MONEY inflation

3 Signs Inflation May Be Lurking Just Around the Corner

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Kutay Tanir—Getty Images

While consumer prices haven't been rising yet, several signs point to higher wages in the future. Here's what you should do.

After fits and starts and ups and downs, the American economy is finally looking strong — especially compared to Europe. U.S. gross domestic product grew 2.2% and 5% in the last two quarters of 2014, while the unemployment rate dropped in February to 5.5.%.

Yet inflation and wage growth, which are natural outgrowths of an accelerating economy, haven’t seemed to materialize.

At least not yet.

Despite years of unconventional bond buying and warnings from politicians and economists, consumer prices have actually risen less than the desired rate of the Federal Reserve.

The Consumer Price Index declined 0.7% in January, the steepest drop since 2008, thanks to cheap oil. If you strip out volatile energy and food prices, so-called core inflation only rose 1.6% in January over the past year, well below the Fed’s 2% target.

In fact, prices haven’t hit that Fed target in almost two years. Your paycheck has hardly fared any better.

But lately, there have been signs that show America’s workforce might at long last receive an overdue raise. About 70% of companies have said that wages are beginning to outpace inflation, according to the latest Duke University/CFO Magazine Global Business Outlook Survey. Industries like technology, manufacturing and health care should see wages grow by 3%.

A small business report points to a tighter labor force, as 26% of companies raised compensation (although that includes benefits like health care), and almost half said finding a qualified employee proved difficult.

What’s more, the 10-year break-even inflation rate, which is a gauge of how much prices are expected to rise annually over the next decade based in part on the yield of 10-year Treasury inflation protected securities — has been ticking up lately to about 1.8%, after touching a recent floor of 1.5% in the beginning of the year. The rate, to be fair, is still well below levels seen before oil’s drop.

So is inflation and wage growth finally set to take off?

That’s a question for Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, who has said the Fed will remain “patient” when raising short term interest rates while price growth remains so benign.

This six-year herky-jerky recovery has made fools of many prognosticators, especially those who have shouted loudly that inflation is nigh. “Given that CFOs expect continued strong employment growth, it is surprising that wage pressures are not even great,” says Duke finance professor John Graham. Indeed.

What does this mean for your portfolio?

Well, one option is to add to your Treasury Inflation-Protection Securities (TIPS) holdings, especially short-term TIPS if you’re a conservative investor (though this should still be only a satellite portion of your investments).

TIPS have struggled recently after outperforming equities by 11 percentage points in 2011, and investors have started to put their money elsewhere.

But the best time to get inflation protection is when there’s little fear of rising consumer prices — and when inflation-protected bonds are cheap, like now. For instance, the Vanguard Target Retirement 2015 fund currently allocates about 8% of its portfolio to short-term inflation protection.

MONEY First-Time Dad

Why This Millennial Is Kissing the City Goodbye

Luke Tepper
This time next year, Luke will hopefully be playing on grass.

MONEY writer and first-time dad Taylor Tepper announces his retirement from urban living.

Renters in New York City have a uniquely dysfunctional relationship with real estate: The more time we spend living in some of the most desirable housing in the world, the less happy we become. Or maybe that’s just me.

My wife and I pay $2,100 a month for what seems like two square feet and minimal natural light in a converted hospital in a cool Brooklyn neighborhood. There’s an artisanal pizza shop, hole-in-the-wall cafe, and kid-friendly beer garden right around the block. I’m a 15-minute walk from a major metropolitan museum, botanical gardens, and the best park in all of New York. When it’s warm I bike, toss the frisbee, and drink whisky on rooftops. The beach is only 30 minutes away.

Unfortunately, warmth doesn’t last forever, and when it gets cold outside—say, from Thanksgiving to Easter—I spend more time indoors. Which means I’m trapped with a 21-pound baby monster who smashes, grabs, and pounds anything he can get his hands on, from cellphones to lamps. As a result, I’m slowly devolving into madness. Spending hours upon hours inside with two other people, only one of whom yields to reason, punctuated by intermittent excursions into tundra-like conditions, makes it seem as if the walls are slowly inching in on themselves.

Don’t get me wrong—I love the city, I went to school in New York, I’ve lived here for almost the entirety of my adult life. But after 13 months as a father and 19 months as a husband, I’m ready to escape to the land of malls and carpool lanes, single-unit houses and trees, the land of my birth: suburbia.

That said, it’s one thing to want move, it’s another to actually do it. Here’s a window into my thought process—and that of other millennials facing the same decision.

