MONEY stocks

10 Smart Ways to Boost Your Investing Results

stacks of coins - each a different color
Alamy

You don't have to be an investing genius to improve your returns. Just follow a few simple steps.

Recent research shows that people who know their way around investing and finance racked up higher annual returns (9.5% vs. 8.2%) than those who don’t. Here are 10 tips that will help make you a savvier investor and better able to achieve your financial goals.

1. Slash investing fees. You can’t control the gains the financial markets deliver. But by sticking to investments like low-cost index funds and ETFs that charge as little as 0.05% a year, you can keep a bigger portion of the returns you earn. And the advantage to doing so can be substantial. Over the course of a career, reducing annual fees by just one percentage point can boost the size of your nest egg more than 25%. Another less commonly cited benefit of lowering investment costs: downsizing fees effectively allows you to save more for retirement without actually putting aside another cent.

2. Beware conflicted advice. Many investors end up in poor-performing investments not because of outright cons and scams but because they fall for a pitch from an adviser who’s really a glorified salesman. The current push by the White House, Department of Labor and Securities and Exchange Commission to hold advisers to a more rigorous standard may do away with some abuses. But the onus is still on you to gauge the competence and trustworthiness of any adviser you deal with. Asking these five questions can help you do that.

3. Gauge your risk tolerance. Before you can invest properly, you’ve got to know your true appetite for risk. Otherwise, you could end up bailing out of investments during market downturns, turning paper losses into real ones. Completing a risk tolerance questionnaire like this one from RealDealRetirement’s Retirement Toolbox can help you assess how much risk you can reasonably handle.

4. Don’t be a “bull market genius.” When the market is doing well and stock prices are surging, it’s understandable if you assume your incredible investing acumen is responsible for those outsize returns. Guess what? It’s not. You’re really just along for the ride. Unfortunately, many investors lose sight of this basic fact, become overconfident, take on too much risk—and then pay dearly when the market inevitably takes a dive. You can avoid such a come-down, and the losses that accompany it, by leavening your investing strategy with a little humility.

5. Focus on asset allocation, not fund picking. Many people think savvy investing consists of trying to identify in advance the investments that will top the performance charts in the coming year. But that’s a fool’s errand. It’s virtually impossible to predict which stocks or funds will outperform year to year, and trying to do so often means you’ll end up chasing hot investments that may be more prone to fizzle than sizzle in the year ahead. The better strategy: create a diversified mix of stock and bond funds that jibes with your risk tolerance and makes sense given the length of time you plan to keep your money invested. That will give you a better shot at getting the long-term returns you need to achieve a secure retirement and reach other goals while maintaining reasonable protection against market downturns.

6. Limit the IRS’s take. You should never let the desire to avoid taxes drive your investing strategy. That policy has led many investors to plow their savings into all sorts of dubious investments ranging from cattle-breeding operations to jojoba-bean plantations. That said, there are reasonable steps you can take to prevent Uncle Sam from claiming too big a share of your investment gains. One is doing as much of your saving as possible in tax-advantaged accounts like traditional and Roth 401(k)s and IRAs. You may also be able to lower the tab on gains from investments held in taxable accounts by investing in stock index funds and tax-managed funds that that generate much of their return in the form of unrealized long-term capital gains, which go untaxed until you sell and then are taxed at generally lower long-term capital gains rates.

7. Go broad, not narrow. In search of bigger gains, many investors tend to look for niches to exploit. Instead of investing in a broad selection of energy or technology firms, they’ll drill down into solar producers, wind power, robotics, or cloud-computing firms. That approach might work, but it can also leave you vulnerable to being in the wrong place at the wrong time—or the right place but the wrong company. Going broader is better for two reasons: it’s less of a guessing game, and the broader you go the lower your investing costs are likely to be. So if you’re buying energy, tech or whatever, buy the entire sector. Better get, go even broader still. By investing in a total U.S. stock market and total U.S. bond market index fund, you’ll own a piece of virtually all publicly traded U.S. companies and a share of the entire investment-grade bond market. Throw in a total international stock index fund and you’ll have foreign exposure as well. In short, you’ll tie your portfolio’s success to that of the broad market, not just a slice of it.

8. Consider the downside. Investors are by and large an optimistic lot, otherwise they wouldn’t put their money where their convictions are. But a little skepticism is good too. So before putting your money into an investment or embarking on a strategy, challenge yourself. Come up with reasons your view might be all wrong. Think about what might happen if you are. Crash-test your investing strategy to see how you’ll do if your investments don’t perform as well as you hope. Better to know the potential downside before it occurs than after.

9. Keep it simple. You can easily get the impression that you’re some kind of slacker if you’re not filling your portfolio with every new fund or ETF that comes out. In fact, you’re better off exercising restraint. By loading up on every Next Big Thing investment the Wall Street marketing machine churns out you run the risk of di-worse-ifying rather than diversifying. All you really need is a portfolio that mirrors the broad U.S. stock and bond markets, and maybe some international exposure. If you want to go for more investing gusto, you can consider some inflation protection, say, a real estate, natural resources, or TIPS fund. But I’d be wary about adding much more than that.

