How the Merriman research team evaluates potential investment opportunities

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Merriman advisors Mark, Cheryl, and Tyler discuss conversations they are having with their clients

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Value and blend vs. value and growth – which is better?

You have previously suggested a mix of value and blend funds. However, Burton Malkiel states in his book “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” that value and growth are equal over time. His argument suggests that a mix of value and growth – not blend – with annual re-balancing would be a better strategy. Both you and Malkiel cite historical figures. Can you explain the difference in your point of view?


Great question. I cannot speak to the context of how it was stated but I would argue the premise that value and growth are equal over time.

Consider the following return figures from Dimensional Fund Advisors over the period of 1927-2011:

US Large Cap Value10.03%
US Large Cap Growth9.75%
US Small Cap Value13.50%
US Small Cap Growth8.8

As you can see, value has historically outperformed growth.

The use of value and blend funds enables us to take advantage of the value premium illustrated by the preceding figures. Of course, blend is a combination of the two so the same result could be accomplished with a mixture of roughly 3 parts value to 1 part growth. However you slice it up our recommendation is to tilt to value.

 

Indices are not available for direct investment; therefore, their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio. Compound returns have an assumed rate of return, are hypothetical, and are not representative of any specific type of investment. Standard deviation is one method of measuring risk and performance and is presented as an approximation. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.
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Convertible bonds as an asset class?


Please share your view of convertible bonds as an asset class for folks entering retirement.


Convertible bonds are a unique asset class in that they have features of both stocks and bonds. They are often referred to as “hybrid” securities. This, along with their typically sub-par credit rating, is why they do not fit into our bond portfolio.

We prefer to keep the stock and bond components of our portfolios separate. Our bond portfolio is designed to buoy the allocation in times of stock market stress. The potential for convertible bonds to act like stocks does not jive with this logic. If convertibles – due to their hybrid nature – were showing stock-like tendencies when stocks were declining, your portfolio would have much less downside protection. As we have seen in the recent past, it is extremely important that investors maintain some level of protection in their portfolio. We do not believe convertible bonds are the solution. (more…)

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Adding bonds in preparation for retirement


At 61 years old, what is the best way to transition from an all stock portfolio to a 60% stock 40% bond portfolio?

 

This is a difficult question to answer without knowing your specific set of circumstances. To narrow the scope I will assume the following: 1) you will retire at 65, 2) you will take a 4% annual distribution from the portfolio upon retirement, and 3) you are using a globally-diversified portfolio like the one we outline in The Ultimate Buy-and-Hold Strategy.

Regarding the third assumption, it is extremely important to understand that different portfolios have different risk characteristics. A 60% stock 40% bond (60/40) portfolio allocated to the S&P 500 and high-yield junk bonds is entirely different and much riskier than the one discussed in the aforementioned article.

That said, I would make the switch immediately. With four years until retirement you cannot afford to subject the entirety of your portfolio to the risks associated with stocks.

For perspective, consider that the financial crisis cut the average stock portfolio value in half. Taking distributions from an all-stock portfolio during such a time period has disastrous consequences on the longevity of your assets. This is why, as investors near retirement (the distribution phase of a portfolio), they should – as you’ve indicated – consider adding a preservation component (bonds) to their portfolio.

If the goal is to achieve a 60/40 allocation by retirement, many people will initiate the transition process around the time they reach age 50. This longer time frame for transition allows the use of ordinary cash flows and rebalancing opportunities to make it a cost-effective and natural process. Your situation calls for a less subtle shift. Nonetheless, it is a shift in the right direction and, as mentioned above, I would proceed.

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How can I get hurt holding bonds?

I am considering buying bond funds and would welcome your recommendations. I recently read in Time magazine that you could get hurt if you’re invested in a bond fund. How can I get hurt holding bonds?


Many people think bonds are risk free, but that is not actually true. There are multiple risks associated with bonds, but they can be an extremely important component of a portfolio despite those risks. And, if properly allocated, they can provide a level of security above and beyond the equity markets. Of course there is no free lunch, and the added stability of bonds requires a tradeoff. Namely, you are foregoing the equity premium associated with stocks.

We recommend using a mix of high quality short- and intermediate-term government and Treasury issues. For tax-deferred accounts we include Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS). This allocation is purposefully designed to be very conservative. Nonetheless, it is still subject to certain risks. Interest rate and inflation risk make the top of the list. You can alleviate the risk of inflation through the use of TIPS. Interest rate risk is somewhat of a different story.

There is an inverse relationship between bond prices and interest rates. As rates rise, bond prices fall and as rates fall, bond prices rise. Longer-term bonds are hit hardest in a rising rate environment; short-term issues are hurt the least. Of course shorter-term issues generally pay less interest. If you want an appreciable return – especially in today’s low rate environment – you need to extend beyond extremely short-term debt. Our solution is to limit risk exposure and also gain some additional yield by using high quality short- and intermediate-term US government and Treasury debt.

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Where is the best place to put money gifted to children?

