Kelly Criterion and Your Fun Money Allocation

chipsDo you think you’re a below-average driver? I didn’t think so. In the same vein, Jason Zweig had a funny tweet the other day that hit home:

His linked article ends with this advice:

Put 90% of your money in low-cost index funds and lock yourself in by adding a fixed amount every month through an electronic transfer from your bank. […] Speculate with just the remaining 10%, and use a checklist of buying criteria to make sure you never buy a stock purely because it has been going up.

This coincided with me reading stuff about the Kelly Criterion, a mathematical formula used to determine the optimal size of a series of bets. Basically, the greater your “edge”, the greater your bet size should be. If you have zero edge, then you should bet nothing. If you have negative edge, you should theoretically bet against yourself (if only casinos allowed that).

Here’s an interesting example that involved a special coin where you have the advance knowledge that it has a 60% chance of heads and 40% chance of tails. In short, with this edge you should consistently bet 20% of your bankroll each time. That’s it! If the coin was 52.5% heads/47.5% tails, you should only bet 5% of your bankroll. Most people do not find this intuitive.

What’s your own edge? Consider that some folks think that only 5% of Active Investment Managers Will Add Value. This is where I insert a couple of Charlie Munger quotes:

I think it is roughly right that the market is efficient, which makes it very hard to beat merely by being an intelligent investor. But I don’t think it’s totally efficient at all. And the difference between being totally efficient and somewhat efficient leaves an enormous opportunity for people like us to get these unusual records. It’s efficient enough, so it’s hard to have a great investment record. But it’s by no means impossible. Nor is it something that only a very few people can do. The top three or four percent of the investment management world will do fine.

If you stop to think about it, civilized man has always had soothsayers, shamans, faith healers, and God knows what all. The stock picking industry is four or five percent super rational, disciplined people, and the rest of them are like faith healers or shamans. And that’s just the way it is, I’m afraid. It’s nice that they keep an image of being constructive, sensible people when they’re really would-be faith healers. It keeps their self respect up.

Bottom line. In stock market investing, most of us lack an edge and thus should stick with index funds. But we all like to think we have some edge, so maybe a 5% or 10% fun money allocation is acceptable. Anything higher would be claiming to have some crazy, unreasonable edge. I would say it also depends on how aggressively your fun money is managed. Berkshire Hathaway stock is relatively low risk. Mine is invested in short-term loans backed by real estate with conservative loan-to-value ratios and a target return of 7%. The latest cryptocurrency promoted by celebrities on social media? Not low risk.

PeerStreet Review: Real Estate Backed Loan Investments, My 14-Month Experience

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I’ve been investing in various real-estate crowdfunding platforms since early 2015 with minimum $1,000-$2,000 investments here and there. In August 2016, I put $10,000 into a new platform: automated real-estate loans from PeerStreet. I decided to wait a year and see how it worked out letting someone else pick your loans. For this type of lending, you have to be an accredited investor. Here’s my review after 14 months of being an investor.

The basic premise of PeerStreet is simple (and similar to other sites). Real estate equity investors want to take out short-term loans (6 to 24 months) and don’t fit the profile of a traditional mortgage borrower. They are professional investors with multiple properties, need bridge financing, or they are on a tight timeline. As a real-estate-backed loan investor, you lend them money at 6% to 12% and usually backed by a first lien on the property. The borrower stands to lose the equity in their property (I keep LTV under 70%), so they are highly incentivized to avoid default. In the worst case, you would foreclose and liquidate the property in order to get your money back. However, this is better than Prosper or LendingClub where it is an unsecured loan and your only recourse is to lower their credit score.

What are PeerStreet strengths? Here are the reasons that I decided to put more a higher amount of money into PeerStreet as compared to other worthwhile real estate marketplace sites:

  • Debt-only focus. Other real estate (RE) sites will offer both equity and debt (and some thing in between). PeerStreet only focuses on debt, and I also prefer the simplicity of debt. There is limited upside but also less downside. Traditionally, this might be called “hard money lending”.
  • Lower $1,000 investment minimum. Many RE investment sites have minimums of $10,000 or $25,000. A few will go down to $2,000 but there is not a steady supply. At PeerStreet, $25,000 will get me slices of loans from 25 real estate properties.
  • Greater availability of investments. Amongst all of the RE websites that I have joined, PeerStreet has the highest and most steady volume of loans that I’ve seen. I dislike having idle cash just sit there, waiting and not earning interest. They apparently have a unique process where they have a network of lenders that bring in loans for them. This steady volume allows the lower $1,000 minimums and more diversification, as well as easy reinvestment of matured loans.
  • Automated investing. The above two characteristics allow PeerStreet to run an automated investment program. You give them say $5,000 and they will invest it automatically amongst five $1,000 loans. You can set certain criteria (LTV ratio, term length, interest rate). When a loan matures, the software can automatically reinvest your available cash. I don’t even have to log in.
  • Consistent underwriting. You should perform your own due diligence in this area, as you can only feel comfortable with automated investing if you think every loan is more or less underwritten fairly. The riskier loans get higher interest rates. The less-risky loans get lower interest rates. The shady borrowers are turned away. Otherwise, you’d want to pick and choose. After doing this for a year, I stopped wanting to pick and choose. I want to just sit back and let the software choose for me. We’ll see if it works out.
  • Backed by Andreessen Horowitz and also Michael Burry. Andreessen Horowitz did the Series A funding. Michael Burry was an early seed investor, using $6.1 million of his own money according to TechCrunch. As profiled in The Big Short, Burry is known for being analytical to a fault, as opposed to being a good salesman.

