Archives for March 1, 2017

Dimensional Fund Advisors Profile + 529 College Savings Plan Access

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

dfalogoInstitutional Investor has an interesting profile of Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA). Since DFA doesn’t do much marketing, there are very few articles about them in the mainstream financial media. A rare example is this 2007 article (backup copy) by Michael Lewis for a now-defunct magazine.

DFA funds are similar to Vanguard index funds in that they provide low-cost, diversified, tax-efficient funds that try to capture the market’s overall return. DFA differs from Vanguard in that it tries to beat an index benchmark with various tweaks that target systemic market “risk factors” including size, value, and profitability. (They still believe that prices are efficient and thus don’t pick specific stocks.) They also charge a bit more than pure index funds from Vanguard, Fidelity, Schwab, and iShares.

DFA doesn’t accept money directly from individual investors. You must buy their funds through approved financial advisors or via institutional accounts like 401(k), pension, and 529 plans. Their rationale is that retail investors move their money around too much and at the wrong time. Here’s an impressive statistic:

In 2008, while investors pulled an overall $500 billion from equity funds, the firm had positive flows. It wasn’t because of performance: Dimensional’s funds lost more than the market. According to the group gathered for the September dinner in Austin, clients chose to stay because they understood the firm’s philosophy and the small judgment calls it was making on market portfolios.

DFA is privately-owned and highly academic. DFA executives are “engineers, Nobel Prize winners, physicists, and fluid-mechanics experts”. As such, they are all about the science as opposed to the marketing. The article asks what will happen when the founding members eventually die or leave the firm. Will it have an IPO and be publicly-traded? Will this change the culture to be more focused on short-term profits? Will they someday allow Average Jane investors with $500 to invest? Will the new executives be able to continue the superior performance from understanding market factors?

Succession an interesting question that comes up whenever there is a “special sauce” to your investment’s outperformance. I think Vanguard has done a pretty good job of moving on without Bogle, and I can’t name the current CEO. If you own plain, vanilla index funds there are fewer risks tied to specific people. To simply achieve market return at rock-bottom costs, the current structure should still work 50 or 100 years from now.

DFA doesn’t offer a momentum strategy. The hot trend right now is “smart beta”, and momentum is a big part of that:

It’s instructive to consider other things Dimensional doesn’t have. For example, it doesn’t offer a momentum stock strategy even though the pattern of outperformance is seen clearly in the data. The firm believes a portfolio of momentum stocks generates too much turnover and creates a fund whose characteristics look very different from a market portfolio. Instead, Dimensional uses information on momentum to inform its trading strategies, such as delaying purchases and sales at certain times.

Owning a little bit of DFA funds. I remain intrigued by DFA and their unique culture and methods. Since DFA doesn’t trust us DIY investors (probably rightfully so in aggregate) and many financial advisors charge roughly 1% annually on top of the higher costs of DFA funds themselves, I choose not to invest in DFA funds with my primary portfolio. I’m happy retaining full control and keeping costs as low as possible.

However, I do invest in DFA funds through the Utah 529 College Savings plan. A few other 529 plans also offer DFA funds, but I believe Utah has the biggest selection at a reasonable cost. Here are the currently available options:

  • DFA Global Equity Portfolio
  • DFA Global Allocation 60/40 Portfolio
  • DFA Global Allocation 25/75 Portfolio
  • DFA Five-Year Global Fixed Income Portfolio
  • DFA U.S. Large Cap Value Portfolio
  • DFA U.S. Small Cap Value Portfolio
  • DFA Real Estate Securities Portfolio
  • DFA International Value Portfolio
  • DFA One-Year Fixed Income Portfolio

I kept it simple and picked the all-in-one DFA Global Equity fund. I figure, I’ll let DFA take the wheel and see what happens in 20 years. I don’t have to worry about taxes or withdrawals for a long time. As it’s mostly a low-cost index fund at its core, I don’t worry about the downside too much. I just hope Utah does’t change up their fund options down the road and force me into something different.

T-Mobile vs. Verizon New Unlimited Data Plans Comparison

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”


(Update 3/31: T-Mobile’s 2 unlimited lines for $100 now no longer includes free HD video and 10 GB of LTE hotspot data.)

Competition is good. Without the popularity of the T-Mobile unlimited data plan, we wouldn’t have the reluctant, new Verizon Unlimited data plan. In turn, Verizon’s new plan features made T-Mobile improve their deal to include HD video streaming video and 10 GB of LTE tethered hotspot data. In addition, starting 2/17, T-Mobile is running a special promotion of 2 lines with Unlimited data for $100 with taxes and fees included. If you assume $5 on monthly taxes and fees, that works out to $45 + $5 taxes per line. This is nice if you’re a 2-line household like me and are unable to take advantage of the 4-line deals. T-Mobile is effectively $35 + $5 taxes per line if you have 4 lines. You can get these offers online or by calling 1-855-407-3034.

