Is Investing in Crypto Irresponsible? A Cake and Icing Analogy for Investing

Recently I have been thinking about Tesla’s decision to invest $1.5 billion in bitcoin and accept payment for Teslas in bitcoin (although later Tesla stopped accepting payment in bitcoin due to environmental concerns).

This decision by Tesla as well as many other companies to invest in bitcoin made me think about the decision. Bitcoin is considered a very volatile asset and so it made me wonder about the merits of companies buying bitcoin. Many businesses are also considering pricing their goods or services in cryptocurrency, but this presents challenges due to the aforementioned volatility of crypto.

After much research, it seems many companies were buying bitcoin as a replacement for idle cash on their balance sheet. All companies have a bunch of assets on their balance sheet related to the normal operations of their business e.g. Tesla would have factories as well as patents on their balance sheet as assets, but companies also need to hold liquid assets such as cash in order to meet expenses. For example, Tesla needs to pay taxes, and taxes are denominated in currency like USD, and so Tesla needs to have USD on hand to be able to pay for these expenses.

Through research, I found that the $1.5 billion in BTC that Tesla had only represented about 8% of its cash. This means that Tesla had about $19 billion in cash and it has converted a small amount of that into BTC.

How does this relate to individuals and early retirement?

Individuals are similar to organisations. In the same way that Tesla holds cash to be able to meet expenses, so too I hold a small amount of cash as well. In the same way that Tesla keeps most of its assets in its business e.g. factories, so too I keep most of my assets outside of cash. The reason why I don’t want to hold too much cash is because cash does not earn much. In fact, given that savings accounts provide virtually no interest, cash does not really earn anything, especially when you factor in inflation. It makes sense to keep most of your net worth in higher returning assets while only keeping a small amount of your net worth in cash in order to meet expenses.

We need to take on more risk to beat inflation

We don’t keep all our net worth in cash because we need to beat inflation. Everyone has expenses and these expenses are denominated in the local fiat currency. For example, for someone living in Australia, they’d need to pay taxes, which are denominated in Australian dollars (AUD). The necessities of life such as food and shelter are also denominated in AUD. According to, as at May 2021, the cost of living in Melbourne, Australia for a single person is $1322 per month not including rent. The cost of rent is $1715 for a one-bedroom apartment in the city. This adds up to $3037 per month or $36444 per year. If we round this up to $40k and then apply the 4% rule, this means you will need $1 million in net worth to be able to retire in Melbourne.

The 4% rule assumes a rough mixture of stocks and bonds, approximately 50% in stocks and 50% in bonds, which can be acheived with a balance ETF. An example of a balanced ETF with 50% bonds and 50% stocks is the Vanguard Diversified Balanced Index ETF (VDBA).

Basically if you have $1 million and put it into VDBA, you’d be able to live a comfortable life in Melbourne, Australia.

Icing on the cake

But what if you have more than $1 million? Suppose you have $2 million in net worth and you have $1 million in VDBA from which you are drawing $40k per year to meet basic expenses. Because the other $1 million is not necessary for covering basic expenses, why not invest it in higher risk investments e.g. a high growth ETF such as VDHG or even in a diversified basket of cryptos? You can divide this $2 million wealth into two parts: VDBA, which represents moderately volatile investments needed to meet basic necessities denominated in local fiat currency (i.e. the cake); and crypto (or VDHG), which represents more volatile investments that provide extra income (i.e. the icing on the cake).

Volatility is relative depending on the base asset

No asset is inherently volatile. One of the main criticisms of cryptocurrency is that it is too volatile. Let’s take a crypto such as ether (ETH). ETH is volatile if priced in USD. However, if you price USD in ETH, suddeny USD looks volatile.

When most people thinking about volatility, they think about volatility relative to the local fiat currency, and the reason why they think this is because most good, services, and taxes are denominated in that local fiat currency. If I am living in Australia, I need to pay for rent, food and taxes with AUD, so I need to make sure that the $1 million I hold in my “cake” fund is not too volatile relative to AUD, which is why you would hold it in VDBA or similar. However, if you can meet rent, food and taxes with $1 million in VDBA and I have more, why do I need to worry about volatility priced in AUD? Why not increase volatility to the maximum level once you can cover your basic expenses?

Age-based vs wealth-based bond tent

A very interesting idea proposed by Michael Kitces is the idea of creating a “bond tent” to sequence of return risk.

Sequence of return risk is basically the risk of a severe market crash occuring right after you retire. So imagine you have 100% in equities and it is 2008. You finally amass $1 million in welth and decide to retire. Then suddenly the GFC happens and the stock market falls 50% thereby reducing your net worth to only $500k.

Dampening The Volatility Of The Portfolio Size Effect Using A Bond Tent
Figure 1: Michael Kitces’s Bond Tent

The bond tent addresses this risk. Basically, in order to create a bond tent, before you retire, you gradually increase the proportion of your net worth in bonds. Then when you retire, you reduce it. The reason why you reduce your bond allocation after you retire is because, according to the theory, you need equities for long term growth. Bonds provide stability but not growth. The risk with holding too much in bonds when you are retired is that you have stability at the expense of not enough growth, which increases the risk you deplete your wealth before you die.

However, I think there is a problem with the bond tent. If you look at the horizontal axis above in figure 1, you’ll notice it is based on age. You retire at 65. At that age, the bond allocation is at its peak. Why should this be based on age? Why not make it based on wealth?

As I’ve described previously, you need about $1 million in about 50% stocks and 50% bonds to retire and live a modest life. Why not change the bond tent chart above by replacing the horizontal axis with net worth? The peak of the bond tent should instead occur when net worth is $1 million. This means that when you are young, you should take on more risk because, even if the market goes down, you are still young and have time to earn money to replace money lost. However, as you gain more wealth, the risk grows because you have more money exposed to riskier assets and you are close to the net worth required to cover your necessary expenses. Imagine you are 25 and have $100k in net worth and suddenly the GFC occurs. Then you’d lose $50k. However, you would be able to replace this loss with one or two years of work and savings. However, imagine you are 35 and have a net worth of $1 million and a GFC happens. Then you’ve lost $500k. This loss could take about 15 to 20 years to replace, which sets back your early retirement considerably.

The importance of minimalism

The wealth-based bond tent illustrates to us the importance of minimalism and how it can help you build more wealth. The $40k per month expense is based on Numbeo’s estimate of expenses of a typical person. However, suppose someone is able to live on less. Suppose hypothetically someone can live off $20k per year e.g. rather than retire in Melbourne, Australia they are happy to retire in an area with a lower cost of living. Perhaps they are willing to live in a one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of the city rather than in the city itself. Regardless of how someone saves money, if you are able to get by on $20k per year, then the bond tent shifts to the left. You only need $500k in VDBA in order to create the “cake” needed to cover your necessarily living expenses, and once you hit this $500k net worth, you can quickly put any new money into the “icing” fund, which goes into high risk assets.

Imagine two people who earn $100k per year. One is a minimalist who spends only $20k per year vs a normal person who spends $40k per year. The person who spends $20k per year is able to invest $80k per year (assuming no taxes) and is able to accumulate $500k within 6.25 years (for simplicity, assuming no investment growth). However, the normal person spending $40k per year is only able to invest $60k per year which means they will need 16.66 years in orer to accumulate $1 million.

By being a minimalist, you are able to overtake the bond tent more quickly and transition your wealth into higher risk assets at no risk to your retirement because you have already built a solid foundation i.e. you have fully developed your “cake” fund and are now simply putting the icing on the cake.

A minimalist who can live off $20k per year is able to provide themselves with financial independence within 6 years and in their seventh years they can invest in higher risk assets such as more speculative tech stocks or ETFs or cryptocurrency. However, a normal person who lives off $40k per year needs to wait 16 years before they can do this.

Lifestyle inflation destroys the icing

A normal person living off $40k needs to invest for 16 years before they can be financially secure or independent, but imagine if that normal person, after 16 years of hard saving, suddenly inflates their lifestyle such that they spend $60k per year. If after you have $1 million you suddenly have $60k worth of spending, then this means $1 million is not enough. According to the 4% rule, you now need $1.5 million, which means you need to save up $500k more, which means you need to work 8 more years in order to build up your “cake” fund.

By inflating your lifestyle, the cake needs to grow, which means you spend more time investing in VDBA or similar assets.

Cake spending vs icing spending

What does lifestyle inflation mean? In my opinion, lifestyle inflation occurs only when your necessary ongoing expenses goes up. Suppose you have $1 million in VDBA generating $40k and this goes into food, shelter and taxes. This is the “cake” and your spending on food, shelter and taxes are waht I call “cake spending” because these are necessary ongoing expenses

Let’s suppose you have another $1 million in crypto and you draw out 4% from this for spending. This is the “icing” but you need to spend it on what I call “icing spend” which are unnecessary once-off or reversible expenses.

So a person with $1 million in VDBA and $1 million in crypto draws $80k. $40k goes into food, rent and taxes, but the other $40k can go into a lavish holiday. A holiday is not necessary, once-off and not ongoing. This is important because the icing fund is high risk. Crypto is highly volatile and could drop by 90% within a year. Suppose this did happen and the $1 million in crypto suddenly turns to $100k. Then rather than within $40k in icing expenses you are withdrawing only $4k in icing expenses. This is not a problem because simply you take a cheaper holiday or don’t go on holiday at all.

