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A Guide to Feel The Bern

This may seem like a post about politics, but it is not. This post is a list of ideas to share widely if you would like to improve Bernie Sanders’ slim chances of winning the Democratic nomination. If you’ve already decided to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, then this post will provide little-to-no value to your life and I suggest moving on.

Let’s start with some facts about the democratic primary process and current situation:

  • If and when a candidate reaches 2,383 pledged delegates he or she is guaranteed the party nomination. If he or she does not reach 2,383 pledged delegates then the nominee is decided at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, PA on July 25, 2016 by votes from the 719 superdelegates.
  • According to AP, Hillary Clinton has earned 1,716 pledged delegates and Bernie Sanders has earned 1,433 pledged delegates. Thus Hillary Clinton needs 667 pledged delegates to lock up the nomination before the DNC while Bernie Sanders needs 950 pledged delegates.
  • Superdelegate endorsements do not count towards the delegate totals until the convention. Those votes must be cast at the DNC.
  • According to the green papers and fivethirtyeight, there are 897 pledged delegates at stake in the remaining 11 primaries/caucus (KY, OR, VI, PR, CA, MT, NJ, NM, ND, SD, DC). It impossible for Sanders to lock up the nomination before the convention. This also means that Hillary needs 74% of the remaining pledged delegates to lock up the nomination before the convention.
  • Hillary has not earned more than 74% of the vote in any state outside the deep south. There are no states left to vote in the deep south. Furthermore, there are no states where she leads in the polls by a margin even close to what is required to earn 74% of the delegates so the likelihood of Hillary Clinton winning the democratic party nomination before the convention is lower than the probability of Bernie Sanders being president. It is a near certainty that the winner will be determined on July 25th at the DNC
  • Thus, all that matters is how the 719 superdelegates vote in July.

What these facts mean is that if you want Bernie Sanders to be the next president of the United States, you must build a coalition to persuade the superdelegates that Bernie Sanders is the right choice. Below are some ideas on how to do this and why Bernie Sanders is a substantially stronger opponent to Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton:

1) Hold Superdelegates Accountable – While they are not required to vote in line with their constituencies, the simple act of letting them know their re-election is on the line tends to hold more influence than reason when it comes to politics. Find the superdelegates from this list who are elected officials in jurisdictions where you vote. Write a letter telling them to support Bernie Sanders. This is especially important if they are currently endorsing Hillary. Let them know you know when they are up for re-election. Create a form letter. Ask all your friends in the same jurisdiction to send the letter to their superdelegates.

2) Vote for Bernie and get everyone you know to do the same – If you live in KY, OR, VI, PR, CA, MT, NJ, NM, ND, SD, DC, you still have an opportunity to show your support for Bernie Sanders. The more delegates you get your boy before the convention, the fewer of the superdelegates you need to “convince” in July. If Bernie goes to the convention with more pledged delegates than Hillary (unlikely, but possible), then boy are those “party elites” in a gigantic pickle.

3) Remind everyone that Hillary Clinton has poor net favorability ratings – Her favorability ratings are lower than Sanders’ and unfavorability ratings are higher than Sanders’ and recent trends are showing the gap widening.

Clinton Favorability

Sanders Favorability

4) Make sure everyone knows that this is not splitting hairs as her unfavorability is of epic and historic proportions – At least since this metric was broadly measured. And it isn’t even that close. Trump and Hillary are the only candidates in history who have over 50% of those polled viewing them unfavorably. Ask yourself if you want the president of the United States to be viewed unfavorably by more than half the population.

historical favorable

5) Bernie Sanders beats Trump by twice as much as Clinton does – Trump and Clinton were statistically tied in 3 of the last 10 polls. Sanders led Trump in every single one of the last 20 polls. Is this a risk you’re willing to take? Ask your superdelegate if that is a risk he or she is willing to take.



6) Remind everyone that Clinton is widely acknowledged as a poor campaigner and it is Trump’s strength – There are a number of compelling narratives that show how badly a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign against Donald Trump could go. Share this Current Affairs Article widely. It is a prescient and compelling horror story.

