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 “no 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.

Reaching Financial Independence under Australia’s Superannuation System and the “Two Bucket” Method

There is a controversy within the Australian financial independence and retire early (FIRE) community about whether to salary sacrifice into superannuation while you are young to get the tax benefits. (For international readers, “superannuation” or “super” is the Australian version of the American 401(k) or IRA, basically a retirement fund.)

When you salary sacrifice into your super fund, the money going in is taxed at 15% rather than your marginal tax rate. For example, if you are earning $100k per year, your marginal income tax rate is 37% so there are large tax savings to be made if you salary sacrifice into super.

However, there is a downside because you do not have access to this money in your super fund until you are 60. For many young people, this is too far away, so they’d rather take the money now.

In my opinion, if you earn under $37k, there are insufficient tax benefits to warrant salary sacrificing into super, but once you earn over $37k, additional income will be taxed at at 32% and 37% so you should be salary sacrificing.

The table below shows that once you earn over about $18k, additional income is taxed at 19% so the reduction to 15% is hardly worth it, but once you start earning over $37k, there is quite a large gain from salary sacrificing.

Australian income tax rates for 2018/2019 and 2019/2020 (residents)

Income thresholdsRateTax payable on this income
$0 – $18,2000%Nil
$18,201 – $37,00019%19c for each $1 over $18,200
$37,001 – $90,00032.5%$3,572 plus 32.5% of amounts over $37,000
$90,001 – $180,00037%$20,797 plus 37% of amounts over $90,000

There are many arguments made not to salary sacrifice into super, and the most common arguments are provided below.

You may need the money while you are young e.g. to raise children, so you should not lock your money up in super

It is important to realise that there is a limit to how much you can salary sacrifice into superannuation. The amount your employer contributes plus the amount you salary sacrifice cannot exceed $25k, so even if you are salary sacrificing into super, there is still money you are not investing in super, so you are likely to have money outside of super to cover any unforeseen expenses.

Futhermore, when most people invest outside of super, they lock the money up anyway, e.g. they buy and hold ETFs or invest in property. It is true that ETFs and property can be sold to be used for necessary expenses, but there is a hassle involved, especially with property. There are large transaction costs involved in unwinding these investments including but not limited to capital gains tax. The only truly liquid asset is cash, and most people hold small amounts of cash to meet day-to-day expenses because they are aware that they can get better returns elsewhere, so why not apply the same principle to supernanuation and lock it up for the tax benefits?

Another consideration is that money locked up in super is still accessible in dire situations e.g. if you are bankrupt and living on the streets, you are able to access money in super via “hardship provisions.”

Another perspective is to look at money locked up in super as an argument for it rather than against it. Many people recommend getting an investment property as an investment because the compulsory monthly mortgage repayment provides “forced savings.” Since property is difficult and costly to unwind, this prevents the average person from raiding the piggy bank to pay for frivolous costs. Super can be seen as the ultimate form of “forced savings” because you cannot access it unless you are 60. Good money management is mostly psychological. Cash in your wallet is as good as gone because there is very little preventing you from spending it at the shops, but money in super is the other end of the extreme, and buying and holding shares or property are in the middle.

Forcing yourself to save money via a mortgage or superannuation is very useful for those who lack self-discipline, and while it is easy to think of yourself as being self-disciplined, most people are not.

Money outside of super can earn more than money inside super. Super is invested in shares and is therefore risky so you should leave money outside super and invest it in safer investments e.g. property.

This is a common argument given, that money in super is invested in shares, and most people perceive shares to be risky, so it is better to not invest in super and invest in property, which is perceived to be safe.

There is so much wrong with this idea. Firstly, most super funds invest not only in shares but also e.g. bonds and listed property. Furthermore, anyone can use a self-managed super fund (SMSF) to invest in almost anything, including Australian residential property (e.g. via BrickX).

Using an SMSF, it is possible to e.g. invest in residential property and even to leverage investments e.g. via internally geared ETFs. There are even margin loans designed for leveraging into super e.g. Nab Super Lever.

Another false assumption is that property performs better than shares. Many equity indexes perform just as well as property if not better. For example, looking at the historical performance of properties on BrickX, the best performing properties average 8% per annum capital gains, but the net rental yield of these properties is about 1.5% per annum. Historical performance of the STW ETF, which tracks the ASX200 index, as of July 2019, according to Bloomberg, also shows 8% per annum capital gains over five years, but the STW ETF also provides 5.93% dividend yield as at writing this, and that is not counting franking credits. If we look at equity indexes such as the S&P500, then performance is even better for shares. One could argue that other equity indexes have not performed well or that particular shares may not have performed well, but the same argument can be levelled at property. The 8% performance for property was plucked from the best performing properties in BrickX. Had you invested in other property, you would not have achieved these results. Furthermore, investing in shares allows you to easily diversify via index funds, and many super funds use either index funds or their active management policies require them to diversify globally, so you are getting instant diversification, but if you buy one house, you are not getting any diversification at all, which is a huge risk.

Furthermore, the argument that shares are riskier because they are more volatile is also false. The reason why stock prices move up and down quickly is because shares or ETFs are listed on the stock exchange. The price is disclosed whenever the market is open, which is every weekday. However, we only learn about the price of property when we buy or sell it or when we have an auction, and this happens very infrequently, e.g. every ten years. If there is an auction for a particular house every single day, there will be price volatility. Because there is not an auction every single day, this hides the volatility, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t actually exist.

The fact that house price volatility is hidden also hides losses very well. For example, one of my friends had a mere $10k in his superannuation fund, and during the GFC his balance went down by $4k. He was so freaked out seeing the balance in his fund reduce so much so quickly that he withdrew all the money. He is an old man, so he is able to do this. However, this friend also owns a property that is valued at about $1 million, and in the recent 2017 and 2018 property price declines in Australia, the valuation of his property using CoreLogic data shows that his property went down in value to $800k, so basically $200k was wiped out, and he didn’t seem fussed at all. When my friend saw $4k wiped out from his super fund, he saw the balance go down instantly. He saw the market gyrations on the financial media and the stock market charts in free-fall. A mere $4k loss was enough to freak him out. However, when $200k is wiped out from his property, he doesn’t bat an eyelid. He knew in general that property prices were going down, but there is no dramatic price charts, and it is often uncertain to really know how much your property is worth. Most people have no idea. This story illustrates how irrational most people are with regards to property vs shares.

The government may change the rules and start taxing your super heavily.

This is another common argument against superannuation, that if you put your money in super, it is at the whims of government legislation. Supposedly if your money is locked in super, there is temptation for the government to increase taxes on super or increase the age at which you have access to it.

However, the problem with this argument is that even if you don’t put your money in super e.g. you put it into property or shares outside of super, it is also at the whims of government legislation changes e.g. if there are changes in income tax, capital gains tax, or franking credit legislation. Government can change anything, not just legislation that impacts on superannuation but also legislation that impacts on funds held outside of superannuation.

The only way you can avoid the risk of rising taxation imposed by the Australian government is to move your money into offshore havens or to e.g. cryptocurrency such as bitcoin, ether, or monero. However, offshore havens are not immune from the risk of legislation change. If your money is held in e.g. Bermuda, who is to say the Bermuda government can’t change its legislation? Cryptocurrency is also not a foolproof tax avoidance mechanism since crypto is still subject to capital gains tax by the ATO. There are other risks with crypto as well because even if you avoid countries and government, arguably the country or government in a crypto investment is the community of investors or the miners and the legislation is the protocol that governs how the crypto operates, and this is subject to change by developers. A whole book can be written about this, but basically there is no way to avoid risk of changes in legislation negatively impacting investments unless you diversify.

Contributing to super prevents you from retiring early

This argument is somewhat true but not as bad as you may think. Basically if you salary sacrifice into super, you don’t get access to the funds until 60, so if you are putting a huge amount into super, you may have enough to retire early but you don’t have access to it, which means that effectively your early retirement is deferred. To take an extreme example, suppose you need $1 million to retire, and you salary sacrifice so much that you have $1 million in super but nothing outside of super (because you use all your cash outside super to spend on expenses). Then you cannot retire until you reach 60 even if you managed to amass $1 million in super by e.g. age of 40.

However, as I stated before, there is a limit to how much you can salary sacrifice into super. The employer contribution plus amounts salary sacrificed cannot exceed $25k per year, so more realistically the amount you save outside of super should roughly equal the amount going into super. Rather than reach the age of 40 with $1 million only in super, chances are you will have $500k in super and $500k outside super. The amount outside super will likely be in e.g. ETFs, shares, and property.

Early retirement according to the FIRE community relies on the “four percent rule” i.e. your annual expenses should equal 4% of your net worth. If you reach age 40 with $1 million in your super, you cannot retire early and spend $40k per year because you don’t have access to the funds, but if you reach age 40 with $500k in super and $500k outside super, you probably can. Simply take the age at which you can access your super and subtract it by your age. In our example of someone retiring early at 40, this means there is 20 years left before he or she has access to super at age 60, so the money outside of super of $500k needs to last for 20 years. The simplest way to make sure you don’t spend over $500k in 20 years is to apply a simple straight line calculation and divide $500k by the years left, so in this case $500k divide by 20 is $25k per year you should spend before you have access to your super fund. By the time you have access to your super fund, that $500k in 20 years should be about $2 million assuming 8% per annum growth, and this means by the time you reach 60 you can apply the four percent rule and draw down $80k from your super per year. This is what I call the “two bucket system” and it is briefly explained by Aussie Firebug in his Australian Financial Independence Calculator as well as Mister Money Moustache in his article How to Retire Forever on a Fixed Chunk of Money.

Of course, retiring early on $25k and then suddenly reverting to $80k after 60 is a very weird way of implementing the two bucket method because I use a straight line method to draw down funds before access to super and then after access to super I use the four percent rule. Ideally you should use the four percent rule both before and after age 60 and arrange it such that you run out of pre-super funds just as you hit 60. This requires a much more complicated formula that Aussie Firebug has worked out in his spreadsheets above, but I believe that using the straight line method before access to super is much easier. The straight line method ignores growth in the pre-super funds, and so it is very conservative.

If you salary sacrifice heavily and use the straight line method to draw down funds before access to super, you will likely push early retirement out a little. If you are not willing to do this eg if you are absolutely determined to retire at age 40, then one way to still retire early while also salary sacrificing into super is to temporarily retire in a low-cost-of-living (LCOL) area e.g. Southeast Asia and then come back to Australia when you are 60 to access your super and retire here. The benefit of this approach is to use geoarbitrage to get the most bang from your buck in a LCOL area while you are young but then come back to a welfare state to access generous healthcare systems when you are older. However, this will be the subject of another post where I speak in more detail about retiring in LCOL areas as well as the “two bucket” system.

Thoughts about the 2019 Australian Federal Election

In my previous post (How to Adapt to the Labor Party’s Reforms to Franking Credits) I spoke about how to adjust your portfolio if Labor won the 2019 Australian federal election. The polls and the betting odds were showing a Labor win, but remarkably the Coalition won, so everything is business as usual. I will admit the result came as a huge surprise for me and although I did not vote for the Coalition, I accept the will of the people as this is a democracy.
I have mixed feelings because personally I imagine I will benefit from the Coalition’s policies e.g. cash refunds from franking credits as well as capital gains discounts and reductions in the top tax rates down to 30%. A large portion of my wealth (maybe 70%) is in Australian shares. The focus of the election was on the property market and in particularly on negative gearing, but negative gearing does not impact me because I positively gear into stocks. Leveraging into high dividend shares to get franking credits usually results in a positive gearing position because the dividend income typically exceeds the interest expense.
Something that bothers me and makes me feel some sense of guilt is that I understand that more money in my hands to live off dividends means there is less money for others. Some may flippantly say that if I want to fund these programs, I should do so with my own money, but welfare is not sustainable without taxation. Medicare, for example, would never work if it relied on private donations.

Labor proposed a number of policies that would have helped the poor, the sick, and the environment e.g. subsidised dental care, subsidised treatment for cancer patients, subsidised childcare, and funding for climate change action. That many people would vote for money to be given to investors to leverage or gear into the property and stock markets and live off dividends rather than fund these other worthwhile causes is, in my opinion, quite disappointing because it reveals something quite negative about human nature. It is yet further evidence that human nature is darker than I imagine. I am not naive, but I do wrestle between wanting to belive that humans are inherent good vs inherently bad, and it seems that every day there is a stream of evidence that points towards the the idea that humans are innately bad.

Many people think I am lame for thinking this way. My father tells me I should forget about others and think about myself. He constantly tells me I need to “man up” and get married, have children, etc. However, when I think about human nature, it makes me think about whether I should have children or whether I should start a family. With childcare costs rising and with climate change presenting an existential risk for the next generation, does it make sense to have children? If people are truly bad, what sort of world would my child inherit? What sort of social ills would my child be faced with?
I am still childfree and single but haven’t ruled out a relationship, marriage or children, but I am not the sort of person who would just jump into something big without careful consideration.
The way I see it, there are two options. One is believing in the goodness of humanity and instilling these positive values in my child so they grow up and contribute to a positive society and world. Financial independence becomes a means of funding procreation, and procreation is pursued for the sake of perpetuating the human species because the human species is good.
The other option is to believe that humans are inherent bad, and in this case financial independence plays a defensive role with passive income used to retire early and to shield myself from society.

How to Adapt to the Labor Party’s Reforms to Franking Credits

According to the Sportsbet odds, there is a very good chance that the Australian Labor Party will win the next election, and there are a number of proposed policies that will have a large impact on investors.

Sportsbet odds as of 6 April 2019 have Labor winning the next Australian federal election

I don’t want to focus too much on my personal political views as I feel I should only discuss personal finance here, but personally, even if I benefit economically by voting for the Liberals, there are many other non-economic issues that bother me about the Liberals e.g. it is highly likely that there is a Nazi faction within the Liberal party. This raises the likelihood that the Liberals will engage in Trump-style divisive politics based on racism and sexism. Furthermore, something I care about more than money is the environment, and the Liberals are filled with climate change skeptics.

Back to the topic of personal finance, one proposed Labor policy is banning refundable franking credits. This has mislead many people who think that franking credits will be banned. In order to understand what this policy is, it is important to understand what franking credits are.

Australian companies pay a corporate tax rate of 30% on their profits. A portion of the profits is then distributed to to shareholders as dividends. However, when shareholders receive dividends, they pay tax on their dividends. As a result, there is “double taxation” i.e. the company pays taxes on profits and then the shareholder pays income tax. To fix this problem, when companies pay dividends, they can attach franking credits to it, which allows the tax paid by companies to be refunded back to the shareholder.

Companies pay 30% corporate tax, but shareholders pay income tax, and given that there is progressive taxation is Australia, shareholders may pay anywhere from zero tax to 45% tax depending on their income. The higher your income, the higher your income tax rate. If you are on the highest income tax rate of 45% then the franking credits that refund the 30% corporate tax back to you will not cover all your taxes and you will still need to pay money to the government. However, there are many people who retired who have low income and live off dividends. Because they earn little, they may pay zero income tax, but because dividends have franking credits, they are in a position to receive money from the government. It is these cash refunds that Labor is targeting, not franking credits in general.

