As a dedicated financial educator and retired investment advisor, Paul Merriman welcomes questions from his readers and listeners. Please email your questions (stated as succinctly as possible) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Title the subject line: ASK PAUL. Be sure to include your name and phone number so Paul can reach you if further discussion is required. While time does not permit Paul to answer every question personally, or even specifically, we do our best to address common questions. We may post your question and Paul‘s answer here on this site. We will not post your name or personal information. Thank you!
These many Q&As form an extensive knowledge base, adding to the resources, recommendations, podcasts, articles and books also found on this website. You can use the search box on the right-hand column to enter a search phrase (such as “mutual funds” or “asset allocation”) and receive all the information on the site related to that topic.
I have 30k in a Money Market. I pull out $1k every 2 weeks and invest it in your Vanguard Mutual Fund portfolio recommendation. Is there a better place I should put the $30k while I dollar cost average into the various funds?
Consider the Vanguard Ultra Short-Term Bond Fund (VUBFX). There is very little risk and it currently pays more than 1% interest.
Q: I understand ETFs can be more tax efficient than mutual funds, but if I want to become a mechanical investor, wouldn't my best choice really only be mutual funds, since only mutual funds allow automatic investments?
Most brokerage firms don’t allow partial share purchases of ETFs so automatic investing doesn’t work with that limitation. Motifinvesting.com allows partial share purchases of ETFs but at a cost of $4.95 per transaction.
Q: Could you point me to an academic source showing that investing in diversified asset class index funds is more profitable than picking winning stocks -- as you discuss in Financial Fitness Forever?
A: Check out this article by Larry Swedroe, one of the most trustworthy people I know in the industry: http://mutualfunds.com/expert-analysis/speculating-versus-investing-buying-individual-stocks/
Q: In First Time Investor you cite model portfolios for Vanguard, Fidelity, etc. Do you have one for TIAA-CREF as well? I could adapt one of your other model portfolios to TIAA-CREF, but if you've already done the research and recommendations that would be great.
A: I have put together TIAA-CREF portfolios of funds in the past but have not updated them for many years. I think you will find it relatively easy to figure out what my recommendations would be by looking at my other portfolios. Be sure and compare the expenses and returns of similar actively and passively managed funds at TIAA-CREF, as they offer both.
Q: Why did you become an affiliate with Motif? That seems counter to all the free information you’ve given in the past.
A: The affiliate relationship provides a one-time compensation to our Foundation when someone becomes a Motif client by joining Motif via our website or link. We will also receive $1 for some Motif trades. This is similar to the small commission we receive from sales of our books. Both provide some minimal incremental funding to the foundation. Neither is large enough to motivate me to recommend anything but the best for you. For those who are interested, the by-laws of The Merriman Financial Education Foundation prohibit any officer or director from receiving any compensation.
We like that Motif provides a high level of convenience at low cost – especially good for young investors. But it is only one option and not best for everyone. For large accounts, especially taxable accounts, moving to Motif may be very costly as the sale of the holdings might create taxable gains.
Q: Why do you recommend using Motif instead of Vanguard, Fidelity, Schwab, T. Rowe Price, etc.?
A: We don’t. We recommend Motif Investing for investors looking for a simpler, more convenient way to invest in a broadly diversified portfolio. Many investors will still do better investing with an advisor who provides an even higher level of convenience. Some will prefer to work with Vanguard directly for the lowest costs. Others may have a preference for Schwab. All the providers offering mutual fund and ETF portfolios we recommend are good. What we care about most is that you invest using the service that assures you will maintain the Buy-and-Hold strategy in all market environments.
Q: Who is behind Motif?
Motif Investing is an online brokerage company founded in 2010 with over $120M venture capital investments from J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs and others. Investments made at Motif are held by Pershing, which was founded in 1939 and holds over $1.5 trillion in assets and serves more than 1,400 business clients worldwide.
Q: What do I gain by changing brokerages?
Changing brokerage firms may or may not make sense based on your needs and values. Every situation is different. The primary advantages of Motif are one-click and one-fee purchasing and re-balancing of our recommended portfolios. The Motif portfolios we have put together allow us to build portfolios based on “Best-In-Class,” as opposed to being relegated to one ETF group. Motif does not offer the broad range of services like Vanguard, Fidelity or Schwab.
Q: If it costs just $9.95 a transaction, to purchase a whole “basket” of up to 30 ETFs, what is the $9.95 a month offer they present at Motif?
Motif has a number of services that can be purchased for $9.95. As you noted an investor can select up to 30 stocks (including ETFs). Investors can build their own portfolio of securities, including what percentage of each to put in the portfolio, and buy the whole portfolio automatically with the push of a button. The total cost of the trade is only $9.95. The purchase even buys partial shares so all of the money goes to work. That’s unusual with ETFS.
If you don’t want to build the portfolio yourself, you can select from a long list of portfolios designed by others. We have 70 of our portfolios for investors, built with our unique approach to asset allocation. Many investors are familiar with our work as they have followed our recommendations at Vanguard, Fidelity and others for many years.
We like Motif because we can build a portfolio of Best-in-Class ETFs and rebalancing is always just a button-push away. (We hope you will only push the rebalance button once a year). There are other advantages but those are the two most important. Next week I expect to do a podcast about the challenges of working with Motif.
Motif offers a robo advising service called Motif Impact Portfolios for $9.95 a month. It is a robo advisory service that is built to compete with other the major robo advisors. They also have a $9.95 monthly fee for investors who want to auto invest and auto rebalance on a monthly basis. That service has nothing to do with our portfolio.
The Merriman Motifs are designed for investors who are not looking for a robo advisor and are willing to take care of the basic steps to manage the account. Using the portfolios we’ve designed requires you to take the step to periodically (annually is often enough) of pushing the rebalance button. I estimate most accounts can be managed for less than $25 account.
Q: I am not willing to pay $9.95 to make monthly payments through the Blue Plan offered by Motif. Do you have a recommendation on how to make regular payments without paying so much?
A: The $9.95 automatic investment and automatic rebalancing service has advantages but may lead to lower returns. In one study we found that monthly rebalancing lowered the annualized rate of return by .5% a year, compared to annual rebalancing.
If you invest on a quarterly basis, by selecting a single ETF to put your investment in rather than rebalancing the whole portfolio, you will pay $4.95. If you make the investment and rebalance at the same time, the cost would have been $9.95. If you do that quarterly, in the 4th quarter you deposit the cash in the account and rebalance at the same time, the total commission cost for the entire year will be approximately $25. If you are able to make the entire year’s investment during the first month of the year, you can make the deposit and rebalance all at one time for a total annual cost of $9.95.
Q: Do you updated the website yearly or do the funds and percentages generally not change from year to year?
A: I hope you are enjoying retirement. I should have any changes made by the end of April. With all the work of introducing the new Motif portfolios, I have gotten behind. My sincere apologies.
Q: You've always recommended avoiding individual stocks before. Why have you changed with Motif? Why not recommend only ETFs, which would be consistent with your previous recommendations?
A: Even though Motif is set up to use individual stocks to build portfolios, all of our recommendations are based on ETFs. In each asset class we have tried to identify the best ETF based on what we believe produces the best returns. Plus, we will continue to look for better solutions in the future.
Q: Have you moved – or plan to move – your portfolio over to Motif? Your last podcast unveiling opportunities with Motif was very intriguing and seems to solve a number of problems with managing a portfolio.
A: I have money being moved to Motif but the bulk of my portfolio will stay in DFA funds. I am putting the Motif investment in our All-Value Portfolio. I want to compare it to my All-Value portfolio at DFA. I think the bulk of investors at Motif are going to be real Do-It-Yourself investors.
There are three major camps of DIYers. One group does it because they love the process of selecting and managing their own investments. Another group does it themselves to eliminate as many expenses as they can. The third group is made up of millions of investors who don’t have enough money to find a good advisor to work with them. I think Motif will appeal to people from all three groups.
The group I would especially like to help is the young people who don’t have enough money to get the best advice from other sources. My hope is they will take the time to understand how we have constructed the portfolios and conclude we are the experts they can count on.
I don’t fit into any of those groups. Money is a very emotional topic for me. I don’t want anything to do with managing my own money, so I have an advisor. Plus, I am 73-years-old and have health issues that suggest I should make sure my wife and family have someone they can trust. I know it’s a luxury to have a financial advisor, but it comes with a great deal of peace of mind.
Q: Do you plan to set up Motifs for each of the seven Ultimate Buy and Hold asset classes you've talked about in the past on your podcasts and web site?
A: Almost every one of our new Motif portfolios are built on those Ultimate Buy and Hold asset classes. What we have been able to do is offer many more combinations. Previously, we had conservative (40% equity/60% fixed-income), moderate (60% equity/40% fixed-income) and aggressive (100% equities) portfolios. Now we offer 7 different combinations of equities and fixed-income, as well as All-Value portfolios. The good news is investors can look at what we have done at Motif and do it on their own with another broker.
Q: I am moving roughly $10,000 from an American Fund Roth to Vanguard; with that small amount, should I break it down as it was – into 4 different types of mutual funds to diversify – or stay put with one until it grows more? I am new to the podcast and new to Vanguard… after my financial advisor announced he is going to 1.6% management fee.
A: Glad you have found our information helpful. In the beginning you might want to use our ETF recommendations, as they have no minimum. Later you can move to mutual funds. The ETFs allow you to use asset classes AND their expense rations are lower than the Vanguard Investor Shares class mutual funds.
Q: Are willing to share the structure of you all value portfolio you use for DFA funds?
A: I don’t normally get into how my advisor approaches the application of DFA funds, but in this case there’s not many ways to change it. Here are the ticker symbols: DEMSX. DFEVX, DISVX, DFIVX, DFSVX. This is a small part of my portfolio. Most of my Buy and Hold portfolio is 50/50 equity and fixed income funds at DFA and Vanguard.
Q: Have you moved – or plan to move – your portfolio over to Motif? If not, I was wondering why not? I would also ask the same set of questions to Chris Pederson. Any insight would be appreciated as I am currently pondering this move with my retirement investments.
A: PAUL: I am opening a $50,000 account using our All Value Motif. It will mirror a portfolio I hold in a Roth IRA using DFA funds. Other than that I will be keeping the rest of my buy and hold portfolio with my DFA advisor. It is my belief that DFA still holds an advantage over ETFs in most of the equity asset classes my wife and I own. Plus, I am not a do-it-yourself investor and depend on my advisor to take care of all the investment details. I believe one should never take a risk (or pay an expense) for which there is not an expected premium. I know having someone take care of my investments will work better than doing it myself.
A: CHRIS: I’m not moving mine because I just spent a lot of time getting my assets aggregated at Schwab, and I prefer control over convenience while I’m evolving my portfolio allocations from discrete stocks to ETFs and mutual funds to align with your recommendations. Basically, I have too many moving parts.
Q: A major cost of investing in stocks or ETFs is not the commission but rather the spread. Does Motif provide executions that are as favorable as other brokerage platforms?
A: CHRIS: According to the Securities Exchange Commission, “brokers are legally required to seek the best execution reasonably available for their customers’ orders,” and there are audit and reporting steps to make sure this happens. In my experience trading Paul’s Motifs, the bid-ask spread has been VERY NARROW Spreads are supposed to be largest at the beginning and end of the trading day, so it may help to avoid those times, especially when investing larger sums.
Q: The Ultimate Buy and Hold chart shows that the S&P 500 has higher risk and lower historic returns than US LCV, so why hold any S&P 500 at all? I am helping my children and grandchildren make their first investments.
A: For young investors I believe an All-Value portfolio makes sense, but the S&P 500 is likely to hold up better in a catastrophic situation so it’s appropriate for those close to or in retirement. I suggest you compare the Fine-Tuning Tables for the S&P and All-Value portfolios. You can find them here.
For young investors my best work is yet to come. In the coming months we will introduce a group of Target Date Funds that are almost all All-value until age 40.
Q: I happened upon your 1985 book "Market Timing with No-Load Mutual Funds" and wonder, how do you feel about market timing since you occasionally mentioned that you have a portion of your investments in market timing?
I enjoyed the book and wish it could have been updated to cover ETFs and a more up-to-date strategy. I use a somewhat similar strategy that includes a 200-week exponential moving average and the percentage of stocks above their 40-day moving average with some success in a small portion of my retirement account.
A: I am a big fan of market timing but rarely recommend it to do-it-yourself investors, as it is unlikely that they will maintain the timing systems. I only trust trend-following systems.
Since 1995 my best return (including all buy-and-hold and timing portfolios) has come from a hedge fund that combines mutual funds and ETFs with leverage and market timing. The annual return of the hedge fund has been about 2.3 times greater than the S&P 500, with the same downside standard deviation.
The majority of my timing is more conservative, including all the important U.S. and international equity asset classes plus high grade and high yield bond funds. This strategy has worked well, under performing in the best of times and out performing in the worst of times.
I don’t expect writing another book on timing but Les Masonson, author of All About Market Timing, does a good job of showing investors how to use trend-following systems with ETFs.
Q: Could you share your thoughts on rebalancing the portfolio and the frequency of rebalancing?
Q: When are you going to update your mutual fund recommendations?
A: I’m working on them right now. Some will be out in the next week.
Q: You often mention that one could use a flexible distribution strategy with an ample retirement savings, but how to determine ample? Is 33.3 x annual expenses ample? 1.5X that? 2X that? It's probably highly subjective based on risk tolerance but I am curious to know how you think about that question.
A: I love the question. I will be recording a podcast on distributions in the coming month. I will likely do one on fixed distributions and second on variable distributions. I will address your question on the variable podcast. In the meantime you already know most of the answer: “It depends.”
From my viewpoint, your suggestion of 33 times your “need for money” is close. I would probably use 40 times. So let’s assume a minimum cost of living, that needs to be taken out of your investments, is $40,000. Let’s also assume you would like to take out a lot more but you don’t need to. Let’s also assume you are concerned (even if it’s a completely emotional feeling) about running out of money before running out of life.
If you waited to retire until you accumulated $1,600,000 it suggests you could easily take out 5% ($80,000) with little risk of using all your savings. And if the market went down for an extended period you could certainly cut back to the $40,000 distribution. I waited until I had at least twice what I needed before I chose to spend the rest of my career working without pay. I think you will enjoy my new distribution tables.
Q: How do I find your Motif portfolios? I tried looking for it under Paul Merriman and could not find it. I discovered Motif about 2 years ago. I love Motif because it has so much potential for the little guy. I'm so happy you are using it to help us with the best of the best and guiding us along the way. Looking forward to buying it and belonging to your Motif community.
A: If you search for “Merriman diversified” under Community Motifs you should see the list of 70 portfolios. Here is a direct link as of today
Q: I am thinking of converting an IRA to a Roth and then transferring the Roth to Motif. Which of your portfolios should I use? Do you think this is a good idea? What should I be aware of?
A: Before I answer your questions it’s important to understand my limitations. I want to do all I can to help you make good investment decisions but I am not able to give personal advice. My hope is, with the help of the Fine-Tuning tables you can identify the right combination of asset classes to meet your need for return within your risk tolerance. Of course the conversion of a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA is a combination of tax and estate planning decisions. Again I am limited in giving personal tax advice. When I was an advisor I often encouraged investors to convert their IRAs to Roths as it was the equivalent of saving more money. Plus who knows what tax and estate laws will be in the future?
I know our present lineup of portfolios at Motif is overwhelming to many investors. My hope is our soon-to-be offered target date portfolios will make the decision easier.
Q: Regarding Motif commissions: since I usually like to save a certain amount per paycheck and invest it into an account, wouldn't it be wasteful to be investing that amount and incurring a commission every paycheck from making a trade? My name is Ryan and I am a 23-year-old who has been in the work force for 9 months. I'm a big fan of your work and have been listening to your podcasts and reading your material for a little over a year.
A: No, it doesn’t make any sense to spend $9.95 a month to dollar cost average into a small account. I am trying to figure out the steps you should take, as I’m sure there are a lot of people in your position.
Here are a couple of ideas. You can set up an account with a firm that doesn’t charge anything to make small contributions. One possibility is to work with Schwab. At your age an all-value portfolio is a reasonable strategy. Then once you get to $2,000 you can transfer $1,500 to Motif and continue to invest the monthly amounts at Schwab.
Another approach is to borrow your intended annual contributions from your parents and let them be the recipient of your monthly contribution. What I like about this approach is it means you invest earlier in the year and that should produce a lot more income when you retire. I will be doing more on this in the future.
My goal for you is to find the best place to meet your personal needs and Motif is not going to be the answer for many investors.
Q: Can I use the names of the funds in your ETF portfolio and try to find similar mutual funds on Schwab’s OneSource list where I have my 401k?
A: There must be a lot of people who would like that help at Schwab, and Fidelity. I have added them both to my “to do” list. In the meantime I suggest the following: I know you will be able to find funds that represent the asset classes I hope you will have in your portfolio. They include all the equity asset classes found in by Ultimate Buy and Hold Portfolio. Some are available in very low cost Schwab index funds. Watch for my Schwab and Fidelity self directed recommendation in the last quarter of the year.
Q: What is your definition of risk? You, like others, talk a lot about risk but few rarely seem to define it in the same way. It doesn’t make sense to eliminate all risk but do you have a simple list of steps to take to keep the risks of investing to a minimum?
A: I love the question as it can open a discussion that could go on for hours. Of course you probably don’t want my answer to go on for hours, so here is as short as I can make it. First the definition from Merriam-Webster: Risk is the possibility of loss or injury. Here is the BusinessDictionary.com definition of risk: A probability or threat of damage, injury, liability, loss, or any other negative occurrence that is caused by external or internal vulnerabilities, and that may be avoided through preemptive action.
The risks I want to address are the risks we take in the process of investing. While risk can be the loss from not doing something (sin of omission), most of us experience risk when we lose money (sin of commission). So my definition of risk is anything that leads to a loss during the steps taken to manage ones investments.
In my article, “The best investment advice ever!” I conclude the best advice I know is, “Never take an investment risk that doesn’t pay a premium for taking that risk over the long term.”
In other words, if you know you are exposing yourself to a loss of money, make sure you can expect an additional return (no guarantees of course) for having taken the risk. y the way, the list of ways to lose money is long. The good news is there is a way to manage almost every one of those losses. Here is a short list of ways guaranteed to cost you money and what you can do about it:
- Paying a commission to buy a mutual fund: Buy a no-load fund where the investor doesn’t pay a commission.
- Paying high expenses to manage a mutual fund: Buy a fund with low operating expenses.
- Putting all your money in one company that can go down or even out of business: Buy a portfolio of many companies. This is also called diversification.
- Putting all your money in one asset class: NASDAQ lost 73% from 2000 to 2002. Buy many different asset classes.
- Paying more in taxes than necessary: Use tax-deferred or tax-free investment vehicles like Roth IRAs and Roth 401ks.
- Putting your money into Ponzi or other fraudulent schemes: Restrict your investments to heavily regulated investments like mutual funds or ETFs.
- Paying the additional expenses of actively managed mutual funds: Restrict your investments to inexpensive index funds.
- Paying for an investment advisor to take care of your investments: Some investors enjoy the process of managing their own money… others don’t. For those who don’t want to take care of the investment details, having someone else do it likely leads to higher returns.
- There are lots of small additional steps but just this handful of suggested steps can lead to having twice as much to spend in retirement, as well as leaving many times more to your heirs or favorite causes.
- Loss and risk are normal, but don’t accept the loss unless it is accompanied by greater returns. Keep in mind that losses are guaranteed, but greater returns can never be guaranteed.
Q: Why are you adding emerging markets funds when their long-term return diminishes portfolio value and adds to volatility?
A: The emerging markets asset class can run either red hot or ice cold. It makes a good candidate for rebalancing. For the 15 years ending 5/5/17 the S&P 500 compounded at 7.7%, while the DFA Emerging Markets Fund compounded at 10.1%. The more risky DFA Emerging Markets Small Cap Fund and DFA Emerging Markets Value Fund compounded at 12.9% and 11.8% respectfully. The Vanguard Emerging Markets Fund is invested similar to the DFA Emerging Markets Fund (large cap) but under-performed slightly with a 9.1% return including dividends and capital gains.
Q: Why don’t you add the QQQ to your portfolio? Don’t these mostly technology companies have a higher expected growth rate than the S&P 500?
A: The NASDAQ (QQQ) has had a terrific return over the past years, but for the 17 years ending 2016, the compound rate of return (without dividends) was only 2.4%. The S&P 500 compounded at 5% including the reinvestment of dividends. What makes QQQ a doubtful buy-and-hold candidate is its very large downside risk. During the 2000-2002 bear market, it was down over 80 at one point.
Q: You mentioned in your newsletter that DFA Funds are significantly better performers then Vanguard Funds. So why you recommend in your column only Vanguard funds and ETFs without a word of better DFA funds?
Q: There has been a change at Vanguard that changes our status on the Developed Markets Fund. The question I have been getting is: What do you recommend now that the Vanguard Developed Markets Fund is closed?
Q: Do you think that it is worth it, in the long run? (I plan on working overseas for the next 4-5 years at least) Or should I skip on diversifying into real estate until I am able to do so in an IRA? Would an REIT ETF fund be a better move over an REIT mutual fund?
Q: Thank you so much for your MarketWatch article about “The Ultimate Buy & Hold Strategy”. I was wondering: Should I wait for a pull-back in the market before switching our retirement funds to your strategy?
Q; I follow your recommended Vanguard portfolios and wonder what you think about the recent addition of two International Bond funds – the Vanguard Total International Bond Index Fund and the Emerging Markets Government Index Fund?
Q: Wow, you are extrapolating the past into the future there. Very creative analysis! Or wait… wait a second! Wasn’t all this extrapolating the past into future one of the behaviors that led to massive losses during the financial crisis?
Q: Your recommended bond funds include Tips and Treasuries. What do you think about allocation to foreign bonds, such as Australia or Brazil? Some even recommend bank loans, e.g., BKLN. Or am I just reaching for yield?
Q: I’ve noticed that my recent investment performance has been significantly lower than the recent performance of the S&P 500. Does it still make sense to stick with your recommended Vanguard Index Funds vs. the simple Vanguard S&P 500 Index?