Home Bias Against International Stocks: Lower Past Performance vs. Cheaper Valuations

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One the big decisions in portfolio construction is how much to allocate between US stocks and non-US stocks. You won’t find universal agreement on a correct answer, but this Morningstar article Investors Have Fewer Reasons Than Ever for Home Bias by Ben Johnson does a nice job of outlining the factors behind “home bias”:

“Home bias” is the term used to describe investors’ tendency to tilt their portfolios in favor of domestic stocks (bonds, too, but I’m going to focus on stocks). Here, I’ll discuss how home bias is measured, the factors that underpin this phenomenon, and why it’s probably a good idea to expand your horizons a bit.

Sometimes the US outperforms international stocks for a while. Sometimes it lags. Here is a chart from Factor Investor that helps you visualize these past cycles:

us_intl_cycle

Right now, the market cap of the world’s publicly-traded businesses split at roughly 55% US and 45% international. This ratio has been flipped in the past (45% US/55% International) but the US has performed much better in the past decade.

Right now, the US looks great but International stocks have much higher earnings yields. The most interesting chart from the Morningstar article shows the current Shiller P/E Ratio amid the range of historical valuations for major indexes including the S&P 500, MSCI EAFA (Developed International), and MSCI EM (Emerging Markets). You can see that US stocks are currently on the high (expensive) side, while the international stocks are on the low (cheap) side.

It’s a tug of war. US stocks have done better recently. US stocks have a rosier outlook, which results in them being more expensive. International stocks have a bleaker outlook, but the price-to-earning ratios are much cheaper. If you own a Vanguard Target Retirement 20XX Fund or a LifeCycle Fund, you own 60% US/40% International. Most of the other Target Date Funds break it down differently, so you’ll have to check. I am in the market-weight camp and hold either 50/50 for simplicity. I have seen opinions of what is “best” change over time, and that supports the advice of having a written investment policy statement of what you believe and why.

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qara.info Portfolio Income and Withdrawal Rate – June 2019 (Q2)

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dividendmono225One of the biggest problems in retirement planning is making sure a pile of money lasts through your retirement. I have read hundreds of articles about this topic, and still haven’t a perfect solution to this problem. Most recently, I looked into the idea of buying a ETF that tracks stocks with 10+ year histories of growing dividends.

The imperfect (!) solution I chose is to first build a portfolio designed for total return and enough downside protection such that I can hold through an extended downturn. As you will see below, the total income is a little under 3% of the portfolio annually. I could easily crank out a portfolio with a 4% income rate, or even 5% income. But you have to take some additional risks to get there.

Starting with a more traditional portfolio, only then do I try to only spend the dividends and interest. The analogy I fall back on is owning a rental property. If you are reliably getting rent checks that increase with inflation, you can sit back calmly and ignore what the house might sell for on the open market. With this method, I am more confident that the income cover our expenses for the rest of our lives.

I track the “TTM Yield” or “12 Mo. Yield” from Morningstar, which the sum of a fund’s total trailing 12-month interest and dividend payments divided by the last month’s ending share price (NAV) any capital gains distributed over the same period. (Index funds have low turnover and thus little in capital gains.) I like this measure because it is based on historical distributions and not a forecast. Below is a very close approximation of my investment portfolio (2/3rd stocks and 1/3rd bonds).

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (Taken 6/13/19) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
25% 1.99% 0.50%
US Small Value
Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF (VBR)
5% 2.20% 0.11%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
25% 3.00% 0.75%
Emerging Markets
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
5% 2.69% 0.13%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 3.96% 0.24%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWIUX)
17% 2.79% 0.47%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
17% 2.66% 0.45%
Totals 100% 2.65%

 

Over the last 12 months, my portfolio has distributed 2.65% of its current value as income. One of the things I like about using this number is that when stock prices drop, this percentage metric usually goes up – which makes me feel better in a gloomy market. When stock prices go up, this percentage metric usually goes down, which keeps me from getting too happy. This also applies to the relative performance of US and International stocks. In this way, this serves as a rough form of a valuation-based dynamic withdrawal rate.

In practical terms, I let all of my dividends and interest accumulate without automatic reinvestment. I like to look at this money as my “paycheck” arriving on a regular basis. Then, as with my real paycheck, I can choose to either spend it or reinvest in more stocks and bonds. This gets me used the feeling of living off my portfolio and learning to ignore the price swings.

We are a real 40-year-old couple with three young kids, and this money has to last us a lifetime (without stomach ulcers). This number does not dictate how much we actually spend every year, but it gives me an idea of how comfortable I am with our withdrawal rate. We spend less than this amount now, but I like to plan for the worst while hoping for the best. For now, we are quite fortunate to be able to do work that is meaningful to us, in an amount where we still enjoy it and don’t feel burned out.