An excerpt of the article describing a hypothetical Donald Trump speech. Remember, this is the same man that has convinced millions of Americans that we are going to build a wall that costs double-digit billions and get Mexico to pay for it:

“She lies so much. Everything she says is a lie. I’ve never seen someone who lies so much in my life. Let me tell you three lies she’s told. She made up a story about how she was ducking sniper fire! There was no sniper fire. She made it up! How do you forget a thing like that? She said she was named after Sir Edmund Hillary, the guy who climbed Mount Everest. He hadn’t even climbed it when she was born! Total lie! She lied about the emails, of course, as we all know, and is probably going to be indicted. You know she said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq! It was a lie! Thousands of American soldiers are dead because of her. Not only does she lie, her lies kill people. That’s four lies, I said I’d give you three. You can’t even count them. You want to go on PolitiFact, see how many lies she has? It takes you an hour to read them all! In fact, they ask her, she doesn’t even say she hasn’t lied. They asked her straight up, she says she usually tries to tell the truth! Ooooh, she tries! Come on! This is a person, every single word out of her mouth is a lie. Nobody trusts her. Check the polls, nobody trusts her. Yuge liar.”


7) Independent voters matter and they overwhelmingly support Sanders – According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 43% of registered voters are independents.


And it is widely reported that Sanders has overwhelming independent support.

The conclusions are simple:

  • If you want Bernie Sanders to win the presidency, you’re fighting an uphill battle and mobilizing now and mobilizing hard is your only chance.
  • If your only goal is to prevent Donald Trump from being president of the United States, ask yourself whether you’d put your money on Bernie or Hillary to get that job done.
  • Even if you think Hillary Clinton would be a marginally better president than Bernie Sanders, consider whether that marginal goodness is more important to you than a substantially increased likelihood of a Trump presidency.

Socially Responsible Investing Will Soon Be The Norm

For the average investor, I am a strong proponent of investing in a diversified set of low-cost index funds which likely provides market-matching returns over the long run (or damn near close to it). Even though most investors under-perform this easy to achieve benchmark, many cannot help but try their hand at beating the markets because they do not want to settle for “table stakes.”

Given the reality that our cognitive biases, overconfidence, and desire to have fun in the markets frequently supplant our rational judgment when it comes to investing, why not make a positive expected value (I assert) bet with positive externalities? To this end, I recommend socially responsible investing as a way to “play the markets,” do real good, and potentially earn superior returns.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that socially responsible investing (SRI) has the potential to outperform conventional portfolios over time and the purpose of this post is to provide a quick overview of logic that supports this argument.

Go to where the money will be.

Between today and my retirement, there is an estimated $30 Trillion of wealth that will transfer to millennials with almost $3 Trillion of that coming in the next 4 years. Pair this with the fact that millennials are 2x more likely to invest in companies that target specific social or environmental outcomes, and the fact that they are 2x more likely to exit an investment position because of objectionable corporate activity, and you are left with a large number of dollars that will systematically flow into socially responsible companies and out of objectionably behaved companies.

This story by itself, if you believe it, is enough to generate a sensible investment thesis that is bullish on socially responsible organizations. The icing on the cake (gluten free and organic, of course) is that these large flows of capital have the potential to create powerful, self-reinforcing engines: cash flowing to these businesses lowers their cost of capital, increasing their efficiency (or growth potential if you don’t buy efficiency), and generating superior returns that in turn attract more investors.

Too clean to fail.

With the growing importance of these issues as expressed by millennials as well as scientific facts (global warming, water scarcity, etc.), it is not unreasonable to think government subsidies for sustainable practices, both in terms of dollars and regulatory benefits, will continue to grow considerably in coming years.

Furthermore, there is strong evidence to suggest that the world will be afflicted with increased scarcity of resources (water, oil, fossil fuels) in our lifetimes. Business that begin to slowly shift to more sustainable practices will be well ahead of rising resource costs and business disruptions from supply shocks.

Socially responsible investing outperforms empirically, too

There is a study that studied studies that studied the relationship between environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria and corporate financial performance (CFP). In total, some 2000 studies were evaluated. A staggering 90% of the studies suggests non-negative correlation between ESG and CFP. Put differently, 90% of the studies reviewed indicate that socially responsible companies perform equal to or better than those who do not follow that criteria.
While there are macroeconomic and regulatory tailwinds for ESG-positive companies in the coming years, historical evidence has already provided significant evidence of financial out-performance. While the basket of low-cost index funds may be “the market” of today, there is reason to believe that it will under-perform the “new market” of tomorrow that is more accepting of ESG-criteria. Do you want to be left behind? And implicitly support the destruction of the earth? Of course not.

