MONEY Investing

Why I Won’t Own Bond Funds in My Retirement Portfolio

Trays of eggs
James Jackson—Alamy

Owning a mix of stocks and bonds is supposed to help protect your portfolio from losses. But bonds aren't the safe asset they once were.

When stocks took a tumble last week, financial pundits were quick to call it a “potent reminder” to investors of the importance of having some bonds in your portfolio for their perceived safety and yield. The classic mix is supposed to contain 60% stocks and 40% bonds, with bonds supposedly cushioning the risk of equities. In the eyes of most investment experts, I would be considered foolish to be 100% in stocks, as I have been ever since I started investing.

But I’m not sure what bonds they’re talking about. Yes, last week the yield on a 10-year U.S. Treasury note surprised everyone by falling sharply to 1.85%, as bond prices soared—when bond prices rise, bond yields fall, and vice versa. Treasury yields edged back up to 2% the next day, as stocks rebounded. Wall Street experts are still trying to determine the reasons behind the 10-year Treasury note’s plunge, which stunned investors and traders.

But that was a one-day event. When you look at the decline in bond yields over the last three decades, I don’t understand how it is mathematically possible for Treasuries—known as the safest bond possible—to protect a stock portfolio against major shocks over the next 20 years.

No question, falling interest rates have been a boon to fixed-income investors over the last three decades. The yield on a 10-year bond has fallen from 14% in 1984 to 8% in 1994 to 4% in 2004 to about 2% today. The decline hasn’t been non-stop—bonds have rallied along the way—but the overall downward trend has most certainly pushed up fixed-income returns. As a result, bond funds have both made money and helped lower risk in a portfolio. This chart created by Vanguard, based on market data between 1926 and 2011, shows the impact of adding bonds to dampen volatility (as measured by standard deviation), while not drastically reducing returns.

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But those conditions, and that steady decline in rates, no longer exist. Today we have an environment where rates have very little room to fall and at some point will go up (we just don’t know when). Once rates finally rise, bond prices will fall, which means investors will lose money. So when someone recommends diversifying one’s portfolio with bonds these days, I wonder: is there some kind of bond that’s immune to interest rate rises that I don’t know about?

Junk, or high-yield, bonds certainly don’t fit the bill as they are also vulnerable to rate hikes. Moreover, there have been warnings that the accumulation of high-risk corporate and emerging markets bonds by mutual fund companies such as Pimco and Franklin Templeton could create a liquidity crisis in the future. Investors have been pouring money into these funds, but shocks could turn into even larger debacles when investors look to liquidate and the large amounts held by fund companies become hard to sell.

Short-duration bond mutual funds might be less affected by rising interest rates. Fidelity has a whole suite of such funds, which the fund group says “can help investors in a low and/or rising rate period.”

There are also mutual funds that “ladder” bonds with staggered durations so that a portion of the portfolio will mature every year. The goal of these laddered bond funds is also to achieve a return with less risk over all interest rate cycles.

The problem for investors saving for retirement is that the returns on such funds are so low that it’s hard to justify allocating anything to them other than savings you will need in three to five years.

I won’t be retiring for another several decades, so at this point, a market crash isn’t really my greatest risk. My greatest risk is not growing my retirement account as much as humanly possible over the next ten to 15 years. To meet that goal, I think I should stick with equities and use any future crashes as buying opportunities. I’m not 100% comfortable with that decision, but I don’t feel I have much choice. I would love to find a bond fund that could be both a safe haven and could provide steady returns, but I just don’t think that exists anymore.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

More on investing:

Should I invest in bonds or bond mutual funds?

What is the right mix of stocks and bonds for me?

How often should I check my retirement investments?

Read next: Why Americans Can’t Answer the Most Basic Retirement Question

MONEY stocks

3 Things to Know About IBM’s Sinking Stock

141020_INV_IBM
Niall Carson—PA Wire/Press Association Images

IBM's shares plunged 7% Monday after a disappointing earnings report. Can tech's ultimate survivor transform itself one more time?

