MONEY Federal Reserve

If the Fed Is Worried About Wall Street Bubbles, Maybe It Should Regulate Wall Street

Foot of George Washington statue with view of NYSE in the background
Randy Duchaine—Alamy

The Fed ponders raising interest rates to tamp down on financial speculation, but tight money is not the only option.

The Federal Reserve and the bond market are in a weird place right now.

Many officials inside the central bank are anxious to start getting back to normal, and to move short-term interest rates off the near-zero they’ve been at since the financial crisis. But the bond market isn’t listening: Even knowing that the Fed wants to tighten, investors have piled into long-term bonds, holding the benchmark interest rate for 10-year debt at just 2%.

This could mean that the bond market thinks the Fed is just plain wrong in its increasingly upbeat assessments of the economy. Investors’ eagerness to park money in low-yielding but credit-safe Treasuries seems to indicate deep worries about the prospects for long-term growth, and little concern about inflation. But as the Wall Street Journal’s Jon Hilsenrath noted yesterday, some inside the Fed are considering another interpretation of low bond yields. Maybe foreign investors are just pumping up U.S. assets because troubles overseas make anything denominated in dollars more attractive. If that’s the case, the Fed should be worried about asset bubbles.

And so, counterintuitively, New York Federal Reserve president Bill Dudley has been arguing that low long-term bond yields may be a reason for the Fed to tighten short rates even faster — to prick any bubbles that might be forming. Dudley, in a December speech cited by Hilsenrath, draws a comparison to the mid-2000s:

During the 2004-07 period, the [Fed] tightened monetary policy nearly continuously, raising the federal funds rate from 1% to 5.25% in 17 steps. However, during this period, 10-year Treasury note yields did not rise much, credit spreads generally narrowed and U.S. equity price indices moved higher. Moreover, the availability of mortgage credit eased, rather than tightened.

Easy mortgages, it hardly needs pointing out, did not work out so well.

But raising rates is the only way policymakers could respond to concerns about reckless borrowing. On Twitter, economist Adam Posen, a former member of the Monetary Policy Committee at the Bank of England (the U.K.’s version of the Fed), ticked off some other possibilities.

All of these things amount to greater scrutiny of and tighter controls on bank lending behavior. Such policies are known in central-banking jargon as “macroprudential” regulation. The Fed itself is a regulator of banks. And even in the parts of finance where the Fed doesn’t have direct regulatory authority, it has influence as part of an umbrella group of “stability” regulators created after the crisis. It can also sound loud warnings, asking Congress for more regulatory tools and better rules.

Confronted with the possibility of financial-sector bubbles, we seem to have two choices:

1) Raise interest rates until the economy cries “uncle” and no one wants to speculate anymore. Do it even if it’s taken years and years for the economy to get anywhere close to full employment, and even if wage growth is still sluggish.

2) Make sure banks don’t leverage themselves up too their eyeballs, that Wall Street doesn’t create AAA-rated derivatives on junk mortgages that no one understands, and that people don’t get loans they can never pay back.

If forced to choose, I suspect people in finance, who most certainly have the Fed’s ear on these things, prefer the blunt hammer of option #1 over option #2. They’ll moan about regulation, and question whether it’s even realistic. And frankly, the Fed often hasn’t done that job very well. Wall Street has some of the cleverest people in the world working 24/7—crack down on one crazy, risky scheme, and they’ll come up with a new one. It’s also not crazy to be skeptical of the idea that central bankers will be able to know a bubble when they see it.

But of course trying to prevent bubbles by raising rates and tightening money is a form of regulation, too. The immediate costs are spread out a lot more widely, to everyone looking for a job or hoping to get a raise. And if the Fed should be humble about its abilities as a Wall Street regulator, well… it doesn’t have such a great track record on predicting when the economy will be healthy, either. So maybe it shouldn’t be too quick on the interest-rate trigger when inflation is still very low, unless there’s real evidence of an asset bubble somewhere.

MONEY

The Fed Sees the Economy Getting Back to Normal. The Market’s Not So Sure.

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SAUL LOEB—AFP/Getty Images

Why bonds are rallying even as the Fed hints at tightening.

The Federal Reserve has been signalling that it is getting ready to raise short-term interest from near-0% later this year. It recently ended its purchases of bonds under the unconventional stimulus program known as quantitative easing. Read the front-page newspaper headlines, and it looks like the era of very low interest rates is coming to an end.

