Carnival of Everything Money

My post on house prices appears in this weeks’ Carnival of Everything Money hosted by The Penny Daily. Obviously, loyal readers of this blog have already read the house prices post and likely printed it out to stick on the door of their refrigerator. But the carnvial contains many other interesting items from other bloggers that even my most devoted fans might enjoy. Go on, give it a try.

More on ETF Fees

I’ve been meaning to do a follow up on the costs of ETFs vs. open-end index mutual funds. My post from February 5 on why ETFs should probably not be the mainstay of your investment diet has inspired interest (much to my surprise it continues to be one the most popular posts here) and a little bit of controversy.

To summarize what I said three weeks ago, the pecking order of low cost for investors is: open-end index mutual funds (best), ETFs, and then open-end active mutual funds (worst.) You will often see ETFs touted as being low cost, and relative to active funds this is certainly true, but the typical investor will do even better in an old-style index mutual fund.

For a change of pace, I thought I would gather some actual data to make my point. Yahoo Finance has a useful list of the largest ETFs. Let’s look at the five biggest, which together account for about a third of all the money in ETFs.

One of the five, at number 3, is a special case, the streetTracks Gold Trust, which strictly speaking is not really an ETF at all. It represents simply the ownership of gold bullion, and Yahoo informs us that it is not registered as an investment company under the 1940 act, which means that it is not a mutual fund. Apparently as a side effect of this, Yahoo does not list an expense ratio for it, so it’s not clear what the fees are. I am going to set this one aside, but I cannot resist remarking what a sign of the times it is that gold is in the top 5.

Numbers 1 and 5 are virtually identical S&P 500 ETFs, the giant SPDR Trust (SPY) and the Pepsi to its Coke, the iShares S&P 500 Index (IVV). Yahoo tells us that the expense ratio, i.e. annual fee charged by the manager, for these two is 0.08% and 0.09% respectively. Fidelity has a pretty big S&P 500 fund, the Spartan 500 (FSMKX) which charges 0.10% and, for investments over $100,000, the Spartan Advantage 500 (FSMAX) which charges 0.07%. Even a precision freak like me will concede that all these tiny numbers are practically the same.

Number 2 is the iShares MSCI EAFE Index (EFA) which charges 0.34% in fees. You can get the same thing from the Vanguard Developed Market Index (VDMIX) which charges only 0.22%.

And at number 4 we have the iShares Emerging Markets Index (EEM) which charges an impressive-in-a-bad-way 0.72%. Vanguard will charge you 0.37% for it’s Emerging Stock Index Fund (VEIEX) or only 0.25% if you have more than $100,000 in the Admiral version (VEMAX). Note that both Vanguard funds have a 0.25% transaction fee to invest or sell.

So from this sample, based only on management fees, you might conclude that ETFs are mostly the same, or sometimes just a little worse than open-end index mutual funds. But with ETFs, you still have more costs to consider. ETFs trade like stocks, which means that you need to pay money to buy them and sell them. You will pay your broker a commission, you will pay the bid-ask spread, and you will pay both of these things twice, on your way in and your way out. These additional costs (shouldn’t be) huge, but they do count and are more than enough to tip the balance in favor of old-school index mutual funds.

As I wrote in the previous post, ETFs do have their role. There are things you can do with them because they are stocks that you cannot do with an open-end fund, such as buy on margin and sell short. And there are some peculiar things that actually are cheaper as, or even available only as, ETFs. Gold might be an example, if only I could work out what that ETF charges. The Nasdaq Composite ETF (QQQQ) is another because there are so few open-end funds that bother tracking it. You might also just enjoy trading your ETFs more than investing in open-end funds. But if you want to know which will, in the long run, make you more money, the answer is open-end mutual funds, not ETFs.

Carnival of Personal Finance

My recent post on IRAs is in this week’s Carnival of Personal Finance, hosted at Broke Grad Student. The host has included YouTube videos for much needed comic relief. Click and enjoy!

IRAs: Roth and the Other Kind

Poke around the blogosphere and personal finance punditocracy and you will find lots of positive references to Roth IRAs and virtually no nice things said about its dull older brother, the traditional IRA. If you didn’t know any better (and why would you?) you might assume that the younger and hipper Roth IRA was the way to go. After all, it is the cool new thing and the latest in retirement savings technology. Here’s a rundown of the differences and why you are likely to want to go with the unhip kind after all.

IRAs come in two basic flavors. There is the traditional old-style IRA, in which you put pre-tax money, i.e. your contributions are tax deductible, and then later in life pay taxes on your withdrawals as if they were income. And there is the relatively newer type, a Roth IRA, in which contributions are post-tax, i.e. not deductible, but withdrawals are tax-free.

Which is for you? Obviously, you want the one that will wind up making you more money. To tee that up, consider the following.

Tom Traditional and Robbie Roth have identical incomes, and so pay identical tax rates, and they both have $3,000 a year of that income that they wish to put in an IRA. Obviously, each picks the type that matches their name, so Tom puts in the full $3,000 each year and Robbie puts in $2,250 after paying taxes of 25%. The years pass, and they make identical investment decisions until they retire on the same day. Tom’s account is, of course, larger but he needs to pay 25% taxes on anything he takes out, while Robbie can withdraw tax free. Here’s the big question: after Tom pays taxes on his withdrawals, who has more money to spend?

The answer, which seems to surprise a lot of people, is that they have exactly the same amount of money. Assuming the tax rate going into the Roth is the same as the one coming out of the traditional, the financial benefit of the accounts is exactly the same. Fire up Excel and run the numbers yourself if you don’t believe me.

So why do the advocates of saving seem to universally prefer Roths? It’s not about numbers, it’s about conceptual appeal. Saving is about sacrificing now for a benefit in the far-off future. With a Roth, you pay taxes now so you can not pay taxes later, and that has a big attraction to the savings crowd.

Symbolism aside, there are good reasons to choose one type of IRA over the other. Primarily, which one is better depends on the tax rate you pay now and the one you will pay when you are retired. Tom and Robbie came out equal because they always paid 25%. If the tax rate had been 25% when working but only 15% during retirement, then Tom would have wound up ahead because he would avoid the 25% and only pay 15%. Conversely, if the rates were 25% while working and 35% when retired, then Robbie would be better off.

Occasionally you see the pro-Roth argument that given the fiscal problems the government has now and is likely to have in the future, tax rates will inevitably rise. That sounds perfectly reasonable, but it is worth reflecting that the same thing could have been said for the past 30 years and so far it’s been wrong. Predictions of what Congress will do in future decades is hardly a sound basis for your retirement planning.

On the other hand, predictions of how much money you will be making in retirement, and so which tax bracket you will be in, are more practical. If you have a Roth, you are betting that your income, and your tax rate, will be higher in retirement than it is now. That’s some bet. (You do understand that in retirement you won’t have a job, don’t you?) Furthermore, choosing a Roth over a traditional is doubling down the bet on your own future prosperity. If you wind up being a rich retiree, you’ll be happy you have a Roth because you won’t pay high taxes on the withdrawals. But if you wind up a poor oldster you’ll wish you’d picked traditional, because you’d have more money, even after paying the (lower) income taxes on what you take out.

There are other factors to consider when choosing between the two types of IRA. (There’s a nice rundown here and here.) But they are all secondary to the tax rate issue and some of them are pretty esoteric. In the big picture, what matters are tax rates now and when retired. And for many, if not most, people that means that an old-school traditional IRA is a better choice, even if it lacks hipness and the frugal appeal of paying more now for a benefit far in the future.

Yet Another Excellent Carnival

The premier edition of The Carnival of Government & Money features my educational (and only slightly dated) post on how big the stimulus package really is. It’s hosted at the brilliantly named blog Spilling Buckets. Government workers might not enjoy it, but everybody else will.

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