International Business Machines INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORP. IBM -3.4713% has long enjoyed a unique status on Wall Street — a tech growth powerhouse that investors also see as a reliable blue chip, with steady profit growth and a hefty dividend. But with the rise of new technologies like cloud computing, Big Blue has struggled to maintain that balancing act.

Now investor confidence has suffered a big blow.

On Monday the company announced the results of a pretty lousy quarter. IBM’s third-quarter operating profit was down by nearly one fifth, and the company failed to generate year-over-year revenue growth for the 10th consecutive quarter.

Big Blue also revealed plans to sell-off its struggling semiconductor business, a move that involves taking $4.7 pre-tax billion charge against IBM’s bottom line. Actually, it is paying another company to take this unit off its hand.

While CEO Virginia Rometty acknowledged she was “disappointed” with IBM’s recent performance, she’s also pledged to turn the company around, led in part by IBM’s own foray into the cloud.

Now, you don’t get to be a 103-year-old tech company without learning to adapt. That’s what IBM famously did in the ’90s, when the computer giant started to shift away from profitable PC hardware in favor of consulting and service contracts for businesses.

But Monday’s dismal earnings show just how hard repeating that trick could turn out to be.

Here’s what else you need to know about the stock:

1) You can’t really call IBM a growth company anymore since its sales aren’t rising.

When it comes to revenues, IBM ranks behind only Apple APPLE INC. AAPL 2.7165% and Hewlett-Packard HEWLETT-PACKARD CO. HPQ 2.7203% among U.S. tech companies. On a quarterly basis, though, sales have actually shrunk for 10 periods in a row, including a 4% slide in the third quarter. The big culprit is cloud computing, in which businesses can access computing services remotely via the Internet.

Since the 1990s, IBM’s model has been premised on selling powerful, expensive computers to large businesses, then earning added profits on contracts to help firms run those machines. But the cloud lets companies rent, not buy, this computing power. “You only pay for what you use,” says Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Joseph Foresi. The result: IBM’s hardware revenues sank 15% last quarter.

2) IBM is racing to be a leader in cloud computing, but with mixed results.

The company has identified four alternative areas of growth. One is the cloud, the very technology eating into IBM’s hardware sales. Big Blue has spent more than $7 billion on cloud-related acquisitions. It’s also going after mobile, IT security, and big data, the analysis of information sets that are too large for traditional computers. An example of that is Watson. IBM’s artificial-intelligence project, which won Jeopardy! in 2011, is being marketed to businesses in finance and health care.

These initiatives have promise, but IBM’s size is a curse. For instance, the company’s cloud revenues jumped 69% to $4.4 billion last year, but with nearly $100 billion in overall sales, “it’s hard to move the needle,” says S&P Capital IQ analyst Scott Kessler.

3) The stock is now much cheaper than its tech peers, but it may deserve to be.

Investors willing to wait and see if these moves will transform IBM may take comfort in the fact that the stock looks cheap. What’s more, the shares yield 2.4%, vs. 2% for the broad market. This could make the company look like a good value.

But investors should tread carefully, says Ivan Feinseth, chief investment officer at Tigress Financial Partners. He notes IBM has spent $90 billion on stock buybacks in the past decade, which has kept the P/E low by increasing earnings per share. Yet none of that money was invested for growth, as evidenced by IBM’s sluggish annual growth rate. It is hard to imagine IBM outmuscling Amazon AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN 2.9783% , Cisco CISCO SYSTEMS INC. CSCO 2.5294% , Microsoft MICROSOFT CORP. MSFT 1.8149% , HP HEWLETT-PACKARD CO. HPQ 2.7203% , and Google GOOGLE INC. GOOG 1.0944% in the cloud — and there are better values in tech.

