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.

Buy a House vs Invest in ETFs

This is a common dilemma. You are saying up money and want to know if it is better to buy a house and live in it or invest in ETFs and rent (also known as rentvesting).  Personally I would invest in ETFs. The reason why is because the key difference between the two options is you pay far higher taxes when you buy a house.

For example, if you buy a house then you’re need to pay stamp duty. On a $1 million house that is roughly $57k in stamp duty, which will reduce your net worth. Assuming you save up a $200k deposit, then right after you buy your house your net worth will be $143k whereas if you simply keep your money in ETFs you’d still be at 200k.

However, an argument can be made that if you buy a house, because you have borrowed money to buy $1m worth of asset then you have leveraged exposure, which moves you up the risk-reward curve (also known as the efficient frontier). If you save $200k and invest it in ETFs, if there is a 10% increase, you have made $20k. However, if you have purchased a $1m house and it goes up 10% then you have made $200k. However, what is misleading about this comparison is that it compares apples with oranges, that is, it is comparing leveraged real estate vs unleveraged ETFs. To compare apples with apples, you need to compare leveraged real estate vs leveraged ETFs. Leverage does not increase returns without any consequences. Leverage increases risk, which may result in higher returns.

You can move up the risk-reward curve with ETFs simply by reallocating a portion of your ETFs into internally leveraged ETFs e.g. GEAR or GGUS. Another option is to invest in higher risk niche ETFs (e.g. ROBO or TECH) to move up the risk-reward curve. The benefit of buying higher risk ETFs is that there are no mandatory monthly mortgage payments or, if you take out a margin loan, margin calls. The effect of leverage is handled by the fund itself and there is no obligation for you to pay anything.

Gearing into equities is expensive before tax but cheap after tax

Another way to move up the risk-reward curve is to take out a margin loan and buy ETFs with it. The downside to taking out a margin loan is higher interest rate compared to home loans. According to Canstar, the cheapest margin loan rate is 5.20% from Westpac whereas the cheapest home loan it is 3.49% from Reduce Home Loans. However, if you buy a home to live in, the mortgage debt is not tax deductible, but the margin loan debt is tax deductible, i.e. you can negatively gear into ETFs by taking out a margin loan, which effectively lowers your interest rate by your margin tax rate. Assuming you earn between $87k and $180k and face a 37% margin tax rate then rather than pay 5.20% interest rate you are effectively paying 3.27% which is in fact lower than the home loan. If you have chosen to leverage using internally geared ETFs, because the fund manager has high bargaining power, he or she is able to get low interest rates anyway. According to the GEAR and GGUS brochure from Betashares, “the fund uses its capacity as a wholesale investor to borrow at significantly lower interest rates than those available directly to individual investors.”

Another advantage of investing shares or ETFs is that Australian shares often pay dividends with attached franking credits (e.g FDIV pays 100% franked dividends), which lowers you tax burden even further.

Capital gains tax has little impact

Even though living in a home does not make you eligible for negative gearing, you are eligible for capital gains tax exemption. However, capital gains tax is easy to avoid if you buy a hold shares or ETFs. Because capital gains tax is triggered with you sell and because capital gains tax is charged at your marginal tax rate, simply buy and hold and wait until you are retired. When you are retired, you will earn no salary, so your income will drop and your salary will likely face lower income tax, perhaps even being within the tax free threshold. You then sell off shares or ETFs bit by bit when you’re retired, ensuring that you pay little or no CGT.

Low rental yields vs high dividend yields

Now that we have established that ETFs have lower borrwing costs than real estate due to the impact of negative gearing, stamp duty avoidance, and franking credits, a huge argument for investing in ETFs rather than real estate is the huge difference between rental yields and dividend yields. As of right now, a three-bedroom unit in Brunswick East costs $1.3m and has rental yield of 1.42% i.e. around $18.5k in rent per year. However, as of right now, Commonwealth Bank shares are paying gross dividend yield of 8.6%. This means that if you have $1.3m, then rather than buying the Brunswick East unit and living in it, you can simply take out a margin loan, invest $1.3m all in CBA, and then receive $110k in dividend income per year. After income tax and franking credits, this will be around $90k. After paying rent of $18.5k you have roughly $70k per year extra simply by using ETFs.

