Good and bad reasons to invest in individual stocks rather than index funds

Hi everybody! I’m back from a two-week blogging hiatus! Things got busy at the office right before I left and we also had to prepare for our road trip and ERN Family World Tour, currently in beautiful New Mexico and moving on to Texas soon! I was amazed at how little work I got done while traveling! Early retirement is a lot more work than I thought!

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In Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico.

In any case, today’s topic has been on my mind for a while: What would be reasons to hold individual stocks? Not all but the majority of folks in the FIRE community apparently favor just plain passive index investing and I have been an index investor myself for the longest time. But occasionally we should definitely question our assumptions. Especially those that sound like the good old “We’ve always done it this way!” And one “excuse” to look into this topic is the ChooseFI podcast featuring Brian Feroldi a few weeks ago. Brian talked about his adventures as a stock picker! I thought it was a great episode, though, of course, I didn’t agree with everything. But it got me thinking about what would be good reasons and what would be not so good reasons for me to abandon my index-only approach. Let’s look at my favorite eight…

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Here’s an idea for a new ETF

Actually, not one ETF, but two! Or more! How can there be a need for a new ETF? Aren’t there enough already? Earlier this year, Motley Fool argued there are too many ETFs (1,929 at that time, probably over 2,000 by now) and they are covering pretty much every thinkable (and unthinkable) benchmark. Soon we might have more ETFs than publicly traded equities in the U.S., how crazy is that??? Why would I propose a new ETF that doesn’t already exist?

Here’s some background. I’m an index investor at heart and I like tax optimization. For so many years now, I’ve held equity index ETFs and Mutual Funds in both taxable accounts and tax-deferred accounts (both retirement and deferred compensation at work). It’s so painful to see the dividend payments in the taxable accounts getting taxed every year. Sure, it’s only about 1.9% dividend yield in the S&P500 right now but for us, that’s taxed at 15% federal, 10+% state (California!) and 3.8% Obamacare tax, for a total of almost 30% marginal tax! Isn’t there a better way? Sure! Simply put the taxable equity allocation into stocks that pay zero (or close to zero) dividends and keep the high-dividend stocks in the tax-deferred account where they can compound in peace and be taxed only once upon withdrawal rather than every year along the way! So, the two ETFs that I wish existed would exactly replicate the S&P500 if held in equal shares. But individually they’d have non-index weights and one would hold the equities with the lowest dividend yield and the other with the high-yield equities!

Notice that most folks already do this tax optimization across asset classes: Hold the tax-inefficient asset classes (bonds, REITs, etc.) in tax-deferred accounts and equities in taxable accounts. So, why not do this within the equity asset class as well for additional tax efficiency? How much extra after-tax return would we get out of this? Let’s look at the numbers…

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Active Investing: Opportunity vs. Futility

Almost everywhere in life, the word “active” has a positive connotation. An active lifestyle, an active personal life, an active participant in a discussion, etc. In contrast, “passive” stands for low-energy, dull and boring. Imagine setting up a friend on a blind date with a nice gal/guy who has a really great “passive lifestyle” and see how much excitement that generates.

But investing is different. Passive investing is the rage right now! It is a noticeable market trend in finance overall and the Financial Independence blogging world seems particularly subscribed to the passive investing idea. For the most part, I agree with the superiority of passive investing. But then again, not all active investment ideas are created equal. And that means that we are at risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater!

Has the Personal Finance Passive-Pendulum swung too far? Are we willfully ignoring some useful principles from active investing for fear of shaking the foundations of the Passive Investing Mantra? 

Take the following five examples of active investing. They all fall into different spots on the Futility vs. Opportunity spectrum:

  1. Stock picking.
  2. Style investing, i.e., tilting the portfolio toward a theme such as dividend yield, small stocks, value stocks, low volatility stocks, etc., or a combination of them.
  3. Allocation to different asset classes (e.g. stock, bond, cash, alternatives) in response macro fundamentals (P/E ratios, bond yields, volatility, etc.).
  4. Changing the major asset weights over the life cycle, e.g., using an equity glidepath to retirement and even throughout retirement.
  5. Setting the initial safe withdrawal rate in retirement and all subsequent withdrawal rates in response to changing market conditions.
FutilityVsOpportunity diagram
Not all forms of “Active Investing” are created equal!

It would be a mistake to apply the same passive investment mantra to all five aspects of personal finance. So, that’s what today’s post is about: Where should we stay away from active investments and where can we learn something from active investment principles? Let’s look at the five active investment themes in detail…

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