But the numbers on the market tickers are telling a different story. This week the yield on safe 10-year Treasury bonds, a benchmark for long-term interest rates, tumbled to below 2%. What gives? How is it that interest rates are going down when it looks like the Fed wants to raise them?

The answer, in part, is simple. The Fed doesn’t get to set interest rates on its own. Day-to-day market commentary make it sound like interest rates can be changed with the push of a button: Fed chair Janet Yellen and the rest of Federal Open Market Committee declare that rates shall rise, and then, boom, you get a better deal on CDs and have to pay more to refinance your house.

In fact, in normal times, the Fed only sets short-term rates. What happens to rates on loans maturing years down the road is determined by investors, and it all plays out in the moment-to-moment fluctuations of yields on the bond market. When demand for bonds is high, their prices go up and yields go down; yields rise when bond prices fall. Bond investors think a lot about Fed policy, but they also have their eyes on a host of other economic fundamentals that determine how much it should cost to borrow money.

“Fed policy matters a lot in the short term,” Ben Inker, co-head of asset allocation at the mutual fund manager GMO, recently told me. “It only matters in the long-term if they show themselves to be incompetent.”

Of course, these haven’t been normal times. With the quantitative easing program, the Fed had also been buying up longer-term Treasuries. Lots of people believed that this meant yields were artificially low, and would spike once it looked like QE was over. But the end of the Fed’s bond purchases hasn’t led to a spike in rates. It turns out investors still really want to hold long-term government bonds. “I think now what people are saying is maybe rates weren’t artificially low—maybe they were low for a reason,” said Inker.

Investors like to hold Treasury bonds when they don’t care for the alternatives, such as putting money into expanding their businesses or building new office buildings, houses, and factories. And they are happier to accept low rates when they don’t see much risk of the economy overheating and producing inflation. In short, the low long-term yield on bonds reflects the market’s fairly pessimistic outlook for growth in the long term.

The latest economic numbers from the U.S. are looking healthier lately. Unemployment has come down, and consumer confidence is up. Bond markets, however, are seeing a lot of bad news abroad, and perhaps are worrying that it will spill over to the U.S. In Europe, for example, very low inflation is threatening to turn into deflation—or falling prices—which may sound nice for consumers, but reflects weak demand and makes it harder for borrowers to settle their debts.

The weak global economy has also brought down yields on other government’s bonds—Germany is paying 0.5%—which make Treasuries look like a comparatively good deal. That’s another factor keeping demand for U.S. bonds high and yields low right now.

So here’s the picture: The Fed sees an economy that’s getting stronger, and is looking to raise short-term rates sometime this year to get ahead of the risk of inflation. But markets still see plenty to worry about. Those worries may include, as economist Brad Delong has pointed out, the risk that the Fed may slow down the recovery too soon.

MONEY bonds

Why Skimpy Bond Yields Are a Retirement Game Changer

farmer in field of bad crop
Adrian Sherratt—Alamy Is a long season of slow growth and low returns ahead?

A 10-year Treasury bond now pays less than 2%. That may make it harder to earn the returns you expect in your 401(k).

Yields on the benchmark 10-year Treasury slipped below 2% on Tuesday as bonds rallied. (Bond prices rise when yields, or interest rates, fall, and prices fall as rates rise.) Since the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, bond yields have bounced around near historic lows. That’s had many investors worried about what would happen to their fixed-income investments when the seemingly inevitable rise in bond interest rates finally arrives.

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But in fact, today’s low yields could present a long-term challenge to retirement-oriented savers, even if interest rates stay low, and even if bonds today aren’t overpriced. And investing mostly or entirely in equities won’t immunize you from the problems of investing during a low-return era.

What happens if bond yields rise. First, let’s consider what happens if the conventional wisdom is right, and bond yields do start to rise again. If you hold bonds in a mutual fund as part of, say, a 401(k) plan, the most important thing you can do is understand your risk when bond prices fall. A plain-vanilla, intermediate-term bond fund these days has a “duration” of about 5.5. That measure of interest-rate risk roughly means that if rates rose by one percentage point, the fund would fall 5.5% in value. (Your actual loss would be lower, since you’d still be getting paid interest on the bonds in the fund.)

A decline in the value of a fund that’s the safe part of your retirement portfolio could come as a shock, and for money you may need soon, a shorter-duration bond fund makes sense. But keep short-run bond fund losses in perspective: Over the longer run, a shift up in rates can also help make up for what you lost, and the current yield on bonds gives you a strong clue about what to expect.

