10-Year vs. 3-Month Yield Inversions and Recessions: It’s Time Make a Plan

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Last Friday, the yield on the 10-year US Treasury note was a tiny bit less than that of the 3-month US Treasury bill. This is known as a yield inversion, and depending on which article you read, this specific type of yield inversion (10-year minus 3-month) has happened before each of the past 6, 7, or 9 recessions. More overview in this :

Here is a showing the difference between the 10-year and 3-month yields since 1978. The gray areas are recessions. (Click to enlarge.)

Yield inversion. Recession. Yield inversion. Recession. Every time.

This does not necessarily mean you should sell all your stocks now. You can see for yourself that there is a bit of lag time between the initial inversion and the official start of a recession. The length of time can vary, and it could be years. That means if you jump out of stocks now, things might still go up for a while. In addition, there’s no way to know the length or severity of the recession. How will you know when to jump back in stocks again? Lots of people sat out 2008 through 2018.

In my opinion, this is like your local fire department knocking on your door and reminding you to make an emergency plan for whatever disasters you are exposed to – fire, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes. A hurricane may not hit soon, or even this year, or the next. You make the plan now, so you will be prepared and know exactly what to do when it does eventually hit.

You should know that you are going to do in a recession before the recession actually hits.

  • What will you do if you lose your job and can find another one immediately? What if your business revenue drops significantly?
  • Do you know what areas of spending you would cut if you really needed to? What can you liquidate easily for cash?
  • What will you do if your stocks lose up to 50% in value and stay that way for years? Will you hold? Sell or rebalance according to a preset rule?
  • What will you do if your home value drops by 20% or more?
  • Where can you borrow money if needed? Are you sure that line of credit will still be there?

I’ve thought about most of this, but I should create a written plan that my partner can follow even if I’m not around.

Vanguard ETFs Now Permanently Cheaper Than Admiral Shares?

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vglogoAfter posting about Vanguard’s most recent expense ratio drops on selected ETFs, I had skipped over the part that said this::

The growing size and scale of our funds have helped fuel operational efficiencies that lower our costs to serve clients, particularly ETF shareholders. As a result, the ETF share class of these ten funds is now lower than their Admiral™ share class counterparts.

For example:

  • Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund Admiral Shares (VTIAX) at 0.11%
  • Vanguard Total International Stock ETF (VXUS) at 0.09%
  • Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index Fund Admiral Shares (VEMAX) at 0.14%
  • Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO) at 0.12%

I thought it was just a matter of the reporting dates being staggered and the Admiral Shares expense ratio would soon be updated back to being identical. This was just temporary… right? No.

Allan Roth reports in this with an interview with a Vanguard spokesperson confirming that the expense ratios of ETFs and Admiral Shares will no longer automatically be matched up:

What’s largely driving these changes is the increasing adoption of ETFs by Vanguard investors as their index vehicle of choice, which has enabled us to pass along the cost savings of scale,” Woerth said. “To put some numbers around it, even though ETFs make up only about 20% of our assets, they’ve garnered more than 35% of Vanguard’s net cash flow over the past three years.”

Another reason is that the mutual fund structure requires more administrative paperwork than ETFs and thus inherently cost more to run. Given how easy it is to buy ETFs from any brokerage account, I don’t see how the gap won’t continue to widen.

Should I convert my Admiral Shares to ETFs? Vanguard lets you convert most Vanguard mutual funds held at Vanguard to their ETF version (if it exists) on a tax-free basis. Allan Roth goes on to discuss this question as well. You should first set your tax lot tracking to “SpecID” if you want the cost basis to carry over to every specific share (otherwise they would use average cost basis on all of them).

I always liked the “slow food” feel of mutual fund investing. Your trade doesn’t execute until the end of the day. The price is set exactly at net asset value (NAV). There are no high frequency traders involved.

I won’t do it right away, but I will probably eventually convert my Admiral Shares to ETFs. Vanguard is basically telling me that mutual funds are old technology, and they won’t be spending any more resources on future updates. In the last few years, Vanguard has been aggressively converting people with old mutual fund-only accounts into brokerage accounts. I guess every basis point counts these days.

Vanguard should be careful though. If all my holdings are ETFs, it will be quite easy for me to move my assets to any other brokerage that offers better technology features and/or customer service. It was always easy to set an automatic purchase schedule with mutual funds at Vanguard, for example I could set it to invest exactly $500 each month. Vanguard doesn’t let you do that with ETFs, but other places do. I’ve been a long-time proponent of opening accounts directly at Vanguard, but I’ve been keeping an eye on , which offers fractional shares, free ETF trades, and customized DIY asset allocation with zero management fees. It looks like I’ll be trying them out soon.

My Money Blog Portfolio Income and Withdrawal Rate – March 2019 (Q1)

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

dividendmono225One of the biggest problems in retirement planning is turning a pile of money into a reliable stream of income. I have read hundreds of articles about this topic, and I have not yet found a perfect solution to this problem. Everything has pros and cons: stocks, high-dividend stocks, bonds, annuities, real estate, and so on.

The imperfect (!) solution I chose is to first build a portfolio designed for total return and enough downside protection such that I can hold through an extended downturn. As you will see below, the total income is a little under 3% of the portfolio annually. I could easily crank out a portfolio with a 4% income rate, or even 5% income. But you have to take some additional risks to get there. With a total return-oriented portfolio, I am more confident that the (lower initial) income will grow at least as fast (and hopefully faster) than inflation.

