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Testing the Tide | Monthly FIRE Portfolio Update - June 2020
We would rather be ruined than changed. -W H Auden, The Age of Anxiety This is my forty-third portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goal. Portfolio goal My objective is to reach a portfolio of $2 180 000 by 1 July 2021. This would produce a real annual income of about $87 000 (in 2020 dollars). This portfolio objective is based on an expected average real return of 3.99 per cent, or a nominal return of 6.49 per cent. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $726 306 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $42 118 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $78 730 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $111 691 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $201 745 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $39 357 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $231 269 Telstra shares (TLS) – $1 668 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $7 310 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $5 532 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $117 757 Secured physical gold – $18 913 Ratesetter (P2P lending) – $10 479 Bitcoin – $148 990 Raiz app (Aggressive portfolio) – $16 841 Spaceship Voyager app (Index portfolio) – $2 553 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 484 Total portfolio value: $1 765 743 (+$8 485 or 0.5%) Asset allocation Australian shares – 42.2% (2.8% under) Global shares – 22.0% Emerging markets shares – 2.3% International small companies – 3.0% Total international shares – 27.3% (2.7% under) Total shares – 69.5% (5.5% under) Total property securities – 0.3% (0.3% over) Australian bonds – 4.7% International bonds – 9.4% Total bonds – 14.0% (1.0% under) Gold – 7.7% Bitcoin – 8.4% Gold and alternatives – 16.2% (6.2% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. [Chart] Comments The overall portfolio increased slightly over the month. This has continued to move the portfolio beyond the lows seen in late March. The modest portfolio growth of $8 000, or 0.5 per cent, maintains its value at around that achieved at the beginning of the year. [Chart] The limited growth this month largely reflects an increase in the value of my current equity holdings, in VAS and A200 and the Vanguard retail funds. This has outweighed a small decline in the value of Bitcoin and global shares. The value of the bond holdings also increased modestly, pushing them to their highest value since around early 2017. [Chart] There still appears to be an air of unreality around recent asset price increases and the broader economic context. Britain's Bank of England has on some indicators shown that the aftermath of the pandemic and lockdown represent the most challenging financial crisis in around 300 years. What is clear is that investor perceptions and fear around the coronavirus pandemic are a substantial ongoing force driving volatility in equity markets (pdf). A somewhat optimistic view is provided here that the recovery could look more like the recovery from a natural disaster, rather than a traditional recession. Yet there are few certainties on offer. Negative oil prices, and effective offers by US equity investors to bail out Hertz creditors at no cost appear to be signs of a financial system under significant strains. As this Reserve Bank article highlights, while some Australian households are well-placed to weather the storm ahead, the timing and severity of what lays ahead is an important unknown that will itself feed into changes in household wealth from here. Investments this month have been exclusively in the Australian shares exchange-traded fund (VAS) using Selfwealth.* This has been to bring my actual asset allocation more closely in line with the target split between Australian and global shares. A moving azimuth: falling spending continues Monthly expenses on the credit card have continued their downward trajectory across the past month. [Chart] The rolling average of monthly credit card spending is now at its lowest point over the period of the journey. This is despite the end of lockdown, and a slow resumption of some more normal aspects of spending. This has continued the brief period since April of the achievement of a notional and contingent kind of financial independence. The below chart illustrates this temporary state, setting out the degree to which portfolio distributions cover estimated total expenses, measured month to month. [Chart] There are two sources of volatility underlying its movement. The first is the level of expenses, which can vary, and the second is the fact that it is based on financial year distributions, which are themselves volatile. Importantly, the distributions over the last twelve months of this chart is only an estimate - and hence the next few weeks will affect the precision of this analysis across its last 12 observations. Estimating 2019-20 financial year portfolio distributions Since the beginning of the journey, this time of year usually has sense of waiting for events to unfold - in particular, finding out the level of half-year distributions to June. These represent the bulk of distributions, usually averaging 60-65 per cent of total distributions received. They are an important and tangible signpost of progress on the financial independence journey. This is no simple task, as distributions have varied in size considerably. A part of this variation has been the important role of sometimes large and lumpy capital distributions - which have made up between 30 to 48 per cent of total distributions in recent years, and an average of around 15 per cent across the last two decades. I have experimented with many different approaches, most of which have relied on averaging over multi-year periods to even out the 'peaks and troughs' of how market movements may have affected distributions. The main approaches have been:
An 'adjusted income' approach - stripping out the capital gains components of Vanguard funds to reach an estimate of underlying income generation, both across the entire investment period, and during the sharpest low of the Global Financial Crisis
A long-term asset class approach - relying on long-term historical data on averages of the income produced by various asset classes
A 'tax method' approach - this derives an income estimate as a percentage of the portfolio by drawing on taxable investment income totals from tax return records
Simple historical rolling average - this is a rolling three-year measure, based on the actual distributions record of the portfolio
Average distribution rate approach - this method uses a long-term average of annual distributions received as a percentage of the total portfolio since 1999
Each of these have their particular simplifications, advantages and drawbacks. Developing new navigation tools Over the past month I have also developed more fully an alternate 'model' for estimating returns. This simply derives a median value across a set of historical 'cents per unit' distribution data for June and December payouts for the Vanguard funds and exchange traded funds. These make up over 96 per cent of income producing portfolio assets. In other words, this model essentially assumes that each Vanguard fund and ETF owned pays out the 'average' level of distributions this half-year, with the average being based on distribution records that typically go back between 5 to 10 years. Mapping the distribution estimates The chart below sets out the estimate produced by each approach for the June distributions that are to come. [Chart] Some observations on these findings can be made. The lowest estimate is the 'adjusted GFC income' observation, which essentially assumes that the income for this period is as low as experienced by the equity and bond portfolio during the Global Financial Crisis. Just due to timing differences of the period observed, this seems to be a 'worst case' lower bound estimate, which I do not currently place significant weight on. Similarly, at the highest end, the 'average distribution rate' approach simply assumes June distributions deliver a distribution equal to the median that the entire portfolio has delivered since 1999. With higher interest rates, and larger fixed income holdings across much of that time, this seems an objectively unlikely outcome. Similarly, the delivery of exactly the income suggested by long-term averages measured across decades and even centuries would be a matter of chance, rather than the basis for rational expectations. Central estimates of the line of position This leaves the estimates towards the centre of the chart - estimates of between around $28 000 to $43 000 as representing the more likely range. I attach less weight to the historical three-year average due to the high contribution of distributed capital gains over that period of growth, where at least across equities some capital losses are likely to be in greater presence. My preferred central estimate is the model estimate (green) , as it is based in historical data directly from the investment vehicles rather than my own evolving portfolio. The data it is based on in some cases goes back to the Global Financial Crisis. This estimate is also quite close to the raw average of all the alternative approaches (red). It sits a little above the 'adjusted income' measure. None of these estimates, it