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Investing Blog Roundup: Even CFPs Make Mistakes

To make progress in any field, it’s critical to learn from your mistakes. Even better: learning from somebody else’s mistakes. This week, author and financial planner Allan Roth shares several of his biggest financial mistakes, and lessons he learned from them.

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Be Wary of Online Reviews

Over the last few weeks, I’ve received several emails that suggest that many people are still unaware of one of the major conflicts of interests that you face when reading material on a blog. Specifically, when you read a blogger’s review of a product or service, it’s important to understand that, in many cases, the review is meant to function as a sales pitch.

Imagine that you’re considering buying a Subaru Outback. You Google “Subaru Outback review” and you come across the website for a Subaru dealership, where they review the latest Outback model.

The review is likely a good source of information, written by a person who is knowledgeable about the topic. But there would be no doubt in your mind that the goal of the review is to sell you an Outback. And, because of that obvious goal, you would take anything you read with a grain of salt. You wouldn’t expect the review to lie, but you would expect the overall tone of the review and the information included (and excluded) to be influenced by the dealership’s goal of selling you a car.

That’s often what it’s like when you read a review on a blog (despite the fact that the conflict of interests is less obvious). The review is meant to function as a sales pitch, because the blogger participates in an “affiliate program” for the product/service being reviewed — meaning that the blogger receives a commission if you click from their site to the site of the product being reviewed and you make a purchase or create an account.

As with the Subaru dealership’s Outback review, a blogger’s review is unlikely to include any false information. But it’s super common to omit relevant information that might lead you to do something other than buy (or sign up for) the “reviewed” product. For example, when writing about the robo-advisor Betterment, somebody might write that it’s hands-off, easy to understand, based on solid research, and low-cost. All of those things are true. But the reviewer will often neglect to mention that all of those things are also true of a Target Retirement fund from Vanguard — and the costs of the Vanguard fund are even lower.

[Just to be clear, my point here isn’t that Betterment is necessarily a worse choice than a less expensive target date fund. It can make sense in some circumstances. The point is simply that it’s important to understand that the reviewer is likely paid a commission by Betterment but not by Vanguard — and you should be aware of the various ways in which that influences the writing.]

Commonly reviewed/promoted companies with affiliate programs include Betterment, Wealthfront, Lending Club, LendingTree, Personal Capital, CreditSesame, Fundrise, and many more. (The list changes frequently as companies begin new affiliate programs or end existing ones.)

At least in theory, bloggers are supposed to disclose the fact that a link is an affiliate link, but in the real world this is rarely done in a way that is obvious/clear for the reader. In general, if you read a review that seems especially positive, you will want to treat the review with some skepticism, as there is a good chance that the reviewer is operating as a paid salesperson.

Investing Blog Roundup: Evaluating an Existing Whole Life Policy

Whole life insurance is one of a handful of products that is regularly sold in inappropriate situations. However, in some cases, after purchasing a whole life policy and paying the premiums for several years, it may be a good idea to keep the policy, even though purchasing it in the first place wasn’t a good idea. This week Jim Dahle provides an excellent explanation and example of how to do such an evaluation:

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Why Do Bond Prices Work the Way They Do?

A reader writes in, asking:

“I know that interest rates and bond prices move in opposite directions, but I don’t honestly understand why that is the case. And while we’re at it, why do bond funds with a long duration have bigger price fluctuations than bond funds with a short duration?”

Imagine that you buy a $1,000, 10-year Treasury bond, with a 2% coupon rate. (That is, it pays $20 of interest per year.) And you hold that bond for five years, such that it is now effectively a 5-year Treasury bond with a 2% coupon rate.

And imagine that, over those five years, interest rates have risen, and newly-issued 5-year Treasury bonds are now paying 3% interest.

In such a scenario, if you wanted to sell your bond for $1,000, you’d have a very difficult (i.e., impossible) time. Nobody would want to buy your bond with its 2% interest rate, when they could just buy new 5-year bonds with a 3% interest rate instead. In order to sell your bond, you’d have to sell it for less than $1,000. That is, its price has gone down because interest rates have gone up. (Specifically, you would have to sell your bond at a sufficient discount that it would offer the same yield to maturity as newly-issued bonds of the same duration.)

And the same sort of thing happens in reverse. Imagine instead that rates on 5-year Treasury bonds had fallen to just 1%. In that case, people would be willing to pay more than $1,000 for your bond with its 2% coupon rate. That is, interest rates fell, so the value of your bond went up.

Why Do Longer-Term Bonds Have More Interest Rate Risk?

