The Impact of Coronavirus on Financial Independence

The stock market crash caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has hit hard. Top to bottom, the ASX 200 has fallen about 30% and we don’t know if it will continue to fall. What I found incredible about this downturn is how fast it was. The GFC back in 2008 was a much more staggered downturn whereas the COVID-19 crash looks like a straight line down.

The only way to prevent the spread of this virus is to restrict movement. However, restricting movement hurts the economy. If people cannot commute to work, travel to another country to do a business deal, go to a shop to buy something, etc then trade doesn’t happen. If trade doesn’t happen, businesses collapse. This may lead to businesses firing staff, which reduces spending, which leads to more business collapse.

Diversification

This whole incident demonstrates the importance of diversification. Even though I am heavily invested in high-dividend Australian equities, the risk with focusing on a narrow asset class is a lack of diversification, so my focus on high-dividend Australian equities has definitely not helped me during this market crash.

The video above (with overly dramatic music) demonstrates how widely different countries’ stock markets have performed during the virus outbreak and illustrates the importance of diversification. Chinese equities have held up very well compared to the stock indices of other countries. Other assets that have held up well are gold, government bonds, and the US dollar.

All this demonstrates the importance of diversifying across a range of different assets. Because a significant amount of my wealth is in high-dividend paying Australian equities (e.g. IHD), I have made significant six-digit losses. Investing with leverage doesn’t help either. Nevertheless, I am relatively young and feel hopeful that there will be a recovery. As I get older, I will definitely reduce risk by diversifying into a variety of safe haven assets, but while I am young I do feel an obligation to invest in riskier and more volatile assets.

Mass job losses as a result of COVID-19

Something else that the COVID-19 crash demonstrates is the importance of financial independence. Being able to live off your investments forever is important because your job is not certain. Many people have an optimism bias and think they will be employed forever, and they structure their life around the assumption that they will always be employed. However, even what is perceived to be a safe job can be unsafe. For example, a pilot may think their job is bulletproof. They may think that air travel will always happen, so their job is safe. Black swan events do happen.

In my opinion, you should aim to be financially independent as fast as possible, as soon as you leave school or university. This involves a combination of high savings as well as cutting costs of living. If you are able to live off $10k per year, you only need to save $250k in order to retire (according to the four percent rule). If, when you are young, you inflate your lifestyle to $40k per year in expenses, you will need to save $1 million. The better you are at being content with living on little, the quicker it will be for you to be financially independent.

Surviving self-isolation

As a result of Covid-19, I am now working at home. I find there are pros and cons to working from home, but I am getting used to it. The biggest pro is being able to wake up about one to two hours later because I no longer need to get dressed or take the train into the city. Although not essential, I feel it is good to start the day by having a shower, wearing reasonably nice clothes (so you look okay when video-conferencing), and having a coffee. Not only is being clean, neat, and caffeinated important in itself, but the ritual of these activities helps to put your mind into “work mode.”

I have been to the supermarket in these new times, but it is not a pleasant experience. Everyone seems nervous and anxious. They stare at you as if you are going to grab the last pack of toilet paper. There are many stories of shoppers fighting over toilet paper, which I think is disappointing. To avoid crazy people and to avoid being infected, as much as possible, I am trying to avoid going to the supermarkets by buying essentials online. Many essentials can be purchased online, from food to toilet paper. Hoarding toilet paper, in my opinion, is not a good idea because toilet paper prices are high now, so you should only buy what you need and put any excess cash into the stock market.

The key to surviving Covid-19 is to have good respiratory health and a strong immune system, which is why exercise is important. Even though the government has imposed restrictions, exercise is still allowed where I live, so I make sure I ride my bike around the neighbourhood regularly. Riding a bike is not just a form of exercise but is also a cheap way to commute. Surprisingly, the park trails are filled with people walking their dogs, so I find that it is safer to ride on the roads where there are almost no cars.

While the global community deals with Covid-19, what is becoming clear is that many of those who contract the virus have no symptoms or mild symptoms and are able to make a strong recovery thanks to a strong immune system. As such, I have been trying to eat as much fruit and vegetables as possible.

Now is the time to dollar cost average into the stock market

I have heard of many people selling shares or converting their superannuation into 100% cash. The Australian government will soon allow those who are affected by Covid-19 to access $10k from their superannuation. This is a bad idea. Now is the time to be buying stocks, not selling.

“The best time to buy is when there is blood on the streets, even if the blood is your own.” Baron Rothschild

Will Australian property prices go down?

