Professional investment advice (and why you should ignore it)

In January, I accompanied Kim to an appointment with Paul, her investment adviser from Edward Jones. Paul's brother was my best friend in grade school and junior high, and we have many mutual friends. I sat and listened while Kim and Paul talked about her investments and how she ought to invest for retirement. I didn't participate much, though, because this is Kim's money, and I didn't feel like it was right for me to take an active role.

I did ask some questions about index funds, though. Kim's money is entirely in individual stocks (like Apple) and expensive load-bearing funds such as VFCAX (Federated Clover Value Fund), which has an expense ratio of 1.19 percent and a sales load of 5.5 percent.

Paul argued against index funds, saying:

  • Mutual-fund managers earn back the sales load (and high expense ratio) in time so that, long term, actively managed mutual funds outperform index funds. (Note: Studies show that, in general, this is not true.)
  • Part of the reason people pay him to manage their investment accounts is because he protects them from making foolish emotional decisions about the market and he alerts them to possible opportunities.

Afterward, I asked Kim what she thought of the meeting. She got the gist of things, but found a lot of it confusing. No surprise. I know this stuff and still found some of the presentation confusing.

“What do you think I should do?” she asked.

“Well, I still think you should be in index funds,” I said, but I didn't push it. Again, we've been dating almost two years, but it's not like we're married. I didn't feel comfortable making this decision for her.

Over the next few weeks, I wrote the investment chapter for my ebook. And then I rewrote the chapter. And then I rewrote it again. (This ebook will finally see the light of day at the end of April, by the way.)

As I wrote, I realized that I truly believe index funds are the right way for most people to invest. And it's not just me. Warren Buffett believes this, as do many other well-known investors. The evidence is overwhelming. The smartest way for the average person to invest is to put all of their money in broad-based, low-cost index funds and never touch it. End of story.

Meet the New Adviser — Same as the Old Adviser

Between January and March, Kim switched jobs. Her new employer also contributes to retirement, but uses a different investment adviser. Last week, we met with the new guy, Evan. This time, I asked Kim how she viewed my role before the meeting. “I want you to speak up,” she said. “I want you to act like you're my husband.” Well then, OK.

The meeting with Evan started very much like the meeting with Paul. Evan talked about how much Kim needs to save to meet her retirement goals (answer: a lot!). He also talked about where she should put the money. He agreed with me that it's probably best not to shift around Kim's existing investments (although I can't help thinking we're falling victim to a sunk-cost fallacy by not moving to index funds). He recommended that all of her new money should go into shiny new mutual funds that his company sells — funds that carry loads of 5.75 percent.

Note: These mutual funds are from American Funds, and I'm very familiar with them. When I was married, Kris put a lot of her savings into the American Funds family.)

“How are you compensated?” I asked.

“Great question,” Evan said. “I'm paid out of the sales charge, out of the front-end load of the mutual funds. A part of that goes to me, a part of that goes to my company, and a part of that goes to the mutual fund company itself.”

After a few minutes of discussing these new funds, I decided to speak up.

“Look,” I said. “I write about money. I'm not an investment guru and I don't have any specific training, but I've read and written a lot about investing over the past few years. Everything I've read says that the only reliable indicator of future mutual fund performance comes from a fund's fees. The lower they are, the better the fund is likely to perform in the future.”

“That may be so,” Evan said, “but that's only part of the story. With proper management, a traditional fund can outperform an index fund. Besides, index funds only work if you're able to control your emotions. Studies show that most investors earn returns far below those of the market because they make poor choices under the influence of emotion.”

“Sure,” I said. “The Dalbar study shows that every year.” I cite this study over and over again in the articles and books I write. “But investor behavior is only one part of the problem. The other part is costs.”

Evan protested. I didn't blame him. His livelihood is tied up in this. Besides, I think he truly believes in his funds.

“If Kim were to buy index funds through Vanguard or Fidelity, how would you be compensated?” I asked.

“I'd take 1 percent,” Evan said.

“One percent up front?” I asked. “Or 1 percent per year?”

“One percent per year,” he said. With the roughly 0.25 percent expense ratio for a typical index fund, that would give her a cost of 1.25 percent annually. That beats the expense ratios from the funds Evan was proposing, especially when you factor in the 5.75 percent sales load.

Following My Own Advice

At the end of the meeting, Kim smiled and shook Evan's hand. “Thanks for your help,” she said. “We'll go home and figure this out.”

