Investing has changed significantly during the 25 or so years that I have been following both the market and also the tools available for an investor to participate within the market. The following trends are key:
- The cost of trading and investing has declined significantly. Trades used to cost more than $25 and now are essentially free in many cases. Mutual funds used to have “loads” of 5% or more standard when you made an investment, meaning that $100 invested only went to work for you as $95. These sorts of up-front costs have almost totally been eliminated
- ETFs have (mostly) replaced mutual funds. ETFs “trade like stocks”, meaning that you can buy and sell anytime (mutual funds traded once a day, after being priced with that day’s activity) and they don’t have income tax gains and losses unless you actually make a trade (mutual funds often had gains due to changes in the portfolio that you had to pay taxes on even if you were just holding the fund)
- CDs and Government Debt are all electronic. You used to have to go to a bank for various governmental bond products or to buy a CD. Now you not only can buy all of this online, you can choose from myriad banks instantly rather than settle for whatever your main bank (Chase, Wells Fargo, etc…) offers up to you
- Interest Rates are Near Zero. One of the key concepts in investing is “compound interest”, where interest is re-invested and even small, continuous investments held for a long time can end up amounting to large sums (in nominal terms, because inflation often eats away at “real” returns). However, with interest rates basically near zero, you need to earn dividend income or take on more risk (i.e. “junk bonds”) in order to receive any sort of interest income. There is no “safe” way to earn income any more
- Currency Fluctuations Matter. When the Euro initially came out it was $1.30 for each US dollar, and then it went to 70 cents per dollar, and now it is about $1.10 per dollar. At one point the dollar fell 30-40% against many currencies world wide (when “commodity” currencies like the Canadian and Australian dollar were surging). For many years currencies were relatively stable against one another but that era seems to be ending, and thus the change in relationship between the US dollar and their currency can be much greater than the return that is earned on the international investments
- Active Trading Has Mostly Been Beaten By Passive Trading. While there are many exceptions, initially the majority of investments were “active”, but over the years many of the “active” managers have substantially under-performed the market, whilst charging investors more in fees (it is cheaper to run a “passive” index). As a result, there has been a massive shift away from active investors to passive investors like Vanguard
- Correlation Among Stocks and Investment Classes Is Much Higher. Correlation means that stocks or asset classes tend to “move up” together or “move down” together. It is not unusual for me to look at a portfolio of 20 stocks and 19 or 20 of them have all gone up or down on a single day. This is related to active managers being unable to “beat” the market (see above)
- The “Risk Premium” for Lower Quality Debt is Small. The amount of extra interest required for low quality borrowers over the US Treasury benchmark is very small. Investors are taking on a lot of risk to just earn a few more percentage points of return. If there is a downturn in the economy (such as what happened only recently in US oil companies), there are likely to be significant declines in junk bond values that wouldn’t justify the modest risk premium you receive for holding these types of assets
- ETFs Provide an Easy Way to Participate in Commodity Markets. It was more difficult to buy and invest in commodities like gold and crude in the past, and it was often limited to relatively sophisticated investors or those willing to hold on to physical commodities like gold (which can be risky since they need to be stored and protected due to high value and inability to trace once stolen). Today you can easily buy a liquid ETF to participate in the commodity markets for key areas like precious metals (gold and silver) and crude oil / natural gas
- Fewer Companies are Going Public and the Market is Shrinking (in terms of issuers, not total value) – It is easy for start up companies to access private capital (venture funds) and they tend to “go IPO” at high values, making a further upside (after the initial IPO) more difficult. The total market is shrinking in terms of listings due to M&A (companies buying other companies) faster than the new IPOs and many companies are “buying back” shares which also reduces the total value of the public markets
- Bonds have had a Gigantic Bull Market that is Nearing It’s End – Bond prices move inversely to yield; thus if you held on to a 5% low risk bond (which would have been available everywhere in the early 2000s), that bond would currently be priced at much more than 100 cents on the dollar today. Interest rates peaked around 20% near 1980 and now are not far from zero; in this sense bonds are part of an enormous “bubble market” that has not yet peaked. But given how low rates are (they are even negative), it seems like this bull run is about to come to an end
- Ensure That You Include Dividends and Total Return. A common mistake is to look at performance just in terms of stock or asset prices, and avoid including the compounding impact of dividends received, especially since dividends often rise each year. Dividend income can make up a significant portion (25% and up) of total return, so selecting assets that provide dividend income is critical. Finally, dividends provide favorable tax rates when compared to interest income
What does all of this mean? I would sum it up in two ways:
- It is easy for individual investors to set up a simple and low cost way to track the market – the “basic plan” that I set up as a simple example can be used by anyone and it does what it says. Here is a second plan that also includes some hedging of the non-US investment
- You will need to save much more (or take on more risk) because interest rates are low – with near zero interest rates, you can’t make much money on low risk interest bearing products (like CDs, savings accounts, and simple government debt). If you are earning risk income, you likely are taking on substantial risk of default because there is no “free lunch”. As a result, you need to put more cash into stocks in order to earn dividends or see real returns, but this also could lead to significant losses if there is a market crash like 2008-9.
I try to promote financial literacy and have helped many friends and some family members when they ask questions. Ideally we would actually drive financial literacy through school and into the university. Even those who have a degree in finance or accounting often lack practical advice on personal finance and don’t know how to approach these issues.
One key concept is “net worth”. Net worth isn’t how much you earn in salary, it is what remains in savings after taxes (or through long term deferral of taxes). The only “assets” that count are those that you can turn into cash if needed, and they are “net” of the debt (such as on your house). Most people have a negative or near-zero net worth, which is also linked to the concept that they are essentially a couple of missed paychecks away from very bad outcomes such as having to take out a payday loan or borrow money from relatives.
Another key concept is trying to avoid excessive student debt. Unlike all other forms of debt (loans on your house, your car, or credit card debt) your student debt cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. You essentially have no options except to repay your loans, and if you miss payments or fall behind the fees and penalties will greatly increase your balance due. Student financial literacy is critical because they are making decisions that will impact themselves and their families for the rest of their lives and they must be made thoughtfully and with the end in mind (if you are taking out all of this debt, you must be driven in your career to make money in order to pay it off and get on with building net worth).
Cross posted at Trust Funds for Kids