Monday, March 30, 2015

Investing in Mutual Funds Made Simple

Mutual fund investors must be bewildered by their thousands of choices, we observed recently.

Not necessarily. Mere handfuls of funds attract much of the money. "Passive" investors – that is, indexers – have an especially narrow focus. Eighty-five percent of the dollars in S&P 500 index funds reside in just five funds.

What's more, Jonathan Clements reports in the WSJ, investors in S&P 500 index funds appear to strengthen their advantage by exercising patience. As shown at right, they enjoy superior dollar-weighted  returns, presumably because they better resist the impulse to buy high, sell low.

Will robo-advisers extend the advantage of patient investing to a wider range of wealth builders?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

You're a Hedgie? How Embarrassing!

Way back when, I avoided mentioning my job in market research. Too embarrassing. Now hedge-fund guys and gals face a similar problem. Subpar returns lead to poor image, and poor image leads to dissembling.

"Mentions of hedge-fund employment in marriage announcements have declined by 20% since 2007," reports Rob Copeland in The Wall Street Journal. 

Out of more than 8,000 hedge funds, "only 1,176 firms use the term hedge fund in the 'about us' section of their SEC investment adviser registration."

Favored euphemisms for hedge fund:
Alternative asset manager
Investment holding company
Private partnership

Can rebranding save the day? 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Unbearable Complexity of Almost Everything Financial

"The complexity of our financial lives is so extreme that we must painstakingly manage each and every aspect of it,"laments Ron Lieber in The New York Times. He cites Social Security.

In my parents' time, the breadwinner claimed Social Security when he retired, his stay-at-home wife claimed her spousal benefit, and that was that. Today? Couples need to study a book or two and seek expert counsel or risk leaving money on the table.

If Social Security has become too complicated, "tax-favored" retirement plans have become a national disgrace. We have pensions (often underfunded) and 401(k)s (often overpriced). We have IRAs and spousal IRAs and self-directed IRAs and Roth IRAs and SEP IRAs and rollover IRAs and stretch IRAs and …..

Yet everyone agrees, few Americans are putting aside enough for retirement. Those who do must contend with thorny thickets of rules and regulations. As a result, financial planners devote more and more time to questions relating to the transfer, withdrawal and bequeathing of retirement funds.

Meanwhile, basic investing leaves people utterly bewildered: Thousands of mutual funds. More than a thousand exchange traded funds. A confusing, ever-growing array of packaged investment products. (If a fund is formed to invest in a portfolio of hedge funds that invest in other hedge funds, do you call it a fund of funds of funds?)

In "the landscape of confusion and tedium that characterizes our financial lives," Lieber observes, "every task seems to require its own multichapter management manual."
Most investors won't read the manuals; they will seek human guidance. They are most likely to turn to brokers, who can't always offer disinterested help. Hence the well-intentioned movement to transform investment salespeople into fiduciaries.

Can this 21st-century alchemy succeed?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Repeat Offender in the Investment Jungle

In the 1990s Charles Howard's stock manipulations helped sink two banks. He served three years in prison and was barred from serving as an investment adviser.

By 2002 he was back in business as…an investment adviser. Now he's been sentenced to seven to twenty years for a second round of fraudulent activities.

After three years, the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript reports, he may be eligible for home confinement. Let's hope his return to wealth management takes a little longer.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Three Bank Ads From Spring, 1965

OK, Boston has set a new record for the amount of snow falling in one winter. Time to think spring. For inspiration, three ads from half a century ago.

The country gentleman in the Chase nest egg ad contrasts with the urbane financier portrayed by  Citi, or as it was known in those days, First National City:

Note the double sales pitch: We'd like to manage your personal portfolio, and we want your company's pension plan, too.

Fifty years ago, pension plans actually had genuine, full service trustees. Corporate fiduciaries eventually lost the business because they were perceived as too timid, too dull. MBAs told companies they should regard their pension plans as profit centers. In hindsight, it wasn't the MBAs' finest hour.

Though the Irving ad below doesn't  feature fiduciary services, the salute to world's fairs reminds us of what people were looking forward to in the spring of 1965. New York's 1964-65 World's Fair was not as grand as the 1939-40 extravaganza, but as the fair's Disney exhibit sang, "It's a small world, after all."

Sunday, March 08, 2015

The Man Who Reshaped Trust Marketing

Thomas J. Stanley, 1944-2015
A generation ago, marketers of trust and investment services believed the ways to find wealthy prospects were obvious. Look for those with visibly high incomes. Target mailings to zip codes containing the most expensive homes. Watch for people who drove top-of-the-line Mercedes or threw lavish weddings for their daughters.

Then along came a professor from Georgia, brandishing research. The marketers had it wrong. 

Many big spenders were simply spending their big incomes, Thomas Stanley asserted, not accumulating wealth. Big hat, no cattle.

Many wealth accumulators, by contrast, shunned conspicuous consumption. They didn't act rich. They lived in ordinary houses, drove ordinary cars, wore ordinary clothes. They looked like the people next door.

Year after year, Stanley filled hotel ballrooms, delivering his contrarian message to gatherings of trust officers, brokers and investment advisers. In 1996 he and a colleague, William D. Danko, published  their bestseller, The Millionaire Next Door.

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times offer tributes to Stanley, who died recently in a car crash. William J. Bernstein, in his primer for millennial investors, calls The Millionaire Next Door "the most important book you'll ever read." 

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Those Weirdo MIllennials

Bloomberg Business takes an irreverent look at Millennials as prospective Wall Street customers.

They're supposedly due to inherit $30 trillion, and maybe they're not really so weird. According to a Federated Investors survey, they're most likely to get investment tips from friends, least likely to spring for paying an investment adviser. Just like their parents and grandparents.