It makes sense that property prices are not immune from Covid-19. If enough people are unemployed from Covid-19, they will not be able to meet their mortgage obligations nor will they be able to save for a deposit on a property. Property investors typically rely on tenants to pay them rent so they can meet their own mortgage obligations, so if tenants lose their jobs, landlords may be required to sell their properties. Falling demand and rising supply push prices down.

However, there are a number of policies put in place that can prop up property prices e.g. lower interest rates and six-month mortgage holidays. These measures put in place to stimulate the property market, in my opinion, are good reasons why you should not buy a property now. Because the stock market has fallen so violently, the prices for these assets are very attractive relative to historical earnings (and dividends) whereas if property prices are propped up, you are not getting any discount on your purchases relative to rental income. The cheaper you buy your investments relative to income, the more they will go up when there is a recovery.

The silver lining

Although the Covid-19 outbreak has caused considerable wealth destuction and job losses, there is a silver lining. One benefit is that carbon emissions are falling sharply across the world, but unfortunately when the recovery happens, all this may be reversed. Another benefit of Covid-19 is that remote working systems across the world will be strengthened, which means over time more and more workers can work either fully remote or partially remote. This means I may be able to pursue my dream of becoming a “digital nomad” while still doing the 9-5 job I am familiar with. Usually those who work remotely are people with families, tech workers, graphic designers, etc, but the Covid-19 outbreak will normalise remote work for everyone because it has forced everyone to work from home (unless the job cannot be done at home). This is good not just because it means you don’t need to commute but it also means you can potentially travel while you work or work from low-cost-of-living countries. A world of remote work could look very different to the sort of world we live in today which is build upon the idea that you live in the suburbs, commute into the city every day, and take an overseas holiday two weeks per year. If more and more work is remote, we may see permanent digital nomads i.e. rather than commute for hours each day on the freeway or a train and get two weeks per year of travel, you can travel permanently, be on “permanent vacation,” hopping from one country to another and living and working in co-living spaces. This is all very utopian but it may be a reality, and even if it is not a lifestyle most people embrace in the future, it is certainly a lifestyle you can design for yourself once you are financially independent.

Merry Christmas 2018! Thoughts about Socialising, Conformity and the Recent Market Turmoil

This post will go over some of my thoughts that have been on my mind over the Christmas holiday. In true minimalist style, I have not purchased a Christmas tree nor have I purchased any gifts for anyone, and I will not be attending any Christmas parties. I have caught up with some friends and family over the holiday period but little else. Although it is cliche to say this, Christmas is highly commercialised these days, and personally I don’t celebrate Christmas too heavily, but many other people do, and I think my lack of engagement in Christmas activities puts a distance between me and others.

Ultimately the main issue is that often the cost of human connection and intimacy is conformity, but conformity is often costly.

Socialising and conformity

As I have discussed, an idea that has been on my mind recently is the cost of socialising. Many of us like to think that we are independent, that we do what we want regardless of what others think, but going against the grain and being very different is harder than you may think. It is natural and normal to conform. In fact, I would argue that we are hard-wired to conform. It is something that we evolved to do. There is a famous psychology experiment (the Asch conformity experiments) that shows just how powerful conformity is and how susceptible we all are.

Even though I like to think of myself as independent, I do conform to a degree, and conformity is sometimes important because it allows you to fit in to a certain culture with which others are familiar. Taking the example of Christmas, if you do not give gifts or engage in any Christmas activities, this will clearly put a barrier between you and others.

There have been moments in my life when I have been too independent, too much of a freethinker, and this has isolated me from society, which leads to misanthropic feelings, and this can have very negative mental health outcomes and can lead to depression. It is important to find the right balance between independence and conformity. As a man who enjoys independence and freedom as well as systematically minimising all forms of obligations (debt, social norms, customs, tradition, etc) this has been one of the realisations I have come to this year, that there is some value in conforming, but it needs to be controlled and I need to practice conformity in a way that still allows me to be myself and to be authentic. Most importantly, conformity needs to be practiced from a position of independence and freedom. This reminds me of the concept of exit, voice and loyalty. You can be loyal i.e. you can conform to something or someone’s values, but you need to have the freedom to be able to voice your own views or values, and if your values or views conflict too much with those with whom you are loyal, then you need the ability to exit. This is where having huge passive income and minimal obligations helps. For example, if you have a huge mortgage and three children to support, and you work a job you hate, you are trapped in this job. You are forced to conform or be loyal in this arrangement without the freedom to voice or exit. However, if you suddenly hate your job but you live off passive income, have no debt, no children, no mortgage, and no obligation or commitments, then there is nothing stopping you from voicing your displeasure or exiting entirely.