Say you own a diversified bond fund. Assume the yield is about 2% when you buy it, and the fund’s average bond matures in seven years. According to numbers from Vanguard, a sudden two-point jump in rates—a huge spike—would cause the fund to lose about 8% in total. As its bonds paid out higher yields, however, your annualized return after seven years would still be likely to level off to just about 2%.

What happens if yields stay low. The real risk with bonds today, however, may not be losses in the short run. It’s that the returns will stay frustratingly low for a long time.

Ben Inker, co-head of asset allocation at GMO, a Boston fund manager, lays out two scenarios, one he calls “purgatory” and the other “hell.” In purgatory, rates are headed for a spike. Bond prices will fall, and stocks might too. But after that you pick up better yield and better returns.

In hell, interest rates stay low. Part of the reason it’s hell is why interest rates stay low: The economy never gets back to its pre-2008 strength. With low growth prospects, there’s less demand for capital, and many investors around the world are content to accept relatively low returns on cash and bonds.

Part of the reason yields have recently fallen below 2% is that bond investors still see some risk of this “secular stagnation” scenario.

Ironically, in hell, your bond investments don’t lose money, since there’s no big rate spike. And today’s stock prices, oddly, might make sense too. Here’s why: When the price of stocks is high relative to long-run past earnings, future returns tend to be lower. Today the P/E ratio for stocks is expensive at 27. (The average is 17.) So stock returns may be on the low side. You still may be willing to take that deal, however, if you are earning only 2% on your bonds.

That may help explain why stocks have recently shot up. But if so, that’s a one-time adjustment. Hell is not just a low-bond-yield world. It’s a low-total-return world.

That would be bad news for savers, especially younger ones who will be putting much of their money into the market in the future. In the hell scenario, a typical portfolio earns 3.4% after inflation instead of the 4.7% Inker assumes you’d have gotten in the past. “Let’s say you turned 25 in 2009 and started saving,” he says. “You end up accumulating 25% less by retirement.”

Inker stresses he doesn’t know which scenario we’re headed for. The one constant is that in neither are there lots of opportunities to make money with low risk. “This is a frustrating environment for us as investors,” admits Inker. “It is less clear what the right thing to do is than throughout almost the rest of history.” The trouble with bonds, it turns out, is bigger than unpalatable yields. And it’s the trouble with an economy that is taking a long time to find its true normal.

 

This story is adapted from “How 2% Explains the World,” in the 2015 Investor’s Guide in the January-Feburary issue of MONEY.

MONEY bonds

This Nobel Economist Spotted the Last Two Bubbles—Here’s What He Says About the Bond Boom

Economist Robert Shiller
Joe Pugliese Economist Robert Shiller

The economist who wrote about irrational exuberance in stocks and real estate says bonds don't look like a classic bubble. But they're no bargain.

This month, Yale economist Robert Shiller, who shared the Nobel Prize in economics in 2013, is publishing the third edition of his classic book Irrational Exuberance. Some might take this as an ominous sign. The first version came out in 2000, and it made the case that stock valuations looked awfully high, and that people seemed too optimistic about tech stocks. You know what happened next.

The second edition, published in 2005, had a new chapter about the unusually high price of real estate. You know what happened that time, too.

Now Shiller has added a new chapter on another asset class that has become historically expensive: bonds. Should we be freaking out?

Bond prices rise when yields fall, and on Tuesday the benchmark Treasury yield slid below 2% for the first time since October. The long-term average for longer-term bond interest rates is 4.6%. Rates have been low ever since the 2008 financials crisis—and since at least 2009, some market observers have called the bond market a bubble.

Shiller, however, resists applying the B-word to bonds. “It doesn’t clearly fit my definition of ‘bubble,’” he says. “It doesn’t seem to be enthusiastic. It doesn’t seem to be built on expectations of rapid increases in bond prices.” (Shiller spoke with Money in December.) In the unlikely event you meet anyone at the proverbial cocktail party talking about bond funds, he’s probably complaining about the lousy yields, not talking about the killing he expects to make.

Still … Shiller does point to one similarity between today’s low yields and past bubbly episodes. Bubbles are a result of a psychological feedback loop: As asset prices go up, people come up with stories to explain why, which helps push prices higher, reinforcing the story, and so on. In the tech boom the story was of a new era of dotcom-fueled growth. The rationalizations about housing prices centered on cheap mortgages and financial “innovations.”

With bonds, too, says Shiller, “there are theories that have been amplified by the price performance.”

The low-rate story driving bond prices, however, is a gloomy one. Investors seek the relative safety of bonds—especially sure-to-pay-back Treasuries—when they feel pessimistic about the economy and comfortable that inflation will be low.

