Category Archives: The Best

New and Noteworthy Site

By Editor

LearnBonds Mutual Fund & ETF Ratings

History and Focus

LearnBonds (LB) Mutual Fund & ETF Ratings was launched in December 2011 by its co-founders Marc Prosser and David Waring. Marc Prosser is currently a Forbes contributor; previously he was the Chief Marketing Officer at Forex Capital Markets (FXCM). David Waring was formerly the Managing Director, business development and strategy, at Market Simplified Inc.

Unlike industry heavyweights such as Morningstar and Lipper, LB Ratings focuses on a relatively small number of bond funds in a limited number of categories. They divide funds into categories based on purpose. The categories currently listed are core bond funds, municipal bond funds, short term/low-duration bond funds, high credit risk bond funds and long duration funds. Their belief is that no individual or family should have more than 5 purpose driven funds in their portfolio. This is how David Waring describes their approach:

We have tremendous respect for Morningstar and Lipper’s mutual fund and ETF ratings. LB Ratings will not replace these great tools. However, we recognize many investors find these tools overwhelming and complicated to apply to making investment choices. We are addressing the need for a simplified product which expresses strong views as to which funds an investor should own.


LB Ratings does not use a mathematical formula to identify or rate individual funds. Every fund listed on LB ratings was personally chosen and rated by the co-founders.  Instead of mechanical, number-based, quantitative analysis, they use a specific set of criteria to personally select and rate individual funds. Factors include fund performance both long and short term, risk levels, associated fees and quality and tenure of management. Funds are given a rating level between 1 and 5 stars, 1 being the lowest and 5 the highest. The website describes this method as “opinionated ratings.”  They are clear and upfront about their methods and their belief that all fund rating agencies and websites are inherently subjective.   This makes LB’s ratings akin to Morningstar’s Analyst Ratings (the Gold, Silver … designations).

LearnBonds screenshot


Every fund listed is accompanied by a compact but comprehensive report that outlines its strengths and weaknesses, as well as the rationale behind its rating. In addition to their bond fund and ETF lists, LB Ratings also offers links to bond and fund related articles. Additionally, website visitors can sign up for a daily newsletter, or download the free e-book “How to Invest in Bonds.”


The website is simple and straightforward, providing shortlists of funds that were hand chosen by experts in the field.  The rating report that accompanies each fund is clear and concise, giving readers information that can be useful to them independent of the rating. Fewer categories and shorter lists may be less stressful to some investors and help to reduce confusion.


The limited number of categories and funds means that inevitably many strong candidates will be missing. The subjective nature of the ratings will be too abstract for many. The lack of comparative tools – and tools in general – will limit the site’s appeal to investors who need more in-depth coverage. One practical concern we have is that there’s no evidence of predictive validity for the LB ratings; that is, they don’t have proof that their five star funds will perform better in the future than their three star ones.  Here’s Mr. Prosser’s response:

As far as predictive analysis , I would make the argument that at least for actively traded bonds funds we are in a period of time where quantitative analysis is difficult to employ:

Funds have radically changed the profile of the assets they hold and significantly drifted away from their benchmarks. Here are two easy examples; the Templeton World Bond Fund is now a short-duration fund, with a duration two years shorter than its peers. The PIMCO Total Return Fund now is a large holder of munis. which are neither included in its benchmark nor have they ever been a major part of its holdings.  In both cases, these are radical departures from the past . . . and at the same time [might be] temporary positions . . .  As a result, more than ever you’re “betting” on the skill of the fund’s manager.  Or put another way, historically the best performing bond mutual funds had most their returns generated from beta and now they are generating it from alpha. In short, I don’t think the quant models being employed really capture this shift.  [Assessing these funds] requires more qualitative analysis.

Bottom Line

Although the website’s offerings are limited, many investors may prefer a human chosen shortlist of choices over one generated by a computer.  For those who don’t need or likely will not use tools such as screeners and comparative charts, the simple straightforward nature of LB Ratings will be welcome. As the website itself acknowledges though, a fund rating website is built on trust.  Trust is earned over time, and ultimately only time will tell how the “opinionated ratings” approach fares against the tried and tested methods of the industry’s heavyweights in terms of performance.  For now, we conclude that LB has a sensible niche, that it’s interesting, worth watching and potentially useful, so long as you use their ratings as a starting point rather than a final word.


August 2012 – Small fund company websites

By Junior Yearwood

The mutual fund industry may be strangled by its own success.  Many of the most senior fund managers and investment officers at June’s Morningstar Investment Conference sang the same refrain: “As fund companies have grown to manage hundreds of billions, and sometimes trillions of dollars, something precious has been lost.  We talk more now about ‘accumulating assets’ than we do about ‘serving our funds’ shareholders.’” George Gatch’s poorly received defense of JP Morgan came down to this: “We’re not a massive financial behemoth (despite our $1.3 trillion in AUM).  We’re lots of agile little companies that just happen to get paid by the same guy.  Really.”

Oddly, when JP Morgan lost $9 billion on the botched “London Whale” trades, the explanation boiled down to this: “in a firm our size, it’s not possible to keep close tabs on every munchkin who has authority to execute multi-billion dollar trades.”

It took a year after the Lehman Brothers collapse for investigators to finally determine that Lehman was actually 3,000+ legally distinct entities.  And these are, by definition, the folks who control most of our money.

But there is an alternative, if only investors come to notice it.  There are small fund firms that are intensely focused on service, performance and shareholders.  Those funds face two special challenges: (1) getting noticed and building a client base and (2) keeping those clients when markets turn ugly.

Knowledge and trust are crucial to addressing both of those challenges. Lack of trust in your financial advisor or portfolio manager may cause you to terminate the relationship, sell at the wrong moment, and rush into some other ill-conceived relationship. This in turn may cause you to surrender some or all of your investments’ potential gains.

A good website is an important channel for trust-building. It might help you to understand the manager, the fund’s portfolio and strategy, and the larger universe within which the fund operates. It is an essential communication tool that can help to humanize a financial entity, and go some way towards leveling the playing field for the little guy.

Since small fund firms face especially great challenges in getting noticed and building a client base, we wanted to start by identifying who does the best job in creating a partnership or relationship between the individual investor and the professional manager.

For this month’s “Best Of” feature we are highlighting small fund company websites. We identified three dozen top-flight small mutual fund companies using the following criteria:

    • Three or fewer funds or under $1 billion in assets and
    • At least one of their funds had already been reviewed by the Observer or is scheduled for an upcoming review.

We turned to Anya Zolotusky and Nina Eisenman, two experts on web design and, in particular, fund web design, for guidance.

Nina Eisenman, guest expert.