should be noted, contain any explicit adjustment for the earnings and dividend reductions or delays arising from COVID-19. They may, therefore represent a modest over-estimate for likely June distributions, to the extent that these effects are more negative than those experienced on average across the period of the underlying data. These are difficult to estimate, but dividend reductions could easily be in the order of 20-30 per cent, plausibly lowering distributions to the $23 000 to $27 000 range. The recently announced forecast dividend for the Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) is, for example, the lowest in four years. As seen from chart above, there is a wide band of estimates, which grow wider still should capital gains be unexpectedly distributed from the Vanguard retail funds. These have represented a source of considerable volatility. Given this, it may seem fruitless to seek to estimate these forthcoming distributions, compared to just waiting for them to arrive. Yet this exercise helps by setting out reasoning and positions, before hindsight bias urgently arrives to inform me that I knew the right answer all along. It also potentially helps clearly 'reject' some models over time, if the predictions they make prove to be systematically incorrect. Progress Progress against the objective, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Portfolio objective – $2 180 000 (or $87 000 pa) 81.0% 109.4% Credit card purchases – $71 000 pa 98.8% 133.5% Total expenses – $89 000 pa 79.2% 106.9% Summary The current coronavirus conditions are affecting all aspects of the journey to financial independence - changing spending habits, leading to volatility in equity markets and sequencing risks, and perhaps dramatically altering the expected pattern of portfolio distributions. Although history can provide some guidance, there is simply no definitive way to know whether any or all of these changes will be fundamental and permanent alterations, or simply data points on a post-natural disaster path to a different post-pandemic set of conditions. There is the temptation to fit past crises imperfectly into the modern picture, as this Of Dollars and Data post illustrates well. Taking a longer 100 year view, this piece 'The Allegory of the Hawk and Serpent' is a reminder that our entire set of received truths about constructing a portfolio to survive for the long-term can be a product of a sample size of one - actual past history - and subject to recency bias. This month has felt like one of quiet routines, muted events compared to the past few months, and waiting to understand more fully the shape of the new. Nonetheless, with each new investment, or week of lower expenditure than implied in my FI target, the nature of the journey is incrementally changing - beneath the surface. Small milestones are being passed - such as over 40 per cent of my equity holdings being outside of the the Vanguard retail funds. Or these these retail funds - which once formed over 95 per cent of the portfolio - now making up less than half. With a significant part of the financial independence journey being about repeated small actions producing outsized results with time, the issue of maintaining good routines while exploring beneficial changes is real. Adding to the complexity is that embarking on the financial journey itself is likely to change who one is. This idea, of the difficulty or impossibility of knowing the preferences of a future self, is explored in a fascinating way in this Econtalk podcast episode with a philosophical thought experiment about vampires. It poses the question: perhaps we can never know ourselves at the destination? And yet, who would rationally choose ruin over any change? The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
Two Roads Diverge | Monthly FIRE Portfolio Update - May 2020
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken This is my forty-second portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goal. Portfolio goal My objective is to reach a portfolio of $2 180 000 by 1 July 2021. This would produce a real annual income of about $87 000 (in 2020 dollars). This portfolio objective is based on an expected average real return of 3.99 per cent, or a nominal return of 6.49 per cent. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $727 917 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $42 128 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $78 569 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $110 009 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $187 003 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $39 987 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $225 540 Telstra shares (TLS) – $1 726 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $7 741 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $5 652 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $117 714 Secured physical gold – $18 982 Ratesetter (P2P lending) – $11 395 Bitcoin – $159 470 Raiz app (Aggressive portfolio) – $16 357 Spaceship Voyager app (Index portfolio) – $2 492 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 477 Total portfolio value: $1 757 159 (+$62 325 or 3.7%) Asset allocation Australian shares – 41.4% (3.6% under) Global shares – 22.2% Emerging markets shares – 2.3% International small companies – 3.0% Total international shares – 27.4% (2.6% under) Total shares – 68.8% (6.2% under) Total property securities – 0.3% (0.3% over) Australian bonds – 4.4% International bonds – 9.7% Total bonds – 14.1% (0.9% under) Gold – 7.8% Bitcoin – 9.1% Gold and alternatives – 16.9% (6.9% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. [Chart] Comments This month featured a further recovery in the overall portfolio, continuing to effectively reduce the size of the large losses across the first quarter. The portfolio has increased by around $62 000, leading to a portfolio growth of 3.7 per cent. This means that around half of the large recent falls have been made up, and the portfolio sits around levels last reached in October of last year. [Chart] Leading the portfolio growth has been increases in Australian shares - particularly those held through the Betashares A200 and Vanguard VAS exchange traded funds, with both gaining over four per cent. Most other holdings remained steady, or fell slightly. Markets appear to be almost entirely disconnected from the daily announcements of the sharp effects of the global coronavirus pandemic and the resulting restrictions. Bond and equity markets seem to have different and competing expectations for the future, and equity markets - at best - are apparently intent on looking through the immediate recovery phase to a new period of strong expansion. [Chart] On some metrics, both major global and Australian equity markets can be viewed as quite expensive, especially as reduced dividends announced have largely yet to be delivered. Yet if historically low bond yields are considered, it can be argued that some heightening compared to historical equity market valuations may be sustainable. Reflecting this moment of markets holding their breath before one of two possible futures plays out, gold and Bitcoin remain elevated, and consequently above their target weightings. Perhaps the same contending forces are in evidence in a recent Australian Securities and Investment Commission study (pdf) which has found that average Australian retail investors have reacted to uncertainty by activating old brokerage accounts, trading more frequently, and holding securities for shorter periods. My own market activity has been limited to purchases of Vanguard Australian shares ETF (VAS) and the international share ETF (VGS), to bring the portfolio closer to its target allocations. Will Australia continue to be lucky through global slow downs? Despite this burst of market activity in the retail market, it is unclear how Australian markets and equities will perform against the background of a global economic slowdown. A frequently heard argument is that a small open trade exposed commodities provider such as Australia, with a more narrowly-based economy, may perform poorly in a phase of heightened risk. This recent Bank of England paper (pdf) makes the intriguing suggestion that this argument is not borne out by the historical record. In fact, the paper finds that industrial production in Australia, China and a mere handful of other economies has tended to increase following global risk shocks. A question remaining, however, is whether the recovery from this 'risk shock' may have different characteristics and impacts than similar past events. One key question may be the exact form of government fiscal and monetary responses adopted. Another is whether inflation or deflation is the likely pathway - an unknown which itself may rely on whether long-term trends in the velocity of money supply continue, or are broken. Facing all uncertainties, attention should be on tail risks - and minimising the odds of extreme negative scenarios. The case for this is laid out in this moving reflection by Morgan Housel. For this reason, I am satisfied that my Ratesetter Peer-to-Peer loans have been gradually maturing, reducing some 'tail risk' credit exposures in what could be a testing phase for borrowers through new non-bank lending channels in Australia. With accrued interest of over $13 000, at rates of around 9 per cent on average, over the five years of the investment, the loans have performed relatively well. A temporary sheltering port - spending continues to decline This month spending has continued to fall even as lockdown and other restrictions have slowly begun to ease. These extraordinary events have pushed even the smoothed average of three year expenditure down. [Chart] On a monthly basis credit card spending and total expenses have hit the lowest levels in more than six years. Apparently, average savings rates are up across many economies, though obviously individual experiences and starting points can differ dramatically. Total estimated monthly expenditure has also fallen below current estimates of distributions for the first time since a period of exceptionally high distributions across financial year 2017-18. The result of this is that I am briefly and surprisingly, for this month, notionally financially independent based on assumed distributions from the FIRE portfolio alone - at least until more normal patterns of expenditure are resumed. Following the lines of drift - a longer view on progress made Yet taking a longer view - and accounting for the final portfolio goal set - gives a different perspective. This is of a journey reaching toward, but not at, an end. The chart below traces in purely nominal dollar terms the progress of the total portfolio value as a percentage of the current portfolio goal of $2.18 million over the last 13 years. It also shows three labels, with the percentage progress at the inception of detailed portfolio data in 2007, at the start of this written record in January 2017, and as at January 1 of this year. [Chart] Two trend lines are shown - one a polynomial and the other exponential function - and they are extended to include a projection of future progress out to around 18 months. The line of fit is close for the early part of the journey, but larger divergences from both trend lines are evident in the past two years as the impact of variable investment returns on a larger portfolio takes hold. There are some modest inaccuracies introduced by the nominal methodology adopted - such as somewhat discounting early progress. A 2007 dollar had greater 'real' value and significance than is assigned to it by this representation. The chart does demonstrate, however, the approximate shape and length of the early journey - with it taking around 5 years to reach 20 per cent of the target, and 10 years to reach around half way. Progress Progress against the objective, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Portfolio objective – $2 180 000 (or $87 000 pa) 80.6% 108.4% Credit card purchases – $71 000 pa 98.3% 132.3% Total expenses – $89 000 pa 78.8% 106.0% Summary With aspects of daily life slowly and incrementally adjusting to a 'new normal', the longer-term question for the portfolio remains around how markets and government actions interact in a recovery phase. The progress of the portfolio over the past 13 years has seemed, when viewed from afar as in chart above, predictable, and almost inevitable. Through the years it has felt anything but so smoothly linear. Rather, tides and waves have pushed and pulled, in turn stalling progress, or pushing it further ahead than hopes have dared. It is possible that what lays ahead is a simple 'return leg', or more of the same. That through simple extrapolation around 80 per cent of the challenges already lay behind. Yet that is not the set of mind that I approach the remainder of the journey with. Rather, the shortness of the distance to travel has lent an extra focus on those larger, lower probability, events that could delay the journey or push it off-course. Those 'third' risks types of tail risks which Morgan Housel points out. In one sense the portfolio allocation aims to deal - in a probabilistic way - with the multiple futures that could occur. Viewed in this way, a gold allocation (and also Bitcoin) represents a long option on an extreme state of the economic world arising - as it did in the early 1980s. The 75 per cent target allocation to equities can be viewed as a high level of assurance around a 'base case' that human ingenuity and innovation will continue to create value over the long term. The bond portfolio, similarly, can be seen as assigning a 15 per cent probability that both of these hypotheses are incorrect, and that further market falls and possible deflation are ahead. That perhaps even an experience akin to the lengthy, socially dislocating, post-bubble phase in Japan presided over by its central bank lays in store. In other interesting media consumed this month, 'Fire and Chill', the brand new podcast collaboration between Pat the Shuffler and Strong Money Australia got off to an enjoyable start, tackling 'Why Bother with FIRE' and other topics. Additionally, investment company Incrementum has just published the latest In Gold We Trust report, which gives an arrestingly different perspective on potential market and policy directions from traditional financial sources. The detailed report questions the role and effectiveness of traditionally 'risk-free' assets like government bonds in the types of futures that could emerge. On first reading, the scenarios it contains appear atypical and beyond the reasonable contemplation of many investors - until it is recalled that up to a few years ago no mainstream economics textbook would have entertained the potential for persistent negative interest rates. As the paths to different futures diverge, drawing on the wisdom of others to help look as far as possible into the bends in the undergrowth ahead becomes the safest choice. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
New Lands, or New Eyes? | Monthly FIRE Portfolio Update - April 2020
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. - Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past This is my forty-first portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goal. Portfolio goal My objective is to reach a portfolio of $2 180 000 by 1 July 2021. This would produce a real annual income of about $87 000 (in 2020 dollars). This portfolio objective is based on an expected average real return of 3.99 per cent, or a nominal return of 6.49 per cent. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $697 582 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $40 709 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $76 583 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $110 563 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $174 864 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $31 505 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $215 805 Telstra shares (TLS) – $1 625 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $7 323 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $5 904 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $119 458 Secured physical gold – $19 269 Ratesetter (P2P lending) – $12 234 Bitcoin – $158 360 Raiz app (Aggressive portfolio) – $16 144 Spaceship Voyager app (Index portfolio) – $2 435 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 471 Total portfolio value: $1 694 834 (+$127 888 or 8.2%) Asset allocation Australian shares – 40.9% (4.1% under) Global shares – 21.7% Emerging markets shares – 2.2% International small companies – 3.0% Total international shares – 26.9% (3.1% under) Total shares – 67.8% (7.2% under) Total property securities – 0.3% (0.3% over) Australian bonds – 4.5% International bonds – 9.9% Total bonds – 14.4% (0.6% under) Gold – 8.2% Bitcoin – 9.3% Gold and alternatives – 17.5% (7.5% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. Comments This month featured a sharp recovery in the overall portfolio, reducing the size of the large losses experienced over the previous month. The portfolio increased by over $127 000, representing a growth of 8.2 per cent, which is the largest month-on-month growth on record. This now puts the portfolio value significantly above the levels of a year ago. [Chart] The expansion in the value of the portfolio has occurred due to an increase in Australian and global equities markets, as well as substantial increases the price of Bitcoin. This is effectively the mirror image of the simultaneous negative movements last month. From a nadir of initial pessimism in late March, markets have generally moved upwards as debate continues about the path of a likely economic recession and recovery from Coronavirus impacts over the coming year. [Chart] First quarter distributions from the Australian and Global Shares ETFs (A200, VAS and VGS) were received this month. These were too early to fully reflect the sharp economic activity impacts of the Coronavirus and lockdown period on company earnings. Despite this, they were significantly down on a cents per unit basis on the equivalent distributions last year. Totalling around $2700, these distributions formed part of new contributions to Vanguard's Australian shares ETF (VAS). The rapid falls in equity have many participants looking forward to a return to normalcy, or at least more open to the pleasing ideas that nerves have been held in a market fall comparable to 2000 or 2008-09, and that markets now represent clear value. As discussed last month, there should be caution and some humility about these questions, if some historical perspective is taken. As an example, the largest global equity market in the world - the United States - remains at valuation levels well above those experienced