An example of ongoing necessary expense beyond food, shelter or taxes is, for example, if you decide to have a family. Paying for a family means added ongoing and necessary expenses e.g. food, shelter, childcare, etc. If crypto prices suddenly fall and you can only draw out $4k per year rather than $40k per year, this is not going to be good if food, shelter and childcare prices are higher than $4k per year. However, a holiday is not necessary and can be scaled back if required.

The interesting conclusion from this is that if you focus spending on unnecessary and reversible or scalable expenses, you are better off than if you inflate your lifetyle with necessary ongoing expenses.

Rentvesting with NAB Equity Builder

Rentvesting (a mix of renting and investing) involves renting a place to live while investing. When many people talk about rentvesting, they refer to renting and investing in property at the same time. However, another way to rentvest is to rent while investing in the stock market via ETFs.

When rentvesting into the stock market, it is better to leverage into the stock market i.e. borrow money to buy ETFs. An EY study into rentvesting into the stock market found that renting while leveraging into the ASX 200 index using a margin loan with 50% LVR was approximately equivalent to buying a place to live in. However, this study found that without leverage, it is better to buy a home. More leverage provides higher returns (and higher losses as well should the market go down).

Rather that using a margin loan, I recommend using NAB Equity Builder (NAB EB) instead because the interest rate on a NAB EB loan is much lower. As at the time of writing this, the NAB EB interest rate is 3.9 percent vs the CommSec margin loan interest rate of 5.5 percent. Many people criticise margin loans because of the dreaded “margin call” but if margin loan interest rates were equal to NAB EB interest rates, I would prefer a margin loan because it provides more flexibility on when to make repayments vs NAB EB which requires monthly repayments. A margin call is not as bad as many claim it is because it provides you with more flexibility on when you make repayments whereas regular monthly repayments do not provide as much flexibility because you are forced to pay monthly. However, this added flexibility has a cost i.e. a higher interest rate.

Another major disadvantage with NAB EB is that it is not an interest only loan and you are required to make principal repayments which are quite high considering the loan term is only 10 years. Property loans are typically for 30 years, which spreads out the principal repayments. Some property loans are also interest only. Margin loans provide the most flexibility by requiring no interest or principal repayments so long as the LVR is below a certain level. The consequence of these higher NAB EB principal payments is that the level of leverage achieved via NAB EB is lower compared to what could be achieved via a property loan or a margin loan.

An example

I have created a spreadsheet that details a typical example of someone who saves $130k deposit to buy a home and compared it to someone who instead puts that $130k into the VDHG ETF using NAB EB. After ten years, the person who uses that $130k deposit to buy a home has a net worth of $760k whereas the person who uses that $130k to leverage into VDHG has a net worth of $790k. What this shows is that by renting you are not throwing money down the drain. In fact, both option yield fairly similar net worth.

Renting and investing in VDHG via NAB Equity Builder is a good alternative to buying and living in a home

Let’s imagine you’re thinking of buying a $500k apartment, which means that you’d typically need a 20% deposit of $100k. Add in the stamp duty and it is about $130k deposit you would need in order to buy this property.

The alternative option is to put this $130k into NAB EB as a 35% deposit and buy $371k worth of VDHG. You might be wondering why the deposit amount is 35% and why VDHG is purchased. Basically you cannot achieve as much leverage with NAB EB as you can buying a property. When you buy a property, you have lower interest rates (2.69% compared to 3.90%) and you can borrow for 30 years vs NAB EB which only allows you to borrow for 10 years. The 35% deposit for NAB EB results in lower leverage (65% LVR vs 80% LVR for the property owner) but has similar cashflow. In other words, the property owner is paying $32k per year made up of $26k in mortage repayments, $5k in maintenance and $500 in council rates whereas the person renting also pays $32k per year made up of $38k in monthly debt repayments, $15k rent, -$15k in VDHG dividends (after PAYG tax), and -$5k in interest deductions.

What these numbers show is that the NAB EB disadvantage of high principal repayment is offset by the advantages that rentvesting provides i.e. you recieve dividend income and the ability to deduct interest expenses. The dividend income of $15k is after PAYG tax, which is assumed to be 37%. This dividend income covers the rent.

After ten years, the property owner sees his or her property worth $500k grow in price to about $1.06 million and has debt of $300k (calculated using a CBA mortgage calculator), which results in net worth of $760k. The renter sees his $371k of VDHG grow to $813k and has zero debt (as NAB EB loans are for 10 years). The renter has a higher net worth of $813k vs $760k for the property owner, but we need to consider the capital gains tax exemption that the property owner has, which means that the ETF owner pays $22k in CGT. The $22k in CGT takes into account the 50% CGT discount. The calculations also assume that the renter realises capital gains when he or she retires and therefore faces a lower marginal tax rate and draws down $40k per year in retirement. Because ETFs are more divisible than property, $40k per year can be sold, which reduces capital gains tax by spreading it across multiple years. After capital gains tax is considered, the renter has a net worth after 10 years of $790k vs the property owner’s $760k.

It is important to note that although renting comes out on top by a small margin, this analysis does not include measures that government often implement to entice first home buyers into the market e.g. recently there was an announcement by the Victorian government to reduce stamp duty by 50% for a limited time. These various incentives are not included in the analysis because they differ from state to state and typically do not last long. If these government incentives are included, the advantage for renters is likely to narrow or even disappear, but the main point of this analysis is that renting is not “dead money” and that you are not considerably disadvantaged by renting.

VDHG vs one property is not comparing apples to apples

One criticism of this anaysis is that the renter invests in VDHG, which is a broad and diversified high growth ETF provided by Vanguard that invests mostly in global equities whereas the property buyer buys one house. The property is not diversified and the price is estimated based on the price history of one Melbourne property on the BrickX platform (BRW01) that provided the highest returns (7.8% per year). In my opinion, this is more realistic as the property owner is buying one house to live in, and so the price history of one house should be used to estimate future returns.

However, comparing diversified stocks (VDHG) to undiversified property (BRW01) is arguably flawed. If we are to use undiversified property (BRW01) for our analysis, we have higher risk and therefore higher returns whereas the high diversification of VDHG reduces the risk and returns thereby putting the rentvester at a disadvantage. To compare apples to apples, we’d need to compare undiversified property (BRW01) to undiversified stocks, but then the question is which stock? If we choose Tesla stock then this returns 62% annualised. A renter who invests in Tesla stock undiversified would have achieved much higher returns compared to the home owner simply because his capital exposed to a very high growth asset. However, even though the renter is able to select good stocks, he or she may choose a bad stock that performs poorly. It makes sense then that we use VDHG, which diversifies across almost all stocks globally. However, we need to apply the same approach to property to compare apples to apples. If we remove the advantage of stock picking for the renter then we need to remove the advantage of property picking for the home owner. A home owner may pick a great property through research of public transport, schools, etc but the home owner may pick a bad property as well. In order to compare apples to apples, we need to diversify across all property across multiple countries. However, by doing this, the returns of property start to look very bad.

PWL Capital has considered this issue and looked at global diversified property vs global diversified shares: “To estimate this cost, we need to determine expected returns for both real estate and stocks. A good place to start is the historical data. The Credit Suisse Global Investment Returns Yearbook 2018 offers us data going back to 1900. From 1900–2017 the global real return for real estate (net of inflation) was 1.3%, while stocks returned 5.2% after inflation. If we assume 1.7% inflation, then we would be thinking about a 3% nominal return for real estate, and a 6.9% nominal return for global stocks.”

In other words, global property returns only 1.3% after inflation whereas global shares return 5.3% after inflation. This shows that the returns of property are very poor compared to shares. A property owner may argue that he is able to select good property in certain suburbs or cities, but the renter who invests in stocks could also make that argument that he is able to select stocks like Tesla, Amazon, or Afterpay.

Arguably, if you pick stocks e.g. Tesla or Afterpay (or even crypto such as bitcoin or ether), you are speculating whereas if you buy a diversified index fund such as VDHG or DHHF then you are investing. However, the same logic applies to property. If you select specific properties, which you must if you are looking for a place to live in, then you are speculating and not investing.

If you buy VDHG rather than select stocks, you reduce risk. You could have purchased APT but you also may have purchased a dud like Flight Centre (FLT). By investing in VDHG, you diversify and reduce risk. With the property you live in, there is no ability to mitigate risk. There is no VDHG equivalent for the property you live in because you are only buying one property in one location (unless you’re a billionaire who has multiple properties across multiple countries). As such, you don’t know if you will select a property in a suburb that does poorly due to e.g. zoning or if the property you buy may have existing cladding, termite or mould problems.

Once we compare apples to apples and compare diversified property to diversified shares, the renter is much better off than the buyer.

If you have higher income, consider more leverage with NAB EB

NAB allows LVR on VDHG of 75%, so leveraging with 65% LVR is well below the 75% limit. However, if a renter has high income, he or she is able to increase LVR. The table below shows ETFs where approved LVR is 80% which is the highest level of leverage. The highest LVR of 80% is allowed on global ethical ETFs (ETHI and HETH) and “old-style” Australian LICs (AFI and ARG). NAB EB also allows 80% LVR on a bond ETF (RGB) which in my opinion seems pointless.

NAB Equity Builder approved ETFs and associated LVR as of 21 November 2020 (Source: NAB website)

The age pension

One argument for owning a property you live in is that it is not considered as part of your assets in the asset test for eligibility for the Australian age pension.