Here’s a screenshot of the automated investing customizer tool:

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(Tip: Even if you plan on investing only in $1,000 loans, once you are fully invested you might change later to a higher minimum like $1,250 in order to more quickly reinvest your idle cash. For example, if you have $78 in interest and then a $1,000 loan is paid off, then you could invest $1,078 automatically into your next loan.)

What is a potential PeerStreet drawback? In my opinion, slightly lower yields. This is just my limited understanding and I may be wrong, but PeerStreet has a network of lenders bringing in these deals and so the net yield to the investor feels lower than other sites. This “con” is also their secret sauce that brings in the high loan volume (and ideally the ability to be more selective), and so I am willing to earn lower interest rates for the added diversification and convenience of automated investing.

Here’s the 1-minute video pitch from PeerStreet:

How does PeerStreet make money? As with other real estate marketplace lenders, they charge a servicing fee. PeerStreet charges between 0.25% and 1%, taken out from the interest payments. This way, PeerStreet only gets paid when you get paid. When you invest, you see the fee and net interest rate that you’ll earn. In exchange, they help source the investments, set up all the required legal structures, service the loans, and coordinate the foreclosure process in case of default. In some cases, the originating lenders retains a partial interest in the loan (“skin in the game”). Here’s a partial screenshot:

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What if PeerStreet goes bankrupt? This is the same question posed to LendingClub and Prosper, and their solution is also the same. The loans are held in a bankruptcy-remote entity and will continue to be serviced by a third-party even in a bankruptcy event. From their FAQ:

PeerStreet also holds loans in a bankruptcy-remote entity that is separate from our primary corporate entity. In the event PeerStreet no longer remains in business, a third-party “special member” will step in to manage loan investments and ensure that investors continue to receive interest and principal payments. Additionally, investor funds are held in an Investors Trust Account with City National Bank and FDIC insured up to $250,000.

Tax forms? In general, unless you use a self-directed IRA, the interest earned will be taxed as ordinary income (like bank account interest). For tax year 2016, I received a simple 1099-INT and filing it with my income taxes was easy. Here’s what PeerStreet says:

PeerStreet investors will be issued a consolidated Form 1099 for the income distributed from their investment positions. Investors may receive one or more of the following types of 1099 form:

1099-OID for notes with terms longer than one year (at the time of issue)
1099-INT for notes with terms less than one year (at the time of issue)
1099-MISC for incentives, late fees or other income, if more than $600.

My investment performance. I starting investing with $10,000 in August 2016. I’ve already had over $10,000 in loan value paid back already, but I chose to reinvest immediately. As of this writing in 10/1/2017, my total account value is $10,863.46 invested across 10 different loans after reinvestment. My interest to date is $863.46, which works out to 7.7% annualized return net of all fees and taking into account the short periods where my cash was idle. Here are screenshots of my paid-off loans and a chart of cumulative interest earned.

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Now, I don’t know what the default rate is overall, but sooner or later I will probably experience one. This will require patience as it will take a while for the foreclosure process to play out. In my experience, this is a critical difference with private real estate loans. You can’t make a few clicks and get your money back at the current market price. I might have to wait months or even more than a year. The good news that with a hard asset as collateral, eventually I have a solid chance of getting my money back with interest. I am willing to accept this illiquidity and hopefully earn higher returns in exchange.

Update: As of October 2017, PeerStreet has stated they have originated $500 million of loans with zero investor losses.

Bottom line. PeerStreet offers high-yield, short-term loans backed by private real estate. Instead of traditional “hard money lending”, accredited investors can diversify with only $1,000 minimum in properties nationwide with automatic investments, without having to do any physical legwork. The number of new, available investments is better than competitors in my experience. Will it provide superior risk-adjusted returns as compared to other high-yield bonds? I don’t know, but my experience so far after 14 months has been positive.

If you are interested and are an accredited investor, you can sign-up for free and browse investments at PeerStreet before depositing any funds or making any investments.

See also my previous investments: Patch of Land (accredited only), a debt investment backed by a single-family residential property in California. Fundrise eREIT (open to public), a basket of commercial property investments with an equity focus. RealtyShares, a debt investment backed by a 6-unit apartment complex.

Vanguard Thoughts: Pros and Cons from a 15-Year Client-Owner

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Vanguard has been sucking up assets like a vacuum, with total assets now exceeding $4 trillion. Their hybrid robo-advisor Vanguard Personal Advisor Services has over $65 billion in assets under management. Are they unbeatable? People tend to love building things up, then love tearing it down.

