USO ETF is down this year even as crude has surged

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Did you predict that oil prices would bounce in 2016? Nice call! Did you attempt to cash in by buying the biggest oil ETF? That’s where you went wrong. Oil prices have risen about 25 percent this year. But the USO ETF, which promises exposure to oil prices, has fallen more than 5 percent.

At the root of the USO’s trouble is the simple fact that oil set to be delivered in different months and trade at different prices. For instance, October oil trades at $44.59, November at $45.16, December at $45.79, January at $46.36, and oil to be delivered in December 2017 at $49.76. This array of prices forms the futures curve, and with each month’s oil trading at higher prices, the market is said to be in “contango.”

The way the USO endeavors to track oil is by continually holding the most relevant futures contract. The one tracking oil set to be delivered in the following month (until the contract is within two weeks of expiration). The problem comes when a contract’s expiration is near and the USO shifts to tracking the following month’s futures. At that point, the fund’s managers must sell its massive holding of the nearer-dated contract and buy about the same amount of the further-dated contract.

Since the further-dated contracts trade at higher prices, holders of the USO are selling low and buying high every single month. Meanwhile, oil producers are selling their oil in the futures market for higher prices giving oil prices a boost while the USO ETF takes a hit.

This explanation of the USO’s poor performance is likely cold comfort to those who have done so badly on a trade they may have thought was a home run. With a current market value of more than $3 billion, it may be a fair bet that many investors in this ETF had no idea that they would be so hurt by the structure of the futures market.

Retail investors who invested in the XLE (ETF) which contains the oil produces, drillers and refiners did quite well. Even the midstream master limited partnerships like Alerian MLP would have been a better choice. It is has a dividend yield of 11 percent.

Full disclosure I own some shares in Alerian in my retirement account.

 

Hidden fees can destroy your retirement dreams

When asked about contributing to a company’s pension plan, my standard answer was always put in enough to receive the company’s matching percentage. Never turn down free money, it’s like receiving a yearly bonus of 2% or 3% of your annual salary.

However be aware of fees that are hidden in the fine print. Make no mistake, these fees do matter. They may seem tiny, barely noticeable but they can eat away your future. A one percent reduction in fees can add an additional 10 years to your retirement income. If two people have the same 7 percent return over time but one pays 1 percent in fees while the other pays 2 percent, the latter will run out of money 10 years earlier.

For nearly 30 years, the pension plan industry wasn’t legally required to explain exactly how much it was charging investors. Sadly, a recent industry survey showed that 67 percent of Americans believe they pay no fees in their 401(k) plan. In a recent survey in Canada, 36% of Canadians claimed that they paid no fees and 11% were unsure.

In a muddy but legal arrangement, a high percentage of plan providers accept payments from the mutual funds they offer in your 401(k) plan. This is called revenue sharing or, more aptly, paying to play. Naturally, the list you have to choose from includes the funds that pay the provider the highest amounts, rarely the best performing and certainly not the lowest in cost.

Additionally, many providers restrict low-cost funds to plans that exceed a certain amount of assets, meaning that employees of smaller companies are forced to invest in funds with higher fees. Since the providers don’t make much of a profit on the lower-cost funds they do offer, they will usually charge a significant markup. For example; you could be paying a 1 percent annual fee for an S&P 500 Index fund when the actual cost is .05 percent. That translates into a 2,000 percent markup.

“Last year the Obama administration announced that hidden fees and backdoor payments were costing Americans $17 billion per year. And that’s not counting the excessive “out-in-the-open” fees that are draining our retirement accounts. The Department of Labor is also sounding the alarm. “The corrosive power of fine print and buried fees can eat away like a chronic illness at a person’s savings,” said Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez.

A company pension plan is a wonderful savings vehicle when it’s efficient. The problem is that many of these plans are plagued with a variety of additional hidden layers of fees. These added layers have seemingly arbitrary labels, such as “asset-management charges” or “contract asset charges.” They often add up to 1 percent or more and are buried in the fine print of plan disclosures.

New regulations for advisors

Beginning in April 2017, a financial professional who makes investment recommendations to you about your 401(k) or IRA will be legally required to provide advice that is best for your situation, not the funds that provide the most compensation to the advisor. “The advisor will now be required to disclose their conflicts of interest.” This new fiduciary standard will only apply to retirement accounts, and advice provided about other types of taxable investment accounts will not be held to the same standard.

Employers need to wake up and take their role as pension plan sponsors more seriously. It’s in their power to dramatically impact the future quality of life for their employees.

My advice;  put in enough to receive the company’s matching percentage and read the fine print before making any additional contributions to your company’s pension plan.

Is it time to look at alternative investments?

'I have mostly conservative investments in my retirement portfolio, plus a few riskier, short-term performers tossed in as a hedge against inflation.'

