Donating Cash vs Non-Cash Assets

In honor of National Philanthropy Day, below is a brief primer on the tax benefits of charitable contributions/donations.

Fortunately for US taxpayers, the IRS provides income tax benefits for charitable donations and capital gains tax benefits if those donations are made with appreciated assets. See below:

Income Tax Deduction
Capital Gains
Tax Avoided
Short-Term Appreciated Assets
(Held <1 year)
Cost Basis
Long-Term Appreciated Assets
(Held >1 year)
Market Value
Depreciated Assets
(don’t donate these ūüėČ )
Market Value

Obviously, the dual impacts of receiving an income tax deduction and avoiding capital gains tax are beneficial. Consequently, the above methods can be used to dispose of assets or reallocate/rebalance portfolios in a tax-efficient way. I should note that the above is a high-level overview and there are additional tax issues to consider, so donors should consult with their tax adviser before making any donations.

What assets can be donated?

  • Liquid securities suchs as stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, derivatives, and so on.
  • Illiquid assets such as insurance contracts, restricted stock, employer stock options, business interests
  • Real assets, such as real estate or commodities
  • Other complex and esoteric assets

Many organizations are setup to accept liquid securities, but most do not have the resources to accept illiquid and/or complex assets. Typically, these can only be donated to (larger) well-resourced organizations or contributed to a foundation or donor-advised fund before being granted out to the end charity. Future posts will cover various charitable vehicles and strategies.

Active versus Passive: Fixed-Income

Actively-Managed Bond Funds Underperform…
Given the nature of fixed-income markets (see here, here, and here), one might assume that the majority of active managers should be able to outperform. However, this claim does not hold up.¬†The below chart indicates that although active managers occasionally beat the Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond index (or simply, “the agg”), most do not in most years.

The plot thickens in our next chart, which shows that active managers generally underperform the same index. However, these managers have bursts of outperformance which consistently coincides with an increase in interest rates.

And our final chart below smooths the above chart even more by extending the rolling performance period from 12 months to 60 months. Again, some episodes of outperformance, but those times are the exception rather than the rule.

…Because The Wrong Benchmarks Are Being Used
Besides implying that most intermediate-term bond managers underperform, the above charts also suggest that the actively managed universe of intermediate term bond funds consistently maintain both a lower duration and credit quality than the benchmark, which means that perhaps the wrong benchmark is being used. Vanguard has done much analysis on this topic and reaches similar conclusions (see: Active Bond-Fund Excess Returns: Is It Alpha…Or Beta?).¬†Anecdotally, I can say that many fixed-income funds that I come across benchmark to “the agg,” despite no¬†semblance¬†of similar holdings or characteristics. The below chart does a good job of illustrating that many benchmarks are misspecified. Adjusting for a fund’s holdings reduces tracking error.

Of course, all of the above charts simply relate to intermediate-term bond funds and not other popular sectors such as high-yield/bank loans or any international bonds. However, the SPIVA data is not too supportive of active fixed-income managers’ value in these sectors and I was hard-pressed to find any supporting charts that showed anything different (at least for anything more than brief windows of time).

Many funds that I know and use are benchmarked to the agg, LIBOR + x spread, or some other arbitrary benchmark. When I ask fund sponsors what they benchmark to, they usually say something to the effect of, “Well we benchmark to the [you name your index]. It’s not a perfect fit or even a good one, but that’s what it is.” A huge number of intermediate bond funds are benchmarked to the agg, but are not trying to beat it or even hold similar assets. This is also true for many other bond funds and indices. Comparing funds to arbitrary indices is not a good way to select funds, as the comparison is meaningless and can easily be gamed.

