How to Prepare for Upcoming Stagflation

Recently markets have been shook by rising interest rates in the US. Interest rates around the world are somewhat correlated because of globalization. Australian banks often borrow from overseas (even from the US), so if interest rates rise overseas, this affects the cost that Australian banks pay to borrow money. The ASX200 chart below shows the correction in recent weeks.

the beginning of an xjo crash september 2018
Source: Bloomberg

How may the stock market crash?

Even though it is not wise to try to predict markets, my hunch is that a very large correction is near, but it may be delayed until around 2020. During the 2009 GFC, the threat was deflation i.e. prices going down, which means prices of e.g. property and shares went down as well. The solution to this was unprecedented money printing around the world. The printed money was used to purchase government bonds (in the US) or even stocks or ETFs directly (in Japan). When there is deflation, money printing is an easy fix because money printing puts more money into the economy, generating inflation, which cancels out deflation.

However, this time the fear is that when the market crashes, it is not a deflationary crash. Rather, we have a downturn while there is inflation at the same time. Why would there be inflation at the same time as a downturn? For example, take the US-China trade war. If US companies and consumers cannot import cheap goods from overseas, consumers and US businesses face higher costs. Higher costs cut into margins, which reduce profits, which reduce stock prices. If the trade wars heat up, US equities should decline futher as inflation increases. Usually when there is inflation, the central bank can combat inflation by raising interest rates. However, US businesses are already highly indebted. If the US central bank (the Federal Reserve) increases interest rates to combat inflation, businesses face higher interest expenses, which cuts into their profit margins and reduces stock price.

This dilemma that the Fed faces, in my opinion, will present a problem in the future and may usher in a 1970s-style stagflationary recession.

What can be done to protect against a downturn?

In a previous post, I spoke about the importance of the “age in bonds” rule. The “age in bonds” rule is just a guide. It doesn’t literally mean you must hold your age in bonds (e.g. if you are 30 then you hold 30% bonds).  “Age in bonds” is a rule of thumb. The complication comes from the fact that some bonds are risky (e.g. emerging market bonds, corporate bonds, etc) whereas some shares are arguably safe (e.g. utilities, gold mining stocks, etc). The basic principle behind “age in bonds” is to reduce risk or volatility in your portfolio as you are nearing retirement so that you are not exposed to e.g. a 50% decline in your wealth just before you retire.

“My personal, non-retirement accounts are about 80 percent bonds and 20 percent stocks, reflecting my old rule of thumb that your bond allocation should roughly equal your age. It’s spread across different bond funds, like the Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt (VWITX). I’m a pretty conservative guy.”

~Jack Bogle, Vanguard Group Founder

Given that I live off dividends, consider myself somewhat semi-retired, and don’t really have a fixed retirement date, I feel it is wise for me to reduce risk in my portfolio much moreso than the average person. For the average person in their 20s or 30s, they may feel that they don’t need to worry about a huge market correction because they can simply make up for the lost wealth by working longer. However, I don’t like the idea of being forced to work when I don’t need to.

Furthermore, even though many people feel as if they can withstand a huge market crash, if a 70% decline eventually does occurs and the reality hits that they have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars without any guarantee that the market will recover in the long run (remember that in the recovery may be many decades away and may be in the next century), I feel that many people would succumb to panic.

Which ETFs perform best in a bear market?

During the recent market correction, I was observing the reaction of different ETFs. What I found interesting is that MNRS, a gold mining ETF, shot up as the XJO went down. See the Bloomberg chart below, which shows MNRS (in yellow) shooting up as the XJO (in black) heads down.

xjo MNRS HBRD QAU and BOND during september 2018 correction
Source: Bloomberg

The large increase in gold mining stocks contrasts with the price of gold, which is represented above by the QAU ETF (in red), which holds physical gold. This makes sense since holding pure gold only provides you with access to gold whereas gold miners usually hold debt, which means they are leveraged to gold. The blue and aqua above show hybrid and bond ETFs, which both remain very stable.

Looking at the last six months, we can see how these ETFs perform not only during a bear market but also during a bull market. We can see that as the XJO goes up, the gold mining ETF and physical gold ETFs go down, which is not ideal. The bond and hybrid ETFs are stable as expected.