Professional bond managers today can tick off a host of factors weighing down rates and propping up fixed-income prices. There’s inequality, which may be holding back spending. The risk of deflation (falling prices) in Europe and Asia. Bad demographic trends in developed economies. You can even add robots, says Shiller. “There’s a suggestion that computers are going to create a more unequal world, and that this is inhibiting people’s spending plans,” says Shiller. Instead consumers try to save more, bidding up the prices of assets.

The idea of an economy that never quite gets back to prosperity has been labeled “secular stagnation” and the “new normal”—the latter term popularized by Bill Gross, before he made his surprising turn away from Treasuries. (Gross recently left Pimco for Janus. Here is a 2010 interview with Money in which he discussed his “new normal” view. )

The “new normal” story is at least partly built into today’s bond prices. That means even if yields stay low, the strong return on bonds in recent years are unlikely to repeat. (As a rule of thumb, the current yield on a 10-year Treasury is also the total return you can expect over the next decade. So that suggests a slim 2% return.)

Shiller also points out that his research with Wharton economist Jeremy Siegel has shown that bond investors are pretty bad at anticipating inflation. Forget fever dreams of ′70s-style price hikes—a return to 3% inflation would render Treasuries a money loser in real terms. (Inflation is currently below 2%.) That doesn’t seem like such a high bar to clear. It’s what some economists think a healthy economy would look like.

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That said, the slow-growth, mild-inflation scenario remains compelling. The last long period when rates were this low, before World War II, was followed by a long climb upward—but that coincided with postwar expansion, Cold War defense spending, and the baby boom. Maybe that was the anomaly. (If secular stagnation turns out to be real, here’s what that might mean for investors.)

Low rates have probably been even more important, says Shiller, in driving up stock prices. With yields on bonds so meager, investors may have shifted money into stocks in hopes of getting a better return. In early versions of his new edition of Irrational Exuberance, Shiller described today’s bull market as the “post-subprime boom.”

“But I changed it at the last minute,” he says. Now Shiller calls this era “the new normal boom.”

This story is adapted from “How 2% Explains the World,” in the 2015 Investor’s Guide in the January-Feburary issue of MONEY.

MONEY investment strategies

Why Even “Proven” Investment Strategies Usually Fail

Monopoly money
Alamy—Alamy Beware investment strategies that haven't been tried with real money.

Anyone with a computer can find a stock picking strategy that would have worked in the past. The future is another story.

You probably know, because you’ve read the boilerplate disclaimer in mutual fund ads, that past performance of an investment strategy is no indicator of future results.

And yet, funnily enough, nearly everyone in the investment business cites past results, especially the good results. Evidence that an investment strategy actually worked is a powerful thing, even if one knows intellectually that yesterday’s winners are more often than not tomorrow’s losers. At the very least, it suggests that the strategy isn’t merely a swell theory—it’s been tested in the real world.

Except that sometimes you can’t take the “real world” part for granted.

Just before Christmas, an investment adviser called F-Squared Investments settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission, agreeing to pay the government $35 million. According to the SEC, F-Squared had touted to would-be clients an impressive record for its “AlphaSector” strategy of 135% cumulative returns from 2001 to 2008, compared with 28% in an S&P 500 index. Just two problems:

First, contrary to what some of F-Squared’s marketing materials said, the AlphaSector numbers for this period were based solely on a hypothetical “backtest,” and there was no real portfolio investing real dollars in the strategy. In other words, after the fact, F-Squared calculated how the strategy would have performed had someone had the foresight to implement it. Underscoring how abstract this was, the backtest record spliced together three sets of trading rules deployed (hypothetically) at different times. The third trading model, which was assumed to go into effect in 2008, was developed by someone who, the SEC noted in passing, would have been 14 years old at the beginning of the whole backtest period, in 2001. (The AlphaSector product was not launched until late 2008; its record since it went live is not in question.)

Second, even the hypothetical record was inflated, says the SEC. The F-Squared strategy was to trade in and out of exchange traded funds based on “signals” from changes in the prices of the ETFs. But F-Squared’s pre-2008 record incorrectly assumed the ETFs were bought or sold one week before those signals could possibly have flashed. The performance, says the SEC, “was based upon implementing signals to sell before price drops and to buy before price increases that had occurred a week earlier.” Not surprisingly, a more accurate version of even the hypothetical strategy would have earned only 38% cumulatively over about seven years, not 135%.

Call it a woulda, shoulda—but not coulda—track record.