Nina Eisenman

Eisenman Associates, [email protected]

Nina is the founder of FundSites, ( a total website solution for small to med-sized mutual fund companies, and President of Eisenman Associates, a top graphic and web design agency for investment firms. Nina has been a featured presenter of The Small Funds Network, NYU’s Stern School of Business, the Harvard Club, and numerous professional seminars.  She is a member of the Mutual Fund Education Alliance (MFEA), The Small Funds Network (SFN), The National Investment Company Service Association (NICSA), Investment Management Consultants Association (IMCA), Nation Investor Relations Institute (NIRI), and Women Presidents’ Organization. Nina has a Bachelor of Science degree from Barnard College.


Anya Zolotusky, guest expert

Anya Zolotusky

Darn Good Web Design[email protected]

Anya designs, builds, and maintains websites for businesses and individuals of all kinds from mountain guides to do-gooder lawyers to mutual fund smartypants (David prefers curmudgeons). She began working on the web after getting mixed up with the wrong crowd at a start-up called where she helped pioneer live cybercasts from uncomfortable places like Mt. Everest. With a bit of high altitude experience and a startling set of immunizations, she’s trekked Nepal several times and worked in Everest base camp with a NASA-like assortment of solar-powered satellite gear helping sponsored climbers stay in touch with their friends at CNN. She has climbed peaks in the Cascades, Russian Caucasus Range, and Peruvian Andes, most notably to the tops of Rainier and McKinley. Aside from her duties as a Web Ranger, she enjoys raising beef cattle, a few dilettante dairy goats and a handful of chickens near Seattle, WA. She spends a lot of time trying to outsmart her German Shepherd.

Anya and Nina generated a list of 14 characteristics of highly effective fund sites, which we were able to organize into three broad categories:

    • Design and presentation
    • Quality of content
    • Ease of navigation

We reviewed all of the sites.  Two websites stood out as exemplary while three others warranted honorable mentions. As is always the case we encourage and look forward to your feedback, let us know if you have a website that we missed and we will include it in an update.

Best Small Fund Website: Seafarer Funds

Seafarer Overseas Growth and Income Investor is a diversified emerging markets fund that was established February 15 2012. The portfolio manager is Andrew Foster.

Design and Presentation

Seafarer takes the going back to basics approach with a website that is straightforward and efficient. The site “feels” safe. The company banner and logo with the picture of the boat sailing peacefully under dark skies go well with the soft colored fonts and the muted background. The site does not shout, it puts an arm around you and says don’t worry, we have it covered.   The san serif font is clean and easy to read.  Overall the design is solid and effective if unspectacular. The presentation is simple, straightforward and professional.


There is a wealth of information at your fingertips and only a click or two away. We’ll note in particular that the analysis of the fund’s portfolio and performance is, by far, the most extensive and informative that we’re seen.  It’s complemented by Mr. Foster’s thoughtful, wide-ranging shareholder letters and, especially, his “Field Notes” which detail research findings from some of his international trips.  Content seems to be updated at least monthly. There is even a video interview of the portfolio manager.


The website navigation is fast and easy and you never get lost. Mousing over one of the eight main navigation tabs (About Us) activates clear dropdown menus.  Each content page has helpful “resources” on the side.

Bottom Line

Seafarer offers near-flawless execution and a manageable wealth of information.  The manager’s “voice” comes through clearly.

Pros: Solid effective design and presentation, wide range of relevant content.

Cons: The muted simple design means that you are not likely to stay on the page for much longer than is necessary.

Best Small Fund Website: Cook and Bynum Fund

The Cook and Bynum Fund is a very concentrated stock fund that was established July 1 2009. The portfolio managers are Dowe Bynum and Richard Cook.

Design and Presentation

The Cook and Bynum Fund is perhaps the most visually appealing of all the websites we looked at this month.  Bright and colorful photographs on a white background and the smart company logo get your attention initially.  The professional layout maintains it. The feel of the homepage is both relaxing and corporate.  It is a good mix that has a very humanizing effect.

The most striking feature of Cook and Bynum’s site are the striking photographs.  There’s a panoramic photo in a slideshow about the top third of the page and three sharp images immediately below it.  The slideshow links to three interior stories and the other three photos each illustrate the gateway to a major portion of the site (Thoughts on Investing, C&B Notes, Travelogue).

Overall the design and presentation is excellent but there is a tendency to repeat information. For example the slide show is a collection of links that can be found on the drop down menus of the four category headers. The three sub headings below the slide show are also links that can be found in the four main categories. The travelogue is presented as a sub heading, a slide show link and a drop down menu item in Our Firm.


Cook and Bynum’s content stands out.  Information about the fund’s performance and portfolio, while not exceptionally substantial, is well organized and readily accessible.  The site does an exceptional job of explaining the managers’ thought processes and distinctions, and of talking through the fieldwork that’s so important to their process. Sections such as How We Think, Why Are We Different? and Building our Portfolio are just some examples of a package that is well thought out and professionally compiled.


The website’s navigation is simple and intuitive with just about any information you need is reachable in one or two clicks. Very effective use of webpage tabs  make it easy to get back to where you were before without the need to open links in a new page or browser tab. As stated above there is a tendency to be repetitive but for the most part the effect is of making content quickly accessible.

Bottom Line

This site has incredible visual appeal and does much more than others to help you get inside your managers’ heads.  If you want to understand how they think and why they act, the answer’s here.

Pros: Visually appealing, professionally done website that feels both corporate and social.

Cons: Can be a bit repetitive, Bookshelf is a bit over the top

Honorable mentions: Sites that Really Called to One of Us

Junior’s Pick

Wintergreen Fund

Wintergreen is a very well done site that provides quick easy access to relevant information, and does a good job at communicating the heart and soul of the company to existing customers and potential investors. The site is well designed with efficient navigation and little touches like adjustable font sizes for those who need it. Colors that match the Wintergreen brand and features like video built into the homepage make for a pleasant visual experience, and rounds off a very good offering.

Nina’s pick

Auxier Focus Fund  (Auxier is a client of mine but also the sort of fund that the Observer tracks, and I think their site played out particularly well)

Visitors to the Auxier Focus Fund Website,, are greeted by the welcoming smile of portfolio manager Jeff Auxier, a smart tactic that humanizes the firm, which counts retail investors among its target audience. Other features Auxier provides for retail investors are the bold “Access Your Account” link for current investors and an “Open an Account” link for prospective investors. The home page content is kept fresh and relevant with Morningstar “Star” Ratings, Daily NAV performance data, “In the News” article headlines and teaser copy from Auxier’s latest Quarterly Letter. The Quarterly Letters are HTML pages, not just PDFS, so they are fully indexible by Google and other search engines. Visitors are invited to “Sign up to Receive our Quarterly Letter” — a powerful call-to-action that is often buried in fund websites. The site’s intuitive navigation and content such as “Differentiation” and “Investment Philosophy” and “Performance” make it easy for investors to do their research and learn what makes the Auxier Focus Fund unique.

