Equity Trades are Free – But there is no Free Lunch

Broker price wars

Before 1975, brokers had it really good. Commissions were fixed and regulated-at very high levels. It would sometimes cost hundreds of dollars to buy 500 shares of a blue-chip stock. That changed in 1975 when the SEC opened commissions to market competition.   A young Chuck Schwab and others became discount brokers- often charging ½ or less of the old rates. Since then, fees have continued to fall and earlier this year, trades could be made for $5 or less. Now, Charles Schwab & Co. as well as TD Ameritrade, E*TRADE and others have cut stock and ETF trades to zero. Free trading of equities has arrived.   Please be advised, though, that there is no free lunch- brokers profit from you even if they don’t charge for equity trades.

Here are some the main sources of income for brokerage firms:

  • Trade commissions
  • Brokerage fee- to hold the account
  • Mutual fund transaction fee-charges when you buy or sell a fund
  • Operating Expense Ratio-an annual fee charged by mutual funds, index funds and exchange-traded funds (“ETFs”)
  • Sales load- A sales charge or commission on some mutual funds paid to the broker or salesperson who sold the fund
  • Uninvested cash- brokers become bankers and lend it out

Let’s focus first on uninvested cash. In 2018, 57% of Schwab’s income came from loaning out its customers’ cash. As is typical in the brokerage business, uninvested cash is swept to an interest bearing account. However, sweep accounts typically earn almost nothing- usually ½ to ¼ of 1% or lower to the investor.

Schwab had a total of $3.7 trillion of deposits, with about 7% of it ($265 billion) in cash earning nice returns for them. Assuming a return of 2.5 % on the uninvested cash, that’s a return of $6.6 billion. The cost of that money was likely ½% or about $1 billion, with Schwab netting about 2%. $5.7 billion of Schwab’s $10 billion net revenue in 2018 was earned on its customers’ cash. Virtually all the brokers use the same model with uninvested cash.

Robo- advisors generally use the same format. Virtually all of them charge lower fees but require a certain amount of cash, between 4% and 30% in their pre-set asset allocations. Yes, there is a small sweep account interest paid on those funds, but not much. And, this is all typically disclosed. The rate paid on clients’ cash “may be higher or lower than on comparable deposit accounts at other banks” is a typical warning.

The use of uninvested cash is income for the brokers and reduction in performance for the investors. Let’s say your portfolio has 10% cash generating a 0% return. If your annual return on the invested 90% in your portfolio is 6%, then the return on 100% of the account is only 5.4%. A huge difference over time. As an example, the difference between earning 5% per year versus 6% a year on $100,000 for 30 years is $142,000.

Now, let’s look at the operating expense ratio (OER). OERs are charged by mutual funds, index funds and ETFs. If a fund has an expense ratio of 1%, that means you pay $1 annually for each $100 invested. If your portfolio was up 6% for the year, but you paid 1% in operating expenses, your return is actually only 5%. The OER is designed to cover operating costs including management and administration.

The first mutual funds were actively traded, meaning that the portfolio manager tried to beat the market by picking and choosing investments. Operating expenses for actively managed funds include research, marketing and significant administration with OERs often at 1% or more. Index funds are considered passive. The manager of an index fund tries to mimic the return of a given benchmark, e.g. the S&P 500 Index. Index funds should have significantly lower operating expense ratios. Evidence shows that actively managed funds, as a whole, don’t beat the indices. In fact, as a group, they underperform by the amount of their OER.

Operating expense ratios, primarily because of increased use of index funds and ETFs to minimize costs, have been getting smaller and smaller. In fact, we have seen some funds at a zero operating expense ratio. However, for these funds, a substantial amount (10% to 20%) of cash is maintained in the fund.

Conclusion: Set a target of 1-2% cash in your portfolio. Stay invested for the long term.   In addition, the investments in your portfolio should have very low OERs, wherever possible. However, in selecting investments, you need to look at both the OERs and the typical cash position of the mutual fund, index or ETF. Even if the OER is zero and the security holds 10% in cash, your performance on that holding will likely only be 90% of the benchmark, at best. Remember, when equity trades are free, brokers will continue to look for ways to make money, often at your expense.

