Picking Stocks

Many investors create their own portfolios by picking stocks in individual companies. As discussed in my post on the basics of stocks, picking stocks in individual companies is one of several strategies for creating an investment portfolio. Alternatives to picking stocks in individual companies include buying mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. I’ll talk about those strategies in another post.

When I first started investing in the early 1980s, mutual funds were quite common but index funds and exchange-traded funds, while they existed, were not well known. I started my investment story by picking stocks in individual companies. One of the best books I’ve ever read on investing is One Up on Wall Street by Peter Lynch, originally published in 1989.

Confirmation of Independence: I have no affiliation with the author or publisher of the book I am reviewing. I do not receive any compensation for recommending it or if you purchase it.     I truly think it is a great source of investing information.

Lynch was the manager of a very successful mutual fund, the Fidelity Magellan fund, from 1977 to 1990. During that time, the fund had a 29.3% annual average return or more than twice the average return on the S&P 500 over the same time period. If you are considering picking stocks in individual companies, I recommend his book even though it is quite dated. It references companies and trends with which you may not be familiar, but the fundamental concepts are still relevant and it is a quick, easy read.

In this post, I’ll essentially provide an overview of some of the key points I learned from One Up on Wall Street and illustrate them with some personal examples when I can.

Picking Stocks in Companies You Know

One of the first concepts that Lynch introduces is that you are your own local expert. You are familiar with the business in which you work and shop. You are a consumer and you can observe trends in the area in which you live. By watching the world around you, you can identify possible investment opportunities, possibly even before the “market” or “experts” discover them. In many cases, if you identify a trend very early and invest in a company that will benefit from it, you can earn a much-higher-than-market-average return on your investment. In fact, Lynch points to this opportunity as giving individual investors a better chance of beating the market than professional investors who have to invest larger amounts so tend to purchase more mature companies.

Our Kids’ Choices

To illustrate what I mean by “invest in what you know,” I will use an experience we had with our children as an example. When they were in their early teens (probably around 2004 or 2005), we gave them each a very small amount of money to invest. Our son, who was very interested in trains and large equipment, chose the following companies:

  • Microsoft
  • John Deere
  • Canadian Pacific Railway
  • Canadian National Railway
  • ASV – a company that makes skid-steer loaders.

Our daughter, who was much more aware of what was happening in the retail space, chose the following companies:

  • Apple
  • Nordstrom
  • JC Penney
  • Target
  • One other company that I don’t recall.

How it Turned Out

I don’t remember exactly when we started this exercise, so have looked at the two- and five-year average annual returns starting on January 1, 2006. By using two-year returns, I have excluded the impact of the market decline in 2008 and early 2009. The five-year returns go through December 31, 2010, so include the market decline and part of the recovery.

The S&P 500 averaged a 4.5% increase per year during the two-year period and was essentially flat for the five-year period. By comparison, my daughter’s stocks increased at an annual average rate of 9% over the two-year period and 8% over the five-year period. My son did even better, with annual average returns of 15% over the two-year period and 9% over the five-year period.

What is even more impressive about my son’s returns is that his returns were dragged down significantly by a single company – ASV. When my son bought it, the company had its own patented suspension system for its tracks. As I recall, not too much later, it had a change in management. The new management decided to license the patent to Caterpillar. Unfortunately for ASV, Caterpillar’s much larger market share caused a large reduction in ASV’s sales that couldn’t be made up by the licensing fees. Over a several year period, ASV’s stock price went down by about one-third. This experience illustrates another lesson when looking a company’s fundamentals for investment decisions – carefully follow the decisions of any new management teams.

Without ASV, our son’s returns were much more impressive – 19% over the two-year period and 13% over the five-year period.

Don’t Invest in What You Don’t Understand

A related concept, but somewhat different one, is to avoid picking stocks in companies and sectors you don’t understand. Lynch has all sorts of great examples of why people buy stock in companies whose business they don’t understand – hot tips from a “rich uncle,” aggressive buy recommendations from a broker and so on and so forth.

Not understanding a company’s business can be everything from it having a very technical focus to not being familiar with its marketplace (i.e., to whom and how it sells its products) to being so diverse that it is hard to figure out what drives profits.   Essentially, his advice is that, if you can’t explain to someone what the company does in a few sentences, you shouldn’t buy its stock.

One Example of My Choices

I fell into that trap. We had a little extra money many years ago and decided to take some risk by making a very small investment in a private placement. When a company sells its stocks to a small group of investors and not the general public, it is called a private placement.

The two choices we were offered were a company that was marketing telemedicine to the Veterans Administration and a barbeque restaurant that was just opening its first locations. Our assessment was that the restaurant space was grossly overcrowded and that telemedicine would catch on quickly with the aging population and increases in technology. Not understanding that the telemedicine company didn’t actually have any customers or the challenges of getting a contract with the Veterans Administration, we made a very small investment in it.

Were we wrong! Many years later, we wrote off the entire value of the investment in the telemedicine company as it had become worthless. The restaurant was Famous Dave’s.

Ten Baggers

One of Lynch’s goals is picking stocks that are ten-baggers. These are companies whose stocks appreciate to at least 10 times what you paid for them in relatively short periods of time. By identifying trends in your local area, you are more likely to be able to earn the high returns associated with companies that start small and grow rapidly. As an example, consider the increases in Apple’s stock price.

The picture above shows the annual appreciation of Apple stock from 1981 through 2018. If you had owned the stock during any of the years circled in green, you would have more than tripled your money in two years. Not quite 10 times, but 3 to 5 times in 2 years is still a return anyone would envy. If you look at the returns in more recent circled in orange, you’ll see much more modest appreciation. The returns were still very attractive, but much lower than the earlier period.

Lynch points out the benefit of having just one ten-bagger in a portfolio with otherwise mundane performers. For example, if you invest the same amount in 9 stocks each having a total return of 5% per year, your total return in 5 years will be 27.6%. If you add a ten bagger to the mix, your total return increases to 115% or 16.5% per year.

Although our daughter didn’t have any ten baggers, her portfolio benefited from a similar effect. From 2006-2010, her three retail stocks had an annual average return of -1.6%. Apple, on the other hand, was almost a 4.5-bagger (its price at the end of 2010 was 4.4 times its price at the end of 2005). The addition of that one company to her portfolio increased her return from -1.6% to +8.2%!

Do Your Research

Once you’ve identified a company with an appealing product or service, it isn’t time to buy yet! Lynch suggests looking at the company’s financial statements and several financial metrics. I’ll talk about a few of them here.

Percent of Sales

The first thing to check is whether the new “thing” is big enough to have an impact on the profitability of the company. To illustrate, let’s look at two companies that make widgets. Company A makes primarily widgets, so 90% of its sales is from widgets. Company B makes a lot of things. Only 5% of Company B’s sales is from widgets. A new thingamabob has been designed that will double the sales of widgets with no impact on the profit margin (percent of sales cost that turns into profit). Company A’s profit will increase by 90%, whereas Company B’s profit will increase by only 5%. Because stock prices are driven in large part by estimates of future profitability, you would expect that Company A’s stock price would increase much more if it added thingamabobs to its widgets than Company B’s stock price.

Future Earnings

For many reasons identified by Lynch, stock prices don’t always move in line with earnings. Nonetheless, the more that earnings increase, the more that the stock price is likely to go up. Lynch suggests that you make sure you understand how a company plans to grow its earnings.

Ways to Increase Earnings

He identifies the following five ways for increasing earnings:

  • Reduce costs
  • Raise prices
  • Expand into new markets
  • Sell more product to existing markets
  • Revitalize, close or otherwise dispose of losing operations

If you plan to hold the company’s stock for a fairly short time, any of these ways of increasing earnings could provide nice returns. I tend to buy and hold my stocks for a long time (over 25 years in several cases), so I prefer companies whose growth strategies include expanding into new markets or selling more product to existing markets. The other three approaches tend to produce one-time increases to earnings that can’t be replicated over and over again.

Expanding into New Markets

One of the most common ways existing companies expand into new markets is through acquiring other companies. There are many companies that have grown very successfully through acquisition.

Berkshire Hathaway

One such company is Berkshire Hathaway, whose chairman is Warren Buffett. Over the past 40 years, Berkshire Hathaway has purchased such companies as Burlington Northern, Dairy Queen, and Fruit of the Loom, among others. The graph below shows the value of $1 invested in Berkshire Hathaway (stock symbol: BRK-A) since 1980 as compared to a $1 investment in the S&P 500.[1]

Clearly, Berkshire Hathaway has been highly successful in its acquisition strategy.

General Electric

Other companies have been less successful with their expansion and acquisition strategies. One such example is General Electric (GE). When I was young, I thought of GE as primarily manufacturing appliances and light bulbs. The graph below shows how the value of $1 invested in GE increased between 1962 and 2000 as compared to the same investment in the S&P 500.

Clearly, over that time frame, GE was very successful. In fact, my in-laws bought a few shares of GE for each of my kids when they were young (in the 1990s) because it was considered such a great, stable company.

Over the past 20 years, it has expanded its operations into loans, insurance and medical products and related services.   In hindsight, it appears that GE wasn’t sufficiently familiar with all of the business it entered or acquired.  It also used a lot of debt to finance its acquisitions and expansions.  As a result, its stock price suffered. The graph below shows how much a $1 investment in GE’s stock has changed over the past 20 years as compared to the S&P 500.[2]

Comparison

From 2000 to late 2019, Berkshire Hathaway’s stock price went up by a factor of almost 5 while GE’s stock price decreased by more than 50%. Interestingly, GE’s new CEO (hired in 2018) announced a transformation plan that includes selling several of its businesses, allowing it to focus primarily on “safely delivering people where they need to go; powering homes, schools, hospitals, and businesses; and offering more precise diagnostics and care when patients need it most.”[3]

You’ll want to make sure you understand which new markets a company plans to enter, think about whether management has sufficient experience or expertise to expand successfully and understand how much debt the company is using to finance these expansions.

P/E Ratio

The ratio of the price of a company’s stock to its annual earnings is known as the P/E ratio. A P/E ratio is one way to measure whether a company’s stock price is expensive. A rule of thumb mentioned by Lynch is that a stock is reasonably priced when its P/E is about the same as its future earnings growth rate. He acknowledges the important point that the future earnings growth rate isn’t ever known and that lots of experts spend a lot of time incorrectly estimating the earnings growth rate.

Nonetheless, you can at least look to see if a company’s P/E ratio is the right order of magnitude. For example, if you are looking at a company that slowly expands its sales in its current market, its earnings growth rate might be 5% to 7%. If that company’s P/E were 25, you’d know it was expensive. If the P/E ratio were 2, it might be an attractive buy. So, it isn’t necessarily important to know whether the company’s earnings growth rate is going to 5% or 7%, but rather whether it is likely to be 5% or 25%.

Schwab has an entire post on using the P/E ratio as part of stock analyses.

Debt/Equity Ratio

Companies can get cash from three sources to finance their operations – equity (selling shares of stock), borrowing and profits. Long-term debt is the amount of money that a company has borrowed, other than to meet short-term cash needs (such as through a line of credit). Long-term debt frequently is in the form of bank loans or bonds issued by the company.

The ratio of the amount of long-term debt to equity (the difference between assets and liabilities which is an estimate of the value of the company to the stockholders) is known as the debt-to-equity ratio. There are both advantages and disadvantages to a high debt-to-equity ratio. Let’s look at an example.

Company A has $100 of profit before interest (and ignoring taxes) and $60 of interest payments, for net income of $40 ($100 – $60). Company B is the same as Company A but it has no long-term debt, so its net income is $100. If profit before interest went down by 40%, Company B’s net income would also decrease by 40% to $60. Company A’s net income, though would go from $40 to $0 or a 100% decrease. The primary disadvantage of debt is that it magnifies the impact of bad news. The 40% decrease in profit before interest turned into a 100% decrease in net income for Company A with all its debt. This magnification is called leverage or debt leverage.

On the plus side, increases in profits are also magnified. If Company A’s profit before interest increased by 50% to $150, its net income would increase by $50 to $90. The percentage increase in net income in this case is +125% as compared to the +50% increase in Company B’s net income.

Other Metrics

Lynch discusses several other things to check on a company’s financial statements before making an investment.   I talk about one of them, the dividend payout ratio, in my post on investing for dividends. I’ll let you read One Up on Wall Street to learn more about the other metrics and to get Lynch’s views and examples on the ones I’ve discussed here.

Create Your Story

For every company in which you invest, Lynch recommends that you create a story. There are two parts to the story.

Two-Minute Story

First, you should be able to describe the company’s business in what I would call an “elevator speech.” That is, it is important to be able to explain to someone else what the company does and why you think it will grow all in two minutes. If your explanation takes longer, it is likely an indication that the company’s business is too complex to benefit from a trend you observe or you don’t fully understand its business.

Additional Details

Second, you’ll want to have a story for yourself that includes a bit more detail about what you think will cause earnings (and hopefully therefore the stock price) to increase. Is it one of the one-time actions, such as cutting expenses or increases prices, or a longer-term plan to increase sales?

If the former, you’ll want to monitor the progress of those actions. Are they being implemented? Have they been effective? Has their full impact been reflected in earnings and/or the stock price? If the company’s plans don’t come to fruition or they were successful and reflected in earnings, you’ll want to evaluate whether you want to continue to own the company’s stock or whether it is time to sell it.

If the latter, you’ll want to understand what steps the company plans to take to increase sales. You can then monitor the company’s progress towards those plans. If it doesn’t appear to be on track, it might be time to considering selling the stock and investing in another company.

Final Thoughts

As I re-read Lynch’s book in preparation for writing this post, I was reminded how many useful tidbits he provides in it. Interspersed among the anecdotes are lots of lists, checklists and guidance on everything from identifying a company in which to possibly invest to determining the company’s growth pattern to reading financials to designing your portfolio. If you plan to start picking stocks in individual companies, I highly recommend One Up on Wall Street by Peter Lynch as a good first book on the topic. If you are looking for a shorter source for similar information, I suggest this post from Schwab.

 

 

[1] Taken from Yahoo Finance, November 8, 2019.

[2] Taken from Yahoo Finance on November 8, 2019

[3] General Electric 2008 Annual Report, https://www.ge.com/investor-relations/sites/default/files/GE_AR18.pdf, p3.

Investing for Dividends

Investing for dividends is one of many strategies investors use to identify stocks for their portfolios. Among the strategies I identified in my post on what you need to know about stocks, this is not one that I have ever used.  So I reached out to one of my Twitter followers who uses it to get more information, Dividend Diplomats (aka Lanny and Bert) to get some real-life insights. With Lanny’s and Bert’s help, I will:

  • define dividends.
  • talk about the criteria that Lanny and Bert use for selecting companies and why they are important.
  • show some historical returns for dividend-issuing companies.
  • explain the tax implications of dividends on your total return.

What are Dividends?

A dividend is a cash distribution from a company to its shareholders. The amount of the dividend is stated on a per-share basis.  The amount of cash you receive is equal to the number of shares you own times the amount of the dividend. When companies announce that they are going to pay a dividend, they provide two dates.  The first is the date on which share ownership is determined (also known as the ex-dividend date).  The second is the date on which the dividend will be paid. For example, a company might declare a 15₵ dividend to people who own shares on May 1 payable on May 15. Even if you sell your stock between May 1 and May 15, you will get 15₵ for every share you owned on May 1.

When a company earns a profit, it has two choices for what to do with the profit. Under one option, the company can keep the profit and use it to support future operations. For example, the company might buy more equipment to allow it to increase the number of products is makes or might buy another company to expand its operations. Under the second option, the company distributes some or all of its profit to shareholders as dividends. My experience is that companies that are growing rapidly tend to keep their profits, whereas companies that can’t find enough opportunities to reinvest their profits to fund growth tend to issue dividends.

Dividend Diplomats – A Little Background

Lanny and Bert have been blogging for over 5.5 years and have been best friends for 7.  They both are pursuing the same goal of reaching financial freedom and retiring early to break the “9 to 5” chains.  They hope to achieve financial freedom through dividend investing, frugal living, and using as many “personal finance” hacks as possible to keep expenses low and bring in additional income. For more information about the Dividend Diplomats, check out their web site at www.dividenddiplomats.com.

Why Use the Investing for Dividends Strategy

As you’ll see in future posts, I have used several strategies for my stock investments, but have never focused on investing for dividends.

My Preconceived Notions

I have always considered investing for dividends as most appropriate for people who need the cash to pay their living expenses, such as people who are retired. I am retired, but currently have cash and some bonds that I use to cover my living expenses. As I get further into retirement, I will need to start liquidating some of my stocks or start investing for dividends.

Lanny’s & Bert’s Motivation

So, when I started reading about Lanny and Bert, I wondered why people who are still working (and a lot younger than I am) would be interested in investing for dividends.   Here’s what they said.

“There were a few different motivating factors.

Lanny had endured a very difficult childhood, where money was always limited and his family had struggled financially.   Due to this, he personally wanted to never have to worry about money, period.

Bert was not a dividend growth investor until he met Lanny.  Once he talked to Lanny, learned about dividend investing, and saw the math, he was sold and hasn’t looked back since.

Therefore, we are looking to build a growing passive income stream so we can retire early and pursue our passions.  Building a stream of growing, truly passive dividend income has always been a very attractive option to us.  We love the fact that dividend income is truly passive (outside of initial capital, we don’t have to lift a finger) and we are building equity in great, established companies that have paid dividends throughout various economic cycles.

Second, the math just makes sense.  It is crazy how quickly your income stream grows when you are anticipating a dividend growth rate of 6%+ (on average).  Lanny writes an article each quarter showing the impact of dividend increases and we have demonstrated the impact of dividend reinvesting on our site in the past. When you see the math on paper, it is insane. “

Lanny and Bert provided links to a couple of their posts that illustrate the math: Impact of Dividend Increases and Power of Dividend Reinvesting.

Lanny’s & Bert’s Strategy

Lanny and Bert developed a dividend stock screener that helps them identify undervalued dividend growth stocks in which to consider investing.  At a minimum, the companies must pass three metrics to be further considered for investment:

  • Valuation (P/E Ratio) less than the market average.
  • Payout Ratio Less than 60%. (Unless the industry has a higher benchmarked figure. i.e. oil, tobacco, utilities, REITs, etc., then they compare to the industry payout ratio.)
  • History of increasing dividends.

They don’t consider dividend yield until later in the process.  They never advocate chasing dividend yield at the risk of dividend safety. That is, they would rather a dividend that has very low risk of being reduced or eliminated (i.e., safety) than a higher dividend be unsustainable over the long term.

That’s why they don’t look at yield initially.  It allows them to focus on the important metrics that help them gain comfort over the safety of the dividend.  Here is a link to their Dividend Stock Screener.

Payout Ratio

Lanny and Bert mention that that one of their key metrics is a payout ratio. A dividend payout ratio is the annual amount of a company’s dividend divided by its earnings per share.  For more about earnings per share, check out my post on reading financial statements.

A dividend payout ratio of less than 1 means that a company is retaining some of its earnings and distributing the rest. If the ratio is more than 1, it means that the company is earning less money than it is paying out in dividends.

I worked for a company that had a payout ratio of more than 1. When I first started working there, the company had more capital than it could use. The company was returning its excess capital to its shareholders through the high dividend. After several years, the company’s capital approached the amount it needed to support its business. If it had cut its dividend to an amount lower than its earnings, the stock price might have decreased significantly. Instead, the company was sold. Had the company not been sold, its shareholders might have had both a decrease in future dividend payments and a reduction in the value of their stock at the same time.  This double whammy (dividend cut at the same time as a price decrease) is a risk of owning a stock in a dividend-issuing company especially those with high dividend payout ratios.

Performance – Lanny and Bert’s View

Lanny and Bert are not assuming they can do better than management or the market.  As noted above, they tend to focus on companies with a dividend payout ratio less than 60%.  This approach allows for all three of increasing dividends to shareholders, share repurchases, and internal growth for profit.  Also, this approach ensures the company is continuing to invest in itself as well.  You can’t pay a dividend in the future if you can’t grow, or even maintain, your current earnings stream.  Therefore, if revenues are stagnant or shrinking, the safety of the company’s dividend comes into question.  Companies “can” pay out a dividend that is larger than your earnings over the short-to-medium term.  However, it is not sustainable as was the case with the company for which I worked.

Historical Performance

I was curious about how stocks that met Lanny and Bert’s criteria performed. I have a subscription to the ValueLine Analyzer Plus. It contains current and historical financial data and stock prices about hundreds of companies. I looked at two time periods.  I first looked at the most recent year (November 2018 to November 2019).  Because I was curious about how those stocks performed in the 2008 crash, I also looked at the ten-year period from 2003 to 2013. I would have used a shorter period around the 2008 crash and the period thereafter, but didn’t save the data in the right format so had to look at time periods for which I had saved the data in an accessible manner.

How I Measured Performance

For both time periods, I identified all stocks for which the data I needed for the analysis were available at both the beginning and end of the period.  There were 1,505 companies included in the sample in the 2018-2019 period and 952 companies for the 2003 to 2013 period.

I then identified companies (a) whose dividend grew in each of the previous two fiscal years, (b) whose dividend payout ratio was less than 60% and (c) whose P/B ratio was less than the average of all of the companies in the same. That is, I attempted to identify the companies that met Lanny and Bert’s criteria. There were 332 companies in the 2018-2019 period and 109 companies in the 2003-2013 period that met these criteria.

ValueLine ranks companies based on what it calls Timeliness, with companies with Timeliness ratings of 1 having the best expected performance and those having a rating of 5 having the worst expected performance. Because I suspected that Bert and Lanny’s screen would tend to select more companies with favorable Timeliness ratings than those with poorer ones, I looked at both the overall results, as well as the results by Timeliness rating.

November 2018 – November 2019

In the most recent year, the stocks that met Lanny’s and Bert’s criteria had an average total return (dividends plus change in stock price) of 11% as compared to 8.5% for the total sample. That is, in the current market, dividend issuing companies meeting their criteria returned more than the average of all companies.

Interestingly, when I stratified the companies by Timeliness rating, it showed that for companies with good Timeliness ratings (1 and 2), the Lanny’s and Bert’s companies underperformed the group. For companies with two of the three lower Timeliness ratings (3 and 5), though, Lanny’s and Bert’s companies not only did better than the average of all companies in the group, but also did better than even the group of companies with a Timeliness rating of 1! It looks to me as if their approach might identify some gems in what otherwise appear to be poorer performing companies.

The chart below shows these comparisons.

2003 to 2013

Over the longer time period from 2003 to 2013, the companies meeting Lanny’s and Bert’s criteria didn’t do quite as well as the average of all companies. In this case, the stocks meeting their criteria had a compound annual return of 5% as compared to 7% for all stocks in the sample. Without more data, it is hard to tell whether the difference in return is the sample of dividend-issuing companies is small, because those companies didn’t fare as well during the Great Recession or something else.

I looked at the total returns by Timeliness rating and the results were inconsistent for both the “all stocks” group and the ones that met our criteria. A lot can happen in 10 years! Nonetheless, it was interesting to see that the dividend-yielding stocks that had Timeliness ratings of 5 in 2003 out performed all other subsets of the data. So, while these stocks didn’t have quite as high a total return over the 10-year period in the aggregate, there are clearly some above-average performers within the group.

Tax Ramifications of Dividends

One of the drawbacks of investing in companies with dividends, as opposed to companies that reinvest their earnings for growth, is that you might need to pay taxes on the dividend income as it gets distributed.

Types of Accounts

If you hold your dividend-yielding stocks in a tax-deferred (e.g., Traditional IRA or 401(k) in the US or RRSP in Canada) or tax-free (e.g., Roth IRA or 401(k) in the US or TFSA in Canada), it doesn’t matter whether your returns are in the form of price appreciation or dividends. Your total return in each of those types of accounts gets taxed the same. That is, if you hold the stocks in a tax-deferred account, you will pay tax on your total returns, regardless of whether it is interest, dividends or appreciation, at your ordinary income tax rate. If you hold the stocks in a tax-free account, you won’t pay taxes on any returns.

The only type of account in which it matters whether your return is in the form of price appreciation or dividends is a taxable account. In the US, most people pay 15% Federal income tax plus some additional amount for state income taxes on dividends in the year in which they are issued. They pay taxes at the same rate on capital gains, but only when the stock is sold, not as the price changes from year to year. In Canada, the difference is even greater. Dividends are taxed at your ordinary income tax rate (i.e., they are added to your wages) and capital gains are taxed at 50% of your ordinary income tax rate and only when you sell the stock.

Dividend Reinvestment

When you earn dividends from a company, you often have the option to automatically reinvest the dividends in the same company’s stock. This process is a dividend reinvestment plan. Lanny and Bert take this approach.

Dividend reinvestment plans are terrific ways to make sure you stay invested in companies that you like, as you don’t have to remember to buy more stock when the dividend is reinvested. The drawback of dividend reinvestment plans is that you will owe tax on the amount of the dividend, even if you don’t receive it in cash. If you reinvest 100% of your dividends, you’ll need to have cash from some other source to pay the taxes unless you hold the investments in a tax-free or tax-deferred account.

Illustration

Let’s assume you are a US investor subject to the 15% Federal tax rate and pay no state income tax. You have two companies you are considering. You expect each to have a total return of 8%. One company’s return will be 100% in dividends, while the other company issues no dividends. You plan to own the stock for 10 years. Your initial investment will be $1,000 and you will pay your income taxes out of your dividends, so you reinvest 85% of the dividends you earn each year.

At the end of the 10th year, you will have $1,931 if you buy the company with 8% dividends. If you buy the company with no dividends, your stock will be worth $2,159. After you pay capital gains tax of $174, you will have $1,985 or 2.8% more than if you buy stock in the company that issues 8% dividends.

If you pay Canadian taxes, the difference is even bigger because of the much lower tax rate on capital gains than dividends. Over the full ten-year period, you will end up with almost 11% more if you buy stock in the company with no dividends than if you buy stock in the dividend-issuing company.

As such, you’ll want to put as much of your portfolio of dividend-issuing stocks in a tax-deferred or tax-free account as possible to minimize the impact of taxes on your total return.

Reading Financial Statements

Reading financial statement guides many investors in their decisions to buy and sell stocks.   Investors who focus on financial fundamentals look at recent financial statements in the context of other trends to estimate how much a company’s future profit might grow.  High-dividend yield investors need to understand the company’s financial statements to evaluate the sustainability of current dividend payments into the future.

Before investing in the stock of individual companies, it is good to understand the basics of their financial statements. In this post, I’ll identify the important values in the income statement and balance sheet and discuss important ratios that investors use to evaluate financial performance.  This post provides the basics of how stocks work.  In future posts, I’ll illustrate how these values can be used to evaluate companies and their stock prices under different investment strategies.

McCormick

Every company’s financial statements will be slightly different because every business is different. For illustration, I will use excerpts from the financial statements in the McCormick 2018 Annual Report. McCormick sells spices under its own name, but also owns the French’s mustard, Club House crackers and Lawry’s seasonings brands, among others. To be clear, my selection of McCormick for illustration is not intended to be a recommendation.

In this post, I’ll explain the key line items in McCormick’s financial statements.  If you are interested in other line items, you can either ask me in the comments or by e-mail or do some research on your own.

Income Statement

An income statement presents a summary of the financial aspects of a company’s operations and other financial transactions that occur during the financial reporting period. Publicly traded companies are required to provide their income statements to financial regulators (e.g., the Security & Exchange Commission in the US) quarterly and annually in reports known as the 10-Q and 10-K, respectively.

Here is a picture of the income statement from the McCormick 2018 Annual Report.[1]   All of the numbers in the excerpts from McCormick’s financial statements are in millions.

Revenue is the money that a company receives for the goods and services it delivered during the year.  As you can see in its income statement McCormick had $5.4 billion in total revenues (net sales) in 2018.

Expenses

Expenses represents all the money that a company spends in the year, with one exception.

Depreciation

When the company purchases something that is expected to last for a long time, it is called a capital asset. Companies don’t include the full cost of capital assets in expenses in the year in which they buy them. Rather, they spread the costs of capital assets over several years. The amount spread to each year is called depreciation. The depreciation of capital assets is included on the Income Statement, not the actual cash expense.

Operating Expenses or Cost of Goods Sold

Operating expenses, sometimes called Cost of Goods Sold for sellers of products, are those that are directly related to the manufacture of products or provision of services sold in the year. For McCormick, these expenses were $3.0 billion in 2018.

General and Administrative (G&A) Expenses

G&A expenses, sometimes called overhead expenses, represent the cost to run the company and are not directly related to specific products or services. Some companies include research and development (R&D) expenses with G&A expenses while others show them separately. For McCormick, these expenses were about $1.4 billion, an amount I had to find in its Notes to Financial Statements.

Other Income/Expenses

There are many types of income and expenses that don’t relate to products and services and aren’t G&A expenses. These items are usually small relative to the other line items on the income statement. For McCormick, there are three line items that fall in the Other Income/Expenses category

  • Transaction and integration expenses of $22 million
  • Special charges of $16 million
  • Other income, net of $13 million

These amounts combine to a net total of $25 million (=$22 million + $16 million – $13 million) in 2018. Compared to the other revenue and expense items, all of which are measured in billions of dollars, these amounts are small, as expected.

Interest Expenses

Interest expense represents interest that the company pays on its debt.  McCormick’s had $175 million of interest expense in 2018.

Income Taxes

These expenses represent income taxes that the company pays to any federal, state or local governments. McCormick had a tax benefit of $157 million in 2018. By looking at the Notes to Financial Statements included in the Annual Report, I found that McCormick owed $183 million in taxes related to 2018 operations, but the reduction in the US Federal tax rate on corporations in early 2018 caused an adjustment to McCormick’s tax liabilities. The decrease in tax rate created a benefit of $340 million. The $157 million tax benefit on the income statement is equal to the $183 million for current operations offset by the $340 million reduction in future taxes. When looking at McCormick’s profits going forward, the $183 million of taxes for current operations is the more important number because the $340 million is a one-time adjustment.

Accrual Basis vs. Cash Basis

One of the hardest things for most people to understand about income statements is the difference between the values on the income statement and the cash the company receives and pays. The income statement is said to be on an “accrual” basis. Accrual amounts relate to goods and services delivered during the year, regardless of when the cash is actually received or paid.

To clarify, revenues on the income statement represent the amount of cash the company has or will receive for goods or services delivered in the year. If the company hasn’t received some of its compensation for goods or services by the end of the year, it creates an asset on its balance sheet for accounts receivable. If it receives the cash before it delivers the goods or services, it creates a liability for goods or services due to customers.

Similarly, the expenses on the income statement relate to the products or services delivered in the year. If a company has to pay for components of its products, for example, before it delivers them, it will create an asset on its balance sheet for inventory. If it hasn’t paid all of the bills related to products delivered in the year, it creates a liability on the balance sheet for accounts payable.

As you can see, many balance sheet items (discussed further below) are really differences between amounts accrued on the income statement and actual cash received or paid.

Measures of Profit

Companies have several measures of profit. They can be measured as either dollar amounts or percentages or revenues. In this post, I’ll put “%” after the type of profit when I’m referring to the profit as a percentage of revenue.

Gross Margin

The gross margin is calculated as revenues minus operating expenses. This line is labeled as “Gross profit” in the McCormick income statement. In 2018, McCormick’s gross margin was $2.4 billion and corresponds to 44% of revenues. It represents the amount of profit the company would have had if its only expenses were those directly related to products and services.

Operating Income

Operating income is calculated as the gross margin minus G&A expenses and some components of other income and expenses. For 2018, McCormick’s operating income was $903 million or 17% of revenues. It represents the amount of profit the company would have had if it didn’t have any interest expense or taxes. It is sometimes called EBIT or earnings before interest and taxes.

Pre-tax Income

Pre-tax income is calculated as operating income minus interest expense and some components of other income and expenses. For 2018, McCormick had $741 million of pre-tax income (also known as EBIT or earnings before income taxes) or 14% of revenues.

Net Income

Net income is the bottom-line profit after taxes. It is calculated as pre-tax income minus income taxes. For 2018, McCormick had net income of $899 million. Recall, though, that McCormick had a one-time benefit from the change in tax rate of $340 million, so its net income would have been $559 million on a “normalized” basis or 10% of revenues. This adjusted net income is a better value for estimating future profits, as McCormick won’t get the benefit of a tax rate change every year.

Other Comprehensive Income

There are some values that impact the net worth of a company that don’t appear in the calculation of net income, but rather appears either at the bottom of the Income Statement or on a separate schedule in the financials. These items are referred to as Other Comprehensive Income. They can include the impact of changes in foreign exchange rates, certain transactions or changes in valuation related to investments and changes in the value of pension plans. As with other income, Other Comprehensive Income is usually small relative to other values on the income statement. If it isn’t, you’ll want to read the Notes to Financial Statements to understand the sources of Other Comprehensive Income and how it might affect profitability and growth in the future.

Balance Sheet

A balance sheet shows everything that a company owns or is owed (assets) and owes (liabilities) on a particular date.  As I mentioned earlier that many balance sheet items represent the differences between what the company has accrued on its income statement and what it has actually paid or received in cash. The balance sheet also shows the difference between assets and liabilities, which corresponds to its net worth or shareholders’ equity.

Here is a picture of McCormick’s 11/30/18 balance sheet taken from its Annual Report.[2]

Assets

Assets represent the value of things the company owns and amounts it is owed. Current assets are assets that a company can sell and turn into cash within a year. They are usually reported separately on a balance sheet.

McCormick had $10 billion in total assets on November 30, 2018. As you can see, inventory was its largest current asset at $786 million. Inventory represents the amount already spent on products that are ready to be sold or are in the process of being manufactured.

McCormick’s largest assets overall are its $4.5 billion of goodwill and $2.9 billion of intangible assets. These assets appear on some companies’ financial statements but not others. As you look at the net worth of a company, you’ll want to understand these assets.

Goodwill is created when one company buys another for a price that is higher than the net worth of the acquired company. That difference between the price and the net worth is intended to represent the present value of future profits on the acquired business. Goodwill is generally reduced as the profits emerge. In 2017, McCormick’s bought RB Foods which includes the French’s mustard, Frank’s RedHot and Cattlemen’s brands. More than three-quarters of McCormick’s goodwill was created when it bought RB Foods.

In McCormick’s case, the intangible assets represent the value of its brand names and trademarks. Although not exactly correct, the amount can be thought of as the present value of the future profits McCormick thinks it will get as the result of owning the brand names and trademarks.

Liabilities

Liabilities represent money or the value of products or services a company owes to others. McCormick had $7.1 billion in liabilities on November 30, 2018. The largest of these liabilities was Long Term Debt of $4.1 billion. McCormick issued roughly $3.4 billion in debt to finance its acquisition of RB Foods in 2017.

Equity

Shareholders’ equity represents the difference between assets and liabilities. It represents what is known as the “book value” of the company. On November 30, 2018, Boeing’s shareholders’ equity was $3.2 billion.

Key Financial Ratios

When deciding whether to buy or sell stock in a company, there are a number of ratios that many investors consider. I’ve highlighted a few important ones in this section, using the McCormick financial statement excerpts from above for illustration. I note that I have used simplified versions of the financial statements and the calculations, so you will likely see published values for McCormick that differ a bit from those calculated here.

ROE or Return on Equity

Return on equity (ROE) can be approximated as Net Income for the year divided by Shareholders’ Equity at the beginning of the year. For McCormick, it is approximated for 2018 as the $899 million of net income divided by the $2,571 million of shareholders’ equity at the end of its 2017 fiscal year or 35%. That ROE is very high. Recall, though, that McCormick had a one-time tax benefit of $340 million in 2018. If we exclude that benefit as it won’t be repeated in the future, we get an adjusted ROE of 22%.

According to CSI Market[3], the average ROE for the total market for 2018 was around 13%. ValueLine, a source for lots of qualitative and quantitative information about companies, reports that the average ROE for companies in the food processing industry (in which McCormick falls) is about 15%.[4] As such, even McCormick’s adjusted ROE is higher than these averages.

