On Financial Planners

By Charles Boccadoro

A family friend recently asked me to look at his mutual fund investments. He contributes to these investments periodically through his colleague, a Certified Financial Planner at a long-time neighborhood firm that provides investment services. The firm advertises it’s likely more affordable than other firms thanks to changes in how clients are billed, so it does not “charge hefty annual advisor fees of 1% or more.”

I queried the firm and planner on FINRA’s BrokerCheck site and fortunately found nothing of concern. FINRA stands for Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and is a “not-for-profit organization authorized by Congress to protect America’s investors by making sure the securities industry operates fairly and honestly.”

A couple recent examples of its influence: FINRA Fines Raymond James $17 Million for Systemic Anti-Money Laundering Compliance Failures and FINRA Sanctions Barclays Capital, Inc. $13.75 Million for Unsuitable Mutual Fund Transactions and Related Supervisory Failures.

The BrokerCheck site should be part of the due-diligence for all investors. Here for example is the type of allegations and settlements disclosed against the firm Edward Jones in 2015: “The firm was censured and agreed to pay $13.5 million including interest in restitution to eligible customers … that had not received available sales charge waivers … since 2009, approximately 18,000 accounts purchased mutual fund shares for which an available sales charge waiver was not applied.”

And, here an example of experience listed for an “Investment Adviser Representative” …


But I’m getting sidetracked, so back to my friend’s portfolio review.  Here’s what I found:

  • He has 5 separate accounts – 2 Traditional IRAs, 2 Roth IRAs, and one 529.
  • All mutual funds are American Funds, accessed directly through American Funds website.
  • He owns 34 funds, across the 5 accounts.
  • Adjusting for different share classes (both front-loaded A, and back-loaded B … no longer offered), he owns 8 unique funds.
  • The 8 “unique” funds are not all that unique. Many hold the very same stocks. Amazon was held in 6 different funds. Ditto for Phillip Morris, Amgen, UnitedHealth Group, Home Depot, Broadcom, Microsoft, etc.
  • The 8 funds are, in order of largest allocation (A class symbols for reference): Growth Fund of America (AGTHX), Capital World Growth & Income (CWGIX), Capital Income Builder (CAIBX), American Balanced (ABALX), AMCAP (AMCPX), EuroPacific Growth (AEPGX), New Perspective (ANWPX), and New Economy (CNGAX).

After scratching my head a bit at the sheer number of funds and attendant loads, annual expense ratios, and maintenance fees, I went through the exercise of establishing a comparable portfolio using only Vanguard index funds.

I used Morningstar’s asset allocation tool to set allocations, as depicted below. Not exact, but similar, while exercising a desire to minimize number of funds and maintain simple allocations, like 60/40 or 80/20. I found three Vanguard funds would do the trick: Total Stock Market Index 60%, Total International Market Index 20%, and Total Bond Index 20%.


The following table and corresponding plot shows performance since November 2007, start of current market cycle, through April 2016 (click on image to enlarge):

af_vanguard_table_comparable af_vanguard_comparable

As Mr. Buffet would be quick to point out, those who simply invested in the Total Stock Market Index fund received the largest reward, if suffering gut-wrenching drawdown in 2009. The Total Bond Index rose rather steadily, except for brief period in 2013. The 60/40 Balanced Index performed almost as well as the Total stock index, with about 2/3 the volatility. Suspect such a fund is all most investors ever need and believe Mr. Bogle would agree. Similarly, the Vanguard founder would not invest explicitly in the Total International Stock fund, since US S&P 500 companies generate nearly half their revenue aboard. Over this period anyway, underperformance of international stocks detracted from each portfolio.

The result appears quite satisfying, since returns and volatility between the two portfolios are similar. And while past performance is no guarantee of future performance, the Vanguard portfolio is 66 basis points per year cheaper, representing a 5.8% drag to the American Funds’ portfolio over an 8.5 year period … one of few things an investor can control. And that difference does not include the loads American Funds charges, which in my friend’s case is about 3% on A shares.

My fear, of course, is that while this Certified Financial Planner may not directly “charge hefty annual advisor fees,” my friend is being directed toward fee-heavy funds with attendant loads and 12b-1 expenses that indirectly compensate the planner.

Inspired by David’s 2015 review of Vanguard’s younger Global Minimum Volatility Fund (VMVFX/VMNVX) I made one more attempt to simplify the portfolio even more and reduce volatility, while keeping global exposure similar. This fund’s 50/50 US/international stock split combined with the 60/40 stock/bond split of the Vanguard Balanced Fund, produces an even more satisfying allocation match with the American Funds portfolio. So, just two funds, each held at 50% allocation.

Here is updated allocation comparison: 


And here are the performance comparison summary table and plot from January 2014 through April 2016, or 2.33 years (click image to enlarge):



I should note that the Global Volatiliy Fund is not an index fund, but actively managed by Vanguard’s Quantitative Equity Group, so this portfolio is also 50/50 passive/active. While the over-performance may temper, lower volatility will persist, as will the substantially lower fees.

Other satisfying aspects of the two comparable Vanguard portfolios are truly unique underlying holdings in each fund and somewhat broader exposure to value and mid/small cap stocks. Both these characteristics have shown over time to deliver premiums versus growth and large cap stocks.

Given the ease at which average investors can obtain and maintain mutual fund portfolios at Vanguard, like those examined here, it’s hard to see how people like my friend will not migrate away from fee-driven financial planners that direct clients to fee-heavy families like American Funds.

This entry was posted in Charles on by .

About Charles Boccadoro

Charles Boccadoro, BS (MIT), Post Graduate Diploma (von Karman Institute, BELGIUM). Associate editor, data wizard. Described by Popular Science as “enthusiastic, voluble and nattily-dressed,” Charles describes himself as “a recently retired aerospace engineer.” He doesn’t brag about a 30 year career that included managing Northrop Grumman’s Quiet Supersonic Platform and Future Strike Systems projects, working with NASA and receiving a host of industry accolades. Charles is renowned for thoughtful, data-rich analyses and is the driving force behind the Observer’s fund ratings and fund screeners.