The Simplicity of Living off Dividends

Some people have made comments that many of my posts on this blog are not finance related, so I will make an effort to post more about ETFs and other financial topics in the future. Perhaps the reason why there are few finance topics on this blog is because living off dividends is such a simple technique that I rarely think too much about finance. The whole point of making money is so you do not need to think about money. You do not need to stress about making ends meet when you have few obligations and multiple streams of dividends flowing into your bank account.

Budgeting, tracking net worth, trading, and rebalancing are not worth it

While most people maintain spreadsheets to track expenses and net worth, living off dividends only requires you to invest all your work salary and spend your dividends. If you end up spending more than dividend income, simply “borrow from yourself” by maintaining a few thousand dollars in cash in a separate savings account that you borrow from but pay back with dividend income. Either use a spreadsheet to keep track of how much you own to yourself or ensure that this savings account has a fixed amount e.g. you have $2000 in it, run out of dividends to spend, so you “borrow” $500 to have a balance of $1500 and then when your next dividend payment comes in, put $500 into this savings account to top it back up to $2000.

I don’t recommend tracking your expenses or tracking your net worth because it is time consuming and because the information you get out of it is not valuable. If you track expenses, you can see where all your spending goes, but what matters is not what you spend your money on but how much you spend. If you spend such that your expenses are equal to dividend income, this ensures you don’t spend too much, and one of the benefits of living off dividends is that dividends increase over time as you invest more and as companies become more profitable, so there is a gradual increase in standard of living, which I think helps overcome the feeling of deprivation many feel when they are frugal. If you only spend e.g. $10,000 per year for the rest of your life, you are stuck on that level and do not feel as if you are growing or making progress, but if you live off dividends and your dividends grow, you feel a sense of personal growth. As for tracking net worth, when you diversify across multiple areas (e.g. retirement accounts, managed funds, ETFs, cryptocurrency, etc) then it becomes a huge burden to log in to each of these accounts to check the balance. What matters to financial independence is not net worth per se but passive income. You live off passive income, not net worth, and if you live off passive income then you’ll be able to assess automatically whether you have enough based on whether you are satisfied or not with your standard of living.

Because living off dividends is simple, there are only two things you need to consider: how to spend your dividends and what to invest your work salary in. Most people have no issue with figuring out how to spend their money (e.g. holidays, books, smartphones, and coffee). What to invest in is more complicated, and generally I recommend buying broad and diversified ETFs with a slightly heavier allocation towards high dividend paying ETFs (or LICs). However, more important than what you invest in, in my opinion, is the “buy and hold” mentality. You should buy with the intention of holding these investments for a long time, if not forever. I also do not bother with rebalancing. For example, in recent years the Australian stock market has underperformed whereas foreign stocks (particularly US stocks) have done very well. There are those who rebalance by selling off US stocks to buy Australia stocks to maintain a certain amount to certain countries. This is far more effort than necessary, adds administrative burden by triggering capital gains tax, and does not add much value because if you feel you have too little Australian stock, rather than sell US stock, you can simply buy more Australian stocks. For example, in recent years, as US equities has gone up, I have purchased more high-dividend paying Australian stocks and ETFs e.g. CBA and IHD.

Age in VDCO

For most people who ask, I recommend Vanguard’s diversified ETFs. You cannot beat the simplicity of these ETFs. Whatever your age is, hold that amount in VDCO and the rest you hold in VDHG. For example, if you’re 30 then hold 30% VDCO and 70% VDHG. These Vanguard diversified ETFs diversify across just about all asset classes (e.g. Australian shares, international shares, emerging markets, small caps, property, bonds, etc) so you don’t need to worry about mixing and matching. The reason why you hold your age in VDCO is to broadly follow the “age in bonds” rule, which is insurance against retiring just after a huge market crash. There are many people who are anti-bond and claim that they are a drag on performance, that stocks always go up on the long run, etc, but this is not true. In fact, this is dangerous advice. There is no guarantee that stocks go up in the long run as the value of stocks merely represent company profits and there is no guarantee that company profits will go up in the long run. Even if stocks do go up in the long run, there are huge market crash (e.g. 50% decline) that emerge, not just normal business cycles but debt supercycles that can take centuries to materialize. You do not want to be in the position of being in 100% equities and then losing 50% just before you retire as this can really set you back and impact on the quality of your retirement. Broadly following “age in bonds” (government bonds, specifically) is insurance against such a scenario. In fact, of all the rules of personal finance, “age in bonds” is, in my opinion, the most important. You can pretty much invest in any exotic high-risk asset class (e.g. emerging markets, tech stocks, robotics ETFs, cryptocurrency, etc) but if you own your age in government bonds, you are safe.

When markets go up, it is very easy to rationalize why defensive asset classes are poor quality. It is when markets go up that people easily covert to the cult of equity, but when there is a market crash or when there is a prolonged economic depression that lasts many decades or centures, many will understand and appreciate the wisdom of “age in bonds.” The reality is that when markets are booming, it’s easy to convince yourself why 100% equities or high leverage is a good idea, and the opposite is true when there is a market crash. It goes back to Warren Buffet’s quote about being fearful when others are greedy but also thinking about Ray Dalio’s idea that you must stress test your ideas because you are never be too sure in yourself  because it is easy to be moved by your emotions as well as other psychological biases.

 

 

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.