P/E Ratio or Price/Earnings Ratio

The Price/Earnings or P/E ratio is the stock price divided by the earnings per share. McCormick had roughly 130 million shares of stock outstanding in 2018. As such, its earnings per share was about $7 (=$899 million/130 million shares). McCormick’s stock price on November 30, 2018 (the date of the financial statements) was $150, which corresponds to a P/E ratio of about 22.

According to ValueLine, the average P/E of companies in the food processing industry on October 31, 2019 was 23. By comparison, the average P/E for the market has been between 16 and 18 for the past year or so. As such, McCormick’s P/E is in line with its peers. If we adjust McCormick’s earnings to exclude the one-time tax benefit, its earnings per share would have been about $4.25 per share. When we divided the $150 stock price by this smaller number, the adjusted P/E is about 35 or much higher than its peers.

P/B Ratio or Price/Book Ratio

The Price/Book or P/B ratio is the stock price divided by shareholders’ equity (book value) per share. McCormick’s equity as of November 30, 2018 was $3,182 million. When divided by the number of outstanding shares, the book value per share was $24. The stock price divided by the book value is about 0.90. ValueLine indicates that the average P/B ratio on October 31, 2019 for the food processing industry was about 3.3 or much higher than McCormicks’ P/B ratio.

P/B Ratio > 1

When the P/B ratio is greater than 1, the difference between the stock price and the book value per share is the present value of future earnings estimated by investors. The higher the P/B ratio, the higher the value investors place on future earnings.

P/B < 1

When the P/B ratio is less than 1, it means that investors either think that the future earnings are going to negative (which doesn’t appear to be the case for McCormick) or they don’t think shareholders’ equity is fairly valued. In the case of McCormick, it could be that investors think that the goodwill and intangible assets might be overvalued or they might be concerned that the future reductions to income as the goodwill and intangible assets are reduced will have a significant adverse impact on earnings. If either of those is the case, investors may be adjusting the company’s book value (equity) in their analyses for their perceived overstatement of goodwill and intangible assets.

Within the group of investors who look at financial fundamentals for decision-making, there is a subset called “value investors.” Value investors look for companies whose stock price doesn’t full reflect the value of the company which is often determined by P/B ratios of less than 1.00. A value investor who was confident that McCormick could maintain its current profitability and that the company had fairly estimated its goodwill and intangible assets might find McCormick to be an attractive stock.

Debt-to-Equity Ratio

Both debt and equity are ways in which a company can get money to finance their operations – either when it issues bonds or new shares of stock. The sum of the two is sometimes called total capital.

The Debt-to-Equity ratio is the amount of long-term debt divided by shareholders’ equity and is a measure of the mix the company has chosen to use for financing its operations, growth or acquisitions. McCormick has a total of $4.1 billion of debt ($4.05 billion recorded as long-term debt plus $84 million reported as the portion of long-term debt on its balance sheet). The debt-to-equity ratio is 1.30 (=4.1/3.2).

The higher the debt-to-equity ratio, the more leveraged a company is said to be. To clarify, when there is a lot of leverage, its ROE will be much higher than if some or all of the debt were equity instead. For example, McCormick’s ROE for 2018 was 35%. If all of its debt had been equity instead, its ROE would have been 13% (=$899 million/[$3.2 billion + $4.1 billion]).   The opposite it true when a company has a negative ROE. If McCormick’s ROE in 2018 had been -10% based on its current leverage, it would have been only -4% if it had only equity capital instead of its current mix of debt and equity.

Tangible Equity/Total Equity

I wasn’t planning to talk about tangible equity in this post, but my choice of McCormick almost forces me to. If you recall, I pointed out earlier in this post that McCormick’s two biggest assets are Goodwill and Intangible Assets. If a company encounters financial difficulties, it sometimes has to reduce or write-off the value of any goodwill or intangible assets. When these assets are reduced, its total equity will be reduced by the same amount, after adjustment for income taxes. In addition, goodwill and intangible assets are reduced as the future profits are expected to be earned. As such, goodwill and other intangible assets cause future net income to be lower than it would otherwise be, even if there are no write-offs.

Tangible equity is equal to total equity minus goodwill minus intangible assets. Because these assets can’t be quickly turned into cash and can have their value reduced, many investors look at ratio of tangible equity to total equity. The total of McCormick’s goodwill and intangible assets was $7.4 billion. This amount is more than twice its shareholders’ equity. What this means is that McCormick’s book value would become negative if it were required to write-down more than half of its goodwill and intangible assets.  As long as everything goes as expected, though, McCormick will be just fine. As such, this ratio is a measure of the riskiness of the stock price.

Earnings Growth Rate

Another important metric that investors consider is the earnings growth rate. When considering when to buy a stock, investors try to estimate future earnings growth rates. In the estimation process, they often consider historical growth rates. The historical earnings growth rate is the ratio of this year’s net income to last year’s net income minus 1.00.

For McCormick, after adjustment for the one-time tax benefit, the earnings growth rate from 2017 to 2018 was 25% (=$559 million / $444 million – 1). From 2016 to 2017, it was a much more modest 2%.

Stock prices tend to reflect estimated future earnings as well as estimated future earnings growth rates. There are many investment analysts who estimate the future earnings growth rates for publicly-traded companies. Yahoo Finance and most large brokerage firms’ web sites include information about analysts’ estimates of future earnings growth rates. Also, some investors look at recent growth rates and trends in the markets in which companies operate to estimate the future earnings growth rates.

Investing Decisions

These ratios, along with others, are often used by investors to evaluate the financial condition of the company and the reasonableness of its stock price. For example, one rule of thumb is that stocks are fairly priced when the P/E ratio is less than the expected future earnings growth rate. I’ll take about this rule of thumb and other decision criteria in future posts in my series on investing in stocks.

[1] https://ir.mccormick.com/financial-information, 2018 Annual Report, p50.

[2] https://ir.mccormick.com/financial-information, 2018 Annual Report, p. 51.

[3] https://csimarket.com/Industry/industry_ManagementEffectiveness.php?&hist=4, November 7, 2019

[4] ValueLine Investment Analyzer, October 31, 2019.

What You Need to Know About Stocks

Stocks are a common choice for many investors.  There are two types of stocks – preferred and common.  Because most investors buy common stocks, they will be the subject of this post.  I’ll talk about what you need to know about stocks before you buy them, including:

  • Stocks and how they work.
  • The price you will pay.
  • The risks of owning stocks.
  • Approaches people use for selecting stocks.
  • How stock are taxed.
  • When you might consider buying stocks.
  • How to buy a stock.

What are Stocks?

Stocks are ownership interests in companies.  They are sometimes called equities or shares.  When you buy a stock, you receive a certificate that indicates the number of shares you own.  If you buy your investments through a brokerage firm, it will hold your certificates for you.  If you buy them directly, you will usually receive the certificate (and will want to maintain it in an extremely safe place as it is your only proof that you own the stock).  Some companies track their stock’s owners electronically, so you may not always get a physical certificate.

How Do Stocks Work?

Companies sell stock as a way to raise money.  The company receives the amount paid for the shares of stock when they are issued, minus a fee paid to the investment banker that assists with the sale.  The process of issuing stock is called a public offering.  The first time a company offers its shares to the public, it is called an initial public offering (IPO).

Stockholder-Company Interactions

After the stock has been sold by the company, the stockholder has the following interactions with the company:

  • It receives any dividends paid by the company.
  • It gets to vote on matters brought before shareholders at least annually.  These issues include election of directors, advisory input on executive compensation, selection of auditors and other matters.
  • It has the option to sell the stock back to the company if the company decides to repurchase some of its stock.

In addition to these benefits of owning stock, you also can sell it at the then-current market price at any time.

Why Companies Care About Their Stock Prices

Interestingly, after the stock has been sold by the company, future sales of the stock do not impact the finances of the company other than its impact on executive compensation.  That is, if you buy stock in a company other than when it is issued, you pay for the stock and the proceeds go to the seller (who isn’t the company)!

You might wonder, then, why a company might care about its stock price.  That’s where executive compensation comes in!  Many directors and senior executives at publicly traded companies have a portion of their compensation either paid in stock or determined based on the price of the company’s stock.  When the leadership owns a lot of stock or is paid based on the stock price, it has a strong incentive to act in a way that will increase the price of the stock.  As such, with appropriate incentive compensation for directors and executives, their interests are more closely aligned with yours (i.e., you both want the price of the company’s stock to go up).

What Price Will I Pay?

The price you will pay for a stock is the amount that the person selling the stock is willing to take in payment.  Finance theory asserts that the price of a stock should be the present value of the cash flows you will receive as the owner of a stock.

In my post on bonds, I explain present values.  They apply fairly easily to the price of a bond, as the cash flows to the owner of a bond are fairly clear – the coupons or interest payments and the return of the principal on a known date.

By comparison, the cash flows to the owner of a stock are much more uncertain.  There are two types of cash flows to the owner of a stock – dividends and the money you receive when you sell the stock.

Dividends

Dividends are amounts paid by the company to stockholders.  Many companies pay dividends every quarter or every year.  In most cases, the amount of these dividends stay fairly constant or increase a little bit every year.  The company, though, is under no obligation to pay dividends and can decide at any time to stop paying them.  As such, while many people assume that dividends will continue to be paid, there is more uncertainty in whether they will be paid than there is with bond interest.

Proceeds from the Sale of the Stock

The owner of the stock will receive an amount equal to the number of shares sold times the price per share at the time of sale.  This cash flow has two components of uncertainty to it.

  1. You don’t know when you will sell it. You therefore don’t know for how long you need to discount this cash flow to calculate the present value.
  2. It is impossible to predict the price of a stock in the future.

What are the Risks?

The biggest risk of buying a stock is that its value could decrease.   At the extreme, a company could go bankrupt.  In a bankruptcy, creditors (e.g., employees and vendors) are paid first.  If there is money left after creditors have been paid, then the remaining funds are used to re-pay a portion of any bond principal.  By definition, there isn’t enough money to pay all of the creditors and bondholders when there is a bankruptcy.  As such, the bondholders will not get all of their principal re-paid and there will be no money left after payment has been made to bondholders and creditors.  When there is no money left in the company, the stock becomes worthless.

Any of the following factors (and others) can cause the price of the stock to go down.

Economic Conditions Change

Changes in economic conditions can cause the interest rate used for discounting in the present value calculation to increase. When the interest rate increases, present values (estimates of the price) will go down.

Company Changes

Something changes at the company that causes other investors to believe that the company’s profits will be less than previously expected. One simple way that some investors estimate the price of a company’s stock is to multiply the company’s earnings by a factor, called the price-to-earnings ratio or P/E ratio.  Although P/E ratios aren’t constant over time, the price of a stock goes down when its earnings either decrease or are forecast to be lower than expected in the future. For more about P/E ratios and how a company calculates and reports on its earnings, check out this post

Increased Risk

Changes either in the economy or at the company can cause investors to think that the future profits of the company are more uncertain, i.e., riskier. When a cash flow is perceived to be riskier, a higher interest rate is used in the present value calculation.  This concept is illustrated in my post on bonds in the graph that shows how interest rates on bonds increase as the credit rating of the company goes down.  Recall that lower credit ratings correspond to higher risk.  The same concept applies to stock prices.  The prices of riskier stocks are less than the prices of less risky stocks if all other things are equal.

How Do People Decide What to Buy?

There are a number of approaches investors use to decide in which companies to buy stocks and when to buy and sell them.   I will discuss several of them in future posts.

Reasonable Price Investing

Reasonable price investors look at the financial fundaments and stock prices of companies to decide whether and when to buy and sell them.

Technical Analysis

Technical analysts, sometimes called momentum investors, look at patterns in the movement of the prices of companies’ stocks.  Day traders tend to be technical analysts whose time horizon for owning a stock can be hours or days.

High-Yield Investing

Some investors focus on companies who issue dividends.

Mutual Funds and Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)

Rather than invest in individual companies, some investors purchase either mutual or exchange-traded funds.  Under this approach, the investor relies on the fund managers to select the companies and determine when to buy and sell each position.

How are Stocks Taxed?

There are two ways in which stocks can impact your income taxes:

  • When you receive a dividend.
  • When you sell your ownership interest in the stock.

The total amount of the dividend is subject to tax.  The difference between the proceeds of selling the stock and the amount you paid for the stock is called a realized capital gain or loss.  It is gain if the sale proceeds is more than the purchase amount and a loss if the sale proceeds are less than the purchase amount.

In the US, realized capital gains and losses on stocks you have owned for more than a year are added to dividends.  For most people, the sum of these two amounts is taxed at 15%.  For stocks owned for less than a year, the realized capital gains are taxed at your ordinary tax rate (i.e., the rate you pay on your wages).

In Canada, dividends and half of your realized capital gains are added to your wages.  The total of those amounts is subject to your ordinary income tax rate.

When Should I Buy Stocks?

Understand Stocks

The most important consideration in determining when to buy stocks is that you understand how stocks work.  One of the messages I wished I had given our children is to invest only in things you understand.  If you don’t understand stocks, you don’t want to invest in them.

Understand the Companies or Funds

You also want to make sure you understand the particular company or fund you are purchasing.  One of the biggest investing mistakes I made was when I was quite young and didn’t understand the business of the company whose stock I owned.

My parents gave me some shares of a company called Wang Laboratories.  In the 1970s and early 1980s, Wang was one of the leaders in the market for dedicated word processors.  Picture a desktop computer with a monitor that’s only software was Microsoft Word, only much harder to use.  That was Wang’s biggest product.  At one time, the stock price was $42.  Not understanding that PCs were entering the market and would be able to do so much more than a dedicated word processor, I was oblivious.  As the stock started going down, I sold a few shares in the high $30s.  When the stock dropped to $18, I told myself I would sell the rest when it got back to $21.  It never did.  A year or so later, the stock was completely worthless. Fortunately, I was young enough that I had a lot of time to recover and learn from this mistake.

Be Willing and Able to Understand the Risks

You should also not buy stocks if you can’t afford to lose some or all of your principal.  Even though only a few companies go bankrupt, such as Wang, the price of individual stocks can be quite volatile.  As discussed in my post on diversification, you can reduce the chances that your portfolio will have a decline in value by either owning a large number of stocks or owning them for a long time.  Nonetheless, you might find that the value of your portfolio is less than the amount you invested especially over short periods of time when you invest in stocks.  If you want to invest in stocks, you need to be willing to tolerate those ups and downs in value both mentally and financially.

Market Timing

There is an old investing adage, “Buy low, sell high.”  In principle, it is a great strategy.  In practice, though, it is hard to identify the peaks and valleys in either the market as a whole or an individual stock.

People who invest over very short time frames – hours or days – often use technical analysis to try to identify very short-term highs and lows to create gains.  I anticipate that most of my followers, though, will be investing for the long term and not day trading.  While you will want to select stocks that are expected to produce a return commensurate with their riskiness, it is very difficult to time the market.

That is, my suggestion for new investors with long-term investment horizons (e.g., for retirement or your young children’s college expenses) is to buy stocks or mutual funds you understand and think are likely to appreciate whenever you have the time and money available to do so.  If you happen to buy a fundamentally sound stock or index fund just before its price drops, it will be difficult to hang on but it is likely to increase in the price by the time you need to sell it.

As Chris @MoneyStir learned when he reviewed the post I wrote about whether he should pre-pay his mortgage, a fall in the stock market right after he started using his extra cash to buy stocks on a monthly basis was actually good for him!  While he lost money at first on his first few month’s investments, the ones he made over the next several months were at a lower stock price and produced a higher-than-average return over his investment horizon.  The process of buying stocks periodically, such as every month, is called dollar-cost averaging.

How and Where Do I Buy Stocks?

You can buy stocks, mutual funds and ETFs at any brokerage firm.  This article by Invested Wallet provides details on how to open an account at a brokerage firm.

Once you have an account, you need to know the name of the company or its symbol (usually 2-5 letters that can be found using Google or Yahoo Finance, for example), how many shares you want to buy and whether you want to set the price at which you purchase the stocks or buy them at the market price.

Limit Orders

If you determine you want to buy a stock at a particular price, it is called a limit order.  The advantage of a limit order is you know exactly how much you will pay.  The disadvantages of a limit order are:

  • You might pay more than you have to if the stock price is lower at the time you place your order.
  • You might not buy the stock if no one is interested in selling the stock at a price that is a low as your desired purchase price.

Market Orders

If you place a market order, you will buy the stock at whatever price sellers are willing to take for their stock at the moment you place your order.  In some cases, you may end up paying more than you want for a stock if the price jumps up right at the time you place your order.  The advantages of a market order are (1) you know you will own the stock and (2) you know you are getting the best price available at the time you buy the stock.

Transaction Fees

Many of the major brokerage firms have recently announced that they will no longer charge you each time you purchase or sell a stock.  Some firms charge you small transaction fees, such as $4.95, each time you place a buy or sell order.  Other firms have higher charges.  You’ll want to consider the fees when you select a brokerage firm.

Tax-Efficient Investing Strategies – Canada

Tax-Effective-Investing-Canada

You can increase your savings through tax-efficient investing. Tax-efficient investing is the process of maximizing your after-tax investment returns by buying your invested assets in the “best” account from a tax perspective. You may have savings in a taxable account and/or in one or more types of tax-sheltered retirement accounts. Your investment returns are taxed differently depending on the type of account in which you hold your invested assets. In this post, I’ll provide a quick overview of the taxes applicable to each type of account (since I cover taxes on retirement plans in much greater detail in this post) and provide guidelines for how to invest tax-efficiently.

The strategy for tax-efficient investing differs from one country to the next due to differences in tax laws so I’ll talk about tax-efficient investing strategies in the Canada in this post. For information about tax-efficient investing in the US, check out this post.

Types of Investment Returns

I will look at four different types of investments:

  • Individual stocks with high dividends
  • Mutual funds
  • Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) with no dividends
  • Bonds

I will not look at individual stocks with little or no dividends. The returns on those stocks are essentially the same as the returns on ETFs and are taxed in the same manner.

