Inter - Economic Market Allocation - How the Average Investor can Beat the Market!
Welcome to my blog.
The purpose of this blog is to inform the investor about Economic - Market history and give the investor the insight that will improve his or her portfolios capital performance.
Mr. Peter Casula Jr
All of the ETFs mentioned have annual expenses under 0.15%.
The ETFs mentioned will allow broad based diversification for my portfolio's core.
These offerings are from Vanguard, but several other low cost fund families exist.
Nearly two years ago I wrote an article entitled My Retirement Portfolio Could Be Replaced With These 5 ETFs. At the time, the article was written basically to as an alternative concept to my portfolio (at that time) of individual stocks. We all tend to evolve as investors over time. Each of us are on our own journey, whether we're talking about investing or life in general. I know the focus of my life has evolved over the past few years. If you are interested in a summary my family's journey thus far, read about it HERE.
Over the past 2 years I have come to two important realizations, which encourage me to eventually rotate mostly out of individual stocks and to the portfolio outlined below. First and most importantly, there simply aren't that many companies around the world that deserve my family's capital. To be clear, I don't mean there aren't some reasonable values in the global equity markets. I am talking about companies that are so well run, and have amazingly sustainable competitive advantages, that I would commit to owning these companies for the next 20 or 30 years. Perhaps you think the idea of holding an investment for decades is a simplistic and illogical consideration, but I contend that it's exactly my intention when I invest in an individual company on the "long-term side" of our bifurcated portfolio. For that reason, in the future I will cap individual stock investments at 25% or 30% of our portfolio's value. It will be limited to companies that can compound my capital, and unlock value, for decades and I think those are few and far between.
The second consideration in proposing the portfolio outlined below, is my personal time commitment. Currently I have a day job and enjoy researching our individual stock investments, but we are moving toward semi retirement. I anticipate additional flexibility and travel in semi retirement, but I can't allow the time commitments of monitoring a portfolio of individual stock investments to get in the way our flexibility/freedom. That sounds too much like work. With those two considerations in mind, let's take a look at the ETF offerings below. (Note: the funds discussed are all Vanguard offerings, but there are also other low cost fund families to consider like Fidelity and T. Rowe Price.
First up is Vanguard's Total Stock Market ETF, my proxy for exposure to domestic US companies. In the previous article I mentioned Vanguard's S&P 500 ETF (NYSEARCA:VOO). Several readers commented that Vanguard's Total Stock Market ETF might be a better alternative, because it includes both small and mid capitalization companies. After some thought, I agree. While this ETF is capitalization weighted, which in this case means it's heavily skewed toward the large cap companies of the S&P 500, it also gives me some exposure to the small and mid capitalization companies. I like the concept of this additional exposure, because the small and mid capitalization companies tend to be much more isolated from international troubles and get nearly all of their business within the United States. I like to think of this ETF as the S&P 500, with a little extra kick. Given so much diversification, it's hard to beat the annual expense ratio of 0.05%. Below is a snap shot of Vanguard's Total Stock Market ETF, from Vanguard's website. The companies in the portfolio represent a wide variety of industries.
The next ETF would be Vanguard's FTSE All World ex US ETF. This fund includes stock in more than 2500 different companies around the world. The holdings are skewed to the largest capitalization companies, because of the fund's capitalization weighting. Also as a result of the fund's weighting, you probably recognize all of the names in the top 10 portfolio holdings. (Think Nestle (OTCPK:NSRGY), Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A), Toyota (NYSE:TM), and Unilever (NYSE:UL)). In the graphic below, courtesy of Vanguard's website, you can see that this truly is a global fund. This is the type of diversification I expect from a capitalization weighted all world fund. Additionally, if you don't feel comfortable having a large weighting of emerging market companies in your portfolio you may be able to hit your desired asset allocation within the 17.5% of this fund that represents companies located in emerging market economies. The annual expense ratio of this fund is only 0.14%, which is paltry considering the diversification (and rebalancing efforts) achieved by owning this fund.