However, if you own a liquid asset like ETFs then it is easy to simply sell that and buy a property in your own age if it is advantageous to do so. However, capital in the property you live in has an opportunity cost that may be greater than the pension you receive. Imagine you have a $1 million house and you get $24k pension per year from the government (which is the age pension payment for a single person as of January 2021).

Now let’s imagine instead that you put that $1 million in a high dividend ETF such as IHD and get $60k per year (IHD has a dividend yield as of January 2021 of about 6%). You’d pay income tax on this but that is offset with franking credits. You’d be able to rent that house for about $30k (rental yield is about 3% in Melbourne) and have 30k per year in spending money.

In both these cases, the home owner and renter are living in a $1 million house but the home owner gets $24k per year in age pension to live on whereas the renter is getting $30k in dividend income (after rent) to live on. The renter is slightly better off in this case.

Psychological considerations

The misconception that “rent money is dead money”comes from not perceiving opportunity cost. When you rent, there is a clear cost you are paying in the form of the rental payment made to the landlord. However, when you buy a home, there is an opportunity cost that is incurred because the capital locked up in the home could have earned a higher return. This capital could have earned an income if you don’t live in the property and instead rent it out and collect rental income, but the capital could also earn dividend income if invested in stocks. Furthermore, because there is no ability to diversify the property you live in, another cost is higher risk. Opportunity cost and risk are harder to perceive compared to cold hard rental payments.

There are also many psychological arguments home owners make in favour of home ownership which I think are valid. For example, a renter needs to move if the landlord forces him or her to do so whereas a home owner does not need to move because he or she owns the property. Furthermore, a home owner can do whatever they want to the property whereas the renter may need to ask permission before they e.g. put up solar panels. That being said, renters express control by selecting the property they want. If they want a property with solar panels, they can look for a property with solar panels and rent it. Furthermore, the renter, in selecting a property to rent, controls both the property and the neighbourhood surrounding the property. For example, if a renter lives in a neighbourhood they think has low crime, over time this neighbourhood may start to have high crime. A renter is able to move out to a better neighbourhood whereas a home owner will face $30k in real estate commissions to sell the property and another $30k in stamp duty to buy another property in a better neighbourhood. Chances are they will just stay in the neighbourhood and put up with the higher crime. This lack of control that owner occupiers have over the neighbourhood in which they live is the reason why we have the NIMBY phenomenon. The flexibility provided to renters to simply move if anything goes wrong arguably provides more control over both the property they live in and the neighbourhood in which they live, which is a psychological argument in favour of renting.

Further research

Ben Felix (PWL Capital) compares renting to buying. Note this video is geared towards Canadians rather than Australians.

Note: As of 21 November 2020, new applications for NAB Equity Builder are not being accepted due to high demand. You are able to fill in an expression of interest on their website if you’d like to be notified when applications are open.

The Downsides of Working from Home

I’ve done reasonably well out of COVID-19. Even though my net worth dropped back in March by about $120k, it has since recovered and grown much more rapidly than normal.

Working from home has saved me a lot of money e.g. I used to buy coffee and lunch every day when I was in the office, in addition to spending money on public transport, petrol, etc.

Even though I am saving and making a lot of money, I am somewhat keen to get back to the office. Working from home is mostly terrible.

My first gripe with working from home is OHS. My back is hurting. Ever since I started working from home, I have purchased a new desk, footrest and chair, but my back still hurts. Back in the office, someone else sets up my desk and made sure that it was ergonomic. With all the work I am doing at home, my back is really starting to hurt.

Another issue I have with working from home is that it is lonely and isolating. I miss socialising with people at work. I had a Zoom catch up with some coworkers about a week ago and we reminisced about some of the fun moments in the office, but when I thought about the last eight months working from home, nothing came to mind. It’s like I did nothing in the last eight months except work and sleep. There are no good memories. The thought that a person does nothing but stay in a small room all day by himself working, eating, watch Netflix, sleeping etc seems sad and dystopian.

Another problem with working from home is the drop in productivity. A lot of work gets done much slower when people are working from home. Simple work like writing a report or emailing can be done remotely very easily, but work that requires collaboration or quick exchange of ideas is difficult to pull off in a remote environment. Remote meetings are also really bad. When you are in the office and in a meeting, people are engaged, and I think this is because they know they are being watched, so they chip in and add value. However, in a remote meeting, the person who sets up the meeting really has to drive the meeting. Most people just turn off their video, mute themselves, and do something else e.g. check their e-mail. Workers seem to be more disengaged when working remotely.

Another reason why working from home is difficult is because the home can be a distracting place. I am somewhat lucky in that I don’t have children, so I am not interrupted much when I work, but many people do have children, and it definitely affects their productivity. Now that childcares have reopened, many parents are putting their children in childcare, but many parents do not, and due to their drop in productivity, a lot of work falls on other people.

Looking for Yield in Emerging Market Bonds (ASX: EBND)

I have finally sold HVST! For many years I have been holding onto this ETF, which has steadily gone down over many years (see The Problem with HVST). The reason why I was so reluctant to sell HVST was because it provided big juicy franked dividends paid monthly. As of today, HVST’s dividend yield is approximately 8 percent. Even though I enjoyed the high dividends, I was disgusted by the capital decline, so I made the decision to sell all my HVST.

Having sold HVST, I had spare cash which I was keen to reinvest. I decided to reinvest a portion of the cash into VanEck Emerging Income Opportunities Active ETF (EBND), an active ETF from Van Eck that invests in emerging market bonds.

What exactly are emerging market bonds? Basically you are lending money to the governments of poor countries. The average person might think this is financially reckless because of the credit risk of these government, but higher credit risk means higher yield. Investing in bonds of developed countries unfortunately means accepting very low yield (sometimes even negative yield). However, because these EM bonds are packaged in an ETF, you get significant diversification. You are not putting all your money into one country. In my opinion, investing in emerging market bonds is no more risky than investing in high dividend Australian equities.

Why invest in EBND?

The main reason I invested in EBND is because I wanted reliable and high monthly passive income. I was getting monthly passive income from HVST of about 8 percent. EBND provides monthly income as well, but its yield is approximately half that of HVST at about 5 percent. This might seem low, but the main benefit of EBND over HVST are capital gains or capital preservation.

EBND (blue) has outperformed HVST (red) during COVID-19

The chart above shows EBND (in blue) outperforming HVST (in red) during the COVID-19 crisis. I sold HVST in July 2020, so I wasn’t able to insulate myself from the COVID-19 crash of March 2020, but EBND would have provided no protection against this downturn anyway. In fact, as the chart above shows, EBND went down even more than HVST did. However, what EBND has been able to do was recover rapidly as central bankers around the world embarked on agressive money printing. In contrast, HVST has languished during the pandemic and continues to go down to this day.

What is surprising from the chart above is is how similar EM bonds are to global equities. The chart below compares EBND (blue) to global equities represented by VDHG (red) compared to DM bonds represented by VBND (green).

EBND (blue) is not a defenstive asset like VBND (green) is. In fact, EBND’s price chart somewhat resembles global equities as represented by VDHG (red).

The chart shows that EM bonds have a somewhat similar risk profile to global equities (with a beta of approximately 0.8). The chart also clearly shows that DM bonds are a much better defensive asset. The March 2020 COVID-19 crash resulted in large declines for EBND and VDHG of about 15 percent to 25 percent respectively but for VBND there were declines of only about 7 percent.

However, because I am still in my thirties and still consider myself somewhat young, I am comfortable taking more risk. Investing in EM bonds exposes me to equity-like risks while still providing high monthly income.

Another reason why I have invested in EBND is to diversify my sources of passive income away from Australian equities. A big problem with relying on Australian equities for income is concentration risk. The ASX 200 is dominated by a handful of banks and miners. If anything happens that significantly affects these businesses, your dividends are under threat. We are seeing this today as Australian banks cut dividends due to the impact of COVID-19. While I still hold a reasonable amount of high dividend Australian equity ETFs (e.g. through IHD and SYI), I am keen to spread my passive income sources to other areas in order to reduce risk. Having sold a large amount of HVST, I am keen not to reinvest the proceeds back into Australian equities which would only exacerbate my concentration risk.


Those who keenly follow the ASX ETF scene may understand that EBND is not the only EM bond ETF on the ASX. In fact, an investor can invest in EM bonds through the iShares J.P. Morgan USD Emerging Markets Bond (AUD Hedged) ETF (IHEB).

The benefit of IHEB over EBND is that is has a much lower management fee of 0.51% rather than EBND’s pricey 0.95 percent. This is due to the fact that IHEB is a passive index fund vs EBND which is actively managed.

While EBND pays monthly income, IHEB pays income tri-annually. Both seem to have roughly similar yields of about 5 percent, although EBND’s distributions seem more consistent and smooth.

Another major difference between EBND and IHEB comes from currency and particularly the US dollar. IHEB invests only in US dollar denominated bonds. This means it invests in debt from countries that borrow in US dollars. What this means is that if the US dollar goes up in value, the debt of these governments rise. This makes IHEB highly sensitive to the US dollar. IHEB will perform better the weaker the US dollar is. Add to that the fact that IHEB is AUD hedged, which means that as the US dollar weakens, IHEB will go up even more. In contrast, all currency considerations in EBND are at the discretion of the fund managers. The fund manager could invest in US dollar denominated EM bonds, but they can also invest in EM bonds denominated in the country’s local currency.

