MONEY municipal bonds

Muni Bonds are Beating Stocks This Year. What to Know Before You Jump In.

Municipal bonds are on a tear. On Monday The Wall Street Journal noted that the normally staid $3.7 trillion sector has returned 8.3% so far this year, outperforming the Dow Jones Industrial Average and highly rated corporate bonds. Readers of MONEY’s print edition shouldn’t be surprised. Our April issue argued these bonds could “make a bid for comeback investment of the year.” If munis are just getting your attention now, here are four things you need to know:

Munis benefit some investors more than others

Munis’ interest payments are exempt from federal and sometimes state and local income tax. That means, all other things being equal, those who pay higher tax rates enjoy a bigger benefit. Just how good a deal is it? Because municipal bond buyers are well aware of the tax perks, muni bonds typically yield less than Treasuriess. So to find out if munis make sense for you, you need to look at the difference between these two yields and compare with your tax rate.

The question can also be complicated factors like where you live and whether you are subject to the alternative minimum tax or the new Medicare tax on investment income.

But there is a basic rule of thumb. Start by subtracting your tax bracket from 1. So if you are in the 33% bracket you are left with 0.67. Then divide the municipal bond’s tax-free yield by the resulting number. Finally compare the result to the yield on a taxable investment. Right now the 10-year Treasury yields about 2.3%. Top-rated muni bonds with similar 10-year durations are yielding 2.1%. The upshot: A muni investor in the 33% tax bracket could grab an after-tax yield of 3.1%. For an investor in the 25% bracket, the after tax yield falls to 2.8%.

Munis aren’t risk free

Although munis may offer an after-tax yield advantage, it comes at a cost. While Treasuries issued by the Federal government are considered iron-clad, municipal bonds’ credit risk can range from triple-A to junk, not unlike bonds issued by companies. While you can certainly buy bonds backed by, say, the State of New York or California, many municipal bonds are issued by less august entities — a particular city or school district. Still others may be backed by a particular stream of revenues — like the tolls collected on a particular road. In all there are more than 15,000 issuers, according to Moody’s. Even counting small issuers, municipal defaults are rare. But political impasses — like the 2008 California budget deadlock — can give the markets jitters, driving down prices. Sometimes, as the news out of Detroit or Puerto Rico show, the problems really are serious.

Where you live has a lot to do with the fund you should buy.

Municipal bonds may carry state and local tax perks. For instance, income from municipal bonds issued by a particular state is typically exempt from state income taxes for residents of that state. In other words, New Yorkers who own New York bonds get a state tax break on top of their federal income tax benefits. That’s why there’s a proliferation of municipal bond mutual funds targeting individual states, especially populous and high-tax ones like New York, California, and New Jersey.

There are some wrinkles that may surprise you, though: Bonds issued by territories like Puerto Rico are exempt from state taxes everywhere. That’s helped make them far more popular than they might otherwise be. (They may even turn up in funds labelled “New York.”) So Puerto Rico’s fiscal problems have had a real impact on individual investors on the U.S. mainland.

If you’re just buying now, the deals are less attractive

Of course, while the tax benefits of municipal bonds can seem attractive, taxes should never be your only consideration for an investment. You also have to judge whether the price you’re getting will turn out to be a bargain, and the yields the bonds are offering now are looking a bit thin. (Remember, as bond prices rise, yields fall.) Muni bonds had a rough 2013, declining about 2.6% at a time when Detroit’s fiscal problems were continually making headlines. But munis haven’t just snapped back. They’ve put together their longest string of monthly gains in two decades, according to the Journal. Such a sharp rally can only mean that investors’ return prospects have gotten a lot less rosy.

“It’s difficult to find real value in the muni market these days, but if you already own munis, you should stick with what you own because it’s hard to replace that income,” Jim Kochan, a senior investment strategist at Wells Fargo Advantage Funds recently told investment bible Barron’s. “Whenever we’ve been at these yields in the past, it’s never been a good time to buy, because the market usually corrects.”

MONEY

Schwab’s Pitch to Millennials: Talk to (Robot) Chuck

Charles Schwab Corp. courts young investors with low-cost online financial advice.

Charles Schwab Corp. became an icon of the 1980s and ’90s bull market by helping individual investors make cheap stock trades.

