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.

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.