If you are optimistic about the future of emerging market economies, you may want to add additional exposure to your portfolio by including something like Vanguard's FTSE Emerging Markets ETF. I own this fund, but be warned that everyone has a different definition of what an "emerging market" economy is. Some people think of frontier economies, like those found in Africa and the Middle East. Others think of countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China. I'm not here to tell you what the right answer is, but remember that some emerging market economies have been "emerging" for decades. Remember to dig into your fund's portfolio allocation, to be sure you are comfortable with what you are buying.
(click to enlarge)
See the table below for a perfect case in point. This is the geographic distribution of Vanguard's FTSE Emerging Market ETF. A full 28.2% of the portfolio is comprised of businesses based in China, and 55.3 percent of the portfolio's companies are based in China, Taiwan, or India. I would prefer if the percentage of companies from those three countries was reduced somewhat, but overall I feel the diversification achieved by this fund fits my family's needs pretty well. For my annual expense ratio of 0.15%, I gain exposure to over 2500 different global companies. As a result of the difficulty gathering quality corporate information in many of these emerging economies, I have always used an ETF (and this one specifically) to purchase my desired allocation of emerging market companies.
There is a conversation raging right now about whether or not bond investors are being adequately compensated for the risks present in the bond market. That's a conversation for another day, although I will note that because I am still in my 30s and interest rates are so painfully low, I have not had any meaningful bond exposure in my portfolio for several years. Clearly this is an individual decision, and every investor is different. If however you would like exposure to more than 7700 bonds, for an annual expense ratio of 0.07%, Vanguard's Total Bond Market ETF may be for you. As you can see in the three tables below, courtesy of Vanguard's website, the vast majority of holdings are highly rated bonds. The bonds held in the portfolio are also from a variety of issuers and of varying duration. For simple and straight forward bond market exposure, Vanguard's Total Bond Market ETF is worth a look.
Specialty (Sector, County, and Asset) ETFs
It's amusing sometimes to look at all the different specialty ETFs and mutual funds currently being offered. While the typical investor has no need to invest in many of these funds, they are available if the investor so decides. Two specialty funds that come up in my conversations with readers are listed below, but rest assured that your own imagination is the only limit of fund offerings. If you want to invest in a socially responsible fund that only invests in women owned businesses in the former Soviet Union states, I'm sure there is a fund out there for you. I'm exaggerating to prove a point, but I assure you that there are literally thousands of specialty funds available to you, if you take the time to look for them. Remember that just because these funds exist, doesn't mean they are worthy of your hard earned capital.
In the current low interest rate environment, investors have been searching for yield anywhere they can get it. Many investors have turned to corporate dividends and distributions from REITs (real estate investment trusts) or MLPs (master limited partnerships). If you are interested in owning a basket of REITs, Vanguard's REIT ETF may be for you. For a 0.12% annual expense ratio, you gain exposure to 140+ different REITs. In the graphic below (courtesy of Vanguard's website) you can see the sector diversification offered within the fund, as well as the top ten fund holdings.
Many investors are keen to take advantage of long term trends, such as aging demographics, and global healthcare issues. If you are looking for this type of exposure, Vanguard's Healthcare ETF is worth a look. For a low 0.12% annual expense ratio, you can gain exposure to over 330 companies within the healthcare industry. The distribution of those companies is shown in the graphic (courtesy of Vanguard's website) below, as are the funds top portfolio holdings.
(click to enlarge)
In a future article I will write about my asset allocation goals for my portfolio, but I hope this article gave you an idea of several very sold ETFs offered within the Vanguard family of funds. (Other low cost fund families you may want to look at include Fidelity and T. Rowe Price). Given the impressive returns posted by equity markets around the world, I have been hesitant to shift all of our holdings over to passive index ETFs just yet. The reality is that I currently enjoy researching and picking individual stocks. Eventually I will not have the time, or desire, to spend so much time on our investments. At that time, having a core portfolio position in the group of ETFs mentioned here will be my best bet. I took an early step in that direction this summer, following China's massive sell off, when began accumulating a large position in Vanguard's Emerging Markets ETF. I still have a long way to go before I reach my desired asset allocations, but I am optimistic that better investment opportunities (and lower prices) will present themselves in the future.
Do you hold index funds or ETFs in your portfolio? Why or why not?
