MONEY

Most Financial Research Is Probably Wrong, Say Financial Researchers

Throwing crumpled paper in wastebasket
Southern Stock—Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winning with Warren NEW

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONEY Ask the Expert

Can I Ladder Bonds Using ETFs?

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso Jr.

Q: I’ve heard that there are bond ETF’s that hold securities that mature on the same date. Can they be used to create a bond ladder?

A: Bond ladders are a time-tested tool for investors looking to lock in predictable streams of income. The idea is to buy bonds that mature at regular intervals. In a simple ladder, for instance, you might divide your fixed-income money evenly among securities maturing in, say, one, two, three, four and five years.

Not only does this approach spread your bets, it is particularly useful now that interest rates are expected to rise.

Why? Rising rates are a threat to bond investors. That’s because when market rates rise, the price of older, lower-yielding bonds in your portfolio fall, eating into your total returns.

However, investors who create a ladder of bonds with different maturities need not worry about short-term fluctuations in bond prices. As long as they hold all the securities in their ladder to maturity, investors will get their fixed payments and principal back (assuming a borrower doesn’t default) no matter what rates do. What’s more, as one batch of bonds comes due every year, investors will be able to reinvest that money into new, higher yielding bonds, thereby benefitting from rising rates.

“A bond ladder makes all the sense in the world right now,” says Ken Hoffman, and managing director with HighTower Advisors. “If you know what you’re doing, you can create a ladder that provides you with the interest payments and maturity that you need.”

Here’s the rub: Putting together a diversified bond ladder requires some serious dough. At a minimum, you’ll need about $10,000 to buy a single bond, and ideally you’d want more than one bond on each “rung,” or maturity date. “I typically don’t recommend a bond ladder unless someone has $500,000 to invest,” says Hoffman, adding that you can construct a ladder with Treasury, corporate, municipal bonds, and so on.

Why not turn to bond funds? Regular bond funds own hundreds of different securities that mature at different dates and that aren’t necessarily meant to be held to maturity. Therefore, it’s impossible to ladder with regular funds.

This is where exchanged-traded funds that hold bonds with the same maturity come in. Two big ETF providers, Guggenheim and BlackRock’s iShares, now offer so-called defined-maturity or target-date ETFs that can be used to build a bond ladder using Treasury, corporate, high-yield or municipal bonds.

Like traditional ETFs, they charge low expense ratios, hold a basket of securities, and trade like stocks. What makes them unique is that the portfolios are made of up a diversified group of bonds maturing at the same time. When those underlying securities come due, target-maturity ETFs liquidate and distribute their assets back to shareholders — much like an individual bond would.

Using Guggenheim BulletShares, for example, you could build a corporate bond ladder with 10 funds maturing every year from 2015 through 2024.

ETFs aren’t a perfect proxy. The coupon rate — or regular interest payment — and the final distribution rate aren’t nearly as predictable as they are with individual bonds. Still, for investors who want the benefits of a ladder but with more liquidity, more diversification, and lower minimums, they’re worth a closer look.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write toAskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY mutual funds

The Incredible Shrinking Mutual Fund Manager

Adding machine with miniature financial managers
Zachary Zavislak—Prop Styling by Linda Keil

Index funds are winning big, but there’s still a small place for stock pros in your portfolio.

A generation ago, “actively managed” mutual funds—that is, portfolios run by traditional stock and bond pickers—weren’t just the norm; the managers themselves were larger-than-life figures such as Peter Lynch, John Neff, and Bill Gross.

Today you might not be able to name many of the pros who invest on your behalf, with perhaps the exception of Gross—though not for stellar recent performance, but rather due to the public spat between the “bond king” and Pimco, the firm that Gross put on the map.

This is to be expected. Over the past year, nearly 70% of the new money invested in mutual and exchange-traded funds has gone into index portfolios, like Vanguard Total Stock Market Index, now the biggest fund in the world.

Such funds aren’t really managed at all. They don’t try to pick and choose the “best” investments, but rather hold all the securities in a market benchmark like the S&P 500.

Individual investors aren’t the only ones rethinking their approach. The influential California Public Employees’ Retirement System recently indicated that it intends to embrace more indexing in its $295 billion portfolio.

Why? Countless studies show that forces are stacked against the fund pros, which explains their poor performance (see chart). Over the past five years only two in 10 funds that invest in blue-chip U.S. stocks and three in 10 foreign funds beat their benchmarks.

That doesn’t mean that fund managers no longer have a place in your portfolio. Some — like those in the MONEY 50, our recommended list of funds and ETFs—have beaten the odds. Yet even those managers should play a limited role in your strategy.

Build your portfolio’s foundation with index funds

It’s not that professional investors are all lousy at their jobs. A study of more than 3,000 actively managed stock funds from 1979 to 2011 found that managers on average generated risk-adjusted returns that were actually better than their benchmarks. Trouble is, that’s before factoring in fees.

“There is indeed skill, but the average extra return managers generate is not enough to offset the average extra fees that come with active management,” says Lubos Pastor, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Management, who co-wrote the study.

So use low-cost index funds and ETFs for the core part of your portfolio: your long-term stakes in U.S. and foreign equities and some bonds. While the average actively managed stock fund sports an annual expense ratio of 1.4% of assets, many index funds charge between 0.10% and 0.40%.

Rick Ferri, founder of the advisory firm Portfolio Solutions, suggests indexing at least 75% of your money. “Betting on the passive horse means you might not win every year,” he says, “but you know you are going to at least place.”

 

Index advantage

You can add managers to your core — but only the right kinds

“A low-cost actively managed fund can be as good as or better than an index,” says John Rekenthaler, vice president of research at Morningstar. He compared Vanguard’s low-fee actively managed portfolios in various categories with the firm’s index funds. All funds — both active and index — had total returns that ranked in the top 50% of their category for the past 15 years. But Vanguard’s active U.S. stock funds, international stock funds, and allocation funds actually had better returns than the index funds in those categories.

Examples of cheaper-than-average actively managed funds with a solid record in the MONEY 50 include Vanguard International Growth and Dodge & Cox International. Their annual fees are 0.48% and 0.64%, among the lowest for international equity portfolios. Even better, both are team-managed, which offers you protection in case one of the managers switches jobs or retires.

Treat active funds like specialty investments

There are some niche categories of investments where index funds themselves are costly to run and may not be that diversified. For those reasons, Ferri recommends you skip the index options for municipal or high-yield bond funds.

Also, there may be instances when you’d be willing to pay for unique strategies. FPA Crescent, with an expense ratio of 1.14%, mostly owns stocks. But lead manager Steve Romick is also willing to go to corporate bonds, preferred shares, or even cash if he sees better value.

That kind of flexibility makes it hard to use the fund for the bulk of your holdings. Still, in the past 15 years the fund’s 10% annual return doubled the S&P 500’s gains. And those are the kinds of big results you hope for when taking a chance on a fund manager.

MONEY stocks

WATCH: What’s the Point of Investing?

In this installment of Tips from the Pros, financial advisers explain why you need to invest at all.

MONEY 401(k)

3 Things to Know About Your 401(k)’s Escape Hatch

ladder leading to a bright blue sky
Alamy

More and more 401(k)s offer a formerly rare option—a brokerage window. That's raising questions from Washington regulators. Here's what you should watch out for.

While 401(k)s are known for their limited menu of options, more and more plans have been adding an escape hatch—or more precisely, a window. Known as a “brokerage window,” this plan feature gives you access to a brokerage account, which allows you to invest in wide variety of funds that aren’t part of of your plan’s regular menu. Some 401(k)s also allow you to trade stocks and exchange-traded funds, including those that target exotic assets such as real estate.

No question, brokerage windows can be a useful tool for some investors. But these windows carry extra costs, and given the increased investing options, you also face a higher risk that you’ll end up with a bad investment. All of which raises concerns that many employees may not fully understand what they’re getting into with these accounts. Earlier this week the U.S. Labor Department, which has been fighting a long-running battle to make retirement plans cheaper and safer for investors, asked 401(k) plan providers for information about brokerage windows.

You may wonder if a brokerage window is something you should use in your 401(k). To help you decide, here are answers to three key questions:

How common are brokerage windows?

Not long ago these features were rare. As recently as 2003, just 14% of large plans included offered a brokerage window, according to benefits company Aon Hewitt. But they’ve grown steadily more popular over the past decade, with about 40% of plans offering this option as of 2013. Interestingly, the growth has taken place even as more 401(k)s have opted to take investment decisions out of workers’ hands by automatically enrolling them in all-in-one investments like target-date funds.