Vanguard holds the majority of my net worth, grown over 15 years in Vanguard brokerage accounts and Vanguard mutual funds/ETFs. You could therefore call me a fanboy, but also a concerned “client-owner” (I prefer the term “investor-owner”). As they keep hounding me to vote on their proxy, here’s what I like the most and least about Vanguard:

Pros

  • Historical track record. Vanguard has a long history of providing investments at a low cost. When they arrive to an asset class, costs tend to drop like a rock. This the Vanguard Effect.
  • Skill and experience. They are good at what they do – run low-cost index funds and low-cost actively-managed funds. They understand things like reducing index tracking error and utilizing securities lending to boost fund returns.
  • Ownership structure. Vanguard does have a unique ownership structure conducive to continuing to maintaining low costs. There are no outside shareholders or activist hedge funds working to squeeze out every last drop of profit.
  • Profitable. Vanguard has their current expense ratios and is actually making money (or technically breaking even) on every single fund and ETF. The others are losing money on their “cheap” products while they try to make money elsewhere.
  • Less company risk. All the above adds up to my opinion that Vanguard has the best chance of future, ongoing lower costs. A potential cost beyond expense ratios that should be considered is the cost of switching to a different fund in a taxable account. If I sell now to buy something else, I will have to pay taxes on a significant amount of capital gains. I want to minimize the chance of having to do that.

Cons

  • Lack of transparency on marketing costs. Vanguard runs a lot more advertising than they used to. I might argue too much, but nobody knows how much they are spending because they don’t disclose this even to their “investor-owners”. Vanguard is not a non-profit, but I have seen even non-profits suffer from internal bloat and having quality suffer in the pursuit of growth.
  • Lack of transparency on executive compensation. Vanguard may not have outside shareholders, but we also don’t know how much money the CEO or other executives make. If Vanguard were a publicly-traded company like Schwab, they would have to disclose these numbers. As “investor-owners”, I don’t get told anything. As this Bloomberg article states, “Vanguard is an important shareholder voice on executive pay, but it isn’t transparent on its own compensation.”
  • Mediocre customer service. Vanguard has struggled with the quality and responsiveness of their customer service as they have grown in size. My interactions with Fidelity and Schwab have consistently produced faster response times and more accurate levels of service. Vanguard themselves have admitted that they have had struggles in this area.
  • Not necessarily the cheapest at any given moment. If you look at any specific ETF benchmark at any specific moment in time these days, the cheapest offering might come from Vanguard, but it just as likely might come from Schwab, iShares, or Fidelity.

Financial author Jonathan Clements argues in his Protection Money article that he is willing to a little bit more for Vanguard ETFs in order to avoid potentially having to pay significant capital gains if the loss-leader pricing trend stops. I think that is a very valid argument.

Now, you could also buy Vanguard ETFs inside another brokerage account. However, you may have to contend with trade commissions. A few exceptions on ETFs: Merrill Edge and Bank of America will give you 30 free trades a month if you have $50,000 in combined assets at BofA and Merrill (plus better credit card rewards). The Robinhood app lets anyone invest with free commissions (although I’d expect even less than Vanguard in terms of customer service). You can transfer Vanguard ETFs to another custodian for a flat fee if you wish to avoid realized capital gains.

Big picture. Vanguard changed the investment world, but now the gap is much narrower. I started out with Vanguard and think they still have the best long-term structure, so I own Vanguard mutual funds and ETFs. However, Schwab and iShares Core ETFs held somewhere with low trading costs and good customer service are also very good choices for someone starting out. This group of “nearly as good” alternatives to Vanguard continues to grow. Meanwhile, there is still another large group of “definitely worse” alternatives. Debating between 0.01% is rather useless when there are still people paying 1% or more for index funds.

Robinhood: Free Share of Stock for New Users – Estimated Value

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Robinhood is a sleek smartphone app that’s a brokerage account with unlimited $0 trades with no minimum balance requirement. They’ve been around for a few years now and I’ve been impressed that they’ve kept up the free trade business model, partially by recently rolling out premium paid features. I enjoy the minimalist and intuitive interface.

Right now, if you a referred by an existing user you get a free share of stock. The existing user also gets a free share, so thanks if you use it! As I write this, that share is randomly selected from a pool of “widely-held companies”, which includes Apple ($158), Facebook ($172), or Microsoft ($75). Too bad they don’t offer Berkshire Hathaway Class A shares ($274,000). Okay, but there are also shares of companies that are worth $1 or less.

What share value should I expect? Here are screenshots from my phone showing some odds:

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For some reason they try to use the World’s Smallest Fine Print™, but here are selected details from their FAQ:

The stock bonus is one share selected randomly, when the bonus criteria are met, from Robinhood’s inventory of settled shares held for this program. When shares are purchased into this inventory, Robinhood purchases shares from the three to four companies representing the highest market capitalization in various ranges of share prices between approximately $3 and $175, limited to those companies that are widely held among Robinhood accounts. There is an approximately 98% chance of the stock bonus having a value of $2.50-$10, an approximately 1% chance of the stock bonus having a value of $10-$50, and an approximately 1% chance of the stock bonus having a value of $50-$200, based on the price of shares at the time of purchase. The Robinhood platform displays approximate odds of receiving shares from particular companies at the time the screen is generated. These odds do not necessarily reflect the odds of receiving stock in those companies at the time the stock bonus is awarded.

So… basically 98% chance of getting something $10 or less, and 2% chance of something higher. This means the weighted average share price can’t be more than ten bucks.