Steve Gandel at Fortune has been following this story for some time and has the breakdown here on how it all happened. This kind of thing is (one hopes) an extreme case. But there’s still a broader lesson to draw from this tale.

Although it’s a no-no to say that a strategy is based on a real portfolio when it isn’t, there’s not a blanket rule against citing hypothetical backtest results. In fact, backtesting is a routine part of the money management business. Stock pickers use it to develop their pet theories. Finance professors publish papers showing how this or that trading strategy could have beaten the market. Index companies use backtests to construct and market new “smart” indexes which can then be tracked by ETFs. But even when everyone follows all the rules and discloses what they are doing, there’s growing evidence that you should be skeptical of backtested strategies.

Here’s why: In any large set of data—like, say, the history of the stock market—patterns will pop out. Some might point to something real. But a lot will just be random noise, destined to disappear as more time passes. According to Duke finance professor Campbell Harvey, the more you look, the more patterns, including spurious ones, you are bound to spot. (Harvey forwarded me this XKCD comic strip that elegantly explains the basic problem.) A lot of people in finance are combing through this data now. But if they haven’t yet had to commit real money to an idea, they can test pattern after pattern after pattern until they find the one that “works.” Plus, since they already know how history worked out—which stocks won, and which lost—they have a big head start in their search.

In truth, the problem doesn’t go away entirely even when real money is involved. With thousands of professional money managers trying their hands, you’d expect many to succeed brilliantly just by fluke. (Chance predicts that about 300 out of 10,000 managers would beat the market over five consecutive years, according to a calculation by Harvey and Yan Liu.)

So how do you sort out the random from the real? If you are considering a strategy based on historical data, ask yourself three questions:

1) Is there any reason besides the record to think this should work?

Robert Novy-Marx, a finance professor at the University of Rochester, has found that some patterns that seem to predict stock prices work better when Mars and Saturn are in conjunction, and that market manias and crashes may correlate with sunspots. His point being not that these are smart trading strategies, but that you should be very, very careful with what you try to do with statistical patterns.

There’s no good reason to think Mars affects stock prices, so you can safely ignore astrology when putting together your 401(k). Likewise, if someone tells you that, say, a stock that rises in value in the first week of January will also rise in value in the third week of October, you might want to get them to explain their theory of why that would be.

2) What’s stopping other investors from doing this?

If there’s a pattern in stock prices that helps predict returns, other investors should be able to spot it. (Especially once the idea has been publicized.) And once they do, the advantage is very likely to go away. Investors will buy the stocks that ought to do well, driving up their price and reducing future returns. Or investors will sell the stocks that are supposed to do poorly, turning them into bargains.

That doesn’t mean all patterns are meaningless. For example, Yale economist Robert Shiller has found that the stock market tends to do poorly after prices become very high relative to past earnings. It may be that prices get too high in part because fund managers risk losing their jobs if they refuse to ride a bull market. Then again, the same forces that affect fund managers will probably affect you too. Will you being willing to stay out of the market and accept low returns while your friends and neighbors are boasting of double-digit gains?

And even Shiller’s pattern doesn’t work all the time—stock prices can stay high for years before they come down. Betting that you can see something that’s invisible to everyone else in the market is a risky proposition.

3) Does it work well enough to justify the expense?

Lots of strategies that look good on paper fade once you figure in real-world trading costs and management fees. A mutual fund based on the AlphaSector strategy, by the way, charges about 1.6% per year for its A-class shares. That’s eight times what you’d pay for a plain-vanilla index fund, which is all but certain to deliver the market’s return, minus that sliver of costs. And there’s nothing hypothetical about that.

MONEY

Most Financial Research Is Probably Wrong, Say Financial Researchers

Throwing crumpled paper in wastebasket
Southern Stock—Getty Images

And if that's right, the problem isn't just academic. It means you are probably paying too much for your mutual funds.

In the 1990s, when I first stated writing about investing, the stars of the show on Wall Street were mutual fund managers. Now more investors know fund managers add costs without consistently beating the market. So humans picking stocks by hand are out, and quantitative systems are in.

The hot new mutual funds and exchange-traded funds are scientific—or at least, science-y. Sales materials come with dense footnotes, reference mysterious four- and five-factor models and Greek-letter statistical measures like “beta,” and name-drop professors at Yale, MIT and Chicago. The funds are often built on academic research showing that if you consistently favor a particular kind of stock—say, small companies, or less volatile ones—you can expect better long-run performance.