EBND (blue) vs IHEB (orange) vs DXY (purple)

The chart above shows EBND (blue) vs IHEB (orange) vs the US dollar index DXY (purple). About half of all debt in the world is denominated in US dollars. A considerable amount of investors borrow in US dollars (low yield) and invest in emerging markets where yields and risk are higher. However, borrowing to invest is extremely risky. You amplify your gains but also amplify any losses, which is why many investors who leverage are keen to sell during times of crisis. For example, during e.g. the March 2020 COVID-19 crash, when asset prices were collapsing, many investors sold down assets. They do this either because they wish to sell assets themselves before prices go down even further or perhaps they are forced to sell by their banks as margin calls are triggered. Regardless, because they borrowed in US dollars, when they sell assets, they get US dollars in return, which increases the demand for US dollars. This explains the spike in DXY in purple during the March COVID-19 crash.

As the chart shows, IHEB collapsed as DXY spiked, which makes sense. However, during the COVID-19 recovery, IHEB recovered rapidly as central banks aggressively printed money and devalued the US dollar. EBND is much less senstive to USD currency fluctuations.

The tables below also show that the countries that IHEB invests in (right) seem different to those that EBND (left) invest in. Generally speaking, resource rich countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Russia, and Brazil) seem to have more US dollar denominated debt.

Problems with EBND

As mentioned above, high management fees of 0.95% are a big problem with EBND. Over time, these fees will compound, eating away into returns. Another downside for EBND is active management, although some argue that active management is beneficial in emerging markets where human discretion matters more.

The opportunity of emerging markets in general

I am investing in EM bonds for income, but I am also investing more and more into EM equities as well (via IEM). Global macro investor Raoul Pal has recently tweeted a chart of the EM equities to S&P 500 ratio, which suggests that EM equities are highly undervalued and may turn any moment now to the upside.

EM equities to S&P 500 ratio. Source: Raoul Pal

I also think that many people overestimate the risk of emerging market bonds and emerging markets in general. Most people think of EM countries as backwards and corrupt, places where money cannot be made. But this is simply not true, and the fact that people believe this I think means that EM is undervalued relative to DM, which is bullish for EM.

EM countries have very favourable demographics i.e. higher population growth and a much younger population. They also have a strong appetite for economic growth and development. As a world traveller, I’ve been to many of the “megacities” (urban population > 20 million) of the world today (e.g. Shanghai, Chongqing, Mumbai, Delhi, Sao Paulo, Jakarta, Dhaka, and even Lagos), and when I explore these cities, I get a strong sense of how dynamic these places are and how much pent-up economic growth they hold.

In my opinion, the only downside to emerging market investments are ethical concerns. If you lend to e.g. the Chinese or Indian governments, are you contributing to the oppression of Uighurs in China or Kashmiris in India? There is a question mark on the ESG credentials of these investments. On one hand, developed markets tend to have more political freedoms and e.g. greener policies, but on the other hand, if you don’t invest in emerging markets, they will remain poor, which is not ethical.

Living off Dividends vs the Four Percent Rule – Part 2

According to Wikipedia, financial independence is defined as “the status of having enough income to pay for one’s reasonable living expenses for the rest of one’s life without having to rely on formal employment.”

Financial independence does not mean you have e.g. a late-model luxury car, an expensive house, a nice watch, or even a paid-off house. If you have to work, you’re not financially independent because you are dependent on your job.

So how do you live off your investments forever? There are two main ways to achieve this: (1) live off dividends and (2) sell assets according to the “four percent rule.”

In a post I made back in 2018 titled 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate vs Living off Dividends, I claim that it is better to live off dividends because it is easier:

 [It] is better in my opinion to simply live off your investment income (dividends, rent, interest, etc) as there is no calculation involved and no work. Everything is on autopilot. That being said when living off dividends there is a trade off between income and growth (see The Problem with HVST) and this is where I think the four percent rule can be used as a guide. If your dividend income is more than 4% of your net worth, invest more in growth assets whereas if your dividend income is less than 4% of your net worth, invest in income-producing assets.

Living off dividends is indeed simple. Suppose you have $1 million. You invest it in a high dividend ETF (e.g. IHD, SYI or VHY) and that is it. The dividends will be paid to your bank account, which you live off.

However, there are many problems with relying on dividends. Typically Australian investors have relied on blue chip Australian stocks for dividends because of favourable tax treatment (due to franking credits). The problem is that these stocks tend to be concentrated among a handful of companies and historically Australian high dividend payers have performed poorly. It makes sense that high dividend paying stocks underperform because each dollar paid out in dividends is a dollar not reinvested in the company. Because the company pays out the profit as dividends, it is not able to use that money to further grow the company. The chart below demonstrates the underperformance of high dividend paying stocks by comparing an Australian high dividend ETF (black) with the broader Australian equity market (orange). For the sake of comparison, the Nasdaq 100 is represented in blue, which is the NDQ ETF tracking an index that consists mostly of technology companies that historically pay low dividends but instead reinvest profits for growth. Major companies in NDQ are Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.

High dividend ETF IHD (in black) underperforms the broader Australian stock market (represented by STW in orange) and significantly underperforms the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 index (represented by NDQ in blue). Source: Bloomberg

In contrast to the simplicity of dividends, implementing the four percent rule is more difficult, but there is considerable evidence that this approach is better, not only due to it being more tax efficient but also because the assets you invest in tend to earn more (as demonstrated in the above chart comparing the Nasdaq 100 ETF vs an Australian high dividend index ETF). Suppose you have $1 million. Rather than invest this in high dividend stocks or ETFs, you invest it in high growth stocks or ETFs that focus more on capital gains rather than dividends. You can choose NDQ, a Nasdaq 100 ETF, but if you want more diversification across countries and sectors, a good high growth ETF is VDHG, which invests in 90% global equities and 10% bonds. (Another ETF similar to VDHG but with slightly lower fees is DHHF.)

How to implement the 4% rule

When you retire, rather than rely on dividends, you simply sell off 4% of the value of the investments each year, so if you have $1 million you sell off $40k and then live off that for the first year. The expectation is that after you sell $40k then you will have $960k, but if we assume 7% annual growth then the next year your net worth will grow to $1.027 million and then you withdraw 4% of this, which is $41,088. This higher withdrawal in the next year accounts for inflation. (Note there is some uncertainty about whether, in this example of retiring with $1 million, you simply withdraw $40k each year or if you withdraw 4% of the new balance each year. I believe the latter option is safer because it explicitly accounts for inflation.)

The “four percent rule” is controversial with many arguing that it is only designed to last you thirty years. However, a simple fix to this problem is to withdraw 3% of your portfolio each year rather than 4% and, in my opinion, anything below 3% is far too conservative. Based on, although the 4% rule fails with 95% probability after 30 years, the 3% rule is highly likely to last you forever. Basically if you are retiring in your 60s or 70s, you should be able to get away with the 4% rule, but if you retire any earlier, you should use the 3% rule instead.

The chart below made using provides a simulation of historic stock market returns using the 4% rule and shows that over 70 years there is a good change you will not run out of money after 70 years but there is approximately a 10% probaility that you will (represented by lines going down below the horizontal red line).

Simulation showing the 4% withdrawal rate has an approximately 10% probability of failure over 70 years. Source:

However, using the 3% rule, there are no probability where you lose your money (based on historic stock market performance), even under the assumption that you retire in your 30s and live for 70 years.

Simulation showing a 3% withdrawl rate being highly likely to last you forever. Source:

The reason why selling off assets is more tax efficient is because capital gains are not realised until you sell the assets, which means you can sell them when you retire. By selling off assets when you retire, you do so when your income is low, which exposes more of your capital gains to low (or zero) income tax brackets. However, dividends are taxed once they are paid, which means that while you are working and accumulating assets, you’ll pay taxes on dividend income while your income is relatively high.

Capital gains are subject to Australian income tax rates once the capital gains are realised.

What will I do?

Early in my journey towards financial independence, I focused mainly on accumulating high dividend ETFs e.g. IHD and even HVST (see The Problem with HVST). When investing in purely Australian equities, I discovered that not only did my investments underperform but I also needed to pay taxes every year. To address this problem, I used a margin loan to borrow against my ETFs and diversify into international and emerging market equities more (e.g. I made some good bets on technology ETFs). Having a margin loan has its pros and cons, but one of the pros is that the interest on the margin loan is tax deductible, which helps to offset the tax paid on the dividends from Australian equities. Today Australian equities make up approximately half of my equities with the other half in international equities and a small amount of emerging market equities. Although I have a margin loan, I have started dabbling in NAB Equity Builder. NAB EB allows you to borrow at a lower rate compared to a margin loan.

While I am moving towards growth rather than dividends, I am still holding onto my high dividend ETFs. My plan is, rather than choose between dividends or growth, I will simply aim for both. There are many benefits of dividend investing e.g. franking credits. Furhermore, even though Australian high dividend stocks have underperformed in the last decade, there may be hope in the future as these companies enter the post-COVID future. If I sell Australian dividend stocks and use the proceeds to purchase global tech stocks, there is a very real risk that I will sell low and buy high, so rather than sell, I prefer to simply leave my Australian dividend stocks and ETFs. It should also be noted that there are other ETFs on the ASX that pay high dividends but do not invest in Australian equities e.g. UMAX uses options against the S&P500 to generate income; EBND invests in emerging market bonds and pays approximately 5% monthly; and TECH focuses on global tech stocks that have strong moats, and surprisingly this ETF has a dividend yield of approximately 9% paid yearly. I will discuss these non-Australian high-yield ETFs in a separate future blog post.

