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Wandering From the Path? | Monthly Portfolio Update - August 2020
Midway along the journey of our lifeI woke to find myself in a dark wood,for I had wandered off from the straight path. Dante, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Canto I This is my forty-fifth portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goal. Portfolio goal My objective is to reach a portfolio of $2 180 000 by 1 July 2021. This would produce a real annual income of about $87 000 (in 2020 dollars). This portfolio objective is based on an expected average real return of 3.99 per cent, or a nominal return of 6.49 per cent. Portfolio summary
Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund $733 769
Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund $41 794
Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund $78 533
Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund $110 771
Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) $216 758
Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) $64 542
Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) $237 138
Telstra shares (TLS) $1 540
Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) $6 043
NIB Holdings shares (NHF) $5 532
Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) $121 976
Secured physical gold $19 535
Ratesetter (P2P lending) $8 998
Bitcoin $177 310
Raiz app (Aggressive portfolio) $17 421
Spaceship Voyager app (Index portfolio) $2 759
BrickX (P2P rental real estate) $4 477
Total portfolio value $1 848 896 (+$48 777 or 2.7%) Asset allocation
Australian shares 41.5%
Global shares 22.6%
Emerging market shares 2.2%
International small companies 2.8%
Total international shares 27.6%
Total shares 69.2% (5.8% under)
Total property securities 0.2% (0.2% over)
Australian bonds 4.4%
International bonds 8.9%
Total bonds 13.3% (1.7% under)
Gold and alternatives 17.2% (7.2% over)
Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. [Chart] Comments The portfolio has increased in value for the fifth consecutive month, and is starting to approach the monthly value last reached in January. The portfolio has grown over $48 000, or 2.7 per cent this month, reflecting the strong market recovery since late March [Chart] The growth in the portfolio was broadly-based across global and Australian equities, with an increase of around 3.8 per cent. Following strong previous rises, gold holdings decreased by around 2.2 per cent, while Bitcoin continued to increase in value (by 2.5 per cent). Combined, the value of gold and Bitcoin holdings remain at a new peak, while total equity holdings are still below their late January peak to the tune of around $50 000. The fixed income holdings of the portfolio continue to fall below the target allocation. [Chart] The expanding value of gold and Bitcoin holdings since January last year have actually had the practical effect of driving new investments into equities, since effectively for each dollar of appreciation, for example, my target allocation to equities rises by seven dollars. New investments this month have been in the Vanguard international shares exchange-traded fund (VGS) and the Australian shares equivalent (VAS). These have been directed to bring my actual asset allocation more closely in line with the target split between Australian and global shares set out in the portfolio plan. As the exchange traded funds such as VGS, VAS and Betashares A200 now make up nearly 30 per cent of the overall portfolio, the quarterly payments they provide have increased in magnitude and importance. Early in the journey, third quarter distributions were essentially immaterial events. Using the same 'median per unit' forecast approach as recently used for half yearly forecasts would suggest a third quarter payout due at the end of September of around $6000. Due to significant announced dividend reductions across this year I am, however, currently assuming this is likely to be significantly lower, and perhaps in the vicinity of $4000 or less. Finding true north: approach to achieving a set asset allocation One of the choices facing all investors with a preferred asset allocation is how strictly the target is applied over time, and what variability is acceptable around that. There is a significant body of financial literature around that issue. My own approach has been to seek to target the preferred asset allocation dynamically, through buying the asset class that is furthest from its target, with new portfolio contributions, and re-investment of paid out distributions. As part of monitoring asset allocation, I also track a measure of 'absolute' variance, to understand at a whole of portfolio level how far it is from the desired allocation. This is the sum of the absolute value of variances (e.g. so that being 3 per cent under target in shares, and 7 per cent over target in fixed interest will equal an absolute variance of 10 per cent under this measure). This measure is currently sitting near its highest level in around 2 years, at 15.0 per cent, as can be seen in the chart below. [Chart] The dominant reason for this higher level of variance from target is significant appreciation in the price of gold and Bitcoin holdings. Mapping the sources of portfolio variances Changes in target allocations in the past makes direct comparisons problematic, but previous peaks of the variance measure matches almost perfectly past Bitcoin price movements. For a brief period in January 2018, gold and Bitcoin combined constituted 20 per cent, or 1 in 5 dollars of the entire portfolio. Due to the growth in other equity components of the portfolio since this level has not been subsequently exceeded. Nonetheless, it is instructive to understand that the dollar value of combined gold and Bitcoin holdings is actually up around $40 000 from that brief peak. With the larger portfolio, this now means they together make up 17.2 per cent of the total portfolio value. Tacking into the wind of portfolio movements? The logical question to fall out from this situation is: to what extent should this drive an active choice to sell down gold and Bitcoin until they resume their 10 per cent target allocation? This would currently imply selling around $130 000 of gold or Bitcoin, and generating a capital gains tax liability of potentially up to $27 000. Needless to say this is not an attractive proposition. Several other considerations lead me to not make this choice:
The problem may solve itself as portfolio grows - Growth and continued investments in the portfolio will tend to reduce the variance caused by gold and Bitcoin. The asset allocation targeting approach I adopt has seen continued contributions to equities, reducing the ability of these alternative assets to add to future variance.
Falls in Bitcoin or gold values will also solve the problem - Conversely, price falls in Bitcoin or gold will tend to reduce the variance issue, and such price falls have significant precedents, with for example Bitcoin holdings falling to a value of around $50 000 as recently as January 2019.
If neither of these happen, there may be bigger issues to solve - The only scenario where neither of these alleviating factors occur is should gold and Bitcoin continue to rapidly appreciate compared to other assets, in which case it is difficult to see the value of reducing exposure now.
Does Bitcoin even fit the asset allocation model? - Bitcoin in particular is not a well established or accepted asset class as yet, so it may not be appropriate to apply traditional allocation rules to it - it may be functioning more as a hedge or option against extreme states of the world. Linked to this is the high degree of volatility in Bitcoin. Adopting too tight a target on Bitcoin holdings would potentially see a need to buy and sell Bitcoin frequently, where my intention is to actually never purchase any more.
This approach is a departure from a mechanistic implementation of an asset allocation rule. Rather, the approach I take is pragmatic. Tracking course drift in the portfolio components As an example, I regularly review whether a significant fall in Bitcoin prices to its recent lows would alter my monthly decision on where to direct new investments. So far it does not, and the 'signal' continues to be to buy new equities. Another tool I use is a monthly measurement of the absolute dollar variance of Australian and global shares, as well as fixed interest, from their ideal target allocations. The chart below sets this out for the period since January 2019. A positive value effectively represents an over-allocation to a sector, a negative value, an under-allocation compared to target. [Chart] This reinforces the overall story that, as gold and Bitcoin have grown in value, there emerges a larger 'deficit' to the target. Falls in equities markets across February and March also produce visibly larger 'dollar gaps' to the target allocation. This graph enables a tracking of the impact of portfolio gains or losses, and volatility, and a better understanding of the practical task of returning to target allocations. Runaway lines in either direction would be evidence that current approaches for returning to targets were unworkable, but so far this does not appear to be the case. A crossing over: a credit card FI milestone This month has seen a long awaited milestone reached. Calculated on a past three year average, portfolio distributions now entirely meet monthly credit card expenses. This means that every credit card purchase - each shopping trip or online purchase - is effectively paid for by average portfolio distributions. At the start of this journey, distributions were only equivalent to around 40 per cent of credit card expenses. As time has progressed distributions have increased to cover a larger and larger proportion of card expenses. [Chart] Most recently, with COVID-19 related restrictions having pushed card expenditure down further, the remaining gap to this 'Credit Card FI' target has closed. Looked at on an un-smoothed basis, expenditures on the credit card have continued to be slightly lower than average across the past month. The below chart details the extent to which portfolio distributions (red) cover estimated total expenses (green), measured month to month. [Chart] Credit card expenditure makes up around 80 per cent of total spending, so this is not a milestone that makes paid work irrelevant or optional. Similarly, if spending rises as various travel and other restrictions ease, it is possible that this position could be temporary. Equally, should distributions fall dramatically below long term averages in the year ahead, this could result in average distributions falling faster than average monthly card expenditure. Even without this, on a three year average basis, monthly distributions will decline as high distributions received in the second half of 2017 slowly fall out of the estimation sample. For the moment, however, a slim margin exists. Distributions are $13 per month above average monthly credit card bills. This feels like a substantial achievement to note, as one unlooked for at the outset of the journey. Progress Progress against the objective, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Portfolio objective – $2 180 000 (or $87 000 pa) 84.8% 114.6% Credit card purchases – $71 000 pa 103.5% 139.9% Total expenses – $89 000 pa 82.9% 112.1% Summary What feels like a long winter is just passed. The cold days and weeks have felt repetitive and dominated by a pervasive sense of uncertainty. Yet through this time, this wandering off, the portfolio has moved quite steadily back towards it previous highs. That it is even approaching them in the course of just a few months is unexpected. What this obscures is the different components of growth driving this outcome. The portfolio that is recovering, like the index it follows, is changing in its underlying composition. This can be seen most starkly in the high levels of variance from the target portfolio sought discussed above. It is equally true, however, of individual components such as international equity holdings. In the case of the United States the overall index performance has been driven by share price growth in just a few information technology giants. Gold and Bitcoin have emerged from the shadows of the portfolio to an unintended leading role in portfolio growth since early 2019. This month I have enjoyed reading the Chapter by Chapter release of the Aussie FIRE e-book coordinated by Pearler. I've also been reading posts from some newer Australian financial independence bloggers, Two to Fire, FIRE Down Under, and Chasing FIRE Down Under. In podcasts, I have enjoyed the Mad Fientist's update on his fourth year of financial freedom, and Pat and Dave's FIRE and Chill episodes, including an excellent one on market timing fallacies. The ASX Australian Investor Study 2020 has also been released - setting out some broader trends in recent Australian investment markets, and containing a snapshot of the holdings, approaches and views of everyday investors. This contained many intriguing findings, such as the median investment portfolio ($130 000), its most frequent components (direct Australian shares), and how frequently portfolios are usually checked - with 61 per cent of investors checking their portfolios at least once a month. This is my own approach also. Monthly assessments allow me to gauge and reflect on how I or elements of the portfolio may have wandered off the straight way in the middle of the journey. Without this, the risk is that dark woods and bent pathways beckon. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
Lines of Navigation | Monthly Portfolio Update - July 202
Our little systems have their day; They have their day and cease to be - Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H. This is my forty-fourth portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goal. Portfolio goal My objective is to reach a portfolio of $2 180 000 by 1 July 2021. This would produce a real annual income of about $87 000 (in 2020 dollars). This portfolio objective is based on an expected average real return of 3.99 per cent, or a nominal return of 6.49 per cent. Portfolio summary
Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund - $716 680
Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund - $41 103
Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund - $77 788
Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund - $111 667
Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) - $202 336
Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) - $54 872
Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) - $230 058
Telstra shares (TLS) -$1 785
Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) - $6 449
NIB Holdings shares (NHF) - $5 316
Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) - $124 756
Secured physical gold - $20 070
Ratesetter (P2P lending) - $9 881
Bitcoin - $173 010
Raiz app (Aggressive portfolio) - $17 258
Spaceship Voyager app (Index portfolio) -$2 619
BrickX (P2P rental real estate) - $4 471
Total portfolio value: $1 800 119 (+$34 376 or 1.9%) Asset allocation
Australian shares - 41.1%
Global shares- 22.2%
Emerging market shares - 2.2%
International small companies - 2.9%
Total international shares - 27.3%
Total shares - 68.4% (6.6% under)
Total property securities - 0.2% (0.2% over)
Australian bonds - 4.5%
International bonds - 9.1%
Total bonds - 13.6% (1.4% under)
Gold - 8.0%
Bitcoin - 9.6%
Gold and alternatives - 17.7% (7.7% over)
Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. [Chart] Comments The portfolio has substantially increased this month, continuing the recovery in portfolio value since March. The strong portfolio growth of over $34 000, or 1.9 per cent, returns the value of the portfolio close to that achieved at the end of February this year. [Chart] This month there was minimal movement in the value of Australian and global equity holdings, There was, however, a significant lift of around 6 per cent in the value of gold exchange traded fund units, as well as a rise in the value of Bitcoin holdings. These movements have pushed the value of gold holdings to their highest level so far on the entire journey. Their total value has approximately doubled since the original major purchases across 2009 to 2015. For most of the past year gold has functioned as a portfolio stabiliser, having a negative correlation to movements in Australian equities (of around -0.3 to -0.4). As low and negative bond rates spread across the world, however, the opportunity cost of holding gold is reduced, and its potential diversification benefits loom larger. The fixed income holdings of the portfolio also continued to fall beneath the target allocation, making this question of what represents a defensive (or negatively correlated to equity) asset far from academic. This steady fall is a function of the slow maturing of Ratesetter loans, which were largely made between 2015 and 2017. Ratesetter has recently advised of important changes to its market operation, and placed a fixed maximum cap on new loan rates. By replacing market set rates with maximum rates, the peer-to-peer lending platform appears to be shifting to more of a 'intermediated' role in which higher past returns (of around 8 to 9 per cent) will now no longer be possible. [Chart] The expanding value of gold and Bitcoin holdings since January last year have actually had the practical effect of driving new investments into equities, since effectively for each dollar of appreciation, for example, my target allocation to equities rises by seven dollars. Consistent with this, investments this month have been in the Vanguard international shares exchange-traded fund (VGS) using Selfwealth. This has been directed to bring my actual asset allocation more closely in line with the target split between Australian and global shares. Fathoming out: franking credits and portfolio distributions Earlier last month I released a summary of portfolio income over the past half year. This, like all before it, noted that the summary was prepared on a purely 'cash' basis, reflecting dividends actually paid into a bank account, and excluding consideration of franking credits. Franking credits are credits for company tax paid at the company level, which can be passed to individual shareholders, reducing their personal tax liability. They are not cash, but for a personal investor with tax liabilities they can have equivalent value. This means that comparing equity returns to other investments without factoring these credits can produce a distorted picture of an investor's final after-tax return. In past portfolio summaries I have noted an estimate for franking credits in footnotes, but updating the value for this recently resulted in a curiosity about the overall significance of this neglected element of my equity returns. This neglect resulted from my perception earlier in the journey that they represented a marginal and abstract factor, which could effectively be assumed away for the sake of simplicity in reporting. This is not a wholly unfair view, in the sense that income physically received and able to be spent is something definably different in kind than a notional 'pre-payment' credit for future tax costs. Yet, as the saying goes, because the prospect of personal tax is as certain as extinction from this world, in some senses a credit of this kind can be as valuable as a cash distribution. Restoring the record: trends and drivers of franking credits To collect a more accurate picture of the trends and drivers of franking credits I relied on a few sources - tax statements, records and the automatic franking credit estimates that the portfolio tracking site Sharesight generates. The chart below sets out both the level and major different sources of franking credits received over the past eleven years. [Chart] From this chart some observations can be made.