Starting with a more traditional portfolio, I then try to only spend the dividends and interest. The analogy I fall back on is owning a rental property. If you are reliably getting rent checks that increase with inflation, you can sit back calmly and ignore what the house might sell for on the open market.

I track the “TTM Yield” or “12 Mo. Yield” from Morningstar, which the sum of a fund’s total trailing 12-month interest and dividend payments divided by the last month’s ending share price (NAV) any capital gains distributed over the same period. (Index funds have low turnover and thus little in capital gains.) I like this measure because it is based on historical distributions and not a forecast. Below is a very close approximation of my investment portfolio (2/3rd stocks and 1/3rd bonds).

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (Taken 3/15/19) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, )
25% 1.81% 0.45%
US Small Value
Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF ()
5% 2.03% 0.10%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, )
25% 2.89% 0.72%
Emerging Markets
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF ()
5% 2.63% 0.13%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, )
6% 4.21% 0.25%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund ()
17% 2.86% 0.49%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund ()
17% 3.09% 0.53%
Totals 100% 2.67%


Using this metric, my maximum spending target is a 2.67% withdrawal rate. One of the things I like about using this number is that when stock prices drop, this percentage metric usually goes up… and that makes me feel better in a gloomy market. When stock prices go up, this percentage metric usually goes down, which keeps me from getting too happy. This also applies to the relative performance of US and International stocks. In this way, tracking yield adjusts in a very rough manner for valuation.

We are a real 40-year-old couple with three young kids, and this money has to last us a lifetime (without stomach ulcers). This number does not dictate how much we actually spend every year, but it gives me an idea of how comfortable I am with our withdrawal rate. We spend less than this amount now, but I like to plan for the worst while hoping for the best. For now, we are quite fortunate to be able to do work that is meaningful to us, in an amount where we still enjoy it and don’t feel burned out.

Life is not a Monte Carlo simulation, and you need a plan to ride out the rough times. Even if you run a bunch of numbers looking back to 1920 and it tells you some number is “safe”, that’s still trying to use 100 years of history to forecast 50 years into the future. Michael Pollan says that you can sum up his eating advice as “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” You can sum up my thoughts on portfolio income as “Spend mostly dividends and interest. Don’t eat too much principal.” At the same time, live your life. Enjoy your time with family and friends. You may be more likely to run out of time than run out of money.

In the end, I do think using a 3% withdrawal rate is a reasonable target for something retiring young (before age 50) and a 4% withdrawal rate is a reasonable target for one retiring at a more traditional age (closer to 65). If you’re still in the accumulation phase, you don’t really need a more accurate number than that. Focus on your earning potential via better career moves, investing in your skillset, and/or look for entrepreneurial opportunities where you get equity in a business.

TD Ameritrade Commission-Free ETF List + Up to $2,500 Account Transfer Bonuses

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Updated 2019 with new transfer bonus links. TD Ameritrade has made several changes to their commission-free ETF trading program over the years. I am not an active trader, so that is the focus of this post. Most recently, they made an important shift from offering fewer, popular ETFs to offering a higher number of niche ETFs. In addition, TDA also has various promotions if you do decide to move over some assets.

Commission-free ETFs. Here is the . ETFs held less than 30 days will be charged a short-term trading fee of $13.90. ETFs on the commission-free list cannot be used as collateral for a margin loan, nor can they be included in margin equity for 30 days after purchase.

(For posterity, here is the old ETF list ] which ended in November 2017. These ETFs were chosen by 3rd-party Morningstar to be the best 100 ETFs from the biggest providers (Vanguard and iShares) and with the highest assets, highest trading volume, and lowest expense ratios.)

Current providers include AGFiQ QuantShares, First Trust Portfolios, iShares ETFs, J.P. Morgan Asset Management, PowerShares by Invesco, ProShares, State Street Global Advisors’ SPDR, and WisdomTree Investments.

The bad. Unfortunately, this move also puts TD Ameritrade more firmly into the pack of brokerage with ETF/mutual fund “supermarkets” based on who will pay them for shelf placement:

TD Ameritrade receives remuneration from certain ETFs (exchange-traded funds) that participate in the commission-free ETF program for shareholder, administrative and/or other services, generally ranging from the equivalent of approximately 15% to 30% of the ETFs’ annual net operating expense ratio.

This is a common arrangement and you’ll see the same thing at Schwab and Fidelity, but in my opinion you end up a bigger list of less-attractive products. They also tend to have higher expense ratios. In my opinion, the quantity has gone up, but the quality has gone down. Here are some examples that I’ve never even heard of before:

  • First Trust Alternative Absolute Return Strategy ETF
  • iShares Fallen Angels USD Bond ETF
  • PowerShares Optimum Yield Diversified Commodity Strategy No K-1 Portfolio
  • QuantShares US Market Neutral Anti-Beta Fund

The good. To be fair, there are still some iShares Core ETFs (though not the broadest ones) and some SPDR ETFs that cover broad indexes (though with lower asset size and trading volume). There are maybe 15-20 ETFs that I could see as part of a low-cost, long-term portfolio. A few examples:

  • SPDR Dow Jones Total Market (SPTM)
  • SPDR S&P World ex-US (SPDW)
  • SPDR Lehman Aggregate Bond (SPAB)
  • iShares 0-5 Year TIPS Bond ETF (STIP)
  • iShares Core International Aggregate Bond ETF (IAGG)
  • iShares Core U.S. REIT ETF (USRT)
  • iShares Global REIT ETF (REET)

However, I still don’t like that they changed it. You might have built up a position with $0 trades, and now it costs $6.95 per trade to buy more. You can try and switch to the closest approximate ETF, but what about next time they shake up the list? TD Ameritrade won “#1 for Long-Term Investing” in the Barron’s magazine 2018 rankings. I don’t know if long-term investors like to switch holdings every 7 years. Maybe the niche ETFs are a better draw for TDA’s target audience.

