Inflation is a tax and how to combat it

Inflation is a tax

Inflation is a tax. Let me explain. Inflation reduces the purchasing power of your cash and earnings while simultaneously redistributing wealth to the federal government.

When prices go up, we pay a higher sales tax at the grocery store, restaurants, or gas stations. Even if your employer adjusts your salary with Inflation, the IRS tax brackets may not go up at the same pace. Many critical tax deductions and thresholds are not adjusted for inflation.

For example, the SALT deduction remains at $10,000.

We have a $750,000 cap on total mortgage debt for which interest is tax-deductible. There is a $500,000 cap on tax-free home sales. We also have a  $3,000 deduction of net capital losses against ordinary income such as wages.

The income thresholds at which 85% of Social Security payments become taxable aren’t inflation-adjusted and have been $44,000 for joint-filing couples and $34,000 for single filers since 1994

And lastly, even if interest rates on your savings account go up, you still have to pay taxes on your modest interest earnings.

Effectively we ALL will pay higher taxes on our future income

Here are some strategies that can help you combat Inflation.

(Not) keeping cash

Inflation is a tax on your cash. Keeping large amounts of cash is the worst way to protect yourself against Inflation. Inflation hurts savers. Your money automatically loses purchasing power with the rise of Inflation.

Roughly speaking, if this year’s Inflation is 8%, $100 worth of goods and services will be worth $108 in a year from now. Therefore, someone who kept their cash in the checking account will need an extra $8 to buy the same goods and services he could buy for $100 a year ago.

Here is another example. $1,000 in 2000 is worth $1,647 in 2022. If you kept your money in your pocket or a checking account, you could only buy goods and services worth $607 in 2000’s equivalent dollars

I recommend that you keep 6 to 12 months’ worth of emergency funds in your savings account, earning some interest. You can also set aside money for short-term financial goals such as buying a house or paying off debt. If you want to protect yourself from inflation, you need to find a different destination for your extra cash.

Investing in Stocks

Investing in stocks often provides some protection against Inflation. Stock ownership offers a tangible claim over the company’s assets, which will rise in value with Inflation. In inflationary environments, stocks have a distinct advantage over bonds and other investments. Companies that can adjust pricing,  whereas bonds, and even rental properties, not so much

Historical data has shown that equities perform better with inflation rates under 0 and between 0 and 4%.

Inflation is a tax
Higher Inflation deteriorates firms’ earnings by increasing the cost of goods and services, labor, and overhead expenses. Elevated inflation levels can suppress demand as consumers adjust to the new price levels.

Inflation is a tax

Historically, energy, staples, health care, and utility companies have performed relatively better during high inflation periods, while consumer discretionary and financials have underperformed.

While it might seem tempting to think specific sectors can cope with Inflation better than others, the success rate will come down to the individual companies’ business model. Firms with strong price power and inelastic product demand can pass the higher cost to their customers. Furthermore, companies with strong balance sheets, low debt, high-profit margins, and steady cash flows perform better in a high inflation environment.

You also need to remember that every economic regime is somewhat different. Today, we are less dependent on energy than we were in the 1970s. Corporate leadership is also different. Companies like Apple and Google have superiorly high cash flow margins, low debt, and a smaller physical footprint. Technology plays a more significant role in today’s economy than in the other four inflationary periods.

Investing in Real Estate

Real Estate very often comes up as a popular inflation hedge. In the long-run real estate prices tend to adjust with inflation depending on the location. Investors use real estate to protect against inflation by capitalizing on cheap mortgage interest rates, passing through rising costs to tenants.

However, historical data and research performed the Nobel laureate Robert Shiller show otherwise. Shiller says, “Housing traditionally is not a great investment. It takes maintenance, depreciates, and goes out of style”. On many occasions, it can be subject to climate risk – fires, tornados, floods, hurricanes, and even volcano eruptions if you live on the Big Island. The price of a single house also can be pretty volatile. Just ask the people who bought their homes in 2007, before the housing bubble.

Investors seeking inflation protection with Real Estate must consider their liquidity needs. Real Estate is not a liquid asset class. It takes a longer time to sell it than a stock. Every transaction involves paying fees to banks, lawyers, and real estate agents. Additionally, there are also maintenance costs and property taxes. Rising Inflation will lead to higher overhead and maintenance costs, potential renter delinquency, and high vacancy.

Investing in Gold and other commodities

Commodities and particularly gold, tend to provide some short-term protection against Inflation. However, this is a very volatile asset class. Gold’s volatility, measured by its 50-year standard deviation, is 27% higher than that of stocks and 3.5 times greater than the volatility of the 10-year treasury. Other non-market-related events and speculative trading often overshadow short-term inflation protection benefits.

Furthermore,  gold and other commodities are not readily available to retail investors outside the form of ETFs, ETNs, and futures. Buying actual commodities can incur significant transaction and storage costs, making it almost prohibitive for individuals to own them physically.

In recent years the relationship between gold and Inflation has weakened. Gold has become less crucial for the global economy due to monetary policy expansion, benign economic growth, and low and negative interest rates in Japan and the EU.

 Having a Roth IRA

If higher Inflation means higher taxes, there is no better tool to lower your future taxes than Roth IRA. I have written a lot about why you need to establish a Roth IRA. Roth IRA is a tax-exempt retirement savings account that allows you to make after-tax dollars. The investments in your Roth IRA grow tax-free, and all your earnings are tax=emept.

If you are a resident of California, the highest possible tax rate you can pay are

  • 37% for Federal Income taxes
  • 13.3% for State Income taxes
  • 2% for Social Security Income tax for income up to $147,000 in 2022
  • 35% for Medicare Taxes
  • 20% Long-term capital gain tax
  • 8% for Net Investment income tax (NIIT) for your MAGI is over $200,000 for singles and $250,000 for married filing jointly

Having a Roth IRA helps you reduce the  tax noise on your earnings and improves the tax diversification of your investments

Here is how to increase your Roth contributions depending on your individual circumstances:

  • Roth IRA contributions
  • Backdoor Roth contributions
  • Roth 401k Contributions
  • Mega-back door 401k conversions
  • Roth conversions from your IRA

Achieving tax alpha and higher after tax returns on your investments

Achieving Tax Alpha

What is tax alpha?

Tax Alpha is the ability to achieve an additional return on your investments by taking advantage of a wide range of tax strategies as part of your comprehensive wealth management and financial planning.  As you know, it is not about how much you make but how much you keep. And tax alpha measures the efficiency of your tax strategy and the incremental benefit to your after-tax returns.

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Why is tax alpha important to you?

The US has one of the most complex tax systems in the world. Navigating through all the tax rules and changes can quickly turn into a full-time job. Furthermore, the US budget deficit is growing exponentially every year. The government expenses are rising. The only way to fund the budget gap is by increasing taxes, both for corporations and individuals.

Obviously, our taxes pay our teachers, police officers, and firefighters, fund essential services, build new schools and fix our infrastructure. Our taxes help the world around us humming.  However, there will be times when taxes become a hurdle in your decision process. Taxes turn into a complex web of rules that is hard to understand and even harder to implement.

Achieving tax alpha is critical whether you are a novice or seasoned investor sitting on significant investment gains.  Making intelligent and well-informed decisions can help you improve the after-tax return of your investment in the long run.

Assuming that you can generate 1% in excess annual after-tax returns over 30-year, your will investments can grow as much as 32% in total dollar amount.

Tax alpha returns
Tax alpha returns

1. Holistic Financial Planning

For our firm, achieving Tax Alpha is a process that starts on day 1. Making smart tax decisions is at the core of our service. Preparing you for your big day is not a race. It’s a marathon.  It takes years of careful planning and patience. There will be uncertainty. Perhaps tax laws can change. Your circumstances may evolve. Whatever happens, It’s important to stay objective, disciplined, and proactive in preparing for different outcomes.

At our firm, we craft a comprehensive strategy that will maximize your financial outcome and lower your taxes in the long run. We start with taking a complete picture of financial life and offer a road map to optimize your tax outcome. Achieving higher tax alpha only works in combination with your holistic financial plan. Whether you are planning for your retirement, owning a large number of stock options, or expecting a small windfall, planning your future taxes is quintessential for your financial success.

2. Tax Loss Harvesting

Tax-loss harvesting is an investment strategy that allows you to sell off assets that have declined in value to offset current or future gains from other sources. You can then replace this asset with a similar but identical investment to position yourself for future price recovery. Furthermore, you can use up to $3,000 of capital losses as a tax deduction to your ordinary income. Finally, you can carry forward any remaining losses for future tax years.

The real economic value of tax-loss harvesting lies in your ability to defer taxes into the future. You can think of tax-loss harvesting as an interest-free loan by the government, which you will pay off only after realizing capital gains.  Therefore, the ability to generate long-term compounding returns on TLH strategy can appeal to disciplined long-term investors with low to moderate trading practices.

How does tax-loss harvesting work?

Example: An investor owns 1,000 shares of company ABC, which she bought at $50 in her taxable account. The total cost of the purchase was $50,000. During a market sell-off a few months later, the stock drops to $40, and the initial investment is now worth $40,000.

Now the investor has two options. She can keep the stock and hope that the price will rebound. Alternatively,  she could sell the stock and realize a loss of $10,000. After the sale, she will have two options. She can either buy another stock with a similar risk profile or wait 30 days and repurchase ABC stock with the proceeds. By selling the shares of ABC, the investor will realize a capital loss of $10,000. Assuming she is paying 15% tax on capital gains, the tax benefit of the loss is equal to $1,500.  Furthermore, she can use the loss to offset future gains in her investment portfolio or other sources.

3. Direct Indexing

Direct indexing is a type of index investing. It combines the concepts of passive investing and tax-loss harvesting. The strategy relies on the purchase of a custom investment portfolio that mirrors the composition of an index.

Similar to buying an index fund or an ETF, direct indexing requires purchasing a broad basket of individual stocks that closely track the underlying index.  For example, if you want to create a portfolio that tracks S&P 500, you can buy all or a smaller number of  500 stocks inside the benchmark.

Owning a basket of individual securities offers you greater flexibility to customize your portfolio.  First, you can benefit from tax-loss harvesting opportunities by replacing stocks that have declined in value with other companies in the same category. Second, you can remove undesirable stocks or sectors you otherwise can’t do when buying an index fund or an ETF. Third, direct indexing can allow you to diversify your existing portfolio and defer realizing capital gains, especially when you hold significant holdings with a low-cost basis.

4. Tax Location

Tax location is a strategy that places your diversified investment portfolio according to each investment’s risk and tax profile. In the US, we have a wide range of investment and retirement accounts with various tax treatments. Individual investment accounts are fully taxable for capital gains and dividends. Employer 401k, SEP IRA and Traditional IRA are tax-differed savings vehicles. Your contributions are tax-deductible while your savings grow tax-free. You only pay taxes on your actual retirement withdrawals. Finally, Roth IRA, Roth 401k, and 529 require pre-tax contributions, but all your future earnings are tax-exempt. Most of our clients will have at least two or more of these different instrument vehicles.

Now, enter stocks, bonds, commodities, REITs, cryptocurrencies, hedge funds, private investments, stock options, etc. Each investment type has a different tax profile and carries a unique level of risk.

At our firm, we create a customized asset allocation for every client depending on their circumstances and goals. Considering the tax implications of each asset in each investment or retirement account, we carefully crate our tax location strategy to take advantage of any opportunities to achieve tax alpha.

5. Smart tax investing

Smart tax investing is a personalized investment strategy that combines various portfolio management techniques such as tax-loss harvesting, asset allocation and asset location, diversification, dollar-cost averaging, passive vs. active investing, and rebalancing.  The main focus of tax mindful investing is achieving a higher after-tax return on your investment portfolio. Combined with your comprehensive financial planning, smart-tax investing can be a powerful tool to elevate your financial outcome.

5 reasons to leave your robo-advisor and work with a real person

Leave your robo-advisor

Leave your robo-advisorRobo-advisors have grown in popularity in the last 10 years, offering easy and inexpensive access to professional investment management with human interaction.  Firms like Vanguard, Betterment, Personal Capital, and Wealth Front use online tools and algorithms to build and manage your investment. These digital advisors attract new customers with cutting-edge technology, attractive websites, interactive features, low fees, and cool mobile apps. The rising adoption of robo-advisors and various digital platforms allows the financial industry to become more accessible and consumer-friendly.

Unlike traditional portfolio management firms, most robo-advisors offer their automated investing service with low or no account minimums. You will answer an online questionnaire. Your answers will place you in a specific risk tier group. As a result, the robo-advisor will invest your assets according to your risk profile. The typical digital advisor offers automated portfolio rebalancing and tax loss harvesting. Some may even offer you financial planning advice for an additional fee.

If you have read one of my Investment Ideas articles (here and here), you know that I am a big believer in FinTech, mobile payments, and digitization of the financial industry. The covid outbreak created a massive tailwind for this trend to continue in the next decade. You will experience a complete digital transformation in all aspects of your financial life.

With all that in mind, why someone like yourself will decide to abandon their digital advisor service? So here we go.

Receive personalized advice

Life changes. Often you will be at crossroads in your life trying to make important financial decisions. You will need to talk to someone who understands your situation and can give you personalized advice with your best interest in mind. Unfortunately, digital advisor services rarely, if never offer personalized advice. Algorithms cannot understand your emotions and feelings.

Surely, you can do the research and the hard lifting yourself. There is nothing more rewarding than reaping the benefits from your hard work. However, there is nothing wrong with asking for help. You do not have to do it alone. Working with a fiduciary financial advisor who understands your circumstances will save you time and grievance. Moreover, it will save you and make you money in the long run. And most importantly, it allows you to enjoy what matters most to you.

Build a relationship

Finding a good financial advisor is like finding a personal doctor or a hairstylist who cuts your hair just the way you wanted. Would you ask a robot to cut your hair? Then, why would you leave your wealth and retirement savings to an algorithm? Having a trusted relationship with a fiduciary financial advisor will give you access to objective, unbiased, and reliable financial advice when you need it most. Your financial advisor can point your financial blind spots and recommendations on how to resolve them before they escalate.

I frequently work with clients coming from large robo-advisors. Almost always, their biggest complaint is that they were not able to get answers to their questions. They were calling customer service, waiting in line, and speaking with a complete stranger on the other side.

Building wealth is a marathon, not a race. Why not working with a trusted partner who understands your unique needs and has your best interest in mind.

Invest with purpose

Have you asked yourself, does your investment portfolio represent your philosophy and values?

For many of you, investing is a way to make a meaningful impact on your favorite causes.

Furthermore, most robo-advisors offer a limited number of generic ETFs in various asset classes. However, they do not provide a way to customize your investments according to your core values.  The only you can achieve your purpose is through a customized investment portfolio that represents what you believe.

Impact Investing

Impact investing is about MAKING A DIFFERENCE. It is a philosophy that seeks to achieve sustainable long-term returns by investing in companies that create positive and measurable social, governance, and environmental impact. If you are an impact investor, your goal is to invest your money in areas that match your core beliefs and values.  By choosing the path of impact investing, you will provide the necessary support to address the world’s most urgent challenges in areas such as sustainable agriculture, clean energy, gender equality, social justice, food conservation, microfinance, and affordable access to housing, healthcare, and education.

Thematic investing

Thematic investing is a path to achieve higher long-term returns by investing in specific economic and secular trends caused by structural shifts in our society. It is about CHANGE. The thematic investing strategy relies on megatrends that are changing the way we live. Several of my favorite trends include climate change and renewable energy, 5G and cybersecurity, digital payments and e-commerce, blockchain and digital revolution, the rising power of women, and population growth.

Have a plan

Life is complicated.  As a result, your circumstances will change. You will start a new job, move to a new place. Start a family. Buy a new house. Exercise those stock options that you received when you started your last job. Above all, you must prepare for everything that life has to give.

Once you do the groundwork, it’s easier to update your plan than create a new one from scratch every time your life changes. Your plan will make you feel confident when making complex financial decisions about your future.

According to Vanguard itself, working with a financial advisor can bring you up to 3% average additional return. The advisor alpha comes from value-added services such as behavioral coaching, tax-smart investing, asset allocation, and rebalancing.

Get a customized tax strategy.

Let’s admit it. The US has one of the most complex tax systems in the world. We all get tangled with terms such as AMT, marginal tax bracket, capital gain tax, 401k, step-up basis, tax-deferred and exempt income. With the ever-rising budget deficit, there is no doubt that your taxes will only go higher. Paying taxes is part of life but managing your future tax bill is your responsibility.

One popular way to measure the efficiency of your tax strategy is your tax alpha. Tax Alpha is the ability to achieve an additional return on your investments by taking advantage of all available tax strategies as part of your comprehensive financial planning. Unlike robo-advisors,  our firm can offer a wider range of tax planning tools that can help you realize higher long-term after-tax returns.  For instance, for us, achieving Tax Alpha is a process that starts on day 1.  As a result, we will craft a comprehensive strategy that will maximize your financial outcome and lower your taxes in the long run.

5 smart 401k moves to make in 2021

5 smart 401k moves to make in 2021 to boost your retirement saving. Do you have a 401k? These five 401k moves will help you grow your retirement savings and ensure that you take full advantage of your 401k benefits.

After a very challenging 2020, 2021 allows you to take another look at your 401k, reassess your financial priorities and .revaluate your retirement strategy,  Let’s make sure that your 401k works for you.

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What is a 401k plan?

401k plan is a workplace retirement plan that allows employees to build and grow their retirement savings. It is one of the most convenient and effective ways to save for retirement as both employees and employers can make retirement contributions. You can set up automatic deductions to your 401k account directly through your company payroll as an employee.  You can choose the exact percentage of your salary that will go towards your retirement savings. In 2021, most 401k will provide you with multiple investment options in stocks, fixed-income mutual funds, and ETFs. Furthermore, most employers offer a 401k match up to a certain percentage. In most cases, you need to participate in the plan to receive the match.

1. Maximize your 401k contributions in 2021

The smart way to boost your retirement savings is to maximize your 401k contributions each year.

Did you know that in 2021, you can contribute up to $19,500 to your 401k plan? If you are 50 or over, you are eligible for an additional catch-up contribution of $6,500 in 2021. Traditional 401k contributions are tax-deductible and will lower your overall tax bill in the current tax year.

Many employers offer a 401k match, which is free money for you. The only way to receive it is to participate in the plan. If you cannot max out your dollar contributions, try to deduct the highest possible percentage so that you can capture the entire match from your employer. For example, if your company offers a 4% match on every dollar, at the very minimum, you should contribute 4% to get the full match.

How to reach $1 million in your 401k by age 65?

Do you want to have $1 million in your 401k by the time you retire? The secret recipe is to start early.  For example, if you are 25 old today, you only need to set aside $387 per month for 40 years, assuming a 7% annual return. If you are 35, the saving rate goes up to $820 per month.  If you have a late start, you need to save about $3,000 a month in your 50s to get to a million dollars at the age of 65.

401k Contributions by Age
Age | Monthly
25 $387 $4,644 $190,404
30 $560 $6,720 $241,920
35 $820 $9,840 $305,040
40 $1,220 $14,640 $380,640
45 $1,860 $22,320 $468,720
50 $3,000 $36,000 $576,000
55 $5,300 $63,600 $699,600

2. Review your investment options

When was the last time you reviewed the investment options inside your 401k plan? When is the last time you made any changes to your fund selection? With automatic contributions and investing, it is easy to get things on autopilot. But remember, this is d your retirement savings. Now is the best time to get a grip on your 401k investments.

Look at your fund performance over the last 1, 3, 5, and 10 years and make sure the fund returns are close or higher than their benchmark. Review the fund fees. Check if there have been new funds added to the lineup recently.

What is a Target Date Fund?

A target-date fund is an age-based retirement fund that automatically adjusts your stock and bond investments allocation as you approach retirement. Young investors have a higher allocation to equities which are considered more risky assets. In comparison, investors approaching retirement receive a bigger share in safer investments such as bonds. By design, plan participants should choose one target-date fund, set it, and forget until they retire. The fund will automatically change the asset allocation as you near your retirement age.

However, in a recent study, Vanguard concluded that nearly 33% percent of 401k plan participants misuse their target-date fund.   A third of the people who own TDFs,  combine them with another fund.

Target date funds in your 401k in 2021

So if you own one or more target-date funds or combine them with other equity and bond funds, you need to take another look at your investment choices.

3. Change your asset allocation

Asset allocation tells you how your investments are spread between stocks, bonds, money markets, and other asset classes. Stocks typically are riskier but offer great earnings potential. Bonds are considered a safer investment but provide a limited annual return.

Your ideal asset allocation depends on your age, investment horizon, risk tolerance, and specific individual circumstances.

Typically, younger plan participants have a longer investment horizon and can withstand portfolio swings to achieve higher returns in the future.  If you are one of these, investors can choose a higher allocation of stocks in your 401k.

However, if you are approaching retirement, you would have a much shorter investment horizon and probably lower tolerance to investment losses. In this case, you should consider adding more bonds and cash to your asset allocation.

4. Consider contributing to Roth 401k in 2021

Are you worried that you would pay higher taxes in the future? The Roth 401k allows you to make pretax contributions and avoid taxes on your future earnings. All Roth contributions are made after paying all federal and state income taxes now. The advantage is that all your prospective earnings will grow tax-free. If you keep your money until retirement or reaching the age of 59 ½, you will withdraw your gains tax-free. If you are a young professional or you believe that your tax rate will grow higher in the future, Roth 401k is an excellent alternative to your traditional tax-deferred 401k savings.

5. Rollover an old 401k plan

Do you have an old 401k plan stuck with your former employer? How often do you have a chance to review your balance? Unfortunately, many old 401k plans have become forgotten and ignored for many years.

It is a smart move to transfer an old 401k to a Rollover IRA.

The rollover is your chance to gain full control of your retirement savings. Furthermore, you will expand your investment options from the limited number of mutual funds to the entire universe of stocks, ETFs, and fund managers. Most importantly, you can manage your account according to your retirement goals.

Benefits and drawbacks to buying Indexed Universal Life Insurance

Indexed Universal Life Insurance IUL

Today, I am going off the beaten path for me and will discuss the pros and cons of buying Indexed Universal Life Insurance. As a fee-only advisor, I do not sell any insurance or commission-based products. However, on numerous occasions, I have received requests from clients to review their existing insurance coverage. I certainly do not know every IUL product out there. And I might be missing some of the nuances and differences between them. My observation is that IUL is not suitable for the average person due to its complexity and high cost. And yet, the IUL might be the right product for you if you can take advantage of the benefits that it offers. 

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What is an Indexed Universal Life Insurance (IUL)?

Indexed Universal Life is a popular insurance product that promises protection coverage with stock market-like performance and a zero-downside risk. Like other universal life insurance, IUL offers a death benefit and a cash value. Your cash value account can earn interest based on the performance of a specific stock market index such as the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, the Nasdaq 100, and Russell 2000.

IUL Illustration rate

IUL policies use an illustration rate for advertising and hypothetically projecting the policy values in their sales materials. The Illustration rate is the fixed rate derived from historical performance. Usually, the illustration rate ranges between 5% and 10%.

Is IUL right for me?

On the surface, Indexed Universal Life Insurance sounds like a great deal. You receive a stock market upside with zero risks for losses. Nevertheless, IUL comes with some severe caveats.

Let’s break down the main benefits and drawbacks of IUL.

 Benefits of Indexed Universal Life Insurance

Tax-Deferred Accumulation

Index Universal Life Insurance allows you to grow your policy cash value and death benefit on a tax-deferred basis. Typically, you will not owe income taxes on the interest credited to your cash value and death benefit.

Tax-Free Distribution

Life Insurance, in general, is a lucrative tool for legacy planning. With IUL, your policy beneficiaries will receive the death benefit tax-free. As long as you maintain your insurance premiums and don’t take outsized loans, you can pass tax-free wealth to the next generation.

Access to a cash value

You can always withdraw your policy basis (original premiums paid) tax-free. In most cases, you can also access your cash value through tax-favorable policy loans or withdrawals. In case of emergency, you may borrow from your indexed universal life insurance policy. You can access your cash value without any penalty regardless of your age.

Supplemental Retirement Income

You can use the cash value from your policy as a source of supplemental retirement income.  You can also use it to cover future medical expenses.

Limited downside risk

IUL offers protection against stock market volatility. An IUL delivers stock market-linked gains without the risks of losing principal due to the stock market declines. With the IUL’s principal-protection guarantee, your annual gains are locked in. Your principal cash value remains the same, even if the stock market goes down.

A guaranteed minimum rate

Many IUL policies come with a guaranteed minimum annual interest rate. This rate is a floor of how much you can earn every year. The guaranteed allows you to receive a certain percentage regardless of how the market performs. This floor rate depends on the specific insurance, and it could vary between 0% and 2%.

Drawbacks of Indexed Universal Life Insurance

IUL is complex

IUL is an extremely complex insurance product. There are many moving parts in your UIL policy, making it confusing and hard to understand. Most sales illustration packages portray an ideal scenario with non-guaranteed average market performance figures. In reality, between your annual premiums, cap rates, floors, fees, market returns, cash value accumulation, riders, and so on, it is tough to predict the outcome of your insurance benefits.

Upfront Commissions

The people who sell IUL are highly trained sales professionals who may not be qualified to provide fiduciary financial advice. The IUL comes with a hefty upfront commission, which is often buried in the fine print and gets subtracted from your first premium payment.

IUL has high fees

The policy fees will shock you and eat your lunch literally. I have personally seen charges in the neighborhood of 11% to 13% annually. These fees will always reduce the benefits of your annual premium and earned interest.

Limited earnings potential

IUL policies will typically limit your stock market returns and will exclude all dividends. Most IULs offer some combination of participation rate and capped rate in comparison to the illustration rate used in their marketing materials.

Participation Rate is the percentage of positive index movement credited to the policy. For example, if the S&P 500 increased 10% and the IUL has an annual participation rate of 50%, your policy would receive 5% interest on the anniversary date.

Cap Rate is the maximum rate that you can earn annually. The cap rate can vary significantly from policy to policy and from insurance provider to the next.

 Why capped upside is an issue?

The problem with cap rates and participation rates is they limit your gains during, especially good years. Historically, the stock market returns are not linear and sequential, as the policy illustration rates suggest. In the 40 years between 1980 and 2019, the stock market earned an average of 11.27% per year. During this period, there were only eight years when the stock market had negative returns or 20% of that period. There were only seven years when the stock market posted returns between 0% and 10%. And there were 25 years when the stock market earned more than 10% per year. In 17 of those 25 periods, the stock market investors gained more than 20% or 42% of the time.

In other words, historically, the odds of outsized gains have been a lot higher than the odds of losses.

However, as humans, the pain of losing money is a lot stronger than the joy of gaining.