Schwab made a smart bet that people were willing to research and pick stocks without the advice of a broker, if only they were given the technology (first just the telephone, and later online) to do it for themselves. But the new generation of investors is already comfortable with technology—what they’re increasingly wary of is picking stocks.

Enter the so-called “robo-advisers,” investment firms that rely on computer algorithms to help investors pick a slate of mutual or exchange-traded funds, typically for a lower cost than traditional advisers. Companies like Betterment and Wealthfront have gained thousands of clients and millions in start-up money, hoping that they might become, essentially, the Schwab of the millennial generation.

Not surprisingly, the actual Charles Schwab wants a piece of the action too.

On Monday the San Francisco discount brokerage unveiled its plan for a product called “Schwab Intelligent Porfolios,” which will launch in the first quarter of 2015.

Schwab isn’t the only investment incumbent to try to jump on this trend. Vanguard has been running a pilot version of a program that takes a similar approach. Fidelity recently announced a venture with Betterment, one of the new upstart firms.

All the new web-driven advice services take for granted that many investors—already used to banking online, shopping on Amazon and sharing personal details on Facebook—will be willing to interact with a financial adviser only online or over the phone. In some cases, the services do away with the flesh-and-blood advisers altogether. Instead, a computer model creates a portfolio of stock and bond funds after a customers fill out an online questionnaire about their goals and risk tolerance. Just as with books and music, putting money advice online has been pushing costs down. Working with a traditional financial adviser, you might pay 1% or more assets per years in fees. Advisers like Wealthfront and Betterment charge less than 0.5%.

The new services also tend to be available to a wider group on investors, with minimum portfolios of $25,000 or less. Many traditional advisers look won’t work with clients unless they have at least ten times that amount.

How does Schwab’s planned new service compare the upstarts? The details about Intelligent Portfolios are still a bit thin. Schwab describes the service as offering “technology-driven automated portfolios” but also says “live help from investment professionals” is available. Schwab is being aggressive on cost: It will not levy any asset-based fee at all, and will require as little as $5,000 to invest. Schwab says it will make money when Schwab’s own exchange-traded funds are included as investment recommendations, and from portfolios’ cash holdings which will be in Schwab bank products. Without knowing which ETFs Schwab ends up recommending, it’s difficult to get a sense of the total amount investors will pay. (Some Schwab ETFs are very low-cost, however.)

What is clear is that the new services have changed the game, pushing companies to get the sticker price for basic advice down as low as possible. For example, an older Schwab investment program, it’s ETF “managed portfolio,” allows investors to talk to advisers over the phone and in branches. It charges investors up to 0.9% of their assets a year.

MONEY stocks

3 Things to Know About IBM’s Sinking Stock

141020_INV_IBM
Niall Carson—PA Wire/Press Association Images

IBM's shares plunged 7% Monday after a disappointing earnings report. Can tech's ultimate survivor transform itself one more time?

International Business Machines INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORP. IBM 0.1667% has long enjoyed a unique status on Wall Street — a tech growth powerhouse that investors also see as a reliable blue chip, with steady profit growth and a hefty dividend. But with the rise of new technologies like cloud computing, Big Blue has struggled to maintain that balancing act.

Now investor confidence has suffered a big blow.

On Monday the company announced the results of a pretty lousy quarter. IBM’s third-quarter operating profit was down by nearly one fifth, and the company failed to generate year-over-year revenue growth for the 10th consecutive quarter.

Big Blue also revealed plans to sell-off its struggling semiconductor business, a move that involves taking $4.7 pre-tax billion charge against IBM’s bottom line. Actually, it is paying another company to take this unit off its hand.

While CEO Virginia Rometty acknowledged she was “disappointed” with IBM’s recent performance, she’s also pledged to turn the company around, led in part by IBM’s own foray into the cloud.

Now, you don’t get to be a 103-year-old tech company without learning to adapt. That’s what IBM famously did in the ’90s, when the computer giant started to shift away from profitable PC hardware in favor of consulting and service contracts for businesses.

But Monday’s dismal earnings show just how hard repeating that trick could turn out to be.

Here’s what else you need to know about the stock:

1) You can’t really call IBM a growth company anymore since its sales aren’t rising.

