MONEY 529 plans

Why the Best College Savings Plans Are Getting Better

stack of money under 5-2-9 number blocks
Jan Cobb Photography Ltd—Getty Images

Low-cost 529 college savings plans continue to rise to the top in Morningstar's latest ratings.

Competition is creating ever-better investment options for parents who want to save for their kids’ college costs through tax-preferred 529 college savings plans, according to Morningstar’s annual ratings of the 64 largest college savings plans.

In a report released today, the firm gave gold stars to 529 plans featuring funds managed by T. Rowe Price and Vanguard. The Nevada 529 plan, for example, which offers Vanguard’s low-cost index funds, has long been one of Morningstar’s top-rated college savings options. The plan became even more attractive this year when it cut the fees it charges investors from 0.21% of assets to 0.19%, says Morningstar senior analyst Kathryn Spica.

“In general, the industry is improving” its offerings to investors, Spica adds.

You can invest in any state’s 529. In many states, however, you qualify for special tax breaks by investing in your home-state 529 plan. If you don’t, you should shop nationally, paying attention to fees and investment choices.

Morningstar raised Virginia’s inVEST plan, which offers investment options from Vanguard, American Funds and Aberdeen, from bronze to silver ratings, in part because Virginia cut its fees from 0.20% to 0.15% early this year.

Virginia’s CollegeAmerica plan continued as Morningstar’s top-rated option for those who pay a commission to buy a 529 plan through an adviser. American Funds, which manages the plan, announced in June it would waive some fees, such as set-up charges.

But there are exceptions. Morningstar downgraded two plans—South Dakota’s CollegeAccess 529 and Arizona’s Ivy Funds InvestEd 529 Plan—to “negative” because of South Dakota’s high fees and problems with Arizona’s fund managers.

Rhode Island’s two college savings plans moved off the negative list this year after the state started offering a new investment option based on Morningstar’s recommended portfolio of low-cost index funds. Given the potential conflict of interest, Morningstar did not rate the plans in 2014.

Joseph Hurley, founder of Savingforcollege.com, which also rates 529 plans, says he hasn’t analyzed the Morningstar-modeled funds because they are new and don’t have enough of a track record. But, he adds, the Rhode Island direct-sold 529 plan offers several low-cost index fund options.

Here are Morningstar’s top-rated 529 plans for 2014:

State Fund company Investment method Expenses (% of assets) for moderate age-based portfolio (ages 7 to 12) Five-year annualized return for moderate age-based portfolio (ages 7 to 12)
Alaska T. Rowe Price Active 0.88% 11.25%
Maryland T. Rowe Price Active 0.88% 11.42%
Nevada Vanguard Passive 0.19% 8.65%
Utah Vanguard Passive 0.22% 8.01%

Related:

 

 

 

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.

Related links

 

MONEY 401(k)s

The Secret To Building A Bigger 401(k)

Ostrich egg in nest
Brad Wilson—Getty Images

There's growing evidence that financial advice makes a big difference in your ability to achieve a comfortable retirement.

Some people need a personal trainer to get motivated to exercise regularly. There’s growing evidence that a financial coach can help whip your retirement savings into better shape too.

People in 401(k) plans who work with financial advisors save more and have clearer financial goals than people who don’t use professional advice, according to a study out today by Natixis Global Asset Management. Workers with advisors contribute 9.5% of their annual salary to their 401(k) vs. 7.8% by those who aren’t advised, according to Natixis. That puts workers with advisors on target for the 10% to 15% of your annual income you need to put away (including company match) if you want to retire comfortably.

Natixis also found that three-quarters of 401(k) plan participants with advisors say they know what their 401(k) balance should be by the time they retire vs. half of workers without advisors who say the same.

The Natixis study follows a Charles Schwab survey out last week that found that workers who used third-party professional advisors and had one-on-one counseling tended to increase their savings rate, were better diversified and stayed the course in their investing decisions despite market ups and downs.

Similar research was released in May by Financial Engines—that study found that people who got professional investment help through managed accounts, target-date funds or online tools earned higher median annual returns than those who go it alone. On average employees getting advice had median annual returns that were 3.32 percentage points higher, net of fees, than workers managing their own retirement accounts.