Gold miners and bonds vs stocks
Source: Bloomberg

What does this tell us? If you were shaken up by the recent market correction and feel that more risk is coming, a quick way to reduce risk in your portfolio is to buy physical gold and gold mining ETFs. This can be ideal if you don’t want sell shares and trigger capital gains tax. Gold miners are also legitimate companies in their own right. However, the problem with physical gold is that it pays zero passive income, and gold miners historically pay little in dividends. In contrast, the government bond ETF (BOND) pays about 2% in yield whereas the bank hybrid ETF (HBRD) pays about 3% to 4% in monthly distributions, so if you feel you have far too much risk in your portfolio, you can correct it fast by buying gold, but once you have derisked your portfolio sufficiently but still want to tread cautiously, you can take advantage of passive income with bond and hybrids, as well as some high dividend ETFs as well (e.g. IHD, VHY, EINC, etc).

The Simplicity of Living off Dividends

Some people have made comments that many of my posts on this blog are not finance related, so I will make an effort to post more about ETFs and other financial topics in the future. Perhaps the reason why there are few finance topics on this blog is because living off dividends is such a simple technique that I rarely think too much about finance. The whole point of making money is so you do not need to think about money. You do not need to stress about making ends meet when you have few obligations and multiple streams of dividends flowing into your bank account.

Budgeting, tracking net worth, trading, and rebalancing are not worth it

While most people maintain spreadsheets to track expenses and net worth, living off dividends only requires you to invest all your work salary and spend your dividends. If you end up spending more than dividend income, simply “borrow from yourself” by maintaining a few thousand dollars in cash in a separate savings account that you borrow from but pay back with dividend income. Either use a spreadsheet to keep track of how much you own to yourself or ensure that this savings account has a fixed amount e.g. you have $2000 in it, run out of dividends to spend, so you “borrow” $500 to have a balance of $1500 and then when your next dividend payment comes in, put $500 into this savings account to top it back up to $2000.

I don’t recommend tracking your expenses or tracking your net worth because it is time consuming and because the information you get out of it is not valuable. If you track expenses, you can see where all your spending goes, but what matters is not what you spend your money on but how much you spend. If you spend such that your expenses are equal to dividend income, this ensures you don’t spend too much, and one of the benefits of living off dividends is that dividends increase over time as you invest more and as companies become more profitable, so there is a gradual increase in standard of living, which I think helps overcome the feeling of deprivation many feel when they are frugal. If you only spend e.g. $10,000 per year for the rest of your life, you are stuck on that level and do not feel as if you are growing or making progress, but if you live off dividends and your dividends grow, you feel a sense of personal growth. As for tracking net worth, when you diversify across multiple areas (e.g. retirement accounts, managed funds, ETFs, cryptocurrency, etc) then it becomes a huge burden to log in to each of these accounts to check the balance. What matters to financial independence is not net worth per se but passive income. You live off passive income, not net worth, and if you live off passive income then you’ll be able to assess automatically whether you have enough based on whether you are satisfied or not with your standard of living.

Because living off dividends is simple, there are only two things you need to consider: how to spend your dividends and what to invest your work salary in. Most people have no issue with figuring out how to spend their money (e.g. holidays, books, smartphones, and coffee). What to invest in is more complicated, and generally I recommend buying broad and diversified ETFs with a slightly heavier allocation towards high dividend paying ETFs (or LICs). However, more important than what you invest in, in my opinion, is the “buy and hold” mentality. You should buy with the intention of holding these investments for a long time, if not forever. I also do not bother with rebalancing. For example, in recent years the Australian stock market has underperformed whereas foreign stocks (particularly US stocks) have done very well. There are those who rebalance by selling off US stocks to buy Australia stocks to maintain a certain amount to certain countries. This is far more effort than necessary, adds administrative burden by triggering capital gains tax, and does not add much value because if you feel you have too little Australian stock, rather than sell US stock, you can simply buy more Australian stocks. For example, in recent years, as US equities has gone up, I have purchased more high-dividend paying Australian stocks and ETFs e.g. CBA and IHD.

