Sunday, February 19

Week 294 - Don’t Leave Money On Table: Invest Online

Situation: Let’s use a hypothetical situation to make our case. You’ve retired and sold your house to pay off debts. For many people that would mean that you are now living in a rental that fits your needs and income. In addition, you may have a lot of money left over from the sale of your home and would like to invest it in a prudent manner. But cash is fungible. It can disappear into anything that someone thinks has an equivalent value. (Your minister might think tithing is equivalent, even though you’ve already paid tithing on the income that created your retirement plan.)

As a retiree, you need to develop a budget that will cut your living costs and execute on that plan. Aside from spending money, as directed by your budget, what kind of expenses are going to deplete your nest egg? The main factors to consider are inflation, taxes and transaction costs. There’s little you can do about inflation, other than to stay 50% invested in stocks and 50% in inflation-protected bonds, e.g. inflation-protected 10-Yr Treasury Notes, ISB Savings Bonds and inflation-protected bond funds like Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities (VIPSX). There’s little you can do about taxes, other than own Treasury Bonds and Savings Bonds (because those pay interest that cannot be taxed by the state where you live). Also, you can avoid both Federal and state taxes by owning municipal bonds issued in the state where you live. But that is risky unless you happen to live in one of the 7 states that offer a AAA bond with investor-friendly covenants. You might also consider a low-cost, state-specific municipal bond fund if you live in a populous state that is in good fiscal condition and has a AAA credit rating, but Florida is the only state that fits that description.

Now we’re left to talk about transaction costs. You’ll like doing business with the US Treasury over the internet because there are no transaction costs. But with stocks, it gets more complicated. To reduce transaction costs, there are two routes you can take: 1) Invest in low-cost mutual funds. Vanguard Group has the best deals. Avoid Exchange-Traded Funds unless you want to throw a little business to your stock-broker in return for the research materials she’s been providing. 2) Make low-cost investments online, monthly and automatically. You can do this with any of the Vanguard mutual funds but also with individual stocks. There are 3 main websites: Computershare, Wells Fargo, and American Stock Transfer & Trust

Mission: Set up a spreadsheet (see Table) with metrics for a sample of stocks that are available for dollar-cost averaging (monthly and online using automatic withdrawals from your checking account). Pick examples from a single source (Computershare) and list the annual transaction cost for investing $100/mo. Balance stocks with 10-Yr Treasury Notes obtained through TreasuryDirect. Inflation-protected versions of those Notes are available, as are IRA-like versions called ISBs (Inflation-Protected Savings Bonds). Those fixed-income assets need to represent 1/3rd of your monthly investment, stocks from each of the 4 S&P Defensive Industries 1/3rd, and stocks from each of the 4 S&P Growth Industries 1/3rd. 

In the BENCHMARKS section, include low-cost mutual funds referencing a Standard Retirement Plan. NOTE: The 4 S&P Defensive Industries are Utilities, HealthCare, Communication Services and Consumer Staples. The 4 S&P Growth Industries are Financials, Information Technology, Industrials and Consumer Discretionary. The two commodity-related Industries (Basic Materials and Energy) are omitted. Why? Because even the few A-rated stocks have excess volatility. As a retiree, investing in those Industries would amount to gambling with your “nest egg.”

Execution: see Table.

Bottom Line: Transaction costs consume 2.5%/yr of most investor’s savings. But the internet allows you to reduce transaction costs to less than 1%/yr. Over a 10 yr holding period, that 1.5% difference would increase your return on a $10,000 investment by $1,600. In Column U of this week’s Table, we show that if you pick a dozen high-quality stocks and bonds from the main internet sources, and automatically invest $100/mo in each, your annual expenses would come to ~$135 for that investment of $12,000 (0.94%). But read the fine print first:

Caveat emptor: Owning individual stocks is a gamble unless a) you own at least 30 stocks, and b) your picks reflect the impact of each S&P Industry on the economy. Otherwise, you’ll lose money at some point because of selection bias. To avoid that risk altogether, invest in stock index funds that cover the entire economy, e.g. the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSMX), and the SPDR S&P MidCap 400 ETF (MDY).

Risk Rating: 6 (where 10-Yr US Treasury Notes = 1, S&P 500 Index = 5, and gold bullion = 10)

Full Disclosure: In dollar-average into UNP, JNJ, T, NKE and KO, as well as ISBs (Inflation-Protected Savings Bonds).

NOTE: Metrics are current for the Sunday of publication. Red highlights denote underperformance vs. VBINX at Line 21 in the Table. Purple highlights denote Balance Sheet issues and shortfalls. Net Present Value (NPV) inputs are described and justified in the Appendix to Week 256: Briefly, Discount Rate = 9%, Holding Period = 10 years, Initial Cost = average stock price over the past 50 days (corrected for transaction costs of 2.5% when buying ~$5000 worth of shares). Dividend Growth Rate is the 5-Yr CAGR found at Column H. Price Growth Rate is the 16-Yr CAGR found at Column K ( Price Return (from selling all shares in the 10th year) is corrected for transaction costs of 2.5%. The Discount Rate of 9% approximates Total Returns/yr from a stock index of similar risk to owning shares in a small number of large-cap stocks, where risk due to “selection bias” is paramount. That stock index is the S&P MidCap 400 Index at Line 31 in the Table. The ETF for that index is MDY at Line 20.

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