10. Tune out the noise. With so many investing pundits weighing in on virtually every aspect of the financial markets nearly 24/7, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with advice. It might make sense to sift through this cacophony if it were full of investing gems, but much of the advice, predictions, and observations are trite, if not downright harmful. If you want to watch or listen to the parade of pundits just to keep abreast of the investing scuttlebutt, fine. Just don’t let the hype, the hoopla, and the hyperbole distract you from your investing strategy.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

More From RealDealRetirement.com:

 

MONEY portfolio

5 Ways to Invest Smarter at Any Age

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Comstock Images—Getty Images

The key is settling on the right stock/bond mix and sticking to your guns. Here's how.

Welcome to Day 4 of MONEY’s 10-day Financial Fitness program. So far, you’ve seen what shape you’re in, gotten yourself motivated, and checked your credit. Today, tackle your investment mix.

The key to lifetime fitness is a powerful core—strong and flexible abdominal and back muscles that help with everything else you do and protect against aches and injuries as you age. In your financial life, your core is your long-term savings, and strengthening it is simple: Settle on the right stock/bond mix, favor index funds to keep costs low, fine-tune your approach periodically, and steer clear of gimmicks such as “nontransparent ETFs” or “hedge funds for small investors”—Wall Street’s equivalent of workout fads like muscle-toning shoes.

Here’s the simple program:

1. Know Your Target

If you don’t already have a target allocation for your age and risk tolerance, steal one from the pie charts at T. Rowe Price’s Asset Allocation Planner. Or take one minute to fill out Vanguard’s mutual fund recommendation tool. You’ll get a list of Vanguard index funds, but you can use the categories to shop anywhere.

2. Push Yourself When You’re Young

Investors 35 and under seem to be so concerned about a market meltdown that they have almost half their portfolios in cash, a 2014 UBS report found. Being too conservative early on—putting 50% in stocks vs. 80%—reduces the likely value of your portfolio at age 65 by 30%, according to Vanguard research. For starting savers, 90% is a commonly recommended stock stake.

3. Do a U-turn at Retirement

According to Wade Pfau of the American College and Michael Kitces of the Pinnacle Advisory Group, you have a better shot at a secure retirement if you hold lots of stocks when you’re young, lots of bonds at retirement, and then gradually shift back to stocks. Their studies found that starting retirement with 20% to 30% in stocks and raising that by two percentage points a year for 15 years helps your money last, especially if you run into a bear market early on.

4. Be Alert for Hidden Risks

Once you’ve been investing for several years and have multiple accounts, perfecting your investment mix gets trickier. Here’s a simple way to get the full picture of your portfolio.

Dig out statements for all your investment accounts—401(k), IRA, spouse’s 401(k), old 401(k), any brokerage accounts. At Morningstar.com, find “Instant X-Ray” under Portfolio Tools. Enter the ticker symbol of each fund you own, along with the dollar value. (Oops. Your 401(k) has separately managed funds that lack tickers? Use the index fund that’s most similar to your fund’s benchmark.)

Clicking “Show Instant X-Ray” will give you a full analysis, including a detailed stock/bond allocation, a geographic breakdown of your holdings, and your portfolio’s overall dividend yield and price/earnings ratio. Look deeper to see how concentrated you are in cyclical stocks, say, or tech companies—a sign you might not be as diversified as you think or taking risks you didn’t even know about.

5. Don’t Weigh Yourself Every Day

Closely monitoring your progress may help with an actual fitness plan. For financial fitness, it’s better to lay off looking at how you’re doing. A growing body of research finds that well-diversified investors who check their balances infrequently are more likely to end up with bigger portfolios, says Michaela Pagel, a finance professor at Columbia Business School. One reason: Pagel says savers who train themselves not to peek are more likely to invest in stocks. And research by Dalbar finds that investors’ tendency to panic sell in bear markets has cut their average annual returns to 5% over the past 20 years, while the S&P 500 earned 9.2%.

When you have the urge to sell, remind yourself that your time horizon is at least 20 years, says Eric Toya, a financial planner in Redondo Beach, Calif. “Outcome-oriented investors agonize over every up-and-down whim of the market and make poor timing decisions,” he says. “If your process is sound, you don’t need to panic.”

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MONEY retirement planning

How to Save More for Retirement Without Saving an Extra Cent

fingers holding penny
Roy Hsu—Getty Images

Think you can't set aside any more dough than you're already saving? Here's a simple way to grow your nest egg without putting a squeeze on your budget.

If I said you could significantly boost the size of your nest egg without setting aside even a single penny more than you already are and do so without taking on a scintilla of extra investing risk, you’d be skeptical, right? Well, you can. Here’s how.

It’s no secret that the best way to increase your chances of achieving a secure retirement is to boost the amount you save. Problem is, given all the other demands on your paycheck (mortgage, car payments, child expenses, the occasional night out, etc.) how do you find ways to free up more dough for saving?

Actually, there’s an easy way boost your retirement account balances without further squeezing your budget: Stash whatever money you do manage to save in the lowest-cost investments you can find. This simple tactic has the same effect as contributing more to your retirement accounts, making it the financial equivalent of upping your savings rate.

How big a jump in your effective savings rate are we talking about? That depends on how much you cut investment fees and how long you reap the benefits of those lower costs. But over time the increase in your effective savings rate can be quite meaningful, as this example shows.

Let’s say you’re 35, earn $50,000 a year, receive 2% annual raises, and contribute 10% of your salary to a 401(k) that earns a 7% a year before fees. If you shell out 1.5% annually in investment expenses, by the time you’re 65 your 401(k) balance will total just under $465,000.

