The commission trap

So you’re an investor, and you’ve got seemingly unlimited options for your money. Some seem awesome, some look a little suspect, and for the most part, you’re not really sure what’s going to work and what to stay away from. Typically, you’d talk to some type of financial advisor. Or you’d succumb to your own hubris and decide to get online and do this whole investing thing yourself until it becomes clear that you’ve made a huge mistake, then you’d talk to some sort of financial advisor. But now instead of trying to figure out how and where to invest money, you’re trying to figure out how to pick a trustworthy advisor who can help you with the investing part. Well, I’ve got one piece of advice: watch out for the commission trap.

There are several different ways that financial professionals are paid, the two most common are through fees and through commissions. Some advisors only charge one way or the other, some do both.

A fee-based advisor means that if you’ve got money invested, the advisor collects a fee (usually a small percentage) from your investments every year. It’s a pretty simple, pretty common model, and it makes sense because the advisor is invested in your success. It definitely doesn’t mean that the advisor is trustworthy, but you can at least take comfort in the fact that it’s a sensical payment model.
On the other side is the commission trap. There are a few bad things about commissions:

  • It means you’re buying a financial product. Advisors who collect commissions only get paid when a client buys something. Financial products, while veiled as beneficial to the customer, are generally not the best option. They prey on people’s desire for security and charge a hefty premium for it (annuity). What a financial product offers can almost always be had for a fraction of the cost with a much higher ceiling for growth by simply investing in the market. Not every product is always bad, but you definitely shouldn’t be buying lots of financial products.
  • It means the advisor is collecting a large commission. These products, specifically annuities, will pay out massive sums to advisors who can peddle them. Commissions between 5% and 10%, and sometimes even more, are common. That means if you take your $500,000 investment account and buy an annuity, the advisor could be collecting between $25,000 and $50,000. That’s a lot, suspiciously a lot. Brokers will pay advisors these kinds of fees is because the product is extremely lucrative for brokers, which means it’s probably not super beneficial for customers. 
  • It means there’s a conflict of interest for the advisor. They’re stuck with the tough decision (or maybe not so tough) of educating and caring for their client and promoting their best interests or putting food on their own table for their own kids, or taking a super nice vacation, or whatever else you could get excited about buying for $50,000. Unfortunately, the advisor’s interest will likely lean toward the $50k. Better not to put yourself, or the advisor, in a conflicting situation like that. 
  • It means that you’re probably not getting coached. Advisors who sell products aren’t evil (mostly), but they have to function more like salespeople than advisors or coaches in order to survive. Best case, the salespeople are catering to clients, giving them what they want without trying to rip them off. Worst case, the salespeople are manipulating or aggressively pushing bad products to people. Either way, coaching doesn’t enter the equation. There is no correlation between a customer’s desire for or the suitability of a product and the long term success of a client. So instead of coaching and educating clients, financial salespeople end up helping clients orchestrate their own financial purgatory, never making progress towards their goals. 

So keep an eye out for the commission trap when you’re evaluating an advisor.

Are you stock picking?

Stock picking is the art of choosing stocks that you believe will outperform (in which case you’d buy) or underperform (in which case you’d sell) the rest of the market, at least for a period of time. Whether you decide based on some special analytics or just follow your gut, it doesn’t really matter, you buy stocks you think will do well or dump stocks you think won’t. To put it another way, you’re looking for inefficiencies in the stock market. You believe that the stocks you plan to buy are underpriced; if everyone else knew or believed what you do the stock price would already be higher. Or you plan to sell stocks you believe are overpriced; again, if everyone knew or believed what you do, the stock price would already be lower. Naturally, once you’ve made your move, you expect the rest market to catch up and the stock prices to move accordingly.

Stock picking is a normal practice throughout the investing industry, even the prevailing practice. Professionals have been engaging with it since the inception of the stock market, and, with the advances in technology, more non-professionals than ever also have access through convenient investing apps and websites. Stocking picking is everywhere. In fact, most people think stock picking is investing, that they’re one and the same. The above definition of stock picking sounds like investing, doesn’t it? Here are a few reasons why that’s a problem:

1) Stock picking is built on the premise that the market is not efficient, that smart people can find deals and make money buying and selling the right stocks at the right time. The problem is that’s a false premise, the stock market is actually efficient. An efficient market means that stocks are never overpriced or underpriced, there are no deals, there is no right or wrong time to buy. Stock prices move based on future news and information (no one knows the future) and they react to the new news and information very quickly. If you purchase a stock based on an intuition about the future, that’s just guessing. If you purchase a stock because you believe it’s poised for growth based on a new report you read, the stock price has already adjusted to the report’s information, the price has already moved. With improving technology and additional regulation the market is more efficient now than ever before. News is disseminated immediately and trades can be placed instantaneously. There are differing beliefs as to the level or scale to which the market is efficient, but research continually supports the Efficient Market Hypothesis. Since the market is efficient, stock picking doesn’t work by definition.