Anya’s Pick

Tilson Funds

I  Love it. What’s not to love here? The clean look is smooth and relaxing. Use of good fonts, harmonious colors, and plenty of white space makes it easy to spend time here. Even the masthead seedling image, which could have gone bad in a number of ways, works great here. The navigation is well organized with everything where you’d expect it to be. They have some nice, techy elements like accordion drop-downs, but generally I like the calm, easy feel of the site. Just well done all around.


The Best of the Rest: The Top One Third of the Sites We Reviewed

Fund Score
(Design & Presentation/
Ease of Navigation/
Quality of Content)
(N = Nina’s comments, A = Anya’s comments)
Vulcan Value Fund 4/4/4 N: Timely fund info and “subscribe” should be on home page, letters could be HTML as well as PDF
A: Like it. Really I love it — the minimalist, super clean look works for me, as does the use of fussy fonts and lots of white space. The big problem though is that the drop-down subnav is so bad, at first I was certain this was some kind of technical issue. No design decision could be so deeply misguided, and yet, there it is. There are so many good ways to present the subnav on a target page, I wish Vulcan’s designers had picked just about any of them. Ditto for the weird, floating “Mutual Funds” and “Managed Accounts” buttons on the right. Great looking site, but the navigation feels like it was the idea of a client who really wanted it like that and wouldn’t let the designer talk them out of it.
Evermore Global Value Fund 4/4/3 N: Video of PM adds flavor. Could use market commentary.
A: Like it… don’t love it, but pretty good overall.
Bretton Fund 5/3/3 N:Minimalistic in a nice kind of way. Could use market commentary and not have links lead you out of site. Sign up call to action
A: Like it…The look is super clean, the nav is well organized, the fonts are fussy, and the general feel is great. I’m a huge fan of minimalist design, but this feels a bit like an ultra modern apartment with one black couch and a single chair neither of which are really for sitting. Would it kill them to add a touch of visual interest? Ok fine, to each their own, and really, it’s a great looking site. I just wouldn’t want to live there.
Queens Road Funds 3/4/3 N: Glossary and firm-specific imagery are nice touches but no fresh, non-performance content.
A: Like it… but don’t love it. The nav aesthetics could be better than underlines on mouse-over. The site looks good but not great. Just could be better. Generally pretty good though.
Al Frank Funds 3/3/3 N: A bit glitzy and hard to read. Reads like an agency wrote it. Could use market commentary.
A: Like it… Kind of love the look, though the use of Flash dampens my enthusiasm, and the look might be a little TOO matchy-matchy, By The Design School Rules…
RiverPark Funds 2/3/3 N: It would be better if quarterly commentaries were offered as HTML as well as PDFs.
A: Meh…but the better of the Meh’s — the look is not terrible. It’s just not that good. They could do a lot better with a little more design effort. I say time for a redesign.
SteelPath MLP Funds (though SteelPath has been purchased by Oppenheimer so the future of the site is unclear) 2/3/3 N: It would be better if quarterly commentaries were offered as HTML as well as PDFs. Good MLP insights and static content.
A: Meh. The homepage here feels cluttered to me and a bit like a template. I like the color blocks to divide up information, but really, they couldn’t think of anything for a sixth block in that bottom row? Or, say, stretch out those bottom two blocks so they span the width of the upper row? Someone just wasn’t trying there, but the rest of the site is pretty darn good.


June 2012 – Retirement income calculators

By Junior Yearwood

There was a time not so long ago when retirement was something that most Americans took for granted. You worked for a company till you were 65, then you retired and collected a pension that allowed you to live comfortably. Since the 1990’s however, legislation and the changing economic landscape have meant that the number of people covered by pensions has drastically reduced.  With Social Security effectively in a state of permanent deficit, the old notion of flying into your golden years on auto-pilot had vanished for most of us.  By the end of 2004 a majority of individuals had turned to a bewildering array of different contributory programs (401k, 403b, 457, IRAs, Roth, SEP, SIMPLE, Keogh) and personal investments as their primary retirement plan. While the affluent and the less-so vary in the extent of their retirement resources, it’s increasingly the case that we’re all in the same boat: we’re all being asked to make on our own the decisions which will shape the decades we spend in retirement.

Johanna Fox Turner, guest expert

Joining us this month to assist with “The Best of” feature, is our guest expert, Johanna Fox Turner, Certified Financial Planner, owner of Milestones Financial Planning, LLC, and author of a monthly financial tips newsletter, which to our delight includes Johanna’s (Almost) Famous Recipes. Johanna joined me in researching each of our alternatives and provided insightful comments based on her years of expertise. Thank you, Johanna.

Johanna Fox Turner has been a CPA for over 30 years and a Certified Financial Planner since 2007. She is a graduate of David Lipscomb University and a Registered Life Planner.

Johanna is a Fee-Only™ financial planner/investment manager and in addition to Milestones is the owner of  Fox & Co, CPAs in Mayfield, Kentucky. She has served as president of the Mayfield-Graves County Chamber of Commerce, trustee at Mid-Continent University, city of Mayfield councilwoman, and as chairman of the Graves County Republican Party. She is the monthly financial columnist for Paducah Sun’s Four Rivers Business Journal and teaches continuing education classes in financial planning and investing for electricians and contractors.

In this month’s “Best Of” feature we’re taking a look at retirement calculators, those little widgets we find on almost every financial website. Having a reliable estimate is critical to adjusting both our expectations and our current efforts.  Retirement calculators are predictive tools; some offer simple extrapolations while others undertake complex Monte Carlo analyses in which they simulate hundreds of possible markets.  Simple tools tend to produce a single number (“you’ll have $427,218.27”) while more complex ones offer a range of possible outcomes and probabilities for each (“you have a 10% chance of having $600,000 or more, a 50% chance of …”).  Regardless, none offer guarantees.

The question is: who offers a reliable estimate for you?

So how did we choose this month’s “Best of” Retirement Planners?

  1. We createdan imaginary investor, Robin.
    • Age 50
    • Income: $50 000/year
    • 401(k) balance of $100,000.
    • Retirement age 70 (20 years from now) and with end of plan (death) in 20
    • Total annual contribution (employer + employee) of $7000.

    We used the same inputs for projected inflation, rates of return, asset allocation and post-retirement income needs (not all sites requested all of that info).

