Why I Chose Patience over Re-balancing

Investment-Rebalancing

Many financial advisors recommend re-balancing your portfolio no less often than annually to ensure the asset allocation is consistent with your risk tolerance, as illustrated in this post from Schwab.  In the past, I haven’t been one to re-balance my portfolio, so I spent some time thinking about why I haven’t followed this common advice.  Up until recently, almost all of my invested assets have been equities, equity-based mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs).  As such, I didn’t need to do any re-balancing across asset classes.

In this post, I’ll explain re-balancing, its specific purpose and examples of its benefits and drawbacks.  I’ll also explain my strategy (which may or may not be right for you).

What is Re-balancing?

Re-balancing is the process of buying and selling securities in your portfolio to meet certain targets.  In the case of asset classes, the primary purpose of re-balancing is to maintain your target risk/reward balance.

Some people have targets that define their desired allocation across asset classes.  One common rule of thumb is that the portion of your portfolio that should be in bonds is equal to your age with the rest in stocks.  In my case, that would mean roughly 60% of my portfolio in bonds and 40% in stocks.  The goal of this rule of thumb is to decrease the volatility of your investment returns as you get older and closer to that age at which you need to draw down your assets in retirement.

How Does Re-balancing Work?

The process of re-balancing is fairly simple.  Periodically, such as once or twice a year, you compare the market value of your investments with your targets.  If there is a significant difference between how much you own in an asset class and your target percentage, you sell the portion of your investments that is above the target and reinvest the proceeds in something different.

Let’s say your target is 75% stocks and 25% bonds.  You start the year with $10,000 of investments – $7,500 in stocks and $2,500 in bonds.  If stocks go up by 10% and bonds go up by 5%, your year-end balances will be $8,250 in stocks and $2,625 in bonds, for a total of $10,875.  Your targets though are $8,156 of stocks (75% of $10,875) and $2,719 of bonds.  To put your portfolio back in balance, you would need to sell $94 (= $8,250 – $8,156) of stocks and buy $94 of bonds.

You can avoid selling any assets if you have money to add to your investments at the end of the year.  Continuing the example, let’s say you have another $500 available to invest at the end of the year.  That brings your total available for investment to $11,375 (= $10,875 of investments plus $500 cash).  Your targets would be $8,531 (= 75% of $10,875) for stocks and $2,843 for bonds.  In this case, you would buy $281 of stocks and $219 of bonds to meet your targets, eliminating the need to sell any of your assets.

What Does Asset Allocation Do?

The chart below compares the average annual returns and risk profiles of several sample portfolios with different mixes between stocks and bonds.  In the middle four portfolios, the first number is the percentage of the portfolio invested in stocks and the second number is the percentage in bonds.

Annual Returns for Different Asset Allocations 1980-2019

Average Returns

In this chart, the average annual return is represented by the blue dash.  When the blue dash is higher on the chart, it means that the returns on the portfolio were higher, on average, over the historical time period.

Volatility

The green boxes correspond to the ranges between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile.  The whiskers (lines sticking out of the boxes) correspond to the ranges from the 5th percentile to the 95th percentile.   When the box is tall and/or the whiskers are long, there is a lot of volatility.  In this case, it means that the annual return on the portfolio varied a lot from one year to the next.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, when the box and whiskers are all short, the range of returns observed historically was more consistent.

Comparison of Portfolios

I have arranged the portfolios so that the one with the most volatility – 100% in the S&P 500 – is on the left and the one with the least volatility – 100% in bonds as measured by the Fidelity Investment Grade Bond Fund (FBNDX) – is on the right.  You can see how adding bonds to the S&P 500 reduces volatility as the height of the boxes and whiskers gets smaller as you move from left to right.  At the same time, the average annual returns decrease as bonds are added to the portfolio.  Over the time period studied (1980 to 2019), the S&P 500 had an average annual return of 8.7% while the Bond Fund had an average annual return of 7.2%.  By comparison, returns on investment grade bonds are currently generally less than 4%.

Another Perspective

Because stocks and bonds are not 100% correlated, the volatility (spread between tops and bottoms of boxes and whiskers) of owning a combination of both is less than the volatility of owning just the riskier asset – stocks.  As I was preparing the chart above, I noticed, though, that the bottom whisker for the 100% bonds portfolio goes lower than the bottom whisker for the 80% bonds portfolio.

Specifically, there were more negative returns in the historical data (i.e., more years in which you would have lost money in a single year) if you owned just bonds than if you owned the portfolio with 80% bonds and 20% stocks.   The 80% bond portfolio had a negative return only 7.5% of the time while the 100% bonds portfolio had a negative return 10% of the time!  As more bonds are added to each portfolio, the blue bar/average moves down.  This downward shift actually moves the whole box and the whiskers down.

This relationship can be seen in the chart below.

The dots correspond to the portfolios in the previous chart with labels indicating the percentages of stocks in the portfolios.  The horizontal or x-axis on this chart represents the average annual return.  Values to the right correspond to higher average annual returns (which is good).  The vertical or y-axis represents the percentage of years with a negative return.  Values that are higher on the chart correspond to portfolios with more years with negative returns (which is bad).

Optimal Portfolios

“Optimal” portfolios are those that are to the right (higher return) and/or lower (fewer years with negative returns).  Any time a point is further to the right and at the same level or lower than another one, that portfolio better meets your objectives if probability of having a negative return is your risk metric.

More Stocks Can Be Less Risky

I have circled two pairs of dots.  The ones in the lower left corner are the two I’ve mentioned above.  The 20% stocks (80% bonds) point is lower than and to the right of the 0% stocks (100% bonds) point.  As you’ll recall, the average return on the 20% stocks portfolio is higher than the average return on the all-bond portfolio so the dot is to the right (better).  The percentage of the time that the annual return was less than zero was smaller for the 20% stocks portfolio so the dot is lower (also better).

There is a somewhat similar relationship between the 60% and 80% stocks portfolios (circled in green in the upper right).  The 80% stocks point is at the same level and to the right of the 60% stocks point.  As such, if average annual return and probability of a negative return are important metrics to you, moving from 80% to 60% stocks or 20% to 0% stocks would put you in a worse position as you would have less return for the same risk.

Re-balancing Can’t Be Done Blindly

Setting a target asset allocation, such as 80% stocks and 20% bonds, allows you to target a risk/reward mix that meets with your financial goals.  As I indicated, the purpose of re-balancing is to ensure that your portfolio is consistent with your goals.  However, it is important that you considering the then-current economic environment when re-balancing.

Interest Rates

For example, interest rates are lower than they were at any point in the historical period used in the analysis above.   Over the next several years, interest rates are unlikely to decrease much further, but could stay flat or increase.  If interest rates stay flat, the returns on bond funds will tend to approach the average coupon rate of bonds which is in the 1% to 3% range depending on the quality and time to maturity of the bonds held.  This range is much lower than the average annual return of 7.2% in the illustrations above.

If interest rates go up, the market price of bonds will go down, lowering returns even further.  As such, the risk-reward characteristics of bonds change over time.  I would characterize them as having lower returns and higher risk (the one-sided risk that prices will go down as interest rates go up) now than over the past 40 years.

Stock Prices

Similarly, the S&P 500 is currently close to or at its highest level ever in a period of significant economic and political uncertainty.  While I don’t have a strong opinion on the likely average annual returns on the S&P 500 in the next few years, I think it is likely to be more volatile in both directions than it has in the recent past.

If you re-balance your portfolio, you will want to form your own opinions about the average returns and volatility of the asset classes in which you invest.  With these opinions, you can decide whether the asset allocation you’ve held historically will still provide you with the risk/reward profile you are seeking.

Re-balancing and Income Taxes

Another consideration when you are deciding whether and how often to re-balance your portfolio is income taxes.  Every time you sell a security in a taxable account, you pay income taxes on any capital gains.  If you lose money on a security, the loss can offset other capital gains.  On the other hand, if you own the securities in a tax-free (Roth or TFSA) or tax-deferred (traditional or RRSP) account, re-balancing has no impact on your taxes.

Re-balancing Example

Let’s look at an example of the taxable account situation.  If you targeted a portfolio of 60% stocks (in an S&P 500 index fund) and 40% bonds (in FBNDX) from 1980 through 2019, you would have made the transactions shown in the chart below.

Rebalancing Stock Transactions

In this chart, the bars represent the amount of the transaction as a percentage of the amount of stocks held at the beginning of the year.  A bar that goes above zero indicates that you would have bought stocks in that year.  A bar that goes below zero indicates that you would have sold stocks in the year.  The proceeds from every sale would have been used to purchase the bond fund.  Similarly, the money used to purchase stocks would come from a corresponding sale of the bond fund.

In every year, you either sell some of the stock index fund or the bond fund.  The difference between the price at which you sell a security and the price at which you buy it is called a capital gain.  You pay income taxes on the amount of capital gains when they are positive.  In the US, many people pay a Federal tax rate of 15% on capital gains in addition to any state income taxes.  The Canadian tax rate on capital gains is of about the same order of magnitude.

Reduction in Return from Income Taxes

Income taxes, assuming a 15% tax rate, would have reduced your annual average return from 8.4% to 8.1% over the 1980-2019 time period.  Put in dollar terms, you would have had just under $250,000 at the end of 2019 if you started with $10,000 in 1980 and used this asset allocation strategy if you didn’t have to pay income taxes.  By comparison, you would have had about $220,000 if you had to pay income taxes on the capital gains, or 12% less.

As you consider whether re-balancing is an important component of your financial plan, you’ll want to make sure you understand the impact of any income taxes on your investments returns.

Why Only Equities?

You may have been wondering why I was invested almost solely in equities for all of my working life and not in a combination of asset classes, such as stocks and bonds.   My philosophy was that I preferred to use time to provide a diversification benefit rather than an array of asset classes.  By keeping my invested assets in stocks, I was able to take advantage of the higher expected returns from stocks as compared to bonds.

The chart below helps to illustrate this perspective.

Annual Returns - 1980-2019 - Time vs. Rebalance

It compares the volatility of the annual return on a portfolio of 100% stocks over a one-year time period with the same portfolio over five years and with a portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds over one year.

The blue bars on the first and second bars (100% stocks for one year and five years, respectively) are at the same level, meaning they had the same average annual return.  Both the box and whiskers on the second bar are much more compact than the first bar, indicating that the annual returns fell in a much narrow range when considered on a five-year basis rather than a one-year basis.

Cost-Benefit Comparison

Comparison of the first and third bars highlights the cost and benefits of diversifying across asset classes.  The box and whiskers on the 60/40 portfolio are both shorter than the 100% stock portfolio.  That is, there was less variation from year-to-year in the annual return for the 60/40 portfolio than the 100% stock portfolio.   However, the average return (blue line) on the 60/40 portfolio is a bit lower because the 60/40 portfolio had an average annual return that was less than the 100% stock portfolio.

My Focus

The comparison on which I focused in selecting my investment strategy is the one between the second and third bars.  That is, I compared the volatility and average returns of a 100% stock portfolio over five years with the volatility and average returns of a 60/40 portfolio over one year.  As can be seen, there has been less volatility in annual stock returns when considered in five-year time periods.  Yet, the average return on stocks is higher than the average return on the blended portfolio.  Because I didn’t anticipate that I would need to draw down my investment portfolio, I was willing to look at risk over longer time periods and tolerate the year-to-year fluctuations in stock prices in order to expect higher investment returns.

Your time horizon until you might need the money in your investment portfolio and your willingness to wait out the ups and downs of the stock market are important considerations as you decide whether this strategy or a more traditional blended portfolio is a better fit for you.

Diversification: Don’t Get Misled by these Charts

Investment Diversification: Don't Get Misled by These Charts

Diversification is an important component of any investing plan.  It assists you in limiting your risk either to a single asset class or a single security within an asset class.  However, I have seen a couple of graphs from which you could form the wrong conclusions about diversification.  In this post, I show you the charts, identify the wrong conclusion that could be drawn from them, and explain and illustrate the correct conclusion.

Diversification Fallacy #1: A Combination of Stocks and Bonds Provides a Higher Return than just Stocks

I first saw a chart[1] in a post on Schwab’s website a couple of years ago.  It is the first graph on this page.  It was prepared in 2018 and compares the cumulative return on the S&P 500 and a portfolio that is 60% stocks (as measured by the S&P 500), 35% bonds and 5% cash from 2000 to 2017.  I’m not sure why Schwab chose to use an 18-year period for this chart, other than the beginning of the time period corresponds to the turn of the century.  The portfolio is re-balanced annually.  In that chart, the total return on the re-balanced portfolio is slightly higher than the S&P 500 (167% versus 158% or 5.6% vs 5.4% per year).

My Version of Chart

Because I can’t include the Schwab chart here, I created a chart (shown below) that shows a similar result for the same time period.  It compares the cumulative returns on the S&P 500 with those of a portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% 20-year US Treasuries (using an approximation I derived for older years).  The mixed portfolio is re-balanced annually, similar to the calculations in the Schwab chart.

Cumulative returns on S&P 500 and mixed portfolio
Cumulative Returns

In this graph, the ratio of the value of the S&P 500 at each year end to its value on December 31, 1999 is shown in purple.  The blue line shows the corresponding ratios for the portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds.  The S&P 500 never makes up the losses it experienced in the first few years of this 18-year time period.

Incorrect Inference about Diversification

At first glance, these charts appear to imply that you can earn more if you hold a 60%/35%/5% mix of stocks, bonds and cash (or 60% stocks/40% bonds) than if you invest in just the S&P 500.  That conclusion confused me, as bonds tend to have total returns that are lower than stocks over the long run and cash has close to no return.   If you re-balance your portfolio annually, as assumed in the graph, your total return in each year will be 60% times the return on stocks plus 35% times the return on bonds plus 5% times the return on cash.  Since the returns on bonds and cash are less than the return on stocks, I was sure that the weighted average of the returns would have to be less than the return on stocks alone.

The Reality

It wasn’t until recently that I figured out why the chart looks the way it does.  The analysis was performed in 2018, so it used the most recent complete 18-year period available.

Historical Perspective

It turns out that period was a rarity in recent history – it was one of only three 18-year periods in which bonds had a higher total return than stocks when considering all such periods from the one starting in 1975 to the one starting in 2002!  If we go back all the way to 1962, the mixed portfolio had higher returns in about a third of the 18-year periods.  The chart below illustrates this point.

18-Year Cumulative Returns for period starting in 1963

Each pair of bars corresponds to an 18-year period (the time period in the Schwab chart) starting in the year shown.  The bar on the left in each pair shows the estimated cumulative 18-year return on a portfolio of 60% stocks[2] and 40% bonds[3] that is re-balanced annually.  The bar on the right shows the corresponding return on the S&P 500 during each period.  As you can see, in most recent years, the right bar (100% stocks) has a higher return than the left bar (60% stocks and 40% bonds).  In older years, the left bar tends to be higher.

How to Use this Information

If your investment goal is to maximize your return without regard to risk, a portfolio with 100% stocks will better meet that objective more than two-thirds of the time when considering 18-year periods and an even higher percentage of the time if you consider only more recent experience.  If interest rates increase substantially at some point in the future, you might look at the longer time period for deciding whether to add bonds to your portfolio, as interest rates were higher and rose in many of the years from 1962 to 1980.  But you’ll want to wait until interest rates are a fair amount higher than their current levels before those years are relevant to your decision-making.

If, however, you want to reduce volatility, adding bonds (or other asset classes) to your portfolio can help.  My post on diversification for investments provides several illustrations about how the addition of bonds to your portfolio reduces risk, but also reduces your total return.  As you consider using other asset classes to reduce volatility, you will need to consider your time horizon for your investments.  As indicated in the chart above, there have been no 18-year periods in the time covered by the analysis in which the S&P 500 had less than a 3% annualized return or 59% compounded return.

Fallacy #2: Diversification in Rank Order Matters

When I first saw this chart from Callan[4], I thought it was very impressed with how it illustrated the benefits of diversification.

Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns

The font is small so your probably can’t read the words and numbers, but the visual impact is terrific.  Each column is a calendar year.  Each color corresponds to a different index.  The rows correspond to the order of the returns on each index in each calendar year, with the top row showing the index with the highest return; the bottom, the lowest return.

The indices by color (in the order they appear in the first column) are:

  • Rust: S&P 500 Growth
  • Olive green: S&P 500
  • Grey: MSCI (Morgan Stanley Capital International Index) World ex US
  • Dark blue: S&P 500 Value
  • Light green: Bloomberg Barclays Aggregate US Bond Index
  • Medium blue: Bloomberg Barclays High Yield Bond Index
  • Mustard: Russel 2000 Growth
  • Brown: Russell 2000
  • Light blue: Russell 2000 Value
  • Orange: MSCI Emerging Markets

Incorrect Inference about Diversification

At first glance, it appears that there is a lot of diversification among these asset classes, as the colored boxes move up and down on the chart from year to year.

The Reality

It wasn’t until I plotted the returns (using roughly the same colors) on a line chart that the true lack of diversification became apparent.

Annual returns from 1997 to 2017 for funds in Callan chart

Even though the order of the indices changes, as shown in the Callan chart, most of them actually move substantially in sync.  For example, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index moves all over the Callan chart not because it adds diversification but because its returns are much more volatile.  In 14 of the 20 years in the Callan chart, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index is either at the top or the bottom.  It moves in the same direction as most of the other indices, it just makes bigger moves.

Correlations

The goal of adding new asset classes to your portfolio is to increase diversification.  Asset classes are diversifying when they have negative or even small positive correlation.  I provide a detailed explanation of correlation and diversification in this post.  The chart below shows the correlations between each pair of indices in the Callan chart.

Correlations between funds in Callan chart

High positive correlations are highlighted in red (as that means they aren’t diversifying).  Medium positive correlations are shown in yellow and small positive and negative correlations (the ones we are seeking) are in green.

It becomes quickly apparent that the only asset class that is diversifying over this time period is US bonds (Bloomberg Barclays (BB) Aggregate US Bond Index).  If you look at the line graph above, I have made the line for the Bloomberg Barclays Aggregate US Bond Index a bit thicker than the others to help you see its lack of correlation with the other investment classes.

Different Insights

While I found the diversification message misleading in this chart, I still found value in the data itself.

Investment-Grade Bonds add Diversification

First, as discussed above, the diversification benefit of investment-grade bonds relative to all of the stock indices is quite evident.  Interestingly, high-yield bonds are highly correlated with stocks, so don’t add diversification.

Asset Classes Show Risk-Reward Balance

Second, I calculated the average annual return and the standard deviations of those returns.  As shown in the chart below, the different indices are spread widely along the spectrum that balances risk and reward.

Average and standard deviations of returns on funds in Callan chart

Specifically, the Bloomberg Barclay Aggregate US Bond Index is in the lower left corner indicating it has a lower average return than all of the other asset classes over this time period but also has the lowest risk as measured by the standard deviation of the annual returns.  By comparison, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index has both the highest annual average return and the highest risk, as it is in the upper right corner of the chart.  All of the other indices fall in the middle on both average return and risk.

Selecting Asset Classes for Your Portfolio

As you are choosing the asset classes in which you want to invest, you need to consider all three of average annual return, risk and diversification benefits.  For example, if you have a very long time horizon and can tolerate the ups and downs of the returns, the historical data indicates that investing primarily in the Emerging Markets index would maximize your return.

If you have a shorter time horizon or are less able to watch the value of your investments go up and down, you might want to invest in something with a lower return, such as one of the stock indices.  If you have even lower risk tolerance or a shorter time horizon, you might want to add something like the Aggregate US Bond Index to your portfolio.  It is important to recognize, though, that adding the less volatile asset classes to your portfolio, even if they are diversifying, will lower the expected annual return on your portfolio at the same time it is lowering your risk.

Caution about Using Past Findings in the Future

In closing, I caution you that the time period covered by the Callan charts corresponds to a time period during which interest rates were relatively low and generally decreasing.  During the time period from 1997 to 2017, the highest yield on the 10-year US Treasury on a year-ending date was 6.7% at the end of 1999.    It decreased to 1.7% at the end of 2014 and increased very slightly to 2.7% by the end of 2017.  By comparison, it hit a high of 12.7% at the end of 1981 and is currently (August 2020) below 1%.  Neither extreme is covered by this time period.

The relatively stable returns on the Bloomberg Barclay Aggregate US Bond Fund Index may be more representative of the time period included in the analysis and may understate the overall volatility of that index over a longer period of time.  Similarly, the other indices may behave differently in other interest rate environments.

I suggest using the information in this post to enhance your understanding of the returns, volatility and diversification benefit of the different asset classes.  You’ll want to supplement this information with your views on future economic environments before making any investment decisions.

[1] I am not able to include the chart directly in this post as I am not willing to accept the conditions that would be required by Schwab to get its permission.

[2] As measured by the S&P 500.

[3] As measured by the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond Fund ETF starting in 2002 and my approximation of those returns for prior years.  I note that the Schwab chart uses the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index for bonds and the FTSE Treasury Bill 3 Month Index for cash.  I don’t not have access to that information.  Because I used a government bond index that tends to provide lower returns than a corporate bond index, I used 40% weight to bonds and ignored the cash component.

[4] Used with permission.  https://www.callan.com/?s=2017+Periodic+Table.  August 8, 2020.

Why I Don’t Hold the All Seasons Portfolio

All-Seasons Portfolio

The All Seasons Portfolio reports amazing statistics about its returns.  I’d never heard of the All Seasons Portfolio, so had to check it out.  As I’ll discuss in more detail, it is an asset allocation strategy with more than 50% of the portfolio allocated to US government bonds.  In this current environment of low interest rates, one of my followers asked my opinion of the portfolio as an investment strategy for the near future.  The answer is, as is almost always the case, it depends.  However, after studying the portfolio and relevant data, I won’t be aligning my portfolio with the All Seasons Portfolio.

In this post, I’ll define the All Season Portfolio, talk about when each of the components of the portfolio is expected to perform well and provide a wide variety of statistics regarding its historical performance.  I’ll also talk about the need to re-balance assets to stay aligned with the portfolio and the impact of income taxes on your investment returns.  I’ll close with how I’ve changed my portfolio based on this analysis.

All Seasons Portfolio

Ray Dalio is an extremely successful hedge fund manager.  If you have more than $5 billion in investable assets, he might consider accepting you as a client.  His fund is famous for the All Weather investment strategy.  According to Tony Robbins, in his book MONEY Master the Game, the annual returns on the All Weather portfolio exceed 21%![1]

Composition of Portfolio

In an interview with Robbins, Dalio described a much simpler version of the All Weather portfolio for the rest of us.  This asset allocation is called the All Seasons portfolio.  The allocation in the All Season portfolio[2] is:

  • 40% in Long-Term US Bonds (20+ years), using the iShares Barclays 20+ Year Treasury Bond fund (ticker symbol TLT)
  • 15% in Intermediate US Bonds (7-10 years), using the iShares Barclays 7-10 Year Treasury Bond fund (ticker symbol IEF)
  • 5% in Gold, using the SPDR Gold Trust (ticker symbol GLD)
  • 5% in Commodities, using the PowerShares DB Commodity Index Tracking fund (ticker symbol DBC)
  • 30% in the S&P 500

This allocation is illustrated in the pie chart below.

All Seasons portfolio Asset Allocation

Economic Indicators

The portfolio’s name, All Seasons, refers not to the four seasons of the calendar year but to four indicators of the economic cycle.  These four indicators are:

  1. Higher than expected growth (often measured using gross domestic product or GDP)
  2. Lower than expected growth
  3. Higher than expected inflation (often measured using the consumer price index or CPI)
  4. Lower than expected inflation

I note that there is overlap between the first pair of characteristics and the second pair.  That is, a period of higher than expected growth can have either higher or lower than expected inflation.

The chart below shows which of the five components of the portfolio are expected to perform well in each part of the economic cycle, according to Robbins.[3]

GrowthInflation
Rising

Stocks

Commodities

Gold

Commodities

Gold

FallingTreasury Bonds

Treasury Bonds

Stocks

Historical Performance

According to Robbins[4], the All Seasons portfolio had a compounded annual average return of 9.7%, net of fees, from 1984 to 2013.  By comparison, I calculate the corresponding value for the S&P 500 to be 8.4%.  In addition, the All Seasons portfolio had much lower volatility, with a standard deviation of 7.6%, as compared to the S&P 500 which had a standard deviation of 17%.  So, at first glance, the All Seasons portfolio seems to be a terrific option – higher return for lower risk.

My Estimate of Returns

There are many challenges to calculating the returns on the All Seasons portfolio.[5]  I made many assumptions to better understand the returns, so do not consider the statistics I’ve calculated as accurate, but I think they are close enough to be informative.

The chart below shows the annual returns on the S&P 500 and my approximation of the returns on the All Seasons portfolio from 1963 to 2019.

Annual returns on S&P 500 and All Seasons portfolio

From this graph, it appears that the biggest benefit of the All Seasons portfolio is that the non-S&P 500 asset classes diversify away a substantial portion of the significant negative returns on the S&P 500.  For example, in the three years in which the S&P 500 had returns worse than -20%, I approximated that the All Seasons portfolio lost an average of only 0.1%!

Returns by Asset Class

I wasn’t able to get a long enough history of Commodity price data, but was able to calculate the average return on the three other asset classes during those same years (1974, 2002 & 2008), as shown in the table below.

Asset ClassAverage Return in Years when S&P 500 Return was < -20%
S&P 500-30.5%
7-10 Year US Treasury Bonds8.0%
20 Year US Treasury Bonds15.2%
Gold33.5%

As can be seen, all three asset classes had positive returns in those three years, with Gold having the most significant increase.

My Investing Goals

I retired a little over two years ago, so have changed my investing goals to make sure I can meet my cash needs as I don’t have any earned income to cover my expenses.  Specifically, now that I’ve switched from the accumulation phase to the spending phase, I have less tolerance for volatility.

Goals While Accumulating

While I was accumulating assets, I wanted my invested asset portfolio to produce returns that were at least as high as the overall market.  I use the S&P 500 as my metric for market performance.  During that time, I was quite willing to tolerate the ups and downs of the market because I was diversifying my risk over time.  As a confirmation of my risk tolerance, I point out that I did not sell any assets during any of the market “crashes.”

My first market crash was October 19, 1987.  I can still remember being in the office that day.  The internet was not available to the general public, so our news came from TV and radio.  One of the senior people in the office had a TV in his office, though I suspect it had just the over-the-air channels as very few people had cable TV then either.  He told everyone what was happening in the market.  I asked him whether he was going to move his 401(k) money out of the market into a safer fund.  His advice was that it was already too late and that I should just hang on for the ride.  That was one of the best pieces of investing advice I’ve ever gotten.  I didn’t sell during that crash and haven’t sold during any of the crashes since.

Goals While Retired

Now that I’m retired, I am drawing down my assets.  I’ve made two changes to my asset mix to reflect the fact that I now need to spend my assets rather than add to them.

  1. Instead of having a six-month emergency fund in cash, I now have several years of expenses in cash.
  2. I’ve added a few individual corporate bonds (to be clear, not a bond fund) that mature in 3 to 5 years to my portfolio. When these bonds mature, they will add to my cash balance to cover my expenses in those years.

For the rest of my invested asset portfolio, I’ve maintained the same goal – meet or beat the S&P 500.

By having several years of expenses in cash, I know I won’t have to sell any assets during any market turmoil, such as we are experiencing now.  As discussed in my post on reacting to the most recent crash, the market has historically recovered in less than five years (excluding the crash of 1929) and has higher than average returns during the recovery phase.  As such, I don’t want to have to sell stocks when markets are down.

How I Evaluate the All Seasons Portfolio

As I said, my goal is to earn a return close to or higher than the return on the S&P 500.  I would be willing to take a small reduction in return for less risk, but not much given the other aspects of my strategy.  Therefore, I will look at the components of the All Seasons portfolio relative to what I can earn if I just invest in the S&P 500.

In particular, I am interested to see how these asset classes perform when interest rates are low, as they currently are.

Bonds

Returns on bonds (unless held to maturity) and bond funds have the following characteristics:

  • The total return is equal to the interest rate on the bond plus the change in market value from changes in interest rate levels.
  • Returns are higher when interest rates are high or are going down.
  • The total return is similar to the interest rate itself when interest rates stay fairly stable.
  • Returns are lower when interest rates are low or are increasing.

Bond Returns vs. Interest Rate Changes

This relationship can be seen in the chart below which compares the change in the 10-year US Treasury bond interest rate (yield) with the change in the market value of iShares Barclays 7-10 Year Treasury Bond fund (ticker symbol IEF) in each year from 2003 through 2019.

Change in Price goes down when yield on 10-Year Treasury goes up

What Can Happen from Here

We are currently in the last situation listed above.  Interest rates are currently quite low by historical standards.  The chart below which shows the yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond from 1962 to 2020.  The last point on the chart is the interest rate on July 8, 2020 of 0.65%.  It is lower than the interest rate at the end of any year since 1962.

10-Year Treasury Rate from 1962 to 2019 with single major peak in 1981

For all intents and purposes, interest rates can do one of two things from their current levels – stay about the same or go up.  If they stay the same, the return on bonds funds will be about the same as the interest rate on the bonds – currently less than 1% for 10-Year US Treasury bonds and less than 1.5% for 30-Year US Treasury bonds.  If interest rates go up, the market value of the bonds will go down and returns will be even lower.

As such, I don’t believe the returns on bonds or bond funds in the near term will be high enough to be consistent with my investing objectives.  I will continue to buy individual corporate bonds that mature in the next few years to ensure that I have cash available to meet my expenses.  But, I do not plan to add any bond funds to the investment portion of my portfolio.   If I were younger and the time until I needed to draw down my investments to cover my expenses was longer, I wouldn’t invest in bonds at all in the current environment.

Gold

I am particularly interested in how gold has behaved, as it isn’t something I’ve studied much.  For the current environment, I’m interested in how gold behaves when interest rates are flat or rising.  The chart below shows how I defined historical periods as having interest rates that are either flat or rising.

10-Year Treasury Interest Rate rose from 1962-1967 and 1977-1980 and was flat from 1968-1977, 2004-2007 and 2013-2018

The line is the same line shown in the 10-Year Treasury Interest Rate chart above.  I have shaded periods in which interest rates have been relatively stable in blue.  The time periods in which interest rates have increased are highlighted in green.

The chart below has the same time periods shaded as the previous chart, but the blue line shows the percentage change in the price of gold between 1971 (when the price of gold was no longer set by the US government) and today[6][7].

Gold prices increased in most years in which interest rates were flat or rising

Looking back to the 1970s, gold prices were generally up quite significantly when interest rates were either relatively flat and when they increased.  While the increases in price were not as large in the period from 2003 to 2006, another time period when interest rates were flat, as in the 1970s, annual price increases were still generally in the 10% to 30% range, much higher than would be expected on the S&P 500.  Only in the most recent flat period are changes in gold prices not as consistently high.

Gold Funds

Buying gold means that you have to find a way to take delivery of it or pay to have it stored.  One article about the All Seasons fund suggested investing in SPDR Gold Shares[8] (ticker symbol GLD) which is an exchange-traded fund (ETF) physically backed by gold.  I compared the changes in prices of this ETF with the changes in the price of gold.  Although they generally track each other, as shown in the chart below, they are not a perfect match.  Nonetheless, this ETF appears to be a much easier alternative for investing in gold than buying gold itself.

very close match between gold and GLD ETF price changes from 2005 to 2019

Commodities

I wasn’t able to get a long history of returns on commodities, but the table I provide earlier from Robbins’ book indicates that they are expected to behave in a manner similar to gold.

Overall Portfolio Evaluation

The chart below summarizes the annual average returns (on a compounded basis) for each of the asset classes for which I could approximate returns from 1963 to 2019[9].