Age in VDCO

For most people who ask, I recommend Vanguard’s diversified ETFs. You cannot beat the simplicity of these ETFs. Whatever your age is, hold that amount in VDCO and the rest you hold in VDHG. For example, if you’re 30 then hold 30% VDCO and 70% VDHG. These Vanguard diversified ETFs diversify across just about all asset classes (e.g. Australian shares, international shares, emerging markets, small caps, property, bonds, etc) so you don’t need to worry about mixing and matching. The reason why you hold your age in VDCO is to broadly follow the “age in bonds” rule, which is insurance against retiring just after a huge market crash. There are many people who are anti-bond and claim that they are a drag on performance, that stocks always go up on the long run, etc, but this is not true. In fact, this is dangerous advice. There is no guarantee that stocks go up in the long run as the value of stocks merely represent company profits and there is no guarantee that company profits will go up in the long run. Even if stocks do go up in the long run, there are huge market crash (e.g. 50% decline) that emerge, not just normal business cycles but debt supercycles that can take centuries to materialize. You do not want to be in the position of being in 100% equities and then losing 50% just before you retire as this can really set you back and impact on the quality of your retirement. Broadly following “age in bonds” (government bonds, specifically) is insurance against such a scenario. In fact, of all the rules of personal finance, “age in bonds” is, in my opinion, the most important. You can pretty much invest in any exotic high-risk asset class (e.g. emerging markets, tech stocks, robotics ETFs, cryptocurrency, etc) but if you own your age in government bonds, you are safe.

When markets go up, it is very easy to rationalize why defensive asset classes are poor quality. It is when markets go up that people easily covert to the cult of equity, but when there is a market crash or when there is a prolonged economic depression that lasts many decades or centures, many will understand and appreciate the wisdom of “age in bonds.” The reality is that when markets are booming, it’s easy to convince yourself why 100% equities or high leverage is a good idea, and the opposite is true when there is a market crash. It goes back to Warren Buffet’s quote about being fearful when others are greedy but also thinking about Ray Dalio’s idea that you must stress test your ideas because you are never be too sure in yourself  because it is easy to be moved by your emotions as well as other psychological biases.

 

 

Top 10 ASX ETFs or LICs

See below a chart providing a ranking of the best income-producing ETFs or LICs on the ASX. The chart below updates in real time and estimates future income returns (including franking credits) based on historic returns. Past performance does not guarantee future performance. The chart below is not exhaustive and does not include all ETFs and LICs.

Betashares Active Australian Hybrids Fund (ASX: HBRD)

I have always been interested in the latest ETFs in Australia. Most people are collectors e.g. they collect stamps, coins, antiques, wine, or wristwatches. I personally like to collect investments. As such I has bought and continue to hold countless investments across many different asset classes. The problem with a passion in e.g. wine or wristwatches is that it may not be profitable (unless the wine or watch is so rare it goes up in value) but an obsession or passion in investments is one you can indulge in without any guilt.

The latest ETF I have researched and purchased is the Betashares Active Australian Hybrids Fund (HBRD). The reason why I have purchased HBRD is because I feel at this stage I have an overweight exposure to stocks, so I want to reduce the risk of my portfolio. However, reducing risk usually involves investing in cash, bonds, or gold. However, these asset classes (with the exception of corporate bonds) pay low passive income thanks to the current low interest rate environment. Investing in HBRD allows me to reduce risk while at the same time getting about 4% or 5% passive income paid monthly.

For a few years now I have been worried about the valuations of stocks and property, but I have been surprised that these assets continue to go up, so the derisking of my portfolio over the last few years has certainly cost me money as I have missed out on large price appreciation. (I also missed out on the cryptocurrency boom as well.) Nevertheless, I have little regrets because I believe in diversification i.e. spreading money across everything. My plan is to gain freedom by slowly building passive income through steady and consistent investment fueled by a minimalist lifestyle. I also believe it is better to be safe than sorry. I’d rather walk steadily towards my goal rather than run there in order to save some time and potentially slip and fall. As they say, everything looks good in hindsight.

What is a hybrid?

All investments have a risk-reward trade-off. The more risk you take, the more potential reward you have. For example, cash or government bonds are safe investments. Government bonds are guaranteed by government. In Australia, cash deposits are mostly government guaranteed as well. However, if you invest in government bonds or cash, you will earn little interest, perhaps 1% or 2% if you’re lucky. Bonds are merely IOUs. If you buy a bond, you are effectively lending money and in return you receive regular interest payments (called a coupon) as well as your money back after a certain period.

