Index Funds Are Only Part of Your Investment Plan

There isn’t a single reason why you shouldn’t like index funds. They’re cheap, they offer market rates of return without fail, and they are simple to buy. They beat actively managed mutual funds a majority of the time and they are often advocated as the best investment the average Joe can put their money in. So why not put all your money into an S&P 500 Index fund like the Fidelity Spartan 500 Index or the Vanguard 500 Index, call it a day and enjoy more time with the family? Because that would be a huge mistake.

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Pick Investments Strategies That Fit Your Lifestyle

Blurry Stock TickerThe key to a successful investment plan is to pick one that fits your personal style. If you’re always busy and simply can’t find the time to pay attention to your investments, you need to pick a style that matches your life. There’s no sense adjusting your life to your investments, it should be the other way around. It’s difficult to pigeonhole anyone into one particular bucket but find the various suggestions in each grouping to see how best to use them to match your life.

The Novice

Everyone starts as a novice, there’s absolutely no shame in being a beginner when it comes to the stock market. In fact, it’s probably better that you’re a beginner. It was the experts that got us into the whole sub-prime mortgage mess. Until they closed their doors, the halls of Bear Stearns was full of experts. That being said, if you’re a novice when it comes to the stock market, put your money into a high yield savings account and start playing with a “play portfolio” at one of the finance sites. While you’re learning, your savings will still earn a nice interest rate.

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Introduction to Lazy Portfolios

Ever heard of the Margarita portfolio? How about the Couch Potato portfolio? Or the No-Brainer portfolio? No?

They’re all Lazy Portfolios.

A Lazy Portfolio is one that you can just set it and forget it and relies on low cost index funds or ETFs. There’s nothing particularly special about any Lazy Portfolio, besides their use of low cost index funds, and one isn’t necessarily better than another in all economic scenarios. As with any investing strategy, there are pros and cons. The pros, that it’s simple and you make few decisions, results in cons in that you may become complacent and ignorant of your investment decisions. It’s better to keep it simple and well understood than to make it complex and obfuscated. I’d rather make a choice that turned out wrong than make a decision I didn’t understand.

How They Perform

Paul Farrell of MarketWatch tracks eight Lazy Portfolios each year and in 2008, they have extended their winning streak of beating the S&P 500 for the sixth year (on a three-year and five-year basis). In other words, having a one of the eight Lazy Portfolios over the last six years has gotten you a better return than the stock market itself. (This year, three of the portolio’s got beat because they had a lot of REIT funds, but they are still besting the S&P over the last few years).

Here are the funds with the best names: (some of which weren’t featured in Paul Farrell’s wrapup)

Couch Potato Portfolio

This portfolio is the brainchild of Dallas Morning News columnist Scott Burns and is as simple as they come. All you need is 50% in the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX) and 50% in the Vanguard Total Bond Fund Index Fund (VBMFX). That’s it. You can go a little more aggressive with the variant Sophisticated Couch Potato Portfolio of 75% in the Vanguard 500 Index Fund and 25% in the Vanguard Total Bond Fund Index Fund.

Margaritaville Portfolio

This portfolio is also another one of Scott Burns’s creations and is the second simplest portfolio with equal parts of three funds: Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities (VIPSX), Vanguard Total International Stock Index (VGTSX), and Vanguard Total Stock Market Index (VTI).

No-Brainer Portfolio

Created by Dr. William Bernstein, a neurologist known for his work in modern portfolio theory and his book The Four Pillars of Investing, the No-Brainer Portfolio consists of four funds of equal weight: Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX), Vanguard Small Cap (NAESX) or (VTMSX), Vanguard Total International (VGTSX) or (VTMGX), and Vanguard Total Bond (VBMFX) or (VBISX). There is also a No-Brainer Coward’s Portfolio that includes 9 funds.

Coffeehouse Portfolio

This little gem was created by money manager Bill Schultheis, author of The Coffeehouse Investor: How to Build Wealth, Ignore Wall Street, and Get On With Your Life, created the Coffeehouse Portfolio that consists of seven funds:

  • 40% in Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX)
  • 10% in Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)
  • 10% in Vanguard Value Index (VIVAX)
  • 10% in Vanguard International Stock Index (VGTSX)
  • 10% in Vanguard REIT Index (VGSIX)
  • 10% in Vanguard Small-Cap Value Index (VISVX)
  • 10% in Vanguard Small-Cap Index (NAESX)

Those are the cooler sounding ones but there are many many others out there!