Average returns from 1962-2019 on S&P 500 (7%), Gold (7%), 7-10 Year Treasuries (3%), 20-Year Treasuries (4%) and All Seasons Portfolio (6%)

Over this time period, it appears that Gold has had returns similar to that of the S&P 500, but the returns on US Treasuries have dragged down my estimate of the returns on the All Seasons portfolio.

I am particularly interested in how these asset classes perform when interest rates are either flat or increasing.  The chart below illustrates these returns using the same approximations as above.

Average annual returns when interest rates were rising and flat

In average in both rising and flat interest rate environments, gold has historical outperformed the S&P 500.  By comparison. both categories of bonds have underperformed and, in fact, have had average returns during those periods of roughly 0%.

Re-Balancing

The performance metrics reported by Robbins and others assume that you maintain the target mix in each asset class.  To accomplish that, you need re-balance regularly. That is, you need to to sell asset classes that have appreciated the most (or depreciated the least) and buy asset classes that have not performed as well.

What is Re-Balancing

Let’s look at an example.  At the beginning of a year, you invest $10,000 using the All Seasons portfolio.  Your portfolio looks like this:

Allocation of $10,000 using All Seasons portfolio

If your one-year returns were similar to those in 2019, your end of year asset allocation (light green) would not be the same as your target (dark green), as shown in the graph below.

End of year results compared to target for 2019 under the All Seasons portfolio

To reach the target allocation, you would need to make the following changes.

GoldSell $44
CommoditiesBuy $28
StocksSell $451
Medium Term BondsBuy $399
Long Term BondsBuy $67

To attain the high returns reported by Robbins, I suspect you need to re-balance the portfolio fairly often.  In my calculations, I assumed annual re-balancing on the first of each year.  How often you re-balance the portfolio depends on your personal preference, but should generally be more often when the prices of one or more of the asset classes is changing rapidly and no less often than annually.

Impact of Income Taxes

It is better to own portfolios you need to re-balance regularly in a tax-free or tax-deferred account.  Otherwise, you will need to pay income taxes on the net of your capital gains and capital losses.  401(k)s and IRAs are the most common tax-free and tax-deferred accounts in the US.  The Canadian counterparts are TFSAs and RRSPs.

Continuing the example above, you sell $44 of gold and $451 of stocks for a total of $495.  Without going into the details of the calculation, your cost basis for these two sales combined is $387, for a realized capital gain of $108.  Many Americans have a 10% tax rate on capital gains which corresponds to $11 on the capital gain of $108.  These taxes reduce your total return by 0.1 percentage point.  That might not sound like much, but it can add up.  If you make a $10,000 investment in this portfolio and taxes reduce your return from 10.0% to 9.9%, you will have $5,000 less after 30 years.  That’s half of the amount of your initial investment!

Changes I’ll Make to My Portfolio

The analysis presented in this post has refined my thinking about my portfolio in two ways.

First, I have confirmed my past thinking that I can maintain a substantial cash position, supplemented by some individual bonds held to maturity, as a hedge against the risk that the stock market will have a significant downturn.  Although holding several years of expenses in cash lowers the return on my total assets, I find it a much easier and less risky strategy than introducing bond funds into my portfolio.  That is, although the return on money market funds where I hold my cash is low, it isn’t much lower than the current returns on US treasury or even high-quality corporate bonds.  With the significant potential that the market price of bonds will go down, I am more comfortable with my cash position.

Second, I have invested in the SPDR Gold Trust (ticker symbol GLD).  I don’t plan to immediately move as much as the 7.5% of my portfolio into gold as suggested by the All Seasons portfolio (15% if I use gold as a substitute for commodities, too).   Rather, I plan to initially invest 1% to 2% of my portfolio in gold and add to that position as I gain more comfort and experience investing in it.

Footnotes

[1] Robbins, Tony, MONEY Master the Game, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014, p. 391-392.

[2] “Robbins’ All-Seasons Portfolio.” TuringTrader.com, https://www.turingtrader.com/robbins-all-seasons/.  Accessed July 5, 2020.

[3] Robbins, op. cit., p. 390

[4] Robbins, op. cit., p. 395.

[5] There are many components of the calculation of returns, including assumptions regarding frequency of reinvestment and fees and the choice sources of data used to calculate the returns of the components of the portfolio.  As such, I am not able to replicate his calculations.  In fact, I found another source for returns on the All Seasons portfolio that, in the single year for which details were provided both sources, shows a return that was 3 percentage points higher than reported by Robbins.

[6] “Historical Gold Prices.” CMI Gold & Silver, Inc, https://onlygold.com/gold-prices/historical-gold-prices/, Accessed July 7, 2020.

[7] “Gold Prices.” World Gold Council, https://www.gold.org/goldhub/data/gold-prices, Accessed July 8, 2020

[8] “Bringing the gold market to investors.” State Street Global Advisors, https://www.spdrgoldshares.com/.  Accessed July 8, 2020.

[9] As indicated above, the returns I calculated for the All Seasons portfolio are not as high as were calculated by Robbins.

Selecting Stocks with a Score

Selecting Stocks with a Score

A friend of mine really likes selecting stocks with a score, the Piotroski score in particular.  Briefly, Professor Piotroski created a set of nine financial ratios that contribute to the score. If a company meets a certain criterion and has favorable results on 8 or 9 of the ratios, his analysis indicates that the company’s stock is likely to do well. My husband is primarily a value investor. The appeal of the Piotroski score to my husband is that it focuses on value stocks and, while it relies heavily on statistical analysis, it isn’t a black box.

In this post, I’ll identify the group of stocks to which the Piotroski score applies. I’ll then briefly explain the financial ratios that determine the score. I’ll close with a specific example of a stock I bought solely using the Piotroski score and provide some general guidance on applying the results of the score.

Book-to-Market Ratio

What is It?

The book-to-market (BM) ratio is a financial ratio. The numerator is the book value of the company. This value is shown on the balance sheet in the company’s financial statements and is usually reported as “Shareholders’ Equity.”

The denominator of the ratio is the total market value of the company on the evaluation date as the financial statements. The total market value is the stock price multiplied by the number of shares outstanding and is also called the market capitalization.

In mathematical terms,

BM Ratio = Book Value divided by Market Capitalization

Piotroski waits for the financial statements to be published for a particular year end to get the book value. He then looks up the market capitalization on the evaluation date of the financial statements for use in the ratio.

Piotroski’s Criterion

In his paper, Piotroski identifies value stocks as companies that have BM Ratios in the highest quintile (highest 20%) of traded stocks. These stocks have high book values relative to their market capitalization. Looked at from the other perspective, these stocks have low market capitalizations (and therefore low stock prices) relative to their book value.

Recall that the book value is the company’s assets minus its liabilities. In theory, if the company were liquidated on the evaluation date of the financials, shareholders would get their portion of the Shareholders’ Equity, based on the proportion of shares owned. Therefore, a BM ratio of 1.00 means that the market capitalization of the stock is equal to the Shareholders’ Equity.

By comparison, the cut-off for the highest quintile of BM ratios[1] across all stocks reported in the ValueLine Analyzer Plus on May 29, 2020 is 1.47. The book values per share of these companies are almost 50% higher than their stock prices!   You can see why Piotroski might consider these stocks to be potentially good values at their current prices.

Why Might It Be High?

There are at least two reasons that the BM ratio might be high.

First, the market may perceive that either assets are overvalued or liabilities are undervalued. Both of these situations would cause the reported book value to be higher than its true amount.

For example, some companies have not fully funded their pension plans. That means that the estimated present value of the future pension benefits is more than the liability on the balance sheet. Companies disclose these differences in the Notes to Financial Statements. If the liability for pension benefits is understated, it will cause the company’s book value to be overstated.

Second, financial theory tells us that the market value of a company’s stock is equal to its book value plus the present value of future profits. If the market perceives that the company is unlikely to make money in the future, the market capitalization will be less than the book value.

The Piotroski score focuses on companies in the second category. That is, it attempts to identify companies that will be profitable in the future from among all of the companies that the market thinks will have negative future profits.

Piotroski Score

The Piotroski score is calculated as the sum of a set of 9 values of 1 or 0. There are 9 criteria in the calculation, in addition to the BM ratio being in the highest quintile. The process assigns a 1 if a company’s financial statement values meet each criterion and a 0 if it does not. As such, companies that meet 8 or 9 of the criteria are considered more likely to have above market average performance.

The 9 criteria are listed below:

  1. Return on assets (ROA) = Net income / Total assets at beginning of year > 0
  2. ROA this year > ROA last year
  3. Cash flow from operations > 0
  4. Cash flow from operations > net income
  5. Long-term debt / Total assets this year < Long-term debt / Total assets last year
  6. Current ratio this year > current ratio last year
  7. Shares outstanding this year <= shares outstanding last year
  8. Gross margin this year > gross margin last year
  9. Total sales / Total assets this year > Total sales / Total assets last year

Piotroski performed his analysis using data from companies’ financial statements from 1976 to 1996. The average of the one-year returns for the companies with scores of 8 or 9 was 7.5 percentage points higher than the average for all companies with high BM ratios and 13.5 percentage points higher than the average for the market as a whole.

How to Calculate It

If you are familiar with reading financial statements, you can calculate the Piotroski score yourself using the formulas above. Or, you could extract the key ratios from a source, such as ValueLine, Tiingo or Bloomberg, all three of which require subscriptions. I use the latter approach as I have a subscription to ValueLine that I use for a variety of purposes.

An easier option is to use a Piotroski calculator or screener.   I’ve never used any of these tools, but I used Google to find a couple free options you might try.

  • Old School Value – This Excel spreadsheet will calculate and show you how a company does on each of the 9 tests and the total score.
  • ChartMill – This screener lets you identify stocks based on their Piotroski score. As such, it helps you find stocks with scores of 8 or 9, but does not show you the details of the underlying calculation.

I suggest being careful to check the documentation of any of these tools to make sure that the descriptions of the 9 tests are the same as I’ve included above (which I took directly from Piotroski’s paper). In poking around on-line, I found more than one site that did not correctly specify the nine tests.

My Experience Selecting Stocks with a Score

Although I’ve looked at stocks using the Piotroski score several times, I’ve made only one purchase using it as my primary buying criterion. I purchased FUJIFILMS (FUJIY) in March 2012. At the time, FUJIY had a BM Ratio of about 1.40, as compared to a market average BM ratio of about 0.5. It had a Piotroski score of 8, having failed the test for an increase in gross margin.

For many, many years, FUJIY’s biggest product was film for cameras. With the advent of the digital camera, its market shrank rapidly. In the year before I purchased the stock, its price decreased by 32%. As I was looking at the company, it was transitioning its business from camera film to other types of related products, including medical imaging and, more recently, office products with its purchase of Xerox. With a good story and a high Piotroski score, I decided to buy the stock.

It turns out I was a little early in buying the stock. In the 12 months after I bought the stock, it decreased by 19% while the S&P 500 increased by 13%. However, if I had bought it a year later, my total return would have been much better over both the short and long term, as shown in the table below.

Total Return starting in March 2013
1 Year2 YearsUntil June 2020
FUJIFILMS+51%+84%+171%
S&P 500+22%+36%+110%

 

So, even though my returns were lower than the market average because I bought the stock too early in the company’s turnaround, I correctly decided to keep it after its first year of poor performance. That is, if I had sold the stock one year after I purchased it and bought an S&P 500 index fund, I would have been worse off.

Caution

As with any investing strategy, it is important that you understand the assumptions underlying the Piotroski score. I also recommend that you understand the story behind the company you are considering for investment, as described in my post on buying stocks based on their financial fundamentals. There are companies that may have a Piotroski score of 8 or 9 that don’t have a good turn-around story, such as the one I described for FUJIY. In those cases, you may not want to rely solely on the Piotroski score.

 

[1] Calculated in this case as Book Value Per Share at most recent fiscal year end divided by Price on May 29, 2020, so not exactly equal to the ratio as calculated by Piotroski.

Picking Stocks Using Pictures

Picking Stocks Using Pictures

Technical analysts select companies for their portfolio based on patterns in stock prices.  That is, it allows them to enhance their process of picking stocks by using pictures. This approach is very different from some of the others I’ve discussed, as buy and sell decisions are based in large part on these patterns and less on the financial fundamentals of the company. Every technical analyst has a favorite set of graphs he or she likes to review and their own thresholds that determine when to buy or sell a particular stock.

I’ve done just a little trading based on technical analysis, so asked Rick Lage, a family friend who has much more experience with this approach, to help me out. In this post, I will provide some background on Rick and provide explanations of the graphs he uses. I’ll also provide some insights on who I think is best suited for this type of trading.

Rick’s Story

Rick’s Background

“I was first introduced to the stock market in a Junior High School math class. I made my first trade with a stockbroker about 6 years after graduating from High School.

My interest in the stock market never faded. I was always focused on this platform to make money. Unfortunately losing money was a regular occurrence for many years in the beginning, with not many gains to be proud of.

My interest peaked in 1999 when I attended my first stock trading event in Las Vegas, known as the TradersExpo[1]. TradersExpo provides a wealth of information available for the beginner to the pro, including hardware, trading software, classroom instruction and more.

I personally have never been a day trader. Swing trading is more my definition. I do touch base with my stock watch list daily. It’s always managed and checking my technical indicators is a must.”

Rick’s Goals

“I stock trade for the challenge; not so much for the fun or success. If there is success the fun will follow. There will be losses. No doubt. But you learn how to manage those losses. You have no choice. Technical trading is my science.”

Rick’s Advice to New Traders

Rick says, “I have tried hard to never complicate the trade. There are many technical indicators, so don’t get overwhelmed. I pick stocks that have the momentum. Pick your favorite few indicators and go with those.”

Rick’s Tools

Rick’s favorite indicators are

  • Simple Moving Averages using 9 and 180 days (SMA 9 and SMA 180)
  • Price and Volume Charts
  • Relative Strength Index (RSI)
  • Moving Average Convergence Divergence (MACD)
  • Heikin-Ashi bar chart

I will provide brief introductions to each of these indicators, illustrating each with two stocks – Apple and Shopify. A graph of Apple’s stock prices from January 1, 2018 through mid-May 2020 is shown below. It had some ups and downs in price in 2018 and 2019, followed by a significant decrease and recovery so far in 2020.

Apple stock price from 2018 to 2020, starts at about 150, goes to 200, back to 150 by early 2019, over 300 by early 2020, down below 250 in March 2020, back above 300

Shopify had a steadier increase in 2018 and 2019, but much more volatility so far in 2020, as illustrated in the graph below.

Shopify stock price from 2018 to 2020. Starts around 100, goes to 400 in mid-2019, down to 300 by end of 2019, above 500 in March 2020, down to almost 300 then above 700

Simple Moving Averages (SMA 180 and 9)

In this context, a simple moving average (SMA) is the average of the closing prices for the past n days, where n is specified by the person making the chart. In Rick’s case, he looks at the 180-day simple moving average and the 9-day simple moving average. For the former, he takes the average of the closing prices for the previous 180 days; for the latter, the average of the closing prices for the previous 9 days.

SMA Charts

Technical analysts add their favorite SMA lines to the chart of the stock’s price. For illustration, I’ve added the SMA 180 and SMA 9 lines to the Shopify and Apple stock price charts below.

Shopify stock prices from 2018 to 2020 with 9-day and 180-day moving averages. Apple stock price from 2018 to 2020 with 9-day and 180-day moving average lines.

SMA Indicators

Technical analysts then look at the crossing points on the chart to provide buy and sell indications. For example, a technical analyst might look at when the closing price line (black in these charts) goes up through the SMA 180 line (blue in these charts) and call it a buy signal or an indication of a time to buy a stock. You can see an example of a buy signal, using this method, for Shopify around May 1, 2019, as indicated by the green circle.  The buy signals for Apple are much more frequent using this criterion, two of which are indicated with green circles.

Similarly, a technical analyst might look at when the SMA 9 line (yellow/orange in these charts) goes down through the SMA 180 line and call it a sell signal. Using this criterion, there was a clear sell signal for Apple in early November 2018, as indicated by the red circle.