The level of franking credits has grown substantially over the past ten years - from a total of under $1 000 per year to around $8 000 annually.
Recent years have seen a particularly high accrual of franking credits - such that by value, over half of the total value of franking credits has been received over the past three financial years.
These credits now constitute a significant element in total realised returns - in the last financial year the value of franking credits represented a 12 per cent boost to the total level of cash distributions, and over the past two years they have contributed around $8 000 each year to the total level of after-tax returns. This is the equivalent of the portfolio paying nearly $700 per month in tax liabilities.
The key reason for the rapid growth over the recent decade has been the increased investment holdings in Australian equities. As part of the deliberate rebalancing towards Australian shares across the past two years, these holdings have expanded. The chart below sets out the total value of Australian shares held over the comparable period. [Chart] As an example, at the beginning of this record Australian equities valued at around $276 000 were held. Three years later, the holding were nearly three times larger. The phase of consistently increasing the Australian equities holding to meet its allocated weighting is largely complete. This means that the period of rapid growth seen in the past few years is unlikely to repeat. Rather, growth will revert to be in proportion to total portfolio growth. Close to cross-over: the credit card records One of the most powerful initial motivators to reach financial independence was the concept of the 'cross over' point in Vicki Robins and Joe Dominguez's Your Money or Your Life. This was the point at which monthly expenses are exceeded by investment income. One of the metrics I have traced is this 'cross-over' point in relation to recorded credit card expenses. And this point is now close indeed. Expenditures on the credit card have continued their downward trajectory across the past month. The three year rolling average of monthly credit card spending remains at its lowest point over the period of the journey. Distributions on the same basis now meet over 99 per cent of card expenses - with the gap now the equivalent of less than $50 per month. [Chart] The period since April of the achievement of a notional and contingent form of financial independence has continued. The below chart illustrates this temporary state, setting out the the extent to which to which portfolio distributions (red) cover estimated total expenses (green), measured month to month. [Chart] An alternative way to view the same data is to examine the degree to which total expenses (i.e. fixed payments not made on credit card added to monthly credit card expenses) are met by distributions received. An updated version of this is seen in the chart below. [Chart] Interestingly, on a trend basis, this currently identifies a 'crossing over' point of trend distributions fully meeting total expenditure from around November 2019. This is not conclusive, however, as the trend curve is sensitive to the unusual COVID-19 related observations of the first half of this year, and could easily shift further downward if normal expense patterns resume. One issue this analysis raises is what to do with the 'credit card purchases' measure reported below. This measure is designed to provide a stylised benchmark of how close the current portfolio is to a target of generating the income required to meet an annual average credit card expenditure of $71 000. The problem with this is that continued falling credit card spending means that average credit card spending is lower than that benchmark for all time horizons - measured as three and four year averages, or in fact taken as a whole since 2013. So the set benchmark may, if anything, be understating actual progress compared the graphs and data above by not reflecting changing spending levels. In the past I have addressed this trend by reducing the benchmark. Over coming months, or perhaps at the end of the year, I will need to revisit both the meaning, and method, of setting this measure. Progress Progress against the objective, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Portfolio objective – $2 180 000 (or $87 000 pa) 82.6% 111.5% Credit card purchases – $71 000 pa 100.7% 136.0% Total expenses – $89 000 pa 80.7% 109.0% Summary One of the most challenging aspects of closing in on a fixed numerical target for financial independence with risk assets still in place is that the updrafts and downdrafts of market movements can push the goal further away, or surprisingly close. There have been long period of the journey where the total value of portfolio has barely grown, despite regular investments being made. As an example, the portfolio ended 2018 lower than it started the year. The past six months have been another such period. This can create a sense of treading water. Yet amidst the economic devastation affecting real lives and businesses, this is an extremely fortunate position to be in. Australia and the globe are set to experience an economic contraction far more severe than the Global Financial Crisis, with a lesser capacity than previously for interest rates to cushion the impact. Despite similar measures being adopted by governments to address the downturn, it is not clear whether these are fit for purpose. Asset allocation in this environment - of being almost suspended between two realities - is a difficult problem. The history of markets can tell us that just when assets seem most 'broken', they can produce outsized returns. Yet the problem remains that far from being surrounded by broken markets, the proliferation appears to be in bubble-like conditions. This recent podcast discussion with the founder of Grant's Interest Rate Observer provided a useful historical context to current financial conditions this month. One of the themes of the conversation was 'thinking the unthinkable', such as a return of inflation. Similar, this Hoover Institute video discussion, with a 'Back from the future' premise, provides some entertaining, informed and insightful views on the surprising and contingent nature of what we know to be true. Some of our little systems may well have had their day, but what could replace them remains obscured to any observer. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
Testing the Tide | Monthly FIRE Portfolio Update - June 2020
We would rather be ruined than changed. -W H Auden, The Age of Anxiety This is my forty-third portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goal. Portfolio goal My objective is to reach a portfolio of $2 180 000 by 1 July 2021. This would produce a real annual income of about $87 000 (in 2020 dollars). This portfolio objective is based on an expected average real return of 3.99 per cent, or a nominal return of 6.49 per cent. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $726 306 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $42 118 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $78 730 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $111 691 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $201 745 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $39 357 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $231 269 Telstra shares (TLS) – $1 668 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $7 310 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $5 532 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $117 757 Secured physical gold – $18 913 Ratesetter (P2P lending) – $10 479 Bitcoin – $148 990 Raiz app (Aggressive portfolio) – $16 841 Spaceship Voyager app (Index portfolio) – $2 553 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 484 Total portfolio value: $1 765 743 (+$8 485 or 0.5%) Asset allocation Australian shares – 42.2% (2.8% under) Global shares – 22.0% Emerging markets shares – 2.3% International small companies – 3.0% Total international shares – 27.3% (2.7% under) Total shares – 69.5% (5.5% under) Total property securities – 0.3% (0.3% over) Australian bonds – 4.7% International bonds – 9.4% Total bonds – 14.0% (1.0% under) Gold – 7.7% Bitcoin – 8.4% Gold and alternatives – 16.2% (6.2% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. [Chart] Comments The overall portfolio increased slightly over the month. This has continued to move the portfolio beyond the lows seen in late March. The modest portfolio growth of $8 000, or 0.5 per cent, maintains its value at around that achieved at the beginning of the year. [Chart] The limited growth this month largely reflects an increase in the value of my current equity holdings, in VAS and A200 and the Vanguard retail funds. This has outweighed a small decline in the value of Bitcoin and global shares. The value of the bond holdings also increased modestly, pushing them to their highest value since around early 2017. [Chart] There still appears to be an air of unreality around recent asset price increases and the broader economic context. Britain's Bank of England has on some indicators shown that the aftermath of the pandemic and lockdown represent the most challenging financial crisis in around 300 years. What is clear is that investor perceptions and fear around the coronavirus pandemic are a substantial ongoing force driving volatility in equity markets (pdf). A somewhat optimistic view is provided here that the recovery could look more like the recovery from a natural disaster, rather than a traditional recession. Yet there are few certainties on offer. Negative oil prices, and effective offers by US equity investors to bail out Hertz creditors at no cost appear to be signs of a financial system under significant strains. As this Reserve Bank article highlights, while some Australian households are well-placed to weather the storm ahead, the timing and severity of what lays ahead is an important unknown that will itself feed into changes in household wealth from here. Investments this month have been exclusively in the Australian shares exchange-traded fund (VAS) using Selfwealth.* This has been to bring my actual asset allocation more closely in line with the target split between Australian and global shares. A moving azimuth: falling spending continues Monthly expenses on the credit card have continued their downward trajectory across the past month. [Chart] The rolling average of monthly credit card spending is now at its lowest point over the period of the journey. This is despite the end of lockdown, and a slow resumption of some more normal aspects of spending. This has continued the brief period since April of the achievement of a notional and contingent kind of financial independence. The below chart illustrates this temporary state, setting out the degree to which portfolio distributions cover estimated total expenses, measured month to month. [Chart] There are two sources of volatility underlying its movement. The first is the level of expenses, which can vary, and the second is the fact that it is based on financial year distributions, which are themselves volatile. Importantly, the distributions over the last twelve months of this chart is only an estimate - and hence the next few weeks will affect the precision of this analysis across its last 12 observations. Estimating 2019-20 financial year portfolio distributions Since the beginning of the journey, this time of year usually has sense of waiting for events to unfold - in particular, finding out the level of half-year distributions to June. These represent the bulk of distributions, usually averaging 60-65 per cent of total distributions received. They are an important and tangible signpost of progress on the financial independence journey. This is no simple task, as distributions have varied in size considerably. A part of this variation has been the important role of sometimes large and lumpy capital distributions - which have made up between 30 to 48 per cent of total distributions in recent years, and an average of around 15 per cent across the last two decades. I have experimented with many different approaches, most of which have relied on averaging over multi-year periods to even out the 'peaks and troughs' of how market movements may have affected distributions. The main approaches have been:
An 'adjusted income' approach - stripping out the capital gains components of Vanguard funds to reach an estimate of underlying income generation, both across the entire investment period, and during the sharpest low of the Global Financial Crisis
A long-term asset class approach - relying on long-term historical data on averages of the income produced by various asset classes
A 'tax method' approach - this derives an income estimate as a percentage of the portfolio by drawing on taxable investment income totals from tax return records
Simple historical rolling average - this is a rolling three-year measure, based on the actual distributions record of the portfolio
Average distribution rate approach - this method uses a long-term average of annual distributions received as a percentage of the total portfolio since 1999
Each of these have their particular simplifications, advantages and drawbacks. Developing new navigation tools Over the past month I have also developed more fully an alternate 'model' for estimating returns. This simply derives a median value across a set of historical 'cents per unit' distribution data for June and December payouts for the Vanguard funds and exchange traded funds. These make up over 96 per cent of income producing portfolio assets. In other words, this model essentially assumes that each Vanguard fund and ETF owned pays out the 'average' level of distributions this half-year, with the average being based on distribution records that typically go back between 5 to 10 years. Mapping the distribution estimates The chart below sets out the estimate produced by each approach for the June distributions that are to come. [Chart] Some observations on these findings can be made. The lowest estimate is the 'adjusted GFC income' observation, which essentially assumes that the income for this period is as low as experienced by the equity and bond portfolio during the Global Financial Crisis. Just due to timing differences of the period observed, this seems to be a 'worst case' lower bound estimate, which I do not currently place significant weight on. Similarly, at the highest end, the 'average distribution rate' approach simply assumes June distributions deliver a distribution equal to the median that the entire portfolio has delivered since 1999. With higher interest rates, and larger fixed income holdings across much of that time, this seems an objectively unlikely outcome. Similarly, the delivery of exactly the income suggested by long-term averages measured across decades and even centuries would be a matter of chance, rather than the basis for rational expectations. Central estimates of the line of position This leaves the estimates towards the centre of the chart - estimates of between around $28 000 to $43 000 as representing the more likely range. I attach less weight to the historical three-year average due to the high contribution of distributed capital gains over that period of growth, where at least across equities some capital losses are likely to be in greater presence. My preferred central estimate is the model estimate (green) , as it is based in historical data directly from the investment vehicles rather than my own evolving portfolio. The data it is based on in some cases goes back to the Global Financial Crisis. This estimate is also quite close to the raw average of all the alternative approaches (red). It sits a little above the 'adjusted income' measure. None of these estimates, it should be noted, contain any explicit adjustment for the earnings and dividend reductions or delays arising from COVID-19. They may, therefore represent a modest over-estimate for likely June