Not only do you get $70k per year extra thanks to the extreme spread between rental and dividend yields, but the benefits for ETFs are magnified even further because of lower post-tax borrowing costs.

Using one Brunswick East unit vs one high dividend paying stock (CBA) is an extreme example. Not all stocks are the same and not all residential real estate is the same. However, the general trend is indeed that rental yields in Australia are low and dividend yields on Australian stock are high. If you bring up a list of all properties on the BrickX fractional property platform and sort by rental yield, the highest yield property, a one-bedroom unit in Enmore NSW only delivers a rental yield of 2.76% with the average rental yield about 1.5%. However, a broad ASX200 ETF such as STW provides gross dividend yield of 5%.

 

 

 

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.

 

Betashares Legg Mason Income ETFs (EINC and RINC)

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

Screenshot 2018-03-12 at 12.26.37 PM

HVST price as of 12 March 2018 – Source: Bloomberg

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

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

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

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

The End of Slavery – Why I Live Off Dividends

One of the reasons why I don’t like being around people most of the time is because they tend to say things that trigger me. Maybe I am too sensitive. Most of the time people just say whatever is on their mind, and they quick jump from one superficial idea to another. Most of the time human interaction is just an attempt to say something for the sake of saying something, so perhaps I take things too seriously.

I live with my mother, and a few days ago, someone at work commented that I should not live with my mother because she will become a burden on me as she grows older. The reason why this comment triggered me is because there are many assumptions made, and it simply isn’t true. I didn’t get much of a chance to explain myself before the topic of conversation moved on, but days after this colleague made this trivial comment, I am still thinking about it, and my colleague may have forgotten all about it.

If I moved out from my mother’s house, she could still be a burden on me because technology connects us all, so even if I lived far away from my mother, she can still call or message me if she wants something from me.

However, suppose my mother and I lived in different cities. It would be more difficult for me to get to her, so she won’t be as much of a burden on me. Regardless, currently I don’t consider myself to be too close to my mother even though I live with her. I work quite often, and she also works as well, so we often do not see each other. My mother and father divorced a few years ago, so my mother learned from experience how important it is to be independent and to never trust or be dependent on anyone. Even on weekends I may be out somewhere, and she would be as well, so we rarely see each other. The only time we regularly see each other is at night when I get home from work and she cooks me dinner, and this is a tradition that seems to just happen all the time. She has always cooked dinner for me, and I never objected to it, so it keeps happening. In fact, my mother cooked dinner from my whole family, but over time everyone moved out. After the divorce, my father moved out, then my brothers moved out, and now she only cooks for me.

Even though my mother is in the habit of cooking dinner for me, this doesn’t happen all the time. For example, last night I had dinner with a colleague at work, so I came back at around nine at night, had a shower, and went to bed. This tradition of my mother cooking dinner for me seems to be the only habit that keeps us together. My grandmother on my father’s side used to wake up early and cook breakfast for me. I didn’t like it because there were days when I wanted to go to work earlier, so I just wanted to make my own breakfast or skip breakfast and just drink coffee, but my grandmother wanted to make breakfast for me. After the divorce that ripped through the family, my grandmother left the house to live with my father, and now I rarely see her. Most relationships are based on dependence and habit. When you are a child and you’re dependent on your parents, you are forced to interact with them, and they become familiar to you, so you bond to them. The same applies with work. You provide skills to your employers, and employers give you a salary, so you are mutually dependent, and over time there are colleagues at work you see all the time, and familiarity breeds trust and bonding. But as people become more independent, that dependency goes away, and as a result, bonds break.

