Wall Street’s Even Dirtier Little Secret

As of Close of Business May 8th, no less than 57 multi-year experienced, Taxable Income, Closed End Funds (CEFs) were paying 7% or more in 401k and IRA eligible income to their shareholders.

31 issues (54%) paid 8% or above, and the average for the Heinz-like group was 8.56%. All of these portfolios are professionally managed by this long list of well respected, long experienced, investment companies… their purpose is dependable income production.

Blackrock, Nuveen, Pimco, Putnam, Invesco, Alliance-Bernstein, MFS, Calamos, Eaton Vance, Deutsche, Pioneer, Western Asset Management, Wells Fargo, Flaherty & Crumrine, 1st Trust, Brookfield, John Hancock, KKR, Babson Capital, Allianz Global, Neuberger-Berman, & Cohen & Steers

The investment portfolios include all forms of Bonds, Preferred Stocks, Mortgages, Senior Loans, etc, domestic and global, high yield and normal…

How difficult could it be to put together a well diversified, retirement income portfolio? If you only knew…

Most of these funds have paid steady, dependable, income for more than fifteen years, even through the financial crisis… several have been around since the ’90s

Yet your financial advisor has probably never mentioned them to you as a viable alternative to low yielding income Mutual Funds or stock market dependant funds and ETFs… she probably isn’t familiar with them either.

The DOL (and other retirement plan “specialists”) have effectively banned these programs from 401k Plans, and it’s likely that you have never heard them advertised or even mentioned in the most popular financial newsletters…

One could conclude that Wall Street (even the CEF providers themselves) would prefer that you didn’t even know that they exist.

Now here’s “the rest of the story”: 

A May 15th data search at cefconnect.com reveals that nearly 90% of all Taxable/Tax Deferred Closed End Funds (CEFs) were selling below their net asset values (NAVs), and of those, 63% were available to all (yes, IRA and 401k investors, too) at discounts above 8%.

Income Mutual Funds (I believe) are never available at discounts from NAV, and how many discounted securities has your advisor suggested to you since 2012 or earlier? ETF prices, I understand, are manipulated by their creators to present within pennies of their NAV.

But tax-deferred/taxable CEFs historically sell at discounts as often as not, and this morning, nearly 62% of them were available to MCIM taxable, IRA, and self-directed 401k account investors at discounts of 7% and higher.

SO, WHY THE WALL STREET COVER-UP? 

And, why aren’t you asking for more information?

Wall Street’s Dirtiest Little Secret

As of Close of Business May 8th, no less than 53 multi-year experienced, Tax Free Income, Closed End Funds (CEFs) were paying 6% or more in federally tax free income to their shareholders.

18 issues (34%) paid 6.4% or above, and the average for the group was 6.35%. All portfolios are professionally managed by this dozen, well respected, long experienced investment companies.

Blackrock, Nuveen, Pimco. Putnam, Invesco, Alliance-Bernstein, MFS, Dreyfus, Eaton Vance, Deutsche, Pioneer, & Delaware Investors.

How difficult could it be to put together a well diversified, retirement income portfolio?

Most of these funds have paid steady, dependable, income for more than fifteen years, even through the financial crisis… several have been around since the ’90s

Yet your financial advisor has never mentioned them to you; you have never heard them advertised or reviewed in the financial press… Wall Street, it seems, would prefer that you didn’t know they exist.

But there’s even more to this story. These readily-available and much-higher-than-you’ve-been-led-to-believe-even-exist tax free yields can be purchased at bold discounts to their Net Asset Value, or NAV in Mutual Fund Terms.

A May 15th data search at cefconnect.com reveals that 85% of all Municipal Bond Closed End Funds (CEFs) were selling below their net asset values (NAVs), and of those, 20% were available to all investors at discounts above 10%.

Mutual Funds (I believe) are never available at discounts from NAV, and how many discounted munis has your advisor suggested to you since 2012 or earlier?

Municipal CEFs regularly sell at discounts, and this morning, nearly 60% were available to MCIM taxable account investors at discounts of 5% or more.

WHY THE WALL STREET COVER-UP?

Why aren’t you asking for more information?

The Retirement Income Gap

A BlackRock and EBRI analysis (from Think Advisor, July 9th) suggests that older retirees are further from being retirement ready than their younger counterparts… go figure.

Ironically, since most benefit plan investors (really speculators) at all ages are market value focused instead of income focused, this observation will likely be the same ten years from now.

… and this is so easy to fix, if plan participants are forced to start thinking “income” from the get-go. Retirement readiness is a planning issue that “target date funds” and most other 401k product shopping menus are just not equipped to deal with.

Plan advisors, fiduciaries, and plan sponsors need to make sure they have “serious income production options” in the benefit plans they are advising.

What if you could liquidate your “all time high market value with nearly zero programmed income” benefit plan balances and trade them in for a 5% or so compound income machine that is convertible, security for security, at retirement? You can. And, at retirement, you’ll actually be able to increase the income production significantly with a few simple tweaks….

Here’s where the 401k industry and DOL focus on expense ratios make no sense at all. Income Closed End Funds pay in excess of 6%, and have for years. Nearly all of them (the hundreds that I’m familiar with) continued their payments without a hiccup throughout the financial crisis and continue to do so now…

The 6% is AFTER EXPENSES. The best from Vanguard Target Funds is maybe 1.5%; Stable Value Funds are in the 2% area, again, maybe….

Isn’t it our fiduciary responsibility to focus on the income purpose of benefit programs? Isn’t it our responsibility to educate plan sponsors and participants enough so that they understand that it is the income that pays the bills… not the market value, and not the three year total return.

Isn’t our responsibility to school the DOL…. that performance of a retirement income program should be measured in terms of income production… and that market value and expense ratios are not the predominate considerations? Well maybe not that one.

There is only one product I know of that has the proper income focus — and with a reasonable expense ratio. For more information, contact a qualified 3(38) fiduciary at either QBOX Fiduciary Solutions or Expand Financial.

Invest like you shop and your savings won’t drop!

Huge lineups of shoppers looking for deals on Black Friday and the massive retail sales that occur the weeks after Christmas are testimony to the ability of people to shop wisely.  I know many families that defer buying expensive gifts (for their kids but especially for themselves) until after the Christmas holiday in order to save hundreds of dollars.  So why are people so bad at investing their money?

A recent study by Blackrock, the largest money management firm in the world, confirmed what all of us know already:  The average investor sucks at investing.  Despite the fact that the skills and emotional fortitude necessary for successful shopping are pretty much applicable to the task of investing one’s money, it seems the average person just won’t use these abilities when making important investment decisions.

According the the American Research Group Inc., the average shopper plans to spend $854 on gifts this year. Let’s assume it will be the same next year and the next.  Virtually everyone realizes that since they’ll be spending the money anyway, shopping smartly and getting all gifts at perhaps a 20% lower price leaves them better off.  Wealthier in our example by more than $500 after three shopping seasons in fact!

But when it comes to buying investments, investors prefer to pay a premium.  What proof do I have?  Many years of observation, but the results speak for themselves.

The average investor managed to earn less than virtually all asset classes at his disposal earned over ten years according to the Blackrock study.  To be perfectly honest, I’m surprised the average investor did so well.

I’m not sure about how the study was conducted.  If everyone that participated had a home and kept all their money in a checking account….the result wouldn’t be very surprising would it?  Let’s assume that the sample was comprised of real “investors.”  Some with homes and minimal savings, but others actively investing serious money in both bonds and stocks. Where would they be going wrong?

It’s hard to imagine retail investors trading aggressively in the bond market, but assuredly a significant amount of their long term savings could include fixed income securities.  It’s equally difficult to conceive that the lion’s share of their savings might be in gold or oil.  Likely, the average investor does include stocks in his retirement savings and participates actively in decisions.  He/she would either use an adviser to implement asset allocation decisions or occasionally channel money into or out of funds.

Consider one proxy for stocks, the S&P 500 Index over roughly the same time frame as the study.  It’s certainly been a rollercoaster, but a simple buy and hold strategy would have contributed nicely to the average investor’s nestegg.  In my opinion the only way the average investor could have done so poorly is by losing money making poor investment calls along the way.

Generally, folks wait until the stock market has climbed quite a long way upward before committing their own money – see the “Buy” indicators on the graph?  This decision is made based on the past performance charts and tables that are promoted ad nauseum by the investment industry when the rates of return earned by their funds have been excellent.

Even though past performance means nothing, for some reason impressive historical returns awaken the greed in all of us, just like an extremely large lottery jackpot suddenly inspires many more people to go out and buy lottery tickets.

Unfortunately, great historical performance is very often followed by lousy market environments – evidenced clearly by the graph of the S&P 500 Index over the ten year period.  As anxious as people are are to pile into a market that has been rewarding (after-the-fact), they are just as eager to get out of a losing situation that leaves them feeling they’ve been suckered.  The average investor sells at the worst possible time.  A few of these buy high/sell low episondes is sufficient to reduce the overall return he/she has earned in other assets like bonds or the family home.

Put another way, the shopper in you is always on the lookout for discounts while the investor is more than happy to pay a premium to the list price.  Greediness completely overides any bargain-hunting intuition.

Back to our shopping example.  Imagine that you can shop wisely and get gifts at prices 20% below list.  But also imagine that you and your family can use those gifts for a time and then sell them at a 20% premium to list.  Crazy?  You can actually do this with your investment portfolio.  Apply those shopping skills to your savings and you’ll be surprised how much better off you can be.