Life is not a Monte Carlo simulation, and you need a plan to ride out the rough times. Even if you run a bunch of numbers looking back to 1920 and it tells you some number is “safe”, that’s still trying to use 100 years of history to forecast 50 years into the future. Michael Pollan says that you can sum up his eating advice as “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” You can sum up my thoughts on portfolio income as “Spend mostly dividends and interest. Don’t eat too much principal.” At the same time, live your life. Enjoy your time with family and friends. You may be more likely to run out of time than run out of money.

In the end, I do think using a 3% withdrawal rate is a reasonable target for something retiring young (before age 50) and a 4% withdrawal rate is a reasonable target for one retiring at a more traditional age (closer to 65). If you’re still in the accumulation phase, you don’t really need a more accurate number than that. Focus on your earning potential via better career moves, investing in your skillset, and/or look for entrepreneurial opportunities where you own equity in a business.

qara.info has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Official Warren Buffett / Berkshire Hathaway Book Reading List 2019

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At every annual shareholder meeting, Berkshire Hathaway publishes an official reading list and sells discounted copies through a local Omaha bookstore called The Bookworm. Both Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have consistently attributed a significant part of their success to their constant reading:

“I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions than most people in business. I do it because I like this kind of life.” – Warren Buffett

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time—none. Zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads—and how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.” – Charlie Munger

Here is the 2019 annual meeting handout. Since they don’t archive these handouts and books are removed each year, I decided to track the changes here. I just bought a used copy of the Lowenstein biography of Warren Buffett and a copy of the Secret Millionaire’s Club (For Kids) from Amazon and the 50th anniversary book direct from Berkshire.

New additions for 2019

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates. From the Amazon page: For the last twenty years, Melinda Gates has been on a mission to find solutions for people with the most urgent needs, wherever they live. Throughout this journey, one thing has become increasingly clear to her: If you want to lift a society up, you need to stop keeping women down. In this moving and compelling book, Melinda shares lessons she’s learned from the inspiring people she’s met during her work and travels around the world. As she writes in the introduction, “That is why I had to write this book?to share the stories of people who have given focus and urgency to my life. I want all of us to see ways we can lift women up where we live.”

Letters to Doris – One Woman’s Quest to Help Those with Nowhere Else to Turn. From the Amazon page: The Letters Foundation is a foundation of last resort that provides humanitarian grants to people experiencing a crisis when no other options exist. These one-time grants provide a hand-up to individuals as they work to stabilize their lives. Established by siblings Warren and Doris Buffett, the Letters Foundation reads and replies to letters from individuals living within the United States.

The Future Is Asian: Commerce, Conflict, and Culture in the 21st Century by Parag Khanna. (Charlie’s Pick) From the Amazon page: There is no more important region of the world for us to better understand than Asia – and thus we cannot afford to keep getting Asia so wrong. Asia’s complexity has led to common misdiagnoses: Western thinking on Asia conflates the entire region with China, predicts imminent World War III around every corner, and regularly forecasts debt-driven collapse for the region’s major economies. But in reality, the region is experiencing a confident new wave of growth led by younger societies from India to the Philippines, nationalist leaders have put aside territorial disputes in favor of integration, and today’s infrastructure investments are the platform for the next generation of digital innovation.

Saudi America: The Truth about Fracking and How It’s Changing the World by Bethany McLean. (Charlie’s Pick) From the Amazon page: Investigative journalist Bethany McLean digs deep into the cycles of boom and bust that have plagued the American oil industry for the past decade, from the financial wizardry and mysterious death of fracking pioneer Aubrey McClendon, to the investors who are questioning the very economics of shale itself. McLean finds that fracking is a business built on attracting ever-more gigantic amounts of capital investment, while promises of huge returns have yet to bear out. Saudi America tells a remarkable story that will persuade you to think about the power of oil in a new way.

Berkshire 50th Anniversary

About Warren Buffett

About Charlie Munger

On Investing

General Interest

Books from past lists, likely removed due to space constraints.

Here are my own posts related to the books listed above:

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Vanguard Target Date Retirement Funds Nudge Younger Investors To Own More Stocks

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Vanguard has a blog post about their Target Retirement 20XX funds (TDFs) with a few interesting stats (via Abnormal Returns):

  • 97% of all Vanguard retirement plan participants had a target-date fund as an available investment option.
  • 77% of all Vanguard retirement plan participants owned a target-date fund.
  • 52% of all Vanguard retirement plan participants owned a target-date fund as their sole investment.

These all-in-one funds are getting more and more popular. So what is the effect of owning these TDFs as compared to the old method where you had to do your own mixing and matching of various funds? In general, the effect was to nudge younger investors to own more stocks. Here’s their chart comparing asset allocation holdings by age in 2004 and 2018. (The earliest TDFs were born in 2003 and still had a small percentage of assets in 2004.)

I find the 2004 “hump” curve to be interesting. The average young investor in 2014 was risk-averse and increased their stock holding up until the peak at about age 40, gradually going back to owning more bonds after that. The youngest investors (under 25) used to only hold 55% stocks on average, as opposed to 88% stocks today (90% stocks is the what the current Vanguard target-date funds own at that age). On an individual level, did most of them hold a 50/50 split or were half of them 100% stocks and the other half 100% cash?