in previous market lows. Portfolio alternatives - tracking changes under the surface A striking feature of the past year or so has been the expansion of the non-traditional or 'alternatives' components of gold and Bitcoin as a proportion of the overall portfolio. Currently, when combined these alternative assets form a greater part of the portfolio than at any point over the past two years. The chart below shows that since January 2019 the gold and Bitcoin component of the portfolio has lifted from around its long term target level of 10 per cent, to now make up over 17 per cent of the portfolio. In the space of the last four months alone, it has lifted from 13 per cent. [Chart] With no purchases of either gold or Bitcoin over the period, the growth in the chart is the result of two reinforcing factors: A substantial fall in the value of the equity portfolio - reaching nearly $200 000 since the recent February market peak has naturally and mathematically led to a commensurate increase the proportion of other assets. Increases in the value of gold and Bitcoin - have also played a role with a total appreciation of around $150 000 across the two assets over the past 16 months. In fact, the value gold holdings alone have increased by over 40 per cent since January last year. Further appreciation of either gold or Bitcoin prices, particularly if any further falls in equity markets occur, could easily place the portfolio in the same position as experienced in January 2018. At that time these alternative assets made up 1 in every 5 dollars of the portfolio, an unusual, and in that case temporary phenomenon. This represents a different portfolio and risk exposure than that envisaged in my portfolio investment plan. Yet, equally it is critical to recall what the circumstances would likely be for this to arise. Simultaneously high gold and Bitcoin prices are more likely to occur in a situation of severe capital market dislocation, or falling confidence. On the other hand, should confidence and equity market growth be restored, both of these portfolio components could fall back to lower levels. It is difficult to tell which state of the world will eventuate, a key reason for diversification across asset types. United States government debt is already at record levels - equivalent in real terms to levels last seen when it emerged out of the Second World War - despite no similar national effort having being undertaken. Future inflation can potentially partly manage this burden, however, the last sustained episode of persistently high inflation rates during the decade of the 1970s spelt negative real returns. Where investors expect future inflation or financially 'repressive' policies of inflation exceeding interest rates, the economic growth required to 'grow out' of debt can be affected. At this point, my inclination is to address this circumstance gradually through time by re-balancing of distributions and new contributions, rather than to realise capital gains by selling assets at one, or several, points in time. Chasing down the lines - falling average spending in lockdown Since the implementation of lockdown restrictions, average credit card expenditure has fallen by nearly 30 per cent. This has taken credit card expenditure to lower than any similar period in the past six years. Partly as a result of this - as the chart below shows - a new development is occurring. The previously fairly steady card expenses line (red) is now starting to bend down towards, or 'chase', the rolling average distributions line (in blue). [Chart] The declining distributions line is a result of some previous high distributions gradually falling outside of the data 'window' for the rolling three-year comparison of distributions and expenditure. This intriguing picture will probably change before a cross-over occurs, as lockdown restrictions ease, and as the data feeding into the three year average slowly changes over time. Progress Progress against the objective, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Portfolio objective – $2 180 000 (or $87 000 pa) 77.7% 104.6% Credit card purchases – $71 000 pa 94.8% 127.6% Total expenses – $89 000 pa 76.0% 102.3% Summary Last month market volatility theoretically took progress down to below most of my financial independence benchmarks on an 'All Assets' (i.e. portfolio and superannuation assets) basis. This position has reversed this month. As markets have recovered and with additional spare time in the lockdown period, I have continued to seek out and think about different perspectives on the history and future of markets. Yet it must be recognised that there is a natural limit to the utility of these ponderings. The shape of the future is always uncertain, and in this world, confident comparisons and analogies with past events can be perilous. Comparisons with past periods of financial market crises miss the centrality of government action as a causal influence on the path of virus affected economies and markets. A virus and recovery is not the same as a global financial crisis originating in housing finance markets addressed through monetary and fiscal stimulus. Most developed country governments have quickly applied the same, if not larger versions of responses as applied in the global financial crisis, a distinguishing step that also makes analogies with the great depression era problematic. Similarly, a pandemic is not hitting and interacting with the shattered economic and health systems of the 1918-19 Spanish flu. Overlaying all of this is the imperfect and partially disconnected relationship between the economy today, and equity markets that discount and focus on the future. This makes all history's lessons more than usually caveated and conditional. One avenue for managing through these times is to focus on what does not change - the psychological difficulty of accepting alterations in financial circumstances and the capacity of markets movements to cruelly surprise us in both timing and direction. One of the best texts to read to get a sense of both of these in such times is Benjamin Roth's A Great Depression Diary. This tells of the day-by-day changes observed in everyday urban life and investment markets, from the point of view of an American small retail investor living through the times. This month also saw the exciting news that Pat the Shuffler and Strong Money Australia are combining efforts to produce a new podcast. Speaking of which, Big ERN's reflections on the current implications of sharemarket market movements for seekers of financial independence have been filled with insight and wisdom. This interesting piece (video) - the latest in a 'virus' market series - from New York University's Professor of Finance Aswath Damodaran on asset performances through the past few months - is a more technical and detailed discussion of how markets have re-priced businesses and profits. Finally, the recently released Hmmminar interview series provides a more heterodox set of speakers and ideas on current markets, presented by Grant Williams. Unlike predicting the future, seeking out different perspectives on it is perhaps the easiest it has ever been in history. While it is not always possible to change the course taken, it is possible to look at the same horizon with new eyes. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
Murmurs of the Sea | Monthly Portfolio Update - March 2020
Only the sea, murmurous behind the dingy checkerboard of houses, told of the unrest, the precariousness, of all things in this world. -Albert Camus, The Plague This is my fortieth portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goal. Portfolio goal My objective is to reach a portfolio of $2 180 000 by 1 July 2021. This would produce a real annual income of about $87 000 (in 2020 dollars). This portfolio objective is based on an expected average real return of 3.99 per cent, or a nominal return of 6.49 per cent. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $662 776 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $39 044 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $74 099 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $109 500 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $150 095 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $29 852 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $197 149 Telstra shares (TLS) – $1 630 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $7 855 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $6 156 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $119 254 Secured physical gold – $19 211 Ratesetter (P2P lending) – $13 106 Bitcoin – $115 330 Raiz* app (Aggressive portfolio) – $15 094 Spaceship Voyager* app (Index portfolio) – $2 303 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 492 Total portfolio value: $1 566 946 (-$236 479 or -13.1%) Asset allocation Australian shares – 40.6% (4.4% under) Global shares – 22.3% Emerging markets shares – 2.3% International small companies – 3.0% Total international shares – 27.6% (2.4% under) Total shares – 68.3% (6.7% under) Total property securities – 0.2% (0.2% over) Australian bonds – 4.8% International bonds – 10.4% Total bonds – 15.2% (0.2% over) Gold – 8.8% Bitcoin – 7.4% Gold and alternatives – 16.2% (6.2% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. Comments This month saw an extremely rapid collapse in market prices for a broad range of assets across the