Those two trends aren’t necessarily at odds. Experts say companies often add brokerage windows in response to a small but vocal minority of investors, who, rightly or wrongly, believe they can boost returns by actively picking investments. But overall just 5.6% of 401(k) investors opt for a window when it is offered. The group that is most likely use a brokerage window: males earning more than $100,000, about 9% of whom take advantage of the feature, according to Hewitt. (Not surprisingly, this group also tends to have the corporate clout to persuade HR to provide this option.) By contrast, only about 4% of high-earning women use a window.

When can brokerage windows make sense for the rest of us?

That depends in part on whether the other offerings in your 401(k) meet your needs. If you want an all-index portfolio, for example, a brokerage window may come in handy. Granted, more plans have added low-cost index funds, especially if you work for a large or mid-sized company. Today about 95% of large employers offer a large-company stock index fund, such as one that tracks the S&P 500, according to Hewitt.

Workers at small companies are less likely to enjoy the same access, however. These index funds are on the menu only about 65% of the time in plans with fewer than 50 participants, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America, a trade group.

Moreover, even in large plans investors seeking to diversify beyond the broad stock and bond market can find themselves out of luck. Only about 25% of plans offer a fund that invests in REITS. And only about two in five offer a specialty bond fund, such as one that holds TIPS.

But even if a window allows you to diversify, you need to consider the additional costs. About 60% of plans that offer a brokerage window charge an annual maintenance fee for using it, according to Hewitt. The average amount of the fee was $94. And investors who use the window typically also pay trading commissions, just like they do at a regular brokerage.

Where does that leave me?

Before you decide to opt for a brokerage window, check to see if the fees outweigh the potential benefits. Here are some back-of-the-envelope calculations to get you started:

If you have, say, $200,000 socked away for retirement, paying an extra $100 a year to access a brokerage window works out to a modest additional fee of 0.05%. While the brokerage commission would increase that somewhat, you can minimize the damage by trading just once a quarter or once a year.

If your plan includes only actively managed mutual funds with annual investment fees in the neighborhood of 1%, the brokerage window could allow you to access ETFs charging as little as 0.1%. That means you could end up paying something like 0.15% instead of 1%.

If your plan has low-cost broad market index funds, however, a brokerage window offers less value. Say you want to add more more specialized investment options, such as a REIT or emerging market fund. Even if you have $200,000 in your 401(k), you’ll probably only invest a small amount in these more exotic investments—perhaps $5,000 or $10,000. So a $100 brokerage fee would increase your overall costs on that slice of your portfolio to 1% to 2%. Plus, you’ll pay brokerage commissions and fund investment fees. In that case, better to leave the escape hatch shut.

MONEY stocks

Here’s How to Make Money on Our Graying Population

With the fastest-growing segment of the global population aged 60 and over, biotech, medical devices, drugs and health care services all make for a durable investing strategy.

For health care, gray is the new black.

The fastest-growing segment of the global population is aged 60 and over, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. That slice of humanity is expected to increase by 45% by 2050.

The surge in the older population has contributed to a wave of new product introductions in biotechnology, medical devices and pharmaceuticals, and expansion of health care services.

In addition, health care is a remarkably durable sector for investors, soldiering on despite periodic market downturns, like the one seen last week when the S&P 500 index had its worst week since 2012.

Overall, there’s a bounty of money being spent on healthcare that’s unlikely to be impacted by other economic trends.

One of the best ways to own the biggest players in the health care industry is through the Vanguard Health Care ETF, which holds global giants like Johnson & Johnson JOHNSON & JOHNSON JNJ 0.0664% , Pfizer PFIZER INC. PFE 1.0003% , and Merck MERCK & CO. INC. MRK 0.8897% .

Charging 0.14% in annual management expenses, the Vanguard fund, which is almost entirely invested in U.S.-based stocks, gained 20% for the 12 months through Aug. 1, compared with 15% for the S&P 500 Total Return Index. Long-term, the Vanguard fund has been a solid performer, averaging 10.5% annually for the decade through Aug. 1. That compares with an average 7% return for the MSCI World NR stock index.