We’d Still Be Renters

Years of high rent and monthly student loan bills, combined with the cost of childcare, made it next to impossible for us to save up for a down payment. So we’re looking to rent wherever we go, which should mean more money left over for us. According to NerdWallet.com’s cost of living calculator, we could reduce our housing costs by about 25% if we moved to northern New Jersey or Long Island.

Even if we had enough funds stashed in our joint bank account, there are a couple of reasons why a home purchase would be a poor move. For one, conventional wisdom states that your target property should be no more than two and a half times your gross income. The odds that we’d find a New York-area home in the $300,000 range that’d we’d actually want to live in are low.

OK, let’s say that we had the savings and lived in a less expensive city. Should we jump into the market then? Not necessarily, says Pensacola, Fla.-based financial planner Matt Becker.

“Don’t rush to buy a house just because you want to go the suburbs,” Becker says. “That can lead to a quick financial decision as opposed to a good one.” Since transaction costs are so high, we’d need to stay in the home for a number of years to for buying to make financial sense. And who knows if we’ll want to live in a particular town for that long? My wife and I are still early on in our careers, we could end up lots of places.

Even Though Now Is a Good Time to Buy

If your bank account is fatter than ours and you’re ready plant some roots, buying might make sense. In fact, if you can get a mortgage, now is a great time to buy, since 30-year mortgage rates are absurdly low. Mortgage behemoths Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced late last year that they would allow down payments of as low as 3% on some mortgages. (These moves were directed at people who haven’t owned a home for three years, or are in the market for their first house.)

Once you’ve made the decision to move, you need to think about where you’d like to spend the next seven to 10 years. While we need more space, I don’t want to give up some of the best aspects of the city—good restaurants, a sense of community, hipster/independent movie theaters—in the trade. In that regard I’m like a lot of young buyers, says Greensboro, N.C.-based Realtor Sandra O’Connor. “There’s real movement among millennials who are looking for places to live with walkable areas,” she says. “They don’t want to always be in their car.”

If you’re still undecided about whether renting or buying is the better choice for you, check out Trulia’s rent or buy tool. Those who fall in the rent camp should understand that finding rental units outside of cities can be a lengthy process, per O’Connor and Becker.

All Suburbs Are Not Created Equal

So I want to move, but where should I go? I put the question to Alison Bernstein, president of the Suburban Jungle Realty Group, a firm that specializes in helping its clients find the best New York City suburb for them. Bernstein says that city dwellers eager to jump need to “understand that a house is a house, but the dynamic of a town is very difficult to grasp.”

To that end, Bernstein laid out a number of questions that anyone thinking about relocating needs to consider:

How many working moms are in town? What type of industries are there? What’s the breakdown of private versus public school? Even if the schools are highly ranked, there are towns where there is a lot of momentum to send kids to private schools and this does change the personality of the town quite a bit. What do you do over the summer? Does the entire town empty out? Does everyone hang out at the pool? Who is moving to the town? How will that change the school system and the vibe over the next 10 years?

Bernstein has also noticed a few trends with today’s younger buyers. “They are happiest with a smaller piece of property, a more modest home, and being in a more cosmopolitan suburb. Also they are not plowing every last penny into their house. They are still budgeting for travel.”

The Costs of Commuting

Right now I pay $112 a month (soon to be $116) for a 30-day subway pass to get to the office. We are only a 20-minute drive from my wife’s work, which means we shell out a very reasonable $50 a month on gas. When we move to the suburbs we will pay more. For the sake of argument, let’s say that we end up relocating to Pelham, New York, just north of the city. My monthly bill rises to $222, while my wife’s morning drive will consume almost twice as much gasoline, meaning our monthly outlay will jump by about $160.

But that’s just the money. The time we spend going from home to work and back will grow as well. Doing some back of the envelope calculations, my in-transit time will increase by 10 minutes each way, while Mrs. Tepper will spend an additional 20 minutes or so in traffic. Combined we’ll endure about an hour more per day on our commute, which sends shivers down my spine.

There are a few positives about the longer commute, though. For one, car insurance is generally cheaper outside of the city. According to CarInsurance.com, the average rate in my neighborhood is a little less than two times that of Pelham’s. While I wouldn’t necessarily expect to cut our car insurance costs in half, this savings would take a bit of the sting out of much higher commuting costs.

Aside from lower insurance rates, we could also dedicate a portion of our new abode as a work space. As Mrs. Tepper and I advance in our careers, we hope to have more leeway in terms of a flexible work arrangement. While our commute might be longer, we’ll most likely have to do it less often. And each saved car ride is more money in our pockets.