Reduce your annual investment costs from 1.5% to just 1%—hardly a heroic effort—and you’re looking at a nest egg worth roughly $505,000. To end up with that amount while still paying 1.5% in annual fees, you would have to boost your annual 401(k) contribution to 10.8%. Which means that lowering expenses by a half percentage point in this case is essentially the same as saving nearly a full percentage point more each year, except you don’t have to reduce your spending to do it.

And what if you take an even sharper knife to investing costs?

Well, cutting expenses from 1.5% to 0.5% a year would give our hypothetical 35-year-old a 401(k) balance of just under $550,000 at age 65, or the equivalent of saving 11.8% a year instead of 10%. And if you’re able to really cut investment fees to the bone—say, to 0.25%—that nest egg’s value would balloon to just over $573,000. To reach that size while paying 1.5% annually in investing costs, our 35-year-old would have to contribute 12.3% of pay.

By the way, lowering investment costs can also have a big payoff after you’ve stopped saving and have begun tapping your nest egg for retirement income. For example, a 65 year-old with a $1 million nest egg split equally between stocks and bonds who wants an 80% chance that his savings will sustain him for at least 30 years would have to limit himself to an initial draw (that would subsequently rise with inflation) of just under 3.5%, or a bit less than $35,000, assuming annual expenses of 1.5%.

Cut that levy from 1.5% to 0.5%, and he would be able to boost that inflation-adjusted withdrawal to almost 4%, or $40,000, while maintaining the same 80% probability of savings lasting 30 or more years.

Of course, the results you get may vary for any number of reasons. For example, if you’re doing most of your saving through a 401(k) and your plan lacks good low-cost investment options, your ability to turn lower expenses into a higher account balance will necessarily be limited. And even if you are able to home in on investments with rock-bottom costs, there’s no guarantee that every dollar of cost savings will translate to an extra dollar in your account.

That said, unless every cent of your savings is locked into an account that offers only high-expense investments, you should be able to get some money into cost-efficient options. At the very least you can steer savings in IRAs and taxable accounts into low-fee index funds and ETFs (some of which charge as little as 0.05%). And while cutting investing costs can’t guarantee a larger nest egg, Morningstar research shows that funds with the lowest expense ratios tend to outperform their higher-fee counterparts.

One final note. While targeting low-expense investment options is certainly an effective and painless way to boost the size of your nest egg, you shouldn’t let low costs do all the work. Indeed, if you focus on low-fee investments and increase your contributions to 401(k)s, IRAs and other retirement accounts, that’s when you’ll see your savings balances really take off.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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MONEY stocks

China’s Boom Is Over — and Here’s What You Can Do About It

Illustration of Chinese dragon as snail
Edel Rodriguez

The powerhouse that seemed ready to propel the global economy for decades is now stuck in a period of slowing growth. Here’s what that means for your portfolio

Every so often an investment theme comes along that seems so big and compelling that you feel it can’t be ignored. This happened in the 1980s with Japanese stocks. It happened again with the Internet boom of the 1990s. You know how those ended.

Today history appears to be repeating itself in China.

Just a decade ago, China was hailed as the engine that would single-handedly drive the global economy for years to come. That seemed plausible, as a billion Chinese attempted something never before accomplished: tran­sitioning from an agrarian to an industrial to a consumer economy, all in a single generation.

Recently, however, this ride to prosperity has hit the skids. A real estate bubble threatens to crimp consumer wealth; over-investment in a wide range of industries is likely to dampen growth; and the transition to a developed economy is stuck in an awkward phase that has trapped other emerging markets.

No wonder Chinese equities—despite a strong rebound last year—are down around half from their 2007 peak.

iSCH1

Like the Japan and dotcom manias before it, China looks like an old story. “Do you have to be in China?” asks Henrik Strabo, head of international investments for Rainier Investment Management in Seattle. “The truth is, no.”

If you’ve bought the China story—and since 2000 hundreds of thousands of U.S. investors have plowed $176 billion into emerging-markets mutual and exchange-traded funds, which have big stakes in China—that’s a pretty bold statement.

In fact, even if you haven’t invested directly in Chinese stocks and simply hold a broad-based international equity fund, China’s Great Slowdown has an impact on how you should think about your portfolio. Here’s what you need to understand about China’s next chapter.

China Has Hit More Than a Speed Bump

After expanding at an annual clip of more than 10% a decade ago, China’s economy has slowed, growing at just over 7% in 2014. That’s expected to fall to 6.5% in the next couple of years, according to economists at UBS. And then it’s “on to 5% and below over the coming decade,” says Jeffrey Kleintop, chief global investment strategist at Charles Schwab.

Why is this worrisome when gross domestic product in the U.S. is expanding at a much slower 3%?

For starters, it represents a steep drop from prior expectations. As recently as three years ago, economists had been forecasting that China would still be growing at roughly an 8% clip by 2016.

The bigger worry is that the slowdown means that China has reached a phase that frustrates many emerging economies on the path to becoming fully “developed,” a stage some economists refer to as the middle-income trap.

On the one hand, a growing number of Chinese are approaching middle-class status, which means wages are on the rise. That sounds good, but rising labor costs chip away at China’s competitive advantage in older, industrial sectors. “You’re seeing more and more manufacturers look at other, cheaper markets like Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines,” says Eric Moffett, manager of the T. Rowe Price Asia Opportunities Fund.

At the same time, the country’s new consumer-centric economy has yet to fully form. About half of China’s urban population is thought to be middle-class by that nation’s standards, but half of Chinese still live in the countryside, and the vast majority of those households are poor. Couple this with the deteriorating housing market—which accounts for the bulk of the wealth for the middle class—and you can see why China isn’t able to buy its way to prosperity just yet.

