Sunday, April 2

Week 300 - $185/week For A Low-cost Online Retirement Fund

Situation: Let’s say you make $64,000/yr but don’t have a workplace Retirement Plan. You still need to put 15% of your income (or $9,600/yr or $185/week) into a Retirement Plan. You can’t expect Social Security checks to replace more than 40% of your salary.The lowest cost self-directed plan would be composed of an IRA for stocks and Inflation-protected US Savings Bonds (ISBs) for bonds. We define costs as a) transaction costs, b) taxes, and c) inflation. The annual IRA contribution limit is $5,500/yr ($6,500/yr if you’re over 50). That doesn’t cover the $9,600/yr you need to shield from taxes, which is where ISBs come in handy. Those have a $10,000/yr contribution limit, work like an IRA to defer taxes, and carry the added benefit of shielding you from inflation.

Mission: Set up our standard spreadsheet (see Table) for $6000/yr of online stock purchases which go into an IRA, and $3600/yr of online bond purchases, which go into ISBs.

Execution: see Table, where the Vanguard Interm-Term Bond Index Fund (VBIIX) is a proxy for ISBs to facilitate comparison with stocks, which are neither inflation-protected nor tax-advantaged.

Plan A: You can put $100/mo into each of 5 stocks purchased online through computershare, then have your accountant declare that account at computershare to be your IRA. This assumes you’re over 50 years old when you start this plan.

Plan B: You can put $500/mo into a Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSMX) IRA marketed by the Vanguard Group. VTSMX carries an expense ratio of only 0.16%/yr vs. 0.58%/yr for stocks purchased through computershare (see Column P in the Table). NOTE: Plan B is the smarter option. Why? a) The expense ratio is lower. b) An index fund eliminates the considerable risk of selection bias.

With either Plan, $300/mo is put into ISBs with automatic online withdrawals from your checking account. Less money is put into bonds than into stocks because Social Security payments are made from a US Treasury Bond Fund. The interest payments on ISBs are based off the interest payments for 10-yr Treasury Notes corrected for the value of the tax deferral benefit and inflation correction benefit. Also, remember that ISBs have zero transaction costs and zero inflation risk; interest accrues biannually and cannot be taxed until the bond is redeemed. To better understand why you should confine your bond investments to 10-yr US Treasury Notes, read the fine print:

Caveat emptor: “The hard part of setting up a Retirement Plan is understanding the role of bonds. Those go up in value when stocks go down, so bonds need to form half of the assets meant to sustain you in retirement. Why do bonds go up in value when stocks go down? Because bankruptcy drops bond prices to the liquidation value of collateral, say 70 cents on the dollar, whereas bankruptcy drops stock prices to zero. The easy part to understand is that the risk that a bond will end up in bankruptcy court is specified by the interest rate: no investor will buy a bond that doesn’t pay enough interest to compensate for the risk being assumed. The zero-risk set point for interest rates everywhere is the 10-yr US Treasury Note. A commercial bond has to pay sufficiently more interest to draw in a buyer. On a risk-adjusted basis, all publicly-traded bonds pay the same rate of interest. Given that Treasuries are obtained online at zero cost, there is no reason to own any other type of fixed-income investment (unless you’re a bond trader).”

Bottom Line: Investment-grade bond and total stock market indexes have approximately the same inflation-adjusted total returns over multi-decade periods of ~3%/yr (e.g. see Lines 21 and 22 in the Table). Those returns remain roughly equivalent, otherwise investors would accumulate less money in one in order to favor the other.

Instead of using stock & bond indexes, you can have professionals pick stocks and bonds for you. This is tempting, since most stock and bonds make unattractive investments (because most companies have Balance Sheet problems or a weak Brand). That’s why an actively managed & balanced mutual fund like Vanguard Wellesley Income Fund (VWINX) outperforms a 50:50 mix of stock and bond index funds (compare Line 13 to Line 23 in the Table).

Or you can pick conservative bonds and stocks for yourself and keep transaction costs low by investing online (compare Line 10 to Lines 13 and 23 in the Table). NOTE: transaction costs in Column AB, which come to 0.58%/yr ($56/$9600).

Risk Rating: 4 (where 10-yr Treasury Notes = 1, S&P 500 Index = 5, and gold bullion = 10)

Full Disclosure: I dollar-average into UNP, KO, IBM, JNJ, NEE, and ISBs.

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