How to Live off Crypto by Staking

I primarily invest in the stock market and aim to live off dividends mostly from ETFs. However, the cryptocurrency market is hard to ignore. When you compare the total crypto market to the S&P500 (see chart below) you will notice that crypto makes holding stocks feel like holding cash. In the last five years, the S&P500 has gone up by 109 percent which is almost double. However, the total crypto market cap has gone up 18,942 percent.

Total crypto market cap (blue) vs VOO ETF, which tracks S&P500 (orange) over the past five years.

Institutions are starting to look into crypto. For example, Tesla invests in bitcoin, and the Commonwealth Bank has announced it will soon allow crypto to be used within its app. All this shows that crypto is going mainstream.

Recently ETF provider Betashares has released its Crypto Innovators ETF (CRYP). For those who are interested in exposure to crypto, I highly recommend this ETF, which doesn’t invest in crypto itself but in crypto companies (e.g. crypto miners, crypto exchanges, and companies that hold a lot of crypto). It is analogous to investing in a gold mining ETF rather than holding physical gold itself. What is reassuring about this ETF is that it roughly tracks the price of bitcoin and ether, the two largest cryptos.

The CRYP ETF (blue) is roughly correlated to bitcoin (orange) and ether (aqua) prices.

The benefit of buying CRYP rather than holding the actual cryptos itself is safety and security. ETFs are regulated by government, which is reassuring. The alternative way to securely hold crypto is via a paper wallet, which I do not recommend to beginners as it is complex. If you do not know what you are doing, one small error can cause all your crypto to be lost.

When buying and holding crypto investments such as bitcoin, ether or CRYP, you mainly profit from capital gains made when prices go up. Usually there is little income to be made from crypto. The CRYP ETF pays dividends, but it is likely to be very low. However, a recent innovation in the crypto market that has changed all that is staking, which allows you to earn income on crypto.

What is staking?

According to Binance, the term “staking” is defined as “holding funds in a cryptocurrency wallet to support the security and operations of a blockchain network. Simply put, staking is the act of locking cryptocurrencies to receive rewards.”

To put it simply, when you stake crypto, you are locking it up and allowing it to be used to earn more. The passive income earned via staking is termed “staking rewards.”

Why stake?

What is the purpose of staking? Why not just buy and hold the crypto or invest in dividend-paying stocks? Quite simply, the returns via staking are huge. My favourite place to stake crypto is the PancakeSwap Syrup Pools, and as of November 2021, the average APR from staking is about 60 to 70 percent. Earning 70% from crypto staking is far higher than what you’d earn from dividends. Furthermore, if you buy and hold crypto or CRYP, you are earning either zero or very little passive income.

The huge risks of staking crypto

Of course, if returns from staking are 70% or more, why not just go all in? The answer is that staking is very risky, so I do not recommend putting in too much, and any amount you put in should be an amount you are prepared to lose. When staking crypto, you are giving up control of your crypto and handing it to a protocol. Protocols are merely code, and code can have flaws that hackers can attack. There have been many hacks recently e.g. billionaire Mark Cuban lost a lot of money following the hack of Iron Finance. Other examples of major hacks of decentralised finance networks include PancakeHunny and Poly Network.

So then if crypto staking is so risky, what is the point of staking? Basically you will need to consider whether the high gains are greater than the risks. Everyone has different risk tolerance. Thankfully there are many ways you can reduce the risk of crypto staking. The first is to stake on more reputable networks e.g. PancakeSwap and ApeSwap are examples. Research whether these networks have been audited by reputable crypto audit organisations (e.g. Certik). Furthermore, it is always a good idea to spread your money across different networks just in case one gets hacked. I currently stake crypto on PancakeSwap, ApeSwap and BiSwap.

How exactly do you stake?

In terms of the nuts and bolts of how to stake, more detail can be found on YouTube. In terms of how I stake crypto on PancakeSwap, I deposit Australian dollars into Binance and then convert it into BNB (Binance Coin). Then I withdraw the BNB into a crypto address generated using the Trust Wallet app. Using the Trust Wallet browser, I go to PancakeSwap and convert the BNB into CAKE. I then go to the syrup pool and stake the CAKE. When the staking pool generates a reasonable amount of staking rewards, I harvest the staking rewards, convert it back to BNB, send it to Binance, and then convert it back to Australian dollars before withdrawing it into my bank account.

Conclusion

As mentioned, staking is very risky, so I am relying on both staking rewards from crypto and dividends from ETFs to fund my living expenses. The staking rewards provide high returns whereas the ETFs provide safety and lower risk. Indeed the staking rewards are taxed in full. There are no franking credits on staking rewards. Regardless, for argument’s sake, even if you pay 50% in tax, staking reward of 70% means you have 35% after tax. Dividend yields are about 5% and assuming franking credits completely offset income tax, 35% is higher than 5%, so it is better to simply pay the tax. Often investors are focused too much on tax or other aspects of an investment (such as how much leverage you can achieve). What matters is total return.

Returning to Living Off Dividends

There is a large body of personal finance advice that states that investing for dividends is unwise and tax inefficient. The argument is that when a company pays a dividend, the stock price must decline by the amount of the dividend to reflect the declining assets on the balance sheet. Hence receiving dividends is no different to simply selling shares except the difference is that the company makes the decision to sell rather than you. The argument goes that while you are working and earning a relatively high income, it is better to not receive dividends, which will be taxed heavily (because of your high income). It is better instead to let the earning accumulate as capital gains and then realise those gains after you retire when your income (and hence the tax bracket you’re in) drops.

About two or three years ago, I was strongly persuaded by these views (known as the dividend irrelevant theory). In a 2019 post titled My Changing Views, I said the following:

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 is 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.

My scepticism of dividend investing and growing belief in the dividend irrelevance theory didn’t start in 2019. I had been thinking about it for a while. When I think about it today, I may have been strongly influenced by FOMO after seeing the performance of Australian equities (high dividends) relative to foreign equities (high growth). As a result, I did divert more money into foreign equities and even cryptocurrency. I also used my margin loan to leverage more into foreign equities.

Indeed, in the past few years, foreign equity and crypto (especially crypto) has outperformed Australian equity. In the past five years, Australian equity as represented by VAS went up 32% whereas foreign equity as represented by IWLD went up 58%. However, the total crypto market cap has gone up 20525% in the last five years.

Returning to living off dividends

Recently I have decided to shift my focus back to dividend investing. I have learned that going into debt and focusing on capital gains has some negative side effect.

I will not be selling my high growth and low yield investments (mostly foreign equity ETFs and crypto), but new money from my salary will now be invested into investments that pay high passive income e.g. Australian equity. (I am also looking into crypto staking as a way to earn passive income, but I am very new to this and that is a topic for another blog post.)

Sometimes it’s worth paying extra for professional service

According to the dividend irrelevance theory, receiving dividends is no different to selling shares except the company sells for you. In other words, the board of a company, a group of professionals, make the decision on how much earning to distribute to shareholders as dividends. Because professionals are making this decision, I like to use the term “professional dividends” as it contrasts with the term “homemade dividends.”

Homemade dividends refer to a form of investment income that investors generate from the sale of a percentage of their equity portfolio. The investor fulfills his cash flow objectives by selling a portion of shares in his portfolio instead of waiting for the traditional dividends. Usually, if a shareholder needs some cash inflow, but it is not yet time for a dividend payout, he can sell part of the shares in his portfolio to generate the required cash inflow.

Corporate Finance Institute

In my opinion, there is a benefit to relying on professionals to decide how much to spend and how much to reinvest. The 4% rule is a rule of thumb and is not perfect. It takes historic stock market performance in the US and assumes that what has happened in the past will likely happen in the future, but we don’t know if what has happened in the past can be extrapolated into the future. The high stock market returns of the past may have been fuelled by an abundance of natural resources, high fertility rate, and central bankers continually dropping interest rates. What happens now that natural resources are more scarce and the world faces climate change risk, low fertility rate, and interest rates dropping to near zero?

One of the principles of index investing is that you let the market decide rather than engage in “active investing.” The idea of letting an index weight companies by market capitalisation is that you have a higher exposure to companies that the market deems as better. In my opinion, the same idea applies to dividends. Generating homemade dividends seems like active investing. You are making very bold predictions about the sustainability of your wealth when using rules of thumb such as the 4% rule. By relying on the boards of multiple companies to decide the dividend payout ratio, you are crowd-sourcing what professionals and the market believe is an optimal amount of earnings to distribute as dividends. When boards make this decision, they are considering many factors such as risks they foresee in the future. When COVID-19 hit, many companies decided to reduce dividend payouts based on their judgements. Even if the judgment of these boards are not great, if a company pays out too much in dividends then the market should be able to detect this and reduce the share price, which, assuming you’re investing in a market cap weighted dividend ETF, means that your exposure to these types of companies is reduced.

We rely on professionals for many things in our lives e.g. accountants, lawyers, doctors, and even personal trainers. Often it is better to relying on professionals rather than do it yourself. The same idea applies to dividends.

Investing is emotional

One of the benefits of letting boards and professionals decide how much to distribute as dividends is that it takes out emotion. If you are generating your own homemade dividends by selling down stock, you will likely be overcome with emotions. If you sell too much, you might deplete your wealth before you die. If you sell too little, you will deprive yourself right now, and a stock market correction in the near future may wipe out all those gains anyway.

If you try to take away this emotion by relying on rules of thumb such as the 4% rule then you run the risk of being overly simplistic and extrapolating historical performance into the future. By outsourcing this decision to professionals and the market, you reduce emotion significantly.

When saving money, it is often advised that you should “pay yourself first” or “set and forget.” You should ideally automate everything so that you don’t need to think too much about it. Those who try to time the market tend to mess things up. The same logic applies to homemade dividends vs professional dividends. Living off dividends is automatic. Everything occurs in the background and you only see the dividends hitting your bank account.

A bird in hand is worth two in the bush

Another argument for dividend investing is that we do not know if a catastrophic market crash will hit us in the future. If we live off dividends rather than let those earnings compound on a company’s balance sheet, then certainly the growth of our net worth may be lower, but we spend more today, which can help address feelings of deprivation associated with aggressive frugality. If we focus entirely on capital gains, who is to say that just before we retire or during our retirement, an enormous market crash won’t wipe away everything? At least if we invest in high dividends and spend all our dividends, even if everything collapses near the end, we can look back and be happy that we lived off dividends.

Living off Dividends vs the Four Percent Rule – Part 2

According to Wikipedia, financial independence is defined as “the status of having enough income to pay for one’s reasonable living expenses for the rest of one’s life without having to rely on formal employment.”

Financial independence does not mean you have e.g. a late-model luxury car, an expensive house, a nice watch, or even a paid-off house. If you have to work, you’re not financially independent because you are dependent on your job.

So how do you live off your investments forever? There are two main ways to achieve this: (1) live off dividends and (2) sell assets according to the “four percent rule.”

In a post I made back in 2018 titled 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate vs Living off Dividends, I claim that it is better to live off dividends because it is easier:

 [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.

Living off dividends is indeed simple. Suppose you have $1 million. You invest it in a high dividend ETF (e.g. IHD, SYI or VHY) and that is it. The dividends will be paid to your bank account, which you live off.

However, there are many problems with relying on dividends. Typically Australian investors have relied on blue chip Australian stocks for dividends because of favourable tax treatment (due to franking credits). The problem is that these stocks tend to be concentrated among a handful of companies and historically Australian high dividend payers have performed poorly. It makes sense that high dividend paying stocks underperform because each dollar paid out in dividends is a dollar not reinvested in the company. Because the company pays out the profit as dividends, it is not able to use that money to further grow the company. The chart below demonstrates the underperformance of high dividend paying stocks by comparing an Australian high dividend ETF (black) with the broader Australian equity market (orange). For the sake of comparison, the Nasdaq 100 is represented in blue, which is the NDQ ETF tracking an index that consists mostly of technology companies that historically pay low dividends but instead reinvest profits for growth. Major companies in NDQ are Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.

High dividend ETF IHD (in black) underperforms the broader Australian stock market (represented by STW in orange) and significantly underperforms the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 index (represented by NDQ in blue). Source: Bloomberg

In contrast to the simplicity of dividends, implementing the four percent rule is more difficult, but there is considerable evidence that this approach is better, not only due to it being more tax efficient but also because the assets you invest in tend to earn more (as demonstrated in the above chart comparing the Nasdaq 100 ETF vs an Australian high dividend index ETF). Suppose you have $1 million. Rather than invest this in high dividend stocks or ETFs, you invest it in high growth stocks or ETFs that focus more on capital gains rather than dividends. You can choose NDQ, a Nasdaq 100 ETF, but if you want more diversification across countries and sectors, a good high growth ETF is VDHG, which invests in 90% global equities and 10% bonds. (Another ETF similar to VDHG but with slightly lower fees is DHHF.)

How to implement the 4% rule

When you retire, rather than rely on dividends, you simply sell off 4% of the value of the investments each year, so if you have $1 million you sell off $40k and then live off that for the first year. The expectation is that after you sell $40k then you will have $960k, but if we assume 7% annual growth then the next year your net worth will grow to $1.027 million and then you withdraw 4% of this, which is $41,088. This higher withdrawal in the next year accounts for inflation. (Note there is some uncertainty about whether, in this example of retiring with $1 million, you simply withdraw $40k each year or if you withdraw 4% of the new balance each year. I believe the latter option is safer because it explicitly accounts for inflation.)

The “four percent rule” is controversial with many arguing that it is only designed to last you thirty years. However, a simple fix to this problem is to withdraw 3% of your portfolio each year rather than 4% and, in my opinion, anything below 3% is far too conservative. Based on FireCalc.com, although the 4% rule fails with 95% probability after 30 years, the 3% rule is highly likely to last you forever. Basically if you are retiring in your 60s or 70s, you should be able to get away with the 4% rule, but if you retire any earlier, you should use the 3% rule instead.

The chart below made using FireCalc.com provides a simulation of historic stock market returns using the 4% rule and shows that over 70 years there is a good change you will not run out of money after 70 years but there is approximately a 10% probaility that you will (represented by lines going down below the horizontal red line).

Simulation showing the 4% withdrawal rate has an approximately 10% probability of failure over 70 years. Source: FireCalc.com

However, using the 3% rule, there are no probability where you lose your money (based on historic stock market performance), even under the assumption that you retire in your 30s and live for 70 years.

Simulation showing a 3% withdrawl rate being highly likely to last you forever. Source: FireCalc.com

The reason why selling off assets is more tax efficient is because capital gains are not realised until you sell the assets, which means you can sell them when you retire. By selling off assets when you retire, you do so when your income is low, which exposes more of your capital gains to low (or zero) income tax brackets. However, dividends are taxed once they are paid, which means that while you are working and accumulating assets, you’ll pay taxes on dividend income while your income is relatively high.

Capital gains are subject to Australian income tax rates once the capital gains are realised.

What will I do?

Early in my journey towards financial independence, I focused mainly on accumulating high dividend ETFs e.g. IHD and even HVST (see The Problem with HVST). When investing in purely Australian equities, I discovered that not only did my investments underperform but I also needed to pay taxes every year. To address this problem, I used a margin loan to borrow against my ETFs and diversify into international and emerging market equities more (e.g. I made some good bets on technology ETFs). Having a margin loan has its pros and cons, but one of the pros is that the interest on the margin loan is tax deductible, which helps to offset the tax paid on the dividends from Australian equities. Today Australian equities make up approximately half of my equities with the other half in international equities and a small amount of emerging market equities. Although I have a margin loan, I have started dabbling in NAB Equity Builder. NAB EB allows you to borrow at a lower rate compared to a margin loan.