What To Do?
Of course, if the agg outperforms various other sectors over time and thus represents an opportunity cost, then why not just invest in the agg? I think that is a fine choice for very long-term investors. However, since¬†the agg and other high-quality benchmarks’ outperformance is neither universal nor consistent AND (as we saw in the last post) credit has periods of outperformance and underperformance AND returns can be approximated ahead of time, I believe investors can do better. To apply Klarman’s framework, bonds are better “trading sardines” than “eating sardines.” Even a brief glance at the below comparison of the agg and high-yield index shows that credit returns swing like a pendulum. Buy when attractive, avoid when not.

source: Bloomberg

Several of the above charts above refer to the number of funds outperforming or underperforming, which ebbs and flows but generally more underperform. However, the data does not show how persistent outperformance or underperformance is for individual managers, nor does it show the degree of out/underperformance for individual managers. There are funds that have consistently beaten their stated benchmark and the agg over long periods of time, which means that some managers can outperform over multiple rolling periods with persistence. Even if the majority of active managers fail to beat their benchmark, there is a group that can beat their benchmark. I will not get into it here, but many of the funds that I have found have some common structural traits.

Lastly, in both order and importance, is that much of the data we have dates back to the early 1980s. Active managers outperform during periods of rising rates (see second chart) and rates have basically fallen for 35 years. This is not a prediction that the trend will reverse, but a recognition that passively managed funds have benefited from a tailwind that cannot be repeated to the same degree (rates only have 2-3% to fall until zero, not 15-20%).

The Bottom Line
So, what does this all mean?

  • Most fixed-income funds fail to beat their benchmark.
  • However, the benchmarks are often arbitrary and/or misspecified.
  • Fixed-income returns are both lumpy and predictable, so an active approach can add alpha relative to a benchmark.

One final thought is that the above all relates to relative performance. There is a lot of debate over whether to take an active or passive approach and performance metrics, but those are really secondary questions. Fixed-income is often used for an absolute return (ie. provide $x of income) or to simply diversify equity exposure. Investors should define the role of fixed-income in their portfolio before moving on to more complex and nuanced issues.

Understanding Fixed-Income Returns

Perhaps the most important concept to understand about bonds is that they are debt. Debt is a loan and borrowers do not pay more than they are contractually obligated to. The implications is that even under ideal conditions, future returns are both known and limited. Below are several reference points that investors can use to predict future returns.

Starting yields have been a fairly good predictor of Treasury returns:

Within credit, starting spreads have been good predictors of future returns:

Spreads are also indicative of future excess returns:

The above charts convey an important message: be aggressive when future returns are high and defensive when future returns are low. Fortunately, fixed-income investors can get a sense of future returns in the present (as a point of comparison, this is very different from equity markets where expensive assets can get more expensive and cheap assets can get cheaper). Invest accordingly.

Liquidity Dynamics in Fixed-Income Markets

We are continuing to examine a few foundational sub-topics before getting into the meat of the active versus passive debate for fixed-income. Last week, we looked at the composition and tax implications of fixed-income returns. Today we will be looking at liquidity in bond markets.

I find that the layperson is familiar with the stock market and understands that equities are traded electronically on centralized exchanges. Bonds are quite different however. Consider a few of the below points:

  • Many bonds are traded over the phone, rather than electronically. There is a big push towards electronic trading and a majority of US Treasuries may trade electronically now, but most corporate, mortgage, and muni issues still trade via phone.
  • There is no centralized exchange (electronic or otherwise), but a network of brokers and dealers who request quotes from one another.
  • Very few bonds trade on a given day. While nearly all stocks trade every day and many times over, very few bonds trade every day. Many US Treasury and Agency bonds trade every day, but a large portion of investment grade corporate bonds do not. A minority of high yield bonds trade on any given day and just a fraction of muni bonds trade on most days. For instance, both my clients and I own many bonds that have not traded in months.

Each of the above points contribute to wide bid-ask spreads. That is, the difference between what buyers are willing to pay and sellers are willing to accept is wide.¬†When bid-ask spreads are tight and liquidity is deep, it does not much matter whether you’re a buyer or a seller because either will get close to the same price.¬†But if bid-ask spreads are wide, then buyers and sellers will get quoted very different prices. Buyers will be quoted higher prices and sellers will be quoted lower prices. This type of market can be either good or bad, depending on the investor.

