401k accounts good and bad. They’re mostly good because they provide an avenue for people to save and invest money for their future, but there are some things to watch out for.
The main benefit of a 401k is that it allows you to invest qualified money. You could just invest money on your own, but investing in your 401k accounts means that you get some significant tax advantages (no capital gains on the growth of your investments and an income tax break). The same advantages apply to IRA accounts, but 401ks include two other significant advantages.
Many employers offer a matching contribution. For example, if you contribute a certain small percentage of your income (say 5%), the employer may kick in an additional small percentage into your 401k account (say 4%). That’s free money, and you should definitely take it.
401k contributions are capped at $19,000 per year by the employee, employer contributions can exceed that. IRA contributions are capped at $6,000 per year. Not all of us are maxing out our qualified retirement accounts, but the larger cap offered by 401k accounts is certainly an advantage.
401k accounts offer a limited number of investing options, and they’re almost never great. 401k Plan sponsors (employers) are typically concerned with one thing when choosing a plan: cost. If the plan seems expensive it will be harder to explain to the board, regardless of the value or benefits of the portfolio and the advisor.
Your money is locked up for as long as you work at the company. You’re stuck with the options available and you can’t move the money elsewhere unless you leave or retire.
Investors have little to no help deciding which funds or options to use within the 401k so they end up in default options, which are usually target dated funds. You may have seen these funds that end with a future year, like 2045, which you’d be in if you were expected to retire sometime around 2045. A target dated fund is not the worst investment you could be in (which isn’t saying much) but it’s far from ideal. A target dated fund will load you up in U.S. large growth companies (essentially the S&P 500), sprinkle in some international large growth companies, and decide what percentage of your money should be in bonds based on the target year. Unfortunately, in the history of the market, large growth company asset classes are among the lowest-performing of any asset classes over time. A target dated fund is usually made up of index funds (along with their inherent problems) so at least it’s not active, but it will sacrifice large amounts of return over time because of its poor diversification.
Don’t be afraid to use your 401k account, especially if your employer offers a matching contribution (again, free money). But if you’ve obtained the maximum matching contribution, think about investing additional money into a better portfolio through an IRA. Unfortunately, your 401k is probably loaded up in the wrong asset class.
Alright, so we know passive investing trumps active investing, and we know that index investing, while passive, has some serious deficiencies. So what’s left?
We want to own the market passively, but that doesn’t mean we’re restricted to index funds. There is a much more responsible way to allocate money to different companies and sectors – structured funds. Structured funds deal with each of the index funds issues:
1. Instead of an arbitrary grouping of companies, a structured fund can make it’s own set of rules to decide which companies are in an asset class or fund and which are not. The S&P 500 is 500 of the largest companies in the U.S., but what if that’s not the best way to own the U.S. Large growth asset class? The same question can be asked of any index. Instead of abiding by the arbitrary index rules, a structured fund makes its own rules based on a century of market data. Just like the S&P 500 has rules to decide which companies are in and which are out (largely based on that 500 number), a structured fund has a set of rules that a company has to meet (size, profitability, book to value ratio, etc.) in order to be included in that fund. It’s still passive (in fact, often more passive than index funds), the rules are what determine which companies are in and out not an advisor’s gut feelings, but it’s a different type of investing. And it’s based on actual market research instead of arbitrary measurements.
2. We know that small companies outperform large companies over time, but indexes, by necessity (because of cap-weighting), own the least amount of the small companies. Even small company indexes like the Russell 2000 (which owns the smallest 2,000 companies in the U.S.) have much more money invested in the larger several companies than in the smaller hundreds of companies. If you’re in a target dated fund (the ones with a year at the end) in a 401k or a total U.S. market index fund, you’re missing out on the best returns the market has to offer because of cap-weighting.
