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Monday, January 25, 2010

How Wall Street Makes Money Off You

Jason Zweig had a nice article on the inflated expected investment returns after inflation and taxes from investors and advisors

Robert Veres, editor of the Inside Information financial-planning newsletter, recently asked his subscribers to estimate long-term future stock returns after inflation, expenses and taxes, what I call a "net-net-net" return. Several dozen leading financial advisers responded. Although some didn't subtract taxes, the average answer was 6%. A few went as high as 9%.
We all should be so lucky. Historically, inflation has eaten away three percentage points of return a year. Investment expenses and taxes each have cut returns by roughly one to two percentage points a year. All told, those costs reduce annual returns by five to seven points.

So, in order to earn 6% for clients after inflation, fees and taxes, these financial planners will somehow have to pick investments that generate 11% or 13% a year before costs. Where will they find such huge gains? Since 1926, according to Ibbotson Associates, U.S. stocks have earned an annual average of 9.8%. Their long-term, net-net-net return is under 4%.

Even the biggest investors are too optimistic. David Salem is president of the Investment Fund for Foundations, which manages $8 billion for more than 700 nonprofits. Mr. Salem periodically asks trustees and investment officers of these charities to imagine they can swap all their assets in exchange for a contract that guarantees them a risk-free return for the next 50 years, while also satisfying their current spending needs. Then he asks them what minimal rate of return, after inflation and all fees, they would accept in such a swap.

I asked several investing experts what guaranteed net-net-net return they would accept to swap out their own assets. William Bernstein of Efficient Frontier Advisors would take 4%. Laurence Siegel, a consultant and former head of investment research at the Ford Foundation: 3%. John C. Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group of mutual funds: 2.5%. Elroy Dimson of London Business School, an expert on the history of market returns: 0.5%.

Meanwhile, I asked Mr. Salem, who says he would swap at 5%, to see if he could get anyone on Wall Street to call his bluff. In exchange for a basket of 51% global stocks, 26% bonds, 13% cash and 5% each in commodities and real estate—much like a portfolio Mr. Salem oversees—the institutional trading desk at one major investment bank was willing to offer a guaranteed rate, after fees and inflation, of 1%.

All this suggests a useful reality check. If your financial planner says he can earn you 6% annually, net-net-net, tell him you'll take it, right now, upfront. In fact, tell him you'll take 5% and he can keep the difference. In exchange, you will sell him your entire portfolio at its current market value. You've just offered him the functional equivalent of what Wall Street calls a total-return swap.

Unless he's a fool or a crook, he probably will decline your offer. If he's honest, he should admit that he can't get sufficient returns to honor the swap.

So make him explain what rate he would be willing to pay if he actually had to execute a total return swap with you. That's the number you both should use to estimate the returns on your portfolio.

Now I don't have  problem with the 4% return number  possibly even lower depending on the tax situation.

But I also have a big problem with the wall street firms guarantee of 1% as it's best offer. Well I would hesitate to use the word crook I would certainly say that is a ripoff. The trading desk could turn around buy a 20 year tip to get an inflation protected return of 1.96% and pocket the difference for a risk free profit for at least 20 years.

oftentimes that's how wall street makes it's money. The trading desks scour the worlds markets for a risk free arbitrage of a fee basis points (.01) while the sales desks find client deals that generate 25 or 30 times to generate that return.

It's almost always better and cheaper to go straight to the market ( in this case buying a tip bond even direct from the govt for no commission) rather than buying a "package" from the wall street firms. You pay big time for the wrapping .

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