Keeping up with the Jones . . . financially that is

 

Quick story

Los Angeles is a pretty bizzaro place in general, and this is especially true when it comes to personal finances.  Houses are so expensive, that it’s hard to understand how people do it.  Also, there’s a culture of conspicuous consumption that pervades everything; everyone looks like they’re spending a ton of money (and often they are).  A friend once very wisely said “In LA the BMW 3-series is what Honda Civic is to the rest of the country.”

Foxey and I both had good jobs, were saving a lot, and thought we were “making it”.  Yet, in a lot of ways we looked like the “poor” people on the street.  Our house was fairly average looking, we mowed our own lawn, we both drove old cars (a 1998 Toyota 4-Runner and a 2001 Honda Civic), and in general we had a humble existence.  There seemed a disconnect, and it took an emotional toll.  We were working so hard to save but it didn’t seem like it was making an impact.  Everyone else “looked” richer than we.  What gives?!?!

One day we were at a party, talking to a neighbor who was a mortgage broker.  The neighbor had a few glasses of wine in her and mentioned that she did the mortgages for several people on the street.  She didn’t violate anyone’s confidentiality, but she made a general statement that “you would be shocked at the shit-show that is most of our neighbor’s finances.”  She left it at that.

We’ll come back to this in a second.

 

Looking at the data

According to the US census, the median net worth for an American is . . . $80,000—and that includes home equity; if you strip out home equity it falls to $25,000.  Since this is an investing blog, and also since you know I don’t think you should rush to pay off your mortgage, let’s just look at net worth excluding home equity.

If your first reaction toggled between “that can’t be right” and “that’s really low” and “Holy Crap!!!” then you’re in good company—that was my reaction. My other reaction was “a really large percentage of their net worth is in their home, and that’s no good.”  But that’s a topic for another post.

The Census Bureau breaks it down every which way.  I think the most interesting is by age:

Age Net worth—with house Net worth—without house
Less than 35 years $6,900 $4,138
35 to 44 years $45,740 $18,197
45 to 54 years $100,404 $38,626
55 to 64 years $164,498 $66,547
.65 to 69 years $193,833 $66,168
.70 to 74 years $225,390 $68,716
.75 and over $197,758 $46,936

 

There’s an obvious trend that you would expect.  As you get older your net worth grows, peaks in your older years, and then towards the end starts to fall as you spend your nest egg.

 

People don’t like showing their rear-ends

How do you reconcile all this?  The obvious answer is that, sadly, many people live way beyond their means, showing off a glitzy façade while the financial foundation is completely rotted.  Back in LA, I am certain that we had a net worth higher than nearly all our neighbors.  We certainly had cars crappier than all our neighbors.  We were certainly one of the very few (only?) that mowed our own lawn.

No one wants to “seem” poor, especially when they aren’t.  As I said, it took a bit of a toll.  Fortunately, Foxey and I have good, midwestern roots and were raised to save a big part of our income.  But that’s no fun.  I’m a bit of a freak so I actually derive a lot of pleasure from buying index mutual funds and watching numbers on a spreadsheet get larger.  Foxey is much more normal, and enjoys buying actual things rather than just socking the money away.

Our neighbors, on the other hand, were not saving as much as we were.  If you believe the mortgage brokers comments, many were spending much more than they were making, and weren’t saving at all.  Looking at the national data, they had that in common with much of America.

I don’t want to seem as though I don’t think $100,000 is a lot of money.  It definitely is, but it doesn’t seem like a lot over a lifetime of savings.  Yet, that $100,000 is significantly more than most Americans have saved.  I’m guessing it is probably more than many had on our street, despite all outward appearances seeming to indicate otherwise.  It just seems weird and sad.

 

The point of all of this is that it’s good to know how much you have saved.  Hopefully, one of the things you get from this blog is how to take stock of where you are and what your plan is to achieve your financial goal.

It’s also good to put your savings into perspective.  Saving money is HARD work, especially emotionally given that we live in a world of conspicuous consumption where we are inundated, in the words of Tyler Durden: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

It may not always be apparent, but I think it’s always worthwhile.  Amazingly, and very sadly too, just doing a little bit of savings over a long time will put you well ahead of the average American.  Take a look at those median values again—it’s sobering.

Maybe all of us savers need a special handshake or something so we can know that we aren’t alone.  I hope this post makes you as a saver feel that you aren’t alone and that it is worth while.

Dear 2017, You were pretty awesome

As the door closes on 2017, let’s take a few minutes to reminisce about what an incredible year 2017 was for investors.  For the Fox family it’s awesomeness was especially welcome given that our careers have shifted quite a bit, moving away from working for the man to working for ourselves (though, one of us happens to be a man).

Let’s look at the numbers, and figure out what it all means.

 

A tale of the tape

Like most investors, we had a really good 2017.  Here is how our portfolio broke down:

Investment

Portfolio weight

2017 return

US stocks (VTSAX)

52%

19%

International stocks (VTIAX)

37%

24%

Real Estate Investment Trusts (VGSLX)

7%

1%

Commodities (DJP)

2%

1%

Lending Club

2%

2%

TOTAL

100%

19%

 

Cha-ching

No matter how you look at it, 2017 was a GREAT year for stocks.  The US stock market did really well, growing 19%.  This can become really political really quickly when assigning credit/blame for such things to politicians.  However, I think it’s fair to say the Trump administration has been fairly pro-business.  That, along with the massive tax cut, definitely gave a boost to stocks.

Also, we saw economic growth really pick up while unemployment went to historic lows.  And all that was happening while inflation remained very low (more on this in a second).  If you put all that together, that’s a perfect recipe for awesome stock performances, and that’s exactly what we had.

Not to be outdone, international markets really kicked it into high gear.  Coming into 2017, US stocks had outperformed international stocks (pretty dramatically, actually) for four years in a row, every year since 2012.  That ended this year.  International stocks were up an astounding 24% compared to the paltry 19% that US stocks were able to muster.

