50% of American Households Don’t Own Any Stocks At All

Here’s another stat to add to your knowledge. For roughly half of Americans, the stock market’s record highs don’t help at all, according to a recent Washington Post article. This chart shows that half of US household have no exposure to stocks, either directly or indirectly:

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Direct vs. indirect. The academic paper by Dr. Wolff of NYU was a bit confusing with their terminology. From what I read, “direct” stock ownership means owning individual shares of stock. “Indirect” stock ownership includes “mutual funds, trusts, or various pension accounts”. Here, the term “pension accounts” include defined contribution accounts like IRAs, 401(k), and 403(b) plans. However, assets in defined benefit plans, which is the more traditional definition of the term “pensions”, are not included under “pension accounts”. Social Security is also excluded. Got that?

In theory, you don’t need to own stocks to have a comfortable retirement. You could have a mix of other resources like Social Security, private company pension plan, bank deposits, bonds, whole life insurance, commercial property, residential rental property, and so on. However, I’m willing to bet there is a healthy correlation between owning one and owning multiple forms of these productive assets.

Financial freedom means owning enough productive assets to get off the treadmill of work, spend, work, spend. I know there are probably good reasons why many people have trouble finding the money to invest in stocks. I don’t have an easy fix. However, one small tip for those on the margin is to get that spark and start viewing such assets with desire. The same desire as a nicer car or kitchen remodel. I get excited when I buy another chunk of VTI or VXUS. Others get excited when they acquire another rental property. Find a way to start your snowball.

Markets Rise and Fall: Is Your Portfolio Ready For Both?

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It would be great if you could invest in things with high and reliable returns, going up and up consistently like clockwork and without worry. Unfortunately, that’s usually the sign of a Ponzi scheme. The chart above illustrates what you have to deal with in the real world. It shows how the S&P 500 (1949-2016) has had both significant losing streaks and big winning streaks, often one right after the other.

The source is Ric Edelman and The Most Important Chart on Investing You’ll Ever See and it comes via Barry Ritholtz and Edelman’s Favorite Investing Chart. Here’s a selected quote from the Edelman site:

This chart clearly shows that when stock prices are rising, they rise a lot and for a long time.

When prices fall, they fall a little and for a short period.

[…]

When you notice that stock prices are declining, don’t be upset. Instead become excited about what lies ahead.

Barry Ritholtz adds:

The usual caveats apply — post Great Depression took 25 years to return to breakeven, and Japan circa 1989 still needs the Nikkei Dow to almost double to get back to the high from almost 30 years ago. If you were retiring during those periods you were pretty much hosed. Still, the cyclicality of markets is very worth noting.

In my opinion, the takeaway is that your investment plan must be ready for both green and red streaks. For one, you need to be able to stay in the market and capture a good chunk of those long green streaks. Bailing out of a winning streak can cause you miss out a lot of money. At the same time, you need to survive those red streaks, which may not look that scary on the chart but are actually terrifying. (Remember that to simply get even from a 50% drop, you’d have to have a subsequent 100% rise.) This can be a tricky balancing act.

What If You Invested $10,000 Every Year For the Last 10 Years? 2008-2017 Edition

keepcalmInstead of just looking at one year of returns, here’s an annual exercise that helps you look at the bigger picture. You may know the 10-year historical return of the S&P 500, but most of us didn’t just invest a big lump sum of money a decade ago, and most of us don’t just invest in the S&P 500.

Investment benchmark. There are many possible choices for an investment benchmark, but I chose the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund. This all-in-one fund is low-cost, highly-diversified, and available in many employer retirement plans as well open to anyone with an IRA. In the early accumulation phase, this fund is 90% stocks (both US and international) and 10% bonds (investment-grade domestic and international). I think it’s a solid default choice where you could easily do worse over the long run.

Investment amount. For the last decade, the maximum allowable contribution to a Traditional or Roth IRA has been roughly $5,000 per person. That means a couple could put away at least $10,000 a year in tax-advantaged accounts. If you have a household income of $67,000, then $10,000 is right at the 15% savings rate mark.