Disclosure: I recently became an adviser to OpenInvest, a Y Combinator-backed startup whose mission is to make socially responsible investing the norm.

Roboadvisors are good investment vehicles

I write today in sadness and frustration.

I hesitate to link to Blake Ross’ recent article on the tyranny of Wealthfront because it strikes a blow that sets my friends’ and generation’s investment goals back immeasurably. While I fear his colorful writing and celebrity status will likely confuse people into inaction, I hope this article will inspire you to action and shed light on some the inaccuracies and misrepresentations in Ross’ article.

Before I begin my response, I implore readers: If you’ve been evaluating Wealthfront, Betterment, Vanguard Retirement Funds, or Schwab Intelligent portfolios over the last few months (or years) and can’t decide which to use — for the love of whatever you believe in, stop reading this post, roll a 1d4 and just pick one. They’re all better (by a large margin) than you leaving it in your checking account, spending it on something stupid, or giving it to an expensive active advisor. Go. Do it. Now. Which one did you choose? As the Rock would say, “it doesn’t matter [what you chose, as long as you chose].”

Time for business.

There is a lot of glossy rhetoric in Ross’ post and while I appreciate the passion and his renegade approach, I am upset by the misinformation. I’ll distill the rhetoric down to the key arguments and address those.

Argument A: You’ll make more money with Vanguard Retirement Fund than a Roboadvisor – This is a strong claim that in Ross’ words, “There is simply no evidence, nor any theoretical reason, to believe”. It’s the hardest claim to prove but is also most important of the arguments. Simply put, the Wealthfront portfolio costs slightly more (quantified below) annually but probably makes up for this difference and then some due to tax loss harvesting (enough to close the gap alone), a likely superior asset allocation, a likely superior rebalancing strategy, and a faster rate of innovation.

Argument B: Roboadvisor fees increase over time – This isn’t a particularly unique thing, and I’m not sure what the ultimate impact is of this argument, especially since Ross’ alternative suffers the same “flaw”. A number of business models include fee structures like this, especially when the benefit of the product increases over time as well. The fee does not rise on a percentage basis, but only on an absolute basis, and only if the Roboadvisor is making you money.

Argument C: Tax-loss harvesting is too good to be true and the benefit is overstated – Ross agrees that there is an aftertax benefit to tax loss harvesting. His argument is that the magnitude of the impact is too small to matter. Unfortunately, even if we cut Wealthfront’s estimates by 10x and then refer to Ross’ citation about Tax Loss Harvesting, both sources claim an annualized benefit of at least 0.20%, which is already enough to push Wealthfront above Vanguard Retirement Funds. Finally, the author of Ross’ only substantive claim against the benefits of Tax Loss Harvesting actually supports Roboadvisors, and even Wealthfront specifically.

Argument D: Roboadvisor fee structures are unprecedented – No they’re not.

Note that while Ross decides to aim his critique primarily at Wealthfront, his arguments apply to Roboadvisors at large and so I’ll genericize my response where I can. When I use specific fee figures, I’ll use Wealthfront’s. Also note that Ross’ alternative is by no means bad, it’s just not better, and certainly not better to the degree that justifies the tone of his critique. I love Vanguard. They’re great.


A. You’ll make more money with Vanguard Retirement Fund than a Roboadvisor

1. The true fee difference is at most 0.17% in Vanguard’s favor, likely less – Ross overstates the cost difference between Wealthfront and Vanguard. Wealthfront’s portfolio costs at most 0.35% annually (closer to 0.33% for accounts with Direct Indexing). This fee is composed of a 0.25% fee paid to Wealthfront and a 0.10% fee paid to the administrators of the ETF that Wealthfront invests you in (mainly Vanguard, by the way). Ross’ “dirty secret” alternative (Vanguard Retirement Fund) charges 0.18%. Below is a comparison of total expenses for Wealthfront vs a Vanguard Retirement portfolio. Wealthfront manages $10,000 for free and adds an extra $5,000 managed for free for every client you refer to Wealthfront, reducing your blended costs. The table below assumes the minimum of $10,000 managed for free.