For more non-U.S. exposure, consider the iShares Global Healthcare ETF, which charges 0.48% for annual expenses.

The iShares fund has about 60% of its portfolio in North American stocks, with the remainder in European and Asian-based companies such as Novartis, Roche Holding, and GlaxoSmithKline GLAXOSMITHKLINE PLC GSK -0.1553% . The fund gained 19% over the 12 months through Aug. 1.

For a more focused play on leading-edge biotech and genomic companies, the First Trust NYSE Arca Biotech Index ETF samples some of the hottest companies in that sub-sector. Holdings include industry leaders Gilead Sciences GILEAD SCIENCES INC. GILD 3.0166% , Biogen Idec BIOGEN IDEC INC. BIIB 1.8282% , and InterMune .

The First Trust fund was up nearly 25% for the 12 months through Aug. 1; it charges 0.60% in annual expenses.

Good Valuations Available

Since most institutional portfolio managers have seen the merits of health care stocks for years, there are probably few bargains available, although some sectors are pricier than others. Biotech stocks, in particular, are in high demand, although they experienced a sell-off earlier this year.

“On the other hand,” Fidelity Investments analyst Eddie Yoon said in a recent report, “some large-cap, stable growth companies across the [health care] sector continue to appear attractive, based on their stable underlying business fundamentals.”

Unlike other sectors such as consumer discretionary that are directly tied to overall economic conditions, health care is often insulated from broader economic trends. When the S&P 500 index dropped 37% in 2008, the Vanguard fund only lost 23%; the First Trust fund was off 18%. While biotech stocks tend to be volatile, the mainstream health care companies are seen as defensive holdings and more immune to broader market pressures and poised for bankable growth.

Long term, the more volatile biotech stocks of today may be tomorrow’s winners. The growing science of genomics will allow biotech companies to customize drugs to a patient’s genetic make-up. Just three years ago it cost $95 million to sequence a human genetic code. Now it costs about $4,000, with the price dropping every year. That will translate into more precise treatments with fewer side effects.

There are several concurrent waves of innovation in health information technology, diagnostics and delivery of services. More patients can be monitored and treated at home with the improvement in information technology. Diseases are being discovered and treated earlier, which means fewer hospitalizations.

In the United States alone, health care spending is buoyed by the $3 trillion spent annually on Medicare patients. While policymakers say this number is unsustainable and must be reined in, that does not change a key fact: Some 10,000 Baby Boomers are turning 65 every day. They will continue to demand the best drugs and treatments.

MONEY ETFs

Invest Like Warren Buffett—Or at Least Like He Did Two Months Ago

A new ETF seeks to mimic the best ideas of billionaires like Warren Buffett and Carl Icahn based on their public holdings. Trouble is, the fund can't copy them in real time.

Mom-and-pop investors hoping to emulate the investment savvy of Wall Street’s wealthiest like Warren Buffett and Carl Icahn will have a new option on Friday when the latest low-cost exchange-traded fund tracking the stock picks of big-name investors begins trading.

The Direxion iBillionaire ETF, set to trade under the ticker “IBLN,” is the latest in a handful of similar ETFs that have come to market in recent years, all packaging the holdings disclosed quarterly by top investment managers into instruments that are more accessible to Main Street investors.

“It democratizes a lot of the information that very wealthy institutional investors have had for a long time,” said Brian Jacobs, president of Direxion Investments, the ETF provider that has partnered with index creator iBillionaire.

At $65 for every $10,000 invested, fees for the new iBillionaire ETF are far lower than the $200 that would be charged by the typical billionaire-run hedge fund, which would also tack on performance fees.

To be sure, the iBillionaire ETF, like the similar Global X Guru ETF launched in 2012, focuses only on the long portion of these billionaire portfolios and does not include day-to-day active management or any shorting of stocks. Furthermore, the practicalities of pulling investment ideas from the quarterly reports filed by these large investors means that the investment ideas often lag by at least 45 days.

The new ETF is based on an index created in November by startup firm iBillionaire. The fund and its underlying index include the 30 top U.S. companies in which a pool of selected billionaire investors have invested the most assets, based on the so-called 13F disclosures the investors must file quarterly with the U.S. Securities and Exchange commission. Top holdings in the index right now include Apple, Micron Technology and Priceline, with about a third of its portfolio in technology stocks.

