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4 Easy Ways to Improve Your Investments

A pen on top of a paper that shows a financial graph

*Articles and content provided by SigFig Wealth Management, LLC.1

To err is human, but when it comes to investing, mistakes can be costly. A third of everyday investors had zero or negative returns in 2014, according to an analysis of the portfolios of more than a quarter million investors who sync their portfolios with SigFig. In a year that saw the S&P 500 surge by 13.6%, the median investor’s portfolio rose just 4.2%.

Ironically, many investors make mistakes because they’re trying to beat the market, and more importantly, because they think they can, says Harold Evensky, chairman of Evensky & Katz wealth management firm and Professor of Practice at Texas Tech University.

At speaking engagements or lectures, Evensky often asks his audience to raise hands if they think their children or grandchildren are better than average. Typically, everyone does. “Statistically, that can’t be,” Evensky says. “But it’s classic behavior. People don’t like the idea of being average.”

It is in that pursuit of better-than-average performance that investors often fall into one or more traps that may hurt their portfolios in the long run:

Red, black, and gray infographic about how over 90% of investors have problems with their portfolios

  1. Single-stock concentration

    Six in 10 investors have more than 10% of their portfolios invested in a single stock, according to SigFig data. Moreover, 15% of investors have more than half of their portfolios invested in just two stocks.

    Many of these investors work (or worked) for a company with a generous employee stock discount program, or one that distributes bonuses in the form of company stock. Alternatively, shares the investor purchased years ago may have appreciated so much that they have thrown their overall asset allocation out of whack. The horror stories of Enron and Washington Mutual employees should provide a sufficient reminder that single stock concentration exposes investors to excessive risk that can jeopardize their financial future.

  2. Home Bias

    Pride in one’s home country is patriotic, but letting that patriotism undermine one’s investment strategy is ill-advised. Evensky recalls assembling a portfolio for a potential client, who then banged his fist on the desk and stormed out of the office when he saw that a sizeable portion would be invested in international funds. “Forget it,” the client said. “I’ll never invest a penny outside of the United States.”

    The example may be extreme, but the mistake is common. For 60% of investors in SigFig’s analysis, international equities represented less than 10% of their equity portfolio. At the end 2013, U.S. investors held, on average, 27% of their total equity allocation in international funds, according to Vanguard (citing Morningstar data) — even though non-U.S. equities accounted for 51% of the global stock market. While no one answer fits all, Vanguard recommends “a reasonable starting allocation to non-U.S. stocks of 20%, with an upper limit based on global market capitalization.”

  3. Paying more for “better returns”

    With 1,411 ETFs available at the end of 2014, according to the Investment Company Institute, investors have plenty of options to choose from to build a well-diversified low-cost portfolio. How low can low-cost go? According to SigFig data, investors paid on average 17 basis points for ETFs, with popular ones like State Street’s SPDR S&P 500 Trust (SPY) and Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index (VTI) charging 0.09% and 0.05%, respectively.

    However, six in 10 investors represented in SigFig’s analysis own at least one fund with an expense ratio of 0.50% or higher. “They’re buying a good story,” Evensky explains. An investor who in effect pays a professional to beat the market is doing it because they don’t want to feel that they’re doing average investing. “They buy the Kool Aid. The stories of very smart people using technology and research that’s going to beat the system,” he says.

    Study after study has shown that more expensive, actively-managed funds do not outperform lower-cost index funds over the long run, even during bear markets. Simply put, paying more doesn’t guarantee better returns. So why do it?

  4. Overtrading and/ or timing the market

    More than a decade has passed since University of California Davis professors Brad Barber and Terence Odean published their now widely-referenced study with the catchy title, “Trading is Hazardous to Your Wealth.” Its conclusion — that frequent trading is associated with lower returns — holds true today. In a recent analysis, SigFig found that each 100% of portfolio turnover (that is, selling all holdings in one’s portfolio and buying new ones — which one in five investors do, the data shows) corresponds to a 50-basis-point decrease in returns.

    Even a conservative example shows how much of an impact those extra 50 basis points per year could have over the long term. If you save $10,000 a year for retirement and average a 6% annualized return, that total would grow to $816,044 after 30 years. If we reduce that annualized return by 50 basis points to 5.5%, you would end up with $70,000 less.

    Would you give up a year’s worth of retirement living expenses (or more) in the pursuit of better-than-average returns? “We try to educate our clients upfront that we’re not always going to beat the market,” says Evensky, whose firm manages $1.5 billion. “Our goal is to be in-between, and if we can do as well [as the market] and minimize taxes and expenses, we’ve done our job right.” It’s a goal worth pursuing, whether you work with a financial advisor, or manage your investments yourself.

1Investment products and services are offered independently through SigFig Wealth Management, LLC, an SEC registered investment advisor. Investment accounts are custodied at brokerages that are members of FINRA/SIPC. SigFig and Cambridge Savings Bank are not affiliated. Products and services made available through SigFig are not insured by the FDIC or any other agency of the United States and are not deposits or obligations of nor guaranteed or insured by any bank or bank affiliate. These products are subject to investment risk, including the possible loss of the principal amount invested.

SigFig Wealth Management, LLC investment recommendations rely on historical data. Historical performance is not a guarantee of future returns. 

SigFig Wealth Management, LLC is an SEC registered investment advisor. © 2017 SigFig Wealth Management. All Rights Reserved.