Although I do believe there is some value in conformity, I should say that everyone is different and that I do believe there are many who value nonconformity. We are typically more comfortable when we are in environments that are familiar, that fit in with our own culture. When someone is noncomformist, e.g. to take an extreme example, if someone comes to work wearing clothes that are inappropriate (e.g. wearing underwear), then this creates discomfort. Something just doesn’t seem right. However, conformity can go too far. Too much conformity creates a fakeness that many find unappealing. Although familiarity can put people at ease and build human connection, you can go too far to the point where you are fake and this also creates unease. There is value therefore in conforming in moderation but it is also important to have the courage to be yourself, to reveal your true thoughts, and to be authentic. Usually the ability to be your true self and to be authentic comes when you are financially secure and when you have few obligations.

I should also add that conformity is not just about whether you give gifts or wear certain clothes to work. Most of us conform but aren’t really aware that we conform simply because we feel that what we do is what we are supposed to do. For example, most people drive cars, get married and have children without even thinking about it because this is seen as normal. If you ride a bike, if you’re single, and if you’re childfree, this is seen as unusual, but I think society nowadays tolerates individual freedom, so even if you are a single childfree cyclist, you will be considered different but you will not necessarily be socially ostricised. In my opinion, it is very important to be aware of how much culture affects you because when individuals conform to most cultures, they usually impose upon themselves large obligations. Among most cultures there is an expectation that a person’s youth is a period of freedom. However, the expectation is that once someone has enjoyed his or her youthful freedom, they need to become adults, they need to accept adult responsibilities, and they need to “settle down.” I argue that you don’t need to ever settle down, that you don’t need to accept large obligations. You can be free forever.

The recent market turmoil

I will change topics now and talk about the markets. The markets have done very poorly over the last few months. In my opinion, we have gone through an eight-year-old bull market without a major correction, which is the longest in history, so we are due for a crash soon. This recent turmoil in stocks may be the start of the next financial crisis but there are many credible institutions (e.g. JP Morgan) predicting the next financial crisis will occur in 2020.

Donald Trump’s policies do not help, especially the tariffs between the US and China. Importers will need to pay the tariff and pass it on to customers, which creates inflation as the cost of living rises. Furthermore, corporate tax cuts and higher government spending increases money supply in the economy. All these factors increase inflation, which necessitates the central bank increasing interest rates. Higher interest rates means corporate profits fall as companies need to pay higher interest to service their debt. Furthermore, tariffs don’t just mean importing products into America become more expensive. Once tariffs are applied to Chinese goods coming into America, the Chinese will apply retailiatory tariffs, which block American exports going to China, which in turn hurt sales. Because Chinese companies cannot export to the US as much, this impacts on Australia as we export a significant amount of raw material to Chinese companies who then transform these raw materials into consumer goods to be exported to the US. History has shown that protectionism benefits no one. Both parties lose out.

In my opinion, throughout a market collapse it is important to stick with your investment plan rather than sell in a panic. In an earlier post I spoke about “age in bonds” or owning your age in government bonds e.g. if you are 30, own 30% bonds. This rule is a guide and can be modified to fit your risk appetite e.g. if you can tolerate more risk then consider putting 50% of your age in bonds (e.g. if you are 30, you own 15% bonds).

The problem most people have is they cannot predict their risk appetite. When markets are going up, they think they can tolerate high levels of risk, but once markets actually collapse and they are confronted with large and sudden declines in wealth, they realise that they cannot stomach volatility, and they panic sell and crystallise their losses. Therefore, in my opinion, if the recent bull market has lulled you into complacency and now you are feeling nervous, it is a good idea to reflect on what your true risk appetite is, and in the future you can buy more (or less) defensive safe-haven assets (such as bonds, gold or cash) in order to align the asset allocation in your investment portfolio to your actual risk appetite. Over time, as you live through more market crashes, you start to get a feel for what your actual risk appetite is. It is not something that is easy to predict. It is something you need to adjust as you experience it in real life. One of the biggest mistakes in financial planning is when the financial planner hands you a form and you fill how much risk you are willing to take. In my opinion, no one really knows how much volatility they are able to withstand until they actually expereince it in person. Until someone feels $100k of their wealth being wiped out in one day can they truly appreciate how much volatility they can stomach.