A decade of real-world savings. To create a simple-yet-realistic scenario, what would have happened if you put $10,000 a year into the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund, every year, for the past 10 years. You’d have put in $100,000 over time, but in more manageable increments. With the handy tools at Morningstar and a quick Google spreadsheet, we get this:

2008-2017x10k

For every $10,000 you put in annually over the last 10 years, you would have a ~$80,000 investment gain on top of the $100,000 in contributions. For example, if you were a couple that both maxed out their 401k and IRAs at roughly $20k each or $40k total per year, that would leave you with a gain of roughly $360,000 over the last decade (and a total balance of $760,000).

Some of that money was invested right before the crash in 2008/2009, and some has only been in the market for a few years. $10,000 invested in the beginning of 2008 would have dropped down to $5,500 in value before the rebounding. Not every year will turn out to be as good as this year, but taking it all together provides a more balanced picture.

Earn money, save a big chunk of it, and then invest it in your choice of productive assets. Keep calm and repeat. The investment side of our path to financial freedom can be mostly explained by such behavior. (Add in maxing out a 401(k) each year as well if you can.) Something as accessible and boring as the Vanguard Target Retirement Fund can make you rich. You don’t need a secret trading strategy or exclusive hedge fund manager.

Best Interest Rates on Cash – January 2018

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Short-term interest rates are rising. Megabanks make billions by pay you nothing for your idle cash. Here is my monthly roundup of the best safe rates available, roughly sorted from shortest to longest maturities. Check out my Ultimate Rate-Chaser Calculator to get an idea of how much additional interest you’d earn if you switched over. Rates listed are available to everyone nationwide. Rates checked as of 1/7/18.

High-yield savings accounts
While the huge brick-and-mortar banks rarely offer good yields, there are a number of online savings accounts offering much higher rates. Keep in mind that with savings accounts, the interest rates can change at any time.

  • DollarSavingsDirect at 1.60% APY, CIT Bank at 1.55% APY, both with no minimum balance requirement. SalemFiveDirect 1.50% APY, Synchrony Bank 1.45% APY, GS Bank 1.40% APY.
  • I currently keep my “hub” account at Ally Bank Savings + Checking combo due to their history of competitive rates, 1-day external bank transfers, and overall user experience. I then move money elsewhere if the rate is significantly higher (and preferably locked in via CD rate). The free overdraft transfers from savings allows to me to keep my checking balance at a minimum. Ally Savings is now lagging a bit at 1.25% APY.

Money market mutual funds + Ultra-short bond ETFs
If you like to keep cash in a brokerage account, you should know that money market and short-term Treasury rates have been rising. The following money market and ultra-short bond funds are not FDIC-insured, but may be a good option if you have idle cash and cheap/free commissions.

  • Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund currently pays an 1.38% SEC yield. The default sweep option is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which has an SEC yield of 1.23%. You can manually move the money over to Prime if you meet the $3,000 minimum investment.
  • Vanguard Ultra-Short-Term Bond Fund currently pays 1.83% SEC Yield ($3,000 min) and 1.93% SEC Yield ($50,000 min). The average duration is 1 year.
  • The PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active Bond ETF (MINT) has a 1.68% SEC yield and the iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF (NEAR) has a 1.81% SEC yield while holding a portfolio of investment-grade bonds with an average duration of ~6 months. More info here.

Short-term guaranteed rates (1 year and under)
I am often asked what to do with a big wad of cash that you’re waiting to deploy shortly (just sold your house, just sold your business, legal settlement, inheritance). My usual advice is to keep things simple. If not a savings account, then put it in a short-term CD under the FDIC limits until you have a plan.

  • CIT Bank 11-Month No-Penalty CD is at 1.55% APY with a $1,000 minimum deposit and no withdrawal penalty seven days or later after funds have been received. The lack of early withdrawal penalty means that your interest rate can never go down for 11 months, but you can always jump ship if rates rise. Full review. You can open multiple CDs in smaller increments if you want more flexibility.
  • Ally Bank No-Penalty 11-Month CD is paying 1.60% APY for $25,000+ balances and 1.25% APY for $5,000+ balances. Similar product, higher rate at the moment, higher balance requirement. Ally is a full-featured bank with checking/savings/etc.
  • Synchrony Bank has a 12-month CD is at 2.00% APY with a $2,000 minimum deposit. (Ally Bank had a similar rate that ended on 1/2/18, so I don’t know how long the Synchrony rate will last either.)