world, driven by the acceleration of the Coronavirus pandemic. Broad and simultaneous market falls have resulted in the single largest monthly fall in portfolio value to date of around $236 000. This represents a fall of 13 per cent across the month, and an overall reduction of more the 16 per cent since the portfolio peak of January. [Chart] The monthly fall is over three times more severe than any other fall experienced to date on the journey. Sharpest losses have occurred in Australian equities, however, international shares and bonds have also fallen. A substantial fall in the Australia dollar has provided some buffer to international equity losses - limiting these to around 8 per cent. Bitcoin has also fallen by 23 per cent. In short, in the period of acute market adjustment - as often occurs - the benefits of diversification have been temporarily muted. [Chart] The last monthly update reported results of some initial simplified modelling on the impact of a hypothetical large fall in equity markets on the portfolio. Currently, the actual asset price falls look to register in between the normal 'bear market', and the more extreme 'Global Financial Crisis Mark II' scenarios modelled. Absent, at least for the immediate phase, is a significant diversification offset - outside of a small (4 per cent) increase in the value of gold. The continued sharp equity market losses have left the portfolio below its target Australian equity weighting, so contributions this month have been made to Vanguard's Australian shares ETF (VAS). This coming month will see quarterly distributions paid for the A200, VGS and VAS exchange traded funds - totalling around $2700 - meaning a further small opportunity to reinvest following sizeable market falls. Reviewing the evidence on the history of stock market falls Vladimir Lenin once remarked that there are decades where nothing happen, and then there are weeks in which decades happen. This month has been four such weeks in a row, from initial market responses to the coronavirus pandemic, to unprecedented fiscal and monetary policy responses aimed at lessening the impact. Given this, it would be foolish to rule out the potential for other extreme steps that governments have undertaken on multiple occasions before. These could include underwriting of banks and other debt liabilities, effective nationalisation or rescues of critical industries or providers, or even temporary closure of some financial or equity markets. There is a strong appeal for comforting narratives in this highly fluid investment environment, including concepts such as buying while distress selling appears to be occurring, or delaying investing until issues become 'more clear'. Nobody can guarantee that investments made now will not be made into cruel short-lived bear market rallies, and no formulas exist that will safely and certainly minimise either further losses, or opportunities forgone. Much financial independence focused advice in the early stages of recent market falls focused on investment commonplaces, with a strong flavour of enthusiasm at the potential for 'buying the dip'. Yet such commonly repeated truths turn out to be imperfect and conditional in practice. One of the most influential studies of a large sample of historical market falls turns out to provide mixed evidence that buying following a fall reliably pays off. This study (pdf) examines 101 stock market declines across four centuries of data, and finds that:
Large falls can lead to strong rebounds - After large falls of up to 50 per cent, the probability of a large rebound is higher.
Future returns after large market falls are generally positive - Returns following such a severe crash are systematically higher than otherwise.
Smaller market falls, however, may accurately signal poor future returns - Smaller declines (10-20 per cent) are more likely to be followed by further declines, although the strength of the relationship is weaker and less consistent.
Even these findings should be viewed as simply indicative. Each crisis and economic phase has its unique character, usually only discernible in retrospect. History, in these cases, should inform around the potential outlines of events that can be considered possible. As the saying goes, risk is what remains after you believe you have thought of everything. Position fixing - alternative perspectives of progress In challenging times it can help to keep a steady view of progress from a range of perspectives. Extreme market volatility and large falls can be disquieting for both recent investors and those closer to the end of the journey. One perspective on what has occurred is that the portfolio has effectively been pushed backwards in time. That is, the portfolio now sits at levels it last occupied in April 2019. Even this perspective has some benefit, highlighting that by this metric all that has been lost is the strong forward progress made in a relatively short time. Yet each perspective can hide and distort key underlying truths. As an example, while the overall portfolio is currently valued at around the same dollar value as a year ago, it is not the same portfolio. Through new purchases and reinvestments in this period, many more actual securities (mostly units in ETFs) have been purchased. The chart below sets out the growth in total units held from January 2019 to this month, across the three major exchange trade funds holdings in the portfolio. [Chart] From this it can be seen that the number of securities held - effectively, individual claims on the future earnings of the firms in these indexes - has more than doubled over the past fifteen months. Through this perspective, the accumulation of valuable assets shows a far more constant path. Though this can help illuminate progress, as a measure it also has limitations. The realities of falls in market values cannot be elided by such devices, and some proportion of those market falls represent initial reassessments of the likely course of future earnings, and therefore the fundamental value of each of those ETF units. With significant uncertainty over the course of global lock-downs, trade and growth, the basis of these reassessments may provide accurate, or not. For anyone to discount all of these reassessments as wholly the temporary result of irrational panic is to show a remarkable confidence in one's own analytical capacities. Similarly, it would be equally wrong to extrapolate from market falls to a permanent constraining of the impulse of humanity to innovate, adjust to changed conditions, seek out opportunities and serve others for profit. Lines of position - Trends in expenditure A further longer-term perspective regularly reviewed is monthly expenses compared to average distributions. Monthly expenditure continues to be below average, and is likely to fall further next month as a natural result of a virus-induced reduction of shopping trips, events and outings. [Chart] As occurred last month, as a function some previous high distributions gradually falling outside of the data 'window' for the rolling three-year comparison of distributions and expenditure, a downward slope in distributions continues. Progress Progress against the objective, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Portfolio objective – $2 180 000 (or $87 000 pa) 71.9% 97.7% Credit card purchases – $71 000 pa 87.7% 119.2% Total expenses – $89 000 pa 70.2% 95.5% Summary This month has been one of the most surprising and volatile of the entire journey, with significant daily movements in portfolio value and historic market developments. There has been more to watch and observe than at any time in living memory. The dominant sensation has been that of travelling backwards through time, and revisiting a stage of the journey already passed. The progress of the last few months has actually been so rapid, that this backwards travel has felt less like a set back, but rather more like a temporary revisitation of days past. It is unclear how temporary a revisitation current conditions will enforce, or exactly how this will affect the rest of the journey. In early January I estimated that if equity market fell by 33 per cent through early 2020 with no offsetting gains in other portfolio elements, this could push out the achievement of the target to January 2023. Even so, experiencing these markets and with more volatility likely, I don't feel there is much value in seeking to rapidly recalculate the path from here, or immediately alter the targeted timeframe. Moving past the portfolio target from here in around a year looks almost impossibly challenging, but time exists to allow this fact to settle. Too many other, more important, human and historical events are still playing out. In such times, taking diverse perspectives on the same facts is important. This Next Life recently produced this interesting meditation on the future of FIRE during this phase of economic hardship. In addition, the Animal Spirits podcast also provided a thoughtful perspective on current market falls compared to 2008, as does this article by Early Retirement Now. Such analysis, and each passing day, highlights that the murmurs of the sea are louder than ever before, reminding us of the precariousness of all things. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
Upon the Fortune of this Present Year | Monthly FIRE Portfolio Update - November 2019
