The Problem with HVST (Betashares Australian Dividend Harvester Fund)

For probably two years now I have been buying up the Betashares Australian Dividend Harvester Fund (HVST), which is a exchange traded managed fund listed on the ASX. The appeal of this fund is that it pays a very high dividend yield (about 10% to 14%) and pays this dividend monthly. The monthly dividend payment normally gets paid into my bank account in the middle of the month, and every payment is roughly the same. Hence HVST makes living off dividends very easy. This is why I have accumulated over $100k worth of HVST.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are many flaws with this fund, the main one being that it has not performed well in the last few year compared to the ASX 200.

HVST vs ASX 200 from 2014 to 2017
HVST has significantly underperformed the ASX 200 over the last few years (chart from CommSec).

That being said, I am not criticizing the fund or Betashares. I was well aware that the dividend harvesting technique employed by the firm would result in less upside when markets were going up. This is a result of the fund manager buying high dividend paying stock just before dividends are paid and then selling the stock after the dividend is paid. As stock prices normally go down after dividend payment (as the company’s value goes down in line with its reduction in cash) then naturally a dividend harvesting technique would result in lower capital gains.

Something else surprising is that during downturns in the ASX 200, HVST also went down considerably as well, which makes me question the firm’s risk management overlay employed. According to the article Managing risk: the toxic combination of market downturns and withdrawals in retirement on the Betashares Blog:

One way to help manage sequencing risk is to apply a dynamic risk exposure strategy, which seeks to reduce downside market risk…. BetaShares combined its expertise with Milliman to launch the BetaShares Australian Dividend Harvester Fund (managed fund) last November. The fund invests in large-cap Australian shares with the objective of delivering franked income that is at least double the yield of the Australian broad sharemarket while reducing volatility and managing downside risk.

Based on this description, I was hoping that the fund’s risk management overlay would reduce downside movements, but the chart of the performance of HVST against XJO shows that when XJO turns downwards, HVST goes down by as much. When XJO goes up, HVST tends not to go up much if at all, which results in HVST falling by about 20% over the last few years while XJO has managed to increase in value by a modest 5% during the same time period.

As I said, this does not mean I will not continue to invest in this fund. The regular and high monthly dividend payments are extremely convenient, and any capital losses made by the fund over time, in my opinion, can be compensated for by investing in ETFs in riskier sectors e.g. investing in tech stocks, emerging market, or small caps or even by investing in internally leveraged ETFs such as GEAR. For example, if you invest half your money in HVST and half in GEAR, you get the convenience of monthly regular dividends from HVST and any capital loss is compensated for with your investment in GEAR which should magnify upside market moves. Note that a limitation of the half HVST and half GEAR strategy is that when the market goes down, GEAR will go down significantly as well. Furthermore, another problem with both GEAR and HVST is that they have management expense ratios that are significantly higher than broad-based index ETFs mostly from Vanguard or iShares. Both HVST and GEAR have management expense ratios of 0.80 percent whereas Vanguard’s VAS is 0.14 percent and iShares’s IVV is 0.04 percent.

Nevertheless, I do recommend many products from Betashares. One ETF that I am interested in from Betashares is their new sustainable ETF called the Betashares Global Sustainability Leaders ETF (ETHI). I normally buy ETFs in batches of $10k to $25k at a time, so I intend to buy a batch of ETHI and write a blog post about it later. I have mostly positive views about Betashares as they provide a great deal of innovative ETFs.

Update 18 June 2017: The poor price performance of HVST is explained in the Betashares blog article Capital vs. Total Return: How to correctly assess your Fund’s performance. If performance includes income as well as franking credits, the gross performance of HVST looks more favourable.

Agricultural Commodities Bottoming? ASX: QAG

The prices of agricultural commodities such as sugar, wheat, and soybeans have been falling for some time now. This can be seen in the performance of the QAG ETF.

For a number of months now I have been thinking that these commodities cannot go down forever. If this were the case, soybeans, sugar, etc would eventually be free. Could this be a buying opportunity?

QAG ASX price from 2012 to 2017
Source: Google

You Save 100% of Your Salary? What if You Die Before You Retire?

I probably shouldn’t do this, but I told someone recently that I save 100% of my salary and live off dividends. One of the argument he used against this is that, if you save up a considerable amount of money, you deprive yourself while you save and there is a chance that before you retire, you may die, which means you never had the opportunity to enjoy spending the money that you saved.

This made me think about why I continue to live a minimalist lifestyle and live off dividends.

If you die with lots of money saved up, you could have enjoyed that money. However, for many people, freedom is so important that it’s not the spending of money that makes them happy but the holding of money. This applies to me as well. I love to hoard money not because of what I can buy with it but because of the freedom and autonomy it gives me.

If I had, say, $1 million then according to the 4% rule I can spend $40k per year forever. I never need to work ever again so long as I’m satisfied with a $40k per year lifestyle. There is no need to suck up to some boss, and I can do jobs on my own terms and live according to your own rules. I continue to work, but I do the work that I love. That is freedom, and I care about that more than some shiny Ferrari.

You enjoy your work when you’re not dependent on it

In my opinion, you enjoy working when you don’t care if you’re fired. If something at work bothers you, you simply ask your manager if you can be transferred elsewhere. If for some reason you are fired, just shrug and walk to a job agency or find a new job yourself. Because you live off your investments, it doesn’t matter if you’re unemployed. You don’t work to feed yourself because other people feed you.

However, if you’ve never saved up any money, if rather than living off dividends you have massive debt and spending obligations, you are then dependent on your job, and dependency is slavery.

