How To Pick A Robo-Advisor In The Digital Wealth Management Era

Old Coins by Financial SamuraiOne of the reasons why I’m an Apple user is because I appreciate good service. When I dropped my Macbook one evening and my hard drive stopped working, it was incredibly easy to schedule an appointment with the Genius Bar at my local Apple store. They fixed my hard drive and recovered my data within 30 minutes and away I went. Peace of mind is worth the premium, which is why I’m a fan of technology-assisted financial advisory firms with human financial advisors.

But what if you have time and know how to upgrade your RAM, swap out your hard drive, and do your own diagnostics? (I remember doing all that as a teenager.) Then going the robo-advisor route may very well be a good option because their fees are even lower. There’s just no person to guide you through life’s myriad changes.

Robo-advisors, aka algorithmic advisors deploy sophisticated investment algorithms to help invest your money in the best risk-adjusted way possible. You essentially fill out a profile about yourself and the algorithm will go to work to recommend and implement their recommendations for you.

I used to have a hard time trusting computers to do anything for me. But after spending 13 years covering some of the largest mutual funds and hedge funds in America, it’s clear that algorithmic investing, or more commonly known as quantitative investing or scientific investing have done extremely well. For example, Bridgewater Associates run by Ray Dalio is the largest hedge fund in the world with over $120 billion dollars and it’s a macro quantitative fund with tremendous performance. Famous hedge funds run by George Soros, David Tepper, and Steve A. Cohen can’t even compare.

A good quant fund or algorithmic advisor is all about having good people. At the end of the day, the investment variables are created by people and continuously tested for maximum returns. Spending time understanding people’s backgrounds and then trusting them to do the right thing is a huge part of letting other people run your money. After all, the reason why you want someone else investing your money is because your expertise lies elsewhere, and you’ve got more interesting things to do with your time.

In this article, I’d like to provide a brief primer on the three main robo-advisors that exist today: FutureAdvisor, Betterment, and Wealthfront. Because I’ve personally met Bo Lu, Founder of FutureAdvisor, I’m going to compare and contrast FutureAdvisor to the other two. They are all based here in San Francisco.

Financial Samurai Passive Income Update 2014-2015

Financial Freedom Through Passive IncomeWelcome to my annual passive income update. I don’t do these updates more often because nothing changes too much on a month-to-month or quarter-to-quarter basis. Do you really want to see that I increased or decreased my passive income by $1,000 from the month before? I think not.

Here are some immediate reasons I can think of for why building passive income is a good idea:

1) You likely won’t want to work forever, no matter how much of an eager beaver you now are.

2) Unfortunately bad things happen all the time e.g. layoffs, financial meltdowns, theft, etc.

3) It’s nice to provide as solid a financial foundation as possible for your family and loved ones.

4) You broaden your knowledge and expertise across various topics so you can seem erudite but remain a little dumb.

5) You’ll reduce financial stress and feel happier that not all your income is tied to one main source.

6) You will decrease your chances, your spouse’s chances, and your children’s chances of ever having to depend on the government to survive.

7) You will have more freedom to do things you truly want to do. This feeling becomes more intense as you grow older given you become more aware of the finality of life.

8) You can push yourself financially beyond what you think could ever be possible. Who doesn’t love a good challenge except for the people who have everything handed to them?

This is my third annual passive income report where I have a goal of making $200,000 in relatively passive income by mid-2015 after leaving my job in early 2012. I started off with roughly $78,000 a year and I’m currently up to a projected ~$150,000 a year if all goes well after renting out my old primary residence. Life is uncertain, and I’m sure things will change.

To clarify the meaning of passive income, I do not include income from consulting, freelancing, asset sales (stocks, bonds, real estate, baseball cards etc), and business income. I’ve got other targets for these revenue streams that I might discuss in a future post, but probably not. The goal of passive income is to have the income largely come in without doing much work at all. But in order to not do much work for money, we’ve first got to work very hard for our money!

One thing to note is that I started my passive income journey before writing about Stealth Wealth. $78,000 a year is roughly the median income in SF, so it wasn’t a big deal. But I promise that if I ever breach $200,000, I will go dark and never write any specific figures again. If I do, you’ll know that I’m lying to blend in because that’s what Stealth Wealth is all about. 

Increasing Passive Income Through Leverage And Arbitrage

Sunset in San Francisco, Golden Gate Heights

Priceless View Of The Sunset In Golden Gate Heights, San Francisco

Earlier in the year, I had a nice conversation with a well-known San Francisco angel investor about risk and reward. I had a chunk of money coming due from an expiring 5-year CD and I wanted to get some advice on what to do with it. I asked him whether he would be leveraging up or paying down debt in this bull market. He responded, “Sam, I always like leveraging up. It’s how I made my fortune.” This angel investor is worth between $50 – $100 million dollars.