Wealthfront Vanguard Fee Comparison

Now, that means we need to see if Wealthfront can overcome 0.07% – 0.17% in annual fees. Let’s get to work.

2. Tax Loss Harvesting by itself makes up for the difference and then some – Wealthfront claims Tax Loss Harvesting can add approximately 1.29% annually (2.03% if one includes tax-optimized direct indexing). While I agree with Ross that this figure is huge and potentially overstated, there’s (a) no evidence he provides to the contrary and (b) just ignoring it is hardly sensible. So even if we decimate Wealthfront’s claim, we get to a 0.20% benefit from TLH with TODI. So this means that 1/10th of Wealthfront’s claimed Tax Loss harvesting makes up the fee difference by itself, and then some. I contend that Ross’ arguments show a misunderstanding of what TLH is and the mechanics of how it works. I’ll dive into this in depth in the TLH section.

3. Ross likely misrepresents Buffett’s viewpoint – Furthermore, he mis-characterizes a Buffett quote as evidence to assail robo-advisors: “… Put 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund. (I suggest Vanguard’s.) I believe the trust’s long-term results from this policy will be superior to those attained by most investors — whether pension funds, institutions or individuals — who employ high-fee managers.” First, if you asked Mr. Buffett whether 0.37% is a high-fee manager, I’d wager he wouldn’t think it was too bad given the management fees being in the 1-2% for most of his lifetime and given Ross’ own argument that WF has significantly lower fees than other advisors and given that Ross’ alternative has fees that are less than 0.20% lower. Second, I’d also place a wager that Buffett is referring to active managers (most Roboadvisors are passive asset allocators). Third, Wealthfront disputes Ross’ claim directly in an article that compares the Wealthfront portfolio to Buffett’s recommendation. Finally, Buffet’s allocation is obviously an oversimplification that can and should be improved upon. Or is it? Let’s see what the experts have to say about the importance of a diversified asset allocation.

4. Asset Allocation matters a lot – In a seminal 1985 paper it is argued that asset allocations explained almost 94% of a portfolio’s return versus other factors contributing 6%. The administrators of Mr Ross’ alternative also believes this too as evidenced by a Vanguard-published paper stating that almost 77% of portfolio performance comes from asset allocation decisions (they removed some factors from being classified as asset allocation that the Brinson paper includes). If academics don’t convince you, fine.

5. Good investors also think asset allocation matters a lot – Some not-so-bad investors say stuff too. “Asset allocation is critically important; but cost is critically important, too—All other factors pale into insignificance.” -John Bogle, founder of Vanguard. “The most important decision you will probably ever make concerns the balancing of asset categories (stocks, bonds, real estate, money market securities, etc.) at different stages of your life.” -Professor Burton Malkiel, author of A Random Walk Down Wall Street, way before he became Wealthfront’s CIO. “Choose your asset allocation model carefully. Asset allocation is the biggest factor in determining your overall return.” -Charles Schwab.

6. Figuring out asset allocation difference is hard, we have to evaluate it systemically – Now, the question is whether Wealthfront’s asset allocation is better or worse than the Vanguard retirement fund’s. This is a very, very tricky question to answer because there’s really no concrete way to know aside from just seeing how they perform. The issue with that approach is you don’t know systematically which (if either), will outperform. You only know what actually happened, which is significantly influenced by chance. What we can do, however, is understand the process each manager employs to see if there are systematic biases to outperform the other or not.

7. Vanguard portfolios are more constrained than Wealthfront’s – Vanguard’s Retirement portfolios use their own funds. Wealthfront has no such requirement. That means that in cases where an asset allocation would be better served by having a non-Vanguard fund that provides a certain set of exposures, Vanguard must find a close proxy, create a new fund, or risk underperformance. Wealthfront has the opportunity to find the best alternative (which happen to be Vanguard MOST of the time). It’s tough to quantify, but the argument is simply that a constrained portfolio is likely worse than a less constrained one.

7. Wealthfront’s rebalance strategy is likely more sophisticated than Vanguard’s -Furthermore, Wealthfront’s rebalance strategy is optimized to minimize drift while keeping costs at bay, a strategy advocated by Vanguard. While Wealthfront has developed software to assess the trade-off between these two sides in real time (it operates continuously), Vanguard does it daily (because they receive fund inflows and outflows daily) incurring small costs on the fund each time and requiring discrete decision-making which is not real-time. Additionally, there is evidence to believe that Vanguard uses time-based and threshold based triggers, which they admit in their own white paper have issues. While the impact here is likely small, it is yet another systematic benefit to an automated strategy like Wealthfront’s.

8. Wealthfront’s rate of innovation is fast – Finally, Wealthfront has been at the Vanguard (see what I did there?) of change in the industry for a long time. I will say that Vanguard’s innovations are great, but Wealthfront has been the Roboadvisor that has consistently pushed the envelope, developed new strategies, reduced cost via cheaper ETF’s, and made more features available to smaller investors faster. Others follow suit of the star-studded investment team from Wealthfront. Purely on a trust basis, I would trust the investment analysis (I’ve verified enough myself) of Wealthfront. Even beyond that, there’s a tangible benefit being the leader of innovation because your investors realize the benefits of the features while investors in other funds must wait for the innovations. Wealthfront discusses this specific argument here.

9. Ross’ critique minimizes the impact of human psychology (and lack of logic) on financial decisions – Ross says, “If you open a retirement account, and you invest some of your paycheck each month into a Vanguard Target Retirement Fund, and you just…leave it… until retirement… you don’t do anything when the folks on CNBC announce that the sky is falling; you don’t do anything when Cousin Eddy calls from a secure underground bunker in the badlands and says that the fed is printing money and it’s time to liquidate and ammo up; you don’t think it’s a sign that your parrot said “fuhgeddaboutit” but you thought she said “get a nugget” and surely that must mean a gold nugget? and you looked online and noticed that the price of shiny yellow metal was crashing and wait your parrot is also yellow and I’ll be damned if that isn’t a sign to buy… no, if you just leave it there to compound over decades… then you will probably make more money than … if you used Wealthfront.” That’d be nice, but it rarely happens. The story of Peter Lynch and the Magellan Fund is a cautionary tale. He ran the Fidelity Magellan fund for 13 years and achieved a ~30% annualized return. The average investor in the fund, however, actually lost money. This happened because investors would fear on the dips and sell and chase returns after a big run up. They essentially broke the cardinal rule of investing by selling low and buying high, over and over again. An automated advisor protects you from yourself marginally more than a portfolio you need to manage more (or even a Vanguard Retirement Fund which is psychologically easier to view as a single investment rather than money with an advisor).

10. Vanguard Retirement Funds are either less tax efficient (in taxable accounts) or they are less optimized (in non-taxable accounts) than the Wealthfront portfolio — Wealthfront offers different asset allocations for taxable and non-taxable accounts in order to optimize tax treatment. The Vanguard Retirement Fund is a single entity that holds a single asset allocation is not individually optimized for one type of account or the other. The impact of this is non-negligible.

B. Roboadvisor fees increase over time

1. Yes, they do – But only if they make you money. There doesn’t seem to be a differential implication presented.

2. It’s pretty common – In fact, many businesses (even those not on Wall Street) have a business model that charges increased fees based on usage. Many SaaS companies charge by seat. Many data businesses charge by volume of data processed/stored. There seems to be no distinction drawn between Roboadvisors and these other businesses.

3. Vanguard’s got the same “issue” – In fact, the suggested alternative (Vanguard Retirement Fund) charges exactly the same way.

4. What do you believe? There’s a philosophical / value-based question on whether you think the fee should be proportional. If the value being provided is proportional (it is for many SaaS companies, and it is for Wealthfront too), then I personally find it fair to charge a fee in this way. You’ll have to figure out for yourself what you believe on this one.

5. The structure aligns incentives – Furthermore, Wealthfront is better than a number of the alternative subscription-based models in that the fee only increases if your outcomes improve (portfolio value increases). SaaS models that charge by seat cost you more as your # of seats grow, but don’t cost you less if the seats do dumb things with the product or if the seats use the product less. It’s incentive alignment, not predatory pricing.

6. Ross misrepresents rarity of the model – He argues, “It’s not just that Wealthfront charges users for its software, which is rare.” This one made me angry so I had to take a break to watch Netflix and listen to Spotify before coming back to blog on my personal domain. He also argues, “It’s also that, on average, Wealthfront increases its subscription fee every day.” Yes, I agree. But the question is whether you are OK watching your investment balance grow by $100 while watching the fee grow by $0.25. If you’re not, then I ask about the alternative. His alternative is structured similarly.

7. Roboadvisors are not merely providing advice – Finally he says, “Stop charging proportional fees for advice,” to which I say Roboadvisors provide more than merely advice. They provide services like trading for you, keeping up with changes in ETF fees and landscape, rebalancing intelligently instead of periodically, tax loss harvesting and performance tracking. As mentioned earlier, a number of the services above have benefits that in fact do scale with the size of the account. The implication of the statement above is that one should pay fixed fees but gain bigger benefit over time from those fees.

8. Wealthfront has never been profitable – In response to the “Wealthfront helps itself to such margins” argument, it is important to note that the company is not profitable and won’t be profitable any time in the next few years. You can write that in pen. On the 2bn they manage, they’re revenue is less than $5mm. They’ve lost money for every year they have been in existence. Vanguard runs at cost, according to Ross’. I’d prefer to let the VC’s subsidize me.

C. Tax-loss harvesting is too good to be true and benefit is overstated

1. We need to save in taxable accounts too – Ross argues that “If your nest egg exists entirely in a retirement account, as it does for many Americans, then tax loss harvesting won’t help you at all.” While this is true, I’d argue that it is a big deal that Wealthfront is providing incentive (TLH) to invest outside retirement accounts, given the dire state of savings rates in our generation.

2. ETFs have capital gains too – With Ross’ argument that “If you practice the kind of investing that Wealthfront itself evangelizes — buy-and-hold, passive, rational, long-term indexing that is rebalanced with new money or in retirement accounts — then you should not be realizing capital gains regularly anyway.” he fails to mention that his alternative also recognizes capital gains regularly. Most ETF’s distribute capital gains at the end of the year and do not harvest losses, so you’re basically paying capital gains taxes in either scenario. Furthermore this cuts against Ross’ argument that tax loss harvesting gains are capped while Wealthfront’s fees are uncapped.

3. Even rudimentary TLH is enough for Wealthfront to come out on top – Furthermore, Ross’ argument against Tax Loss Harvesting as made by the Kitces article above actually says that 0.20% improvements are based upon lumpy and dumb harvesting (once/year, at the end of the year) versus a much more sophisticated, real-time algorithm employed by Wealthfront.

4. Ross’ own citation makes a pretty strong case for Roboadvisors – The same author who Ross cites also writes a pretty good article about How Declining Transaction Costs And Robo-Indexing Could Disintermediate Index Mutual Funds And ETFs.

D. Roboadvisor fee structures are unprecedented.

No they’re not.


Invest your money in low cost ETF’s. If you have a taxable account and don’t want to spend time on it, I recommend Wealthfront. If you don’t have a taxable account and have time, you can mimic Wealthfront’s allocation and rebalance yourself. You can pick Betterment. You can pick Wise Banyan. You can pick Schwab Intelligent Portfolios. You can pick Vanguard Retirement funds. Do something with your money. But please don’t be paralyzed into inaction by rhetoric. The Roboadvisors will also help you avoid destructive cognitive biases.

Wealthfront vs Schwab Intelligent Portfolios: A Third Take

Recently Adam Nash, the CEO of Wealthfront published a piece on medium lamenting how Charles Schwab lost its way, citing the launch of the Schwab Intelligent Portfolios (SIPs) as evidence. Soon thereafter, Charles Schwab responded, calling part of Nash’s example “criminal” (a trope used by Nash himself to describe Schwab’s approach). In this article, I’ll breakdown the arguments and illustrate how even in the best case scenario for Charles Schwab, their SIPs are still a bit worse than Wealthfront’s portfolio.

The Wealthfront Argument:

1. The SIPs hold sub-optimally large cash balances.
2. Schwab pays a sub-market return on those cash balances.
3. SIPs are self-serving because they use a sub-optimal asset allocation to funnel assets into Schwab’s preferred funds.
4. SIPs preferred “Smart Beta” ETFs have high fees that are not justified by the value smart beta adds.

The Charles Schwab Argument:

1. SIPs cash balances are totally reasonable sizes. Good portfolios have cash balances.
2. Smart beta portfolios are acceptable and outperform traditional market-cap weighted indices.

