Is this a bad idea, or just an eccentric one?
November 2, 2017 3:18 PM   Subscribe

We received a substantial windfall (previously) and are looking at how to invest it. From our perspective, "Socially Responsible" index funds look like a joke. Would it be prudent to put nearly all of it in Municipal Bond Funds and withdraw the returns to cover a substantial portion of our living expenses? They look stable and low-risk, and public infrastructure is something we can get behind.

The Windfall
- It's 250k
- It's a one-time thing
- Based on past figures for Vanguard Municipal Bond Funds and Emerging Markets Municipal Bond Funds, it looks like we could cover around half our annual expenses with the returns, on average.

- are in our 30s
- both have degrees
- own a house outright
- do not plan to have children
- have no debt
- spend up to $15k per year, total, and that may decrease soon (we are frugal by MetaFilter standards)
- Based on quizzes and general self-knowledge, we favor low-medium risk investments
- We would probably manage our own investments via Vanguard, and are capable of leaving them there without constant tampering

Social Responsibility
Socially Responsible Index funds don't seem to define "social responsibility" the way we do. The Vanguard FTSE Social Index Fund, for example, lists Wells Fargo among its top 10 holdings. I got my money OUT of Wells years ago because I don't support their business practices. I'm not going to lend them money again. The rest of that top 10 list consists of tech, banking, and chemical megacorporations - most of which are some variety of extremely awful, even if they get a stamp of approval for treating their employees well or installing photovoltaics on their manufacturing facilities or something like that. As far as I can tell, the same is true of most SRI funds.

If you know of any that are investing in co-ops, small business, and B-Corp/triple-bottom-liners, we're all ears! We know they are imperfect, but we tend to like them and feel ok about lending them money.

Municipal bonds, while they aren't perfect either, at least seem like they're creating public infrastructure - resources that are (potentially or theoretically, at least) intended to benefit everyone. Also, the projects they fund are selected through an at least nominally democratic process by people in those municipalities. We would rather lend money for rebuilding a sewer system or library, rather than R&D on the next iPhone.

We are familiar with the "invest it at the best rate you can and donate a bunch to good causes" argument. We understand the rationale, but remain unswayed and don't really care to hear it again. We will be donating & volunteering lots anyway.

We are just barely comfortable enough with investment capitalism to consider living off interest acceptable. Putting the interest back in to increase the principal feels like a step too far, and even this much capital has us a little uncomfortable.

The Questions
1) Muni bonds have historically been low-risk, but it sounds like the default rate has increased in the past decade or so. Is a mix of different Municipal Bond Funds, including some Emerging Market ones, too risky or un-diversified?
2) Are there any other funds (or other investment vehicles) that might suit us?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
So this is not a direct answer to your question, but when you invest in a company you do not "lend them money." Outside of initial offerings or follow-on offerings, you (or the investment company) are buying the shares off someone else and the company plays no part in it.

Now, it's fine that you don't want to own part of Wells Fargo, that's your call. But investing in their stock doesn't give them anything.

That said, there are very few publicly traded B-corps. And I wouldn't recommend any of them as income generating investments. They'd be pretty volatile.

Vanguard has a selection of municipal bond funds and Vanguard has a unique ownership structure which they claim keeps their expenses lower and removes any question about outside ownership or whether the profits benefit anyone except unitholders. There are even tax-exempt state bond funds which are tax-advantaged if you live in once a few states. But anyway, if you want to buy municipal bond fund, Vanguard has several and they have competitive expense ratios.
posted by GuyZero at 3:34 PM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't know that municipal bonds are actually the most conservative investment, but I'm sure Vanguard can tell you about past performance. I recommend just doing some index funds, which are pretty steady performers.
posted by acm at 3:42 PM on November 2, 2017

I should add that muni bond funds yield like 2-ish percent, which is basically the rate of inflation. With that nest egg you're talking like $5K of income a year and no ability to grow with inflation.

If you did it as an annuity at 2% you could get about $7k annually for about 60 years. Again, not tax adjusted so in 60 years time it wouldn't be worth much.
posted by GuyZero at 3:51 PM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Your general strategy to buy Vanguard mutual funds is sound. With $250k you should be able to call them and get one-time advice from them for now cost on what to consider investing in.