  2. We identifieda dozen popular web-based retirement income calculators.
    • We searched the phrase “retirement income calculator” reviewing the first 50 sites.
    • We eliminated those requiring registration and those that were duplicated from one site to the next.
    • We limited ourselves calculators to major retirement plan providers, financial news and information sites, and independent organizations (such as AARP or FINRA).
  3. We graded each calculator on three criteria:
    • Ease of use and comprehension
    • 20 minute time limit to get results. Apart from basic personal and financial information we required the following inputs:
      • Inflation rate
      • Social security benefits
      • Investment allocation and/or simulation of multiple market scenarios
    • Quality of output and ability to adjust variables.  In particular we looked for:
      • Results presented in simple terms, either in monthly or annual income
      • The probability of success (or failure), rather than a “magic number”
      • Recommendations to reach your desired goal

We came up with eight finalists. Of these, two met all our requirements while a third fell just short. To emphasize the need to consult a financial professional and not rely solely on retirement income calculators for your retirement planning, we have included a professional report on Robin’s retirement prospects that was prepared by Johanna. Things may not be as rosy for Robin as some of the calculators predict…

T Rowe Price – Retirement Income Calculator

Their Premise

T Rowe Price promises a quick and simple process that should be completed in 10 minutes or less and claims to get us there in three easy steps!

Our Evaluation

The Calulator

The Process

T Rowe Price uses a multi-page approach with little touches of animation. This was one of only two calculators that met all of our input requirements. The “tell us about you” section is pretty straightforward. You begin by entering your basic information and then your status (saving, preparing for or living in retirement).

Ease of Use

This software is easy to use and the pages really fly by. Convenient worksheets are provided to aid you with your calculations should you need them and inflation is automatically calculated. I found the experience simple, pleasant, and straightforward.

Input and time required

Speed-wise, they live up to their promise. The financial evaluation section is pretty straightforward. You begin by entering basic financial information, and then go on to simple asset allocation choices where you can choose a TRP model portfolio or adjust sliders to a mix of investments. (Our investor chose 70% stocks and 30% bonds as his current allocation and 35% stocks, 35% bonds and 30% short term for retirement.)

Finally, you enter your proposed retirement age and other income (such as Social Security, which the system can project).

Quality of Output

You’ll get a couple of compact summaries that include a probability of your money lasting until the age of 95. The first estimates your monthly income, assuming 75% of pre-retirement income. The second scenario projects the total amount that they estimate you will be earning monthly based upon your data entry.

For example, TRP concludes Robin will need $3125.00 a month during retirement while he is set to make $3414.00 from Social Security and his retirement account. If he spends 75% of his previous income there is an 83% chance that his money will last. If he chooses to spend it all, the Monte Carlo results drop to the suggested minimum of 70%.

You have the opportunity to adjust your inputs and compare the results of your adjustments against your current results. On the suggestions page, you’ll see a final wrap up and recommendations that can help you achieve your goals.

Bottom Line

Pros: Easy to use and easy to understand. Solid set of inputs and a quick turnover time. Good output quality and free tools from Morningstar

Cons: Some settings (pre-retirement income percentage and length of retirement) are fixed.

Johanna’s comments: I liked the simplicity of input and the last screen offering options to adjust various numbers was pretty slick. The TRP tool is fairly robust and I must say that the upside to registering is that you can save your information. The interactive presentation at the end is nice if you don’t leave the site too quickly (which I did the first time I ran through the numbers). A problem I have with the presentation, though, is that in offering the choice of allocations, risk is not explained. Users may naturally be drawn to the 100% equity allocation without understanding the impact of volatility, even though the program makes recommendations). Surprisingly again, no inflation numbers that I can find.

CNN Money – Retirement Income Calculator

Their Premise

CNN Money promises to help you evaluate how well your savings program is preparing you for retirement. They also tell you your chances of getting there and offer suggestions if you are falling short.

Our Evaluation

The Calculator

The Process

CNN Money eschews style for substance choosing a simple, static, tabbed layout. The presentation is simple and the operation straightforward. Enter info, click next.

Ease of Use

Things move along at a quick pace and you are never stuck on a tab for very long. Social security and inflation are also calculated for you. The language is simple to understand and process is as easy as Sunday morning.

Input and time required

All our input requirements were met (although rate of return was dealt with in their output) and the process was over in less than 10 minutes. The calculator is divided into five tabs, four of these are dedicated to input; goals, income, savings and portfolio. Under “Goals” you enter your age, your desired retirement age, your life expectancy, as well as what you currently earn and desired retirement income. Under “Income” you enter your desired retirement age and any expected sources of retirement income including expected pensions and social security (the number is calculated for you). The “Savings” tab lets you enter your current total retirement savings and the total (employer + employee) annual contribution to your retirement. You can also add information about taxable accounts and taxes. Under “Portfolio” you can choose one of seven allocation options, from very conservative to very aggressive. Our investor chose an aggressive portfolio, 70% stock (10% non US) and 30% bonds (5% treasury bills)

Quality of Output

The “Results” tab summarizes using simple and plain language and wastes no time beating around the bush. The tab is broken into two main segments. YOUR NEEDS briefly outlines how much money you will require annually (with adjustments for inflation), and how big a nest egg you need to achieve your goal. Your CHANCES OF GETTING THERE tells you at what rate your investments need to grow in order to achieve your target. It also estimates the probability that your investments will grow by the required rate. CNN Money (unlike T Rowe Price) gives no explanation of how they came up with these results, though. Below the brief summary, a bar chart displays the probability of four different retirement scenarios. You are given options to view your annual cash flow and to tweak your results.

Bottom Line

Pros: Fast and easy to use. Simple and straightforward. Good range of inputs. Gives a range of possible scenarios and the probability of each.

Cons: No explanation of their methodology. How they decide what chance your investments have of growing by a particular rate is not clear. While they give you the probability of reaching your initial savings target, they don’t estimate the chances of your money lasting throughout your retirement.

CNN Money estimates that there is a 99% chance that our investor’s portfolio will grow at the rate required to achieve his retirement savings goal.

Johanna’s comments: The calculator was not especially easy to find from the home page – I would have preferred to have a “Tools” link that took me to the calculator instead of reading and guessing what I needed from a list of questions. These two were the only programs I looked at, however, that let the user choose between portfolio allocations (rather than inputting a desired rate of return) and I liked that feature. I was left to assume that the planner uses Monte Carlo simulations to get to the predicted chance that Robin will reach his goal. I like the cash flow page, which allows skeptical me to do a couple of quick checks on their numbers!

The Rest

MSN Money gets an honorable mention. They take the “less is more” route but ultimately it’s just a bit too lightweight; offering a quick and dirty one page retirement calculator that is useful as a fast reference but little more.