I have recommended the Vanguard Target Retirement Funds to my own family members for its low costs and broad diversification. Vanguard obviously thinks this modern glide path is an improvement, but I hope that young people will keep holding onto the fund during the next bear market. That’s the true test of whether this new system is better.

qara.info has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Best Interest Rates on Cash – June 2019

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Here’s my monthly roundup of the best interest rates on cash for June 2019, roughly sorted from shortest to longest maturities. Things are pretty dull this month – mostly small rate drops on CDs due to the inverted yield curve. Check out my Ultimate Rate-Chaser Calculator to get an idea of how much extra interest you’d earn if you are moving money between accounts. Rates listed are available to everyone nationwide. Rates checked as of 6/2/19.

High-yield savings accounts
While the huge megabanks like to get away with 0.01% APY, it’s easy to open a new “piggy-back” savings account and simply move some funds over from your existing checking account. The interest rates on savings accounts can drop at any time, so I prioritize banks with a history of competitive rates. Some banks will bait you and then lower the rates in the hopes that you are too lazy to leave.

Short-term guaranteed rates (1 year and under)
A common question is what to do with a big pile of cash that you’re waiting to deploy shortly (just sold your house, just sold your business, legal settlement, inheritance). My usual advice is to keep things simple and take your time. If not a savings account, then put it in a flexible short-term CD under the FDIC limits until you have a plan.

  • No Penalty CDs offer a fixed interest rate that can never go down, but you can still take out your money (once) without any fees if you want to use it elsewhere. Purepoint Financial has a 13-month No Penalty CD at 2.50% APY with a $10,000 minimum deposit. Marcus Bank 13-month No Penalty CD at 2.35% APY with a $500 minimum deposit. You may wish to open multiple CDs in smaller increments for more flexibility.
  • Comenity Direct has a 12-month CD at 2.86% APY ($1,500 minimum) with an early withdrawal penalty of 6 months of interest. If you have a military relationship, Navy Federal Credit Union has a 10-month special at 2.75% APY with add-on option.

Money market mutual funds + Ultra-short bond ETFs
If you like to keep cash in a brokerage account, beware that many brokers pay out very little interest on their default cash sweep funds (and keep the difference for themselves). The following money market and ultra-short bond funds are not FDIC-insured, but may be a good option if you have idle cash and cheap/free commissions.

  • Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund currently pays an 2.40% SEC yield. The default sweep option is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which has an SEC yield of 2.33%. You can manually move the money over to Prime if you meet the $3,000 minimum investment.
  • Vanguard Ultra-Short-Term Bond Fund currently pays 2.61% SEC yield ($3,000 min) and 2.71% SEC Yield ($50,000 min). The average duration is ~1 year, so there is more interest rate risk.
  • The PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active Bond ETF (MINT) has a 2.71% SEC yield and the iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF (NEAR) has a 2.69% SEC yield while holding a portfolio of investment-grade bonds with an average duration of ~6 months.

Treasury Bills and Ultra-short Treasury ETFs
Another option is to buy individual Treasury bills which come in a variety of maturities from 4-weeks to 52-weeks. You can also invest in ETFs that hold a rotating basket of short-term Treasury Bills for you, while charging a small management fee for doing so. T-bill interest is exempt from state and local income taxes.

  • You can build your own T-Bill ladder at TreasuryDirect.gov or via a brokerage account with a bond desk like Vanguard and Fidelity. Here are the current Treasury Bill rates. As of 6/1/19, a 4-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.35% annualized interest and a 52-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.22% annualized interest.
  • The Goldman Sachs Access Treasury 0-1 Year ETF (GBIL) has a 2.30% SEC yield and the SPDR Bloomberg Barclays 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF (BIL) has a 2.24% SEC yield. GBIL appears to have a slightly longer average maturity than BIL.

US Savings Bonds
Series I Savings Bonds offer rates that are linked to inflation and backed by the US government. You must hold them for at least a year. There are annual purchase limits. If you redeem them within 5 years there is a penalty of the last 3 months of interest.

  • “I Bonds” bought between May 2019 and October 2019 will earn a 1.90% rate for the first six months. The rate of the subsequent 6-month period will be based on inflation again. More info here.
  • In mid-October 2019, the CPI will be announced and you will have a short period where you will have a very close estimate of the rate for the next 12 months. I will have another post up at that time.

Prepaid Cards with Attached Savings Accounts
A small subset of prepaid debit cards have an “attached” FDIC-insured savings account with exceptionally high interest rates. The negatives are that balances are capped, and there are many fees that you must be careful to avoid (lest they eat up your interest). Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do. There is a long list of previous offers that have already disappeared with little notice. I don’t personally recommend or use any of these anymore.

  • The only notable card left in this category is Mango Money at 6% APY on up to $2,500, but there are many hoops to jump through. Requirements include $1,500+ in “signature” purchases and a minimum balance of $25.00 at the end of the month.