Of course you can’t just leverage up into any old investment. The investment has to be something you know fairly well and has a good risk/reward profile. The only thing I have confidence leveraging up on is property. Everything else seems a little bit like funny money.

Although I quit my job a couple years ago to try my hand at entrepreneurship, I’m a relatively risk-averse person because I’ve seen so many fortunes made and lost over the past 15 years. If I was risk-loving, I would have done what so many brave folks do nowadays and quit as soon as I had a business idea, instead of methodically moonlight before and after work for three years before negotiating a severance. The breakfast sandwich guy I used to go to for 10 years while I was working told me he was worth $3 million dollars during the dot com boom in 2000. I went back for old times sake last month and he is still there!

Despite my risk-aversion, I do believe money should be used to increase the quality of your life and the people you care about. As a result, I did something recently that might seem financially risky, but I think the move actually lowers my financial risk profile now that I’ve had a chance to fully process the situation.

I finally found my panoramic ocean view Golden Gate Heights home! A room with a view has been on my bucket list forever. But it never occurred to me to look in San Francisco, despite being so close to the ocean because I thought such homes would be unaffordable. San Francisco already has the highest median single family home price in the nation at $1 million. To add on a panoramic ocean view would make prices outrageous, or so I thought.

It’s the same curmudgeon as never asking out a super model because you think she or he will say no. You’ve just got to ask and I’m sure you’ll be delightfully surprised once you try.

After spending months aggressively looking for my next ideal property within my budget, I found a view home for less than half the cost of my existing home on a price/square foot basis. How is this possible you might ask? The farther west you go from downtown and the established neighborhoods, the cheaper prices are in general (see the graphic I created in The Best Place To Buy Property In San Francisco Today). But the farthest away you’ll ever be is 7 miles because San Francisco is 7 X 7 miles large. Given I’m only going into a downtown office two times a week, I don’t mind the extra 15 commute. To be able to watch the sun go into the ocean every day for the rest of my life is priceless.

Ways To Add More Income To A Retirement Portfolio

More Income In RetirementLike chasing the fountain of youth, nearly every retiree seems to be searching for the answer to one question:

“How do I add more income to my portfolio?”

We all want the perfect income-popping strategy, don’t we? Maybe in this case we’re looking for that fabled money tree, or the fountain of cash my kids tell me must be attached to my wallet.

Here’s the wrong approach. I call it “Single Product-Based Strategies”

When people talk about adding income to their portfolio (especially with brokers), salespeople naturally turn toward products, bringing you a dog and pony show about “THIS product that would boost your income stream the most!”

This discussion ends nowhere good, and could easily wreak havoc on your portfolio. Take a look:

Income Portfolio Styles Chart

Here’s the problem: the “which single product is best” approach most often leads to a single asset-heavy portfolio. Under the wrong conditions (like a bad year for the market or for your budget) this mistake sinks your retirement income strategy. If you buy stocks, you don’t want to have to touch them when the market tumbles (and it will).

If you buy real estate you don’t want to be stuck waiting for your property to sell. If you buy bonds you don’t want to harvest them three days before the ex-dividend day to make a house payment.

If you’re worried about income, you want a machine that’ll weather storms, not one that’s built on a single investment type. Let’s get building.

The Best Way To Get Rich: Turn Funny Money Into Real Assets

Funny Money

POOF! Funny Money Be Gone

The US stock market is on fire right now and everybody is getting rich – well, everybody who decides to save, invest their savings, and take some risks. For everyone else, this bull market is a disaster because everything gets much more expensive when everybody gets rich.

The first stock market meltdown I ever experienced was the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. International college students from countries like Korea and Indonesia had to drop out because the Won and Rupiah depreciated so much, making tuition unaffordable. Construction cranes stopped moving in Bangkok and the IMF had to bail out the entire region. Of course some people made a killing in the downturn when they swooped up assets for pennies on the dollar. But most people lost their shirts.

Then when things really started getting good again in 1999, the NASDAQ collapsed in the Spring of 2000. I only experienced one brilliant year of mega exuberance after college before the floor fell out in March 2000. Many people in finance lost their jobs and then 9/11 happened. I remember seeing my stock portfolio go from $3,000 to an absurd $200,000 in six months, and then lose about $40,000 in a couple weeks when B2B stocks started imploding.

Where does all the money go? It’s all funny money! I remember thinking. Paper millionaires who exercised their stock options early and didn’t sell not only lost everything, they also owed huge tax bills as well. The government always wins.