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Exchange-traded funds make lower costs possible anywhere

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Q: My husband and I, age 80 and 76, have had all of our IRA money (about $930,000) in an adviser-directed account at Fidelity for the last two years. We both have a 60/40 mix. Before that, a friend helped us, but he is ill. So we went to the Fidelity service and pay $6,000 a year for both accounts. The investments in the two accounts in the IRA just hit their benchmarks. We feel we would be just fine in index accounts that we monitor. We want to switch to Vanguard and have Fidelity roll over the money to them. That means all the investments in the Fidelity account will go into cash before the rollover to Vanguard. We would eventually set up a portfolio with 60 to 70 percent in domestic and international stock index funds and 30 to 40 percent in bond index funds for each of our accounts. You can’t time the market, so the transfer is what it will be. However, can you advise us on a time frame and method of investing into the new index accounts? We don’t want to invest a great deal of money all at once when the market is so high. We made that mistake when we rolled our 401(k)s into the market in 2007. We didn’t even think of a cost-averaging method, and it cost us dearly. We are just now better off than we were in 2007! We don’t need our IRA money for ourselves, but would like to leave the accounts to our four children.

A: You have more freedom than you think you have. For one thing, you can transfer your account from one custodian to another without selling everything if the contents are marketable securities. What you can’t transfer are things such as proprietary unit-investment trusts where your brokerage firm is the only firm that makes a market in the security.

But you can have Vanguard funds on the Fidelity platform, and you can have Fidelity funds on the Vanguard platform. The only difference will be the small brokerage commission you will pay on transactions when you sell a Fidelity fund on the Vanguard platform or a Vanguard fund on the Fidelity platform. This would be a consideration for a $50,000 or $100,000 account, but it’s pretty minor for a $1 million account.

The bottom line is that you can stay at Fidelity and slowly liquidate your current portfolio to build your new lower-cost index fund portfolio. And you can do that by using exchange-traded funds from a variety of firms, including Vanguard. Indeed, Fidelity offers no-commission trades on 65 iShares ETFs, many with annual expense ratios nearly as dirt cheap as those from Vanguard.

The iShares Core S&P Total US Stock Market ETF (ticker: ITOT), for instance, has an expense ratio of only 0.07 percent. The Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (Ticker: VTI) has an expense ratio of 0.05 percent. When expenses get this close, you probably need to ask whether you should chase the pennies or pay attention to the bulldozer.

Since you don’t have to move your account, you can also change your portfolio, to less risk or more risk, at a pace that suits you.

Q: I am wondering if the mutual funds that specialize in long-term government bonds might start to become a good investment. These funds have taken a beating since May and look like they might start to recover. The yields are becoming attractive (3.5 percent), and I’m thinking they might be a good place to park some cash if the principal doesn’t decrease due to some Fed policy change.

A: But that’s the problem: The future may hold significantly higher interest rates. Historically, long-term government bonds have earned about 2 percentage points more than the rate of inflation. In other words, when inflation was running at 2 percent, like now, long-term Treasury bonds might be earning about 5 percent. That suggests that in a “normal” market — one that doesn’t have the Federal Reserve buying $85 billion a month in long-term debt instruments — the yield on long-term bonds could be much higher than it is now. This means prices would be lower. So that’s not a good parking spot. It’s more like a burial plot.

Questions about personal finance and investments may be sent by email to scott@scottburns.com.


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