US Savings Bonds
Series I Savings Bonds offer rates that are linked to inflation and backed by the US government. You must hold them for at least a year. There are annual purchase limits. If you redeem them within 5 years there is a penalty of the last 3 months of interest.

  • “I Bonds” bought between November 2017 and April 2018 will earn a 2.58% rate for the first six months. The rate of the subsequent 6-month period will be based on inflation again. At the very minimum, the total yield after 12 months will be 1.29% with additional upside potential. More info here.
  • In mid-April 2018, the CPI will be announced and you will have a short period where you will have a very close estimate of the rate for the next 12 months. I will have another post up at that time.

Prepaid Cards with Attached Savings Accounts
A small subset of prepaid debit cards have an “attached” FDIC-insured savings account with exceptionally high interest rates. The negatives are that balances are capped, and there are many fees that you must be careful to avoid (lest they eat up your interest). The offers also tend to disappear with little notice. Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do.

  • Insight Card is one of the best remaining cards with 5% APY on up to $5,000 as of this writing. Fees to avoid include the $1 per purchase fee, $2.50 for each ATM withdrawal, and the $3.95 inactivity fee if there is no activity within 90 days. If you can navigate it carefully (basically only use ACH transfers and keep up your activity regularly) you can still end up with more interest than other options. Earning 4% extra interest on $5,000 is $200 a year.

Rewards checking accounts
These unique checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but with some risk. You have to jump through certain hoops, and if you make a mistake you won’t earn any interest for that month. Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do. Rates can also drop quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. But the rates can be high while they last.

  • Consumers Credit Union offers up to 4.59% APY on up to a $20k balance, although getting 3.09% APY on a $10k balance has a much shorter list of requirements. The 4.59% APY requires you to apply for a credit card through them (other credit cards offer $500+ in sign-up bonuses). Keep your 12 debit purchases small as well, as for every $500 in monthly purchases you may be losing out on 2% cashback (or $10 a month after-tax). Find a local rewards checking account at DepositAccounts.
  • Note: Northpointe Bank, mentioned previously, no longer has their Rewards Checking account on their website and is not accepting new applications. Unclear how long existing accountholders will be grandfathered. That’s just how it goes with these types of accounts.

Certificates of deposit (greater than 1 year)
You might have larger balances, either because you are using CDs instead of bonds or you simply want a large cash reserves. By finding a bank CD with a reasonable early withdrawal penalty, you can enjoy higher rates but maintain access in a true emergency. Alternatively, consider a custom CD ladder of different maturity lengths such that you have access to part of the ladder each year, but your blended interest rate is higher than a savings account.

  • Advancial Federal Credit Union has their 18-month CD at 2.05% APY ($50k min) and a 24-month CD at 2.14% APY ($50k min). The early withdrawal penalty is 180 days of interest. Anyone can join with a $5 membership fee to the Connex Professional Network.
  • Ally Bank has a 5-year CD at 2.25% APY (no minimum) with a relatively short 150-day early withdrawal penalty and no credit union membership hoops. For example, if you closed this CD after 18-months you’d still get an 1.64% effective APY even after accounting for the penalty.
  • Northern Bank Direct has a 4-year CD at 2.51% APY with a $500 minimum. I had to mention this top rate, but watch out for the huge early withdrawal penalty of 3-years of interest! Hanscom Federal Credit Union still has their 4-year Share Certificate at 2.50% APY (180-day early withdrawal penalty) if you also have Premier Checking (no monthly fee if you keep $6,000 in total balances or $2,000 in checking). HFCU also offers a 3% APY CU Thrive “starter” savings account with balance caps. HFCU membership is open to active/retired military or anyone who makes a one-time $35 donation to the Nashua River Watershed Association.
  • United States Senate Federal Credit Union has a 60-Month Share Certificate at 2.76% APY ($60,000+), 2.70% APY ($20,000+), and 2.63% APY ($1,000+). Anyone can join this credit union via partner organization American Consumer Council for a one-time $10 membership fee. (ACC lets you become eligible for multiple credit unions.)