Property vs shares

Although it is clear that I have a bias towards shares over property, the strategy of selling down high growth ETFs exposes yet another benefit of shares vs property, which is the ability of ETFs to be sold in small chunks. If you have a $1 million property, you cannot sell half of it because no one will want half a property. You must sell it all in one go. Suppose you make $500k capital gains. Then $18200 of that will be exempt from tax while the rest of it is subject to tax, so you’ve managed to avoid tax on $18200. Now suppose you have $1 million in ETFs, which we will assume is $1 million all in VDHG. Rather then being forced to sell all of it in one go, you sell half of it in one year and the other half the next year. By doing this you realise $250k in each year. This exposes $36400 to the tax free threshold. By being able to sell smaller portions, you make the most of the tax free threshold.

Thanks to ETFs being highly divisible, I can sell off small amounts of ETFs each year thereby spreading capital gains across multiple years and exposing more capital gains to low tax brackets. Furthermore, any capital gains on assets held over one year receive a 50% CGT discount.

Another benefit of investing in ETFs rather than property is that you can sell ETFs cheaply e.g. selling one property will cost you about $20k to $30k in real estate agent commissions, but with ETFs you will pay about $20 or $30 to sell (or even $9.50 for discount online broker SelfWealth).

Other benefits of ETFs vs property is you avoid stamp duty and land tax. You also have access to franking credits.

Of course, in all fairness, there are some downsides of ETFs vs property e.g. the interest rate on NAB EB and margin loans are higher than those on mortgages, and although you can achieve leverage of about 70% using NAB EB or margin loans, you are able to achieve leverage of 80% up to 95% with property. In my opinion, even if you are able to achieve more leverage against property, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Leverage can magnify gains but also magnifies losses should the market go through a downturn. When leveraging into ETFs, you are able to diversify within the portfolio defensive assets such as bond ETFs (e.g. VDCO), hybrid ETFs (e.g. HBRD) or even gold mining ETFs (e.g. GDX), which reduces volatility. When you leverage into a property, you are all in one property in one place, exposed to an universified asset in one location. Many believe that property is safe compared to the volatility of the stock market, but if you invest in a highly diversified ETF, it is safer than investing in one property. The lack of volatility in property is actually the result of poor price discovery mechanisms rather than because property is inherently safer than shares. Once property is listed and exposed to the same price discovery mechanism of shares, property is highly volatile as evidenced by the price charts of residential REITs.

Disclosure: I own IHD, SYI, HVST, NDQ, UMAX, EBND, TECH, HBRD, and GDX.

More Thoughts on Remote Working during the COVID-19 Crisis

It has been a few months since the COVID-19 crisis has hit, and as a result of this crisis, I have settled into working from home. I’d like to describe my experience working from home from my parents’ home for the last few months.

Disadvantages of remote work

First of all, I find I have been quite busy. I would often either wake up early or work into the night in order to get work done. It seems there is more work to do when working from home. There are definitely advantages of working from home, but there are definitely disadvantages, the main disadvantage being that it is more difficult to work with others. For example, when you’re in an office, you can walk to someone’s desk and talk to them about something, but in a remote environment, you need to e-mail or call them, and they may not respond to your e-mails or calls. Furthermore, when I am in the office, I can walk to someone’s desk. If they are on the phone, it is clear they are busy, so I can walk away and come back at another time. However, when working remotely, I am more reluctant to ring someone because I have no idea what they are doing. They might be in the toilet or they might be changing their baby’s nappies, so there is this fear that I may intrude on their private lives whereas at work the expectation is that you work at work so you have no private life at work. Working from home does not seem to work well for “fast-paced” work where quick communication is necessary, especially when there is a deadline looming.

Advantages of remote work

There are advantages of remote work. In my opinion, there are more advantages than disadvantages. If I had to choose between working at home or working at the office, I’d prefer working at home, but ideally I’d prefer to have both options. There are some tasks I’d prefer to ask colleagues to come into the office to do, and there is also better socialisation in the office. For those who do live by themselves or who do not have too many friends outside of work, the office becomes the source of friend and family.

For me, the key benefit of working from home is I save a considerable amount of time not commuting. You don’t need to drive or take a train to work, which benefits me greatly because it takes one hour for me to get to work, which means I get two extra hours per day to sleep, exercise, read or watch Netflix. Another benefit is that you don’t need to worry about what you wear. When you go into the office, you need to dress correctly. However, when you work from home, you can wear anything. You can just put on sweatpants and a hoodie or you can stay in your pajamas. Even if you are on a Zoom call, you can turn off the video or you can position the camera so your clothes are off the screen.

Another benefit of working from home is that you don’t need to concentrate in meetings. This might sounds bad, but there are many meetings where you can safely turn off video and audio and do your other work. You can dedicate half your attention listening to the meeting (in case you need to speak) and the other half doing your other work.

Something I have noticed ever since working from home is that I am signing up to many webinars. Back in the office there are plenty of optional training sessions that I do not sign up for because I simply don’t have time. If I needed to get off my desk to go to one hour of training, that is one hour I would not be working. I only go to those training sessions that are mandatory. However, since all these training sessions are now online, they are quick and easy to sign up for, you can listen to them while doing your other work, and if something urgent comes up at work, you can simply and easily leave the webinar without any embarrassment or shame. As a result, I have gone to many webinars and feel I have learned a considerable amount about many different topics, from HR all the way to finance, retirement planning, etc.

Another benefit of the COVID-19 crisis is the amount of money I have saved. I don’t drive much, but in the last three months I have not driven at all, so I have saved a lot of money on petrol. Even when I have the option to drive short distances, I prefer to walk instead because I spend so much time indoors that I want to walk more to be outdoors. (When you drive, you are indoors.) I also never eat out, go to cafes, etc. Any socialising needs to be online, so it is free. I watch Netflix rather than go to the cinemas. Basically everything is done at home or online, which is much cheaper than “going out.”

I am still working from home and I have no idea when I will be going back to the office. I have heard that many organisations have asked their workers to come back whereas others are providing staff with the option to work from home or not. In my opinion, the best approach is to permanently give staff freedom to work from home or come into the office, which is what Twitter has done.

Impact on the property market

The impact of COVID-19 on the property market is very unclear. There is a considerable amount of stimulus being applied to prop up not just the property market but also the stock market. That being said, if remote working becomes the norm, there is no advantage of working near the city anymore. This means I can live in the outer suburbs without worrying. Even if it takes me two hours to commute into the city, if I do so rarely, it’s not a problem. This means the cost of putting a roof over your head goes down considerably. It costs about $1600 per month to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the city, but in the outskirts of the city it costs about $1000 per month, so automatically you save $600 per month. Using the 4% rule, this means you only need to save $300k to pay rent forever (rather than $480k).

The frugal non-consumerist post-COVID lifestyle

Based on quick calculations for a single childfree person living in an Australian city, COVID-19 has reduced the cost of living by about one-third, from $3500 per month to about $2111 per month. Once again, using the 4% rule, this means you only need about $633k to retire rather than $1 million.

How is this possible? Because you no longer need to live near work, you can minimise costs by moving to the outskirts of the city, which should halve your rent. I am assuming the cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Melbourne CBD vs a one-bedroom unit in the outskirts of Melbourne (e.g. Frankston). Because you are not going out at all but eating at home all the time, this should halve your food costs. You also don’t need a car because you can walk, bike or take public transport everywhere. Assuming all other expenses stay the same, this cuts costs by about one-third.

Expense ItemMonthly Post-COVID CostMonthly Pre-COVID Cost
Rent$1000 $2000
Food$311 $600
Other$800 $800
Total$2111 $3500
Estimated monthly cost of living pre-COVID and post-COVID. “Other” includes electricity, internet, streaming services, etc.

In my opinion, one of the benefits of the COVID crisis is that it has forced people to live a non-consumerist lifestyle, which may result in many people realising that they are able to retire early if they want to. You don’t necessarily need $1 million to retire because living in isolation has taught you that you only need about $650k to retire.

In my opinion, a post-COVID lifestyle presents an opportunity to live more environmentally sustainably. A lifestyle with less car use, less overseas travel, less “going out” and more bike riding, walking, having meetings online, etc are better for the environment. I also think that caring for the environment can help you save more money because it provides extra motivation. For example, I am driving less today not only because I save money driving less but also because I am starting to feel very guilty driving a car. This extra guilt helps to discourage me from driving or travelling or going out to restaurants.

What about the economy and personal finances?

There is a considerable amount of uncertainty about the future of the economy. Some believe there will be a V-shaped recovery whereas others are expecting a W-shape or even an L-shape. Regardless of what letter of the alphabet the stock market resembles, I am not too concerned because I have diversified my portfolio to include not just equities but also bonds, gold and even cryptocurrency.

Another benefit of the COVID crisis is that interest rates have fallen. The interest rates on my CommSec margin loan as well as NAB Equity Builder have both fallen (5.6% and 3.9% respectively). As I have explained in other posts, debt can be positive because you are able to deduct interest expenses. Many people invest with debt when buying a property, and they deduct interest expenses. It is possible to do the same with ETFs, but in my opinion the main benefit of holding debt to buy shares rather than property is that stocks or ETFs can quickly and cheaply be sold to extinguish the debt whereas a property is very expensive to sell. For example, if I borrowed money to buy ETFs and suddenly wanted to retire early, I can sell ETFs and with the proceeds I can pay off all my debt. However, if I borrowed to buy a property and suddenly wanted to retire, selling a property to extinguish the debt would cost me about $30k in real estate agent commission.