distributions, to the extent that these effects are more negative than those experienced on average across the period of the underlying data. These are difficult to estimate, but dividend reductions could easily be in the order of 20-30 per cent, plausibly lowering distributions to the $23 000 to $27 000 range. The recently announced forecast dividend for the Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) is, for example, the lowest in four years. As seen from chart above, there is a wide band of estimates, which grow wider still should capital gains be unexpectedly distributed from the Vanguard retail funds. These have represented a source of considerable volatility. Given this, it may seem fruitless to seek to estimate these forthcoming distributions, compared to just waiting for them to arrive. Yet this exercise helps by setting out reasoning and positions, before hindsight bias urgently arrives to inform me that I knew the right answer all along. It also potentially helps clearly 'reject' some models over time, if the predictions they make prove to be systematically incorrect. Progress Progress against the objective, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Portfolio objective – $2 180 000 (or $87 000 pa) 81.0% 109.4% Credit card purchases – $71 000 pa 98.8% 133.5% Total expenses – $89 000 pa 79.2% 106.9% Summary The current coronavirus conditions are affecting all aspects of the journey to financial independence - changing spending habits, leading to volatility in equity markets and sequencing risks, and perhaps dramatically altering the expected pattern of portfolio distributions. Although history can provide some guidance, there is simply no definitive way to know whether any or all of these changes will be fundamental and permanent alterations, or simply data points on a post-natural disaster path to a different post-pandemic set of conditions. There is the temptation to fit past crises imperfectly into the modern picture, as this Of Dollars and Data post illustrates well. Taking a longer 100 year view, this piece 'The Allegory of the Hawk and Serpent' is a reminder that our entire set of received truths about constructing a portfolio to survive for the long-term can be a product of a sample size of one - actual past history - and subject to recency bias. This month has felt like one of quiet routines, muted events compared to the past few months, and waiting to understand more fully the shape of the new. Nonetheless, with each new investment, or week of lower expenditure than implied in my FI target, the nature of the journey is incrementally changing - beneath the surface. Small milestones are being passed - such as over 40 per cent of my equity holdings being outside of the the Vanguard retail funds. Or these these retail funds - which once formed over 95 per cent of the portfolio - now making up less than half. With a significant part of the financial independence journey being about repeated small actions producing outsized results with time, the issue of maintaining good routines while exploring beneficial changes is real. Adding to the complexity is that embarking on the financial journey itself is likely to change who one is. This idea, of the difficulty or impossibility of knowing the preferences of a future self, is explored in a fascinating way in this Econtalk podcast episode with a philosophical thought experiment about vampires. It poses the question: perhaps we can never know ourselves at the destination? And yet, who would rationally choose ruin over any change? The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
Two Roads Diverge | Monthly FIRE Portfolio Update - May 2020
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken This is my forty-second portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goal. Portfolio goal My objective is to reach a portfolio of $2 180 000 by 1 July 2021. This would produce a real annual income of about $87 000 (in 2020 dollars). This portfolio objective is based on an expected average real return of 3.99 per cent, or a nominal return of 6.49 per cent. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $727 917 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $42 128 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $78 569 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $110 009 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $187 003 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $39 987 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $225 540 Telstra shares (TLS) – $1 726 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $7 741 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $5 652 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $117 714 Secured physical gold – $18 982 Ratesetter (P2P lending) – $11 395 Bitcoin – $159 470 Raiz app (Aggressive portfolio) – $16 357 Spaceship Voyager app (Index portfolio) – $2 492 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 477 Total portfolio value: $1 757 159 (+$62 325 or 3.7%) Asset allocation Australian shares – 41.4% (3.6% under) Global shares – 22.2% Emerging markets shares – 2.3% International small companies – 3.0% Total international shares – 27.4% (2.6% under) Total shares – 68.8% (6.2% under) Total property securities – 0.3% (0.3% over) Australian bonds – 4.4% International bonds – 9.7% Total bonds – 14.1% (0.9% under) Gold – 7.8% Bitcoin – 9.1% Gold and alternatives – 16.9% (6.9% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. [Chart] Comments This month featured a further recovery in the overall portfolio, continuing to effectively reduce the size of the large losses across the first quarter. The portfolio has increased by around $62 000, leading to a portfolio growth of 3.7 per cent. This means that around half of the large recent falls have been made up, and the portfolio sits around levels last reached in October of last year. [Chart] Leading the portfolio growth has been increases in Australian shares - particularly those held through the Betashares A200 and Vanguard VAS exchange traded funds, with both gaining over four per cent. Most other holdings remained steady, or fell slightly. Markets appear to be almost entirely disconnected from the daily announcements of the sharp effects of the global coronavirus pandemic and the resulting restrictions. Bond and equity markets seem to have different and competing expectations for the future, and equity markets - at best - are apparently intent on looking through the immediate recovery phase to a new period of strong expansion. [Chart] On some metrics, both major global and Australian equity markets can be viewed as quite expensive, especially as reduced dividends announced have largely yet to be delivered. Yet if historically low bond yields are considered, it can be argued that some heightening compared to historical equity market valuations may be sustainable. Reflecting this moment of markets holding their breath before one of two possible futures plays out, gold and Bitcoin remain elevated, and consequently above their target weightings. Perhaps the same contending forces are in evidence in a recent Australian Securities and Investment Commission study (pdf) which has found that average Australian retail investors have reacted to uncertainty by activating old brokerage accounts, trading more frequently, and holding securities for shorter periods. My own market activity has been limited to purchases of Vanguard Australian shares ETF (VAS) and the international share ETF (VGS), to bring the portfolio closer to its target allocations. Will Australia continue to be lucky through global slow downs? Despite this burst of market activity in the retail market, it is unclear how Australian markets and equities will perform against the background of a global economic slowdown. A frequently heard argument is that a small open trade exposed commodities provider such as Australia, with a more narrowly-based economy, may perform poorly in a phase of heightened risk. This recent Bank of England paper (pdf) makes the intriguing suggestion that this argument is not borne out by the historical record. In fact, the paper finds that industrial production in Australia, China and a mere handful of other economies has tended to increase following global risk shocks. A question remaining, however, is whether the recovery from this 'risk shock' may have different characteristics and impacts than similar past events. One key question may be the exact form of government fiscal and monetary responses adopted. Another is whether inflation or deflation is the likely pathway - an unknown which itself may rely on whether long-term trends in the velocity of money supply continue, or are broken. Facing all uncertainties, attention should be on tail risks - and minimising the odds of extreme negative scenarios. The case for this is laid out in this moving reflection by Morgan Housel. For this reason, I am satisfied that my Ratesetter Peer-to-Peer loans have been gradually maturing, reducing some 'tail risk' credit exposures in what could be a testing phase for borrowers through new non-bank lending channels in Australia. With accrued interest of over $13 000, at rates of around 9 per cent on average, over the five years of the investment, the loans have performed relatively well. A temporary sheltering port - spending continues to decline This month spending has continued to fall even as lockdown and other restrictions have slowly begun to ease. These extraordinary events have pushed even the smoothed average of three year expenditure down. [Chart] On a monthly basis credit card spending and total expenses have hit the lowest levels in more than six years. Apparently, average savings rates are up across many economies, though obviously individual experiences and starting points can differ dramatically. Total estimated monthly expenditure has also fallen below current estimates of distributions for the first time since a period of exceptionally high distributions across financial year 2017-18. The result of this is that I am briefly and surprisingly, for this month, notionally financially independent based on assumed distributions from the FIRE portfolio alone - at least until more normal patterns of expenditure are resumed. Following the lines of drift - a longer view on progress made Yet taking a longer view - and accounting for the final portfolio goal set - gives a different perspective. This is of a journey reaching toward, but not at, an end. The chart below traces in purely nominal dollar terms the progress of the total portfolio value as a percentage of the current portfolio goal of $2.18 million over the last 13 years. It also shows three labels, with the percentage progress at the inception of detailed portfolio data in 2007, at the start of this written record in January 2017, and as at January 1 of this year. [Chart] Two trend lines are shown - one a polynomial and the other exponential function - and they are extended to include a projection of future progress out to around 18 months. The line of fit is close for the early part of the journey, but larger divergences from both trend lines are evident in the past two years as the impact of variable investment returns on a larger portfolio takes hold. There are some modest inaccuracies introduced by the nominal methodology adopted - such as somewhat discounting early progress. A 2007 dollar had greater 'real' value and significance than is assigned to it by this representation. The chart does demonstrate, however, the approximate shape and length of the early journey - with it taking around 5 years to reach 20 per cent of the target, and 10 years to reach around half way. Progress Progress against the objective, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Portfolio objective – $2 180 000 (or $87 000 pa) 80.6% 108.4% Credit card purchases – $71 000 pa 98.3% 132.3% Total expenses – $89 000 pa 78.8% 106.0% Summary With aspects of daily life slowly and incrementally adjusting to a 'new normal', the longer-term question for the portfolio remains around how markets and government actions interact in a recovery phase. The progress of the portfolio over the past 13 years has seemed, when viewed from afar as in chart above, predictable, and almost inevitable. Through the years it has felt anything but so smoothly linear. Rather, tides and waves have pushed and pulled, in turn stalling progress, or pushing it further ahead than hopes have dared. It is possible that what lays ahead is a simple 'return leg', or more of the same. That through simple extrapolation around 80 per cent of the challenges already lay behind. Yet that is not the set of mind that I approach the remainder of the journey with. Rather, the shortness of the distance to travel has lent an extra focus on those larger, lower probability, events that could delay the journey or push it off-course. Those 'third' risks types of tail risks which Morgan Housel points out. In one sense the portfolio allocation aims to deal - in a probabilistic way - with the multiple futures that could occur. Viewed in this way, a gold allocation (and also Bitcoin) represents a long option on an extreme state of the economic world arising - as it did in the early 1980s. The 75 per cent target allocation to equities can be viewed as a high level of assurance around a 'base case' that human ingenuity and innovation will continue to create value over the long term. The bond portfolio, similarly, can be seen as assigning a 15 per cent probability that both of these hypotheses are incorrect, and that further market falls and possible deflation are ahead. That perhaps even an experience akin to the lengthy, socially dislocating, post-bubble phase in Japan presided over by its central bank lays in store. In other interesting media consumed this month, 'Fire and Chill', the brand new podcast collaboration between Pat the Shuffler and Strong Money Australia got off to an enjoyable start, tackling 'Why Bother with FIRE' and other topics. Additionally, investment company Incrementum has just published the latest In Gold We Trust report, which gives an arrestingly different perspective on potential market and policy directions from traditional financial sources. The detailed report questions the role and effectiveness of traditionally 'risk-free' assets like government bonds in the types of futures that could emerge. On first reading, the scenarios it contains appear atypical and beyond the reasonable contemplation of many investors - until it is recalled that up to a few years ago no mainstream economics textbook would have entertained the potential for persistent negative interest rates. As the paths to different futures diverge, drawing on the wisdom of others to help look as far as possible into the bends in the undergrowth ahead becomes the safest choice. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
New Lands, or New Eyes? | Monthly FIRE Portfolio Update - April 2020