In effect, long-term IUL policyholders will give up the potential of earning these outsized profits to reduce their anxiety and stress of losing money.

Surrender charges

IULs have hefty surrender charges. If you change your mind in a couple of years and decide to cancel your policy, you may not be able to receive the full cash value. Before you get into a contract, please find out the surrender charges and when they expire.

Expensive Riders

Indexed Universal Life Insurance typically offers riders. The policy riders are contract add-ons that provide particular benefits in exchange for an additional fee. These provisions can include long-term care services, disability waivers, enhanced performance, children’s’ term insurance, no-lapse guarantee, and many more. The extra fee for each rider will reduce your cash value, similar to the regular policy fees. You need to assess each rider individually as the cumulative cost may outweigh your benefit and vice versa,

Cash value withdrawals reduce your death benefit

In most cases, you might be able to make a tax-free withdrawal from the cash value of your IUL policy. These withdrawals are often treated as loans. However, legacy-minded policyholders need to remember that withdrawing your cash value reduces your beneficiaries’ death benefit when you pass away.

Potential taxable income

There is still a chance to pay taxes on your IUL policy. If you let your policy lapse or decide to surrender it, the money you have withdrawn previously could be taxable. Withdrawals are treated as taxable when they exceed your original cost basis or paid premiums.

New Year Financial Resolutions for 2022

New Year Financial Resolutions for 2022

New Year Financial Resolutions for 2022. It’s 2022. You turned a new chapter of your life. Here is an opportunity to make smart financial decisions and change your future. We have our list of ideas that can help you.

Here are your New Year Financial Resolutions for 2022

1. Set your financial goals

Your first  New Year Financial Resolutions for 2022 is to set your financial goals. Know where you are going. Build milestones of success. Be in control of your journey. Setting and tracking your financial goals will help you make smart financial decisions in the future. It will help you define what is best for you in the long run.

2. Pay off debt

Americans owe $14.3 trillion in debt. The average household owes  $145,000 in total debt, $6,270 in credit cards, and $17,553 in auto loans. These figures are insane. If you struggle to pay off your debts, 2022 is your year to change your life. Check out my article How to Pay off your debt before retirement. With interest rates staying at record low levels, you can look into consolidating debt or refinancing your mortgage. Take advantage of these low-interest options. Even a small percentage cut of your interest can lead to massive savings and reductions in your monthly debt payments.

3. Automate bill payments

Are you frequently late on your bills? Are you getting hefty late penalty fees? It’s time to switch on automatic bill payments. It will save you time, frustration, and money. You should still review your bills for unexpected extra charges. But no need to worry about making your payments manually. Let technology do the heavy lifting for you.

4. Build an emergency fund

Life can be unpredictable. Economic conditions can change overnight. For that reason, you need to keep money on a rainy day. Your emergency fund should have enough cash to cover 6 to 12 months of essential expenses. Start with setting up a certain percentage of your wage automatically going to your savings account. Your rainy-day cash will hold you up if you lose your job or your ability to earn income. By maintaining an emergency fund, you could avoid taking debt and cover temporary gaps in your budget.

5. Monitor your credit score

In today’s world, everything is about data. Your credit score measures your financial health. It tells banks and other financial institutions your creditworthiness and ability to repay your debt. Often. The credit score methodology is not always perfect. That said, every lender and even some employers will check your credit score before extending a new line of credit or a job offer.

6. Budget

Do you find yourself spending more than you earn? Would you like to save more for your financial goals? If you are struggling to meet your milestones, 2022 will give you a chance to reshape your future. Budgeting should be your top New Year Financial Resolutions for 2022. Many mobile apps and online tools alongside old fashion pen-and -aper to track and monitor your expenses. Effective budgeting will help you understand your spending habits and control impulse purchases.

7. Save more for retirement

One of your most important New Year Financial Resolutions for 2022 should be maximizing your retirement savings. I recommend saving at least 10% of your earnings every year. If you want to be more aggressive, you can set aside 20% or 25%. A lot depends on your overall income and spending lifestyle.

In 2022, you can contribute up to $20,500 in your 401k. If you are 50 and older, you can set an additional $6,500. Furthermore, you can add another $6,000 to your Roth IRA or Traditional IRA.

8. Plan your taxes

You probably heard the old phrase. It’s not about how much you earn but how much you keep. Taxes are the single highest expense that you pay every year. Whether you are a high-income earner or not, proper tax planning is always necessary to ensure that you keep your taxes in check and take advantage of tax savings opportunities. But remember, tax planning is not a daily race; it’s a multi-year marathon.

9. Review your investments

When was the last time you reviewed your investments? Have you recently checked your 401k plan? You will be shocked to know how many people keep their retirement savings in cash and low-interest earning mutual funds. Sadly, sitting in cash is a losing strategy as inflation reduces your purchasing power. A dollar today is not equal to a dollar 10 years from now. While investing is risky, it will help you grow your wealth and protect you from inflation. Remember that time and time again; long-term investors get rewarded for their patience and persistence.

10. Protect your family finances from unexpected events

The last two years taught us a big lesson. Life is unpredictable. Bad things can happen suddenly and unexpectedly. In 2022, take action to protect your family, your wealth, and yourself from abrupt events. Start with your estate plan. Make sure that you write your will and assign your beneficiaries, trustees, and health directives.

Lastly, you need to review your insurance coverage. Ensure that your life, disability, and other insurance will protect your family in times of emergency.

New Year Financial Resolutions for 2021

New Year Financial Resolutions for 2021

New Year Financial Resolutions for 2021. Let’s kick off 2021 with a bang. It’s time to hit the refresh button.  2020 was very challenging. The covid pandemic brought enormous shifts to our daily lives.  Social distancing. Working from home. Digital transformation. 5G. Many of these changes will stay with us permanently. It’s time to open a new chapter. Take control of your finances. Become financially independent

Here are your New Year Financial Resolutions for 2021

1. Set your financial goals

Your first  New Year Financial Resolutions for 2021 is to set your financial goals. Know where you are going. Build milestones of success.  Be in control of your journey. Setting and tracking your financial goals will help you make smart financial decisions in the future. It will help you define what is best for you in the long run.

2. Pay off debt

Americans owe $14.3 trillion in debt. The average household owes  $145,000 in total debt, $6,270 in credit cards, and $17,553 in auto loans. These figures are insane. If you are struggling to pay off your debts, 2021 is your year to change your life. Check out my article How to Pay off your debt before retirement. With interest rates are record low today, you can look into consolidating debt or refinancing your mortgage. Take advantage of these low-interest options. Even a small percentage cut of your interest can lead to massive savings and reductions of your monthly debt payments.

3. Automate bill payments

Are you frequently late on your bills? Are you getting hefty late penalty fees? It’s time to switch on automatic bill payments. It will save you time, frustration, and money. You should still review your bills for unexpected extra charges. But no need to worry about making your payments manually. Let technology do the heavy lifting for you.

4. Build an emergency fund

2020 taught us an important lesson. Life can be unpredictable. Economic conditions can change overnight. For that reason, you need to keep money on a rainy day. Your emergency fund should have enough cash to cover 6 to 12 months of essential expenses. Start with setting up a certain percentage of your wage that will automatically go to your savings account. Your rainy-day cash will hold you up if you lose your job or your ability to earn income. By maintaining an emergency fund, you could avoid taking debt and cover temporary gaps in your budget.

5. Monitor your credit score

In today’s world, everything is about data. Your credit score measures your financial health. It tells banks and other financial institutions your creditworthiness and ability to repay your debt. Often. The credit score methodology is not always perfect. That said, every lender and even some employers will check your credit score before extending a new line of credit or a job offer.

6. Budget

Do you find yourself spending more than you earn? Would you like to save more for your financial goals? If you are struggling to meet your milestones, 2021 will give you a chance to reshape your future. Budgeting should be your top New Year Financial Resolutions for 2021. There are many mobile apps and online tools alongside old fashion pen-and -aper to track and monitor your expenses. Effective budgeting will help you understand your spending habits and control impulse purchases.

7. Save more for retirement

One of your most important New Year Financial Resolutions for 2021 should be maximizing your retirement savings. I recommend that you save at least 10% of your earnings every year. If you want to be more aggressive, you can set aside 20% or 25%.  A lot depends on your overall income and spending lifestyle.

In 2021, you can contribute up to $19,500 in your 401k. If you are 50 and older, you can set an additional $6,500. Furthermore, you can add another $6,000 to your Roth IRA or Traditional IRA.

8. Plan your taxes

You probably heard the old phrase. It’s not about how much you earn but how much you keep. Taxes are the single highest expense that you pay every year. Whether you are a high-income earner or not, proper tax planning is always necessary to ensure that you keep your taxes in check and take advantage of tax savings opportunities. But remember, tax planning is not a daily race; it’s a multi-year marathon.

9. Review your investments

When was the last time you reviewed your investments? Have you recently checked your 401k plan? You will be shocked to know how many people keep their retirement savings in cash and low-interest earning mutual funds.  Sadly, sitting in cash is a losing strategy as inflation reduces your purchasing power. A dollar today is not equal to a dollar 10 years from now. While investing is risky, it will help you grow your wealth and protect you from inflation. Remember that time and time again; long-term investors get rewarded for their patience and persistence.

10. Protect your family finances from unexpected events

2020 taught us a big lesson. Life is unpredictable. Bad things can happen suddenly and unexpectedly. In 2021, take action to protect your family, your wealth, and yourself from abrupt events. Start with your estate plan. Make sure that you write your will and assign your beneficiaries, trustees, and health directives.

Laslly, you need to review your insurance coverage. Ensure that your life, disability, and other insurance will protect your family in times of emergency.

Charitable donations: 6 Tax Strategies

Charitable donations

Charitable donations are an excellent way to help your favorite cause, your church, a foundation, a school, or any other registered charitable institution of your choice. Americans made $373.25 billion of charitable donations in 2015, which was 4.1% higher than in 2014. The average annual household contribution was $2,974. In 2015, the majority of charitable dollars went to religious institutions (32%), educational organizations (15%), human services (12%), grantmaking foundations (11%), and health organizations (8%).

Charitable donations are also a powerful tool to reduce your overall tax liability to the IRS. By carefully following the tax law and IRS rules you can substantially increase the impact of donations. Here is what you can do.

1. Meet the requirements for charitable donations

In order to receive tax deductions for your gift, donations need to meet certain requirements. Some of the most important rules are:

  • You have to give to qualified charitable organizations approved by the IRS. The charity can be public or private. Usually, public charities receive more favorable tax treatment.
  • You need to have a receipt for your gift.
  • You need to itemize your tax return.
  • Donations apply for the same tax year when you make them. For most individuals the tax year and calendar year are the same. For some companies, their tax year may end on a different date during the calendar year (for example, November 1 to October 31)
  • All gifts are valued at fair market value. Depending on your donation, the fair market value may not be equal to the initial cash value.
  • You have to transfer the actual economic benefit or ownership to the receiver of your gift.

There are many ways to give. Some are straightforward, others are more complex and require professional help. Each one of them has its rules, which you need to understand and follow strictly to receive the highest tax benefit.

2. Give Cash

Giving money is by far the easiest way to make contributions to your favorite charitable cause. IRS allows for charitable donations for as much as 50% of your aggregated gross income. Any amounts of more than 50% can be carried over in future years. However, it’s imperative that you keep a record of your cash donations.

3. Give Household goods

You can donate clothes, appliances, furniture, cars, and other household items in good condition. The items will be priced at fair value, In most cases, the value will be lower than what you paid for them. This category is also subject to the 50% limit of the AGI.

Donating household items is a perfect way to clean your closet from old clothes and shoes that you haven’t worn for years. You can even donate your old car that has been collecting dust in the garage. Moreover, if you plan to do a kitchen remodel, you can give your old cabinets and appliances to charities like the Salvation Army. Remember to keep the receipts of these items in case the IRS asks you for them.

4. Donate Appreciated assets

One of the most popular tax-saving strategies is donating appreciated assets directly to charitable organizations. This approach is subject to 30% of AGI for donations given to qualified public charities. Appreciated assets can include publicly traded stocks, restricted stocks, real estate, privately help companies, collectibles, and artwork. The main caveat to receiving the highest tax benefit is to give the appreciated asset directly to the charitable donations instead of selling it and gifting the remaining cash amount.  This way you will avoid paying a capital gain tax on the sale of your asset and deduct the full fair value of your asset.

 Let’s look at an example. An investor at a 28% tax bracket is considering donating an appreciating stock to her favorite charity. She can sell the stock and give the proceeds or donate the shares directly. The current market value of the stock is $100,000. She purchased it more than one year ago for $20,000. The total capital gain is $80,000.

 By giving the stock directly to her favorite, the investor is achieving three major goals. First, she is not paying a capital gain tax on the proceeds of the sale. Second, she can use the full fair value of the stock (instead of the proceeds from the sale) to reduce her tax liabilities. Third, the charitable organization receives an asset with a higher value, which they can sell tax-free.

 5. Make direct IRA charitable rollover

Donations made directly from your IRA, and 401k accounts are another way of reducing your tax bill. If you reached 70 ½, you could make up to $100,000 a year in gifts to a charity directly from your IRA or 401k accounts. Those contributions count towards the required annual minimum distributions you must take once you reach 70 ½, They also reduce your adjusted gross income. To be compliant, you have to follow two simple rules.