Another benefit of ETFs vs property is that you can avoid or minimise capital gains tax. If you own an investment property with debt on it and you suddenly retire, you need to sell it to pay off the debt. Selling it will trigger capital gains tax. For example, suppose you buy a property for $500k and it increases in price to $1 million. Then you sell it but need to pay CGT on the $500k price rise. However, the benefit of ETFs is that you don’t have to sell all ETFs at once. Suppose you purchase $500k in ETFs and it rises to $1 million in price. Rather than sell all the ETFs, you only sell half thereby realising only $250k in capital gains. Then you sell the other half the next year thereby maximising the amount of capital gains subject to lower income tax rates. This works in Australia because capital gains tax is based on the progressive income tax rates. Under the Australian income tax system, income (including triggered capital gains) under $18200 in the financial year is exempt from any tax whereas any amount above that is subject to tax. So if you sell a property and realise $500k capital gains, then only $18.2k of that is exempt from tax with the rest being subject to tax. But if you sell half your ETFs in one year and the other half the next year, then $36.4k is exempt from tax. ETFs are highly divisible, which allows this, but property is not. You cannot sell half the house and then the other half the next year.

Because I have invested in a range of different ETFs, if I needed to retire quickly and needed to extinguish the debt, I would simply sell an ETF that has made large gains and then offset these gains by selling off a different ETF that has made losses. The losses and the gains would roughly cancel each other out, which means there is little capital gains tax to pay. Any existing capital gains can be left untriggered. ETFs allow you to control your capital gains and therefore your capital gains tax.

Some people say that an easy way to avoid CGT is to put your money into your principal property of residence (PPOR), which is exempt from CGT. However, this does not work. When people buy an property, there is a reason why investors prefer to put a tenant into it even if doing so removes CGT exemption. It is because putting a tenant into a property provides the landlord with rental income as well as the ability to deduct expenses. The gains from the rental income and interest deductions is greater than the loss of CGT exemption. If this were not the case, there would be no investment properties because landlord would put any extra money into their main residence rather than invest it in a rental property. This means it would be impossible to rent because no landlord would put money into rental properties because the tax advantages would be greater for main residence. The government must provide rental property investors greater tax benefits for rental property compared to main residences otherwise the rental market would not exist. That rental income and tax deduction on expenses from owning investments is greater than CGT exemption on a PPOR is the key factor that justifies “rentvesting” but that is a topic for a separate future post.

Am I close to retirement?

There are two main reasons why I would feel uncomfortable retiring today. One is that I have quite a bit of debt. Of course, I can sell assets to pay off the debt, and some of my investment income can be used to meet the debt repayments. However, I feel reluctant to do this. Part of me feels that I should pay off more debt or at least generate more dividend income to meet all debt obligations.

Another reason why I am reluctant to retire is because a substantial amount of my personal wealth is in my superannuation fund, which I don’t have access to until I am 60. This means that if I retire now, I will need to implement the “two bucket system” and run down my non-super bucket that will tide me over until I have access to my super, which will help me pay off my debts. If I implement the “two bucket system” right now, I’d be living a very frugal lifestyle with a pre-super safe withdrawal rate of about 2 per cent rather than 4 per cent. I want to build up more wealth in my non-super bucket that will tide me over until 60.

New podcasts and website

While under lockdown, I have been listening to many podcasts. A recent podcast that I highly recommend is FIRE and Chill which discusses personal finance in Australia.

Another website that I find useful is the Nomadlist FIRE calculator, which helps you determine which countries you are able to retire in based on your net worth. The most expensive city to live in is New York, so if you have enough net worth to be able to retire in New York (about US$1.1 million), in my opinion you are effectively financially independent. However, what this site teaches you is that even if you have low net worth, there are many countries all around the world where the cost of living is low, which means you will be able to retire very quickly. Many people assume that they need to live in expensive cities e.g. Sydney, Melbourne, New York, London, etc. However, the world is enormous and there are so many places where it is cheap to live. For example, in Liverpool, UK you can live off US$500k. In Davao, Phillipines you can live off US$250k. Looking at sites like this is a strong motivator because as my net worth grows, I am able to tick off cities around the world where I am able to live. The ultimate achievement is ticking off on New York because then you’d have the safety and security of knowing you can retire early in the world’s most expensive city.

The Impact of Coronavirus on Financial Independence

The stock market crash caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has hit hard. Top to bottom, the ASX 200 has fallen about 30% and we don’t know if it will continue to fall. What I found incredible about this downturn is how fast it was. The GFC back in 2008 was a much more staggered downturn whereas the COVID-19 crash looks like a straight line down.

The only way to prevent the spread of this virus is to restrict movement. However, restricting movement hurts the economy. If people cannot commute to work, travel to another country to do a business deal, go to a shop to buy something, etc then trade doesn’t happen. If trade doesn’t happen, businesses collapse. This may lead to businesses firing staff, which reduces spending, which leads to more business collapse.


This whole incident demonstrates the importance of diversification. Even though I am heavily invested in high-dividend Australian equities, the risk with focusing on a narrow asset class is a lack of diversification, so my focus on high-dividend Australian equities has definitely not helped me during this market crash.

The video above (with overly dramatic music) demonstrates how widely different countries’ stock markets have performed during the virus outbreak and illustrates the importance of diversification. Chinese equities have held up very well compared to the stock indices of other countries. Other assets that have held up well are gold, government bonds, and the US dollar.

All this demonstrates the importance of diversifying across a range of different assets. Because a significant amount of my wealth is in high-dividend paying Australian equities (e.g. IHD), I have made significant six-digit losses. Investing with leverage doesn’t help either. Nevertheless, I am relatively young and feel hopeful that there will be a recovery. As I get older, I will definitely reduce risk by diversifying into a variety of safe haven assets, but while I am young I do feel an obligation to invest in riskier and more volatile assets.

Mass job losses as a result of COVID-19

Something else that the COVID-19 crash demonstrates is the importance of financial independence. Being able to live off your investments forever is important because your job is not certain. Many people have an optimism bias and think they will be employed forever, and they structure their life around the assumption that they will always be employed. However, even what is perceived to be a safe job can be unsafe. For example, a pilot may think their job is bulletproof. They may think that air travel will always happen, so their job is safe. Black swan events do happen.

In my opinion, you should aim to be financially independent as fast as possible, as soon as you leave school or university. This involves a combination of high savings as well as cutting costs of living. If you are able to live off $10k per year, you only need to save $250k in order to retire (according to the four percent rule). If, when you are young, you inflate your lifestyle to $40k per year in expenses, you will need to save $1 million. The better you are at being content with living on little, the quicker it will be for you to be financially independent.

Surviving self-isolation

As a result of Covid-19, I am now working at home. I find there are pros and cons to working from home, but I am getting used to it. The biggest pro is being able to wake up about one to two hours later because I no longer need to get dressed or take the train into the city. Although not essential, I feel it is good to start the day by having a shower, wearing reasonably nice clothes (so you look okay when video-conferencing), and having a coffee. Not only is being clean, neat, and caffeinated important in itself, but the ritual of these activities helps to put your mind into “work mode.”

I have been to the supermarket in these new times, but it is not a pleasant experience. Everyone seems nervous and anxious. They stare at you as if you are going to grab the last pack of toilet paper. There are many stories of shoppers fighting over toilet paper, which I think is disappointing. To avoid crazy people and to avoid being infected, as much as possible, I am trying to avoid going to the supermarkets by buying essentials online. Many essentials can be purchased online, from food to toilet paper. Hoarding toilet paper, in my opinion, is not a good idea because toilet paper prices are high now, so you should only buy what you need and put any excess cash into the stock market.

The key to surviving Covid-19 is to have good respiratory health and a strong immune system, which is why exercise is important. Even though the government has imposed restrictions, exercise is still allowed where I live, so I make sure I ride my bike around the neighbourhood regularly. Riding a bike is not just a form of exercise but is also a cheap way to commute. Surprisingly, the park trails are filled with people walking their dogs, so I find that it is safer to ride on the roads where there are almost no cars.

While the global community deals with Covid-19, what is becoming clear is that many of those who contract the virus have no symptoms or mild symptoms and are able to make a strong recovery thanks to a strong immune system. As such, I have been trying to eat as much fruit and vegetables as possible.

Now is the time to dollar cost average into the stock market

I have heard of many people selling shares or converting their superannuation into 100% cash. The Australian government will soon allow those who are affected by Covid-19 to access $10k from their superannuation. This is a bad idea. Now is the time to be buying stocks, not selling.

“The best time to buy is when there is blood on the streets, even if the blood is your own.” Baron Rothschild

Will Australian property prices go down?

It makes sense that property prices are not immune from Covid-19. If enough people are unemployed from Covid-19, they will not be able to meet their mortgage obligations nor will they be able to save for a deposit on a property. Property investors typically rely on tenants to pay them rent so they can meet their own mortgage obligations, so if tenants lose their jobs, landlords may be required to sell their properties. Falling demand and rising supply push prices down.