The table below shows the different types of returns on each of these investments.

Type of Distribution: Interest Dividends Capital Gains Capital Gain Distributions
High dividend stocks x x
Mutual Funds x x x
ETFs x
Bonds x x

 

Cash Distributions

Interest and dividends are cash payments that the issuers of financial instruments (i.e., stocks, mutual funds or bonds) make to owners.

Capital Gains

Capital gains come from changes in the value of your investment. You pay taxes on capital gains only when you sell the financial instrument which then makes them realized capital gains. The taxable amount of the realized capital gain is the difference between the amount you receive when you sell the financial instrument and the amount you paid for it when you bought it. Unrealized capital gains are changes in the value of any investment you haven’t yet sold. If the value of an investment is less than what you paid for it, you are said to have a capital loss which can be thought of as a negative capital gain.

Mutual Funds

Mutual funds are a bit different from stocks and ETFs. They can have the following types of taxable returns.

  • Dividends – A mutual fund dividend is a distribution of some or all of the dividends that the mutual fund manager has received from the issuers of the securities owned by the mutual fund.
  • Capital gain distributions – Capital gain distributions are money the mutual fund manager pays to owners when a mutual fund sells some of its assets.
  • Capital gains – As with other financial instruments, you pay tax on the difference between the amount you receive when you sell a mutual fund and the amount you paid for it.

Tax Rates

The four types of distributions are taxed differently depending on the type of account in which they are held – Taxable, Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) or Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA).

Accounts other than Retirement Accounts

I’ll refer to accounts that aren’t retirement accounts as taxable accounts.   You pay taxes every year on dividends and realized capital gains in a taxable account, whereas you pay them either when you contribute to or withdraw from a retirement account. The table below shows how the different types of investment returns are taxed when they are earned in a taxable account.

Type of Investment Return Tax Rates
Interest & Dividends Same as wages
Realized capital gains & capital gain distributions 50% of capital gains and capital gain distributions are added to wages

The marginal Federal tax rate on wages, and therefore on interest and dividends, for many employed Canadian residents is likely to be 20.5% or 26%.

In a taxable account, you pay taxes on investment returns when you receive them. In the case of capital gains, you are considered to have received them when you sell the financial instrument.

TFSA Retirement Accounts

Before you put money into a TFSA, you pay taxes on it. Once it has been put into the TFSA, you pay no more income taxes regardless of the type of investment return. As such, the tax rate on all investment returns held in a TFSA is 0%.

RRSP Retirement Accounts

You pay income taxes on the total amount of your withdrawal from an RRSP at your ordinary income tax rate. Between the time you make a contribution and withdraw the money, you don’t pay any income taxes on your investment returns.

After-Tax Returns by Type of Account

To illustrate the differences in taxes on each of these four financial instruments, I’ll look at how much you would have if you have $1,000 to invest in each type of account at the end of one year and the end of 10 years.

Here are the assumptions I made regarding pre-tax investment returns.

Annual Pre-tax Investment Return % Interest Dividends Capital Gains
Stocks 0% 3% 5%
ETFs 0% 0% 8%
Mutual Funds 0% 3% 5%
Bonds 4% 0% 0%

Mutual funds usually distribute some or all of realized capital gains to owners. That is, if you own a mutual fund, you are likely to get receive cash from the mutual fund manager related to realized capital gains. Whenever those distributions are made, you have to pay tax on them. For this illustration, I’ve assumed that the mutual fund manager distributes all capital gains to owners, so they are taxed every year.

Here are the tax rates I used for this illustration.

Type of Income Tax Rate
Wages 26%
Interest & Dividends 26%
Capital Gains 13%

One-Year Investment Period

Let’s say you have $1,000 in each account. If you put it in a taxable account, I assume you pay taxes at the end of the year on the investment returns. If you put the money in an RRSP, I assume that you withdraw all of your money and pay taxes at the end of the year on the entire amount at your ordinary income tax rate. (I’ve assumed you are old enough that you don’t have to pay a penalty on withdrawals without penalty from the retirement accounts.)

The table below shows your after-tax investment returns after one year from your initial $1,000. Note that the pre-tax returns are the same as the returns in the TFSA row, as you don’t pay income taxes on returns you earn in your TFSA.

One-Year After-tax Investment Returns ($) Stocks Mutual Funds ETFs Bonds
Taxable $66 $66 $70 $30
RRSP 59 59 59 30
TFSA 80 80 80 40

This table below shows the taxes you paid on your returns during that year.

Taxes Paid Stocks Mutual Funds ETFs Bonds
Taxable $14 $14 $10 $10
RRSP 21 21 21 10
TFSA 0 0 0 0

When looking at these charts, remember that you paid income taxes on the money you contributed to your Taxable account and TFSA before you put it in the account.  Those taxes are not considered in these comparisons. This post focuses on only the taxes you pay on your investment returns.

Comparison Different Financial Instruments Within Each Type of Account

Looking at across the rows, you can see that, for each type of account, stocks and mutual funds have the same one-year returns and tax payments. In this illustration, both stocks and mutual funds have the same split between dividends and appreciation. Your after-tax return on ETFs is higher than either stocks or mutual funds. All of the ETF return is assumed to be in the form of appreciation (i.e., no dividends), so only the lower capital-gain tax rate applies to your returns.

In all accounts, bonds have a lower after-tax return than any of the other three investments. Recall, though, that bonds generally provide a lower return on investment than stocks because they are less risky.

Comparison of Each Financial Instrument in Different Types of Accounts

Looking down the columns, you can see the impact of the differences in tax rates by type of account for each financial instrument. You have more savings at the end of the year if you purchase a financial instrument in a TFSA than if you purchase it in either of the other two accounts for each type of investment.

The returns on investments in a taxable account are higher than on stocks, mutual funds and ETFs held in an RRSP.  You pay taxes on the returns in a taxable account at their respective tax rates, i.e., at 50% of your usual rate on the capital gain portion of your investment return.  However, you pay taxes on RRSP withdrawals at your full ordinary income tax rate.  Because the ordinary income tax rate is higher than the capital gain tax rate, you have a higher after-tax return if you invest in a taxable account than an RRSP for one year.  For bonds, the taxes and after-tax returns are the same in an RRSP and a taxable account because you pay taxes on returns in taxable accounts and distributions from RRSPs at your marginal ordinary income tax rate.

Remember, though, that you had to pay income taxes on the money you put into your account before you made the contribution, whereas you didn’t pay income taxes on the money before you put it into your RRSP.

Ten-Year Investment Period

I’ve used the same assumptions in the 10-year table below, with the exception that I’ve assumed that you will pay ordinary income taxes at a lower rate in 10 years because you will have retired by then. I’ve assumed that your marginal tax rate on ordinary income in retirement will be 20.5%.

Ten-Year After-Tax Investment Returns ($) Stocks Mutual Funds ETFs Bonds
Taxable $917 $890 $1,008 $339
RRSP 921 921 921 382
TFSA 1,159 1,159 1,159 480

Comparison Different Financial Instruments Within Each Type of Account

If you look across the rows, you see that you end up with the same amount of savings by owning stocks, mutual funds and ETFs if you put them in either of the retirement account options. The mix between capital gains, capital gain distributions and dividends doesn’t impact taxes paid in a tax-sheltered account, whereas it makes a big difference in taxable accounts, as can be seen by looking in the Taxable row.

In taxable accounts, ETFs provide the highest after-tax return because they don’t have any taxable transactions until you sell them.  As discussed above, I have assumed that the stocks pay dividends every year.  You have to pay taxes on the dividends before you can reinvest them, thereby reducing your overall savings as compared to an ETF.  You have to pay taxes on both dividends and capital gain distributions from mutual funds before you can reinvest those proceeds, so they provide the least amount of savings of the three stock-like financial instruments in a taxable account.

Comparison of Each Financial Instrument in Different Types of Accounts

Looking down the columns, we can compare your ending savings after 10 years from each financial instrument by type of account. You earn the highest after-tax return for every financial instrument if it is held in a TFSA, as you don’t pay any taxes.

For bonds, you earn a higher after-tax return in an RRSP than in a taxable account. The tax rate on interest is about the same as the tax rate on RRSP withdrawals. When you hold a bond in a taxable account, you have to pay income taxes every year on the coupons you earn before you can reinvest them. In an RRSP, you don’t pay tax until you withdraw the money, so you get the benefit of interest compounding (discussed in this post) before taxes.  In addition, I have assumed that your ordinary income tax rate is lower in retirement, i.e., when you make your RRSP withdrawals.

Your after-tax return is slightly lower in a taxable account than in an RRSP for the three stock-like investments. The ability to compound your returns on a pre-tax basis more than offsets the higher tax rate you pay in the RRSP.

Illustration of Tax Deferral Benefit

The ability to compound your investment returns on a tax-deferred basis is an important one, so I’ll provide an illustration. To keep the illustration simple, let’s assume you have an asset that has a taxable return of 8% every year and that your tax rate is constant at 26% (regardless of the type of account).

The table below shows what happens over a three-year period.

Returns and Taxes by Year Taxable Account RRSP
Initial Investment $1,000 $1,000
Return – Year 1 80 80
Tax – Year 1 21 0
Balance – Year 1 1,059 1,080
Return – Year 2 85 86
Tax – Year 2 22 0
Balance – Year 2 1,122 1,166
Return – Year 3 90 94
Tax – Year 3 23 0
Balance – Year 3 1,188 1,260

By paying taxes in each year, you reduce the amount you have available to invest in subsequent years so you have less return.

The total return earned in the taxable account over three years is $255; in the tax-deferred account, $260. The total of the taxes for the taxable account is $66. Multiplying the $260 of return in the tax-deferred account by the 26% tax rate gives us $68 of taxes from that account. As such, the after-tax returns after three years are $188 in the taxable account and $192 in the tax-deferred account.

These differences might not seem very large, but they continue to compound the longer you hold your investments. For example, after 10 years, your after-tax returns on the tax-deferred account, using the above assumptions, would be almost 10% higher than on the taxable account.

Portfolios Using Tax-Efficient Investing

It is great to know that you get to keep the highest amount of your investment returns if you hold your financial instruments in a TFSA. However, there are limits on how much you can put in TFSAs each year. Also, some employers offer only an RRSP option. As a result, you may have savings that are currently invested in more than one of TFSA, RRSP or taxable account. You therefore will need to buy financial instruments in all three accounts, not just in a TFSA.

Here are some guidelines that will help you figure out which financial instruments to buy in each account:

  • If there is a wide difference in total return, you’ll want to put your highest returning investments in your TFSA.
  • For smaller differences in total return (e.g., less than 2 – 3 percentage points), it is better to put instruments with more distributions in your RRSP and then your TFSA, putting as few of them as possible in your taxable account.
  • Instruments with slightly higher yields, but little to no distributions can be put in your taxable account.
  • You’ll want to hold your lower return, higher distribution financial instruments, such as bonds, in your RRSP. There is a benefit to holding bonds in an RRSP as compared to a taxable account. The same tax rates apply to both accounts, but you don’t have to pay taxes until you withdraw the money from your RRSP, whereas you pay them annually in your taxable account.

Applying Tax-Efficient Investing to Two Portfolios

Let’s see how to apply these guidelines in practice using a couple of examples. To make the examples a bit more interesting, I’ve increased the annual appreciation on the ETF to 10% from 8%, assuming it is a higher risk/higher return type of ETF than the one discussed above. All of the other returns and tax assumptions are the same as in the table earlier in this post.

Portfolio Example 1

In the first example, you have $10,000 in each of a taxable account, an RRSP and a TFSA. You’ve decided that you want to invest equally in stocks, mutual funds and ETFs.

You will put your investment with the lowest taxable distributions each year – the ETF – in your taxable account. The stocks and mutual fund have higher taxable distributions each year, so it is better to put them in your tax-sheltered accounts. Because they have similar total returns in this example, it doesn’t matter how you allocate your stocks and mutual funds between your TFSA and RRSP.

Portfolio Example 2

In the second example, you again have $10,000 in each of a taxable account, an RRSP and a TFSA. In this example, you want to invest $15,000 in the high-yielding ETFs but offset the risk of that increased investment by buying $5,000 in bonds. You’ll split the remaining $10,000 evenly between stocks and mutual funds.

You again buy as much of your ETFs as you can in your taxable account. The remainder is best put in your TFSA, as the ETFs have the highest total return so you don’t want to pay any tax on the money when you withdraw it. The bonds have the lowest return, so it is best to put them in your RRSP as you will pay less tax on the lower bond returns than the higher stock or mutual fund returns. As in Example 1, it doesn’t matter how you allocate your stocks and mutual funds between your TFSA and RRSP.

Risks of Tax-Efficient Investing

There is a very important factor I’ve ignored in all of the above discussion – RISK (a topic I cover in great detail in this post). The investment returns I used above are all risky. That is, you won’t earn 3% dividends and 5% appreciation every year on the stocks or mutual funds or 10% on the ETFs. Those may be the long-term averages for the particular financial instruments I’ve used in the illustration, but you will earn a different percentage every year.

If your time horizon is short, say less than five to ten years, you’ll want to consider the chance that one or more of your financial instruments will lose value over that time frame. If you had perfect foresight, you would put your money-losing investments in your RRSP because you would reduce the portion of your taxable income taxed at the higher ordinary income tax by the amount of the loss when you withdraw the money. Just as the government gets a share of your profits, it also shares in your losses.

The caution is that financial instruments with higher returns also tend to be riskier. If you put your highest return investments – the ETFs in my example – in your TFSA, their value might decrease over a short time horizon. If they decrease, your after-tax loss is the full amount of the loss. If, instead, you had put that financial instrument in your RRSP, the government would share 26% of the loss in my example.

In conclusion, if you plan to allocate your investments using the above guidelines, be sure to adjust them if your time horizon is shorter than about 10 years to minimize the chance that you will have to keep all of a loss on any one financial instrument.

Tax-Efficient Investing Strategies – USA

Tax-Effective-Investing-USA

You can increase your savings through tax-efficient investing.  Tax-efficient investing is the process of maximizing your after-tax investment returns by buying your invested assets in the “best” account from a tax perspective.  You may have savings in a taxable account and/or in one or more types of tax-sheltered retirement accounts.  Your investment returns are taxed differently depending on the type of account in which you hold your invested assets.  In this post, I’ll provide a quick overview of the taxes applicable to each type of account (since I cover taxes on retirement plans in much greater detail in this post) and provide guidelines for how to invest tax-efficiently.

The strategy for tax-efficient investing differs from one country to the next due to differences in tax laws so I’ll talk about tax-efficient investing strategies in the US in this post and in Canada in this post.

Types of Investment Returns

I will look at four different types of investments:

  • Individual stocks with high dividends
  • Mutual funds
  • Exchange-traded funds (ETFs)
  • Bonds

I will not look at individual stocks with little or no dividends.  The returns on those stocks are essentially the same as the returns on ETFs and are taxed in the same manner.

The table below shows the different types of returns on each of these investments.

Distributions by Investment Interest Dividends Capital Gains Capital Gain Distributions
High dividend stocks           x          x
Mutual Funds          x          x          x
ETFs          x
Bonds          x          x

Cash Distributions

Interest and dividends are cash payments that the issuers of the financial instrument (i.e., stock, fund or bond) make to owners.

Capital Gains

Capital gains come from changes in the value of your investment.  You pay taxes on capital gains only when you sell the financial instrument which then makes them realized capital gains.  The taxable amount of the realized capital gain is the difference between the amount you receive when you sell the financial instrument and the amount you paid for it when you bought it.  Unrealized capital gains are changes in the value of any investment you haven’t yet sold.  If the value of an investment is less than what you paid for it, you are said to have a capital loss which can be thought of as a negative capital gain.

Mutual Funds

Mutual funds are a bit different from stocks and ETFs.  They can have the following types of taxable returns.

  • Dividends – A mutual fund dividend is a distribution of some or all of the dividends that the mutual fund manager has received from the issuers of the securities owned by the mutual fund.
  • Capital gain distributions – Capital gain distributions are money the mutual fund manager pays to owners when a mutual fund sells some of its assets.
  • Capital gains – As with other financial instruments, you pay tax on the any realized capital gains (the difference between the amount you receive when you sell a mutual fund and the amount you paid for it) when you sell a mutual fund.

Tax Rates

The four types of distributions are taxed differently depending on the type of account in which they are held – Taxable, Roth or Traditional.  401(k)s and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) are forms of retirement accounts that can be either Roth or Traditional accounts and are discussed in more detail in in this post.

Accounts other than Retirement Accounts

I’ll refer to accounts that aren’t retirement accounts as taxable accounts.   You pay taxes every year on dividends and realized capital gains in a taxable account, whereas you pay them either when you contribute to or make a withdrawal from a retirement account.  The table below shows how the different types of investment returns are taxed when they are earned in a taxable account.

Type of Investment Return Tax Rates
Interest Same as wages
Dividends, realized capital gains & capital gain distributions ·         0% if dividends, capital gains & capital gain distributions are less than $38,600 minus wages minus income from other sources.

·         15% up to roughly $425,000.

·         20% if higher

For many employed US residents (i.e., individuals with taxable income between $38,700 and $157,500 and couple with taxable income between $77,400 and $315,000 in 2018), their marginal Federal tax rate wages and therefore on interest is likely to be 22% or 24%.

In a taxable account, you pay taxes on investment returns when you receive them.  You are considered to have received capital gains when you sell the financial instrument.

Roth Retirement Accounts

Before you put money into a Roth account, you pay taxes on it.  Once it has been put into the Roth account, you pay no more income taxes regardless of the type of investment return unless you withdraw the investment returns before you attain age 59.5 in which case there is a penalty.  As such, the tax rate on all investment returns held in a Roth account is 0%.

Traditional Retirement Accounts

You pay income taxes on the total amount of your withdrawal from a Traditional retirement account at your ordinary income tax rate.  Between the time you make a contribution and withdraw the money, you don’t pay any income taxes on your investment returns.

After-Tax Returns by Type of Account

To illustrate the differences in how taxes apply to each of these four financial instruments, I’ll look at how much you would have if you have $1,000 to invest in each type of account at the end of one year and the end of 10 years.