2) Research into the results of stock picking has been impressively depressing. Study after study shows that no one, not even professionals, has consistent success picking stocks over time. People will outperform the broader market occasionally, maybe even for a few years in a row, but because of the number of people trying that’s a statistical probability, it’s not based on any skill. Professor Russ Wermers stated in a 2008 mutual fund study, False Discoveries in Mutual Fund Performance: Measuring Luck in Estimated Alphas, that “the number of funds that have beaten the market over their entire histories is so small that the False Discovery Rate test can’t eliminate the possibility that the few that did were merely false positives.” He’s basically saying that there are so few active stock pickers who have outperformed the market that they were more likely a product of luck than skill. And that’s the professionals. Stock picking doesn’t work because it’s built on a false premise and the research agrees.

3) Research into the costs associated with stock picking is also grim. William Harding, an analyst with Morningstar, said that the average turnover ratio for managed domestic stock funds is 130% (Apr 23, 2018). That’s a terrifying number. It means that through the course of a year the fund will replace all of the stocks it owns, and then re-replace another 30%. It means that the average stock is held for only 281 days. There is a lot of trading going on here. One of the reasons stock picking fails is because of the additional expenses it incurs for all of these trades. Active funds charge an expense ratio, which is normal (although active funds typically charge higher expense ratios than passive funds because of the additional work it takes to actively trade), but they also incur significant trading costs, which is unique to active funds. The expense ratios are published but the trading costs often aren’t. A 2013 study, Shedding Light on ‘Invisible’ Costs: Trading Costs and Mutual Fund Performance, discovered that the average trading costs of mutual funds amounts to 1.44%, that’s in addition to the already higher expense ratio. Even worse, funds owning higher performing long term asset classes (see Three Factor Model) have even higher trading costs, 3.17% on average for small cap funds. These additional trading fees are debilitating to fund returns.

So stock picking is built on a false premise, it doesn’t work by definition, and it charges a premium for its lackluster results. On top of all of that, there’s a massive cost of lost opportunity when your portfolio is stuck stock picking. While your funds are engaged in the losing strategy the rest of the market is consistently earning great returns over time, returns that can be captured simply with diversification, rebalancing, and discipline. Unfortunately, large swaths of the investing industry still promote the active stock picking strategy, in fact, you’ve more than likely got stock picking funds in your 401k portfolio. There’s a better way to invest.

When’s the Next Market Crash?

Full disclosure, I don’t know, but don’t stop reading! The thing is, that’s a bad question, or at least the wrong question. No one knows when the next market crash will be. We’re pretty sure there will be another one at some point because that’s how the market works, but instead of trying to figure out when, let’s work from what we know:

1) We know that the market moves based on new news and people’s emotions. Neither of those things are predictable in the future. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, what news will come out. And we especially don’t know how people will feel or how they’ll respond to unknown things in the future. So, we know that we don’t know what the market will do tomorrow or anytime in the future. Make sense?

2) We know that the general stint of the market is up, way up. We know that for people who don’t freak out about the next crash, who instead stay invested through the bumps, the average returns are really amazing (to the tune of 10+% per year!). 

3) We know that when the market does crash it takes an average of about 4 months for it to bounce all the way back. The average crash takes about 4 months to hit the bottom, and 4 months to come back. For those keeping track, that’s a total of 8 months for the average crash. 

4) We know that over the last 93 years (that’s as far back as the super-reliable data goes), 68 of them were positive by an average of 21%. That leaves 25 negative years, which were down by an average of 13%. Who doesn’t want to sign up for those odds!

5) We know that people get real nervous about the market. On average, people jump advisors and funds every 3.5 years. And we know that’s not a winning strategy. 

6) We know that bonds are much less volatile than stocks, but that they also return significantly less than stocks. So, when you’re young, you want to own mostly stocks. You want your money to grow, and crashes don’t matter too much because you’ve got plenty of time to let the market bounce back. If you’re older, you might need more of your money in bonds because the bonds won’t dip like the stocks will in a crash. Bonds can reduce the volatility in your portfolio when you need the funds to be there.

7) We know that good advisors have a profound impact on people’s returns. Instead of encouraging clients to try to figure out when or what is going to happen next, they help clients stick to the plan, even when the market seems scary. 

So we don’t know when the next crash will be. But it actually doesn’t matter, not if you have a good advisor, a good understanding of the market, and a good plan. The timing of next market crash should actually be the least of your worries; but if you must worry, at least worry about something a little more worrisome. 