Rewards checking accounts
These unique checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but with unique risks. You have to jump through certain hoops, and if you make a mistake you won’t earn any interest for that month. Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do. Rates can also drop to near-zero quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. I don’t use any of these anymore, either.

  • The best one right now is Orion FCU Premium Checking at 4.00% APY on balances up to $30,000 if you meet make $500+ in direct deposits and 8 debit card “signature” purchases each month. The APY goes down to 0.05% APY and they charge you a $5 monthly fee if you miss out on the requirements. There is also the TAB Bank 4% APY Checking, which I don’t like due its vague terms. Find a local rewards checking account at DepositAccounts.
  • If you’re looking for a high-interest checking account without debit card transaction requirements then the rate won’t be as high, but take a look at MemoryBank at 1.60% APY.

Certificates of deposit (greater than 1 year)
CDs offer higher rates, but come with an early withdrawal penalty. By finding a bank CD with a reasonable early withdrawal penalty, you can enjoy higher rates but maintain access in a true emergency. Alternatively, consider building a CD ladder of different maturity lengths (ex. 1/2/3/4/5-years) such that you have access to part of the ladder each year, but your blended interest rate is higher than a savings account. When one CD matures, use that money to buy another 5-year CD to keep the ladder going.

  • Hanscom Federal Credit Union has a 19-month CD special at 3.00% APY ($1,000 minimum) with an early withdrawal penalty of 6 months of interest. WebBank has a 3-year CD at 3.00% APY ($2,500 minimum) with an early withdrawal penalty of 9 months of interest.
  • 5-year CD rates have been dropping at many banks and credit unions, following the overall interest rate curve. A good rate is now about 3.25% APY, with Connexus Credit Union offering 3.40% APY ($5,000 minimum) on a 5-year CD with an early withdrawal penalty of 12 months of interest. Anyone can join this credit union by joining a partner organization for a $5 fee.
  • You can buy certificates of deposit via the bond desks of Vanguard and Fidelity. You must now log in to see the rates. These “brokered CDs” offer FDIC insurance and easy laddering, but they don’t come with predictable fixed early withdrawal penalties. Nothing special right now. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 2-year non-callable CD at 2.50% APY and a 5-year non-callable CD at 2.70% APY. Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs listed by Fidelity.

Longer-term Instruments
I’d use these with caution due to increased interest rate risk, but I still track them to see the rest of the current yield curve.

  • Willing to lock up your money for 10+ years? You can buy long-term certificates of deposit via the bond desks of Vanguard and Fidelity. These “brokered CDs” offer FDIC insurance, but they don’t come with predictable fixed early withdrawal penalties. As of this writing, Vanguard not showing any available 10-year CDs. Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs from Fidelity. Matching the overall yield curve, current CD rates do not rise much higher as you extend beyond a 5-year maturity.
  • How about two decades? Series EE Savings Bonds are not indexed to inflation, but they have a guarantee that the value will double in value in 20 years, which equals a guaranteed return of 3.5% a year. However, if you don’t hold for that long, you’ll be stuck with the normal rate which is quite low (currently a sad 0.10% rate). I view this as a huge early withdrawal penalty. You could also view it as long-term bond and thus a hedge against deflation, but only if you can hold on for 20 years. As of 6/1/19, the 20-year Treasury Bond rate was 2.39%.

All rates were checked as of 6/2/19.



qara.info has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Firstrade Free Trades on Stocks, ETFs, Options, Even Mutual Funds (+New App)

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(Updated May 2019: Firstrade has released a newly-redesigned mobile app, which is easier to use and more similar to the other app-first brokerages *cough* Robinhood *cough*. If this is important to you, you might check it out in combination with their better customer service and free stock trades pricing. Screenshots below.)

Firstrade.com has announced free online trades on stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), options and mutual funds. All of them. As a more traditional online broker, Firstrade includes access to all stocks, ETFs, options and mutual funds currently available in the U.S. There are no limits on the number of trades allowed, no minimum holding periods, and no minimum account requirements.

Pricing comparison. Here’s their updated pricing chart, including a side-by-side comparison with TD Ameritrade, Fidelity, E*Trade, and Schwab. Note that each competitor does offer their own selected list of commission-free ETFs.

Customer service. Since they are offering free trades, you might be worried that it would be hard to get assistance. They actually offer a lot of help options including live chat and free call-back phone service:

Are they legit? Yes, Firstrade Securities has been around since 1985, and I actually have an idle account with them from an old promotion. They have been a competitive discount online broker for a while, with their only physical branch in Flushing, New York. They are unique in that they offer special service to Chinese-speaking customers by providing a Chinese language version of their site (Simplified and Traditional) and also Chinese-speaking customer service reps (Mandarin and Cantonese). But other than a few Chinese character links on their site, you wouldn’t otherwise notice.

iOS and Android apps. Both iPhone and Android apps are available. Touch ID/Face ID supported on iOS. In May 2019, they released a redesigned 3.0 version of their iOS app, which now looks more like the other app-first brokerages. Screenshot:

Up to $200 rebate of transfer fees if you switch. They will rebate up to $200 in transfer fees if you move your assets over to them from another broker. Here’s the fine print:

Firstrade will rebate the account transfer fee (ACATS only) up to $200 charged by another brokerage firm when completing a Full Account Transfer for $2500 or more (excluding mutual funds & fixed income products). The rebate will be based solely on the actual transfer fee charged by the firm you are transferring from. To receive transfer rebate, please submit (upload, fax or email) a copy of your most recent statement from your previous broker with evidence of transfer charge. Submissions must be received within 60 days of transfer date. Credit will be deposited to your account within 30 days of receipt of evidence of charge. This offer applies to Firstrade regular investment accounts and IRAs (Traditional IRA, Roth IRA, and Rollover IRA), excluding Partnership, Corporate, Investment Club, ESA Education Planning Account, and Custodial Accounts. The account must remain open for 12 months with the minimum funding or assets required for participating in the offer — if your account assets fall below $2,500 due to withdrawals or outgoing transfers, Firstrade may reverse the transfer rebate at the time of withdrawal. Offer valid from 09/19/2017 to 08/31/2018.

Firstrade is kind of stuck in the middle between the huge mega-brokers and slick startups, so this is a big move for them to get some attention. The big financial names – Fidelity, Schwab, Vanguard all have some commission-free ETFs but not all stock trades. Robinhood and WeBull are new start-ups that have free stock/ETF trades, but not free mutual fund trades.

Bottom line. Firstrade is a discount broker with real human customer service that is moving to the new world of app-centric trading, offering free online trades on all stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), options and mutual funds. No minimum account requirements.

qara.info has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

Dividend ETF Comparison: Total Market vs. High Dividend vs. Steady Dividend Growth

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After my post on mailbox money last week, I did some poking around comparing different dividend-focused ETFs. Specifically, the idea of focusing on companies with a steadily growing dividend, not a high dividend yield. Here are three different ways that you could buy an ETF and live off the dividends:

  • Vanguard Total Market ETF (VTI). The CRSP US Total Market Index includes ALL of the US companies in proportion to their size (market cap). SEC yield was 1.83% as of 4/30/19.
  • Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF (VYM). The FTSE High Dividend Yield Index screens for companies with high dividend yields. SEC yield was 3.25% as of 4/30/19.
  • Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (VIG). The NASDAQ US Dividend Achievers Select Index screens for companies with at least ten consecutive years of increasing annual regular dividend payments. SEC yield was 1.86% as of 4/30/19.

We see that buying the high-dividend ETF would definitely get you bigger quarterly dividends upfront. But what about total return (share price appreciation + reinvested dividends)? We don’t know the future, but let’s see how things worked out through the Great Recession. Both of the dividend ETFs started in 2006, so here is what would have happened to $10,000 invested in each of the ETFs as of January 1st, 2007. I used Morningstar charts for this.

Here are two main takeaways:

  • At the depths of the crash in early 2008, the high-dividend ETF (VYM) suffered the worst drawdown, while the steady dividend ETF (VIG) had the mildest drawdown. Your $10,000 would have gone down to $5,175 with VYM, $5,564 with VTI/VTSAX, and $6,400 with VIG.
  • The total return numbers are relatively similar over the long run. Right now, the steady dividend ETF (VIG) is even leading slightly. As of 5/18/2019, your final values for the $10,000 invested in 1/1/2007 are $24,267 with VYM, $26,610 with VTI/VTSAX, and $26,831 with VIG.

What about consistency of dividends? One of the difficult things about retirement investing is that while the price of things can vary, most people like the idea of a steady income. We can look back and see if the steady dividend ETF really delivered even through the 2008 Great Recession. Here’s are the quarterly dividends from 2007 to 2018 for both the Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF (VYM) and Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (VIG):

The Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (VIG) did provide a much more steady “paycheck” through 2008 and 2009 than the Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF (VYM). If you relied on this money to pay your monthly bills, a steady dividend that didn’t drop with the overall stock market would be greatly appreciated.

Bottom line. Simply buying stocks with high dividends is not the solution to all your problems, as that high dividend may drop significantly during a bear market. In this historical comparison, the steady dividend method worked out pretty well. Since 2007, you got a lower drawdown during the bear market, solid long-term returns, AND a steady dividend check throughout. The future may not turn out the same way, but it’s definitely something to research further. One might even accept a little bit less total return for a more reliable stream of income.

Disclosures: I own VTI, aka the entire haystack. I don’t own VIG or VYM.

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Mailbox Money in Retirement: Social Security, Pensions/Annuities, Bond Interest, and Stock Dividends

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I am always curious about the nitty-gritty details of how real-world financial planners guide their clients. Krueger & Catalano has shared some unique insights on their website, including the topic of creating retirement income in How Much is Enough?:

Financial Freedom occurs when multiple streams of income exceed all expenses (needs and wants), and can last until the age of 100.