Your plan administrator has to issue a check payable to your charity of choice. Therefore the funds have to transfer directly to the charitable organization. If the check is payable to you, this will automatically trigger a tax event for IRS. In that case, your IRA distribution will be taxable as ordinary income, and you will owe taxes on them. The second rule, you have to complete the transfer by December 31 of the same calendar year.

6. Consolidate your donations

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 increased the standard deduction for all individuals and families.  Therefore relatively small charitable donations may not be tax-deductible at all.

Standard deduction amounts

2019 tax year 2020 tax year
Individuals $12,200 $12,400
Married couples filing jointly $24,400 $24,800
Heads of households $18,350 $18,650

If you want to increase the tax impact of your donations you may have to consolidate the small annual donations in a single year.

The Benefits of using an Outsourced Chief Investment Officer

The Benefits of using an Outsourced Chief Investment Officer

In today’s insights, we will discuss some of the key benefits of using an Outsourced Chief Investment Officer.  Outsourced Chief Investment Officer (OCIO) is a growing service, where financial advisors, family offices, endowments, pension funds and other institutions seek an outside firm for help to manage their core assets. Employing an OCIO can be an essential step in improving the efficiency of the investment decision-making process by employing the resources and the expertise of an outside firm.

In fact, the 2016 NACUBO – Commonfund study of endowments revealed that 43 percent of the respondents had substantially outsourced their investment management function, up significantly from 2010’s report of 34 percent. Eighty-four percent of the study participants reported using a consultant for various services related to investment management


Managing growth

One of the most common reasons why clients seek our services is to manage their growing asset base. While fast growth is a good problem, it brings more responsibilities and higher investment and operational risk. For instance, one of our key clients increased their asset base 400% within 12 months. In that short period, we created an infrastructure to integrate new incoming accounts into the existing portfolio structure. While at the same time we worked on eliminating operational deficiencies and establishing an investment committee.

Asset complexity and customization

Organizations have unique investment goals and appetite for risk.  We regularly observe customer portfolios with significant investment concentration and need for diversification.  Additionally, we see that many organizations have specific tax or liquidity constraints that can hinder their investment decisions.  There is also a growing need for socially responsible and faith-based investing.  An outside CIOs can help clients efficiently navigate through the ever-growing complexity of customized investments and financial decisions.

Asset Liability management

As of December 31, 2017, the average endowment surveyed by NACUBO-Commondund Study has generated a 10-year return of +4.6%. This return is substantially lower than their long-term target rate of 7% which is necessary to support spending and operational cost. For a $10m foundation, this gap could result in a $3.9m asset shortfall in just 10 years and over $14m shortfall in 20-years.

Real-time oversight

Investment portfolios need real-time management.  Financial markets are risky and often move very fast. Our customers know that their complex portfolios require continuous supervision from experts who can monitor investment risks and take advantage of tactical opportunities.

Performance pressure

The rise of ETFs and low-cost index investing created enormous pressure on organizations to improve their returns. Our team of experts can establish a dynamic process for evaluating external managers and passive investment strategies. We are a firm believer of risk-adjusted performance. Therefore we continuously scan the investment universe for managers with an outstanding history of achieving risk-adjusted returns and recommend them to our clients.

Risk management

Identifying and understanding the risks in our clients’ portfolios is a critical element in our investment management process. A robust risk and trading system can make a huge difference in a volatile market environment. As OCIO, we can implement ongoing risk management using daily monitoring, hedge strategies, portfolio stress testing, and risk modeling.

Free up internal resources

Our clients often rely on an investment committee and small internal staff to operate and manage their assets.  Hiring a full-time portfolio manager can be a lengthy, challenging and often costly process. By engaging an external CIO, our clients can free up their already stretched internal resources and focus on their core services in a cost-effective way.

Accelerated investment process

In a dynamic market environment, many of our clients benefit massively from an accelerated investment process. Our OCIO service helps our clients make faster strategic and tactical investment decisions. We also assist in the timely implementation of portfolio infrastructure and operational tasks.

Fiduciary advice

Our clients highly appreciate the value of fiduciary advice aligned with their specific goals, needs, and objectives. As a fiduciary OCIO, we must provide advice, investment management and guidance in our clients’ best interest.

Open architecture

An outsourced CIO can implement an open architecture investment portfolio to allow for expanded investment options in all asset classes and categories. The open structure can lower cost and provide diversification.  With our ongoing investment due-diligence process, our customers can choose from a broad pool of investment options including index funds, factor-based ETFs, and top-ranked portfolio managers.

Cost control

As OCIO, we can help clients reduce their overall investment management and administration cost. We often see clients locked-in expensive investment management agreements or using high-cost mutual funds and fee-loaded strategies with lackluster performance. Our fiduciary client commitment allows us to evaluate a wide range of investment strategies and recommend those with the lower cost and higher risk-adjusted return.



About the author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm. Babylon Wealth Management offers highly customized Outsourced Chief Investment Officer services to professional advisors (RIAs), family offices, endowments, defined benefit plans and other institutional clients. To learn more visit our OCIO page here.

Disclaimer: Past performance does not guarantee future performance. Nothing in this article should be construed as a solicitation or offer, or recommendation, to buy or sell any security. The content of this article is a sole opinion of the author and Babylon Wealth Management. The opinion and information provided are only valid at the time of publishing this article. Investing in these asset classes may not be appropriate for your investment portfolio. If you decide to invest in any of the instruments discussed in the posting, you have to consider your risk tolerance, investment objectives, asset allocation and overall financial situation. Different investors have different financial circumstances, and not all recommendations apply to everybody. Seek advice from your investment advisor before proceeding with any investment decisions. Various sources may provide different figures due to variations in methodology and timing,


MLP Investing – Risks and benefits

MLP Investing

MLP investing is popular among retirees and income-seeking investors.  In this article, we will break down the benefits, risks and tax implications of investing in MLPs.

What is an MLP?

Managed Limited Partnerships (MLPs) have grown in popularity in the past several years. Many U.S. energy firms have reorganized their slow-growing, but stable cash flow businesses, such as pipelines and storage terminals, into MLPs.

MLPs are very attractive to income-seeking investors. They must pass at least 90% of their income to their partners (investors). As a whole, the MLP sector offers on average 6% annual yield with some MLPs reaching over 15%.

Companies that operate as MLPs tend to be in very stable, slow-growing industries, such as pipelines and energy storage. The nature of their business offers few opportunities for price appreciation. On the other hand, cash distributions are relatively stable and predictable giving the MLPs features of both an equity and fixed income investment.

The number of public MLPs increased dramatically in the past 20 years. There were more than 18 IPOs in 2014 from almost zero in 1984.      

MLP Legal structure

There are two types of MLP owners – general and limited partners. General partners manage the day-to-day operations of the partnership. All other investors are limited partners and have no involvement in the company’s activities. MLPs technically have no employees.

MLP investors buy units of the partnership. Unlike shareholders of a corporation, they are known as “unitholders.”

Each unitholder is responsible for paying their share of the partnership’s income taxes. Unitholders are required to file K-1 forms in each state where the MLP operates, regardless of the size of revenue generated from that state. This filing requirement makes the direct MLP ownership.

Additionally, open-end funds like traditional ETFs are restricted from investing more than 25% of their portfolio in MLPs. Therefore most ETFs choose a C-corporation or ETN structure in order to track the MLP market.


MLPs provide generous income to their investors. The average yield is around 6% as some small MLPs pay up to 15%. The distributions from MLP consist of non-qualified dividends, return on capital, and capital gains.

Since MLPs pass through 90% of their income to unitholders, each type of distribution has different tax treatment.

Dividends are taxed at the ordinary income tax level, up to 39.6% plus 3.8% for Medicare surcharge.

Capital gains are taxable as either long-term or short-term. Long-term capital gains have favorable tax treatment with rates between 0, 15% and 20%. Short-term gains are taxed at the ordinary income level.

The largest portion of MLP distributions comes as a return on capital. The benefit comes from the MLPs use of depreciation allowances on capital equipment, pipelines, and storage tanks, to offset net income. Return on capital distributions are tax deferred. Instead of being immediately taxable, distributions decrease the cost basis of the investment. Taxes are only due to these distributions when investors sell their units. In fact, investors can defer paying taxes indefinitely by keeping their shares.

Tax Impact

MLP distributions are not sheltered from taxes in retirement accounts. According to the Unrelated business taxable income (UBTI) rule, unitholders will owe taxes on partnership income over $1,000 even if the units are held in a retirement account.

Individual MLP holdings, ETFs, mutual funds and CEFs are most suitable for long-term buy and hold investors in their taxable investment accounts. Those investors can benefit from the tax-deferred nature of the cost of capital distributions, which will decrease their cost basis over time. They will pay taxes only when they sell their units. Investors can avoid paying taxes indefinitely or until cost basis reaches zero. In that case, they will owe taxes on the return of capital distributions at the long-term capital gain rate.

Short-term investors may consider ETNs for their better index tracking. All distributions from ETNs are taxable as an ordinary income level and do not provide any preferential tax treatment.

Risk considerations with MLP Investing

MLPs drive their revenue from the volume of transported energy products. Their business is less dependent on the fluctuations of the commodity prices compared to other oil & gas companies. Historically, MLPs as a group is less volatile than the broader energy sector. MLP price tends to have a direct correlation with the partnership distributions. Higher payouts drive higher prices while lowers distributions push the price down.

Between September 2010 and October 2016, the largest MLP ETF, AMLP had a standard deviation equal to 14.8%. As a comparison, the largest energy ETF, XLE, had a standard deviation of 19.61%.

MLPs are often treated as an alternative investment due to their considerable ownership of real assets. They also have a lower correlation with the broad equity and fixed income markets while simultaneously having characteristics of both. AMLP has 0.57 correlation with S&P 500 and -0.16 to the 20-year treasury.

MLP Investing options

Direct ownership

As of March 31, 2016, 118 energy MLPs were totaling $304 billion in market capitalization.

The most popular index tracking the MLP space is Alerian MLP. The index has 44 constituents and $298 billion market capitalization.

There are ten companies dominating the sector. They make up close to two-thirds of the Alerian MLP Index. The remainder consists of hundreds of small and mid-size partnerships.  

Direct MLP ownership is a popular strategy for yield-seeking investors. The direct investing also provides the most beneficial tax treatment of MLP distributions – tax deferral.

However, the biggest drawbacks of direct investing are the large tax filing cost and exposure to a single company.

Investors interested in direct ownership in MLPs should consider buying a basket of partnerships to diversify their risk more efficiently. They should also weight the tax benefits of direct ownership versus the cost of year-end tax filing.

ETFs and ETNs

MLP ETFs and ETNs have the most complex legal and tax structure of any other ETFs. Due to these complexities, most funds are structured as ETNs.

There are 28 MLP ETFs and ETNs currently listed on the exchange. Their total Asset Under Management (AUM) is $17.7 billion with the top 4 ETFs dominating the space with total AUM equal to $15.9 billion. 


AMLP is the most popular and liquid MLP ETF. It tracks the Alerian MLP index. AMLP is the first ETF to address the complexity of direct MLP ownership.  This ETF offers a broad diversification to the largest publicly traded MLPs.

AMLP offers simplified tax filing by issuing standard 1099 form. Because of its legal structure, AMLP can pass the tax-deferred treatment of MLP distributions to its investors.

To satisfy the legal restrictions on ownership, AMLP is structured as a corporation, not an actual ETF.  AMLP pays taxes at the corporate level. The structure requires the fund to accrue the future tax liabilities of unrealized gains in its portfolio. Doing this is causing the fund to trail its underlying Alerian Index during bull markets and beat it during down periods.


AMJ is the next most popular fund in this category. It is structured as an exchange-traded note.

ETNs are an unsecured debt instrument structured to track an underlying index’s return, minus management fees. Unlike exchange-traded funds, ETNs do not buy and hold any the underlying assets in the indexes they track. They represent a promise by the issuing bank to match the performance of the index.

AMJ is issued by JP Morgan and capped at the market value of $3.885 billion. Investors in AMJ have credit exposure to JP Morgan in case they are not able to pay the performance of the index.

Due to the lack of actual MLP ownership, AMJ can replicate the performance of the Alerian MLP index much closer than AMLP.

AMJ also issues single 1099 tax form. However, all its distributions are taxable as ordinary income, for up to 39.6% plus 3.8% of Medicare surcharge. AMJ distributions do not have the preferential tax treatment of AMLP and individual MLP ownership.

This ETF is suitable for short term investors willing to bet on the MLP sector and not interested in any potential income and tax benefits.


EMLP is the only traditional ETF in this group. Because of the regulatory restrictions, EMLP holds only 25% stake in MLPs and the remaining 32% in Energy, 40% in Utilities and 2% in Basic Materials. Unlike the other funds, EMLP has a broader exposure to companies in the energy infrastructure sector. According to the prospectus, the fund invests in publicly traded master limited partnerships and limited liability Canadian income trusts,, pipeline companies, utilities, and other companies that derive at least 50% of their revenues from operating or providing services in support of infrastructure assets such as pipelines, power transmission and petroleum and natural gas storage in the petroleum, natural gas and power generation industries.

Mutual Funds

The three Oppenheimer mutual funds are dominating this niche. They manage almost 50% of the $20b AUM by MLP mutual funds.

The MLP mutual funds tend to have higher fees than most ETFs. They utilize the corporate structure which allows them to transfer the majority of the income and tax advantages to their shareholders.

Closed-End Funds

Closed-End funds (CEF) are another alternative for investing in the MLP sector. Similarly to mutual funds,  CEFs are actively managed. The difference is that they only issue a limited number of publicly traded shares.

