Mutual Funds Probably Better Option Than Individual Stocks

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Mutual funds are a better option than individual stocks for most investors.  The decision to invest in mutual funds or individual stocks depends on the size of your portfolio, your investment knowledge, your level of time and involvement, your risk tolerance, your ability to make objective investment decisions and your tax situation.

Many investors don’t have enough money to adequately diversify their portfolio across a wide range of individual stocks.   To gain true stock diversification, you need to invest in companies of different sizes, in a wide range of different industry sectors and in a variety of different geographies. Mutual funds enable you to gain this broad diversification by pooling your money with a large number of other investors.

Additionally, mutual funds are professionally managed, making them ideal for individuals with limited investment knowledge or a limited amount of time to research and monitor individual stocks.  Most mutual fund companies have a large staff of managers and research analysts who analyze financial reports, visit companies and keep tabs on the economic and political climate.  It is very difficult for most     investors to devote the time and commitment needed to create and maintain a well-diversified portfolio of individual stocks.

Professional managers also have access to more timely information.  Many investors are tempted to buy and sell individual stock based on current events.  However, the market is relatively efficient which means it quickly responds to new information.  What seems like breaking news has probably already been factored into the price of the stock.

Unfortunately, diversification and professional management does not come without a cost.  Most mutual funds charge an annual management fee of between .25 and 1.25%.

Additionally, when investing your own money it is hard to stay objective.  We have a natural inclination to emotionally react to changes in the market and to become emotionally attached to specific stocks.  It is easier for mutual fund managers to make objective decisions.  Performance is usually better when we stay on course and history shows us that investors in individual stocks trade more frequently than mutual fund investors.

Mutual funds can also be a better option for investors who are risk adverse. By investing in a broadly diversified portfolio of mutual funds, most of your risk will come from fluctuations in the market.  A portfolio comprised of several individual stocks is generally more volatile.  It also carries a higher risk of losing money if a company, whose stock you own, has financial problems or goes out of business.

A disadvantage to owning mutual funds, instead of individual stocks can be a lack of control on when you pay capital gains. This is especially true if you are in a high tax bracket and a lot of your money is invested outside of retirement accounts.  When fund managers sell stock, gains must flow through to the investors as they are earned, not when the fund is sole.

Asset Allocation – the Foundation of Your Portfolio

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Your asset allocation serves as a foundation from which to build your investment portfolio.  An asset allocation identifies the types of investments and the proportion of each you plan to hold in your portfolio.  At a very general level most investments are broken into three categories: stocks, interest earning, and real estate.  Each of these broad categories can be broken down further into hundreds of different options.   The two factors that usually drive an asset allocation are the timeframe in which you will need your money and your personal risk tolerance.  Generally, we strive for a diversified portfolio that provides the highest rate of return for the level of risk we are willing to take.

The first step in developing an asset allocation is to evaluate your current situation and determine when the money you are investing will be used.  Money that is needed in the short term should be placed in interest earning investments, not in real estate or the stock market.  Interest earning investments, such as money market accounts and CDs, are secure but usually provide a rate of return below the rate of inflation.  While it’s important to keep your short term money safe, too much in interest earning investments will stifle the long term growth potential of your portfolio.

Once your short term money has been secured, you can create a diversified portfolio that supports your investment timeframe and risk tolerance.   A great way to diversify is through the use of low cost mutual funds.  Mutual funds enable groups of individuals to pool their money to buy a large number of different companies or government entities.  Mutual funds enable you to maintain a diversified asset allocation by investing in funds with different objectives.  Consider selecting funds that invest in a variety of stocks and bonds in large, medium, and small companies within different industries and different geographical regions.  Your goal is to maintain diversification so that when one category is doing poorly it may be offset by another category that is performing well.   A diversified asset allocation allows you to spread out your risk so you don’t have dramatic losses if a given company or asset class performs poorly.   Additionally, by spreading your asset allocation over a broad range of investments, you may have opportunities that would have been too risky in an undiversified portfolio.

Your asset allocation is the framework of your portfolio – establish a plan that meets your objectives and stick with it!  Avoid making changes to your asset allocation based on emotional reactions to short term changes in the market.   Over time, your portfolio will get out of balance due to fluctuations in the market.   I recommend adjusting your portfolio by rebalancing on an annual basis.  In addition to keeping your asset allocation on target, the need for rebalancing will result in selling stock when it is high and buying when it is low.

8 Timeless Tips to Keep Your Investments on Track

  1. Keep It Simple – Don’t invest in anything that you don’t understand.   Most investments aren’t that complicated. Be very cautious if you are considering an investment with pages and pages of difficult to understand legal verbiage.  You can bet the small print wasn’t added for your benefit.
  2. Pigs Get Fat, Hogs Get Slaughtered – The biggest risk to sensible investing is fear and greed.  If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Don’t fall for offers with exceptionally high returns. If someone promises you a return significantly higher than the market rate, there’s a catch.  It’s either a scam or there are huge risks involved. Perform some due diligence to understand why the returns are higher than normal.
  3. Keep Your Emotions in Check – Establish and stick to an allocation that meets your timeframe and risk tolerance. The stock market will rise and fall.  Don’t fall into the trap of panic selling when the market falls, only to turn around and buy when the market’s back on top.  You don’t make much money selling low and buying high.
  4. Diversify, Diversify, Diversify – At a minimum, your net worth should reflect a combination of stock mutual funds, fixed income investments, and real estate.  You should hold a large number of different investments within each category.  For example, your stock portfolio should be comprised of small, medium, and large companies in a variety of different industries in the U.S. and abroad.  A diversified portfolio provides a buffer against volatility.  Each category responds differently to changing economic and political conditions.
  5. Invest Based on When Money is Needed – Maximize your risk/return ratio by designing a portfolio that supports your investment time horizon.  Generally, money needed in the short term should be invested in safe, less volatile investments.  Your return may be limited, but your principal will be safe.  With long term money, you can take more risk and potentially earn a higher return.  With a longer time horizon you can ride out the fluctuations in the stock market.
  6. Be Tax Smart – Consider tax consequences when buying and selling investments, and maximize your contributions to tax advantaged retirement plans. Within taxable accounts, municipal bonds and mutual funds with a low turnover ratio are good options.  Also, watch for opportunities to harvest tax losses.
  7. Avoid High Fees, Commissions and Surrender Charges – High fees, commissions, and surrender charges can eat into your return and limit your flexibility.  Review prospectuses and investment reports to fully understand the fees and penalties associated with the funds or products you are considering.
  8. Stocks Don’t Have Memories – Don’t keep a poor performing security with hopes it will return to its original purchase price. Stock and stock mutual funds should be evaluated based their future potential.  There is no correlation between the current value of a stock and what you paid for it.

Variable Annuities May Not Be Your Best Option

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA


A variable annuity is an investment contract with an insurance company where you invest money into your choice of a variety of sub-accounts. Sub-accounts are similar to mutual funds, where money from a large number of investors is pooled and invested in accordance with specific investment objectives. Like mutual funds, sub-accounts may invest in different categories of stock or interest earning investments.
One characteristic of a variable annuity is the tax deferral of gains until the funds are withdrawn. However, upon distribution the gains are taxable at regular income tax rates, as opposed to capital gains rates that may be available for mutual funds. Additionally, there is no step-up in basis upon death for assets held in variable annuities.
Variable annuities are generally more appropriate for non-retirement accounts because gains within a retirement account are already tax deferred. Traditional retirement accounts and Roth IRAs meet the tax deferral needs for most investors. However, in some cases a variable annuity may be attractive to a high income investor who has maximized his traditional retirement options and needs additional opportunities for tax deferral. This is especially true for an investor who is currently in a high tax bracket and expects to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement.
When investing in variable annuities, with non-retirement money, there is no requirement to take a Required Minimum Distribution at 70 ½. However, there is generally a 10% penalty on withdrawals made before 59 1/2. Trades can be made within a variable annuity account without immediate tax consequences. The entire gain will be taxable upon withdrawal. There is no annual contribution limit for variable annuities, and you can make non-taxable transfers between annuity companies using a 1035 exchange. However, you may have to pay a surrender charge if you have held the annuity for less than seven to ten years, and you purchased it from a commissioned adviser. Before buying an annuity, read the fine print to fully understand all of the fees and penalties associated with the product. Most variable annuities have early withdrawal penalties and a higher expense structure than mutual funds.
A variable annuity may be an option for someone who wants to purchase an insurance policy to buffer the risk of losing money in the market. For many investors, due to the long term growth in the stock market, this guarantee may be come at too high a price. Some investors are willing to pay additional fees in exchange for the peace of mind that a guaranteed withdrawal benefit can provide. Guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefits (GMWB) can be very complex and have some significant restrictions. Additionally, some products offer a guaranteed death benefit for an extra fee. Read the contract carefully and make sure you understand the product before you buy.
Due to the high costs, lack of flexibility, complexity and unfavorable tax treatment variable annuities are not beneficial for many investors.

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