Longer-term Instruments
I’d use these with caution due to increased interest rate risk, but I still track them to see the rest of the current yield curve. (The yield curve has been flattening in recent months.)

  • Willing to lock up your money for 10+ years? You can buy certificates of deposit via the bond desks of Vanguard and Fidelity. These “brokered CDs” offer the same FDIC-insurance. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 10-year non-callable CD at 2.75% APY (Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs from Fidelity.) Unfortunately, currently CD rates do not rise much higher even as you extend beyond a 5-year maturity.
  • How about two decades? Series EE Savings Bonds are not indexed to inflation, but they have a guarantee that the value will double in value in 20 years, which equals a guaranteed return of 3.5% a year. However, if you don’t hold for that long, you’ll be stuck with the normal rate which is quite low (currently a sad 0.10% rate). I view this as a huge early withdrawal penalty, so I avoid it. You could also view it as long-term bond and thus a hedge against deflation, but only if you can hold on for 20 years.

All rates were checked as of 1/7/18.


Premier High Yield Savings

S&P 500 Monthly Total Returns 1990-2017: First 14-Month Win Streak

I mentioned in my 2017 asset class roundup that the S&P 500 went up every single month in 2017 and how that was the first time that had ever happened. According to the WSJ Daily Shot, the S&P 500 is actually on a 14-month positive streak. Here’s a chart showing the monthly total returns of the S&P 500 from 1990 to 2017.

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I wanted to save it for future reference, but I don’t have any good lessons from this chart. I suppose it is good to know that there are a few 10%+ drops within a month. Otherwise, I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Investment Returns By Asset Class, 2017 Year-End Review

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Happy New Year! As the markets have closed for the last time in 2017, it’s time for a year-end review. While I do rebalance my portfolio quarterly, I only dig into performance numbers once a year. That’s a big change from a decade ago, when I would calculate my net worth down to the dollar multiple times a week. Here are the trailing 1-year total returns for select asset classes as benchmarked by passive mutual funds and ETFs. Data via Morningstar as of 12/31/17.

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Commentary. Most people who owned a diversified portfolio in 2017 had another year of solid returns. I hope you were on the ride. One of my “keep-it-simple” recommendations, the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 fund (roughly 90% diversified stocks and 10% bonds) was up about 21.4% in 2017. For the curious, you can compare with 2016 asset class returns.

Our personal portfolio, a more conservative mix of 70% stocks/30% bonds as we are close to living off it, was up about 15.1% in 2017. We are at the point where portfolio gains significantly outpaced our employee income this year.

As happens each year, many things happened that I did not predict. I thought 2016 was a pretty good year given higher valuations, but my 2017 returns were twice as high. I certainly did know that the S&P 500 was going to give a positive return every single month of 2017. (This was the first year that has happened, ever.) In addition, stock market volatility was near all-time lows at the same time the threat of nuclear war is probably the highest in my lifetime. Interesting times.

Instead, I have faith that a diversified basket of productive assets (stocks, private businesses, real estate, farmland) has the best probability to be worth more over the long run. In the short run, I will try to spend no more than a modest withdrawal rate of 3% a year, mostly dividends and interest that are automatically distributed. That way, my portfolio will still have the ability to rebound even after an extreme drop in value.

The goal remains to spend my time in a manner that is aligned with my values. I am thankful for another year of physical health, the opportunity to do work that I enjoy, and quality time with family and friends.

edwardfurlong Portfolio Asset Allocation, 2017 Year-End Update

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Here is a year-end update on my investment portfolio holdings for 2017. This is my last-minute checkup in case I need to rebalance to make another other tax-related moves. This includes tax-deferred 401k/403b/IRAs and taxable brokerage holdings, but excludes things like our primary home, cash reserves, and a few other side investments. The goal of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover our regular household expenses.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

I use both Personal Capital and a custom Google Spreadsheet to track my investment holdings. The Personal Capital financial tracking app (my review, join free here) automatically logs into my accounts, tracks my balances, calculates my performance, and gives me a rough asset allocation. I still use my custom Rebalancing Spreadsheet (instructions, download free here) in order to see exactly where I need to direct new investments to rebalance back towards my target asset allocation.