This in-between stage is when fast-growing economies typically downshift significantly. After prolonged periods of “supercharged” expansion, these economies tend to suffer through years when they regress to a more typical rate of global growth, according to a recent paper by Harvard professors Lawrence Summers and Lant Pritchett.

In some cases, like Brazil, this slowdown prevents the economy from taking that final step to advanced status. Brazil had been expanding 5.2% a year from 1967 to 1980, but that growth slowed to less than 1% annually from 1981 to 2002.

No one is saying China will be stuck in this trap for a generation, like Brazil, but China could be looking at a long-term growth rate closer to 4% to 5% than 8% to 10%.

iSCH2

Your best strategy: Go where the growth is—at home. A few years ago the global economy was ex­pected to expand at an annual pace of 4.2% in 2015, trouncing the U.S.  Today the forecast is down to 3.1%, pretty much the same pace as the U.S. economy, which is expected to keep accelerating through 2017.

In recent years, some market strategists and financial planners have instructed investors to keep as much as 40% to 50% of their stocks in foreign funds. But ­dropping that allocation to 20% to 30% still gives you most of the diversification benefit of owning non-U.S. stocks.

The Losers Aren’t Just in Asia

China’s rise to power lifted the fortunes of its neighboring trade partners too, so it stands to reason that a broad swath of the emerging markets is now at risk. “China is still the beating heart of Asia and the emerging markets,” says Moffett. “If it slows down, all the other countries exporting to and importing from China will see their growth prospects affected.”

The country’s biggest trading partners in the region are Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and all are slowing down. Economists forecast that the growth rates in those four nations will slip below 3% next year.

Beyond Asia, “you have to be careful with the commodity exporters,” says Rainier’s Strabo. China’s slowdown over the past five years is a big reason commodity prices in general and oil specifically have sunk more than 50% since 2011.

China consumes about 40% of the world’s copper and 11% of its oil. As the country’s appetite for commodities wanes, natural resource producers such as Australia, Russia, and Latin America will feel the blow.

Your best strategy: Keep your emerging-markets stake to around 5% of your total portfolio. If your only foreign exposure is a total international equity fund, then you’re probably already there. If, however, you’ve tacked on an emerging-markets “tilt” to your portfolio to try to boost returns, unwind those positions, starting with funds focusing on Asia, Latin America, or Russia.

Here’s another bet that’s now played out: A popular strategy in the global slowdown was to take fliers on Western companies with the biggest exposure to China—companies such as the British spirits maker Diageo (think Johnnie Walker and Guinness) and Yum Brands (KFC and Pizza Hut)—solely because of their China reach. And for a while, that paid off.

Now, though, the stocks of Yum and Diageo have stalled, and major global companies such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and Unilever have reported disappointing results recently in part owing to subpar sales in China as well as in other emerging markets.

Demographic Problems Will Only Make Things Worse

For years, China’s sheer size was seen as a massive competitive advantage. Indeed, China has three times as many workers as the United States has people.

Yet as the country’s older workers have been retiring, China’s working-age population has been quietly shrinking in recent years. Economists say this will most likely lead to labor shortages over the coming years, putting even more pressure on wages to rise.

iSCH3

China’s demographic problem has been exacerbated by the country’s “one-child” policy, which has prevented an estimated 400 million births since 1979. But China isn’t the only emerging market suffering from bad demographic trends.

Birthrates are low throughout East Asia. The ratio of people 15 to 64 to those 65 and older will plummet from about 7 to 1 to 3 to 1 in the next 15 years in Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, dragging down growth.

Your best strategy: If you’re a growth-focused investor who wants more than that 5% stake in emerging markets, concentrate on developing economies with more youthful populations and more potential to expand. One fund that gives you that—with big holdings in the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Colombia—is Harding Loevner Frontier Emerging Markets HARDING LOEVNER FRONT EM MKTS INV HLMOX -0.58% . Over the past five years, the fund has gained around 7% a year, more than triple the return of the typical emerging-markets portfolio.

Another option is EGShares ­Beyond BRICs EGA EMERGING GLOBA EGSHARES BEYOND BRICS ETF BBRC -0.35% . Rather than investing in the emerging markets’ old-guard leaders—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—this ETF counts firms from more consumer-driven economies, such as Mexico and Malaysia, among its top holdings.

The Parallels Between China and 1990s Japan are Alarming

For starters, China is facing a real estate crisis similar to Japan’s, says Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS. With easy access to cheap credit, developers have flooded the major cities with excess housing. Floor space per urban resident has grown to 40 square meters, compared with just 35 square meters in Japan and 33 in the U.K.

Not surprisingly, prices in 100 top Chinese cities have been sliding for seven months. Whether China’s property bubble bursts or not, falling home values chip away at household net worth; that, in turn, drags down consumer sen­timent and spending, Behravesh says.

Other unfortunate similarities between the two nations: Excess capacity plagues numerous sectors of China’s economy, ranging from steel to chemicals to an auto industry made up of 96 car­ brands.

Also, Chinese officials face political pressure to focus on short-term growth rather than long-term fixes. This type of thinking has resulted in the rise of so-called zombie companies, much like what Japan saw in the ’90s. “These are companies that aren’t really viable but are being kept alive,” Behravesh says. Yet for the economy to get back on track, inefficiently run businesses have to be allowed to fail, market strategists say.