Every technical analyst has his or her favorite time periods for SMA lines. In addition, each technical analyst selects his or her own criteria for buy and sell signals based on those SMA lines. The shorter the time period associated with the SMA, the more often buy and sell transactions will be indicated. When I use SMA graphs to inform my buy and sell decisions, I use fairly long time periods as I am a long-term investor. By comparison, some people trade in and out of stocks several times a day, so use very short time periods, such as minutes or hours.

Price and Volume

A price and volume chart shows plots of both the price of a stock and its volume on a daily basis, color-coded to indicate whether the stock price went up or down each day. The graph below is a price and volume chart for Shopify.

Shopify Price with each day showing high, low, open and close. Days when price went down are in red (about 1/2 of the days), otherwise bars are green. Below price chart is a bar chart showing the daily trading volume.

The upper chart has rectangles (called boxes), sometimes with lines sticking out of them (called whiskers). The combination of the boxes and whiskers is often called a candle. There is one candle for each trading day.

Price & Volume Indicators

A red box indicates that the price was lower at the end of the day than at the end of the previous day; a green box, higher. Green boxes can be interpreted as follows:

  • The bottom of the box is the opening price.
  • The top of the box is the closing price.
  • The bottom of any whisker sticking down from the box is the lowest price on that day. If there is no downward whisker, the lowest daily price and the opening price were the same.
  • The top of any whisker sticking up from the box is the highest price on that day. If there is no upward whisker, the highest daily price and the closing price were the same.

Red boxes can be similarly interpreted, but the opening price is the top of the box and the closing price is the bottom of the box.

The lower section of the chart shows the number of shares traded each day. If the bar is green, the stock price went up that day, while red corresponds to down.

Technical analysts use these charts to identify trends. A really tall green bar in the lower section green is an indication that a lot of people think the stock will go up so are buying. Many technical analysts consider this a buy signal. Similarly, a really tall red bar is considered by some to be a sell signal. My sense is that you need to be very quick to respond using this type of strategy, as you don’t want to sell a stock after everyone has already sold it and the price has dropped or buy it after the price has increased.

Relative Strength Index (RSI)

The Relative Strength Index (RSI) is intended to measure whether a company’s stock is in an over-bought or over-sold position. If it is over-sold, it is a buy signal; if over-bought, a sell signal. The RSI is one of a broad class of measures called oscillators, all of which are intended to evaluate whether the market is over-bought or over-sold.

The RSI is determined based on a moving average of recent gains and the moving average of recent losses. The value of the RSI is scaled so it always falls between 0 and 100.

The RSI was developed by J. Welles Wilder. He considers the market over-bought when RSI is greater than 70 and oversold when it is below 30. There are many other ways in which the RSI chart can be used to identify trends and inform trading decisions that are outside the scope of this post.

The chart below shows the RSI for Apple (blue) and Shopify (orange).

Apple and Shopify Relative Strength Indices with red line at 70 (sell signal) and green line at 30 (buy signal).

The red horizontal line corresponds to RSI equal 70, Wilder’s over-bought signal. The green line is Wilder’s over-sold signal at RSI equals 30.

In this chart, there are several times when both stocks were over-bought. That is, the RSI for both stocks goes above the red line. Apple was considered slightly over-sold a few times, when the blue line crossed below the green line. By comparison, Shopify’s RSI came close to indicating that it was over-sold a few times, but never went below the green line.

Moving Average Convergence Divergence

The Moving Average Convergence Divergence indicator (MACD) is similar to the Simple Moving Average indicator discussed above. However, it uses an exponentially weighted moving average (EMA) instead of a simple moving average. A simple moving average gives the same weight to each observation. An exponentially weighted moving average gives more weight to more recent observations. MACD can use any period – minutes, hours, days, etc. For this illustration, I will set the period equal to a day. If you are trading more often, you’ll want to replace “day” in the explanation below with “hour” or “minute.”

The MACD was defined by its designer as the 12-day moving average (EMA 12) minus the 26-day moving average (EMA 26). MACD is compared to its own 9-day moving average to determine buy and sell signals. As with the simple moving average, the MACD crossing its 9-day moving average in the upward direction is a buy signal. When MACD falls below its 9-day moving average, it is a sell signal.

MACD Charts

The graph below shows Shopify’s daily closing prices along with the EMA 12 and EMA 26 lines in orange and green, respectively, starting on February 1, 2020.

Shopify price chart from Feb 1 2020 to May 11 2020 with EMA 12 and EMA 26.

This next chart shows the corresponding values of MACD (black) and its 9-day moving average (green).

Shopify MACD and 9-day simple moving average of MACD.

If you compare the two graphs, you can see that MACD goes below the 0 line on the second chart on April 1, 2020. This transition is consistent with the orange line crossing above the green line on the first chart on the same date.

MACD Indicators

When Shopify’s MACD is bullish, its MACD is greater than its 9-day moving average or the black line is above the green line in the second chart above. This situation has been seen several times in the past few months – for short periods starting on February 11, March 23 and May 4 and a longer period starting on April 9.

The Apple MACD chart, shown below, has gone back and forth between bullish and bearish (black line below the green line) much more often in the past few months. It sometimes changes from bearish to bullish and back again on almost a daily basis.

Apple MACD with 9-day moving average (sell signal).

The “convergence” and “divergence” part of MACD’s name refers to how the MACD behaves relative to the price. The relationship is somewhat complicated, so I suggest you refer to one of the sources I mention below if you are interested in this feature of MACD charts.

Heikin-Ashi bar chart

Also known as a Heikin-Ashi candlestick chart, the Heikin-Ashi bar chart is similar to the price part of the Price-Volume chart described above.   However, instead of using the actual high, low, open and close prices, all four of the points on the candle are calculated in a different manner. The purpose of the adjustments is to make a chart that makes identifying trends easier. I refer you to one of the resources below to learn the details of how these values are adjusted.

Heikin-Ashi Charts

The charts below show the Heikin-Ashi charts for Shopify and Apple for the past six months.

Shopify Heishen Ashi candles Apple Heikin Ashi Candles

As mentioned, they look a lot like Price charts, except the boxes corresponding to the adjusted open and close and the whiskers corresponding to the adjusted high and low. The boxes are colored green when the adjusted close is higher than the previous adjusted close and red otherwise.

Heikin-Ashi Indicators

Here are some of the indicators people review when using Heikin-Ashi charts:

  • Longer boxes are indicative of trends. In the charts above, you can see that the Apple chart tends to have longer boxes than the Shopify chart.
  • When there is no whisker on one end of the box, the trend is even stronger. For example, neither the Apple nor Shopify charts have upward whiskers on the red boxes from mid-February to mid-March 2020. This time period corresponds to the time period highlighted by the red arrow on the chart below when both stocks’ prices were going down.

Apple and Shopify closing prices from Nov 1 2019 to mid-May 2020. Red arrow showing downward trend in Shopify price from mid-Febrary 2020 to late-March 2020. Green line showing upward trend in Shopify price from early April 2020 to mid-May (end of chart)

Similarly, almost none of the green bars in the last month of the Heishen Ashi chart have downward whiskers, corresponding to the time period in the price chart indicated by the green arrow.

Time periods when the boxes are short, have both whiskers and change color often are indicators of changes. For example, the Apple Heikin-Ashi chart from mid-January to mid-February shows several bars of alternating colors. Apple’s price changed from an upward trend to a downward trend in this period, as shown in the purple circle in the chart below. Identifying turning points is very important in deciding when to buy and sell stocks.

Apple closing prices from Nov 1, 2019 to mid-May 2020. Circle around prices from late Jan 2020 to end of Feb 2020 where price bounces up and down

Who Can Use Technical Analysis

Technical analysis isn’t for everyone. It requires people who (a) have the ability to focus on markets fairly closely every day in the case of swing traders or all day in the case of day traders, (b) are happy with growing their portfolio with a large number of small “wins,” and (c) have a solid understanding of the charts being used.

Time Commitment

Unlike many other investment strategies, many day traders and swing traders do not consider a company’s financial fundamentals in their buy decisions. Instead, they monitor the patterns in their charts. Without the comfort of believing that the companies they own have sound fundamentals, it is important that they follow their charts consistently so they can quickly sell any positions that are not meeting expectations.

Lots of Small Wins

In my post on financial fundamentals, I talk about Peter Lynch’s concept of a 10-bagger – a stock whose value is at least 10 times what you paid for it. In that paradigm, the goal is to attain better-than-market-average returns by getting average returns on most of the positions in your portfolio and big gains on one or two positions.

By comparison, the goal of day traders and swing traders is to make a very small amount of money on every trade, but to make lots and lots of those trades. If you earn 0.1% on average on every trading day, it compounds to just over 20% a year!

For many of us, buying and selling with gains of less than 0.1% per security seems really small and might not seem worthwhile. As such, you need to be willing to be happy with lots of little wins rather than a 10-bagger if you want to be a day trader or swing trader.

Understand the Charts

One of the requirements of using technical analysis is to make sure you understand how to interpret the charts correctly. For example, Southwest Airlines (ticker: LUV) has done very poorly recently from the impact of COVID-19. The plot below shows its closing stock price from February 15, 2020 through May 20, 2020.

Southwest Airlines closing price from Feb 15 2020 to late May 2020.

As can be seen, the last stock price on the graph (about $29) is almost exactly half of the stock price in mid-February (peaked at $58.54). As such, while it has had a few days on which the price increased, the overall trend has been down.

The RSI chart is shown below. Remember that an RSI value of less than 30 is an indication that it might be time to buy the stock.

Southwest Airlines Relative Strength Index chart from Feb 15, 2020 to May 20, 2020.

In this example, there was a buy signal when the RSI crossed below the green line (30) on February 25. The closing stock price on that day was $49.66. If you had bought the stock on that date, you would have lost 41% in the subsequent three months as the stock was at $29 on May 20, 2020.

As you can see, interpreting charts takes time and expertise. If you are willing to invest the time to learn all of the nuances of each type of chart and monitor your positions, technical analysis might be the right investing strategy for you.

There’s a lot more to know about each of these indicators than I’ve provided in this post. Here are a few links to other sources of information to learn more.

  • Stock Charts
  • Technical Analysis for the Trading Professional by Constance Brown, McGraw-Hill Education, 2nd Edition, 2012.
  • Investopedia

How I Use Technical Analysis

I primarily rely on analysis of the underlying fundamentals of a company when I purchase individual stocks. Once I make the decision to buy a stock, I look at the charts to evaluate whether the timing is good for a purchase. If the consensus of the charts I review indicates that the position is over-bought (i.e., price is too high), I will wait to see if the price decreases before buying.

In addition, I use technical analysis in my Roth IRA, where there are no capital gains taxes on trades so more frequent trading isn’t adversely impacted. I follow a large handful of industry ETFs using technical analysis and buy and sell them as each one appears to be doing well. Because I am trading in industry exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and not individual stocks, I feel comfortable looking at my positions once a week. My thought is that industries aren’t likely to experience sudden weaknesses not seen throughout the market in shorter time frames.

When I pay sufficient attention to the positions in my Roth IRA, I tend to get about or slightly above market-average performance. However, when I don’t look at my positions and re-balance regularly, I find that my performance suffers which just confirms my first point in the previous section that using technical analysis requires time and diligence.

[1] There are now TradersExpo events held regularly in many cities (subject to change by the coronavirus).

How to Buy Life Insurance

How to buy life insurance

Choosing the right type of life insurance policy and its death benefit can be confusing. Not too long ago, I published a guest post from Baruch Silverman of The Smart Investor on the different types of life insurance. In this post, you’ll learn how to buy life insurance.  Specifically, I’ll help you evaluate which, if any, of those types of policies fit your situation and how to select your death benefit.

Why are You Buying It?

The first thing you want to consider is why you are buying life insurance. Three common purposes are:

  • the death benefit.
  • the investment returns.
  • sheltering gifts to your heirs from income taxes.

Death Benefit

If your primary purpose for purchasing life insurance is the death benefit, you’ll want to focus on term and whole life insurance.

Investment Portfolio

Some people use life insurance similar to other financial securities (such as stocks and bonds). Variable life and universal life have investment components to them. In simplified terms, the total amount you pay as premium for these types of life insurance is split between the amount to cover the cost of a whole life policy and the excess which can be invested. As such, the life insurer doesn’t invest the portion of premium related to the death benefit.  Further, the life insurer reduces the excess to cover its expenses, a risk charge and its profit margin before investing it.

Variable and universal life policies include the cost of whole life insurance.  Thus, only people who want the coverage provided by whole life insurance might consider using life insurance as part of their investment portfolio. Even then, the returns may not be as high as other investment vehicles with similar risk because of the additional costs charged by the life insurer.

Tax Shelter

Sheltering gifts to your heirs from income taxes only applies to the very wealthy (those who have more than $11 million in assets). I’m assuming that the vast majority of my readers aren’t in this situation, so won’t address it here.

Other Considerations

All types of life insurance can have an indirect impact on your investment portfolio. If you purchase life insurance in an amount that will cover your dependents’ basic living expenses, it allows you the option to invest your portfolio in riskier assets in anticipation of getting higher returns. That is, the death benefit itself could be considered a low-risk investment.  It reduces your overall portfolio risk when added to the other assets you own.

Do I Need Life Insurance?

Some people don’t need the death benefit from life insurance. In that case, it doesn’t make sense to buy life insurance as an investment security either. In the last section of this post, I provide the details of estimating your target death benefit. People whose target death benefit is zero are those who don’t need life insurance.   Briefly, characteristics of people who have a target death benefit of zero are:

  • Their available assets are more than their debts. Available assets exclude any illiquid assets (such as any real estate or personal property they own), savings for their dependents’ retirement (but not their retirement as they don’t need retirement savings after you die), emergency savings and any savings designated for large purchases.
  • They have enough money to cover their dependents’ education expenses.
  • Their dependents can support themselves on their existing income plus your available assets, including being able to make debt payments as they are due or after using available assets to pay off any debts.
  • They have enough money to pay any end-of-life expenses related to their death.

If you aren’t sure if you meet these criteria, keep reading!

Term vs. Whole

If  you’ve decided that you are buying life insurance for the death benefit, you need to decide whether term life or whole life insurance will better meet your needs. The primary differences between the two options are the length of time you need the insurance and the cost.

Term Life

If you think you will need life insurance for a limited period of time, term life insurance is likely better for you. For example, you might have dependents who aren’t currently able to cover their living expenses and the cost of any debt.  In that case, you might want to buy life insurance that will pay off your debts and support your dependents until they are independent.  If your needs change, many insurers will let you convert a term life insurance policy to a whole life policy without having to provide medical information or have a physical, one or both of which are often pre-requisites for purchasing whole life insurance.

Term life premiums are constant over the term of any policy you purchase. However, if you buy a policy when you are older, the premium will be higher than if you buy the same policy when you are younger.

Whole Life

If you think you will need life insurance for your entire life, whole life insurance is likely better for you. For example, if you have a spouse or disabled children who will never be able to support themselves, whole life insurance could supplement your savings to help make sure they are able to live more comfortably, regardless of when you die.

In addition to the death benefit, whole life insurance gives you the option to borrow money. As you pay premium, life insurers designate a portion of your premium as the cash value. The cash value is always owned by the insurance company, but you are able to borrow an amount up to the cash value at any time without prior approval, any collateral or impact on your credit score. The interest rates on cash-value loans are less than many other sources, particularly credit cards. If you die before the loan is re-paid, the amount of the loan will be deducted from your death benefit.

Cost Comparison

Whole life insurance is much more expensive than term life when you are young, but eventually becomes less expensive.

Probability of Dying

The graph below provides some initial insights into the difference in cost between whole life and term life, as it shows the probability that you will die at each age. I calculated the values based on 2016 data from the Social Security web site.

Probability of dying for each year of age

Not surprisingly, the probability you will die increases at each age. If you buy whole life insurance, it will cover the entire portion of the graph from your current age until you die. As such, there is a 100% probability that the life insurer will pay your death benefit (assuming you continue to pay your premiums). It is just a question of when.