Disclosure: The only ETF mentioned that I currently own is VWO. I do own individual stocks included in some of the other ETFs. Please consult your investment professional to create an asset allocation mix that meets your specific needs. Mine is a fairly unusual case given my young age and mix of investment holdings. This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered a recommendation for anyone to buy, sell, or hold any securities. I am not a financial professional. The information above is available at Vanguard.com.
Disclosure: I am/we are long VWO.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Protect Your Portfolio Against Unexpected Side Effects Of Fed Tightening
Nov. 12, 2015 8:09 AM
The first Fed tightening since QE appears imminent. The public will view this as the start of a normalization path regardless of attempts to distract from this perspective.
The Fed's main tightening tool since QE is to increase interest rates on bank reserves held at the Fed, since open market operations are no longer effective.
This new Fed tool is highly inefficient, results in huge risk-free interest payments to both foreign and domestic banks, and can ultimately increase the national debt.
Public recognition of these tightening side-effects could ignite a dangerous firestorm in both the public and Congress, threatening the Fed's independence or even existence in its present form.
Protect your portfolio as the Fed loses its remaining credibility and inflation becomes unanchored, leaving the economy vulnerable to runaway inflation on any price spike.
The Fed has made it increasingly plausible that it will soon begin tightening monetary policy, perhaps starting with its December meeting. It is assumed here that the Fed will likely announce then that its target FFR (Fed Funds Rate) is being increased by only 25 bp (basis points). The announcement will also include assurances that it may be a while before another rate increase will be required, although of course that will depend on future data. There will be compelling descriptions of an anticipated shallow path of future rate increases. Anything to keep the investing public from thinking ahead to the eventual normalization of rates that unfortunately will need to occur at some point. The reasons for such concern by the Fed are the subject of this paper.
The normalization path currently faced by the Fed contains dangers of a unique sort that could ultimately result in significant political actions impacting the Fed's future independence or even its existence. It is predicted that the Fed will at least temporarily lose its ability to anchor inflation, considered to be essential for implementing its corresponding mandate. Once that happens, any price spike has the potential to ignite an episode of runaway inflation. Thus, our investment recommendation is to protect your portfolio against this likelihood at the present time, before the risk becomes obvious to everyone. Reduce your exposure to bonds and to most stocks, perhaps excluding those that respond positively to inflation risk, such as precious metals miners and some basic resource companies.
An imminent inflation threat has been repeatedly proposed since the Fed began its first QE (quantitative easing) program, but the feared result has yet to appear. So what are the conditions expected to occur now or soon that would make a difference? It is suggested here that the Fed's simple act of finally raising rates for the first time since 2008 will initiate a chain reaction of increasing public awareness of the changed nature of the Fed's corresponding tools. Note that the Fed has continued to use the FFR to characterize its degree of monetary accommodation. Thus the public has been lulled into a sense of comforting continuity with the past Fed successes in controlling the economy, despite the radical change in the nature of the Fed's available tools for exercising such control. These new tools have unfortunate features that are largely unknown to the investing public. As these tools begin to be used, these shortcomings will belatedly receive their deserved publicity, leading to the dangers summarized above.
How the Fed rate increase process will operate
To understand the likely sequence of events predicted here, the place to start is with the Fed's expected announcement of a 25 bp rate hike. In the past, this change in the target FFR would be followed by a program of OMO (open market operations) to remove reserves from the banking system until the reduction forced the "effective" FFR (EFFR), the actual average rate in the Fed funds market, up to the target. Subsequently, temporary OMO would be used to fine-tune the EFFR in response to short-term changes in banking conditions by adding or removing reserves as required. This past Fed process was so accurate and predictable that the EFFR would almost instantly jump up (or down) precisely to a newly announced target rate, reflecting the market's expectation of the inevitable result. But the huge excess bank reserves created by the Fed's QE programs have eliminated the ability of the Fed to use these proven OMO tools to control the EFFR.
These QE programs have the Fed currently holding excess bank reserves totaling about $2.6 trillion, out of total bank reserves of about $2.7 trillion. And, since December 2008, it has defined the target FFR as the range of values from 0 to 25 bp rather than as a single value as in the past. The Fed has announced that it does not plan to reduce the level of excess bank reserves in the near future. So the Fed intends to use its new ability to pay interest on bank reserves (both required and excess) held at the Fed as its principal tool for controlling the EFFR. And a second new tool, its RRP (reverse repo) facility with an expanded set of approved counterparties will assist in this control process. Since the Fed recognizes that these new tools will not be capable of maintaining the past levels of precision in control of the EFFR, it has announced that it will continue to define its target FFR as a range of values rather than as a single number.