When it comes to revenues, IBM ranks behind only Apple APPLE INC. AAPL -0.1429% and Hewlett-Packard HEWLETT-PACKARD CO. HPQ -0.7916% among U.S. tech companies. On a quarterly basis, though, sales have actually shrunk for 10 periods in a row, including a 4% slide in the third quarter. The big culprit is cloud computing, in which businesses can access computing services remotely via the Internet.

Since the 1990s, IBM’s model has been premised on selling powerful, expensive computers to large businesses, then earning added profits on contracts to help firms run those machines. But the cloud lets companies rent, not buy, this computing power. “You only pay for what you use,” says Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Joseph Foresi. The result: IBM’s hardware revenues sank 15% last quarter.

2) IBM is racing to be a leader in cloud computing, but with mixed results.

The company has identified four alternative areas of growth. One is the cloud, the very technology eating into IBM’s hardware sales. Big Blue has spent more than $7 billion on cloud-related acquisitions. It’s also going after mobile, IT security, and big data, the analysis of information sets that are too large for traditional computers. An example of that is Watson. IBM’s artificial-intelligence project, which won Jeopardy! in 2011, is being marketed to businesses in finance and health care.

These initiatives have promise, but IBM’s size is a curse. For instance, the company’s cloud revenues jumped 69% to $4.4 billion last year, but with nearly $100 billion in overall sales, “it’s hard to move the needle,” says S&P Capital IQ analyst Scott Kessler.

3) The stock is now much cheaper than its tech peers, but it may deserve to be.

Investors willing to wait and see if these moves will transform IBM may take comfort in the fact that the stock looks cheap. What’s more, the shares yield 2.4%, vs. 2% for the broad market. This could make the company look like a good value.

But investors should tread carefully, says Ivan Feinseth, chief investment officer at Tigress Financial Partners. He notes IBM has spent $90 billion on stock buybacks in the past decade, which has kept the P/E low by increasing earnings per share. Yet none of that money was invested for growth, as evidenced by IBM’s sluggish annual growth rate. It is hard to imagine IBM outmuscling Amazon AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN 1.7654% , Cisco CISCO SYSTEMS INC. CSCO 0.2735% , Microsoft MICROSOFT CORP. MSFT 0.1885% , HP HEWLETT-PACKARD CO. HPQ -0.7916% , and Google GOOGLE INC. GOOG -0.4025% in the cloud — and there are better values in tech.

MONEY

4 Reasons Why Bill Gross Leaving Pimco Is Such Big News

Bill Gross, co-founder and chief investment officer of Pacific Investment Management Company (PIMCO).
Bill Gross, co-founder and former co-chief investment officer of Pacific Investment Management Company (Pimco). Jim Young—Reuters

'Bond King' Bill Gross has resigned from the firm he founded. Here's why his move matters.

It many not be LeBron leaving Miami, but on Wall Street, at least, it was arguably an even bigger deal. Bill Gross, long one of the biggest stars in money management, has resigned from the Newport Beach, Calif., asset management giant Pimco and will be heading to Janus Capital in Denver.

Why Gross is such big news

Gross’s $221 billion Pimco Total Return fund (PTTCX) is one of the largest mutual funds on the market—in fact, it has more assets than any bond fund in the world. And it’s a mainstay in many 401(k) plans. So there is a good chance at least some of your retirement savings are at stake. Because it invests largely in a diversified mix of government and corporate bonds, for many people Pimco Total Return is the primary holding for money they don’t put in the stock market.

And since Gross’s fund and Pimco, the firm he founded in 1971, are major players in the market for U.S. Treasuries, he also has been an important public figure, with financial journalists closely following his comments on interest rates, Federal Reserve policy, the U.S. debt and other economic issues. Similar to famous stock investors like Warren Buffett, news that Gross was buying something could move markets.

But Gross has been in the spotlight for less flattering reasons lately. We don’t know all the details; the first news of his departure came from a press releases issued by Janus this morning. Both the Wall Street Journal and CNBC are reporting that Pimco was ready to push him, if he hadn’t jumped.

Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise

Gross has a famously quirky personality that helped to build Pimco’s brand. He writes colorful shareholder letters and started practicing yoga before it was cool among money managers. According to one report, Gross didn’t like people to look him in the eye on the trading floor. None of this mattered when Pimco was delivering outsize investment returns. But lately performance has lagged — in the past year Pimco Total Return finished in the bottom tenth of its Morningstar category — in part because of missed calls on the direction the Treasury market. And that may have made his quirks harder for some to take.

After the high profile departure of Gross’ protege and presumed successor Mohamed El-Erian earlier this year, Bloomberg Businessweek put Gross on the cover with the headline “Am I Really Such a Jerk?” Gross didn’t tone it down. In June, he gave what many regarded as an odd speech at a large investment conference, wearing sunglasses and comparing himself to Justin Beiber.

To top it all off, the Wall Street Journal broke news earlier this week that Pimco was being investigated by the SEC. It’s too early to tell where, if anywhere, that could lead. (More here.)

For Pimco, and its investors, it’s a time to wait and see.

While Bill Gross has always been the public face of Pimco, the Newport Beach, Calif., money manager which oversees a total of $2 trillion, is a lot more than Gross.

Businessweek ran a story in May 2013 called “Pimco Prepares for Life After Bill Gross,” noting Gross was 69 at the time. Pimco is known for its deep bench. According to it’s Web site it has more than 700 investment professionals. Another Pimco star, Chief Economist Paul McCulley, who had retired from Pimco in 2010, returned in May.

The big question is whether the investment magic will remain with Pimco or go with Gross. There is one recent precedent worth looking at. In 2009, another high-profile, equally flamboyant bond manager, Jeffrey Gundlach, left his long-time employer, TCW, in acrimonious circumstances and founded a new firm known as DoubleLine. The DoubleLine Total Return (DBLTX) fund has proved a success, beating the market over the past three years and attracting more than $30 billion. But controversy has followed Gundlach too. He made headlines earlier this year after getting embroiled with fund researcher Morningstar.

This may give Janus new life.

If you’re old enough to remember the first Internet bubble — the one that popped in the early 2000s — there’s a good chance you know Janus. For a time, the Denver fund company, which bet and won big on the era’s tech names, seemed like middle America’ gateway to Internet riches. At the peak of the bubble, according the New York Times, half the money flowing into mutual funds went to Janus. That all changed later in the decade when investors departed in droves. Janus has been trying to recapture its former glory ever since.

Since 2002 the company has had five different chief executives. The latest one — a Pimco alum named Dick Weil who arrived in 2010 — has been trying to broaden the company’s focus beyond stock funds. That’s where Gross appears to fit in. According to the Janus release, he’ll be running an “unconstrained bond fund.” Those investments, called unconstrained because they can invest in a wider array of securities than traditional bond funds, have proved popular at a time when ultra-low interest rates have hurt traditional fixed income returns. But as you might guess, there are risks too. Janus is probably betting that Gross’s popularity will reassure investors otherwise reluctant to take another chance with it.

MONEY pimco

What You Need to Know About SEC’s Investigation of Pimco

The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating one of Wall Street's best known money managers. Here is what you need to know.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the SEC has been questioning whether Pacific Investment Management Company, more commonly known as Pimco, has been improperly valuing bonds in one of its portfolios to boost the fund’s returns.

While it’s too early to tell whether the SEC will ultimately allege Pimco did anything improper, here are three key takeaways:

This is another black eye for Bill Gross.

Bill Gross, often referred to as “the bond king,” is one of Wall Street’s highest-profile investors. His flagship fund, Pimco Total Return, is a mainstay in many 401(k) retirement plans. And with $220 billion in assets, the fund is one of the largest investment portfolios in the world.

Recently, however, Gross’s star has waned. Misplaced bets on Treasury bonds have hurt Total Return’s performance. Over the past year the fund has finished in the bottom tenth of its category, according to Morningstar.

Gross also recently endured a public split with protege and presumptive successor, Mohamed El-Erian, who left Pimco in March. Since then Gross, long a media darling, has even started to get bad press. This includes a much-talked about Wall Street Journal story making him seem like a difficult boss. Then there was a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story about Gross that asked, “Am I Really Such a Jerk?”

An SEC investigation only adds to his troubles.

The investigation highlights a long-running dispute about bond ETFs.

The SEC investigation appears to be targeting not Pimco’s flagship Total Return mutual fund but a smaller $3.6 billion exchange-traded fund version of Total Return created in 2012. The ETF version has won some fans, in part by outperforming its older sibling. You can read MONEY’s take on the pros and cons of the ETF version here.

Bond ETFs in general are wildly popular. Investors have poured in more than $180 billion since the financial crisis. But they’ve had their share of problems, and the latest controversy won’t help. To understand why, you have to grasp a bit of the nitty-gritty:

Exchange-traded funds are baskets of securities that trade on an exchange like a stock. Their original appeal to investors had a lot to do with their transparency. Investors can look up at any moment precisely what all of the securities in the ETF are worth. By contrast, traditional mutual funds only value their holdings once a day.

This extra transparency is pretty easy to accomplish when ETFs hold stocks, since most stocks trade every day and the prices are published by exchanges. With a little computing power, stock prices can be tallied up and the total published right away.

That’s not necessarily true of the bond market, where many individual bonds rarely change hands daily.

As a result bond ETF values, while still published continually, are really estimates based on trades of similar (but not necessarily precisely matching) bonds. The upshot is that while stock ETFs almost always trade at prices that are within a few pennies of their putative value, bond ETFs aren’t as reliable.

When traders who are buying bond ETFs disagree with official price estimates about the value of the bonds in the ETF’s portfolio, the ETFs can appear to trade at odd-looking prices.

The industry has endlessly debated what should be regarded as the “true” price. The Pimco controversy, as you see below, appears to have a lot to do with whether actual trades or some other estimate of a bond’s value should be regarded as the “true” price.

The investigation shows how complicated bond investing can be.

Pimco’s actions may have actually helped, not hurt, investors, based on the Wall Street Journal’s description. Still, this doesn’t mean the SEC is wrong to explore its actions.

Here’s what seems to be at issue: Bonds are typically traded in large blocks. When bonds aren’t part of these blocks they can be difficult — read expensive — to trade. Apparently, Pimco went around buying up small blocks of bonds, known as “odd lots,” at discounts. Pimco then marked their prices upwards using estimates of their values derived from larger blocks of bonds.

Is there anything wrong with this? It’s hard to tell because we can only speculate about how Pimco felt justified in doing it.

If Pimco really couldn’t resell the bonds at the new, higher prices it seems off base. But it also seems plausible the bonds might genuinely be worth more in Pimco’s hands than they were in the hands of whoever sold them.

Perhaps with Pimco’s enormous size it’s able to combine these small odd lots of bonds into a larger “round” lot, making the sum worth more than the parts. Or perhaps like a broker in any market, Pimco’s contacts and influence mean it can count on reselling the bonds at a higher price than the original owner could. The devil is in the details, which we don’t yet know.

One other thing to keep in mind. Even if this strategy was a smart one, the SEC may still be right to pursue the case. Allowing bond managers to think they have too much leeway with bond valuations is asking for trouble. Pimco’s investors may have benefited in this particular instance.

But regulators are probably right to be sticklers even if they did. Don’t forget that during the financial crisis big banks effectively hid billions in losses by using questionable methods to value bonds.

 

MONEY

IPO Frenzy: Alibaba vs. Facebook

Chinese Internet sensation Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. is set to sell its first shares on Friday, making it the highest profile IPO since Facebook in 2012. Here's how these two online giants compare.

MONEY hedge funds

Giant Pension Manager Rejects Hedge Funds—Maybe You Should Too

The influential California Public Employees' Retirement System, or Calpers, is turning its back on hedge funds just as hedge fund-like "alternative" mutual funds gain popularity with small investors.

Critics have long argued that hedge funds — unregulated, often opaque, and high-priced investment vehicles for the very wealthy — don’t live up their mystique.

Now the nation’s largest and most closely watched pension fund agrees.

On Monday, the $298 billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System would be liquidating its $4 billion investment in hedge funds, which it called overly complex and costly, Bloomberg reported.

Many Wall Street critics, perhaps feeling vindicated, let out a big cheer. With his characteristic bluster, Barry Ritholtz, blogger and founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management, called the event an “earthquake.”