3 Questions to Ask your Financial Advisor

Your investment advisor is a very important person. You rely on this person to help you navigate your lifelong financial journey, and hopefully guide you to a successful outcome. There are obvious characteristics we want in an advisor: integrity, honesty, diligence, etc., all good things. But there are other, almost equally important things most of take for granted in an advisor: What’s their investment strategy? What’s their view on the market? How do they expect to help you capture returns? These are questions we don’t tend to ask, after all, they’re the professionals, but the answers to these questions will have a profound impact on your future.

  1. Do you think the market is efficient or not?

This is a simple question with massive implications. Basically, you’re asking whether or not your advisor thinks he/she can consistently get you better returns than the market by actively buying and selling stocks (stock picking), moving in and out of different market sectors (market timing), and using funds with the best recent return history (track-record investing). If the market is not efficient then these are valid exercises. An inefficient market means that stock prices could be underpriced or overpriced and assumes that smart advisors should be able to figure out which stocks are which and pick the ones that will outperform all of the others. Unfortunately, advisors don’t consistently beat the market, they can’t consistently pick the winners. The results of choosing stocks and timing the market have been overwhelmingly negative and research has resoundingly supported the assertion that the market is actually efficient (Efficient Market Hypothesis). An efficient market means a stock is never overpriced or underpriced, its current price is always the best indication of its current value. If the market is efficient, that means it’s impossible for anyone to consistently predict or beat it, in fact, attempts to do so are more like gambling than investing. Instead of trying to outperform the market, the goal should be to own the whole of it as efficiently as possible. This brings us to the next question.

2. What Asset Classes Do I Own?

In order to efficiently own the market, you need broad diversification. That means you want to own many companies, but more importantly, you want to own many companies in many different asset classes (large companies, small companies, value companies, international companies, etc.). When you ask, most advisors are going to tell you that the large majority of your money is in Large US Growth companies (S&P 500), which is unfortunate because the Large US Growth company asset class is one of the lowest returning asset classes in history. That’s not to say the asset class is a bad investment, it’s great for diversification, but it’s certainly not where you want most of your money. Small and Value asset classes return better over time, so you want to ensure you’re broadly and significantly invested in those asset classes.

3. How will you help me capture returns?

There are three important components to successfully capturing returns: 1) diversify, 2) rebalance, 3) remain disciplined. Diversification (1) means you’ll have ownership in companies of all different shapes and sizes all over the world. Good diversification does two things for an investor: it reduces risk/volatility and increases return. Since we don’t know which sectors or stocks will do best this year, we own all of them, and then we rebalance, which brings us to point 2. The goal in rebalancing (2) is to keep an ideal percentage of each of the different asset classes in your portfolio. Since stocks and asset classes don’t all move the same way every year when one asset class is up and another is down your portfolio percentages get out of whack. That’s where rebalancing comes in. In order to rebalance your portfolio, your advisor will sell some of the asset class that went up and buy some of the asset class that went down, bringing the percentages back into alignment. This must happen systematically, for example, it could be every quarter, in order for it to be effective. The end result is that you’re automatically selling high and buying low. There’s no gut instinct, no guessing, no market timing, it’s committed disciplined rebalancing, which brings us to point 3. Discipline (3) isn’t something that comes naturally to most of us, but it’s extremely important in capturing returns and planning for your future. There’s a behavior element that all of this hinges on, if an investor doesn’t have the discipline to ride out the ups and downs in the market they can’t be a successful investor. The average investor switches advisors and funds and strategies every 3.5 years, that’s a losing game. So how will your investor help you stay disciplined and on track to capture those returns and achieve your goals?

Since I’m writing this and I’m an advisor, you probably assume I’ve got answers to these questions, your assumption is correct. But this isn’t just a sales pitch, good answers to these questions are critical for successful investing, and far too many people simply have no idea what their advisor is doing for them, whether good or bad. So ask a few questions!

Finances by age

We’ve all heard of general financial guidelines which wisdom would suggest we follow. Dave Ramsey talks about them, financial planners use them, we all interact with them on some level. As you move through life the guidelines also move a little bit, some things you didn’t have to deal with in your 20’s become pressing in your 40’s, and vice versa. This is a breakdown of these financial guidelines by age, things that you should be thinking about based on your stage of life. This does not mean that you’ve failed if you’re working on some 20’s things in your 30’s or 40’s, or even 50’s. But these guidelines are a helpful measuring stick to see how you’re doing currently, and they provide a good pathway for lifetime financial success. Let’s dig in.

Teen years:

  • The number one thing you can do in your teens is to start developing good financial habits.
  • Stay away from consumer debt. These debts are often subject to high interest rates (credit cards), tied to depreciating assets (cars), and often end up funding things that are unnecessary. They encourage bad spending habits and can cost years to catch up from.
  • Learn to save money. Instead of unnecessary spending, practice going the other way, save up money for things you want. 
  • Learn to work hard. Financial guidelines will certainly help you succeed, but you won’t get far if you can’t earn money. 
  • Get through college with minimal student loans.


