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.

Converting Human and Erotic Capital into Cash

There is a lot of talk about passive income. Passive income is income that you receive (e.g. from shares or bonds) that require no work. Active income is income that requires you to do something e.g. when you get a job and work. While there is much attention on passive income vs active income, there is little discussion or focus on the capital upon which this income is derived. Passive income comes from what I call passive capital whereas active capital includes capital that requires you to work in order to derive an income from it, and these types of capital can appreciate (e.g. human capital if you build your skills) or depreciate (e.g. erotic capital if you let yourself age).

In spite of what people say about the rise of socialism, I believe that capitalism still rules the world. Government workers simply work for those who own capital. Capital is the “means of production.” It is whatever makes money. We are all born with human capital i.e. our skills and ability to work and earn a salary from it. In addition to human capital there are also those men and women who have “erotic capital” (also known as sexual capital) that allows them to charm others. When we humans enter life, we are faced with the challenge of working so that we can convert human capital and erotic capital into cash.

Human capital and erotic capital is different from other types of capital e.g. financial capital (e.g. stocks, bonds, or ETFs) in that work is required to convert the human or erotic capital into cash. Financial capital is different because e.g. you can own stocks and bonds, do nothing, and receive income from it. However, to derive income from human capital (e.g. skills), you must work. To derive income from erotic capital (your good looks, charm, people skills, etc), you must also work (although it comes naturally to some).

Because passive capital requires no work whereas active capital requires work, I believe that this is where overeducation or oversexualization can become a problem. There are many people who seek to build their human or erotic capital. For example, many people stop working and dedicate large amounts of money and time into degrees and qualifications. Their human capital grows significantly but it is a challenge for them because human capital cannot be spend. You need to work first to convert that human capital into financial capital. The same can be said of erotic capital. Many people are obsessed with networking, looking good, etc, and this may pay off, but like education there is a significant degree of uncertainty, and a lot of work is needed to convert that erotic capital into financial capital.

The old saying that you should “invest in yourself” should then be scrutinized. It makes sense to invest in yourself, but there are downsides.

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.

Deliberate Ignorance of Net Worth

When I started working, I tracked my net worth religiously. I did it every month. I was living with my parents and saving 80% of my salary. I invested in shares, ETFs, etc, and now I am putting a little into crypto.

However, something that annoyed me was that everyone kept asking about my net worth and they would automatically compare me to this person or that person. Gradually I increased my savings rate to 100% of salary and lived off my investments, but now I don’t bother with checking my net worth. For some reason, everyone keeps trying to pry into my finances. So now I don’t keep track of my net worth. I simply spread all my pay into many different investments and don’t even look at it. I don’t keep track of the performance. I keep myself deliberately ignorant.

People keep asking me when I am going to buy a house, when I will marry, when I will have children, how much I’ve saved, why I am still living with my parents, when will I grow up and be a man, etc, and now I simply tell them that I am a minimalist so don’t want much. I don’t want to be burdened by debt or obligations or social customs. I also don’t keep track of anything so I don’t know my net worth.

The benefit of this is that all the consumerism is gone. People cannot compare anything to me and I too cannot compare myself to others simply because I don’t know how much I am worth. So long as the dividends come in, I just live off it. This I believe is what money is all about: living and having freedom. However, an obsession over net worth distracts people into thinking money is about comparing yourself with others to see who is better, who is “more of a man” or who “has his life together.”

After living like this for a while I found that it is more calming. I no longer compare myself to others and others cannot compare themselves to me. Because I am limited by how much I can spend because I can only spend investment income, I cannot splurge on anything. This keeps me from indulging in consumerism.

My main point is that net worth is important but not as important as passive income. Passive income can keep you alive but net worth doesn’t necessarily do so as your wealth may be locked up in illiquid assets. Furthermore, an obsession on net worth seems to make you obsessive with consumerism and materialism as you’re comparing yourself with others. At the end of the day what matters is freedom, and freedom comes from having no debt, no obligations, and passive income.

The Problem with Dividends #Podcast

Passive income is often considered a very important aspect of personal freedom and autonomy. An easy way to generate passive income is through dividend investing. However, while living off dividends is a great safety net to allow you to generate income without any work, there are two main problems, namely a lower capital gains and tax inefficiency.

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.

Whether You Are a Slave or Not Depends on the Direction of Your Future Cash Flow

 

I couldn’t help think today about how great it is to work. I love working now, but that was not always the case. Only a few months ago I was dreading work. I hated it. I am happy now because I was able to transfer to a different area, and I did this simply by asking someone.