How to adapt to the new policy

Franking credits do not apply to all investment income. For example, income from property has no franking credits e.g. REITs. Furthermore, income from outside of Australia e.g. US equity ETFs such as IVV pay dividends with no franking credits.

In order to adapt to the new policy, simply increase the amount of unfranked investment income you receive. Once the amount of unfranked investment income increases, the income tax you pay will rise. Remember you only get a cash refund when your personal income tax is below 30% so if you increase how much unfranked investment income you receive such that your personal tax rate is at or above 30% then any franking credits you receive will simply offset the taxes you pay on the unfranked income you receive, so you don’t need to worry about receiving a cash refund.

As I said, the easiest way to achieve this is to invest not just in Australia but to go overseas and invest outside of Australia. Examples of ETFs that achieve this are VGE (as well as the ethical equivalent VESG) as well as INCM, which is globally focused equity income ETF. Another option is to invest in AREITs e.g. SLF, which invests mostly in Australian commercial property and pay quite high rental yields.

Property Prices Decline in Melbourne and Sydney – Should I Buy?

After property prices have been going up for quite some time, there seems to be a considerable amount of anxiety in Australia as house prices start to fall. According to Corelogic, so far there have been price declines of about 10% in Sydney and Melbourne. However, this is an average and masks the finding that top-end properties have been declining much more than affordable properties e.g. the average Broadmeadows house in 2017 is $540k and in 2018 it is $560k, a slight increase. However, in Toorak house prices went from $5 million 2017 to $3.4 million in 2018, which is a 30% decline and $1.6 million wiped out of the average Toorak house.

Toorak house and unit prices as of February 2019, source: realestate.com.au

If you own a home, does this mean it is a good time to sell it? Alternatively, is it a good time to buy?

My answer is that I don’t know. In my opinion, it is rarely a good idea to try to time the market as studies show that most people fail to pick the bottoms and the tops. The better strategy is diversification. One form of diversification is diversification into different types of assets e.g. splitting your wealth across e.g. stocks, bonds, property, gold and cryptocurrency. However, with property there is little opportunity to diversify because each house is very expensive. The average family home in Melbourne costs about $800k. If you save up a 20% deposit of $160k and right after you buy there is a price decline of 30%, then you’ve lost $240k. Another major problem with expensive property is limited ability to dollar cost average. In a volatile market, you can invest a small amount every fortnight to smooth out the bumps, but this is clearly not possible if you’re borrowing to buy a house.

Will I buy a property?

I have been anti-property for a long time, preferring instead to live at my parents and invest in ETFs. My plan was to live off dividends and eventually use the dividend income to rent a place. When my dividend grew high enough, I’d retire early and travel the world forever, living in Southeast Asia. This plan was hatched during a time when I hated my job.

However, as my salary and dividend income rise, I am having mixed feelings about gallivanting in Southeast Asia for the rest of my life, especially when I am starting to enjoy my work, and I’ve realised that although renting can be cheaper in some suburbs, this does not apply to all suburbs. In many suburbs, it is cheaper to rent, but there are some suburbs where it is cheaper to buy. This depends on a number of factors e.g. rental yield but also how much you earn. The more you earn, the more likely it is that it is cheaper to buy rather than rent. This is because you rent with after-tax income. For example, if you paid zero tax, then if you had a choice between buying a $1 million apartment or renting it for $40k per year then it is preferable to rent because you could invest $1 million in an Australian equity ETF or LIC (e.g. A200, VAS, BKI, or ARG) and earn about 5% dividend yield of $50k per year, use the $40k to rent and have $10k leftover. However, if you were earning enough salary such that you are taxed at 40% (if you earn over $80k then you pay 37% in income tax in addition to a 2% medicare levy so it is approximately 40%) then rather than getting $50k in dividends you’d only be getting $30k after-tax (ignoring franking credits), which is not enough to pay the rent of $40k per year. In this case, it is cheaper to buy.

Although this may vary across different cities, as a simple generalisation, within Melbourne family homes tend to be cheaper to rent whereas units and apartments tend to be cheaper to buy. For example, using Toorak again as an example, the average Toorak house costs $3.43 million whereas it costs $965 per week (about $50k per year) to rent. If you had $3.43 million to afford a home, you’d be better off putting this in an ETF earning say 5% dividend yield of $171k per year. Even after tax and ignoring franking credits you’d have about $16k per year in dividend income. You’d then pay the rent of $50k and have $66k per year extra if you rented.

Home prices vs rent prices in Toorak as of February 2019, source: realestate.com.au

However, this does not apply if you are buying or renting a Melbourne CBD unit (which is where I’d rather live). A unit in the CBD is $484k to buy and $530 per week ($28k per year) to rent. Putting $484k into an ETF earning 5% dividend yield would only give you $24k before tax, which is not enough to afford the $28k rent. Given that it is cheaper to buy ignoring tax, it will definitely be cheaper to buy after tax. The higher your marginal tax rate, the more likely it would be that buying is cheaper. However, this analysis ignores the high body corporate fees that apartment owners typically pay. Furthermore, an argument can also be made that Toorak homes are better investments vs CBD apartments. Therefore, it may be worth buying a Toorak home vs an ASX200 ETF as there is some hope that the Toorak home will outperform the ASX200 whereas there is little chance a CBD unit will outperform the ASX200, and this may explain the differences in rental yields.

