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.

ETFs (and other ASX-listed Products) that Pay Monthly Distributions

“If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.” ~1 Timothy 6:8

Some time ago I wrote about the Betashares Australian Dividend Harvestor Fund (HVST), which as of now has a very high dividend yield (about 9%) and pays monthly distributions. Monthly distributions are very convenient if you are living off passive income because, for day-to-day expenses such as food, it is more convenient to receive your payment more frequently. Most ETFs pay distributions every quarter, which is quite a long time to wait.

That being said, quarterly or even yearly distributions may be convenient for spending on things you spend less frequently on e.g. a holiday. Suppose you had $100k invested returning 4% dividends. This is $4k per year but paid monthly this would be $333 per month, which means if you wanted to save up for a holiday you’d need to take that $333 per month and put it in a savings account and wait for it to accumulate to $4k before you take an annual holiday. However, if you put that $100k into an ETF that pays yearly distributions, then you’d get $4k once a year, and when you get your $4k, you can go ahead and book your flights and hotels online. The fact that the ETF pays yearly rather than monthly distributions acts to force you to save for those expenses that occur yearly (typically a holiday).

Therefore, I think it is useful to have a mixture of distribution payment frequencies to match what you spend your money on. However, when it comes to financial independence, you shouldn’t focus on holidays first. You should focus on the necessities, and even though I am an atheist, I like to quote 1 Timothy 6:8 in this instance: “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.” In many translations of the bible, it claims that you should be content with “food and raiment,” and the word “raiment” is often translated as referring to clothing, but really raiment refers to covering, i.e. not only clothing but also shelter i.e. four walls and a roof over your head. Why am I talking about food and coverings? Because generally food and rent consist of payments we make frequently. For most people, food spending consists of going to the local supermarket to buy e.g. bread. Rent or mortgage payments are usually monthly payments to the landlord or bank. As such, it is better to have monthly passive income if you’re living off passive income while covering the necessities of life.

In my greed to secure monthly passive income to cover the cost of necessities such as bread and almond milk, I invested a reasonable amount of money into HVST, which at the time was paying about 12% dividend yield. However, the problem with high yield funds is that they are high risk funds as well. In fact, most ASX-listed products that pay high monthly passive income perform quite badly in terms of capital preservation. This may be due to the rising interest rate environment. Many high-yield ETFs and LICs that have managed to achieve reasonable capital preservation have been those that pay quarterly distributions e.g. VHY, IHD, STW, and BKI. The reason I believe this is the case is that stocks provides higher yield than e.g. bonds, but there is greater risk in stocks. Unless we are talking about variable-rate bonds, most bonds are fixed-income products, e.g. a government bond pays you a fixed coupon amount. You can therefore rely on this coupon always being paid. There is little uncertainty. Dividends from stocks, however, may vary depending on market volatility and business activity. For example, recently BHP announced it was buying back shares and paying a special dividend thanks to the sale of a US shale asset to BP. If a fund manager holds BHP, it may receive a huge dividend one day and then the next month may receive little dividends. If economic conditions are challenging, dividends may be cut. As such, if a fund manager were relying on stock dividends to pay monthly distributions, there may be times when dividends are low, which means that in order to maintain the high monthly payout, the fund needs to eat into original capital.

When focusing on financial independence, it make sense to focus on the necessities first, i.e. food and raiment rather than holidays, and given that it is more helpful to have monthly passive income to fund these expenses, I believe it is necessary to look instead at medium-yield (not high-yield) exchange-traded products that pay monthly distributions. Assuming food costs $300 per month and rent costs $700 per month then this means you need $1000 per month for necessities, which means $12k per year. You only need $150k invested earning 8% to get this. This is the allure of high-yield funds. However, with high yield comes high risk, so a medium-yield fund may provide a good compromise.

Remembering that investing has a risk-return tradeoff, and remembering that food and raiment are necessities (you cannot live without food and covering), we should not rely on high-yield high-risk investment to fund necessities. We should at least rely on medium-yield medium-risk investments to fund necessities.

I make these comments because recently I have purchased Betashares’s hybrid ETF (HBRD), which pays about 4% monthly. I have found that HBRD pays very reliable income, almost the same every month whereas virtually all other investments pay variable passive income. Looking at the Bloomberg price chart of HBRD below, you can see that HBRD (in black) is somewhat correlated to the XJO (represented in orange by the STW ETF) but with a lower volatility (or lower beta). This makes sense because hybrids are lower risk than stocks but are riskier than bonds. (Hence they are hybrids as they have bond-like and stock-like characteristics.)

HBRD (in black) has lower volatility than XJO (in orange)
Source: Bloomberg

In fact, Betashares seems to have learned its lesson from HVST and have introduced a slew of other medium-risk ETFs (e.g. CRED and now BNDS) that pay monthly distirbutions to complement their existing inventory of low-risk income ETFs (e.g. AAA and QPON) and high-risk income ETFs (HVST, YMAX, EINC, and RINC).

Below is a table of ASX-listed products (mostly ETFs, LICs, and LITs) that pay monthly distributions. The products below are sorted by risk/yield. I have used my judgement to classify these are high, medium or low yield. Generally high-yield investments derive income from stocks and pay around 5% to 10% yield, medium-risk investments derive income from hybrids and corporate bonds and pay around 3% to 5% yield whereas low-risk investments derive income from cash deposits and government bonds and pay around 1% to 3% yield. Some of these products invest in highly risky areas e.g. QRI will invest in commercial real estate debt. Note that some of these investments have not been released yet and that this is a personal list that I keep that may not include all ASX-listed investments that pay monthly passive income. If I have missed any, please notify me in the comments section.

ASX TickerNameYield
HVSTBetaShares Australian Dividend Harvester FundHigh
PL8Plato Income Maximiser LimitedHigh
QRIQualitas Real Estate Income FundHigh
AODAurora Dividend Income Trust High
EIGAEinvest Income Generator Fund High
GCIGryphon Capital Income TrustHigh
MXTMCP Master Income TrustHigh
HBRDBetaShares Active Australian Hybrids FundMedium
CREDBetaShares Australian Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETFMedium
BNDSBetaShares Legg Mason Australian Bond Fund Medium
QPONBetaShares Australian Bank Senior Floating Rate Bond ETFLow
AAABetaShares Australian High Interest Cash ETFLow
MONYUBS IQ Cash ETFLow
BILLiShares Core Cash ETFLow

Disclosure: My investments include BHP, IHD, HVST, AOD, HBRD, and AAA.

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.

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.

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.

Netflixing to Save Money

When I was younger, I rarely went out. I preferred to stay inside and indulge in cheap electronic entertainment. As I invested more and more and started to earn more dividends, I found myself in a position to go out every now and then, but I have realized that I actually hate going out. I would prefer to stay home and watch Netflix. It just so happens that netflixing is much cheaper than going out, and it is very enjoyable as well.

Netflix pours billions of dollars each year into content production, which means they are able to provide extremely good entertainment to its customers, and customers only need to pay $12 per month. It’s a good deal, in my opinion. It is far better than going out. When people at work show off to me that they went out to a restaurant to a vineyard, I am not afraid to just tell them that I am a hardcore netflixer.

I was talking to colleague earlier this week about how Netflix is an investment because you save up so much money on Netflix that you are able to pour massive sums of money into ETFs. What I hate about “going out” is that it has become such a status symbol. People brag about going out and socializing as if there is something so special about it when really all they are doing is moving themselves to a new location and spending significantly more for it.

When I started working full-time, I was saving about 80% of my salary whereas now I am saving 100% of my salary and living off dividends. I think what is most important is that you pick a savings rate and stick to it. Whether you eat out, pack your lunch, buy coffee, or whatever is irrelevant as long as you stick to your savings goal. Many people focus on small things such as skipping coffee and saving $4 per day, but I find that many of these people skipping coffee are blowing their money on holidays, cars, and so forth. Often skipping coffee is not a savings plan but a reaction to blowing your money elsewhere. Picking and choosing isolated examples of how you save money is meaningless. It’s the overall savings rate that matters.

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.

nikkei225-source
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

Source: https://www.indexologyblog.com/2014/12/12/inside-the-sp-500-the-dividend-aristocrats/