Here are the assumptions I made regarding pre-tax investment returns.

Annual Pre-tax Investment Return % Interest Dividends Capital Gains
Stocks 0% 3% 5%
ETFs 0% 0% 8%
Mutual Funds 0% 3% 5%
Bonds 4% 0% 0%

Mutual funds usually distribute some or all of realized capital gains to owners.  That is, if you own a mutual fund, you are likely to get receive cash from the mutual fund manager related to realized capital gains in the form of capital gain distributions.  Whenever those distributions are made, you pay tax on them.  For this illustration, I’ve assumed that the mutual fund manager distributes all capital gains to owners, so they are taxed every year.

Here are the tax rates I used for this illustration.

Type of Income Tax Rate
Ordinary Income – This Year 24%
Dividends 15%
Capital Gains 15%

One-Year Investment Period

Let’s say you have $1,000 in each account.  I assume you pay taxes at the end of the year on the investment returns in your Taxable account.  If you put the money in a Traditional account, I assume that you withdraw all of your money and pay taxes at the end of the year on the entire amount at your ordinary income tax rate.  (I’ve assumed you are old enough that you don’t have to pay a penalty on withdrawals without penalty from the retirement accounts.)

The table below shows your after-tax investment returns after one year from your initial $1,000.  Note that the pre-tax returns are the same as the returns in the Roth row, as you don’t pay income taxes on returns you earn in your Roth account.

One-Year After-tax Investment Returns ($) Stocks Mutual Funds ETFs Bonds
Taxable $68 $68 $68 $30
Traditional 61 61 61 30
Roth 80 80 80 40

The table below shows the taxes you paid on your returns during that year.

Taxes Paid Stocks Mutual Funds ETFs Bonds
Taxable $12 $12 $12 $10
Traditional 19 19 19 10
Roth 0 0 0 0

When looking at these charts, remember that you paid income taxes on the money you contributed to your Taxable and Roth accounts and that those taxes are not considered in these comparisons.  This post focuses on only the taxes you pay on your investment returns.

Comparison of Different Financial Instruments in Each Type of Account

Looking across the rows, you can see that, for each type of account, stocks, mutual funds and ETFs have the same one-year returns and tax payments. In this illustration, all three of stocks, mutual funds and ETFs have a total return of 8%.  It is just the mix between appreciation, capital gain distributions and dividends that varies.  The tax rates applicable to dividends and capital gains are the same so there is no impact on the after-tax return in a one-year scenario.

In all accounts, bonds have a lower after-tax return than any of the other three investments.  Recall, though, that bonds generally provide a lower return on investment than stocks because they are less risky.

Comparison of Each Financial Instrument in Different Types of Accounts

Looking down the columns, you can see the impact of the differences in tax rates by type of account for each financial instrument.  You have more savings at the end of the year if you invest in a Roth account than if you invest in either of the other two accounts for each type of investment.  Recall that you don’t pay any taxes on returns on investments in a Roth account.

The returns on a taxable account are slightly higher than on a Traditional account for stocks, mutual funds and ETFs.  You pay taxes on the returns in a taxable account at their respective tax rates – usually 15% in the US for dividends and capital gains.  However, you pay taxes on Traditional account withdrawals at your ordinary income tax rate – assumed to be 24%.  Because the ordinary income tax rates are higher than the dividend and capital gain tax rates, you have a higher after-tax return if you invest in a taxable account than a Traditional account for one year.  For bonds, the taxes and after-tax returns are the same in a Traditional and taxable account because you pay taxes on interest income in taxable accounts and distributions from Traditional accounts at your marginal ordinary income tax rate.

Remember, though, that you had to pay income taxes on the money you put into your taxable account before you made the contribution, whereas you didn’t pay income taxes on the money before you put it into your Traditional retirement account.

Ten-Year Investment Period

I’ve used the same assumptions in the 10-year table below, with the exception that I’ve assumed that you will pay ordinary income taxes at a lower rate in 10 years because you will have retired by then. I’ve assumed that your marginal tax rate on ordinary income in retirement will be 22%.

Ten-Year After-Tax Investment Returns ($) Stocks Mutual Funds ETFs Bonds
Taxable $964 $931 $985 $349
Traditional 904 904 904 375
Roth 1,159 1,159 1,159 480

Comparison of Different Financial Instruments in Each Type of Account

If you look across the rows, you see that you end up with the same amount of savings by owning any of stocks, mutual funds and ETFs if you put them in either of the retirement account.  The mix between capital gains, capital gain distributions and dividends doesn’t impact taxes paid in a tax-sheltered account, whereas it makes a big difference in taxable accounts, as can be seen by looking in the Taxable row.

In taxable accounts, ETFs provide the highest after-tax return because they don’t have any taxable transactions until you sell them.  I have assumed that the stocks pay dividends every year.  You have to pay taxes on the dividends before you can reinvest them, thereby reducing your overall savings as compared to an ETF.  You have to pay taxes on both dividends and capital gain distributions from mutual funds before you can reinvest those proceeds, so they provide the least amount of savings of the three stock-like financial instruments in a taxable account.

Comparison of Each Financial Instrument in Different Types of Accounts

Looking down the columns, we can compare your ending savings after 10 years from each financial instrument by type of account.  You earn the highest after-tax return for every financial instrument if it is held in a Roth account, as you don’t pay any taxes on the returns.

For bonds, you earn a higher after-tax return in a Traditional account than in a taxable account.  The tax rate on interest is about the same as the tax rate on Traditional account withdrawals.  When you hold a bond in a taxable account, you have to pay income taxes every year on the coupons you earn before you can reinvest them.  In a Traditional account, you don’t pay tax until you withdraw the money, so you get the benefit of interest compounding (discussed in this post) before taxes.

Your after-tax return is higher in a taxable account than in a Traditional account for the three stock-like investments.  The lower tax rate on dividends and capital gains in the taxable account, even capital gain distributions, more than offsets the fact that you have to pay taxes on dividends and mutual fund capital gain distributions before you reinvest them.

Illustration of Tax Deferral Benefit

The ability to compound your investment returns on a tax-deferred basis is an important one, so I’ll provide an illustration.  To keep the illustration simple, let’s assume you have an asset that has a taxable return of 8% every year and that your tax rate is constant at 24% (regardless of the type of account).

The table below shows what happens over a three-year period.

Returns and Taxes by Year Taxable Account Retirement Account
Initial Investment $1,000 $1,000
Return – Year 1 80 80
Tax – Year 1 19 0
Balance – Year 1 1,061 1,080
Return – Year 2 85 86
Tax – Year 2 20 0
Balance – Year 2 1,125 1,166
Return – Year 3 90 94
Tax – Year 3 22 0
Balance – Year 3 1,194 1,260

By paying taxes in each year, you reduce the amount you have available to invest in subsequent years so you have less return.

The total return earned in the taxable account over three years is $255; in the tax-deferred account, $260.  The total of the taxes for the taxable account is $61.  Multiplying the $260 of return in the tax-deferred account by the 24% tax rate gives us $62 of taxes from that account.  As such, the after-tax returns after three years are $194 in the taxable account and $197 in the tax-deferred account.

These differences might not seem very large, but they continue to compound the longer you hold your investments.  For example, after 10 years, your after-tax returns on the tax-deferred account, using the above assumptions, would be almost 10% higher than on the taxable account.

Tax-Efficient Investing for Portfolios

It is great to know that you get to keep the highest amount of your investment returns if you hold your financial instruments in a Roth.  However, there are limits on how much you can put in Roth accounts each year.  Also, many employers offer only a Traditional 401(k) option.  As a result, you may have savings that are currently invested in more than one of Roth, Traditional or taxable accounts.  You therefore will need to buy financial instruments in all three accounts, not just in a Roth.

Here are some guidelines that will help you figure out which financial instruments to buy in each account:

  • You’ll maximize your after-tax return if you buy your highest yielding financial instruments in your Roth.  Because they generate the highest returns, you will pay the most taxes on them if you hold them in a taxable or Traditional account.
  • Keep buying your high-yielding financial instruments in descending order of total return in your Roth accounts until you have invested all of the money in your Roth accounts.
  • If two of your financial instruments have the same expected total return, but one has higher annual distributions (such as the mutual fund as compared to the stocks in the example above), you’ll maximize your after-tax return if you put the one with the higher annual distributions in your Roth account.
  • Once you have invested all of the money in your Roth account, you’ll want to invest your next highest yielding financial instruments in your Taxable account.
  • You’ll want to hold your lower return, higher distribution financial instruments, such as bonds or mutual funds, in your Traditional account. There is a benefit to holding bonds in a Traditional account as compared to a taxable account.  The same tax rates apply to both accounts, but you don’t have to pay taxes until you withdraw the money from your Traditional account, whereas you pay them annually in your taxable account.  That is, you get the benefit of pre-tax compounding of the interest in your Traditional account.

Applying the Guidelines to Two Portfolios

Let’s see how to apply these guidelines in practice using a couple of examples.  To make the examples a bit more interesting, I’ve increased the annual appreciation on the ETF to 10% from 8%, assuming it is a higher risk/higher return type of ETF than the one discussed above.  All of the other returns and tax assumptions are the same as in the table earlier in this post.

Portfolio Example 1

In the first example, you have $10,000 in each of a taxable account, a Traditional account and a Roth account.  You’ve decided that you want to invest equally in stocks, mutual funds and ETFs.

You will put your highest yielding investment – the ETFs, in your Roth account.  The stocks and mutual fund have the same total return, but the mutual fund has more taxable distributions every year.  Therefore, you put your mutual funds in your Traditional account and your stocks in your taxable account.

Portfolio Example 2

In the second example, you again have $10,000 in each of a taxable account, a Traditional account and a Roth account.  In this example, you want to invest $15,000 in the high-yielding ETFs but offset the risk of that increased investment by buying $5,000 in bonds.  You’ll split the remaining $10,000 evenly between stocks and mutual funds.

First, you buy as much of your ETFs as you can in your Roth account.  Then, you put the remainder in your taxable account, as the tax rate on the higher return from the ETFs is lower in your taxable account (the 15% capital gains rate) than your Traditional account (your ordinary income tax rate).  Next, you put your low-yielding bonds in your Traditional account.  You now have $5,000 left to invest in each of your taxable and Traditional accounts.  You will invest in mutual funds in your Traditional account, as you don’t want to pay taxes on the capital gain distributions every year if they were in your taxable account.  That means your stocks will go in your taxable account.

Risk

There is a very important factor I’ve ignored in all of the above discussion – RISK (a topic I cover in great detail in this post).  The investment returns I used above are all risky.  That is, you won’t earn 3% dividends and 5% appreciation every year on the stocks or mutual funds or 10% on the ETFs.  Those may be the long-term averages for the particular financial instruments I’ve used in the illustration, but you will earn a different percentage every year.

If your time horizon is short, say less than five to ten years, you’ll want to consider the chance that one or more of your financial instruments will lose value over that time frame.  With perfect foresight, you would put your money-losing investments in your Traditional account because you would reduce the portion of your taxable income taxed at the higher ordinary income tax by the amount of the loss when you withdraw the money.  Just as the government gets a share of your profits, it also shares in your losses.

The caution is that financial instruments with higher returns also tend to be riskier.  If, in the US, you put your highest return investments – the ETFs in my example – in your Roth account, their value might decrease over a short time horizon.  In that case, your after-tax loss is the full amount of the loss.  If, instead, you had put that financial instrument in your Traditional account, the government would share 24% (your marginal ordinary tax rate) of the loss in my example.

In conclusion, if you plan to allocate your investments using the above guidelines, be sure to adjust them if your time horizon is shorter than about 10 years to minimize the chance that you will have to keep all of a loss on any one financial instrument.

Should Chris Pay off his Mortgage?

Chris @Money$tir asked other financial literacy and financial independence (FI) bloggers, in a post on March 9, 2019, whether he should pre-pay his mortgage or invest the money. He provided his thought process and calculations. In this post, I will review his calculations and then show that his decision will be easier if he narrows his question and analysis. I will also provide my findings and analysis to help inform his decision.

Background

Chris’s post provides all of the background. You might want to read his post quickly to understand his calculations and other considerations before you read the rest of this post.

Briefly, he will have just under $310,000 left on his mortgage on July 1, 2019. His payments are $1,525 and he will have an additional $4,000 a month available to either pre-pay his mortgage or invest.

I followed up with Chris and learned that he expects to take the standard deduction on his tax return, so he will have no tax benefit from his mortgage interest. His marginal tax rate on ordinary income is 22%; on capital gains and dividends, 15%. I also confirmed that Chris does not have any pre-payment penalties associated with his mortgage.

Three Re-Payment Options

Chris suggested three options in his article, two of which involve making pre-payments. The three options are:

1. Make $1,525 a month in mortgage payments until his mortgage is fully re-paid in July 2045, while investing the remaining $4,000 at 8% per year.

2. Take a middle-of-the road option and make mortgage payments of $3,525 each month and invest the remaining $2,000. Under this option, his mortgage will be re-paid in 2027.

3. Pay $5,525 each month – $1,525 in scheduled payments and $4,000 in pre-payments – until his mortgage is fully re-paid in 2024.

Chris calculated his pre-tax savings using an 8% return through July 2045. The values he calculated are:

• Option 1 – $4,145,000
• Option 2 – $3,772,000
• Option 3 – $3,594,000

In his post, Chris indicated he is leaning towards Option 3 – pre-pay his mortgage as quickly as possible.

Chris’s Math

One of Chris’s questions is whether his calculations are correct. I re-created Chris’s calculations. While I did not get his ending balances exactly, my results were within a couple of percentage points, so I suspect we made slightly different assumptions regarding either the timing of the interest charges (beginning or end of month) and/or his exact mortgage balance. I’m quite comfortable that the calculations he performed are what he intended.

I also confirmed that increasing his payments by $2,000 or $4,000 a month shortens the time until his mortgage is fully re-paid as he indicated in his post.

Re-framing the Question

Many of Chris’s considerations relate to additional flexibility he will have after his mortgage is fully re-paid. I believe that Chris has not correctly separated the mortgage re-payment question from his other decisions – renting out his house and buying a new one, not having a mortgage if he decides to downsize, freeing up money for other purchases and so on. That is, as discussed below, he can use his first five years of savings in Options 1 and 2 to make the rest of his mortgage payments. By understanding that, he can independently decide to do with the $5,525 a month after five years doesn’t depend on his choice of payment option.

If Chris changes his calculations consistent with the re-framed question (i.e., looking at only the $5,525 a month for the first five years), he can eliminate all of the noise of these other questions as they will become independent of his mortgage decision. In his calculations, Chris has set aside $5,525 every month until his mortgage would be fully re-paid in 2045 if he made the minimum payments. Instead, I propose that he set aside $5,525 a month only until 2024 (and not after) – that is, only until his mortgage would be fully paid under Option 3. Except in certain situations discussed below, Chris will make his mortgage payments starting in August 2024 from the savings that accumulates from the money he saved up until then and not from his future income or other savings. That stream of payments, if invested in a hypothetical risk-free, tax-free financial instrument at 3.625% would exactly pay off his mortgage regardless of which of his three re-payment options he chooses.

By focusing on this shorter stream of payments until 2024, he can do whatever he wants with the $5,525 a month after his mortgage is paid off under all three re-payment options. As a result, his decision-making process can focus solely on the risks and rewards of his three re-payment options without any consideration of other, unrelated financial decisions.

My re-framed question does not eliminate one of his considerations – his peace-of-mind from not having a mortgage. Chris will need to include this subjective consideration in his decision-making process, along with the considerations regarding risk and rewards presented below.

My Math

There are four changes I made to Chris’s calculations:

1. I assumed that Chris set aside $5,525 a month from July 2019 through August 2024, rather than until 2045. In addition, except as noted below, after July 2024, he will make his remaining mortgage payments from the savings he has accumulated and not from his income. Therefore, starting in August 2024, he can use the $5,525 a month however he wants as I excluded it from my analysis.

2. I introduced the impact of income taxes. Chris will pay taxes on his investment returns which will make the first two options look less attractive than is shown in his analysis.

3. I quantified the risk Chris will assume by investing in the first two re-payment options.

4. I focused on Chris’s financial position not only in 26 years (when his mortgage would be paid off making the minimum payments), but also in 10 years (when he might want to down-size).

Three Investment Strategies

Chris’s first and second options assume he will invest in an S&P 500-like ETF returning 8%. His calculations do not quantify the riskiness of the S&P 500, though he does mention the risk in his subjective considerations. I will provide explicit insights on the risk. In addition, because Chris is concerned with the riskiness of the S&P 500, I also looked at two other options, for a total of three investment strategies:

1. Invest in 100% in stocks, such as an S&P 500 ETF.

2. Invest in 100% bonds, such as a bond fund. I used the Fidelity Investment Grade Bond Index (FBNDX), as a proxy.

3. Invest 50% in each of stocks (an S&P 500 ETF) and bonds (the Fidelity bond index).

Under all three strategies, I assumed the Chris would re-invest all interest, dividends and capital gains, after tax, and would not withdraw it except to make his mortgage payments.

In my analysis, I calculated Chris’s financial position as if stocks and bonds had the monthly returns observed historically for the 10-year periods starting on the first of each month from January, 1980 through October, 2008 (10 years before my time series ended). There are 345 overlapping 10-year periods. For the 26-year time frame, there are only 153 overlapping periods covered by the Fidelity bond index data. I therefore looked at only the S&P 500 investment option when doing the calculations of Chris’s financial position in 2045.

Timeline

The infographic below clarifies the key dates under all three options and provides a teaser of the results.

Option 1

Under Option 1, Chris will make payments of $1,525 a month to his lender from July 2019 to August 2024 from his income. He will also save $4,000 a month over the same time period. This time period is represented in green. From August 2024 until July 2045, he will withdraw $1,525 from the savings he accumulated in the first five years to pay his mortgage. This period of time is shown in orange. This use of debt to finance investments is discussed in more detail in my post on good and bad debt.

Option 2

Under Option 2, Chris will make payments of $3,525 a month to his lender from July 2019 to August 2024 (the green segment) from his income. He will also save $2,000 a month over the same time period. From August 2024 until December 2027 (the orange segment), he will withdraw $3,525 a month from his accumulated savings to pay his mortgage. He will have fully re-paid his mortgage by December 2027, so any leftover savings will remain invested until July 2045. This time period is represented in yellow.

Option 3

Under Option 3, Chris will make payments of $5,525 a month to his lender from July 2019 to August 2024 (the green segment) at which point his mortgage will be fully re-paid. Because he hasn’t put any money in savings, he will have no savings so nothing will happen related to the money from the green time period during the yellow time period.

Check-In Dates

The infographic also calls out July 2029 and July 2045. These are the two dates that Chris mentions in his post as being possible decision dates. In ten years (July 2029), he might want to sell his house and downsize. In July 2045, his mortgage will be fully paid if he makes his minimum payments and it offers another point at which to consider selling the house.

The infographic shows the balance of his mortgage and the average amount of his after-tax savings if he invests 100% in stocks. As will be discussed below, there is a lot of risk around this average and it is calculated using historical returns, so there is also uncertainty around it.

Summary of Findings

Here are the key findings of my analysis. They will be discussed in detail below.

● Chris’s time horizon is important in making his decision.

o If he plans to keep his house until 2045, the historical data indicate he is better off in three-quarters of the scenarios making his minimum payments and investing in stocks. The average values of his after-tax savings are shown in the infographic above and show that he will have more savings on average with lower monthly mortgage payments.

o If he plans to sell his house or use the money he has saved to fully re-pay his mortgage 10 years from now, the decision is not as clear cut and will need to consider his risk tolerance. Because Chris plans to continue to work for many years, he may be able to tolerate more risk than someone who plans to retire before their mortgage is fully re-paid.

● Chris’s investment mix is important in making his decision.

o If he plans to keep his house until 2045, the historical data indicate that he is better off investing 100% in stocks.

o If he plans to sell his house or use the money he has saved to fully re-pay his mortgage 10 years from now, the mix of investments will depend on his risk tolerance.

● The historical data indicate Chris’s downside risk is not significantly changed by the stock market possibly being near its peak.

Discussion

I will start by providing insights on Chris’s financial position on average across all of the time series of historical investment returns – first for the 10-year period and then for the full 26-year period. I will then discuss the riskiness of the options. The last part of this discussion will focus on how I evaluated his results if the stock market were at a peak.

Average Results – 10 Years

The table below summarizes Chris’s average financial position, based on the historical investment returns, in 10 years on July 1, 2029, the time frame he referenced as possibly wanting to downsize. The invested asset row shows the balance of his investments if he sells all of his positions on that date and pays the related taxes. The “net worth” row shows the average amount Chris will have left if he pays off the balance of his mortgage with his after-tax investments.

Payment Option 3 2 2 2 1 1 1
Mortgage Payment $5,525 $3,525 $3,525 $3,525 $1,525 $1,525 $1,525
Investment Option All 100% Bonds 50% Bonds/ 50% Stocks 100% Stocks 100% Bonds 50% Bonds/ 50% Stocks 100% Stocks
Invested Assets $0 $10,620 $25,515 $34,396 $248,941 $285,615 $324,269
Mortgage Balance 0 0 0 0 221,928 221,928 221,928
“Net Worth” 0 10,620 25,515 34,396 27,033 64,687 102,341

I use “net worth” in quotes because it includes only the assets emanating from the $5,525 per month for the next five years and only his mortgage balance as a liability. In addition, Chris will have his house, all of his other taxable savings, his retirement accounts, and so on and so forth. Because all of these other assets are the same regardless of which option he chooses for his mortgage re-payment, I have excluded them from the comparison.

The positive “net worth” numbers mean Chris will get to keep the entire proceeds of his house if he sells it in 10 years plus the positive “net worth.” If there were negative “net worth” numbers (which there are in the graphs below), Chris would need to use that portion of the proceeds from his house to contribute to the settlement of his remaining mortgage balance.

The farthest left column – paying off his mortgage as quickly as possible – is the option Chris indicated is his initial preference. Under this strategy, he will have saved no invested assets from the $5,525 a month for five years and have no mortgage balance, so would get exactly the proceeds of his house if he were to sell it then. The remaining columns show that, on average using the historical returns, Chris will have more savings than his mortgage balance if he makes his lower mortgage payments and invests the rest of his $5,525 per month than if he pre-pays his mortgage as quickly as possible.

The smaller his mortgage payment, the higher his “net worth” or the more he will have available in excess of his mortgage balance in 10 years. For example, Chris will have a “net worth” of $34,396 at the end of 10 years, on average using historical returns, if he pays $3,525 a month towards his mortgage and invests the rest in 100% stocks as compared to $102,341 if he pays $1,525 a month towards his mortgage and invests the rest in 100% stocks. Because the average historical after-tax returns on his investments are higher than Chris’s pre-tax mortgage interest rate, he will accumulate savings above the balance of his mortgage.

In addition, at the average, Chris is better off if he invests more heavily in stocks. For example, if Chris makes his minimum mortgage payments and sells his house in 10 years, he will have $27,033 in after-tax savings if he invests 100% in bonds as compared to $102,341 in after-tax savings if he invests 100% in stocks.

I also calculated the averages for the 100% stocks investment strategy using the longer time period (back to 1950). While the results are slightly less favorable, they show generally the same results as are shown in the 100% stocks columns in the table above.

Average Results – 26 Years

The table below summarizes Chris’s average financial position on July 1, 2045, based on the historical investment returns. As discussed above, I don’t believe there is enough historical data regarding bond returns to include those investment strategies in this analysis. This table therefore shows results only based on the 100% stocks investment strategy and is based on stock returns going back to 1950.

Mortgage Payment Option 3 2 1
Mortgage Payment $5,525 $3,525 $1,525
Investment Option 100% Stocks 100% Stocks 100% Stocks
Invested Assets $0 $84,534 $373,269
Mortgage Balance 0 0 0
“Net Worth” 0 84,534 373,269

This table shows that the smaller mortgage payments Chris makes, the higher his savings will be 26 years from now on average using the historical returns.

Risky Results – 10 Years

So far, I have focused on Chris’s average returns. I mentioned in my introduction that one of the aspects of his decision that Chris does not quantify is risk. By looking at his “net worth” under 345 different historical scenarios (i.e., the number of complete 10-year time periods in my historical data) regarding bond and stock returns, we can get a sense for the riskiness of Chris’s choices.

Box & Whiskers – 10 Years

The graph below is called a box and whisker plot. My post on risk provides additional information about these graphs. The boxes represent the 25th to 75th percentiles of Chris’s “net worth” at 10 years. That is, I put the 345 “net worth” results in order from smallest to largest. The 25th percentile is the 86 th one on the list; the 75th percentile, the 259th. The whiskers (lines sticking out from the ends of the boxes) represent the 5th percentile to the 95th percentile and correspond to the 17th and 328th in order from smallest to largest.

Taller boxes and wider spreads between the top and bottom of the whiskers represent more risk. The placement of the boxes up and down on the graph show the overall level of the results. That is, boxes that are higher on the graph have higher returns than boxes that are lower.

This graph shows Chris’s “net worth” after 10 years under each of the investment and re-payment strategies.

Chris’s Re-payment Option 3 – pay off his mortgage as fast as possible – is shown on the far left. Because he makes no investments under this option, there is no risk and he always has no savings at the end of 10 years. As either the percentage of investments in stock increases or the amount of savings increases (moving to the right on the graph), both the risk and level increase. That is, with more savings, the boxes are higher on the graph and taller (e.g., compare the $1,525/0% Stocks box with the $3,525/0% Stocks box). The same comparison can be seen as the percentage of stock increases, by looking at the $1,525/0% Stocks relative to the $1,525/50% Stocks and $1,525/100% Stocks.

The tops of the boxes, tops of the whiskers and average values (shown in the table above) are all clearly higher with lower mortgage payments and a higher investment in stocks. The bottoms of the boxes and bottoms of the whiskers are all lower, though, so those options have more risk.

Efficient Frontier – 10 Years

Making a decision from the box & whisker plot can be challenging. If Chris is willing to view his risk-reward trade-off as being between his average “net worth” and his worst “net worth,” he can narrow down his choices. The drawback of this approach is it considers only one point in the range of possible results for measuring risk.

The graph below is a scatter plot showing the different options. My post on financial decision-making provides more insights on this type of graph. The x-axis (the horizontal one) shows Chris’s average “net worth” in 10 years. The y-axis (the vertical one) shows the worst “net worth” result observed based on the historical returns. Points on this chart that are up (worst results aren’t as bad) and to the right (higher average result) are better than points that are lower or to the left.

I have drawn a dashed line, called the efficient frontier, that connects those strategies (dots) that are optimal in that there are no other dots that have a higher average with the same worst result or have a higher worst result with the same average. Using the worst result as the sole measure of risk would allow Chris to narrow his choices down to the four on the efficient frontier, depending on how much risk he is willing to take.

You’ll see that there are two orange dots on this graph. They represent the points using the S&P 500 returns going back to 1950, whereas the blue points all use data starting in 1980. What I found most interesting is that the worst results are the same for both time series, though the average results are somewhat lower using the longer time series. The worst results occurred using the time series starting in February 1999.

Risky Results – 26 Years

The graph below shows the box & whisker plot of Chris’s “net worth” in July 2045, using the historical returns.

The 25th percentile of Chris’s “net worth” under all three options is about $0. As such, in 75% of the historical scenarios, Chris will be somewhat to significantly better off making smaller mortgage payments than making larger payments.

The much clearer results shown in this chart as compared to the one at 10 years results from the benefits of diversification over time. That is, the longer time period over which Chris is invested, the less risk there is in his financial results. Diversification is one way a portfolio can be diversified. Investing in both stocks and bonds is another. My post on how diversification reduces investment risk discusses these concepts in more detail.

The scatter plot below shows that in the worst scenario, Chris ends up losing about $120,000 over 26 years if he is 100% invested in stocks. The trade-off is that in 75% of the historical scenarios, he will have at least some savings and more than $370,000 in savings on average.

Current Market Cycle

Another concern that Chris and others on Twitter expressed is that the stock market has been going up for many years and is at risk of going down significantly in the near future.

Selection of Prior Peaks

To address that concern, I have reviewed the historical stock market returns to find points that would correspond to the market being at a peak. The two graphs below show the cumulative returns on the S&P 500 since 1950. (I had to create two charts so that the ups and downs from older periods could be seen. Even then the first peak on the second chart is a little tough to see even though it includes the largest single monthly decline in the entire time period.)

The eight green circles correspond to important peaks in the market, similar to Chris’s concern about today’s market.

“Net Worth” After Prior Peaks

I looked at Chris’s “net worth” ten years after each of those peaks, as shown in the table below. Recall that the bond index data are available starting only in 1980, so we can’t look at any strategies that include bonds for the earlier peaks.

Mortgage Payment $5,525 $3,525 $3,525 $3,525 $1,525 $1,525 $1,525
Investment Option All 100% Bonds 50% Bonds/ 50% Stocks 100% Stocks 100% Bonds 50% Bonds/ 50% Stocks 100% Stocks
1/1/1962 $0 $4,528 $184
11/1/1965 0 -5,103 -62,533
11/1/1968 0 -36,596 -76,978
1/1/1973 0 -1,543 27,375
12/1/1980 0 44,331 61,920 79,509 99,120 138,282 177,444
8/1/1987 0 27,585 40,490 53,394 57,535 151,014 244,493
3/1/2000 0 -5,747 1,033 2,198 -13,435 -33,178 -52,922
6/1/2007 0 2,848 25,314 47,780 -8,634 62,814 134,263
Average – Last 4 0 17,254 32,189 45,720 33,646 79,733 125,819
Average – All 8 0 18,021 48,916
All Scenarios 0 10,620 25,515 34,396 27,033 64,687 102,341

In some of the time periods, particularly the ones starting on November 1, 1965 and November 1, 1968, Chris would have been better off pre-paying his mortgage as quickly as possible rather than investing. In others though, he would have been much better off making his minimum mortgage payments.

The average result for the most recent 4 “bad” time periods (third-to-bottom row) is slightly better than the average result across all possible time periods (bottom row). If all eight periods are included, Chris is better off making minimum payments, but not by as much as was observed in all scenarios.

Dollar Cost Averaging

In several of the “bad” periods (e.g., the ones starting on 12/1/1980, 8/1/1987 and 6/1/2007), Chris ends up with a very high “net worth” if he invests 100% in stocks. Although Chris buys some stocks at the peak of the market, he will also buy stocks as the prices go down (generally taking a year or two). The graphs above show that the market often re-bounds fairly rapidly after it has fallen. In these situations, Chris will achieve a high return on the stocks bought at or near the bottom of the market, thereby boosting his overall return.

Dollar cost averaging is the process of making regular investments regardless of the market cycle. It is a common investing approach and, although it may not be intentional, it is exactly what you do when you contribute to a 401(k) through payroll deductions. Dollar cost averaging lets you buy stocks at all levels, without timing the market, which can produce better total returns than trying to time the market and make your investment on a single day or just a few days a year. If Chris invests monthly, he is implementing a dollar cost average strategy.

Assumptions

The findings presented here depend on a large number of assumptions.

Investment Returns

I used historical monthly returns on the S&P 500 and the Fidelity Investment Grade Bond Index (FBNCX) downloaded from Yahoo Finance. I assumed that any dividends and distributions, reduced by any related income taxes, were immediately reinvested.

Yahoo Finance provides a Closing Price and an Adjusted Closing Price. I used the percentage changes in the Adjusted Closing Price to calculate the total return for each financial instrument. For the S&P 500, the Closing Prices and Adjusted Closing Prices were identical. For the Bond Index, they were not. I assumed that the difference in the percentage changes between the Adjusted Closing Price and the Closing Price were interest payments.

I assumed that Chris would fund any shortfalls from current income or other after-tax savings and that there would be no borrowing costs or additional taxes.

Income Taxes

I made several key assumptions about income taxes:

● All investments will be held in taxable accounts. Chris is already contributing the maximum amounts to his tax-sheltered retirement plans. In addition, he might encounter penalties if the withdrawals needed to make his mortgage payments did not meet the guidelines of the specific tax-sheltered account to which he made contributions. See my post on retirement plans for more details on such withdrawals.

● The interest payments from the Bond Index will be taxed at Chris’s marginal rate on ordinary income of 22%.

● Chris will pay tax at his marginal capital tax rate of 15% capital gains and losses when he sells his investments, either to make mortgage payments or withdraws the money at the end of 10 years or 26 years.

● Chris’s marginal tax rates won’t change over the time horizon of the analysis.

● There were no tax implications of borrowing.

Fine Print

Having been a consultant for over 20 years, I feel it necessary to touch on the many limitations on the findings of the analysis.

Variability

Most importantly, actual results will vary from those presented herein. I have used historical data as a proxy for what might happen in the future. However, it is unlikely that future results will exactly replicate any results previously seen. If any of the assumptions discussed above or otherwise made do not turn out to be appropriate to Chris’s situation, the findings may similarly be relevant to his decision-making process.

Economic Environment Differences

An important component of these differences is the interest rate environment. As shown in the chart below, interest rates (as measured by the 10-year Treasury in this chart) declined or were flat during almost the entire period from 1980 to the present – the time period for which data were available for the Bond Index.

It is more likely than not that interest rates will increase during the time horizon of this analysis. When interest rates increase, bond prices tend to decrease. If that were to happen, the findings based on historical bond returns likely overstate the results that might be observed in the future.

Data Used in My Analysis

I downloaded S&P 500 and the Fidelity bond index monthly returns from Yahoo Finance. Data were available for the S&P 500 going back to 1950, but only to 1980 for the Fidelity bond index. To the extent that these data are incorrect, the findings herein might also be incorrect (i.e., garbage in, garbage out).

Intended Use

The purpose of this analysis was to provide insights to help Chris make a more informed decision. It should not be interpreted as making a recommendation for any financial decision. The only information I have about Chris’s financial situation is what is outlined above and in his post. As such, there may be other aspects of his financial situation that cause this analysis to not apply correctly to his specific situation.

Lastly, the analysis may not be applicable to anyone else’s specific situation.

Investing in Bonds

Bonds are a common investment for people targeting a low-risk investment portfolio. One of the pieces of advice I gave my kids (see others in this post) is to never buy anything you don’t understand. In this post, I’ll tell you what you need to know so you can decide whether investing in bonds is appropriate for you.

What is a Bond?

A bond is a loan you are giving the issuer.  The parties to the transaction are exactly opposite of you taking out a loan. You’ll see the parallels if you compare the information in this post with that provided in my post on loans!  When you buy a bond, you are the lender.  The issuer of the bond is the borrower.

How Do Bonds Work?

The issuer of a bond sells the bonds to investors (i.e., lenders).  Every bond has a face amount.  Common face amounts are $100 and $1,000.  The face value of the bond is called the par value.  It is equivalent to the principal on a loan.  When the issuer first sells the bonds, it receives the face amount for each bond.

The re-payment plan for a bond is different than for a loan.  When you take out a loan, you make payments that include interest and a portion of your principal.  Over the life of your loan, all of your payments are the same (unless the interest rate is adjustable).   By comparison, a bond issuer’s payments include only the interest until the maturity date when it pays the final interest payment and returns the principal in full.

Before selling bonds, the issuer sets the coupon rate and the maturity date of the bond.  The coupon rate is equivalent to the interest rate on a loan.  The maturity date is the date on which the issuer will pay the par value to the owner of the bond.  It can vary from something very short, like a year, all the way to 30 years.  In Europe, there are even bonds with maturity dates in 99 years.  In the meantime, the issuer will pay coupons (interest) equal to the product of the coupon rate and the par value, divided by the number of coupons issued per year. Coupons are often issued quarterly. For example, if you owned a bond with a $1,000 par value, a 4% coupon rate and quarterly payments, you would get 1% of $1,000 or $10 a quarter in addition to the return of the par value on the maturity date.

What Price Will I Pay

You can buy bonds when they are first issued from the issuer or at a later date from other people who already own them.  You can also sell bonds you own if you want the return of your initial investment before the bond matures.  If you buy and sell bonds, the sale prices will be the market price of the bonds.

Present Value

Before explaining how the market value is calculated, I need to introduce the concept of a present value. A present value is the value today of a stated amount of money you receive in the future.  It is calculated by dividing the stated amount of money by 1 + the interest rate adjusted for the length of time between the date the calculation is done and the date the payment will be received.  Specifically, the present value at an interest rate of i of $X received in t years is:

The denominator of (1+i) is raised to the power of t to adjust for the time element.

Market Price = Present Value of Cash Flows

The market price of a bond is the present value of the future coupon payments and principal repayment at the interest rate at the time of the calculation is performed.

Interest Rate = Coupon Rate When Issued

The interest rate when the bond is issued is the coupon rate!  Because the issuer sells the bonds at par value (the face amount of the bond), the par value has to equal the market value.  For the math to work, the coupon rate must equal the interest rate at the time the bond is initially sold.

Interest Rates after Issuance

If interest rates change (more on that in a minute) after a bond is issued, the market value will change and become different from the par value because the “i” in the formula above will change.  When the interest rate increases, the price of the bonds goes down and vice versa.

Also, as the bond gets closer to its maturity date, the exponent “t” in the formula will get smaller so it will have less impact on the present value, making the present value bigger. As such, all other things being equal, a bond that has a shorter time to maturity will have a higher market price than a bond that has a longer time to maturity.  Remember that the par value is all paid at the end, so the market price formula is highly influenced by the present value of the repayment of the par value.

How is the Interest Rate Determined

There are two factors specific to an individual bond that influence the interest rate that underlies its price – the bond’s time to maturity and the issuer’s credit rating. In addition, there are broad market factors that influence the interest rates for all bonds.  These factors influence the overall level of interest rates as well as the shape of the yield curve.

What is a Yield Curve

The interest rate on a bond depends on the time until it matures.  If I look at the interest rates on US government bonds today (March 7, 2019) at this site, I see the following:

The line on this graph is called a yield curve.  It represents the pattern of yields by maturity.  In this case, there is some variation in yields up to 5 years and then the line goes up.

A “normal” yield curve would go up continuously all the way from the left to the right of the graph.  Up to five years, the chart above would be considered essentially “flat” and, above five years, would be considered normal.  If the entire yield curve went down, similar to what we see in the very short segment from one year to two years in this graph, it would be considered inverted.

Time to Maturity

The yield curve along with the maturity date of a bond influencethe interest rate and therefore its market price.  Looking at US Government bonds, the interest rates for bonds with maturities between 0 and 7 years are all around 2.5%.

The price of a 30-year bond will reflect interest rate of about 3%.  If the yield curve didn’t change at all, the same 30-year bond would be priced using a 2.5% interest rate in 23 years (when it has 7 years until maturity).  With the lower interest rate, the market value of the bond will increase (in addition to the increase in market value because the maturity date is closer).

Credit Rating

The other important factor that affects the price of a bond is its credit rating.  Credit ratings work in the same manner as your credit score does.  If you have a low credit score (see my post on credit scores for more information), you pay a higher interest rate when you take out a loan.  The same thing happens to a bond issuer – it pays a higher interest rate if it has a low credit rating.

Instead of having a numeric credit score, bonds are assigned letters as credit ratings.  There are several companies that rate bonds, with Standard and Poors (S&P), Moodys and Fitch being the biggest three.    When you buy a bond (more on that later), the credit rating for the bond will be quite clearly stated.

The graph below summarizes information I found on the website of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank (FRED).

It shows the interest rates on corporate bonds with different credit ratings on February 28, 2019. As you can see, there is very little difference in the interest rates of bonds rated AAA, AA and A, with a slightly higher interest rate for bonds rated BBB.  Bonds with BBB ratings and higher are considered investment grade.

Bonds with ratings lower than BBB are called less-than-investment grade, high yield or junk. You can see that the interest rates on bonds with less-than-investment grade ratings increase very rapidly, with C-rated bonds having interest rates close to 12%.

What are the Risks

There are two risks – default and market – that are inherent in bonds themselves and a third – inflation – related to using them as an investment.

Defaults

Default risk is the chance that the issuer will default or not make all of its coupon payments or not return the full par value when it is due.  When an issuer defaults on a bond, it may pay the bond owner a portion of what is owed or it could pay nothing.  The percentage of the amount owed that is not repaid is called the “loss given default.”  If the loss given default is 100%, you lose the full amount of your investment in the bond, other than coupon payments you received before the default.  At the other extreme, if the loss given default is only 10%, you would receive 90% of what is owed to you.

Issuers of bonds with low credit ratings are considered riskier, meaning they are expected to have a higher chance that they will default than issuers with high credit ratings. I always find this chart from S&P helpful in understanding default risk.

It shows two things – the probability of an issuer defaulting increases as the credit rating gets lower (e.g., the B line is higher than the A line) and the probability of default increases the longer the time until maturity.

These increases in the probability of default correspond to increases in risk.  Recall from the previous section that interest rates increase as there is a longer time to maturity when the yield curve is normal and as the credit rating gets lower. The higher interest rates are compensation to the owner of the bond for the higher risk of default.

When you read the previous section and saw you could earn between just under 12% on a C-rated bond, you might have gotten interested.  However, it has almost a 50% chance of defaulting in 7 years!  The trade-off is that you’d have to be willing to take the risk that the issuer would have a 26% chance of defaulting in the first year and a 50% chance by the seventh year!  It makes the 12% coupon rate look much less attractive.

Changes in Market Value

As I mentioned above, you can buy and sell bonds in the open market as an alternative to holding them to maturity.  In either case, you will receive the coupon payments while you own the bond, as long as the issuer hasn’t defaulted on them.  If you buy a bond with the intention of selling it before it matures, you have the risk that the market value will decrease between the time you purchase it and the time you sell it.  Decreases in market values correspond to increases in interest rates. These increases can emanate from changes in the overall market for bonds or because the credit rating of the bond has deteriorated.

If you hold a bond to maturity and it doesn’t default, the amount you will get when it matures is always the principal.  So, you can eliminate market risk if you hold a bond to maturity.

Interest Doesn’t Keep Up with Inflation

The third risk – inflation risk – is the risk that inflation rates will be higher than the total return on the bond.  Let’s say you buy a bond with a $100 par value for $90, it matures in 5 years and the coupons are paid at 2%.  Using the formulas above, I can determine that your total return (the 2% coupons plus the appreciation on the bond from $90 to $100 over 5 years) is 4.3%.  You might have purchased this bond as part of your savings for a large purchase.  If inflation caused the price of your large purchase to go up at 5% per year, you wouldn’t have enough money saved because your bond returned only 4.3%.  Inflation risk exists for almost every type of invested asset you purchase if your purpose for investing is to accumulate enough money for a future purchase.

How are They Taxed

There are two components to the return you earn on a bond – the coupons and appreciation (the difference between what you paid for it and what you get when you sell it or it matures).

Tax on Coupons and Capital Gains

The coupons are considered as interest in the US tax calculation.  Interest is included with your wages and many other sources of income in determining your taxes which have tax rates currently ranging from 10% to 37% depending on your income.

The difference between your purchase price and your sale price or the par value upon maturity is considered a capital gain.  In the US, capital gains are taxed in a different manner from other income, with a lower rate applying for most people (0%, 15% or 20% depending on your total income and amount of capital gains).

States that have income taxes usually follow the same treatment with lower tax rates than the Federal government, but not always.

Some Bonds are Taxed Differently

Within this framework, though, not all bonds are treated the same.  The description above applies to corporate bonds.  Bonds issued by the US government are taxed by the Federal government but the returns are tax-free in most states.

Some bonds are issued by a state, municipality or related entity.  The interest on these bonds is not taxed by the Federal government and is usually not taxed if you pay taxes in the same state that the issuer is located.  Capital gains on these bonds are taxed in the same manner as corporate bonds.

Included in this category of bonds are revenue bonds. Revenue bonds are issued by the same types of entities, but are for a specific project.  They have higher credit risk than a bond issued by a state or municipality because they are backed by only the revenues from the project and not the issuer itself.

The manner in which a bond is taxed is important to your buying decision as it affects how much money you will keep for yourself after buying the bond.  You should consult your broker or your tax advisor if you have any questions specific to your situation.

Do They Have Other Features

If you decide to buy bonds, there are some features you’ll want to understand or, at a minimum, avoid. Some of the types of bonds with these distinctive features are:

Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities or TIPS

TIPS are similar to US Government bonds except that the par value isn’t constant.  The impact of inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index is determined between the issue date and the maturity date.  If inflation over the life of the bond has been positive, the owner of the bond will be paid the original par value adjusted for the impact of inflation.  If it has been negative, the owner receives the original par value.  In this way, the owner’s inflation risk is reduced.  It is completely eliminated if the owner purchased the bond to buy something whose value increases exactly with the Consumer Price Index.

Savings or EE Bonds

Savings bonds are a form of US Government bond.  You can buy them with par values of as little as $25.  They can be purchased for terms up to 30 years.  Currently, savings bonds pay interest a 0.1% a year.  The interest is compounded semi-annually and paid to the owner with the par value when the bond matures.   With the currently very low interest rates, these bonds are very unattractive.

Zero-Coupon Bonds

The issuer of a zero-coupon bond does not make interest payments.  Rather, when it issues the bond, the price is less than the par value. In fact, the price is the present value of just the principal payment.  So, instead of paying the par value for a newly issued bond and getting coupon payments, the buyer pays a much lower price and gets the par value when the bond matures.

I don’t know all the details, but believe that, in the US, the owner needs to pay taxes on the appreciation in the value of the bond every year as if it were interest and not as a capital gain on sale.  As such, it is better to own a zero-coupon bond in a tax-deferred or tax-free account, such as an IRA, a 401(k) or health savings account.  I’ve owned one zero-coupon bond – it was my first investment in an IRA.  If you want to buy a zero-coupon bond, I suggest talking to your broker or tax advisor to make sure you understand the tax ramifications.

Callable Bonds

A call is a financial instrument that gives one party the option to do something.  In this case, the issuer of the bond is given the option to give you the par value earlier than the maturity date.  When the issuer decides to exercise this option, the bond is said to be “called.”  The bond contract includes information about when the bond is callable and under what terms. If you purchase a callable bond, you’ll want to understand those terms.

Issuers are more likely to call a bond when interest rates have decreased. When interest rates go down, the issuer can sell new bonds at the lower interest rate and use the proceeds to re-pay the callable bond, thereby lowering its cost of debt.

In a low-interest rate environment, such as exists today, a callable bond isn’t much different from a non-callable bond as it isn’t likely to get called.  If interest rates were higher, a non-callable bond with the same or similar credit quality and coupon rate is a better choice than a callable bond. If the callable bond gets called, you will have cash that you now need to re-invest at a time when interest rates are lower than when you initially bought the bond.  (Remember that the reason that callable bonds get called is that interest rates have gone down.)

Convertible Bonds

Convertible bonds allow the issuer to convert the bond to some form of stock.  As will be explained below, stocks are riskier investments than bonds.  If you buy a convertible bond, you’ll want to understand when and how the issuer can convert the bond and consider whether you are willing to own stock in the company instead of a bond.

How Does Investing in Bonds Differ from Other Investments

There are two other types of financial instruments that people consider buying as common alternatives to bonds – bond mutual funds and stocks.  I’ll briefly explain the differences between owning a bond and each of these alternatives.

Bond Funds

There are two significant differences between owning a bond fund and own a bond.

A Bond Fund with the Same Quality Bonds Has Less Default Risk

If you own a bond fund, you are usually buying an ownership share in a pool containing a relatively large number of bonds.  Owning more bonds increases your diversification (see this post for more on that topic).  With bonds, the biggest benefit from diversification is that it reduces the impact of a single issuer defaulting on its payments.  If you own one bond, the issuer defaults and the loss given default is 50%, you’ve lost 50% of your investment.  If you own 100 bonds and one of them defaults with a 50% loss given default, you lose 0.5% of your investment.

A Bond Fund Has Higher Market Risk than Owning a Bond to Maturity

Recall that you eliminate market risk if you hold a bond until it matures.  Almost all bond funds buy and sell bonds on a regular basis, so the value of the bond fund is always the market price of the bonds.  Because the market price of bonds can fluctuate, owners of bond funds are subject to market risk.

Stocks

When you buy stock in a company, you have an ownership interest in the company.  When you own a bond, you are a lender but have no ownership rights. To put these differences in perspective, owning a stock is like owning a share in vacation home along with other members of your extended family.  By comparison, owning a bond is like being the bank that holds the mortgage on that vacation home.

Stocks Have More Market Risk

The market risk for stocks is much greater than for bonds.  Ignoring defaults for the moment, the issuer has promised to re-pay you the par value of the bond plus the coupons, both of which are known and fixed amounts.  With a stock, you are essentially buying a share of the future profits, whose amounts are very uncertain.

Stocks Have More Default Risk

The default risk for stocks is also greater than for bonds.  When a company gets in financial difficulties, there is a fixed order in which people are paid what they are owed.  Employees and vendors get highest priority, so get paid first.  If there is money left over after paying all of the employees and vendors, then bondholders are re-paid.  After all bondholders have been re-paid, any remaining funds are distributed among stockholders.  Because stockholders take lower priority than bondholders, they are more likely to lose some or all of their investment if the company experiences severe financial difficulties or goes bankrupt.

Companies often issue bonds on a somewhat regular basis.  When a bond is issued, it is assigned a certain seniority.  This feature refers to the order in which the company will re-pay the bonds if it encounters financial difficulties.  If you decide to invest in bonds of individual companies, especially less-than-investment grades bonds, you’ll want to understand the seniority of the particular bond you are buying because it will affect the level of default risk.  Lower seniority bonds have lower credit ratings, so the credit rating will give you some insight regarding the seniority.

When is Investing in Bonds Right for Me

There isn’t a right or a wrong time to buy a bond, just as is the case with any other financial instrument.  The most important thing about buying a bond is making sure you understand exactly what you are buying, how it fits in your investment strategy and its risks.

Low-Risk Investment Portfolio

If you are interested in a low risk investment portfolio, US Government and high-quality corporate bonds might be a good investment for you.  As you think about this type of purchase, you’ll also want to think about the following considerations.

How Long until You Need the Money

If you are saving for a specific purchase, you could consider buying small positions in bonds of several different companies or US government bonds with maturities corresponding to when you need the money.  If you’ll need the money in less than a year or two, you might be better off buying a certificate of deposit or putting the money in a money market or high yield savings account.  If it is a long time until you’ll need the money and you think interest rates might go up, you’ll want to consider whether you can buy something with a maturity sooner than your target date without sacrificing too much yield so you can buy another bond in the future at a higher interest rate.

How Much Default Risk are You Willing to Take

If you aren’t willing to take any default risk, you’ll want to invest in US government bonds.  If you are willing to take a little default risk, you can buy high-quality (e.g., AAA or AA) corporate bonds.  You’ll want to buy small positions is a fairly large number of companies, though, to make sure you are diversified.

How Much Market Risk are You Willing to Take

If you are willing to take some market risk, you can more easily attain a diversified portfolio by investing in a bond mutual fund.  As mentioned above, you’ll want to consider whether you think interest rates will go up or down during your investment horizon.  If you think that are going to go up, there is a higher risk of market values going down than if you think they will be flat.  In this situation, a bond fund becomes somewhat riskier than buying bonds to hold them to maturity.  If you think interest rates are going to go down, there is more possible appreciation than if you think they will be flat.

High-Risk Investment Portfolio

If you want to make higher return and are willing to take more default risk, you can consider buying bonds of lower quality.  As shown in the chart above, non-investment grade bonds pay coupons at very high interest rates.  However, you need to recognize that you are taking on significantly more default risk. One approach for dabbling in high-yield bonds is to invest in a mutual fund that specializes in those securities. In that way, you are relying on the fund manager to decide which high-yield bonds have less default risk. You’ll also get much more diversification than you can get on your own unless you have a lot of time and money to invest in the bonds of a large number of companies.

Where Do I Buy Bonds and Bond Funds

You can buy individual bonds and bond mutual funds at any brokerage firm.  Many banks, particularly large ones, have brokerage divisions, so you can often buy bonds at a bank.  This article by Invested Wallet provides details on how to open an account at a brokerage firm.

All US Government bonds, including Savings Bonds and TIPS can be purchased at Treasury Direct, a service of the US Treasury department.  You’ll need to enter your or, if the bond is a gift, the recipient’s social security number and both you and, if applicable, the recipient need to have accounts with Treasury Direct.  US Savings Bonds can be bought only through Treasury Direct.  You can buy all other types of government bonds at any brokerage firm, as well.

As discussed in this post, it is best to buy bonds in a tax-advantaged account, such as an IRA, 401(k), Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) or Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) than a taxable account. You pay tax on the coupons every year when bonds are held in a taxable account, but you get the benefit of compounding without paying taxes along the way in a tax-advantaged account.

Investment Diversification Reduces Risk

Diversification-2

Investment diversification is an important tool that many investors used to reduce risk. Last week, I explained diversification and how it is related to correlation.   In this post, I’ll illustrate different ways you can use investment diversification and provide illustrations of its benefits.

Investment Diversification: Key Take-Aways

Here are some key take-aways about investment diversification.

  • Diversification reduces risk, but does not change the average return of a portfolio. The average return will always be the weighted average of the returns on the financial instruments in the portfolio, where the weights are the relative amounts of each instrument owned.
  • The smaller the correlation among financial instruments (all the way down to -100%), the greater the benefit of diversification. Check out last week’s post for more about this point.
  • Diversification can be accomplished by investing in more than one asset class, more than one company within an asset class or for long periods of time. One of the easiest ways to become diversified across companies is to purchase a mutual fund or exchange traded fund.  Funds that focus on one industry will be less diversified than funds that includes companies from more than one industry.
  • Diversification reduces risk, but doesn’t prevent losses. If all of the financial instruments in a portfolio go down in value, the total portfolio value will decrease.  Also, if one financial instrument loses a lot of value, the loss may more than offset any gains in other instruments in the portfolio.
  • A diversification strategy can be very risky if you purchase something without the necessary expertise to select it or without understanding all of the costs of ownership.