You can find the other five finalists here:


Easy to locate

Ease of Use


Clarity of Results

My Rating

Johanna’s Comments

AARP  YES  YES  YES  SO-SO  2 Like the graph for projected savings. However, it appears that this tool drastically underestimates what Robin will need to have saved for retirement.
Bloomberg  YES  YES  YES  MIXED  5 No consideration for inflation; no guidance on how much you’ll need at retirement. They must have changed the tool but not the directions because they refer to withdrawals but there is no input for them.
Fidelity  YES YES  YES  3 Except for The Voice, this is a nice little tool that is quite adequate for a quick check-up
Kiplinger  YES  YES  NO  YES  4 Helpful home equity section. Problem: asks you to estimate both average return and % of  in equities, even though these figures are highly correlated.
Merrill/BOA  YES  YES  NO  YES  3 Same comments as Fidelity. A little more info than Fido but not happy with the portfolio choices.
TIAA-CREF  NO  YES  YES  NO  n/a  This is a school-employee site. If you’re not one, go elsewhere. If you are, this is for you as it focuses on the unique plans of school employees






My favorite of all, but I had to Google to find the link as it was MIA from the home page. Does not calculate account balance at retirement.

The chart above can be downloaded as a .pdf file, as well.

As always we realize that our picks may have left out a candidate that turns out to be superior. Please contact me if you have a website or calculator that you believe we should add. We always look forward to your feedback.


May 2012 – Financial news aggregators

By Junior Yearwood

We all know the importance of accurate, current and relevant financial news. Even more than the news, we need some perspective on the news, some ability to separate important information from background noise and to place that information in a meaningful context. That responsibility has traditionally fallen to journalists, financial and otherwise.

For anyone attempting to make sense of a day’s (or week’s or year’s) events, the problem is not a shortage of stuff to drawn on. Quite the opposite: the problem is that absolute torrent of information that pummels us. By way of simple example, Google News tracks 25,000 publications (including 4,500 English-language news sites) daily.

One answer is to turn to a trusted, professional source for all your news: Reuters, Dow-Jones, the New York Times, the Financial Times and a few others have long and distinguished records.  But each has its own limits, biases and idiosyncrasies. In response, more and more readers have come to rely on news feeds and news aggregators.

News aggregators do not create news. They collect news from various third party sources, but they “choose to aggregate, to pass along, to recommend, to sort, involves normative evaluation of content,” note long-time journalists, Bill Kovach of The New York Times and Tom Rosenstiel of The Los Angeles Times (Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, Bloomsbury: 2010).  Ideally, they then present it in an easily accessible format to readers. That can make them an excellent choice for quickly accessing relevant and important financial information.

The problem is that there are too many news aggregators and too little quality control. Some like Google, automatically pull links from a multitude of online sources and then present those that contain specific keywords and have been read by the largest number of people. They are driven by algorithms that choose sites automatically based on hits, clicks, keywords and trends. These sites process of  millions of data points and use complicated mathematical formulae to decide which stories to present to you. Another approach targets a set of predetermined feeds. For these news aggregators the “source” might be more important than the story.

What we have searched for is what Kovach and Rosenstiel term the “smart aggregator,” a financial news aggregator who understands what its purpose is. These websites understand that investors want a place where they can quickly and easily go through the important financial headlines of the day, and just as easily click through to the stories that they choose.  They understand that what is popular is not always relevant or useful and they take the time to properly separate the wheat from the chaff. Essentially what we sought were financial news aggregators that have an element of human curation.

How did we identify the web’s best financial news aggregators?  Simple: we identified as many as we could and then test drove each one during the week of April 23-27, 2012.  In reviewing each site, we applied the same criteria:

    • were the aggregated sources diverse?
    • were the aggregated sources reliable?
    • did the story coverage and selection represent intelligent priorities?
    • was the site efficiently constructed and easy to navigate, and ideally,
    • was there a discernible human presence, or voice, in the process?

Two stood out, while a dozen were more trouble than they were worth.

Abnormal Returns

Abnormal Returns is likely the web’s most-celebrated financial news aggregator.  Like the Observer, Abnormal Returns is an independent publication; that is, it’s not part of a larger media entity.  In six years, its daily linkfest and “forecast-free” ethos has made it a daily destination for thousands.


Counterparties are “the other guys” in every financial transaction, the buyer when you’re a seller, the insurer when you’re the insured.  On the web, Counterparties is a young, human-curated news aggregator.  Part of the Thomson Reuters empire, its eclectic, lively and sharply-done.

Sites that made us go “hmmmm.” There were two other sites that offered important, provocative and/or diverting content, but which did not rise to the level of our top two.  Nonetheless we’d like to commend the two of them for your consideration.

Smart Brief

Smart Brief is less a news aggregator than a newsletter aggregator.  The editors write that “[t]he premise behind SmartBrief is simple: there’s too much information out there and too little time in the day to read it all. Our editors hand-pick the most relevant and important news from all over, summarize it, link to the original sources and deliver it — for FREE — in one-stop-shop e-newsletters.”  Some of the newsletters are produced by trade associations (New York Society of Security Analysts) for more-or-less targeted audiences (from “retirement savings community” to “operations and finance professionals”).  The newsletters update between daily and bi-weekly.


Fark is another of those sites that David, our esteemed publisher, likes and that I just shake my head at.  (But hey, he’s the boss so …) Fark, which advertises “Real News, Real Funny” describes itself as  “a news aggregator and an edited social networking news site. Every day Fark receives 2,000 or so news submissions from its readership, from which we hand-pick the funny and weird notable news — and not-news — of the day. “  The site has been around since 2000 and posts 6-10 business stories a day.  You can get a sense of their editorial sensibilities by looking at two of their top stories from April 27: “New Woolrich designer clothes that conceal firearms will no longer have your wife asking if the Glock makes her butt look big” (CBS News) and a Reuters story on the effect of Amazon’s earnings announcement on the equities market.

As always, not only could we be wrong, we’d be delighted to be proven wrong.  If you’ve found a better aggregator or you’ve found a serious error with one of our choices, write me  If you can show us a better mousetrap, we’ll include it and we’ll highlight that in David’s next column.  We’ll also give you public credit for your find and we’ll offer you a chance to contribute to the rewrite.

As always, I’d love to hear your ideas for “best of” focuses in the months ahead or for particular websites.  Write me! Remember time is money, why not take a few minutes to read this month’s feature? It just might help you avoid the multitude of aggregators who do little more than steal your time, and have more to do with racking up page hits than providing relevant and useful information.

April 2012 – A Week of Podcasts

By Junior Yearwood

Do you remember the transistor radio?  For teens, it was an essential accessory – passport to hot tunes and popularity.  For adults, it was a passport of another sort – to the news of the day, world events, baseball contests, talk shows and a chance to learn something useful.  Static-y and limited to a handful of stations.

Just as transistors have been succeeding by microchips, a third of all adults and 20% of smartphone users listen to radio via the internet.  Half of them take radio in the form of podcasts, portable snippets of radio that they can listen to as they unwind at home (71%) or try to make a commute more pleasant and productive (45%).  Some of us (*cough* Snowball *cough*) even use them to make time at the gym more bearable.