The competition. If you want to construct a low-cost, broadly-indexed ETF portfolio, I would compare with the offerings from Schwab, Vanguard, and Fidelity. None of those are an independent brokerage like TD Ameritrade, but they do offer commission-free trades on low-cost, broad ETFs. You could also look into the free trade offers from Bank of America ($50k+ in relationship assets), Robinhood (free share bonus), WeBull (free share bonus), and Firstrade.

Current New Account Promotions. TD Ameritrade has various promotions that vary between 90 days of free trades on up to $2,500 depending on how in assets you bring over. Here are what I have found are the best bonuses for any given asset level:

  • Fund with $3,000: Get 90 days of free trading
  • Fund with $25,000: Get $100 cash + 90 days of free trading
  • Fund with $50,000: Get $200 cash + 90 days of free trading
  • Fund with $100,000: Get $500 cash + 90 days of free trading
  • Fund with $250,000: Get $1,000 cash + 90 days of free trading

  • Fund with $500,000: Get $1,200 cash + 90 days of free trading
  • Fund with $1,000,000: Get $2,500 cash + 90 days of free trading

Bottom line. TD Ameritrade has shifted the nature of their commission-free ETF program. Overall, the widely-held, broad ETFs from Vanguard and iShares have been removed. In their place, many niche/sector ETFs and smaller, newer ETFs have been added. If you like specialized ETFs, check to see if it is on their newly-expanded list of 296 ETFs.

My Money Blog Portfolio Asset Allocation and Performance, March 2019 (Q1)

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”


Here’s my quarterly portfolio update for Q1 2019. Most of my dividends arrive on a quarterly basis, and this helps me decided where to reinvest them. These are my real-world holdings, including 401k/403b/IRAs and taxable brokerage accounts but excluding our house, cash reserves, and a few side investments. The goal of this portfolio is to create sustainable income to cover our household expenses for the next (hopefully) 40+ years. We are currently “semi-retired”, meaning we both work part-time while also spending a portion of our dividends and interest from this portfolio.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

I use both Personal Capital and a custom Google Spreadsheet to track my investment holdings. The Personal Capital financial tracking app (free, my review) automatically logs into my accounts, adds up my balances, tracks my performance, and calculates my asset allocation. I still use my (free, instructions) because it helps me calculate how much I need in each asset class to rebalance back towards my target asset allocation.

Here are my YTD performance and current asset allocation visually, per the “Holdings” and “Allocation” tabs of my Personal Capital account, respectively:

Stock Holdings
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSMX, VTSAX)
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VGTSX, VTIAX)
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR)
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSIX, VGSLX)

Bond Holdings
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLTX, VMLUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWITX, VWIUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Treasury Fund (VFITX, VFIUX)
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX, VAIPX)
Fidelity Inflation-Protected Bond Index Fund (FIPDX)
iShares Barclays TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)
Individual TIPS securities
U.S. Savings Bonds (Series I)

Target Asset Allocation. Our overall goal is to include asset classes that will provide long-term returns above inflation, distribute income via dividends and interest, and finally offer some historical tendencies to balance each other out. I make a small bet that US Small Value and Emerging Markets will have higher future long-term returns (along with some higher volatility) than the more large and broad indexes, although I could be wrong. I don’t hold commodities, gold, or bitcoin as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly.

I believe that it is important to imagine an asset class doing poorly for a long time, with bad news constantly surrounding it, and only hold the ones where you still think you can maintain faith based on a solid foundation of knowledge and experience.

Stocks Breakdown

  • 38% US Total Market
  • 7% US Small-Cap Value
  • 38% International Total Market
  • 7% Emerging Markets
  • 10% US Real Estate (REIT)

Bonds Breakdown

  • 50% High-quality, Intermediate-Term Bonds
  • 50% US Treasury Inflation-Protected Bonds

I have settled into a long-term target ratio of 67% stocks and 33% bonds (2:1 ratio) within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and occasionally rebalance. I will use the dividends and interest to rebalance whenever possible in order to avoid taxable gains. (I’m fine with it drifting to 65/35 or 70/30.) With a self-managed, simple portfolio of low-cost funds, we minimize management fees, commissions, and taxes.

Holdings commentary. On the bond side, I still like high-quality bonds with a short-to-intermediate duration of under 5 years or so. This means US Treasuries, TIPS, or investment-grade municipal bonds. I don’t want to worry about my bonds “blowing up”. Right now, my bond portfolio is about 1/3rd muni bonds, 1/3rd treasury bonds, and 1/3rd inflation-linked treasury bonds (and savings bonds).

On the stocks side, everything has had a nice bounce back up since the drop in late 2018. I didn’t really sweat the ride down, so I’m not celebrating the ride up. I remain satisfied with my mix, knowing that I will own whatever successful businesses come out of the US, China, or wherever in the future.

Performance commentary and benchmarks. According to Personal Capital, my portfolio went up 8.6% already so far in 2019. I see that during the same period the S&P 500 has gone up over 12%, Foreign Developed stocks up nearly 11%, and the US Aggregate bond index was up nearly 2%.

