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february 2007 performance review

Gulp. In our portfolio commentary from just four weeks ago, we said that "the market continues its heady ascent," and "if this keeps up unabated, it probably won’t end well.” A few days later, the Dow plummeted more than 500 points in just a few hours before partially recovering later in the day. After climbing back, it took another 250 point drop this past week. Nevertheless, due to big gains earlier in the year, the Dow is only down about 2%. The S&P 500, Nasdaq, and Russell 2000 (small cap index) are also all down for the year.

Ask MAX: What does MAX think of the Vanguard Target Retirement Fund?

03/16/07 - Vanguard

Ken from St. Louis asks:

I am 26 and am staring an investment portfolio with $6,000. What do you think about Vanguard's Target Retirement 2045 Fund?"

Despite the fact that it sounds to us more like the title of Arnold Schwarzenegger's last movie than a mutual fund (YOU'RE TERMINATED AARP!), for a guy in your footloose-and-fancy-free shoes, we think Vanguard's Target Retirement 2045 Fund (VTIVX) is not a half-bad way to go.

Vanguard currently has six Target Retirement funds, ranging from the Target 2045 for investors who aren't planning on hanging it up for forty years or so, to the Vanguard Target Retirement Income Fund Summary, which is for those who are currently retired.

The idea behind the Target Retirement funds is that the funds adjust their allocation as you grow older. A young whippersnapper like you buys the fund today and your money is invested in a decidedly growth-focused 88% stocks and 12% bonds. In the next forty years, the fund's manager slowly lowers your equity allocation and increases your bond allocation. If you stuck with the fund for the long haul, by the time you reach your 'target retirement' date your investment’s allocation would flip to an income-focused 30% stocks and 70% bonds. A few years after retirement, the fund will resemble the Vanguard Target Retirement Income.

Mutual Fund March Madness

Chuck Jaffe at Marketwatch gives investors something to do during lulls in this year's NCAA Tournament:

See if your holdings have earned their way to your personal "Big Dance." When you find a fund that is "on the bubble" -- meaning it's not an obvious choice to buy again today -- you'll have a "watch list" of funds that may, in time, deserve the boot.

The conference the fund plays in. In hoops, there are "power conferences" -- where a 6th-place team might make the tournament -- and "midmajor conferences," where only the tournament champion goes. In mutual funds, there are asset classes. Your search for a fund should start by deciding the type of assets you want to own.

Conference record. In basketball, it's important to be in the top half of your league. In mutual funds, it's about being consistently in the top half of the fund's peer group, and being in the top one-third over longer time periods.

Quality wins. This is the NCAA's way of saying that you beat good opponents, and a mutual fund's way of showing that it performed well in tough times.

Strength of schedule. In basketball, you want to play tough opponents rather than cupcakes. In mutual funds, it's not a bad idea to favor a fund that has results over a lot of time periods so that you can judge it based on everything from the last quarter to the last decade or more.

Power rankings. In basketball, this is the computer's attempt to suggest that one team is better than another; in mutual funds, it's star ratings, numerical rankings and more."


Live a Little

A new study says that the Wall Street Industrial Complex is effectively scaring investors into saving more than they need for retirement, because the more money suckers like us invest, the more money mutual funds, brokers, and financial advisers make in fees.

The leader of this counterintuitive challenge is Larry Kotlikoff, a Boston University economics professor and co-author of "The Coming Generational Storm," an analysis of dire solutions necessary to cover future unfunded Social Security and Medicare benefits. His co-author is financial columnist Scott Burns of the Dallas Morning News. Kotlikoff's research says investors should focus on income while working to figure out retirement needs.

Saving too much? You bet. A New York Times review of Kotlikoff's numbers "showed that Fidelity's online calculators typically set the target of assets needed to cover spending in retirement 36.4% too high. Vanguard's was 53.1% too high. A calculator offered by TIAA-CREF, one of the largest managers of retirement savings, was 78%" higher than the calculations generated by Kotlikoff's ESPlanner.

As expected, they were quite defensive about this challenge. The Times says: "The financial-planning industry prefers to characterize itself as cautious. William Ebsworth, chief investment officer of Fidelity Investments' Strategic Advisers division, which runs retirement programs, said, 'We take a very conservative approach,' preferring to err on the side of having money left over at death rather than risk running out before then."

While their reaction is understandable, it's a diversion: They fail to deal with their own conflict of interest and motives in overstating assets needed in retirement.

So let's repeat it again: You are unnecessarily investing too much of your hard-earned money into too many assets for retirement. As a result, you're sacrificing too much of the present, under the highly questionable and misleading assumptions about piling up excessive savings for an uncertain future."


New Fund For Kids

03/07/07 -

Amazingly enough, some children would rather play Xbox 360 than learn about investing. The Monetta Family of Mutual Funds hopes to change that with the Young Investor Fund (MYIFX), a new no-loader geared toward the under-four-feet set.

When a child or teenager joins the fund, they are given an investment kit, which for children eight years old and younger includes an activity book, a CD with songs about money and a copy of the kid-friendly newsletter chock-full of jokes and other information that is intended to make it interesting to them.

Teenagers are offered a more sophisticated version of the kit and have the chance to enroll in a stock market game, in which they each receive $100,000 in "Monetta Bucks" that they have to use to construct a portfolio with any combination of stocks from the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

At the end of six weeks the first-prize winner gets to choose either a certificate for one share of stock or a $75 gift card to Best Buy. There are smaller gifts for other winners."


It would be great to get young people interested in money management, but from what I can remember about being a kid, I'd be interested in the 'CD with songs about money' and the activity book for all of 15 seconds before I turned my attention back to Viva Piñata.