If you buy a 20-year term policy and you are 30 years old, only the deaths that occur in the portion of the graph below highlighted in green would be covered. That is, you will receive the death benefit if you die between ages 30 and 50 and will get nothing if you die after age 50.

Same line graph with blue shading from ages 30-50

The probability you will die is much smaller in this narrow window than the 100% probability you will die at some point.

Present Value of the Death Benefit

There are many factors that determine the premium for term life and whole life insurance policies, but the most important component relates to the death benefit. Actuaries (who help price life insurance) usually base the portion of premium related to the death benefit as the present value of the death benefit expected to be paid, on average, in each year.

One-Year Term Policy

The chart below shows the present value for $1 of death benefit for several sample policies. For illustration only, I have calculated the present values using a 3% interest rate and the probabilities of dying from the charts above.

Present value of death benefit divided by death benefit at each of ages 25, 35, 50

The easiest way to see the impact of the increasing probability of dying is to look at the present value of the death benefit for a 1-Year Term Life policy. You can see it increases from almost zero (actually $0.0015 per dollar of death benefit) at age 25 to $0.042 per dollar of death benefit at age 70 which corresponds exactly to the increase in the probability of dying at each age.

Policies with Longer Terms

There are also increases in the present value of the death benefit for the Whole Life and 20-Year Term Life policies as the age you first start buying the policy increases.

You can also see that the present value of the death benefit at age 25 for the Whole Life policy is much, much larger than the present value for either of the two term life policies. This relationship corresponds to the graphs above which compared the probability of dying in a 20-year period as compared to the 100% probability that you will die at some point.

The difference between the Whole Life and 20-Year Term Life policies is fairly small at age 70, because there is a high probability that you will die between age 70 and 90 – the period covered by the 20-Year Term Life policy. In fact, almost 80% of people age 70 will die during the 20-Year Term Life policy period.  As such, the present value of the death benefit for a 20-Year Term Life policy at age 70 is very roughly 80% of the present value of the death benefit for a Whole Life policy.

Annual Premium

The insurance company collects premium over the full life of the insurance policy to cover the present value of the death benefit. That is, you don’t pay all of your premium to the insurance company in one lump sum, but rather on an annual or monthly basis.

Unless you die during the policy term of the Term Life policy, you will pay premium for more years under a Whole Life policy than under a Term Life policy. Therefore, the differences you see above are larger than the differences in premium payments.

Illustration

The chart below shows the annualized amount of the loss costs. That is, I divided the present values of the death benefits by the average number of years an insured is expected to pay their premium. For example, for the 20-Year Term Life policy, the denominator was calculated as the sum of the probabilities that the insured would be alive in each of the 20 years and therefore able to pay his or her premium.

Approximate loss cost per year per dollar of death benefit at ages 25, 35, 50 and 70

Although these relationships are not precise, they are roughly representative of the differences in annual premium you might pay for the different types of policies at different ages. At age 25, the annual cost of a Whole Life policy in this illustration is roughly three times the cost of either of the Term Life policies. By age 70, the annual cost of a Whole Life policy is less than the cost of 20-Year Term Life policy because, while the present value of the death benefit isn’t all that different between the two policies, people who buy Whole Life policies make more premium payments, on average.

Reality vs. Illustration

It is important to understand that I prepared these examples as illustrations to help you understand the differences between Whole Life and Term Life insurance premiums. In practice, life insurers use different tables showing the probability of dying and different interest rates than I used for illustration, as well as using more sophisticated methods for calculating the present value of the death benefit and including provisions for expenses, risk and profit.

In practice, I’ve seen estimates that Whole Life annual premiums are anywhere from three to fifteen times more than Term Life premium at young ages. As you are looking at your options, you’ll want to get several premium quotes, as they vary widely depending on your age, location, gender, health and many other factors.

How Much to Buy

As with any financial decision, there are two conflicting factors that will influence the amount of the death benefit you buy on a life insurance policy – your budget and your financial needs. In the section, I will talk about how to estimate the best (i.e., target) death benefit for your situation. Once you’ve selected an amount, you can get quotes from several insurers to see whether the premium for that death benefit will fit in your budget or whether you will need to find the best balance between premium affordability and death benefit for you.

Rules of Thumb

Not surprisingly, there are some rules of thumb for guiding your selection of a death benefit. Some of the ones I’ve heard are:

  • Three to five times your salary
  • Ten times your total earned income (i.e., salary, value of benefits and bonus)
  • Ten times your total earned income plus $100,000 per child for college

Rules of thumb like these can provide some insights, but they, by definition, can’t take into account your personal circumstances.

Tailored Approach

A better approach for selecting a death benefit is to analyze your own finances and goals for buying life insurance.   I suggest calculating your target death benefit as the total of the amounts needed to meet your goals, considering the following components.

Debt

If you have debt, you’ll want to consider whether your dependents will be able to continue to make the payments on the debt out of their own income. For example, if your spouse’s earned income is high enough to continue to make your mortgage payments, along with all of the other expenses he or she will need to cover if you die, then you might not need to include the remaining principal on your mortgage as a component of your target death benefit. On the other hand, if you are concerned about your dependents’ ability to continue payments on any debt, you’ll want to include the outstanding principal on those debts as a component of your target death benefit. I’ll define this amount as “Debt Principal to be Pre-Paid.”

Final Expenses

When you die, your dependents will incur some one-time expenses. These expenses can include your funeral or memorial costs and professional expenses to settle your estate. I’ll call the amount of these expenses, “Final Expenses.”

Net Future Living Expenses

The next component of your target death benefit calculation is the amount you need to cover your dependents’ future living expenses.

Current Expenses

Start with your household’s total expenses from your budget. This amount will include monthly expenses for everyone in your household, the amounts you are setting aside each month for your designated savings and any amounts you are setting aside for your spouse’s retirement. To be clear, it will exclude any amounts you are saving for your own retirement.

You can eliminate any monthly expenses or amounts for designated savings for things that are only for your benefit. For example, if you spend enough money on clothes for your job to include it in your budget, you can eliminate those expenses. Similarly, you can also eliminate any expenses related to a vehicle that only you drive or designated savings to replace it.

Earned Income

You then need to calculate your dependents’ monthly earned income. This amount may be calculated in two parts – current monthly earned income and future monthly earned income. For example, your spouse may currently work part time as you are relying primarily on your income for support. If you die, your spouse may be able to work full time to increase his or her earned income. Alternately, your spouse may need some education (discussed below) to get the qualifications needed for his or her desired profession.

Extra Expenses

Next, you’ll need to calculate the amount of any expenses that your household will have because of any changes in your spouse’s availability to provide household services. For example, your spouse may work part-time while your children are in school and provide childcare after school. If your spouse starts working full time after your death, you will need to add after-school care expenses to your budget.

Time Periods

The last factor that goes into this calculation is the length of time until you think your dependents will become self-sufficient. For children, you might assume that they will become independent after they turn 18 or graduate from college. The ability of your spouse to become self-sufficient will be a function of his or her skills, education and/or need for more education and household responsibilities (e.g., childcare or elder care).

I suggest splitting the calculation of this component of your death benefit into three time periods – short-term, medium-term and long-term. For each time period, you’ll calculate your net living expenses as expenses minus income. For any periods for which income is more than expenses, set the difference to zero.

  1. Short term – During this time period, you’ll use your current monthly expenses, excluding your personal expenses, and your dependents’ current monthly earned income.
  2. Medium term – During this time period, you’ll use your current monthly expenses with adjustments for extra expenses for services currently provided by your spouse and your dependents’ future monthly earned income.
  3. Long term – During this time period, you’ll assume that your children (other than those who will always be dependent on you for care) are self-sufficient, so can eliminate all expenses related to children and their care from your expenses. You’ll use your spouse’s future monthly earned income. In many households, income in this period will exceed expenses so there may not be a need for death benefits to cover expenses in this period.

You also need to estimate how many months each of these three time periods will last.

Net Future Living Expenses

Your Net Future Living Expense amount for each time period is calculated as the number of months it will last multiplied by monthly net living expense amount. You can then calculate your total Net Future Living Expenses as the sum of the three amounts you calculated for the three time periods.

For those of you who like to see formulas instead of words, you will calculate:

  1. Short-term Net Expenses = Greater of 0 and Current Expenses – Current Income
  2. Medium-term Net Expenses = Greater of 0 and Current Expenses + Extra Expenses – Future Income
  3. Long-term Net Expenses = Greater of 0 and Future Expenses – Future Income
  4. Net Future Living Expenses = (number of months in short-term period x Short-term Net Expenses) + (number of months in medium-term period x Medium-term Net Expenses) + (number of months in long-term period x Long-term Net Expenses)

You could refine this amount by considering inflation and investment returns. Depending on your investment strategy and the time until the funds are used, your investment returns, on average, can be more than inflation. As a conservative first approximation, I suggest using the total without adjustment for inflation and investment returns.

Education

There are two types of education expenses that you might want to include in your target death benefit calculation:

  1. The portion of the cost of education for your children that you want to provide. Some people suggest $100,000 per child for college. This amount may or may not be the right amount depending on how much you expect your children to contribute to their educations, how many years of college education you want to support and what type of school they attend. Prestigious colleges can cost as much as $75,000 to $80,000 a year currently (2020), while in-state tuition (assuming your children live at home while attending college) can cost as little as $15,000 a year in some states. Other children may not go to college or may attend a trade school.
  2. The cost of any education your spouse needs or wants to allow him or her to work in a profession he or she enjoys and allows him or her to earn enough money to increase his or her independence.

Target Death Benefit Calculation

You can now calculate your target death benefit as follows:

Debt Principal to be Pre-Paid

Plus        Final Expenses

Plus        Net Future Living Expenses

Minus   Savings in excess of your real estate and personal property assets, emergency fund, designated savings and spouse’s retirement savings

Plus        Education Expenses

Minus   Amounts in existing college funds

Minus   Any amounts included in your Net Future Living Expenses designated for college

If you are single with no debt, this amount could be zero indicating that you might not need to buy life insurance. If you are married with no children, don’t have a lot of debt and have a spouse who can increase income or decrease expenses to be self-sufficient fairly quickly, you may need only a small death benefit. At the other extreme, if you have several children and a spouse who won’t be able to be financially independent for many years or ever, your target death benefit could exceed $1 million.   As you can see, the specifics of your financial situation are very important to setting a target death benefit and a rule of thumb may not work for you.

Do I Need a Financial Planner?

Do I Need a Financial Planner?

Creating your own financial plan can be a daunting task. If you aren’t sure where to get started or have a plan but want to improve it, a financial planner might be able to help. I’ve never used a financial planner, so I interviewed two friends who use a planner and Graeme Hughes[1], The Money Geek, to get their insights and perspectives.

In this post, I’ll first distinguish financial planners from other types of financial advisors. The rest of the post provides responses to questions asked by a few of my readers to help you with the following:

  • Figure out whether and how a financial planner can help you.
  • Prepare for your first meeting with a financial planner.
  • Understand the process for developing a financial plan and the deliverables.
  • Select a financial planner who meets your needs.

Financial Planners vs Other Financial Advisors

There are many types of advisors who can help you with your finances. In this post, I’ll focus on professionals who provide financial planning services. These professionals can be independent advisors, work for firms that perform solely financial planning services or can be employed by mutual fund companies, stock brokerage firms (e.g., Schwab or Morgan Stanley), other financial institutions (e.g., Ameriprise) or other types of firms (e.g., accounting firms). Most of these financial planners provide a brand range of services intended to assist you in creating a sound financial plan and attaining your financial goals.

Types of Other Financial Advisors

There are many other types of financial advisors, some of whom may be called financial planners, who specialize in segments of your financial plan. Examples of these advisors include:

  • Insurance agents who can assist you in finding the best insurance policies to meet your needs. Some insurance agents specialize in just property & casualty lines (such as residences, cars or umbrella policies) or health or life insurance or annuities, while others can assist with several or all types of personal insurance.
  • Stock brokers who provide advice about specific companies or financial instruments in which you might want to invest.
  • Money managers who make decisions about what to buy and sell in your portfolio and execute the transactions.
  • Debt consultants or consolidators who can help you find the best strategy for paying off your debts.
  • Tax accountants and tax lawyers who can provide advice about your tax situation and how it might impact your financial decisions. Tax accountants can also prepare your tax returns.

What’s Best for You

You’ll want to choose an advisor who has the right expertise to address your questions. If you want help with your overall financial plan, a financial planner is best. If you go to an advisor with a narrower focus in that situation, you might not get the best information for your overall financial health. For example, an insurance agent who specializes in life insurance and annuities would be less likely to focus on non-insurance savings mechanisms, such as 401k’s or exchange-traded funds, than a financial planner with a broader area of expertise.

To be clear, all of these types of advisors can be very valuable in refining your financial plan, but you’ll want to make sure you have the right expectations about their expertise. In fact, your financial planner may refer you to one or more of these consultants on a specific aspect of your financial plan.

What Services do Financial Planners Provide?

The primary service provided by a financial planner is the development of a sound financial plan. This process can include assistance with setting financial goals, budgeting, estate planning, retirement planning, selection of insurance coverages and investment strategies.

The specific services provided will be tailored to your needs. If you are just getting started, the financial planner may focus on identifying goals and creating a budget. If you already have a financial plan and want increased comfort that you will meet your goals, these services could be as sophisticated as statistical (Monte Carlo) modeling of your future financial situations under a wide range of assumptions regarding future investment returns.

As part of or before your first meeting, a good financial planner will ask about the current status of your finances and what your goals are for deliverables to make sure the planner helps you in a way that makes sense for you.

Do I Need a Financial Planner?

Using a financial planner is a matter of personal preference. I’ve never used one, but my background as an actuary and working with the finance and risk management departments of insurance companies has given me the confidence to go it alone. However, most people can benefit from good advice. As Graeme says, though, “You only need to be careful not to pay for more than you need.” His thoughts about the services you might want to use by age are:

  • A young person starting out might get counseling on budgeting, savings strategies, how much to save, and which tax-advantaged accounts to use.
  • Middle-aged individuals with more substantial savings ($100K+) might want to get an assessment of where they stand for retirement and how much to save to meet their retirement income goals, considering all of the resources at their disposal.
  • Pre-retirees (5-10 years out) will want to have a comprehensive plan to ensure they have adequately covered all likely scenarios, so they can be confident in their retirement plans before pulling the plug on work.

If you have enough assets for it to matter and aren’t highly confident you are on track to meet your goals or you suspect there are gaps in your knowledge, a professional financial planner can help.

For a different perspective on using a financial planner, check out this article from Schwab that I happened to read as I was writing this post.

What Will I Get?

Primary Deliverable

The most important deliverable from a financial planner is a financial plan. Depending on where you are in the process of managing your finances, it will include some or all of the following items:

  • Your financial goals
  • A statement of your current financial position (assets and debt)
  • A budget
  • Your savings strategies and actions, including
    • Short-term savings
    • Designated savings
    • Retirement savings, sometimes including investment advice
  • A plan for re-paying your current debt
  • Guidance about the types and amounts of insurance to buy, along with descriptions of your current policies
  • A brief description of your income tax situation
  • Guidance on what needs to be done to ensure that the legal documents are in place in case you become incapacitated or die

Other Deliverables

In addition, financial planners can provide longer term projections that show estimates of the growth in your income, assets (from investment returns and additions to savings) and expenses. These types of projections can provide insights about your ability to retire when and in the style you want.

Another benefit of working with a financial planner is that you can get referrals to other advisors and can become aware of other financial resources to help with different aspects of your financial life. For example, most financial planners do not draft legal documents, such as wills, trust agreements or powers of attorney. Many financial planners, though, have worked with lawyers who have this expertise and can provide you with a referral.

How Should I Prepare?