“Billionaires are more bullish on technology” right now, said Raul Moreno, chief executive officer and co-founder of iBillionaire. “You can see that by their allocation and their strategies.”

The ETF is similar to the GURU ETF and AlphaClone Alternative Alpha ETF, which both launched in 2012. While they had both beat the benchmark S&P 500 index with stellar performances in 2013, they have been more lackluster this year, with GURU up 0.6 percent and ALFA up 0.3%, compared to the S&P 500, up 4.5% through Thursday’s close.

So far, these funds have a niche following – The GURU ETF has amassed about $499 million in assets, while the ALFA ETF has amassed $79 million in assets. So the billionaires being copied need not worry about losing clients to them, said Ben Johnson, an analyst with research firm Morningstar.

For a related story, see:

Inside Warren Buffett’s Brain

MONEY ETFs

Hot Money Flows into Energy and Bonds

Dollar sign in flames
iStock

Sometimes it pays to follow the crowd. At other times, you'll get burned.

All too often, I see investors heading in the wrong direction en masse. They buy stocks at the top of the market or bonds when interest rates are heading up.

Occasionally, though, active investors may be heading in the right direction. A case in point has been the flow of money into certain exchange-traded funds in the first half of this year.

Reflecting most hot money trends, billions of dollars moved because of headlines. The Energy Select SPDR ENERGY SELECT SECTOR SPDR ETF XLE -1.2908% exchange-traded fund, which I discussed three weeks ago, gathered more than $3 billion in assets in the first half, when crude oil prices climbed and demand for hydrocarbons remained high.

The Energy SPDR, which charges 0.16% for annual management expenses and holds Exxon Mobil EXXONMOBIL CORP. XOM -0.8563% , Chevron CHEVRON CORP. CVX -1.0244% , and Schlumberger SCHLUMBERGER LTD. SLB -1.2423% , has climbed 22% in the past 12 months, with nearly one-third of that gain coming in the three months through July 18. Long-term, this may be a solid holding as developing countries such as China and India demand more oil.

“We think the Energy Select SPDR is a play of oil prices remaining high and supporting growth for integrated oil & gas and exploration and production companies,” analysts from S&P Capital IQ said in a recent MarketScope Advisor newsletter.

Headlines also favored European stocks as represented by the Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF VANGUARD TAX MANAG FTSE DEVELOPED MKTS ETF VEA 0.155% , which holds leading eurozone stocks such as Nestle, Novartis NOVARTIS AG NVS 0.4272% , and Roche. The fund has been the top asset gatherer thus far this year, with $4 billion in new money, according to S&P Capital IQ.

As Europe continues to recover over the next few years and the European Central Bank keeps rates low, global investors will continue to benefit from this growing optimism.

The Vanguard fund has gained nearly 16% for the 12 months through July 18. It charges 0.09% in annual expenses and is a solid holding if you have little or no European exposure in your stock portfolio.

Rate Hikes

Not all hot money trends make sense, however. As the economy accelerates and interest-rate hikes look increasingly likely, investors are still piling money into bond funds, which lose money under those circumstances.

The iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond ETF ISHARES TRUST 7-10 YEAR TREASURY BD ETF IEF 0.2379% , which holds middle-maturity U.S. Treasury bonds, continued to rank in the top 10 funds in terms of new money in the first half. The fund, which holds nearly $5 billion, is up nearly 4% for the 12 months through July 18, compared with 4.2% for the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Total return index, a benchmark for U.S. Treasuries. The fund charges 0.15% in annual expenses.

While investors were able to squeeze a bit more out of bond returns in the first half of this year, they may be living on borrowed time.

The U.S. Federal Reserve confirmed recently that it would be ending purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities in October. This stimulus program, known as “QE2,” has kept interest rates artificially low as the economy has had a chance to recover.

The phasing out of QE2 could be bearish for bond funds.

Will interest rates climb to reflect growing demand for credit and possibly higher inflation down the road? How will the ending of the Fed’s cheap money program affect U.S. and emerging markets shares?

Many pundits believe public corporations may pull back from their enthusiastic stock buybacks and trigger a correction. Yet low inflation and modest employment gains may mute bond market fears.