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. - Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past This is my forty-first portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goal. Portfolio goal My objective is to reach a portfolio of $2 180 000 by 1 July 2021. This would produce a real annual income of about $87 000 (in 2020 dollars). This portfolio objective is based on an expected average real return of 3.99 per cent, or a nominal return of 6.49 per cent. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $697 582 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $40 709 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $76 583 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $110 563 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $174 864 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $31 505 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $215 805 Telstra shares (TLS) – $1 625 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $7 323 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $5 904 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $119 458 Secured physical gold – $19 269 Ratesetter (P2P lending) – $12 234 Bitcoin – $158 360 Raiz app (Aggressive portfolio) – $16 144 Spaceship Voyager app (Index portfolio) – $2 435 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 471 Total portfolio value: $1 694 834 (+$127 888 or 8.2%) Asset allocation Australian shares – 40.9% (4.1% under) Global shares – 21.7% Emerging markets shares – 2.2% International small companies – 3.0% Total international shares – 26.9% (3.1% under) Total shares – 67.8% (7.2% under) Total property securities – 0.3% (0.3% over) Australian bonds – 4.5% International bonds – 9.9% Total bonds – 14.4% (0.6% under) Gold – 8.2% Bitcoin – 9.3% Gold and alternatives – 17.5% (7.5% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. Comments This month featured a sharp recovery in the overall portfolio, reducing the size of the large losses experienced over the previous month. The portfolio increased by over $127 000, representing a growth of 8.2 per cent, which is the largest month-on-month growth on record. This now puts the portfolio value significantly above the levels of a year ago. [Chart] The expansion in the value of the portfolio has occurred due to an increase in Australian and global equities markets, as well as substantial increases the price of Bitcoin. This is effectively the mirror image of the simultaneous negative movements last month. From a nadir of initial pessimism in late March, markets have generally moved upwards as debate continues about the path of a likely economic recession and recovery from Coronavirus impacts over the coming year. [Chart] First quarter distributions from the Australian and Global Shares ETFs (A200, VAS and VGS) were received this month. These were too early to fully reflect the sharp economic activity impacts of the Coronavirus and lockdown period on company earnings. Despite this, they were significantly down on a cents per unit basis on the equivalent distributions last year. Totalling around $2700, these distributions formed part of new contributions to Vanguard's Australian shares ETF (VAS). The rapid falls in equity have many participants looking forward to a return to normalcy, or at least more open to the pleasing ideas that nerves have been held in a market fall comparable to 2000 or 2008-09, and that markets now represent clear value. As discussed last month, there should be caution and some humility about these questions, if some historical perspective is taken. As an example, the largest global equity market in the world - the United States - remains at valuation levels well above those experienced in previous market lows. Portfolio alternatives - tracking changes under the surface A striking feature of the past year or so has been the expansion of the non-traditional or 'alternatives' components of gold and Bitcoin as a proportion of the overall portfolio. Currently, when combined these alternative assets form a greater part of the portfolio than at any point over the past two years. The chart below shows that since January 2019 the gold and Bitcoin component of the portfolio has lifted from around its long term target level of 10 per cent, to now make up over 17 per cent of the portfolio. In the space of the last four months alone, it has lifted from 13 per cent. [Chart] With no purchases of either gold or Bitcoin over the period, the growth in the chart is the result of two reinforcing factors: A substantial fall in the value of the equity portfolio - reaching nearly $200 000 since the recent February market peak has naturally and mathematically led to a commensurate increase the proportion of other assets. Increases in the value of gold and Bitcoin - have also played a role with a total appreciation of around $150 000 across the two assets over the past 16 months. In fact, the value gold holdings alone have increased by over 40 per cent since January last year. Further appreciation of either gold or Bitcoin prices, particularly if any further falls in equity markets occur, could easily place the portfolio in the same position as experienced in January 2018. At that time these alternative assets made up 1 in every 5 dollars of the portfolio, an unusual, and in that case temporary phenomenon. This represents a different portfolio and risk exposure than that envisaged in my portfolio investment plan. Yet, equally it is critical to recall what the circumstances would likely be for this to arise. Simultaneously high gold and Bitcoin prices are more likely to occur in a situation of severe capital market dislocation, or falling confidence. On the other hand, should confidence and equity market growth be restored, both of these portfolio components could fall back to lower levels. It is difficult to tell which state of the world will eventuate, a key reason for diversification across asset types. United States government debt is already at record levels - equivalent in real terms to levels last seen when it emerged out of the Second World War - despite no similar national effort having being undertaken. Future inflation can potentially partly manage this burden, however, the last sustained episode of persistently high inflation rates during the decade of the 1970s spelt negative real returns. Where investors expect future inflation or financially 'repressive' policies of inflation exceeding interest rates, the economic growth required to 'grow out' of debt can be affected. At this point, my inclination is to address this circumstance gradually through time by re-balancing of distributions and new contributions, rather than to realise capital gains by selling assets at one, or several, points in time. Chasing down the lines - falling average spending in lockdown Since the implementation of lockdown restrictions, average credit card expenditure has fallen by nearly 30 per cent. This has taken credit card expenditure to lower than any similar period in the past six years. Partly as a result of this - as the chart below shows - a new development is occurring. The previously fairly steady card expenses line (red) is now starting to bend down towards, or 'chase', the rolling average distributions line (in blue). [Chart] The declining distributions line is a result of some previous high distributions gradually falling outside of the data 'window' for the rolling three-year comparison of distributions and expenditure. This intriguing picture will probably change before a cross-over occurs, as lockdown restrictions ease, and as the data feeding into the three year average slowly changes over time. Progress Progress against the objective, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Portfolio objective – $2 180 000 (or $87 000 pa) 77.7% 104.6% Credit card purchases – $71 000 pa 94.8% 127.6% Total expenses – $89 000 pa 76.0% 102.3% Summary Last month market volatility theoretically took progress down to below most of my financial independence benchmarks on an 'All Assets' (i.e. portfolio and superannuation assets) basis. This position has reversed this month. As markets have recovered and with additional spare time in the lockdown period, I have continued to seek out and think about different perspectives on the history and future of markets. Yet it must be recognised that there is a natural limit to the utility of these ponderings. The shape of the future is always uncertain, and in this world, confident comparisons and analogies with past events can be perilous. Comparisons with past periods of financial market crises miss the centrality of government action as a causal influence on the path of virus affected economies and markets. A virus and recovery is not the same as a global financial crisis originating in housing finance markets addressed through monetary and fiscal stimulus. Most developed country governments have quickly applied the same, if not larger versions of responses as applied in the global financial crisis, a distinguishing step that also makes analogies with the great depression era problematic. Similarly, a pandemic is not hitting and interacting with the shattered economic and health systems of the 1918-19 Spanish flu. Overlaying all of this is the imperfect and partially disconnected relationship between the economy today, and equity markets that discount and focus on the future. This makes all history's lessons more than usually caveated and conditional. One avenue for managing through these times is to focus on what does not change - the psychological difficulty of accepting alterations in financial circumstances and the capacity of markets movements to cruelly surprise us in both timing and direction. One of the best texts to read to get a sense of both of these in such times is Benjamin Roth's A Great Depression Diary. This tells of the day-by-day changes observed in everyday urban life and investment markets, from the point of view of an American small retail investor living through the times. This month also saw the exciting news that Pat the Shuffler and Strong Money Australia are combining efforts to produce a new podcast. Speaking of which, Big ERN's reflections on the current implications of sharemarket market movements for seekers of financial independence have been filled with insight and wisdom. This interesting piece (video) - the latest in a 'virus' market series - from New York University's Professor of Finance Aswath Damodaran on asset performances through the past few months - is a more technical and detailed discussion of how markets have re-priced businesses and profits. Finally, the recently released Hmmminar interview series provides a more heterodox set of speakers and ideas on current markets, presented by Grant Williams. Unlike predicting the future, seeking out different perspectives on it is perhaps the easiest it has ever been in history. While it is not always possible to change the course taken, it is possible to look at the same horizon with new eyes. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
Murmurs of the Sea | Monthly Portfolio Update - March 2020
Only the sea, murmurous behind the dingy checkerboard of houses, told of the unrest, the precariousness, of all things in this world. -Albert Camus, The Plague This is my fortieth portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goal. Portfolio goal My objective is to reach a portfolio of $2 180 000 by 1 July 2021. This would produce a real annual income of about $87 000 (in 2020 dollars). This portfolio objective is based on an expected average real return of 3.99 per cent, or a nominal return of 6.49 per cent. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $662 776 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $39 044 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $74 099 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $109 500 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $150 095 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $29 852 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $197 149 Telstra shares (TLS) – $1 630 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $7 855 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $6 156 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $119 254 Secured physical gold – $19 211 Ratesetter (P2P lending) – $13 106 Bitcoin – $115 330 Raiz* app (Aggressive portfolio) – $15 094 Spaceship Voyager* app (Index portfolio) – $2 303 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 492 Total portfolio value: $1 566 946 (-$236 479 or -13.1%) Asset allocation Australian shares – 40.6% (4.4% under) Global shares – 22.3% Emerging markets shares – 2.3% International small companies – 3.0% Total international shares – 27.6% (2.4% under) Total shares – 68.3% (6.7% under) Total property securities – 0.2% (0.2% over) Australian bonds – 4.8% International bonds – 10.4% Total bonds – 15.2% (0.2% over) Gold – 8.8% Bitcoin – 7.4% Gold and alternatives – 16.2% (6.2% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. Comments This month saw an extremely rapid collapse in market prices for a broad range of assets across the world, driven by the acceleration of the Coronavirus pandemic. Broad and simultaneous market falls have resulted in the single largest monthly fall in portfolio value to date of around $236 000. This represents a fall of 13 per cent across the month, and an overall reduction of more the 16 per cent since the portfolio peak of January. [Chart] The monthly fall is over three times more severe than any other fall experienced to date on the journey. Sharpest losses have occurred in Australian equities, however, international shares and bonds have also fallen. A substantial fall in the Australia dollar has provided some buffer to international equity losses - limiting these to around 8 per cent. Bitcoin has also fallen by 23 per cent. In short, in the period of acute market adjustment - as often occurs - the benefits of diversification have been temporarily muted. [Chart] The last monthly update reported results of some initial simplified modelling on the impact of a hypothetical large fall in equity markets on the portfolio. Currently, the actual asset price falls look to register in between the normal 'bear market', and the more extreme 'Global Financial Crisis Mark II' scenarios modelled. Absent, at least for the immediate phase, is a significant diversification offset - outside of a small (4 per cent) increase in the value of gold. The continued sharp equity market losses have left the portfolio below its target Australian equity weighting, so contributions this month have been made to Vanguard's Australian shares ETF (VAS). This coming month will see quarterly distributions paid for the A200, VGS and VAS exchange traded funds - totalling around $2700 - meaning a further small opportunity to reinvest following sizeable market falls. Reviewing the evidence on the history of stock market falls Vladimir Lenin once remarked that there are decades where nothing happen, and then there are weeks in which decades happen. This month has been four such weeks in a row, from initial market responses to the coronavirus pandemic, to unprecedented fiscal and monetary policy responses aimed at lessening the impact. Given this, it would be foolish to rule out the potential for other extreme steps that governments have undertaken on multiple occasions before. These could include underwriting of banks and other debt liabilities, effective nationalisation or rescues of critical industries or providers, or even temporary closure of some financial or equity markets. There is a strong appeal for comforting narratives in this highly fluid investment environment, including concepts such as buying while distress selling appears to be occurring, or delaying investing until issues become 'more clear'. Nobody can guarantee that investments made now will not be made into cruel short-lived bear market rallies, and no formulas exist that will safely and certainly minimise either further losses, or opportunities forgone. Much financial independence focused advice in the early stages of recent market falls focused on investment commonplaces, with a strong flavour of enthusiasm at the potential for 'buying the dip'. Yet such commonly repeated truths turn out to be imperfect and conditional in practice. One of the most influential studies of a large sample of historical market falls turns out to provide mixed evidence that buying following a fall reliably pays off. This study (pdf) examines 101 stock market declines across four centuries of data, and finds that:
Large falls can lead to strong rebounds - After large falls of up to 50 per cent, the probability of a large rebound is higher.
Future returns after large market falls are generally positive - Returns following such a severe crash are systematically higher than otherwise.
Smaller market falls, however, may accurately signal poor future returns - Smaller declines (10-20 per cent) are more likely to be followed by further declines, although the strength of the relationship is weaker and less consistent.