You focus on municipal bond funds. US muni bonds are a common investment, in particular for the tax advantage. Muni bond income is generally not taxable (details vary, particularly if you're not in the state that issued the bond). If you don't need the tax advantage, for instance if you are in a relatively low tax bracket, you should consider other bond funds that are taxable but have higher returns. US Treasury bonds may also meet your social goals.

By "Emerging Markets Municipal Bond Funds" do you mean Vanguard Emerging Markets Government Bond Index Fund (VGOVX)? These are "government bonds" but I've never heard them called "municipal bonds". The key thing here is this is an international investment, loaning money to governments of countries like China, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, ... You should look at the fund's investment break down and decide if it meets your social goals.

Emerging markets investments have a very different risk and return profile than a US government bond fun (whether muni or other). You want to be sure you understand that risk. The fund's description says it is all US dollar denominated, so it does not bear currency exchange rate risk. Note also this emerging markets bond fund is unusual for Vanguard. It's a new fund. It has a 0.75% purchase fee, something Vanguard almost never does. That may be there to discourage investors trading in and out of the fund regularly.

(I'm not an investment advisor, just an investor who's read some stuff and has time to answer.)
posted by Nelson at 3:53 PM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

As it happens, we had a discussion of socially responsive investment today with our investment adviser. It was noted that Mike Pence's idea of social responsibility must be different from Bernie Sanders', so you are right to take a close look at anything offered. The firm we deal with has a program that we believe is roughly congruent with US liberal thinking which includes the following:

Ishares Msci Kld 400 Social
Neuberger Berman Soc Resp-Is
Parnassus Core Eqty Income Fd-Inv
Domini Impact Intl Eq-A
U.S. Fixed Income
Calvert Bond Portfolio - Y
CRA Qualified Investment Fnd
Domini Impact Bond Fund-Inv

Apparently the new term of art is ESG standing for Enviromental, Social, and Governance.

Any good financial adviser is going to be asking about reinvesting some portion of your earnings. If you are stashing money away in a 401K or similar with an employer that might suffice, but otherwise this windfall is not big enough to make saving unnecessary.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:19 PM on November 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

I wish you'd give socially responsible investing another look, but don't limit your interpretation of being socially responsible to choosing to only associate with "good" companies and eschewing "bad" companies. At least some of them are actively working, quietly and in the background, but with some success, to change policies within the "bad" companies. If they had more power and more investors, they could do more.

I mean, I know a lot of people are invested in mutual funds anyway; they might as well invest with SRIs, since the Calvert funds, at least, are designed to get comparable returns.

Here are some examples of what Calvert (I think a leading SRI fund company) did through 28 shareholder resolutions last year, from page 3 of the PDF document linked from this page:
  • Dillard’s agreed to report to the Carbon Disclosure Project to describe management of climate risks and impacts, while Amgen agreed to assess its next steps on renewable energy and disclose its current and future renewable energy initiatives. Six proposals went to a vote at annual meetings, including several filed with electric utility companies, which are under pressure as concern about climate change and corresponding regulation threaten to disrupt business as usual.
  • Dean Foods and Fresh Del Monte committed to report on water risk and water risk management in their operations and supply chains. The global food sector, which uses 70 percent of the world’s freshwater resources, faces increased financial and operational risk from shrinking water supplies.
  • Bed Bath and Beyond will amend its governance documents to reflect the Board of Director’s oversight of environment and social risks. Our proposal at Discovery Communications on board diversity earned 18 percent support; we filed a board diversity proposal for the second year in a row. On October 21 the company announced that it will be adding Susan Swain to the Board of Directors.
By investing in this way, even if your money goes to a lot of the same companies it would go to in a different fund, you're saying -- along with a whole lot of other people -- that those issues are important to you, AND you're an investor. Calvert can point to all the people who have their funds and say "this portion of your investor base" (even if it's a small portion, it's real people) _does_ care about these issues, enough to invest money through us.

I think of it as also giving valuable support to board members who might otherwise be dismissed as unrealistic or idealistic or out of touch with "real" investors. You can imagine shareholder meetings going on with people saying "none of our investors actually care about these issues", or someone trying to bring up an initiative and being dismissed as trying to "change the world" when, as far as the rest of the board sees, literally nobody with money invested in the company cares about anything other than returns. Except that Calvert's in the room, so that kind of thing won't fly. Obviously they represent a whole lot of people who are putting their money where their ideals are.

By investing through a fund like Calvert's, you add your resources to their efforts. At the same time, they try to be diverse enough, and just open enough, to still give you normal mutual fund returns.

They do have some litmus tests for their funds, I think, but they're not going to be that pure or attractive. If you're going to invest in a fund anyway, I think the Calvert ones give you a much better voice than a non-SRI fund, and similar returns. At least that's my understanding.

If I sound passionate about it, it's because I think it's important and incredibly misunderstood.
posted by amtho at 4:42 PM on November 2, 2017 [15 favorites]

The Mike Pence version of Socially Responsible is usually labelled "Values Investing" but the fund research tic box you check is usually called something like "Socially Conscious." The resulting funds with names like "Ave Maria" are likely on the "Values Investing" end of the spectrum. One of the exceptions is the Calvert Group, which is technically related to something religious, or was, but is a straight lefty/progressive fund now.

The difference between SRI (aka ESG, as SemiSalt notes) funds like the Vanguard one and ones like Parnassus, which has an SRI mandate, is that the fund families that specialize in SRI use their shares to try to shape companies' behavior. As an example, Parnassus large cap funds own a relatively big chunk of Wells Fargo (4% or so, last I looked.) Every quarter the investment committee has to issue a big explanation of why they think owning such a company is acceptable and every quarter they say that they want to be able to be admitted to the shareholder meetings and listened to. (It may not hurt that their headquarters are about 3/4 of a mile apart, so attending shareholder meetings is especially easy for them.) Wells Fargo has not been very receptive to their input but other companies HAVE been quite receptive to fund companies' input and have improved their corporate behavior.

So you're definitely right that SRI mutual funds are not "clean" by most people's standards, though many of them are "fossil fuel free" and none of them that I know of own anything having to do with weapons. What you ARE getting, so long as you're using a fund from an SRI fund family, (versus the Vanguard fund, which probably has just eliminated tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and weapons) is a mindful, progressively-bent, ownership of the stocks.

That's about as good as most of us can get while still investing in the market. If you have a couple of million dollars you can have a much cleaner portfolio because you can buy stock-by-stock without sacrificing diversification.

I have been working with the SRI investment field for 17 years so I have strong opinions about various funds and investment strategies.

Regarding your more macro picture, I think it would be worth your money to hire an hourly planner for a couple of hours to see what they have to say. Just off the top of my head, for instance, it might make sense to space out your charitable giving. It won't hurt the charity if you give in regular, committed intervals, and it could help out your tax situation. I don't know your tax situation, so maybe it won't, but strategizing to give you AND your charity more bang for the buck. (I was just looking for a comment I read here on metafilter some time ago about how monthly donations are the best for the charity, too, but I can't find it now.)

You might also pay for a bit of investment advice. You don't have to give a financial planner access to your money or your accounts to do this. Just ask them and then you implement.

EDIT: in summary, what amthro said.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:47 PM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