Slavery has not been abolished. It has evolved.

Investing Under a Trump Presidency [Podcast]

I am certainly not a Trump fan. I actually find the man quite disgusting, and I watched in horror as he was elected President of the USA. That being said, the stock market boom following his election has increased my net worth considerably, and I expect more gains in 2017. However, there are significant risks involved in investing in American equities at this time, so while you should be exposed to the market to capture all the gains from this bull market, you must be prepared to exit the market quickly once it is clear the boom is over.

Other topics discussed in this podcast include Wall Street’s complete takeover of the White House as well as reasons why residential real estate is a bad investment.


The Benefits of Market Timing

I am mostly a dividend investor who invests in ETFs that pay high dividends. However, lately I have been setting aside a portion of money to try time the market. I see the main benefit of market timing to be capital protection. If the markets go down, you want to deleverage and derisk your portfolio as fast as possible.

Basically I can detect a lot of euphoria in the market right now, and it looks like there is a bubble (in my opinion). All this reminds me of a quote from the great George Soros:

“When I see a bubble forming, I rush in to buy, adding fuel to the fire.” ~ George Soros

When a bubble forms, it is best to stay invested because this is when demand is strong, and if you are invested and highly leveraged, you will make a lot of money. The key is to monitor the markets carefully so you sell just before the market crashes. In my opinion, this is why direct property is the worst investment.

If the 2009 property crash happens again, it may takes months to sell a property, which is too late when the market is dropping. Liquidity is very important. The benefit of using shares and ETFs is that they can be sold instantly with your smartphone. You can get out quickly and cleanly.

For me market timing is about downside protection. When there is a bull market, it is best to be able to capture all the gains, so being leveraged is best. However, markets go up and down, and given all the money printing and stimulus, I feel we are highly likely to hit a massive market crash soon. I have been looking at the PE ratio of the S&P 500 throughout history and how it goes in cycles. We are reaching a stage now when the PE ratio for the S&P 500 is at historic highs.

However, you don’t know when a bubble will pop, if ever, so it’s best to be long and leveraged to capture all the profit while everyone is exuberant, but when the market goes down significantly, you need to get out before others who are leveraged start to get their margin calls, and then the losses will be transferred to the buy and holders and permabulls. It may be the case that, rather than a crash, there is massive money printing, which will lead to inflation, which may prop up the bubble but hurt the average man through higher cost of living. Because of this, it is a good idea to be invested in stocks, including gold mining and commodity stocks.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with market timing. Even if you make less money because you are not fully invested when the market rallies, I see market timing as an insurance policy against a massive crash that could wipe out everything. Imagine working your whole life to amass a massive portfolio of stocks and property and then when you’re old and about to retire suddenly the stock and property markets crash and you lose 70% of your wealth. Simply monitoring the markets and selling when things start to go down can prevent all that. The markets may rally right after you sell, but the opportunity cost of that, I think, is nothing compared to what you could have lost.

Dividends vs Capital Gains

There are many people who claim that dividend investing is a bad idea because you end up paying more tax.

Although it depends on country, generally dividends are classified as income, and income is usually heavily taxed whereas capital gains are normally not taxed until you sell the investments. Investors typically sell all their investments when they retire. When investors retire, they are typically earning zero income (because they’ve stopped working), so any tax they pay as a result of capital gains tax is usually minimal.

If you invest in dividend-paying stocks, you are being taxed on those dividends, and in countries with progressive taxation, the tax you pay is usually very high because your salary from work is counted as income as well.

There is also an argument made that companies that pay high dividends sacrifice capital gains because money that the company pays out as dividends could have been reinvested back into the company for expansion.

One in hand is better than two in the bush

While these are all fair arguments, I still believe that investing in dividends is better even if you pay more tax. The reason is due to risk. A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. When companies pay dividends, you get cold hard cash in your hands. If instead you sacrifice your dividends and instead allow the company to reinvest that money, you don’t know if that reinvestment will work or not. Most people employing a buy-and-hold strategy typically wait multiple decades expecting capital gains to accumulate throughout that time, and when they retire they sell their investments. However, if you wait three or four decades and amass large capital gains, what if, just before retirement, there is a very large global recession that sends asset prices down? Decades of work has been flushed down the drain.

Money printing, negative interest rates, automated trading, and high leverage have made capital gains unreliable

Dividends are simple. A company sells something, they make money, pay their expenses, and a portion of whatever is leftover is given to investors as dividends. Dividend payments therefore depend on the quality of businesses, the quality of their management, products, services, etc.

Capital gains, however, are completely different. In today’s world of constant money printing and stimulus and high leverage products that increase volatility, it’s hard to trust asset prices because asset prices can be instantly manipulated. Asset prices are now so divorced from reality that it’s difficult to know what real or fundamental value is. If a bubble never pops and is continually inflated, is it a bubble?

In my opinion, the lost two decades in Japan following the crash in its asset price bubble in the early ’90s will play out in Western countries. Japan was an economic leader but the crash of the ’90s was its peak, and since then they have simply tried to reinflate their economy with no success, and the economy has gone sideways ever since.

The Nikkei 225 since the ’80s

What has played out in Japan will play out in Western countries where peak growth has been realized. We will see a zigzag pattern as stock markets crash and then are reinflated before crashing again, and this continuous forever. The best way to make money in such an economy is to forget about prices and focus on dividends.

Dividends and capital gains are not necessarily a trade-off

Empirically, dividend-paying stocks don’t necessarily perform worse. Below is a chart of the S&P 500 index versus the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats index.

Dividend Aristocrats vs S&P500
The S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats index vs the S&P 500