We walked next door to have a glass of wine while gazing out at the stormy Willamette River. “What do you think I should do?” she asked.

“Do you want to know what I would do if this were my money?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“First, I'd contribute as much to retirement as needed to get the match from your boss. I'd have that put into an index fund, and I'd pay Evan his 1 percent per year. I don't like it, but that's your best option to get the match from work.”

“For everything else, though, I'd invest on my own. I wouldn't do it through Evan. I'd open an account at Vanguard or Fidelity and schedule monthly contributions. He says you need to be putting away $920 per month for the next 20 years in order to have the equivalent of $50,000 per year at retirement. Do that. To be honest, I'd rather you didn't pay me rent or utilities. I don't need that money. I'd rather see you put it directly into an investment account every month. It'll still feel like you're paying me rent, but it'll be going to your future instead. Does that make sense?”

Kim nodded. “It does,” she said, “but I still don't like it.” (We're still hammering out the financial side of our relationship. She wants to pay her half of things — which I appreciate — but I don't want to take her money. When she pays me for rent or utilities or anything else, I tuck the money into a “secret” savings account at Capital One 360. That makes both of us happy.)

Unconventional Success

After our meeting with Evan, I began to have bouts of self doubt. It's one thing to make decisions with my own money; it's another to make them for somebody else.

To boost my confidence, I turned to books. I re-read the rationale behind investing in index funds. In particular, I turned to David Swensen's Unconventional Success. During our meeting, Evan had pointed to the Yale University endowment as an example of investing success. Swensen is the mastermind behind that endowment. He's also a passionate supporter of passive investing.

Unconventional Success contains nearly 400 pages laying out the arguments for index funds as “a fundamental approach to personal investment.” It explores asset allocation, market timing, and security selection before ultimately concluding that “overwhelming evidence proves the failure of the for-profit mutual-fund industry.”

Note: You can read a much shorter version of Swensen's arguments in his 2011 New York Times editorial about the mutual fund merry-go-round.

Refreshing myself about the evidence in favor of index funds allowed me feel much better about our second meeting with Evan. On Monday night, we returned to his office to explain our decision. In short, we wanted to put all of Kim's future funds into the following asset allocation using Vanguard index funds:

  • 45% into VTSMX, the Vanguard Total Stock Market index fund
  • 25% into VGTSX, the Vanguard Total International Stock index fund
  • 20% into VBMFX, the Vanguard Total Bond Market index fund
  • 10% into VGSIX, the Vanguard REIT index fund (a REIT is like a mutual fund for real estate)

“That's great,” Evan told us. “We can do that. But there's just one problem. Our investment platform requires a $25,000 minimum in order to make this happen. Otherwise, it's not worth our time.”

At first, I thought this was a barrier. Kim doesn't have $25,000 in new money to invest. But then I hit upon a couple of solutions.

First, we could move our shared “dream fund” from the Capital One 360 savings account where it currently resides. Instead, we could place it in index funds. Sure, this would introduce greater risk, but I'm OK with that. By the time we're ready to tap this fund, the stock market should be higher than it is today — and it should outperform savings accounts in the meantime.

Second, we could liquidate Kim's existing mutual funds and move the money to Vanguard funds instead. That's probably the smartest move anyhow. We had planned to leave her existing accounts at Edwards Jones, but this makes more sense.

In the end, Kim came up with a fun plan. Here's what we're going to do:

  • We'll move all of her investment accounts from Edward Jones to the new company.
  • We'll sell half of her existing funds in order to meet the minimum requirements to begin putting money into a Vanguard retirement account. (And because index funds are the better choice.)
  • We'll keep half of her existing funds as they are and allow her new adviser to manage them as he sees fit. Let's see if he can actually beat a portfolio of index funds.
  • Meanwhile, she'll funnel $460 per month into her employer-sponsored retirement account.
  • Finally, she'll open a personal Roth IRA account at Vanguard. Into this, she'll contribute $460 per month. This will give her a chance to see what it's like to manage an investment account on her own.

This process illustrated some of the problems the typical investor faces. First, she receives self-serving advice from advisers (even when they don't intend to be self-serving). Second, even when she knows the right thing to do, it can be tough to stick to her guns in the face of trained expertise. Third, there can be barriers to making smart choices, barriers like high minimums and additional fees.

In the end, it's important to make your own informed investment decisions. Remember: Nobody cares more about your money than you do. If you don't take the time to educate yourself, you can't expect anyone else to make the right decisions for you.

More about...Investing, Planning

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