Investors who are forced to buy or sell are at a disadvantage. If an investor has some discretion over trading, he/she can exploit this illiquidity by selling when people want to buy and buying when they want to sell.¬†The more illiquid the asset class, the more you want to be in control of buying and selling decisions. This dynamic certainly impacts how allocations evaluate manager mandates, fund structure, product wrappers, as well as management style (active vs passive) which we’ll get into more in coming weeks).

Fixed-Income Taxation & Implications for the Active vs Passive Debate

Before diving into an analysis of active versus passive management in fixed-income, it may be helpful to cover a few foundational topics. First up is taxation.

Tax-efficiency is major tailwind for passive management in equities, but not so much in bonds.

First, let’s look at some reasons why equity index funds are tax-efficient:

  • Equity returns are composed of both appreciation and dividends. Under the current US tax code, short-term capital gains are taxed at ordinary income rates and long-term capital gains are taxed at 15-20%. Furthermore, “qualified dividends” also receive favorable tax treatment. Thus, there are a lot of tax benefits to reducing turnover in an equity portfolio.
  • The ETF structure allows for in-kind redemptions (and creations, but that’s beside the point) and many equity index fund managers have been able to minimize or avoid any capital gains exposure since their inception.

Now let’s examine how these factors contrast with fixed-income:

  • The majority of a bond’s return is from interest. Bond prices do fluctuate and investors can capture gains and experience losses, but a bond will only return a fixed-amount over its life. Hence the term fixed-income. Under the current US tax code, interest income is taxed at ordinary income rates. Even if an investor captures some appreciation, he/she will likely need to attribute a portion of the gain as income. Thus, there is not as much of a tax incentive to hold on to bonds for longer than need be, as investors will largely be taxed at ordinary income rates regardless of holding period.
  • The bond universe is much larger than the stock universe, but also less liquid. Thus, bond ETFs utilize in-kind redemptions less than their equity fund counterparts, which means that there is often capital gains exposure.

Obviously the tax laws can change, but passively-managed fixed-income does not currently enjoy the same tax benefits as passively-managed equities. This does not mean that active management is necessarily better in fixed-income (that depends on many other factors which we’ll explore in coming weeks), but the hurdle is not quite as high.

Active vs Passive: US Large Cap Equities (One Last Chart)

Just came across this chart from Russell Investments, which corroborates much of the data from last week’s post. Thus, the conclusion remains the same: it is very, very difficult to beat the indices in domestic large-cap equities.

Active vs Passive: US Large Cap Equities

This post will look at US large caps through the lens of the active vs passive debate. As one the largest and best known asset classes, it is often the battleground of the debate.

There is no shortage of analysis and reporting purporting to shed light on the active vs passive debate, although most of it is noise. SPIVA publishes data quarterly, although knowing what percent of managers out/underperformed each quarter or year is meaningless, as is knowing the persistence of top ranked funds (see here). So, we’ll skip all the noise and red herrings and skip right to a good starting point: rolling returns over multiple years.

The below shows that active managers really underperformed in 1990s, then enjoyed a period of outperformance during the recession of the early 2000s, but have not added much value since.

The picture does not change much when we go from 3-year rolling returns to 5-year rolling returns. The median manager added modest value for a brief time in the mid-2000s and again around 2010.

Vanguard put out this beautiful chart of 10-year rolling returns that includes data on all percentiles of active managers (instead of just the mean or median manager). On average, most active managers underperform over most 10-year time periods. Again, this is before taxes, so the real after-tax numbers are even worse for active managers.

There is some evidence that active managers perform better in severe down markets, which you can see in the above charts as well as in the scatter plot below. It’s is debatable whether this is simply due to lower equity allocations or whether active managers are successful risk managers. Distinguishing between those two factors is really just splitting hairs, so I’ll move on and wrap up.


The data largely shows what the passive camp already knows: large cap indices are hard to beat. Over 3-, 5-, and 10-year periods, most active managers underperform most of the time.

However, the active camp will rightfully point out that there have been some time periods when more than half of managers outperform. This is true, although it is a minority of the time and does not include tax drag.