Going back to the topic of my mother and her habit of cooking dinner for me, there are many in my family who jokingly talk about how I need my mother to cook for me (or I need a woman to cook for me), but I think many people say this because many people are traditional, and they believe in the traditional family. They want to believe that the woman’s role is to cook. This includes many traditional women. However, in my opinion, modern technology has made cooking irrelevant. You can easily eat out at restaurants, but even if you consider that to be expensive, it is not difficult to cook simple meals for yourself using e.g. a blender or microwave. For example, it is not hard to microwave or boil beans or to throw fruits and greens into a blender. To clean up, there is the dishwasher. There are many traditionalists out there (mostly women, based on my observation) who want to go back to the days of old when they stayed at home and engaged in low-skilled cooking and cleaning duties, and I think the allure of this is that woman don’t need to go out into the workplace to make money, and this is what drives anti-feminism among women. These women are simply selfish. I would consider myself to be a feminist man, and I encourage all women to get out into the world, work, invest, and become financially independent. They should resist the temptation to glamorize slavery.

My mother does not always cook dinner for me. There are times when I eat out, e.g. when I had a girlfriend a few years ago I spent a lot of time having dinner with her. If I wanted a cheap dinner, rather than eating out, I can bring meal replacement powders (e.g. Aussielent, Soylent, Huel, or Joylent) to work, and after work I can simply mix the powder with water and drink it as dinner. For added nutrition, I can come home and prepare a green smoothie using the blender. Because these foods are simple to make, I am not dependent on my mother for anything.

In the future, I intend to rent a one-bedroom apartment in or near the city because I am quite tired of commuting to and from work. I love to just be able to walk to work. Once I grow my dividends, my dividend income should cover the cost of renting an apartment in the city. As my dividends grow even more, I may be able to work part-time and use the spare time to work in a coworking space doing projects that I enjoy. With the proliferation of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology, I suspect that a lot of business in the future will be done online and on the blockchain. It is a new frontier. Basically my plan is to transition gradually from living in the suburbs with my mother to living in the city and being self-reliant. I will also transition away from the traditional 9 to 5 job into more flexible work that gives me more control over what I do and with whom I work, and all this will be funded by dividend income. I recently performed a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation and found that I am investing about $70,000 per year, which is a lot. A considerable amount of this (about one-third of it) is going into my superannuation fund, which means I will not have access to it until I am very old) but about two-thirds of it is going into dividend-paying stocks or ETFs, so I expect my dividend income to gradually increase, which will improve my standard of living. I want to use my dividends to fund a more autonomous life with more freedom. I want to be free from my family and from my employer.

I expect freedom to come gradually. Most people have a date when they simply retire. There is a clear date, a line in time when they are no longer slaves but are free. I will have no such date. I believe that slavery is a continuum. On one end you have total freedom, i.e. no debt, good health, and living off enormous amounts of passive income. Then on the other end you have total slavery, e.g. shackled and in prison. Then there are degrees of slavery, and most people have quite a considerable degree of slavery imposed on them by their jobs, their family, their children, their mortgage and car loans, etc. For me, there is no retirement, just a gradual move from slavery to freedom.

As my dividend income increases, I will eat out more for dinner (or drink Aussielent) rather than go home and get my mother to cook. As my dividend income grows even more, I will sleep at home less. Rather than commute back home, I may hire places to sleep at night using Airbnb or I will rent apartments in the city for longer periods of time. The same applies for work. My intention is to reduce my hours so that I work part-time, or I may be more flexible, e.g. I may work at coworking spaces or at cafes. I may even ask my manager if I can work at overseas coworking spaces. This is good for me because I get away from the office, but it is also good for my employer because my desk is not being used, so there are cost savings. If technology is good enough, working remoting should not make me any less productive. This will be my main digital nomad plan, which is to do what I currently do at work but to gradually do it remotely as my dividend income and skills increase. As dividend income and skills increase, I have more bargaining power, and technology will improve over time, which should make remote work be easier. There is also a broader push by feminists for more flexible working arrangement because women want to spend more time looking after their family, so this could possibly benefit me.

