Five Excellent Investment Characteristics

We favor investments that are low cost, tax efficient, diversified, liquid, and simple. Many investors often run into trouble when they invest in things that do not have these five characteristics. Investments with these five characteristics have been profitable over time, but typically are not very exciting. There is generally not a “hot story that you need to act on now!” associated with them. The financial services industry generally does not favor these type of investments because they generate very little profit from them. We are in the business of helping to maximize the wealth of our clients, not the financial services industry. Keep in mind that this list of investment characteristics is not comprehensive. Other factors to look for in investments might include attractive valuation, low correlation to your other holdings, a nice dividend yield or interest income, a tilt towards areas of the market that have produced higher returns such as value stocks, an appropriate risk level for you, etc.

Low Cost. We typically invest in low cost index based funds and exchange traded funds (ETF’s). The funds we invest in have an average expense ratio of only.30% per year. The typical actively traded equity mutual fund has an average expense ratio of 1% or more. With investment funds, the best predictor of future relative performance is the expense ratio on the fund; the lower the better. Hedge funds typically have annual expense ratios of 2% plus 20% of any profits earned. Some variable annuities and permanent life insurance “investments” can have annual expenses of 2% or more. By keeping a close eye on the costs of our investments, we can save our clients significant amounts of money each year and help them achieve higher returns over time (all else being equal). With investment products, you don’t get better performance with a higher cost product, in fact you typically get worse performance.

Tax Efficient. Our investments (index based funds and ETF’s) are extremely tax efficient and they allow the investor to have some control over the timing of the taxes. These types of funds have low turnover (trading activity), which is a common characteristic of tax efficient investments. We recommend avoiding mutual funds with high turnover due to their tax inefficiency. After the recent big increase in the U.S. stock market, many active equity mutual funds have “imbedded” capital gains of as much as 30%-45%. If you buy those mutual funds now you may end up paying capital gains taxes on those imbedded gains even if you didn’t own the fund during the increase. ETF’s typically do not generate long and short-term capital gain distributions at yearend, and they do not have imbedded capital gains like active mutual funds. Hedge funds are typically tax inefficient due to their very high turnover. In addition to investing in tax-efficient products we also do many other things to help keep our client taxes minimized such as tax loss harvesting, keeping our turnover/trading low, putting the right type of investments in the right type of accounts (tax location), using losses to offset capital gains, using holdings with large capital gains for gifting, investing in tax-free municipal bonds, etc.

Diversified. We like to invest in diversified funds because they reduce your stock specific risk, and the overall risk of your portfolio. Bad news released about one stock may cause it to drop 50%, which is horrible news if that stock is 20% of your whole portfolio, but will be barely noticed in a fund of 1,000 stock positions. We tend to favor funds that typically have at least a hundred holdings and often several hundred holdings or more. These diversified funds give you broad representation of the whole asset class you are trying to get exposure to, while eliminating the stock specific risk. We are not likely to invest in the newest Solar Energy Company Equity Fund with 10 stock positions, for example. We don’t believe in taking any risks (such as stock specific risk) that you will not get paid for in higher expected return.

Liquid. We like investments that you can sell in one minute or one day if you decide to do so, and those which you can sell at or very close to the prevailing market price. With liquid investments you always (daily) know the exact price and value of your investments. All of the investment funds we recommend meet this standard. We don’t like investments which you are locked into for years without the ability to get your money back at all or without paying large exit fees. Examples of illiquid investments would be hedge funds, private equity funds, annuities, private company stock, tiny publicly traded stocks, startup company stock or debt, illiquid obscure bonds, structured products, some life insurance “investments,” private real estate partnerships, etc. We prefer investment funds that have been around for some time, are large in size, and have high average daily trading volumes.

Simple. We prefer investments that are simple, transparent, and easy to understand. If you don’t understand it, don’t invest in it. All of our investments are simple and transparent; we know exactly what we own. Complicated investment products are designed in favor of the seller, not the buyer, and usually have high hidden fees. Examples of complicated and non-transparent investments that we generally avoid are hedge funds, private equity funds, structured products, some life insurance “investment” products, variable annuities, private company stock, startup company stock or loans, etc. “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” -Albert Einstein.

We believe most investors should have the majority of their portfolio invested in things that have these five excellent characteristics. By doing so you will avoid plenty of mistakes, negative surprises, and risks along the way. In addition, we believe your after tax investment returns will likely be higher over long periods of time. Of course not every smart or good investment will have all of these characteristics. For example, income producing real estate property is illiquid (and often not diversified) but can be an excellent long-term investment if purchased and managed properly. Owning your own business is illiquid and not diversified but can be an excellent way to build wealth as well. We believe these five investment characteristics become even more important as you enter retirement, since at that point you may be more focused on reducing risk and preserving your wealth than building it, and you may need the liquidity to spend and gift part of your wealth during retirement. These five excellent investment characteristics can be a good screening device for possible investments and good factors to think about when investing.