Granted, most of these studies come from organizations that make money by providing advice—either directly to investors or as a resource provided by 401(k) plan providers. Still, Vanguard, who provides services to both advisers and do-it-yourself investors, has published research showing that financial guidance can add value. In a 2013 research paper, Advisor’s Alpha, Vanguard said that “left alone, investors often make choices that impair their returns and jeopardize their ability to fund their long-term objectives.” According to Vanguard, advisers can help add value if they “act as wealth managers and behavioral coaches, providing discipline and experience to investors who need it.”

In other words, the value of working with an advisor, like a personal trainer, may simply be that when someone is working one-on-one with you to reach a goal you are more likely to be engaged.

Whether you want to work with a financial advisor is a personal decision. If you’re like many people who feel overwhelmed by investment choices, or don’t have a lot of time to spend on investment decisions, getting professional financial advice can help you stay on course towards your retirement goals. You can get that advice through your 401(k) plan or via a periodic check up with a fee-only financial planner or simply by putting your retirement funds into a target date fund.

Still, before you hire a pro, make sure you understand the fees. A recent study by the GAO found that 401(k) managed accounts, which let you turn over portfolio decisions to a pro, may be costly—management fees ranged from .08% to as high as 1%, on top of investing expenses. Ideally, you should pay 0.3% or less. High fees could wipe out the advantage of professional guidance.

Other research has found that you may get similar benefits—generally at a much lower cost—by opting for a target-date fund. If you go outside your 401(k) plan, it’s generally better to use a fee-only planner, who gets paid only for the advice provided, not commissions earned by selling financial products. You can find fee-only financial planners through the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors; and for fee-only planners who charge by the hour, you can try Garrett Planning Network.

Still, if you enjoy investing, and you are willing to spend the time needed to stay on top of your finances, a do-it-yourself approach is fine. Using online calculators can give you a clearer picture of your goals, and simply knowing what your target should be can be motivating. The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) consistently finds that people who calculated a savings goal were more than twice as likely to feel very confident they’ll be able to accumulate the money they need to retire and are more realistic about how much they need to save. All of which will help you reach your retirement goals.

MONEY retirement planning

3 Smart Moves for Retirement Investors from the Bogleheads

The Bogleheads Guide to Investing 2nd Edition
Wiley

A group of Vanguard enthusiasts offers sound financial advice to other ordinary investors. Here are three tips from one of their founders.

Wouldn’t be great to get advice on managing your money from a knowledgeable friend—one who isn’t trying to rake in a commission or push a bad investment?

That’s what the Bogleheads are all about. These ordinary investors, who follow the teachings of Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, offer guidance, encouragement and investing opinions at their website, Bogleheads.org. The group started back in 1998 as the Vanguard Diehards discussion board at Morningstar.com. As interest grew, the Bogleheads split off and launched an independent website. Today the Bogleheads have nearly 40,000 registered members, but millions more check into the site each month. (You don’t have to be member to read the posts but you must register to comment—it’s free.)

As you would expect given their name, the Bogleheads favor the investing principles advocated by Bogle and the Vanguard fund family: low costs, indexing (mostly), and buy-and-hold investing—though the members disagree on many details. The Bogleheads are led by a core group of active members, who have also published books, helped establish local chapters around the country, and put together an annual conference. Their ranks of regular commenters include respected financial pros such as Rick Ferri, Larry Swedroe, William Bernstein, Wade Pfau, and Michael Piper.

For investors who prefer their advice in a handy, non-virtual format, a new edition of “The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing,” a best-seller originally published in 2006, is coming out this week. Below, Mel Lindauer, who co-wrote the book with fellow Bogleheads Taylor Larimore and Michael LeBoeuf, shares three of the most important moves that retirement investors need to make.

Choose the right risk level. Figuring out which asset allocation you can live with over the long term is essential—and that means knowing how much you can comfortably invest in stocks. Consider the 37% plunge in the stock market in 2008 during the financial crisis. Did you hold on your stock funds or sell? If you panicked, you should probably keep a smaller allocation to equities. Whatever your risk tolerance, it helps to tune out the market noise and stay focused on the long term. “That’s one of the main advantages of being a Boglehead—we remind people to stay the course,” says Lindauer.