All financial planners have their own unique processes. As such, you’ll want to ask your planner the format of the information he or she would like to see. Many planners will provide you with a questionnaire and/or an information request to guide you through the process of compiling your information. Nonetheless, there are a number of fundamental pieces of information that every financial planner will request. They are your:

  • Assets, including retirement accounts
  • Liabilities
  • Income
  • Monthly expenses
  • Current or future defined benefit pension benefits
  • Financial goals
  • Values

Graeme was quite clear that the numerical values above should be firm, accurate numbers, not guesses. It will take some time to compile all of this information, but will ensure that you get the best service from your financial planner. He also added that you should “run away” from any planner who makes recommendations before obtaining this information.

What is the Process?

You are likely to meet with your financial planner once or twice to create or refine your financial plan initially. Some planners prefer to learn about your finances by reviewing documents and answers you provide to their questionnaires. Other planners prefer to have an introductory meeting to learn about you and your finances. In either case, the financial planner wants to learn your objectives and concerns, along with your family structure.

The financial planner will then assess your situation and goals, identify gaps and challenges, and determine the most appropriate strategy for ensuring your goals will be met. The planner will prepare a financial plan and an investment plan, including an asset allocation assessment for investments, and provide them to you in writing.

Your financial planner will then meet with you in person to present the plan and make recommendations. You and your planner will then identify the action items that come out of the plan and assign them to either you or the planner, depending on their nature and your planner’s areas of expertise.

How Often Should I Check Back In?

Financial planning is not a “one and done” exercise. You’ll want to track your progress against your plan and adjust it as necessary. Adjustments might be needed as there are changes in the economy and investing markets or changes in your personal life, such as marriage, a death in the family, children, or a change in your goals.

If both your life and the economy are fairly stable, once a year may be often enough to meet with your financial planner. More typically, you’ll want to check in with your financial planner twice a year. Of course, if you have any life changes, it will also be a good time to check in with your financial planner to see if any tweaks or more significant changes to your financial plan are indicated.

How are Financial Planners Paid?

There are a number of different ways in which financial planners are paid. Here are some of the more common options.

No Charge

If you use a financial planner at a brokerage firm or mutual fund company, you can often get some financial planning services at no charge. The more money you hold at the brokerage firm, the more services you can get at no charge.

Fixed Fees Per Service

Many independent financial planners will provide services on a fixed-fee basis. That is, they will charge you a fixed cost for each of the different aspects of your financial plan with which they provide assistance. Financial planners at brokerage firms also can charge fixed fees for services that are beyond those that are provided at no cost.

Commissions

Financial planners who also sell products, such as insurance or mutual funds, are often paid based on the products you purchase through them. For example, sellers of insurance are often paid 5% to 15% of the premium on the policies you purchase.

Percentage of Assets

Although it is more common with people who manage your money than with advisors who help you with your financial plan, some financial planners are paid as a percentage of the market value of your assets that they manage. This type of compensation is also common for financial planners who work for mutual fund companies.

What’s Best for You

When you get advice from a financial planner, you’ll want to understand the possible biases introduced by the form of their compensation. The vast majority of financial planners are ethical and are focused on your best interests. Nonetheless, you’ll want to be aware of the possibility that the solution proposed by a financial planner is potentially influenced by their compensation. As such, I suggest seeking financial planning advice from people who provide their services either at no charge to you or for a fixed fee.

How Do I Find the Financial Planner that is Best for Me?

One of the best ways to identify possible financial planners is to get recommendations from other financial professionals with whom you already have a relationship, such as an accountant or attorney. If you have friends who are particularly financially savvy, you might ask them for a recommendation. However, you are probably at least as skilled at selecting a financial planner as any friends who are in the same boat as you. And, you are a better judge of a good fit for you than anyone else. Also, I strongly recommend against using a family member as a financial planner. There are almost always too many emotions tied up in family relationships for a family member to be able to advise you on a subject that often requires difficult conversations, such as your finances.

Check their Qualifications

Once you have identified one or more possible financial planners, you’ll want to check their qualifications and whether they have been disciplined. In the US, the most common designation attained by professional financial planners is a Certified Financial Planner, though there are many other designations that indicate expertise, such as a Certified Financial Analyst or a Certified Public Accountant (CPA).

Once you’ve identified the candidates’ professional designations, you’ll want to check to see if there has been any disciplinary action against them. Disciplinary actions are all available on-line. Graeme’s words of wisdom are, “I don’t care how minor the infraction. I wouldn’t go near anyone who has been disciplined. It’s not hard to be an honest advisor, and I wouldn’t trust anyone who has failed at that.”

Interview a Few Financial Planners

You then want to interview the remaining candidates. Again, I’ll provide Graeme’s advice, as I think it is right on target.

  • Are they generous with their time?
  • Do they listen to you?
  • Do they listen to your spouse?
  • Are they genuinely curious about your situation and your plans and goals?
  • Do they ask questions?
  • Or, are they too quick to sell you something?

Your Final Selection

Look for a combination of training and experience. A financial planning designation should be a minimum, along with several years in the industry. They should also be able to refer you to current clients who can recommend their services.”

I suggest that you also think about whether you feel you can develop a good, long-term relationship with the potential advisor.  Also, consider whether they garnered your respect during the interview. Starting the process of financial planning on a shaky foundation will be unproductive at best.

[1] Graeme Hughes is an accredited Financial Planner with 23 years of experience in the financial services industry. During the course of his career he completed hundreds of financial plans and recommended and sold hundreds of millions of dollars of investment products.

A Man is Not a (Sound Financial) Plan

A man is not a (sound financial) plan

“A Man is Not a Plan!” It sounds like a very dated statement, but a guide on a recent trip I took told me about a conversation he had with one of his nieces about her finances.  They were talking about how she could improve her financial situation by building a sound financial plan. As they were talking, one of them came up with the slogan, “A Man is Not a Plan.” He suggested I use it as the title for one of my posts. So, here it is!

In this post, I will talk about the key components of a sound financial plan. A financial plan provides the structure to help you organize your financial information and decisions. I’ll provide brief explanations of the things to consider about each component, what you need to do and, for most of them, links to posts I’ve written that provide much more detail. I’ll also provide insights on how to know when you need help and who to contact.

Sound Financial Plan

A sound financial plan includes the following sections:

    • A list of your financial goals – In this section, you’ll want to identify your three to five most important financial goals.
    • A list of your current assets and liabilities (debts)
    • Your budget
    • Your savings and investment strategies to help you attain your goals, including
      • Short-term savings
      • Designated savings
      • Retirement savings
    • Desired use of debt, including re-payment of current debt
    • Your giving goals
    • Risk management strategy, i.e., types and amounts of insurance to buy
    • Understanding of your income tax situation
    • What you want to have happen to you and your assets when you become incapacitated or die and related documents

     

  • You will likely be most successful if you create a formal document with all of these components of a sound financial plan. You’ll want to review and update your financial plan at least every few years, but certainly any time you have a significant change in your finances (e.g., a significant change in wages) or are considering a significant financial decision (e.g., buying a house, getting married or having children). Of course, a less formal format is much better than no plan at all, so you should tailor your efforts to what will best help you attain your financial goals.

    Budget

    A budget itemizes all of your sources of income and all of your expenses, including money you set aside for different types of savings. It provides the framework for all of your financial decisions. Do you need to change the balance between income and expenses to meet your goals? Can you make a big expenditure? How and what types of insurance can you afford? How much debt can you afford to re-pay?

    I think that a budget is the most important component of a sound financial plan and should be the first step you take. Everyone should have a good understanding of the amounts of their income and expenses to inform the rest of their financial decisions.  While some people will benefit from going through the full process of creating a budget and monitoring it, others can be a bit less detailed.

    In the text section of your financial plan, you’ll want to include a list of your financial goals as they relate to your budget and how you plan to implement them. You can include your actual budget in your financial plan itself or as a separate attachment.

    Savings

    I generally think of savings in three categories (four if you include setting aside money for your kids): emergency savings, designated savings and retirement savings. You will want to address each of these types of savings in your financial plan. The information you’ll want to include for each type of savings is:

    • How much you currently have saved.
    • The target amounts you’d like to have saved.
    • Your plan for meeting your targets.
    • For what you’ll use it.
    • How fast you’ll replenish it if you use it.
    • How much you need to include in your budget to meet your targets.
    • Your investing strategy.
    • A list of all financial accounts with location of securely stored access information.

    Emergency Savings

    Emergency savings is money you set aside for unexpected events. These events can include increased expenses such as the need to travel to visit an ailing relative or attend a funeral or a major repair to your residence. They also include unexpected decreases in income, such as the reduced hours, leaves of absence or lay-offs related to the coronavirus.

    The general rule of thumb is that a target amount for emergency savings is three to six months of expenses. I suggest keeping one month of expenses readily available in a checking or savings account that you can access immediately and the rest is an account you can access in a day or two, such as a money market account.

    Designated Savings

    Designated savings is money you set aside for planned large expenses or bills you don’t pay every month. Examples might include your car insurance if you pay it annually or semi-annually or money you save for a replacement for your car you are going to buy in a few years.

    To estimate how much you need to set aside for your designated savings each month, you’ll want to look at all costs that you don’t pay every month and figure out how often you pay them. You’ll want to set aside enough money each month to cover those bills when they come due. For example, if your car insurance bill is $1,200 every six months, you’ll want to put $200 in your designated savings in each month in which your insurance bill isn’t paid. You’ll then take $1,000 our of your designated savings and add $200 in each month it is due to pay the bill.

    Retirement Savings

    Saving for retirement is one of the largest expenses you’ll have during your working lifetime. There are many aspects of saving for retirement:

    Debt

    Debt can be used for any number of purchases, ranging from smaller items bought on credit cards to large items purchased with a loan, such as a home. Whether you have debt outstanding today, use credit cards regularly and/or are thinking of making a large purchase using debt, you’ll want to define your goals with respect to the use of debt.

    For example, do you want to never have any debt outstanding (i.e., never buy anything for which you can’t pay cash and pay your credit card bills in full every month)? Are you willing to take out a mortgage as long as you understand the terms and can afford the payments? Do you have a combination of a high enough income and small enough savings that you are willing to use debt to make large purchases other than your home? Do you have debts you want to pay off in a certain period of time?

    As you think about these questions, you’ll want to consider what debt is good for you and what debt might be problematic.  A sound financial plan includes a list of your debts, how much you owe for each one, your target for repaying them, and your strategy for using debt in the future.

    Credit Cards

    Credit cards are the most common form of debt. Your financial plan might include the number of credit cards you want to have and your goals for paying your credit card bills. As part of these goals, you might need to add a goal about spending, such as not buying anything you can’t afford to pay off in a certain period of time.

    Student Loans

    Many people have student loans with outstanding balances. In your financial plan, you’ll want to include your goal for paying off any student loans you have. Do you want to pay them off according to the original schedule? Are you behind on payments and have a goal for getting caught up? Do you want to pay off your student loans early?

    Car Loans

    In a perfect world, your car would last long enough that you could buy its replacement out of your designated savings. However, the world isn’t perfect and you may need to consider whether to take out a loan or lease a car. Your financial plan will include your strategy for ensuring that you always have a vehicle to drive. How often do you want to replace your car? What is your goal with respect to saving for the car, loans or leases? How much will it cost to maintain and repair your car?   Your budget will include the amounts needed to cover the up-front portion of the cost of a replacement car, any loan or lease payments and amounts to put in designated savings for maintenance and repairs.

    Mortgages

    Most homeowners borrow money to help pay for it As part of creating your financial plan, you might include your goal for home ownership. Are you happy as a renter for the foreseeable future or would you like to buy a house?

    If you want to buy a house either for the first time or a replacement for one you own, you then need to figure out how to pay for the house. How much can you save for a down payment? Can you set aside enough in designated savings each month to reach that goal? What is the price of a house that you can afford, after considering property taxes, insurance, repairs and maintenance?

    Once you have a mortgage, you’ll want to select a goal for paying it off. When a mortgage has a low enough interest rate, you might make the payments according to the loan agreement and no more. If it has a higher interest rate or you foresee that your ability to make mortgage payments might change before it is fully re-paid, you might want to make extra payments if you have money in your budget.

    Paying Off Debt

    If you have debt, you’ll want to include your goals and your strategy for paying it off in your financial plan. You’ll first want to figure out how much you can afford each month to use for paying off your debts. You can then compare that amount with the amount needed to meet your goals. If the former is less than the latter, you’ll need to either generate more income, reduce other expenses, put less money in savings or be willing to live with less aggressive goals. These decisions are challenging ones and are a combination of cost/benefit analyses and personal preference.

Giving Goals

Many people want to give to their community either by volunteering their time or donating money.  If you plan to give money or assets, you’ll first want to make sure that you can afford the donations by checking your budget and other financial goals.  It is also important to make sure that your donations are getting used in the way you intended, as not all charities are the same.  A Dime Saved provides many more insights about giving in her Guide to Giving to Charity.

  • Insurance

    Protecting your assets through insurance is an important part of a sound financial plan. The most common types of insurance for individuals cover your vehicles, residence, personal liability, health and life. There are other types of insurance, such as disability, dental, vision, and accidental death & dismemberment, that are most often purchased through your employer but can also be purchased individually.

    As I told my kids, my recommendation is that you buy the highest limits on your insurance that you can afford and don’t buy insurance for things you can afford to lose. For example, if you can afford to pay up to $5,000 every time your home is damaged, you might select a $5,000 deductible on your homeowners policy. Alternately, if you can afford to replace your car if it is destroyed in an accident, you might not buy collision coverage at all. Otherwise, you might set lower deductibles as your goal.

    For each asset in your financial plan, including your life and health which can be considered future sources of income or services, you’ll want to select a strategy for managing the risks of damage to those assets or of liability as a result of having those assets.

    A financial plan includes a list of the types of policies you purchase, the specifics of the coverage provided and insurer, changes you’d like to make to your coverage and your strategy for insurance in the future. You’ll also want to attach copies of either just the declaration pages or your entire policies to your financial plan.

    Car Insurance

    Car insurance can provide coverage for damage to your car, to other vehicles involved in an accident you cause and injuries to anyone involved in an accident. The types of coverages available depend on the jurisdiction in which you live, as some jurisdictions rely on no-fault for determining who has to pay while others rely solely on tort liability.

    Homeowners Insurance

    Homeowners insurance (including renters or condo-owners insurance) provides coverage for damage to your residence (if you own it), damage to your belongings and many injuries to people visiting your residence.

    Umbrella Insurance

    One way to increase the limits of liability on your car and homeowners insurance is an umbrella insurance policy. An umbrella also provides protection against several other sources of personal liability. If you have money in your budget for additional insurance, you might consider purchasing an umbrella policy.

    Health Insurance

    Health insurance is likely to be one of your most expensive purchases, unless your employer pays a significant portion of the cost. Whether you are buying in the open market or through your employer, you are likely to have choices of health insurance plan. Selecting the health insurance plan that best meets your budget and goals can be challenging.

    Life Insurance

    There are many types of life insurance, including term and whole life. Some variations of whole life insurance provide you with options for investing in addition to the death benefit. Once you have compiled the other components of your financial plan, you’ll be better able to assess your need for life insurance. If you have no dependents and no debt, you might not need any. At the other extreme, if you have a lot of debt and one or more dependents, you might want to buy as much coverage as you can afford to ease their financial burden if you die. To learn more specifics about buying life insurance, you might review this post.

    Income Taxes

    Some of your financial decisions will depend on your income tax situation.

    • Do you want your investments to produce a lot of cash income which can increase your current income taxes or focus on appreciation which will usually defer your taxes until a later date?
    • Is a Roth (TFSA) or Traditional (RRSP) plan a better choice for your retirement savings?
    • Are you having too little or too much income taxes withheld from your paycheck?
    • Do you need to pay estimated income taxes?
    • How will buying a house, getting married or having children affect your income taxes?
    • Will moving to another state increase or reduce your income taxes?

     

  • As you consider these and other questions, you’ll want to outline at least a basic understanding of how Federal and local income taxes impact your different sources of income as part of creating a sound financial plan.