The Cash Question

Nash says SIPs cash balances are too high. Schwab says they’re reasonable. Who do you believe? It turns out the more important fact is Nash’s 2nd argument that Schwab pays a sub-market return on cash balances, a claim unrefuted by Schwab. According to Nash’s figures, Schwab pays 0.87% less on it’s cash balances than a leading competitor bank (0.99% vs 0.12%). SIP’s with a 6% cash balance and a 30% cash balance create a 0.05% and 0.26% drag on the entire portfolio (relative to the leading competitor bank) because of Schwab’s stingy interest paid on cash balances. This is illustrated in the table below.

Schwab Cash Drag

If Schwab was truly trying to be consumer friendly, they could have chosen 1 of 2 approaches that would remain consistent with their viewpoint that moderate cash balances are prudent investing strategy (i.e. if you disagree with Nash’s view that low cash balances are better):

    1. Schwab could use the Wealthfront approach by keeping minimum cash on hand and encourage clients to leave moderate cash balances (that are currently being held in SIPs in the sweep allocation) in their external accounts with higher interest rates. This would meet Schwab’s “cash balance is prudent” requirement as well as provide optimal cash return to the client.
    1. They could just offer a competitive interest rate on cash balances.
  • But they chose to do neither which leads me to conclude that Nash’s explanation probably rings true: “follow the money.”

    Asset Allocation: A story of mis-aligned incentives

    Wealthfront’s fee is charged for the management of a portfolio of ETF’s. The management includes smart asset allocation, optimized rebalancing, and automated tax loss harvesting. To earn it’s management fee, it is in Wealthfront’s best interest to select a low-cost and appropriately diversified set of ETF’s — so the portfolio performs well, clients stay happy and the asset base grows (benefitting both Wealthfront and the client). This is a dream incentive alignment for clients.

    Schwab’s Intelligent portfolios on the other hand, are mired in some incentive alignment issues. While SIPs fee structure also incents asset base growth, there is also a strong incentive to steer clients towards Schwab products, and expensive Schwab products in particular. In fact, SIPs allocate a large portion of assets (I have seen 60% quoted in some places) to Schwab’s own smart beta products. These smart beta products average an expense ratio of ~0.35%, roughly 3 times the cost of Vanguard ETF’s used by Wealthfront.

    The tough question is whether Wealthfront’s asset allocation is better or worse than Schwab’s asset allocation. Schwab makes the claim that their smart beta portfolios do indeed outperform traditional asset mixes, though I have yet to see definitive evidence of this or even a quote on the magnitude of the difference in performance. Some in-depth analysis (which I’d love to see Wealthfront or Schwab actually do) will be required to answer this question. What I can say though is that it seems a little too convenient to me that SIPs utilize Schwab’s high-priced products in such large quantities.


    In the best case scenario you believe that (1) Schwab is not nudging allocations to their benefit and (2) a reasonable cash balance should be held in a portfolio. Unfortunately, even in this base case scenario, SIPs still slightly underperform a Wealthfront portfolio.

    The Wealthfront portfolio costs 0.25% plus the underlying cost of the ETFs (~0.12%) for a total annual expense ratio of ~0.37%. We’ll assume that we invest 90% of our cash in this portfolio and 10% in cash at a leading competitor bank. This means the fee we pay to Wealthfront is 0.33% (0.37% fee * 90% of portfolio) and we earn a 0.10% contribution to the portfolio from cash (10% balance at 0.99% interest).

    While SIPs have no management fee, they do allocate to underlying funds costing 0.20% – 0.40%. If we take an average SIP, we’ll pay 0.27% in fees (0.30% underlying fund costs * 90% invested) and we will earn a 0.01% contribution to the portfolio from cash (10% balance at 0.12% interest).

    What this nets out to is that the Wealthfront portfolio is 0.06% more expensive in fees, and earns you 0.09% more in cash return, netting out to a 0.03% advantage for Wealthfront in the most bullish scenario for the Schwab Intelligent Portfolios. Plus, don’t forget Wealthfront’s Tax Loss Harvesting on all taxable portfolios (Schwab has a significant minimum balance requirement for TLH).

    Now, at the end of the day, if you’re not investing your money because you can’t decide between Wealthfront, Betterment, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, or Wise Banyan — you should just roll a damn 1d4 (if you don’t have one, I’m happy to roll mine for you) and pick one, because they’re all far better than your cash sitting in a checking account.