Your best strategy: Focus on the few major differences between the two countries. Unlike Japan, for instance, China is still a young, emerging economy. Slowdown or not, “the growth of the middle class will continue in China, and that will absorb some of the overhang in the economy, which is something Japan couldn’t count on,” says Michael Kass, manager of Baron Emerging Markets Fund.

What’s more, when Japan’s bubble burst in late 1989, stocks in that country were trading at a frothy price/earnings ratio of around 50. By contrast, Chinese shares trade at a reasonable P/E of around 10.

To be sure, not all Chinese stocks enjoy such low valuations. As competition heats up to supply China’s population with basic goods, valuations on consumer staples companies have nearly doubled over the past four years to a P/E of around 27.

At the same time, the loss of faith in the Chinese story means there are decent values in industries that cater to the established middle and upper-middle class, says Nick Niziolek, co-manager of the Calamos Evolving World Growth Fund. Health care and gaming stocks in particular suffered setbacks last year. And Chinese consumer discretionary stocks are trading at a P/E of just 12, down from 20 five years ago.

You can invest in such businesses through EGShares Emerging Markets Domestic Demand ETF EGA EMERGING GLOBA EGSHARES EMERGING MKTS DOME EMDD -0.22% , which owns shares of companies that cater to local buyers within their home countries, rather than relying on exports. Chinese shares represent about 17% of the fund, led by names such as China Mobile.

That one of the world’s great growth stories is now best viewed as a place to pick up stocks on the cheap might seem a strange twist—until you remember your Japanese and Internet history.

MONEY index funds

The Smart Money is Finally Embracing the Right Way to Invest. You Should Too.

Investors turned their backs on traditional mutual funds in 2014 and began relying more heavily on indexing.

Since launching the Vanguard 500 fund in 1975, Vanguard founder Jack Bogle has been preaching the gospel of indexing — a plain-vanilla, low-cost strategy that calls for buying and holding all the stocks in a market and “settling” for average returns. He’s so fervent that his nickname in the industry is St. Jack.

Forty years laters, investors have finally found religion.

In 2014, the Vanguard Group attracted a record $216 billion of new money, largely on the strength of its index offerings and exchange-traded funds. These are funds that can be traded like individual stocks and that almost always track a market index.

Vanguard wasn’t alone. Blackrock, which runs the well-known iShares brand ETFs, attracted more than $100 billion of new money in 2014, a year in which investors both small and large embraced indexing, also known as “passive” investing.

By comparison, actively managed mutual funds — those that are run by traditional stock and bond pickers — saw net redemptions of nearly $13 billion last year, according to the fund tracker Morningstar.

There’s are several simple reasons for this:

1) Fund inflows generally follow recent performance.
And in 2014, the S&P 500 index of stocks outperformed roughly 80% of actively managed funds, noted Michael Rawson, an analyst with Morningstar.

He added: “When the market rallies strong, a lot of active managers tend to lag, maybe because they’re being more conservative, holding more quality stocks, or maybe holding a little bit of a cash — it is common for an active manager to hold some cash. So it’s difficult to keep up with the rising market.”

2) 2014 was a year when many heavy hitters espoused their preference for indexing.
In August, MONEY’s Ian Salisbury reported how the influential pension fund known as Calpers — the California Public Employees’ Retirement System — was openly considering reducing its use of actively managed strategies for its clients.

This came on the heels of a provocative column written by a Morningstar insider questioning whether actively managed strategies had a future. “To cut to the chase,” wrote Morningstar’s John Rekenthaler, “apparently not much.”

And as MONEY’s Pat Regnier pointed out in a fascinating piece on Warren Buffett’s investing approach, the Oracle of Omaha noted in his most recent shareholder letter that his will “leaves instructions for his trustees to invest in an S&P 500 index fund.”

3) Plus, new research from Standard & Poor’s shows that even if active managers can beat the indexes, they can’t do that consistently over time.

The report, which was published in December, noted that “When it comes to the active versus passive debate, the true measurement of successful active management lies in the ability of a manager or a strategy to deliver above-average returns consistently over multiple periods. Demonstrating the ability to outperform repeatedly is the only proven way to differentiate a manager’s luck from skill.”

Yet according to Aye Soe, S&P’s senior director of global research and design, “relatively few funds can consistently stay at the top.”

Indeed, only 9.84% of U.S. stock funds managed to stay in the top quartile of performance over three consecutive years, according to S&P. This is presumably because over time, the higher fees and trading costs that actively managed funds trigger become too difficult for even the most seasoned managers to overcome.

Even worse, just 1.27% of domestic equity portfolios were able to stay in the top 25% of their peers for five straight years. For those funds that specialize in blue chip stocks, the numbers were even worse. Of the 257 large-cap funds that finished in the top quartile of their peers starting in September 2010, less than half of 1% remained in the top quartile for each of the subsequent 12-month periods through September 2014.

As Soe puts it, this “paints a negative picture regarding the lack of long-term persistence in mutual fund returns.”

MONEY stocks

Your 3 Best Investing Strategies for 2015

Trophy with money in it
Travis Rathbone—Prop Styling by Megumi Emoto

Racking up big investing victories over the past six years was easy. Now, though, the going looks to be getting tougher. These three strategies will help you stay on the path to your goals.

There’s nothing like an extended bull market to make you feel like a winner — and that’s probably just how you felt coming into the start of this year.