“The Fed is on track to complete tapering in the fourth quarter, and we think there is essentially no chance that it will move the fed funds rate higher this year,” Bob Doll, chief equity strategist with Nuveen Investments in Chicago, said in a recent newsletter.

“With the 10-year Treasury ending the quarter at 2.5%, the yield portion of this forecast is more uncertain,” Doll added, “although we expect yields will end the year higher than where they began.”

While there could be any number of wild cards spoiling the party for stocks, it is wise to ignore short-term trends and prepare for the eventual climb in interest rates.

That means staying away from bond funds with long average maturities along with vehicles like preferred stocks and high-yield bonds that are highly sensitive to interest rates.

Longer-term, shares of companies in consumer discretionary, materials and information technology businesses likely to benefit from a global economic resurgence will probably be a good bet.

Just keep in mind that the hot money can be wrong, so build a long-haul diversified portfolio that protects against the downside of a torrid trend going from hot to cold.

MONEY Portfolios

For $50 You Can Push For More Female CEOs — But Is It a Good Investment?

Indra Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo.
Indra Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Two new products let you invest in companies led by female executives. Whether this is a good idea depends on what you hope to achieve.

On Thursday, Barclays is launching a new index and exchange-traded note (WIL) that lets retail investors buy shares — at $50 a pop — of a basket of large U.S. companies led by women, including PepsiCoPEPSICO INC. PEP 0.8765% , IBMINTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORP. IBM 0.0795% , and XeroxXEROX CORP. XRX -1.0819% . This should be exciting news for anyone disappointed by the lack of women in top corporate roles.

After all, female CEOs still make up less than 5% of Fortune 500 chiefs and less than 17% of board members — despite earning 44% of master’s degrees in business and management.

The new ETN is not the only tool of its kind: This past June, former Bank of America executive Sallie Krawcheck opened an index fund tracking global companies with female leadership — and online brokerage Motif Investing currently offers a custom portfolio of shares in women-led companies.

The big question is whether this type of socially-conscious investing is valuable — either to investors or to the goal of increasing female corporate leadership. Is it wise to let your conscience dictate how you manage your savings? And assuming you care about gender representation in the corporate world, is there any evidence that these investments will actually lead to more diversity?

Here’s what experts and research suggest:

Getting better-than-average returns shouldn’t be your motivation. Beyond the promise of effecting social change, the Barclays and Pax indexes are marketed with the suggestion that woman-led companies tend to do better than peers. It’s true that some evidence shows businesses can benefit from female leadership, with correlations between more women in top positions and higher returns on equity, lower volatility, and market-beating returns.

But correlation isn’t causation, and other research suggests that when businesses appoint female leadership, it may be a sign that crisis is brewing — the so-called “glass cliff.” Yet another study finds that limiting your investments to socially-responsible companies comes with costs.

Taken together, the pros and cons of conscience-based investing seem generally to cancel each other out. “Our research shows socially responsible investments do no better or worse than the broader stock market,” says Morningstar fund analyst Robert Goldsborough. “Over time the ups and downs tend to even out.”

As always, fees should be a consideration. Even if the underlying companies in a fund are good investments, high fees can eat away at your returns. Krawcheck’s Pax Ellevate Global Women’s fund charges 0.99% — far more than the 0.30% fee for the Vanguard Total World Stock Index (VTWSX). Investing only in U.S. companies, the new Barclays ETN is cheaper, with 0.45% in expenses, though the comparable Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO) charges only 0.05% — a difference that can add up over time:

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Note: Projections based on current expenses and a $10,000 investment.

If supporting women is very important to you, you might consider investing in a broad, cheap index and using the money you saved on fees to invest directly in the best female-led companies — or you could simply donate to a non-profit supporting women’s causes.

If you still love this idea, that’s okay — just limit your exposure. There is an argument that supporting female leadership through investments could be more powerful than making a donation to a non-profit. The hope is that if enough investor cash flows to businesses led by women, “companies will take notice” and make more efforts to advance women in top positions, says Sue Meirs, Barclays COO for Equity and Funds Structured Markets Sales in the Americas. If investing in one of these indexes feels like the best way to support top-down gender diversity — and worth the cost — you could do worse than these industry-diversified offerings. “Investing as a social statement can be a fine thing,” says financial planner Sheryl Garrett, “though you don’t want to put all of your money toward a token investment.” Garrett suggests limiting your exposure to 10% of your overall portfolio.