    Legal Documents

    Although it is hard to imagine when you are young, at some point in your life you may become incapacitated and will eventually die. There are a number of documents that you can use to ensure that your medical care and assets are managed according to your wishes. You can either include these documents as part of your financial plan or create a list of the documents, the date of the most recent version of each one and where they are located.

    Powers of Attorney

    There are two important types of powers of attorney – medical and financial.

  • A medical power of attorney appoints someone to be responsible for making your medical decisions if you are physically or mentally incapable of doing so. You can supplement a medical power of attorney with a medical directive that is presented to medical personnel before major surgery or by the person appointed to make medical decisions that dictates specifically what is to happen in certain situations.A financial power of attorney appoints someone to be responsible for your finances if you are physically or mentally incapacitated. The financial power of attorney can allow that person to do only a limited number of things, such as pay your bills, or can allow that person to do anything related to your finances.

    Trusts

    There are several forms of trusts that can be used to hold some or all of your assets to make the transition to your beneficiaries easier when you die. Trusts can also be used to hold money for your children either before or after you die. While I am familiar with some types of trusts, I don’t know enough to provide any guidance about them. If you are interested in them, I suggest you research them on line and/or contact a lawyer with expertise in trusts.

    Your Will

    If you die without a will, your state or provincial government will decide how your assets will be divided. In many jurisdictions, your spouse, if you have one, will get some or all of your assets. Your children or parents may also get some of your assets. Most people want more control over the disposition of their assets than is provided by the government.

  • A will is the legal document that allows you to make those specifications. Your will can also identify who will become legally responsible for your minor children or any adult children who are unable to take care of themselves. That responsibility can be split between responsibility for raising your children and responsibility for overseeing any money you leave either to their guardian(s) or for them.

    How to Know When You Need Help

    As you can see, there are a lot of components to a sound financial plan and many of them are interrelated. There are many resources available to help you develop and refine your plan. Many of those resources are free, such as the links to the articles I’ve published on relevant topics. There are also many other sources of information, including personal stories, on line.

    You can also get more personalized assistance. There are many types of financial advisors, a topic I’ll cover in a post soon. Many financial advisors provide a broad array of services, while others specialize in one or two aspects of your financial plan.

    Sources of Advice for a Sound Financial Plan

    The table below lists the types of obstacles you might be facing and the types of advisors that might be able to help you create a sound financial plan.

    ObstaclePossible Advisors
    I can’t figure out how to make a budget or how to set aside money for emergency or designated savings.Bookkeeper, accountant, financial planner
    I can’t make my budget balance.Bookkeeper, accountant, financial planner
    I have more debt that I can re-pay.Financial planner, debt counselor, debt consolidator
    I don’t know what insurance I should buy.Financial planner, insurance agent or, for employer-sponsored health insurance, your employer’s human resource department
    I’m not sure I’m saving enough for retirement.Financial planner
    I have questions about how to invest my savings, including whether I am diversified or need to re-balance my portfolio.Financial planner or stock broker
    I don’t understand how income taxes work.Accountant
    I need help with a Trust, Power of Attorney or Will.Wills & estates lawyer

    Clearly, a financial planner can help with many of these questions, but sometimes you’ll need an advisor with more in depth expertise on one aspect of your financial plan.

At What Price Should I Buy a Stock?

At What Price Should I Buy a Stock

Deciding at what price to buy a stock or other security is almost as hard as deciding whether to buy the security at all.  There are many different approaches for deciding at what price to buy a stock.  One of the ones I’ve seen discussed most often is dollar-cost averaging.  Other strategies include (1) buying the position on whatever day you decide to buy it and (2) setting a target price that is below the current trading price, among many others.  In this post, I’ll explain and compare these three strategies.

Dollar-Cost Averaging

Dollar cost-averaging is a strategy for buying stocks that is intended to reduce the risk that you will “buy high.”

How it Works

Here are the key steps for implementing this strategy:

  • Identify the security you want to buy.
  • Determine how much money you have to invest in that security.
  • Divide that amount into equal increments. In the examples below, I have split the amount into four increments.
  • Decide over what time period you want to make your purchases. In the examples below, I have illustrated a purchasing time period of four weeks.
  • Invest one increment at points in time evenly spaced over your selected time period. For example, let’s say you want to invest over four weeks.  You might buy the selected security every Wednesday in four equal pieces.  If you have $1,000 to invest, you would buy $250 of the selected security each Wednesday for four weeks.

The underlying premise of this approach is that you buy more shares of the selected security than if you happened to have bought the security on a day that the price is high.  Specifically, because you are buying the security in equal dollar amounts, you will buy more shares when the price is low and fewer shares when the price is high.  As such, your average purchase price will be low.

Simple Example

Here’s a simple example in which you invest a total of $4,800 in increments of $1,200 a week for four weeks.

WeekStock PriceShares Purchased
1$10.00120
28.00150
312.00100
49.25130

In this example, you buy a total of 500 shares.  If you had bought all of your shares on at $10 (the first week price), you would have 480 shares ($4,800 / $10).  In this scenario, you will have 4% more shares ([500 – 480]/480 – 1) if you use dollar-cost averaging than if you bought all of your shares at the first week’s price.  4% more shares corresponds to 4% more money when you sell the security.  Although 4% may not sound like a large difference, it can add up over time as you buy and sell stocks.

To be clear, though, dollar-cost averaging isn’t always better.  If you had bought all of your shares at the Week 3 price of $8, you would have 600 shares or 20% more than if you used dollar-cost averaging.

Investing Strategies

Here are the three strategies for determining when to buy a security that I’ll use for illustration.

Strategy 1 – Invest Immediately

Invest all of your available money on the day you decide to make the purchase.

Strategy 2 – Dollar-Cost Averaging

Use dollar-cost averaging by buying ¼ of your money available on Wednesday of four consecutive weeks[1]. This strategy is similar to what happens when you buy securities in your employer-sponsored retirement account if you are paid weekly.  Every week, you employer takes some of your wages and invests it in the security you have selected.

Strategy 3 – Wait for Price Drop

Invest all of your available money after the stock price has dropped by 5%. Hold your money in cash while waiting for the price to decrease.

More Examples

I’ve created a few more simple examples to compare the strategies for deciding when to buy a security.  These examples are intentionally simple and therefore unrealistic.  Nonetheless, they are helpful in understanding the different strategies because of their simplicity.  In all of the examples, you have $1,000 to invest.

Smooth Increase

In the first scenario, the stock’s price goes up smoothly by 10% every year.  A graph of its price over two years would look like this.

Line graph with straight line going from $10 stock price on day zero to $12 stock price on day 700

The chart below focuses on the first month of the above chart and includes the purchases for Strategies 1 and 2 as dots.

Graph showing prices when you buy under Strategies 1 and 2

Under Strategy 1 (big red dot), you buy all of your stock on the first day at $10 a share, so you are able to purchase 100 shares.

Under Strategy 2 (smaller green dots), you would buy $250 of stock on each of the first, eighth, fifteenth and twenty-second days.  The table below shows the prices on those days and the number of shares you buy.

DayPriceShares Bought
1$10.0025.00
810.0224.95
1510.0424.90
2210.0524.88

The total number of shares you buy is 99.73.

Under Strategy 3, you never buy the stock because the price never decreases by 5%.

The table below compares the numbers of share bought under each strategy

StrategyNameNumber Shares BoughtValue in Two Years
1Invest Immediately100.00$1,210
2Dollar-Cost Averaging99.731,203
3Wait for Price DropN/A1,000

In this scenario, there is very little difference between the first two strategies, though you will buy more shares if you invest immediately. Any time you delay your purchases in this scenario, you are certain to pay a higher price which reduces the number of shares you can buy.  Under Strategy 3, because the price never decreases, you never buy the stock, so end up with the same amount of money with which you started.

Smooth Check Mark

The second illustration is stock whose price goes down smoothly for six months and then increases for the next 18 months.  A graph of its price would look like this.

Line graph with line that looks like a check mark.

The chart below focuses on the first six months of the above chart and includes the purchases for all three strategies as dots.

Graph showning prices you pay under 3 strategies if price graph is checkmark

Under Strategy 1 (big red dot), you buy all of your stock on the first day at $10 a share, so you are able to purchase 100 shares.

Under Strategy 2 (smaller green dots), you buy $250 of stock on each of the first, eighth, fifteenth and twenty-second days.  The table below shows the prices on those days and the number of shares you buy.

DayPriceShares Bought
1$10.0025.00
89.9825.05
159.9625.10
229.9425.15

The total number of shares you buy is 100.30.

Under Strategy 3, you buy 105.2 shares at $9.50 (5% below the initial price of $10) on day 177.

The table below compares the numbers of share bought under each strategy and the amount of money you will have at the end of two years.

StrategyNameNumber Shares BoughtValue in Two Years
1Invest Immediately100.0$1,097
2Dollar-Cost Averaging100.31,100
3Wait for Price Drop105.21,154

In this scenario, the best strategy is to wait until the price drops by 5% which happens to be the minimum price over the two-year period.  The results of the other two strategies are very similar, though investing all of your money on the first day is the worst choice, as you buy stock during the period in which the price has fallen under the other two strategies.

Bumpy Increase 1

Next, we will look at two illustrations of what a stock price might actually look like.  Here is a graph of the first illustration.

Prices when they increase on a bumpy path

The chart below focuses on the first month of the above chart and includes the purchases for Strategies 1 and 2 as dots.

Prices at which you buy under strategies 1 and 2

Under Strategy 1 (big red dot), you buy all of your stock on the first day at $10 a share, so you are able to purchase 100 shares.

Under Strategy 2 (smaller green dots), you would buy $250 of stock on each of the first, eighth, fifteenth and twenty-second days.  The table below shows the prices on those days and the number of shares you buy.

DayPriceShares Bought
1$10.0025.00
89.8325.43
159.8825.30
229.8025.51

The total number of shares you buy is 101.24.

Under Strategy 3, you don’t buy any shares because the price never falls by 5%.

The table below compares the numbers of share bought under each strategy

StrategyNameNumber Shares BoughtValue in Two Years
1Invest Immediately100.00$1,144
2Dollar-Cost Averaging101.241,158
3Wait for Price Drop0.001,000

In this scenario, the best strategy is to buy your stock using Dollar-Cost Averaging (Strategy 2), but only by a small amount compared to using the Invest Immediately strategy.  You will have 1% more money than if in you invest it all on the first day and 13% more money than if you wait for the price to drop.

Bumpy Increase 2

The second realistic illustration is exactly the same as the first one with the exception that, in the first month, the price bounces around a bit above the initial $10 price rather than just below it.  The chart below focuses on the first month for this illustration and includes the purchases for Strategies 1 and 2 as dots.

Prices at which you buy under strategies 1 and 2

Under Strategy 1 (big red dot), you buy all of your stock on the first day at $10 a share, so you are able to purchase 100 shares.

Under Strategy 2 (smaller green dots), you would buy $250 of stock on each of the first, eighth, fifteenth and twenty-second days.  The table below shows the prices on those days and the number of shares you buy.

DayPriceShares Bought
1$10.0025.00
810.2124.49
159.8825.30
2210.3124.25

The total number of shares you buy is 99.04.

Under Strategy 3, you don’t buy any shares because the price never falls by 5%.

The table below compares the numbers of share bought under each strategy

StrategyNameNumber Shares BoughtValue in Two Years
1Invest Immediately100.01,144
2Dollar-Cost Averaging99.041,133
3Wait for Price Drop01,000

In this scenario, the best strategy is to use the Invest Immediately strategy (Strategy 1), but only by a small amount compared to Dollar-Cost Averaging.  You will have 1% more money than if in you use Dollar-Cost Averaging and 14% more money than if you wait for the price to drop.

More Realistic Examples

Now that you have a better understanding of the three different strategies, I’ll turn to even more realistic scenarios.

  • The first of these scenarios will use the actual returns on the S&P 500 from 1928 through early 2020. This scenario is likely to be relevant when you are considering an investment in an index fund.
  • The second scenario is intended to be similar to an investment in an individual stock. To create the example, I took the S&P 500 times series and doubled the volatility.[2]

The daily stock prices are illustrated in the graph below.

S&P 500 prices from 1928 to 2020

Investment Horizons

To illustrate the impact of the different strategies, I looked at three different time periods over which you might hold the stocks – one year, five years and ten years.  If you are young and hold a stock until you retire, such as I have with some of the stocks I own, you might own the stock for 30 or 40 years.  I didn’t feel there was enough data available in the above time series to look at the impact on owning securities for more than ten years.  So, if you think you will be a very long-term investor, you will want to focus on the ten-year results.  Also, these analyses are not helpful to people who plan to own stocks over very short periods of time, such as some traders who might buy and sell a security in the same day.

Comparison of Realistic Results

The table below compares how much money you would have, on average across all possible starting dates for which data were available, at the end of each of the three time periods if you used each of the three strategies to buy $1,000 of an S&P 500 index fund.

StrategyOne YearFive YearsTen Years
Invest Immediately1,0741,3721,873
Dollar-Cost Averaging1,0741,3731,877
Wait for Price Drop1,0221,1811,485

 

The table below compares how much money you would have, on average, at the end of each of the three time periods if you used each of the three strategies to buy $1,000 of the illustrative stock.

StrategyOne YearFive YearsTen Years
Invest Immediately1,0871,3761,875
Dollar-Cost Averaging1,0871,3791,880
Wait for Price Drop1,0771,3301,772

 

Dollar-Cost Averaging vs. Invest Immediately

For both the S&P 500 and the illustrative stock, there are only very small differences (less than 0.3% for the one-year investment horizon and less than 1.3% for the longer investment horizons) in the average amount of money at the end of each of one, five and ten year between the Dollar-Cost Averaging and Invest Immediately strategies.

Wait for Price Drop

On the other hand, there is a larger difference between the average amount of money at the end of the three time periods if you use the Wait for Price Drop strategy and the average amount using either of the other two strategies.  For the S&P 500, you will have between 5% and 20% less money, on average, if you use the Wait for Price Drop strategy than if you use the Invest Immediately strategy, depending on your investment horizon.

For the more volatile illustrative stock, you will have between 1% and 5% less money, on average, if you use the Wait for Price strategy than if you use the Invest Immediately strategy.  With the higher volatility of the illustrative stock, it is more likely to have a 5% price drop.  There are therefore fewer scenarios in which you don’t get any investment return than there are using the S&P 500 prices.  As such, there is a smaller difference between the results of the Wait for Price Drop strategy and the other strategies for a more volatile security than for a more stable one.

Key Takeaways

As can be seen, the best strategy depends on the pattern and volatility of the security’s price.  Briefly:

  • For securities that have fairly smooth trends, there isn’t a lot of difference between the Invest Immediately and Dollar-Cost Averaging strategies.
  • For securities with more volatile prices, such as the two Bumpy Increase scenarios, the choice between the Dollar-Cost Averaging and Invest Immediately strategies can be a bit larger. However, there isn’t one that is better in all situations – Dollar-Cost Averaging was better in Bumpy Increase 1 while Invest Immediately was better in Bumpy Increase 2.  Because you can’t know whether your security’s price will follow a pattern closer to Bumpy Increase 1 or Bumpy Increase 2, neither strategy is preferred.
  • If you think that the price of the stock might trend down somewhat significantly or has a lot of volatility allowing the price to be significantly lower than the current price, waiting for a 5% (or other value you select) price decrease (Strategy 3) could be the best strategy. The drawback of this strategy is that there are a lot of scenarios in which you will never buy the security and then will get no return.

What Do I Do?

With all this information, you might wonder what I do.  I first need to provide a little background about my current investing situation, as it is likely to be different from yours.

I am retired, so am starting to spend my investments.  As such, I have a shorter investment horizon than I did when I was younger and in the saving mode.  I have a number of stocks and a few mutual funds that I have owned for many, many years and do very little trading of those positions.

Another portion of my money is in sector funds (index funds that focus on one segment of the economy, such as industrial companies, healthcare or technology) and a few large companies.  I tend to hold those securities for six months to two years.  The securities I am trading are closer in nature to the S&P 500 time series than even the hypothetical company with twice the volatility as the S&P 500.  As such, the Wait for Price Drop strategy doesn’t work for me.

