We favor investments that are low cost, tax efficient, diversified, liquid, and simple. Many investors often run into trouble when they invest in things that do not have these five characteristics. Investments with these five characteristics have been profitable over time, but typically are not very exciting. There is generally not a “hot story that you need to act on now!” associated with them. The financial services industry generally does not favor these type of investments because they generate very little profit from them. We are in the business of helping to maximize the wealth of our clients, not the financial services industry. Keep in mind that this list of investment characteristics is not comprehensive. Other factors to look for in investments might include attractive valuation, low correlation to your other holdings, a nice dividend yield or interest income, a tilt towards areas of the market that have produced higher returns such as value stocks, an appropriate risk level for you, etc.Low Cost. We typically invest in low cost index based funds and exchange traded funds (ETF’s). The funds we invest in have an average expense ratio of only.30% per year. The typical actively traded equity mutual fund has an average expense ratio of 1% or more. With investment funds, the best predictor of future relative performance is the expense ratio on the fund; the lower the better. Hedge funds typically have annual expense ratios of 2% plus 20% of any profits earned. Some variable annuities and permanent life insurance “investments” can have annual expenses of 2% or more. By keeping a close eye on the costs of our investments, we can save our clients significant amounts of money each year and help them achieve higher returns over time (all else being equal). With investment products, you don’t get better performance with a higher cost product, in fact you typically get worse performance.Tax Efficient. Our investments (index based funds and ETF’s) are extremely tax efficient and they allow the investor to have some control over the timing of the taxes. These types of funds have low turnover (trading activity), which is a common characteristic of tax efficient investments. We recommend avoiding mutual funds with high turnover due to their tax inefficiency. After the recent big increase in the U.S. stock market, many active equity mutual funds have “imbedded” capital gains of as much as 30%-45%. If you buy those mutual funds now you may end up paying capital gains taxes on those imbedded gains even if you didn’t own the fund during the increase. ETF’s typically do not generate long and short-term capital gain distributions at yearend, and they do not have imbedded capital gains like active mutual funds. Hedge funds are typically tax inefficient due to their very high turnover. In addition to investing in tax-efficient products we also do many other things to help keep our client taxes minimized such as tax loss harvesting, keeping our turnover/trading low, putting the right type of investments in the right type of accounts (tax location), using losses to offset capital gains, using holdings with large capital gains for gifting, investing in tax-free municipal bonds, etc.Diversified. We like to invest in diversified funds because they reduce your stock specific risk, and the overall risk of your portfolio. Bad news released about one stock may cause it to drop 50%, which is horrible news if that stock is 20% of your whole portfolio, but will be barely noticed in a fund of 1,000 stock positions. We tend to favor funds that typically have at least a hundred holdings and often several hundred holdings or more. These diversified funds give you broad representation of the whole asset class you are trying to get exposure to, while eliminating the stock specific risk. We are not likely to invest in the newest Solar Energy Company Equity Fund with 10 stock positions, for example. We don’t believe in taking any risks (such as stock specific risk) that you will not get paid for in higher expected return.Liquid. We like investments that you can sell in one minute or one day if you decide to do so, and those which you can sell at or very close to the prevailing market price. With liquid investments you always (daily) know the exact price and value of your investments. All of the investment funds we recommend meet this standard. We don’t like investments which you are locked into for years without the ability to get your money back at all or without paying large exit fees. Examples of illiquid investments would be hedge funds, private equity funds, annuities, private company stock, tiny publicly traded stocks, startup company stock or debt, illiquid obscure bonds, structured products, some life insurance “investments,” private real estate partnerships, etc. We prefer investment funds that have been around for some time, are large in size, and have high average daily trading volumes.Simple. We prefer investments that are simple, transparent, and easy to understand. If you don’t understand it, don’t invest in it. All of our investments are simple and transparent; we know exactly what we own. Complicated investment products are designed in favor of the seller, not the buyer, and usually have high hidden fees. Examples of complicated and non-transparent investments that we generally avoid are hedge funds, private equity funds, structured products, some life insurance “investment” products, variable annuities, private company stock, startup company stock or loans, etc. “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” -Albert Einstein.We believe most investors should have the majority of their portfolio invested in things that have these five excellent characteristics. By doing so you will avoid plenty of mistakes, negative surprises, and risks along the way. In addition, we believe your after tax investment returns will likely be higher over long periods of time. Of course not every smart or good investment will have all of these characteristics. For example, income producing real estate property is illiquid (and often not diversified) but can be an excellent long-term investment if purchased and managed properly. Owning your own business is illiquid and not diversified but can be an excellent way to build wealth as well. We believe these five investment characteristics become even more important as you enter retirement, since at that point you may be more focused on reducing risk and preserving your wealth than building it, and you may need the liquidity to spend and gift part of your wealth during retirement. These five excellent investment characteristics can be a good screening device for possible investments and good factors to think about when investing.