Exaggeration or not, Calpers is closely watched because of its size and because it has been an innovator before. It was one of the earliest big public pension funds to bet on hedge funds in the first place. Meanwhile, hedge funds have long relied on an image of sophistication and exclusivity to win customers, despite their steep investment fees. So losing a customer of Calpers stature could be a big blow.

Dropping hedge funds isn’t the only thing Calpers has done recently to simplify its investment portfolio. Last month it also said it was considering cutting back it’s holdings in actively managed stock strategies and emphasizing low-cost index funds instead. That move was similarly cheered.

What does the latest Calpers decision mean for individual investors? Most of us aren’t wealthy enough to have hedge fund holdings, which typically have high investment minimums.

But the mutual fund industry has been leaning on hedge fund’s cache to market a new investment product typically called “alternative funds.”

Alternatives have turned out to be one of the fastest growing mutual fund categories, with assets reaching nearly $150 billion, up from less than $25 billion a decade ago, according to Investment News and Morningstar.

Like the original hedge funds these often involve hard-to-parse investment fees. If your financial advisers pitches them, be sure to ask why he or she thinks they will work out better for you than they did for Calpers.

MONEY 401(k)s

Why Your 401(k) Is Missing $273,000

Egg with hole in it
Mats Silvan—Getty Images/Flickr Open

If the 401(k) system worked as advertised, the typical retiree would have $373,000, one study finds. The reality: $100,000.

It’s no secret that America’s 401(k) system has a few flaws. But a new paper from the Boston College Center for Retirement Research shows just how far the system may be falling short.

The research, based on triennial survey data collected by Federal Reserve economists, found that the typical 401(k) balance for middle-income Americans preretirees—those between 55 and 65—was just $100,000. Based on current annuity prices, that amount would give you a retirement income of only $500 a month, a sum that would be eroded each year by inflation. Since “the typical household holds virtually no financial assets outside of its 401(k),” as the study notes, the average 401(k) plan isn’t likely to provide much of a supplement to Social Security.

That’s not what was supposed to happen. If the 401(k) system had worked as well in reality as it did in theory, those same workers would have $373,000 saved, or $273,000 more, according the study.

To reach that figure, researchers assumed a middle-income worker who turned 60 in 2013 began saving in 1982, at age 29. The worker contributed 6% to his or her 401(k) while receiving a 3% company match and invested in a portfolio split evenly between stocks and bonds—all seemingly reasonable assumptions.

So what happened to that missing $273,000?

The answer is that 401(k) balances have been eroded by a combination of unnecessary fees, poor plan design, and bad—or perhaps just desperate—decisions by savers.

Here’s where the money went:

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 1.55.26 PM

Fees: As the Center’s illustration shows, a big chunk of that missing money, some $59,000, went to Wall Street. The study’s analysis was based on the average fee paid to portfolio managers who oversee 401(k) mutual funds. Clearly, fund managers need to be paid something. But 401(k) investors are almost certainly being charged too much. Across the 401(k) universe, the average stock fund investor hands over fees amounting to 0.74% a year to fund managers, largely because they’re invested in actively managed funds. By contrast, the average stock index fund costs just 0.12%. The upshot: Most of that $59,000 is unnecessary cost.

Withdrawals: Another $78,000 is lost to so-called leakage—essentially, investors yanking money out of the plan. The Center for Retirement Research cited another study by Vanguard Group, which found that on average Vanguard plans leaked about 1.2% of assets a year, although that figure may be low, since Vanguard tends to work with large plans with wealthier employees who are less likely to cash out. It’s difficult to tell why investors aren’t sticking with the program. But it appears that roughly half the time investors simply cash the money out, while about a quarter of the time they qualified for a “hardship withdrawal,” such as a medical or housing expense.

Inadequate saving: Finally, there’s the problem of investor behavior. Most workers don’t save enough, or make “intermittent” contributions. Others failed to sign up or lacked the opportunity to do so, especially earlier in their careers—the “immature” system problem. Congress attempted to boost savings rates with the 2006 Pension Protection Act, which made it easier for employers to default new workers into 401(k) plans. As a result, many young people entering the workforce today are enrolled automatically. But there is still room for improvement. Many plans start workers saving at just 3%, not the 6% or higher rate that would lead to a larger balance—perhaps as much as $373,000.