 

 

 

Malvin Spooner.

 

 

 

 

 

Banks own the investment industry! A good thing?

Let’s face it!  In the battle for investment dollars the Canadian banks are clearly the winners!  Is this a good thing?

Once upon a time, the investment business was more of a cottage industry.  Portfolio manager and investment broker were ‘professions’ rather than jobs.  Smaller independent firms specialized in looking after their clients’ savings.  There were no investment ‘products.’  The landscape began to change dramatically – in 1988 RBC bought Dominion Securities, CIBC bought Wood Gundy and so on – when the banks decided to diversify away from lending and began their move into investment banking, wealth management and mutual funds.

Take mutual funds for example.  Over the past few decades Canadian banks have continued to grow their share of total mutual fund sales* – this should not surprising since by acquisition and organic growth in their wealth management divisions they now own the lion’s share of the distribution networks (bank branches, brokerage firms, online trading).

An added strategic advantage most recently has been the capability of the banks to successfully market fixed income funds since the financial crisis. Risk averse investors want to preserve their capital and have embraced bond and money market funds as well as balanced funds while eschewing equity funds altogether. With waning fund flows into stock markets, how can equity valuations rise?  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Many of the independent fund companies, born decades ago during times when bonds performed badly (inflation, rising interest rates) and stocks were the flavor of the day, continue to focus on their superior equity management expertise.  Unfortunately for the past few years they are marketing that capability to a disinterested investing public.

The loss in market share* of the independent fund companies to the banks continues unabated. Regulatory trends also make it increasingly difficult for the independent fund companies to compete.  Distribution networks nowadays (brokers, financial planners) require a huge and costly infrastructure to meet compliance rules.  Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but once a financial institution has invested huge money in such a platform does it make sense to then encourage its investment advisers and planners to use third party funds?  Not really! Why not insist either explicitly (approved lists) or implicitly (higher commissions or other incentives) that the bank’s own funds be used?

Stricter compliance has made it extremely difficult for investment advisers to do what they used to do, i.e. pick individual stocks and bonds.  In Canada, regulators have made putting clients into mutual funds more of a burden in recent years.

To a significant degree, mutual fund regulations have contributed to the rapid growth of ETF’s (Exchange-Traded Funds).    An adviser will be confronted by a mountain of paperwork if he recommends a stock – suitability, risk, know-your-client rules) or even a mutual fund.  An ETF is less risky than a stock, and can be purchased and sold more readily in client accounts by trading them in the stock markets.  Independent fund companies that introduced the first ETF’s did well enough for a time but not surprisingly the banks are quickly responding by introducing their own exchange-traded funds.  For example:

TORONTO, ONTARIO–(Marketwire – Nov. 20, 2012) – BMO Asset Management Inc. (BMO AM) today introduced four new funds to its Exchange Traded Fund (ETF)* product suite.

In fact, the new ETF’s launched by Bank of Montreal grew 48.3% in 2011.  When it comes to the investment fund industry, go big or go home!  You’d think that Claymore Investment’s ETF’s would have it made with over $6 Billion in assets under management (AUM) but alas the company was recently bought by Blackrock, the largest money manager in the world with $29 Billion under management.  It will be interesting to see if the likes of Blackrock will have staying power in Canada against the banks.  After all RBC has total bank assets twenty-five times that figure.  Survival in the business of investment funds, and perhaps wealth management in general depends on the beneficence of the Big Five.

Admittedly, the foray of insurance companies  into the investment industry has been aggressive and successful for the most part.  With distribution capability and scale they certainly can compete, but the banks have a huge head start.  Most insurance companies are only beginning to build out their wealth management divisions.  I can see a logical fit between insurance and investments from a financial planning perspective, but then the banks know this and have already begun to encroach on the insurance side of the equation.  Nevertheless I would not discount the ability of the insurance companies to capture signficant market share.

So, is it a good thing that larger financial institutions own the investment industry?  Consider the world of medicine.  No doubt a seasoned general practitioner will feel nostalgic for days gone by when patients viewed them as experts and trusted their every judgement.  The owner of the corner hardware store no doubt holds fond memories of those days before the coming of Home Depot.  Part of me wants to believe that investors were better served before the banks stampeded into the industry but I’d just be fooling myself.  Although consolidation has resulted in fewer but more powerful industry leaders, the truth is that never before have investors had so wide an array of choices.  Hospitals today are filled with medical specialists, while banks and insurance companies too are bursting at the seams with financial specialists.

It is not fun becoming a dinosaur, but this general practitioner has to admit progress is unstoppable.

Malvin Spooner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*The industry charts are courtesy of the third quarter Scotiabank research report Mutual Fund Review.  The annotations are my own.