Keep it simple with a target-date fund. These portfolios give you an asset mix that shifts to become more conservative as you near retirement. Some investing pros argue that a one-size-fits-all approaches has drawbacks, but Lindauer sees it differently, saying “These funds are an ideal way for investors to get a good asset mix in one fund.” He also likes the simplicity—having to track fewer funds makes it easier to monitor your portfolio and stay on track to your goals.

Another advantage of target-dates is that holding a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds masks the ups and downs of the market. “If the stock market falls more than 10%, your fund may only fall 5%, which won’t make you panic and sell,” says Lindauer. But before you opt for a fund, check under hood and be sure the asset mix is geared to your risk level—not all target-date funds invest in the same way, with some holding more aggressive or more conservative asset mixes. If the fund with your retirement date doesn’t suit your taste for risk, choose one with a different retirement date.

Don’t overlook inflation protection. Given the low rates that investors have experienced for the past five years—the CPI is still hovering around 2%—inflation may seem remote right now. But rising prices remain one of the biggest threats to retirement investors, Lindauer points out. If you start out with a $1,000, and inflation averages 3% over the next 30 years, you would need $2,427 to buy the same basket of goods and services you could buy today.

That’s why Lindauer recommends that pre-retirees keep a stake in inflation-protected bonds, such as TIPs (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities) and I Bonds, which provide a rate of return that tracks the CPI. Given that inflation is low, so are recent returns on these bonds. Still, I Bonds “are the best of a bad lot,” Lindauer says. Recently these bonds paid 1.94%, which beats the average 0.90% yield on one-year CDs. If rates rise, after one year you can redeem the I Bond; you’ll lose three months of interest, but you can then buy a higher-yielding bond, Lindauer notes. Consider them insurance against future spikes in inflation.

More investing advice from our Ultimate Retirement Guide:
What’s the Right Mix of Stocks and Bonds?
How Often Should I Check on My Retirement Investments?
How Much Money Will I Need to Save?

MONEY financial advice

Where to Go for the Best Financial Advice

Wall of paint chips
Carolyn Hebbard—Getty Images/Flickr Open

Seeking help with investments or retirement planning? Here's how to sort through the overwhelming number of options you face.

The financial advice business is changing dramatically in every aspect, from how advisers spend their time, to what they charge, to how they label and promote themselves.

The result? Further confusion for consumers who probably sought help to find clarity in the first place.

“Brokers” who used to pick stocks and sell mutual funds at firms like Morgan Stanley and Bank of America Merrill Lynch are now more likely now to call themselves “financial advisers” and manage portfolios for fees instead of (or in addition to) commissions.

Independents who used to offer comprehensive advice are now more likely to focus on investment management and call themselves “wealth managers.”

Charles Schwab, the online brokerage that made its name catering to do-it-yourself investors, now is pushing its own stable of are “financial consultants” and preaching the value of face-to-face (or at least Skype-to-Skype) connections.

New to the scene are “robo-advisers” — algorithmically driven online money management firms that will automate your investment decisions.

Further complicating consumer choice is the fact that most firms have a variety of ways in which they offer financial advice to clients.

At Vanguard, for example, a firm which promotes simplicity in investing, there are nine different advice platforms. They vary, based on whether a client is investing through a retirement account or directly, how much advice a client needs or wants, and how much money the client has to invest.

How can someone seeking financial advice navigate their way through this complex field and make sure they get the right advice? Here are a few things you should know now:

Needs Assessment

Assess your own needs. The first step is to figure out what you want a financial professional to do for you. Do you want comprehensive investment management? A whole-life plan that includes everything from how to pay for college to tax reduction to retirement planning? Just a reality check on your retirement readiness?

Pay for What You Eat

Once you know what you want, it’s easier to find the right adviser. For a spot check or limited amount of planning, consider hiring a by-the-hour adviser — you can find one through the Garrett Planning Network (www.garrettplanningnetwork.com).