By the way, you can cash out your bonus by selling after 2 days and withdrawing your balance after 30 days:

Limit one offer per qualified referral with a maximum of one account per referred client. Stock bonus will be credited to the enrolled account within approximately one week after the bonus is claimed. Stock bonuses that are not claimed within 60 days may expire. Shares from stock bonuses cannot be sold until 2 trading days after the bonus is granted. The cash value of the stock bonus may not be withdrawn for 30 days after the bonus is claimed.

Bottom line. The Robinhood “Get Free Stock” promotion is clever and it certainly appeals to the hopeful gambler within us with a $200 potential value, but most people are likely going get a share of stock valued at $10 or less. (Don’t sell it and wait 30 years – see what happens!) I would just treat as a fun game if you otherwise want to be able to trade stocks for free on your smartphone. Robinhood is a good value on its own, see my full Robinhood review.

Sign up for Robinhood and get your free share here, and I’ll report back on any shares that I win.

Robinhood App Review: $0 Stock Trades, Easy-to-Use Interface

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Updated. The Robinhood app wants to “democratize the financial markets” by creating brokerage account in your pocket that offers unlimited free trades with no minimum balance requirement. That is a pretty bold move, and I was skeptical as I’ve been an long-time early adopter of free trading platforms (read: cheapskate investor).

I started out as a beta user in mid-2014 with their beautiful but manually-installed iPhone app. In August 2015, they rolled out both iOS and Android app and reported processing over 2 million free trades. As of 2017, they have over a million users and processed $30 billion in trades. According to Bloomberg, they recently raised money at a $1.3 billion valuation.

Application process. You must provide your personal information including Social Security number, net worth, income, investing experience, etc. This is the same as any other brokerage firm, but this may also be the first such account for many users. Everything was done online; there were no paper documents that required mailing or faxing.

Core features.

  • Yes, the app really gives me $0 commission trades with no minimum balance requirement. That means you could open account, put in five bucks, and buy a single share of Zynga (ZNGA) if you wanted to (maybe two on a bad day…).
  • Robinhood now supports market orders, limit orders, stop limit orders, and stop orders. Certain orders may be entered as good for the day or good till canceled (GTC).
  • You can open an individual cash or margin account.
  • Customer service is encouraged to go through their e-mail “[email protected]”, but they have added a phone number now during market hours (9:30am – 4:00pm EST) at (650) 940-2700.

Along with all the other legit brokerage firms, Robinhood Financial is a member of the SIPC which protects the securities in your account up to $500,000. Data is encrypted with SSL. Apex is their clearing firm.

Funds transfers. You can manually link any bank account with your routing number and account number, but you can also directly use your username and password at these banks: Chase, Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, Charles Schwab, PNC, Silicon Vally Bank, and USAA. ACH transfers are free and take approximately 3 business days (same as other brokerages).

Robinhood recently added an automatic deposits feature where you can schedule ACH transfers on a weekly, biweekly, monthly, or quarterly basis.

ACAT account transfers. Robinhood now accepts incoming stock transfers from outside brokerage accounts. To do this, go your app account menu, select “Banking”, then select “Stock Transfer” and follow the on-screen instructions. Incoming transfers are free. Outgoing transfers will incur a $75 fee.

Robinhood Instant. Robinhood Instant is a free upgrade that gets you a “limited margin account” that has the following features:

  • Immediate access to funds from selling stock. That means you can reinvest those funds without waiting two days for settlement. (All brokerage margin accounts offer this.)
  • Limited instant deposits. Use up to $1,000 of your pending bank deposits right away. No waiting 2-3 days for a bank transfer to complete.

What’s missing? Getting free trades is great, but I think it’s also important to know what you won’t get, at least right now:

  • You must access your account via a mobile Apple iOS or Android device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android phone, Android tablet). There is no official web interface. There are unofficial ones available, but I would be wary of sharing your login credentials with a 3rd-party.
  • Broker-assisted phone trades are $10 each, according to their fee schedule.
  • Electronic statements are the default. I don’t even see an option to enable paper statements in the app, but according to their fee schedule paper statements cost $5 a pop.
  • Options trading is not available at this time.

How do they make money? First, Robinhood will make some money the same way other brokers do: collect interest on your idle cash, charge you interest for margin loans, and sell order flow. The most innovative prospect is to the plan to sell API access to other financial apps.

The fact that Robinhood sells order flow may leave you with a slightly worse execution price as compared to other brokers with more complex order routing. If you are making large value trades, then this small percentage difference may add up to something significant that matters more than commission price. With my tiny order volume, I am fine with them selling my order flow if they are giving me commission-free trades.

Robinhood Gold is their premium service tier that gives you extending trading hours and interest-free margin for $10 a Month. My Robinhood Gold review.

User interface. Over the last 10 years, I’ve opened an account at the majority of the “discount” brokerage firms. I’ve had $0 trades before, along with $2 trades, $2.50 trades, $4.95 trades and so on. What makes Robinhood special is their modern, app-centric approach. I agree with this quote from Wired:

But the app’s simplicity is meant to be about more than style. Ease of access and understanding is meant to make Robinhood compulsively engaging for a new generation of investors that don’t find the stock market very accessible from the mobile screens at the center of their lives.

Screenshots.