2007 J.D. Power Satisfaction Ratings in Finance

J.D. Power & Associates puts out annual customer satisfaction surveys in all types of industries from automobiles to finance to insurance to travel (and many more in between). When they published their annual scores for finance companies late last year, I wanted to write about it to see how some of the companies I work with performed against their peers.

Author’s Aside/Note: I know it’s a little late but this one had been sitting in the hopper and I felt that I should post it anyway.

The Finance category itself is broken up into retail banking, mortgage related, and credit card groups. At the time I first wrote this, I didn’t think the mortgage ratings were that interesting so I skipped over it. I chose to focus on the two services I used more – retail banking and credit cards. While I don’t discuss the mortgage ratings, go check out how well Countrywide Home Loans did (hint: not well). 🙂

Retail Banking

The Retail Banking scores were rated based on geographic region:

  • Mid Atlantic: Commerce Bank (Bancorp)
  • Midwest: Commerce Bank (Bancshares)
  • Southeast: Bancorpsouth Bank
  • Southwest: Wachovia Bank
  • West: Bank Of The West

If you happen to have a Commerce Bank nearby and are a current customer (and you have kids), they’re running a summer reading program where kids can earn $10 for reading ten books.

Online savings account darlings WaMu and HSBC made appearances on the list as well (I looked primarily at the Mid Atlantic listing because that’s where I live, I suspect the scores are similar for the same banks). WaMu scored four points in overall satisfaction (with the highest score of 5 points under the Fees category) and HSBC scored three points. This past weekend we went to a wedding in Williamsport, PA, home of the Little League World Series, and saw scores of Sovereign Bank branches. Sovereign Bank scored a mere two points overall (and across the board). It was also funny to see M&T Bank’s whole name written out, Manufacturers & Traders Bank; I use them for my business banking and they’ve kept me very “satisfied.”

Credit Cards

In the Credit Card Satisfaction category, American Express edged out Discover for the highest rating in overall satisfaction and received the JD Power & Associates award. I personally use the American Express Costco TrueEarnings card because because I shop often at Costco and because it gives me 3% cash back on gasoline purchases (we also use a Discover Open Road card but that card caps rewards). My wife used to like their AMEX Blue card but it was recently replaced with the Citi CashReturns card because of the unlimited 1% cashback (and it once offered a 5% cashback on everything for the first three months).

The three companies that led up the rear with two points (out of five) were Capital One, Bank of America, and HSBC. I’ve never had a credit card from any of those companies. It’s interesting that when you arrange them by Overall Satisfaction (by clicking the sort arrows), HSBC appears below Bank of America. Bank of America has 2 points in all five categories while HSBC has three points for Rewards Program yet still appears below BoA. There must be some granularity within those points not captured somewhere.


Finally, the investment broker category was the last of the categories I was interested in and it was broken into Full Service Investment Firm Ratings and Online Investment Firm Ratings. Raymond James took home the award in the Full Service Category and Scottrade (barely edging out Vanguard) took top honors in the Online Investment Firm Ratings.

I thought it was interesting that the only other “discount” online broker that made the list (TradeKing, Zecco, and many others didn’t make the list) was E*Trade Financial and they scored only two points.

With it being August, the 2008 ratings should be coming out soon in a few months. It’ll be interesting to see how much shifting around occurs with some of these scores.


On Zecco’s Poor Customer Service

Smart Money named Zecco the worst in customer service in their 2008 Smart Money Best Broker Survey and many of the comments on my Is Zecco A Scam? post seem to echo the experiences of Smart Money’s reviewers. If you read the comments, they range from “Eh, you get what you pay for, it’s not bad.” to “Zecco sucks and Zecco is only for non-serious amateur traders arguing over couple of bucks here and there.” (Lee)

I said I’d fund my account there but I never did. One reason was because I was confused by the two separate logins, one for the community and one for my brokerage account. Then, the comments about the poor customer service starting rolling in and Zecco changed from free trades to 10 free trades if you had over $2,500 in your account, so I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. The reality is that I opened a high yield savings account and brokerage at E*Trade ($9.99/trade) and then a TradeKing account ($4.95/trade) to write a review of TradeKing. With two brokerage accounts plus my retirement accounts, I figured another one with reported bad customer service wasn’t worth it (especially if I’m trying to simplify my personal finances! I’m going the wrong way!).