Want a comprehensive soup-to-nuts life financial plan? Look for a fee-only certified financial planner through the CFP Board of Standards (www.cfp.net) or the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org).

Learn the Lingo

“Fee only” means that the adviser is not paid to sell products and, if that person is a certified financial planner, it also means she doesn’t even own a small share in a financial company that does sell products.

“Fee-based” is a meaningless term of art, typically used by advisers who charge fees and reap commissions.

Watch Your Wallet

There’s a huge discrepancy in the amount of fees advisers charge.

At Vanguard, investors willing to stick with Vanguard funds can get basic fund choice advice for free and a comprehensive financial plan for 0.3% of the assets they invest with Vanguard.

Traditional brokerage firms will offer broader portfolios and go fee-only but at costs that can top 2% a year.

In the middle are most independent financial advisers, who tend to charge fees near 1% of assets, more for small accounts and less for bigger ones.

An extra percent or two, pulled from an account every year, can cost a long-term investor hundreds of thousands of dollars at the end of the day, so fees do matter.

Consider Generic Advice

A lot of lip service is given to selling the idea that everyone needs personalized and customized financial advice.

That’s true for people who have ultra-high net worth, with businesses, estates, tax issues and the like to manage. It’s also true of people who have very special situations, such as handicapped children who will need lifelong care.

But it may not be true of the average Joe and Jane, who simply need tips on how to invest their 401(k) or IRA fund.

Companies like T. Rowe Price, Vanguard and Fidelity will give you basic fund guidance for free, or close to it.

Remember the Robots

Companies like Wealthfront, Betterment and Hedgeable will invest your money for you in diversified portfolios regularly rebalanced and managed, if you need that, to minimize taxes.

They will charge pennies on the dollar of what a face-to-face individualized money manager will charge, and in some cases offer that for free.

They offer a reasonable solution for investors who know how much they have to invest, don’t need hand-holding, and are comfortable turning their finances over to an algorithm and sticking with passive index-linnked investing.

Here’s encouragement: Over long swaths of time, those passively-managed portfolios tend to beat the active investment managers.

MONEY IRAs

This Simple Move Can Boost Your Savings by Thousands of Dollars

Stack of Money
iStock

Last-minute IRA savers and those who keep their money in cash are paying a procrastination penalty.

Individual Retirement Account contributions are getting larger—an encouraging sign of a recovering economy and improved habits among retirement savers.

But there is an “I” in IRA for a reason: investors are in charge of managing their accounts. And recent research by Vanguard finds that many of us are leaving returns on the table due to an all-too-human fault: procrastination in the timing of our contributions.

IRA savers can make contributions anytime from Jan. 1 of a tax year up until the tax-filing deadline the following April. But Vanguard’s analysis found that more than double the amount of contributions is made at the deadline than at the first opportunity—and that last-minute contributions dwarf the amounts contributed throughout the year. Fidelity Investments reports similar data—for the 2013 tax year, 70% of total IRA contributions came in during tax season.

Some IRA investors no doubt wait until the tax deadline in order to determine the most tax-efficient level of contribution; others may have cash-flow reasons, says Colleen Jaconetti, a senior investment analyst in the Vanguard Investment Strategy Group. “Some people don’t have the cash available during the year to make contributions, or they wait until they get their year-end bonus to fund their accounts.”

Nonetheless, procrastination has its costs. Vanguard calculates that investors who wait until the last minute lose out on a full year’s worth of tax-advantaged compounded growth—and that gets expensive over a lifetime of saving. Assuming an investor contributes the maximum $5,500 annually for 30 years ($6,500 for those over age 50), and earns 4% after inflation, procrastinators will wind up with account balances $15,500 lower than someone who contributes as early as possible in a tax year.

But for many last-minute savers, even more money is left on the table. Among savers who made last-minute contributions for the 2013 tax year just ahead of the tax-filing deadline, 21% of the contributions went into money market funds, likely because they were not prepared to make investing decisions. When Vanguard looked at those hasty money market contributions for the 2012 tax year, two-thirds of those funds were still sitting in money market funds four months later.