In contrast to bonds, stocks are risky investments. Buying stocks allows the stockholder to vote (e.g. for who becomes a director) and allows the stockholder to earn dividends, which are simply payments made by the company to stockholders from profits. Stocks are risker than bonds because bondholders are paid before stockholders. If there is profit made by the company, bondholders are paid first and remaining profit is paid to stockholders. This also applies in the event of bankruptcy. Because stocks are riskier, companies need to pay higher dividends in order to compensate investors for taking on more risk. Dividends from Australian bank stocks such as CBA pay dividends of about 8% currently, but stock prices are volitile and can fluctuate wildly. Although bank stocks pay higher passive income, you are risking capital loss and dividend cuts should the banks become unprofitable.

Hybrids are assets that are a hybrid of bonds and stocks. When you buy a hybrid, you receive regular income as you would a bond. However, under certain circumstances within the hybrid contract, the asset may be converted into equity. All hybrids are different, so it is difficult to generalise. Some hybrids have characteristics that make them more like bonds whereas others have characteristics that make them more like stocks. Regardless, hybrids sit between bonds and stocks on the risk-reward continuum and so can be expected to be less risky than stocks while still paying reasonably high income.

Why buy a hybrid ETF

As explained earlier, every hybrid is different. In order to understand whether a particular hybrid is more bond-like or stock-like, a careful study of the terms and conditions is required. Hybrids are complex investments and as such is suited to active management and oversight by experts, which is what HBRD provides.

Conclusion

Although a good case can be made for active management in hybrids, active management has its issues. You are putting your trust in people, which is generally not a good idea. Nevertheless, I do not intend to put everything into HBRD but will instead spread money across lower risk investments with high passive income. There are another ETF also issued by Betashares that invests in corporate bonds (ASX: CRED). Corporate bonds are higher risk than government bonds thereby allowing higher yields. CRED also pays monthly income, which is very attractive for people who live off passive income (such as myself).

One of the frustrations with hybrids is that there is very little information about it. For example, if you research cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin on the internet, you will find a neverending flood of information, YouTube videos, etc. Bitcoin is a global investment that everyone can access. Hybrids, on the other hand, have few exchanges and are mostly purchased by institutional investors off exchanges. There is little information on the internet about hybrids.

Another consideration is that HBRD purchases hybrids from Australian banks, which are heavily exposed to the Australian housing market. There are currently fears of a slowdown in the property market. Nevertheless, Australian banks do not hold the property itself but rather the mortgages used to buy the property. So long as borrowers keep making their interest payments and paying their fees, revenue should be unharmed. Hybrids are issued all around the world, so the returns on hybrids should correlate with global interest rates. In the recent rising interest rate environment, this should mean higher returns from hybrids but more interest cost for Australian banks as wholesale credit becomes more expensive. Nevertheless, Australian banks do have considerable market power allowing them to respond to rising cost of global wholesale credit by raising interest rates or fees.

 

How Much Passive Income Do You Need?

Most people I speak to, when they want to measure someone’s wealth, measure wealth by referring to how many houses they have. For example, “John owns 14 houses. He is rich.” However, someone may own 14 houses, but each house may only be worth $200k, which gives total assets of $2.8 million. However, what if he also had $2.7 million worth of debt? His net worth would be $100k whereas someone who owns one house worth $1 million that is fully paid off would be 10 times wealthier even though he owns 14 times fewer houses. This example clearly demonstrates how misleading a count of houses is. A more sensible approach is to calculate net worth.

However, net worth can be misleading as well. For example, suppose you inherited a house from your parents that was worth $500k and you live in this house. Suppose suddenly this house went up in value to $1 million. Are you better off? Your net worth has increased by $500k, but because the extra wealth is within the house, you cannot unlock it unless you sell the house. If you sell the house, you’d still need a place to live, so you’d buy another place. The problem is that if you buy another place, that home will have risen in value as well, so the net effect is that you have paid taxes, real estate agent fees, conveyancing fees, etc but there is no difference in your living standards. You are worse off. If you downsize and buy a cheaper place, you’d be able to unlock your extra wealth, but then your living standards drop (e.g. extra commute time).

This point highlights that net worth, although better than a count of houses, has its flaws. An alternative metric, in my opinion, is passive income. Passive income (e.g. from dividend income but also from rent, interest, etc) is income you receive by not working. Passive income should subtract any debt as debt is negative passive income. Debt is the opposite of passive income because you must work to pay off debt. This applies if you hold debt as a liability. If you hold debt as an asset (e.g. you own bonds) then this is passive income. The bonds generate interest for you that you can live off without any work.