Of course, these numbers are in aggregate. Some managers may pitch themselves with a superior 10-year return and my hope is that readers will respond by saying, “Show me a history of your rolling returns.”

My final conclusion is that outperforming a US large-cap index is very, very difficult to do. It is even more difficult in taxable accounts. I don’t think its impossible and I own an actively-managed US large cap fund at the moment, but investors need a very compelling case because the odds favor passive management.

Active vs Passive: Questions People Ask

My general view (explained here) is that investors should use passive strategies in asset classes where it is difficult to beat the averages and active strategies where it is probable that the averages can be beat. Unfortunately, the active vs passive debate in many asset classes hinges on biases, dogma, and platitudes. Anecdotes and misused statistics abound, while rigorous questioning and examination are much harder to find.

Below are some questions that are commonly asked when evaluating whether active management can succeed in a particular asset class. Each is problematic in some way and also used (and the answers overplayed) by both the passive and active camps. Hopefully, the below is helpful in cutting through the BS and developing a framework for evaluating management style.

1. How many managers beat their benchmark in any given year?

The problem with the above question is that it is impossible to separate luck from skill. The number is likely to be higher in markets with higher volatility or more randomness. Therefore, we might ask:

2. How many of this year’s outperforming managers beat the market in consecutive years?

On the surface, this is a good question. However, it completely ignores the magnitude of outperformance or underperformance. Is it better for someone to gain 5% three years in a row or to get two years of 12% and one year of -2%?

3. We can look at active manager alpha over rolling 3-, 5-, 10-year periods, which should account for magnitude of gains of losses and focus on total return.

Yet, like any of the previous metrics, rolling returns vary over time. A particular manager or strategy might do well in one 10-year period and terrible in another. However, the data may show that it is consistently easy or difficult to outperform in a given asset class consistently through various regimes.

This is also a good place to pause and point out that questions #1-3 may lead to an aggregated answer, but can miss pockets of persistent outperformance. For instance, it is possible for subset of managers to consistently outperform in markets even if most underperform. That’s why #4 is important.

4. Shifting from asset classes to individual managers, it’s best to dig into the portfolio’s historical data and understand what drove performance in past years. This process is called “return attribution.”

Reviewing past performance and attribution is helpful, but certainly not prescriptive. Evaluating portfolio construction, strategy, historical returns and attribution provides a baseline understanding, but portfolios evolve over time and the future will inevitably unfold differently than the past. However, investors can understand a manager’s process and judge whether the returns were due to skill or luck and, ultimately, whether past success is repeatable or not.

The above is just a brief summary of some commonly asked questions and why they are problematic. As I mentioned, hopefully it is helpful in calling someone’s BS. We’ll dig deeper into specific asset classes over the next few weeks.

Reader Mailbag: How Good Are Automated Investing Services?

This week, we have a follow-up question from blog reader Jasmin:

How good are automated online investing services?

This is one of the most common questions I hear from millennials. Many automated investing services (also called “roboadvisors” or simply “robos”) have launched in the past several years. Robos have made investing very easy and convenient for some people, because robo clients do not have to research investments on their own or consult with an advisor. Instead of opening an account and deciding what to buy, the robo will automatically allocate and invest based on an online risk-tolerance questionnaire.

Although robos are not doing anything novel, I believe they bring a lot of value to the marketplace. Most roboadvisors offer a solid service, at a low cost, with very low account minimums. Perhaps most importantly, they provide these things to a segment of investors that did not have many good options previously.

While some investors prefer to invest themselves and others use the services of an advisor, many investors cannot meet the account minimums of a traditional advisor nor have the inclination to manage investments themselves. Robos are great for these investors.