With the very small differences between the Dollar-Cost Averaging and Invest Immediately strategies, I choose the Invest Immediately strategy because it is easier.  I have to place only one buy order instead of several orders.

Limit and Market Orders

As discussed in my post on stocks, there are different types of orders you can place when you want to buy a stock.  I always place limit orders.  A limit order allows me to buy a stock from the first person who wants to sell it to me at the price I have stated in the order.

The other type of order is a market order.  If you place a market order, you don’t get to set the price.  You buy the stock at whatever price it is trading at the moment you place the order.

There are risks to both types of orders.  If you place a market order and the price jumps up, you will buy the stock at the higher price.  If you place a limit order for a price below the current market price, you might never buy it similar to the Wait for Price Drop strategy.

A Compromise

To avoid the risk that I might buy a stock at a significantly higher price than I intend, I place a limit order with a limit that is about half way between the closing price and the low price from the previous day.  (I almost always place my orders over the weekend, so don’t have “up-to-the-minute” prices.)  This difference is often between 0.5% and 1% of the price.  By taking this strategy, I get a very small boost to my return by setting my limit below the market price but with very little risk that I won’t buy the stock because I have chosen the limit amount to be within a single day’s trading range.  The additional 0.5% to 1% doesn’t sound like a lot, but if I am able to increase my total return by that amount every year or two, it compounds quickly.

 

[1] There is nothing special about once a week for four weeks.  I did some testing of once a day for five days and found that there wasn’t a lot of difference in the number of shares bought, on average across a wide range of scenarios, from what the number using once a week for four weeks.  I also did some testing of what happens when you buy shares once a month for a year.  Across a wide range of realistic scenarios, you own fewer shares on average if you spread your purchases over a year as you purchase securities that you think will increase in price.  If the price of the security increases over the year, you will buy some of your shares at the higher price and own fewer shares.

 

 

[2] This note explains the nitty gritty details of how I adjusted the S&P 500 time series to create the second scenario.  I calculated the 200-day moving average of the daily closing prices of the S&P 500 from 1928 to early 2020.  The deviation is the actual closing price minus the moving average.  I doubled this deviation and added it back to the moving average to simulate prices for the hypothetical stock.

Your Bills: Pay Them or Defer Them?

Your Bills: Pay Them or Defer Them?

Many of you are facing difficult financial decisions as your hours are reduced, you have to take an unpaid leave of absence or you are laid off. At the same time, some creditors are offering to help you by waiving or deferring payments. In this post, I’ll provide my thoughts on how you might decide whether to pay or defer your bills.

Key Takeaways: Pay or Defer Your Bills

Here are the key takeaways about whether to pay or defer your bills.

  • If a creditor is willing to waive some or all of your debt, accept the offer.
  • When creditors are willing to defer payments without any extra charges, accepting that offer, rather than paying from your emergency savings, is likely to make sense for most people. The same holds true when the extra interest or late fees are small.
  • The only situations in which dipping into your emergency savings is preferable for most people are those in which the fees or extra interest are expensive.
  • If you are unable to make your payments on time, whether they are from your income or emergency savings, it is very important to contact your creditors. If you do, you are less likely to incur fees and it is less likely that there will be an adverse impact on your credit score.

What are Debtholders Offering?

Before deciding whether to pay or defer your bills, you’ll want to make sure you understand what is being offered. There are generally three types of offers made by creditors:

  • Eliminate some or all of your debt.
  • Defer payments without extra interest or fees.
  • Defer payments with extra interest or fees.

I explain and provide examples of each of these three options.

Waive Some Payments or Forgive Debt

Under this option, the creditor forgives some or all of your debt. Debt can be forgiven by waiving (eliminating) some of your payments or reducing each of your payments. If all of your debt is forgiven, you will not need to make any more payments.

Clearly, you will want to accept offers from any creditors that are willing to forgive some or all of your debt. If only a portion of the debt is forgiven, you’ll want to make sure that you understand how that portion will be reflected in your payments.

  • Will you have to continue making payments as in the past, but with fewer payments?
  • Are you able to stop making payments for a certain period of time?
  • Will you have to continue making payments as in the past, but with a smaller amount?

As an example, I have seen several proposals from US Senate Democrats ranging from wiping out all education debt to cancelling between $10,000 and $50,000 per borrower of Federal student loans (but not private student loans). One description of the latter indicates that the $10,000 of forgiveness would be accomplished by having the Department of Education make monthly payments on behalf of borrowers during the course of the “emergency.” Under this proposal, you would be able to stop making payment for a certain period of time and then would continue making payments in the future as if you had been making your payments instead of the Department of Education.

Defer Payments without Interest or Fees

Under this option, you take a break from making payments. At the same time, the creditor does not charge you any fees and no interest accrues on your outstanding balance. Once the break is over, you will make the same number and amounts of payments as you would have without the break, but they will extend further into the future. That is, your payment scheduled will be shifted by the length of the break.

On March 20, 2020, US President Trump announced that this approach would apply to Federal student loan payments. Federal student loan debtors will not have to make any payments for 60 days and no interest will accrue. If you have a US Federal student loan, you should research the details of this mandate, as debtors whose student loan payments are not currently in arrears will need to apply to get their payments suspended.

Income taxes for 2019 are another example of payments that can be deferred without interest or fees as the result of the coronavirus upheaval. In the US, the Federal government and many states have extended the deadlines for filing and paying 2019 income taxes until July 15, 2020.

Defer Payments with Interest or Fees

Under this approach, the creditor allows you to take a break from making payments, but will charge you one or both of interest during the break and additional fees. Once the break is over, you will not only make the number and amounts of payments you would have without the break, but you will have to pay the additional interest and/or fees.

If you select this option, you’ll need to understand when these additional amounts will be due.

  • Will they be due immediately at the end of the break?
  • Are the extra amounts added to each payment ?
  • Will you have to make more payments?

Utility Example

An example of this option is the Enmax Relief Program. Enmax is the power utility company in Alberta. It has indicated that it will allow customers to set up payment arrangements for overdue bills, but only if current monthly charges continue to be paid. It appears (though isn’t 100% clear) that customers who miss any payments, even customers with payment plans, will need to pay late charges.

Mortgages

According to an article in Forbes, many mortgage companies are also offering flexibility. Some Federal and state mortgage programs are halting foreclosures, but aren’t necessarily waiving or deferring payments. More importantly, some private mortgage companies are allowing payments to be deferred. Not all of these companies have been clear about how interest or late fees will be treated during this period. As such, if you need to defer some mortgage payments, it is important that you get the details specific to your lender and loan.

The Forbes article contains a bit more detail from Ally. It will allow mortgage payments to be deferred for 120 days with no late fees, but interest will accrue. As such, the total amount you will pay for your mortgage will increase by an amount slightly more than your annual interest rate divided by 12 times the number of months you defer your payments times your outstanding principal at the time you started deferring your payments. The “slightly more” in the previous sentence refers to the fact that the interest will compound over the deferral period, so you’ll have to pay interest not only on the outstanding principal but also on the interest that has accumulated since you made your most recent payment.

Deciding What to Do

Once you’ve understood the options available from your creditors, you’ll want to make informed decisions about whether to pay or defer your bills. In this section, I will illustrate the analysis you can do to help support your decision.

In this illustration, you have $20,000 of emergency savings. You have a debt with $50,000 of outstanding principal, 10 years remaining on the term and a 5% interest rate.   This combination of characteristics leads to a monthly payment of $530. Although the illustration looks at payment of a debt, it is equivalent to a monthly bill of the same amount. You are able to resume your regular payments at the end of three months.

When looking at the option to take the payment out of your emergency savings, I assume that you plan to replace that money within a year. I also assume that your emergency savings is in a checking, savings or money market account that is currently paying such a low interest rate that it can be ignored.

Waive Some Payments or Forgive Debt

No analysis is needed for the option under which a creditor offers to waive some of your payments or forgive your debt completely (without any additional costs on your part). You will always be better off if you accept the offer.

Deferring Payments without Interest

For this illustration, you defer three months of payments without interest. You re-stock your emergency savings within a year.

Take Out of Emergency Savings

The table below shows the cash flows and balances if you pay the three months of payments from your emergency savings.

Take Out of Emergency Savings/No InterestTodayIn 3 MonthsIn 12 MonthsWhen Debt is Paid in 5 Years
Amount Paid to Creditor from Savings$0$1,590$0$0
Amount Paid to Creditor from Income004,77057,240
Contributions to Savings from Income001,5900
Emergency Savings20,00018,41020,00020,000
Principal50,00049,03046,0460

In the first row, you see the three months of payments, totaling $1,590, that you pay the creditor from your emergency savings. The second row shows the payments you make from your income after the initial three-month period. The amounts you put in your emergency savings to bring it to the pre-crisis level are shown in the third row.

The last two rows show the ending balances for your emergency savings and the outstanding principal on your debt. At 3 months, you can see that your emergency savings has been reduced by $1,590. It returns to its original level after 12 months. Your principal declines to $0 in five years as anticipated under the original schedule, as you have made all payments as planned.

Defer Payments

The table below shows the cash flows and balances if you defer three months of payments.

Defer Payments/No InterestTodayIn 3 MonthsIn 12 MonthsWhen Debt is Paid in 5 Years, 3 Months
Amount Paid to Creditor from Savings$0$0$0$0
Amount Paid to Creditor from Income004,77058,830
Contributions to Savings from Income0000
Emergency Savings20,00020,00020,00020,000
Principal50,00050,00047,0530

In the first and third rows, you see that there are no payments to or from your emergency savings. The second row shows the payments you make from your income after the three-month deferral period. The total of these payments is the same as the total payments from your emergency savings and income (first and second rows) under the Take Out of Emergency Savings Strategy. The difference is that the $1,590 paid from your savings in the Take Out of Emergency Savings Strategy in the first three months is added to the amount paid from your income in the last column of the Defer Payments Strategy. In addition, the header on the last column shows that your payments are extended for three months to 5 years, 3 months instead of 5 years.

The last two rows show the ending balances for your emergency savings and principal. Your emergency savings stays constant at $20,000. Your principal doesn’t decrease in the first three months when you defer your payments. After that, your principal declines to $0 in five years and three months. It is higher at 12 months than under the Take Out of Emergency Savings Strategy because you deferred three months of payments.

How I’d Make the Decision to Pay or Defer Bills

When the creditor won’t charge you extra interest or fees, the choice between whether to pay or defer your bills is one of personal preference. It depends not only on your current and anticipated future financial situations, but also any increase in your level of comfort by having more money in your emergency savings. The creditor isn’t increasing the amount you owe. As such, the financial inputs to the decision relate to the timing with which you make the payments to the creditor.

I would probably defer the payments unless I were expecting difficulty in making the extra three months of payments at the end of the loan term (because I was planning to retire in exactly five years and don’t want to change that goal, for example). I’d rather have the extra money in my emergency savings in case something else happens.

Defer Payments with Interest

For this illustration, you defer three months of payments at the loan’s interest rate with no late fees. If you tap your emergency savings, you re-stock them within a year.

Take Out of Emergency Savings

The transactions are the same under the “Take Out of Emergency Savings” Strategy regardless of whether the creditor charges interest on the deferred payments. I’ve shown the table again so it will be easier to compare it to the “Defer Payments” Strategy under this scenario.

Take Out of Emergency Savings/Wit InterestTodayIn 3 MonthsIn 12 MonthsWhen Debt is Paid in 5 Years
Amount Paid to Creditor from Savings$0$1,590$0$0
Amount Paid to Creditor from Income004,77057,240
Contributions to Savings from Income001,5900
Emergency Savings20,00018,41020,00020,000
Principal50,00049,03046,0460

 

Defer Payments

The table below shows the cash flows and balances if you defer the three months of payments during your time of reduced or no income.

Defer Payments/With InterestTodayIn 3 MonthsIn 12 MonthsWhen Debt is Paid in 5 Years, 3 Months
Amount Paid to Creditor from Savings$0$0$0$0
Amount Paid to Creditor from Income004,83359,607
Contributions to Savings from Income0000
Emergency Savings20,00020,00020,00020,000
Principal50,00050,62847,6440

In the first and third rows, you see no payments to or from your emergency savings. The second row shows the payments you make from your income after the three-month deferral period. For this illustration, the extra interest is added to each payment, increasing it from $530 to $537 a month and your payments extend for an extra three months (see header in last column). As a result, the total of the amounts paid the to creditor are $840 higher than if no interest had been charged.

The last two rows show the ending balances for your emergency savings and principal. Your emergency savings stays constant at $20,000. Your principal increases in the first three months as the additional interest is added during the deferral period. After that, your principal declines to $0 in five years and three months. It is higher at 12 months than under the Take Out of Emergency Savings Strategy because (a) you deferred three months of payments and (b) additional interest accrued.

How I’d Decide

From a financial perspective, you will be better off in this scenario if you make your payments out of your emergency savings because you will avoid paying interest or late fees. You also will have paid off your debt sooner – in five years instead of five years and three months.

Low Interest Rates

If the interest rate on your loan isn’t very high, say less than 6% a year, the additional payments may be relatively small. For example, at a 6% interest rate, the extra accumulated interest on a $200,000 loan with 10 years of payments left (such as our mortgage) is about $3,000. That may sound like a large number, but it adds only $34 to each payment.

Credit Cards

Some people are suggesting that you should make only the minimum payments on your credit cards as a way to keep as much cash in your emergency savings as possible. To date, I haven’t seen any credit card companies that are deferring interest or fees if you don’t pay your credit card in full. Credit card interest rates are generally quite high, often in excess of 10% per year, and many credit card companies charge fees if you don’t pay your balance in full. While many debts have interest rates that are low enough to justify deferring payments, most credit cards do not fall in that category. As such, I would pay off as much of my high-interest credit card balances as I could afford, even it if meant dipping into my emergency savings.

Personal Decision

Here is where the decision to pay or defer your bills becomes more personal. There is an emotional benefit to leaving the money in your emergency savings in case something else happens or your reduction in income lasts longer than you expect. You’ll need to weight that increased comfort level with the additional cost of deferring the payments under this scenario. For many people, the $34 a month increase in their mortgage payment in my illustration is a small cost to pay for the additional comfort. For other people, particularly those whose budgets are already very tight or who have a fixed amount of time until they retire, the increased payments and lengthening of the term of the loan are too expensive. As such, you’ll need to decide for yourself whether to pay or defer your bills, but now you’ll be able to make an informed decision.

Impact on Credit Rating

Another consideration in deciding whether to pay or defer your bills is your credit score. If you miss payments, there could be an adverse impact on your credit score, as timely payment is one of the important factors that drive your score. To be clear, if you make your payments from your emergency savings, there will be no adverse impact on your credit score. If you are not able to make your payments, even from your emergency savings, it is important that you communicate with your creditors and agree to a plan.

What Experian Says

I contacted Experian by e-mail and received the following quote from Rob Griffin, senior director of consumer education and awareness.

If you think you may have trouble making any of your monthly payments, contact your lender or creditor as soon as possible – try not to wait until you’ve missed your payment due date. Lenders may have several options for helping you cope with a variety of COVID-19-related financial hardships including placing your accounts in forbearance or deferment for a period of time. This means effectively suspending your payments until the crisis has passed and can help minimize the impact to the credit score if the account is in good standing and hasn’t had previous delinquencies reported.

While reported in forbearance or deferment, your accounts will have no negative affect on the most common credit scores from FICO and VantageScore. Keep in mind, lenders do not want you to fall behind on your payments any more than you do. Contacting your lenders early can help you protect your financial health in the long run.[1]

Other Credit Bureaus

I found similar statements on the web sites of the other two major credit bureaus, Equifax and Transunion.

How it Impacts You

These statements indicate that you may be able to avoid a deterioration in your credit score if you are proactive with your lenders about skipping or deferring payments.

 

[1] E-mail from Amanda Garofalo, PR Specialist, Experian, March 19, 2020.