Passive income is more useful because it directly measures your standard of living. If your net worth goes up by $500k, that may have zero impact on your standard of living. However, if your passive income goes up by e.g. $1000 per month, that is actual cash in your hands. It directly impacts how much you spend and directly impacts your standard of living.

So how much passive income is enough? It all depends on the person. Everyone is different. It also depends on the city you live in. Some cities are expensive while others are cheap.

However, using Melbourne, Australia for this example, in my opinion, to cover the basic necessities of life, passive income of about A$2000 per month (US$1500 per month) at a minimum is needed, in my opinion.

Currently I work, and I do like my job at the moment, but loving my job is a recent experience. For a long time I have hated my job mainly because I have had bad managers. Something I have learned is that things change all the time at work, so you need to have an exit plan at all times. Too many people get a job, expect they will always love the job and always make good money, so they go into debt to get a mortage, have children, inflate their lifestyle, etc and then suddenly they find they hate their job, but by then they are trapped. I made this realization early on in my career because, when I started working, I went through a restructure in the organisation. I learned quickly how risky it was to have debt and obligations, and I realised the value of structuring your life so that you have the ability to walk away from anything, not just your job but from any person or any organisation. There is great power in being able to disappear at the drop of a hat, and this is achieved with passive income coupled with minimum or no obligation (including financial obligation i.e. debt).

Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.

~ Neil McCauley

Even if there were a restructure at work or a tyrannical manager took over and started legally abusing staff, with passive income of $2000 per month, it is easy to stop work and live an urban hermit lifestyle e.g. renting a one-bedroom unit on the outskirts of the city (e.g. this place in Frankston), living off Aussielent, and surfing the internet all day. The only costs are rent ($1000 per month), Aussielent ($320 per month), wifi ($50 per month), electricity ($100 per month), and water ($100 per month), which comes to a total of $1570 per month. I round that up to $2k per month just to give a little buffer. Nevertheless, this is quite a spartan minimalist lifestyle. Doubling it makes $4k per month passive income, which I feel is enough to really enjoy a comfortable and luxurious lifestyle e.g. travelling, living in the city, eating out, etc. Nevertheless, $2000 to $4000 per month in passive income is a good range to aim for.

4% Safe Withdrawal Rate vs Living Off Dividends

There is a rule in the personal finance community called the 4% rule or safe withdrawl rate (SWR). It basically states that once you are retired you live off 4% of your net worth, which is the safe amount to spend to ensure you don’t run out of money.

The 4% rule is based on the Trinity Study which looked at a portfolio of 50% stocks and 50% bonds to see how likely it was to run out of money over 30 years.

The video above shows how complicated the four percent rule can be and why 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.

 

Betashares Legg Mason Income ETFs (EINC and RINC)

I invested a fair chunk of money into the Betashares Dividend Harvestor Fund (HVST), and while this fund pays great monthly dividends (approx 14% now), its price performance is lacking, as the chart below shows. (Read The Problem with HVST.)

Screenshot 2018-03-12 at 12.26.37 PM

HVST price as of 12 March 2018 – Source: Bloomberg

To address this issue, I have simply opted for a 50% dividend reinvestment plan, which will see half the dividends go back into buying units in the ETF in order to maintain value. Assuming HVST continues to pay 14% yield and that 50% DRP is enough to prevent capital loss, HVST still provides 7% monthly distributions, which in my opinion is fairly good. Generating sufficient monthly distributions is very convenient for those who live off dividends as waiting three months for the next dividend payment can seem like a long wait.

However, Betashares have now introduced two new ETFs on the ASX (EINC and RINC) based on existing managed funds from fund manager Legg Mason. Based on the performance of the equivalent Legg Mason unlisted managed funds, these ETFs are very promising for those who live off passive income. These ETFs have high dividend income (around 6 to 7 percent yield) paid quarterly, and based on past performance at least, there doesn’t seem to be any issue with loss of capital.

RINC (Betashares Legg Mason Martin Currie Real Asset Income ETF) derives its income from companies that own real assets such as real estate, utilities, and infrastructure whereas EINC (Betashares Legg Mason Martin Currie Equity Income ETF) derives its income from broad Australian equities.

The expense ratio of 0.85% is on the high side but not unsual for this type of fund (income focussed and actively managed). Another potential risk to consider is the impact that rising interest rates can have on many of these investments, especially “bond proxies,” into which RINC and EINC seem to invest exclusively.