Ask The Experts: Money Matters

By Mike Miles

Risk efficiency

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Q. I saw you use the term risk efficiency in a recent response, and it made me curious. I have a nice little amount in the Thrift Savings Plan now. I don’t think I will be needing it in the future, except to hand down to future heirs, and so have tried to maintain a 70 percent stocks (35 percent C, 15 percent S and 20 percent I), 15 percent F, 15 percent G ratio. I read in a financial magazine (sometime around 2009) that a 70/30 ratio of stocks to bonds and/or cash reduced the risk considerably over a 100 percent stock portfolio, and didn’t reduce returns significantly. Do you agree, or do you have some other thoughts on what is risk-efficient for long-term growth?

A. Risk efficiency is a measure of how close an investment portfolio lies to the “Efficient Frontier” — the set of portfolios that mix assets together in ways that produce the maximum expected rate of return for the level of risk they produce. I can’t tell you how risk-efficient your asset allocation model is, but I’d guess it’s pretty risk efficient. Note that this doesn’t mean that it’s risk-appropriate. The correct asset allocation will be both.

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F Fund

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Q. It seems everywhere a person reads, the “expert” advice is to get out of bonds. It’s likely that interest rates will climb soon (they certainly will not go lower), the world is awash in debt etc. Your advice is to substitute a portion of other funds in place of F.

Given the predicted bond climate, why not reduce F Fund allocation to near zero? Is there some reason I’m missing for maintaining an allocation in F above low single digit percentages or perhaps no F fund allocation at all? In other words, if the F Fund is about to incur losses, why not move it all out for the short term?

A. As I have said, and you confirm, I have no objection to substituting G Fund for F Fund in the current interest rate environment. The reason to keep some allocation to bonds is for their ability to hedge stock risk. If the stock market loses 50 percent of its value again (for the third time since 2000), that F Fund exposure will look pretty smart.

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G Fund

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Q. In your recent column “4 keys to TSP success,” you mentioned, regarding asset allocation, to “diversify your holdings among cash, stocks and bonds to hedge the risk lower.” I agree with this approach wholeheartedly, but ask where in the TSP to keep “cash”? There is no money market option, just the L funds (which I don’t use, preferring to personally allocate my investments), and the G, F, C, S and I funds.

By the way, I took everything out of the G Fund and ceased all future allocations to it when there was a proposal by our leaders last year for the federal government to be able to borrow against it. Do you have any update or comment on this proposal?

A. The G Fund is a cash equivalent with an above-market rate of return. It’s as safe as anything you’ll find.

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F Fund and G Fund

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Q. I recently decided to shift the corporate bond portion of my overall portfolio into my retirement accounts (i.e., shift my retirement account holdings largely into corporate bonds, and shift my taxable account holdings away from them) since the income from bonds is taxed at a higher rate than income from equities.

Since the Thrift Savings Plan is about one-third of my retirement account money, I took a closer look at the F Fund and I was shocked to see that the majority of the Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate Bond Index that the F Fund tracks is treasuries.
I think of the purpose of the nonlifestyle funds being to allow TSP participants access to some diversification options to tailor their own portfolio. Why then would F be constructed in a way that it consists of essentially more than half G? If I wanted a portion of my bond holdings to be treasuries, I can always add more G. But if I only want to hold non-Treasury bonds, there’s no way to do it. I can’t go long F and short G.

This makes so little sense that I would bet dollars to donuts that most F Fund investors are unaware of the overlap. I generally hold the TSP design in high regard. Am I missing something?

A. The two assumptions that have inspired your concern are incorrect. First, the G Fund is not a bond fund, it is a cash equivalent, and there is no overlap between it and the F Fund. Second, as of Jan. 17, 2014, the F Fund’s index consisted of about one-third U.S. Treasury debt, and this has been historically typical.

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Moving balances between TSP funds to avoid market downturns

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Q. Does the Thrift Savings Plan allow one to shift all of his C Fund balance to the F Fund to wait out an expected downturn in the S&P 500? I know one generally should not try to guess the market, but if one could stay ahead of downturns and upturns (in theory), would it be more profitable over the long term (10 to 20 years) to shift out of C to F temporarily rather than suffering through market downturns (as in 2001-02 and 2008)? I guess it’s like selling high and buying back in low, assuming one’s timing was spot-on.

A. This is allowed, but as you point out, not a reliable investment strategy. You could do better.

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TSP withdrawals and investments

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Q. I am a civilian FERS employee who will retire this summer at age 59 with 35 years of civil service.  After retiring, I intend to start monthly withdrawals from my Thrift Savings Plan account ($2,000 per month). Even though I will have begun making monthly withdrawals from my TSP account, can the remainder of my money in the TSP continue to be invested in the various funds (G, C, F, S, I) and continue to grow via earnings within these funds?

A. Yes.

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F Fund

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Q. I purchased the Thrift Savings Plan F Fund in September 2012 and, by Dec. 31, it had risen from 15.84 to 16.01, basically matching my expected returns. However, in 2013, it lost 1.63 percent of its value. It had never lost before in the 10-year listings of annual returns. How is it possible the lose money? Interest rates have been low for many years now and any 1- to 3-year bonds would have reflected these record low interest rates at bond purchase time. Why is the fund losing?

