Episode #6: Three Concepts That Investors Get Wrong

Episode #6: Three Concepts That Investors Get Wrong


Guest: Episode 6 is a Mebisode.

Date: 6/24/16     |     Run-Time: 28:12

Topics:  Do you know which three concepts most investors – retail and professional alike – get wrong? One is asset allocation; two is a bit different – it’s actually a lack of awareness of a type of investment that actually pays you to own it (confused?); third is a misconception about dividends and dividend stocks. Diving in, when it comes to asset allocation, different institutions and money managers often suggest significantly different asset allocations. So which allocation is the most effective? Turns out that’s the wrong question. There’s a far more important issue lurking here. Meb will tell you what it is. Next, we move on to a discussion few investors know about. It involves a way to be paid to own a fund. Interested? Finally, Meb risks alienating more than a handful of listeners by presenting an unorthodox perspective on dividend investing. But if you’re a dividend investor, you need to hear what he’s saying. Turns out there’s a tweak on a traditional dividend strategy that produced significantly better results when back-tested. Learn what this tweak is, and far more, on Episode 6 of The Meb Faber Show.

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Links from the Episode:

Running Segment: “Things I find beautiful, useful or downright magical”:

Transcript of Episode 6:

Welcome Message: Welcome to the Meb Faber show, where the focus is on helping you grow and preserve your wealth. Join us as we discuss the craft of investing, and uncover new and profitable ideas, all to help you grow wealthier and wiser. Better investing starts here.

Disclaimer: Meb Faber is the co-founder and Chief Investment Officer of Cambria Investment Management. Due to industry regulations, he will not discuss any of Cambria’s funds on this podcast. All opinions expressed by podcast participants are solely their own opinions, and do not reflect the opinion of Cambria Investment Management or its affiliates. For more information, visit cambriainvestments.com.

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Meb: Welcome to the show friends, this is Meb. We’re gonna do something a little different today. We’ve had on lots of great guests lately, episodes with Wes, and Patrick, and Jared. We did a co-host episode with Jeff, today, I’m gonna riff a little bit on a few different things, and I’m actually such a moron. I just recorded half of this entire show, forgot to hit the record button, and so if my voice is a little hoarse today, you’ll now understand why. But what we’re going to talk about today is three ideas, three concepts that I think investors get wrong or don’t understand, or aren’t aware of at all, and it’s not just retail individual investors, but also pros as well. This applies to pros as well.

The three topics I’m gonna tease is, the first one is about asset allocation strategies. The second one is about investment funds you can invest in that actually pay you to own them. And lastly, I’m gonna talk about why I hate dividends and dividend stocks. So let’s go ahead and get started. So first, if you’re like a lot of investors, you can often find yourself asking the wrong questions. So I was down in La Jolla a few months ago, chatting with a group of advisors after the talk I gave on asset allocation strategies. This advisor came up to me and he said, “Meb, look, thanks for the talk. Awesome.” He’s like, “We’ve got a steady stream of sales people in here, consultants hawking their various services. Asset allocation models frankly can be a little overwhelming.”

He goes, “Some will send us a fifty-page report at the end, all to explain a strategic shift from 50 to 45% in stocks.” He’s like, “Look, I want to do right by my clients. I consider myself a fiduciary, I really care, but I have a hard time reading all these various research pieces and models, let alone reconciling their differences, and actually deciding if it even matters.” He’s like, “Do you have any thoughts?” If you know me, of course I have lots of thoughts. He then sent me an email with a summary of a bunch of institutional asset allocation models that came out in Barron’s, it’s called Penta, we’ll put it up online in the show notes, that shows the recommendations by institutions like Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Banks of the world, and they’re highly different.

So Morgan Stanley says you should only put 25% in U.S. stocks, while Silvercrest says a whopping 54%, Brown Advisory says you only have 10% in emerging markets, J.P. Morgan says nothing. There’s this chart of 40 different institutions and so I actually wrote a book on this topic, “Global Asset Allocation.” If you want a free copy, you can go to freebook.mebfaber.com to download one. Let me know what you think. But so what’s an advisor to do? What is the most effective asset allocation of all these guys? Turns out, I think that’s actually the wrong question. The correct question is, “Does the asset allocation difference even matter in the first place?”

