The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Skeptic Money: Guaranteed Mutual Funds?

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 12, 2010

This past weekend at Skepchicamp 2010, one of the most interesting presentations was given by Phil Ferguson, the author of the must-see Skeptic Money website. Phil specializes in applying skepticism & critical thinking to an area where I am admittedly very weak: money, finances, and investing.  During his presentation, Phil was gracious enough to give some very useful skeptical advice on “Guaranteed Mutual Funds”, and I’m reposting his blog entry on the topic below…

That’s Phil on the left, along with The Friendly Atheist :)

NOTE:  This post is part of an ongoing education series.  This information is for educational purposes only.  This information does not constitute investment advice.  No rational person would make investment decisions based on a blog post.  Please consult with your financial advisor before taking any action.  If you think it is OK to make investment decisions based on a blog post, then for the love of the FSM – Stop reading my blog.

Below is a description of an investment product.  This is based on real and available products but does not represent any specific product.  Numbers below are estimates and are only intended to show how this product works.

The Pitch.

There is a new product it is a combination of the best of bonds and the stock market.  It is a guaranteed mutual fund.  Part of the money is invested in an index fund and some is invested in Zero-coupon bonds issued by the US Government – AAA Grade.  You get the benefit of the stocks and bonds.  The best part of all is that in the next 10 years, you are guaranteed a 40% return.  That’s like getting 4% each and every year.  That’s right you will make at least 40% return on your investment and you have the unlimited potential to make more if the stock market goes up.  Just sign here and give me $100!

The Reality.

Now for all of the details that the sales person did not tell you about.  The odd thing is that they did not need to tell you verbally because all of the details are in the prospectus – 72 pages of 6 point font written in the best legalese.  You signed a form that said you read it.  Now they can do almost anything to you.  You thought if you invested $100 you would have $140 in 10 years.  Now we will get the details.

10 years – You will want to keep this investment for 10 years because if you sell it early you have to pay a 10% penalty.  Whoops… did we forget to tell you that.

4% per year - Actually it is closer to 3.3% per year compounded but hey it’s only money.

The Load - oh…  did we forget to tell you there is an 8% load.  A load is a sales fee that is collected from you and paid to the sales person.  8% is on the high side for mutual funds but, this is a really good investment so it is a small fee to pay.  The $140 after 10 years was based on an investment of $100 you only invested $92 ($8 covers the load).  You do not make $40 but $37 (remember you only invested $92).  So when it’s all done you have $129 – still really good.

Annual expense ratio – We told you the 40% return is guaranteed – and it is.  So is the annual expense ratio.  This is to cover the cost to the company that manages you money – and they deserve it for getting you such a great product.  The fee is just 1.8% per year.  Just above the industry average but your worth it.  Total cost is just $18 over ten years.  Your total return is still $111 that’s great.

Insurance – Your money is guaranteed, it’s a kind of insurance.  You pay for auto and home insurance – of course you have to pay a little something for this insurance.  The cost is just 1.5% per year.  Total over 10 years is about $15.  Your total return is $96 – isn’t this, a wonderful investment.

Taxes – The IRS does not want to wait and tax you on all the money you are going to make with the Zero Coupon Bonds.   So they created a thing called imputed interest. They collect tax on the money you are going to get.  Don’t think that you lost money.  You did not!  You made money but agreed to a lot of high expenses.  That’s your problem not the IRS’s.  So…. ya gotta pay the tax.  I will call it $6.  So now your awesome investment of $100 after ten years is now worth around $90.

Who wants to buy now?

Umm… not me, Phil.  Thanks for the tip.

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