Most MLP closed-end funds use leverage between 24% to 40%  to boost their income. These funds borrow money in order to increase their investments.


CEFs shares often trade at premium or discount from the NAV of their holdings. When purchased at a discount they can offer potential long-term gains to interested investors.

MLP CEFs also use the c-corp structure. They issue a 1099 form and pass current income and return on capital to their investors allowing for tax-deferral benefits on the distributions.


Investing in Small Cap Stocks

Small Cap Stocks

Small cap stocks are an important part of a diversified investment portfolio. They had provided high historical return and diversification, which are key factors in the portfolio management process.

Many flagship companies started as small businesses in a local market and evolved to large multinational corporations. Some of these success stories include McDonalds, which opened its first restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois to become one of the biggest food chains in the world.

Research has shown that small-cap stocks overperformed a large cap over an extended period.

The below chart shows 15-year performance between IWM, Russell 2000 Small Cap ETF and SPY, S&P 500 Large Cap ETF. For that period IWM surged by 164% while SPY rose by 67%.


Once we include dividends, the 15-year annualized return of a small cap blend strategy becomes 8.66% versus 6.71% for a large cap strategy.

If we extend our period to 40 years (1975 – 2015), the small cap generated 14.25% annualized return while large cap produced 11.66%.

Investing in small companies comes with many caveats.  Even though they bring potentially high returns, they also impose high risk and uncertainty.

Small cap stocks market capitalization

Small cap companies have a market capitalization between $300 million and $2 billion dollars. Overall, the small size market is very fragmented. There are thousands of publicly traded small-size companies, but they only make 10-15% of the total market. The definition of a small-cap company varies widely among index providers and portfolio managers. Standard & Poor’s tracks their own S&P 600 Small Cap Index while FTSE Russell tracks the Russell 2000 Small Cap Index.

Very often, small companies are managed by their original founders.  They are usually new and innovative companies with competitive strengths in a particular local market or a specific product. It is not uncommon for companies to go back and forth between small, mid and large-cap rankings depending on their business cycle.

Niche market

Small cap companies often operate in a niche market where they have a distinct competitive advantage. Small businesses have a unique product or service, which they offer on either national or local level.  Unlike their bigger counterparts, which offer a variety of products in different geographies, small size companies tend to be more focused, with one or two flagship products. A particular example can be Coca Cola versus Red Bull. Coca-Cola offers hundreds of varieties of beverages worldwide while Red Bull offers only one type of energy drink.

Regularly small companies will start from a local market and grow nationwide.  Starbucks is a great example of a local coffee shop that moved up the ranks and became one of the top 100 large company in the USA and the world.

Small businesses with a unique product will often become an acquisition target for a larger corporation that wants to gain a presence in a growing higher margin market. Great example for that is PepsiCo acquiring Gatorade. PepsiCo wanted to get access to the fast growing market of sports drinks and instead of developing their own line; they decided to purchase an already established brand.

Growth potential

Small cap companies often have higher revenue growth than large size ones. Their competitive advantages, innovative strategy, flexibility and market positioning allows them to grow faster. It is easier to increase 25% when you start at $10 million of revenue versus $25% at $ 1 billion of revenue. Many times small companies do not even have a competition in their market niche. Think of Facebook before they went public. It is common for small firms to grow their revenue between 25% and 50% annually for several consecutive years.

Volatile prices

Investing in small cap stocks is risky. The high potential return of small caps comes with greater risk. The share price of small companies is more volatile and subject to larger swings than those of bigger companies.

IWM, the biggest small-cap ETF, has a beta of 1.22 to the equity market. As the comparison, the beta of SPY, the most traded large-cap ETF, is equal to 1. Beta measures the volatility of a security compared to the market as a whole. IWM beta of 1.22 shows that the ETF is historically 22% more volatile than the overall market.

Another measure of volatility is a standard deviation. It illustrates how spread out are the historical returns compared to the average annualized return of the investments. In our case, the 15-year standard deviation of IWM is 19.73% versus 14.14% for SPY.

As I mentioned earlier, the average 15-year return for a small cap stock is 8.66%. With a standard deviation equal to 19.73%, an average annual return can go between -11.07% and 28.39%. For SPY the average range is between -7.43% and +20.85% with annualized return of 5.25%. Based on this historical data we can claim that the small cap market has a much wider probability of returns. The high upside comes with a bigger downside.

Limited access

Small cap stocks lack the liquidity and trading volume of the large public corporations. This makes them more vulnerable to large price swings in short periods.

In times of economic recession, small companies can take a bigger hit in their earnings and may take a longer time to recover. Ten or fifteen percent decline in revenues can have a much more adverse impact on a small company than a larger one.

Due to their limited access to equity markets and loan financing, small size companies have a higher risk to go into bankruptcy if they run out of money.

Many small firms are start-ups with one innovative product and untested business models. Their dependency on just one product or service puts them in a very high-risk category in cases when the product or service does not appeal to their target customer base.

Inefficient market

Traders and portfolio managers often ignore small-cap companies. The focus is usually on large size companies, which frequently have 5 to 10 analysts following their earnings.  In fact, research analysts cover very few of the 2,000 stocks in the Russell 2000 index. Therefore, it is common that a small company does not have a full coverage by any industry analysts. This lack of interest and publicity produces conditions for inefficient pricing.   Active investors with a focus on the small cap market can scan the universe for undervalued and mispriced stocks and generate higher returns based on their valuation techniques and knowledge of the market.


Investing in small cap companies can significantly contribute to the diversification of your portfolio.  Even though small stocks have a higher risk than larger ones, their correlation to the overall market is lower. A small blend strategy has 0.86 correlation to the overall US stock market and 0.56 to the broader international stock market.

A correlation equal to 1 shows the highest strength of the relationship between two asset categories. In the case of small cap, the correlation of 0.86 shows a weaker link with the overall market. Small cap prices does not fluctuate in the same magnitude and pace as the large cap companies.  While there is some influence by S&P 500, they follow an independent path.


How to invest in small cap stocks

Individual stocks

You can invest in small size companies by buying them directly on the open market. There are over 2,000 listed small size companies in various industries and stages of their business cycle. Naturally, you cannot invest in all 2,000 stocks. You have to find a way to narrow down your criteria and select stocks based on certain factors. Very few small companies have analyst coverage. Therefore investing in small caps stocks will require doing your own research, analysis, and valuation.

When you invest in any company directly, being that a small or large size, you have to keep in mind that concentrated positions can adversely affect your portfolio performance if that company has a bad year or goes bankrupt. While everyone’s risk sensitivity is different, I would recommend limiting the range of each individual stock investment to 1% – 2% of your portfolio.

Tax Impact

For the best tax impact, I recommend putting small cap stocks either in taxable or Roth IRA accounts. Small cap companies have higher expected return combined with a higher expected volatility. If you hold your stocks in a taxable account, you can take advantage of tax loss harvesting opportunities if a particular stock in your portfolio is trading at lower levels than original purchase price. Tax loss harvesting is not available in Roth IRA, Traditional IRA, and 401k accounts. I

If you have small-cap stocks with solid long-term return prospects, keeping them in a taxable account will also allow you to pay the favorable long-term capital gain tax when you decide to sell them.

Having stocks in a Roth IRA account will have even better tax treatment – zero tax at the time of sale.

Passive indexing

ETFs and index mutual funds are the top choice for passive small cap investing. They provide a low-cost alternative for investors seeking a broader exposure to the small cap market. Small cap ETFs come in different shapes and forms. The table below shows a list of the most traded small cap ETFs with AUM above $500 million:

List of Small Cap ETFs




IWM iShares Russell 2000 ETF 0.20% $27.79B 0.01% 5.69% 12.28% 6.01% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
IJR iShares Core S&P Small Cap ETF 0.07% $20.83B 0.03% 7.35% 14.16% 7.56% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
VB Vanguard Small-Cap Index Fund 0.08% $13.94B 0.03% 5.59% 13.14% 7.40% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
VBR Vanguard Small Cap Value Index Fund 0.08% $8.16B 0.04% 7.31% 14.20% 6.77% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Value 10/26/2016
IWN iShares Russell 2000 Value ETF 0.25% $6.72B 0.01% 9.39% 12.17% 4.82% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Value 10/26/2016
IWO iShares Russell 2000 Growth ETF 0.25% $6.35B 0.02% 1.92% 12.31% 7.01% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Growth 10/26/2016
VBK Vanguard Small-Cap Growth Index Fund 0.08% $4.93B 0.04% 3.50% 11.36% 7.25% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Growth 10/26/2016
IJS iShares S&P Small-Cap 600 Value ETF 0.25% $3.85B 0.03% 10.26% 14.31% 6.57% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Value 10/26/2016
SCHA Schwab U.S. Small-Cap ETF 0.06% $3.78B 0.04% 5.46% 13.03% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
IJT iShares S&P Small-Cap 600 Growth ETF 0.25% $3.47B 0.08% 4.41% 13.74% 8.42% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Growth 10/26/2016
DES WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend Fund 0.38% $1.59B 0.12% 11.96% 14.36% 6.35% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
FNDA Schwab Fundamental US Small Co. Index ETF 0.32% $1.04B 0.06% 6.38% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
SLYG SPDR S&P 600 Small Cap Growth ETF 0.15% $807.64M 0.27% 4.61% 13.74% 9.00% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Growth 10/26/2016
VTWO Vanguard Russell 2000 Index Fund 0.15% $675.74M 0.06% 5.67% 12.19% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
XSLV PowerShares S&P SmallCap Low Volatility Portfolio 0.25% $651.46M 0.09% 12.43% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016
SLYV SPDR S&P 600 Small Cap Value ETF 0.15% $610.42M 0.21% 10.46% 14.43% 7.38% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap Value 10/26/2016
SLY SPDR S&P 600 Small Cap ETF 0.15% $512.80M 0.25% 7.10% 13.99% 8.19% Equity: U.S. – Small Cap 10/26/2016


One of the main differences between small-cap ETFs is the index they track. Each of the three main Small Cap Indexes is constructed differently.

Russell 2000 (IWM) includes the bottom 2,000 of the largest 3,000 publicly traded companies. The average market cap of the constituents of Russell 2000 is equal to $1.9 billion. The median is 698 million. And the largest stock has a market cap of $6 billion.

S&P 600 Index (IJR) tracks a smaller subset of the market. It includes only 600 companies.  As of April 2016, the market capitalization of companies included in the Index ranged from US$ 400 million to US$ 1.8 billion. S&P 600 also sets additional requirements for liquidity, public float, sector and financial viability.

CRSP SmallCap index (VB) tracks the 2%-15% percentile of the total market. It has 1,462 companies. The smallest company has a market capitalization of $21 million; the largest has $7.9 billion. The average size is $1.85 billion. The median is $1.44 billion. It is worth noting that VB tracked Russell 2000 Index through May 16, 2003; MSCI US Small Cap 1750 Index through January 30, 2013; CRSP US Small Cap Index thereafter


Another big difference between Small Cap ETFs is their segment focus. There are three main segments – small cap blend, growth, and value. The blend strategy invests in the wide universe of small caps, which mechanically tracks the designated index. The value strategy tracks a specific group of companies that have a  certain level of Price to Earnings, Price to Sales, Price to Book, dividend yield, and other fundamental ratios. Growth strategy invests in a group of stocks that meet certain criteria for price, revenue and earnings growth.

Tax Impact

ETFs and index funds have more favorable tax treatment than actively traded mutual funds. Due to their passive nature and legal structure, these funds rarely release capital gains and losses to their shareholders. Therefore, investors looking to optimize taxes in their investment portfolio should consider these type of funds.

Active investing

This strategy includes investing in actively managed mutual funds. These funds are run by management teams. They normally charge higher fees than comparable ETF to cover for the trading, administrative, marketing and research expenses.  Mutual funds follow a benchmark, which is usually one of the three main indices described earlier – S&P 600, Russell 2000 or CSRP Small Cap Index. Because of their higher fees than comparable ETFs, fund managers are often expected to outperform their benchmark.

Active funds normally focus in one of the three main segments – blend, growth or value. The fund managers utilize a formal selection process that identifies a number of companies, which meet certain proprietary criteria. The end goal is to select those companies that will achieve a higher return than the undying benchmark. Since the characteristics of value vs. growth strategy can be subjective, it is not an unusual that the same company is owned by both value and growth oriented funds.

In the past 7-8 years, many of the active managers have been criticized for underperforming the market. Part of the reason is that we experienced a very long market rally driven by a small number of flagship companies.

Tax Impact

Actively managed mutual funds have a more complex tax structure. They must transfer most of their dividends and capital gains and losses to their shareholders. Mutual funds will often have large amounts of long or short-term gains and losses released in December regardless how long you had kept in your portfolio, to avoid paying additional taxes I recommend placing your actively managed mutual funds in tax deferred and tax exempt accounts. Another alternative is to look for tax-managed funds. They tend to have a low turnover ratio and tend to report long-term gain and losses less frequently.


7 Proven practices to handle your credit card debt

7 Proven practices to handle your credit card debt

The average US family owes $15,675 in credit card debt.  An increasing number of Americans, many of which millennials are facing the unbearable burden of owing money. Hence, I would like to share some ideas on how to handle your credit card debt better. Whether you have maxed out on credit cards or planning to take on credit card debt, you may find the following steps critical in becoming debt-free.

