MONEY

Obama’s Favorite Mutual Fund

Some food for thought from President Obama’s current investment portfolio, which was revealed last Friday as part of his government-mandated annual financial disclosure report:

1. There’s an old bit of investment advice: If you don’t have a lot of money, you invest to build your assets. If you already have a lot of money, you invest to protect them. Well, it’s the second part of that statement that applies to our president. Judging from the report, he and his immediate family had investments and savings, as of year-end 2008, of at least $1.4 million and as much as $5.9 million. (Sorry about the imprecision there; blame the report’s format for the wide range of valuations.) And, boy, is his portfolio safe and liquid. His biggest holding, by far, is his stake in U.S. Treasury bills–somewhere between $1.05 million and $5.1 million. The next biggest chunk is the $100,000 to $250,000 that Barack and Michelle have in their joint checking account. Face it: When either of them uses a debit card to gas up the limo at the 7-11, they don’t have to worry about those pesky overdraft fees.

2. The president isn’t really into stock-picking. He and the First Lady used to own a few different equity mutual funds; now he owns only one, and it’s an index fund: the Vanguard FTSE Social Index fund (VFTSX). President & Mrs. Obama have somewhere between $115,00 and $250,000 in the fund, spread out among three different retirement accounts. And they’ve suffered like everyone else: The fund has a total return of negative 39% over the past year, slightly worse than that of the S&P 500. Michelle used to have big holdings in the actively-managed Vanguard Wellesley Income (VWINX) and Vanguard Wellington (VWELX) funds, but she apparently got rid of them last year.

3. Face it, when you’re President of the United States, your investment objectives and criteria are not like your next-door neighbor’s (if indeed you have any neighbors). As much as Obama might be concerned about protecting his wealth–and maybe he isn’t, since he’ll have a nice pension and plenty of opportunities to make money in retirement–he’s got to worry more about how his investments look to other people, and what those investments say about him. That’s what they euphemize in financial circles as the “optics” of the situation.

4. On that basis, the optics of Obama’s investments look pretty good. By investing in an index fund, he’s not making an active bet on a particular company (though he does end up making big bets, for better or worse, on particular industries: The Social Index fund has about 26% of its investments in financial stocks, 27% in information technology, and another 30% in either health care or consumer discretionary). That lone mutual fund invests nearly all its money in U.S. stocks, and it screens companies on the basis of their policies and performance relative to the environment, human rights, sweatshops, bribery and other social issues. Who’s going to argue with that? And think about it: With so much of Obama’s money in Treasury bills and cash, he’s making a big bet on the performance of the U.S. economy and the U.S. dollar. It’s like with any money manager: When he’s playing with your money, you want him to have a lot of his own assets at risk, too.

Addendum:

The Obamas have socked away somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 in 529 plans for Sasha and Malia’s college education. That’s great, but it appears they have put their money in broker-sold plans that charge a 3.5% upfront sales load and have annual expense ratios of around 1.3%. Ouch! Financial planner (and MONEY contributor) Allan Roth suggests they move to lower-expense direct-sold plans, a move that would mean lower fees and more money for the girls’ schooling.

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