While I am moving towards growth rather than dividends, I am still holding onto my high dividend ETFs. My plan is, rather than choose between dividends or growth, I will simply aim for both. There are many benefits of dividend investing e.g. franking credits. Furhermore, even though Australian high dividend stocks have underperformed in the last decade, there may be hope in the future as these companies enter the post-COVID future. If I sell Australian dividend stocks and use the proceeds to purchase global tech stocks, there is a very real risk that I will sell low and buy high, so rather than sell, I prefer to simply leave my Australian dividend stocks and ETFs. It should also be noted that there are other ETFs on the ASX that pay high dividends but do not invest in Australian equities e.g. UMAX uses options against the S&P500 to generate income; EBND invests in emerging market bonds and pays approximately 5% monthly; and TECH focuses on global tech stocks that have strong moats, and surprisingly this ETF has a dividend yield of approximately 9% paid yearly. I will discuss these non-Australian high-yield ETFs in a separate future blog post.

Property vs shares

Although it is clear that I have a bias towards shares over property, the strategy of selling down high growth ETFs exposes yet another benefit of shares vs property, which is the ability of ETFs to be sold in small chunks. If you have a $1 million property, you cannot sell half of it because no one will want half a property. You must sell it all in one go. Suppose you make $500k capital gains. Then $18200 of that will be exempt from tax while the rest of it is subject to tax, so you’ve managed to avoid tax on $18200. Now suppose you have $1 million in ETFs, which we will assume is $1 million all in VDHG. Rather then being forced to sell all of it in one go, you sell half of it in one year and the other half the next year. By doing this you realise $250k in each year. This exposes $36400 to the tax free threshold. By being able to sell smaller portions, you make the most of the tax free threshold.

Thanks to ETFs being highly divisible, I can sell off small amounts of ETFs each year thereby spreading capital gains across multiple years and exposing more capital gains to low tax brackets. Furthermore, any capital gains on assets held over one year receive a 50% CGT discount.

Another benefit of investing in ETFs rather than property is that you can sell ETFs cheaply e.g. selling one property will cost you about $20k to $30k in real estate agent commissions, but with ETFs you will pay about $20 or $30 to sell (or even $9.50 for discount online broker SelfWealth).

Other benefits of ETFs vs property is you avoid stamp duty and land tax. You also have access to franking credits.

Of course, in all fairness, there are some downsides of ETFs vs property e.g. the interest rate on NAB EB and margin loans are higher than those on mortgages, and although you can achieve leverage of about 70% using NAB EB or margin loans, you are able to achieve leverage of 80% up to 95% with property. In my opinion, even if you are able to achieve more leverage against property, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Leverage can magnify gains but also magnifies losses should the market go through a downturn. When leveraging into ETFs, you are able to diversify within the portfolio defensive assets such as bond ETFs (e.g. VDCO), hybrid ETFs (e.g. HBRD) or even gold mining ETFs (e.g. GDX), which reduces volatility. When you leverage into a property, you are all in one property in one place, exposed to an universified asset in one location. Many believe that property is safe compared to the volatility of the stock market, but if you invest in a highly diversified ETF, it is safer than investing in one property. The lack of volatility in property is actually the result of poor price discovery mechanisms rather than because property is inherently safer than shares. Once property is listed and exposed to the same price discovery mechanism of shares, property is highly volatile as evidenced by the price charts of residential REITs.

Disclosure: I own IHD, SYI, HVST, NDQ, UMAX, EBND, TECH, HBRD, and GDX.

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 is 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 “do 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.

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.

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
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
BILLiShares Core Cash ETFLow

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

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/