In this month’s Best of the Web we will be presenting four business/financial podcasts – plus, as a bonus, a fifth podcast that you really want but can’t have yet (fingers crossed, Chuck).  Each, we believe, stands out from the pack. With so many choices out there we decided to narrow our choices to candidates that met five criteria:

  1. they had to be from a respected source that was trying to inform you, and not just sell you some pet theory or subscription stock-alert system. That alone eliminated a multitude of podcasts.
  2. they had to be both informative and engaging, since we were looking for resources you’d want to turn to week after week.
  3. their content had to be reasonably up to date, which we defined as “at least weekly” (except for Bill Gross).

In addition (4) there had to be a solid accompanying website and (5) perhaps most importantly the podcast had to be available for multiple platforms. So regardless of your portable device you will be able to download and transfer any one of our picks to your handheld and listen on the go wherever you are.

For each podcast we will give you a general overview of the content and highlight specific areas that we think will interest you. We will also have some info on the host and give you our overall opinion of the presentation.

We would like to thank everyone for the great support shown to last month’s feature and encourage you to contact me with suggestions, tips and advice.

Working through the week

The Week Ahead from The Economist

Mondays, like rainy days, are sometimes difficult to manage. It’s the start of the week, a week of ups and downs challenges and hopefully a few pleasant surprises. You need to be sharp and focused and you need to be on top of your game. Keeping up to date with current affairs that affect the global economy can help you do just that. And The Week Ahead podcast from The Economist is a simple, convenient and quick way to quickly bring yourself up to date with events around the globe that may affect the overall economy. The podcast is released every Friday (and you could also listen to it then) and is available free via The Economist’s website or as an iTunes podcast. The parent publication is a globally respected brand with a circulation that exceeds 1.5 million (combined print and digital), and offers reasoned and balanced analysis of important current events. The week ahead is hosted by executive editor Daniel Franklin. There is also a secondary presenter, last week’s being US editor Christopher Lockwood.


The program is a conversation between the presenters.  It’s more typical to get a wide-ranging analysis than a set of pat conclusions.  The style of the program is reminiscent of a BBC program, the presentation is professional and sharp and has a serious yet conversational feel.


The Week Ahead covers major events around the world that can have an effect on the global economy. The coverage spans a variety of areas from political to social. They cover four stories in a ten minute show.  The stories for March 23rd were the US Supreme Court’s hearing on healthcare legislation, the Pope’s visit to Cuba, the upcoming meeting of major developing nations collectively referred to as the BRICS and a looming general strike in Spain.

Bottom Line

This podcast is an excellent way to start your week. It offers a concise overview of current events worldwide that may have ripple effects on the global economy and is short enough to listen while having a quick bite or on a short commute. At around ten minutes it is however long enough to provide thoughtful analysis of major events, and give useful information that can assist in keeping you on top of your game.  We think it’s well worth a listen.

Planet Money from National Public Radio

I had a friend a long time ago. One day I was attempting to explain something to him. I can’t remember what it was but it had to be complicated because to this day I can remember his response after suffering through a few minutes of my attempt.  “Take that action and break it down into fractions.” His words had the effect of lightening the mood and we all had a good laugh while I proceeded to take his advice, using terms that were simple and easy to understand. Planet Money takes a similar approach, taking serious and complicated topics that deal with the economy as a whole (both domestic and global), and breaking them down into bite sized tidbits that are easy to digest and assimilate. NPR has been, and remains a well-respected source of information for the public covering a wide variety of topics and subject areas. In 2009 it was estimated that over 27 million people listened to at least one of the 25 plus programs that they produce. The Planet Money podcast is available on Tuesdays and Fridays and is hosted by David Kestenbaum. Co-hosts include Chana Joffee-Walt and Jacob Goldstien.


Planet Money uses simple language and a light conversational format to make complicated issues and topics accessible to a mainstream audience. They explain their standards this way:

We have two rules for ourselves: 1. Everything has to be interesting (and, preferably, fun or funny or poignant or somehow grabby). 2. Everything should be economically smart, but not economically dull.

By and large this approach works. Difficult issues are explained in a common sense way that listeners of all levels will readily understand. What makes the podcast stand out is the fact that the “average Joe” approach to the conversation is married to recognition that Joe is himself smart and interested.  They get under the hood serving up a fair amount of detail and technical information making it both an easy and satisfying listen.


Each podcast (both Tuesday and Friday) covers one main topic and is broken down into two segments. Section one is a brief commentary titled The Planet Money Indicator and section two is the main feature. The indicator is a number that is used to highlight something of importance that relates to the main feature. The number for Tuesday, March 20th was 35. That represented the 35% increase in housing starts year over year that could be seen as an indicator that demand is once again stimulating supply in the housing market. The main feature of the podcast for Friday 23rd dealt with The History of Income Tax in America (what do four wars, one dying Supreme Court justice and a duck have in common? You need to listen to find out). Tuesday 20th was on the crisis in housing and featured precious teen Willow Tufano, a seemingly typical Florida kid who saved $6000 that she made selling “junk” then convinced her mother to buy a house with her.

Bottom line

Let’s take the Planet Money whole and break it into fractions. It’s one part accessible, one part informative and two parts fun. Why not have a listen?  You know you are curious about the duck.

PIMCO Investment Outlook from Pacific Investment Management Company

Pacific Investment Management Company is currently the world’s largest bond investment firm with $1.3 trillion ($1,300,000,000,000) in assets under management.  It was founded in 1971 by Bill Gross who is their co-chief investment officer and the author of this podcast.  Gross manages 16 funds, including that quarter-trillion dollar PIMCO Total Return fund.  Collectively, his funds have nearly $300 billion in assets under management.  That’s roughly the size of the entire Greek economy.   If he and his investors were a country, they’d rank as the 34th-largest economy on earth.  Unlike the other shows we’ve profiled, Gross’s podcast is monthly, and focuses on a single issue each month.


William H. “Bill” Gross is perhaps best described as idiosyncratic. His podcasts reflect his underlying nature.  They’re sometimes dour, frequently rambling and unpredictable but always very well informed, incisive and occasionally funny, with good use of metaphors and sometimes dry wit. 


Investment Outlook is a monthly feature that deals with different aspects of investment and finance. It is a well written monologue that is presented by one of the most respected individuals in investing globally. It is essentially a presentation of opinion but you could do far worse than considering Gross, given both the enormous analytic resources at his disposal and the power of his actions to move markets. The March issue dealt with defensive strategies in investing. It makes the argument that now may be the time to focus on defensive strategies at least as much if not more than offensive investing strategies. The audio podcast is supplemented by a pdf of the full text of the audio. The full transcript is also available on the website itself. The audio podcast is released on the 11th or 12th of each month but the online text transcript and pdf for April are available now.