In truth, I think that people expect too much from Zecco. While the change in free trades to 10 free trades with a minimum balance was a bit “bait and switch”-y, you’re still getting ten free trades worth at least $50 a month (assuming 10 trades at $4.95 each at competitor TradeKing). But the maxim of “You get what you pay for” still rings true. If you want better customer service, pay the $4.95 a trade (or more); if you don’t care about customer service, then Zecco might be right for you.

On the other hand, should you be trading ten times a month? Most people shouldn’t be trading ten times a month, so your actual total benefit isn’t $50 a month, it’s less. In fact, I haven’t made a stock trade in several months (not that I’m the poster child for a disciplined investor). If you’re more a mutual fund type, you can trade those for free if you open an account at that brokerage. At Vanguard, you can invest in many of their no-load funds without any transaction costs whatsoever. Free trades at Vanguard!

So your trade-off of poor customer service is for a couple of trades a year, which is not worth it in my opinion. And that’s why I never funded my account.


529 Plans: Fees More Important than Deductions

529 Plans: Maryland vs. Nevada PlansUsually. 🙂

My friend just had their first child and began researching 529 plans. A 529 plan is an education savings plan run by a state or an educational institution, it’s named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code. The plan offers tax benefits to individuals saving for future education. In his case, he was looking at a savings plan, rather than a prepaid plan*.

And now he had a choice: an in-state plan with a tax deduction or an out-of-state plan with potentially cheaper funds. Specifically, he wondered if he should open a Maryland 529, which offers a tax deduction to Maryland residents, or a state plan offering Vanguard funds, which is known for lower mutual fund fees. The state plan he found was Nevada’s, which is run by Upromise but offers Vanguard funds. (Plan data provided by Saving For College, run by Bankrate)

College Investment Plan (Maryland)

  • Program Manager: T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc.
  • Residency Requirement: No.
  • Maximum Contributions: No annual limit until account balance for beneficiary reaches $320,000.
  • Account Maintenance Fee: $25 / yr, waived with automatic investments or balance greater than $25,000.
  • Management Fees: 0.28% manager fee, 0.25% once program assets reach $2 billion.
  • Tax Deductions: $2,500 per beneficiary per year by account owner is deductible with a 10 year carryforward on excess contributions.

The Vanguard 529 Savings Plan (Nevada)

  • Program Manager: Upromise Investments, Inc. and Vanguard Group, Inc.
  • Residency Requirement: No.
  • Maximum Contributions: No annual limit until account balance for beneficiary reaches $310,000.
  • Account Maintenance Fee: $20 / yr, waived if account owner or beneficiary is a Nevada resident or assets in account exceed $3,000.
  • Management Fees: 0.65% manager fee, include underlying fund expenses.
  • Tax Deductions: None.

Comparing just the Nevada plan against the Maryland plan, it appears that the Maryland plan is superior. What you’re trading off is the tax deduction versus the mutual fund fees, but the tax deduction is only available the year you contribute. In Maryland, the $2,500 deduction is worth $125 (5% state income tax) making it nearly a wash between the slightly higher account fees in Nevada.

It’s really a choice between T. Rowe funds vs. Vanguard funds. If you’re an index fund type of investor, the T. Rowe Price Equity Index 500 (PREIX) has an expense ratio of 0.35%. Vanguard’s 500 Index (VFINX) expense ratio is 0.15%, meaning T. Rowe’s ratio is more expensive by 0.20%. On a balance of $10,000, that’s a difference of $20 being whisked out of the account each year for nothing. While $20 doesn’t seem like much, that’s a fee taken out each year and one that will erode your investment’s growing potential.

If it were me, I think the Nevada plan is superior of the two because it offers access to cheaper Vanguard funds.