Even these findings should be viewed as simply indicative. Each crisis and economic phase has its unique character, usually only discernible in retrospect. History, in these cases, should inform around the potential outlines of events that can be considered possible. As the saying goes, risk is what remains after you believe you have thought of everything. Position fixing - alternative perspectives of progress In challenging times it can help to keep a steady view of progress from a range of perspectives. Extreme market volatility and large falls can be disquieting for both recent investors and those closer to the end of the journey. One perspective on what has occurred is that the portfolio has effectively been pushed backwards in time. That is, the portfolio now sits at levels it last occupied in April 2019. Even this perspective has some benefit, highlighting that by this metric all that has been lost is the strong forward progress made in a relatively short time. Yet each perspective can hide and distort key underlying truths. As an example, while the overall portfolio is currently valued at around the same dollar value as a year ago, it is not the same portfolio. Through new purchases and reinvestments in this period, many more actual securities (mostly units in ETFs) have been purchased. The chart below sets out the growth in total units held from January 2019 to this month, across the three major exchange trade funds holdings in the portfolio. [Chart] From this it can be seen that the number of securities held - effectively, individual claims on the future earnings of the firms in these indexes - has more than doubled over the past fifteen months. Through this perspective, the accumulation of valuable assets shows a far more constant path. Though this can help illuminate progress, as a measure it also has limitations. The realities of falls in market values cannot be elided by such devices, and some proportion of those market falls represent initial reassessments of the likely course of future earnings, and therefore the fundamental value of each of those ETF units. With significant uncertainty over the course of global lock-downs, trade and growth, the basis of these reassessments may provide accurate, or not. For anyone to discount all of these reassessments as wholly the temporary result of irrational panic is to show a remarkable confidence in one's own analytical capacities. Similarly, it would be equally wrong to extrapolate from market falls to a permanent constraining of the impulse of humanity to innovate, adjust to changed conditions, seek out opportunities and serve others for profit. Lines of position - Trends in expenditure A further longer-term perspective regularly reviewed is monthly expenses compared to average distributions. Monthly expenditure continues to be below average, and is likely to fall further next month as a natural result of a virus-induced reduction of shopping trips, events and outings. [Chart] As occurred last month, as a function some previous high distributions gradually falling outside of the data 'window' for the rolling three-year comparison of distributions and expenditure, a downward slope in distributions continues. Progress Progress against the objective, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Portfolio objective – $2 180 000 (or $87 000 pa) 71.9% 97.7% Credit card purchases – $71 000 pa 87.7% 119.2% Total expenses – $89 000 pa 70.2% 95.5% Summary This month has been one of the most surprising and volatile of the entire journey, with significant daily movements in portfolio value and historic market developments. There has been more to watch and observe than at any time in living memory. The dominant sensation has been that of travelling backwards through time, and revisiting a stage of the journey already passed. The progress of the last few months has actually been so rapid, that this backwards travel has felt less like a set back, but rather more like a temporary revisitation of days past. It is unclear how temporary a revisitation current conditions will enforce, or exactly how this will affect the rest of the journey. In early January I estimated that if equity market fell by 33 per cent through early 2020 with no offsetting gains in other portfolio elements, this could push out the achievement of the target to January 2023. Even so, experiencing these markets and with more volatility likely, I don't feel there is much value in seeking to rapidly recalculate the path from here, or immediately alter the targeted timeframe. Moving past the portfolio target from here in around a year looks almost impossibly challenging, but time exists to allow this fact to settle. Too many other, more important, human and historical events are still playing out. In such times, taking diverse perspectives on the same facts is important. This Next Life recently produced this interesting meditation on the future of FIRE during this phase of economic hardship. In addition, the Animal Spirits podcast also provided a thoughtful perspective on current market falls compared to 2008, as does this article by Early Retirement Now. Such analysis, and each passing day, highlights that the murmurs of the sea are louder than ever before, reminding us of the precariousness of all things. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
The Day Advances | Monthly FIRE Portfolio Update - January 2020
The day advanced as if to light some work of mine Thoreau, Walden This is my thirty-eighth portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goal. Portfolio goal My objective is to reach a portfolio of $2 180 000 by 1 July 2021. This would produce a real annual income of about $87 000 (in 2020 dollars). This portfolio objective is based on an expected average real return of 3.99 per cent, or a nominal return of 6.49 per cent. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $813 282 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $45 802 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $83 162 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $110 472 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $178 121 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $34 965 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $272 399 Telstra shares (TLS) – $2 046 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $8 970 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $6 492 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $106 701 Secured physical gold – $17 252 Ratesetter (P2P lending) – $14 755 Bitcoin – $153 530 Raiz app (Aggressive portfolio) – $18 365 Spaceship Voyager app (Index portfolio) – $2 534 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 477 Total portfolio value: $1 873 325 (+$94 067) Asset allocation Australian shares – 42.8% (2.2% under) Global shares – 22.6% Emerging markets shares – 2.4% International small companies – 3.1% Total international shares – 28.1% (1.9% under) Total shares – 70.9% (4.1% under) Total property securities – 0.2% (0.2% over) Australian bonds – 4.5% International bonds – 9.5% Total bonds – 14.0% (1.0% under) Gold – 6.6% Bitcoin – 8.2% Gold and alternatives – 14.8% (4.8% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. Comments This month saw exceptional growth in the portfolio, with a net increase of $94 000 after a small fall last month. [Chart] This is the fastest growth in the past half year. It is also the second largest absolute increase in over three years of measurement. [Chart] As the histogram below - which counts the frequency of occurrences in a specified range of monthly value changes (with red denoting losses) - makes clear, this is one of the most positive outcomes in the three year record. [Chart] The sources of portfolio growth were generally buoyant global and Australian share markets. Just under half of the growth was also due to an increase in the price of both gold securities and Bitcoin. In addition, even bond holdings increased in value over the period. Distribution payments from the Vanguard retail funds, as well as the exchange-traded funds VAS, VGS and A200 were made through this month. These totalled around $14 000 and have begun to be gradually fed back into the portfolio. This is a process which will occur through to June - with new investments twice per month. So far this has led to additional purchases in Vanguard's Australian shares exchange-traded fund (VAS) to maintain the target allocation of Australian equities making up 60 per cent of all equity holdings. The bond allocation of the portfolio continues to be notionally under its target, but has not yet reached a position where further balancing investments are warranted. Fully excluding the value of Bitcoin, for example, it still sits on its target allocation of 15 per cent of the portfolio. If the same calculation is done for equities, they sit just above their target, at 77 per cent, and have drifted higher since early last year. Over the past months my position has been to take no portfolio balancing actions based purely on the volatile value of Bitcoin over time, and this remains my approach. There is no perfect answer to this issue - assigning no value to Bitcoin and ignoring it for asset allocation purposes is inconsistent with its role in the portfolio. Pushing either equity or bond allocations sharply out of target boundaries merely due to short-term Bitcoin movements is also not warranted. Taking a backcast 'moving average' approach might be one statistical solution, but I am not yet convinced it would do more than moderate the appearance of the issue. While expenditure has been higher over the holiday period, on average the gap between the rolling three-year average of distributions and credit card expenditure continues to close, and sits at just over a $300 per month gap at present. Flags of convenience - estimating hedging in the portfolio This month, out of a curiosity carried over from my recent review of my bond holdings, I have found the time to review of the overall currency hedging position of the portfolio. There are some excellent online research papers (pdf) and blog pieces, such as this one from Passive Investing Australia, for those interested in learning more about some of the associated issues. Currency risks have never previously been an object of much detailed thought on the journey. Rather, I had tracked a basic measure of broader exposure to foreign assets (including foreign equities, property securities, gold and more recently Bitcoin). The additional issue of whether my exposure to these assets was unhedged (meaning exposure to gains and losses from the relative movement in the Australian dollar and the foreign currencies) or hedged was not really front of mind. I suppose I had a dim awareness that some elements of the Vanguard retail funds that have until recently dominated the portfolio were hedged (for example, around 30 per cent of the Vanguard High Growth Diversified funds equity position is currency hedged), and judged that there was likely a well-considered rationale behind the amount of this hedging. The first step to understanding where any exposures exist is to understand and measure the current state of affairs. As of today, this is broadly as set out below:
Around 35 per cent of all portfolio assets are effectively unhedged - This includes Bitcoin, unhedged gold holdings, and unhedged international equities and bonds. All other things being equal, if the Australian dollar falls, the value of this part of the portfolio rises in relative terms.
The remaining 65 per cent of assets are either hedged or Australian-held assets - This includes Australian equities, Australian bonds, as well as international equities and bonds hedged back to the Australian dollar.
International equities are partially hedged - The portfolio has around $525 000 in international equities currently. Of this, around $140 000 is hedged back into Australian dollars - a hedging position of 27 per cent.
International bonds are nearly fully hedged - consistent with their portfolio role and discussed here.
The decision to invest in Vanguard's International Shares ETF (VGS), which is unhedged, is a significant event in this regard. The chart below shows the overall level of currency hedging in the international equity portfolio. Investments in VGS commenced from July 2019, and have started to affect the level of hedging. [Chart] As future contributions flow into VGS - absent any other action - a historically quite stable level of hedging will continue to fall. So far this is just a trend I am monitoring, until I have completed more research and thinking on the best approach in this area. There are many complicated, and some unknowable, issues to consider and balance in hedging decisions, such as the likely denomination of future costs, and the historical and future relationships between domestic currencies and equity markets. None avail themselves of short or easy answers. Until I have thought my way through them more fully, I remain hesitant to make any definitive decisions. Progress Progress against the objective, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Portfolio Objective – $2 180 000 (or $87 000 pa) 85.2% 115.9% Credit card purchases – $71 000 pa 103.9% 141.4% Total expenses – $89 000 pa 83.3% 113.3% Summary This month has seen rapid progress, propelling the portfolio closer to both old and new goals. The portfolio gains this month have already closed nearly half of the additional distance created by increasing my portfolio target at the beginning of the year. The psychological forward push from distributions performance across 2019 (including, pleasingly, seeing it recognised here) has added to this sense of momentum. Additionally, this month I have also crossed the threshold to the target portfolio size needed to achieve 'credit card FI', a long-standing measure I have tracked. The long summer break that has just ended in some ways seemed like a foretaste of what some versions of financial independence could feel like. With the minimum of planning there was time to read, rest, exercise and write largely as I pleased. Returning to work following this has been infused with an unusual sense of being a temporary visitor in a new workplace. There is a greater philosophical detachment, in observing its rituals and rhythms, and less of a desire to seek to shape or resist its minutiae. Rather, what I have focused on is seeking to more deliberately make use of the freedoms it does not constrain, and pursue the best and most interesting use of the time that is outside of work hours. Through these recent strong Australian and US equity markets, this article has been a useful reminder of the 'survivorship' risks of focusing a FI target too narrowly on past performance. This excellent recent piece from Aussie HIFIRE has also, from another direction, usefully focused on separating out the decisions that do, and do not, materially matter in planning and executing on a passive indexing strategy over the long-term. For a challenging and entirely heterodox view on the potential long-term movement of equity markets upwards from here, this article has been thought-provoking. Finally, this month I have been discovering the Jolly Swagman podcast, which has long and fascinating interviews with the ex-head of the Reserve Bank of Australia, and Nobel Prize winning US economist Robert Shiller speaking on bubbles and narrative economics. During the long restful hours of summer break, the day has advanced. Though clouds may come in time, as the year starts - at least - the way forward looks bright. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
Crossing the Ocean | Monthly FI Portfolio Update - February 2020
No one would have crossed the ocean if he could have gotten off the ship in the storm. Charles Kettering This is my thirty-ninth portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goal. Portfolio goal My objective is to reach a portfolio of $2 180 000 by 1 July 2021. This would produce a real annual income of about $87 000 (in 2020 dollars). This portfolio objective is based on an expected average real return of 3.99 per cent, or a nominal return of 6.49 per cent. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $772 191 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $44 099 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $81 139 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $111 360 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $174 810 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $32 294 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $250 949 Telstra shares (TLS) – $1 844 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $8 083 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $5 580 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $114 375 Secured physical gold – $18 455 Ratesetter* (P2P lending) – $13 971 Bitcoin – $149 920 Raiz* app (Aggressive portfolio) – $17 424 Spaceship Voyager* app (Index portfolio) – $2 446 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 485 Total portfolio value: $1 803 425 (-$69 900 or -3.7%) Asset allocation Australian shares – 42.1% (2.9% under) Global shares – 22.3% Emerging markets shares – 2.3% International small companies – 3.1% Total international shares – 27.7% (2.3% under) Total shares – 69.8% (5.2% under) Total property securities – 0.2% (0.2% over) Australian bonds – 4.6% International bonds – 9.7% Total bonds – 14.3% (0.7% under) Gold – 7.4% Bitcoin – 9.7% Gold and alternatives – 15.7% (5.7% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. [Chart] Comments Equity markets fell significantly this month, resulting in a portfolio loss of around $70 000. This is the largest monthly fall across the three years of this record in dollar terms, and the third largest as a proportion of assets. [Chart] The falls follow a large increase in the portfolio value last month, and have occurred amidst increasing global impacts and fears from the spread of the Corona virus. The losses are mainly in Australian and global equities and have been concentrated in the last two weeks. Overall, the portfolio fell around 6 per cent from a peak in mid-February. Amidst this downward movement, gold and Bitcoin have performed relatively positively, with the price of gold increasing and Bitcoin mostly maintaining its value. Consistent with their role of diversifying portfolio risks, the value of bond holdings slightly increased over the period. [Chart] The equity market losses have left the portfolio below its target Australian equity weighting, so contributions this month have been made to Vanguard's Australian shares ETF (VAS). In better news, this month expenditure has been lower than over the summer holiday period, continuing the broader declining trend. The most significant development in looking at the rolling three-year comparison of distributions and expenditure, however, is a new downward slope in distributions. [Chart] This is the first in this particular record, and results from the three year averaging window starting to move beyond a period of exceptionally high distributions in 2017. So it is an artefact of the chosen time period, and, for example, the equivalent four year comparison does not show this. Relocating the emergency stores This month has also seen a small re-entry into exploration of the world of fintech, through opening an account with Neo-bank Xinja. The motivation was an interest rate of 2.25 per cent, with no complex bonus eligibility rules. Added to this was curiosity about the experience with the product. The sign-up process was quick and easy, and I am planning to use it instead of a previous Ubank USaver online account - paying less than half of that in interest - for my emergency fund. So far the process has been smooth, and the pre-tax benefit of the switch from the improved rate is around $33 per month. Worse things happen at sea - modelling future portfolio risks With a range of markets at or close to highs, pushing progress towards my financial objective forwards in past weeks, I had been considering the issue of downside portfolio risk. Needless to say, the past week has reinforced the value of reflecting on that risk. To keep this issue steadily in view I have for the past year kept a rough and ready data series, called 'Market Event', which rather crudely assumes a rapid 25 per cent fall in equity values. Over the past month I have spent time considering and building a slightly more sophisticated way of modelling the impact of market falls on the portfolio. This allows some simple scenarios to be modelled, and recognises the potential for different behaviour of individual parts of the portfolio (for example, equities, bonds, gold and Bitcoin) in equity market falls. The value in this is that it allows better visibility of what the portfolio could look like after what are, in historical terms, quite regular occurrences. The three illustrative scenarios modelled are:
Normal 10% equity market decline - These are fairly routine over any length of time investing in equities, and could easily be expected in any given month. The past week - at least so far - is an example of this kind of event.
