Tracking Error: What is it, and why does it matter?

During several recent discussions with clients, I’ve heard a common question, “Why isn’t my portfolio doing as well as the market?”  This inquiry, of course, leads to another question: “What is the market?” To most investors, the market is either the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones Industrial Index. While these two indices are often cited by news outlets, they only cover portions of the larger global market.

At Merriman, we have long advocated that the allocation of the equity portion of your portfolio include large company stocks, small company stocks, international stocks, emerging market stocks and real estate investment trusts. Each of these asset classes perform differently over time, sometimes dramatically so. Tracking error, the way we refer to it here, is the amount by which the performance of a portfolio differs from that of the major market indices. In some years, this difference will be positive, meaning your portfolio outperformed a major index like the S&P 500. However, there will be years like 2011 when these additional asset classes will lead your portfolio to underperform the S&P 500.

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Charitable giving: Donor-Advised Funds

If you are like me, then you receive lots of invitations to donate to your favorite charities. There are natural disaster funds, religious contributions, education, health, and many other non-profit groups that look to individuals for funding. According to the Giving USA Foundation, individuals gave an estimated $211.77 billion in 2010, a 2.7% increase from 2009. Since this is an important topic to many people, it is good to be informed on the most effective ways to give to your favorite charities.

One common way to contribute to charities is to give cash. This is simple, and charities can easily handle the different contribution levels. The downside is that you may have to sell an asset (stock, bond, mutual fund) in order to free up the cash you intend to donate. Usually, when you sell something, there are tax consequences to doing so. For example, if you had a stock worth $10,000 and the basis was $5,000, you would create a tax consequence by selling and would likely have less than the full $10,000 to give to the charity. (more…)

RMDs and Charitable contributions

If you have IRA accounts and are over age 70 ½, then you probably know about the Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) rules. These IRS rules require you to take money out of your retirement accounts each year, whether you need the money or not.

This money could be spent or re-invested back into a taxable investment account to allow it to continue to grow. Some people deposit this money to their checking account, and eventually use it to make a charitable contribution to the charity of their choice.

Fortunately, the government recently extended a provision through 2011, which allows individuals over age 70 ½ to exclude up to $100,000 from their gross income if it is paid directly from an IRA to a qualified charity. In addition, that excluded amount can be used to satisfy the RMD for the year.

This could potentially be a much more tax-efficient way to make charitable contributions than by depositing the RMD amount in your bank account and then writing a check for charity. If you’re a Merriman client, we can help you complete the paperwork accordingly, just give us a call.

To find out more information on this valuable topic, please discuss with your CPA or read this article from the IRS.

When to start taking Social Security? It’s an important choice.

One of the many areas in which I help my clients is planning for retirement. Many people want to have a good understanding of how much they can spend, what type of investment return they need, and of how these decisions affect their portfolio.

A major source of income for most investors is Social Security. Every retiree has a choice of when to begin taking Social Security payments. While some people ignore this in their planning or take the decision lightly, this choice can make a big difference. (more…)

Why are you such big fans of index funds?

If you compare the Fidelity Low Price Stock Fund to Vanguard’s small-cap and mid-cap index funds, you will see Fidelity’s three-year, five-year and 10-year performance leaves the index funds in the dust. Fidelity’s fund is a small to midcap blend fund. If it’s so easy to find funds that do much better than index funds, why do you recommend index funds? If actively managed funds make you more money in the end, you’d be better off rather than worrying so much about expense ratios and turnover. Please answer my question. I am getting different answers from every advisor.


The debate between active and passive management has been going on for decades and will probably continue to do so. In the end, you must decide for yourself what to believe and what to do. I’ll give you my perspective plus some resources that show you why we believe in passive management.

What you have done is very easy. You have looked at the past and determined what you should have invested in, at least in this category of assets. If investing were that simple, everybody would do it, and we’d all be wealthy. The problem is you cannot invest in any past track record. (more…)

Fixed index annuities: Perfect product or a ripoff?

Much of the financial industry is hurting these days, and you can bet that Wall Street is working overtime to hook investors in one way or another. Insurance companies are promoting a product that looks (at least to them) like a winner, especially during tough times.

You can barely pick up a financial publication lately without seeing ads for fixed indexed annuities, often called equity index annuities. The ads promise a lot. But does the product deliver the goods?

Many investors seem to think so. An estimated $26.7 billion went into equity index annuities in 2008, according to AnnuitySpecs.com’s Advantage Index Sales & Market Report. I think there are three main reasons. First, they offer downside capital protection at a time when nothing seems to be working for investors. Second, they seem to offer market-like returns. Third, sales representatives are being paid high commissions to push them.

If you haven’t seen or heard the pitches for equity index annuities, you probably will before long. Wall Street has identified this as a profitable product – profitable, that is, for Wall Street.

The Claims

Here’s what you may be told: With a fixed indexed annuity you get a guaranteed minimum rate of return or the return based on an underlying stock index, whichever is higher. What could be nicer? Upside potential and no downside risk. Wall Street would like you to believe that finally somebody has devised a product that’s on your side all the way.

Technically, the claims are accurate. If you wait long enough (think about up to 16 years), you can get all your money back plus some return. However ……. (more…)