However, there are a few important factors to consider when deciding whether or not to use a robo:

  • Most of the robos only offer asset allocation advice. They cannot advise on individual investments, stock options, tax planning, real estate, and so on. It is fine to separate investment management from financial, tax, and estate planning (many investors don’t even need, much less pay for, these services). However, investors should know that roboadvisors typically provide a narrower set of services than human advisors.
  • Portfolios are not customized. Clients are not able to customize their portfolio, hold positions with low cost basis that would be cost-prohibitive to sell, make tactical adjustments, or effect other personalized customizations. I tend to agree with the argument that roboadvisors should be regulated as mutual funds rather than as investment advisors, based on how the current regulations are written.
  • As discussed previously, there is no best or even standard asset allocation. Designing an asset allocation is very subjective and allocations across robos vary quite a bit.
  • Most of the robos only use passively-managed index funds. Sometimes passive management is better, sometimes active management is better. Passive-only is probably a better bet than active-only due to the generally lower costs, but a service that blended active and passive would be much better IMO.
  • I have seen some roboadvisors market impossible and misleading claims. I won’t get into the weeds in this post, but as always: caveat emptor.

This is only tangential to the original question, but I think the outlook for robos is worth mentioning. The first wave of start-up B2C roboadvisors, priced their services very aggressively. Perhaps they priced too low. Some shifted to a B2B model of offering white-labeled versions of their services to third-parties. Others shut down or sold themselves to fund sponsors.

Fund sponsors quickly figured out that robos were a great tool for fund distribution and many sponsors bought or started their own robos. I have always thought that the fund sponsor-owned robos would be tough to beat because their product fees (from the underlying funds) can subsidize the distribution (the robo service). So far, this seems to the case, as the Vanguard and Schwab robos easily outgrew the early incumbents Wealthfront and Betterment.

This trend of sponsor-backed robos dominating should continue as many robos find it difficult to generate any net income. I doubt Wealthfront has turned a profit yet, despite being a market leader with tons of VC investment. The competition will likely get tougher too, as the sponsor-owned robos can offer their services for free (Schwab does). How can anyone compete with free? How can anyone compete with free in a commoditized industry? I don’t think it is possible.

So I think the future will be dominated by free or close-to-free robos that are mostly owned by fund sponsors. This should drive costs down, although it also brings some conflicts of interest (but those issues are common to many advisory business models, not just robos; so that’ll be another post someday). Overall, I think robos are and will continue to be a choice for a certain segment of the investor population.

Reader Mailbag: How is the stock market index of any significance for individuals?

This week, we have a reader question from Jasmin:

How is the stock market index of any significance for individuals?

The significance of a stock market index (or any other index for that matter) is that it is a benchmark. In other words, investors can use indices as a yardstick to measure and/or compare slices of their portfolio to.

For most investors, indices can be used to evaluate the performance of the individual asset classes in their portfolio. Investors can compare the risk and return metrics of an allocation to those of an appropriate index. When utilizing an actively managed strategy, an appropriate index or index fund can be viewed as the opportunity cost of using the active strategy.

If you own US large-cap stocks, you might compare the volatility and performance of those stocks to the S&P 500. If you own international stocks, you might compare them to the MSCI EAFE. You can compare the bond portion of your portfolio to the Barclays Agg or a number of other indices. There are multiple indices for various sectors, regions, countries, and so on. In fact, today there are more indices than stocks!

Although the above is relatively straightforward, many investors misuse indices. Below are two of the more common errors that I see:

  • Comparing a multi-asset class portfolio to a single asset class index. I meet many people who compare their portfolio of global stocks and fixed-income to the S&P 500. The S&P 500 could probably be used to benchmark the US large-cap equity portion of the portfolio, but certainly not the entire portfolio.
  • Viewing an index as a goal. Each individual investor has unique goals and their portfolio should reflect this. Even the largest indices have some fairly substantial risks, which investors should be aware of and may want to avoid. For instance, the “China Region” (China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) makes up 40+% of most broad-based emerging markets equity indices or the Barclays Agg is overwhelmingly government bonds, which offer much more duration than yield today. These are just two examples of where investor goals may be inconsistent with an index’s composition. Note: Money managers may benchmark to a single index, but this is because they typically run single asset class strategies and are concerned with relative performance, neither of which is typically true of individual investors.

So, the short answer is that individuals can use indices to evaluate single asset class strategies/managers and should not be used for much more than that.