3. Structured funds are not as cheap to own, and they’re much more scarce than index funds. You’ll probably have to work with an advisor to gain access to them. They rarely let investors put their finger on the trigger. Over time, these funds outperform traditional index funds because they’re designed to maximize return. An index fund would have to pay you to achieve similar returns, even after the additional costs of structured funds are considered. And because investors can only access them through an advisor, the likely-hood that investors consistently realize the returns (instead of hopping in or out or all around at the wrong time) increases significantly.
Often times index funds are the only decent option available (this is true in many 401k accounts), but when the options are open, a good advisor offering good structured funds is the best option.
It’s 2019. The industrial revolution began over 200 years ago. Political democracy was ratified almost 250 years ago. Capitalism began its ascent somewhere around 500 years ago. In 2019 the world is a much different place and changing at a much more rapid pace than ever before. The rise of technology, the commitment to political freedom, and the resilience of free markets have resulted in remarkable life improvements. We have more free time, we understand the concept of a vacation, we even live longer. But maybe the most impressive change in the last 500 years is the incredible increase in the number of options we have. We’ve got multiples of ketchup options at the grocery store, we’ve got multiples of grocery store options within driving distance, we’ve got endless options for entertainment built right into our TVs, we’ve got so many bars and restaurant options we can’t keep track of where we’ve been and where we’d still like to visit (just me?), we’ve got innumerable product options staring at us from our phone screens, we’ve got travel options, vacation options, gym options, school options, cell phone options, clothes options, housing options, the list goes on. The sheer volume of options seems a little crazy when you think about it, but we love all our options. Options are great, they’re an essential part of freedom, they give us the ability to direct our lives to a degree. For most of history people didn’t have many options. As far as work went, the option was to essentially do what your parents did (which was probably farm). Now we’ve got thousands of career options, and that’s a wonderful thing.
The flipside of all these options is the requirement to make lots of choices. Options are great, choices are work. They’re work because you have to sift through all of the options, but more so because you eventually have to make a decision. The word ‘decision’ comes from the Latin root ‘decidere’ which literally means ‘to cut off from.’ Making a decision involves choosing one option instead of a bunch of other options, it means cutting off the other options, it means giving up the other options. So that’s a problem, what if we really liked having all those options? Options equal freedom!
The real problem with our abundance of options is that it gives us the illusion of freedom but it’s often crippling. We begin to idolize our options to the exclusion of making decisions, to the exclusion of making progress. We become content to maintain the beautiful platter of options without ever making a commitment to any. I suspect that this is especially true in our work. I love to vacillate on different strategies for my business, different side-hustles I could start, different events I could host. I love to ‘keep my options open’ so to speak. But in the end, that’s just wasted time. You could spend your entire life keeping your options open and never accomplish anything. The fear is that once you commit something you’ve got to be all in and you’ve got to say ‘no’ to the other options, but the alternative is to live a life of waffling waste filled with eternally open options. That’s definitely worse. So make a decision!
First of all, I don’t mean Robinhood the vigilante, the hero. Sure, was a criminal, but at least he was fighting against the bad guys. In an unjust agrarian society, his actions could be seen as defensible, but I digress.
I mean Robinhood the investment app. A few notes on its danger:
The Robinhood app is gorgeous. It’s so pretty it’s hard not to look at it. The graphs and charts are perfect, the animations and gestures are seamless, the design is minimal, it’s about as well designed as apps come. The old mantra ‘beauty is only skin deep’ applies here. The beauty draws you in but also masks some sordid parts.
The beauty of Robinhood masks the fact that it’s essentially a place to gamble. Sure, you could call it sophisticated gambling, at least you’re not sitting in the smoky haze with eyes glazed over at a shiny slot machine, but it’s still gambling. The little news tidbits aren’t going to help you beat the market, nor will the pretty charts. The truth is that even professionals don’t beat the market. The beauty and ease just make it more tempting.
Robinhood will you trade options, which is an even riskier way to invest, and even more likely to lose you more money. An option is just a leveraged bet on the market, like putting your money on 13 at the roulette table. It’s a terrible idea.