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted, Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate Upon the fortune of this present year Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (1596) This is my thirty-sixth portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goals. Portfolio goals My objectives are to reach a portfolio of:
$1 598 000 by 31 December 2020. This should produce a passive income of about $67 000 (Objective #1) - Achieved
$1 980 000 by 31 July 2023, to produce a passive income equivalent to $83 000 (Objective #2)
Both of these are based on an expected average real return of 4.19 per cent, or a nominal return of 7.19 per cent, and are expressed in 2018 dollars. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $797 618 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $45 218 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $81 294 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $109 367 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $158 769 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $28 471 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $268 114 Telstra shares (TLS) – $2 057 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $9 996 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $8 100 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $98 376 Secured physical gold – $15 868 Ratesetter (P2P lending) – $16 915 Bitcoin – $128 630 Raiz app (Aggressive portfolio) – $17 535 Spaceship Voyager app (Index portfolio) – $2 377 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 418 Total portfolio value: $1 793 753 (+$33 713) Asset allocation Australian shares – 43.2% (1.8% under) Global shares – 22.9% Emerging markets shares – 2.4% International small companies – 3.2% Total international shares – 28.4% (1.6% under) Total shares – 71.6% (3.4% under) Total property securities – 0.2% (0.2% over) Australian bonds – 4.8% International bonds – 9.8% Total bonds – 14.6% (0.4% under) Gold – 6.4% Bitcoin – 7.2% Gold and alternatives – 13.5% (3.5% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. [Chart] Comments This month the value of the portfolio increased again by around $33 000 in total, building on the previous two months of growth. [Chart] The equity part of the portfolio has grown by around $50 000 to now reach over $1.25 million for the first time. This increase includes new contributions and the last part of the previous June distributions being 'averaged into' equity markets. The equity component of the portfolio has increased by around 40 per cent this calendar year. The only other major movement in the monthly value of the portfolio has been a sharp downward movement in the price of Bitcoin, and a small increase in the value of bond holdings. [Chart] The contributions this month went entirely into the Vanguard Australian shares ETF (VAS.ASX), to reduce the gap to both the overall target equity allocation, and to achieve the target split between Australian and global shares. From this month onwards I expect more regular variations in whether new contributions go to either Australian or global shares, based on keeping this target allocation constant. Charting errors and wrong bearings - the nature of long-term returns Over the last month, as the end destination starts to appear a little clearer in the distance, the issue of the nature of long-term returns has been front of mind. There is a strong literature and body of academic work around long-term equity return expectations. Much of this has informed my thinking, and has over time found its way into the corners of financial independence movement through the avenues of the so-called Trinity and Bengen '4 per cent' studies (pdf), and a range of calculators that use historical data to help guide investors expectations around feasible future returns. Yet, as I have noted before, future states of the world are not drawn from the same distribution as the past - or as the British writer G K Chesterton evocatively put it - 'wildness lies in wait'. Most often this issue is glided over neatly (including by myself) with assured sounding phrases such as 'based on history'. The works of Nassim Taleb, most particularly Fooled by Randomness, and The Black Swan, provide a fuller perspective on these issues. Recently though, reading a 2017 paper Stock Market Charts You Never Saw provided a unique and arresting view of their application to long-term return projections. The paper is long and detailed, but makes some fundamental points for consideration. It provides a challenging perspective on investment returns that falls almost completely out of mainstream discussions of the topic in the financial independence arena. To summarise, the paper highlights that:
Long-term average equity returns are just mean averages - While they have a stable property over the long-term, this is an inherent statistical property of these values being long-term averages of diverse sets of returns. They are not a reliable forward-looking promise of likely returns. In the words of the paper: 'history documents, but does not constrain'.
Time (in the market) does not always heal all wounds - Investors who spend their dividends and avoid market timing - in other words an average FI investor - can reasonably expect to encounter 30 year periods of low real returns, with US investors facing three such periods in the twentieth century alone.
Typical charts of long-term equity returns can be misleading - Through behavioural finance findings it is clear that presented with a chart showing a seemingly inevitable rising line of equity returns over a long-time frame, an impression of safety and inevitability can be created. The paper highlights a range of ways in which standard charts on equity returns can obscure important facets of investors actual experiences.
No investor actually experiences the longest set of historical returns - While it is comforting to know that equity returns have averaged (for example) six per cent over a century, or two, this information is not as relevant for an investor who is more likely to be invested in a discrete 30-50 year period in which deviations from historical averages can be significant.
One-off events should not be dismissed - While the temptation is continuously present to believe that events like the Great Depression could never happen again, careful review of equity returns yields some distinctly similar periods of sustained low or negative real returns.
Comparisons of bond and equity returns are often oversimplified - It is not an immutable truth that equities outperform bonds, at least when the US historical record is considered. Rather, a more complicated picture emerges of returns over long periods. Sometimes, equities have outperformed bonds, but at other times, bonds have out-performed equites.
As the paper notes: "When investment advisors counsel that stocks are the best bet for a long investment horizon, they should append the acknowledgement: “if my market timing is good.” When advisors argue for stocks over bonds, they should append the caveat “as long as you are not French, or Italian, or Japanese, or Swiss, and provided that the 20th century is a better guide to the future than the 19th century.” For real investors with their limited time horizons, who may reside anywhere in the world, there have been times when both stock recommendations were bad." The issue of the primacy of total returns, compared to income returns is also bracingly challenged with reference to the drawdown phase: Once portfolio accumulation ceases with retirement, portfolio income must be spent to live. Under those circumstances real price return, over short periods lasting two or three decades, becomes an important metric. By that measure, an investment in stocks has been dicey indeed. Usefully, the paper sets out (at the end) both conventional charts, and alternative representations of the same returns data, aimed at illustrating the hidden biases and properties of standard charts of market returns. In short, the paper poses challenges to many conventional investment tenets assumed to be true and widely repeated within financial independence discussions. Often these tenets are promoted with the sound and well-meaning goal of reducing new or existing investors caution or level of worry around possible falls in equity markets. The question this work implicitly poses is, in the process, are distorted expectations unintentionally being promoted? Drawing out the lessons - understanding and responding to risks What are the practical implications of this? The most obvious is to look closely at how data is presented and to think carefully about how the assumptions implicit in that presentation line up against ones own situation. Some other implications include:
Projections based on earning stable and uniform returns should be undertaken with caution - Multi-decade periods of low returns can happen, and mathematical models of compounding smooth returns don't capture their impacts.
By taking an equity position an investor is simply undertaking a probabilistic bet, with no guarantees - That is, equity investment over the long-term usually pays offs, but some risk is inescapable.
Diversification across markets and time represents a workable response to risk - Investing regularly and across geographic markets can help current investors capture some of the positive 'survivorship' bias that was denied to individual investors in many countries across the twentieth century.
In other words - to paraphrase Shakespeare's Antonio - not trusting ones ventures to one ship, place, or a fortune upon the present year. Progress Progress against the objectives, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Objective #1 – $1 598 000 (or $67 000 pa) 112.2% 153.0% Objective #2 – $1 980 000 (or $83 000 pa) 90.6% 123.5% Credit card purchases - $73 000 pa 103.0% 140.4% Total expenses - $89 000 pa 84.5% 115.1% Summary As the year begins to draw to a close, a restlessness to see its final outcomes, in dividends and portfolio growth presses itself forward. It is in fact a small echo of one of the strong temptations of the middle of the FI journey - a desire to wish away time itself. Some potential upcoming changes and uncertainties in work situation have added force to this temptation, forcing some thoughts about different potential balances between work and other elements of daily life could be. By distance, the intended journey is around ninety per cent over. At times this introduces both an elegiac quality to, and a premature desire to mark, possible 'lasts' along the journey. Yet the extraordinary current state of financial markets gives pause. Policy makers and advisors casually discuss negative rates and their implications, even as Australian and US equity markets hit new highs. In a sense, it feels a more psychologically testing time to be closer to my higher target allocation for equities than any time before. The diversification in the portfolio can be thought of as a series of small hedges against different potential futures playing out. By far, the largest probability (or potential future) at 75 per cent, is that the historical dominance of equity as a generator of real returns continues to function. The remainder of the portfolio can be seen in some ways as a offsetting hedge against large equity market falls, or some other disturbance in financial markets with negative implications for equity. At base, however, I remain comfortable with the 'balance of probabilities' implied in the target asset allocation. This month saw a new (v)blogger Mx Lauren join the Australian FI scene, as well as the suggestion by Money Magazine of a new 'simplified' retirement rule of thumb to consider. A further piece of fascinating reading was this piece by Ben Carlson in Fortune Magazine, explaining the key role of earnings growth in recent US market return. It posits that the recent strong performance of US equities is attributable to fundamental earnings growth, rather than simply an unjustified expansion in the price investors are willing to pay for that growth. This - in addition to Shakespeare's pre-modern enjoinment to diversify - is potentially another reason to not confine considerations to one market, and one place, as December distributions slowly drift into sight. The post, links and full charts can be seen here.
In the Shade of Afternoon | Monthly FI Portfolio Update – August 2019
It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars This is my thirty-third portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goals. Portfolio goals My objectives are to reach a portfolio of:
$1 598 000 by 31 December 2020. This should produce a passive income of about $67 000 (Objective #1) - Achieved
$1 980 000 by 31 July 2023, to produce a passive income equivalent to $83 000 (Objective #2)
Both of these are based on an expected average real return of 4.19%, or a nominal return of 7.19%, and are expressed in 2018 dollars. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $750 246 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $43 194 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $79 500 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $110 418 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $102 977 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $20 184 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $258 984 Telstra shares (TLS) – $1 982 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $14 056 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $8 868 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $104 149 Secured physical gold – $16 759 Ratesetter* (P2P lending) – $19 968 Bitcoin – $158 330 Raiz* app (Aggressive portfolio) – $16 223 Spaceship Voyager* app (Index portfolio) – $2 104 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 395 Total value: $1 712 337 (-$2 653) Asset allocation Australian shares – 40.5% (4.5% under) Global shares – 22.2% Emerging markets shares – 2.4% International small companies – 3.1% Total international shares – 27.7% (2.3% under) Total shares – 68.3% (6.7% under) Total property securities – 0.3% (0.3% over) Australian bonds – 5.1% International bonds – 10.1% Total bonds – 15.1% (0.1% over) Gold – 7.1% Bitcoin – 9.2% Gold and alternatives – 16.3% (6.3% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. [Chart] Comments The portfolio experienced a small decline this month, with an overall decrease of $2 600. This movement comes after a strong period of expansion through the first half of the year in the value of the portfolio. [Chart] As with last month, the fall occurs despite some significant new investments being made, meaning the absolute size of the decline is somewhat obscured. Renewed concerns about global trade and a relative weakening in the outlook for future earnings played a significant role in the overall movement of the portfolio. [Chart] Once again movements this month within the portfolio have been relatively limited in terms of the size of the portfolio. Equity holdings have declined by around $28 000 when contributions are accounted for, whilst appreciation in the price of gold has offset just over a third of that loss. In fact, despite no recent purchases, the gold component of the portfolio is currently at the highest nominal value it has ever held. On the topic of gold, this 2013 paper (pdf) provides a comprehensive and skeptical empirical analysis of the range of claims made to support holding gold, including tracing the real gold value of average soldiers pay across 2000 years. This month has seen a continuing 'averaging in' of the capital from July distributions. These have been directed to purchases of Vanguard's Australian shares ETF (VAS). This is to bring the allocation closer to my original targets - with my Australian shares allocation currently further underweight than the international shares allocation. Psychologically, a weakening Australian dollar has also made purchasing unhedged international shares more problematic. Risk, volatility, markets and economies There has been significant market volatility this month, and discussion around the future of Australian and global growth in the midst of trade tensions between US and China. In such times, something to remember as this St Louis Federal Reserve piece points out, is that the economy and sharemarket are not the same thing. This means that bad (or good) news for one, does not necessarily imply anything about the other. Missing this has the potential to lead to overconfident investment actions predicated on assumptions of future national economic trends (which will themselves most likely be priced into equity markets well before any retail investor reading the news arrives). The volatility in equity markets has brought out many well-intentioned injunctions to remain calm and fixed on the objective of contributing capital with a long-term view in mind. At times, however, this wise advice can shade into a form of near complacency - for example, for people to invest confident in the knowledge that long-term returns are (almost) guaranteed. No doubt this is generally good advice, directed at easing particularly new investors' concerns about investing at the "wrong" time, and reducing the potential damage from selling into falling markets due to panic. Even as I continue to invest amidst volatility, it is important to reflect on Elroy Dimson's definition that 'risk means more things can happen than will happen', and to consider that the history of equity markets available to us provides only a basis for sound conclusions around what has happened, not what could happen. This is the definition of the risk assumed in markets by investors. None of this is to suggest that starting, saving and regular investing with a view to one's individual risk tolerances are not the most important steps in the path to FI. There is a need to pause, however, and acknowledge that at times common financial independence investment precepts bear a disconcerting passing resemblance to the declaration and mathematical proof offered by famous stock promoter Jacob J Raskob in the well-known Ladies Home Journal (pdf) article exactly 90 years ago. This declaration was that with a steady investment in equities, based on the past patterns of returns, 'everybody ought to be rich'. Nearly 90 years happened to be just before the Great Depression devastated equity markets and employment prospects alike, and US equity investors were behind in nominal terms for