Archive | Financial planning

Ask the Spud: Is My Pension Like a Bond?

Q: My wife and I have been using the Couch Potato strategy for a few years now, but something has always nagged me. I am fortunate enough to have a defined benefit pension that will pay me $50,000 a year in retirement. Should I consider this the fixed income portion of my portfolio and put the rest in equities? – Brian

This a critical financial planning question for anyone with a pension, and yet it’s often framed in an unhelpful way.

A popular school of thought says you should think of a pension as a bond, presumably because both bonds and pensions pay predictable amounts of guaranteed income. The problem is, there is no way to put that idea into practice when managing a portfolio.

In this case, our reader has a pension that will pay him $50,000 a year. What would an equivalent bond holding be? Let’s assume he also has $300,000 in personal savings, and that it’s all equities. What would his overall asset allocation be? Even if he did establish a present value for the pension, how would that be helpful when it was time to rebalance the portfolio to its targets?

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Will Robo-Advisors Ever Come to Canada?

Every investor who’s fired a bad advisor and become a do-it-yourselfer has probably had mixed feelings. On one hand, it’s liberating to get away from a costly strategy that was performing poorly. But if you’ve never managed your own portfolio, it won’t take long to realize it’s not as simple as you first thought. In the last couple of years a growing number of US investors has been bridging that gap with online services that design, implement and manage ETF portfolios for a fraction of the cost of a human advisor.

These so-called “robo-advisors” take you through a series of questions to determine your goals and your risk tolerance and then build a diversified portfolio using an appropriate mix of equity and bond ETFs. The service looks after rebalancing and reinvestment of dividends: all you do is contribute regularly and the software does the rest. Wealthfront, which bills itself as “the largest and fastest growing software-based financial advisor,” even includes tax-loss harvesting for accounts over $100,000.

The cost for all of this? At Wealthfront you can invest your first $10,000 for free, after which the fee is 0.25% annually.

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Calculate Your Personal Rate of Return

On January 9, I published the 2013 returns of my model portfolios. The equity markets performed spectacularly last year, but most investors are likely to be far more interested in the performance of their own portfolios. Problem is, calculating your personal rate of return is more difficult than most investors realize.

If you’ve made no contributions or withdrawals during the year, the math is simple enough. But what if you made a big lump sum contribution during RRSP season? Or took $7,000 out of your TFSA to buy a used car? If you make monthly automatic monthly contributions, you may have seen your account balance grow every month, but most of that increase is from new money, not investment returns. Any time you introduce cash flows to the portfolio, calculating your rate of return suddenly becomes much harder.

If you work with an advisor, he or she should provide you with your personal rate of return at least once a year. But hard as it is to believe, many aren’t doing this. The Canadian Securities Administrators issued a policy in July making it mandatory, but firms have three years to comply.

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Pulling Off the Bandage Quickly

Deferred sales charges (DSCs) may have been the mutual fund industry’s greatest marketing innovation. Back in the 1980s, it wasn’t unusual for funds to be sold with front-end loads of 5% or more. Then fund companies realized it’s a mistake to charge an entry fee that discourages people from buying your product. Better to draw them in for free and charge them dearly to leave: DSCs typically start at about 6% and continue on a sliding scale for six or seven years, with no time off for good behaviour.

For investors who have six-figure mutual fund portfolios, the cost of selling funds with DSCs is downright painful: in our DIY Investor Service we have worked with clients who have had to swallow more than $5,000. There are no doubt countless others who want to break free of a bad relationship and start fresh with a low-cost portfolio of index funds, but who just can’t bring themselves to fork over those DSCs. They’d prefer to sell their funds gradually over two or three years in order to reduce the upfront cost.

That’s understandable, but in most cases it’s probably the wrong decision. While there may be ways to make a gradual exit,

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More DIY Investing Challenges

In my last post, I looked at some of the biggest challenges faced by DIY investors. I came up with the list after working with clients of PWL Capital’s DIY Investor Service. The theory behind indexing is relatively straightforward, and it’s quite easy to set up a simple portfolio. But do-it-yourselfers often face obstacles when trying to implement their plan. Here are a few more that need to be overcome if you want to be a successful DIYer.

Unrealistic expectations. Anyone who works with an advisor completes a risk tolerance questionnaire, and the process is revealing. Investors often say they want an expected return of 6% to 7% (occasionally we get people who expect 8% or more) while also indicating they’ll accept no more than a 10% loss in any given year. Those goals are incompatible.

With bond yields under 3% today, a balanced portfolio of 60% equities and 40% fixed income probably has an expected return of about 5% before fees, and in a scenario like 2008–09 it could suffer a drawdown close to 20%. Unless investors understand these trade-offs they can’t hope to carry out a long-term plan.

Ignoring asset location.

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Is Your Portfolio Just a Pile of Parts?

Is there difference between a diversified portfolio and a collection of investments? That’s an insightful question Chris Turnbull asks in his new book Your Portfolio is Broken: Who’s to Blame and How to Fix It.

Turnbull is a portfolio manager with The Index House, an Edmonton wealth management firm. In his self-published book (available from Amazon), Turnbull explains that when he worked as a broker he would “recommend stocks, bonds, mutual funds, preferred shares, structured products, term deposits, new issues, and other types of securities, according to client preferences.” Often the clients would make their own suggestions, and those would end up in the portfolio, too. By the time he decided to end his career as a broker, his clients “collectively held 185 different mutual funds plus hundreds of stocks, bonds, and other securities.”

In other words, his clients didn’t have diversified portfolios: they simply had collections of investments. Turnbull uses an apt metaphor: “If, over many years, you acquired all the parts you thought you needed to assemble a car and you piled them up in your garage, would it be a car?

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It’s Time to Ban Advisor Commissions

Should financial advisors be banned from collecting commissions on mutual funds? That’s been hotly debated for years, and in December the Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA) issued a discussion paper that considered the idea of imposing such a ban. Australia already did so in 2012, and the U.K. followed suit this January. But if it ever comes to pass in Canada, it would happen despite a strong lobby by Advocis, the Financial Advisors Association of Canada. And that’s a shame.

This week the chair of Advocis sent an email to advisors that started like this:

Every day your clients rely on you to help them achieve their financial goals. If you’re like me you depend on commissions to make your advice possible. How would you survive if there were no commissions? As strange as it may seem, that is the intent behind the recent consultations by the CSA regarding fees — including a ban on embedded commissions.

While this is currently limited to mutual fund trailers and DSC fees, there is no structural difference with life insurance commissions.

The way we do business is under unprecedented threat.

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Estimating Future Stock Returns

What are the long-term expected returns for stocks? That’s a fundamental question every investor needs to consider when deciding on an appropriate asset allocation. Unfortunately, it’s not a question anyone can answer with certainty—though there’s no shortage of gurus with opinions.

In a paper published last October, researchers at Vanguard examined 15 commonly used methods for forecasting stock returns to see how much predictive power they would have had in the past. These included price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios, dividend yield, earnings growth, economic fundamentals, and recent stock returns. And just for fun, they threw in a red herring: the trailing 10-year average rainfall in the US.

For each variable, the researchers set out to find whether it would have helped predict US stock returns during the 10 years that followed. Suppose, for example, you measured the trailing one-year dividend yield on stocks in 1950. How useful would that variable have been in explaining inflation-adjusted returns from 1951 through 1960? They repeated this for all the factors, in all rolling 10-year periods starting in 1926.

Turns out about half the variables were entirely useless: “Many popular signals have had a lower correlation with the future real return than rainfall,” the researchers wrote.

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A Monte Carlo Case Study: Can I Retire Early?

Last week’s post about Monte Carlo simulations in financial planning sparked some interesting comments, so I thought a case study would help readers see how they work. Our real-life example comes from a past client of PWL Capital’s DIY Investor Service: the details were supplied by Justin Bender with the client’s permission.

Laura is 57 years old, single, and earning about $68,000 a year with expenses of $37,500. She socks away about $14,000 annually and has accumulated $330,000 in her RRSP and TFSA, as well as a rental property worth about $250,000. She has a defined benefit pension through her employer, though it is not indexed to inflation, and she’s eligible to receive full Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security benefits in retirement.

Her investment portfolio was not very efficient: about a quarter of it was sitting in cash, and much of the rest was in narrow sector ETFs, individual stocks and corporate bonds. Some of the ETFs were in the wrong account types, resulting in unnecessary taxes.

Before Justin could rebuild her portfolio, however, he needed to make sure it was aligned with her financial goals. Laura’s primary objective was to determine whether she could retire before age 65—perhaps as early as 60—so she needed to know whether her investments would be able to generate enough cash flow after she quit work.

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