So we went and downloaded this table, and teased out the data, we had to make a couple adjustments, such as hedge funds and private equity were in there. Most advisors that allocate to hedge funds and private equity, you’re going to get average returns. So for private equity, we just substituted U.S. stocks. For the hedge funds, we substituted 60/40. Look, if you’re the Yales and Harvards of the world, you might get some alpha on that, but in general, there’s not any. So we looked at three different allocations. The allocation with the most in stocks, which was Deutsche Bank at 74%, U.S. and global, the average of all 40 allocations, and then the allocation with the least amount in stocks, which turned out to be Atlantic Trust, at 44%.

We back tested this all the way back to 1973, and if you look at this chart, which we’ll upload to the show notes, unless you have hawk like vision, you can have an incredibly hard time even distinguishing between the equity curves of these hugely different allocations. And this is for the most different. The other 40 firms are somewhere in the middle of these two lines. And for context, for the listeners, the most aggressive allocation back to ’73 did 9.72% a year. The average did 9.6%, and the least aggressive did 9.19%. There you have it. The difference between the most and the least aggressive in portfolios is a whopping 0.53% a year.

Now how much do you think these institutions charge for their services? I guarantee you it’s more than 0.53% a year. So how many millions and billions in consulting fees are wasted fretting over asset allocation models? We did a post on the blog called, “Should CalPERS Be Managed by a Robot?” where we look at basic asset allocation compared to CalPERS, and found out that may just well just be served buying an ETF. Let’s try one more experiment. When you put a one percent management fee, which is the normal fee for a financial advisor, on top of the most aggressive portfolio, again look at returns, simply by paying this mild fee, which is lower than the average mutual fund, by the way, at 1.25%, you have turned the highest returning allocation into the lowest returning allocation, rendering the entire asset allocation totally irrelevant. Now this also doesn’t allow for shifts in these allocations over time, but if anything, I would expect these institution shifts to be a negative addition rather than positive.

So this is one reason we’ve always said, look if you’re going to do buy and hold, you should be paying as little forward as possible, because by definition, that person is buying and holding. So if you’re an advisor, or you’re implementing a buy and hold portfolio, pay as little. There’s tons of mutual funds, low cost ETFs as well, that you can get a global allocation. This is the same reason why we launched, to my knowledge, the first and still only ETF with a permanent 0% management fee. It owns about 30 other ETFs, all-in fees about .29%, one of the cheapest ways you can get an asset allocation out there. But you don’t have to use ours, you can use anyone else, but for your core buy and hold allocation, you should pay as little as possible. So all these questions that stress you out. Is the UK gonna Brexit? It is it a good time for gold? What about the next Fed, when are they going to raise rates? What about the long bond? How much should I have in foreign stocks? You can let most of those go. If you’re a professional money manager, the good news is you can now go spend your time on other value added services, like estate planning, insurance, tax harvesting, prospecting for new clients, or general time with those clients you currently have, your family, or even activities like golf, fishing, whatever it may be. If you’re a retail investor, stop sweating your portfolio, go do anything else that makes you happy.

Now the implementation we mentioned of fees is important. There still are a ton of mutual funds out there that charge ridiculous fees, and this is sort of a generational shift from mutual funds to ETFs. I was on the Barron’s round table a few years ago, and talked about when did the rest of the table think that we would see a switch in assets from, or where they would cross, where mutual funds which are declining in flows, whereas ETFs are having lots of flows, when would ETFs overtake mutual funds, and most of the table laughed. But I was being serious. I said I thought it would happen by 2020, and you’re seeing a lot of these flows escalate, and one of the reasons why is many mutual funds, they’re not all, Vanguard is a sterling example of a good actor, there’s many bad actors with 12b-1 fees, front end loads, back end loads, all sorts of other stuff.

Just for perspective, there’s about 300 billion in asset allocation mutual funds that still charge over one and a half percent a year. That is atrocious. There is about 50 asset allocation mutual funds that charge over 2% a year, and manage over 40 billion dollars. I hope none of those funds exist in a decade’s time. And even if you’re going to allocate to active mutual funds, which I think you probably shouldn’t, one other thing you should look at is does the manager invest in his own fund? And there’s actually a great study by Russ Kinnel, one of my favorite authors at Morningstar, it’s called, “Do Managers Eat Their Own Cooking?” we’ll link to it in the show notes, but where a few years ago, the SEC required managers to list how much they invested in their funds, and they didn’t do it where it was the exact amount, but they did it in categories, so it’s 0, 1 to 10 grand, 10 to 50, 50 to 100, 100 to 500 grand, 500 to 1,000,000, and over 1,000,000. And the results are actually astonishing.

What they found was that in U.S. stock funds, 47% reported no manager ownership whatsoever. For foreign stock funds, 61% had nothing, 66% of taxable bond funds, and 71% of balanced funds. So that a lot of these asset allocation, the managers have no money in their own fund, they’re not eating their own cooking, they have no skin in the game. And so some people will make some excuses for these guys, but these are goose egg, not even a dollar in these funds. They should put a token amount, just to say they have something, but a lot of people say, “Well does this matter?” Actually, it turns out it is very predictive. Russ, in a follow up article, says, “It turns out that manager investment does have predictive power. Funds in which managers invested nothing had the lowest success rate, and those which a manager had more than a million invested had the highest success rate. The rate generally progressed higher with manager investment levels.” And that makes sense. Of course it makes sense. If you care about what you’re investing, if you have your own hard earned dollars investing in that, then obviously you care so much more about it. You know, a lot of investors have these portfolios that I’ll look at, and my buddy Josh refers to this as “mutual fund salad,” where you’ll show up and they have 10, 20, 50, 200 mutual funds, and you say, “Why in God’s name do these people have all these funds?”

The average advisor that’s been in the business over 20 years, the stat is they own over 200 mutual funds, and the reason why is because most mutual funds have been sold over history. There’s people that get paid to sell them. They get a commission for selling these funds, the advisers buy them, they forget about them, they move on to the next fund when someone comes in, and they eventually get sold, and that person’s dies or they inherit them or pass on to the next generation, but that money never goes back. Once someone finds out that they were paying one and a half…I talked to a friend today, I said, “How much is your advisor charging you?” He goes, “I don’t know? What do most advisors charge?” I said, “Well, it varies quite a lot. You know, some…the average is one percent, but there’s plenty out there that charge over two, or even more, you should probably know,” but a lot of people just don’t know. So once they find out, they say, “Hey, I have this mutual fund, hasn’t been doing very well, it’s charging two percent a year,” they go buy a Vanguard, or hopefully a Cambria fund that’s charging much less, they don’t ever go back to paying much more.

So that’s a generational transition, but if you’re doing a buy and hold strategic asset allocation, be very attentive to fees, and if you’re gonna invest in active managers, be very attentive to those managers, and if they have any skin in the game. And this transitions into topic number two, which is that yes, in general we always prefer funds that pay…have low expense ratios. So the average ETF is around 50 basis points, a basis point, a hundred basis points equals 1%, so 50 is .5%. The average mutual fund is 1.25, but index funds are less. But did you know that you could actually invest in public funds that pay you to own them? Almost every adviser I talk to, and every individual investor is unaware of this topic, that’s a little esoteric, because it involves short lending. So there’s a lot of funds out there, for example, if I’m managing a fund, and it’s a bunch, let’s say it’s a hundred stocks, and there’s a hedge fund out there or somebody or an institution that wants to short one of my stocks let’s call it Netflix. They come to me and say, “Hey, can I borrow that stock?”

I say, “Sure. You give me collateral. Bonds, other collateral, whatever it may be, over a hundred percent covering the position, I’ll let you borrow this position for a 15% annual yield. And so there’s a lot of these funds out there that will yield, that’ll lend out maybe, let’s call it 10% of their portfolio, 20% of their portfolio, and the harder to borrow stuff, so think more esoteric small caps, the names that people really hate, a lot of the short sellers, even foreign stocks have a much higher borrow rate. You can see borrow rates that go 20, 50% a year to borrow these companies, because people are so convinced that they’re gonna go down. So you can lend out these stocks, and almost everyone on the street does it, but a lot of the people keep that money, which we think is bad acting. You know, Vanguard, Blackrock, State Street, a lot of these good guys will return a majority of the revenue back to the shareholder.

In many of these funds, particularly funds that have a low cost, that has a, like biotech funds, small cap funds in particular, where they return a majority of the revenue back to the shareholders, it not only takes down the management fee, it more than compensates for the management fee, so you actually have a negative expense ratio. So for an example, I printed this off the internet, and this is from an article, and it says funds like iShares Russell 2000 has a expense ratio of 0.25%, but had over 0.35% in lending revenue last year, so in other words, you got paid 10 basis points to own that fund. But other funds, particularly Schwab, has a small cap, the Spiders Biotech, all had negative expense ratios. And this is a pretty cool area, it’s a little hard to find the information, but in general, if you stick with some of the good players, they do the right thing and return a lot of the revenue. It’s something we’re going to add at some point when we get a little bit bigger, and return all of it. And a lot of people, one of the things that people say, “Well isn’t it, is that risky to lend out to people?” And if you implement enough safeguards, it’s actually not. I was reading one of BlackRock’s disclosures, and says, “Has there ever been a borrower default in BlackRock’s history?

They said, “Since BlackRock’s lending program started in 1981, only three borrowers with active loans have defaulted. In each case, BlackRock was able to repurchase the security out on loan with collateral on hand, without any losses to the client.” So kind of an esoteric area, but it’s again another good thing to see with these funds. You can actually end up with a portfolio that’s paying you to own it. What a total difference from maybe 30 years ago, when you used to have these massive front end loads, mutual funds cost much more to own. Now you can get by with actually getting paid. What a wonderful time to be an investor, which is the name of a post I did a little bit on the blog a few months ago. So now from that very optimistic note, we’re going to transition to a little more pessimistic, although I think it’s an optimistic note. A lot of my listeners I think, particularly the retirees set, may not find this so wonderful, but let’s get started.

So this is number three, why I hate dividends. If you put the phrase “dividend investing” in Google, you get about 57,000,000 results. If you search “dividends” on Amazon, it comes up with like 8,000 books. Titles like “Get Rich With Dividends,” “How to Supercharge Your Investment Returns With Dividend Stocks.” And if you type “dividend investing is…” into Google, auto fill feature pops up, with many phrases like…and most are positive, but the top one is “why dividend investing is superior to growth.” There’s plenty of good reason for this. Dividend stocks have historically outperformed the broad market, going back all the way to the 1920s. And this underscores a reality. Most investors love dividends. Which is what I’m about to say may offend some of you, so if you’re driving, maybe pull over, or your white knuckles on the steering wheel. They may make you poorer. So about two months ago, I wrote an exploratory blog post that had been gnawing at me for a long time, called “What You Don’t Want to Hear About Dividend Stocks,” which called into question dividend investing. I expected a lot of hate mail. I didn’t get much. But I’m a quant, so a lot of my stuff tends to be boring, so maybe no one is reading it, but in the article, I set out to examine a simple thought experiment.

I said, “Could we build a better investment strategy by avoiding dividend stocks?” And the simple reason why is that dividend stocks are taxed every year. Every time you get a check, that gets taxed, right? Dividends get taxed every time you get a check. Whereas capital gains are only taxed when a position is sold. So if one could find a strategy that replicated the outperformance of dividend stocks, but without dividends, a taxable investor would have higher returns by not having to pay consistent taxes to Uncle Sam. So my original post found that applying…so we said, “All right, what’s one way to replicate dividends? Dividends are essentially a value tilt, so let’s do a value strategy.” And so we looked at it, and we built a very simple value composite. I can’t even remember the factors, let’s call it maybe price to book, price to sales, enterprise value to EBITDA, who knows what it was. And we worked with Ned Davis on it, and we found that yes, actually, there was an after tax benefit of choosing a value strategy over a dividend strategy, but there was a takeaway that I wasn’t expecting. It turns out that this simple value strategy actually produced higher returns than the dividend strategy, not just similar returns. So trying to replicate dividend stocks, we just wanted to get it in line. It actually ended up much better.

So in other words, before we even get to the tax benefits, value already trump dividends, and it’s an interesting reminder that many investors use the word “value” and the word “dividend investing” interchangeably, when in reality, they’re unique strategies, with value historically being superior. This Ned Davis test only went back to 1995, so we partnered with our good buddies at Alpha Architects, Wes Gray, who you heard on the podcast, if you didn’t listen that one, it’s wonderful interview, and then his partner, Jack Vogel. And so they were able to take this all the way back to 1974, and the results I think are quite stunning. Then again, I find a lot of this exciting, and most people are probably asleep by now. And so, I’ll post these tables to the show notes for the podcast.

But the first table examines owning 100 stocks vs. the S&P. The second is 400 stocks, and these are out of a universe of 2000, so essentially the Russell 2000, so full universe of liquid U.S. stocks. And so you look at the U.S. S&P 500 back to ’74, you did 10.7% returns a year. Awesome returns. Biggest bull market we’ve ever had, ’80s, ’90s. Fifty percent loss at one point, but hey, that’s…we’ll take it. And then if you look at the Russell 2000, and you equal weight them, it beat that by about two percentage points a year. So as we’ve talked about in prior podcasts, just getting away from that market cap weighting, you could have any weighting, and you’ll actually beat the market cap weighting, usually by a percent or two a year. In this case, it was two percentage points. A lot of people think that it’s just a small cap tailwind, but in reality, it’s just moving away from market cap weighting, so you have a little bit of a value tilt already. So, 10.7% for the S&P, 12.8 for stocks for equal weight.

Then if you do a dividend strategy, and this is top quartile, so top 25%, you end up with an extra one percentage point above the equal weight strategy. So we’re up to 13.8%, above the 10.7%. So you can see why people love dividend stocks, they cream the S&P 500 over that period, no additional volatility or drawdowns. However, if you invest in the value composite, it outperforms the dividend strategy by over three percentage points a year. So it’s beating the S&P by over six percentage points year. This is well known, value’s worked for a long time. But it goes to show, while trying to replicate dividends, a simple strategy like value is actually better than dividends. Now it’s a little more volatile, roughly the same drawdown.

And then on top of that, we did a fourth strategy. We said we’re going to exclude the top 25% of dividend yielders, so the highest yielders. We’re going to exclude the top half of dividend yielders, exclude all over one percent, and then all dividend stocks all together. And we’re going to take the top 100, based on the value composite when we’ve narrowed down that universe. And guess what? Every single one of those strategies beat dividend yields. So you have a scenario where you’re going to have a strategy that has a much lower yield, quote, yield, but higher returns. And so again, before even bringing taxes into the picture, value has outperformed dividends. And these numbers are ignoring taxes on the dividends.

Now let’s include the tax effect. And the taxes on dividends has varied hugely over the past 40 years. It was as high as 70% at one point. Think about that. It’s insane. So those fat four, six, eight percent dividends, now you’re looking at two percent, maybe, or even higher. They sound great, but realize you have to pay taxes on those every year. So we ran two estimates with real historical tax rates, at the lowest and then at the highest tax brackets, and found the benefit of avoiding dividend stocks ranged from an after tax bump of point three to over three percentage points per year. And let that sink in for a second. And I know many investors, including retirees, would rather be buried than give up their dividend checks. And they value those every quarter, and that’s fine, but this research reveals that these dividend checks carry a huge opportunity cost. Your bird in the hand, so to speak, is costing you about three or four in the bush. So there’s two things to do with this. One, if you’re an income investor enjoying the cash flow from dividend stocks, put those investments in a tax deferred account, or consider if you can meet your cash flow needs some other way.

If so, then reallocating to a low dividend yield strategy should increase your overall returns. We’ve joked about this in the office, said we’d love to launch of these funds. For a taxable account, it is going to do much better, we think, than a high dividend yield account, but we also joke that it’s going to be the least popular strategy in the world. Can you imagine trying to market a “no yield fund”? Get outta here. No one’s gonna want that. Second, if you’re a dividend investor because you’ve been under the impression that dividend investing and reinvesting those dividends for compound growth is superior, it’s time to rethink that. When you factor in the tax implications, of dividend investing versus a low dividend value strategy, the difference in returns can be striking.

And on top of this, it’s particularly offensive right now, as we’ve mentioned in some other podcasts, a lot of the high dividend yielders, because people have been pushed into the…in a search for yield, as bond yields are down around one and a half percent, people are going anywhere for stock yields, or for yields in general. So they’ve gone into high dividend yielding stocks. Most of those stocks are super expensive now. If you pull up, and you don’t have to believe me, go to Morningstar, type in your favorite high dividend fund, look at the holdings, and valuations of those holdings, and you’ll probably see something you don’t want to see, which is that those holdings almost are universally more expensive than the broad market.

If your dividend fund has a value screen, so that changes things, right, because the valuation approach was better, so by default, if you add value to your dividend approach, it’s gonna be a better approach. That can actually be okay. You may be all right with that strategy. You’re still going to have a high yielder, which is isn’t gonna be tax efficient, but the value tilt will at least keep you out of the most offensive things. And the great irony is this is a wonderful time to be listening to this podcast, because the high dividend yielders have crushed it this year. Utility stocks were up something like 15% for the first half of the year. As many of you know, I vastly prefer a shareholder yield methodology which incorporates dividends as well as buybacks, as well as share issuance, and you have to use a valuation filter on top of it. Probably a topic for another podcast, but just wanted to summarize.

One, asset allocation doesn’t matter that much for buy and hold for traditional long only asset classes. We’ll talk about trend following and other liquid alts in future podcasts that will help diversify or increase returns for a traditional portfolio. But a basic buy and hold of global stocks, global bonds, global hard assets, the exact percentages doesn’t matter that much. But what does matter is a lot of the boring stuff. The low fees, the blocking and tackling of avoiding taxes, and investing in managers. If it’s an index, that’s fine, but if it’s an active manager that has skin in the game. Second, we talked about ETFs and funds in general that could have negative expense ratios, due to the managers distributing the short lending revenue. And you can check to see which managers do, which of them don’t. A lot of them out there just pocket it. Shame on you.

And lastly, we talked about why replicating a dividend strategy without dividend stocks could actually be a vastly superior strategy, which is actually just a value strategy, particularly in taxable accounts. We’re going to wind down here, this is a short episode. We’re going to, as usual, I mention something at the end of episode, which is something I find beautiful, useful, or downright magical. We’ve talked about all sorts of weird stuff in the past half dozen episodes. Today’s is pretty basic. It is a extension you can download for your browser. So when you’re on the internet, if you’re like me, and you have like 40 tabs open at all times, every time you click open a new tab, if you download what’s called the, I think it’s the Momentum extension, it’ll pop up some of the most beautiful photos you’ve ever seen. So I’m a big nature lover. Spend a lot of time outdoors, so it’ll be vistas from New Zealand, or China, or North Carolina, Canada, all over. It tells you where it is, and has a motivational quote at the bottom, but in the middle, it says, “What are you trying to accomplish today?” And you can type that in each day. It says, “Welcome, Meb. What are you trying to accomplish?” You could type in, “Hey, I’m trying to finish this white paper,” “I want to read this book.” So every time you tap open that new tab, and think you’re going to Twitter or Facebook or some other distraction, you get this beautiful reminder of, “Hey, maybe you want to get back on task a little bit.” Anyway, it’s a wonderful, beautiful, simple addition to your day that makes a big difference.

So that’s all we have for you today. As always, you can find the show notes online at mebfaber.com/podcast. We always welcome feedback and questions from the mailbag. We’ll do a Q&A here in the following podcast. And the email address is feedback@themebfabershow.com. You can follow me on Twitter @mebfaber, of course the blog is mebfaber.com, and you can please, please subscribe to the show on iTunes, let me know what you think. And if you’re enjoying the podcast, please leave a review. Thanks for listening friends, and good investing.