However, there are a number of policies put in place that can prop up property prices e.g. lower interest rates and six-month mortgage holidays. These measures put in place to stimulate the property market, in my opinion, are good reasons why you should not buy a property now. Because the stock market has fallen so violently, the prices for these assets are very attractive relative to historical earnings (and dividends) whereas if property prices are propped up, you are not getting any discount on your purchases relative to rental income. The cheaper you buy your investments relative to income, the more they will go up when there is a recovery.

The silver lining

Although the Covid-19 outbreak has caused considerable wealth destuction and job losses, there is a silver lining. One benefit is that carbon emissions are falling sharply across the world, but unfortunately when the recovery happens, all this may be reversed. Another benefit of Covid-19 is that remote working systems across the world will be strengthened, which means over time more and more workers can work either fully remote or partially remote. This means I may be able to pursue my dream of becoming a “digital nomad” while still doing the 9-5 job I am familiar with. Usually those who work remotely are people with families, tech workers, graphic designers, etc, but the Covid-19 outbreak will normalise remote work for everyone because it has forced everyone to work from home (unless the job cannot be done at home). This is good not just because it means you don’t need to commute but it also means you can potentially travel while you work or work from low-cost-of-living countries. A world of remote work could look very different to the sort of world we live in today which is build upon the idea that you live in the suburbs, commute into the city every day, and take an overseas holiday two weeks per year. If more and more work is remote, we may see permanent digital nomads i.e. rather than commute for hours each day on the freeway or a train and get two weeks per year of travel, you can travel permanently, be on “permanent vacation,” hopping from one country to another and living and working in co-living spaces. This is all very utopian but it may be a reality, and even if it is not a lifestyle most people embrace in the future, it is certainly a lifestyle you can design for yourself once you are financially independent.

Commitment Phobia and Early Retirement as an Escape from Responsibilities

We are well into 2020 now. It is a new year and a new decade. Something that has been on my mind a lot is early retirement. Do I really want to retire early? Once you start earning more, it becomes harder to give up the salary. That being said, work has been hard lately, and whenever work gets hard, I begin to think about early retirement. 

Something that happened in 2019 was that I was in a brief relationship for about three months, but that ended. It was nice while it lasted but it definitely is over, which is a pity because I do want a girlfriend, but I think I do have a severe case of commitment phobia. I am fairly certain I don’t want children, and I could go on forever about the reasons for that, but I am also worried about marriage, which to me seems very risky. I have also witnessed many bad marriages. Many people say that conflict and argument are a normal part of marriage and you need to just work through it, but this seems to be an unsatisfactory answer. For 2020 and beyond, my plan for relationships is the same as always, which is to stay single but be open to meeting new women. 

At this point in time, I am probably as lonely as ever. I don’t think I have any friends. I don’t have a girlfriend either. I pretty much have nothing. Most of my interaction with people is work-related and there are a few people I catch up with every now and then. This is a bit depressing, but at the same time, I do like the solitude. I also like the freedom that comes from just being by myself. It is not like I am completely alone. People do contact me to have lunch or coffee with them, and sometimes I contact others to catch up with them, but mostly these catch ups are not that great. Whenever I catch up with others, I feel like I am just engaging in polite conversation. I cannot really express who I am or what I am thinking. Maybe I haven’t fully built up the courage to say what I want to say.

When I started my financial independence journey, my plan was to retire early in Southeast Asia, and I still want to do this. Whenever times are tough, I’d imagine myself living on a beach on an island in Southeast Asia. I’d sleep in a beach bungalow, wake up late, walk along the sands to a beachside cafe or coworking space, and spend my days reading books or writing books on a laptop, which I would self-publish on Kindle. I’d drink coffee and coconut by the beach while I read or write books. In the afternoon, when the sun sets on the horizon, I could go for a swim, and the water would be very warm.

Part of the reason why I’m hesitant to have children or to marry is because of the threat that children or marriage pose to my early retirement dream. There is something about children or marriage that seems so final. The commitment is so large, and it is a heavy burden. 

When you live differently, people naturally challenge you, and when I tell people about my dreams to retire to Southeast Asia, they inevitably talk about how terrible these places are, how they have poor healthcare, how the traffic is bad, and so forth. All these points miss the bigger picture, which is that the reason why I want to go to Southeast Asia is not beause I necessarily want to go to Southeast Asia but rather it is because I want to have the ability to go somewhere else. Even if I don’t like Southeast Asia, I could always move back or move elsewhere. It is the movement and the flexibility that matters. I want to have no major obligations and I want to be completely free. I don’t want to be shackled to a job I initally liked but have grown to hate as I try to pay off a huge mortgage and car loan. There seems to be a tendency for people to push you to decide on something, commit to it, and then settle down, but I want to keep my options open. I never want to commit and I never want to settle.

How Debt Can be Good

If you simply stand where you are and do nothing, will everything collapse? If so, you need to fix this. If not, you are a free man.

For a long time I have been uncomfortable with debt (see Why You Don’t Need Debt and The Borrower is Slave to the Lender). However, over time, I have borrowed more and more, and I think it is because I have become comfortable with debt. I used a CommSec margin loan to borrow to buy equities, which I now do not recommend to readers because interest rates on a margin loan are approximately 6 percent. I have recently started to use NAB Equity Builder, which allows borrowing to invest in ETFs or LICs for 4.3 percent which is quite low.

One of the problems with debt is that the return on investment needs to outweigh the cost of borrowing. The interest rate on the margin loan is approximately 6 per cent, which means you need to find an investment that beats 6 percent otherwise you will make a loss. However, central banks around the world are lowering interest rates and new products are emerging that allow you to gear into shares with low interest rates (e.g. NAB Equity Builder). Another argument in favour of leverage is that the interest expense is tax deductible. Currently in Australia if you are on a six figure salary, each additional dollar you earn is taxed at 37 percent, so if you are borrowing at 4.3 percent from NAB Equity Builder then after tax you are effectively borrowing at 2.7 percent. In my opinion, 2.7 percent should be easy to beat. As of right now, an ASX200 ETF such as STW is providing 5.66 percent in dividend yield, which after tax is 3.5 percent. Once you add in franking credits and capital gains, you are well ahead.

What about freedom?

One of the arguments used against debt is that debt reduces freedom because you are obligated to pay it. If you have an obligation, this reduces your freedom. However, just as in personal finance we look at both expenses and income so too when considering personal freedom we should look at both obligations to us and obligations from us. While personal finance is about cashflow and net worth, personal freedom is about obligation and specifically whether all your obligations are offset by obligations others have to you. Being free means having as little net obligation as possible.

In a previous post I discussed how freedom ultimately depends not only on cash flow but on “obligation flow.” We all have obligations e.g. the obligation to eat to survive as well as the obligation to put a roof over our head to shelter ourselves. However, if we have enough passive income e.g. from dividend ETFs to cover these costs, we are free, and we are free because our obligations to us (from the companies paying dividends to us) is greater than the obligations from us (to eat and sleep). Basically if your passive income is greater than your living expenses, you are free. It is net obligations that matter.

The same concept applies to debt. Suppose you have an obligation to pay interest. That may not be a problem if you own enough dividend ETFs to cover the cost of the interest. In the example above, the STW ETF’s dividend yield (or a similar ETF e.g. A200, VAS, or IOZ) is enough to cover the interest cost, even after (or especially after) tax.

It is important to keep in mind that dividends are strictly speaking not obligations that companies have. Technically companies do not need to pay any dividends. However, in reality, companies that have historically paid high dividends continue to pay high dividends because of shareholder expectation, and if shareholder expectation does not meet reality, share prices will go down, and the executives deciding how much of company profits to distribute as divdends are usually remunerated with shares, so it is in their interest to ensure the company is both profitable and continues to pay high dividends. Something else to consider is that dividends are not the only form of obligation. A company may use debt to raise capital from bond investors. In this case, there is a real obligation that the borrower has to pay bond investors. Furthermore, going back to shares, companies don’t need to pay dividends to provide value to shareholders. Simply retaining and reinvesting profits back into the business helps the business grow, which increases stock prices. Once the shareholder sells the stocks, there is an obligation to the shareholder to receive the proceeds of the sale. Outside Australia where there is often no franking credits, building wealth through capital gains is much more popular due to tax efficiency.

In summary, holding debt can be consistent with the idea that it is important to minimise obligation because you can have obligation from debt but have it offset with other people’s obligation to you. However, what I should emphasise is that offsetting obligations in this way increases risk. You may have debt to the bank and rely on dividends to pay back the debt, but there is no guarantee dividends will not be cut in the future, and so by playing the middleman game effectively you are taking on risk. The reason why middlemen exist in the world is because of risk transfer. Those on either side of the middleman have transferred risk to the middleman. The same concept applies at work. Middlemen are middle managers who also have obligations from them (to deliver for their manager) but need to match this with obligations to them (from their subordinates). In many areas of life, there is greater risk in aligning these two sides (obligations from you and obligations to you). The key is in if you are able to stomach and manage these risks.

Why financial capital is better than human capital

Obligation needs to be seen not just in terms of money (e.g. debt) but also non-monetary obligation needs to be considered as well e.g. something that takes away your time such as work. Most people go into debt but don’t think about what they need to do to service that debt and so they end up working for the rest of their lives. When I speak about balancing obligations from you and obligations to you, I speak mostly about your financial capital providing income (e.g. dividends) that cover your expenses. However, this ignores human capital. When banks lend you money, they not only look at your financial capital e.g. how much shares or property you have, but they also look at your human capital e.g. your income, job stability, etc.