An alternative benchmark for my portfolio is 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund and 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund – one is 60/40 and the other is 80/20 so it also works out to 70% stocks and 30% bonds. That benchmark would have a total return of +8.6% for 2019 YTD. This quarter, I’m right at this benchmark with my customized portfolio.

I’ll share about more about the income aspect in a separate post.

Charlie Munger CNBC Interview 2019 Full Video, Full Transcript, and Notes

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Here’s another Charles T. Munger interview (last one for a while, I promise!) for those of you that share a peculiar fondness for hearing someone encourage rationality, patience, and self-discipline. After the Daily Journal 2019 annual meeting, Munger did a 30-minute interview with Becky Quick of CNBC. (See similar Buffett CNBC interview.) I guess they forgave Munger’s jabs at Jim Cramer, as they posted the along with a .

I’m going to be honest, I didn’t get as many gems out of this interview as some of his other stuff. Here was my favorite part.

The secrets to life can also fit on an index card? As Munger noted earlier, “If it’s trite, it’s right”. We’ve seen personal finance advice fit on an index card, so why not life advice as well?

BECKY QUICK: Charlie, so many of the people who come here come because they’re looking for advice not on business or investments as much as they’re looking for just advice on life. There were a lot of questions today, people trying to figure out what the secret to life is, to a long and happy life. And– and I just wonder, if you were–

CHARLIE MUNGER: Now that is easy, because it’s so simple.

BECKY QUICK: What is it?

CHARLIE MUNGER: You don’t have a lot of envy, you don’t have a lot of resentment, you don’t overspend your income, you stay cheerful in spite of your troubles. You deal with reliable people and you do what you’re supposed to do. And all these simple rules work so well to make your life better. And they’re so trite.

BECKY QUICK: How old were you when you figured this out?

CHARLIE MUNGER: About seven. I could tell that some of my older people were a little bonkers. I’ve always been able to recognize that other people were a little bonkers. And it helped me because there’s so much irrationality in the world. And I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, its causes and its preventions, and so forth, that I– sure it’s helped me.

Charlie Munger Daily Journal Annual Meeting 2019 Full Video, Full Transcript, and Notes

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

If you like hearing Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger talk at the Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) annual meeting, you should also watch or listen to Charlie Munger at the Daily Journal (DJCO) annual meeting. DJCO is his personal pet project, and I feel like he lets loose more at this meeting than at BRK. For 2019, CNBC broadcast the . Latticework Investing generously shares a as well. I choose to listen to this over any finance-related podcast.

Here are my personal notes and highlights:

Think for yourself.

[…] my definition of being properly educated is being right when the professor is wrong. Anybody can spit back what the professor tells you. The trick is to know when he’s right and when he’s wrong. That’s the properly educated person.

Index funds have become more and more successful for a simple reason. The evidence is getting stronger over time that they provide better long-term performance due to lower costs and better tax-effeciency.

Another issue of course that’s happened in the world of stock picking, where all this money and effort goes into trying to be rational, is that we’ve had a really horrible thing happen to the investment counseling class. And that is these index funds have come along and they basically beat everybody. And not only that, the amount by which they beat everybody is roughly the amount of cost of running the operation and making the changes in investments. So you have a whole profession that is basically being paid for accomplishing practically nothing. This is very peculiar. This is not the case with bowel surgery or even the criminal defense bar in the law or something. They have a whole profession where the chosen activity they’ve selected they can’t do anything.

[…] I don’t have any solution for this problem. I do think that index investing, if everybody did it won’t work. But for another considerable period, index investing is going to work better than active stock picking where you try and know a lot.

If you are trying to beat the indexes, you need LESS diversification, not more. Wait for a few fat pitches and don’t hesitate to swing. This isn’t as widely known, but Munger’s personal portfolio is roughly 1/3rd Berkshire Hathaway stock, 1/3rd Costco stock, and 1/3rd invested in Li Lu, an investment manager based in China.

But the whole trick of the game is to have a few times when you know that something is better than average and to invest only where you have that extra knowledge. And then if you get just a few opportunities that’s enough. What the hell do you care if you own three securities and J.P. Morgan Chase owns a hundred? What’s wrong with owning a few securities?

[…] So the whole idea of diversification when you’re looking for excellence, is totally ridiculous. It doesn’t work. It gives you an impossible task.

Now at a place like Berkshire Hathaway or even the Daily Journal, we’ve done better than average. And now there’s a question, why has that happened? Why has that happened? And the answer is pretty simple. We tried to do less. We never had the illusion we could just hire a bunch of bright young people and they would know more than anybody about canned soup and aerospace and utilities and so on and so on and so on. We never had that dream. We never thought we could get really useful information on all subjects like Jim Cramer pretends to have. (laughter) We always realized that if we worked very hard we can find a few things where we were right. And that a few things were enough. And that that was a reasonable expectation.

Avoid any pitches that promise easy money from stock-picking. Penny stocks, day-trading, trends, charts. All of them.

Then if you take the modern world where people are trying to teach you how to come in and trade actively in stocks. Well I regard that as roughly equivalent to trying to induce a bunch of young people to start off on heroin. It is really stupid. And when you’re already rich to make your money by encouraging people to get rich by trading? And then there are people on the TV, another wonderful place, and they say, “I have this book that will teach you how to make 300 percent a year. All you have to do is pay for shipping and I will mail it to you!” (laughter) How likely is it that a person who suddenly found a way to make 300 percent a year would be trying to sell books on the internet to you! (laughter) It’s ridiculous.