'Bear market' - This scenario is a 20 per cent decline, which could occur in a given month or over a sustained period of decline.
'Global Financial Crisis Mark II' - This is broadly based on the equity impact of the Global Financial Crisis on US share markets, including up to a 50 per cent fall.
These are imperfect simplifications of a myriad of possible events over different timeframes. Yet they are still sufficient to give a sense of the range of underlying risks in equity markets. The question they help answer is: just how does diversification actually reduce risk and volatility? In the scenarios below it is assumed that losses in equities are partly offset by gains in alternative diversifying assets (such as bonds, gold or even - more speculatively - Bitcoin). The reactions of these alternative assets to equity market falls are not a constant. In fact, research indicates (pdf) that from the early 2000s bonds have transitioned from being negatively correlated to equity (rising when equity prices fall), to be mildly positively correlated at times. Therefore, populating the three scenarios in Figure 1 has included some assumptions, drawing typically on long-term historical averages and some judgement, rather than just extrapolating performance over the past 15 years. Testing the waters - the scenarios results The results of each of these scenarios are set out below. Figure 1 - Illustrative Effect of Three Market Scenarios on the FI Portfolio [Diagram] Some observations on the scenarios and model outputs are:
Downside risk is real and unavoidable in an equity dominated portfolio - There is no escaping that a large fall in equity values will have a significant portfolio impact, even with around 30 per cent of assets being non-equities.
Diversification helps soften the fall - In large market events, assuming equities move in the opposite directions to other portfolio components, the current portfolio construction tends to reduce losses by around 10 per cent.
Equity market falls can make a difference to the journey time - A normal to moderate bear market would put the overall portfolio back the equivalent of 6 and 9 months of progress. A Global Financial Crisis style crisis would put the progress of the portfolio back around 24 months
Critically, the results of this thought experiment are sensitive to correlation assumptions. Relationships between assets returns change over time, in both direction and magnitude. This means reliance on historical relationships is not a certain guide. In the case of Bitcoin, especially, no long historical pattern of relationship exists. Changing the magnitudes or the plus or minus sign from the correlation assumptions I have adopted produces quite different results. Progress Progress against the objective, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Portfolio objective – $2 180 000 (or $87 000 pa) 82.7% 112.8% Credit card purchases – $71 000 pa 100.9% 137.6% Total expenses – $89 000 pa 80.9% 110.3% Summary This month has seen a transition from the heat of summer, smoke, into storms and an unsettled period. This has been reflected in both daily life as well as in the continuing volatility in markets and the portfolio. It has felt like a changing of perspective, and a shifting vantage point upon the world. The last post sought to trace my shifting perceptions and actions while investing through the Global Financial Crisis. A barrier to this was reconstructing contemporaneous thoughts from the persistent embrace of hindsight bias. This record is partly designed to overcome that problem. My perceptions on current falls are that they are unsurprising given the strong record of equity markets over the past decade, but that it is simply unknown and unknowable whether they represent a 'typical' pull back that routinely occurs, or the opening stages of a sustained downturn in equity markets lasting 12-24 months. These times can lead to a sense of being a passive observer of events beyond our control. The potential loss analysis above - which was started before the recent downturn - is designed to at least start to put some boundaries around these uncertainties, and volatility. To 'practice' - as it were - facing possible outcomes before we come upon them. Regularly reviewing downside exposures helps re-check that the portfolio risk is at the right level, and avoid complacency from past market gains by reinforcing their potentially temporary nature. Another method of addressing the same issue is to maintain flexibility around future spending rules or withdrawal rates. This paper (pdf) from Vanguard proposes a particular 'dynamic spending rule'. This places moving 'guardrails' around a spending level, partially recognising the value of market gains (or losses). As a concept, this is potentially a helpful update to simple 'rules of thumb' such as the 4.0 per cent safe withdrawal rate (or its 2012 updated version, the 4.5 per cent 'rule'). On the same topic, from a different direction, I have been interested in the findings of this research paper (pdf) based on a century of data of Australian equity returns. It makes a strong case for lowering expectations for future returns. Similarly, this interview provides an intriguing suggestion of how the next global financial crisis may originate from central banks, rather than private debt or equity markets. Finally, Credit Suisse have released their annual yearbook of global investment. This year unfortunately only a partial snapshot of global returns is given. This work highlights the changing nature of global investment through time, as sectors and technologies change, and provides useful historical checks on past global equity returns (5.2 per cent on a geometric basis). Backed by a century of data, it also reinforces the truism that most journeys are defined by their end, even though storms and uncertainties may assail us on the passage. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
Upon the Fortune of this Present Year | Monthly FIRE Portfolio Update - November 2019
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted, Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate Upon the fortune of this present year Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (1596) This is my thirty-sixth portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goals. Portfolio goals My objectives are to reach a portfolio of:
$1 598 000 by 31 December 2020. This should produce a passive income of about $67 000 (Objective #1) - Achieved
$1 980 000 by 31 July 2023, to produce a passive income equivalent to $83 000 (Objective #2)
Both of these are based on an expected average real return of 4.19 per cent, or a nominal return of 7.19 per cent, and are expressed in 2018 dollars. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $797 618 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $45 218 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $81 294 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $109 367 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $158 769 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $28 471 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $268 114 Telstra shares (TLS) – $2 057 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $9 996 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $8 100 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $98 376 Secured physical gold – $15 868 Ratesetter (P2P lending) – $16 915 Bitcoin – $128 630 Raiz app (Aggressive portfolio) – $17 535 Spaceship Voyager app (Index portfolio) – $2 377 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 418 Total portfolio value: $1 793 753 (+$33 713) Asset allocation Australian shares – 43.2% (1.8% under) Global shares – 22.9% Emerging markets shares – 2.4% International small companies – 3.2% Total international shares – 28.4% (1.6% under) Total shares – 71.6% (3.4% under) Total property securities – 0.2% (0.2% over) Australian bonds – 4.8% International bonds – 9.8% Total bonds – 14.6% (0.4% under) Gold – 6.4% Bitcoin – 7.2% Gold and alternatives – 13.5% (3.5% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. [Chart] Comments This month the value of the portfolio increased again by around $33 000 in total, building on the previous two months of growth. [Chart] The equity part of the portfolio has grown by around $50 000 to now reach over $1.25 million for the first time. This increase includes new contributions and the last part of the previous June distributions being 'averaged into' equity markets. The equity component of the portfolio has increased by around 40 per cent this calendar year. The only other major movement in the monthly value of the portfolio has been a sharp downward movement in the price of Bitcoin, and a small increase in the value of bond holdings. [Chart] The contributions this month went entirely into the Vanguard Australian shares ETF (VAS.ASX), to reduce the gap to both the overall target equity allocation, and to achieve the target split between Australian and global shares. From this month onwards I expect more regular variations in whether new contributions go to either Australian or global shares, based on keeping this target allocation constant. Charting errors and wrong bearings - the nature of long-term returns Over the last month, as the end destination starts to appear a little clearer in the distance, the issue of the nature of long-term returns has been front of mind. There is a strong literature and body of academic work around long-term equity return expectations. Much of this has informed my thinking, and has over time found its way into the corners of financial independence movement through the avenues of the so-called Trinity and Bengen '4 per cent' studies (pdf), and a range of calculators that use historical data to help guide investors expectations around feasible future returns. Yet, as I have noted before, future states of the world are not drawn from the same distribution as the past - or as the British writer G K Chesterton evocatively put it - 'wildness lies in wait'. Most often this issue is glided over neatly (including by myself) with assured sounding phrases such as 'based on history'. The works of Nassim Taleb, most particularly Fooled by Randomness, and The Black Swan, provide a fuller perspective on these issues. Recently though, reading a 2017 paper Stock Market Charts You Never Saw provided a unique and arresting view of their application to long-term return projections. The paper is long and detailed, but makes some fundamental points for consideration. It provides a challenging perspective on investment returns that falls almost completely out of mainstream discussions of the topic in the financial independence arena. To summarise, the paper highlights that:
Long-term average equity returns are just mean averages - While they have a stable property over the long-term, this is an inherent statistical property of these values being long-term averages of diverse sets of returns. They are not a reliable forward-looking promise of likely returns. In the words of the paper: 'history documents, but does not constrain'.
Time (in the market) does not always heal all wounds - Investors who spend their dividends and avoid market timing - in other words an average FI investor - can reasonably expect to encounter 30 year periods of low real returns, with US investors facing three such periods in the twentieth century alone.
Typical charts of long-term equity returns can be misleading - Through behavioural finance findings it is clear that presented with a chart showing a seemingly inevitable rising line of equity returns over a long-time frame, an impression of safety and inevitability can be created. The paper highlights a range of ways in which standard charts on equity returns can obscure important facets of investors actual experiences.
No investor actually experiences the longest set of historical returns - While it is comforting to know that equity returns have averaged (for example) six per cent over a century, or two, this information is not as relevant for an investor who is more likely to be invested in a discrete 30-50 year period in which deviations from historical averages can be significant.
One-off events should not be dismissed - While the temptation is continuously present to believe that events like the Great Depression could never happen again, careful review of equity returns yields some distinctly similar periods of sustained low or negative real returns.
Comparisons of bond and equity returns are often oversimplified - It is not an immutable truth that equities outperform bonds, at least when the US historical record is considered. Rather, a more complicated picture emerges of returns over long periods. Sometimes, equities have outperformed bonds, but at other times, bonds have out-performed equites.
As the paper notes: "When investment advisors counsel that stocks are the best bet for a long investment horizon, they should append the acknowledgement: “if my market timing is good.” When advisors argue for stocks over bonds, they should append the caveat “as long as you are not French, or Italian, or Japanese, or Swiss, and provided that the 20th century is a better guide to the future than the 19th century.” For real investors with their limited time horizons, who may reside anywhere in the world, there have been times when both stock recommendations were bad." The issue of the primacy of total returns, compared to income returns is also bracingly challenged with reference to the drawdown phase: Once portfolio accumulation ceases with retirement, portfolio income must be spent to live. Under those circumstances real price return, over short periods lasting two or three decades, becomes an important metric. By that measure, an investment in stocks has been dicey indeed. Usefully, the paper sets out (at the end) both conventional charts, and alternative representations of the same returns data, aimed at illustrating the hidden biases and properties of standard charts of market returns. In short, the paper poses challenges to many conventional investment tenets assumed to be true and widely repeated within financial independence discussions. Often these tenets are promoted with the sound and well-meaning goal of reducing new or existing investors caution or level of worry around possible falls in equity markets. The question this work implicitly poses is, in the process, are distorted expectations unintentionally being promoted? Drawing out the lessons - understanding and responding to risks What are the practical implications of this? The most obvious is to look closely at how data is presented and to think carefully about how the assumptions implicit in that presentation line up against ones own situation. Some other implications include:
Projections based on earning stable and uniform returns should be undertaken with caution - Multi-decade periods of low returns can happen, and mathematical models of compounding smooth returns don't capture their impacts.
By taking an equity position an investor is simply undertaking a probabilistic bet, with no guarantees - That is, equity investment over the long-term usually pays offs, but some risk is inescapable.
Diversification across markets and time represents a workable response to risk - Investing regularly and across geographic markets can help current investors capture some of the positive 'survivorship' bias that was denied to individual investors in many countries across the twentieth century.