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Recap. Robinhood delivers on their $0 stock trades promise with no minimum balance. The app-only user interface is clean and intuitive. Customer service is on the lean side, but my requests were responded to within a day or so. They continue to make incremental improvements. They’ve been open to the public since March 2015, which is honestly longer than I expected.

Sign up for Robinhood with my referral link and get a free share of stock, and I’ll get one too. Details on this promotion here.

University of Berkshire Hathaway: Notes From Annual Shareholders Meeting (Book Review)

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If you are a Buffett & Munger follower, you should be intrigued by University of Berkshire Hathaway: 30 Years of Lessons Learned from Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger at the Annual Shareholders Meeting by Daniel Pecaut and Corey Wrenn. Anyone can buy all the old BRK shareholder letters, but there are very few transcripts from the live shareholder meetings in Omaha, Nebraska (1986–2015). There is definitely overlap, but these live interactions sometimes provide a peek into their less-publicized opinions (especially Munger’s). Here’s how the authors describe the book:

This book isn’t for the first-time investor. It’s for the informed investor who sees the value of being able to get deep into the mindsets of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. If you want to walk around in their shoes for the past three decades, absorb what works, and then apply it to your own investments, then this book is for you.

The current price is only $0.99 in Kindle format. At that price, it should be an easy decision on whether to own the entire book forever, but here are my personal notes and highlights to give you an idea of the contents:

How Berkshire Hathaway differs from other actively-managed stock mutual funds:

The public has long viewed Berkshire as a sort of mutual fund with large stock holdings. This view underestimates or ignores 1) Berkshire’s insurance companies’ impressive generation of low-cost float, 2) Berkshire’s impressive and growing stable of cash-generating operating businesses, and 3) Berkshire’s ability to orchestrate value-enhancing deals.

Classic quote on stock market prices:

Buffett noted that many investors illogically become euphoric when stock prices rise and are downcast when they fall. This makes no more sense than if you bought some hamburger one day, returned the next day to buy more but at a higher price, and then felt euphoric because you had bought some cheaper the day before. If you are going to be a lifelong buyer of food, you welcome falling prices and deplore price increases. So should it be with investments.

Luck and the Ovarian lottery:

Buffett launched into an intriguing thought problem he called “the ovarian lottery.” You are to be born in 24 hours. You are also to write all the rules that will govern the society in which you will live. However, you do not know if you will be born bright or retarded, black or white, male or female, rich or poor, able or disabled. How would you write the rules? Buffett said how one comes out in this lottery is far more important than anything else to one’s future. He and Munger were huge winners having been born American (“in Afghanistan, we wouldn’t be worth a damn”), male (at a time when many women could only be nurses and teachers), white (when opportunities for minorities were slim) and good at valuing businesses (in a system that pays for that like crazy). Buffett noted it is important to take care of the non-winners of the ovarian lottery. Therefore, some sort of taxation is in order. Given that few people with money and talent are turned away from free enterprise under the current system, the 28% capital gains tax is probably okay.

Investing in yourself:

Buffett asserted that the very best investment you can make is in yourself. Buffett shared that, when he talks to students, one of the things he tells them is what a valuable asset they have in themselves. Buffett would pay any bright student probably $50,000 for 10% of their future earnings for the rest of his life. So each student is a $500,000 asset just standing there. What you do with that $500,000 asset should be developing your mind and talent.

State-sponsored legal gambling:

Buffett asserted that to a large extent, gambling is a tax on ignorance. You put it in, and it ends up taxing many that are least able to pay while relieving taxes on those who don’t gamble. He finds it socially revolting when a government preys on its citizens rather than serving them. A government shouldn’t make it easy for people to take their Social Security checks and waste them by pulling a handle. In addition, other negative social things can flow from gambling over time.

Read, read, read:

Buffett agreed that he is big on reading everything in sight and recommended good investors should read everything they can. In his case, he said that by the age of 10, he’d read every book in the Omaha public library on investing, some twice! Fill your mind with competing ideas, and see what makes sense to you.

Investing with real money:

Then you have to jump in the water—take a small amount of money, and do it yourself. He joked that investing on paper is like reading a romance novel versus doing something else. Munger shared that Berkshire Director Sandy Gottesman, who runs a large, successful investment firm (First Manhattan), asks interviewees, “What do you own, and why do you own it?” If you’re not interested enough to own something, then he’d tell you to find something else to do.

Book recommendations, including The Richest Man in Babylon:

We have often recommended to our friends and clients George Clason’s classic, The Richest Man in Babylon, so we were delighted to hear Charlie speak of it. He said that he read the book when he was young and that the book taught him to under-spend his income and invest the difference. Lo and behold, he did this, and it worked.

Munger also suggested that it is very important to learn how to avoid being manipulated by lenders and vendors. He strongly recommended Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence, for the task. He also recommended Cialdini’s newest book, Yes, noting that Cialdini is the rare social psychologist who can connect the world of theory and daily life.

Note: This a dated quote, and Robert Cialdini’s newest book is actually Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, published in 2016.

Work for yourself an hour each day:

He got the idea to add a mental compound interest as well. So he decided he would sell himself the best hour of the day to improving his own mind, and the world could buy the rest of his time. He said it may sound selfish, but it worked. He also noted that if you become very reliable and stay that way, it will be very hard to fail in doing anything you want.