MONEY stocks

7 Marijuana Stocks for a Buzzworthy (But Risky) Pot-folio

Agricultural Facility Recent Planting, Medical Marijuana Inc.

With marijuana legalization riding high, investors are looking for ways to play the trend. So far, though, even the biggest companies in this green rush have yet to turn a profit.

Earlier today, pot went on sale legally in Washington state for the first time ever, following in the footsteps of Colorado. A day earlier, New York became the 23rd state to permit the use of medical marijuana.

Throughout the country, marijuana legalization is going ganja-buster — leading many to wonder how they can profit from this trend.

Several private equity funds recently launched to invest in marijuana-related companies and startups, including one led by none other than the bobo bible, High Times magazine.

But what about retail investors? You’d think that the mutual fund and exchange-traded fund industries would have jumped on this green rush already. After all, there are specialty ETFs that let investors bet on such niche trends as fertilizer, fishing, and even water. But so far such an investment vehicle remains a pipe dream.

In the absence of a simple, off-the-shelf fund, investors can turn to individual equities. But be careful: Many stocks that are trying to ride the Pineapple Express are tiny micro-cap companies or penny stocks that are quite volatile and risky. Moreover, regulators have begun warning investors to watch out for pot-related “pump-and-dump” schemes, in which speculators talk up a stock and then sell before their inflated projections lose air.

In the Ganja universe, here are some of the biggest companies, based on market value, with their strategies and risks highlighted. Keep in mind that all of these “big” marijuana stocks are actually shares of tiny, still-profit-less companies.

GW Pharmaceuticals (Ticker: GWPH; share price: $92.60; market value: $1.4 billion)
Strategy: Cannabis-based pharmaceuticals. The company’s Sativex is already being used in several countries to treat spasticity related to multiple sclerosis. GW is also working on a treatment for severe childhood epilepsy based on cannabis extract.
YTD Performance: +132.3%
2013 Performance: N/A
2012 Performance: N/A
Profitable: No
Valuation: Price/sales ratio: 29.0 (S&P 500’s P/S ratio: 1.8)

Medbox (MDBX; $17.75; $537 million)
Strategy: Dispensary services. The company manufacturers self-service kiosks that dispense
medicines including marijuana.
YTD Performance: —0.3%
2013 Performance: —70.1%
2012 Performance: +4,819.4%
Profitable: No
Valuation: Price/sales ratio: 77.5

Cannavest (CANV; $11.37 $381 million)
Strategy: Makes and markets cannabis related products, including hemp oil.
YTD Performance: —60.0%
2013 Performance: +470.0%
2012 Performance: +150.0%
Profitable: No
Valuation: Price/sales ratio: 44.8

Advanced Cannabis Solutions (CANN; $7.50; $101 million)
Strategy: Leases growing space and related facilities to licensed marijuana business operators.
YTD Performance: +138.5%
2013 Performance: +221.8%
2012 Performance: —99.0%
Profitable: No
Valuation: Price/sales ratio: N/A

Medical Marijuana (MJNA; $0.20; $105 million)
Strategy: A holding company with diversified businesses ranging from consumer products to services, including security and surveillance for cannabis-related businesses.
YTD Performance: +27.1%
2013 Performance: +53.5%
2012 Performance: +512.1%
Profitable: No
Valuation: Price/sales ratio: N/A

GrowLife (PHOT; $0.10; $81 million)
Strategy: A marijuana equipment maker that sells hydroponic gardening gear.
YTD Performance: —27.8%
2013 Performance: +308.1%
2012 Performance: —75.3%
Profitable: No
Valuation: Price/sales ratio: 11.4

Cannabis Sativa (CBDS; $6.40; $75 million)
Strategy: The former sun-tanning company is pushing into the marijuana industry, producing cannabis-based oils and edibles. Its new CEO is Gary Johnson, the former Libertarian Party presidential candidate and a two-term governor of New Mexico.
YTD Performance: +990.0%
2013 Performance: —11.0%
2012 Performance: +12.4%
Profitable: No
Valuation: Price/sales ratio: 1000.0

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