They call this “mailbox money” – stable sources of income that show up reliably and automatically at predictable intervals. Here are four different streams of income that they include:

Social Security: Optimize to best navigate hundreds of claiming rules
Pension: Either corporate pension or a personal pension
Municipal & Treasury Bonds: Safest most liquid form of mailbox money
Dividends: Inflation beating mailbox money

You’ll note that there is no mention of “safe withdrawal rates”, where you keep taking out some percentage because it has worked out historically 95% or 99% of the time (but you still check your statements nervously if the value goes down).

Let’s take a closer look at these four sources of retirement income.

Social Security. Social Security benefits are paid monthly, and it increases with inflation each year for the rest of your life (backed by the US government, so safer than an insurance company). In addition, you can delay claiming up to age 70, which increases your monthly payment (and thus all future payments). This means you can effectively “buy” a bigger inflation-adjusted annuity by spending down your personal savings for the years that you are delaying Social Security. Smart people have done the math and shown it’s a good deal relative to private annuities.

(It can be even more complex than this, especially for couples with different incomes and ages. There are paid services devoted to optimizing your Social Security benefit.)

Pension and/or annuities. Whether through a corporation, government, municipality, or private insurer, these are all sources of monthly income that will last for life. Some adjust with inflation, some don’t. Some have full joint survivorship benefits, some are limited. There is still some risk if you have a flat payout, as the purchasing power will decrease over time as inflation eats away at it.

You can create your own pension using immediate annuities from a private insurance company. For a male/female couple that are both 65, a recent sample quote showed a 5.74% payout rate. That means a $1 million lump-sum payment would pay out $57,400 per year for as long as one of you are alive. However, this also means that your heirs get nothing from that lump sum.

Municipal and Treasury bonds. They stick with the safest bonds, which means US Treasury bonds and AAA-rated municipal bonds. They don’t like any mutual funds or ETFs, so they buy individual issues.

I am partial to the idea of sticking with the safest bonds available. I don’t want to take risk with bonds either. However, I prefer the diversification and convenience benefits of low-cost Vanguard Treasury bonds and/or muni bond funds over individual holdings, especially if you are a DIY investor and don’t want to manage that additional complexity (or keep paying an advisor to manage that complexity).

The average 10-year Treasury yield is now under 2.5%. That’s roughly $25,000 per year on $1 million invested. Individual Treasury bonds pay out interest semi-annually, although mutual funds can pay out more often. If you choose to spend all the interest as “mailbox money”, then your monthly purchasing power will also probably decrease slowly over time due to inflation.

Dividends. They like to take the dividends from individual stock holdings picked from high-quality companies. They use the Dividend Aristocrats list as an example, which are companies that have grown dividends for at least 25 consecutive years. (I prefer to bank the dividends from low-cost Vanguard funds.)

I believe that dividend investing has a behavioral advantage if an investor can focus on the income showing up and then allow themselves to ignore swings in the share price. The only way to realize the higher total returns of stocks is to hold on during the downturns. (I would concede that the future total return of Dividend Aristocrats might be lower than the S&P 500. The question is whether the greater peace of mind is worth any difference?)

If you take the ProShares S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats ETF (NOBL) and add back in the 0.35% expense ratio (because you self-manage), the dividend yield is currently 2.5%. That’s roughly $25,000 per year on $1 million invested. The good news is that this form of mailbox money should increase faster than inflation over time.

I think it is helpful to visualize all of these different options when planning out your own retirement income plan. How much of your personal savings do you put towards delaying and thus increasing your Social Security benefit? Creating a bigger steady annuity paycheck but with no estate leftover? Creating a smaller paycheck with bonds but with high safety and full liquidity? Creating a smaller paycheck with dividends but with higher future growth? I also like the idea that each of these streams are designed to minimize the stress from reading news headlines. Definitely food for thought.

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Berkshire Hathaway Post-Shareholder Meeting CNBC Interview 2019 Full Video, Full Transcript (Buffett, Munger, and Gates)

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On the Monday after the recent Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting, Becky Quick of CNBC did another 2-hour interview with Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, and Bill Gates. CNBC has thankfully posted the entire interview online along with a full transcript.

As usual, I like things directly from the source, so I watched the entire thing. Here are my notes that deal with investing:

Warren Buffet-style value investing distilled. You start out by picking a good business first. Then, you pay attention to the price. If the price is good, you buy. If the price is not attractive, you don’t. You can’t predict the mood of Mr. Market, he may be depressed or manic. (If it’s not a good business, then skip it no matter the price.)

But we watch the prices of things we do more than current events. Because in the end– we aren’t buyin’ ‘em because what’s gonna happen next month or next quarter. You know,we’re really buying ’em because we think they’ll be good businesses ten years from now. If somebody came to us with a good business today, we’d buy it. And we’d buy it regardless of what’s going on in the tariff situation. We might this wouldn’t be the case. But you might– we’re more likely perhaps to get something when other people are– fearful. You see that in a big way instantly in the market, you know, in the market for businesses. It’s– but it’s–still there in people’s minds.

On share buybacks and Apple. Share repurchases, or buybacks, are when a company buys its own shares outstanding. People argue about how this is “good” or “bad”, when really it’s all just rather pointless.