Here is a comparison graphic of the T-Mobile and Verizon Unlimited plans as of 2/17/17. Although created by T-Mobile, I found it fair enough. Adding in an estimated $5 per line in taxes and fees is even low in some geographic areas.


The final comparison point remains network quality (coverage, reliability, and speed). Although T-Mobile touts their network availability is within 2% of Verizon according to OpenSignal, this still remains a local issue. If T-Mobile doesn’t have coverage in your living room or in the middle if your commute, you don’t care about the rest of the network.

Premium features with a smaller price gap. Usually the “frugal” plans I talk about are MVNOs, but these plans have features that most MVNOs don’t have like:

  • Free voice roaming. For example, the unlimited T-Mobile plan will let you roam on AT&T GSM networks in rural areas where they don’t have voice coverage. Verizon also offers voice roaming onto other networks in areas where they don’t have coverage.
  • 4G LTE hotspot tethering. Most MVNOs either ban tethering or charge extra, including Cricket and Straight Talk.
  • Unlimited high-speed data without throttling. T-Mobile will “network de-prioritize” your data after you use 28 GB in a single cycle, while Verizon will do the same at 22 GB. Basically, if the network is really busy at a specific point in time and you have exceeded those limits, your data speeds may go down. This is different than the “throttling” that other MVNOs do, for example an always-on speed limit of 128 kbps.

For travelers, T-Mobile also includes unlimited international text and 2G data in over 140 countries. While some MVNOs have poor customer service and support via e-mail only (no phone number), the major 4 carriers will at least have humans via 1-800 number.

Bottom line. T-Mobile and Verizon have both improved their Unlimited plan features and lowered the prices recently. While they still cost more than MVNO alternatives, they also offer a few premium features like hotspot tethering that MVNOs usually don’t include. You’ll have to decide if the premium features are worth it at these new price points.

Schwab Matches Mutual Fund and ETF Expense Ratios, Now $4.95 Trades

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”


Update: Schwab has matched Fidelity’s price cut at $4.95 per trade + $0.65 per options contract, effective March 3, 2017. See press release for details. Everyone is battling for your assets and the ability to scale. (TD Ameritrade also announced a price cut to $6.95 per trade, down from $9.99.)

Original post:

Schwab announced some changes last week regarding their index mutual fund line-up and trade commissions. Here is the press release and a table of the updated mutual fund expenses ]. Here are the highlights:

  • Stock trades now $6.95. Beginning February 3, 2017, the company will reduce its standard online equity and ETF trade commissions from $8.95 to $6.95.
  • Schwab Index mutual fund expense ratios now match their Index ETFs. Starting March 1, 2017, expenses for the Schwab market cap-weighted index mutual funds will be lowered to align with their Schwab ETFs™ equivalents.
  • Schwab Index mutual funds now have no investment minimum. You don’t have to worry about Admiral shares, Premium Class shares, etc.
  • New Satisfaction Guarantee. I’m not sure how this would work in practice, but it says “Simply, if a Schwab client is not satisfied for any reason, Schwab will refund any related commission, transaction fee or advisory program fee paid to the firm.”

Here are the three mutual funds that I would care most about:

  • Schwab Total Stock Market Index Fund mutual fund expense ratio used to be 0.09% while the ETF version cost 0.03%.
  • Schwab International Stock Index Fund mutual fund expense ratio used to be 0.19% while the ETF version was 0.07%.
  • Schwab TIPS Index Fund mutual fund version used to cost 0.19% while the ETF version was 0.05%.

These were pretty big differences, which was why I felt it was rather obvious that Schwab was making their ETFs a loss-leader in order to be slightly cheaper than Vanguard and/or iShares. I’m guessing they are still selling these index products at a loss to gain market share, but it’s nice to see that they have now simplified their expense ratios across the board. The self-directed brokerage option of my 401(k) plan is through Schwab and only allows mutual funds, so this is a positive change for me.

I have been impressed by the committed strategy Schwab has undertaken towards low-cost, index investing. Schwab has an existing profit machine from its traditional services, but hasn’t been afraid to disrupt and even cannibalize itself. The key is that people seem to like Schwab customer service, whereas I would rate Vanguard as “satisfactory”. If Schwab can have top-quality index products and maintain a reputation for better customer service, that would be a great long-term position.

As an aside, you can’t buy shares of Vanguard but you can buy an ownership stake in Schwab. I don’t own any individual shares of Schwab (SCHW) stock as of this writing, but I would not be surprised if it made a good long-term holding. Once interest rates rise, Schwab will start making a lot more money on its customers’ cash balances (which it forces you to hold it their Intelligent Portfolios robo-advisor instead of charges upfront fees). It will be interesting to see how it plays out. I’m just putting this down in writing so I can check back on my prediction later in 2022 and 2027.