MONEY Markets

The Word on Wall Street Is It’s Okay to Be Bullish Again

After the market's triple-digit rebound on Friday, the bulls came out in force — on TV and social media. Here's how the talking heads explain the state of the market after one scary week.

After dramatic drops on Monday and Wednesday, the market took a turn for the better at the end of the week.

And the bulls started coming out of the woodwork.

“…the mid-week storm in the market was really a passing sun shower — though we did not know it at the time,” — Jonathan Lewis, chief investment officer, Samson Capital Advisors.

“…we remain steadfast with our multi-year bull-market scenario, as corrections and periods of consolidation are necessary ingredients to any prolonged bull market.” — Brian Belski, chief investment strategist BMO Capital Markets

“Whether the complete correction is over I’m not positive yet, but there looks to be some relative calm. I think the next leg is going to be higher.” – Jim Iuorio of TJM Institutional Services via CNBC

“The time to rebalance [and buy stocks] is when doing so requires courage and when things look ugly. Right now, investors are worried and see things as being ugly.” – David Kotok, chairman of Cumberland Advisors

A common theme from the bulls is that for all the worries about the global recovery, the U.S. economy looks solid:

“Ironically, the pullback in stocks has occurred against a backdrop of a strengthening U.S. economy.” — Gregg Fisher, chief investment officer at Gerstein Fisher

“The question is whether it is actually the beginning of a bear market. I don’t think so because I don’t expect a recession in the U.S. anytime soon.” — Edward Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research

Of course, Yardeni goes on to add that:

“the Eurozone and Japan may be heading in that direction now. So is Brazil. China is slowing significantly.”

Shouldn’t investors be worried, then, that a recession in the European Union could reverberate in the U.S.?

Fear not, the bulls have an answer for that:

“The impact of an E.U. slowdown on U.S. growth would be minimal: U.S. exports to the E.U. are a small proportion of GDP (2.8% in 2013)…” notes UBS economist Maury Harris.

Many point out that economic factors have not really shifted since a month ago, when the stock market seemed just fine.

“You can go deep in the weeds in this if you like, but the fact is that nothing fundamental has changed in recent weeks or months or quarters,” writes Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

In fact, global economic worries, which have led to lower oil prices, may end up being a boon.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 9.38.52 AM

Many experts are saying that this week’s wild market swings are actually just the result of “narrative fallacy,” which leads investors to come up with explanations for market moves where they don’t necessarily exist — in this case placing blame on external forces like Ebola and fears of rising interest rates.

But who’s to say that the bulls aren’t the ones who are now coming with plausible-sounding explanations for why the rally should keep going?

For the record, the bears have more entertaining explanations in their quiver. For instance, there’s the McDonald’s theory. As in, “as the Big Mac goes, so goes the global economy.”

Permabear Marc Faber, who edits the Gloom Doom Boom site, noted the following:

“Now, McDonald’s is a very good indicator of the global economy. If McDonald’s doesn’t increase its sales, it tells you that the monetary policies have largely failed in the sense that prices are going up more than disposable income, and so people have less purchasing power.”

And Mickey D’s sales have been slumping badly lately.

Then there’s the so-called dental indicator.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported a nifty theory that says that the rate at which Americans cancel scheduled follow-up visits offers a good clue about the real state of the consumer — and in turn the financial markets.

“This is a forward indicator signifying lack of consumer confidence.” — Vijay Sikka, president of Sikka Software, as told to Bloomberg Businessweek

And the follow-through rate on follow-up dental visits has sunk to about where it was in 2007, just before the last downturn/bear market.

At this stage, it’s impossible to tell whether this is the start of bear market or a buying opportunity. However, what’s absolutely clear is that big dips are just a normal part of being a stock investor.

Despite anxieties about the Dow’s sudden plunge this week, if you look at historical performance, the index typically turns negative for the year often enough that it’s not a good doomsday indicator, says author and investment adviser Josh Brown.

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And at the end of the day, who’s to say which wacky theories wind up being right or wrong?

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MONEY Markets

Four Reasons Not to Worry About the Stock Market

Waterfall
Roine Magnusson—Getty Images

Take a deep breath and consider some historical context.

The funniest thing about markets is that all past crashes are viewed as an opportunity, but all current and future crashes are viewed as a risk.

For months, investors have been saying a pullback is inevitable, healthy, and should be welcomed. Now, it’s here, with the S&P 500 down about 10% from last month’s highs.

Enter the maniacs.

“Carnage.”

“Slaughter.”

“Chaos.”

Those are words I read in finance blogs this morning.

By my count, this is the 90th 10% correction the market has experienced since 1928. That’s about once every 11 months, on average. It’s been three years since the last 10% correction, but you would think something so normal wouldn’t be so shocking.

But losing money hurts more than it should, and more than you think it will. In his book Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?, Fred Schwed wrote:

There are certain things that cannot be adequately explained to a virgin either by words or pictures. Not can any description I might offer here ever approximate what it feels like to lose a chunk of money that you used to own.

That’s fair. One lesson I learned after 2008 is that it’s much easier to say you’ll be greedy when others are fearful than it is to actually do it.

Regardless, this is a critical time to pay attention as an investor. One of my favorite quotes is Napoleon’s definition of a military genius: “The man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy.” It’s the same in investing. You don’t have to be a genius to do well in investing. You just have to not go crazy when everyone else is, like they are now.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you along.

Unless you’re impatient, innumerate, or an idiot, lower prices are your friend

You’re supposed to like market plunges because you can buy good companies at lower prices. Before long, those prices rise and you’ll be rewarded.

But you’ve heard that a thousand times.

There’s a more compelling reason to like market plunges even if stocks never recover.

The psuedoanonymous blogger Jesse Livermore asked a smart question this year: Would you rather stocks soared 200%, or fell 66% and stayed there forever? Literally, never recovering.

If you’re a long-term investor, the second option is actually more lucrative.

That’s because so much of the market’s long-term returns come from reinvesting dividends. When share prices fall, dividend yields rise, and the compounding effect of reinvesting dividends becomes more powerful. After 30 years, the plunge-and-no-recovery scenario beats out boom-and-normal-growth market by a quarter of a percentage point per year.

On that note, the S&P 500’s dividend yield rose from 1.71% in September to 1.82% this week. Whohoo!

Plunges are why stocks return more than other assets

Imagine if stocks weren’t volatile. Imagine they went up 8% a year, every year, with no volatility. Nice and stable.

What would happen in this world?

Nobody would own bonds or cash, which return about zero percent. Why would you if you could earn a steady, stable 8% return in stocks?

In this world, stock prices would surge until they offered a return closer to bonds and cash. If stocks really had no volatility, prices would rise until they yielded the same amount as FDIC-insured savings accounts.

But then — priced for perfection with no room for error — the first whiff of real-world realities like disappointing earnings, rising interest rates, recessions, terrorism, ebola, and political theater sends them plunging.

So, if stocks never crashed, prices would rise so high that a new crash was pretty much guaranteed. That’s why the whole history of the stock market is boom to bust, rinse, repeat. Volatility is the price you have to be willing to pay to earn higher returns than other assets.

They’re not indicative of the crowd

It’s easy to watch the market fall 500 points and think, “Wow, everyone is panicking. Everyone is selling. They know something I don’t.”

That’s not true at all.

Market prices reflect the last trade made. It shows the views of marginal buyers and marginal sellers — whoever was willing to buy at highest price and sell at the lowest price. The most recent price can represent one share traded, or 100,000 shares traded. Whatever it is, it doesn’t reflect the views of the vast majority of shareholders, who just sit there doing nothing.

Consider: The S&P fell almost 20% in the summer of 2011. That’s a big fall. But at Vanguard — one of the largest money managers, with more than $3 trillion — 98% of investors didn’t make a single change to their portfolios. “Ninety-eight percent took the long-term view,” wrote Vanguard’s Steve Utkus. “Those trading are a very small subset of investors.”