Investing Money in 2014 and 2015 for Retirement – An Old Pro’s Viewpoint

In 2014 and maybe 2015 and beyond, investing money will be tougher and putting together the best investment portfolio might mean investing money for safety vs. higher investment returns. The best investment ideas are slim pickings. There is very little that is normal in today’s world of finance. My reasoning and background follows.

In 1971 I had my Masters in Business (finance) and knew nothing about the investment world or investing money. Actually, I found it quite embarrassing, because adults that I would meet in the business world thought that I might have the best investment ideas in my pocket – due to my education. The years that followed were not the best investment environment, and I became a stock broker in Columbus, Ohio in 1972. I learned real quick what my job was really all about: selling investment ideas… SELL the sizzle NOT the steak… I was informed by my sales manager.

Forty years later, investing money is a game that I find has changed little. It’s all but impossible to find the best investment, and the world of investing money is primarily a sales game aimed at uninformed investors (more than 90% of the investing public). I once read that NOW is always the hardest time to invest money. I’ve seen difficult times in the markets for over 40 years and I’ve NEVER repeated that phrase until now.

At this time, I am afraid that it is really true. Allison and I have three children, who are all basically 30-something and trying to make it in a difficult world. Investing money for retirement is not an option for them. It is an absolute necessity if they don’t want to work for the rest of their life. Many folks my age are covered by pension funds plus other entitlements, but that’s not the norm for 2014 and beyond. Now, let’s get down to business and talk about investing money in 2014 and beyond; and the best investment ideas I can muster as an older (but still on top of my game) retired financial planner.

If you have a 401k at work participate in it, and take maximum advantage of your employer’s matching contribution if your company offers this feature (it’s free money). Investing money here is automatic and almost painless. This is one of the best investment ideas available for accumulating a nest egg for retirement. Plus, the tax advantages will put a smile on your face each year at income-tax time.

Open a Roth IRA with a major NO-LOAD mutual fund family and start investing money each month through their automatic investment plan. Enter “no-load funds” into a search engine and you’ll see some of the biggest and best fund companies at the top of the page, names like Vanguard, Fidelity and T Rowe Price. Give them a toll-free call if you have questions – like do you qualify, how much can you invest a year, and will they send you free literature. A Roth IRA (or Roth 401k if available) is one of the very best investment ideas for accumulating money for retirement. A Roth account (IRA or 401k) is TAX FREE investing, as long as you follow the rules. Tax free is as good as it gets and difficult to find.

Mutual funds are the average investor’s best investment vehicle because they offer both professional management and instant diversification in the form of a managed portfolio of stocks, bonds, and money market securities. When you invest money in a fund, you own a very small part of (own shares in) a very large investment portfolio. There is always a cost for investing money in funds. All funds charge for yearly expenses. This can amount to less than 1% a year in NO-LOAD FUNDS, with no sales charges when you invest money and no extra ongoing management fees. Or, you can pay 5% in sales charges off the top when you invest money, 2% or more for yearly expenses and 1% to 2% in additional management fees if you work through a sales rep (financial planner, adviser, or whatever).

One of the best investment ideas for 2014, 2015 and beyond: keep your cost of investing money as low as possible. This could make a difference of tens of thousands of dollars over the long term. A dollar saved is a dollar earned.

Do all that you can to learn about investing money; and especially learn about stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. Once you understand stocks and bonds, getting a handle on mutual funds is a piece of cake. What are the investment options inside your employer’s 401k plan? The vast majority of them are likely mutual funds – mostly stock funds, bond funds, and/or balanced funds (that invest in both stocks and bonds). There will likely also be one or two safe investment options that pay interest: a money market funds and/or a stable account.

Investing money successfully in 2014 and beyond could be very difficult due to today’s investment environment. First, record low interest rates mean that safe investments that pay interest are paying close to nothing. Second, bonds and bond funds pay more interest, but when interest rates go back up to normal levels they WILL LOSE money; that’s the way bonds and bond funds work. Third, stocks and stock funds are pricy, having gone up in value and price well over 100% since 2009. In other words, best investment ideas are few and far between.

Here’s the best investment strategy in 2014 and beyond for beginners who want to start investing money for retirement and keep it simple. In a 401k and/or Roth IRA account invest (monthly or each payday) equal amounts into a stock fund, bond fund, and money market fund. If your 401k has a stable account option use this instead of the money market fund if it pays more interest.

Mutual funds are always one of the best investment ideas for most investors – if you invest money in low-cost no-load funds. (Your 401k plan should have no loads, sales charges). When investing money for retirement in 2014 and 2015 keep three factors in mind. Two of these always apply: keep costs low and invest money across the board in all three fund types listed above. Your third factor is to give money market funds equal weight in 2014 and beyond for added safety. Normally, you would give them less weighting.