I think that’s a good reminder that you can never really outsmart the market.  At the beginning of 2017 there was every reason to believe that US stocks would do better.  There was a ton of momentum in the US coming off of Trump’s election.  Plus, Europe seemed embroiled in political quagmires—Brexit, French elections with extreme candidates polling well, Greece being Greece.  Asia similarly seemed poised for another yawn of a year—Japan remain in a deflationary stagnation, Noth Korea being a total wild card, and it looked like China’s economy would slow down.

Our interpretations were dead wrong and those markets kicked butt, and international markets outpaced the US markets by 5%.  5%!!!  That’s a lot actually.

 

Inflation remains dormant

While all this was happening, inflation remained remarkably tame.  You know I spend a ton of time and energy talking about inflation because it has such a big impact on the purchasing power of your savings.

Huge returns like we had in 2017 are great, but what’s the point if those gains are all eaten away by higher prices?  The final reading for December will come out in mid-January, but preliminary readings indicate that inflation for the year will come in at about 2.1%.  2.1%!!!  As high as those 20-ish% returns were, that’s how low 2% inflation is.

As an investor, it really doesn’t get much better than that—high returns and low inflation.

 

Regrets, I’ve had a few

As you know, I always use New Years as a natural time to take stock (no pun intended) of things.  Now is a really good time to look at how we did, thinking about the things we did well with our investments and what we could have done better.

The high points of our investments were the US and International stocks.  We invested in all index mutual funds so we really didn’t do anything here.  Just “set it, and forget it”.  I suppose that speaks to how useless I am as an investor—the best part of our portfolio is the one that I did the least for.

Certainly, we did have some not-so-great investments.  I hate to be picky in a year where our portfolio grew 19%, but 2017 really exposed some stupid decisions that I had made.  Look at our returns, and the two “basic” investments that everyone should have (I even wrote a whole post on this very subject).  Those did the best.

The investments that did the worst were those “other” investments that aren’t one of the three basic ingredients.  I’m stupid, and that stupidity probably cost us $50,000 this year.  Ouch.

I’ve chatted about our commodities investment and our Lending Club investment, both of which have been incredible duds.  Currently, we’re in the process of eliminating those from our portfolio, so hopefully in 2018 we won’t have to deal with that crap.  Of course, because the investing gods like to humble stupid people, I am sure those two will perform spectacularly this year.

As for the REIT, over the longer-term it’s done fairly well (not as good as US stocks but better than International stocks).  This was just a down year, so that happens sometimes.  Still, it begs the question why we got into this instead of just sticking to the three ingredients, and I have some lame excuses, but nothing worth mentioning.  Hmmmm.

 

So there you have it.  2017 was an incredible year for being an investor.  Despite the couple misses we had, our two biggest investments really did well, so we’re happy.

How about you?  How did your portfolio do in 2017?

Lending Club—No Bueno

About two years ago we broadened our investment portfolio with this new-fangled things called peer-to-peer lending with Lending Club.  This has turned out to be a pretty major disappointment for us, and we are in the process of exiting the investment (which isn’t a quick process—more on this in a second).

Basically, the idea of peer-to-peer lending is like match.com for lenders and borrowers.  People who want to invest/lend money meet people who want to borrow money.  Borrows can get money they need at much lower rates and much less hassle than if they got a loan from a bank.  Lenders can earn interest at a much higher rate than they would get from a bank.  Banks are cut out of the process and everyone wins, right?

 

How it works

There are people looking to borrow money for debt consolidation/payoff credit cards (that’s about 80% of the loans), help their small business, pay for home renovations, etc.  Let’s say a given loan is for $10,000.  A bunch of lenders like us each kick in $50 or so, so you’ll be in this loan with hundreds of other people.  The person gets the money and then pays off the loan over 3-5 years.

Lending Club vets each loan and each applicant, and assigns a credit score.  That credit score determines the interest rate which can range from 5-20%.

As a lender you can go through all the thousands of loan application and pick which ones you want to lend to.  That’s fun at first, but quickly becomes a hassle, so you can just put it on auto-pilot and Lending Club will pick the loans for you.  That’s what we did.

 

What happened to us

In mid-2015 we opened our account, starting with $3000.  Of course, I watched the process like a hawk, from the loans I picked to when they started paying back.  At first it went great (isn’t that line in pretty much every movie, before everything goes to hell?).  We were getting paid back by all our loans, and our return was over 12%, which of course is amazing.  That’s free money.

We put more money in over the next couple months, and then when we sold our California house we put a big chunk ($60,000) in.  By that time, our account was worth about $100,000.  Through mid-2016 things were going well.  Our returns had inched down to about 10% (still spectacular), and I was congratulating myself on being a financial genius.

Towards the end of 2016 I started to see some of my loans default.  Of course, this is to be expected.  Some of the loans will go bad but those should be offset by the higher interest rate, and everything works out.  Still, it was a disturbing trend.

After a few months, the bad loans kept coming and my return steadily dropped, until it settled at 2.5% which is where it’s at today.  That’s crazy!!!  Obviously, there’s a huge difference between a 10% investment and a 2.5% one.

In early 2017 I decided to pull the plug, and stopped reinvesting my money.  Now, as the small loans (we have about 3000 out there) pay off, we take that money and put it back in our Vanguard account.  Unfortunately, this isn’t a fast process so it will take us about 5 years to unwind everything.  Oh well.

 

Why it works (or doesn’t)

On paper it sounds like one of those awesome ideas where the power of the internet changes an old business model for the better, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that.  It brings borrowers and lenders together and cuts out the middlemen, and lowers the borrowing costs substantially.

The problem lies in their ability to ensure payments are made.  Fundamentally, what is stopping borrowers from getting the money and then just going away and not paying?  It may not happen a lot, but it doesn’t take a lot of these to really kill your return.

I have a bit of insight here because I was a large enough account that I would get a call about once per quarter from them “seeing how I was doing”.  You can imagine the tone of these calls changed as my return dropped.

These loans are unsecured, so the only thing that makes borrows pay back is morality (I never want to count on that when it comes to money), the threat of negative marks on their credit rating, and the general badgering from Lending Club as it tries to collect.  With traditional bank loans that are collateralized, the threat of repossessing something seems a lot stronger.

Not difficult to predict, there was a large portion of the borrowers who would take the money and then not pay it back.  Some might be thieves who borrowed the money in a scam and never intended on paying back.  Others certainly intended on doing it but things didn’t work out.  Given the economy has been super strong the past couple years, this is especially troubling because it should be as good as it gets right now.