When interest rates change, the price of a bond fund will move (in the opposite direction) by an amount approximately equal to the average duration of the fund, multiplied by the percentage change in applicable interest rates. For example, if the whole Treasury yield curve were to rise by 2%, a Treasury bond fund with a 3-year average duration would fall in price by roughly 6%, and a Treasury bond fund with a 7-year average duration would fall in value by roughly 14%.

But why do longer-duration bonds experience more severe price fluctuations? Without getting into the underlying math*, I think the concept is most easily understood with an example.

Imagine that on a given day you purchase a 1-year Treasury bond and a 20-year Treasury bond, both of which you plan to hold until maturity. Then, on the very next day, the entire Treasury yield curve moves upward by 1%.

  • Holding the 1-year bond to maturity means you’ll be collecting a subpar interest rate (i.e., missing out on an additional 1% yield, relative to new bonds) over the next year.
  • Holding the 20-year bond to maturity means you’ll be collecting a subpar interest rate each year for the next twenty years.

Missing out on an additional 1% yield for a year isn’t great of course. But missing out on 1% per year for twenty years is a much bigger deal. And that is essentially why longer-duration bonds have larger price fluctuations when current interest rates change.

*For those who are interested in the technical explanation: The market value of a bond at any point in time is equal to the sum of the present values (i.e., discounted values) of each of the future cash flows the bond holder will receive. When market interest rates change, the discount rate we use to calculate present value changes. And a given change in discount rate (e.g., 1% higher or lower) has a much greater effect on cash flows far in the future (such as you would receive with a long-term bond) than cash flows in the near future.

Investing Blog Roundup: “Heads I Win, Tails I Win”

Housekeeping note: I’ll be traveling this upcoming week, so there will be no articles on Monday 7/18 or Friday 7/22. And I may be somewhat slower than usual in replying to emails. Things will return to normal on Monday 7/25.

There’s a good bit of research (see here for one recent example) showing that investors tend to underperform their own investments, due to buying and selling at the wrong times.

This week I read WSJ editor Spencer Jakab’s new book Heads I Win, Tails I Win: Why Smart Investors Fail and How to Tilt the Odds in Your Favor, which takes a look at that gap in performance and discusses steps investors can take to minimize it.

In my opinion, the best thing about the book is the perspective of the author. Prior to working in the financial media, Jakab was a stock analyst. As a result of his experience, Jakab is able to shed light on the tricks that both the brokerage industry and financial media use to make money from you — regardless of what is in your best interests.

In any event, it’s an entertaining book, with good information. (Chapter 10 of the book — “Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Investors” — would make a good mini-book all on its own.)

Here’s the Amazon link for those who are interested:

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How Many Mutual Funds is “Too Many”?

A reader writes in, asking:

“I read your book investing made simple. The book does not mention how many  funds are too many to have in a portfolio. Do you think 9 funds is too many to have in my 403b portfolio?”

There is no broadly applicable, definitive answer for how many funds is “too many.”

The only time that a portfolio could be clearly, objectively said to have too many funds is when the portfolio includes a fund that serves no purpose, because it does nothing other than duplicate other funds in the portfolio. For instance, if an investor had an IRA that included:

  • Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund,
  • Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund, and
  • Vanguard Total World Stock Index Fund…

…then it would be clear that this investor has “too many” funds, because the same overall allocation could be achieved using fewer funds. That is, any desired domestic/international breakdown can be achieved using the Total Stock Market and Total International index funds — no need to include the Total World index fund as well. (Alternatively, if the investor is happy with the domestic/international breakdown included in the Total World index fund, he/she could use only that fund and eliminate the other two funds.)

So, at least in my view, pointless duplication of holdings is the only time that a portfolio would objectively, clearly include “too many” funds.

There are many cases, however, in which an investor could say, “this is too many funds for me.”

That is, some investors (myself, for instance) place a high value on simplicity and do not care so much about being able to custom-tailor their allocation in various ways, so they use a single all-in-one fund (e.g, target retirement or Vanguard LifeStrategy fund) for their portfolio.

Conversely, some investors don’t at all mind managing a portfolio of many holdings, and they do care quite a bit about holding some very specific asset allocation (e.g., overweighting certain groups of stocks in their portfolio by holding a REIT fund, small-cap value fund, etc.), so they will select a portfolio consisting of several different funds.

And some investors are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, preferring to use something like the “three-fund portfolio” often discussed on the Bogleheads forum (made up of a domestic total stock market index fund, an international total stock market index fund, and a diversified bond index fund).

Any of the above approaches can be perfectly rational — it’s simply a matter of personal preference.

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