bull market during which the value of U.S. stocks rose by roughly 400%.

If a decline of less than 10% makes you nervous at all, imagine how you’ll feel about a 30%, 40%, or 50% decline. The goal of asset allocation is to craft a portfolio with which you’d be able “sit tight” (or possibly even rebalance into stocks) during a full-blown bear market.

Making Use of Market Valuations

It’s true that the stock market is still highly valued relative to historical norms. (This should not be a surprise, given the huge returns over the last 9 years.)

But how useful is that information for the purpose of predicting returns going forward?

The following chart shows the correlation between the S&P 500’s valuation (as measured by PE10) and its inflation-adjusted returns for periods of various lengths from 1926-2017. As you would expect, the correlation is always negative, which means that the higher the market’s valuation at any time, the lower we should expect returns to be going forward.

Valuations and Returns

But the correlation between PE10 and ensuing short-term returns has been pretty weak. For instance, the correlation coefficient between PE10 and 1-year returns is just -0.22. The correlation is quite a bit stronger if we look at 10-year real returns (-0.63 correlation) or 20-year real returns (-0.75 correlation).

In other words, valuation levels are not very good at predicting short-term market returns. They are much better at predicting longer-term returns.

But even if we have good reason to suspect poor returns over the next, say, 10 years, a 10-year period of poor returns could come in a lot of forms. The market could be roughly stagnant, with inflation taking a toll. Alternatively, we might see another 7 years of gangbuster returns, followed by a super bad bear market for 3 years. Or we might see a 2-year bear market, followed by 4 years of good returns, then another 4-year bear market. And so on. (Or, the next 10 years could be a period for which valuation isn’t even predictive in the first place! A negative 63% correlation is still far from perfect.)

Point being, we never know what’s about to happen in the near term. So valuations aren’t very useful for trying to “dodge” a bear market, so to speak.

But because they do have decent predictive power over the long-term, valuations are useful for questions such as, “how much should I be saving per year?” And, “how much can I afford to spend per year in retirement?”

And with today’s high valuations, we should expect pretty modest returns — suggesting that high savings rates (for those in their accumulation years) and low spending rates (for those in their retirement years) are probably prudent. This was true a year ago, and it’s still true today.

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 financial or investment advisor, and the information on this site is for informational and entertainment purposes only and does not constitute financial advice.

Copyright 2019 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: Open Social Security