When someone stops paying Lending Club goes after them with phone calls, but those don’t seem really effective.  Seriously, what are they going to do?  Some delinquent borrows do starting paying back but most either never answer the phone, or they do and say/demand that Lending Club quit bothering them (there are actually notes lenders can see on all this activity).

I personally think that in our litigious environment today, lenders don’t have that much leverage.  Also, to avoid claims of bias or discrimination, it’s probably not easy to turn down borrower applications.  That leads to a perfect storm of crap that I think I got caught up in.

 

What is the lesson?

Investing is an interesting psychological experiment.  The simple approach of buy-and-hold broad index mutual funds is almost certainly the best, yet it’s the most boring.  When you’re doing that and things are going well, there’s that itch to see “what else you can do” and “what you can do better”.

That’s what happened to me, and most of the time that’s death.  That’s what happened with us and our commodities investment, which has been a major loser.  That was also the case with Lending Club, and we’ve had disappointing results (especially since stocks are up about 15% annually in the time we’ve invested in it).

So the lesson here is that it’s probably always better to stick with the boring but tried-and-true approach.  History is on your side here.  We have over 100 years of data on how stocks behave, in good times and bad.  Peer-to-peer lending is fairly new so you don’t really know how it will play out.  Maybe you’ll miss out on something that’s new but amazing (see: Bitcoin), but that leads to an interesting second point.

Many leaders—NFL head coaches, CEOs, politicians—say that success finding all the great things, but more avoiding the bad things.  Stocks are similar.  It’s a game rigged in your favor, but there are pitfalls along the way that are so tempting.  That’s where I think I tripped up.  Lending Club and commodities were sexy investments at the time, and it scratched that itch for me to be “doing something.”  And it hurt me.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we never innovate.  Peer-to-peer lending may turn into something big; digital currencies might turn into something big.  They might be important parts of a financial portfolio, but I think now is way too early a time to be putting my money down on that bet.  I know I’ll miss some big wins, but hopefully I’ll also avoid big losses and come out ahead.

You missed the boat

We all know that stocks have been on an absolute tear lately (that’s the reason I’m smarter than a Nobel Prize winner).  In fact, if you look at 11 months since Donald Trump was elected, stocks are up about 20%.

On election night the S&P 500 was at 2140 and now it’s at 2550.  It’s blown through major milestones like 2200, 2300, 2400, and a few weeks ago 2500; all in fairly short order.  If you are fully invested you’re loving it and obsessively looking at your spreadsheet to see how your net worth is climbing (okay, maybe that’s just me).

If you aren’t invested, this is a definite missed opportunity.  There are a couple ways you can go with that:

  1. Just don’t invest because you feel you missed the boat already.
  2. Go all in now to not miss any more.
  3. Hold off to wait for the market to fall again, and then invest on the dip.

As you can probably guess, I think #1 is a bad idea and I would recommend #2.  However, what about #3?

 

Waiting for the downturn

We all know that stocks have been on an unrelenting upward path.  The S&P 500 started at 17 in 1950.  Today it is over 2500.  Of course, it’s never a smooth path.  You’ve had bumper years like this one, really since 2008, all of the 1980s and 1990s, etc.

You’ve also had your downturns.  Some have been long grinds like the 1970s while others have been sharp like the Great Recession.  However, even with those, we’ve definitely done well.  That said, if you missed out on a good run, should you just wait for the next downturn to get back in?

First, I believe that it’s impossible to time that well.  But let’s say your crystal ball is working really well. How often will stocks fall back so you can get back in at the lower levels you missed before?

I looked back at the S&P 500 since it started in 1950, and I looked at all the major milestones for the index.  On January 1, 1950 it started at 16.66, so the first major milestone was 20.  It passed that level in Oct 1950 and it never looked back.  Never again did you as an investor have a chance to get in at 20*.

Same story for milestones 30, 40, and 50.  In the 1950s the stock market did its relentless march, and every time it passed those levels they were never seen again.

It was a different story in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  A MAJOR milestone was hit in June 1968—100 on the S&P 500.  You could imagine this was accompanied by the usual fanfare of surpassing such a level.  The 1970s proved a lousy time for stocks, and the S&P 500 had major moves above and below 100 eleven times.  That’s a lot.  It wasn’t until the Reagan bull market of the 1980s that the stock market broke the trend.

For milestones 150, 200, 400, and 500 there were no pull backs (300 had a pullback thanks to the crazy one-day plunge in 1987).  So again, just like the 1950s, the 1980s and 1990s had a stock market that just blazed through, and if you missed it you missed the boat.  Never again would those levels be seen again.

Milestone First time Revisited
20 Oct-50 0
30 Jul-54 0
40 Jun-55 0
50 Sep-58 0
75 Dec-63 2
100 Jun-68 11
150 Mar-83 0
200 Nov-85 0
300 Mar-87 2
400 Dec-91 0
500 Mar-95 0
750 Nov-96 0
1000 Feb-98 3
1500 Mar-00 6
2000 Aug-14 3
2500 Sep-17 0

Since the 2000s we’ve crossed four major milestones—1000, 1500, 2000, and most recently 2500.  All of those were revisited, mostly due to the Great Recession where the S&P fell from about 1565 all the way down to 670.

Since the Great Recession, the market has been blazing, but it’s been crazy in the process.  The market cleared 2000 in August 2014, but has gone through some brief downturns with fast recoveries like January 2016.  I think more recently we’ve experienced greater volatility in the market, so revisiting might be more common.

 

Bottom line

That was a gripping history lesson, but what does that mean we should be doing now?  Overall, I think the data shows that stocks always go up.  Sure there will be bumps, but if you invest now, the data shows that, at least based on history, you’ll make money.

On the other hand, despite this crazy good bear market recent years, there have been revisits of these levels.  Are we going to see the S&P 500 at 2000 again?  Maybe.  Based on recent history, I wouldn’t be surprised.  However, I certainly wouldn’t bet on it.  I mean that in the literal sense—I wouldn’t wait to invest my money until I saw a market downturn.  I think it more likely things will keep cranking along and 10 years from now we’ll remember the good ole days when the S&P was at 2500 the same way we think about $0.10 hamburgers from McDonald’s.