As I wrote earlier this year, some academic quants even think they’ve found stock-return patterns that can help explain why Warren Buffett has done so spectacularly well.

But there’s also new research that bluntly argues that most such studies are probably wrong. If you invest in anything other than a plain-vanilla index fund, this should rattle you a bit.

Financial economists Campbell Harvey, Yan Liu, and Heqing Zhu, in a working paper posted this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, count up the economic studies claiming to have discovered a clue that could have helped predict the asset returns. Given how hard it is supposed to be to get an edge on the market, the sheer number is astounding: The economists list over 300 discoveries, over 200 of which came out in the past decade alone. And this is an incomplete list, focused on publications appearing in top journals or written by respected academics. Harvey, Liu, and Zhu weren’t going after a bunch of junk studies.

So how can they say so many of these findings are likely to be false?

To be clear, the paper doesn’t go through 300 articles and find mistakes. Instead, it argues that, statistically speaking, the high number of studies is itself a good reason to be more suspicious of any one them. This is a little mind-bending—more research is good, right?—but it helps to start with a simple fact: There’s always some randomness in the world. Whether you are running a scientific lab study or looking at reams of data about past market returns, some of the correlations and patterns you’ll see are just going to be the result of luck, not a real effect. Here’s a very simple example of a spurious pattern from my Buffett story: You could have beaten the market since 1993 just by buying stocks with tickers beginning with the letters W, A, R, R, E, and N.

Winning with Warren NEW

Researchers try to clean this up by setting a high bar for the statistical significance of their findings. So, for example, they may decide only to accept as true a result that’s so strong there’s only a 5% or smaller chance it could happen randomly.

As Harvey and Liu explain in another paper (and one that’s easier for a layperson to follow), that’s fine if you are just asking one question about one set of data. But if you keep going back again and again with new tests, you increase your chances of turning up a random result. So maybe first you look to see if stocks of a given size outperform, then at stocks with a certain price relative to earnings, or price to asset value, or price compared to the previous month’s price… and so on, and so on. The more you look, the more likely you are to find something, whether or not there’s anything there.

There are huge financial and career incentives to find an edge in the stock market, and cheap computing and bigger databases have made it easy to go hunting, so people are running a lot of tests now. Given that, Harvery, Liu, and Zhu argue we have to set a higher statistical bar to believe that a pattern that pops up in stock returns is evidence of something real. Do that, and the evidence for some popular research-based strategies—including investing in small-cap stocks—doesn’t look as strong anymore. Some others, like one form of value investing, still pass the stricter standard. But the problem is likely worse than it looks. The long list of experiments the economists are looking at here is just what’s seen the light of day. Who knows how many tests were done that didn’t get published, because they didn’t show interesting results?

These “multiple-testing” and “publication-bias” problems aren’t just in finance. They’re worrying people who look at medical research. And those TED-talk-ready psychology studies. And the way government and businesses are trying to harness insights from “Big Data.”

If you’re an investor, the first takeaway is obviously to be more skeptical of fund companies bearing academic studies. But it also bolsters the case against the old-fashioned, non-quant fund managers. Think of each person running a mutual fund as performing a test of one rough hypothesis about how to predict stock returns. Now consider that there are about 10,000 mutual funds. Given those numbers, write Campbell and Liu, “if managers were randomly choosing strategies, you would expect at least 300 of them to have five consecutive years of outperformance.” So even when you see a fund manager with an impressively consistent record, you may be seeing luck, not skill or insight.

And if you buy funds that have already had lucky strategies, you’ll likely find that you got in just in time for luck to run out.

MONEY Apple

Here’s What Happened When We Tried Apple Pay

Sure, the new payment system looks all shiny in Apple's demos, but does it really work on the streets of New York? We set off to find out.

Updated at 9:30 pm

We gave Apple Pay a real-world test run on Monday, the day the new payment system launched. And as you can see in the video, it worked pretty well. At least where we already expected it to work.

There are a few wrinkles you don’t see on camera. Setting it up wasn’t quite seamless. I deliberately tried to set it up on my new iPhone without reading in advance about how to do it—after all, that’s how most people use their iPhones in real life. I found myself roadblocked pretty quickly. The Passbook app where credit card info is supposed to be stored… didn’t seem to have any way to enter my credit card info. It turned out I had to update my phone to the latest version of iOS 8. I got the phone just last week, and have already upgraded once, so that was a bit of surprise.

