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Investing Blog Roundup: Vanguard Interviews Jonathan Clements

When I first started reading about personal finance, Jonathan Clements (writing for The Wall Street Journal at the time) was one of my favorite writers. After a several-year hiatus, Clements began writing for WSJ again this year. You can find a collection of his articles here.

This week, in an interview with Vanguard, Clements argues that today is a great time to be an investor:

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Why I Prefer Vanguard LifeStrategy Funds to Target Retirement Funds

A reader writes in, asking:

“I enjoyed the Bogleheads piece. [Editor's note: He's referring to this recent Money article by Penelope Wang.] I noticed that there was a recommendation for the Target Retirement Funds. I wonder if you’d run your preference for the LifeStrategies Growth Fund by me one more time?”

As a tool for investors in general, I prefer the LifeStrategy funds primarily due to their naming convention (i.e, the use of the names Growth, Moderate Growth, Conservative Growth, and Income rather than date-based names). When presented with a menu of LifeStrategy funds, an investor is forced to actually think about his/her risk tolerance in order to decide which fund is the best fit. In contrast, with the Target Retirement funds, there’s an easy alternative: just pick based on the date.

The problem here is that, while time to retirement is a factor that affects your risk tolerance, it is just one of several factors. And, in many cases, it isn’t even the most important factor.

For example, I know many Gen-Y investors who are chronically underemployed, yet who have nonetheless managed to scrape together some money to invest in a Roth IRA. Despite the fact that they’re a long way from retirement, they need to use conservative allocations in their IRAs, because there’s a significant chance that they’ll have to tap into the money in the not-so-distant future, due to income instability and small emergency funds.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are retirees whose day-to-day needs are completely satisfied via pensions and/or Social Security. Despite the fact that they’re already retired (i.e., time to retirement = zero), an aggressive allocation could be quite reasonable, should they desire to use one.

And even if investors are told to pick a target date fund based on the fund’s underlying allocation rather than the date in the fund’s name, there’s still going to be an anchoring effect involved. In other words, investors will probably not adjust as much as they should in order to account for their personal risk tolerance. For example, a conservative investor planning to retire in 2040 might be best served by the allocation of the 2015 fund. Yet because he’s been told that the 2040 fund is typical for somebody his age, he only adjusts slightly — by using the 2035 fund for instance, despite the fact that it’s still much too risky for his needs.

With regard to why I personally am using the LifeStrategy Growth Fund rather than a Target Retirement fund, the answer is that my wife and I don’t, as of right now, plan to shift our allocation toward bonds over time. Rather, as we near (and enter) retirement, we expect to simply put money into inflation-adjusted lifetime annuities (including Social Security) until we’ve reached the point where our basic needs are satisfied via very safe sources of lifetime income. With money that’s left over, the plan is to continue using a stock-oriented allocation.

All of that said, I’m still a big fan of Vanguard’s Target Retirement funds. I don’t like them quite as much as the LifeStrategy funds, but I still think they’re fantastic in that they can provide a diversified, hands-off portfolio at a very modest price.

Investing Blog Roundup: Tips from the Bogleheads

This week Penelope Wang of Money has a great write-up about the Bogleheads community, as well as the new edition of The Bogleheads Guide to Investing that was released this week. Wang writes:

“Wouldn’t it be great to get advice on managing your money from a knowledgeable friend—one who isn’t trying to rake in a commission or push a bad investment? That’s what the Bogleheads are all about.”

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Helpful Social Security References

From time to time, I hear from people who have visited their local SSA office (or spoken with an SSA employee on the phone) to execute a legitimate Social Security strategy, only to have the SSA employee (incorrectly) tell them that they cannot do such a thing.

Generally, the best thing you can do in such a situation is to respectfully direct the SSA employee to an applicable reference in the Code of Federal Regulations or Program Operations Manual System (i.e., the SSA’s internal employee manual). What follows are a few such references that may be helpful in getting things moving in your favor.

File and Suspend

These days, most SSA employees are familiar with the ability to voluntarily “suspend” your benefits after filing for them. Every once in a while, however, a person will be told (incorrectly) that he cannot suspend his retirement benefit at full retirement age, simply because he started receiving that benefit prior to full retirement age. CFR 404.313 (in particular, the bolded sentence) indicates very explicitly that that’s not the case:

“You earn a [delayed retirement credit] for each month for which you are fully insured and eligible but do not receive an old-age benefit either because you do not apply for benefits or because you elect to voluntarily suspend your benefits to earn DRCs. Even if you were entitled to old-age benefits before full retirement age you may still earn DRCs for months during the period from full retirement age to age 70, if you voluntarily elect to suspend those benefits.”