Here is my portfolio performance for the year and rough asset allocation (real estate is under alternatives), according to Personal Capital:

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Here is my more specific asset allocation, according to my custom spreadsheet:

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Stock Holdings
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSMX, VTSAX)
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VGTSX, VTIAX)
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
WisdomTree Emerging Markets SmallCap Dividend ETF (DGS)
Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR)
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSIX, VGSLX)

Bond Holdings
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLTX, VMLUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWITX, VWIUX)
Vanguard High-Yield Tax-Exempt Fund (VWAHX, VWALX)
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX, VAIPX)
iShares Barclays TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)
Individual TIPS securities
U.S. Savings Bonds (Series I)

Target Asset Allocation. Our overall goal is to include asset classes that will provide long-term returns above inflation, distribute income via dividends and interest, and finally offer some historical tendencies to balance each other out. I don’t hold commodities futures or gold (or bitcoin) as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly. I also try to imagine each asset class doing poorly for a long time, and only hold the ones where I think I can maintain faith.

Stocks Breakdown

  • 38% US Total Market
  • 7% US Small-Cap Value
  • 38% International Total Market
  • 7% Emerging Markets
  • 10% US Real Estate (REIT)

Bonds Breakdown

  • 50% High-quality, Intermediate-Term Bonds
  • 50% US Treasury Inflation-Protected Bonds

I have settled into a long-term target ratio is 67% stocks and 33% bonds (2:1 ratio) within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and rebalance. With a self-managed, simple portfolio of low-cost funds, we minimize management fees, commissions, and income taxes.

Performance, details, and commentary. According to Personal Capital, my portfolio has gained 15.08% overall in 2017 (with a few days left to go). In the same time period, the S&P 500 has gained 19.73% (excludes dividends) and the US Aggregate bond index has gained 3.53%. For the first time in a while, my sizable allocation to developed international and emerging markets stocks has boosted my overall return.

My stock/bond split is currently at 70% stocks/30% bonds due to the continued stock bull market. I continue to invest new money on a monthly basis in order to maintain the target ratios. Once a quarter, I also reinvest any accumulated dividends and interest. I don’t use automatic dividend reinvestment. This way, I can usually avoid creating any taxable transactions unless markets are really volatile.

For both simplicity and cost reasons, I am no longer buying DES/DGS and will be phasing them out whenever there are tax-loss harvesting opportunities. New money is going into the more “vanilla” Vanguard versions: Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR) and Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO).

I’m still somewhat underweight in TIPS and REITs mostly due to limited tax-deferred space as I don’t want to hold them in a taxable account. My taxable muni bonds are split roughly evenly between the three Vanguard muni funds with an average duration of 4.5 years. I may start switching back to US Treasuries if my income tax rate changes signficantly.

529 Plans Will Allow Private School K-12 Tax-Free Withdrawals

529Starting in 2018, qualified educational expenses for 529 plans will include up to $10,000 a year in tuition and expenses for primary and secondary school expenses (public, private, or religious). Previously, you could only use it towards qualified college expenses. There were also some related changes to ABLE accounts for individuals with special needs – listed here.

Put simply, you can now pay for up to $10k a year of private K-12 school through a 529 plan. If this impacts you, you may consider making a 529 contribution now before December 31st, 2017 as you are allowed annual contributions of $14,000 per person ($28,000 per couple) while still avoiding gift taxes. You would then be able to make contributions in both 2017 and 2018.

Front-loading a 529 early and with a lot of money. The NY Times lays out a scenario where a wealthy family puts in $200,000 at birth (not sure why they use this amount as it would exceed annual gift tax limits even with front-loading) and then uses the money to pay for K-12 private school. This could theoretically save a wealthy family $30,000 in taxes.