Basically with higher dividends, I have more power so that I can shape my life the way I want my life to be. This has been the intention since the beginning. Living off dividends is my guiding philosophy in life because it gives me the freedom and power to do what I want. The basic idea is that you increase dividend income so that you get paid without needing to work, and at the same time you reduce all obligations, e.g. debt, marriage, and children. You minimize responsibility, obligation, and duty. By not putting any future obligation on yourself, you are free to do what you want. You are free to experiment with what makes you happy, and dividend income will allow you to experiment.

At the end of the day, my belief is that freedom depends on the direction of flow of obligation. When you hold stocks, ETFs, government bonds, etc, then there is an obligation for others to pay you money. There is a legal obligation for companies to pay you dividends. There is a legal obligation for the government to pay you interest because you are a bondholder. The flow of obligation is from others towards you. However, if you have debt, then the flow of obligation is reversed. For example, if you have credit card debt or a mortgage, you owe money to the bank. If you have obligations to family, friends, spouse, or children, that also imposes either a legal or social obligation from you to others.

The flow of obligation from you to others makes you a slave. The flow of obligation from others to you makes others your slave and increases your freedom. Freedom or autonomy is dependent on the flow of obligation. Manage the flow of obligation and you manage your freedom, and freedom is happiness.

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.

Property vs Margin Loan vs Internally Geared Funds

I have mentioned in a previous post that I don’t like to buy a house. Instead, from experience, I find that it’s best to invest in ETFs. The reason is because ETFs give you flexibility to invest in what you want. If you buy a house as an investment, you are leveraging into one house, and although the general property market may behave one way it’s very hard to know how your house will perform individually. For example, the house price indexes from the Australian Bureau of Statistics averages out results for a number of different houses. If, say, you have a house in Sydney and Sydney house prices went up 5% this does not mean your house specifically went up 5% but that houses in general in Sydney went up 5%.

Furthermore, if you buy a house to live in, you have nothing but debt (unless you buy a house outright without a mortgage, but this is rare). You have a mortgage that you must pay monthly and any benefit from the investment is in the form of capital gains, which you cannot access until you sell the house. You cannot see capital gains, and you cannot access capital gains. Capital gains are invisible and, if there is suddenly a recession, all your capital gain that may have taken you decades to accumulate may disappear in a matter of weeks or months.

Capital gains do not provide the same sort of comfort that cold hard cash income provides. If you have a house, this problem can easily be fixed if you turn your house into an investment property and rent it out, but even if you had an investment property, the performance of an investment property just doesn’t compare to ETFs, in my opinion. Unless you really know how to pick good property, residential property in general has low yields, and after you pay property management fees, taxes, house repair and maintenance, etc, you don’t end up with much, especially not when compared to ETFs that have been engineered to seek out and pay high dividends.

Property is not a good investment. From my experience with residential property, once you buy a property, suddenly everyone wants money from you and everyone sends in their bills. Once you buy property, you need to pay bank fees, mortgage interest, lawyer fees (for conveyancing), real estate agent commissions, taxes (stamp duty and land tax), and property manager fees. Once something goes wrong in your house (e.g. the shower breaks) you need to get a repairman in to fix it, and he send you a bill as well.

Investing in high-dividend paying ETFs is completely different. You use an online broker (e.g. CommSec) to buy ETFs listed on a stock exchange, and then you sit back and watch money flow into your bank account. That’s it.

What about leverage?

One of the benefits of property is leverage. Because you borrow money from the bank, you have more assets exposed to the market, which means potentially higher gains. However, leverage works both ways. If the asset price does not go up enough to compensate you for the interest expense, you will lose money, and when you are leveraged, you will lose a lot of money.

That being said, leverage is a legitimate strategy if you want to accept higher risk to get higher returns. You are effectively moving up the efficient frontier.

