Thursday, May 26, 2011

Saving is Easy

It never ceases to amaze me how difficult some people find it to save money when such an activity should be a fact of life. I believe many people assume that the only people who are able to achieve financial independence, and ultimately, a comfortable retirement, are those that are already wealthy or who have extremely high paying jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Saving and investing money is inherently easy on any income and here's why: If you really want to save your money, you will. This boils down to psychology because some people simply do not want to save, even though they should to ensure a comfortable future.

How can this be accomplished? Try cutting out unnecessary discretionary purchases and using that money instead to fund a retirement account that owns a basket of index funds. At this point, many readers might question this strategy since we most often derive much of our satisfaction from these purchases, but it doesn't have to be difficult. Instead, rotate every week, month, or whatever time interval you've chosen to changing which discretionary purchase you swap out for savings funds. If you go out to eat 5 times in an average month, try going out 2 or 3 times instead. For a family of four, you'll likely save well over $100 a month using this strategy. If your family likes to go out to eat, why not go out to eat 5 times again the next month but drink coffee at home each day instead of going to Starbucks? Scaling back these are the activities are one key way in which you will save a lot of money in the long run.

Of course, all of this goes without saying that you should follow the adage of "paying yourself first" and simply save a set percentage of your paycheck, say 10-20%, if possible and devote that to an investment account. You will be amazed at how much you can earn in 30+ years just by investing $100 a paycheck. This is the magic of compounding at work but it's only possible through disciplined saving. Saving money is inherently easy, it's just that many people don't find it fun because the rewards we realize from it do not satisfy us instantaneously.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Opening the Door to New Investors

I was excited to hear news out of Vanguard yesterday that they've lowered their minimum initial investments for their Target Retirement funds to $1,000 from $3,000. This is encouraging news as many young investors find it difficult to invest large amounts of cash at one time. This reduction in initial investment will open up some of Vanguard's most interesting offerings to new investors. 

At their core, target retirement funds set a specified retirement year - 2040 for example - and invest the fund's assets for an investor planning to retire in or around that year. Right now, the 2040 fund has 89.96% of assets invested in stocks, 9.98% in bonds and 0.06% in short-term reserves.

Ultimately, as 2040 approaches, the fund's managers will decrease the amount of equities in the portfolio in order to lower the fund's risk profile. Even better, the Target Retirement funds are funds of funds which own index funds and not individual stocks. This news is a welcome development for investors for another reason: as Vanguard attracts more assets, they benefit from economies of scale and will continue to lower fund expense ratios which benefits all investors.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Anniversary of the Retail Index Fund

In 1976, Vanguard pioneered the index fund by offering it to retail investors for the first time. The company has not looked back and is now the leading manager of index funds and consistently one of the top 3 investment managers in the world by assets with $1.6 trillion under management as of February 2011. I'd like to take time in this post to reflect on what the availabilty of the index fund has meant to individual investors by posting an interview with two of Vanguard's experts - Sandip Bhagat, head of Vanguard Quantitative Equity Group, and Kenneth Volpert who oversees Vanguard's bond funds.

The whole interview is well worth reading but the best part about the interview is that both experts point out that the rise of new "fundamental" or "intelligent" indexes is not truly passively managed investing. In short, this is just another way for Wall Street to sell us an actively managed product that is likely to fail in its attempt to outperform the true passively managed index fund. As Mr. Bhagat notes, "
The point is that any portfolio configuration that goes beyond the size of a company's market-determined value does not represent a passive approach to investing. It brings with it a belief that the market's prices are incorrect, and that some other factors merit more attention. "

This is key because many retail investors assume that a fundamental index offers a better way to capture the "true" value of a basket of stocks. Therein lies the problem - the true value of a company is really what the stock market dictates it is based on its current trading price. Yes, the future value of a company may be drastically different, but we cannot predict or know the future with certainty. The information that is used to create fundamental indexes is often based on earnings reports or other information that happened in the recent past. By attempting to place a fundamental value on stocks, the fundamental "index" winds up becoming nothing more than an actively managed impostor as stocks are changed based on earnings and other data.

Wouldn't it make more sense to simply take the reflection of the collective knowledge of every investor in the world - the price of a stock in the here and now - and build a true index around that? That's precisely what Vanguard did in 1976 and why they have been so successful. Need more proof? Since its inception in 1976, the Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX) has returned 10.79% on average, annually. What has your actively managed fund done for you lately?