A lot of what moves day-to-day prices are computers playing pat-a-cake with themselves. You shouldn’t read into it for meaning.

They don’t tell you anything about the economy

It’s easy to look at plunging markets and think it’s foretelling something bad in the economy, like a recession.

But that’s not always the case.

As my friend Ben Carlson showed yesterday, there have been 13 corrections of 10% or more since World War II that were not followed by a recession. Stocks fell 35% in 1987 with no subsequent recession.

There is a huge disconnect between stocks and the economy. The correlation between GDP growth and subsequent five-year market returns is -0.06 — as in no correlation whatsoever, basically.

Vanguard once showed that rainfall — yes, rainfall — is a better predictor of future market returns than trend GDP growth, earnings growth, interest rates, or analyst forecasts. They all tell you effectively nothing about what stocks might do next.

So, breathe. Go to the beach. Hang out with your friends. Stop checking your portfolio. Life will go on.

For more on this topic:

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel’s columns. Contact Morgan Housel at mhousel@fool.com. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Help Your Kid Get Started Investing

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso Jr.

Q: I want to invest $5,000 for my 35-year-old daughter, as I want to get her on the path to financial security. Should the money be placed into a guaranteed interest rate annuity? Or should the money go into a Roth IRA?

A: To make the most of this financial gift, don’t just focus on the best place to invest that $5,000. Rather, look at how this money can help your daughter develop saving and investing habits above and beyond your contribution.

Your first step should be to have a conversation with your daughter to express your intent and determine where this money will have the biggest impact. Planning for retirement should be a top priority. “But you don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” says Scott Whytock, a certified financial planner with August Wealth Management in Portland, Maine.

Before you jump ahead to thinking about long-term savings vehicles for your daughter, first make sure she has her bases covered right now. Does she have an emergency fund, for example? Ideally, she should have up to six months of typical monthly expenses set aside. Without one, says Whytock, she may be forced to pull money out of retirement — a costly choice on many counts — or accrue high-interest debt.

Assuming she has an adequate rainy day fund, the next place to look is an employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b). If the plan offers matching benefits, make sure your daughter is taking full advantage of that free money. If her income and expenses are such that she isn’t able to do so, your gift may give her the wiggle room she needs to bump up her contributions.

Does she have student loans or a car loan? “Maybe paying off that car loan would free up some money each month that could be redirected to her retirement contributions through work,” Whytock adds. “She would remove potentially high interest debt, increase her contributions to her 401(k), and lower her tax base all at the same time.”

If your daughter doesn’t have a plan through work or is already taking full advantage of it, then a Roth IRA makes sense. Unlike with traditional IRAs, contributions to a Roth are made after taxes, but your daughter won’t owe taxes when she withdraws the money for retirement down the road. Since she’s on the younger side – and likely to be in a higher tax bracket later – this choice may also offer a small tax advantage over other vehicles.

Why not the annuity?

As you say, the goal is to help your daughter get on the path to financial security. For that reason alone, a simple, low-cost instrument is your best bet. Annuities can play a role in retirement planning, but their complexity, high fees and, typically, high minimums make them less ideal for this situation, says Whytock.

Here’s another idea: Don’t just open the account, pick the investments and make the contribution on your daughter’s behalf. Instead, use this gift as an opportunity to get her involved, from deciding where to open the account to choosing the best investments.

Better yet, take this a step further and set up your own matching plan. You could, for example, initially fund the account with $2,000 and set aside the remainder to match what she saves, dollar for dollar. By helping your daughter jump start her own saving and investing plans, your $5,000 gift will yield returns far beyond anything it would earn if you simply socked it away on her behalf.