If you have that kind of money, it may be worthwhile to explore front-loading, but be careful as their example assumes a reliable 6% return every single year. In the real world, investment returns can be quite volatile, and if you make a $10,000 withdrawal every year, you run the risk of depleting your account entirely before college. Other possible options are to start funding a 529 even before your child’s birth to start accumulating those future tax-free capital gains.

Using the 529 as a just-in-time passthrough. Around 30 states offer a in-state tax benefit on 529 plans. If you are paying for a private school anyway, you may be able to save some money by simply using the 529 as a passthrough account. Contribute to 529, grab the tax benefit, and then immediately withdraw (starting in 2018) to pay for K-12 tuition. Some states like Montana and Wisconsin specifically disallow this in-and-out practice, but most do not (although they could start).

Things can still change. This Reuters article points out that states may change their own laws in response. They could add minimum holding periods, cap their deductions, or add income restrictions. I am also curious as to what, if any public school “expenses” are technically eligible.

Personally, I don’t think this will change my 529 usage plans significantly. My state does not offer a tax benefit, so there is little benefit to the passthrough option. Maybe if short-term rates go up high someday and you can earn 5% in a bank account, it might become worth the effort to park some money in there temporarily. The other primary benefit is federal tax-free investment gains, and it takes a while for that compounding action to accumulate. If I get lucky and my balance gets really big, I could perhaps see taking some money out before college if they end up in private high school. Realistically though, I doubt my balances will greatly exceed four years of college tuition (times three kids!).

Infographic: 529 State Tax Deduction Value Comparison Map 2017

Amongst the many things to consider at years-end is a contribution to a 529 college savings account. (I just made my contribution for kid #3.) In addition to the federal tax-free growth towards qualified college expenses, more than 30 out of 50 states offer some level of tax deductions for 529 contributions. Some require you to contribute to the official in-state plan, while others let you contribute to any plan.

SavingForCollege.com offers a visual comparison of these state tax benefits in the following infographic. They assume a couple filing jointly with a $100,000 taxable income and contributing $100/month for each of two children. The darker the blue, the bigger the benefit.

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This may not apply exactly to your situation, but it can still provide you a quick take as to whether you should investigate further. They do have a calculator that churns out specific numbers, but unfortunately you must pay for a premium subscription. Here are some related posts:

Fundrise Starter Portfolio eREIT vs. Vanguard REIT ETF: Comparison Setup

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This is a follow-up to my post about exploring the real estate crowdfunding capital stack. I have started an experiment to compare the equity side with comparison between a real estate crowdfunding start-up (Fundrise eREIT Starter Portfolio) and a mainstream real estate ETF (Vanguard REIT ETF) with $35 billion in assets. The question is essentially:

How will a concentrated basket of roughly 20 whole properties bought on the private market compare with an index fund tracking the largest public-traded REITs in the US over the same 5-year period?

Fundrise Starter Portfolio. Despite the “starter” title, the Fundrise Starter Portfolio is actually a simple 50/50 mix of their first two eREITs: the Fundrise Income eREIT and the Fundrise Growth eREIT. These private eREITs utilize recent crowdfunding legislation to own a basket of individual real estate properties. It is open to all investors (not restricted to accredited-investors) and has a minimum deposit of $500. You must buy shares directly from Fundrise, and there are liquidity restrictions as this is meant to be a long-term investment.

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I purchased $1,000 worth of Fundrise shares on 10/20/2017. Specifically, 50 shares @ $10.00/share for the Income eREIT and 48.780488 shares @ $10.25/share for the Growth eREIT. Here’s a current screenshot as of 12/13/17 from my account page.

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Here’s a map of locations for the current holdings. Most are apartment complexes, condominiums, and hotels.

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Vanguard REIT ETF. The Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ) is one of the largest index funds to invest in publicly-traded real estate investment trusts (REITs). You can purchase it via any brokerage account. You have the liquidity of being to sell on any day the stock market is open. A single share currently costs about $85, not including an trade commission. I own VNQ in my retirement portfolio, but will be using Morningstar tools to track the performance of a $1,000 investment bought on the same date of 10/20/17. As of 12/13/17, the VNQ holdings are worth $995.95.