Simple career advice:

“Do what you enjoy the most. Work for people you admire. You can’t miss if you do that.”

Investing in stocks (equity) vs. bonds (debt):

Buffett noted that the analytical hurdle for buying a bond requires answering the question, “Will the company go out of business?” while buying an equity requires answering the more difficult question, “Will the company prosper?” This is why Berkshire bought the 15% notes of Harley Davidson rather than the stock. He had no question the company would stay in business, quipping, “You have to like a business where the customers tattoo your name on their chests!” But gauging Harley’s long-term prosperity was much more difficult, especially during the throes of the crisis.

Also see my earlier posts on appreciating your absolute standard of living and why you should maintain some optimism.

Bottom line. If you’re a Buffett & Munger enthusiast, this is a nice addition to your collection. Lots of familiar wisdom but also includes some additional perspective. If you’re not a Buffett & Munger enthusiast, I might start elsewhere, for example with Warren Buffett’s Ground Rules if you’re not ready for the original shareholder letters. Here’s to hoping the authors will do a similar book on the Wesco Financial meetings with Charlie Munger.

How Much International Stocks In Your Portfolio? 2017 Outlook

globeHere are some updated thoughts on holding stocks based outside the US in your portfolio.

There is no “ideal” amount of international stocks that experts agree upon. You have numbers ranging from 0% (US only) to 50% (market-cap weighting). For a good summary of this situation, check out these two recent articles from Christine Benz and John Rekenthaler of Morningstar.

The world continues to change, and the market weights will change with it. Here’s an interesting infographic by Jeff Desjardins at VisualCapitalist about world GDP breakdown for the last 2,000 years. The time axis is kind of wonky from 1-1900, so I’d focus on just 1900-now. GDP is not the same as market value, but the point is that the world will not look the same in 30 years.

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Right now, in terms of valuation, US stocks are relatively expensive and International stocks are relatively cheap. Via this ETFTrends article by Chris Konstantinos at RiverFront Investment Group, via TRB:

Looking a 12-month forward P/E ratio at the MSCI All-Country World Ex-US index, we are currently at the largest valuation gap between US and non-US markets in the 15+ years of data to which we have access.

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My take: Pick a split and stick with it. I don’t feel too strongly about this topic. If a Belgian company buys Budweiser, does that change how the business works fundamentally? If you go with 100% US stock and wait 30 years, you’ll probably be just fine. If you go with 50% US and 50% International and wait 30 years, you’ll probably be just fine. One choice will do better than the other, but nobody knows which one. These days I’ll be happy if we manage to avoid nuclear war.

I personally like buying a bigger haystack with all the needles and thus I like 50/50. If you want to hedge somewhere in between, consider that Vanguard Target and Lifecycle All-In-One funds are 60/40 now but they used to be 80/20 and then 70/30. It’s more important that you pick something and stick with it, as opposed to bailing out when one does a lot better than the other.

In terms of psychology, you can always twist the situation as needed. If you are 100% US, you could be happy with US outperformance over the last decade. If you are 50/50, you can take solace in the valuation gap and that any mean reversion from this point onwards will lead to future international outperformance.

Municipal Bonds vs. Treasury Bonds Yield Gap: Liquidity Risk

riskIn my personal portfolio, I’ve been investing in tax-exempt municipal bonds instead of treasury bonds due to their higher taxable-equivalent yields. If you’ve done the same, you may be interested to know that Larry Swedroe at Advisor Perspectives argues that the reason for this yield spread is not credit risk, but liquidity risk.

After the first month or so following issuance, most municipal bonds tend to trade very infrequently, perhaps once a month or even less frequently. Thus, they are illiquid. Since the financial crisis, banks have dramatically reduced assets committed to their bond-trading activities, decreasing liquidity in the municipal bond market. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that liquidity premiums have widened. The result is that municipal bond yields are higher than they would have been if liquidity had not been reduced.

Many investors can bear liquidity risk, because they buy individual bonds with the intent of holding them to maturity. For them liquidity is not a major risk, at least in some portion of their portfolio; the reduced liquidity in the market makes municipal bonds more attractive.

The spread itself has been narrowing, according the chart below tracking the ratio of AAA-rated GO Muni bonds to Treasuries over the last 12 months (not adjusted for taxes). Taken from the most recent Baird’s weekly muni commentary.

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Still, muni bond funds remain relatively attractive for many folks, especially in higher tax brackets. Use this Vanguard taxable-equivalent yield calculator and compare the numbers for your own situation.

Bottom line. My takeaway is that muni investors should acknowledge this liquidity risk, and be prepared for short-term swings in muni bond fund prices (due to illiquidity) if there is a major event (like a surprise bankruptcy filing). However, if you are truly a long-term holder of muni bonds, then you can accept this risk, hopefully ride things out, and be compensated with higher tax-equivalent yields.

Tough Times for Conservative Income Investors

JP Morgan Asset Management recently released the Q3 2017 update to their Guide to the Markets, which is another of those resources worth bookmarking for future updates. Some folks put a lot of time and energy into it, and it contains a lot of interesting charts and graphs. Here’s just one that caught my eye.

I consider myself a relatively conservative income-oriented investor, and this chart shows why it’s been a tough several years to be that type of investor. For much of the last 30+ years, you could have put your hard-earned money in an FDIC-insured certificate of deposit and enjoyed a guaranteed return above inflation. This isn’t even when shopping around for the top rates, just taking the average bank CD rates.

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Nowadays, you’re just trying to keep the bleeding to a minimum, jumping at the chance to grab a 3% APY long-term CD that might just keep up with inflation.

This also partially explains why the stock market keeps going up and up. Which would you rather have?

  • FDIC-insured cash savings that gives you $1 in annual interest per $100 invested, or a
  • S&P 500 ETF with a 4% earnings yield and 2% dividend yield? In other words, a basket of companies that for every $100 invested earns $4 a year in profit and out of that gives you $2 a year in cash dividends?

I really can’t complain as my overall portfolio of stocks, bonds, and bank CDs has more than doubled in the past several years. Yet, I also share that vague feeling of uneasiness with many other investors.

Solo 401k – Best Retirement Plan for Self-Employed Business Owners

solo401kThe wealth management group Del Monte published a whitepaper on Solo 401k plans, calling it the “financial industry’s best kept secret” and a “powerful and underutilized” retirement plan for self-employed business owners. The 4-page PDF does a good job at summarizing the benefits of a Solo 401k, aka Self-Employed 401k. Perhaps most importantly, the Solo 401k allows the maximum annual tax-sheltered contribution (or ties for the max) for all income levels and ages.

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Here’a a quick benefit comparison against the SEP-IRA and SIMPLE IRA:

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The key difference is the Solo 401k allows an $18,000 salary deferral at any income (i.e. if you make $18k or under, you can put aside all of it) for 2017 and then adds on a profit-sharing component. In addition, Solo 401ks a larger additional “catch-up” contributions at age 50.

I’ve had a Self-Employed 401k through Fidelity for several years, and I have been quite happy with it. The paperwork has been minimal, although you must start filing IRS Form 5500-EZ once your asset exceed $250,000 or face significant penalties. (It’s one page long.) It has been quite flexible – I am able to purchase mutual funds, ETFs, individual stocks, CDs, and individual Treasury and TIPS bonds. There is no annual fee and I’ve only had to pay trade commissions. Fidelity also accepts rollovers from outside IRAs and 401k plans.

Vanguard, Schwab, and TD Ameritrade also offer cheap in-house Solo 401k plans that work well for low-cost DIY investors. There are now several independent providers with “custom” 401k plans which can offer features like 401k loans the ability to invest in alternative asset classes (precious metals, tax liens, real estate, private equity, etc.) at additional cost. Vanguard and TD Ameritrade offer a Roth option; Fidelity and Schwab are only available with “traditional” pre-tax contributions.

Another option to consider is the Solo Defined-Benefit Plan, or “Solo Pension”. The annual maintenance fees are higher and the IRA requirements are significantly more complex, but you can make much larger amounts of tax-deferred contributions (dependent on age and income). The most affordable option appears to be the Schwab Defined-Benefit Plan. If anyone has any experience with this plan, I’d like to hear about it and would be open to a guest post.

Wealthfront Review 2017: Feature Breakdown and Comparison

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(Updated August 2017. Added details about Advanced Indexing (smart beta), portfolio line of credit (lower rates than HELOC), customized company stock sales, and 529 college saving guidance.)

Wealthfront is one of the largest independent digital advisory firms (i.e. not tied to a specific brand of funds like Vanguard or Schwab). With a younger target audience (20s to 40s), their offering is for folks that are comfortable having nearly all interactions via smartphone or website. They frequently announce new features and improvements, so I will work to keep this feature list updated.

Diversified portfolio of high-quality, low-cost ETFs. Their portfolios are a diversified mix of several asset classes including: US Total, US Dividend, International Developed, US Corporate Bonds, Muni Bonds, Emerging Market Bonds, REITs, and Natural Resources. For the most part, low-cost Vanguard and iShares ETFs are used. You could argue the finer points of a specific portfolio, but overall it is backed by academic research (Chief Investment Officer is Burton Malkiel).

Direct indexing. If your account is over $100,000, Wealthfront will buy all the stocks in the S&P 500 individually and commission-free. ETF expense ratios are pretty low now, so this is mostly used as an opportunity for more tax-loss harvesting. No other robo-advisor offers this feature. Here is whitepaper that details their position. As long as you meet the $100k minimum, there is no additional cost fee above the standard management fee.

Smart-beta. If your account is over $500,000, Wealthfront created Advanced Indexing as their answer to “smart-beta” investing. It works within its Direct Indexing feature in order to improve tax efficiency. As long as you meet the $500k minimum, there is no additional cost fee above the standard management fee.

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Financial planning software with outside account integration. Path is Wealthfront’s new financial planning software, launched in February 2017. This service links your external accounts from other banks, brokerages, and 401k plans (similar to Mint and Personal Capital) in order to see your entire picture without having to manually input your balances and transactions. How much do I have invested elsewhere? How much am I spending? How much am I saving? How much can I spend in retirement?

Path can forecast your saving rate using the last 12 months of transactions. Investment returns are estimated using Monte Carlo analysis. It also accounts for your household income, birthdate, and chosen retirement age to estimate how Social Security will affect your retirement income needs. You can change up the variables and see how it will affect your retirement outlook.