So, a Fed announcement that the FFR is being increased by 25 bp really means that the new target FFR will be the range of values from 25 to 50 bp. At this time, the interest rate paid on excess bank reserves (IOER) held at the Fed is set at 25 bp, the top of the current band. Initially, the Fed expected that the IOER would serve as a lower bound for the EFFR, since it wouldn't make sense for a bank to lend money to another bank at an interest rate lower than it can get on a risk-free "loan" to the Fed. But in the subsequent use of this tool, the EFFR has generally tended to be much lower than the IOER. The reason for this is that there are various other financial entities that are not traditional banks, and yet are allowed to lend funds in the overnight market to banks that need to add reserves. These include the GSEs (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac), the FHLBs (Federal Home Loan Banks), and certain other smaller institutions. Recently, the FHLBs have played a major role in the Fed Funds market, at times providing the vast majority (up to 83% or more) of borrowed funds. These non-bank institutions are not eligible to receive IOER from the Fed. Thus, they are motivated to lend Fed funds to the banks at whatever (lower) rate they can get. (Note: our previous article includes additional detail in some cases for the operations, limitations, and risks associated with the Fed's new tools.)
Once this result became clear, the Fed expectations for its IOER tool changed radically, with the IOER rate currently expected to provide a ceiling for the EFFR rather than a floor. So, a 25 bp tightening will find the new IOER rate set at 50 bp, the top of the new target band. With this realization also came the introduction of a second new Fed tool, the reverse repo (RRP) facility with an expanded set of approved counterparties, to assist in the FFR control process. With a wide enough set of counterparties, and no limits to the amounts available for the Fed to temporarily "sell" to each counterparty and in total, any desired amount of the Fed's excess reserves could be removed from the banking system either overnight or for a defined term. The effective rate defined by the RRP contract could then in principle provide the needed floor for the EFFR band. But there are some serious concerns regarding possible instabilities that could result from use of an "unlimited" RRP under certain unpredictable market conditions. After much testing, the RRP is currently considered to be a secondary tool in EFFR control.
So, with its initial tightening move, the only apparent certainty is that the IOER rate will increase from 25 bp to 50 bp. Since this interest is actually paid on all $2.7 trillion of bank reserves held at the Fed, not just the excess portions, the total annual payments to banks will increase from the current $6.75 billion to $13.5 billion. It is interesting to ask where this money comes from. The Federal Reserve Bank is in many ways unlike a conventional bank. In particular it has the unlimited ability to print money, a capability used previously to generate the funds to implement QE, for example. (Of course, these days the money is not really printed. Instead, the Fed simply credits the appropriate bank's reserve account with the funds.) But the Fed also in some ways is like a conventional bank, in that it buys and sells securities and collects interest on securities that it holds. It also has operating expenses. In most past years, the Fed realized a modest net profit on its operations, which by law it must periodically remit to the US Treasury. The Fed's holdings of its relatively long-term QE securities has tended to increase its net income, while the money paid in IOER and RRP positions tends to reduce its net income.
As the Fed raises rates with its current tool set, its IOER and RRP expenses increase, possibly producing an annual net loss in its operations. But there is another way in which the Fed is different from an ordinary bank. An ordinary bank would simply declare the annual loss, and if this continued would eventually find itself in bankruptcy. The Fed instead books this net loss as a "deferred asset", the logic being that the loss is an asset that will eventually be recovered through future operations. But until such net recovery occurs, all remittances to the Treasury are suspended. In this sense, the payments by the Fed when it uses its new tools can be viewed as producing a "virtual expense" in Treasury operations. Of course, these amounts will never appear in any Treasury statements of its annual deficit or of the national debt. If the Fed and Treasury were compelled to use ordinary accounting, it would be clear that the expenses associated with the Fed's new tools are Treasury expenses that either consume available tax revenue or increase the national debt.
