Ask DWM: “Please Explain how Investment Returns are Calculated”

Excellent question from a valued client and an extremely important one.  You need to know how your investments are performing.  Are you on track to meet your goals?  Are any changes needed?

To start, focus on your “total return.” In simplest terms, this is the total increase in your portfolio for the period. Let’s say you had $100,000 in one account at the beginning of the year and you didn’t add money or subtract any money during the year. At the end of the year, this account has grown to $111,820.  Your total return is $11,820 ($111,820 ending value minus $100,000 beginning value).  This is an 11.82% total return ($11,820 divided by $100,000).

Next, let’s drill down a little further.   The total return is composed primarily of two parts; the change in market value during the period plus dividends and/or interest earned.  Let’s assume, for simplicity sake, that this $100,000 portfolio only had one investment on January 1, 2016 and it was invested entirely in the Schwab S&P 500 Index Fund (SWPPX).  Those shares were valued at $31.56 per share at the beginning of that year- 3,168 shares with a total value of $100,000 (3,168 times $31.56).   Here is what actually happened with those shares in 2016:  Their value went up to $34.42. The $2.86 per share increase ($34.42-$31.56) amounted to a $9,062 increase in value.  And, in December, dividends were paid totaling 87 cents per share, a total of $2,758.  So, the account increased by a total of $11,820, of which there was a $9,062 price increase (9.1%) and a $2,758 (2.7%) dividend return.  Overall, an 11.82% total return for 2016.

Dividends and interest are the income received for holding the security and are called the “yield.”   Some investors focus on a high yield and ignore the potential impact of market increases or decreases.  We believe that is a mistake.  Historically, there are times, such as periods of low inflation, when dividend-paying stocks have outperformed.   And, there are times, such as the 1990s, when tech stocks with limited earnings and no dividends outpaced dividend payers by nearly 5% per annum.  Focus on total return (and, of course, diversification).

Now, let’s look at the situation where money is added or subtracted from the investment portfolio during the year.  When this happens, the performance results are generally calculated and shown as “time-weighted returns” which eliminates the impact of money coming in or going out and focuses on daily returns. Our DWM/Orion reporting system calculates the daily return for each holding and multiplies the daily returns geometrically to determine the time-weighted return.

The DWM/Orion reports show gross total returns for all holdings and asset classes and deduct management fees in calculating the time-weighted return.  Furthermore, reports covering a period of less than a year are not annualized.  For example, if the time-weighted return for the first three months is 2%, the report shows 2% and does not annualize that number (assuming the next three quarters will be similar results) and show an 8% annualized return.  However, on reports covering a period of more than one year, the overall results are reduced to annual amounts.  For example, if a performance report covering a three-year period shows a time-weighted return of 6%, then the overall return for that total period is approximately 18%.

The CFA Institute, the global association of vetted investment professionals, including Brett and me, which sets the standard for professional excellence and integrity identifies clear, trustworthy investment reporting as the most valuable tool for communicating investment information.  Early on, we at DWM determined that we and our clients needed a robust reporting system to calculate, help monitor and report on your investments.  Schwab as custodian provides regular statements for each account showing balances and activity during a given period. However, the statements don’t show performance vs. benchmarks on a percentage basis.  It also only shows one account at a time. Our DWM/Orion reporting system can show you performance at various levels: asset, asset class, account and household for a more complete, holistic review.

In today’s world, when there is so much data and so much news and much is either fake or biased, it’s important to know that your investment returns with DWM are calculated in an objective basis and compared to benchmarks for any time period.  This allows proper monitoring and facilitates modifications, when needed.

Thanks again for the question and let us know if there are any follow-up questions.