1. Know your credit score

As a first step, you need to understand your credit score, also known as FICO. The FICO score is a measure between 300 and 850 points. Higher scores indicate lower credit risk. Each of the three national credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, provides an individual FICO score.  All three companies have a proprietary database, methodology, and scoring system. Many times you may find small or even substantial differences in your credit score issued by those agencies.

Your FICO score is a sum of 64 different measurements. And each agency calculates it slightly differently. As a general rule, your credit score depends mainly on the actual dollar amount of your debt, the debt to credit ratio, and your payment history. Being late on or missing your credit card payments, maximizing your credit limits, and applying for too many cards at once will hurt your credit score.

The good news is that you can get your score for free from each of the three agencies once a year. Additionally, many credit cards include the value of your credit score for free.

Keep in mind that the FICO score provided by your credit card will come from one of these three agencies. So if you have a second credit card from a different bank that also offers a free FICO score, it might be using a different agency, and the score most likely will be different.

2. Know the interest on your credit card

When you apply for a credit card, you should always verify the interest rate if you don’t pay off your dues at the end of the month. This interest rate can also change over time, and your credit card provider is required to notify you. However, the chance of you not paying attention to the mail notification is pretty high. If you are not sure, call your bank and verify it with them.

3, Know the due dates on your credit card

Make sure you know when your credit card monthly payments are due. Forgetting to pay the monthly minimum on time can cause you a lot of grief, high penalties, and a significant amount of time on the phone with your credit card provider. Most reputable banks will waive the penalty if this is your first late payment. However, doing it more than once will raise a big red flag in your relationship with them. At a very minimum, you can set up an automatic payment for the minimum amount due each month.

4. Set-up a budget

Before taking any further steps in managing your credit card debt, you need to have a balanced budget. To begin, make sure you know all your monthly income and paydays.  List all your expenses in broad categories. If you spend more than you earn, you may have to decrease your discretionary costs until you balance out your budget. As a rule of thumb, try to leave 10-15% of your income aside for emergencies and unexpected expenses.

5. Open a savings account

In your pursuit of financial independence, one crucial step is opening a savings account. Most major banks will give you an extremely low, close to 0% saving rate. However, some of the online lenders like Discover Bank, Capital One, Ally Bank, and Synchrony Bank offer rates around 1%. is an excellent source of various savings account options.

6. Consolidate your credit card debt

Consolidating credit card debt is most effective when it’s a part of your bigger financial strategy.

If you decide to continue on that route, pay very close attention to the fine print in your card offers. A lot of times, the small print will contain critical information about interest rates, promotional periods, credit limits, due dates, and penalties.  Some banks offer credit cards with a promotional 0% rate for a specified period. Other banks will try to entice you with cashback or other rewards programs.

If you decide to transfer your debt, be aware that banks often charge upfront 3% to 5% fee on the transfer amount. In that case, you will have to do the math to see if it’s worth making the switch.

Also, keep in mind that opening too many credit cards can abruptly impact your credit score. The general rule is opening one credit card per 3 months.

Once you pay off a credit card, put it aside. Lock it away and keep it open.  Closing a credit card lowers the amount of available credit and decreases your credit score.

7. Look for alternatives

Two of the main alternative options are taking a personal loan from local credit unions and a home equity line of credit if you own a house. A lot of times, local credit unions and banks can give you a much lower rate and will work with you to pay off your debt.


Having a solid plan where you monitor your monthly income and expenses is the best path to financial independence and debt free life.  Be responsible with your finances and stay on top of your credit cards and loans. Many times you can do it on your own or ask a friend or a family member for help.

4 Steps to determine your target asset allocation

4 Steps to Determine your target asset allocation

One of the financial advisors’ primary responsibilities is to determine and document their clients’ target asset allocation. The target allocation serves as a starting point and guideline in diversifying the client portfolio and building future wealth. Clients’ unique financial goals, lifestyle, investment horizon, current and expected income, and emotional tolerance to market turbulence will impact their future asset allocation.

The target investment mix is not constant. It can shift from more aggressive to more conservative or vice versa with substantial changes in lifestyle, family status, personal wealth, employment, and age.

Assess your risk tolerance

Most advisors use questionnaires to evaluate their client’s risk tolerance. The length of these surveys varies from advisor to advisor. Furthermore, some assessments are available online for free. The idea behind all of them is to determine the investor’s tolerance to market volatility, and unpredictable macroeconomic and life events.

Individuals with high-risk tolerance have the emotional capacity to take on more risk. They can endure significant market swings in order to achieve a higher future return.

On the opposite side, investors with low-risk tolerance are willing to sacrifice higher returns for safer, low volatility assets which will have smaller swings during turbulent markets.

A free risk tolerance test is available here:

Regardless of which test you take, if you answer all questions consistently, you should expect to get similar results.

Advisors, of course, should not rely solely on test results. They need to know and understand their clients. Advisors must have a holistic view of all aspects of client’s life and investment portfolio.


Set your financial goals

Your financial goals are another critical input to determine your target investment mix. Your goals can stretch anywhere from a couple of months to several decades. They can be anything from paying off your debt, buying a house, planning for a college fund, saving for a wedding, a trip or retirement, making a large charitable donation, and so on.

Each one of your goals will require a different amount of money for completion.

Having your goals in place will define how much money you need to save in order to reach them. The range of your goals versus your current wealth and saving habits will determine your target asset allocation.

More aggressive goals will require more aggressive investment mix.

More balanced goals will call for more balanced investment portfolio.

Sometimes, investors can have a conflict between their financial goals and risk tolerance. An investor may have low to moderate risk tolerance but very aggressive financial goals. Such conflict will ultimately require certain sacrifices – either revising down the investor’s financial goals or adjusting his or her willingness to take on more risk.

Define your investment horizon

Your investment horizon and the time remaining to your next milestone will significantly impact your investment mix.

529 college fund plan is an excellent example of how the investment horizon changes the future asset mix. Traditional 529 plans offer age-based investment allocation. The fund is initially invested in a higher percentage of equity securities. This original investment relies on the equities’ higher expected return, which can potentially bring higher growth to the portfolio. Over time, as the primary beneficiary (the future student), approaches the first year in college, the money in the 529 plan will gradually be re-allocated to a broadly diversified portfolio with a large allocation to fixed income investments. The new target mix can provide more safety and predictable returns as the completion of the goal approaches.

The same example can apply for retirement and home purchase savings or any other time-sensitive goal. The further away in time is your goal; the stronger will be your ability to take on more risk. You will also have enough time to recover your losses in case of market turmoil. In that case, your portfolio will focus on capital growth.

As the completion time of your goal approaches, your affinity to risk will decrease substantially. You also won’t have enough time to recover your losses if the market goes down considerably. In this situation, you will need a broadly diversified portfolio with refocusing on capital preservation.


 Know your tax bracket

The investors’ tax bracket is sometimes a secondary but often crucial factor in determining asset allocation. The US Federal tax rate ranges from 10% to 39.6% depending on income level and filing status. In addition to Federal taxes, individuals may have to pay state and city taxes.

Investors can aim to build a tax-efficient asset allocation.  They can take advantage of the preferential tax treatment of different financial securities among various investment account types – taxable, tax-deferred, and tax-exempt accounts. 

For instance, they may want to allocate tax-efficient investments like Municipal bonds, MLPs, ETFs and Index funds to taxable accounts and higher tax bearing investments like Gold, Bonds, and REITs into tax-advantaged accounts.

In any case, investors should attempt to achieve the highest possible return on an after-tax basis. Building a tax-efficient investment portfolio can add up to 1% or more in performance over an extended period.

A Guide to Investing in REITs

Investing in REITs

On August 31, 2016, S&P 500 will introduce a new sector – Real Estate. Up until now real estate companies, also known as REITs,  belonged to the Financial sector. They were in the company of large financial and insurance corporations. The new category will have 27 stocks, $567 billion of market capitalization and an approximate weight of 3% of the total S&P 500 market value.

With the addition of Real Estate as a separate sector in S&P indices, many active managers will have to aline their current portfolios with the new sector structure.

What is a REIT?

A real estate investment trust (REIT) is a company that owns and manages income-producing real estate. It represents a pool of properties and mortgages bundled together and offered as a security in the form of unit investment trusts.

REITs invest in all the main property types with approximately two-thirds of the properties in offices, apartments, shopping centers, regional malls, and industrial facilities. The remaining one-third is divided among hotels, self-storage facilities, health-care properties, prisons, theaters,  golf courses and timber.

The total market capitalization of all publicly-traded REITs is equal to $993 billion. The majority of it, $933 billion belongs to Equity REITs and the remainder to Mortgage and other financing REITs.

There are 219 REITs in the FTSE NAREIT All REITs Index. 193 of them trade on the New York Stock Exchange

Legal  Status

REITs are subject to several regulations. To qualify as a REIT, a real estate firm must pay out 90% of its taxable income to shareholders as dividends. The REIT can deduct the dividends paid to shareholders from its taxable income. Thus their income is exempt from corporate-level taxation and passes directly to investors. Other important regulations include:

  • Asset requirements: at least 75% of assets must be real estate, cash, and government securities.
  • Income requirements: at least 75% of gross income must come from rents, interest from mortgages, or other real estate investments.
  • Stock ownership requirements: shares in the REIT must be held by a minimum of 100 shareholders. Five or fewer individuals cannot (directly or indirectly) own more than 50% of the value of the REIT’s stock during the last half of the REIT’s taxable year.


Dividend distributions for tax purposes are allocated to ordinary income, capital gains, and return on capital, each of them having different tax treatment. REITs must provide shareholders with guidance on how to treat their dividends for tax purposes.  The average distribution breakdown for 2015 was approximately 66% ordinary income, 12% return on capital, and 22% capital gains.

REITs distributions have grown substantially in the past 15 years. The total REIT distributions in 2000 were under $8 billion dollar. Just between 2012 and 2015, REITs distribution rose up from $28.8 billion to $44.9 billion, or 44%.

Tax implicationsThe majority of REIT dividends are considered non-qualified dividends and taxed as ordinary income, up to the maximum rate of 39.6 percent, plus a separate 3.8 percent Medicare surtax on investment income.

Capital gains distributions are taxable at either 0, 15 or 20 percent tax rate, plus the 3.8 percent surtax.

Return-on-capital distributions are tax-deferred. They reduce the cost basis of the REIT investment.

When a REIT distributes dividends received from a taxable REIT subsidiary or other corporation, those distributions are taxed at the qualified dividend rate of 0, 15, or 20 percent, plus the 3.8 percent surtax.

Timber REITs

One REIT sector makes an exception from the above rule. Timber REITs have a favorable tax treatment from the IRS. Distributions from timber REITs such as RYN, PCL, PCN & WY are considered long-term capital gains and therefore are taxable at the lower capital gain rate (0, 15% or 20% plus 3.8% Medicare surcharge).

 Economic Cycle 

Individual REIT sectors have different sensitivity to cyclical factors.  Industrial, hotel, and retail REITs have the biggest exposure to economics cycles. Their occupancy and rental rates are extremely sensitive to economic conditions. Cyclical downturns in the economy, recession, and weak consumer spending, can significantly hurt the revenue stream of these REITs.

On the other hand, health care REITs tend to have long-term rental agreements and are more sheltered from market volatility.

Interest Rates

Since many REITs use bank loans and other external financings to expand their business, they have benefitted significantly from the current low-interest-rate environment. Furthermore, many yield-seeking investors turned to REITs for higher income. If low-interest rates remain, REITs will likely expand their base to a broader range of market participants.

Interest rates can impact REIT’s performance differently depending on two main factors – debt and lease duration.

Loan maturities

As a result of the current low rates, many REITs have increased their leverage and therefore have high sensitivity to interest changes. If interest rates rise, REITs with near-term loan maturities will need to refinance at higher rates. Thus their interest payments will go up, which will lead to less cash available for dividends. Therefore, REITs with higher levels of debt and short-term maturities will perform worse than REITs with less debt and long-dated maturity schedules.

At the same time, REITs with lower debt levels relative to their cash flows, all else equal, will perform better in a rising-rate environment.

Lease duration

While higher interest rates would affect all REITs, industry subsectors would be affected differently, depending on lease durations. REITs with shorter lease durations will perform relatively better in a rising-rate environment because they can seek higher rents from tenants as rates rise than could REITs with longer lease durations. The higher rents can offset the negative impact of higher interest expense. Hotel REITs usually have the shortest lease durations, followed by multifamily properties and self-storage.

Healthcare, office, and retail REITs usually sign long-term leases. Therefore rising interest rates will potentially hurt these REITs due to their inability to adjust rental contracts to offset rising costs.

Risk and return

Real Estate Investment Trusts historically have been more volatile than S&P 500. The 40-year standard deviation of the REIT’s sector is 17.16% versus 16.62% for the S&P 500 and 10.07% for the 10-year Treasury. During this 40-year period, REITs achieved a 13.66% cumulative annual return versus 11.66% for S&P 500 and 7.39% for the 10-year Treasury. (

Furthermore, the 10-year (2006-15) standard deviation of the REIT sector is 22.01% versus 18.02% for the S&P 500 and 9.54% for 10-year Treasury. For the same period, REITs reported 7.83% cumulative annual return versus 6.96% for S&P 500 and 4.57% for 10-year Treasury. (

Among the best five-year REIT sector performers were Retail, Self-Storage, and Industrial. For the same period, worst performers were Mortgage, Hotel and Office RETS.


With respect to pricing, REITs are reaching high valuations levels. The current Price to Fund to Operations ratio is hovering around 18, which is slightly above the historical average of 16. While the P/FFO ratio remain reasonable compared to historical figures, further price rally in REITs not supported by the increase in cash flows may impose a significant risk for sector overheating.