20’s:

  • Now you’re out of college and real life is set in. The number one thing you can do is create a zero-sum budget and stick to it as if your life depends on it. Give yourself some spending money, make sure to budget your savings, and again, avoid consumer debt. The budget is not a forecast of your future spending, and it’s not just for tracking your spending either, it’s for planning your spending. You intentionally decide what you’re going to spend money on and how much, and you don’t spend beyond that. 
  • Start a financial plan. Meet with an advisor, learn about how the market works, and start putting together a loose plan for retirement. Things will obviously change, but the plan will ensure that you’re pointed in the right direction.
  • Create an emergency fund. Dave Ramsey says save $1,000, that’s a good place to start. Eventually, you might work up to a month or two worth of expenses. This is how you will pay for life’s curveballs instead of using your credit card.
  • If your company offers a 401k plan, start putting some money away. The money you invest in your 20’s will work the hardest for you over the long haul. If your company’s 401k plan offers some sort of match, try to contribute whatever is required to take full advantage of the match. The free money is hard to pass up.
  • Be aggressive about paying off student loans (and any other consumer debts).
  • Start saving for a house.


30’s & 40’s:

  • Now that you’ve set the stage in your 20’s, you’re ready to start executing in your 30’s and 40’s. Keep meeting with your advisor and updating the plan, keep learning, and keep on the straight and narrow.
  • Become debt free (aside from a potential mortgage loan). If you have any consumer debt or student loans, be aggressive about paying them off.
  • Think about buying a house. Your financial plan will show you that buying a house is the most cost-effective way to provide housing, a home is a good asset. Save up a large down payment and ensure the payment fits nicely in the budget, there are few things more financially stressful than being ‘house-poor.’
  • Make a plan to pay off the house, ideally in 15 years or less. Owning a home free and clear is one of the most impactful things you can do for your retirement. It’s also a great way to help kids through college if that’s a goal of yours.
  • Increase retirement savings. You’ve been contributing enough to take advantage of the match, but there’s no need to stop there. Bump up your 401k percentage or put some extra money away in an IRA. 15% of your income is a good goal.
  • Buy some term life insurance, especially if you have children. A 20-year policy is often sufficient, the goal is to ensure that your family will be well-off in the event of a tragedy.
  • Put together a will, again, especially if you have children. It’s another way to ensure the family will be well-off in the event of a tragedy.
  • Increase the emergency fund to cover 3-6 months (or whatever number feels most comfortable) worth of expenses. Think about this money as insurance. It’s not going to earn much if anything, but that’s not what it’s for. The investments will earn money for retirement, the insurance is to shield you from unforeseen events.

50’s:

  • Talk to your advisor about your investment allocations. As you move closer to retirement, you’ll want to ensure the retirement funds will be available for you, which means you’ll probably scale back the risk factor in your portfolio, or at least have a plan in place to do so. This means owning a higher percentage of bonds and fixed income type assets and fewer equities (stocks). A good advisor will engage with you on this subject pro-actively.
  • Adjust investment contributions. It could be a good time to increase savings again to maximize what will be available in retirement. It’s the home stretch!
  • Pay off your home. I mentioned this earlier, but paying off your home is one of the most significant things you can do for your retirement. From a cash-flow perspective, it makes a ton of sense. If you owe $100,000 on your mortgage, and your payment is $750 per month, you’ll gain $9,000 in spendable cash-flow per year for spending by paying the $100,000. If you instead saved that $100,000, you would be able to pull about 5-6% per year ($5,000-$6,000) and you’d still be making the mortgage payment. A mortgage-free budget will also be much more flexible. Many people end up working in retirement mainly because they still have to cover the mortgage.
  • Look at your social security estimate. This is available online (https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/estimator.html) and will be helpful as you get more detailed in your retirement plan.


60’s+:

  • Finalize your retirement plan. Determine when you’ll retire, what your new income sources will look like, how your advisor will manage the retirement funds, when to take social security, all the exciting stuff. These are important details to nail down as you move into retirement.
  • Revisit your budget. Income, expenses, taxes, and cash-flow all change significantly in retirement. A good comparative cash-flow analysis from your advisor could prove very helpful. Usually, retirees can achieve a similar or better cash-flow with significantly less income because of how the taxes and expenses shape up (especially if that mortgage is gone!).
  • Decide what you’d like to accomplish in retirement, maybe even set some goals. The great benefit of retirement is not the ability to stop doing anything, it’s the opportunity to focus on the things you want to do. A part-time job or some sort of enjoyable work, more family time, travel with loved ones, important hobbies, these all can be part of a richly fulfilling retirement; but don’t let them simply happen to you, do them on purpose.