You might have missed this boat, but you don’t want to be on the sidelines when the next boat (S&P 500 at 3000) comes around and miss that one too.

 

 

* I defined “revisited” is going under the milestone at least 100 days after it passed it.  This is to keep from counting times when it gyrates above and below the milestone over the short term.  For this we wanted to look at times where the market was comfortably above the milestone and then at a later time period fell below it.

You only need three investing ingredients

“Less is more” –Robert Browning

o-TABASCO-SAUCE-HISTORY-facebook

The fine people at McIlhenny make Tabasco sauce, one of the most popular condiments in America.  Can you guess how many ingredients go into their sauce (you might have an idea from the title of this post)?  You guessed it, three: peppers, vinegar, and salt.  That’s it.  Nothing else.  Only those three.  In investing you can take a similar approach.  In a world where there are thousands of stocks to pick from, thousands of bonds, tens of thousands of mutual funds, how do you pick which ones to go with?

Let’s break this down one step at a time.  First we know from Asset Allocation that our portfolio needs some stocks and some bonds.  That’s at least two different investments—one for stocks and one for bonds.

Second, we know from Diversification that we should be . . . well, diversified.  There are a ton of mutual funds out there that can give us plenty of diversification with the stock market.  I personally like either the Total Stock Market Index from Vanguard (VTSMX) or the Spartan Total Market Index from Fidelity (FSTMX).  But wait, those are all (or very nearly all) US stocks.  To be really diversified don’t we need international stocks as well?  The answer is an unequivocal “YES”.  So let’s add a highly diversified international stock mutual fund like Vanguard’s Total International Stock Index (VGTSX) or Fidelity’s Spartan International Index Fund (FSIIX).

With a broad US stock mutual fund and an international mutual fund, you pretty much own a small sliver of every stock in the world.  Add to those two mutual funds a bond mutual fund like VTSMX or FBIDX, and you have your three ingredients, just like Tabasco sauce.

Can it really be that easy?  I say “yes” but let’s look at some of the objections you might have:

 

What about an international bond fund?

Fair point.  We have an international stock fund to give us diversification for our US stocks.  Shouldn’t we have an international bond fund for a similar purpose?  Maybe.

I don’t because bonds are such a small portion of my portfolio right now (less than 5%), mostly due to the stage of our lives that Foxy Lady and I are at.  So I don’t think it’s really worth the hassle.  When we get older and Asset Allocation dictates that a larger portion of our portfolio should be bonds, then having two bond funds might make a lot of sense from a diversification perspective.

 

Why not use a total world fund?

Vanguard does have a total world stock index fund (VTWSX) that combines both US and international equities.  You could imagine just having this one mutual fund for stocks instead of two (a US fund and an international fund).  That’s reasonable and knocks your ingredient list down to two.

Yet I choose not to do this because I am cheap.  The total world index fund as a management fee of 0.27%.  That’s low but the management fee is 0.17% for Vanguard’s US fund and 0.22% for their international fund.  Shame on you Vanguard!!!  Why are you charging more when you combine them.  It’s not a ton, but we know that even increasing your returns a small amount like 0.05% can still be thousands of dollars over the years.

 

Why not use a target date fund?

You could do a total one-stop shop using a target fund like Vanguard Target Retirement 2050 (VFIFX) or whichever year makes sense.  You get your US and international stocks and your US and international bonds all in a single mutual fund.  As I mentioned before, I’m not a huge fan of these because I think figuring out your asset allocation is a little more nuanced than just picking a year, but I’m a little OCD when it comes to this.  That might be the best choice for someone who is willing to trade a small amount of mutual fund performance for a lot of simplicity.

 

What about all the other investments out there?

Ahhhhh.  That’s the question we’ve been waiting for.  I am a firm advocate of efficient markets so I really don’t think I can successfully pick individual stocks or even stock sectors.  I’d rather just pick a really broad index mutual fund knowing that the winners and losers will balance each other out and over the long run I will do okay.

That said, beyond those basic three ingredients, the Foxes have invested in two other investments.  We have a commodity ETF (DJP) which has turned out to be the worst investment that we’ve ever made (which I chronicled here).  Also, we invested in a REIT index fund (VGSLX) when I thought that real estate would be a good investment.  From 2010 to 2014 this turned out to be the case and we did quite well with this, but since 2017 it has been mediocre to bad.  That just goes to show that trying to beat the market is a futile effort.

 

Does Stocky Fox eat his own cooking?

For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll tell you where our investments are.

Investment Ticker symbol % of portfolio
US stock fund VTSAX 51%
International stock fund VTIAX 36%
Bond fund VBMFX 1%
REIT fund VGSLX 7%
Commodities DJP 3%
Others 2%

 

I already mentioned the REIT and commodities investments.  The “Other” is composed mostly of Lady Fox’s 401k accounts, our money in Lending Club (which has been a total disaster which I’ll chronicle in a future post), and a couple other odds and ends.

 

So there you go.  With all the crazy things going on in the world, and all the things that need your attention, I think which investments to pick is an easy one.  With three fundamental building blocks—a US stock mutual fund, an international stock mutual fund, and a bond mutual fund—you can build a rock solid portfolio.

So which investments do you pick?

North Korea not a problem, so says the market

A few days ago, a client called me a bit freaked out.  He wanted to sell out of stocks because of fears that the issue with North Korea could escalate into something terrible, possibly World War III.  Of course I told him to sit tight, because even in the darkest times stocks tend to do well over the long term.

Even so, what makes me so confident that the problems with North Korea won’t lead to a global catastrophe?  Simply put . . . THE MARKET TOLD ME SO.

 

The stakes are very high

Certainly, the stakes with North Korea are very high.  If things went bad, the outcomes could range from the Korean peninsula being destroyed to a nuclear war enveloping the globe.

If armed conflict broke out, almost assuredly North Korea would attack South Korea and particularly Seoul with a deadly barrage of artillery.  The human cost would be immense.  Also the damage to companies and their property would be vast.  That doesn’t seem important when compared to all the lives that would be lost, but more on that in a minute.