Most of the time when I talk to people about the investment industry I get the distinct sense that they would rather talk about almost anything else. While there are certainly many potential causes for such an understated response, I also don’t get the sense that an overwhelming degree of satisfaction is usually one of them. Rather, there seems to be a persistent state of frustration lurking under the surface that occasionally reveals itself in comments like, “I’d like to be able to get more confident with my investing”, and, “Do you ever get to talk to the person managing the money?”To the extent that lurking frustration exists, it is not for lack of investment expertise. Not only are there thousands upon thousands of investment professionals, but there are also terrific credential programs like the CFA and the CFP, a substantial and diverse active management industry that has a business model predicated on developing proprietary insights, and research that suggests it works. For example, the study “Best Ideas” [Cohen, Polk, and Silli, 2010] shows that the typical active money manager actually does outperform with his/her best ideas (the problem is that most portfolios also contain a lot of other ideas which aren’t nearly as good).So why do investors continue to be frustrated when all of this expertise is available? The answer, in a word, is friction.Sources of frictionJust like the progress of any vehicle is slowed down by the friction created by its contact with the road, so too is the efficient transfer of investment expertise constrained by a variety of structural sources of “friction” in the industry.One important source of investment friction is the tendency of many firms to focus more on the business of investment management than on the profession of investing. Because the universe of significant investment opportunities is limited in a competitive environment, managers must settle for progressively less attractive alternatives as a fund grows larger — and this dilutes performance. The conflict of interest between an investment manager’s desire to grow assets (and therefore business profits) and an investor’s desire for a smaller fund focused exclusively on best ideas is one way in which investment expertise often fails to benefit clients.A second source of friction is essentially a corollary of the first: Many firms fail to focus on the types of activities that are closely associated with generating superior investment returns. For example, many firms persist in charging high fees for investment services despite widespread evidence that high fees detract from returns. Many run portfolios that look very similar to their benchmarks rather than concentrating on best ideas (i.e., high active share). Many react (and overreact) to short-term results for which there is very little information content (i.e., low signal to noise ratio). Each of these types of activities is a well-known structural impediment to good investment performance and each is the result of a choice, a tradeoff, made by an organization’s leaders. While it is unfortunate such impediments exist, they are absolutely avoidable.A third source of friction is over-specialization. When an environment remains stable for a long period of time the most successful entities are those that focus on a very narrow area of expertise. Examples include narrowly defined functional silos such as industry-specific analyst coverage and very narrowly defined investment mandates. In such an environment, flexible business approaches and policies to insure against large losses represent unnecessary opportunity costs. In a more tumultuous environment, however, the costs of focusing too narrowly can be debilitating and sometimes even deadly. It’s fine to pack only swim suits and t-shirts for the beach as long as the weather stays nice. If it gets cold and rainy, you’ll wish you had better choices.What you can doWhile various sources of friction often prevent investors from deriving as much benefit as they might from the industry, the good news is that they also provide a clear target for improvement. If you want things to run more smoothly and efficiently, just reduce or eliminate the sources of friction. For investment firms this is simply a matter of making policy choices — of choosing to focus, on the margin, more on the exercise of investing than on the business of investment management. For investors, this is just a matter of identifying the firms that are not only willing to accept, but to actually encourage, making the tradeoffs that benefit investment results.Another way for investors to derive more benefit from the investment services industry is to find better user interfaces. Steve Jobs revolutionized the computer industry by developing a graphical user interface (GUI) that made it much easier for normal people to interact with computers. The same needs to be done with investment firms. While a great deal of investment expertise does exist, only a small subset of that resides with organizations that have cultures truly oriented to helping people. Without such a culture, the path of least resistance is for that expertise to first benefit investment firms and their employees.The investment services industry is interesting as a case study because it defies so many well established norms in other industries. Exceptionally few businesses in a competitive environment can afford to persist with processes and behaviors that impede performance and client satisfaction. If you went to a nice restaurant and ordered an expensive meal and the waiter came out and just threw it down in front of you without explanation and walked away, you would probably be miffed and might consider never coming back. Oddly, the same behavior happens with investment firms all the time — except in these cases investors tend to resign themselves to accepting such treatment. You can do better, but you will almost certainly need to look for new approaches that avoid old, and predictable, sources of friction.