Sure, the recent wild swings in the stock market may have you feeling a bit more cautious. Still, even now, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index has returned more than 200% since the March 2009 market bottom, while and bonds have posted a respectable 34% gain.

The question is, will the winning streak continue?

Should it persist through the current bout of volatility, the stock market rally will be entering its seventh year, making it one of the longest ever; at some point a bear will stop the party. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve is signaling the end to its program of holding down interest rates and thus encouraging risk taking. And there’s zero chance that Congress will add further fiscal stimulus. In short, the post-crisis investing era—when market performance was largely driven by Washington policy and Fed ­intervention—is over. “As the global risks have receded,” says Jeffrey Kleintop, chief global investment strategist at Charles Schwab, “the focus is going back to earnings and other fundamentals.”

The stage is set for a reversion to “normal,” but as you’ll see, it’s a normal that lacks support for high future returns. For you, that means a balancing act. If you don’t want to take on more risk, you’ll have to accept the probability of lower returns. Following these three guidelines will help you maintain the right risk/reward balance and choose the right investments for the “new” normal.

1) Keep U.S. Stocks As Your Core Holding…

Stocks are expensive. The average stock in the S&P 500 is trading at a price of 16 times this year’s estimated earnings, about 30% higher than the long-run average. A more conservative valuation gauge developed by Yale finance professor Robert Shiller that compares prices with longer-term earnings shows that stocks are trading at more than 50% above their average.

“Given current high valuations, the returns for stocks are likely to be lower over the next 10 years,” says Vanguard senior economist Roger Aliaga-Díaz. He expects annual gains to average between 5% and 8%, compared with the historical average of 10%. Shiller’s numbers suggest even lower returns over the next decade.

That doesn’t mean you should give up on U.S. stocks. They remain your best shot at staying ahead of inflation, especially today, when what you can expect from a bond portfolio is, well, not much. “Stock returns may be lower,” says Aliaga-Díaz, “but bond returns will be much less, so the relative advantage of stocks will be the same.” And the U.S. economy, though far from peak performance, is the healthiest big player on the global field.

Your best strategy: Now is a particularly important time to make sure your stock allocation is matched to your time horizon. “The worst outcome for older investors would be a bear market just as you move into retirement,” says William Bernstein, an adviser and author of The Investor’s Manifesto. A traditional asset mix for someone in his fifties is the classic 60% stock/40% bond split, with a shift to 50%/50% by retirement. If your allocation was set for a 35-year-old and you’re 52, update it before the market does.

On the other hand, if you’re in your twenties and thirties, you should be far less worried about today’s prices. Hold 70% to 80% of your portfolio in equities. The power of compounding a dollar invested over 30 to 40 years is hard to overstate. And you’ll ride through many market cycles during your career, which will give you chances to buy stocks when they’re inexpensive.

2) …But Spread Your Money Widely

With many overseas economies barely out of recession or dragged down by geopolitical crises, international equity markets have been trading at low valuations. And some market watchers are expecting a rebound over the next few years. “Central banks in Europe, China, and Japan are making fiscal policy changes that are likely to boost global growth,” says Schwab’s Klein­- top. Oil prices, which have fallen 40% in recent months, may boost some markets as consumers spend less on fuel and step up discretionary buying.

But foreign stocks aren’t uniformly bargains. The slowdown in China’s economic growth threatens the economies of the countries that supply it with natural resources. Japan’s stimulus program to date has had mixed success, and the reason to expect stimulus in Europe is that policymakers are again worried about deflation.

Your best strategy: Spread your money widely. The typical investor should hold 20% to 30% of his stock allocation in foreign equities, including 5% in emerging markets, says Bernstein. Many core overseas stock funds, such as those in your 401(k), invest mainly in developed markets, so you may need to opt for a separate emerging-markets offering—you can find excellent choices on our ­MONEY 50 list of recommended mutual and exchange-traded funds. For an all-in-one fund, you could opt for Vanguard Total International Stock Index VANGUARD TOTAL INTL STOCK INDEX FD VGTSX -0.43% , which invests 20% of its assets in emerging markets.

3) Hold Bonds for Safety, Not for Income

Fixed-income investors have few options right now. Today’s rock-bottom interest rates are expected to move a bit higher, which may ding bond fund returns. (Bond rates and prices move in opposite directions.) Yet over the long run, intermediate-term rates are likely to remain below their historical average of 5%. If you want higher income, your only alternative is to venture into riskier investments.

Your best strategy: If you don’t want to take risks outside your stock portfolio, then accept that the role of your bond funds is to provide safety, not spending money. “After years of relative calm, you can expect volatility to return to the stock market—and higher-quality bonds offer your best hedge against stock losses,” says Russ Koesterich, chief investment strategist at BlackRock. Stick with mutual funds and ETFs that hold either investment-grade, or the highest-rated junk bonds. Don’t rely solely on government issues. Corporate bonds will give you a little more yield.

You may be tempted to hunker down in a short-term bond fund, which in theory will hold up best if interest rates rise. But this is one corner of the market that hasn’t returned to normal. Short-term bonds are sensitive to moves by the Federal Reserve to push up rates. The Fed has less ability to set long-term rates, and demand for long-term Treasuries is strong, which will keep downward pressure on the rates those bonds pay. So an intermediate-term bond fund that today yields about 2.25% is a reasonable compromise. Sometimes in investing, winning means not losing.

