The Recent Economic Downturn Highlights the Importance of Reducing Risk as You Approach Early Retirement

It’s been a while since I last posted on this blog, so I feel I should give an update especially as there has been a lot happening in the economy, and it has mostly been bad news.

Inflation seems to be the main concern, and central banks are increasing interest rates in an attempt to control inflation. This seems to be associated with large falls in the stock, crypto, and possibly the property markets.

With a high exposure to the stock market and crypto markets, overall my net worth has declined by about 40% from the peak, which is quite a lot, but I am mostly calm as I believe this is just the price I need to pay if I invest in volatile assets. That being said, the overall volatility of my net worth right now I think is too high for comfort, so my plan going forward is to dollar cost average into broad market ETFs in order to gradually reduce volatility. My focus will be on high-dividend ETFs.

What has surprised me most during the recent decline is how well Australian equities are doing compared to other assets. Looking at 2022 YTD results, Australian equities are beating not just crypto, US equities, and US tech, but it also seems to be safer than bonds.

Investment 2022 YTD Returns
Ether (ETHAUD)-55.04%
Dogecoin (DOGEAUD)-54.49%
Bitcoin (BTCAUD)-35.07%
US Tech (NDQ)-24.44%
US Equities (IVV)-14.93%
Government Bonds (BOND)-10.32%
Australian Equities (XJO)-8.67%
Gold (PMGOLD)3.48%
Oil (OOO)48.56%
Returns of various assets from 1 Jan 2022 to 12 June 2022

The weakness of bonds has been surprising. Government bonds have usually been considered safe havens, but during the recent downturn they have under-performed oil, gold, and Australian equities. The safe haven status of Australian equities seems to be related to exposure to mining and energy, a sector that would clearly do well with high inflation.

Net worth, annual expenses, and volatility

Something that I have been thinking about is how important it is to reduce the volatility of your investments as you get older and closer to retirement. Vanguard founder Jack Bogle recommended the “age in bonds” rule where you own a percentage of your net worth in bonds equal to your age e.g. if you are 40 then you own 40% of your net worth in government bonds.

Even though I own no property, I can now appreciate one of the benefits of owning your own home outright, which is that there is no or little volatility in relation to the cost of shelter. The two main necessities for humans are food and shelter. If you have a fully paid home, you cover the cost of shelter (ignoring council rates, maintenance, etc) and only need to worry about the cost of food. If you own a $500k home that is fully paid off, you have a place you can live and not worry about this cost, but if that $500k is in ETFs and you rent a place to live, you need to match the returns of the ETF to the rent.

The Australian federal election, climate change, and solar power

Recently there has been a federal election in Australia where the conservative party was defeated after nine years in power. One of the main issues in this election campaign was climate change. One way of reducing carbon emissions involves installing solar panels on your home. Not only can this reduce carbon emissions but it can also reduce electricity bills. In fact, when I think about it, installing solar panels on your home vs paying electricity bills every month is very similar to the buy vs rent dilemma in relation to housing. If you own a fully paid house, you lock in the cost of shelter whereas if you rent you are exposed to market rent. Rent can go up or down but usually it goes up. The same applies with energy. If you own fully paid off solar panels, you lock in the cost of energy for as long as the solar panels are operational, and you are not exposed to the cost of energy. Right now when energy prices are going up, having solar panels seems smart.

Nevertheless, even though you can go into debt and buy a home and install solar panels and batteries on your house, and this can cover your shelter and energy costs when the debt is fully paid off, another option is to simply invest and live off the investment earnings, which is the option to which I have committed myself.

The ASFA Retirement Standard

For a long time now I have been wondering how much do I need to retire, and thankfully there has been many studies on this.

According to the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia‚Äôs Retirement Standard, a single person will need $27,582 per year to live a “modest lifestyle” and $43,638 per year to live a “comfortable lifestyle.”

ASFA Retirement Standard March 2022

One important detail about the ASFA Retirement Standard is that it assumes that you own your own home outright. However, if I assume that, when I retire early, I will live in a one-bedroom apartment in Melbourne, Australia, then according to Numbeo, this will cost $1,687.42 per month or $20249.04 per year. Therefore, the adjusted ASFA numbers are $47831.04 per year for a simple lifestyle and $63887.04 per year for a comfortable lifestyle. Assuming a 3% safe withdrawal rate, this means you will need $1.6 million for a simple lifestyle or $2.1 million for a comfortable lifestyle.

To give myself some wriggle room, I should aim for a comfortable lifestyle i.e., have a net worth over $2.1 million, and by the time I retire early, my net worth should not be too volatile.

I am using a 3% safe withdrawal rate because withdrawing 4% per year is only tested for 30 years, so if I am retiring at age 60, I would withdraw 4% per year, but if I retired before that, I would want to withdraw 3% per year to be sure that my money does not run out. I remember reading somewhere that for every decade earlier you retire, you should subtract 0.5 percentage points e.g. if you plan to withdraw 4% per year retiring at 60 but end up retiring at age 50 instead, you’d withdraw 3.5% per year, and if you retire at age 40 you’d withdraw 3% per year, 2.5% per year if you retire at age 30, and so on.

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.