Have modest expectations in stock market returns.

Well, my advice for a seeker of compound interest that works ideally is to reduce your expectations. Because I think it’s going to be tougher for a while. And it helps to have realistic expectations. Makes you less crazy. I think that…you know they say that common stocks from the aftermath of the Great Depression, which was the worst in the English speaking world in hundreds of years, to the present time may be an index that’s produced 10 percent. Well that’s pre-inflation. After inflation it may be 7 percent or something. And the difference between 7 and 10 in terms of its consequences are just hugely dramatic over that long period of time. And if that’s 7 in real terms, but achieved starting at a perfect period and through the greatest boom in history, starting now it could well be 3 percent or 2 percent in real terms. It’s not unthinkable you’d have 5 percent returns and 3 percent inflation or some ghastly consequences like that. The ideal way to cope with that is to say, “If that happens, I can have a happy life.”

Be very careful about who you chose to partner up with in your life.

We all know people that are out married, I mean their spouses are so much better. Think of what a good decision that was for them. And what a lucky decision. Way more important than money. A lot of them did it when they were young, they just stumbled into it. Now you don’t have to stumble into it, you can be very careful. A lot of people are wearing signs, “Danger. Danger. Do not touch.” And people just charged right ahead. (laughter) That’s a mistake. Well you can laugh but it’s still a horrible mistake.

On becoming rich.

This business of controlling the costs and living simply, that was the secret. Warren and I had tiny little bits of money. We always underspent our incomes and invested. And if you live long enough you end up rich. It’s not very complicated.

“If it’s trite it’s right.”

I think personal discipline, personal morality, good colleagues, good ideas, all the simple stuff. I’d say, if you want to carry one message from Charlie Munger it’s this, “If it’s trite it’s right.” All those old virtues, they all work.

My general idea is there’s no point in fretting too much about what you can’t fix. It’s a big mistake to fill yourself with resentments and hatreds and so on. It’s such a simple idea but so many people ruin their lives unnecessarily. Envy is such a stupid thing to have because you can’t possibly have any fun with that particular sin. Who in the hell ever had any fun in envy? What good could envy possibly do for you? And somebody is always going to be doing better than you are. It’s really stupid. So my system at life is to figure out what’s really stupid and avoid it. It doesn’t make me popular, but it prevents a lot of trouble.

Warren Buffett CNBC Interview 2019 Full Video, Full Transcript, and Notes

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

I’m one of the many folks who like to keep up with Warren Buffett content to see if there is any wisdom to be gained. After the release of the 2019 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter, Buffett did a 2-hour interview with Becky Quick of CNBC. While I don’t like when CNBC encourages average folks to treat investing like sports betting, I do appreciate that they offer up the along with a .

Here are my personal notes after both watching (listening, actually) and then reading the text as well.

If you don’t DIY, the person who manages your money should invest it as they would their own family’s money. Most of Buffett’s and Munger’s family money is invested in BRK stock. Maybe not Buffett’s wife, but their children and grandchildren. That is why Berkshire Hathaway is run with such care and conservatism such that no disaster would make it permanently impaired. This is different from when a CEO has an agreement to make lots of money if the share price goes up in the short-term, and he/she simply jumps ship if things go horribly wrong. Check out this excerpt about the target audience for his shareholder letter:

I’ve always had the image that I am talking to my sisters. I have two sisters. They’re both– Berkshire’s pretty much their whole investment. They’re smart. They’re not active in business. So– they’re not reading about it every day. But I pretend they’ve been away for a year and I’m reporting to them on their investment. And then this year because we may be repurchasing shares, I tried to have the vision that they were talking to me about whether they should sell their shares and I was explaining to them exactly how I would look at it if I were in their shoes. So– it’s, “Dear Doris and Bertie,” at the start and then I take that off at the end. But I’m talking to them. And I’m trying to talk to ’em in a manner where if– you know, they’re practically entirely in Berkshire and if they were thinking of selling some, here’s what I’d want ’em to know before they made a decision.

That is how I try to write this blog. I am telling you my asset allocation, the names of the mutual fund and ETFs that I own, the brokerage accounts that I hold them in, the banks that I keep my cash in, the credit cards that I have applied for and use everyday. These are the same things I would recommend to my parents and siblings (and children eventually). Hopefully, if something happens to me, then my writing here can serve as a resource about what my (their) portfolio is and why I bought them and how they should spend from it. I want my spouse to hopefully keep the faith and allow it to provide for them even if I’m not around.

Even if markets aren’t perfectly efficient, it’s still really hard to beat the S&P 500. In response to a viewer question, Buffett discloses the two men picked to replace him in the stock-picking arena, Ted Weschler and Todd Combs, have lagged the S&P 500 slightly since they started 8 years ago. Yes, this was during a bull market, but they still lagged over a pretty long period. These guys sit around all day reading 10-Ks and were handpicked by Warren Buffett himself! You must ask yourself, do you really think you have an edge on them?

BECKY QUICK: That worked the last 77 years, but there’s a question that came in, T29. This is from Scott Baker. “With so many people in the S&P index funds is it still market neutral and the best investment vehicle for most people?”

WARREN BUFFETT: Yeah, I think it’s the best investment– because most people don’t know how to pick stocks. And– most of the time I don’t know how to pick stocks. I mean, it’s– it is not an easy game. And by definition people are going to do average. I mean, if you take everybody in aggregate, and if half of ’em are paying big fees and jumping around and paying brokerage commissions, the other half have to do better. And– no, it is– as I’ve told people in– and my widow will I’ve instructed– the trustee to put 90% in an S&P 500 index fund and 10% in governments, just so that– just for a feeling of security. But– there’s been no better bet than America. There’s been nothing like it.

Be patient. Be prepared. Buffett is still waiting for an opportunity, probably in the next recession or down part of the economic cycle. One of the things that makes Buffett special is his rationality and patience. Berkshire still has a ton of cash, and he won’t spend it just because talking heads says he should. With the size of their cash hoard, they want to buy an entire business at a good price. However, private equity has too much money to deploy, and is bidding up all the private businesses because they are willing to use leverage. This will eventually change. One day, probably within the next decade, the short-term outlook for businesses will be quite gloomy.

Free Morningstar Premium Mutual Fund Reports via Public Library Card

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Updated 2019. Let’s say you are a DIY investor and doing some research on some mutual funds. You decide to learn more about the Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund. You pull up the Morningstar quote pages (ticker and ) and find some useful numbers, an analyst report hidden to the public as a “premium” feature.

You see a 14-day free trial and after some more clicking around, you discover that a premium membership to Morningstar costs $199 a year or $24 a month.


Now, I’d like to read the rest of that analyst report, but I’m not sure if it is worth the fee. Well, you may already have access to those analyst reports through your payment of local and state taxes. Yup, the good ole’ public library!

Many public libraries have a subscription to what is called the Morningstar Investment Research Center database. Most offer instant, online access via your library card number and PIN. You should look under the “Databases” or “Resources” section. Some only have a limited amount of offsite licenses, so you’ll have to either ask for a password or you’ll have to read them in a branch. Here’s a screenshot of my free report accessed from the comfort of my home, with all the good stuff blurred out of course:

I was also able to access their analyst reports for stocks, mutual funds, and ETFs, as well as the premium version of tools like Portfolio X-Ray.

Now, if your local library system doesn’t provide this access, you can also look at state libraries, university libraries, or other libraries in the region for which you are eligible. Finally, there are some public libraries that offer library cards to non-residents for an annual fee. For example, the in North Carolina offers library cards by mail for $45 a year (Seniors 62+, $35 a year).

Non-residents of Mecklenburg County can obtain a Charlotte Mecklenburg Library card for an annual fee of $45.00. This amount is approximately equal to the annual property tax a Mecklenburg County resident pays to support the Library. A non-resident library card entitles you to the full services of the Library at all locations.

According to their website, they also offer access to the Morningstar database. $45 a year is still significantly less than $199 a year, and there are other library benefits like access to Libby/Overdrive eBooks and RB Digital magazines. However, I would call them to confirm before you plunk down $45 as the services they offer can change at any time.

That is just one example. Here are some more libraries with , although I haven’t checked again in 2019 as to whether they offer M* access.

  • ($25/year)
  • ($27/year)
  • ($50/year)

Bottom line. If you want to access reports and information from the Morningstar Premium section, check your local and state libraries to see if you can access it for free with your library card. Some public libraries also offer library cards to non-residents for an annual fee. However, if you are signing up for a specific service like Morningstar, I would call them up first and confirm that they are still offering it for non-resident cardholders before you pay any fees.

Personal Finance on a 3×5 Index Card: Classic and New Young Adult Version

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

A few years back, Professor Harold Pollack quipped that everything you really need to know about money fits on a 3×5 index card. Folks asked him to prove it, and the resulting handwritten card went viral. Eventually, the idea became a book cowritten with Helaine Olen called The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated. Here is the original photo:

Via , I learned that Dr. Pollack recently created a . Here again is a photo:

In case you can’t make out the handwriting, his tips are as follows:

  • Pay your credit card bill in full every month.
  • Keep a budget and spending diary. Pay cash up front whenever you can.
  • Don’t smoke. Mind your alcohol and dining spending, too.
  • Start saving early. Make it automatic, ideally through a 401(k).
  • If you have a job and no kids, aim to save 20% of pretax income.
  • Invest in low-fee total stock index funds, ideally in a 401(k).
  • Open a Roth IRA if you don’t have access to a 401(k).
  • Don’t buy individual stocks or try to time the markets.
  • Think federal first when borrowing for school. And don’t combine public and private loans if you consolidate.
  • A focused and rigorous major matters more than where you go to college.
  • Don’t push your friends to overspend. And beware the same peer pressures applied to you.

Sound, simple advice. But simple is not easy, and it can be hard to pull off everything on this list. I recommend using the card to help focus your efforts.

Best Interest Rates on Cash – March 2019

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Here’s my monthly roundup of the best interest rates on cash for March 2019, roughly sorted from shortest to longest maturities. Check out my Ultimate Rate-Chaser Calculator to get an idea of how much extra interest you’d earn if you are moving money between accounts. Rates listed are available to everyone nationwide. Rates checked as of 3/4/19.

High-yield savings accounts
While the huge megabanks like to get away with 0.01% APY, it’s easy to open a new “piggy-back” savings account and simply move some funds over from your existing checking account. The interest rates on savings accounts can drop at any time, so I prioritize banks with a history of competitive rates. Some banks will bait you and then lower the rates in the hopes that you are too lazy to leave.

  • offers 2.50% APY on balances up to $50,000. CIT Bank Savings Builder is now up to 2.45% APY with a $100 monthly deposit (with no balance limit). There are several other established high-yield savings accounts at 2% APY and up.
  • Got a lot of friends or followers? You can 4.30% APY on up to $50,000 for 30 days via the Empower app, another 30 days for each friend that you refer to the. First month is free + 11 referrals = 4.30% APY for a year.

Short-term guaranteed rates (1 year and under)
A common question is what to do with a big pile of cash that you’re waiting to deploy shortly (just sold your house, just sold your business, legal settlement, inheritance). My usual advice is to keep things simple and take your time. If not a savings account, then put it in a flexible short-term CD under the FDIC limits until you have a plan.

  • has a 13-month No Penalty CD at 2.60% APY with a $500 minimum deposit. 13-month No Penalty CD at 2.35% APY with a $500 minimum deposit, 11-month No Penalty CD at 2.30% APY with a $25k+ minimum, and CIT Bank 11-month No Penalty CD at 2.05% APY with a $1,000 minimum. No Penalty CDs offer a fixed interest rate that can never go down, but you can still take out your money (once) without any fees if you want to use it elsewhere. You may wish to open multiple CDs in smaller increments for more flexibility.
  • has a 13-month CD at 3.20% APY ($500 minimum) with an early withdrawal penalty of 3 months of interest.

Money market mutual funds + Ultra-short bond ETFs
If you like to keep cash in a brokerage account, beware that many brokers pay out very little interest on their default cash sweep funds (and keep the money for themselves). The following money market and ultra-short bond funds are not FDIC-insured, but may be a good option if you have idle cash and cheap/free commissions.

  • currently pays an 2.46% SEC yield. The default sweep option is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which has an SEC yield of 2.34%. You can manually move the money over to Prime if you meet the $3,000 minimum investment.
  • currently pays 2.71% SEC Yield ($3,000 min) and 2.81% SEC Yield ($50,000 min). The average duration is ~1 year, so there is more interest rate risk.
  • The PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active Bond ETF () has a 2.87% SEC yield and the iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF () has a 2.93% SEC yield while holding a portfolio of investment-grade bonds with an average duration of ~6 months.

Treasury Bills and Ultra-short Treasury ETFs
Another option is to buy individual Treasury bills which come in a variety of maturities from 4-weeks to 52-weeks. You can also invest in ETFs that hold a rotating basket of short-term Treasury Bills for you, while charging a small management fee for doing so. T-bill interest is exempt from state and local income taxes.

  • You can build your own T-Bill ladder at TreasuryDirect.gov or via a brokerage account with a bond desk like Vanguard and Fidelity. Here are the current . As of 3/4/19, a 4-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.44% annualized interest and a 52-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.54% annualized interest.
  • The Goldman Sachs Access Treasury 0-1 Year ETF () has a 2.30% SEC yield and the SPDR Bloomberg Barclays 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF () has a 2.21% SEC yield. GBIL appears to have a slightly longer average maturity than BIL.

US Savings Bonds
offer rates that are linked to inflation and backed by the US government. You must hold them for at least a year. There are annual purchase limits. If you redeem them within 5 years there is a penalty of the last 3 months of interest.

  • “I Bonds” bought between November 2018 and April 2019 will earn a 2.82% rate for the first six months. The rate of the subsequent 6-month period will be based on inflation again. More info here.
  • In mid-April 2019, the CPI will be announced and you will have a short period where you will have a very close estimate of the rate for the next 12 months. I will have another post up at that time.

Prepaid Cards with Attached Savings Accounts
A small subset of prepaid debit cards have an “attached” FDIC-insured savings account with exceptionally high interest rates. The negatives are that balances are capped, and there are many fees that you must be careful to avoid (lest they eat up your interest). Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do. There is a long list of previous offers that have already disappeared with little notice. I don’t personally recommend or use any of these anymore.

  • The only notable card left in this category is at 6% APY on up to $2,500, but there are many hoops to jump through. Requirements include $1,500+ in “signature” purchases and a minimum balance of $25.00 at the end of the month.

Rewards checking accounts
These unique checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but with unique risks. You have to jump through certain hoops, and if you make a mistake you won’t earn any interest for that month. Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do. Rates can also drop to near-zero quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. I don’t use any of these anymore, either.

  • The best one right now is Orion FCU Premium Checking at 4.00% APY on balances up to $30,000 if you meet make $500+ in direct deposits and 8 debit card “signature” purchases each month. The APY goes down to 0.05% APY and they charge you a $5 monthly fee if you miss out on the requirements. Find a local rewards checking account at .
  • If you’re looking for a high-interest checking account without debit card transaction requirements then the rate won’t be as high, but take a look at at 1.60% APY.

Certificates of deposit (greater than 1 year)
CDs offer higher rates, but come with an early withdrawal penalty. By finding a bank CD with a reasonable early withdrawal penalty, you can enjoy higher rates but maintain access in a true emergency. Alternatively, consider building a CD ladder of different maturity lengths (ex. 1/2/3/4/5-years) such that you have access to part of the ladder each year, but your blended interest rate is higher than a savings account. When one CD matures, use that money to buy another 5-year CD to keep the ladder going.

  • has a 19-month CD at 3.50% APY ($500 minimum) with an early withdrawal penalty of 6 months of interest.
  • has the following certificate rate: 2-year at 3.25% APY 3-year at 3.35% APY, 4-year at 3.25% APY, 5-year at 3.51% APY ($500 minimum deposit). MACU can be joined via a partner organization for a one-time $5 fee, usually right on the online application. Note: The 2-year and 3-year certificates have an early withdrawal penalty of 180 days of interest, and the 4-year and 5-year certificates have an early withdrawal penalty of a full year (!) of interest.
  • You can buy certificates of deposit via the bond desks of and . These “brokered CDs” offer FDIC insurance and easy laddering, but they don’t come with predictable fixed early withdrawal penalties. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 2-year non-callable CD at 2.60% APY and a 5-year non-callable CD at 3.00% APY. Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs listed by Fidelity.

Longer-term Instruments
I’d use these with caution due to increased interest rate risk, but I still track them to see the rest of the current yield curve.

  • Willing to lock up your money for 10+ years? You can buy long-term certificates of deposit via the bond desks of and . These “brokered CDs” offer FDIC insurance, but they don’t come with predictable fixed early withdrawal penalties. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 10-year non-callable CD at 3.25% APY. Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs from Fidelity. Matching the overall yield curve, current CD rates do not rise much higher as you extend beyond a 5-year maturity.
  • How about two decades? are not indexed to inflation, but they have a guarantee that the value will double in value in 20 years, which equals a guaranteed return of 3.5% a year. However, if you don’t hold for that long, you’ll be stuck with the normal rate which is quite low (currently a sad 0.10% rate). I view this as a huge early withdrawal penalty. You could also view it as long-term bond and thus a hedge against deflation, but only if you can hold on for 20 years. As of 3/4/19, the 20-year Treasury Bond rate was 2.93%.

All rates were checked as of 3/4/19.

Vanguard ETF & Mutual Fund Expense Ratio Changes (March 2019)

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

vglogoUpdated March 2019. Vanguard recently announced a few on some popular ETFs. Here are a few highlights:

  • Vanguard Total International Bond ETF (BNDX) is now 0.09%.
  • Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-US ETF (VEU) is now 0.09%.
  • Vanguard Tax-Exempt Bond ETF (VTEB) is now 0.08%.
  • Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO) is now 0.12%.
  • Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-US Small-Cap ETF (VSS) is now 0.12%.
  • Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF (VYM) is now 0.06%.
  • Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT) is ow 0.09%.

In addition, the following mutual funds will now have :

  • Vanguard FTSE Social Index Fund (VFTAX)
  • Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-US Small-Cap Index Fund (VFSAX)
  • Vanguard High Dividend Yield Index Fund (VHYAX)
  • Vanguard Long-Term Bond Index Fund (VBLAX)
  • Vanguard Total World Stock Index Fund (VTWAX)

Vanguard Select ETFs. These are what Vanguard thinks should be the building blocks of your portfolio. Here are expense ratios on the four broadest ones + their classic S&P 500 ETF:

  • Vanguard Total US Stock Market (VTI) at 0.04%.
  • Vanguard Total International Stock Market (VXUS) at 0.09%.
  • Vanguard Total US Bond Market (BND) at 0.04%.
  • Vanguard Total International Bond (BNDX) at 0.09%.
  • Vanguard 500 Index (VOO) at 0.04%.

Background. When you invest in a mutual fund or ETF, the fund company charges you a fee called the annual net expense ratio. If you hold a steady $10,000 in a hypothetical fund with a 1% expense ratio, that would result in an annual charge of $100. These expenses are actually deducted daily in tiny increments from the funds’ net asset value (NAV), and while the numbers can seem small they will compound quietly and relentlessly over time. Here is an illustration from the Vanguard website:


Vanguard has a long history of lowering their expense ratios as their assets under management grow, whereas the industry average hasn’t changed very much.


Past announcements. Vanguard deletes their old announcements after 12 months. I started using ticker symbols for brevity.

  • April 2017. VTI, VOO, BND all down to 0.04%.
  • March 2017. VWENX down to 0.16%.
  • January 2017. VWIAX down to 0.15%. VTIP down to 0.07%. VTINX down to 0.13%.
  • December 2016.
  • April 2016. VTI, VOO, BND, VBR, all down.
  • February 2016. VTI, BNDX, VEU, VNQI all down.
  • January 2016. Target Retirement 2010-2060 Funds down to 0.14%-0.16%.
  • May 2015. VNQ up to 0.12%.
  • April 2015. BND down to 0.07%.
  • February 2014. VXUS down to 0.14%. VWO down to 0.15%.
  • January 2013. Target Retirement 2010-2055 Funds down to 0.16%-0.18%.

The Vanguard Effect. In recent years as index funds have shot up in popularity, most of the major providers have introduced similar low-cost products (notably iShares, Fidelity, and Schwab). Every subsequent “price drop” is less newsworthy or impactful to my portfolio. However, I think competition is great and even Vanguard needs to be kept on its toes. I have bought ETFs from other providers when they are the best available option.

However, you can’t ignore the fact that Vanguard has been the leader in the industry. The super-low-cost ETFs only exist where Vanguard has already established itself. If Vanguard hasn’t pushed the cost down in a specific area, their competitors know that and keep the costs high. Here’s a chart showing the “Vanguard Effect“.

As of July 2018, Vanguard brokerage accounts allow commission-free trading of Vanguard ETFs as well as all major competitor ETFs, for example from Blackrock iShares and Schwab. Fidelity and Schwab have been expanding their line-up of commission-free ETFs, but none of them include Vanguard ETFs in their lists.

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