Melbourne CBD buy vs rent prices as of February 2019, source: realestate.com.au

Arguments for home ownership

As I said, I am considering buying a place of my own. One of the reasons is that I am starting to dislike commuting and would rather walk to work. Another reason is that over time I am starting to dislike living with my parents. Furthermore, buying a place is not that inflexible. Even if I move, retire early, or even dislike the place I live in, I can arrange for a real estate agent to rent it out the apartment and forward any leftover rental income to me, so I can still retire early and live off rental income, although rental income will likely be lower compared to dividend income because the real estate agent will take a cut of the rental income as a fee for managing the property. Furthermore, rental yields are typically lower than dividend yields.

Another concern with buying a property is debt. I believe that it is important to always be ready to retire because you never know when you’ll be fired or if you’ll hate your job. Buying a property usually incurs significant debt, and many people are tied to their jobs because of the mortgage. However, even though I own ETFs now, I still have a small amount of debt via a margin loan. I rationalise this by telling myself that the interest expenses is tax deductible and also in the event of a need to retire early I can easily sell off ETFs to pay off all the debt. This idea can be applied to property as well. If you buy an affordable property (e.g. $300k to $400k) and save up a large deposit (e.g. 50%) before you buy, even if you are fired you can sell the property and invest the proceeds into high dividend ETFs. Another alternative if you have enough equity in the property is to simply rent it out. If the equity is high in the property, the rental income should be higher than the interest cost as well as property management fee, which makes this a passive income stream similar to dividend ETFs.

Another option is to sell all my ETFs and buy a place outright, but I’ve decided against this idea because then I’d forego dividend income as well as trigger capital gains tax. When I buy ETFs, my plan is to hold it forever. Ideally, I’d like to hold any asset I buy forever and live off investment income (with the obvious exceptions being gold and cryptocurrency).

Conclusion

In my opinion, the best test of financial independence is to ask yourself how long will you survive if you have no job. If the answer is “forever” then you are financially independent.

Right now, in my thirties, I generate about $20k per year in dividend income, which in my opinion is enough to live a reasonable lifestyle in Southeast Asia e.g. Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Bali or Sihanoukville. If I really hated my job now or if I were fired, I could fly to Southeast Asia, live there for a few decades, and then come back to Australia to collect my superannuation.

However, even though I feel I could do it, I don’t feel comfortable relying solely on $20k per year in dividend income, and as I said, even though I hated my job many years back, I am starting to enjoy it more and more, so my plan is to stay in Australia and continue to invest and build more dividend income. However, if my plan is to stay in Australia for longer, I’ll need to consider my comfort, and two areas of discomfort in my life now are living with others and commuting. Basically being around other people bothers me. If I live with others, I have little privacy, and if I am on a packed train, it bothers me as well. Being at work with others bothers me if I am around the wrong people. The key is in having enough financial independence to allow you to have more say or control over the type of people you surround yourself with. Something I have learned about myself is that I am very much a people person. If I am around the wrong people, I feel extremely unhappy and depressed, but being around the right people can make a huge difference to your mood.

Buying a place in or close to the city will cut my commute, allowing me to walk to work, and it will also allow me to live by myself. If I save up enough cash deposit and buy a reasonably cheap place, even if I do decide to retire early, I’d still be able to “positively gear” the property by renting it out and generate passive rental income, which when coupled with my dividend income can boost my early retirement living standards.

Is Salary Sacrificing into Super Worth It?

Because I live in Australia, there are some financial ideas that are unique to Australians e.g. franking credits, negative gearing, and superannuation.

Firstly, what is superannuation? Superannuation (or super) is a retirement fund similar to the US’s 401k. When your employer pays you, they are required by law to put 9.5% of your salary into your super. This super is locked up until you are old (about 60 to 70).

Why salary sacrifice into super? Compared to many other countries, income tax is high in Australia. Any amount you earn over $37k has a 32.5% income tax rate applied to it. If you earn over $90k then any amount over $90k attracts a 37% income tax rate. However, suppose you earned $100k per year and you arranged with your employer to salary sacrifice $10k into your super fund, then this means that rather than paying $3700 tax on that $10k and receiving $6300 in your bank account, you instead have that $10k go into your super fund and where it is taxed at only 15% i.e. you pay $1500 tax. This means you save $2200 per year assuming you salary sacrifice $10k per year.

If the tax benefits are so good, why not salary sacrifice everything into super? The answer is that there is a limit. The amount your employer puts in (9.5%) and the amount you salary sacrifice cannot exceed $25k per year. Take the example of someone who earns $100k. This figure does not include super. The employer is paying $9500 (9.5% of $100k) per year into superannuation by law. However, if the worker wants to top this up by salary sacrificing, they should simply find the difference between $25k and the compulsory contribution amount ($9500) and then salary sacrifice this amount. In this case, the person earning $100k should salary sacrifice $15500 per year to fully take advantage of the tax benefits. If you get paid every fortnight, simply divide this by 26 and therefore salary sacrifice $596 per fortnight. In my opinion, you should always salary sacrifice a little bit below the limit because your salary will likely increase bit by bit over time. If the amount you salary sacrifice is exactly $25k then the next salary increase (e.g. due to inflation correction) can tip you over the $25k mark, which leads to punitive taxes applied to you. Therefore, I recommend aiming for $23k or $24k just to be safe.