What to make of all this? It looks like Wall Street, workers themselves and the design of the 401(k) all share part of the blame. “Surely, the system could function more efficiently,” the Center’s study says. Hard to argue with that.

More on 401(k)s from MONEY’s Ultimate Retirement Guide:
Why Is a 401(k) Such a Good Deal?
How Much Should I Put in My 401(k)?
How Should I Invest My 401(k)?

MONEY financial crisis

6 Years Later, 7 Lessons from Lehman’s Collapse

Lehman Brothers world headquarters is shown Monday, Sept. 15, 2008 in New York.
Lehman Brothers world headquarters is shown Monday, Sept. 15, 2008 in New York. Lehman Brothers, burdened by $60 billion in soured real-estate holdings, filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court after attempts to rescue the 158-year-old firm failed. Mark Lennihan—Reuters

The venerable investment bank Lehman Brothers went under six years ago today. While Wall Street has recovered from the financial crisis that resulted, lessons endure for Main Street investors.

Exactly six years ago today, Wall Street came closer to imploding than at any other time since the Great Depression.

That was when the venerable investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008, amid the global mortgage meltdown, triggering a cascade effect across Wall Street. Within days, the insurer AIG had to be bailed out by the federal government while other investment banks, including Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch, were pushed to the brink. Merrill, in fact, was eventually sold amid panic to Bank of America.

Six years later, the nation’s financial system seems to have largely healed. Banks are back to posting record profits. Over the past several years, financial stocks have been among the hottest areas of the market.

^DWCB Chart

^DWCB data by YCharts

And with the housing market recovering, even the dreaded mortgage-backed security — the type of bond that triggered the financial panic in the first place starting in 2007 — are back in fashion.

But even if it seems like it’s business as usual on Wall Street, for Main Street investors key lessons endure. Here are 7 of them.

Lesson #1: The price you pay for stocks matters. Really.

The media’s narrative is that the stock market plummeted into an historic bear market because of the global financial panic. That may be true, but equities may not have fallen that far — and for that long — if the circumstances weren’t ripe for a correction.

Remember that in October 2007, the price/earnings ratio for the stock market — based on 10 years of average profits — rose above 25, marking one of only a handful of times that market valuations rose so high. Not surprisingly, the stock market went on to lose 57% of its value from October 9, 2007, through March 9, 2009. (As an aside, the stock market’s so-called normalized P/E ratio is back above 25 again today.)

By March 2009, the P/E ratio for the S&P 500 had sunk to an historically low 13 (the historic average is closer to 16), which has been a signal of buying opportunities. Had you invested at that moment — listening to the Warren Buffett rule that says “be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy” — you would have enjoyed total returns of 230% ever since.

Lesson #2: Don’t bank on any one group of stocks — even financials.

The turmoil after Lehman’s collapse was different and more frightening than the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2000. Why? This time the stocks that took the biggest hits weren’t shares of profitless startups that no one had ever heard of. In this crisis, the biggest losers were financial titans — some more than a century old — that produced a third of the market’s profits and dividends. No wonder these blue chips were fixtures in many retirement portfolios.

The love affair is clearly over … or is it? Financials have been among the market’s best performers since September 2011, having doubled in value in three short years. As a result, bank stocks, which made up less than 9% of the S&P 500 in 2009, based on total stock market value, now represent more than 16% of the broad market. That means they’re probably among the biggest holdings in your stock mutual funds and ETFs.

Lesson #3: Buy and hold works — eventually.

When the Dow fell to 6547 on March 9, 2009, stocks had already lost more than half their value. And equities wouldn’t fully recover until 2013. So it may seem that investors who pulled $25 billion out of stock funds in March and $240 billion over the next three years — plowing that money into bonds — were on the right track.

They weren’t. March 2009 marked the start of a bull market that saw stocks return 230% so far. Had you simply hung on to a basic 70% equity/30% bond strategy from Sept. 1, 2008, when things started to get scary, you’d have earned nearly the 9% historical annual return for this mix over five-year stretches since 1926. Of course, you’d have earned that only by staying the course.

Lesson #4: There is no such thing as a “conservative” or stable stock.