DWM 1Q19 Market “MADNESS” Commentary

In basketball, March Madness is a big deal. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, March Madness refers to the time of the annual NCAA college basketball tournament, generally throughout the month of March. In the market, it may appear that “Madness” is never confined to any one month. If you really want to talk about Madness, just think about the last 6 months: The S&P500 was at an all-time high late September, only to throw up an “airball” and bottom out almost 20% lower three months later on worries that the Fed was raising rates too fast, only to “rebound” to have its best first quarter since 1998 as the Fed shifted its tone to a more dovish nature. Is it the NCAA or the markets in a “Big Dance”?!?

Yes, the investing environment now is so much different than our last commentary. Then, it certainly felt like a flagrant foul after a tenacious 4q18 sell-off that had gone too far. We advised our readers then to essentially do nothing and stay the course. And once again, rewards come to those that stay disciplined. With the market back within striking distance of its peak, it almost feels like its “cutting down the net” time. (“Cutting down the net” refers to the tradition of the winning basketball team cutting down the basketball net and giving pieces to team members and coaches.) But of course, the game of investing is not just four quarters like basketball. Investing can be a lifetime. So if you’re thinking about your portfolio like you would a basketball team, let’s hope its more like the Chicago Bulls of the 90s and not the 2010s! (Where’d you go, Michael Jordan?!?)

Like the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tourney, your portfolio holdings are probably like some of the best out there. But there will always be some winners and losers. Let’s take a look at how the major asset classes fared to start 2019:

Equities: The S&P500 soared to a 13.7% return. Small caps* did even better, up 14.6%. Even with a challenging Eurozone environment, international stocks** climbed over 10%. In basketball terms, let’s just say that this was as exciting as a SLAM DUNK for investors! Of course, with a bounce-back like this, valuations are not as appealing as they were just three months ago. For example, the S&P500 now trades at a 16.4x forward PE vs the 16.2x 25-year average.

Fixed Income: With the Fed taking a more dovish stance, meaning less inclined to raise rates, yields dropped and thus prices rose. The total return (i.e. price change plus yield) for most securities in fixed income land were quite positive. In fact, the Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index & the Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index jumped 2.9% and 2.2%, respectively. Further, inflation remained under control and we don’t expect it to be a pain-point any time soon. But TIME OUT!: Within the last several weeks we have seen conditions where the front end of the yield curve is actually higher than the back end of the yield curve. This is commonly referred to as an “inverted yield curve” and has in the past signaled falling growth expectations and often precedes recessions. To see what an inverted yield curve means to you, please see our recent blog.

Alternatives: Most alternatives we follow had good showings in 1Q19 as evidenced by the Credit Suisse Liquid Alternative Beta Index, our chosen proxy for alternatives, up 3.9%. Two big winners in the space were Master Limited Partnerships***, up 17.2%, and Real Estate****, up 15.2%. The pivot by the Fed in terms of their attitude toward rates really benefited the real estate space as new home buyers are now seeing mortgage rates almost a point lower than just several months ago. Unfortunately, not all alts did as well. Gold barely budged. And managed futures†, down 3.1%, were tripped up by the last six-month whipsaw.

So if you think of your asset classes as players on a basketball squad, one could say that pretty much every one had a good game, but the star of the show was definitely “LeStock”. Moreover, there was no buzzer beater necessary this quarter, as your team flat out won. In fact, most balanced investors after just one quarter are up high single-digits! A definite nice start to the year. You have now advanced to the next round, but where does your team go from here?

The game we saw in the first quarter cannot continue. With the Tax Reform stimulus starting to wear off, economic growth has to decelerate. In fact, companies in the S&P500 are expected to report a 4% decline in 1Q19 vs 1Q18; their first decline since 2016! World trade volume has really slowed down, so there’s a tremendous focus on a US-China trade agreement happening – if not, watch out! The good news is that the Fed seems to be taking a very market-friendly position, and unemployment and wage growth are under control.