The Tradeoffs

Getting older involves a series of decisions that have the net effect of limiting one’s personal freedom. I became a journalist, which means I couldn’t be a doctor (leaving aside the question of whether or not I had skill to do it in the first place). Marrying one woman, and being keen on staying married, means I can’t marry a different one. A life in one town is a life not lived in another.

Which is all to say that I’ll miss living in Brooklyn. Despite the hipster clichés, I really do enjoy artisanal, delicious, overpriced hamburgers and 17 different IPA varieties at my bars. I like walking everywhere, even if we have a car, and a touch of self-righteousness about your home is good for the soul.

But I think of my sojourn in New York’s best borough as I think of college: I wish I could stay forever, but it’s time to move on.

Financial planner Matt Becker understands my dilemma. He recently moved from Boston to suburb-rich Pensacola and is still adjusting to his new life. He walks less and drives more. While his young family has more space to play and grow, that also means he has more house to furnish and air condition, which means more costs. I imagine we’ll encounter something similar.

The combination, though, of high rent and minimal space has lost its luster. Even if we end up breaking even in our move, or only saving a little bit, our dollars will go further. We can have a backyard for our son and our dog and us. We’ll have a laundry machine on the premises, so we don’t have to lug 20 pounds of clothes a couple of blocks through the snow. We’ll have a full-size dishwasher.

I proudly proclaim without regret what might have depressed my younger self: these amenities are more appealing than staying in Brooklyn.

More From the First-Time Dad:

MONEY CFPB

CFPB Says Mandatory Arbitration is Bad for Consumers

two hands pulling $100 bill and ripping it
Mike Kemp—Getty Images

You may have unwittingly ceded your rights to sue your credit card or bank.

Consumers who have serious beefs with their financial institutions can’t get much relief these days, according to a study released today by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The research looked at mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts for credit cards, prepaid cards, payday loans, checking accounts, private student loans and mobile wireless contracts.

These clauses state that either the company or the consumer can require any dispute over the product or service to be settled through arbitration rather than the courts—and generally allow companies to block class-action lawsuits, which tend to be a more lucrative means of getting redress.

The Bureau found that arbitration clauses were prevalent in the six consumer product markets it looked into. A full 92% of the prepaid cards obtained by the CFPB were subject to arbitration and 53% of the market share of credit card issuers, for example. And while only 8% of checking accounts have these clauses, that percentage represents almost half of insured deposits.

Meanwhile, three quarters of consumers surveyed didn’t know whether any contracts they signed had an arbitration clause, and only 7% understood that they could not sue their credit card issuer if their contract does include such a clause.

Why Mandatory Arbitration is Bad for Consumers

The arbitration practice is generally preferred by financial institutions since it reduces legal expenses.

But the CFPB notes that class-action suits tend to provide greater renumeration than other routes of seeking restitution, and that “larger numbers of consumers are eligible for financial redress through class-action settlements than through arbitration or individual lawsuits.”

In the 1,060 arbitration cases filed with the American Arbitration Association in 2010 and 2011, consumers received less than $400,000 in relief and debt forbearance, compared to the $2.8 million companies received (mostly for disputed debts).

The CFPB also noted that only about 1,200 individual federal lawsuits are filed by consumers per year in the consumer markets studied.

Comparatively, the CFPB found that more than 160 million class-members were eligible for some kind of relief in class actions taken over a five-year period—equating to about 32 million a year. This resulted in $2.7 billion in settlements.

One argument against class-action lawsuits is that litigation leads to higher costs for financial institutions—which could then be passed down to consumers. The CFPB, however, found no evidence to suggesting that arbitration clauses led to lower prices for consumers.

What Happens Next

The study was mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act, and the CFPB has the authority to issue regulations regarding arbitration clauses.

The CFPB says it will be meeting with stakeholders after they have had a chance to read the report, and invites comments regarding its findings.

Consumer advocates have long called for banning mandatory arbitration clauses.

Getting rid of a financial institution’s ability to use them “gives the consumer the ability to decide how they want to decide the case,” says Pew Charitable Trusts’ consumer banking project director Susan Weinstock.

By avoiding arbitration, she says, consumers aren’t subject to the rulings of arbiters who are often selected by the financial institutions, who may not hold law degrees and whose rulings need not be made public.

Even some in the industry are not fans. “Mandatory arbitration has proven to be a thorn in consumers side,” says Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Credit.com. “These clauses are biased towards the company.”

MONEY Jobs

Employers Add 295,000 Jobs as Economy Keeps Rolling

Amid signs of turmoil overseas, the U.S. economy keeps chugging along.

The U.S. economy gained 295,000 jobs in February, the 12th consecutive month employers added more than 200,000 to their payrolls. Meanwhile the unemployment rate dropped to 5.5%.

This is yet another sign of an improving — or what economists would call a “tightening” — labor market.

The rate at which workers are quitting their jobs has risen near levels not seen since before the 2007-2009 recession, implying that workers are feeling more secure that better opportunities lie ahead.

The number of unemployed workers who’ve been out of work 27 weeks or longer, while still high, is 31.1%, compared with 36.8% a year ago. Average hourly earnings grew by 0.1% last month, after rising 0.5% in January. Wages are up 2% over this time 12 months ago. That’s being be read by many analysts as a relatively sluggish number.

That last bit is important. While the labor market has been improving for more than a year, wage growth has disappointed. That in turn has kept a lid on inflation, which is one of the main reasons why interest rates have been next to nothing since the Great Recession and why the Fed, even now, will be “patient” in raising the cost of borrowing.

Even so “labor tightness is showing up in several high-profile labor disputes,” notes BMO chief investment officer Jack Ablin.

Recent anecdotal evidence points to workers having more power in their dealings with management — take striking port and refinery workers and pay raises for Wal-Mart and TJ Maxx employees. And the economy is still plugging along: an index that gauges non-manufacturing business rose a bit last month despite the headwinds from West Coast port strikes. “It was a miracle that the ISM non-manufacturing index managed to tick up for the second month in a row,” says Gluskin Sheff chief economist David Rosenberg.

Americans are feeling more confident about their finances, too. In the first three months of this year, the Wells Fargo/ Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism Index jumped to its highest level since 2007. (Thank cheap gas prices.)

Wells Fargo Securities senior economist Sam Bullard believes the economy will continue to add workers this year at a clip of 224,000 per month.

“If realized, this strength in hiring would be enough to continue to pressure the unemployment rate lower and should result in a higher pace of wage growth–all supportive to a Fed tightening move in the coming months,” Bullard says.

MONEY credit cards

Check Out the Insane Rewards Offered by this New Credit Card

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Rudyanto Wijaya/iStock

You can get 3% cash on everything you buy, at least for the first year.

We don’t get too excited about new credit cards around these parts. So the fact that I’ve personally already signed up for Discover it Miles should tell you something about this card.

The new addition to Discover’s “it” platform, announced late last month, is geared toward consumers who want to earn travel rewards without having to participate in specific airline loyalty programs. To that end, it’s joining into a competitive pool that already includes the Capital One Venture, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite and others.

Discover it Miles rewards program is unusually generous, but not in the way it’s marketed. According to my analysis, this travel rewards card can actually provide the best cash back value of any card on the market. At least for a year.

What “it” Offers

Discover it Miles is positioned in the non-branded travel rewards credit card space. That means that rather than earning miles for, say, United or American’s loyalty programs, customers instead rack up miles on their card that they can then transfer as a statement credit for travel purchases.

Such cards typically offer better value for your charging dollar, since airline programs have been devaluing miles and making it harder to redeem for tickets.

With Discover it Miles, cardholders earn 1.5 miles for every dollar spent, no cap. Every mile earned is worth one penny, so $10,000 spent equates to $150 in rewards.

Most travel cards offer some kind of signup bonus as an incentive. For example, if you spend $3,000 in three months on the Capital One Venture, you’ll receive 40,000 miles.

But Discover it Miles doesn’t do this. Instead, the card doubles all of the miles you’ve earned at the end of the first 12 months. So $10,000 in spending translates to 30,000 miles, or $300, after a year.

Other perks include no annual fee, no foreign transaction fee, and up to $30 in credit for in-flight Wi-Fi charges. Discover also waives late-fee charges on your first missed payment.

How “it” Compares as a Travel Card

To be fair, the Discover it Miles offers better terms than other no-fee travel cards.

But if you’re someone who spends at least $475 a year, and you’re looking for travel rewards, you’re generally better off going with Barclaycard World Arrival Plus Elite, one of MONEY’s Best Credit Cards.

While Barclaycard holders endure an $89 annual fee after the first year, they also receive a 40,000 signup bonus, two miles for every dollar spent, and a 10% rebate when miles are used for a travel credit. The signup bonus alone is worth $440 if used for travel purchases.

So $10,000 spent on the Barclaycard would net you 60,000 miles (including the signup bonus), which equates to $600 off on travel statement credits. Throw in the 10% rebate, and you’re looking at $660 for that first year. That’s far more than what you can get by using the it Miles as a travel card.

How “It” Compares as a Cash Card

But you shouldn’t think of Discover’s new card as a travel-rewards product. Think of it instead as a cash-back card that nets you 3% (!) on all purchases for the first year.

How? Besides letting you redeem the miles on your statements for travel purchases, the Discover it Miles lets you claim them as a direct deposit into your bank account. So if you accrue 30,000 miles, you get $300 or 3%.

This is a major boon for consumers looking for cash back. Right now, the highest flat-rate uncapped rewards comes from the likes of Citi Double Cash and Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express Card, which offer 2% for all purchases. The Discover it Miles is a full percentage point better.

That’s a big deal. For $10,000 in spending, the Discover it Miles earns you $300 vs. $200 for the 2% cash back cards.

There are mutual funds on our MONEY 50 list that haven’t returned 3% over the past year!

The doubling miles feature is only good for the first year, so the card is less valuable than other products after the first 12 months. After that, you’d be better off using Citi Double Cash. But since there’s no annual fee on the Discover It Miles, there’s no harm in getting the card, using it as your primary for a year, then holding onto it.

You might actually see your credit score improve, especially if you keep your spending at the same level: A lower credit-utilization ratio is a major plus in the FICO scoring formula.

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10 Smart Ways to Boost Your Investment Results

MONEY First-Time Dad

How to Avoid Spoiling Your Child

Luke Tepper
One-year-old Luke, having his cake and eating it too

First-time dad Taylor Tepper learns how not to be the kind of parent he fears becoming.

Our son, Luke, recently celebrated his first birthday. Family and friends generously gave the tyke rubber soccer balls, race cars, pegs, hammers, marbles, and chic winter gear. Luke now has more toggle coats than I do.

Luke’s things, like a rebel army, have begun to outnumber my own. He now has nearly a dozen bins filled with plastic and wooden products crafted by large companies and bought by suckers like me. His clothes occupy a spacious three-drawer dresser, while mine are packed tightly in a small closet. He has twice as many pairs of socks as I do. This all feels silly. Give Luke the option to play with an empty milk carton or a fluffy stuffed animal, and he’ll be shaking the carton between his hands like a boy possessed before you can blink. The box carries more value than the toy inside.

As I cleaned up after Luke’s party, I started thinking about the nature of toddlers and their stuff, and I’ve been mulling over a few issues ever since. The first has to do with spoiling. I know that you can’t really spoil a baby—infants’ needs must be met. But am I developing habits of indulgence now that will ossify over time and lead me to spoil Luke when he’s older? Am I setting myself up to be a bad parent? The second issue has to do with the presents themselves, the catalyst of my spoiling concern: there must be a better use for all that money.

The truth about spoiling

On the first question, the experts are clear. “You’re not going to spoil a baby,” says Tovah P. Klein, assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College and author of How Toddlers Thrive. “They need to be comforted and cared for.”

That Mrs. Tepper and I do. We also warm Luke’s baby wipes, pull him around in a red wagon for hours on end, and turn on “Sesame Street” whenever he’s systematically broken us down. My fear is that our good-natured, responsive parenting will morph into something more unseemly as he ages. It’s not a big leap to image a world where I’m cooking a second dinner because 2-year-old Luke is dissatisfied with the first. I shudder when scenes like that unfold in my mind’s eye.

The key thing for me to recognize, says Klein, is that I don’t need to protect my son from unhappiness.

“If you think, my role is to make him happy all the time, or to entertain him, the child doesn’t learn how to handle hard times, like when he’s angry or frustrated or sad,” Klein says. “Your goal as parents is, how do you help him deal with anger when limits are imposed.”

That’s an intuitive point, but one slightly difficult to reconcile with experience. Luke is our first child, so everything is new to us. Call it the Unbearable Lightness of Parenting. So in the next five to 12 months, as he develops a sense of self and forms his own ideas of what he wants, it will be challenging to hold a firm line. How do I know this tantrum isn’t just a test of limits but a true expression of real pain? Will I have the stomach to stay the course?

“He’ll be happy if you love him and let him know you’re there,” Klein told me. “Put up some reasonable limits and help him through those frustrating moments. That is what counters spoiling.”

Children, especially really young ones, crave structure. It’s the lack of it that results in insecurity. So if he doesn’t want to eat what I’ve cooked for dinner, fine. But I’m not frying up another meal.

Getting presents—and other stuff—under control

Limits are certainly in order for all of his toys. Between Christmas and his birthday and well-meaning friends doting on the little guy, we have enough Elmos and plastic cell phones and wooden school buses to open up our own boutique. This overflow of generosity leads to a short-term concern as well as a longer-term one.

In the here and now, the problem is sheer volume. “Children need less material goods,” says Klein. “More stuff tends to overstimulate them.” We already try to highlight only a few options for him to play with, but we’ll resolve to be even more selective going forward. We’ll offer him one bin to tear apart rather than two.

Later on, though, I worry about relying on toys (and ice cream and other objects that cost money) as a means of reinforcement. I don’t want to get into the habit of giving him things all the time so that he’ll do X or Y. Plus, I don’t think I’ll be able to afford it.

“Not every reward has to be a material reward,” says psychologist and parenting expert Lawrence Balter. “Sometimes rewards can be privileges as they get older.”

I was discussing the issue of presents at Luke’s party with a friend from college, and she asked me if we had starting saving for his college fund. (We started a 529, but it’s tragically underfunded.) Instead of toys, she asked, why don’t you ask people to donate to the fund instead?

Which is what we’re going to do from now on. Rather than stuff our bins full of perfectly fine but ultimately useless things, we’ll ask friends and family to chip in to help pay for his insanely expensive education. While that might make the act of gift-giving a little less fun for them, it will help us afford an essential good that will dramatically improve his life.

Plus, it’s one less spaceship for me to trip on in the middle of the night.

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MONEY Warren Buffett

The Guy Who Made a $1 Million Bet Against Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett
Nati Harnik—AP

Even if hedge funds were winning—which they aren't—you still should be in indexes.

Warren Buffett bet a prominent U.S. hedge fund manager in 2008 that an S&P 500 index fund would beat a portfolio of hedge funds over the next ten years. How’s it going?

“We’re doing quite poorly, as it turns out,” president of Protege Partners Ted Seides, who made the bet with Buffett, told Marketplace Morning Report today. In fact, an S&P 500 fund run by Vanguard rose more than 63%, while the other side of the wager, a portfolio of funds that only invest in hedge funds, has only returned 20% after fees.

The fees are the important component. When the two sides made their respective cases for why they would win, Buffett noted that active investors incur much higher expenses than index funds in their quest to outperform the market. These costs only increase with hedge funds, or a fund of hedge funds, thus stacking the deck even more in his favor.

“Funds of hedge funds accentuate this cost problem because their fees are superimposed on the large fees charged by the hedge funds in which the funds of funds are invested,” Buffett argued at the time. “A number of smart people are involved in running hedge funds. But to a great extent their efforts are self-neutralizing, and their IQ will not overcome the costs they impose on investors.”

Before fees, Seides’s picks would be up 44%—still almost twenty percentage points behind Buffett, but way ahead of where they are.

Seides, to his credit, has been transparent. “Standing seven years into a 10-year wager with Warren Buffett, we sure look wrong,” he wrote in a recent blog post for CFA Institute. He went on to cite the Federal Reserve, both for its decision to keep interest rates at basically zero and undertake an unconventional bond-buying program to jumpstart the economy in the wake of the Great Recession, as one reason why his portfolio has been so roundly beaten by the S&P 500. Of course, investors inability to consistently foresee and time major market events is one reason why index funds are so powerful. (He also points out that a broad stock market index fund is a poor measuring stick for hedge fund performance.)

There’s still three years left in the bet, but barring a prolonged stock market crash, Girls Incorporated of Omaha—Buffett’s charity of choice—seems well placed to win. (The size of that donation stands right now at more than $1.5 million, for reasons having to do with zero-coupon bonds.) Those who are inclined to support passive investing, like MONEY, can be satisfied that once again indexes trumped active traders.

Now here’s the thing: Seven years ago, Seides’ chances of winning this bet actually weren’t so terrible. Cheap index funds have a strong statistical edge over active managers, but that doesn’t mean every stock picker loses. Last December, S&P Dow Jones Indices published “The Persistence Scorecard,” which measures whether outperforming fund managers in one year can continue to outperform the market going forward. “Out of 681 funds that were in the top quartile as of September 2012, only 9.8% managed to stay in the top quartile at the end of September 2014,” according to the report. While that’s not a terribly good record, about 10% of portfolio managers (and their shareholders) think that they are clever investors.

The trouble is, they probably won’t be in the top 10% of investors over the next ten years. There will always be market beaters, even if just by random (and unfortunately unpredictable) chance. That fact goes a long way towards keeping money managers in business.

So when you hear a hot-shot alpha investor type say that he’s beaten the market over the last couple of years, just remember: Stuff happens.

MONEY stocks

Can You Really Beat the Market?

Campbell Harvey, Professor of Finance at Duke's Fuqua School of Business
Jeff Brown Don't assume everything you read in financial journals is true, says Duke University finance professor Campbell Harvey.

Turns out the smart money isn't always so.

We put the question to Duke University finance professor Campbell Harvey, 56, former editor of the Journal of Finance and president-elect of the American Finance Association. Harvey is known for taking unorthodox positions when it comes to academic research, portfolio rebalancing, and Bitcoin.

MONEY writer Taylor Tepper interviewed Campbell for the March 2015 issue of the magazine, where this edited interview originally appeared.

Q: Can you really beat the market?

A: There’s all this academic research out there that attempts to explain why stocks do well or poorly by focusing on investment factors, such as momentum or low price/earnings ratios. In all, 316 different factors were identified in the papers I studied, including things like the amount of media attention a company gets or how much it spends on advertising. My research found that of all the published papers in finance, over half are likely false. The problem is the researchers were applying the tools of statistics as if there was only one test going on when there are multiple variables. Some factors are going to look statistically significant just by chance.

Q: Can you help us understand?

A: There’s a cartoon that explains this well. Let’s say somebody has a hypothesis that jelly beans cause acne. So researchers conduct a controlled experiment where some people get jelly beans and some don’t. It turns out that there’s no significant difference. Then somebody says, “Well, maybe we’re looking at this incorrectly. We should look at this by the color of the jelly bean. So then 20 new experiments are undertaken. Again, some people get jelly beans and others don’t. But the jelly beans are just red. A separate experiment uses just yellow beans. Then all purple. Each time there’s no effect. On the 20th try, which happens to test green jelly beans, they find there’s a difference that is statistically significant by the usual rules. And then in the newspaper the next day, there’s this headline: GREEN JELLY BEANS CAUSE ACNE.

Q: What should the standard be?

A: Usually you’re looking for 95% confidence, which means there’s a 5% chance the result was a fluke. But that’s true only if you’re conducting a single test. As soon as you go to multiple tests, it’s like the jelly bean problem. You do 20 experiments and you’re likely to get a hit by chance.

Q: To be fair, you’ve made this mistake yourself.

A: Some of the papers we analyzed are my own. This actually gives me a bit of a pass when I’m talking to my colleagues and saying, “Half of what you guys published is false.” And they kind of push back: “How could you say that?” And I say, “Well, it also holds for me, okay?”

Q: What does this mean for the average investor?

A: For individual investors the best thing to do is to just go with an index fund. Don’t believe these claims of using this or that “factor” to beat the market. Invest in the broad market, and go with the lowest possible fee.

Q: But so-called smart beta index funds claim to capitalize on these “factors.”

A: Imagine there are 316 of these “smart” beta index funds, each chasing one of the factors that I detail. It is likely that more than 50% of them are destined to disappoint.

Suppose there’s an ETF investing only in stocks beginning with the letter “H.” The managers claim historical outperformance for H stocks based on simulations going back to 1926. They claim their results are “significant.” They’re likely using the wrong statistical method to declare their strategy “true.” They might have tried 26 letters and “H” worked by chance.

“Don’t believe these claims of using this or that ‘factor’ to beat the market. Invest in the broad market, and go with the lowest possible fee.”The insight is the same for 316 factors. If you try enough strategies, some will work by luck. In many cases it’s not about being “smart.”

Q: Speaking of smart, rebalancing has been recommended as a prudent approach. You’ve done research on this topic, right?

A: Rebalancing is like mom-and-apple-pie sort of finance, in that we just assume it’s a good idea. We don’t think through what it involves. In my research I detail the risk that is induced by a rebalancing strategy.

Q: Don’t you rebalance to reduce risk?

A: Let’s say you’ve got a portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds. Now, imagine stocks drop and you’re in a prolonged bear market. If you’re rebalancing, you have to buy equities to get that proportion back up to 60%. So as stocks are falling, you’re buying more and more. Your portfolio is going to have a bigger drawdown than another portfolio where you didn’t rebalance.

It works in bull markets too. If equities are going up and up and you’re rebalancing, you’re dumping stocks. The market goes up. You dump more. All of a sudden your portfolio has done worse than if you had just let it run.

Q: So how should investors think about rebalancing then?

A: It is not smart to rebalance the last day of the year or the last day of the quarter by rote. It means you’re ignoring all of the information in the market. There’s lots of information out there, so use that
information. Use your judgment.

Q: If you don’t have time to figure this out, isn’t rote rebalancing worth the risk to keep from being overly exposed to stocks before a bear market?

A: If you have a very long time horizon, you may be able to bear the extra risk by rote rebalancing. You will still have bigger drawdowns in the value of your retirement portfolio, but you don’t need the money in the short term and you can ride out the risk. My point is all investors need to understand that rote rebalancing is an active investment decision that increases risk.

Q: You’ve also done research on Bitcoin. The smart money is pretty sure it’s a worthless currency. What don’t people get?