However, relying on human capital to offset obligation is much more risky than relying on financial capital because income from human capital (i.e. a salary) is active rather than passive. If you borrow to invest and the cashflow is greater than the repayments, there is no obligation from you to do anything. However, if you borrow to invest and you have an obligation to make repayments and if your investments pay low income (e.g. it is a high growth asset) then you top up the difference with your salary which comes from human capital (e.g. your work skills). The problem with relying on human capital is that you are obligated to work in order to derive income from human capital, which reduces your freedom.

In order to take into account non-monetary obligation and to also keep a check on whether you are relying too much on human capital rather than financial capital, I recommend what I call the “do nothing” test. Basically if you do nothing e.g. don’t go to work, don’t take care of the children, etc. If you simply stand where you are and do nothing, will everything collapse? If so, you need to fix this. If not, you are a free man. Even if you have debt, if that debt is being paid for by passive income, it is as if you have no debt. Looking at non-monetary obligations e.g. childrearing, suppose you have children but they are taken care of by a childcare or nanny whose expenses are covered by passive income. You are also free. I have described the “do nothing” test in more detail in a separate post called My Changing Views:

Another key principle I feel I have not let go of is the idea that freedom depends ultimately on the absence of obligation. An obligation is something that compels you to do something in the future e.g. debt compels you to work to pay the debt. Obligation can be non-financial e.g. if you feel you must follow a particular social custom. Obligation is everywhere, and many obligations give people meaning and satisfaction in their lives e.g. obligation to their family or children. However, obligation is indeed the enemy of freedom, so if you want more freedom, you need to minimise obligation. I am a big believer in what I call the “do nothing” test, which is the idea that you are truly financially free when you can do nothing and everything is fine. If you must work to pay the bills, you are not free. There must be automated income coming into your bank account to cover all your obligations.

Can you retire with debt?

Yes, you can retire with debt, but it is harder. For one, you are no longer deriving income from human capital, so you are relying purely on financial capital to pay for debt, which is higher risk not because financial capital is riskier than human capital but because you are drawing down on one type of capital rather than two. It is much harder to get into a job than to get out of a job, so if you need a job suddenly because your financial capital is failing you, there is more effort you need to put in.

A key benefit of borrowing to invest is deducting interest expenses, which is likely to not be necessary or less necessary when you retire because your income will drop.

It all depends on how much risk you are willing to take. The good news is that it is often simple to sell down assets in order to pay off debt. Personally, when I retire, I would not want to keep debt and will simply sell assets in order to pay off debt completely.

Shares vs property

I’d like to end by discussing shares vs property. Most people think borrowing to invest is someting only property investors do. In fact, most people think stock market investors are cocaine-snorting men in suits who perform thousands of trades every day in order to capitalise on small price movements in stocks. In my opinion, shares and property are much more similar than the stereotype suggests. Shares or at least ETFs are safer investments than property because they can hold many different types of assets in them and can provide instant diversification. You can negatively gear into property and you can negatively gear into shares as well. It used to be the case that property allowed you to leverage more because you can borrow to buy property at lower interest rates than with shares (e.g. interest rates for property is around 3% or 4% but a margin loan has interest rates of 6%). However, banks are now starting to understand how similar shares and property are and new products like NAB Equity Builder allow you to borrow at 4.3% which is higher than the interest rate for most property investors (approximately 3.8% as of now) but only slightly higher. Furthermore, banks allow a property to be geared at 80% to 90% LVR whereas NAB Equity Builder allows gearing at up to 75% LVR. Even though LVR is slightly lower and interest rates are slightly higher, stock market investors are not exposed to many of the costs that property investors are exposed to e.g. stamp duty, land tax, and council rates. You also need to factor in franking credits as well as the peace of mind that comes from having a truly passive investment. For a property to be passive, you need a property manager, which eats into your rental income. Furthermore, property is not cheap. The cheapest property you can find in an Australian capital city will likely be about $400k. With ETFs, you can put in $4000 deposit to buy $15k worth of ETFs or you can scale it up. You can dollar cost average with shares but you cannot with property. You are in more control with shares, and when you sell, it can be done within days rather than months and for a much lower cost. Weighing all this up, I think shares are better than property. I would even go so far as to say that you don’t need to buy property at all, even property to live in. Rent is not dead money. If you rent and invest at the same time by leveraging into ETFs (also known as “rentvesting”) you can be better off than if you had purchased a place to live in, and you have much more flexibility to live where you want to live. But that is a post for another day.

Photo by Jamison McAndie on Unsplash

My Changing Views

One of my favourite financial independence bloggers is Pat the Shuffler who has done very well for himself investing purely in Australian ETFs and LICs. He currently has close to half a million in net worth. From what I know, Pat rents a place with his girlfriend, has a high-paying construction job, and manages to save a huge amount of money into Australian equity ETFs and LICs (e.g. VAS and AFI).

However, recently he wrote a post regarding his changing views. Over time, he has realised the importance of global diversification. He will be transitioning away from Australian equities and diversifying into foreign equities using VGS, which invests mostly in the stocks of the US, Europe, and Japan. In my opinion, this is a great move, and it reminds me of my own evolving views, and it has also inspired me to admit some of my own backflips and mistakes.

My views with regards to investing were very similar to Pat’s in that I believed that financial independence depended on dividends alone. If you generate high dividends, you will have enough to live off the dividends and become financially independent quickly. When I read back on my earlier posts (e.g. Dividends vs Capital Gains and 4% SWR vs Living off Dividends), I now notice that I seem quite cultish and stubborn in my views that dividends from Australian equities with franking credits was the only legitimate route to freedom and that anyone who does anything contrary to this is a slave! When I was in my twenties, I would dream of a life in my thirties, forties, and beyond flying around the world, relaxing on beaches, and living off dividends drinking coconut by the beach as I read books.

Perhaps I am becoming more mature as I head into my mid-thirties. I have since relaxed my views on a pure Australian dividend focus. Even though I did invest in some foreign equities, I had the bulk of my investments in Australian equities, and one of the consequences of that as that capital gains were not as high. Had I invested in foreign equities, my net worth today would be much higher. Things may change in the future. I will not tinker too much with my portfolio. For all I know, the Australian stock market may perform very well, but what this illustrates is the importance of global diversification. Australia only makes up 2% of global equities, which is almost nothing, and you never know what policies may be implemented within a country that impacts on every single company in that country.

Another area where my views are changing is in regards to debt and property. I am not a fan of debt, but I do have debt in a margin loan, and if you read my old posts, you’ll notice many posts that are anti-property. Property, in my opinion, is neither better or worse than shares. It is different but also somewhat similar, and there are some benefits of investing in property instead of shares. The key benefit of property is that interest rates on property are typically lower than interest rates for borrowing to invest in shares. Property is easy to leverage and great for capital gains and growth as opposed to Australian shares, which are great for cashflow but historically are lacking in capital gains. Whether now is the right time to be buying property is uncertain. Property prices have been going down for the past two years but the rate of decline has been slowing recently, leading many to believe the market may be bottoming out.

So what do I believe? If I have moderated on everything I have believed in, is there anything here of value? In my opinion, Pat the Shuffler explains it best when he says the following:

“Despite my many stumbles, poor decisions, changing of strategies and general non observance to much of the best advice when it comes to investment, I am still here and still kicking goals. So what gives? Thankfully for me…and everyone else…getting things perfect from the beginning isn’t nearly as important as getting things mostly right and just starting.”

Pat the Shuffler

Basically, it is important to not let perfection get in the way of progress. Most people spend so much time trying to get everything perfect that they don’t start at all. You need to start saving and investing right away, and in my opinion there are three fundamental principles: (1) lower expenses, (2) diversify, and (3) minimise obligation.

Saving a lot of money relies on lowering expenses. Rather than focus on small expenses, we should focus on the big expenses e.g. accommodation and transport. Regarding accommodation, if you live with flatmates or with your parents, you will save far more. Regarding transportion, if you ride a bike or take public transport more, you will save far more. Do you need frequent international travel? Perhaps ride your bike around bike trails in your city.

Another key principle is diversification. Every investment or asset class has pros and cons. Property has cheap leverage and potentially high growth, but poor cashflow; dividend stocks may have less capital growth but good cashflow; tech stocks have low dividends but potentially high growth; gold generates no income and questionable capital gains but may perform very well during a market crash or a period of prolonged economic uncertainty. Rather than feel that you must invest in or feel attached to one asset, it is best to simply diversify across everything. Where there is uncertainty, diversify, and where you feel certain in any asset, it is important ot test that certainty by exposing yourself to the opposite viewpoints. Getting into the habit of challenging our views and diversifying accordingly is a check against our natural psychological biases.

Another key principle I feel I have not let go of is the idea that freedom depends ultimately on the absence of obligation. An obligation is something that compels you to do something in the future e.g. debt compels you to work to pay the debt. Obligation can be non-financial e.g. if you feel you must follow a particular social custom. Obligation is everywhere, and many obligations give people meaning and satisfaction in their lives e.g. obligation to their family or children. However, obligation is indeed the enemy of freedom, so if you want more freedom, you need to minimise obligation. I am a big believer in what I call the “do nothing” test, which is the idea that you are truly financially free when you can do nothing and everything is fine. If you must work to pay the bills, you are not free. There must be automated income coming into your bank account to cover all your obligations.