In other words - to paraphrase Shakespeare's Antonio - not trusting ones ventures to one ship, place, or a fortune upon the present year. Progress Progress against the objectives, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Objective #1 – $1 598 000 (or $67 000 pa) 112.2% 153.0% Objective #2 – $1 980 000 (or $83 000 pa) 90.6% 123.5% Credit card purchases - $73 000 pa 103.0% 140.4% Total expenses - $89 000 pa 84.5% 115.1% Summary As the year begins to draw to a close, a restlessness to see its final outcomes, in dividends and portfolio growth presses itself forward. It is in fact a small echo of one of the strong temptations of the middle of the FI journey - a desire to wish away time itself. Some potential upcoming changes and uncertainties in work situation have added force to this temptation, forcing some thoughts about different potential balances between work and other elements of daily life could be. By distance, the intended journey is around ninety per cent over. At times this introduces both an elegiac quality to, and a premature desire to mark, possible 'lasts' along the journey. Yet the extraordinary current state of financial markets gives pause. Policy makers and advisors casually discuss negative rates and their implications, even as Australian and US equity markets hit new highs. In a sense, it feels a more psychologically testing time to be closer to my higher target allocation for equities than any time before. The diversification in the portfolio can be thought of as a series of small hedges against different potential futures playing out. By far, the largest probability (or potential future) at 75 per cent, is that the historical dominance of equity as a generator of real returns continues to function. The remainder of the portfolio can be seen in some ways as a offsetting hedge against large equity market falls, or some other disturbance in financial markets with negative implications for equity. At base, however, I remain comfortable with the 'balance of probabilities' implied in the target asset allocation. This month saw a new (v)blogger Mx Lauren join the Australian FI scene, as well as the suggestion by Money Magazine of a new 'simplified' retirement rule of thumb to consider. A further piece of fascinating reading was this piece by Ben Carlson in Fortune Magazine, explaining the key role of earnings growth in recent US market return. It posits that the recent strong performance of US equities is attributable to fundamental earnings growth, rather than simply an unjustified expansion in the price investors are willing to pay for that growth. This - in addition to Shakespeare's pre-modern enjoinment to diversify - is potentially another reason to not confine considerations to one market, and one place, as December distributions slowly drift into sight. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
There Lies the Port – Year in Review and Monthly Portfolio Update – December 2019
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail: There gloom the dark, broad seas. - Tennyson, Ulysses Year in Review This year began with a review of my portfolio goals, designed to update the financial independence targets to reflect the median and mean average of annual full-time earnings. The review also introduced a number of personal financial independence benchmarks, such as meeting credit card expenses or an estimate of actual expenditure through assumed average portfolio earnings. In addition, this year introduced reporting progress on an 'All Assets' basis (taking into account superannuation holdings), as well as an immediately accessible portfolio basis. Destinations closing - The long day wanes These changes left no less than eight metrics to track and report on. At the beginning of 2019, I had met only two of these eight financial independence measures (Objective #1 and 'Credit card purchases' on an all assets basis). As 2019 closes, six of the eight measures have been met or exceeded, and by contrast only two remaining outstanding. These two measures remaining to be met are reaching Objective #2 and a portfolio total that would allow the funding of current expenses from the FI portfolio alone. For both, I close out the year within fairly clear sight of these unmet goals. Progress through the year is summarised below. Progress against FI measures through 2019 Measure Portfolio All Assets Objective #1 – $1 598 000 (or $67 000 pa) 83% →111% 116% → 152% Objective #2 – $1 980 000 (or $83 000 pa) 67% → 90% 93% →123% Credit card purchases - $73 000 pa 77% →102% 108% → 140% Total expenses - $89 000 pa 58% → 84% 81% →115% Every hour a bringer of new things This calendar year portfolio has experienced the largest expansion to date, significantly outstripping progress through 2017. The overall portfolio has grown around 35 per cent, with the equity component rising from around just over $900 000 to $1.28 million. This has reflected market growth and a focus on purchasing Australian equities through the year. These sizeable increases in the FI portfolio have meant that significant gaps to my targets at the start of the year have shrunk dramatically. As an example, a year ago when the year started, Objective #2 was in the far distance, with the portfolio around $660 000 away from the target. Currently, it sits within $200 000 of that ambitious goal - a gap which while significant, does not necessary seem unbridgeable given progress so far. Yet the progress has not been linear, or a smooth course across calm waters. Rather, it has been a year of broadly two different halves. A rapid increase in portfolio value through to June or July, followed by choppy waters and only grudging and halting progress. [Chart] The drivers for this overall performance have largely been Australian and global equities, as well as Bitcoin. Strong equity markets through the first half of the year helped pushed the portfolio equity holdings up by almost 30 per cent, as markets recovered from the volatility and falls of late 2018. From July, however, the movement has been more sideways, despite contributions and an ongoing reinvestment of past distributions. Markets have tested and retested highs with some regularity. Despite its generally uncorrelated profile of returns, Bitcoin actually exacerbated this dual character of the year. It doubled in value in the first half of the year, going from 4.5 per cent of the portfolio in January to 10.9 per cent in July. Since that time it has drifted downwards, increasing the sense of pushing against headwinds in the second half of the year. Time and fate - the record of contributions This year is the first year where all substantial portfolio contributions have been made through exchange traded funds. This process commenced from May last year, when I ceased regular contributions to Vanguard's Diversified High Growth retail fund that had been made on a fortnightly or monthly basis over seventeen years. Instead, I turned to Vanguard's Australian shares ETF (VAS), Betashares' Australian shares ETF (A200), and more recently Vanguard's International shares ETF (VGS). This decision was driven by reducing costs, and also the opportunity to move more rapidly to my desired allocation. Its impact can be seen below, which shows that contributions have been fairly evenly split between A200 and VAS, with some smaller contributions to VGS to seek to reach and maintain the current target of 30 per cent of the total portfolio being placed in international equities. [Chart] Through the arch of experience This record is seeking to explore and identify if it is possible for me to make the transition to financial independence. In that context, the achievements of 2019 that seem most important are:
Reaching financial independence on an 'All Assets' basis - This probably garnered much less self-reflection and attention than I might have expected, however, this is because my primary focus and target has so far been to achieve financial independence just with the portfolio immediately accessible in taxable accounts (i.e. excluding superannuation). Nonetheless all four of my benchmarks were met by the end of the year.
Passing Portfolio Objective #1 - My expectation at the beginning of this year was to reach this particular goal only at the end of 2020. Instead it has been reached more than 18 months earlier than this.
Arriving close to the target allocation - This required investment decisions in accordance with the asset allocation plan, amidst market volatility, doubts over the sustainability of equity market rises. Mechanistically applying new investments to meet the target allocation can be emotionally challenging, but ultimately protects us from costly emotional and short-term decision-making.
A substantial fall in the level of credit card expenditure - This year I have spent substantially less (around $10 000) than the annual average on my credit card over the past seven years. I don't really have an explanation for this, though perhaps carefully monitoring and reporting monthly trends compared to distributions has psychologically discouraged some wasteful spending.
This year has also seen continued pleasing growth in the readership of the blog. Over the past year readership and visitors have more than doubled, to levels that feel slightly difficult to comprehend for a blog focused on a single personal journey, and applying some finance theory and evidence to investment. Receiving over 100 000 views from more than 40 000 visitors since commencing is both humbling and a tremendous motivation to keep writing. Waiting on time and fate As with each year during this holiday break, I have been reviewing my investment policy and looking at possible new goals. I have also been updating and stress-testing my plans, assumptions and asset allocations. As previously, before finalising these in a new post in coming days, I want to fully understand the shape and level of fund and ETF distributions arising from the past six months. This means waiting until all December distributions are finalised or announced. I am looking forward to sharing these updated plans - including possibly new portfolio objectives - in the next week or so. You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending. - C.S. Lewis Monthly Portfolio Update - December 2019 This is my thirty-seventh portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goals. Portfolio goals My objectives have been to reach a portfolio of:
$1 598 000 by 31 December 2020. This should produce a passive income of about $67 000 (Objective #1) - Achieved
$1 980 000 by 31 July 2023, to produce a passive income equivalent to $83 000 (Objective #2)
Both of these are based on an expected average real return of 4.19 per cent, or a nominal return of 7.19 per cent, and are expressed in 2018 dollars. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $797 016 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $45 124 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $81 635 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $108 591 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $160 304 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $33 337 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $262 478 Telstra shares (TLS) – $1 886 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $9 705 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $7 584 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $99 178 Secured physical gold – $16 035 Ratesetter (P2P lending) – $15 778 Bitcoin – $116 300 Raiz app (Aggressive portfolio) – $17 476 Spaceship Voyager app (Index portfolio) – $2 406 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 425 Total portfolio value: $1 779 258 (-$14 495) Asset allocation Australian shares – 43.2% (1.8% under) Global shares – 23.3% Emerging markets shares – 2.4% International small companies – 3.2% Total international shares – 28.9% (1.1% under) Total shares – 72.1% (2.9% under) Total property securities – 0.2% (0.2% over) Australian bonds – 4.7% International bonds – 9.8% Total bonds – 14.6% (0.4% under) Gold – 6.5% Bitcoin – 6.5% Gold and alternatives – 13.0% (3.0% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. [Chart] Comments This month the value of the portfolio fell slightly - by around $14 000 in total - following a three month expansion. [Chart] Across the portfolio there was mostly a story of stability, excepting small falls in some Australian equities and bonds. The significant exception was as mentioned above a continued fall in Bitcoin, which has fallen $70 000 since July, marking a significant headwind for the portfolio. [Chart] This month contributions were evenly split between Vanguard Australian shares and global shares ETFs (VAS and VGS), to seek to maintain the target asset allocation split. With the slow withdrawal from Ratesetter as loans are repaid, the bond element of the portfolio continues to drift below the allocation, and it may need to be addressed in future months. Balancing the load This month has also seen the portfolio the closest it has ever been to the target asset allocation. That is, the level of variation between where the investment assets are allocated, and where there should be based on the plan, is the lowest it has ever been. This has been a long journey with many missteps in retrospect. These have included short periods in which nearly 30 per cent of assets were invested in bonds, and times in which cash made up to 15 per cent of the portfolio (at the commencement of a 10 year period of growth in equities). This journey is illustrated in the chart below. [Chart] A few features stand out in this chart. Firstly, a recent rise in share exposure, and contraction in bond allocations. A second feature is the gradual elimination of any cash forming part of the portfolio. Finally, Bitcoin makes a late appearance and enjoys a short flowering period in early 2018, to fade back to part of a generally more diversified and growth-orientated portfolio. This has occurred during a period of generally strong and consistent calendar year growth since 2007. This can be seen from the updated chart below (with dates from the commencement of this record in green). [Chart] Progress Progress against the objectives, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Objective #1 – $1 598 000 (or $67 000 pa) 111.3% 152.3% Objective #2 – $1 980 000 (or $83 000 pa) 89.9% 122.9% Credit card purchases - $73 000 pa 102.2% 139.8% Total expenses - $89 000 pa 83.8% 114.7% Summary The start of this new year marks three years of this record. As I review the progress of the month, year and record together what is striking is the gradual transition from directly controlling investing progress through individual decisions, to progress itself becoming a loose and nearly random variable. Part of what is happening in the near doubling of the portfolio is that market fluctuations take a greater role. But another part is distinctly psychological, and is well described in this Of Dollars and Data post, which analyses the concept of the gradual receding importances of some types of decisions, as overall wealth increases over a life journey. For these decisions, over time, there is a need to balance the concept of 'rational ignorance' (not expending attention on perfectly optimising and analysing what will have a marginal impact) with the risk of picking up wasteful habits through poor decisions. A more pervasive psychological challenge likely to be faced in coming weeks is buying at market highs. The year just passed has been a rare one of strong performance of both US bond and equities, and safer assets. Data such as this interactive analysis can help bring light to these decisions - showing that historically returns from periods of 'all time highs' are statistically indistinguishable from any other periods. Put simply, the uneasy feeling of investing as indexes hit their peaks is, at least on past data, unjustified in terms of the actual future returns that tend to eventuate. This kind of finding should serve as a reminder. Past choices and markets are closed to us, all we can do is start where we find ourselves and take the best action we can to shape the ending. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
Casting Shadows Before | Monthly FIRE Portfolio Update - October 2019
And coming events cast their shadows before. Thomas Campbell, Loichiel’s Warning (1802) This is my thirty-fifth portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goals. Portfolio goals My objectives are to reach a portfolio of:
$1 598 000 by 31 December 2020. This should produce a passive income of about $67 000 (Objective #1) - Achieved
$1 980 000 by 31 July 2023, to produce a passive income equivalent to $83 000 (Objective #2)
Both of these are based on an expected average real return of 4.19 per cent, or a nominal return of 7.19 per cent, and are expressed in 2018 dollars. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $773 028 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $44 094 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $80 383 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $108 964 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $139 698 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $27 138 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $259 380 Telstra shares (TLS) – $1 860 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $13 847 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $8 412 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $98 755 Secured physical gold – $15 979 Ratesetter* (P2P lending) – $17 791 Bitcoin – $147 130 Raiz* app (Aggressive portfolio) – $16 931 Spaceship Voyager* app (Index portfolio) – $2 240 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 410 Total value: $1 760 040 (+$30 378) Asset allocation Australian shares – 42.0% (3.0% under) Global shares – 22.6% Emerging markets shares – 2.4% International small companies – 3.1% Total international shares – 28.1% (1.9% under) Total shares – 70.1% (4.9% under) Total property securities – 0.3% (0.3% over) Australian bonds – 4.8% International bonds – 9.9% Total bonds – 14.7% (0.3% under) Gold – 6.5% Bitcoin – 8.4% Gold and alternatives – 14.9% (4.9% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. [Chart] Comments This month the portfolio grew by just over $30 000 in total, building on the previous month of growth. [Chart] The equity component of the portfolio has grown, including through new contributions and another part of the June distributions being 'averaged into' equity markets. The only other major changes in the monthly value of the portfolio have been the result of gains in the value of equity holdings and a sharp upward movement in the price of Bitcoin. [Chart] This month marks the notional passing of one of the additional FI benchmarks set at the beginning of the year - 'Credit card FI'. This benchmark is estimated on the basis of reaching a portfolio value where the annual assumed real return of 4.19 per cent could in theory fully meet average annual credit card expenses of $73 000. This benchmark is notionally met in that sense, and it is also close to being met on a far more practical and tangible basis also. The actual gap between a trailing average of distributions paid and card expenses has now fallen to less than $300 per month. [Chart] Even so, it is important to note that this narrow gap could stabilise or modestly rise once forthcoming December distributions form part of the average, replacing a higher placeholder assumption based on June's figures. Quarterly distributions from Betashare's A200 ETF and Vanguard's Australian shares ETF (VAS) were paid this month. These distributions, in addition to another staggered reinvestment of June distributions were invested in the market. They have been mostly placed into VAS, to obtain the benefit of accessing a slightly wider range of holdings at a comparable fee, as well as to reduce any (admittedly small) risk and volatility in future returns and payout levels between A200 and VAS. To maintain the target balance for international (40 per cent) and domestic equities (40 per cent), a smaller additional investment was also made into Vanguard's International shares ETF (VGS). Sighting harbours and early arrivals - revising the FI target date A focus of thought in the two months ahead will be the expected timing of reaching my FI Objective #2. This goal is current set to July 2023. In setting this original target timeframe I used approximate and conservative estimates, based on previous average total portfolio increases over the past five years. This method effectively ignored extra contributions arising from any above average portfolio distributions, or any return impacts, given the relatively short time until both targets. As such, it represented a clear simplification of reality. Achievement of the target - I reasoned at the time - would inevitably be impacted by market fluctuations and this meant constructing spuriously exact yearly forecasts of the impacts of average returns would not be worthwhile. What has become clear since meeting Objective #1 more than 18 months earlier than expected is that more rapid progress was also being made towards Objective #2. To understand and explore this progress further I have applied a few estimation techniques to start understanding possible revised trajectories. These estimate approaches included:
simple extrapolation from past progress over a long time period
using the median monthly progress since 2017; and
assuming no investment returns at all, and reliance just on contributions.