I now work because I want to work. I don’t have to work because I earn dividend income that covers my living expenses. I earn around $25k to $30k per year and I spend around $15 to $20k per year. But I like to work not only because I like my job at the moment but also because I like to grow my dividend income. This means I can improve my standard of living. When I am getting a coffee with my work colleagues, I notice that many of them buy the cheapest option, which is a small coffee with dairy milk whereas I always buy the biggest latte with soy milk or almond milk. Personal finance guru David Bach is anti-coffee (see latte factor) but I am a big believer in small expenses spread over time that make you happy. Getting a coffee is more than a coffee. Some people only care about the caffeine and are willing to stay at their desks and take caffeine pills. For me, getting a coffee allows me to get out of the office, get fresh air and sunlight, get some exercise by walking, and I can chat to my coworkers and even the barista girl who is serving or making my coffee. Then I can slowly sip the warm and smooth coffee when I’m back, which calms me. At any time, I can stop buying coffee. It’s not like a huge debt or a long-term contract. I’m free to walk away. 

For me, small expenses such as a coffee are not a problem. The main problem comes from large expenses, especially those that we put off to the future (i.e. debt). I will explain this in further detail later in this post.

Back to my job…I think I love my work right now because I don’t need to work. I’m happy to put in extra work after hours and over the weekend. I am not a manager or an executive or anything. I am still quite junior. If suddenly things go wrong and I end up with a bad manager, I am confident I can transfer to another area. If things really go bad and I cannot transfer for whatever reason, I can just quit and do something else. I plan to just pack up and go to Chiang Mai and become a freelance web developer. Even if I am not successful, it doesn’t matter because I live off dividends, but it would be nice to work on my own terms.

Recently UberEATS has opened up in my area. I thought about signing up for it and working on the weekend, but I have decided against that because I actually want to use the weekend to focus on learning how to code so that I can be a remote coder or a digital nomad. Today at the library I spent about an hour on Codecademy. I wish I spend my university days studying computer science or software engineering, but my major was in economics, which wasn’t that bad, but if I had to choose again I wouldn’t major in economics. Instead I’d study a tech degree instead. Luckily, many tech workers learn a lot of what they learn online, and they are self-taught, so that gives me hope that I can change careers.

Freedom is the purpose of my life. Freedom gives me happiness. Freedom gives me the option to experiment with and pursue what makes me happy rather than hope that whatever circumstance I am in makes me happy. It was Robert Kiyosaki who introduced me to the importance of cash flow, and I think freedom and slavery can be thought of in terms of cash flow. As much as possible, you want to increase passive income and decrease future obligations. Future obligations are expectations (including the risk) that in the future money will flow away from you. If you take on debt (e.g. a car loan and even a home loan) then in the future some debt collector will take money from you, which forces you to work. Anything that forces you to do something means that you have fewer choices, and so your freedom goes down and your level of slavery increases. Most people think this only applies to monetary debt, which is obvious because it is written down and it’s clear, but even e.g. having children creates future obligations that tie you down. The more you avoid debt, obligation, and commitment, then you increase freedom and reduce slavery. The words “commitment” and “responsibility” or even “duty” are just euphemisms for debt and slavery. If you tell a slave that he must clean a toilet because he is a slave, he will likely try to revolt or may reluctantly clean the toilet and will probably do a bad job at it because his heart is not in it. However, if you reframe and tell the slave that he must clean the toilet because it is his duty or responsibility, he will likely clean the toilet with pride and enthusiasm. So it is that many men proudly work 60+ hours per week at a job they hate just to fund the mortgage on the mansion, the children’s private school fees, the loan for the luxury car, and maybe even a stay-at-home wife as well. If they shirk these obligations, they are told that they are not “responsible” or that they are not fulfilling their “duty” and that they need to “man up” and get back to wage slavery.

In all these situations (car loan, home loan, credit card debt, children, school fees, etc), there is an expectation that money will flow away from you in the future.

Alternatively, if you create passive income from dividend income or even e-book royalties, Adsense revenue, Amazon affiliate revenue, etc, then there is an expectation that money will flow towards you in the future. You then have a choice of what to do with this money. This gives you freedom. It gives you more options rather than reducing your options. It results in less slavery and more freedom.

As much as possible, make money flow towards you in the future rather than away from you. In practice, this means getting rid of all debt, commitment, obligations while simultaneously increasing passive income, mainly from savings, investments, and building businesses.