Repurchases can be the dumbest thing in the world or the smartest thing in the world. and I’ve seen both but they’re just — repurchases by the company are just like purchases to us, they’re dumb a one price and smart at another price. And I like it when companies — I like it when we’re invested in companies where they understand that. Many companies just repurchase and repurchase, you know, it’s the thing to do, and they’re encouraged to by some shareholders and by their brokers. Repurchases can be dumb. They can be smart. At Apple, they’ve been smart.

Berkshire has never bought at stock at IPO. Here’s a simple thought model that shows why buying a new-issue stock on IPO is nothing to get excited about.

WARREN BUFFETT: Well, because I looked at it, I really don’t want to discuss Uber. And I don’t have any special feelings about it than any other coming to market. But I would say that in 54 years — well, I don’t think Berkshire’s ever going to – I mean, the idea of saying the best place in the world I can put my money is something where all of the selling incentives are there, commissions are higher, you know, the animal spirits are rising. I mean, that’s going to be better than 1,000 other things I can buy where there is no similar selling enthusiasm and the desire to get the deal done on extra commissions. That’s the single best thing to buy on a given day. I mean, it’s –

CHARLIE MUNGER: And I can’t think of a time we’ve ever done it.

WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah.

BECKY QUICK: Ever bought an IPO.

CHARLIE MUNGER: Yeah. Never will.

When asked about a book recommendation, Buffett said The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates. There are some other practical observations about topics like politics and healthcare, if that floats your boat.

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Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns 2019

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dilbert_divers

One of the harder things about investing is buying an investment that has been performing poorly. How many people are getting media attention for pushing the idea of diversification in international stocks right now? None. I mean, some folks are talking about it, but nobody is getting any media attention. It’s not “trending” because nobody’s interested. US stocks have been smoking European and Japanese stocks for a while.

Even if something is a good long-term investment, the short-term ride can be very bumpy. Callan Associates updates a “periodic table” annually with the relative performance of 8 major asset classes over the last 20 years. You can find the most recent one at their website Callan.com. The best performing asset class is listed at the top, and it sorts downward until you have the worst performing asset. Here is the most recent snapshot of 1999-2018:

The Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns conveys the strong case for diversification across asset classes (stocks vs. bonds), investment styles (growth vs. value), capitalizations (large vs. small), and equity markets (U.S. vs. non-U.S.). The Table highlights the uncertainty inherent in all capital markets. Rankings change every year. Also noteworthy is the difference between absolute and relative performance, as returns for the top-performing asset class span a wide range over the past 20 years.

I find it easiest to focus on a specific Asset Class (Color) and then visually noting how its relative performance bounces around. In last year’s update, I noted that Emerging Markets (Orange) and MSCI World ex-US (Light Grey) had bounced back to the top. Of course, by the time 2018 ended, they were right back to the bottom again.

(Dilbert comic source)

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Charlie Munger: Financially Independent at Age 38 in 1962

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Despite the fresh packaging, we should remember that the “FIRE” concept (Financially Independent, Retire Early) is anything but a new concept. Even I can’t help being a little intrigued by the clickbait title “This Secret Trick Let This Couple Retire at 38”. Such an article could have been written about the 95-year-old Charlie Munger before he started investing alongside Warren Buffett:

The first 13 years I practiced law, my income [from practicing law] was $300,000 total. At the end of that 13 years, what did I have? A house. Two cars. And $300,000 of liquid assets. Everyone else’d have spent that slender income, not invested it shrewdly, and so forth.

I just think it was, to me, it was as natural as breathing, and of course I knew how compound interest worked! I knew when I saved $10 I was really saving $100 or $1,000 [because of the future growth of the $10], and it just took a little wait. And when I quit law practice it was because I wanted to work for myself instead of my clients, because I knew I could do better than they did.

Net worth analysis. According to his Wikipedia bio, the 95-year-old Munger graduated from law school in 1948. Let’s say he practiced law from 1949 to 1962. At the end of those 13 years, he states that he had $300,000 in liquid assets, a house, and two cars. The median value for a Los Angeles area house in 1962 was about $15,000. The median cost of a new car in 1962 was about $3,000. Adding this all up means his net worth in 1962 was about $321,000.

That was a significant amount of money in 1962. According this CPI inflation calculator, that is the equivalent of $2.7 million in 2019 dollars. In other words, the Munger household was financially independent when he was 38 years old.

Income analysis. He also states that in those 13 years as a lawyer, he made $300,000 total. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just say he earned the same income every year. That works out to $23,000 per year. This was a relatively high income – $193,000 per year in 2019 dollars. According to this source, the median family income in 1962 was $6,000 per year. That means he was earning about four times the median average household income.

Super-saver, super-investor, or a little of both? Maybe he shared this somewhere else, but I don’t know his saving rate or his investment return. He does boast of both not spending all that “slender” income and also about investing it “shrewdly”. We have his annual income and his final ending net worth, so you can set one and figure out the other using a compound return formula. I’m assuming everything is after-tax for simplicity again.