Even though REITs are publicly traded companies, very often they are considered an alternative asset due to their weak relationship with the other asset classes – equities and fixed income. US REITs have a relatively low correlation with the broader stock market. The 40-year correlation is equal to 0.51, while the 10-year correlation is  0.73. The correlation between REITs and 10-year Treasury is equal to -0.06, while that with Gold is 0.09.

This low correlation with other asset classes makes the REITs a solid candidate for a broadly diversified investment portfolio.


Investing Strategies


There are 219 publicly-traded REITs. 27 of them are included in the S&P 500 index. If you decide to invest in a single REIT or basket of REITs, you need to consider company-specific risk, management, sub-sector, regional or national market exposure, leverage, lease duration, history, and distribution payments.

Real Estate ETFs


VNQ dominates the REITs ETF space as the largest and second-cheapest ETF. It includes a broad basket of 150 securities. The ETF tracks the MSCI US REIT Index, which includes all domestic REITs from the MSCI US Investable Market 2500 Index. This ETF doesn’t include any mortgage, timber, and tower REITs. It has an expense ratio of 0.12% (second lowest to SCHH). It has $32.4 billion of assets under management and Morningstar rating of 4. The fund holds a diversified portfolio across all property sectors. Retail REITs are the largest holding, at 25% of assets, Specialized REITs make up 16.50%, office, 12.6% residential, 15.7%, healthcare, 12.3%, diversified, 8%, hotel and resort, 5.3%, and industrial, 4.7% REITs.


IYR tracks the Dow Jones U.S. Real Estate Index. It is the most diversified REIT ETF. Unlike other ETFs which hold only equity REITs, IYR holds mortgage, timber, prison and tower REITs including companies like American Tower, Weyerhaeuser Co, Annaly Capital Management NLY and Crown Castle International Corp. IYR has three stars by Morningstar and has an expense ratio of 0.45%. IYR’s holdings are broken by Specialized REITs, (27.09%), Retail, 19.74%, Residential, 12.70%, Office, 10.00%, Health Care, 9.88%, Mortgage REITs, 4.90%, Industrial, 4.56%, Diversified, 4.51%, Hotel & Resort, 3.56%, Real Estate Services, 2.06%


ICF tracks an index of the 30 largest publicly traded REITs excluding mortgage and tower REITs. The design of this index capitalizes on the relative strength of the largest real estate firms and the conviction for consolidation in the real estate market. The ETF includes Retail REITs, 24.84%, Specialized REITs, 18.71%, Residential, 18.08%, Office, 15.23%, Health Care, 14.41%, Industrial, 5.79%, Hotel & Resort REITs, 2.56%.


RWR / SCHH are the smallest of the five funds. They track Dow Jones US Select REIT Index. The index tracks US REITs with a minimum market cap of $200 million. The index also excludes mortgage REITs, timber REITs, net-lease REITs, real estate finance companies, mortgage brokers and bankers, commercial and residential real estate brokers and real estate agents, homebuilders, hybrid REITs, and large landowners of unimproved land. The funds’ portfolio holds a diversified range of REITs across property sectors similar to other ETFs.

SCHH has the lowest expense ratio of 0.07% all REITs ETFs while RWR has an expense ratio of 0.25%.


Comparing the performance of the top ETFs in the past ten years, we can see a clear winner. VNQ is leading by price return, total return, and Sharpe Ratio.  Next in line are RWR and ICF. IYR takes the last spot.

Having the largest number of holdings, VNQ overweights small size REITs relative to the industry average. Hence it benefited from the smaller REITs outpacing the growth of their bigger competitors.

IYR did not benefit from being the most diversified REIT ETF. The mortgage and specialized REITs have lagged behind the performance of the traditional equity REITs.

Mutual Funds

Mutual funds are actively managed investment vehicles. They typically use an index as their benchmark.  The goal of the fund manager is to outperform their benchmark either on a risk adjusted or absolute return basis.  The fund manager can decide to overweight a particular REIT if he or she believes the company will outperform the benchmark. Many times the managers will look for mispricing opportunities of individual REITs.

Active funds usually charge higher fees than passively managed ETFs due to higher research, management, administrative and trading costs. However, many investors believe that after subtracting their fees, active managers cannot beat the market in the long run.

In my analysis, I selected a pool of five actively managed funds which are open to new investors and have an expense ratio less than 1% – VGSLX,  DFREX, TRREX, CSRSX and FRESX.

All five funds have high ratings from Morningstar and robust historical performance.

VGSLX and DFREX have the largest number of holdings, 150 and 149 respectively, and maintain the lowest expense ratio. Both funds lean more towards small and micro-cap REITs relative to the average in the category.

The other three funds, TRREX, CSRSX and FRESX manage smaller pools of REITs. CSRSX and FRESX have the highest turnover: 58% and 34% respectively.


While the 1-year returns are quite variable, the long-term performance among the five funds is relatively consistent. Vanguard REIT Index Fund, VGSLX,  has the lowest fee and the highest 10-year return of 7.6%. Cohen & Steers Realty Shares Fund, CSRSX, is second with 7.5% annual return. CSRSX has the lowest 10-year standard deviation of 25.2%. VGSLX edges slightly ahead with the highest Sharpe Ratio of 0.39. Vanguard and DFA funds benefitted from low expense ratio and larger exposure to mid and small size REITs, which had better 10-year performance than larger REITs.

It is worth noting that the 10-year Sharpe Ratio for all REITs sector is lower than the Sharpe Ratio of S&P 500. The Sharpe Ratio calculated the risk-adjusted returns of a particular investment. In this case, the risk-adjusted returns of REIT lag behind the overall equity market.

When you consider investing in REITs mutual funds,  pay attention to management style, expense ratio, turnover, dividends, the number of holdings, and their benchmark.

Where to allocate REITs investments?

REITs are often attractive for their high dividend income. As I mentioned earlier, the majority of the REITs distributions are treated as ordinary income and therefore taxed at the investors’ tax rate. Investors in high tax brackets can pay up to 39.6% rate plus 3.8% Medicare surplus tax on the investment income.

Because of their unfavorable tax status, most REITs may not be suitable for taxable investment accounts.  Tax-sensitive investors may want to consider placing REITs in Tax Advantage accounts like Roth IRA, Traditional IRA, and 401k.

Since timber REITs receive favorable tax treatment, they are an exception from the above rule. Investors may choose to hold them in taxable investment accounts.

There are two scenarios under which REITs could be an appropriate fit for a taxable account.

First, investors in the lower tax bracket will be less impacted by the tax treatment of the REITs income.

Second, investing in REITs with a history of making significant capital gain and return on capital distributions. These types of payments have more favorable tax treatment at the lower long-term capital gains tax rate.

How to build your 401k plan

How to build your 401k plan

401k plans are a powerful savings tool for retirement

With total assets reaching $4.8 trillion dollars 401k plans are the most popular retirement vehicle and are increasingly used by employers to recruit and retain key talent.  401k accounts allow employees to build their retirement savings by investing a portion of their salary. Contributions to the plan are tax-deductible, thus reducing your taxable income,  and the money allocated grows tax-free. Taxes are due upon withdrawal of funds during retirement years. In this article, I will discuss how to build your 401k plan.

Does your employer offer a 401k plan?

If you recently joined a new company, find out whether they offer a 401k plan. Some employers offer automatic enrollment, and others require individual registration.

Many companies offer a matching contribution up to a set dollar amount or percentage.

Contributions are usually deducted from each paycheck, but employees can also opt to contribute a lump sum.  The 2016 limit is $18,000 plus a $6,000 “catch-up” contribution for people age 50 and above.

How to decide on your investment choices

Employers must provide ongoing education and training materials about retirement savings plans.

401k plans can offer anywhere between 5 and 20 different mutual funds which invest in various asset classes and strategies.  Your choice will be limited to the funds in your plan. Hence you can not invest in stocks or other financial instruments.

The fundamental goal is to build a diversified and disciplined portfolio with your investment choices. Markets will go up and down, but your diversified portfolio will moderate your risk in times of market turmoil.

Index Funds

Index Funds are passively managed mutual funds. They track a particular index by mirroring its performance. The index funds hold the same proportion of underlying stocks as the index they follow. Many indexes are tracking large-cap, mid-cap, small-cap, international and bond indices. One of the most popular categories is the S&P 500 Index funds.

Due to their passive nature index funds are usually offered at a lower cost compared to actively managed funds. They provide broad diversification with low portfolio turnover. Index funds do not actively trade in and out of their positions and only replace stocks when their benchmark changes. Index funds are easy to buy, sell and rebalance.

Actively Managed Mutual Funds

Actively managed mutual funds are the complete opposite of index funds. A management team usually runs each fund. The mutual funds have a designated benchmark, such as the S & P 500, Russell 2000,  and MSI World. Often the management team aims to beat the benchmark either by a greater absolute or risk-adjusted return. Overall active funds trade more often than index funds. Their portfolio turnover (frequency of trading) is bigger because managers take an active approach and invest in companies or bonds with the goal of beating their benchmark.

There is a broad range of funds with different strategies and asset classes. Some funds trade more actively than others. Even funds that follow the same benchmark can gravitate towards a particular sector, country or niche. For instance, a total bond fund might be more concentrated into government bonds, while another fund may invest heavily in corporate bonds.

Active funds charge higher fees than comparable index funds. These fees cover salaries, management, administrative, research, marketing, and trading costs. Funds investing in niche markets like small-cap and emerging market will have higher costs. Fees are also dependent on the size of the fund and its turnover strategy.

It’s critical to do at least a basic research before you decide which fund to purchase. is a great website for mutual fund information and stats.

Target Retirement funds

These are mutual funds that invest your retirement assets according to a target allocation based on your expected year of retirement. The further away you are from retirement, the more your target fund asset allocation will lean toward equity investments. As you get closer to retirement, the portion of equity will go down and will be replaced by fixed income investments. The reason behind target retirement funds is to maintain a disciplined investment approach over time without being impacted by market trends.

One significant drawback of the retirement funds is that they assume your risk tolerance is based on your age. If you are a risk taker or risk averse, these funds may not represent your actual financial goals and willingness to take the risk.

In addition to that, investors also need to consider how target retirement funds fit within their overall investment portfolio in both taxable and tax-advantaged accounts.

Most large fund managers offer target retirement funds. However, there are some large differences between fund families. Some of the discrepancies come from the choice of active versus passive investment strategies and fees.

Without endorsing any of the two providers below I will illustrate some of the fundamental differences between Vanguard and T. Rowe Price Target Retirement funds.

Vanguard Target Retirement funds

Vanguard Target Retirement funds offer low-cost retirement fund at an expense ratio of 0.15%. All funds allocate holdings into five passively managed broadly diversified Vanguard index fund.

Vanguard Target Retirement 2015 2025 2035 2045
Total Stock Market Index 28.44 39.86 48.75 54.07
Total Intl Stock Index 19.01 26.56 32.45 35.9
Total Bond Market II Index 30.32 23.66 13.23 7.05
Total Intl Bond Index 13.37 9.92 5.57 2.98
Short-Term Infl-Protected Sec Index 8.86
% Assets 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00
By asset class
Equity 47.45 66.42 81.2 89.97
Fixed Income 52.55 33.58 18.8 10.03

T. Rowe Target Retirement funds

On the other spectrum are T. Rowe retirement funds. Their funds have a higher expense ratio. They charge between 0.65% and 0.75%. All target funds invest in active T. Rowe mutual funds in 18 different categories. T. Rowe target funds are a bit more aggressive. They have a higher allocation to equity and offer a wider range of investment strategies.

T. Rowe Target Retirement Fund 2015 2025 2035 2045
New Income 24.38 17.34 10.64 6.74
Equity Index 500 22.15 14.85 9.31 7.41
Ltd Dur Infl Focus Bd 11.01 3.53 0.54 0.53
International Gr & Inc 5.04 6.68 7.85 8.35
Overseas Stock 5.01 6.64 7.82 8.3
International Stock 4.42 5.78 6.8 7.26
Emerging Markets Bond 3.55 2.47 1.43 1.01
Growth Stock 3.43 11.74 17.84 20.26
International Bond 3.42 2.44 1.51 0.98
High Yield 3.26 2.32 1.42 0.91
Value 3.1 11.31 17.36 19.75
Emerging Markets Stock 2.88 3.87 4.49 4.71
Real Assets 2.1 2.78 3.28 3.5
Mid-Cap Value 1.85 2.46 2.95 3.12
Mid-Cap Growth 1.78 2.35 2.73 2.9
Small-Cap Value 0.93 1.23 1.48 1.55
Small-Cap Stock 0.88 1.15 1.41 1.53
New Horizons 0.72 0.94 1.1 1.12
% Assets 100 100 100 100
By Asset Class
Equity 54.29 71.78 84.42 89.76
Fixed Income 45.62 28.1 15.54 10.17

Which approach is better? There is no distinctive winner. It depends on your risk tolerance.

Vanguard funds have lower expense ratio and a lower 10-year return. However, they have a lower risk.

T. Rowe funds have higher absolute and risk-adjusted return but also carry more risk.

10-year Performance Analysis, 2045 Target Retirement Fund

  Standard 10-year Sharpe
Fund Name Deviation Return  Ratio
VTIVX Vanguard Target 2045 14.65 5.48 0.36
TRRKX T. Rowe Target 2045 15.82 5.89 0.38

 *** Data provided by Morningstar

Most 401k plans will offer only one family of target funds, so you don’t have to decide between Vanguard, T. Rowe or another manager. You will have to decide whether to invest in any of them at all or put your money in the index or active funds. For further information, check out our dedicated article on target date funds


ETFs are a great alternative to index and active mutual funds. They are liquid and actively trade on the exchange throughout the day.