It is also important to keep in mind why you are investing. For me, investing in stocks is mostly about generating dividends, passive income, and thereby providing freedom. Therefore capital gains do not matter much because my intention is to hold these stocks or ETFs forever. The recent market correction therefore can be seen as an opportunity to load up on more high-dividend ETFs. For example, with the market collapse, the iShares S&P/ASX Dividend Opportunities ETF (ASX: IHD) currently has a dividend yield of 13% according to Bloomberg. Of course, even if you are a dividend investor, there are benefits in diversifying into bond or hybrid ETFs. Although high-dividend ETFs such as IHD currently have a yield of 13% whereas government bond ETFs such as BOND have yield of 2.3% and HBRD, a bank hybrid ETF, has yield of 3.7% it is important to remember that although dividend yields are higher than bond yields, dividends can be cut.

If the market correction we are currently experiencing gets really bad, I will not be surprised if companies start announcing dividend cuts. It happened after the GFC, and it can happen again. This is where bonds can be useful because bonds are more likely to be paid to investors. If a company faces distress, bondholders by law are paid before stockholders. Bonds or hybrids then can be useful for income investors seeking passive income because they provide not only stability in price but also stability in income. Even though yields are lower for bonds or hybrids, this reflects the lower risk, the fact that these payments are less likely to be cut in the event of economic distress.

Disclosure: I own IHD and HBRD.

Why Save Money If You Love Your Job?

Many people tell me that they love their job, so they don’t want to save up any money. They are happy to spend everything they earn.

When I started working, I noticed that many people had this attitude. They said they loved working and they envisaged themselves working for the rest of their lives. With this carefree attitude, they took on mortgages, got married, and had multiple children. They assumed that their salary would be there forever, so they behaved as if this were the case.

Then the organization I worked for announced that, due to the 2009 global financial crisis, there would be job cuts. A spill and fill was performed and about 40% of people lost their jobs, and many of the people who lost jobs had huge mortgage debts and multiple children.

I don’t know what happened to everyone who got fired. Many of them were old, which makes it less likely for them to find another job. Some were able to get other jobs, but they mainly just grabbed onto whatever they could find because they were desperate for some income to feed their children and pay for whatever obligations they had.

I remember when I started working. I was enthusiastic and passionate. I had just finished university and was entering the workforce for the first time. I thought I would work forever as well.

After the restructure, I realized then that even thought I started off loving my job, the downturn in the economy forced management to fire people, and the working environment became toxic as a result.

Things change, and you must be prepared for change.

Your circumstances today will not necessarily apply tomorrow. The only constant is change.

This is why having money saved up is important. If you have enough money saved up, you can live off your investments forever and never need to worry about working. This is why you must live off dividends.

It was after this painful incident that I realized that I needed to save up and invest. About six years later, I am still working at this organization, and the horrors of the past have been forgotten, and people are once again telling me that everything is fine, the economy is great, that I should get a mortgage, buy a sports car, etc.

But I know from experience that things can change quickly.

This is why you must save money. You must be prepared for change.

My Thoughts on “The Big Short”

Yesterday I was watching a movie called The Big Short and it’s an awesome movie about the GFC. The movie makes me wonder about whether we are in for another financial crash. Stock and property markets went down about 50% in America and most countries around the world, but since then central bank injections of cash seem to have restored everything.

This movie blames the property crash on subprime loans, but at the end of the day subprime lending popped the entire American housing bubble. The bubble was there in the first place, and the bubble was in property, not just subprime property but also prime property, which is why property prices in the US fell across the board.

This movie also really exposed how corrupt and fraudulent the financial system is. The biggest injustice of all, in my opinion, is that investment banks created these toxic assets (CDOs, etc) and then when they were worthless they simply did a deal with the government to unload it onto the government in return for printed money (or bailout money). This pretty much means the banks can do whatever they want knowing that if things go wrong they can simply get the government to bail them out. If you or I started a cafe and the business failed, the government will not bail us out. However, this does not apply to bankers, the holders of capital. Capitalism, therefore, does not apply to capitalists. Bankers can create bubbles, create bad assets, and then sell these assets, and if everything goes wrong they can just tell the government to take it off their hands. There should be no bailout, and those who held CDOs should have been left to learn the errors of their ways. By bailing them out, you only reward bad behavior.

Looking at it this way, the banking industry is simply an arm of the government. Banks are simply government business enterprises.