Using the example of earning $100k per year, if you are salary sacrificing $10k per year you’d save $2200 per year. If you salary sacrifice to the max then you’d be making $3410 per year.

Assuming you save $3410 per year over 30 year, then assuming 8% per annum returns, you’d have $250k.

What are the downsides of salary sacrificing into super?

Even though there are tax benefits, the main disadvantage of salary sacrificing into your super fund is that you do not get access to this money until you are around 60 to 70. However, there are hardship provisions in superannuation that allows you to access your super under severe financial hardship. Given that I am a long-term investor, I normally buy and hold investments forever. I will only ever sell if there is severe financial hardship. Therefore, keeping money in super doesn’t make much difference. For most people who do not salary sacrifice into super, their main reason is that they need to pay the mortgage, but they are simply building up savings in their house, and because houses have high transaction costs, chances are they will only sell the house under severe financial hardship as well.

One common argument people use against superannuation is that the “rules can change.” That is, while your money is locked up in superannuation, the government could change the rules and e.g. increase taxes on it. However, this is not a good argument. The risk of government changing rules or legislation apply to all investments. For example, if you do not salary sacrifice and invest in property and shares outside of super, the upcoming proposed changes to negative gearing, capital gains tax and franking credits will affect you. Unless you invest in offshore accounts or cryptocurrency, you are at risk of “rules changing,” and even if you invest in, say, offshore accounts, then offshore jurisdictions are subject to changes in legislation, and cryptocurrency protocols can change, leading to “hard forks.” You can never escape the risk of legislative or protocol amendment. The only way to mitigate this risk is to diversify.

The key downside of salary sacrificing into super is that you do not get passive income, which impacts on your ability to be finacnially independent. If you salary sacrifice $10k into super, that $10k does not produce dividends that go into your bank account for spending. It simply accrues in the super fund and accumulates until you are, say, 60. This means that if you seek to be financially independent quickly or retire very early, salary sacrificing into super can be a problem. However, there are workarounds.

The four percent rule

The four percent rule states that when you retire you spend 4% per year. Suppose you retire with $1 million in net worth. You simply spend $40k per year. Now suppose you had $500k in super and $500k outside super. One strategy is to continue to use the 4% rule but to retire at a time such that you can use the 4% rule and then time it so that you run out of your $500k outside of super just before you have access to superannuation.

Coast FI or Barista FI

Another option is called “coast FI” or “barista FI” which are terms used among the online FIRE community (financial indepence retire early). Basically you can salary sacrifice to the max early in your career such that you have, say, $200k in super by age 30. Assuming 8% per annum growth, then this $200k in super will become $2 million by age 60 assuming no extra contributions. Therefore, through aggressive early savings, your 60s are covered. Having $2 million when you are 60 is more than enough. However, because you have locked up a considerable amount of money into super, you may live a lower standard of living up until you are 60.

One solution to this suggested by the FIRE community is “coast FI” which sadly has nothing to do with the Gold Coast. Rather, you coast to your 60s by taking it easy and doing easy jobs (e.g. a barista, although based on what I have seen being a barista is quite difficult). However, in my opinion, this is not a good strategy because even easy work is still work, and there is no guarantee that you will be able to find easy work in the upcoming age of automation. The whole point of financial independence is to enable you to live without a job so that you can pursue whatever you are passionate about.

Although there are problems with barista FI, the insight that barista FI brings up is that you don’t need to retire early. Once you live off dividends, rather than retire and stop working, you can keep working but simply don’t work as hard. You don’t need to work as a barista, but you can work the current job you work but simply work in a more relaxed manner. This may mean you spend more time at work chatting to coworkers or it may mean you work part-time and take more holidays. A more mainstream term for this is “semi-retirement.” Another option is to change jobs and do something you are passionate about e.g. you may build online social enterprises that help the world.

The solution to the superannuation dilemma

Superannuation presents many Australians with a complicated dilemma. Either you salary sacrifice and increase your wealth thanks to tax benefits but lock your money up unitl you are very old, or you do not salary sacrifice, reduce your wealth, but reach financial independence faster.