  • Let’s say he was a super-saver with a 50% saving rate. That means he saved $11,500 every year and invested it for 13 years. That would work out to an 10.5% annual compounded rate of return.
  • Let’s say he was a super-investor with a 20% annual compounded rate of return. That would work out to an annual savings of $5,500 per year, or a 24% savings rate.

I found that the annualized return of the S&P 500 index from January 1949 to January 1962 was about 18% when you include dividends (source). Thus, my guess is that he was somewhere between these two markers: 50% savings rate/10.5% annual investment return and 24% savings rate/20% annual investment return. These stats are definitely admirable and impressive, but also show that he didn’t hit the lottery or anything crazy.

Munger’s example reaffirms that if you have a relatively high income, save a high percentage of that income, AND invest that money into productive assets, your net worth will grow quite quickly.

A criticism of financial independence seekers is that it is pitched to “everyone” but only works for the rich. It is absolutely true that it is the easiest for high-income earners. How could it be any other way? At the same time, there are many households that earn high incomes that spend 95%+ of it every year. If these folks realize they have financial independence within their grasp, and then change their behavior to achieve it, I still view that as a positive thing. It’s always hard to spend less than the people you hang around with.

In our case, we both eventually earned six-figures, but not the entire time. When we earned a combined $60,000 a year, we lived on $30,000. When we earned a combined $100,000, we lived on $50,000 per year. When we earned $200,000, we lived on under $100,000. Would we have been able to maintain the 50% savings rate on a $60,000 income for 15 years? I’ll never know. I know it would have been much more difficult, and I’m glad we didn’t have to try. I’m also glad we started when we were young and without kids.

Managing expenses (frugality) alone will not get you there, but I still believe it is an important factor once you get your income to a certain level. I would argue that a household earning $100,000 and spending $50,000 per year is much better off in the long run than a household earning $150,000 and spending $125,000 or even $100,000 per year. Now, if someone is making minimum wage, it will be hard to have a lot left over to invest. Your efforts would be best focused on the income side of the equation.

Bottom line. Charlie Munger was born in 1924 and reached financial independence at age 38 from his earnings as a lawyer (before he became partners with Warren Buffet). While he is now best known as a billionaire investor, he took a familiar path to financial independence: solid 9-5 income, consistently high saving rate, and prudent investment of the difference. The same formula he started using in 1949 remains available 70 years later to someone starting in 2019.

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Immediate Annuities vs. Safe Withdrawal Rates

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Annuities have a rather mixed reputation, which I think is mostly deserved. Some are amazingly complex and expensive (the word “Indexed” can be bad in this world). Then there are simple, straightforward ones that are worth consideration, including single premium immediate annuities (SPIA). The most basic version lets you convert a lump-sum payment into a regular stream of income payments that is guaranteed and doesn’t ever vary, period.

Michael Edesess has an article Are Annuities the Best Strategy to Fund One’s Retirement?. The article is on a site meant for financial advisors, so it’s got a lot of jargon inside. However, I do like that it provided some hard numbers to consider.

Here are current market rates:

In other words, a 65-year-old male hands over $100,000 and will get $6,720 per year ($560 per month), every year, for the rest of his life. Putting up $1,000,000 will get you $67,200 per year ($5,600 per month). Whether he lives to 68 or 108, he will end up with zero dollars. A female would get a bit less due to a longer average lifespan, and a joint annuity even less than that as the likelihood of at least one person living a long time is higher.

The article then compared the annuity payout against the “safe withdrawal rate” as calculated by popular industry methods. The Bengen method has a fixed payout percentage every month, adjusted annually for inflation. The HWS strategy uses a variable payout with a floor rate and allows a higher payout if the portfolio has high returns. I’ll just share one of them.

As you can see, the immediate annuity offers a higher annual payout in almost all cases. This is good.

However, you are giving up certain things in exchange for this higher income. Once you die, there is nothing left for heirs or charity. Thus, part of your return is simply them giving your own money back to you (return of principal). You have lost permanent control of that money, with no liquidity if for any reason you had a big expense. Finally, unless you buy a special inflation-adjusted annuity with a much lower initial payout, your monthly payment will buy less and less as inflation eats away at it over time.

I would also read about your applicable state guaranty limits and always stay under them. It is rare for an insurance company to fail, but it has happened. Read about the Executive Life Insurance Company. The state guaranty association system is not as good as FDIC insurance, but being within the limits is much better than being above the limits!

Bottom line. I would research single-premium immediate annuities as a source of retirement income once your reach age 59.5. I would avoid any annuity that is linked or “indexed” to the stock market. Personally, I am thinking of annuitizing a fraction of my portfolio (less than 10%) once I reach a certain age, but only if it remains under state guaranty limits.

qara.info has partnered with CardRatings for selected credit cards, and may receive a commission from card issuers. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and has not been provided nor approved by any of the companies mentioned. MyMoneyBlog.com is also a member of the Amazon Associate Program, and if you click through to Amazon and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support.

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