A: Almost everything. For instance, part of the misunderstanding is the focus on the price of the Bitcoin. You see that it was at $1,000, then it’s down to $200. People say, “Well, the bubble has burst,” and stuff like that.

They are looking at just one aspect of Bitcoin. These critics don’t start by asking themselves, “What problem does Bitcoin solve?”

Q: What problem does it solve?

A: I am tired of constantly getting phone calls from my credit card companies, having to go online to fix the 20 things I’ve got auto-debits for, and dealing with charges that are not mine on my card. These are problems that many people encounter.

Q: Bitcoin is safer?

A: Bitcoin is much safer. When you go to buy something, the retailer actually is able to check a common ledger of all transactions to make sure you actually have the money to spend. The public ledger, which is almost impossible to hack, solves the problem of double spending—using the same Bitcoin to buy two things. Merchants, such as restaurants, which are paying 3% to the credit card companies, love this.

For me, though, I look at Bitcoin not just as a currency, but what it could do in the future in other applications. Think of the Bitcoin technology as a way to exchange and verify ownership. It’s like getting into your car with your smartphone. You present cryptographic proof of ownership. You’re the owner, and it’s verified through this common ledger. The car is able to identify that it is your car, and so the car starts. You’re done.

Now suppose you borrow money from the bank for the car and you’re three months behind in your payments. You present your key, the car doesn’t start. The bank has the key that starts the car. So this is a very cool idea, right?

Q: There’s still a problem with the roller-coaster ride in Bitcoin prices, right?

A: There is, and Bitcoin currently is not a reliable store of value because of it. But the price swings could be solved with more liquidity—more money in the market. The recently launched Bitcoin exchange, which is fully regulated, insured, and backed by the New York Stock Exchange, should help with this. Bitcoin price fluctuations are a factor of it being so young.

The best way to judge Bitcoin is not to look at the price progression, but to look at the vast amount of money that’s being invested by venture capitalists into Bitcoin-related companies. That’s what I look at.

MONEY credit cards

3 Secrets to Maximizing Your Credit Card Travel Rewards

travel rewards first class
iStock

A ticket to the first-class cabin may be in your future if you follow these strategies

Consumers lately have been favoring credit cards that give cash back over those with travel rewards.

Less than half of credit cardholders surveyed by ThePointsGuy.com recently accumulate travel points or miles, and only one in three Millennials. It’s no wonder, given that airlines have seriously devalued frequent flier miles and made it more difficult to redeem points for tickets.

“But there is still tremendous value in getting the right travel card,” says Brian Kelly founder of ThePointsGuy.com.

What to Look For

•A hefty bonus. Sign-up bonuses among the 20 most popular travel cards increased 25% this year, according to Kelly. And in some cases, he adds, just a single bonus can provide enough miles for a first-class airline ticket anywhere in the world.
•Flexible redemption options. To get the most for your spending dollar, Kelly notes, you’re likely better off skipping airline-branded cards that let you rack up miles on a particular carrier (since these limit your redemption opportunities) in favor of cards that let you transfer miles to other loyalty programs or allow you to use the rewards you’ve accumulated as cash toward any kind of travel purchases.
Most travel cardholders either aren’t don’t have such a card or don’t take advantage. ThePointsGuy.com’s survey found that, among the 42% of people who have a travel rewards card, only 19% have ever transferred rewards points or miles from their credit card to an airline’s loyalty program.

•No foreign transaction fees. These are another self-inflicted wound for consumers. According to the survey, one-quarter of all credit cardholders have to pay a fee when they buy stuff overseas (it’s typically 2% to 4%), and one-third don’t know if their card charges them extra. With so many products available that do not charge this fee, a lot of borrowers are throwing money away.

Your Best Bets

MONEY’s two Best Credit Card winners for travel offer among the heftiest bonuses in the biz with no foreign transaction fees, and neither leaves you stuck with one airline.

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard offers a sign-up bonus of 40,000 miles once you spend $3,000 within the first 90 days, in addition to two miles per dollar spent. You can redeem the miles as a statement credit against any kind of travel, and get 10% miles back when you do so. This means that the sign-up bonus alone will earn you $440.

Chase Sapphire Preferred‘s sign-up bonus comes in at 40,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months. You receive double points for dining and travel spending, 5,000 points for adding an authorized user and a 20% discount when you book the travel through Chase. While you can apply the points as cash back for travel, you can also transfer them to a number of partner loyalty programs, including Southwest and United.

More from Money.com:

How to Balance Spending and Safety in Retirement

8 Tax-Filing Flubs to Avoid

The Easiest Way to Check Your Credit—Fast

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