The results of the different estimation approaches being applied were broadly consistent, with projections of Objective #2 being reached at least two years ahead of schedule. A further interesting fact was that average assumed investment returns alone would be sufficient to carry the portfolio to the original target level by mid-2023. Indeed, even if the portfolio suffered a one-off 33 per cent fall in equity values tomorrow - as is quite possible - modelling suggested the target would still be likely to be met early. With two months to go until a full portfolio review, this indicates that it may be useful to reset this target to an estimate that more closely aligns with progress to date, whilst still retaining a respectful regard for the critical role that market variations can have in this phase of the journey. Casting the shadow before - a better approach for estimating distributions? At this time of year December distributions begin to cast their shadow forward, as the previous July distributions recede. Seeking to estimate the approximate level of future distributions has been an ongoing interest, and has been looked at previously in both the Set and Drift and Wind in the Sails posts. The level of distributions is a solid and important marker of how far the journey has progressed. This month I found time to fully develop an expanded data set to allow a better estimate of likely distributions. From the website of the relevant Vanguard retail funds, as well as the sites for the ETFs VAS, VGS and A200 I was able to download the available histories of distributions. These stretched back a decade for some funds, and five years for VAS and VGS, but substantially shorter for A200. This enables the estimation of average payouts (in cents per unit) to be reached. In turn, this allows an estimate to be made of the level and components of the December distributions, using average values. This is set out below. [Chart] There are significant boundaries of uncertainty around this estimate, and some simplifications. For example, it excludes Ratesetter and smaller individual shareholdings (which represent about 10 per cent of the holdings). It also assumes for simplicity equal ETF payments through the year. With these caveats and using this approach, the total December distributions are estimated to be around $19 500, out of an annual forecast distributions of $49 800. Progress Progress against the objectives, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Objective #1 – $1 598 000 (or $67 000 pa) 110.1% 150.0% Objective #2 – $1 980 000 (or $83 000 pa) 88.9% 121.1% Credit card purchases - $73 000 pa 101.1% 137.7% Total expenses - $89 000 pa 82.9% 112.9% Summary Coming events do cast their shadows before them. Even an initial review of progress towards my remaining financial objective has left me with a sense of time foreshortening, and the shadow reaching out towards the present. At some point this shadow will start inevitably and undeniably reaching into and touching my daily life. At the same time as this sense grows, markets feel delicately poised, with risks of bubbles, and unusual events such as required US Federal Reserve support for the inter-bank market, and a rare failure of a recent tender of short term Australian Treasury notes to reach its target issuance. Despite these types of events and historically low bond rates globally surveyed investor equity expectations remain at elevated levels. It often pays dividends at times such as this to look to the past. This is an opportunity provided by listening to Yale University's Robert Shiller in this recent podcast as well as by reading his new work Narrative Economics focused around the historical and continuing role of stories in markets and finance. Stories - such as a 'clear' link between a countries' economic growth and share market performance - can often be plausible, commonly held, and incorrect. Another informative podcast was an interview with the Head of Product Strategy for Vanguard Australia by Equity Mates. Further interesting insights into the development of modern portfolio theory and efficient markets theory can be accessed in these Youtube videos with interviews of Markowitz and Eugene Fama. The latter makes the point that the growth in indexing is likely to lead to active managers facing higher competition from more skilled investors, as the less skilled depart, making outperformance tougher rather than easier. This month I was pleased to be mentioned in this short but practical piece on Australian FI seekers, alongside Aussie HIFIRE and Aussie Firebug. For a striking visual tool around planning for FI and safe withdrawal rates, this US-based calculator also occupied some of my time. It gives a unique and simple demonstration of the different probabilities and tradeoffs that can be embedded in reaching FI. Ordinary Dollar here in Australia has some similar calculators. Without seeing coming events, they represent a useful way to look further over the horizon. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
Keeping a Reckoning | Monthly FIRE Portfolio Update – September 2019
We may by care and skill be able to trim our ship, to steer our course, or to keep our reckoning; but we cannot control the winds, or subdue deceitful currents, or prevent disasters. The Sailors’ Prayer Book: A Manual of Devotion for Sailors at Sea (1852)
This is my thirty-fourth portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goals.
My objectives are to reach a portfolio of:
$1 598 000 by 31 December 2020. This should produce a passive income of about $67 000 (Objective #1) - Achieved
$1 980 000 by 31 July 2023, to produce a passive income equivalent to $83 000 (Objective #2)
Both of these are based on an expected average real return of 4.19 per cent, or a nominal return of 7.19 per cent, and are expressed in 2018 dollars.
Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $767 282
Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $43 936
Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $80 318
Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $109 802
Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $124 643
Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $24 276
Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $263 829
Telstra shares (TLS) – $1 870
Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $13 777
NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $8 760
Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $101 214
Secured physical gold – $16 292
Ratesetter* (P2P lending) – $19 140
Bitcoin – $131 280
Raiz* app (Aggressive portfolio) – $16 657
Spaceship Voyager* app (Index portfolio) – $2 184
BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 402
Total value: $1 729 662 (+$17 325)
Australian shares – 42.0% (3.0% under)
Global shares – 22.6%
Emerging markets shares – 2.5%
International small companies – 3.2%
Total international shares – 28.3% (1.7% under)
Total shares – 70.3% (4.7% under)
Total property securities – 0.3% (0.3% over)
Australian bonds – 5.0%
International bonds – 10.1%
Total bonds – 15.0%
Gold – 6.8%
Bitcoin – 7.6%
Gold and alternatives – 14.4% (4.4% over)
Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio.[Chart]
This month the portfolio grew by just over $17 000 in total, following two consecutive months of small declines.[Chart] The total equity component of the portfolio has grown, including through new contributions and another part of the June distributions being 'averaged into' equity markets. The only major reductions in the portfolio has been the result of a sharp downward movement in the price of Bitcoin. [Chart] Lower credit card expenditure and the gradual increase of the trailing three year average of distributions paid has helped sustain a sense of momentum this month. Together they have continued to narrow the gap between distributions paid and credit card spending to less than $500 per month. [Chart] The complete closure of the remaining gap is within sight. Assuming no sustained reversals in the absolute level of distributions through time, this could happen in the next 12 months. Some added progress towards this goal should come from pending quarterly distributions from the Betashares A200 ETF and Vanguard's Australian shares ETF (VAS). These are currently being finalised. The draft distributions guidance indicates that for A200 and VAS these quarterly distribution should total around $4 700, approximately double the absolute level of the same quarterly distributions a year ago. New investments this month have been higher than normal due to a work bonus and the staggered reinvestment of June distributions. They have been directed predominantly to Vanguard's Australian Shares ETF (VAS), with a small recent allocation to Vanguard's international shares ETF (VGS). Following the recent fee reduction in VAS, I have directed Australian purchases through to this ETF, preferring the (slightly) wider exposure it delivers through following the ASX300, compared to the Betashares A200's slightly narrower holdings. The end of 'the big rebalance' into Australian equities The reason for the split between Australian and international equity purchases is that this month has seen the effective end of 'the big rebalance' - that is, the gradual movement to a 60/40 split between Australian and international shares. This was first targeted in my January 2019 review of portfolio targets and allocations. Previously my Australian and international equity allocation was largely just an unconscious and purely mechanical outcome of the splits in various Vanguard retail funds, and a number of smaller side Australian shareholdings. The last nine months - by contrast - has seen a concentrated direction of new funds and distributions into Australian shares to achieve the targeted balance. The shift has been significant, with the value of Australian shares only overtaking international holdings in the second half of 2018. International shares have fallen from more than a third of total portfolio assets at this start of this record to closer to a quarter. [Chart] At the same time Australian equities now make up 42 per cent of total portfolio, and have just reached 60 per cent of the equity portfolio. All this has occurred as the total equity portfolio has grown from $630 000 at the start of this journey, to over $1.2 million this month. [Chart] The main vehicles for this expansion over the past two years has been Betashares A200 and Vanguard's VAS ETFs. More recently, as mentioned, I have added Vanguard's global share ETF (VGS) to allow an avenue to keep within the targeted split with future contributions. Measuring investment income from tax returns This month also saw completion of my tax return, including explaining my tax position to a brand new tax agent. The tax assessment from this past financial year provides an additional data point about the taxable investment income being generated by the portfolio. The graph set out below updates the series published last year on taxable investment income. It is taken from the return items for partnerships and trusts, foreign source income and franking credits (i.e. items 13, 20 and 24 on the return, and not including capital gains) over the past nine years. [Chart] This shows that taxable investment income has risen only around five per cent over the past financial year. This likely reflects the decline in higher interest payments from a slow rebalance away from Ratesetter towards equities. Taxable investment income is still well short of both the original objective, and even further short of Objective #2. [Chart] As previously outlined, there are a range of factors that likely account for the mismatch between tax return income and received distributions. These could include timing differences, capital gains realisations, and potentially even small errors in how I have added in individual return items in past years. I have also continued to seek to avoid double counting and so understatement is also a possibility, given the formats and labelling of tax returns are not always particularly clear.
Progress against the objectives, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. MeasurePortfolio All Assets Objective #1 – $1 598 000 (or $67 000 pa) 108.2% 147.5% Objective #2 – $1 980 000 (or $83 000 pa) 87.4% 119.1% Credit card purchases - $73 000 pa 99.3% 135.4%T otal expenses - $89 000 pa 81.5% 111.1%
Forward progress has resumed, with the growing warmth and life of spring. The last few months has been a continual reminder that the fickle direction of market winds may play a greater role than sheer saving and investing efforts at this point in the journey. Focusing on the process, rather than the short-term outcome is therefore almost forced upon one - which perhaps is no bad thing after all. Indeed, increasingly I have wondered whether these now ingrained habits and processes will themselves be difficult to break out of, even as I definitively pass some FI benchmarks in future months and years. The varying winds will also increasingly dictate where additional contributions are to be made. This is the automatic result of targeting an asset allocation with new contributions rather than active rebalancing through selling existing holdings. In fact, it probably constitutes one of the more difficult tests for a chosen risk allocation, as it will tend to result in buying unspectacular portfolio 'laggards', rather than assets that have recently moved up, without the consolation of taking these new funds from locked in profits elsewhere in the portfolio. This can lead to signals that are easier to follow in theory than in practice. As an example, currently Australian government bond yields are close to historical lows, and potentially heading lower. This is highly relevant to FI planning, as there is some academic evidence that the 'four percent rule' has a higher failure rate in low bond rate environments. There is also a strong possibility that bonds are close to the end of a forty year decline in yield - and have nowhere to go. The increasing spread of negative yielding government and corporate bonds around the world, however, also holds out equally plausible but very different possibilities, at least in the short term. This is more than a hypothetical issue and uncertainty. Through the next 12 months it is possible that my target asset allocation will start signalling a need to buy bonds. This would involve a need to find the right investment vehicle to access this asset at least cost. On the same topic, this month saw an excellent explainer piece from Aussie HiFIRE on bonds, and also a good discussion from Kurt at Pearler on how to put the modern portfolio theory to practical work in FI portfolio design. Youtube content on FI and portfolio issues seems to be improving all the time as well, including this short video on thinking about the role and value of dividends.All such guidance represents a way of keeping a reckoning on the unfolding horizon, its dangers and subtle deceits .The post and full charts can be seen here.
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Weekly ASX Market Wrap: Two Sectors of the Aussie Market to Watch
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