In my opinion, you should salary sacrifice to the max early in your career. However, to accelerate your chances of becoming financially independent as fast as possible, live as minimalist a life as possible (e.g. living with roommates or with parents, riding bikes or taking public transport, never having children, etc) and then with your money outside of super apply the Peter Thornhill approach by investing all your money into high dividend paying Australian equity ETFs and LICs (e.g. VHY, IHD, RARI, EINC, RINC, BKI, AFI, and ARG). Because Australian equities are blessed with high dividend yield and franking credits, this coupled with a highly minimalist lifestyle will allow you to quickly achieve financial independence. To use some example numbers, the cost of a sharehouse found via Gumtree or Facebook is about $700 per month. The cost of meal replacement drink Aussielent (which I use as the basis for the cost of food) is $256 per month. Then if you get a bike then you can cover all necessities for $1000 per month or $12,000 per year. Assuming dividend yield of 7% then this means you need to save up $170k. Adding income tax and offsetting it with franking credits, this means you’ll only need to save up about $200k in high dividend ETFs or LICs to be able to be financially independent. After you have $200k, you can start to diversify your portfolio away from Australian equity to reduce risk (e.g. into bonds and international equities). Then over time, as your dividend income increases, you can slowly increase your living standards, e.g. live by yourself rather than with housemates or parents. You can eat tastier food rather than Aussielent, etc. However, for the sake of financial indpendence, your living expenses should not exceed your passive income because you must minimise the amount of time you are dependent on your job.

Because you salary sacrifice into super, there is a good chance a large chunk of your net worth will be in illiquid assets, so your living standards will be low up until you are 60 and then suddenly after 60 you will have a very high standard of living.

Retirement (or semi-retirement) in Southeast Asia

If you salary sacrifice into super, you will have a considerable amount of money in your 60s or 70s, but before you are old, you will likely live a minimalist lifestyle assuming you live off dividends. A way to increase your standard of living is to retire early in Southeast Asia where the cost of living is lower. Before I spoke about how $1000 per month is enough to live a very minimalist lifestyle in Australia, but in many Southeast Asian cities e.g. Chiang Mai, Ubud or Sihanoukville, $1000 per month can afford a more comfortable standard of living. You can retire early and then come back to Australia in your 60s to collect your superannuation and then retire in Australia. Because Southeast Asia is a bit “rougher” than Australia, younger people in their forties or fifties can tolerate it better, so if you end up retiring early in your forties or fifties living off dividends, you can go to Southeast Asia for retirement and then come back to Australia to cash out your super. One of the benefits of living in Australia is its socialist healthcare system (Medicare) that provides free medical care for all. This is particularly useful for older people. That being said, if you reach the age of 60 or 70 with net worth of $2 million, that sort of money can buy good healthcare even in e.g. Thailand. Cities such as Bangkok have international-standard private hospitals that many people from all over the world travel to for medical treatment.

Disclosure: I currently own IHD.

Merry Christmas 2018! Thoughts about Socialising, Conformity and the Recent Market Turmoil

This post will go over some of my thoughts that have been on my mind over the Christmas holiday. In true minimalist style, I have not purchased a Christmas tree nor have I purchased any gifts for anyone, and I will not be attending any Christmas parties. I have caught up with some friends and family over the holiday period but little else. Although it is cliche to say this, Christmas is highly commercialised these days, and personally I don’t celebrate Christmas too heavily, but many other people do, and I think my lack of engagement in Christmas activities puts a distance between me and others.

Ultimately the main issue is that often the cost of human connection and intimacy is conformity, but conformity is often costly.

Socialising and conformity

As I have discussed, an idea that has been on my mind recently is the cost of socialising. Many of us like to think that we are independent, that we do what we want regardless of what others think, but going against the grain and being very different is harder than you may think. It is natural and normal to conform. In fact, I would argue that we are hard-wired to conform. It is something that we evolved to do. There is a famous psychology experiment (the Asch conformity experiments) that shows just how powerful conformity is and how susceptible we all are.

Even though I like to think of myself as independent, I do conform to a degree, and conformity is sometimes important because it allows you to fit in to a certain culture with which others are familiar. Taking the example of Christmas, if you do not give gifts or engage in any Christmas activities, this will clearly put a barrier between you and others.

There have been moments in my life when I have been too independent, too much of a freethinker, and this has isolated me from society, which leads to misanthropic feelings, and this can have very negative mental health outcomes and can lead to depression. It is important to find the right balance between independence and conformity. As a man who enjoys independence and freedom as well as systematically minimising all forms of obligations (debt, social norms, customs, tradition, etc) this has been one of the realisations I have come to this year, that there is some value in conforming, but it needs to be controlled and I need to practice conformity in a way that still allows me to be myself and to be authentic. Most importantly, conformity needs to be practiced from a position of independence and freedom. This reminds me of the concept of exit, voice and loyalty. You can be loyal i.e. you can conform to something or someone’s values, but you need to have the freedom to be able to voice your own views or values, and if your values or views conflict too much with those with whom you are loyal, then you need the ability to exit. This is where having huge passive income and minimal obligations helps. For example, if you have a huge mortgage and three children to support, and you work a job you hate, you are trapped in this job. You are forced to conform or be loyal in this arrangement without the freedom to voice or exit. However, if you suddenly hate your job but you live off passive income, have no debt, no children, no mortgage, and no obligation or commitments, then there is nothing stopping you from voicing your displeasure or exiting entirely.

Although I do believe there is some value in conformity, I should say that everyone is different and that I do believe there are many who value nonconformity. We are typically more comfortable when we are in environments that are familiar, that fit in with our own culture. When someone is noncomformist, e.g. to take an extreme example, if someone comes to work wearing clothes that are inappropriate (e.g. wearing underwear), then this creates discomfort. Something just doesn’t seem right. However, conformity can go too far. Too much conformity creates a fakeness that many find unappealing. Although familiarity can put people at ease and build human connection, you can go too far to the point where you are fake and this also creates unease. There is value therefore in conforming in moderation but it is also important to have the courage to be yourself, to reveal your true thoughts, and to be authentic. Usually the ability to be your true self and to be authentic comes when you are financially secure and when you have few obligations.