Bottom Line

Gross presents a podcast that is a bit different but in this case different is good. The program presents a clear exposition of his opinions on a variety of topics that specifically deal with investing and finance. His tendency to use metaphors and his occasional attempts at humor makes his podcasts interesting and nicely balances out his sometimes dour delivery.  You can find his podcasts here.

Marketplace Money from American Public Media

By Friday, most of us have had just about enough of Bernanke, Goldman and the VIX.  Collectively the Marketplace programs reach 9 million listeners each week, the largest audience of any business or economics program on radio or television.  Marketplace Money, hosted since 2006 by journalist and Northwestern alum Tess Vigeland, tries to help listeners translate the week’s leading economic stories into practical terms with a nice balance of facts, common sense and opinion. The weekly, hour-long program offers advice and information to help people better manage, save and spend money.  A typical 50 minute episode presents a comprehensive feature that is subdivided into individual story segments.


Marketplace Money is one of the best produced and presented podcasts online across all categories. It is a rare case of journalism at its best. The presentation is sharp and the pacing of the individual segments is near perfect. It’s a podcast that you can be equally comfortable with during your morning commute, at the gym or at home in front of your computer.


The weekly podcast features in depth analysis of a featured topic. The program is broken into individual segments. Each segment can be treated as a separate story but each one deals with an aspect of the overall topic. The March 21st podcast dealt with what has come to be known as “The Great Recession.”  It presents seven individual stories that show us the personal side of the ongoing event, the overall theme being that perhaps the worst is behind us and America is coming back.

Bottom line

Practical take on the news, useful in understanding the economics that affects your household more than what’s up with your portfolio.  A refreshing piece of quality journalism that you can access at your convenience.

On to the weekend!

It should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places, in which… you may find really marvelous ideas. (Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks, circa 1480)

We don’t consider the weekend simply a time to veg or, worse, to sit and feel guilty about all the work that you’re not getting done.  With a little thought, your weekend can be the most productive and most enjoyable part of your week.  It’s a time to stop listening to the same incessant drone that everyone else is listening to, to look in new places, to look in new ways, and to laugh.  Sam Anderson, New York Magazine’s book critic put it this way In Defense of Distraction:

Focus is a paradox—it has distraction built into it. The two are symbiotic; they’re the systole and diastole of consciousness. Attention comes from the Latin “to stretch out” or “reach toward,” distraction from “to pull apart.” We need both . . . The truly wise mind will harness, rather than abandon, the power of distraction.

Since I’m more of a hard news and politics fan, I asked our leisure-loving leader for his recommendations. David thinks he’s found three that Leonardo would have enjoyed on his weekends.


Freakonomics starts with two simple premises: that a lot of our everyday assumptions about how the world works are often terribly wrong and that an economist’s habits of thought are useful in seeing where we went wrong and what might be right.  Freakonomics, the book that explored bizarre baby names and the rigged real estate market, sold four million copies.  SuperFreakonomics (drunk walks and global warming anyone?) is creeping toward another four million.  It’s entertaining and provocative.  Their March 29, 2012 show “begins with this simple, heretical question: Does the President of the United States really matter as much as we believe, and on which dimensions?” and ends by examining the truism

… hitchhiking is terribly, horribly, ridiculously dangerous. But how true is that truism? It’s true that hitchhiking has declined in America, but why? Was it really as dangerous as we believed? And even if so, what other factors were at play?  You’ll hear a variety of hitchhiking stories, including from Levitt and me. We also talk to baseball-data wizard and crime writer Bill James, who says our risk aversion to hitchhiking makes it more dangerous, and transportation scholar Alan Pisarski, who looks at how hitchhiking can inform future transportation policy. And we wonder: would a society that encourages hitchhiking be, on balance, a better society?

You can read, and listen, here

A Way with Words

A Way with Words describes itself as a “show about words, language, and how we use them.  Funny, informative, and fast-paced ….”  Language both reflects and affects the way we think.  The show is the very antithesis of those miserable dry grammar lectures we endured in school.  It plays with language, from word and phrase origins and old sayings to regional dialects and curious family expressions.   It has an intensely loyal audience (including the gym-bound Snowball) who enjoy listening to smart, funny people (hosts Martha Barnette, Grant Barrett and their callers) who are curious about language.

Their March 10, 2012 show looks at the origins of a bunch of financial phrases (“taking a bath” or “taking a haircut” on an investment), at why politicians “suspend” their campaigns, the disturbing prospect that you leave a “vaporwake” in your trail as you walk and the question “What is it about lifelike robots and the humanoid characters in movies like The Polar Express that feels so disturbing?”  Robotics scientist Masahiro Mori dubbed this phenomenon “the uncanny valley.” Grant and Martha discuss the notion and their website offers links to articles on Slate, Wired, and on the NPR blog.

You can read show summaries, and listen, here.  They also host a fairly active discussion forum that covers a lot of ground and offers a lot of leads.

Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me

Billed as “the oddly informative news quiz,” the show features host Peter Sagal, four panelists (drawn from a pool of 11 including P.J. O’Rourke, Roy Blount Jr., Amy Dickinson of The Chicago Tribune and Roxanne Roberts of The Washington Post) and one guest (Nora Ephron, Patrick Stewart, chef Rick Bayless) for the “Not My Job” segment.  The material for the show is drawn from the week’s news but goes well beyond the ability of a Jon Stewart or David Letterman monologue to leave you informed about (but not depressed by) the week’s news.  The fact that it’s often laugh out loud funny is an additional charm of it.  After quoting a Romney staffer’s celebration of primary wins in American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands – whose residents are citizens of the US but are not permitted to vote in the presidential election – the host observed, “the vote may not get Romney nearer to being president but does make him well-positioned for another job: volcano god.”

They have a rich website with audio of the shows and bunches of follow-up features.

An Update: MoneyLife is Here!

You don’t expect a financial podcast to cause you to laugh out loud. Financial podcasts are supposed to be serious and predictable, even the “fun” ones have a certain level of formality. It seems that Chuck didn’t get the memo, and for that we should all be thankful. MoneyLife is a witty, straight talking financial podcast, that will inform and entertain you, and most likely leave you wanting more. Sometimes irreverent (no-pants Fridays) sometimes slapstick (hilarious audio “special effects”), but always professional and informative, the podcast is released daily Monday through Friday. Here is what the MoneyLife website has to say about the show’s host:

“MoneyLife host Chuck Jaffe is senior columnist for MarketWatch. His three weekly columns are syndicated nationally, and his “Your Funds” column is the most widely read feature on mutual fund investing in America. In 2009, Chuck was named to MutualFundWire’s list of the 40 Most Influential People in Fund Distribution, the only journalist ever to make the list.”