Perhaps this relationship between the expenses associated with the Fed's new tools and their ultimate impact on the Treasury is too obscure to raise excitement in the financial press, much less the general press. But it is hard to miss the fact that government money is going to the banks and other Fed counterparties when the new tools are used, even if the money is the just the good old printed kind. The $6.75 billion and $13.5 billion amounts stated above corresponding to the IOER payments to banks at present and after the first Fed tightening are probably not large enough themselves to produce headlines. After all, the public is undoubtedly already accustomed to hearing about such amounts wasted by our government in one way or another. But we assume here that, following the first rate hike, some knowledgeable and enterprising reporters will promptly extrapolate these numbers to a likely rate normalization endpoint, where the numbers are somewhat more eye-opening, resulting in subsequent coverage by much of the news media.
For example, if a "normal" FFR is considered to be 4%, then the corresponding target FFR band would extend from 4% to 4.25%, with the IOER set at the 4.25% top of the band. In this case, the Fed money paid annually to banks on their risk-free "loans" would total $114.75 billion, which would at that point be the same order of magnitude as the typical federal deficit each year. Note that we have assumed that the total bank reserves will remain at the current $2.7 trillion level, which is consistent with the Fed's stated intention to reinvest their QE portfolio in replacement assets as they mature during the period that the FFR returns to more normal levels.
At the same time, details of the operation of the Fed's new tightening tools would become widely discussed and understood by the investing and general public for the first time. Some of the unavoidable side-effects of the application of these tools are not likely to be well received by the public, as discussed below. In fact, it may be perhaps only slightly pessimistic to expect that, when the overall effects of the anticipated Fed's tightening actions are widely known, the public outrage and political responses may be quite explosive.
Unfortunate side-effects of the Fed's rate normalization process
To begin with, consider the particular way that the Fed's money is being spent in the case of the IOER payments to banks. From a press media standpoint, there is probably no better way to put it - banks are already being paid billions of dollars in government funds on their risk-free "loans" to the Fed; money that they could be lending instead into the economy. And these amounts increase directly as the Fed tightens. (Similar statements apply to the Fed's RRP tool to the extent that they are used.) The example above indicates the corresponding amounts for a more "normal" FFR level. But what if the rate of domestic inflation were to unexpectedly rise to elevated levels similar to those that have occurred in the past, perhaps due to an unforeseen natural or man-made (e.g., political) disaster that produces shortages in commodities or production capacities. For example, if the Fed needed to respond to an inflation spike by raising the target FFR to a 10% to 10.25% band, the annual Fed outlay in IOER payments to banks would be $276.75 billion. Now we are talking about some real money.
But, in such an event, wouldn't our enterprising Congress simply tax away the added bank profits, putting the money in the Treasury and eliminating the problem entirely? This could of course be done, but the effect would be to eliminate the upward pressure on interest rates in the economy that the Fed's actions were intended to produce. The Fed's logic is that the IOER defines a risk-free over-night rate of return on bank assets, and when this rate of return increases the banks will charge increased rates on all other loans, depending on the degree of risk and the term of the loan. If a bank's returns on reserves kept at the Fed were to be taxed away, the IOER rate would become irrelevant in determining the rates that banks will demand on their other loans, defeating the original purpose of the Fed's actions. Of course, this does not at all imply that the tax idea won't be proposed in Congress and receive lots of publicity. When the proposal goes down in flames, the only certain aftereffect will be an increased awareness by the public of the mess that the Fed has created as a result of its past QE programs.
As if the Fed's gift of increasing risk-free income to (mostly large) domestic banks weren't potentially irritating enough to the public, there are other important side-effects of the use of increased IOER as the Fed's main tool for increasing the FFR that would seem to be even more offensive to the public. Major participants in the Fed's QE programs turned out to be the branches and agencies of foreign banks that operate in the U.S. Such affiliates of non-U.S. banks took on approximately half of the new reserves created by the Fed in its QE programs. These reserves are held at the Fed and collect the IOER payments. According to a WSJ analysiscited in our previous paper, the share of bank reserves held at the Fed by foreign banks was at the time about 49%, vastly out of proportion to the 17% of bank assets in the U.S. controlled by these banks. So about half of our related tax dollars will be going risk-free to these foreign banks, not just to our own.