“They’re doing a great thing by contributing, and some people do go back to get those dollars invested,” Jaconetti says. “But with money market funds yielding little to nothing, these temporary decisions are turning into ill-advised longer-term investment choices.”

The Vanguard research comes against a backdrop of general improvement in IRA contributions. Fidelity reported on Wednesday that average contributions for tax year 2013 reached $4,150, a 5.7% increase from tax year 2012 and an all-time high. The average balance at Fidelity was up nearly 10% year-over-year to $89,100, a gain that was fueled mainly by strong market returns.

Fidelity says older IRA savers racked up the largest percentage increases in savings last year: investors aged 50 to 59 increased their contributions by 9.8%, for example—numbers that likely reflect savers trying to catch up on nest egg contributions as retirement approaches. But young savers showed strong increases in savings rates, too: 7.7% for savers aged 30-39, and 7.3% for those aged 40-49.

Users of Roth IRAs made larger contributions than owners of traditional IRAs, Fidelity found. Average Roth contributions were higher than for traditional IRAs across most age groups, with the exception of those made by investors older than 60.

But IRA investors of all stripes apparently could stand a bit of tuning up on their contribution habits. Jaconetti suggests that some of the automation that increasingly drives 401(k) plans also can help IRA investors. She suggests that IRA savers set up regular automatic monthly contributions, and establish a default investment that gets at least some level of equity exposure from the start, such as a balanced fund or target date fund.

“It’s understandable that people are deadline-oriented,” Jaconetti says. “But with these behaviors, they could be leaving returns on the table.”

Related:

 

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 -1.8962% 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 -0.5553% , Chevron CHEVRON CORP. CVX -0.9471% , and Schlumberger SCHLUMBERGER LTD. SLB -1.8005% , 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 -0.705% , which holds leading eurozone stocks such as Nestle, Novartis NOVARTIS AG NVS -0.4627% , 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 -0.0283% , 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 Ask the Expert

Can I Diversify My Portfolio With One ETF Rather than Four?

Q: Does investing in a “total stock market index fund” give you diversified exposure to large-, medium-, and small-sized companies? Or do I need to invest in separate mutual funds for my large- and small-company stocks? — Toby, Davis Junction, IL

A: No, you don’t need separate funds. The Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF VANGUARD INDEX FDS TOTAL STOCK MARKET ETF VTI -0.7798% is designed to give you exposure to a broad cross-section of different types of domestic equities in a single exchange-traded fund.

Its portfolio breaks down like this: around 72% is invested in large companies, a little less than 20% is in medium-sized businesses, about 6% is in small-company shares, and 3% is in so-called micro-cap stocks.

Now, you can achieve similar diversification by allocating your dollars into a collection of more narrowly constructed funds that focus on industry-leading large companies or quick-growing but volatile small companies.

For instance, you could pick up Money 50 funds Schwab S&P 500 Index SCHWAB CAPITAL TST S&P 500IDX SEL SWPPX -0.7152% , with iShares Core S&P Mid-Cap ISHARES TRUST REG. SHS S&P MIDCAP 400 IDX ON IJH -1.0041% and iShares Core S&P Small Cap ISHARES TRUST CORE S&P SMALL-CAP ETF IJR -1.1849% . (Although, if you’re not careful, you might end up with more exposure to smaller companies than you want. About 30% of IJR’s portfolio is in micro-cap stocks.)

All things being equal, says BKD Wealth Advisors’ portfolio manager Nick Withrow, you’re better off going with the one fund than three or four.

For one thing, each fund comes with its own expenses. If VTI dovetails with your risk tolerance, then you’ve taken care of your domestic stock portfolio at a measly cost of 0.05% of assets annually. That’s marginally cheaper, by about 0.06 percentage points, than buying a host of exchange-traded funds that collectively approximate VTI’s portfolio, says Withrow.

But there’s another reason — you.

Basically, you don’t want to get into the business of buying and selling ETFs to try and time the market. And you’re much less likely to get into that expensive habit if you buy-and-hold one fund, rather than picking three or four.

“The more choices an investor has, the more apt he or she is to feel that they have to do something,” says Withrow. “The idea of simplicity, especially with a buy-and-hold attitude, goes a long way.”

