A balanced 401k portfolio

Graph GuyThis is one of the most frequent topics that comes up for discussion at Financial Place Online.  What makes for a balanced 401k portfolio?  While there are many different strategies that can be employed, the 401k account is structured differently than a normal investment account.  The 401k is a tax advantaged account, and that is its main and only advantage.  Very few 401k plans offer a great enough variety of funds to try some proprietary investment strategy that a financial advisor will try to cook up for their clients.  Even fewer 401k plans offer low-cost investment options.

The biggest determinant of what you get out of your 401k is what you put in to it.  Doing nothing with all of the great ideas in the world will get you nowhere in investments.  The second biggest factor of 401k success is just being in something other than “cash and cash equivalents”.  This means stocks, bonds, real estate, or even sector funds.  Whatever it is, just be in something.  Also, talk about it and enjoy it.  Have personal ownership for whatever you are in.  The final critical element for success is investing in low cost funds within your 401k.  The fund expense ratio will kill your account if it is high enough.  So much so, that if all of the options have an expense ratio above 1% and the S&P 500 index is the only fund available with a ratio below 0.35%, then be only in that fund.  It makes that much of a difference.  No manager will sustain performance long enough over time to make such a high expense ration worth it.  I see some funds (commodities hedging) flirt with a 2% ratio.  That’s just ridiculous.  Those people should be kicked out of Wall St.

For those who have good low-cost options and want to diversify in your 401k, here’s the Financial Place Online recommendation:

If you have a 401k administered by Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, or Fidelity, then congrats! You have a good bargain of a 401k program.

With that, let’s focus on a well balanced tactic for spreading across the following Vanguard funds, analyzed using their personal account costs.  Your 401k costs should be even lower.

  1. 25% Vanguard 500 Index Fund Admiral Shares (0.05% expense ratio)
  2. 25% Vanguard REIT Index Fund Admiral Shares (0.10% expense ratio)
  3. 25% Vanguard Developed Markets Index Fund Admiral (0.12% expense ratio)
  4. 25% Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund Admiral Shares (0.10% expense ratio)

The 25% rule:  Keep the current balance of each of these four account equal at the end of every 4 month period.  This is just often enough to make the changes, but no so much that it becomes too time consuming.  To balance, take your total account balance and divide by four.  Sell any fund that is above this number and use those proceeds to buy more shares of the funds that are below this number.

Automatic, rule based investing is really the way to go.  The costs of anything else goes straight into the broker’s pockets.  Simple 401k investing is something that you should not be paying any advisor for.  That’s why Financial Place Online will never charge for it.  Paid financial advice should be reserved for topics that are more complex, such as small business tax situations, or trust management; certainly not for education on 401k tips and tricks.

The next article from Financial Place Online will feature some analysis of past returns for this investment strategy as well as future expectations.

Fund expense ratios explained

The expense ratio is a fee that occurs in all mutual and index funds.  In fact, it is even nested inside of exchange traded funds, though in this case the fee is generally lower than it’s index fund or mutual fund counter part.  The options that present themselves in your 401k, IRA, TSP, or non-retirement index fund and mutual fund accounts will have fees that the honest brokers will explain and less than honest brokers will try to obfuscate.

The expense ratio is this:

The annual fee expressed as a percentage of the assets under management charged directly against those very assets.  The expense ratio is paid internally to the account, so many do not realize that this fee exists at all.  However, this fee, if substatial can become a redistributor of wealth from the account to the managing institution.  It is money that is forfeited in exchange for management and operating expenses, reagardless of profits or even losses.

Take a $10,000 portfolio for example.  The value of which did not change through out 2012.  A 1% expense ratio means that $100 is paid out of this fund to the manager/broker, leaving a balance of $9,900.  If the value went up 10% in 2012 instead, the manager would still recieve 1%, or $110, leaving $10,890.  This will effect compound interest and the Time Value of Money over time.  What was a 10% return is now a 9% return.  This will carry on for as long as you are invested in this fund.  It is in your best interest to minimize this fee.  Below are some expectations for what this fee should be.  If your investments fall within this range, there is no real concern.  Even if you can find a lower rate, there may be other benefits with your current institution, such as multiple account discounts, loyalty programs, or the convenience of one stop shop banking.

  • Expect to pay more for an “actively managed” fund.  Fees here range from 0.5% to 1.5%.  They’re not necessarily better.  Remember the manager is not really accountable for your losses and can always explain them away by blaming the market.  Good active fund managers are exceedingly rare to find, and as their funds grow in size, they tend to under perform the overall market, as it is more difficult to move larger amounts of money without being noticed.
  • The index fund is your friend.  The cheaper, the better.  These funds track a computer generated index portfolio of stocks based on a pre established rule set.  All personal bias and emotion driven mistakes are removed here.  The S&P 500 is an example index.  Index fund expense ratios should be below 0.5% and can reach close to no cost.  The Thrift Savings Plan available to federal employees and military service members offers some of the lowest rates possible at 0.025%.  That’s right, $2.5o for each $10,000 invested.  Now that’s a good deal!
  • Fund houses that specialize in funds, particularly actively managed funds, may have front-end and back-end load fees.  These are fees to buy into and then sell out of the fund.  In the past, these fees could be up to 5% on either side.  This fee in general has been done away with as consumer champion Vanguard has driven this fee out of the fund industry.
  • In addition, certain funds have fees if sold within a certain period, commonly 2 to 12 months.  If you plan on being long term in these funds, this is not necessarily a bad deal.  The reason for these fees is to reduce turnover; which is the rate of buying and then selling assets within the fund.  The action of turnover has negative tax consequences and reduces that ability of a fund to achieve target performance.  Early termination fees should be 2% or less.

For reading additional information of stocks, bonds, index funds, and other investment opportunities, please visit the FPO investment page.


Blockchain and robotic automated systems

Evolution in Investment world

Carlisle Mitchell - Real Estate

Carlisle Mitchell - Insider Tips for Real Estate Investors. Expert investment & market analysis for real estate investors world-wide.

Writing in Color

Because Life is More than Black and White

Finance Gateway

Finance Plan Makes Your Future


Discuss politics with civility and reason


Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing

My Mom Thoughts

Thoughts and Recipes by Marie

%d bloggers like this: