The performance of the Financial Place Online balanced portfolio

The Financial Place Online balanced 401k portfolio example was developed based on a grouping of common Vanguard funds available to various 401k plans.  The asset allocation is as follows:

As compiled from Vanguard’s website, the performance record for each of these assets is impressive.

VanguardThe first thing to note here is the omission of the Developed Markets fund.  That fund has been recently established.  In its place, the MSCI EAFE index has been used, which is a more than reasonable assumption.  Each of the four funds have experienced strong performance in the past.  It is important to remember that past performance is just that; past performance.  What is important is what each of these funds represent.  As a combination, this portfolio covers ownership of the U.S. S&P 500 index, a stong mix of Real Estate Investment Trusts, the U.S. aggregate bond market (high credit rated bonds) and developed markets in Europe and Asia.  There will be profitability in the future.  You can be sure of that.  Businesses are all about increasing shareholder value, though some are better at it that others.  This portfolio is geared towards capturing as much of the total market profits as you can in as cost effective of a method as possible.

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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.

Tax planning to make the 401k into your own retirement pension

The 401k is a retirement plan which is employer sponsored.  In 2013, an employee may contribute up to their qualifying income or $17,500 (whichever is greater) to this account.  Many employers will match your contributions up to to several percent of your salary, but not all will.  The benefit of this plan is that your contributions are deferred from present taxes and gains within the account are sheltered from taxes.  This means that if you earn $75,000 per year and are $3,000 into the 25% marginal tax bracket, then contributing $3,000 to your 401k over the year will reduce your taxable income by $3,000 and knock you back down to the %15 marginal tax bracket.  This equals a tax savings of $750 in that year!  That’s $750 that you get to keep and don’t have to give to the government.

There’s other options for retirement accounts.  The term Roth comes up often, and points to the one downside of a 401k.  That is, for a 401k, the amount withdrawn at age 59 1/2 is subject to taxes.  Any amount withdrawn before age 59 1/2 is subject to taxes and a 10% penalty.  In the case of a Roth 401K, the principle can be withdrawn from the account, and withdrawals after age 59 1/2 are tax free.  The same penalty rules apply.

The fact that taxes aren’t paid on Roth 401k withdrawals sounds like a good deal, and it is.  However, contributions are made with “after tax” dollars.  This means no $750 savings in 2013.  The conventional financial wisdom suggests a bias towards Roth contributions for all except those in the higher tax brackets, usually 28% and higher.  The reasoning is that if you’re below this bracket, your present tax rates are low and will likely be higher in retirement since you will have multiple sources of income.  If your tax rate is 28% or above, the standard advice to to contribute to a traditional 401k.

Does the conventional wisdom work?  Is the bias towards Roth contributions valid?  Not so much.  Here’s why:

  • The above advice for Roth contributions make the fatal mistake that anyone has an idea what U.S. income taxes will look like in a decade or more.
  • The advice also ignores all elements of tax planning; where proper planning has multiple options for deferring taxes.
  • Roth contributions serve the government better as it brings in more tax revenues in the present.  Wouldn’t you rather have that money in hand?
  • The 10% bracket for Married Filing Jointly is about the same size of the maximum contribution limit of $17,500.  Even if all of your 401K contribution is in this bracket, you will get back $1750 if you max out your contribution.
  • 401k contributions lower your AGI.  They’re an “Above the line” deduction, one of the sweetest tax deals available.  This can open the door to the retirement tax contribution credit (or even a higher credit multiplier) and the earned income credit; which if you have kids you should at this point expect the additional child tax credit.

Based on this, the best strategy at any time is to defer taxes the most that you can in the current year.  The only exception to this rule exists for those who are in or near the 1% category.  Even in the case of a 0% tax rate, your best bet may not be the Roth contribution because of working your way out of the “phase out” of the earned income credit which is 16% with 1 child and 21% with 2 children.  Also worth considering is that the additional child tax credit is refundable.

>>>Taxes are complicated.  They are built to be that way.  It is not reasonable to expect mastery based on one read.  Financial Place Online will continue to provide only the best in tax guidance to make sure that you can maximize your own wealth development.

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