Of course, one total market exchange-traded fund doesn’t mean your portfolio is complete. Don’t forget about foreign equities or, you know, bonds. But when it comes to U.S. stocks, one cheap total market ETF (like VTI) is particularly useful.

MONEY ETFs

As BlackRock Goes to War With Vanguard, Mom-and-Pop ETF Investors Win

Even with $1 trillion in exchange-traded fund assets, BlackRock is being forced to slash costs on ETFs to compete with low-cost leader Vanguard.

Even as BlackRock is set to amass $1 trillion in exchange-traded fund assets in its iShares business, U.S. retail investors increasingly prefer to send their money to low-cost leader Vanguard.

With $998 billion in ETF money, BlackRock has more than the next contenders, Vanguard and State Street, combined.

But the company has struggled to compete with Vanguard, known for its investor-friendly low-cost investing, for mom and pop’s nest eggs. Retail investors now account for more than half of the $1.8 trillion in ETF assets under management in the U.S, according to consulting firm PwC.

So far this year, Vanguard has pulled in about $30.3 billion in net new ETF money in the U.S., or about 43% of the market, while iShares is second with $24.7 billion, or about 35%.

That reflects a trend that’s been going on for years: At the end of 2009, BlackRock had 47.7% of total U.S. ETF assets under management, compared with 11.7% for Vanguard. By the end of May, BlackRock’s market share was down to 38.9%, compared with 20.6% for Vanguard, according to Lipper.

“Our aspiration is to be number one in flows, and we can’t get there without being higher in the retail market place,” said Mark Wiedman, the BlackRock executive who heads the iShares business globally, speaking at the company’s annual meeting in New York in June. “We are starting to change our voice for that audience and I would say historically we frankly haven’t done that good a job.”

The market share loss comes in spite of BlackRock’s two-year effort to win retail investors.

BlackRock introduced a line of low-cost “buy and hold” investor-aimed ETFs in 2012, and since then has been cutting the fees on its ETFs, revamping its sales team, and pushing a new branding campaign. The firm has cut expenses on 12 funds since 2012, ranging from its S&P Total U.S. Stock Market ETF then to its high-dividend ETF in June 2014.

BlackRock says its flows have improved since it started its new retail effort.

One of the most significant price reductions was in its iShares High Dividend ETF. The cost to investors for that fund dropped to 0.12% of assets a year from 0.40%, a move that would cost BlackRock $11.2 million annually, based on the $4 billion in the fund. Last quarter, iShares ETFs generated some $765 million in base fees revenue.

“Every basis point that you cut a fee impacts revenues, but we don’t really look at that — we look at the profitability of our ETF business over the long term,” BlackRock executive Frank Porcelli, head of U.S. Wealth Advisory Business, said at Reuters’ Global Wealth Management Summit in June.

Asked about how fee cuts would affect BlackRock’s profits, he said it was “not relevant.”

With $4.4 trillion in total assets among its various product lines, BlackRock remains the world’s largest asset manager and is unlikely to be eclipsed by Vanguard anytime soon.

BlackRock has nearly tripled the size of the iShares business since it bought it from Barclays five years ago, largely by selling to big institutions, such as the Arizona State Retirement System, which plunked down $300 million to seed three iShares funds last year. It has also won institutional and retail investors abroad; BlackRock has a strong presence in Europe, Asia, Canada and Latin America. Total BlackRock ETF assets outside of the U.S. are about $280.5 billion, about 36 percent of the $700 billion total market.

Analysts say that iShares’ size and scale makes the effect of fee cuts in the near-term fairly minimal on the overall business, but that a prolonged price war could hurt the firm.

“It’s a tough spot to be in,” said Edward Jones analyst Jim Shanahan. “There is some growth potential there, but it is slow to materialize and it has to be powerful enough to offset the addition of a lot of these products with fees less than the current weighted average fee rate.”

Vanguard, which unlike BlackRock isn’t publicly traded, offers significantly cheaper funds. The average expense ratio of a Vanguard ETF is 0.14%, or $14 for every $10,000 invested, compared with the industry average of 0.58%. BlackRock’s average expense ratio is 0.32%.