If the conflict spread, Japan would probably be the next victim of North Korea before the US and its allies took control.  Then the two absolute worst case scenarios would be a) North Korea realizing its nuclear-tipped ICBM dream and hitting the US mainland or b) China and Russia being drawn into a war against the US.  Those last two scenarios would lead to unparalleled loss of life and destruction of company property.

 

Destruction is bad for the stock market

Why do I keep saying “destruction of company property?”  That seems to pale in importance compared to the thousands or millions of lives that could be lost with the doomsday scenarios we’re talking about.

If war broke out a lot of company property, plant, and equipment would be destroyed.  Also a lot of company employees would be killed.  Potentially, if we went to a wartime economy like in World War II, companies would stop making cars and phones and shirts, and start making fighter jets, military gadgets, and uniforms.

All those things would be horrible for the companies’ profitability and therefore their stock price.  Here’s the punchline—if war broke out, that would be terrible for the world’s stock markets overall.  That terribleness would be most acute where the fighting was taking place.

 

The stock market is pretty smart

There has been a lot of academic study of the wisdom of groups over the individual.  I took a class with Nick Epley at the University of Chicago that looked into this, and that’s one of the lessons that has really stuck with me over the years.  The idea is that if you have a bunch of people with a bunch of different opinions, the “average” opinion is going to turn out to be more right than most of the individual opinions.

Where is the biggest, most organized collection of opinions? In the stock market.  It is fundamentally people with opinions (will things be good and stocks go up, or will things be bad and stocks go down?) betting against each other.  The result of all the bets results in the general movement of the stock market.  If more people bet good things will happen, stocks go up.  If more people bet bad things will happen, stocks go down.

Stock markets have a lot more credibility than talking heads because the former involves people putting their money where their mouth is.  It’s easy to say you are certain that something is going to happen; it’s another bet your money that something is going to happen.  That’s why the stock market tends to get it right, because greedy people who want to make more money are betting.

With regard to the Korean conflict, it’s easy for guests on news channels to say how bad that nuclear test is or how much closer that missile launch puts us to war.  But are those concerns credible?  Does the talking head or the new network really believe that, or is it just a flamboyant statement meant to capture viewer’s interest?

 

Divining the markets’ message

We’ve talked about geopolitics and stock markets and the destructive potential of a war with North Korea.  Let’s bring it all together.

If war breaks out, a lot of destruction will occur, and that will be horrible for the stock market.  That’s particularly true as you get closer to the epicenter—things will be worse for South Korean stocks since they’ll be the first victims of the war, probably followed by Japan, and then the rest of the world.

If things were REALLY bad, you should see that reflected in the stock markets, yet it isn’t.  If you compare the S&P 500 and a broad Pacific Index (Japan, South Korea, Australia, etc.) and a South Korean stock index, none show signs that a horrible event is going to happen.  In fact, of those three, the South Korean index has VASTLY outperformed the other two.  So much for a real concern that unparalleled destruction is imminent.

That’s not to say there haven’t been reactions.  In the beginning of July (point A) North Korea tested a long-range missile.  South Korean and Pacific markets reacted a little (about 1-2%) and US markets were unfazed.

Later in the month, North Korea tested a second missile that put Guam within range (point B).  Again, there was a reaction from the markets, this time larger and this time the US markets also reacted.

Finally, at the beginning of September, North Korea tested its largest nuclear device yet (point C).  Again, all three markets reacted.

So what does it all mean?  The market did react downward every time one of these tests occurred which means that more people (or more accurately more money) think there is something to be worried about.  However, the shallowness of the dips show that the bad things that “are likely to happen” really aren’t that bad and are more than offset by the good things going on with companies, profits, employment, etc.

Particularly interesting is the South Korean stock market.  If conflict did break out, they would be on the front line and they would suffer the most devastation.  Their reaction to North Korea’s developments are the largest which makes sense.  But like the rest of the world, the South Korean stock market quickly shrugs off the threat and moves on.  As I mentioned earlier, the South Korean stock market has done really well this year, which must mean that they don’t view the threat of war to be that likely.

 

I hope this gives you comfort; it does to me.  It’s not hard to get wrapped up in all this crap.  Trump and Kim Jong Un certainly don’t make things calmer, and those missile tests keep flying longer and longer distances.  When someone gets on CNN saying we are on the doorstep of Armageddon, it’s easy to believe it, but I think those people are full of crap.

The stock market has a powerful collective wisdom that has a really good track record of being right when individuals are dead wrong.  I think looking at how the stock market has reacted to all of this, and particularly how the South Korean stock market has, should give us all some comfort.

 

Is your house a good investment?

For most Americans, their home is the largest purchase they will ever make in their lives, and it is their largest asset.  A lot of people call a person’s home their largest “investment”.  That begs the question: Is your home a good investment?

 

 

Definition of an investment

We need to remember what an investment is, particularly for this.  An investment is where you pay for something and then either get payments, like a dividend, or you are able to sell it at some point in the future for a profit.

For houses, you don’t really get a periodic payment.  That may be the case for rental properties which I’ve discussed here.  But for this post, let’s assume you use your home for your personal residence.  That means for the idea of an investment to work, you need to sell your home for more than you bought it.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s figure this out.

 

Our story

A lot of times in personal finance, it’s better to be lucky that good.  Foxy Lady and I were very fortunate when we bought and sold our Los Angeles house.  It turned out to be an awesome investment (or so we have always thought, but let’s wait until the end of this post for a final verdict).

Shortly after we were married in 2010 we moved to LA.  That was pre-cubs but we knew we wanted to start a family, so we bought a cozy 3-bedroom house for the low, low price of $785,000.  What?!?!?  Los Angeles real estate is insane.

In 2015 I retired and we moved from LA to North Carolina.  As insane as housing prices were in 2010, they got even more insane in 2015.  We were able to sell our house for $1,150,000.

Wow!!!  That’s a heck of a profit.  Definitely that shows that in our case, our house was an awesome investment.  Not so fast.  Let’s look at the numbers and really figure out how good of an investment it was.

Our $785,000 investment grew $365,000, so that’s a 46% increase.  That seems like a really high return, but wait . . .

That was over 5 years, so on a compounded annual basis that’s about 8%.  Still, that’s a really good return, but wait . . .

We did a fair number of home improvements to our house.  When we bought the house there was a bit of water damage on one of the outside doors, so we replaced those plus a few of the windows.  Plus we decided to paint the outside because it has a hideous white color.  Also, we did a lot of landscaping work and had to fix the sprinklers.  Let’s say all that came to $20,000.

Later in 2014, Foxy Lady completely redid the kitchen and bathrooms.  It was one of her crowning achievements, and a bit of her died when we moved just a few months later.  That all cost about $40,000.  If you factor that in, then the return falls to 7%.  Most people will take 7% any day, but wait . . .

We were really lucky in that we sold our house as part of Foxy’s relocation package for her new company.  Normally, realtor fees are about 6% of the house’s selling price.  That would come to about $77,000.  Fortunately, we didn’t have to pay that, but under most circumstances we would have.  Had we factored that in the return falls to 5%, but wait . . .

Then there were other costs like property taxes (about $10,000 annually) and regular repairs like when we had to replace our dishwasher (let’s call that $3,000 each year).  If you factor that in, the return bottoms out at about 4%.  That is a far cry from the 46% we originally had in our head.

Maybe we’re being too pessimistic.  There’s some upside, right?  Sure there is.  It did act as shelter for us.  Let’s say it would have cost us $4,000 per month to rent a place like that.  In a way that acts like a bit of a dividend; owning that house gave us $4,000 of value each month.  That is a huge factor which has a major impact, raising our return from 4% to over 9%.

Plus, on the upside, selling your home has some nice tax advantages depending on the circumstances.  If you owned the house and used it as a personal residence for at least a couple years (to avoid flippers), then any profits on your house up to $500,000 ($250,000 if your single) are not taxed.  If you had profits for stocks those would be taxed like a capital gain whose rates are around 15-20%.  That is actually a pretty ENORMOUS advantage.  In our case, we had a profit of about $300,000 after you accounted for the home improvements we did; a 20% tax rate would have come to $60,000.  As it was, we didn’t pay any of that.

 

Looking to the data

We had our story, but I have this nagging feeling that we got fairly lucky with the house.  Imagine an investor whose only experience with stocks was buying in 2012.  They would have had a annual return of about 11%.  Hopefully they would have the perspective that that isn’t normal for most investors over most periods of time, and they just happened to have really lucky timing.

For housing it’s a bit tougher to figure that out.  In the stock market we have all sorts of data that bloggers (whose kids just went back to school, so they have more time on their hands) can parse a million ways.  Not the case with housing.

First, there’s just not that much data out there.  Second, the calculation becomes complex for all the reasons we discussed in our situation.  You have to control for things like home improvements, repairs, etc.

That said, my BFF Robert Schiller in all his smartness has the authoritative data on the subject.  Going back to 1950, the same year the S&P 500 started, housing prices have increased 0.4% annually.  That seems crazy low.  We know that houses are more expensive now than they were back then.  Did the Nobel Prize winner get it wrong?

No, he got it right.  That 0.4% is the increase if you hold everything else constant.  Since 1950 houses have gotten a lot bigger, made with better materials, with more features, and all that stuff.  Using some hard-core statistics, you can strip all that stuff out and find out how much the house on it’s own increased in value.  That number is 0.4% annually.

Just in case you were wondering, the S&P 500 has increased 11% annually since 1950.  BOOM!!!

During that same period of time that we owned the house, stocks were up over 12%.  Granted, that was during a decent market run, but that kind of makes it apples to apples comparing that to a really strong run for California real estate.  Just from a numbers perspective, it would have been better for us to rent and put all that money into the stock market than what we actually did.

 

Putting it all in perspective

9% seems like a huge return for our house (4% if you just count the house), given that I typically use 6-7% as my expected return for stocks.  That should be a vote in the “yes” column for the question: “Is your house a good investment?”

However, based on the data it seems like we had really, REALLY good timing.  If normally houses appreciate 0.4% when you strip out all the other stuff, then our experience where we got a 4% return seems like a major outlier.  Conversely, stocks had a return of 12% when they historically have a return of 11% or so.  We could debate which was MORE lucky, but I definitely think the appreciation of the house was a greater outlier.

What does it all mean?  Houses tend to appreciate about 0.4%, but if you include the value it provides as shelter while you hold it as an investment, maybe that bumps it up to 5% or so.  It also has favorable tax treatment so those are all really attractive.

However, stocks on average return about 8% per year.  So even with the tax benefit, ON AVERAGE (which is a crazy term in and of itself), houses aren’t that good of an investment compared to the stock market.  Even in our case, where we had an awesome run with our house, the stock market did better.

Does that mean that we should never buy a house, only renting and then using that money in the stock market?  No, I don’t think so.  There are really good reasons to buy a home beyond the investment angle.

In my opinion, the most important element is self-determination.  I weighed the pros and cons of home ownership here, and the one thing that transcends money is when you buy a home you control your future.  In that post I mentioned how our neighbors who were renting didn’t have their lease renewed and had to move.  Also, people who rent don’t tend to upgrade their house to make it as nice as they want.  Those are important considerations that, at least for us, tip the balance towards homeownership.  But what doesn’t make a very compelling argument is the fallacy that homes make great investments.

 

The Trump stock bubble

The normally very calm and thoughtful T. Lee (a good friend from my Medtronic days) expressed some strong anti-Trump feelings in a comment a couple days ago.  That puts him in good company with a large portion of the country.  But then he asked the following question:

“At what point, if there is one, should we consider pulling our money out of stocks and investments and holding cash, based on the disorder, confusion, and unbelievable uncertainty this tiny man of a president is causing domestically and abroad? Are there any telltale signals? I also ask because the housing market and stock market are at historic highs, and seem due for a pullback. I know it’s impossible to time the market this way, but just wondering perhaps there is an exception under extraordinary times.”

Let’s dig into this and see what we come up with.

 

Things aren’t that bad

Times are insanely partisan right now.  If you don’t like Trump it’s easy to think we are on the brink of oblivion, but things aren’t really that bad.  Let’s look at some times when things were REALLY bad and how stocks did (some of this is from a post I did a couple years ago so you can check that out here).