To make matters even worse, while it is already quite evident that the IOER rate does not define a floor on the EFFR, it is not yet clear how far below the IOER rate the EFFR will settle as the IOER rate is raised by the Fed. While in principle, the Fed's RRP tool is capable of setting a definite floor on rates, it is considered by many to be too dangerous to use in this capacity, as discussed above. While some very limited testing has taken place with the RRP tool, the imminent increase in the IOER will be its first test of any sort. As the IOER rate is raised by the Fed in its attempts to increase the FFR to its new higher defined target band, the resulting impact on market interest rates may be surprisingly inefficient. To this extent, the Fed will appear to be recklessly throwing away taxpayer money on a domestic and foreign bank boondoggle.
One more related effect seems to be worth mentioning. The last paragraph suggests an inefficiency of the Fed's IOER tool in raising market interest rates. The Fed is presumably motivated to raise market rates in order to control what they consider to be excessive activity in the economy, with a danger of unwanted inflation stimulus. In past times, when temporary OMO have been used to raise rates, the effect has been purely contractionary, in accordance with the Fed's goals at the time. Presently, when IOER is used instead to raise rates, the Fed will be actually pumping increased interest payments into the banking system, using newly "printed" money if necessary. As discussed above, to the extent that these payments to banks result in reduced payments from the Fed to the Treasury, they ultimately increase the national debt. So, looking at the end result, the Fed is providing economic stimulus to the economy through increased spending in much the same way as the common deficit spending by the Treasury. Such effective deficit spending is clearly contrary to the Fed's presumed tightening goals. Even if the net effect of the increased interest rates and increased deficit spending is a degree of economic tightening, clearly the IOER method to be used now has remarkably inefficient characteristics for the purpose. And the fact that, as pointed out above, about half of the IOER payments go to foreign banks, and the corresponding effective deficit spending may actually occur overseas, hardly raises the level of enthusiasm for the current Fed tool box.
Possible consequences of future Fed actions
The Fed is clearly soon to be embarking into unknown territory in raising rates for the first time using unproven methods. They may be somewhat troubled by the possibility of resulting extreme short-term reactions in the stock and/or bond markets. But such excursions often occur from time to time anyway for any number of reasons. For this reason, we have here avoided any speculation on the likely short-term market reactions to the Fed's initial rate hike, and leave such guessing to others. Our objective instead here has been to describe a highly likely public process that may begin following this first action by the Fed, with potentially much longer-term and significant consequences for the economy and society.
The potential problems associated with likely future Fed actions that are discussed above have not up to this point received any significant coverage in the financial press, much less the general press. One imagines that the public is in a state of blissful ignorance of the relevant attributes of the Fed's new tools and the associated consequences of the Fed's future actions. Once these Fed actions start, possibly as soon as December, this situation can be expected to quickly change, and one wonders just how bad the public reaction and resulting political consequences might be when all of the facts become more widely known. It would be pure speculation that Fed concerns of this kind have contributed to the excessive delays (in some commentators' views) in the start of a Fed tightening program. In any case, the inevitable appears to have finally arrived, for better or for worse.
While only a fool attempts to predict the time of the onset of inflation, the above discussion makes it clear that the Fed's replacement inflation fighting tools made necessary by the huge buildup of bank reserves in the Fed's QE programs have some serious drawbacks compared to the Fed's previously used tools for the same purpose. Inflation spikes invariably occur from time to time (just not lately), and the current tools appear relatively poorly equipped to deal with the next one that pops up. Once the shortcomings of these tools become more familiar to the investing public, the important inflation anchor established by the Fed through its past inflation control successes may begin to weaken even before any signs of inflation appear. Then, even a hint of possible inflation may be enough to trigger increased inflation expectations. These then can change public behavior enough, by accelerating purchases to avoid price increases, and delaying sales to take advantage of increased future sales prices, to produce inflation by themselves. Under the circumstances, investors would be wise to lighten up on positions in bonds and most stock investments, and to replace them with others such as in stocks of precious metals miners and some other resource companies that can thrive under conditions of runaway inflation.
Disclosure: I am/we are long CEF, GDXJ, GG, SLW, AEM, AUY.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.