Scott Burns

Don't Expect Your Credit Union to Offer No Load Funds

Q: I have been dealing with a credit union for my investment needs and have some concerns. The folks there seem to focus on annuities (both fixed and variable) to the exclusion of other products. Is this because they have tie-ins to insurance companies wherein generous commissions apply to salespeople? I have inquired about no-load mutual funds, with the response that no-load funds have offsetting fees that load funds do not have. They also say that many of the load funds are superior to no-loads.

I have approximately $100,000 to invest. I am 78 years old and do not want a lot of risk because of my probable limited investment horizon. -- R.M., by email

A: There is a slender, but useless, element of truth in what you have been told. Some load funds are superior to no-loads, just as some no-loads are superior to load funds. You have better odds of a superior performance choice with lower total costs than with higher total costs.

Whether we are talking about credit unions or banks, unless you are making a deposit or withdrawal, you are probably engaging in a sales process that involves a commission. This is not a sin. The operations that sell mutual funds and annuities were set up to generate income and make a profit for the institution. That's why they don't sell no-load mutual funds.

Sadly, rather than explain they are a business, they lie and tell you things that are not true. Here's the reality: Financial products have multiple distribution channels. There is a no-commission, no-load channel that is structured to keep expenses down. It is suited for do-it-yourself investors.

There is also a load channel that serves people who need help with decisions. It has more expenses, some of which are absolutely irrelevant to providing you with good service. Neither are those additional expenses a guarantee of good advice or good choices.

If you want to avoid commissions, go to a place where commissions are either small or non-existent. You can do this quite easily at Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard.

Your limited investment horizon also means commission-driven sales put load products at a great disadvantage. In a world that yields 2 percent or less, it's hard for a 78-year-old to justify giving up three full years of income to pay a 6 percent sales commission.

Q: I recently fired my money manager in favor of managing our retirement funds myself using your basic Couch Potato portfolio. But everything I read lately says that one should be cautious before investing in TIPS -- half of your basic Couch Potato -- over the near future. One article says that TIPS investing has been beneficial over the past year, but that Federal Reserve actions should make them a not-so-good investment in the near future.

Is there another bond-related index fund we should look at other than the Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities fund? Should I consider putting a portion of the money in the TIPS fund, but further diversifying to spread the risk three, four, five or six ways? I am, obviously, a bit nervous taking this on myself. -- L.M., Dallas

A: The Vanguard Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities fund has provided a higher return than the Vanguard Total Bond Market fund over trailing time periods out to 10 years. The additional return can be attributed to how much investors have "priced up" inflation-protected bonds as they understood their advantages.

When TIPS were first issued, for instance, they were priced to yield a 3-percentage-point premium over the inflation rate. Today the premium is actually negative, meaning your "return" will be somewhat less than the rate of inflation. Even so, TIPS are likely to provide a higher "return" because the rate of inflation is very likely to be higher than the coupon you would earn on a traditional Treasury.

According to recent figures from Bloomberg, a five-year conventional coupon Treasury was yielding about 1.1 percent. A five-year TIP was priced to yield inflation less 1.27 percent. So the TIP will be a better investment if inflation runs higher than 2.37 percent over the next five years. As a practical matter, both investments are a form of robbery-by-government, but the TIPS investment gives you a better hedge if you are concerned about future inflation.

(Questions about personal finance and investments may be sent by email to scott@scottburns.com. Please visit www.assetbuilder.com to comment on any of his articles, find referenced web links or to discuss personal finance topics on his forums. Questions of general interest will be answered in future columns and on the website.

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