The big worry with bonds is that interest rates will return to historic levels. The 10-year Treasury bond, which is a widely used benchmark, has basically not been this low ever (2%). And since bond prices move inversely with interest rates, even a partial return to the "normal" rates of 20 years ago would cause a catastrophic decline in bond prices, perhaps 20-30%. The Fed has embarked on a massive bond purchase program in order to accomplish this and therefore stimulate the economy. I take that back, massive is an understatement. Prodigious. Gobsmacking. At the beginning of 2008 the Federal Reserve owned under a trillion dollars in assets, allmost all of it government notes and bonds. Now it's almost 4.5 trillion, and includes many types of assets. You can imagine what would happen if all those bonds hit the market at the same time. However, the bond markets appear not to find these risks credible. Why else would rates be so low? People just like you have money and want to make a stable return. And very wealthy folks could afford to build a portfolio of 2% bond funds, because even with inflation they would still have enough to live on. But people in their 30s? That's essentially guaranteeing you will have very little left after inflation. A rough rule of thumb is that 70 divided by the inflation rate is the number of years for inflation to take half the value of your account. So if inflation is 3%, your bond fund is yielding 2%, you're losing 1% to inflation every year. So in 70 years your account would only be yielding half what it does now. So I think an all-muni bond portfolio is an extremely poor financial decision if it constitutes your entire portfolio. The default rate is not really an issue; the returns you would see take into account defaults.

Diversification is such an important aspect of a portfolio. Let's say you have a $100K investment, equally likely to either drop by half or double. You have a 50% chance of a $50K drop, which is pretty bad. Split the investment in two, with the same chances as the first, and you only have a 25% chance of that same drop. Half the time you end up making $25K (lose $25K on one, but make $50K on the other). The average performance didn't change at all, but the worst case is dramatically improved. The real risk is putting all your eggs in one basket. No matter how good that basket is, more baskets is better, especially since you have the discipline to just not touch it. For your own financial stability, I think you have to find a variety of investments you can live with.
posted by wnissen at 5:02 PM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Vanguard is a good choice, they have funds focused on income generation and you can take advantage of their advice service with the level you're investing.
posted by odinsdream at 5:07 PM on November 2, 2017

Vanguard is a good choice, they have funds focused on income generation and you can take advantage of their advice service with the level you're investing.

This will be true of Schwab and Fidelity, too (and I'm sure other custodians as well.)
posted by small_ruminant at 5:14 PM on November 2, 2017

Sorry I didn't mean they were good *because* of having such funds, but rather they're good for the kind of organisation they are, their tooling, support, and investment options.
posted by odinsdream at 5:19 PM on November 2, 2017

I'd nth the warnings ab out putting everything in bonds.

Regardless of what you do, unless you're absolutely chafing to get out of your current work, I'd suggest reinvesting the returns for a while rather than pulling money out in your 30s. A quarter million is a nice nest egg but a single bad health issue or being at fault in an accident or any number of other issues could wipe it out. You can always give away excess money if you find your self blessed with that problem but if you run out early in life, things can be miserable.
posted by Candleman at 6:09 PM on November 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

In general the stock market gets about 6% after inflation. But if you want to live off an investment, you really need to withdraw about 4% because you'll be selling in good years as well as bad. So to start with, you don't quite have enough money to cover your expenses.

Municipal bonds return far less than that. The tax advantages don't really apply since you're paying almost no tax anyway at your income level.

I'm not sure many public companies are going to meet your criteria for social responsibility. They are all, well, huge companies. Co-ops, small businesses, and triple-bottom-liners are generally too small to be publicly traded. There are exceptions -- Unilever is working towards being a B corp, and Etsy and Silver Chef already are -- but there are nowhere near enough to build a diversified portfolio.

There are some new options for small companies to raise money from the public under the "equity crowdfunding" rules. But there are literally two in my entire state and both are restaurants. Maybe in 5 years there will be thousands of options though.

Maybe you should just buy another house and rent it out? It would involve some work, as well as money, but you could probably get similar returns in the long run and be doing something that's really tangible and even improves other people's lives.
posted by miyabo at 7:18 PM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

TBH I’d love to invest a chunk of money into the cannabis industry. It’s growing incredibly fast and making lots of money.

Obviously that’s a choice based on values, but in terms of “new industries” that are gaining momentum and growing I think it’s the strongest. Solar and wind power companies are fantastic too, but with all the “support” for coal I’d be at least cautious
posted by bendy at 10:31 PM on November 2, 2017

Etsy and Silver Chef already are

Just in case this appeals I feel compelled to point out that Etsy has fired it CEO and 23% of its workforce in the last year and is maybe not as special or different from other large corporate giant as they would like you to believe (or as they once were).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 6:21 AM on November 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

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