Day two (Tuesday) of trying to use Apple Pay in everyday life, with no camera crew around, was less successful. At Starbucks, I watched other customers paying with smartphone apps, but learned that they were using the coffee company’s own system. Starbucks doesn’t do Apple Pay. At a Duane Reade drugstore—a New York brand of Walgreens—the reader didn’t work. But the cashier told me most of the other readers in the store did. Later on, I successfully paid for a couple of Lightning cables at a Walgreens in Brooklyn. “Wait, that thing actually works?” said the woman behind the register.

Apple Pay doesn’t feel revolutionary. You take out your phone instead of your credit card to pay for things—it just means reaching into a different pocket. But that probably counts as a success for Apple in the long run. Using Apple Pay is similar enough to what I already do that I can see it easily creeping into my everyday routine.

MONEY Millennials

The Conventional Money Wisdom That Millennials Should Ignore

millennials looking at map on road
John Burcham—Getty Images/National Geographic

Maybe a 401(k) loaded with stocks isn't the best savings tool for some young people.

If you are in your 20s or early 30s, and you ask around for retirement advice, you will hear two things:

1. Put as much as you possibly can, as soon as you can, into a 401(k) or Individual Retirement Account.

2. Put nearly all of it into equities.

There’s a lot of common sense to this. Saving early means you can take maximum advantage of the compounding of interest. And your youth makes it easier for you to bear the added risk of equities.

But life is more complicated than these simple intuitions suggest. Here’s a troubling data point: According to a Fidelity survey of 401(k) plan participants, 44% of job changers in their 20s cashed out all or part of their money, despite being hit with taxes and penalties. Switchers in their 30s were only a bit more conservative, with 38% cashing out.

You really don’t want to do this. But let’s get beyond the usual scolding. The reality that so many people are cashing out is also telling us something. Maybe a 401(k) loaded with stocks isn’t the best savings tool for some young people.

The conventional 401(k) advice—which is enshrined in the popular “target-date” mutual funds that put 90% of young savers’ portfolios in stocks—imagines twentysomethings as the ideal buy-and-hold investors, as close as individuals can get to something like the famous, swashbuckling Yale University endowment fund. Young people have very long time horizons and no need to sell holdings for current income, the thinking goes, so why not accept the possibility of some (violently) bad years in order to stretch for higher return? But on a moment’s reflection on what life is actually like in your 20s, you see that many young people are already navigating a fair amount of economic risk.

Take career risk. On the plus side, when you’re young you have more years of earnings ahead of you than behind you, and that’s a valuable asset to have. Then again, you also face a lot of uncertainty about how big those earnings will be. If you are just gaining a foothold in your career, getting laid off or fired from your current job might be a short-term paycheck interruption—or it could be the reversal that sets you on a permanently lower-earning track. You may also be financially vulnerable if you still have high-interest debts to settle, a new mortgage that hasn’t had time to build up equity, or low cash reserves to get your through a bad spell.

This is why Micheal Kitces, a financial planner at Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md., tells me he doesn’t encourage people in their 20s to focus on building their investment portfolio. You almost never hear that kind of thing from a planner, so let me clarify that he’s not saying you should spend to your heart’s content. (Kitces is in fact a bit stern on one point: He thinks many young professionals spend too much on housing.) He’s talking about priorities. For one thing, you need to build up that boring cash cushion. Without it, you are more likely to be one of those people who has to cash out the 401(k) after a job change.

Even before that’s done, you’ll still want to aim to put enough in a 401(k) to max out the matching contributions from your employer, if that’s on the table. (Typically, that’s 6% of salary.) So maybe all or most of that goes in stocks? An attention-getting new brief from the investment strategists Research Affiliates argues “no”—that instead of putting new savers into a 90%-equities target date fund, 401(k) plans should get people going with lower-risk “starter portfolios.”

I’m not sold on all of RA’s argument, which drives toward a proposal that 401(k)s should include unusual funds like the ones RA happens to help manage. But CEO Rob Arnott and his coauthor Lilian Wu offer a lot to chew on. They make two big points about young people and risk. One’s just intuitive: If you have little experience as an investor and quickly get your hat handed to you in a bear market, you could be so scarred from the experience that you get out of stocks and never come back. At least until the next bull market makes it irresistible.

The other is that 401(k) plan designers should accept the fact—all the advice and penalties notwithstanding—that many young people do cash them out like rainy-day funds when they lose their jobs. And so the starter funds should have a bigger cushion of lower-risk assets. That’s especially important given that recessions and layoffs often come after big market drops, so the people cashing out may well be selling stocks at exactly the wrong moment, and from severely depleted portfolios.