Five Best 529 Plans

Liz Pulliam Weston of MSN money recently looked at the 5 best college savings plans and listed Nevada as one of the top five. The other states included were Alaska, Nebraska, Rhode Island and Virginia. The Virginia plan offers access to some Vanguard funds too.

* A prepaid plan is an option where you “lock in” the price of an in-state public college education right now. You can always convert it to a private or out of state school later on based on some conversion tables.

(Photo: lednew)


Target Retirement Funds for Short-Term Goals

My retirement is forty years away and I have a portion of my brokerage account invested in a 2050 Target Retirement fund at Vanguard. The Target Retirement fund makes an excellent choice for me because it handles all the asset allocation and rebalancing issues without my interference, all with a target withdrawal date in mind. That’s when I got to thinking, why not utilize target retirement funds for shorter goals?

Let’s say you have kids that are planning on going to college. The natural choice is to go with a 529 plan or some other educationally advantaged account. After you open the account, what are you going to invest in? You could figure a safe allocation, given when you expect your child to go to college, and handle the finances or you could, if your account offered it, just go with a target retirement account. Simply buy the year closest to your target date, rounding down so you’re on the conservative side, and forget about it. It’s time-wise more efficient than managing it yourself and, if you go with the right firm, the fees will be reasonable.

This plan does have drawbacks. You often don’t much international exposure, which you may or may not want given our current economic environment. Many emerging markets are growing at breakneck speeds but the dollar is weakening, there’s plenty of uncertainty. You might want international exposure and a fund like the Vanguard Target Retirement 2030 has only 17.2% invested outside the United States, of which the lion’s share, 9.2%, is in Europe. Another risk is that you don’t have exposure to the asset class that has been growing the most recently, commodities (oil and gold, anyone?). Of course, we could be in a bubble right now or we could be seeing the start to something bigger – no one can see the future.

Either way, it’s an option on the table and one that I wanted to bring up to see if you all had any thoughts on the subject. Good idea with potential? Or just buying into the marketing hype of these lifecycle funds?

 Investing, Personal Finance 

Money: Only 7 Investments You’ll Need

Money Magazine recently released the only 7 investments you’ll ever need and, surprise surprise, my favorite firm, Vanguard, was listed first choice for five of the seven. Their founder, John Bogle, was a major proponent of index funds and it shows in their offering, as almost all of Money’s choices were low-expense ratio index funds.

Need another reason to have a mutual fund account at Vanguard? (No, Vanguard doesn’t sponsor this site!)

Blue-chip US-stock fund: Fidelity Spartan 500 Index (FSMKX) because it replicates the S&P 500 with an expense ratio of 0.10% (coincidentally, Vanguard’s version, the Vanguard 500 Index Fund Investor Shares (VFINX) is 50% more expensive with a ratio of 0.15%).

Blue-chip foreign-stock fund: Vanguard Total International Stock Index (VGTSX) because of its solid performance, beating 90% of its peers, and because it’s an index fund with an expense ratio of 0.27%. Another Vanguard fund, the Vanguard FTSE All World Ex-U.S. ETF (VEU), was listed as an alternative.

Small-company fund: T. Rowe Price New Horizons (PRNHX) is an actively managed fund, one of the few actively managed funds they selected, and is “one of the most efficient of the actively managed crowd.” Considering it is actively managed, an expense ratio of 0.8% is pretty good, about half the average.

Value fund: Oh look, another Vanguard fund – the Vanguard Value Index (VIVAX) and its 0.2% expense ratio and a record that trumps 78% of its peers. Value funds go after investments that appear overlooked or beaten down and try earn a little off those cigar butts and dividends, rather than looking for growth potential.

High-quality bond fund: Vanguard Total Bond Market Index (VBMFX) snags this category with a 0.2% expense ratio. Bonds are good to be the rock in your portfolio to give you some grounding as your other investments shoot up and crash down. 🙂

Inflation-protected bond fund: This last category was won by Vanguard’s Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX) and it’s 0.2% expense ratio (Vanguard’s index funds are ridiculously efficient). “Among TIPS funds, Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities has several things going for it, including lower costs and better management than you would get if you assembled your own TIPS portfolio. While the fund returned 6.6% over the past five years, you shouldn’t expect it to make a pile of dough. Its job is to protect the money you already have.”

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