A. When market interest rates rise, the value of existing bonds falls. If the decrease in the market value of the bonds is greater than the interest they pay over a given period, a loss occurs. Losses in market value are an inherent risk of owning bonds.

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Reallocating funds

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Q. I will be retiring in January. I have approximately $180,000 the G Fund. Should I consider the one-time withdrawal to a money market account that is FDIC-insured so I can have some liquidity in my cash flow?   Could you recommend such a fund? Could you recommend any restructuring of my Thrift Savings Plan to accommodate current federal reductions in the stimulus program?

A. Yes, should consider taking a withdrawal from your TSP account to provide needed liquidity, but only if no other resources are available to do the job. The best place for liquid cash reserves in this economy is FDIC-insured bank savings.

To mitigate bond risk in today’s low-interest rate environment, I suggest that you substitute some G Fund for some of the F Fund in your asset allocation scheme.

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TSP allocation

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Q. I have reverted back to a more conservative Thrift Savings Plan allocation: 67 percent G Fund/33 percent C Fund. I put in the maximum, including the maximum catch-up and, with match, it’s nearly $30,000 per year. My balance at 60 when I retire in five years should be between $500,000 and $600,000 depending on the return.  I am estimating a 4 percent return.

I am wondering about keeping this asset allocation and taking monthly payments starting near 4 percent or slightly higher at age 60. Is a distribution with 70/30 as indicated above a bad idea? I like the conservative allocation and feel fairly comfortable with it. But some people say taking monthly payments out of TSP is a bad idea. Any suggestions?

A. It’s impossible to judge what’s best for you from the information you’ve provided. I can tell you that your asset allocation model is risk-inefficient. That is, you could achieve a higher rate of return for the risk you’re taking.

Adjusting your allocation to 20 percent C Fund, 8 percent S Fund, 2 percent I Fund, 30 percent F Fund and 40 percent G Fund will stay within your preferred 70 percent debt/30 percent equity constraint while increasing sustainable TSP lifetime withdrawal rate by about 20 percent.

Greater increases could be achieved by shifting toward more equity-heavy allocation models.

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Focus on the future, not the past

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Here are the five basic Thrift Savings Plan funds in order from the highest to the lowest rate of return for the month of October: C Fund (4.60%), I Fund (3.38%), S Fund (2.94%), F Fund (0.89%), G Fund (0.19%). And here are the year-to-date results: S Fund (31.13%), C Fund (25.34%), I Fund (19.43%), G Fund (1.52%), F Fund (-0.78%).

Interesting? Maybe to some. Useful? I don’t know how.

As an investment manager — or TSP participant, as you are more commonly known — you are responsible for making, or delegating the making of, a massive series of decisions. Some of these decisions, like whether you contribute to the Roth or the Traditional TSP accounts, will most likely wind up being relatively insignificant. Others, like the distribution of your money among the available funds, will be instrumental to determining your financial future. As I’ve written before, making sure that the important decisions are the best they can possibly be is your primary objective as an investor. If you’re not sure which are the critical decisions, you’d be safe to make sure that every decision you make is the best it can be.

This brings me back to the question about the usefulness of historical performance data for the TSP, or any other, investment securities. Is it of any real value? I don’t believe it is. There is no strong evidence that this information, at least in the short run, is useful for predicting future results. You can’t go back and make decisions based on it. So, what good is it? Really, it’s no good at all. In my experience, it causes problems and leads to bad decision-making.

Two wrong-headed mistakes are often made. The first is the incorrect belief in the “due theory.” This is the fallacy that the probability of an independent event occurring goes up as the event does not occur: “I’ve just flipped 10 heads in a row, so the odds of flipping a tail on the next try are greater than 50 percent.” Not true!

The second, and I think more common, mistaken belief for investors is the momentum of inertia theory. This is belief that an independent series of events is likely to continue on its current path: “I just flipped 10 heads in a row, so the odds of flipping a head on the next try is greater than 50 percent.” Wrong again.

Sure, you can find historical records that support either of these theories, but that doesn’t mean they make any sense. You can find support for just about anything through back-testing large, randomly generated data sets, and a series of unpredictable events often shows surprising runs of luck, good or bad. Patterns appear to show up just about anywhere you look for them, even in random data.

Finding a pattern in history and predicting one in the future are two very different things.

As an investment manager, your job is to be concerned with two things: Where you are today and how best to get where you want to be in the future. While the past has put you where you are today, you don’t need to know anything about the past to assess your current position. And the kind of historical data published for specific investment securities, like funds, is not needed for use in making decisions about how to proceed in the future. In short, this information is useless to you in managing your TSP account or any other investment account.

Even the effect historical data tends to have on investors is unreliable, if not outright dangerous. Many of the investors I’ve talked with over the years tell me they feel great when their account values have risen quickly or steadily to a new high. Likewise, they feel bad when their account values have fallen. These effects tend to make them want to invest more, or more aggressively, on the heels of good market results and withdraw their money from risky assets after bad results. Data on investor behavior confirms this behavior. Unfortunately, it is irrational and harmful. It is rational to become more cautious as prices and values rise, and more confident in your investing as they fall. The key to successful investing lies not in tracking the price history of investment securities, but in understanding and accommodating the probabilities of their future prices. Done right, it is a prospective, rather than a retrospective, exercise. So, it’s OK to be entertained by what happened yesterday. Just don’t make the mistake of confusing this with what will most likely happen tomorrow.

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