Filing a Restricted Application

When you are eligible for two different benefits, but choose to apply for only one of them (in order to allow the other one to continue growing), you are making what is known as a “restricted application.” Some SSA employees, however, will tell you that if you file for one benefit, you are automatically forced (“deemed”) to file for the other benefit as well.

This rule about deemed filing comes from CFR 404.623, which answers the question, “Am I required to file for all benefits if I am eligible for old-age and husband’s or wife’s benefits?” The Code section is rather lengthy to quote in its entirety, but the relevant point is that it states that if you file for a retirement (i.e., “old-age”) benefit or spousal benefit prior to your full retirement age, you are automatically presumed to have filed for the other benefit as well.

The key things to note here (and to bring to the SSA employee’s attention) are that:

  • This only applies when you file for something prior to FRA, and
  • This doesn’t apply to widow/widower benefits at all. (That is, if you’re eligible for a retirement benefit and a widow/widower benefit, you can file a restricted application for one or the other — even prior to full retirement age.)

6-Month Retroactive Lump-Sum

If you file for your retirement benefit after full retirement age, you have the option to essentially backdate your application by up to 6 months. In such a case, you will receive a lump-sum for those 6 months of benefits, and your ongoing monthly benefit will be smaller, as if you’d claimed it 6 months earlier than you actually did.

The applicable reference here is CFR 404.621, starting with paragraph (a)(2), which states:

“If you file an application [...] you may receive benefits for up to 6 months immediately before the month in which your application is filed. Your benefits may begin with the first month in this 6-month period in which you meet all the requirements for entitlement.”

Important note: CFR 404.621 also states that you cannot backdate an application to a point earlier than your FRA.

Retroactive Lump-Sum to Date of Suspension

If you suspend your benefits at any point in time, you can essentially change your mind later (but prior to age 70), and ask to retroactively “unsuspend” your benefits. For example, you could file and suspend at your full retirement age of 66, then at age 69, after being diagnosed with a condition that makes your life expectancy much shorter than you previously thought, you could ask to a) have your benefits unsuspended and b) receive a lump-sum for the months between 66 and 69. Going forward, your benefit would then be calculated as if you had never suspended at all (i.e., you would not get the delayed retirement credits for delaying from 66 to 69).

The ability to change your mind with regard to a suspension of benefits comes from POMS GN 02409.130, which states that your effective month for reinstatement of benefits (after a voluntary suspension) can be, “the current month, a future month or any past month during the suspension period.”

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Investing Blog Roundup: Ignoring the News

This blog was originally started to share the concept that you don’t have to follow market news in order to achieve investment success. (That is, it’s OK to be “oblivious” to it.) This week, MarketWatch writer Chuck Jaffe shares a similar message:

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Does Overweighting Domestic Stocks Count as Active Management?

A reader writes in, asking:

“I’ve read in the past that you utilize Vanguard’s LifeStrategy funds.  You and I share the same passion toward favoring passive strategies rather than active. My question is then, do you consider the funds’ home bias reflective of an active strategy that deviates its asset allocation away from traditional weightings (based on actual market cap) inconsistent with Vanguard’s overall approach to indexing?”

I don’t have any strong opinion on whether the domestic tilt of the LifeStrategy portfolio (i.e., the fact that the LifeStrategy funds overweight domestic stocks and underweight international stocks relative to their market capitalization) constitutes active management.* If, however, it does count as active management, then there are several other characteristics of the LifeStrategy (and Target Retirement) funds that we must also consider active management. Specifically:

  • The overall stock/bond breakdown does not reflect the respective sizes of those markets,
  • Non-investment-grade bonds, bonds with maturities of less than 1 year, muni bonds, and TIPS are generally excluded from the portfolio (because none of those bonds are included in the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund), and
  • The portfolio is rebalanced rather than simply allowing the allocation to each piece to shift naturally in accordance with market capitalizations.

If we’re treating one of those decisions with skepticism — because it could be considered active management — then we must be skeptical of each of the others as well.

Personally, I don’t worry too much about whether something is or isn’t active management. The primary problem with the most popular forms of active management (e.g., paying a fund manager to pick stocks or time the market) is that they increase costs without increasing returns by a sufficient amount to overcome those additional costs.

But the LifeStrategy (and Target Retirement) funds’ policy of overweighting domestic stocks doesn’t actually increase costs. In fact, it reduces costs slightly because the domestic index funds have somewhat lower expense ratios than the international ones. In other words, the skepticism with which I generally regard active management strategies (because they, in general, don’t improve returns enough to overcome the additional costs) doesn’t really apply in this case (even if it could be considered active management).

*With regard to whether the fund is somewhat out of character for Vanguard in particular, I can only say that Vanguard is pretty consistent in their message that they aren’t an indexing-only company and they have no philosophical opposition to active management.

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