RA thinks a portfolio for new savers should be made up of just one third “mainstream” stocks, with another third in traditional bonds and the last third in what it calls “diversifying inflation hedges.” That last bit could include inflation protected Treasuries (or TIPS), but also junk bonds, emerging markets investments, real estate, and low-volatility stocks. Whatever the virtues of those investments, it seems to me that a starter portfolio should be easy to explain to a starting investor. “Diversifying inflation hedges” doesn’t sound like that.

But the insight that new investors might not be immediately prepared for full-tilt equity-market risk is valuable. Many 401(k) plans automatically default young savers into stock-heavy target date funds, but they could just as easily start with a more-traditional balanced fund, which holds a steady 60% in stocks and 40% in bonds. Perhaps higher risk strategies should be left as a conscious choice, for people who not only have a lot of time, but also a bit more market knowledge and a stable financial picture outside of their 401(k).

The trouble is, most 401(k) plans don’t know much about an individual saver besides their age. The 401(k) is a blunt, flawed tool, and just putting different kinds of mutual funds inside of it isn’t going to solve all of the difficulties people run into when trying to save for the future. Arnott and Wu’s proposal doesn’t do anything about the fact that using a 401(k) for rainy days means paying steep penalties. And it doesn’t help people build up the cash reserves outside their retirement plans that they’d need to avoid that.

As boomers head into retirement, we’ve all become very aware of the importance of getting people to prepare for life after 65. But millennials also need better ideas to help get them safely (financially speaking) to 35.

TIME Retirement

Millennials Actually Have an Edge on Retirement

The surprising advantage of the younger generation

Every generation likes to think it’s nothing like the one that came before it. As for retirement, millennials might actually be right. Twenty- and 30-year-olds make up the first postwar generation with almost no shot at getting a traditional pension from a private company. Today fewer than 7% of Fortune 500 companies offer such plans to new hires, according to the consulting firm Towers Watson. In 1998, when members of Generation X entered the workforce, 50% of Fortune 500 companies offered such plans.

It’s not all long odds. Here are some things to remember as you prepare for your sunset years.

Relax, you’ve got time. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, if you can start setting aside money at age 25, you’ll need to save only about 10% of your annual income to retire at 65. Start at age 35 and your target is a manageable 15%. But wait until age 45 and you’ll be stuck socking away 27% of your annual income.

You can also spend money to improve your chances of a happy retirement. In your 20s it can make sense to forgo some saving to invest in your future earnings potential, says financial planner Michael Kitces of Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md. Think education–not only degree programs but also short courses that teach marketable skills. You should also pay off high-interest credit-card debt and build a cash reserve. That can cover emergencies, Kitces says. It can also provide greater flexibility, like the ability to finance a move to another city for a better job.

Even so, if you have a 401(k) plan, try to save enough (typically 6%) to get your maximum employer match. That’s like free money, says Anthony Webb, an economist at the Center for Retirement Research. If you save 6% and your company matches 50¢ on the dollar, you’ll save 9% of your income, nearly what a millennial should be doing.

You have the best tools ever. One advantage today’s savers have over previous generations is that investing can now be simple and cheap. An index fund that holds a representative slice of the U.S. stock market–like the giant Vanguard 500 or newer cut-rate competitors like Schwab Total Stock Market Index–charges investors 0.17% of assets or less per year. Compare that with the 1% or so charged by typical fund managers, who tend to perform worse than index funds after fees. Index funds are now common in 401(k)s. Why stress about a measly 1% charge? William Sharpe, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, recently projected the returns of indexers vs. expensive funds over a lifetime and found that the low-cost funds could deliver over 20% more wealth in retirement.

You can handle some risk. At your age, a big market loss represents a tolerable drop in your true lifetime wealth, says investment adviser William Bernstein. Consider investing much of your 401(k) in a stock fund, which should earn a higher return than bonds or cash over time, though with greater risk.

But be ready for large swings. “A 30-year-old who sees a $19,000 portfolio cut in half is going to feel devastated,” Bernstein says. If you don’t know how much risk you can handle, consider a 60-40 split. Sixty percent can be divided between a U.S. stock-market index fund and, for diversification, a similar fund holding foreign stocks, such as Fidelity Spartan International or Vanguard Total International Stock. The rest can go into a bond fund, like Vanguard Total Bond Market. If your 401(k) doesn’t offer index funds in all three areas, look for options with low costs and a broad mix of assets.

After you set up a simple portfolio, try to leave it alone. You are unlikely to correctly time the twists and turns of the market. And at your age, you have better things to think about.

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