College Savings Planning. You can select a college for real-time expense projections, get a customized estimate of financial aid, and receive a personalized college savings plan to cover the difference. This works with or without their own Wealthfront 529 College Savings account.

Account types. Wealthfront now supports taxable joint accounts, trust accounts, 401k rollovers, Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and SEP IRAs. They also offer a 529 College Savings account.

Tax-sensitive account transfers. This is good news if you already have an existing portfolio with unrealized capital gains. Other robo-advisors may have a “switch calculator” to help you decide whether to move over or not, but Wealthfront will actually accept your existing investments and manage it for you alongside your new investments.

If you want to switch advisors or move your brokerage holdings into a diversified portfolio, you typically have to sell all your holdings and move in cash. This means you will more than likely have a large tax bill. Instead of selling your holdings, Wealthfront will directly transfer them into a diversified portfolio tax efficiently, saving you that tax bill.

Tax-efficent asset location. They will place different asset classes in your taxable accounts vs. tax-deferred accounts (IRAs, 401ks) for a higher after-tax return. However, they do not treat them holistically (i.e. putting all one of one asset in IRA and none in taxable). Non-Wealthfront accounts are also not taken into consideration.

Use dividends and new contributions to rebalance. They will use your dividends and new contributions to rebalance your asset classes in order to minimize sells and thus minimize capital gains.

Concentrated holding of a single stock? Wealthfront caters to the tech start-up crowd with a unique Selling Plan service for people with much of their net worth tied up in a single stock. They’ll help you sell your positions gradually in a tax-efficent manner. Currently available to shareholders of: Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Arista Networks, Box, Facebook, Pure Storage, Square, Twilio, Twitter, Yelp, Zillow.

Daily tax-loss harvesting. Wealthfront software monitors your holdings daily and attempts to find opportunities to harvest tax losses by switching between “similar but not substantially identical” ETFs. If you can delay paying taxes and reinvest them, this can result in a greater after-tax return. The exact “tax alpha” of this practice depends on multiple factors like portfolio size and tax brackets. You can read the Wealthfront side of things in this whitepaper and Schwab comparison. Here is an outside viewpoint arguing for more conservative estimates.

My opinion is that there is long-term value in tax-loss harvesting and especially daily monitoring to capture more losses. However, I also think it’s wise to use a conservative assumption as to the size of that value. (DIY investors can perform their own tax-loss harvesting as well on a less-frequent basis. I do it myself, but it’s rather tedious and I’m definitely not doing it more often than once a year. I would gladly leave it to the bots if it was cheap enough.)

Portfolio Line of Credit. If your taxable balance is over $100,000, Wealthfront will automatically give you a line of credit of up to 30% of your balance. There is no application, no fees, low interest rates, and you can get cash in as little as 1 business day. The rates are advertised to be even lower than a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC). Keep your loan balances modest though, as this is a margin lending product and they may force you to sell your investments if your outstanding balance exceeds your available margin.

Fee schedule. The fee schedule for Wealthfront is simple – Everyone gets charged a flat advisory fee of 0.25% of assets annually (first $10,000 waived). All of the features listed above are included. As your asset size increases, you get access to some additional features like Direct Indexing and Advanced Indexing (Smart-Beta).

Bottom line. Wealthfront is an independent digital advisory firm with over $7 billion in assets. Independent which means they aren’t tied to any specific brand of funds like Vanguard, Fidelity, or Schwab. Their main differentiators from the other independent firms (see my Betterment review) are (1) Direct Indexing and Advanced (Smart-Beta) Indexing portfolio management for optimal tax-efficiency and (2) customized assistance with transferring in your existing investments (including company stock) and then selling them tax-efficiently. Other notable features include: Financial planning software that incorporates external accounts, tax-loss harvesting, 529 college saving plan and guidance software, and a portfolio line-of-credit.

Special offer. Open a Wealthfront account via my invite link and get your first $15,000 managed for free, forever. This is an additional $5,000 above the standard $10,000 balance waiver. You can then invite your own friends for more savings (your friend gets $15k managed free as well, and you get another $5k managed for free.)

Active vs. Passive Funds Debate: Don’t Worry, Be Happy

mrworryA common theme in the financial media these days is that “index funds will take over the world armageddon gaaaaahhhh”. People have already used the “bubble” label. Here’s an example of how three charts on the same topic can suggest very different things. First, you’ve probably seen charts like this that encourage you to extrapolate the current upward trend forever…

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How about some context? Yes, passive funds are gaining assets, but there is still a ton of money in active funds:

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Now, what if things are more cyclical? You know, stuff that goes both up and down? Here’s a chart from the Longleaf 2017 Q2 Shareholder letter:

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The active/passive debate is not new. As the chart [above] shows, performance runs in cycles, and active management is at a low point today. Late in the passive cycle, active investing typically has been declared dead. That declaration has been followed by a strong active management comeback with corresponding disappointment for those who capitulated and owned the index, particularly at its most inflated levels.

In the end, shouldn’t there be a balance? If things get too wacky, then the active stock managers should eventually have easy-pickins and make lots of money on the “dumb” indexers. My guess is that when the market goes down, active funds will get some of their mojo back. Overall, this topic remains in my “not gonna worry about it” folder.