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

MONEY stock market

3 Ways a Market Swoon Can Put Money in Your Pocket

Money in jeans pocket
Image Source—Getty Images

Though the stock market tumble has been scary, there are some upsides to all the bad news.

With the market down more than 7% in the last month, it’s easy to feel fearful for the parts of your life most immediately affected by a rocky financial world — like retirement savings and job security.

Certainly, there are plenty of good reasons to be cautious about the future, including high valuations and other signs the current bull market may be aging.

But a downtrodden market like this one can create pockets of opportunity for investors and consumers alike. Here are just a few ways you can benefit from the recent pullback.

1. Cheaper gas prices

Thanks to a supply glut and low demand, gasoline prices are hovering at less than $3 a gallon across the United States. And that’s despite international geopolitical unrest, which usually keeps oil expensive.

2. Low interest rates on mortgages

The Fed is keeping short-term rates low, and the sell-off has sent investors into Treasury bonds, driving down the yields that serve as a benchmark for borrowing costs throughout the economy. So mortgage rates have taken a big dip in the last month.

Interest on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is now 4.01%, which means that if you’re sitting on a much higher rate from buying a home a few years ago, now could be a very opportune moment to refinance. Though the paperwork might be intimidating, letting inertia get the best of you could mean leaving literally tens of thousands of dollars on the table.

3. Stock-buying opportunities

When the market takes a big dive, it can be a good moment to purchase stocks, especially if your goal is to buy and hold for the long term. This is particularly true for younger people who have time on their side, as they stand to lose very little in the short term (even if stocks continue to drop) and can gain much more when the market eventually recovers.

So if you are a millennial and have been putting off opening (or upping contributions to) that 401(k), now is your moment to choose a plan. And even Gen X-ers generally have enough years ahead to take on some risk in their retirement portfolios.

Finally, if you’re not a driver, homeowner, or investor, there’s always that trip to Paris you’ve been putting off: Thanks to economic uncertainty in Europe, the Euro is trading for less than $1.30—the cheapest it’s been since last summer.

MONEY Millennials

The Conventional Money Wisdom That Millennials Should Ignore

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

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

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

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

2. Put nearly all of it into equities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONEY Tech

Why Apple is Not a Tech Company

hand pulling iPhone box off shelf
Maxim Shemetov—Reuters

Peter Thiel argues that buying Apple means betting against innovation.

As the founder of PayPal, and the one of the first external investors in Facebook, it’s hard to argue that Peter Thiel doesn’t understand innovation or technology companies. But in his new book, Zero to One, Thiel takes somewhat of a radical approach to these concepts, drawing a line in the sand that may irk many traditional tech firms, as well as their investors.

Despite being both the largest and most well-known firm in The Valley, Thiel’s personal opinion is that Apple APPLE INC. AAPL 2.7165% isn’t much of an innovator these days: Just a few years ago, Apple’s stock was a bet on new technology — today, it’s a bet against it (at least according to Thiel).

In a recent phone interview, Thiel told me why he doesn’t consider firms like Apple, and most of the members of the Nasdaq 100, to be technology companies, and what that might mean for their investors.

An odd transformation

Thiel has somewhat of a problem with the concept of a “tech firm” — or at least, what people generally define one to be. In Thiel’s mind, true technology companies are firms leveraged to innovation — to new business models designed to shake up the status quo. Plenty of firms begin their life as a tech company, but those that find success often become something quite different.

“A whole bunch of the Nasdaq 100 stocks are bets against innovation … it’s a long list. [There's] a very short list of companies where you’re actually betting on innovation … Most of [the members of the Nasdaq 100] just throw off huge cash flows, and the risk is actually that there’s some innovation ….These companies are always described as ‘tech stocks’ because they were tech stocks … at some point in the past, but [today] they’re bets against technology.”

Although most still consider Apple, Oracle, and Microsoft to be technology firms, few hold the same opinion of General Motors. Yet according to Thiel, it’s all relative — simply a matter of timing and perspective.