“When talking about large, commoditized ETFs, low cost makes a big difference, and Vanguard is a little bit more competitive,” said Gabelli & Co analyst Macrae Sykes.

“Investors recognize Vanguard as the low-cost leader — whether for index funds, for active funds, for bond funds, for money market funds, or for ETFs,” said Vanguard spokesman David Hoffman. “We like to say that we’ve been lowering the cost and complexity of investing for 38 years. We are also increasingly being recognized for our commitment to providing high-quality products that can play an enduring role in a portfolio.”

MONEY mutual funds

Can Indexing Actually Grow Too Big and Fail?

As index funds are sopping up the world's investment dollars, an argument is emerging that this will eventually tip the scales back in favor of active managers. Don't worry just yet.

Indexing has always been a bit of a conundrum.

When this strategy — which calls for simply owning all the stocks in a market, rather than picking and choosing “the best” securities — hit Wall Street in the 1970s, it was regarded as downright “un-American.”

After all, why would any investor settle for the market’s average returns through indexing, when they could hitch their wagon to a stock picker whose goal is always to be above-average?

Well it turns out that over the long run, the vast majority of stock pickers aren’t consistently able to generate above-average returns. Part of that is because of the higher fees that stock pickers charge, which serve as a drag on performance. But another key element is the notion that markets are by and large efficient. And it’s very difficult for a lone stock picker to consistently outsmart an efficiently priced market.

Today, as indexing has transformed from a niche strategy to a widely embraced one — more than a third of the money invested in stock funds is currently pegged to a benchmark, thanks in part to the rise of exchange-traded funds — new questions about indexing are emerging.

Namely, if a plurality of investors switch from being inquisitive analysts digging for the truth about the long-term prospects of companies and instead throw up their hands and index, won’t the market become less efficient over time? Who would be left to sort the good stocks from the bad ones, so index investors don’t need to worry about it? And if that’s the case, won’t active managers start to gain an upper hand again?

Index investors often disparage active stock pickers for failing to “beat the market.” But this criticism gives active managers short shrift. The so-called market that portfolio managers can’t beat is made up of other active managers. It’s not necessarily that stock pickers aren’t good at what they do. It may be that the competition is so fierce that no particular active manager can consistently beat the consensus of his or her peers.

But as more and more of the world’s investors turn their back on stock picking and become indexers, that competition becomes less fierce.

This isn’t just an academic debate. This topic has grown sufficiently urgent that Vanguard, creator of the first retail index fund and one of the largest mutual fund companies in the world, saw fit to publish a response.

As far as theory goes, the notion that indexing’s popularity could one day alter the long-standing dynamics of the stock market isn’t totally crazy, notes Vanguard senior investment analyst Chris Philips. “It’s been an interesting intellectual debate,” Philips says. But he’s quick to add: “I don’t know if you can quantify if there is or will be a tipping point.”

One thing Vanguard is adamant about is that we haven’t reached such a point yet. While more than a third of mutual fund and ETF assets today are indexed, Vanguard asserts that a far smaller fraction of the overall stock market is in benchmark-tracking strategies.

While some institutions like pension funds use indexing strategies outside of mutual funds, even accounting for these holdings, Vanguard estimates only about 14% of money invested in the stock market is invested in index funds.

What’s more, if index funds were really driving a critical mass of portfolio managers from the market, the lessened competition would mean the remaining portfolio managers should do better. That hasn’t happened. Last year about 46% of active managers beat the market, according to Vanguard’s tally. (If you flipped a coin half would beat it in any given year.) That was up from about 30% in 2012, but about equal with the number that be beat the market in 1999.

This doesn’t mean the phenomenon couldn’t take place at some point in the future. But even if it did, presumably more would-be stock jockeys would try their hand at attempting to beat the market at that point, which would make the trick difficult again.

Vanguard’s Philips is skeptical that index investing will become popular enough to make that happen, at least not for a long time. “I’d be surprised if passive gets about 50% market share,” he says. That’s because Wall Street needs to make money and index funds are too tough a way to accomplish that.

“There is always going to be the search for an edge,” he says. “There just is not a lot of money in offering an index fund.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser