Guided by a board of financial academics and a mission to advance the science of investing, Dimensional Fund Advisors might seem like a surprising source for an article promoting the Tao principle of “wei wu-wei,” or a way to “do without doing.”
But it’s not so surprising, once you appreciate how challenging it can be to Take the Long View® approach to patient, persistent investing – instead of continuously indulging in hyperactive bursts of trading activity.
Vice President Jim Parker of DFA Australia explains the difference in his recent article, “The Tao of Wealth Management.”
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At Hill Investment Group, we share Dimensional’s perspective, advising our clients on how to build and preserve personal wealth through a “less is more” approach to their investing. Instead of spinning our wheels chasing today’s crisis or predicting tomorrow’s hot trend, we dedicate our energy to substantively improving our clients’ personal and financial well-being.
In short, while it may seem as if our course is a quiet one, we work hard every day to help our clients achieve wei wu-wei.
Imagine this: You walk into a grocery store and buy a bag of apples priced at $1.50 – no sales tax. You hand the cashier two $1 bills. He hands you $0.40 in change and wishes you a nice day.
“Wait,” you say. “Don’t you owe me another dime?
“Oh, no,” he replies cheerfully. “I always keep a little extra for myself. I hope you don’t mind.”
As wrong as this may sound for the produce aisle, similar practices go on every day in muni and corporate bond markets, where they’re called markups and markdowns. Essentially, these are the commissions a bond broker/dealer takes out of your account for executing your trades. You incur a markup cost when you buy a bond and a markdown cost when you sell.
That last one is especially confusing, since a “markdown” usually means you’re getting a discount. Here, it means less money is heading into your pocket. And unless you have access to a (costly) Bloomberg terminal or similar resource, plus the details of your own trade, it’s usually an expense you never knew you incurred. Even with Bloomberg, here’s a peek at what a typical bond screen there looks like. Not so simple to decipher.
Given the relatively opaque nature of bond pricing, here’s how a typical transaction might work: Say you receive a nice, clean trade statement informing you that your bond broker just purchased a muni bond for your portfolio for $10,200 and sold one out of your portfolio for $9,800. Seems clear enough.
But here’s what may really have happened: The market rate of the bond you bought for $10,200 was actually only $10,000; the broker charged you a $200 markup and kept the difference. The bond you sold actually fetched you a market rate of $10,000, but the broker charged you a $200 markdown. For both trades, you paid the broker a relatively steep 2% fee.
We’re not suggesting bond brokers should work for free. One way they earn their keep is by charging you to transact your trades. That’s fair. But we’re less enthused about the relative lack of transparency on the amounts being charged.
This is especially concerning, since individual, retail traders are far more likely to incur higher transaction costs than large, institutional investors can command (such as a mutual fund company managing a fixed income fund). As described in this Vanguard report, “[I]n the municipal bond market, the bid-ask spread for a “retail” trade (less than $100,000 per bond) is typically higher than that for an institutional trade—sometimes substantially so.”
In the stock market, transaction fees are clearly disclosed on every trade confirmation. Plus, current stock prices are widely available to look up online, using any number of free services. It’s easy to see if the prices at which you bought or sold were vastly different from the “rack rate.” If transaction fees get out of line, you should be able to catch that too.
Compared to the stock market, the going price for bonds is much harder to find (again, usually requiring a costly Bloomberg subscription or similar service). And transaction costs are often hidden away within the totals on your trade confirmations. This makes it more difficult to tell whether or not you’ve received a fair deal.
Fortunately, over time, we’ve seen improvements in bond market pricing data and transaction cost disclosures. Last May, new regulations went into effect, requiring brokers to disclose markups and markdowns on bonds they sell to retail investors (that’s you) within the same trading day in which they bought them. The disclosures are reported to you after the trade has occurred.
That’s a start. But why not always require markup/markdown disclosures, for all types of bond trades? While we’re at it, why not require markup/markdown fees be disclosed in advance, in case you would like to do your due diligence on costs before you’ve already incurred them?
These are good questions. We hope, over time, they will be answered with continued clarifying action, until bond trades are at least as transparent and competitively priced as we see in the stock markets.
Like father, like son: “Little” Henry Bragg is an Astros fan too.
What do you get when you combine an evidence-based process with visionary team spirit and brilliant leadership? A World Series Commissioner’s Trophy, for starters. The “rags to riches” tale of the Houston Astros 2017 World Series victory is now available for your reading pleasure, thanks to Sports Illustrated senior writer Ben Reiter.
We love the recent approach to managing the Astros because it mirrors our approach to investing in two major ways:
First, it is backed by data. The Astros management seeks to fully understand the factors that drive wins, quantify them, and weight heavily toward them.
Second, like with investing, achieving your long-term goals may sometimes require short-term sacrifices. If you have the right philosophy and the right process, you can trust that the odds will work in your favor long-term.
Something of a visionary himself, Reiter actually predicted the team’s 2017 victory on the cover of the magazine’s June 30, 2014 edition. Was that luck or forecasting talent? You be the judge, when you read Reiter’s entertaining account in “Astroball: The New Way to Win It All.”
Reminiscent of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball tale of the Oakland A’s, the Astros applied similar evidence-based strategies to improve their game. They leveraged what the Oakland A’s Billy Beane began and took it a step further, incorporating (with help from the “Nerd Cave”) scores for more unconventional qualities, such as personality and grit. These elements and more are touched on in this review: “[R]oster-creation, all by itself, did not bring home the championship. Building an exceptional team is one thing, but making it work as a team is another.”
We’ve said it before; we’ll say it again: We couldn’t be prouder of our exceptional home-town team. Go Astros!
Bonus read: For more of baseball’s rich historical lore, I also enjoyed this recent PBS documentary on legendary hitter Ted Williams, in all his quirky glory (narrated by St. Louis’s own Jon Hamm). This related New York Times piece tells the backstory of how some of the film’s best footage was almost lost for good.
Henry McDaniel, savoring the last drop of ice cream.
Thirteen can be a lucky number after all, as we were lucky to celebrate Hill Investment Group’s 13th year in business by hosting our largest summer family bash to date. Twenty-nine HIG team and family members attended the event, hosted by Matt and Lisa Hall.
More than an excuse to slurp up some ice cream, our family party is a way for us to reaffirm the meaning we find in our work. Magic happens when we have the opportunity to help families plan for their financial future. A different, but equally potent magic happens when we get together with our own families. It’s not only a privilege to enjoy one another’s “at home” side, it also reminds us that our loved ones are one of the reasons we work so hard. Roll up that deep stuff with some tacos, some kids and a pool – and you have our favorite employee event of the year!
This year a big storm blew in halfway through, but it didn’t dampen our spirits. Even as the rain fell in sheets for about an hour and the house lost power, Matt & Lisa’s daughter Harper entertained all the other kiddos with some expert slime-making … just add water.
Our theme this year was summer fiesta, featuring catered local fave Mission Taco Joint and Clementine’s Naughty & Nice Ice Cream, delivered. Eventually, the weather broke and we all had a blast swimming and cheering on the young contestants in our diving board splash-a-thon. John’s son James was the bomb.
James Reagan has the look of pure joy.
The only real downside to the weather was that we weren’t able to get our usual group photo. We’ll just have to make do by featuring the adorable pic of PJ’s son Henry, above, while re-sharing these group photos from 2016 and 2017. Next summer? Bring it on!
As we described in this related article, we’re fans of taking a rules-based approach to investing instead of trying to actively forecast a market’s next move or a stock price’s next swing. Attempts to outsmart the market are more likely to waste your energy than deliver higher long-term returns.
So, this begs the question: Why don’t we recommend index funds exclusively for our clients?
We really like aspects of the indexing philosophy. Passively managed index funds typically employ a rules-based strategy to capture returns by tracking a popular index at a low cost. So far, so good. But, as we focus in, like we did in this piece, we start to find some inefficiencies that point to why index funds may not be the optimal vehicle for clients looking to maximize market returns. Curious to learn more? Give us a call.
“Recency” is one of the most insidious behavioral biases that can impact an investor’s ability to Take the Long View® with their investments. The name alone suggests it’s the opposite of what we’re about here at Hill Investment Group.
Those ruled by recency will disregard decades of data, and instead allow only the latest, relatively random data points to skew their view. A prime example occurs whenever purveyors of traditional active investing revisit a perennially misleading script that goes something like this: “If too many investors invest in index funds (i.e., if the market is left to run on auto-pilot), there will be nobody left to set proper pricing. Investors should revert to an active investment strategy, before it’s too late.”
Again, the argument is nothing new; if index funds were the onlyinvestment available, markets would indeed stop functioning. But with every new season, the traditional active camp seems to come up with a fresh batch of stats that supposedly signal that the end of index investing is nigh.
Recently, the focus has been on index investing inflows – or, more accurately, their reduced volume. So far this year, the deluge of dollars mostly heading out of active investing and into index/passive funds has decreased to a more orderly flow compared to 2017.
Is index investing on the wane? In this related piece, we share a quibble we do have with index investing, and why we typically favor a similar, but more direct approach for capturing scientific sources of expected return. But before anyone concludes it’s time to get more active at timing and selecting specific stock picks, here are three, recency-dispelling reads we suggest:
Our favorite excerpt: “Why must we complicate what is otherwise a simple explanation? Investors have become a little more financially literate; indexing is maturing as an investment style. Those who are hoping for a major reversal of a trend that has been 40 years in the making are very likely to be disappointed.”
Our favorite excerpt: “While it’s certainly possible that, at some point, passive investing could reach such a dominant share that price discovery would be limited, clearly, we are nowhere near that level, and almost certainly won’t be there for a very long time.”
Our favorite excerpt: “Perhaps the growth of indexing has robbed the world of outstanding stockpickers. But it seems more likely that it has put a lot of bad managers out of business … And it is not as if the buying and selling of stocks by informed investors with opinions has ceased. The turnover of stocks has actually increased over time. Active investors are more active than ever.”
Jared, with a few of his favorite CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ exam study books.
What does it take to become a CFP® practitioner, and what’s it to you whether your advisor has one or more of them on board?
As an acronym – the CFP® credential stands for CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™. Its use is strictly regulated by the CFP Board, which was established in 1985, with roots dating back to the 1960s.
As a credential – It ranks right up there with a CPA or MBA in terms of sweat equity. To even apply for certification, an individual must:
Have a bachelor’s degree or better from a U.S.-accredited institution
Pass a full-day exam
Complete 4,000–6,000 hours of boots-on-the-ground financial planning experience
Pass a background check and sign an Ethics Declaration
As an ongoing designation – a CFP® certificant can’t just coast once they’ve earned the credential. They must complete at least 30 hours of continuing education every two years, and remain compliant with their ethics declaration.
We’re proud to announce that our own Jared Machen has completed all the steps necessary to become a CFP® professional, which means we’ll soon have four CFP® certificants on the team, including me, Jared, Rick Hill and Henry Bragg.
Jared estimates he spent approximately 265 hours studying for the exam, which he passed on his first try. (That’s no cakewalk; the average pass rate is only about 60%.) While passing the CFP® Certification Examination was as challenging as ever, we did notice one way in which technology has helped those studying for it: When Rick passed his exam in 2001, he had to wait weeks for a letter to arrive in the mail. Jared completed his online, and accessed the results with two button clicks, three minutes after he’d finished.
Upon learning the news, Jared shared: “I’m excited to have the test behind me. But I’m even more excited to leverage what I’ve learned throughout the process to deepen my contributions to Hill Investment Group and our clients.”