Let’s think of the worse times in the past 100 years.  A short list probably includes the start of WWII, the atomic bomb dropped, and the assassination of MLK.  In each of those things look bad, really bad, and maybe we would have thought that things were about to fall apart:

When Hitler invaded Poland and started World War II (Sep 1939)

When the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan and started the nuclear era (August 1945)

When Martin Luther King was assassinated setting of some of the worst race relations since the Civil War (April 1968)

The civil unrest that’s going on in the US right now is a drop in the bucket compared those examples.  Even so, when things looked darkest, being an investor turned out to be a good thing.  That table looks at if you invested $1,000 per month starting at that bad event in the Dow Jones index, and how you would have ended up over different time periods.   Over a 20- or 30-year time horizon we know that we almost always come out ahead.  That definitely held true even in these examples.

I don’t think we have anything to worry about as investors because of Trump or all the current drama.  It’s important to keep things in perspective.

 

Pullbacks do happen

Definitely there will be a point when stocks will pull back.  That’s just the nature of the stock market.  Given that Trump has taken so much credit for the rise in the stock market, it will be interesting to see how he tries to avoid blame when it has a bad few months or a bad year.  Of course, he has shown his ability to grab credit and shed blame as well as any politician, so I’m sure he’ll come up with something.

In my post where I proved I was smarter than a Nobel Prize winner, I based that on the fact that two years ago Robert Schiller predicted stocks would not do well.  I disagreed and was much more optimistic.  Since then stock have been on a major tear, so there you go.

But it can’t last forever.  Here are the stock returns for each of the last nine years since the Great Recession: 28%, 17%, 8%, 9%, 29%, 9%, 0%, 13%, and 12% so far this year.  That’s a dream, and eventually we’ll take a pause from that incredible pace, but of course we don’t know when that will happen.  Robert Schiller, one of the very smartest people in the world, predicted it a couple years ago.  Maybe it will be this year (I did suggest maybe we’re seeing some early signs), or maybe it will be two years from now.  If it’s two years from now, there could very well be another 10% or 20% upside that you don’t want to miss.  As always I recommend holding tight and doing the long-and-steady investment strategy.

 

Bubbles

Despite the craziness going on in the White House right now, things actually seem fairly strong in the economy which makes me think a huge bubble burst unlikely.  If you look back over the past major financial bubbles in the US three come to mind—the Great Depression (1929), the Dot com bust (2001), and the Great Recession (2008)—the issues that caused those don’t seem to be in place.

Of course, it’s impossible to predict what will cause a bubble but if we look at those in turn I think we’ll see that things look okay.

Great Depression—That was the big one that was caused by a perfect storm of bad stuff.  You had an insane asset bubble that captivated the nation and was held up by fraudulent companies.  It was so bad that most of the SEC laws came about afterwards.  What is going on now isn’t anywhere close to that.

Dot com bust—Again we had an asset bubble where stocks that had no profits, and no prospect of getting profits any time soon were being valued through the roof.  Maybe there’s a bit of that now, but it seems fairly tame compared to back then.  Now companies like Amazon and Apple dominate the news, but those are very profitable companies.

Great Recession—This actually had little to do with the stock markets but more to do with the big bets banks were making backed up by small amounts of equity.  Things went bad for a bit, but then rebounded quickly.

That’s a quick rundown, and there’s a lot of detail we could go into for each of those, but none of those telltale signs seems to be with us now.  Banks are stronger than they were, there doesn’t seem to be widespread fraud, and the stocks driving the market are profitable.  But bubbles by their nature are hard to predict, so who knows.

That said, I will give you the steady advice that I always do which is to sit tight, do dollar cost averaging, and in the end you will very likely come out ahead.

Democrats are the best party for the stock market except . . .

. . . when Republicans are

 

“Politics suck” –everyone on Facebook

Given the incredibly bitter political partisanship affecting the country right now, it only seemed right to throw fuel on the fire by asking an incredibly incendiary question like: which political party is better for the stock market?

The stock market is a tricky mistress to the political parties.  Republicans seem to openly court this mistress with their pro-business and more capitalist policies.  When the stock market does well that is seen as a success.  Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics would have the stock market winners, who tend to be clustered among the wealthy, spend more and benefit everyone.

Most recently, Donald Trump has hailed the tremendous bull market during his presidency as a sign that his policies are working.  In case you’re curious, the S&P 500 is up over 15% since he was elected.   That’s pretty good, but certainly not the best.  Since 1950, of the 10 presidents who became president after being elected (I’m not counting Johnson or Ford), Trump ranks 3rd highest, behind John Kennedy (23%) and George HW Bush (25%) over similar time periods.

It’s a bit more complicated with Democrats with their more progressive agendas and socialist policies.  But make no mistake, Democrats want stocks to do well too.  Good stock markets are correlated with low unemployment.  When the stock market does well tax receipts are up.  One of the core bastions of Democrat ideology, the pension fund for public employees is nearly totally dependent on a strong stock market.

Whatever, that’s all politics.  You can agree or disagree with my thinking, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that both parties want the stock market to do well.

 

Republicans or Democrats?

So that leads to the big question: which political party does better with the stock market?

Here’s a table with a lot of data.  It shows the average return as well as the number of years since November 1950* for each scenario:

  Congress      
President

Republican

Democrat

Split

TOTAL

Republican

12%

(7 years)

3%

(22 years)

4%

(8 years)

5%

(37 years)

Democrat

16%

(8 years)

10%

(18 years)

15%

(4 years)

12%

(30 years)

TOTAL

14%

(15 years)

6%

(40 years)

8%

(12 years)

8%

(67 years)

 

There have been 37 years of Republican presidents and 30 years of Democrat presidents.  The average return for Republican presidents is 5%, for Democrats 12%.  Clearly DEMOCRATS are better, but wait . . .

Republicans have controlled both chambers of Congress 15 years, Democrats 40 years, and it has been split 12 years.  The average return for Republican Congresses is 14%, Democrat Congresses 6%, and split Congresses 8%.  Clearly REPUBLICANS are better, but wait . . .

Republican presidents have had a Republican Congress for 7 years where the average return was 12%.  Democrat presidents have had a Democrat congress for 18 years with an average return of 10%.  Clearly REPUBLICANS are better, barely, but wait . . .

Republican presidents have served with Democratic Congresses for 22 years with an average return of 3%.  Democrat presidents have served with Republican Congresses 8 years with an average return of 16%.  Clearly . . . wait there’s nothing clear about this one.  Who should get the blame for those below average Republican president/Democrat Congress years?  Who should get the credit for those really, really good Democrat president/Republican Congress years (that was mostly during Clinton’s administration)?

There’s a lot of ambiguity here, and I don’t think there’s a clear answer.  We could argue about it on Facebook, but that’s about as fun as a root canal.  No thanks.

 

There must be something in the water

Since 1950 the US stock market has done really well, amazingly well.  In November 1950, the S&P 500 was at 19.51; today it’s at 2480.91.  Let that sink in for a minute.

All that data I showed you was valuable to see in that it confirmed we are on a bit of a fool’s errand.  Asking if Republicans or Democrats make the stock market do better is the wrong question.  The important observation is that the stock market does well no matter who is running things.  If you’re an optimist that means either party is filled with good stewards who keep things going in a positive direction.  If you’re a pessimist that means the the American economy is so strong and robust that the idiots in Washington, on either side of the aisle, can’t screw things up.  Either way, that is a tremendously powerful and important and comforting insight.

The day after Trump was elected, the stock market had a really good day, rising 1.1% (Reagan’s day-after-election rise was 1.8%).  That was based on expectations of tax reform, reduced regulation, and healthcare reform, to name a few.  So far, pretty much none of that has come to pass, yet stocks are up 15%.

How different would that have been if Hillary Clinton was elected?  Maybe she doesn’t sign some of those executive orders on the Keystone pipeline.  Maybe she doesn’t rollback some of the regulations Trump has, maybe she adds some he hasn’t.  All maybes.  But those are all drops in the bucket compared to the gargantuan size of the US economy and the stock market which reflects it.

My absolute belief is that a strong US stock market reflects a strong US economy and business environment.  Awesomely, that goes beyond the power of one person in an oval office or 535 people down the road a bit.  We will win no matter who is there, and that makes things a lot easier.

So my answer is: Republicans are better for stocks but Democrats are better for markets.  Wait, maybe Democrats are better for stocks and Republicans are better for markets.  I forget now.  Damnit.

 

*All analysis in this post is based on the S&P 500 since the midterm election in November 1950.

I screwed myself by rolling over my 401k

rollover-ira

Kind of, but not really.  I wanted to put a dramatic headline up to see if that would drive more traffic.  However, I did lose a little bit of money by rolling over my 401k from Medtronic into my IRA with Vanguard.  Here’s my story:

 

As you know, I left my job at Medtronic a while back.  Whenever you leave a job, there’s actually a lot of work involved with your finances.  You have to move them from the accounts set up by your company, to your own individual accounts.  Best case is it’s a pain in the butt; worst case is you can forget about some of it and lose it forever.  So it’s an important process.

So when I left Medtronic I knew I had to take my 401k account and roll it over into an IRA.  But there wasn’t a lot of urgency because Medtronic had their 401k at Vanguard, and all our other accounts are at Vanguard, so it seemed fine.  But then the Medtronic/Covidien merger happened, and as part of that, Medtronic switched from Vanguard to Aon Hewitt.  I wanted to keep all my money in one place for convenience sake, so I called Aon and initiated the rollover.

For those who have never done it, it’s a pretty simple process.  You set up an IRA account where you want the money to go (Vanguard in my case).  They’ll ask you how you want to fund the IRA and you click on a choice that says something like “Rollover”.  Then you call up the place where you’re money is at (Aon in this case) and start the process.  Usually they’ll send you a check which YOU DO NOT CASH, but instead just send it on to Vanguard.  Overall the process takes about two weeks.

But that two weeks is what screwed me a little bit.  During those two weeks your money is not in the market.  As you know from many posts I have done, the stock market is really unpredictable in the short-term, so it’s impossible to time the rollover process to your advantage.  Ideally, that two week process would coincide with a brief downturn in the market.  Conversely, you hope that two week period isn’t when the market stages a blazing recovery.

Based on the title of this post, you can probably guess what the case was for me.  As we know, the first few weeks of the year were really bad for stocks, and then they started a slow recovery.  If I could predict the future, that would have been the time to do my rollover, at the beginning of the year right before stocks fell 10% over the course of a couple weeks.  Of course, if I could predict the future, I would own my own island in the Caribbean.

I took the plunge in mid-February, and as you can see, stocks started inching up.  It was a perverse feeling: of course I like when stocks go up because we have so much invested in stocks.  But on the other hand, I felt that part of my portfolio was missing out on those gains.  Following the stock market too closely can really mess with your head.  Anyway, after a week, I got my check from Aon, which I promptly sent to Vanguard.  In that week, stocks were up about 0.8%.  My 401k from Aon was worth about $140,000, so missing out on that 0.8% gain cost me about $1100.

Once I put the check in the mail to Vanguard, the investing gods decided I needed to be further humbled, so in the next week stocks went on a major tear, rising about 3.2%.  Of all the times, why then?  My being out of the market for that week cost me another $4400.

Roll over IRA

Add that up and you’re talking a decent chunk of change.  My timing for doing the rollover couldn’t have been worse, and in the end I missed out on about $5500 in market gains.  That sucks.

But you win some and you lose some.  I am sure that I have come out ahead some of the other times I’ve transferred accounts, but as Matt Damon’s character said in Rounders: you tend to remember your spectacular loses more than your amazing wins.  Just human nature I guess.

That said, there’s definitely a lesson there, which is you need to stay in the market.  As we have discussed ad naseum, the market is very unpredictable in the short term often times with wild swings.  But over the long term it has a relentless upward march.  I had to get out of the market for a pretty unavoidable reason, so maybe I get a pass.  But what about those people who got spooked by the January plunge and then missed out on the February recovery?  They got crushed and could have really hurt their financial plan.

 

So there you go.  I hope you were entertained by my misfortune.