Hedged funds are usually reserved for institutional investors and for the very wealthy. Alternative strategies are now available to ordinary investors. These funds must adhere to a higher level of transparency and liquidity than hedge funds or limited partnerships.

Ever since the crisis of 2008–2009, financial advisors and their clients have looked for ways to shield portfolios from potentially devastating losses. Many set their sights on liquid alternatives funds, an emerging investing category that’s sold as both mutual funds and exchange-traded funds.

In 2008, just $44 billion was invested in alternatives through mutual funds and ETFs, according to research firm Morningstar. At the end of 2015, however, assets had exploded to $300 billion, with close to 600 funds.

There are a large selection of alternative strategies available. When the market faltered in 2008, managed futures and interest–rate swaps funds were up in value while stock holdings were down. Other categories include strategies, such as market neutral, commodities, multi-asset, multi-currency and long/short equity.

Some advisors use liquid alternative funds as a way to deal with the current low-interest-rate environment. Bonds are dead money right now and stocks themselves aren’t cheap. Advisors are essentially eliminating bonds and replacing them with something that will serve the same purpose, but also offer some potential return. A very popular choice to protect your equity exposure is a long/short strategy. These fund managers buy stocks that they expect will rise in value (long), while shorting those they expect will fall.

Most advisors use alternative funds as ballast during falling markets because they invest in non-traditional assets that aren’t correlated with stocks or bonds. Investment experts recommend a meaningful allocation of 15 percent to 20 percent; otherwise, the impact won’t be felt. Trying to predict when markets are likely to fall and inserting an alternative fund is very hard to do.

While alternatives might fare better than a mainstream stock/bond portfolio in a downturn, they’ve got their own drawbacks. The big one is fees.

According to Morningstar, the average expense ratio of alternative funds is 1.7 percent, many times that of either equity or bond funds. “The high fees have eaten into returns, which is a concern when it’s generally a lower-return environment,” said Josh Charlson of Morningstar.

However, compared to the fees that such strategies charge in the hedge fund structure, they’re a bargain. Investors in hedge funds normally pay 2 and 20 — a 2 percent fee on assets under management, plus 20 percent of profits.

Now I believe that this low-interest rate environment may continue for another decade so investing in fix income products doesn’t make sense. Sitting on cash that yields nothing or being 100% invested in stocks is overly risky.

I recommend checking the fees that your company’s pension plan provider charges. Switching from fix income to an alternative fund may be more economical than you think.  A word of caution, before you invest in any alternative fund, make sure you understand the strategy, the risk and the fees.

What are your thoughts on alternative funds and ETFs? Are they suitable for your retirement fund?

 

Will that be Debit or Credit?

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Most financial writers would recommend purchasing items using a bank debit card or cash instead of a credit card to control impulse buying. A debit card transaction will allow the vendor to take money right out of your bank account. It is so quick, you can see the transactions appear on your online bank statement minutes after your card has been swiped. This is good advice because spending money that you don’t have can lead to accumulating a lot of unnecessary debt.

However, my only problem with using a debit card or cash is security. Lose your wallet or purse and kiss the cash good-bye. If thieves get a hold of your debit card, the bank will not cover your loss. I am fortunate that the credit card companies in Canada have all adopted chip technology with a 4-diget Pin number for added security. Plus most retail stores even have a tap option for purchases under $100.00, so tap and go is quick and easy.

My decision to always use credit over debt, just saved me $1,470.67 because my wife’s credit card was recently compromised. The thief was very smart, only one big transaction which the credit card company didn’t red flag as an unusual purchase. I always check my monthly statements and recognized the bogus charge immediately. This is the third time in less than ten years that I have had to get a new credit card due to fraud.

The previous two times, the credit card company called me after they noticed some unusual activity. Although, it was a little embarrassing to have my credit card purchase declined but it is better than losing money. My experience with credit card fraud has made me into a frantic when it comes to making sure that I don’t lose any credit card receipts. I always cross-reference the receipt with my monthly statement. We even record each on-line purchase on a separate piece of paper and file it with the rest of our receipts.

Thieves have become very bold! I received a phone call at 6:00 a.m. from someone pretending to be from my credit card company. He stated that my credit card may have been compromised and requested that I should turn on my computer to check my debit card transactions. He wanted to get access to my banking information. Warning bells went off in my sleepy head. What the thief didn’t know was that credit card and debit card were with two different banks.

Protect yourself from fraud

  • Use a credit card for all your on-line purchases for added protection
  • Keep your receipts and check your monthly credit card statements
  • Hang up on questionable phone calls and call your financial institution
  • Use a pin number that doesn’t have any personal dates, like your birthday
  • Change your pin number from time to time
  • Share with family and friends information on current scams in your area

What is your answer to the question? Will that be debit or credit?