Robinhood offers free trades, perhaps its most alluring selling point. Purchasing stocks always involves fees, brokerage fees, trade commissions, transaction fees, etc. Brokers who conduct trades charge fees, usually per transaction. Robinhood is one of the few places where consumers can purchase shares without transaction fees. So it’s beautiful and free? Who says no to that?
It’s not entirely free. There are regulatory fees on every trade which Robinhood does pass on to customers. These fees are typically fractions of pennies, and Robinhood rounds them up to the nearest penny, pocketing the round-up of course.
Robinhood also generates substantial income from a practice called ‘payment for order flow,’ a controversial industry practice interestingly invented by Bernie Madoff. It basically means Robinhood sells the right to execute customer trades to third-party market makers who pay a small fee. Those small fees add up, and Robinhood relies on their high-frequency traders to make it work. Regulators don’t love it, in fact, other brokers and market makers have faced lawsuits over the issue. Robinhood’s dependence on this income could spell its downfall in the coming years.
Robinhood only allows you to buy entire shares, which are often pricey. At the time of this writeup Apple is trading at around $200/share, SPY (a very popular ETF that tracks with the S&P 500 index) is trading at about $300/share, Tesla is at $220, you get the idea. Not all shares are that expensive, but it’s tough to deposit a small amount and get trading, you need more money to buy full shares.
It’s not like Robinhood couldn’t offer partial shares, other platforms do it. Robinhood doesn’t because this is another one of the ways they make money. Offering full shares exclusively means that you will usually have some leftover change in your account, and Robinhood earns interest on those leftover funds. It also encourages you to invest larger chunks of money, which means you’re likely to lose more money.
I’m not saying you’ll die young or retire destitute if you invest some money in Robinhood. But just be aware of what you’re doing. You’re gambling. For the most part, it’s best to stay away.
Investing today is easier than it’s ever been. One hundred years ago investing options were limited, there were no mutual funds, no ETFs, it was basically banks and single stocks. And even those few options were expensive and difficult to obtain. For most people, investing wasn’t a viable option. Today we’re drowning in all the investment options. It’s become so easy, so normal, you can download an app and own thousands of equities within minutes. The ease is good, and it’s good that more people are able to own equities (equities are the best passive wealth building tool in history) but there are also good and bad ways to own equities, and the ease seems to more often promote the bad ways.
Active investing is essentially gambling, even for professionals. We know the stock market moves relative to news and emotion, neither of which is consistently predictable. We also know that the current price of a stock is the best indication of its current value, stocks aren’t ever ‘on sale’ or ‘overpriced.’ So when an active investor buys or sells a stock share it’s just a bet, a bet that a specific company will either increase in value (in which case you’d buy) or decrease in value (in which case you’d sell). Successfully buying and selling stocks is tough, and no one can consistently do it well enough to beat the market over time, not even professionals. Research shows that the outcome of this active investing style is overwhelmingly negative. That’s part of the reason why we’ve seen a seismic shift toward more passive investment strategies over the last 20 years.
However, we’ve also seen the growth of in-app investing. I’m all for cool apps, and investing apps are among the coolest, but there’s an inherent problem in using an app as an envoy for your retirement. The fact that they are so easy to use is a temptation to actively use them. The fact that they look so nice gives the illusion that we’re doing something responsible with our money. Some offer worthless, even contradictory, commentary on market predictions. Some even promote super risky options (puts and calls) accompanied by incomplete (at best) information concerning the risk involved, and even how they work. Essentially, these apps promote a sort of sophisticated gambling, which is really fun, and really bad for your return probabilities. Apps that have claimed to stand for passive investing seem to be slowly moving toward an active style as well or at least offering it.
It’s probably best to treat investing apps like gambling apps since that’s effectively what they are. Don’t be duped by the bells and whistles, they offer an adrenaline rush and a lot of downsides. Most of us wouldn’t take our retirement fund over to the roulette table and put it all on red (talk about a rush!), so don’t dump your life savings into an app.