“GM was a tech stock in the 1920s — it was still sort of a tech stock in the 1950s. [But] by the 1980s, you invested in GM as a bet against German and Japanese innovation. You said, ‘I’m long GM because Germany and Japan are never going to build cars that are that good.’ At some point, a lot of these tech stocks become weirdly changed to being bets against technology … [Of course] the companies can never say that, because their internal narrative and their external story is [based] so much around how they were historically innovative.”

Know what you’re buying

Admittedly, General Motor’s transformation from technology firm to incumbent took decades, but Thiel believes the shift is often far more straight-forward: Simply look for the founder to depart. With Apple, the change occurred just over three years ago, with the passing of Steve Jobs that thrust Tim Cook into the spotlight.

Thiel is a fan of Cook’s management skills (“I think Tim Cook has done a very good job in an impossible position to try to fill Steve Jobs’ shoes,” he told me) but believes the Apple story is fundamentally different with him at the helm: Once, people bought stock in Apple because it was creating revolutionary new products — today, it’s all about the cash flow.

“No one is investing in Apple because they think it will create new products. People are investing in Apple because it’s generating massive cash flows, and the bet is that the cash flows will go on [for] somewhat longer than people think … that the rest of the world will not innovate; will not succeed in closing the gap.”

While plenty of investors may disagree with Thiel (the new Apple Watch, for one, gives investors something to look forward to) it’s indisputable that Apple is generating billions of dollars of cash, largely on the back of one product: the iPhone. Apple generated $10.3 billion in cash flow alone last quarter — enough to acquire many members of the S&P 500 outright. The iPhone brings in more than half of Apple’s revenue, and likely the bulk of its profits.

Not a bad investment

But even if Apple’s best work is behind it, it doesn’t make it a bad investment. In fact, Thiel believes Apple could be an excellent stock — so long as the iPhone cash-cow continues to deliver.

“Apple [will keep] generating massive cash flows so long as nothing much changes — as long as it maintains a certain brand lead, a certain premium on the iPhone. [If so,] it will generate huge cash flows [for many years] … the risk is that other people will catch up.”

That risk could come from rival handsets. Competitors like Xiaomi and OnePlus have attracted a fair amount of attention recently for their quality handsets, which they sell at a fraction of what Apple charges for the iPhone. Or it could come from advanced wearables — watches and other gadgets designed to replace the traditional smartphone. It may come from a radical reinvention of the handset — something like Project Ara, that shakes the current smartphone business model to its core.

Of course, it may not come at all — or if it does come, not for many, many years. In which case, the cash flows should continue, and Apple should reward its shareholders.

“Maybe there’s not much innovation happening. Maybe people overestimate innovation … but I think it is very helpful to try to get the framing right and understand, ‘OK, I’m betting against technology here.'”

MONEY stocks

October Can Be Frightful for Stocks. But It Can Also Be Fruitful.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Tom Hardy, 2012.
Ron Phillips—Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

By reputation, October is the scariest month on Wall Street. In reality, this month tends to be either very good or bad for the market. Which one will it be this time around?

This story was updated on Oct. 15, 2014

Is the Ghost of October Past haunting Wall Street again?

By reputation, October is the market’s scariest month. Six years ago, October witnessed several knee-buckling plunges during the financial crisis — an 8% drop on the 9th, an even-bigger 9% fall on the 15th, followed by a 6% slide on the 22nd.

Go back further, to the Asian currency crisis, and the Dow plunged 554 points on Oct. 27, 1997. Go back further still, and there was Black Monday, when the S&P 500 fell 20% on Oct. 19, 1987. And don’t forget that the stock market crash that set off the Great Depression will commemorate its 85th birthday at the end of this month.

At first blush, this October seems to be trying to join this list.

On the last day of September, the Dow Jones industrial average had climbed as high as 17,145. Two weeks later, the benchmark index was more than than 800 points lower, thanks in part to fears over the slowing global economy, escalating Mideast violence, continuing Russian conflict, and quite possibly the spreading Ebola virus.