You are holding a tiny slice of (tens of?) thousands of office buildings, hotels, nursing homes, shopping centers, apartment complexes, and so on. Here are the top 10 holdings as of 10/31/17 per Vanguard:

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The Fundrise Starter Portfolio is waiving their advisory fees until 12/31/17 and will be 0.15% after that. Each underlying eREIT will also have their own internal fees for managing the properties. The Vanguard REIT ETF has an expense ratio of 0.12%, with each public REIT having their own internal costs to manage their properties. Due to scale, I would expect the net effect of fees to be significantly higher for the Fundrise assets than for the Vanguard ETF. We will see if Fundrise can provide higher net returns for this concentrated holding.

Fundrise will announce dividend distributions on a quarterly basis, as well as provide updates to NAV, so I will probably update quarterly as well. I plan on holding onto this investment for at least 5 years. This will allow the investments to “play out” a bit and also avoid any early redemption fees.

You can learn more about all Fundrise eREIT options here. I have written about my past experiences in my Fundrise eREIT review and Fundrise Liquidity and Redemption review.

Robinhood App Review: Free Stock Trades, Free Options Trading, No Minimum Balance

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Updated. The Robinhood app just announced free options trading, which expands their suite of services to the following:

  • Unlimited free stock and ETF trades with no minimum balance requirement.
  • Free options trading. No commission and no per contract fee, plus no exercise or assignment fees.
  • Sleek smartphone app (Android and iOS) + Robinhood for Web option + API integration.
  • Free real-time market data.
  • Free share of stock for new users with referral.

Background. I’ve been Robinhood beta user since mid-2014. I was skeptical as I’ve been an long-time early adopter of free trading platforms (read: cheapskate investor). In August 2015, they rolled out both iOS and Android app and reported processing over 2 million free trades. As of 2017, they have over a million users and processed $30 billion in trades. According to Bloomberg, they recently raised money at a $1.3 billion valuation.

Application process. You must provide your personal information including Social Security number, net worth, income, investing experience, etc. This is the same as any other brokerage firm, but this may also be the first such account for many users. Everything was done online; there were no paper documents that required mailing or faxing.

Core features review.

  • Legit. Robinhood Financial is a member of the SIPC which protects the securities in your account up to $500,000. Data is encrypted with SSL. Apex is their clearing firm.
  • $0 commission trades. Yes, it works, all with no minimum balance requirement. You could open an account, put in five bucks, and buy a single share of Zynga (ZNGA) if you wanted to (maybe two on a bad day…).
  • Market orders, limit orders, stop limit orders, and stop orders available. Certain orders may be entered as good for the day or good till canceled (GTC).
  • Individual cash or margin accounts available.
  • Free options trading: No commission and no per contract fee upon buying or selling options, as well as no exercise or assignment fees. Level 2 self-directed options strategies (buying calls and puts, selling covered calls and puts) as well as Level 3 self-directed options strategies such as fixed-risk spreads (credit spreads, iron condors), and other advanced trading strategies are available.
  • Customer service details. You are encouraged to go through their e-mail “[email protected]”, but they have added a phone number now during market hours (9:30am – 4:00pm EST) at (650) 940-2700.

Funds transfers. You can manually link any bank account with your routing number and account number, but you can also directly use your username and password at these banks: Chase, Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, Charles Schwab, PNC, Silicon Vally Bank, and USAA. ACH transfers are free and take approximately 3 business days (same as other brokerages). There is also a automatic deposits feature where you can schedule ACH transfers on a weekly, biweekly, monthly, or quarterly basis.

ACAT account transfers. Robinhood now accepts incoming stock transfers from outside brokerage accounts. To do this, go your app account menu, select “Banking”, then select “Stock Transfer” and follow the on-screen instructions. Incoming transfers are free. Outgoing transfers will incur a $75 fee.

Robinhood Instant. Robinhood Instant is a free upgrade that gets you a “limited margin account” that has the following features:

  • Immediate access to funds from selling stock. That means you can reinvest those funds without waiting two days for settlement. (All brokerage margin accounts offer this.)
  • Limited instant deposits. Use up to $1,000 of your pending bank deposits right away. No waiting 2-3 days for a bank transfer to complete.