In past crashes, pundits always pointed out that the “safe” place to be is among giant, blue chip stocks that pay dividends and that are industry leaders. Well, Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and AIG all fell under those descriptions. Yet all of those stocks plunged more than the broad market.

This taught investors a huge lesson: Treat all stocks as the volatile, unpredictable creatures that they are. Even dividends, which are synonymous with financially stable, conservatively run companies, can’t be trusted, because during the crisis, the financial sector began slashing dividend payments to safeguard their finances.

Lesson #5: Reaching for yield can lead to a fall.

When stocks fall, the stability of cash can cushion the blow. Yet things don’t necessarily work out that way.

Just ask shareholders of Schwab YieldPlus. This so-called ultrashort bond fund — which was marketed as a cash alternative, though it really wasn’t one — fell 35% in 2008 when the mortgage securities that provided the “plus” in the fund’s name turned out to be riskier than thought. (In January 2011 Schwab settled the charges that it misled investors but did not admit wrongdoing.)

Before that, there was the Reserve Fund, the first money fund in 14 years to lose value in part because it tried to boost payouts by holding some Lehman debt.

It makes no sense to take risks with your rainy-day savings, a lesson that’s worth remembering today. Since early 2009, investors have poured billions of dollars into floating-rate bond funds, which buy short bank loans that offer higher payouts than basic cash, as well as ultrashort bond funds.

Lesson #6: Diversification works — but in diverse ways.

In 2008, only one type of diversification seemed to pan out: your basic mix of stocks and bonds. Among equities, everything pretty much fell in lockstep.

Fast-forward more than three years, when the financial crisis unfolded in a different guise — this time with the debt crisis in Europe. Fear of government defaults peaked in early 2012, with rates on Greek debt reaching 29%. Diversification worked here, too, but also in a different guise.

While conventional wisdom said investors should flee the continent, European shares wound up beating the world in 2012, returning 20.3%. The year before that, it was U.S. stocks that performed the best (despite Uncle Sam’s fiscal woes). And in 2013, Japan led the way, despite having experienced another recession.

Spreading your bets globally eventually pays off, especially given how mercurial equities can be. For investors who are hearing that the U.S. looks like the only promising market these days, this is a clear lesson to heed.

Lesson #7: Stocks always recover; people don’t.

The Dow closes at an all-time high, but that’s cold comfort to those who retired in the past five years. Big upfront losses can crack a nest egg, even if the market later improves. That’s because your portfolio has the most potential earning power in the first few years after you get the gold watch.

Historically, investors have been able to tap anywhere from 4% all the way up to 10% of their savings annually based on how markets fared in this all-important first decade of retirement.

Over the next 10 years, return expectations are extremely modest, so even a 4% withdrawal rate may seem optimistic. For boomers nearing retirement, the trick is not to make matters worse, as two out of five older workers did in 2008 by keeping 70% or more of their 401(k)s in equities.

It’s time to dial down the risks in your portfolio — before the next downturn.

MONEY

Facebook Hits $200 Billion in Record Time

Two years after its IPO, Facebook's value just hit a new milestone. Here's how the stock's remarkable performance compares to some big-name rivals.

Investors, who can’t seem to get enough of Facebook, have sent the shares up more than 40% so far this year. Earlier this week, the company’s value hit $200 billion for the first time. While, as TIME points out, Facebook is still only worth about one-third of rival Apple, its upward trajectory has been pretty remarkable, even by the dizzying standards of tech companies.

Facebook’s initial public offering — the first time it sold shares to the public — took place in May 2012. That means Facebook has raced to $200 billion in a little over two years. And that’s despite some well-publicized problems that sent the company’s value tumbling below $40 billion at one point. Just how remarkable has Facebook’s sprint been? Check how long it took some of its biggest rivals to reach the same market value.

200M

There is one caveat. Facebook, founded in 2004, was already something of a juggernaut by 2012. The stock market initially pegged the company at roughly $100 billion, which the Wall Street Journal called “the biggest-ever valuation by an American company at the time of its offering.” By contrast Microsoft, founded in 1975, went public with a value well below $1 billion in 1986. So it also makes some sense to handicap the results. Here’s how long it took each of those stocks to double from their IPO value. By that measure Facebook’s performance is not quite as remarkable, if still pretty impressive.

 

Source: Morningstar/YCharts

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