Leverage is easy to achieve using ETFs. There are two options: (1) invest in leveraged ETF (e.g. the Betashares Gear Australian Equity Fund (ASX: GEAR)) or (2) apply for a margin loan to borrow money from the bank to buy stocks or ETFs.

Based on the modelling I have done, all these options (property, margin loan, and leveraged ETFs) have somewhat similar returns, so it doesn’t matter which you do so long as you feel comfortable with the risk you are taking. However, that being said, I think that out of these three choices, property is the worst because once you sign up to borrow money from the bank, you have a monthly mortgage that you must pay. You basically have a noose around your neck. If you don’t pay it, the bank will sell your house, and you will incur substantial transaction costs. When you have a margin loan, many people will try to scare you about the dreaded so-called “margin call” but this I think is overblown. The bank will only step in to induce a margin call when your debt levels are high relative to the value of your assets (they look at your loan-to-value ratio or LVR). They do this because, if you have a high LVR, the risk you are taking is too high, and the bank will get worried that the size of your debt will be too high relative to the size of your assets, which means you may owe the bank money that you may not pay. As part of their risk management, banks will monitor your LVR and intervene to lower your LVR if you raise it too much. This applies not only with stocks but also with property.

Banks will intervene to lower your LVR if you have not been paying your mortgage. If you miss a mortgage payment or two, the bank may allow it because your LVR will not be too high, but if it goes on for too long and your debt levels start to rise too much, the bank will intervene to sell your property. Therefore, regardless of whether you have a property or a margin loan, the bank will still intervene if the LVR is too high. So long as you keep watch of your LVR and make sure it is not too high, you will be fine.

When managing your LVR, the problem with property is that you have zero control over your portfolio. Once you buy your house, there’s littel you can do to affect the volatility of the asset. You have zero control. However, if you own a portfolio of shares or ETFs, you can control how much volatility there is in the portfolio by buying specific listed assets. Managing volatility is important to managing your LVR because volatility affects the value of the portfolio, which of course impacts the denominator in the LVR. If you use a margin loan to leverage, say, into the Chinese stock market (e.g. the iShares China Large-Cap ETF (ASX: IZZ)) then the risk you face (and therefore the probability of a margin call) will be much higher than if, say, you invest in stable assets such as global infrastructure (e.g. via the AMP Capital Global Infrastructure Securities Fund (ASX: GLIN)).

There is a much easier way of leveraging that involves zero risk of a margin call, and this is by investing in internally geared funds. With internally geared funds, you don’t borrow. Rather, you take your money and invest it in the fund. The fund manager collects your money (as well as money from other investors) and uses this to borrow money from the bank in order to invest in stocks. Because debt is handled by the fund manager (rather than you yourself), you don’t owe anyone anything ever. Betashares currently offer two listed internally geared ETFs: GEAR, which leverages into Australian stocks; and GGUS, which leverages into US stocks.

According to the Betashares website, the fund is “‘internally geared’, meaning all gearing obligations are met by the Fund, such that there are no possibilities of margin calls for investors.”

Gearing via an internally geared ETF, in my opinion, is the optimal strategy unless you want to borrow money yourself so you can claim the interest expense as a tax deduction. However, that being said, if you borrow money yourself, because you are only one man (or woman), you will typically pay between 4 to 6 per cent at current rates, but if you invest in a leveraged ETF, the fund manager is responsible for borrowing, and the fund manager has access to low institutional interest rates (supposedly around 3%) thanks to its buying power. You are therefore able to gain even greater leverage with internally leveraged ETFs.

Conclusion 

I used to be very much against gearing because I strongly believe that debt is slavery, but now I accept that gearing can be a legitimate strategy so long as you have robust downside protection. I believe that no matter what you do (when investing and in life in general), it’s good to take risk because more risk provides greater return, but risk must be managed. It is okay to take risk so long as you have a safety net or a fallback plan if everything goes wrong.