I should also add that conformity is not just about whether you give gifts or wear certain clothes to work. Most of us conform but aren’t really aware that we conform simply because we feel that what we do is what we are supposed to do. For example, most people drive cars, get married and have children without even thinking about it because this is seen as normal. If you’re a cycling, if you’re single, and if you’re childfree, this is seen as unusual, but I think society nowadays tolerates individual freedom, so even if you are a single childfree cyclist, you will be considered different but you will not necessarily be socially ostricised. In my opinion, it is very important to be aware of how much culture affects you because when individuals conform to most cultures, they usually impose upon themselves large obligations. Among most cultures there is an expectation that a person’s youth is a period of freedom. However, the expectation is that once someone has enjoyed his or her youthful freedom, they need to become adults, they need to accept adult responsibilities, and they need to “settle down.” I argue that you don’t need to ever settle down, that you don’t need to accept large obligations. You can be free forever.

The recent market turmoil

I will change topics now and talk about the markets. The markets have done very poorly over the last few months. In my opinion, we have gone through an eight-year-old bull market without a major correction, which is the longest in history, so we are due for a crash soon. This recent turmoil in stocks may be the start of the next financial crisis but there are many credible institutions (e.g. JP Morgan) predicting the next financial crisis will occur in 2020.

Donald Trump’s policies do not help, especially the tariffs between the US and China. Importers will need to pay the tariff and pass it on to customers, which creates inflation as the cost of living rises. Furthermore, corporate tax cuts and higher government spending increases money supply in the economy. All these factors increase inflation, which necessitates the central bank increasing interest rates. Higher interest rates means corporate profits fall as companies need to pay higher interest to service their debt. Furthermore, tariffs don’t just mean importing products into America become more expensive. Once tariffs are applied to Chinese goods coming into America, the Chinese will apply retailiatory tariffs, which block American exports going to China, which in turn hurt sales. Because Chinese companies cannot export to the US as much, this impacts on Australia as we export a significant amount of raw material to Chinese companies who then transform these raw materials into consumer goods to be exported to the US. History has shown that protectionism benefits no one. Both parties lose out.

In my opinion, throughout a market collapse it is important to stick with your investment plan rather than sell in a panic. In an earlier post I spoke about “age in bonds” or owning your age in government bonds e.g. if you are 30, own 30% bonds. This rule is a guide and can be modified to fit your risk appetite e.g. if you can tolerate more risk then consider putting 50% of your age in bonds (e.g. if you are 30, you own 15% bonds).

The problem most people have is they cannot predict their risk appetite. When markets are going up, they think they can tolerate high levels of risk, but once markets actually collapse and they are confronted with large and sudden declines in wealth, they realise that they cannot stomach volatility, and they panic sell and crystallise their losses. Therefore, in my opinion, if the recent bull market has lulled you into complacency and now you are feeling nervous, it is a good idea to reflect on what your true risk appetite is, and in the future you can buy more (or less) defensive safe-haven assets (such as bonds, gold or cash) in order to align the asset allocation in your investment portfolio to your actual risk appetite. Over time, as you live through more market crashes, you start to get a feel for what your actual risk appetite is. It is not something that is easy to predict. It is something you need to adjust as you experience it in real life. One of the biggest mistakes in financial planning is when the financial planner hands you a form and you fill how much risk you are willing to take. In my opinion, no one really knows how much volatility they are able to withstand until they actually expereince it in person. Until someone feels $100k of their wealth being wiped out in one day can they truly appreciate how much volatility they can stomach.

It is also important to keep in mind why you are investing. For me, investing in stocks is mostly about generating dividends, passive income, and thereby providing freedom. Therefore capital gains do not matter much because my intention is to hold these stocks or ETFs forever. The recent market correction therefore can be seen as an opportunity to load up on more high-dividend ETFs. For example, with the market collapse, the iShares S&P/ASX Dividend Opportunities ETF (ASX: IHD) currently has a dividend yield of 13% according to Bloomberg. Of course, even if you are a dividend investor, there are benefits in diversifying into bond or hybrid ETFs. Although high-dividend ETFs such as IHD currently have a yield of 13% whereas government bond ETFs such as BOND have yield of 2.3% and HBRD, a bank hybrid ETF, has yield of 3.7% it is important to remember that although dividend yields are higher than bond yields, dividends can be cut.

If the market correction we are currently experiencing gets really bad, I will not be surprised if companies start announcing dividend cuts. It happened after the GFC, and it can happen again. This is where bonds can be useful because bonds are more likely to be paid to investors. If a company faces distress, bondholders by law are paid before stockholders. Bonds or hybrids then can be useful for income investors seeking passive income because they provide not only stability in price but also stability in income. Even though yields are lower for bonds or hybrids, this reflects the lower risk, the fact that these payments are less likely to be cut in the event of economic distress.

Disclosure: I own IHD and HBRD.