 

I have 5 nieces ranging in age from 2 to 14. We want to give them money instead of toys for birthdays and Christmas. We are talking about $25 each for birthdays and Christmas for now. That’s only $50 per year until we can increase it. Where is the best place to put that money?

The ability to delay gratification goes hand in hand with long term success.  Not only will your gift help provide financial security but it will set an important example.  Sure, every kid would love to have the latest and greatest toy.  But – at least to us boring adults – the prospect of an extra several thousand dollars for college, retirement, or a down payment on a home is much more appealing.  Granted this is not as tangible and doesn’t present as well to a 7 yr. old as a box of Legos, for example.

The option you choose depends upon the circumstances of each child.  If the goal is to fund college my first recommendation would be to use the West Virginia Smart 529 Select plan.  This plan has a low minimum initial investment and offers age-based portfolios that allocate amongst stocks and bonds based upon the beneficiary’s age.  As the child approaches the distribution phase (college) the portfolio automatically adjusts to a more conservative allocation.

However, the West Virginia does assess a $25 annual maintenance fee for smaller accounts.  The details of which can be found in the aforementioned link.  In your case it may be best to explore the 529 plan associated with your state of residence.  When the account meets one of the exceptions for the $25 West Virginia plan fee you can roll the assets into it.

Another option would be contributing to a custodial account such as a UTMA or UGMA.  The downside to a custodial account is that there are no real tax advantages.  However, if the child is not going to go to college it may be a sensible option.  Unlike 529 plans the only restriction for a custodial account is that the money must be used for the presumed benefit of the minor.  As mentioned above this would be an appropriate vehicle to save for something such as a down payment on a home.

Finally, once the kids begin to earn income you have the option of helping them set up an IRA.  What I love about this option is the time horizon and the shared responsibility.  Not only could you contribute $50/year, but you could encourage them to do the same.  Again, this is setting an example that will help shape their perspective and increases their chances, in this case for retirement success.

At the end of the day the foregone toy will be a distant memory.  More importantly, you will have made a lasting contribution to the financial security and education of your nieces.

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Will European markets underperform in the next 10-20 years?

Is it a smart bet to reduce European exposure? It seems certain that these markets will continue to underperform for the next one to two decades.


Based on recent political and economic events we understand the skepticism surrounding the long-term growth prospects of European markets. However, we do not feel it is a foregone conclusion that European markets will produce sub-par returns over the coming decades. In its simplest form I see three potential outcomes:

1) European markets underperform

2) They keep pace with other financial markets

3) They outperform.

Under scenario one you are correct and moving out of European markets would have been a good move. “Would have” being the operative phrase. There is certainty in the past not in the future. On the flip side there is the chance that European markets outperform in the coming decades. Under this scenario we should have increased the European exposure. Again, should have – past tense.

We are not making tactical bets based on current political and economic circumstances. Rather, we are using historical data in conjunction with decades of academic research to build well-diversified portfolio designed for the long-term.

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Solution for a lack of choices in company sponsored retirement plans

I use your investment strategy for my Roth IRA and Rollover IRA.  My current employer uses Prudential for my company’s 457 plan.  Looking at the options, I cannot seem to use your allocation strategy due to a lack of choices.  Do you have any suggestions?

A recurring theme in most plans is a limited number of investment options.  This restricts your ability to properly allocate and diversify your account.

If you find yourself in this situation the allocation tactic described below is a simple and practical way to get your portfolio on track.

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What’s the best way to transition from stocks to index funds and ETFs?

I have read Paul Merriman’s book, Live It Up Without Outliving Your Money and watched some of Paul’s videos and listened to his podcasts. I have a question that hasn’t been addressed: What’s the best way to transition a portfolio from individual stocks to index funds and ETFs?

I would like to make the change quickly, but I’m worried that my timing might turn out to be all wrong. Should I do it all at once, or gradually over a period of time?


We believe that the move you are describing is a good way to reduce your risk and potentially improve your return, because index funds and ETFs will give you much greater diversification. I recommend you follow the recommendations that you’ll find in Paul Merriman’s article “The Ultimate Buy and Hold Strategy.”

Once you have made this decision, I cannot see any good reason to spread it out. If you do it all at once, you will get it over with quickly so you can focus on other things. I recommend you sell all the stocks in a single day. Stock trades typically take three business days to settle, so there will be a short delay before you can reinvest the proceeds.

During that brief period while your money is in cash, the market may go up or it may go down – or it could remain largely unchanged. You can’t control that, so you will have to accept it as an unknown price you’ll have to pay (if you must reinvest at higher prices) or an unknown bonus you receive (if you reinvest at lower prices). Either way, make the change and get it over with.

If you try to control this, you’ll have to predict or guess future stock prices, and that’s likely to lead to second-guessing your plan and not getting it accomplished.

There’s an exception to that advice. If the stocks you own are in a taxable account, it’s important that you consult your tax advisor before you move forward. Tax consequences in some cases should dictate the timing of your sales.

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