Yet October gets a bad rep, and some market observers think this could be a buying opportunity.

While October may be pockmarked with a minefield of securities devastation, history is also filled with examples of strong Octobers for the S&P 500, according to the Stock Trader’s Almanac. Among them: 1966 (up 5%), 1974 (16%), 1998 (8%), 2002 (9%), and 2011 (11%).

return
Ycharts

Plus, when you average out historical performance, this autumnal month isn’t so shabby.

In fact, if you look at each month’s returns from 1988 to last September, October turns out to the third best-performer on average, behind December and April. The S&P 500 has gained at least 3.8% in three of the last four Octobers, according to data from Morningstar.

Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist for Charles Schwab, noted that while some investors might be taking profits after a sustained run up for stocks, “we don’t see anything that indicates a more sustained downturn is in store.”

In a note published online, she added:

“We are entering a traditionally positive period seasonally for stocks. According to ISI Research, since 1950, December and November have been the highest returning months of the year, on average. Additionally, according to Strategas Research Group — also since 1950, in midterm election years — October has been the best performing month, followed by November and December. The recent selling we’ve seen could just be setting up for a nice year-end run.”

So is Sonders right? Will this October turn out to be a treat for Wall Street? Or will it just be one big trick?

MONEY Warren Buffett

Why Warren Buffett Wants to Sell Houses, Cars and a Whole Lot More

Warren Buffett has one of the most respected names in business. Now he's trying to turn that respect into cash.

Even those with only a passing interest in business affairs are familiar with the grandfatherly visage and folksy wisdom of investing sage Warren Buffett. And his long-time investing vehicle, Berkshire Hathaway, is almost a household name as well. Yet, for the most part, the Berkshire brand has remained behind the scenes.

But as new report from the Financial Times highlights, that may be changing. A range of Berkshire subsidiaries and acquisitions are rebranding to emphasize their affiliation with Buffett and his golden reputation. Soon, consumers will be increasingly likely to think of the Oracle of Omaha when they shop for homes, cars, and even when they look at their electric bill.

Earlier this month, Berkshire announced it was buying Van Tuyl Group, the nation’s fifth-largest auto retailer, and renaming it Berkshire Hathaway Automotive. The new business will include 78 locations in 10 states. And that number is set to grow: Buffett says he plans to buy even more dealerships in the future, adding them to the Berkshire fold.

Prudential Real Estate, meanwhile, has already placed more than a thousand real estate agencies under the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices brand after striking a franchising deal with the conglomerate in 2011. That number is still expanding, both in the United States and internationally. The company plans to pursue further licensing deals in Europe and Asia, in addition to other American markets.

Depending on where you live, Berkshire’s trademark could even be coming inside your house. MidAmerican Energy and PacifiCorp, two utility companies serving Western and Midwestern markets, were recently renamed Berkshire Hathaway Energy and now share a logo.

Why the sudden marketing push for the Berkshire name? Analysts say his celebrity holds value, and could bring in additional business if successfully monetized. “Like Virgin reflects Sir Richard Branson’s rebelliousness and Apple reflects the genius of Steve Jobs, Berkshire Hathaway has brand equity around trust, stability and integrity,” Oscar Yuan, a partner at consultancy Millward Brown Vermeer, explained to CNBC.

The irony of Buffett’s new branding effort is that virtually all consumers already have a deep attachment to Birkshire’s brands. It is, after all, the corporate parent of Heinz ketchup, Benjamin Moore paints, Fruit of the Loom underwear, Brooks running shoes, Spalding basketballs, and the Geico gecko, to name a few. The company’s catalogue even extends to military uniforms (Fechheimer), sweets (See’s Candy) and engagement rings (Ben Bridge Jewelers).

In one way or another, we’re all Buffett customers. Now, it seems, he just wants us to know it.

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