Read next:
How 2% Yields Explain the World—and Why Rates Have Stayed So Low for So Long

 

MONEY mutual funds

How MONEY Selected the 50 Best Mutual Funds and ETFs

The making of the MONEY 50, our list of the world’s 50 best mutual and exchange-traded funds

The Criteria

To create the MONEY 50 list of the best mutual funds and ETFs, MONEY editors look for solid long-term performers with these important traits:

Low fees. Below average expense ratios are a good predictor of better-than-average performance. Expenses averaged 0.94% for actively managed MONEY 50 funds, compared to 1.33% for stock funds in general.

Long tenure. Good returns don’t mean much if the manager responsible for them is no longer around. The average tenure for a MONEY 50 manager is 12.4 years, compared to 5.5 years for funds in general.

Strong stewardship. You want fund managers who put shareholders first. Sixty-four percent of actively managed MONEY 50 funds received a Morningstar stewardship grade of A or B, compared to only 13% of funds in general.

Changes to the List

While we are cautious about making switches, events can force our hand. We are replacing three funds for the 2015 list:

Out: T. Rowe Price Equity Income T. ROWE PRICE EQUITY INCOME FD PRFDX -0.51% . Longtime manager Brian Rogers is stepping down in October. His successor, John Linehan, has a wealth of experience, so shareholders needn’t sell. That said, the fund’s stellar record belongs to Rogers.

In: Dodge & Cox Stock DODGE & COX STOCK FUND DODGX -0.36% . The management team has delivered impressive returns at low cost, beating 99%, 92%, and 67% of their peers over the past three, five, and 10 years, respectively. The fund watchers at Morningstar give Dodge & Cox an “A” for how it treats shareholders, taking into account fees, disclosures, manager compensation, and other factors.

Dodge & Cox Stock is a true value fund, meaning the managers look for unpopular stocks and hang on, expecting investors to come around and bid share prices up.

“You have to understand the firm’s strategy and be willing to hold on,” says Morningstar analyst Laura Lallos. For instance, battered computer giant Hewlett-Packard is the fund’s top holding, and the nine-person management team has other big technology bets, including one on Microsoft. A recent success: buying J.P. Morgan Chase after news of the London Whale trading scandal in 2012. The stock has risen almost 70% since then. That said, the fund fared poorly during the financial crisis. But over the years it has bested the market in up months and lost less in down months.

Out: Primecap Odyssey Aggressive Growth PRIMECAP ODYSSEY AGGRESSIVE GROWTH POAGX 0.37% . After posting top returns for a decade and seeing an influx of money, the fund closed to new investors. That’s a positive for shareholders as management decided to go with its best ideas rather than find ways to deploy more cash.

In: iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ISHARES TRUST IBOXX USD INVT GRD CORP BD LQD 0.1% . Instead of replacing Primecap with an­other stock fund, we bulked up our fixed-income selection at a time when Treasuries, the go-to bond investment, pay so little.

Low-fee LQD buys the debt of such household names as Verizon, Goldman Sachs, and General Electric and has outperformed its peers. While blue-chip debtors are unlikely to default, corporate bonds are more volatile than Treasuries, so this fund should supplement, not replace, your core bond holding.

Out: Harbor Bond HARBOR BOND FUND INST HABDX -0.16% Why? In a name, Bill Gross. The co-founder of Pimco left the bond giant in the fall for Janus. Investors have been pulling money from Harbor, a sister fund to Pimco Total Return, as Gross’s recent bets against Treasuries failed to pay off. Harbor has trailed 72% of its peers over the past 12 months, although the fund has a solid long-term record. Still, given management uncertainty at Pimco, we replaced Harbor.

In: Fidelity Total Bond Fund FIDELITY TOTAL BOND FTBFX -0.09% . An experienced team led by Ford O’Neil has given investors a smooth ride at a lower cost than Harbor. The fund can invest up to 20% of its assets in non-investment-grade debt. Those “junk” holdings are one-seventh of the portfolio now. The idea is to add yield without significantly increasing risk.

Funds Under Review

While we seek out portfolios that beat their average competitor over five years, we don’t immediately eject funds on the list when their returns lag. Contrarian-minded managers can post subpar results before the market vindicates their thinking. That said, continued under­performance bears scrutiny. We’re watching the following funds:

Delafield DELAFIELD FUND INC DEFIX -0.62% Managers J. Dennis Delafield and Vincent Sellecchia have whipped the average competitor that invests in midsize value stocks by 2.5 percentage points a year since 1999, but they’ve struggled the past two years, in part due to large holdings in industrials and basic materials, sectors that have lagged the broader market. Still, Delafield has finished in the top 15% of similar funds in three of the past six years.

Weitz Hickory WEITZ HICKORY FUND WEHIX -0.24% Run by Omaha’s second-most-­famous value investor, Wally Weitz, this fund has trailed competitors badly over the past three- and 10-year periods, thanks to performance laggards such as security firm ADT. Plus, a large cash allocation meant Weitz didn’t fully capitalize on the bull market. Nevertheless, the fund ranks in the top 13% of peers over the past five years.

Wasatch Small Cap Growth WASATCH SMALL CAP GROWTH WAAEX -0.04% Jeff Cardon, the manager since 1986, tries to find companies that have low levels of debt and can double their earnings in five years. While the fund’s 15-year record is impressive, Wasatch has trailed almost 60% of its peers over the past five years, thanks in part to its bet on energy stocks, which have fallen as oil prices decline.