The original view was that if the government prints money to buy these toxic assets off bankers, this would cause inflation, but these toxic assets are usually highly leveraged, and more debt actually increases the amount of the money in circulation, which is inflationary. As debt prices go down (e.g. there is a debt bubble that pops) then this means the expectation is that loans will not get paid, and the amount of money in circulation goes down, which is deflationary. The government printing money simply restores the money supply back to original levels. 

How to invest

My investing strategy is pretty simple. I’ve been focusing mainly on dividends and looking at funds that provide low volatility. The perfect ETF on the ASX, in my opinion, is Betashares’s HVST, which has a double-digit yield and pays monthly. It also uses derivatives to lower volatility by selling futures when volatility is high. If the market crashes, I’m sure this fund will go down, but it won’t go down that much, and while everything is rosy, this fund will produce great dividends, which is awesome.

If there is a GFC 2, I expect to take a hit. My net worth will go down, but I have been loading my portfolio up with funds that are designed to be low volatility (such as HVST) as well as other defensive investments like gold mining ETFs (ASX: GDX) as well as bond funds, and so if my net worth goes down, it won’t go down much, and when the market bottoms, I will definitely be plowing as much money as possible into leveraged ETFs expecting the government to print money to restore the economy. While the market is likely in bubble territory now, it’s also a good idea to keep debt levels low because a major risk when there is a market crash is that a margin call will be triggered. Keeping debt low reduces the risk of this happening. Furthermore, as the market bottoms, if your debt levels are low, you have more ability to take on more debt to invest when the market bottoms, which means you can leverage into leveraged ETFs and achieve “double leverage” to magnify your returns once central bankers start firing up the printing presses.

Bottom line is that at this stage you should load up your portfolio with defensive assets, e.g. cash, bonds, gold, as well as “smart beta” low-volatility ETFs, but don’t go all into these defensive assets because it’s almost impossible to determine when a bubble will pop. As they say, a market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent, so often when a bubble is formed, it’s often best to simply ride the bubble and make money, but always have a plan to protect yourself if the bubble bursts. There must be a plan B.

 

The Dismal Future of the Australian Economy

gold price vs asx200 27 august 2015
GOLD vs the ASX200 (Commsec)

The recent volatility in stock markets has gotten me worried. Everyone keeps telling me to relax because “economic fundamentals are sound,” but when I ask them to explain how this is true, it’s revealed that they don’t really know what they’re talking about. It seems that most people just hope for the best and rationalize away bad news.

The Chinese stock market is certainly wobbly. Some say the Chinese economy is very healthy. After all, they have low debt and a massive foreign exchange reserve. They are the biggest lender nation in the world with the USA the biggest creditor nation. However, we don’t really know much about the true size of China’s debt because there is significant activity in the underground economy that is not transparent, and I’m not too confident in official figures provided by the Chinese government. Of course, China has been manufacturing products from t-shirts to smartphones, but the government has in recent years been intervening in the economy to prop up the stock and property markets. It’s uncertain whether these distortions can be held together by the government or whether the market will eventually strike back.

America has resorted to printing money, which has resulted in surges in the stock and bond markets. However, unemployment is still high and wage growth is low. Printing money doesn’t seem to have done anything other than make the holders of stocks and bonds wealthy (these are mostly wealthy people anyway).

In Australia, our economy used to be dominated by two sectors: the banks and the miners. The miners dug resources from the ground and shipped them to China. China makes goods and ships them to US consumer who buys these goods.

But the American consumer (or consumers from any other developed country) is not buying as much as they did before the GFC. This means China is slowing down, the price of resources is dropping, and the mining sector in Australia is getting crushed. We only have the banks left, and how do they make money? The balance sheets of Australian banks is mostly in loans to consumers who buy real estate. Real estate prices have been going up thanks to profits from mining. In other words, banks do well because house prices have been sustained by profits from the resources sector. Now that mining is dead, what will sustain us? Where are our strong fundamentals? House prices only go up with people buy houses, but to buy houses you need to make money in the first place. You can’t make money from houses without putting money into it in the first place.

Many who have bought stocks have made great wealth from quantitative easing, but now that tears are emerging in a bubbling world economy held together by printed money, it’s time to look at investing in gold.

Gold tends to shoot up significantly when stocks tumble, and when stocks go down, gold tends to go sideways or go up anyway, so there doesn’t seem to be any downside to investing in gold.

Personally, I will be buying this shiny metal from now on.