I’ll explain these points in more detail in the rest of the post.

Diversification and Returns

The purpose of diversification is to reduce riskIt has no impact on return.  The total return of any combination of financial instruments will always be the weighted average of the returns on the individual financial instruments, where the weights are the amounts of each instrument you own.  For example, if you own $3,000 of a financial instrument with a return of 5% and $7,000 of a different financial instrument with a return of 15%, your total return will be 12% (={$3,000 x 5% + $7,000 x 15%}/{$3,000+$7,000} = {$150 + $1,050}/$10,000 = $1,200/$10,000).  Similarly, two instruments that both return 10% will have a combined return of 10% regardless of how correlated they are, even -100% correlation.

Investment Diversification among Asset Classes

When investing, many people diversify their portfolios by investing in different asset classes. The most common of these approaches is to allocate part of their portfolio to stocks or equity mutual funds and part to bonds or bond mutual funds.

Correlation between Stocks and Bonds

Two very common asset classes for personal investment are bonds and stocks. Click here to learn more about bonds, including a comparison between stocks and bonds.  Click here to learn more about stocks.

 

The Theory

The prices of stocks and bonds sometimes move in the same direction and sometimes move in opposite directions.  In good economies, companies make a lot of money and interest rates are often low.  When companies make money, their stock prices tend to increase.  When interest rates are low, bond prices are high.[1]  So, in good economies, we often see stock and bond prices move in the same direction.

However, from 1977 through 1981, bond prices went down while stocks went up.  At the time, the economy was coming out of a recession (which means stock prices started out low and then rose), but inflation increased. When inflation increases, interest rates tend to also increase and bond prices go down. [2]

Correlation of S&P 500 and Interest Rates

Over the past 40 years, interest rates have generally decreased (meaning bond prices went up) and stock markets increased in more years than not, as shown in the graph below.

The blue line shows the amount of money you would have each year if you invested $100 in the S&P 500 in 1980.  The green line shows the interest rate on the 10-year US treasury note, with the scale being on the right side of the graph.  Because bond prices go up when interest rates go down, we anticipate that there will be positive correlation between stock and bond prices over this period. If we looked at a longer time period, the correlation would still be positive, but not quite as high because, as mentioned above, there were periods when bond prices went down and stock prices increased.

Historical Correlation of Stocks and Bonds

I will use annual returns on the S&P 500 and the Fidelity Investment Grade Bond Fund to illustrate the correlation between stocks and bonds.  The graph below is a scatter plot of the annual returns on these two financial instruments from 1980 through 2018.  The returns on the bond fund are shown on the x axis; the returns on the S&P 500, the y axis.  Over this time period, the correlation between the returns on these two financial instruments is 43%.  This correlation is close to the +50% correlation illustrated in one of the scatter plots in last week’s post.  Not surprisingly, this graph looks somewhat similar to the +50% correlation graph in that post.

Stock and Bond Returns and Volatility

Recall that diversification is the reduction of risk, in this case, by owning both stocks and bonds.  The table below sets the baseline from which I will measure the diversification benefit.  It summarizes the average returns and standard deviations of the annual returns on the S&P 500 (a measure of stock returns) and a bond fund (an approximation of bond returns) from 1980 to 2018.  The bond fund has a lower return and less volatility, as shown by the lower average and standard deviation, than the S&P 500.

Bond Fund S&P 500
Average 0.6% 0.8%
Standard Deviation 1.6% 4.3%

 

Diversification Benefit from Stocks and Bonds

The graph below is a box & whisker plot showing the volatility of each of these financial instruments separately (the boxes on the far left and far right) and portfolios containing different combinations of them.  (See my post on risk for an explanation of how to read this chart.)

In this graph, the boxes represent the 25th to the 75th percentiles.  The whiskers correspond to the 5th to 95th percentiles.  As the portfolios have increasing amounts of stocks, the total return and volatility increase.

Diversification Benefit from Stocks and Bonds – A Different Perspective

These results can also be shown on a scatter plot, as shown in the graph below.  In this case, the x or horizontal axis shows the average return for each portfolio.  The y or vertical axis shows the percentage of the time that the return was negative. (See my post on making financial decisions for an explanation of optimal choices.)

There are three pairs of portfolios that have the same percentage of years with a negative return, but the one with more stocks in each pair has a higher return.  For example, about 24% of the time the portfolios with 30% and 50% invested in bonds had negative returns.  The 30% bond portfolio returned 8.9% on average, whereas the 50% bond portfolio returned 8.5% on average.   Therefore, the portfolio with 30% bonds is preferred over the one with 50% bonds using these metrics because it has the same probability of a negative return but a higher average return.

How to Pick your Mix Between Stocks and Bonds

The choice of mix between stocks and bonds depends on how much return you need to earn to meet your financial goals and how much volatility you are willing to tolerate.  A goal of maximizing return without regard to risk is consistent with one of the portfolios with no bonds or only a very small percentage of them.  At the other extreme, a portfolio with a high percentage (possibly as much as 100%) of bonds is consistent with a goal of minimizing the chance of losing money in any one year.  The options in the middle are consistent with objectives that combine attaining a higher return and reducing risk.

Other Asset Classes

There are many other asset classes that can be used for investment diversification.  Some people prefer tangible assets, such as gold, real estate, mineral rights (including oil and gas) or fine art, while others use a wider variety of financial instruments, such as options or futures.  When considering tangible assets, it is important to consider not only the possible appreciation in value but also the costs of owning them which can significantly reduce your total return.  Examples of costs of ownership include storage for gold and maintenance, insurance and property taxes for real estate.  All of the alternate investments I’ve mentioned, other than gold, also require expertise to increase the likelihood of getting appreciation from your investment.  Not everyone can identify the next Picasso!

Investment Diversification across Companies within an Asset Class

One of the most common applications of diversification is to invest in more than one company’s stock. It is even better if the companies are spread across different industries.  The greatest benefit from diversification is gained by investing in companies with low or negative correlation.  Common factors often drive the stock price changes for companies within a single industry, so they tend to show fairly high positive correlation.

Diversification across industries is so important that Jim Cramer has a segment on his show, Mad Money, called “Am I Diversified?”  In it, callers tell him the five companies in which they own the most stock and he tells them whether they are diversified based on the industries in which the companies fall.

To illustrate the benefits of diversification across companies, I have chosen five companies that are part of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (an index commonly used to measure stock market performance composed of 30 very large companies). These companies and their industries are:

American Express (AXP) Financial Services
Apple (AAPL) Technology
Boeing (BA) Industrial
Disney (DIS) Consumer Discretionary
Home Depot (HD) Consumer Staples

 

Correlation Between Companies

The graph below shows the correlations in the annual prices changes across these companies.

The highest correlations are between American Express and each of Boeing and Disney (both between 50% and 55%).  The lowest correlation is between Apple and Boeing (about 10%).

The graph below shows a box & whisker plot of the annual returns of these companies’ stocks.

All of the companies have about a 25% chance (the bottom of the box) of having a negative return in one year.  That is, if you owned any one of these stocks for one calendar year between 1983 and 2018, you had a 25% chance that you would have lost money on your investment.

Adding Companies Reduces Risk

The graph below shows a box & whisker chart showing how your volatility and risk would have been reduced if you had owned just Apple and then added equal amounts of the other stocks successively until, in the far-right box, you owned all five stocks.

The distance between the tops and bottoms of the whiskers get smaller as each stock is added to the mix. If you had owned equal amounts of all five stocks for any one calendar year in this time period, you would have lost money in 19% of the years instead of 25%.  The 25th percentile (bottom of the box) increases from between -5% and 0% for each stock individually to +14% if you owned all five stocks.  That is, 75% of the time, your return would have been greater than +14% if you had owned all 5 stocks.

As always, I remind you that past returns are not necessarily indicative of future returns. I used these five companies’ stocks for illustration and do not intend to imply that I recommend buying them (or not).

Investment Diversification Doesn’t Prevent Losses

The above illustration makes investing look great!  Wouldn’t it be nice if 75% of the time you could earn a return of at least 14% just by purchasing five stocks in different industries?  That result was lucky on my part.  I looked at the list of companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and picked the first five in alphabetical order that I thought were well known and in different industries.  It turns out that, over the time period from 1983 through 2018, all of those stocks did very well.  Their average annual returns ranged from 19% (Disney) to 40% (Apple).  The Dow Jones Industrial Average, by comparison, had an average return of 10%.  That means that most of the other stocks in the Average had a much lower return.

Being diversified won’t prevent losses, but it reduces them when one company experiences significant financial trouble or goes bankrupt.  Here’s a recent example.

Pacific Gas and Electric

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) is a California utility that conservative investors have bought for many, many years.  I’ve added it to the box & whisker plot of the companies above in the graph below.

PG&E’s average return (10%) is lower than the other five stocks and about equal to the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  Its volatility is similar to Boeing and Disney as shown by the height of its box and spread of it whiskers being similar to those of the other two stocks.

However, on the day I am writing this post, PG&E declared bankruptcy.  PG&E has been accused of starting a number of large wildfires in California as the result of allegedly poor maintenance of its power lines and insufficient trimming of trees near them.  Here is a plot of its daily stock price over the past 12 months.

In the year ending January 26, 2019, PG&E’s stock price decreased by 72%.  From its high in early November 2018 to its low in January 2019, it dropped by 87%.

How to Reduce the Impact of Another PG&E

Although diversification can’t completely protect you from such large losses, it can reduce their impact especially if you are invested in companies in different industries.   If the only company in which you owned stock was PG&E, you would have lost 72% of your savings in one year.  If, on the other hand, you had owned an equal amount of a  second stock that performed the same as the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the same time period (-6%), you would have lost 39%.  The graph below shows how much you would have lost for different numbers of other companies in your portfolio.

This graph shows how quickly the adverse impact of one stock can be offset by including other companies in a portfolio.  In a portfolio of five stocks (PG&E and four others that performed the same as the Dow), the 72% loss is reduced to about a 20% loss.  With 20 stocks, the loss is reduced to 10% (not much worse than the -6% for the Dow Jones Industrial Average).

Investment Diversification Over Time

Another way to benefit from diversification is to own financial instruments for a long time. In all of the examples above, I illustrated the risk of holding financial instruments for one year at a time. Many financial instruments have ups and downs, but tend to generally follow an upward trend.  The volatility and risk of the average annual return of these instruments will decrease the longer they are held.

20-Year Illustration

For illustration of the diversification benefit of time, I have used returns on the S&P 500. The graph below shows the volatility of the average annual return on the S&P 500 for various time periods ranging from one to twenty years.

To create the “20 Years” box and whiskers in this graph, I started by identifying all 20-year periods starting from 1950 through the one starting in 1997.  I calculated the average annual return for each 20-year period.  I then determined the percentiles needed to create this graph.  The values for the shorter time periods were calculated in the same manner.

The average return over all years is about 8.8%.  Because we are using data from 1950 to 2018 for all of these calculations, the average doesn’t change.

The benefits of long-term investing are clear from this graph.  There were no 20-year periods that had a negative return, whereas the one-year return was negative 25% of the time.

More Complicated Example

My post about whether Chris should pay off his mortgage provides a bit more complicated application of the same concepts. In that case, Chris puts money into the account for five years and then withdraws it for either the next five years or the next 21 years. The longer he invests, the more likely he is to be better off investing instead of paying off his mortgage.

A Caution about Individual Stocks

As a reminder, it is important to remember that this concept applies well to financial measures such as mutual funds, exchange-traded funds and indexes.  It also applies to the financial instruments of many companies, but not all.  If a company starts a downward trend, especially if it is on the way to bankruptcy, it will show a negative return no matter how long you own it.  If you choose to own stocks of individual companies, you will want to monitor their underlying financial performance (a topic for a future post) and news about them to minimize the chance that you continue to own them through a permanent downward trend.


[1]The price of a bond is the present value of the future interest and principal payments using the interest rate on the date the calculation is performed.  That is, each payment is divided by (1+today’s interest rate)(time until payment is made). Because the denominator gets bigger as the interest rate goes up, the present value of each payment goes down.    I’ll talk more about this in a future post on bonds.

[2]An explanation of the link between inflation and interest rates is quite complicated.  I’ll write about it at some point in the future.  For now, I’ll just observe that they tend to increase at the same time.

What is Diversification and How Does it Work?

One of the key concepts used by many successful investors is diversification.  In this post, I’ll define diversification and explain how it works conceptually.  I explain different ways you can diversify your investments and provide illustrations of its benefits in this post.

What is Diversification?

Diversification is the reduction of risk (defined in my post a couple of weeks ago) through investing in a larger number of financial instruments.  It is based on the concept of the Law of Large Numbers in statistics. That “Law” says that the more times you observe the outcome of a random process, the closer the results are likely to exhibit their true properties.  For example, if you flip a fair coin twice, there are four sets of possible results:

 

First flip Second flip
Heads Heads
Heads Tails
Tails Heads
Tails Tails

 

The true probability of getting heads is 50%.  In two rows (i.e., two possible results), there is one heads and one tails.  These two results correspond to the true probability of a 50% chance of getting heads.  The other two possible results show that heads appears either 0% or 100% of the time.  If you repeatedly flip the coin 100 times, you will see heads between 40% and 60% of the time in 96% of the sets of 100 flips.  Increasing the number of flips to 1,000 times per set, you will see heads between 46.8% and 53.2% of the time in 96% of the sets.  Because the range from 40% to 60% with 100 flips is wider than the range of 46.8% to 53.2% with 1,000 flips, you can see that the range around the 50% true probability gets smaller as the number of flips increases.  This narrowing of the range is the result of the Law of Large Numbers.

Following this example, the observed result from only one flip of the coin would not be diversified. That is, our estimate of the possible results from a coin flip would be dependent on only one observation – equivalent to having all of our eggs in one basket.  By flipping the coin many times, we are adding diversification to our observations and narrowing the difference between the observed percentage of times we see heads as compared to the true probability (50%).   Next week, I’ll apply this concept to investing where, instead of narrowing the range around the true probability, we will narrow the volatility of our portfolio by investing in more than one financial instrument.

What is Correlation?

As discussed below, the diversification benefit depends on how much correlation there is between the random variables (or financial instruments). Before I get to that, I’ll give you an introduction to correlation.

Correlation is a measure of the extent to which two variables move proportionally in the same direction. In the coin toss example above, each flip was independent of every other flip.

0% Correlation

When variables are independent, we say they are uncorrelated or have 0% correlation. The graph below shows two variables that have 0% correlation.

In this graph, there is no pattern that relates the value on the x-axis (the horizontal one) with the value on the y-axis (the vertical one) that holds true across all the points.

100% Correlation

If two random variables always move proportionally and in the same direction, they are said to have +100% correlation.  For example, two variables that are 100% correlated are the amount of interest you will earn in a savings account and the account balance.  If they move proportionally but in the opposite direction, they have -100% correlation.  Two variables that have -100% correlation are how much you spend at the mall and how much money you have left for savings or other purchases.

The two charts below show variables that have 100% and -100% correlation.

In these graphs, the points fall on a line because the y values are all proportional to the x values. With 100% correlation, the line goes up, whereas the line goes down with -100% correlation.  In the 100% correlation graph, the x and y values are equal; in the -100% graph, the y values equal one minus the x values. 100% correlation exists with any constant proportion.  For example, if all of the y values were all one half or twice the x values, there would still be 100% correlation.

50% Correlation

The graphs below give you a sense for what 50% and -50% correlation look like.

The points in these graphs don’t align as clearly as the points in the 100% and -100% graphs, but aren’t as randomly scattered as in the 0% graph.  In the 50% correlation graph, the points generally fall in an upward band with no points in the lower right and upper left corners.  Similarly, in the -50% correlation graph, the pattern of the points is generally downward, with no points in the upper right or lower left corners.

How Correlation Impacts Diversification

The amount of correlation between two random variables determines the amount of diversification benefit.  The table below shows 20 possible outcomes of a random variable.  All outcomes are equally likely.

The average of these observation is 55 and the standard deviation is 27.  This standard deviation is measures the volatility with no diversification and will be used as a benchmark when this variable is combined with other variables.

+100% Correlation

If I have two random variables with the same properties and they are 100% correlation, the outcomes would be:

Remember that 100% correlation means that the variables move proportionally in the same direction.  If I take the average of the outcomes for Variable 1 and Variable 2 for each observation, I would get results that are the same as the original variable.  As a result, the process defined by the average of Variable 1 and Variable 2 is the same as the original variable’s process.  There is no reduction in the standard deviation (our measure of risk), so there is no diversification when variables have +100% correlation.

-100% Correlation

If I have a third random variable with the same properties but the correlation with Variable 1 is -100%, the outcomes and averages by observation would be:

The average of the averages is 0 and so is the standard deviation!  By taking two variables that have ‑100% correlation, all volatility has been eliminated.

0% Correlation

If I have a fourth random variable with the same properties but it is uncorrelated with Variable 1, the outcomes and averages by observation would be:

The average of the averages is 54 and the standard deviation is 17.  By taking two variables that are uncorrelated, the standard deviation has been reduced from 27 to 17.

Other Correlations

The standard deviation of the average of the two variables increases as the correlation increases.  When the variables have between -100% and 0% correlation, the standard deviation will be between 0 and 17. If the correlation is between 0% and +100%, the standard deviation will be between 17 and 27.  This relationship isn’t quite linear, but is close.  The graph below shows how the standard deviation changes with correlation using random variables with these characteristics.

Key Take-Aways

Here are the key take-aways from this post.

  • Correlation measures the extent to which two random processes move proportionally and in the same direction. Positive values of correlation indicate that the processes move in the same direction; negative values, the opposite direction.
  • The lower the correlation between two variables, the greater the reduction in volatility and risk. At 100% correlation, there is no reduction in risk.  At -100% correlation, all risk is eliminated.
  • Diversification is the reduction in volatility and risk generated by combining two or more variables that have less than 100% correlation.