See the full MONEY 50 list

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 exchange-traded funds

Why Index Funds Are Like Cheap TVs at Walmart

"Why are you window shopping?" Sale inside sign on store window
jaminwell—Getty Images

You can get a great deal on exchange-traded funds tracking large stock indexes. But watch out for the extra spending that can pile up.

Every industry has its loss leaders, and the investment world is no different. The theory is that you will go to the store for the $12 turkey and stick around to buy dressing, cranberries, juice, pies and two kinds of potatoes.

In the investment world, the role of the cheap turkey is played by broad stock index exchange traded funds. While investment firms say they make money on even low-fee funds, their profit margins on these products have been narrowing.

There’s been a bidding war among issuers of exchange traded funds that mimic large stock indexes like the Standard & Poor’s 500 or the Wilshire 5000 stock index. Companies including Blackrock, Vanguard, and Charles Schwab have been competing to offer investors the lowest cost shares possible on these products. Right now, Schwab — which will begin offering pre-mixed portfolios of ultra-low-cost ETFs early in 2015 — is winning.

Their theory? You’ll come in the door for the index ETF and stay for the more expensive funds, the alternative investments, the retirement advice.

“We believe we will keep that client for a long time,” said John Sturiale, senior vice president of product management for Charles Schwab Investment Management.

Investors, of course, are free to come in and buy the cheap TV and nothing more. Here are some points to consider if you want to squeeze the most out of low-cost exchange traded funds.

A few points don’t matter, but a lot of points do.

“Over the long term, cost is one of the biggest determinants of portfolio performance,” said Michael Rawson, a Morningstar analyst.

If you have a TD Ameritrade brokerage account, you can buy the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund ETF for no cost beyond annual expenses of 0.05% of your assets in the fund. At Schwab, you can buy the Schwab U.S. Broad Market ETF for an annual expense of 0.04%. That 0.01 percentage point difference is negligible.

But compare that low-cost index fund with an actively managed fund carrying 1.3% in expenses. Invest $50,000 at the long-term stock market average return of 10% and you’ll end up with $859,477 after 30 years of having that 0.05% deducted annually. Pay 1.3% a year in expenses instead (not unusual for a high-profile actively managed mutual fund) and you’ll end up with $589,203. You’ll have given up $270,274 in fees, according to calculations performed at Buyupside.com.

Don’t pay for advice you don’t need.

The latest trend in investment advice is to charge clients roughly 1% of all of their assets to come up with a broad and diversified portfolio — with index funds at their core. Why not just buy your own core of index funds and exchange traded funds directly, and then get advice on the trickier parts of your portfolio? Or pay an adviser a onetime fee to develop a mostly index portfolio that you can buy on your own?

You won’t give up performance.

High-priced actively managed large stock funds as a group do not typically beat their indexes over time. Even those star managers who do outperform almost never do so year after year after year.

Build a broad portfolio.

Not every category of investment lends itself to low-cost indexing. You may do better with a seasoned stock picker if you’re taking aim at small-growth stocks, for example. But you can make the core of your plan a diversified and cheap portfolio of ETFs at any of the aforementioned companies, and save your fees for those extras that will really add value — the gravy, if you will.

MONEY stocks

Virtual Reality Makes Investing — Yes, Investing — Dangerously Fun

StockCity
StockCity from FidelityLabs

A new virtual reality tool from Fidelity makes navigating the stock market feel like a game—for better or worse.

There’s no question: Strapping on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and exploring StockCity, Fidelity’s new tool for investors, is oddly thrilling.

Admittedly, the fun may have more to do with the immersive experience of this 3D technology—with goggles that seamlessly shift your perspective as you tilt your head—than with the subject matter.

But I found it surprisingly easy to buy into the metaphor: As you glide through the virtual city that you’ve designed, buildings represent the stocks or ETFs in your portfolio, the weather represents the day’s market performance, and red and green rooftops tell you whether a stock is down or up for the day. Who wants to be a measly portfolio owner when you can instead be the ruler of a dynamic metropolis—a living, breathing personal economy?

Of course, there are serious limits to the tool in its current form. The height of a building represents its closing price on the previous day and the width the trading volume, which tell you nothing about, say, the stock’s historical performance or valuation—let alone whether it’s actually a good investment.

And, unless you’re a reporter like me or one of the 50,000 developers currently in possession of an Oculus Rift, you’re limited to playing with the less exciting 2D version of the program on your monitor (see a video preview below)—at least until a consumer version of the headset comes out in a few months, priced between $200 and $400.

Those flaws notwithstanding, if this technology makes the “gamification” of investing genuinely fun and appealing, that could be big deal. It could be used to better educate the public about the stock market and investing in general.

But it also raises a big question: Should investing be turned into a game, like fantasy sports?

There are dangers inherent in ostensibly educational games like Fidelity’s existing Beat the Benchmark tool, which teaches investing terms and demonstrates how different asset allocations have performed over various time periods. If you beat your benchmark, after all, what have you learned? A lot of research suggests that winning at investing tends to teach people the wrong lesson.

“Investors think that good returns originate from their investment skills, while for bad returns they blame the market,” writes Thomas Post, a finance professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and author of one recent study on the subject.

In reality, great performance in the stock market tends to depend more on luck than skill, even for the most expert investors. That’s why most people are best off putting their money into passive index funds and seldom trading. It also means there’s not a lot of value in watching the real-time performance of your stocks—in any number of dimensions.

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