As of now, very few plans offer ETFs. One of the main concerns for adding them to retirement plans is the timeliness of trade execution. Right now this problem is shifted to the fund managers who only issue end of day price once all trades are complete.

I expect that ETFs will become a more common choice as they grow in popularity and liquidity. Many small and mid-size companies that look for low-cost solutions can use them for them as an alternative to their for their workplace retirement plans.

Company stock

Many companies offer their stock as a matching contribution or profit sharing incentive in their employee 401k plan. Doing so aligns employees’ objectives with the company’s success.  While this may have positive intentions, current or former employees run the risk of having a large concentrated position in their portfolios.  Even if your company has a record of high returns, holding significant amounts of company stock creates substantial financial risk during periods of crisis because one is both employee and shareholder.  Enron and Lehman Brothers are great examples of this danger.  Being overinvested in your company shares can lead to simultaneous unemployment and depletion of retirement savings if the business fails.

Allocation mix

You will most likely have a choice between a family of target retirement funds and a group of large-cap, mid-cap, small-cap, international developed, emerging markets stocks, a REIT, US government, corporate, high yield and international bond funds.

Your final selection should reflect your risk tolerance and financial goals. You should consider your age, family size, years to retirement, risk sensitivity, total wealth, saving and spending habits, significant future spending and so on.

You can use the table below as a high-level guidance.

401k asset allocation mix

Data source: Ibbotson Associates, 2016, (1926-2015). Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Returns include the reinvestment of dividends and other earnings. This chart is for illustrative purposes only. It is not possible to invest directly in an index. For information on the indexes used to construct this table, see footnote 1. The purpose of the target asset mixes is to show how target asset mixes may be created with different risk and return characteristics to help meet an investor’s goals. You should choose your investments based on your particular objectives and situation. Be sure to review your decisions periodically to make sure they are still consistent with your goals.

Final recommendations

Here are some finals ideas how to make the best out of your 401k savings:

  • At a minimum, you should set aside enough money in your 401k plan to take advantage of your employer’s matching contribution. It’s free money after all. However, the vesting usually comes with certain conditions. So definitely pay attention to these rules. They can be tricky.
  • 2016 maximum contribution to 401k is $18,000 plus $6,000 for individuals over 50. If you can afford to set aside this amount, you will maximize the full potential of retirement savings.
  • If your 401k plan is your only retirement saving, you need to have a broad diversification of your assets. Invest in a target retirement fund or mix of individual mutual funds to avoid concentration of your investments in one asset class or security.
  • If your 401k plan is one of many retirement saving options – taxable account, real estate, saving accounts, annuity, Roth IRA, SEP-IRA, Rollover IRA or a prior employer’s 401k plan, you will need to have a holistic view of your assets in order to achieve a comprehensive and tax optimized asset allocation.
  • Beware of hidden trading costs in your plan choices. Most no-load mutual funds will charge anywhere between 0.15% and 1.5% to manage your money. This fee will cover their management, administrative, research and trading costs. Some funds also charge upfront and backload fees. As you invest in those funds your purchase cost will be higher compared to no-load funds.
  • If you hold large concentrated positions of your current or former employer’s stock, you need to mitigate your risk by diversifying the remainder of your portfolio.

If you have any questions about your existing investment portfolio or how to start investing for retirement and other financial goals, reach out to me at [email protected] or +925-448-9880.

You can also visit our Insights page where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm based in Walnut Creek, CA. Babylon Wealth Management offers personalized wealth management and financial planning services to individuals and families.  To learn more visit our Private Client Services page here. Additionally, we offer Outsourced Chief Investment Officer services to professional advisors (RIAs), family offices, endowments, defined benefit plans, and other institutional clients. To find out more visit our OCIO page here.

Disclaimer: Past performance does not guarantee future performance. Nothing in this article should be construed as a solicitation or offer, or recommendation, to buy or sell any security. The content of this article is a sole opinion of the author and Babylon Wealth Management. The opinion and information provided are only valid at the time of publishing this article. Investing in these asset classes may not be appropriate for your investment portfolio. If you decide to invest in any of the instruments discussed in the posting, you have to consider your risk tolerance, investment objectives, asset allocation and overall financial situation. Different investors have different financial circumstances, and not all recommendations apply to everybody. Seek advice from your investment advisor before proceeding with any investment decisions. Various sources may provide different figures due to variations in methodology and timing,

A beginner’s guide to ETF Investing

Guide to ETFs

What is an ETF?

ETF stands for an exchange-traded fund. The fund is a passively managed marketable security that tracks an index, a commodity, or a pool of bonds. ETFs trade on the stock exchange, and their price fluctuate throughout the day.

By design, ETFs do not produce positive alpha. Alpha is the difference between the fund and the benchmark performance.  They strictly follow their index, and as a result, their alpha is always zero.

ETFs popularity spiked in the past several years due to the rise of robo-advisers, an increase in competiton, and lowe management fees. At the same time, many emblematic active managers underperformed their benchmarks and saw significant fund outflows.

ETF history

The ETF industry was born as a result of the market crash in October 1987. The initial goal behind ETFs was to provide liquidity and mitigate volatility for market participants. Over the last 20 years, they became a favorite investment vehicle for individual investors and asset managers. Today, globally, there are 6,870 ETF products on 60 exchanges and over $5 trillion of assets under management.

ETF vs. Mutual Fund

The media and investors often compare ETFs with mutual funds.  In contrast with ETFs, the mutual fund managers actively look for securities in an attempt to beat their designated benchmark.

ETFs typically have higher daily liquidity and lower fees than most mutual funds.  This makes them an attractive alternative for many individual investors.

Underlying Index

There are significant variations in the index composition between indices tracking the same asset class.  The ETFs structure and performance reflect these differences.

In the small-cap space, for example, IJR tracks the S&P 600 Small-Cap index, and IWM follows Russell 2000 Small Cap index. As the name suggests, the S&P index has 600 constituents, while the Russell index has 2,000 members. While there are many similarities and overlaps between the two, there are also significant variations in their returns, risk, and sector exposure.

In the Emerging market space, indices provided by MSCI include South Korea in their list of emerging market countries. At the same time, indices run by FTSE exclude South Korea and have it in their developed country list.

Investors seeking to manage their exposure to a particular asset class through ETFs need to consider the index differences and suitability against their overall portfolio.


The fees are the cost associated with managing the fund – transaction cost, exchange fees, administrative, legal, and accounting expenses. They are subtracted from the fund performance. The costs are reported in the fund prospectus as an expense ratio. They can be as low as 0.08% and as high as 2% and more. The percentage represents the total amount of management fees over the value of assets under management.

Consider two ETFs that follow the same index.  All else equal, the ETF with the lower fee will always outperform the ETF with the higher one.


The ETF liquidity is critical in volatile markets and flash-sales when investors want to exit their position.

Asset under management, daily volume, and bid/ask spread drive the ETF liquidity. Larger funds offer better liquidity and lower spread.

The liquidity and the spread will impact the cost to buy or sell the fund. The spread will determine the premium you will pay to purchase these funds on the stock exchange. The discount is what you will need to give up to sell the ETFs. The lower the spread, the smaller difference between purchase and sale price will be. Funds with less spread will have lower exit costs.

Exchange Traded Notes

Exchange Traded Notes are an offshoot of the ETFs products. ETNs are structured debt instruments that promise to pay the return on the tracking assets. This structure is very popular for Oil, Commodity, and Volatility trading. They offer flexibility and easy access for investors to trade in and out of the products.

I believe that long-term investors should avoid Exchange Traded Notes (ETNs), volatility (VIX) ETFs, inverse, and leveraged (2x and 3x Index) ETFs and ETNs products. While increasing in popularity and liquidity, they are not appropriate for long-term investing and retirement planning. These types of funds are more suitable for daily and short-term trading. They incur a higher cost and have a higher risk profile.

Smart Beta ETFs

Smart Beta ETFs are also increasing in popularity. While the name was given for marketing purposes, this particular breed of ETFs uses a single or multi-factor approach to select securities from a pre-defined pool – S&P 500, Russell 2000, MSCI world index, or others.

The Single Factor ETFs like Low Volatility or High Dividend are strictly focusing on one particular characteristic. They offer a low-cost alternative to investing in a portfolio of income generating or less volatile stocks.

The multi-factor ETFs are a hybrid of active and index management. ETF providers have established an in-house index that will follow the rules of their multi-factor model. The model will select securities from an index following specific parameters with the intention of outperforming the index. The fund will buy only the securities provided by the model. The multi-factor ETFs are competing directly with mutual funds, which use similar techniques to select securities. However, they have a lower cost, better transparency, and an  easy entry point.

Currency Hedged

Currency Hedged International ETFs is another newcomer in the space. Their goal is to track a foreign equity index by neutralizing the currency exposure. They can be attractive to investors with interest in international markets who are concerned about their FX risk.  Some of the more popular funds in this category include HEDJ, which tracks Europe developed markets, and DXJ, which follows Japan exporting companies.

How to invest?

ETFs are a great alternative to all investment accounts. Due to their passive management, low turnover, and tax-advantaged structure, they are a great option for taxable and brokerage accounts.

For now, they have not made their way to corporate 401k plans, where mutual funds are still dominating. I am expecting this to change as more small and mid-size companies are looking for low-cost solutions for their workplace retirement plans.

Tax-sensitive investors, however, need to consider all circumstances before adding ETF holdings to their portfolio. Their tax treatment follows the tax treatment of their underlying assets.

6 Proven strategies for volatile markets

Proven strategies for volatile markets

What are some of the proven strategies for volatile markets? The truth is nobody likes to lose money. Especially money that is earmarked for retirement, vacation, real estate purchase, or college education. Today’s volatile markets can be treacherous for inexperienced (and even experienced) investors.  Successful investors must remain focused on the strength of their portfolio and the potential for future growth.

The stock market can be volatile.

The first instinct when the market drops is to sell your investments. Well, in reality, this may not always be the right move. Selling your stocks during market selloff may limit your losses, may lock in your gains but also may lead to missed long-term opportunities. Emotional decisions do not bring a rational outcome.

How low can the market go?  The largest-ever percentage drop by the S&P 500 index occurred on October 19, 1987 (known as The Black Monday) when the S&P 500 dropped by -20.47%. The next biggest sell-off happened on October 15, 2008, when the S&P 500 lost –9.03%. In both cases, the stock market continued to be volatile for several months before reaching a bottom. The bottom was the start of a new bull market. Both times, the stock market recovered to reach historic highs in a few years.  In the past seven years, the S&P 500 rose up by 14.8%, which is almost double the historical average of 7%.

So what can you do when the next market crash happens?

I want to share six strategies that can help you through the turbulence and support the long-term growth of your portfolio.

1. Keep calm and carry on

One of the most proven strategies for volatile markets is staying callm. Significant drops in stock value can trigger panic—and fear-based selling to limit losses is the wrong move.  Here’s why: frequently these market selloffs are followed by broad market rallies. As long as you are making sound investment choices, patience and the ability to tolerate paper losses will earn you more in the long run.

2. Be realistic: Don’t try to time the market

Many investors believe that they can time the market to buy low and sell high. In reality, very few investors succeed in these efforts.

According to a study by the CFA Institute Financial Analyst Journal, a buy-and-hold large-cap strategy would have outperformed, on average, about 80.7% of annual active timing strategies when the choice was between large-cap stocks, short-term T-bills and Treasury bonds.

3. Stay diversified

Diversification is essential for portfolio preservation and growth. Diversification, or spreading your investments among different asset categories (stocks, bonds, real estate, commodities, precious metals, etc.) minimizes risk.

Uncorrelated asset classes react uniquely during turbulent markets and economic cycles.

For example, fixed income securities and gold tend to rise during bear markets when stocks fall. Conversely, equities rise during economic expansion.

4. Focus on your long-term goals

Personal financial goals stretch over several years. For investors in their 20s and 30s financial goals can go beyond 30 – 40 years. Staying disciplined—maintaining a high credit score, minimizing debt, and developing a savings plan–is the best way to achieve your goals.

Market crises come and go, but your goals will most likely remain the same. In fact, most goals have nothing to do with the market. Your investment portfolio is just one of the ways to achieve your goals.

5. Use tax-loss harvesting

If you own taxable accounts, you can take advantage of tax-loss harvesting opportunities. You can sell securities at depressed prices to offset other capital gains made in the same year. Also, you can carry up to $3,000 of capital losses to offset other income from salary and dividends. The remaining unused amount of capital loss can also be carried over for future years for up to the allowed annual limit.

To take advantage of this option you have to follow the wash sale rule. You cannot purchase the same security in the next 30 days. To stay invested in the market you can substitute the depressed stock with another stock that has a similar profile or buy an ETF.

6. Be opportunistic

Market swings create opportunities for purchasing securities at a discounted price.

Not surprisingly the renowned investor Warren Buffet‘s famous words are “Buy when everyone else is selling” and “When it’s raining gold, reach for a bucket, not a thimble.”

Market selloffs rarely reflect the real long-term value of a company. Usually, selloffs are triggered by market news, political events, and most recently by algorithmic errors. Market drops during volatile times are an excellent opportunity for investors to buy their favorite stocks at a lower price.