You can listen to it online or download it for free at the show’s website, or find it on iTunes.


The show has an easy conversational style, it is a relaxed, yet professional presentation of straight talking financial opinion and fact. Jaffe mixes his A-list talent with “B” movie camp to wonderful effect. A smooth operator who falls easily into the role of laid back master of ceremonies, and knows when to fade out the humor and ask the tough questions that we want answered.


The daily hour long podcast is content heavy. It contains one feature interview (the big interview), which the host describes as “swimming in the brain fluid” of a financial expert, commentary by Chuck Jaffe and several secondary segments. The secondary segments change daily, with certain sections only available on specific days. The segments include buy and sell of the week, personal finance tip of the week, market call, economy watch, weird financial news, ETF of the week, technical difficulties, survey says, and hold it or fold it. The different segments are presented in the form of a conversation between the host and a guest expert. Regular guests include Tom Lydon, editor and publisher of ETF Trends; Greg McBride CFA, Vice President, Senior Financial Analyst, for; Robert Powell, president of Unison, LLC, a communications and consulting firm and Executive Producer of PBS’ More Than Money; and Charles Rotblut, a vice president with the American Association of Individual Investors.

The Big Interview for Tuesday, June 26th featured financial author Jonathan Davis, Founder and chairman of Independent Investor,  and discussed the investment philosophy of Sir John Templeton

Bottom Line

If I was stranded on an island and allowed only one financial podcast, this might very well be it. The show combines a large serving of financial facts and information, with a diverse and sometimes contradictory, range of expert views and opinions. Chuck may be naturally funny, but make no mistake, the entertainment is merely the dessert to the main course.

March 2012 – Mutual Fund Rating Sites

By Junior Yearwood

With 6700 U.S.-registered mutual funds to choose from, the Holy Grail of sites is one that answers the simple question: which of these damned things is going to give me the information I need to make money without making me sick!  A bunch of sites promise answers.  Almost none of them deliver.  While we thought we’d need to wade through an embarrassment of riches, mostly we found a swamp.

After reviewing a dozen sites and doing a lot of digging, we’ve decided that three are worth your attention.  Our criteria were simple: the site had to have useful, accessible (which is to say, free) content and it had to have research to back up the validity of its ratings.  These three did.  For each of them, we’ll walk you through the site’s history and focus, identify its best features, and offer up a few cautionary words as well.  After that, we’ll give you the short summary of the other sites we reviewed and didn’t recommend.

Gold, Silver, Bronze


There’s no real secret about the #1 site.  Now the 800 pound gorilla of the industry, Morningstar started in Joe Mansueto’s apartment as a very modest operation that applied the style (but not the substance) of the Value Line rating system for stocks to mutual funds. With data on approximately 330,000 investment offerings, a wealth of free content, including many useful tools and screeners and a solid track record. They are the Gold Standard of commercial fund sites. Read the full profile.

Do you remember that Jerry Seinfeld joke? The one about the Olympics?  “I think I have a problem with that silver medal. Because when you think about it, you win the gold – you feel good . . .  But when you win that silver it’s like, ‘Congratulations, you almost won. Of all the losers you came in first of that group. You’re the number one loser. No one lost ahead of you!’”


It would be easy, but wrong, to dismiss Lipper as “the best loser around.” We have all heard the quote “XYZ beat their ten year Lipper average,” at the end of an ad for a mutual fund or related company. That quote might be meaningless marketing speak but there is no doubt that Lipper is synonymous with performance, and with good reason. Lipper is one of the most widely used and respected commercial fund sites online, and on average their top picks tend to outperform their peers.  The Lipper Leaders search tool is one of the most intuitive screeners out there, and throughout information is provided in a way that is clear and easy to understand.  Add in investment walkthrough for new or inexperienced investors and easily accessible FREE webcasts and videos and you have a site worth checking. Read the full profile.

Fund Reveal

The ancient Greek poet Archilochus once observed, “πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα.” So true, so true. For those of you whose Greek is rusty, he says “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. Fund Reveal plays hedgehog to Morningstar’s fox. Fund Reveal does only one thing, without adornment and with great focus. Fund Reveal studies the day-to-day volatility of every fund in existence, and has used that wealth of data to generate a simple model with a fair amount of predictive power. By looking simultaneously at average daily returns and standard deviations calculated daily, they believe they’ve identified factors which persistently predict fund performance. Their spartan website is devoted to two simple tools for playing with that data.. Read the full profile.

The Rest of the Story welcome to the bizarre world of 50-day parabolic time/price indicators.  BarCharts offers buy and sell signals on funds, based on 13 technical indicators.  The funds homepage has lists of high volatility and “hot” funds.

Fund Mojo: the site illustrates why the Observer remains non-commercial.  Ads for Vanguard, J C Penney, structured annuity settlements and a payday loan locator adorn the homepage.  Their goal is “to help you find the top 1% of mutual fund managers.”  You get a grade.  It’s based on your score.  The score is derived from eight, variously-weighted criteria (plus “We also apply various filters and calculations on each factor to ensure best representation of the fund performance”).  Why the score makes sense isn’t exactly explained.  They do have lots of lists.

MAX Funds: a nice little site, especially if you like speedometer-type gauges. They offer a glacially-slow fund screener which allows you to tap into both their proprietary ratings and more standard measures such as expense ratios.

S&P: run away!  Run away!  The site’s almost impossible to use, rates only fixed-income and bond funds, makes it hard to search for the ratings, and then makes inexplicable decisions about what to rate.  Their fund ratings, for example, list no Fidelity or PIMCO bond funds. common to many sites, TSC offers simple ratings (A+ for Sit Minnesota Tax Free Income – their “best fund for 2012”), lists of “best funds for 2012” and occasional articles (we only found one 2012 article) by Frank, Gregg and Stan.  Their “best” lists are easy to find, but no one says how the grades are derived (there’s the usual chatter about risk-adjusted returns, then the leap to “we believe this fund is among the most likely to deliver superior performance relative to risk in the future as well.”  There is, sadly, no evidence of that.

U.S. News: can you say “garbage in, garbage out”?  U.S. News takes the ratings from five other sites, assumes they’re all valid (they aren’t), permutes them in ways not intended by their creators, and then averages them.

Value Line: the Value Line website is mostly a sales catalog for its many products.  The mutual funds “research hub” has a handful of articles, none (other than “top returning funds” lists) less than six months old.  The Value Line mutual funds live on a separate website.

Zacks: like a late night infomercial that won’t go away, Zacks seeks to lure you into purchasing their premium package while never giving you enough of a reason to do so. They may be a widely used by media based companies, but their website does them a serious disservice. It almost feels like you would be buying cut rate car insurance when you know you need the full comprehensive package.