As always, there are risks out there. But with the bull market on the brink of entering its 11th year of economic expansion, the end-of-the-game buzzer need not be close as long as you have a good coach at the helm. Just like within NCAA basketball, to succeed, you need a good coach on the sidelines – someone like Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans who always seems to get his players to work together and play their best. The same way a wealth manager like DWM can help you put the portfolio pieces and a financial plan together for you in an effort to thrive and succeed.

So don’t wind up with a busted bracket. If you want a lay-up, work with a proven wealth manager and you’ll be cutting down your own nets soon enough. Now that’s a “swish”!

Brett M. Detterbeck, CFA, CFP®

DETTERBECK WEALTH MANAGEMENT

 

*represented by the Russell 2000

**represented by the MSCI AC World Index Ex-USA

***represented by the Alerian MLP ETF

****represented by the iShares Global REIT ETF

†represented by the Credit Suisse Managed Futures Strategy Fund

Diversification vs. Chasing Performance: And the winner is…

2016-03-16 Annual Asset Class Performance1Our regular readers have come to expect an updated version of this “Asset Class Performance” chart about once a year.  (Click on it to enlarge.) It’s a little like running the Charleston’s Cooper River 10k Bridge Run once a year.  It puts things in perspective.  Things that go up, also go down.

Take a look at REITs in 2006 and 2007. From first to last in performance. And, Emerging Markets from 2007 to 2008, same thing. Bonds were almost a top to bottom in 2008 and 2009 and after Emerging Markets topped in 2009, it took them two years to hit bottom. Do we see a trend here?  Yes, we do.

As we discussed at our seminars in October, we’re all hard wired to want to jump on to winners and discard current losers.  We have a short memory – we place more emphasis on recent performance rather than long-term.  Furthermore, our emotions are aided and abetted by the media- always happy to make an up-and-comer sound like the perennial winner for decades to come and an asset class that is struggling to appear to have no hope of ever turning around.

We saw it earlier this year.  After a fairly dismal year of returns for all asset classes in 2015, 2016 stock markets got off to a slow start and then accelerated downward as pessimism, exacerbated by uncertainty in the world economy, interest rates, oil prices, U.S. Presidential politics and the media drove down performance until the second week in February.  And then, the pendulum starting swinging the other way, pushing markets upwards for the last four to five weeks.

A lot can happen in just a few years.  If we were looking at this same chart for the ten years ended December 31, 2013, the top performers were much different.   Emerging markets were the top performer, followed by mid caps, small caps, REITs, international stocks and then large caps.  Going back even farther, large caps for the ten year period 2000-2009 were negative.  Of course, they’ve come back strongly in the last five years, up 12% per year.

The key is that there is no “silver bullet”- that is, there is not one asset class that provides a simple and magical solution to asset allocation.  To illustrate this, let’s say we had decided to “chase performance” by investing 100% each year in the top performer of the prior year.  We can start with the results of 2006 and invest in REITs in 2007.  For 2008, we’ll invest in Emerging Markets, the top performer in 2007, and so forth for each of the next nine years.  The result: an annualized return of -4%.

Okay, how about if we invest in the most underperforming asset class instead.  We’ll invest in TIPS in 2007, REITs in 2008 and so forth. Our result is only slightly better, -3% annualized return.

Lastly, how about being a disciplined investor, using all asset classes and maintaining a balanced allocation, for example, of 50% equity, 35% fixed income, 10% REITs and 5% commodities for ten years?  The result:  An average annual return of 5.2%. With annual inflation at 1.6% for the decade, that’s quite a respectable real return of 3.6% per year for the last ten years.

The moral of the story is always the same.  Don’t follow your emotional biases.  Don’t chase performance.  Don’t try to time the market.  Instead, focus on what you can control:

  • Maintain an investment plan that fits your needs and risk tolerance
  • Identify an appropriate asset allocation target mix
  • Structure a diversified portfolio between and within asset classes
  • Reduce expenses and turnover
  • Minimize taxes
  • Rebalance regularly
  • Stay invested
  • Stay disciplined

If you have any questions or need any assistance with any of the above, please let us know.  At DWM, we’re ready to help and are passionate about adding value.