1. Is your portfolio beating inflation?At the most basic level, beating inflation is a pretty good benchmark for most portfolios, although not a perfect one. While the U.S. government’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) is a flawed gauge, it gives me some idea of whether I am keeping up with the increase in the general cost of living when I look at my own portfolio.
Last year, the CPI rose some 1.7 percent, although I know that medical and college expenses are at least double that. Health spending climbed almost 4 percent in 2011, the most recent year available, according to Health Affairs, a policy journal.
Since my family is particularly sensitive to medical and college expenses, I use a personal inflation gauge that targets these costs. So if our portfolio does not return more than 4 percent after fund expenses, it is not keeping up with the kind of inflation that hurts us most. Fortunately, it did, instead turning in a 12 percent net return after expenses, which is important.
There were no taxes, since this is a retirement portfolio. Over five years, though, it is a close shave, with a 4 percent gain. Since that included the 2008-2009 meltdown, it is not too terrible, but nothing to brag about.
2. Are you meeting other benchmarks?
My wife and I decided that we feel most comfortable with our portfolio split 50-50 between stocks and bonds. We made this decision after 2008, when we lost close to 40 percent of the portfolio’s value on paper due to a 70 percent-plus stock allocation. If you are in your 20s, then you might prefer to take more risk and go with a 60-40 mix.
I double-checked my year-end statement to see if we were near our target allocation and we pretty much are, so no changes were necessary. You’ll need to monitor your mix at least once a year to see if you drifting off course.
You will also want to measure your returns against a benchmark fund, to see if you are getting the most out of your investments. Since most “balanced” benchmarks are a 60-40 mix, I had to rely on a hybrid benchmark used by a Vanguard Target Retirement 2015 Fund, which had a rough mix of 55 percent in stocks, 3 percent in cash and 42 percent in bonds as of year-end 2012. It’s not a perfect match, but close enough.
Again, we were doing okay, since we beat this benchmark by almost a percentage point. The idea here is to match your portfolio with the appropriate benchmark fund, which gives you a basis for after-expense returns. For holdings dominated by large U.S. stocks, use a S&P 500 index fund. For bonds, use the iShares Core Total US Bond Market ETF, which I hold in another portfolio.
You are investing for a long term goal, such as retirement. The urge to listen to the Wall Street bullies can be overwhelming. However, with a prudent strategy and discipline you can succeed. In most cases investors need the help of an investor coach to keep their emotions in check.
Please comment or call to discuss how this affects you and your future.