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.
In our ongoing effort to clarify and simplify, we keep the financial jargon to a minimum. But even where we may succeed, you’re likely to encounter references elsewhere that can turn valuable information into mumbo-jumbo. Consider us your interpreter. Today, we’ll explore correlation, and why it matters to investing.
A Quick Take: Correlation Helps People Invest More Efficiently
Expressed as a number between –1.0 and +1.0, correlation quantifies whether, and by how much two holdings have behaved differently or alike in various markets. If we can identify holdings with weak or no expected correlation among one another, we can combine these diverse “pieces” (individual investments) into a greater “whole” (an investment portfolio), to help investors better weather the market’s many moods.
As suggested above, correlation is more than just a quality; it’s also a quantity – a measurement – offering two important insights along a spectrum of possibilities between –1.0 and +1.0:
- Correlation can be positive or negative, which tells us whether two correlated subjects are behaving similar to or opposite of one another.
- Correlation can be strong or weak (or high/low), which tells us how powerful the similar or opposite behavior has been.
Most investors are aware of the benefits of diversification, or owning many, as well as many different kinds of holdings. A well-diversified portfolio helps you invest more efficiently and effectively over time. Diversification also offers a smoother ride, which helps you better stay on course toward your personal financial goals.
But in a world of nearly infinite possibilities, how do we:
- Compare existing funds – If one fund is expected to perform a certain way according to its averages, and another fund is supposed to perform differently according to its own averages, how do you know if they’re really performing differently as expected?
- Compare new factors – What about when a researcher claims they’ve found a new factor, or source of expected returns? As this University of Chicago paper explains, “factors are being discovered almost as quickly as they can be packaged and sold to the waiting public.” How do we determine which are actually worth considering out of the hundreds proposed?
- Compare one portfolio to another – Even perfectly good factors don’t always fit well together. You want factors that are not only strong on their own, but that are expected to create the strongest possible total portfolio once they’re combined.
Correlation is the answer to these and other portfolio analysis challenges. By quantifying and comparing the behaviors and relationships found among various funds, factors and portfolios, we can better determine which combinations are expected to produce optimal outcomes over time.
Heeding correlation data is a lot like having a full line-up on your favorite sports team. If each player on the roster adds a distinct, useful and well-played talent to the mix, odds are, your team will go far. Similarly, your investment portfolio is best built from a global “team” of distinct factors, or sources of returns. A winning approach combines quality components that exhibit weak or no correlation among or between them across varied, long-term market conditions.
Let us know if we can use our experience and expertise to help you build a more diversified and less correlated portfolio.
One of the things that differentiates Hill Investment Group (HIG) is the simple, transparent philosophy behind our investment strategy. As we like to remind clients, the data and evidence tell us that one of the best ways to pursue long-term financial goals is to essentially own the world and, of course, take the long view with our ownership – relying on the expected long-term gains of global capitalism to deliver growth.
This philosophy does NOT mean our portfolios operate on auto-pilot. In fact, we’re regularly reviewing the latest academic research and innovations in financial products to evaluate available options. Like other aspects of our investment process, we tackle this job through a rigorous, disciplined approach guided by our internal Investment Policy Committee (IPC), comprised of me (John Reagan), Rick Hill and Nell Schiffer.
Our IPC assesses the ongoing performance of our current holdings and occasionally adds new investment opportunities when they make sense within our evidence-based infrastructure. (Remember, as fiduciaries by choice and design, it’s our legal duty to make decisions that are in our clients’ best financial interests.) In addition, it may be even more important for us to assess and reject countless supposedly “new and improved” offerings when closer analysis reveals them as pointless distractions to our Take the Long View® strategies.
To accomplish these missions, our IPC follows a regular process that includes:
- Monthly reviews of our model portfolios and individual fund performance
- Quarterly IPC meetings and semi-annual meetings with financial product providers
- Regular communication with the rest of the firm through meeting minutes
Our processes are grounded in the following key principles that help the IPC perform due diligence and make recommendations.
- Factor-based investing beats traditional active management. Roughly 85% of active funds trail their benchmarks over periods of 15-20 years, compared to factors such as small size, value and momentum that have demonstrated long-term return premiums. For that reason, we won’t even consider traditional actively managed funds. We opt for evidence-based strategies, which helps weed out a lot of options that simply don’t fit with the way we serve our clients.
- Data and evidence drives decision making. Academics and practitioners are constantly producing new research into how markets work, and the IPC is committed to following these developments. We read academic and financial journals, attend conferences, and speak with experts to ensure that our investment options reflect what the evidence is telling us.
- We always seek to add value to portfolios. With fund companies continually developing new products – and sometimes changing the way they manage existing funds – the IPC must re-assess whether the funds we’ve chosen are the best possible options. We examine whether there are new fund variations that target established premiums in a better way, or if new factors could help boost returns, decrease volatility, or provide another distinct advantage.
- Costs matter. Because the fees charged by mutual fund companies directly affect our clients’ returns, we’re diligent about finding the best possible balance between cost and value in every fund we select.
As touched on above, thanks to our disciplines, the IPC only recommends changing our investment lineup when there’s a clear reason to do so. Changes don’t happen overnight either. If a new opportunity is sustainable, there’s no need to rush into it. If it’s not, it won’t be in our clients’ best interest to chase after it.
For example, our IPC recently recommended adding a new fund that targets evidence-based factors, using an investing strategy to hedge against scenarios when all asset classes decline at the same time, like in 2007-2008. A fund like this essentially didn’t exist then, but it does now, in what we deem to be a cost-effective vehicle. So we have added it to our lineup.
Again, more often, our IPC looks at new opportunities and decides not to make a change. For example, in 2017 we also examined a new kind of fund that claims to provide a hedge against widespread downturns by investing in an asset class with low correlation to the equity market. Upon careful review, the IPC found the fund to be incredibly complex – to the point that we couldn’t easily understand exactly how it would accomplish what it claimed to do. It was also extraordinarily expensive! When a product is this complicated and expensive, and we’re not clear on the benefit it would provide our clients, it’s just not right for us.
Putting the pieces in place
Besides establishing our investment lineup, the IPC has another important role: Creating the proper asset allocations for our model portfolios. This task involves understanding correlations between factors and asset classes, and analyzing expected returns/volatility, to develop portfolios that offer the highest potential returns for the amount of risk a client is comfortable taking. It’s akin to cooking a soup: You might have the same set of ingredients, but depending on how much you add of each one, the result is going to taste very different. The IPC uses our standard set of ingredients to develop different portfolio “recipes” to suit each client’s taste.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this close-up look at our long-view IPC, and the process and principles that guide our decisions. Our IPC plays a crucial role in our mission to do what’s right for our clients – period – while simplifying the otherwise complex world of investing. If you have any questions for us, feel free to reach out.