Q. I know you and many others are big fans of low-cost index investing. I would agree. It is just simple math. It makes total sense in a rational world. But I don't think all managed funds are bad, or that paying a commission is totally irrational. Some of your past articles give a nod of approval to the American Funds, sold by commissioned brokers.
My experience is that they have their place. If it hadn't been for a commissioned broker selling me American Funds and helping me develop a plan and holding me accountable, I would not have the start that I have on retirement funding. I was a finance major in college and knew the basics of investing, but I needed a "nudge" to make me an investor.
When my wife and I got married 16 years ago, I had a small IRA rollover ($10,000) from previous employer. Now at age 41 (and she at 38) we have combined retirement assets (all earned and saved ourselves) just over $600,000, one hundred percent invested in American Funds. I am more knowledgeable than I was then. I would be very comfortable in self-directed index type investments.
The question is should I?
I don't know how to quantify what my broker may bring to the table when it comes time for asset liquidation and spending. I have a pretty good handle on accumulating assets. It’s the distribution, changing Social Security, taxation, and policy risk of a broken government that worries me.
Is there some middle ground when using a broker? Am I totally crazy to be doing that? It seems like most articles are totally against it. I would like your opinion on people like myself that may be using a lower cost managed fund family. I think it has worked pretty well for us. It occurs to me that many of the “experts” writing articles probably don’t have a fraction of the assets we’ve busted our butts to build. ---K.K., Clovis, NM
A. The first thing that came to mind as I read your note was “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In an ideal world, all investors would be well informed, risk tolerant, and happy to take the responsibility for their savings and retirement. But lots of people don’t want to take the responsibility, or do the learning. And many of the people willing to do both don’t have the temperament to cope with market ups and downs. So if you are comfortable today, keep on keeping on.
You can increase your feeling of personal security by doing an annual review of your investments, checking their performance against their indexes. Remember, while the American Funds group can rightfully brag on some of their funds doing better than the market over long time periods, they can’t claim that for all of their funds. Doing that exercise will also keep you prepared for taking an exit if it becomes necessary.
If reader mail is any indication, the greatest danger you face is having your current broker replaced by another broker who suddenly finds “superior opportunities” in another commissioned product. If that happens, be prepared to move your money.
A big expense sensitivity shift is in process. Until recently, most people didn’t pay much attention to the cost of investing. Today, the focus on cost has reached almost obsessive levels. Some people are shifting exchange-traded funds because one costs one basis point (that’s 1/100th of 1 percent) less than another.
In fact, lots of things are in motion in these funds. But such tiny expense changes simply aren’t meaningful. Cutting investment expenses from nearly 2 percent down to 0.6 percent or 0.2 percent, however, is a great achievement.
Finally, let’s be realistic about what you can expect from any adviser (or newspaper columnist). We listen to others for perspective and understanding. Everything about the future is a guess. It may be a well-informed guess, but it is still a guess. You make your best-informed guess. Then take your chances. Just remember that a baseball player who hits 300 earns the really big bucks. The time to leave the room is when someone offers to share his crystal ball for what he calls a modest fee, like every dime of interest and dividends your money can earn.