What’s the catch? Getting free trades is great, but be aware of the following:

  • Although they announced that a web interface is available, I have been on the waitlist since early November (currently #600,000 in line). Full rollout is not scheduled until some time in 2018. Everyone can access their account via a mobile Apple iOS or Android device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android phone, Android tablet).
  • There are unofficial sites that use the Robinhood API to provide web access, but I would be wary of sharing your login credentials with a 3rd-party.
  • I’m currently on a wait list for the free options trading as well.
  • Broker-assisted phone trades are $10 each, according to their fee schedule.
  • Electronic statements are the default and only free option. I don’t even see an option to enable paper statements in the app, but according to their fee schedule paper statements cost $5 a pop.

How do they make money? First, Robinhood will make some money the same way other brokers do: collect interest on your idle cash, charge you interest for margin loans, and sell order flow. The most innovative prospect is to the plan to sell API access to other financial apps.

The fact that Robinhood sells order flow may leave you with a slightly worse execution price as compared to other brokers with more complex order routing. If you are making large value trades, then this small percentage difference may add up to something significant that matters more than commission price. With my tiny order volume, I am fine with them selling my order flow if they are giving me commission-free trades.

Robinhood Gold is their premium service tier that gives you extending trading hours and interest-free margin for $10 a Month. My Robinhood Gold review.

User interface. Over the last 10 years, I’ve opened an account at the majority of the “discount” brokerage firms. I’ve had $0 trades before, along with $2 trades, $2.50 trades, $4.95 trades and so on. What makes Robinhood special is their modern, app-centric approach. I agree with this quote from Wired:

But the app’s simplicity is meant to be about more than style. Ease of access and understanding is meant to make Robinhood compulsively engaging for a new generation of investors that don’t find the stock market very accessible from the mobile screens at the center of their lives.

Screenshots.

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Recap. Robinhood delivers on their $0 stock trades promise with no minimum balance. The app interface is clean and intuitive. Customer service is on the lean side, but my requests were responded to within a day or so. They continue to make incremental improvements. They’ve been open to the public since March 2015, which is honestly longer than I expected. They announced a web interface on November 1, 2017. They announced free options trading in December 2017.

Sign up for Robinhood with my referral link and get a free share of stock, and I’ll get one too. Details on this promotion here.

Emerging Markets ETF Comparison: Vanguard, iShares Core, and Schwab

The Vanguard Blog has an article Is price everything for ETFs? that reminds us that while low costs may be the most important factor in ETF selection, it is not the only factor. When there are multiple ETFs covering similar asset classes, the DIY investor should dig a bit deeper to get the complete picture.

For example, here is a comparison chart of the Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO), iShares Core MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (IEMG), and the Schwab Emerging Markets Equity ETF (SCHE). If you compare only with expense ratio, they are all pretty much the same with Schwab being the cheapest by a thin margin.

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What’s actually inside? Underneath the ETF wrapper, you’ll see that VWO holds a larger number of companies and the average market cap is smaller at $15 billion. This means that Vanguard’s ETF holds many more of the smaller companies, if that additional diversification interests you. iShares still holds South Korean stocks, whereas Vanguard and Schwab has South Korea as a developed market.

Trade commissions. Transaction costs affect your personal return. You can trade Vanguard ETFs for free with an account direct at Vanguard.com. You can trade Schwab ETFs for free with an account direct at Schwab.com. iShares doesn’t have their own self-directed brokerage arm, but you can trade many iShares ETFs for free at Fidelity.com. You could also go through a broker that offers free trades on everything like Robinhood (no minimum) or Merrill Edge ($50,000+ in assets).

Average bid/ask spread. In addition to commissions, there is also a buy/sell gap where you can lose money. This is less important for gradual buy-and-hold investors, but you still want this gap to be as small as possible. The article doesn’t share this information, but you can look it up at sites like ETF.com, where the respective 45-day historical bid/ask spreads were VWO (0.02%), IEMG (0.02%), and SCHE (0.04%). Schwab has the lowest assets under management and lowest daily volume, making their bid/ask spread wider by a thin margin.