around 25 years. Interestingly, however, this New York Times article argues that deflation, higher dividend yields and impacts from changes in the Dow index composition could theoretically have shortened the real losses of any investor to just 4.5 years, provided they possessed the resources and fortitude to hold on to average stocks. Progress Progress against the objectives, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Objective #1 – $1 598 000 (or $67 000 pa) 107.1% 145.4% Objective #2 – $1 980 000 (or $83 000 pa) 86.5% 117.4% Credit card purchases - $73 000 pa 98.3% 133.4% Total expenses - $89 000 pa 80.7% 109.4% Summary Progress against my goals and benchmarks has been static this month, with the exception of the 'total expenditure' benchmark. My detailed review of expenditure last month identified that I could lower this to recognise some double-counting of fixed expenses, and this has meant a leap forward in progress in that aim of 5.8 per cent. This moves the clock forward appreciably for achieving that benchmark. As a general rule, it is always later than we think. For example, on a recent lunch time walk it occurred to me that if my progress to my current FI target of $1.98 million is considered in terms of the length of an ordinary working day, it is currently approximately 3.50pm in the afternoon. Quite late, and just over an hour until heading home. This perspective, of being further towards the tail end than expected, is explored fully and powerfully in the blog Wait but Why here. It helps frame the remaining journey. Viewed in this way, wishing time away seems less useful and fitting than seeking to fill the remaining time with as much meaning, learning, knowledge transmission and patience as feasible. Yet it also explains why in a FI context at this stage sharp changes in investing approach, or commencing new 'side hustles' have limited appeal. Despite it being late afternoon from this one perspective, there are a couple of other considerations or viewpoints. One is the potentially deceptive role of compounding later in the journey, which means that - at least in a stylised world of 'smooth returns' - the end goal is actually likely closer than any purely linear measure would suggest. The other counterpoint to this is that while in my case the absolute journey to FI has involved serious investments over around 18 years, this is not the whole story. Viewed in terms of the average 'age' of dollars actually contributed or invested, the journey of the average dollar in the portfolio has been shorter. In fact, in terms of dollars contributed, around 50 per cent have been contributed since January 2016. So, in some ways, it is more akin to mid-morning for the portfolio as a whole, meaning perhaps that I should not reasonably expect to shade myself under the oak tree just yet. Finally, this month also saw Pat the Shuffler emerge from a short hiatus and provide a honest and well-argued insight into his rethink on investment options between LICs and ETFs. I also enjoyed reading the start of another Australian FI voice at Fire for One. The past few months has also had many interesting podcasts related to FI - from The Escape Artists' Chris Reining on Equity Mates, to a really fascinating practical ChooseFI episode on David Sawyer's on the UK Path to FI. On the slightly more technical and future focused side of finance, the outgoing address of the Bank of England's Governor to the Jackson Hole central bankers gathering provides much food for thought on current and longer term monetary and currency issues, particularly as global bond rates continue to cross the 'zero-bound' into uncharted territory. The post and full charts can be seen here.
Thunder and Sunshine | Monthly Portfolio Update - July 2019
If it not be now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. -Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii This is my thirty-second portfolio update. I complete this update monthly to check my progress against my goals. Portfolio goals My objectives are to reach a portfolio of:
$1 598 000 by 31 December 2020. This should produce a real income of about $67 000 (Objective #1) - Achieved
$1 980 000 by 31 July 2023, to produce a passive income equivalent to $83 000 (Objective #2)
Both of these are based on an expected average real return of 4.19%, or a nominal return of 7.19%, and are expressed in 2018 dollars. Portfolio summary Vanguard Lifestrategy High Growth Fund – $769 050 Vanguard Lifestrategy Growth Fund – $43 826 Vanguard Lifestrategy Balanced Fund – $79 826 Vanguard Diversified Bonds Fund – $108 036 Vanguard Australian Shares ETF (VAS) – $90 076 Vanguard International Shares ETF (VGS) – $20 250 Betashares Australia 200 ETF (A200) – $265 413 Telstra shares (TLS) – $2 116 Insurance Australia Group shares (IAG) – $15 051 NIB Holdings shares (NHF) – $9 588 Gold ETF (GOLD.ASX) – $95 251 Secured physical gold – $15 309 Ratesetter (P2P lending) – $21 070 Bitcoin – $157 290 Raiz app (Aggressive portfolio) – $16 358 Spaceship Voyager app (Index portfolio) – $2 092 BrickX (P2P rental real estate) – $4 388 Total value: $1 714 990 (-$1 713) Asset allocation Australian shares – 40.6% (4.4% under) Global shares – 22.6% Emerging markets shares – 2.5% International small companies – 3.2% Total international shares – 28.2% (1.8% under) Total shares – 68.9% (6.1% under) Total property securities – 0.3% (0.3% over) Australian bonds – 5.1% International bonds – 10.1% Total bonds – 15.2% (0.2% over) Gold – 6.4% Bitcoin – 9.2% Gold and alternatives – 15.6% (5.6% over) Presented visually, below is a high-level view of the current asset allocation of the portfolio. [Chart] Comments The portfolio experienced a small decline this month, with a decrease of $1 700. This slight downward movement comes after six months of continuous increases in the value of the portfolio. [Chart] The fall also comes at a time in which some significant new investments were made, masking the size of the fall somewhat. A substantial likely contributor to the decline, however, is the natural impact of distributions being paid from shares, as well as ETFs and retail index funds. In short, around $30 000 of distributions were paid out across July, decreasing the value of portfolio securities by around the same amount. Not all of these distributions have been re-invested, creating a temporary illusion that this value has been removed. A comparable effect led to a similar reduction in July 2017. [Chart] Generally movements this month within the portfolio have been relatively limited. One of the larger movements has been an increase in Australian and international shares, with Australian share markets just reaching post Global Financial Crisis highs. A fall in the price of Bitcoin, and a smaller countervailing increase in the value of gold holdings has provided a live example of some of the issues in my last post on the potential value of non-correlated alternatives. Having said this, the fall in the price of Bitcoin is the major factor in this months downward movement. Evidently following some real estate revaluations, my BrickX holdings have also decreased in value by nearly 6 per cent since the last month. This most recent research into the actual realised returns from real estate investing suggests I should not be surprised, and usefully highlight the specific risks facing individual property investments. This month has also seen my first investment of July distributions. These were placed in Vanguard international shares ETF (VGS). The remainder of the distributions will be placed into either into VGS, or Australian shares (A200 or VAS) over the next four months, on a dollar cost averaging approach alongside new contributions. Reviewing of insurance needs and adjustments Following distributions last month I have also re-examined my insurance requirements, taking into account updated portfolio values, existing savings, insurance through superannuation, and future financial obligations. This has led me to continue to reduce both my life insurance sum insured (from $315 000 to $150 000) and my income protection insurance (from $3000 to $1000 per month). I have taken a conservative approach, and based the adjusted coverage on the goals of providing of sufficient income, at an assumed safe withdrawal rate of 3.75 per cent, to still meet my Objective #2. In other words the target has been offering full income replacement from all assets and insurance of at least $83 000 in perpetuity. Still, this adjustment has led to a substantial savings - nearly $1 000 per annum. An alternative way to think about this is that I have lowered my ongoing expenses by just under $20 per week, reducing the final portfolio sum required to support this cost by around $28 000. Progress Progress against the objectives, and the additional measures I have reached is set out below. Measure Portfolio All Assets Objective #1 – $1 598 000 (or $67 000 pa) 107.3% 145.3% Objective #2 – $1 980 000 (or $83 000 pa) 86.6% 117.3% Credit card purchases - $73 000 pa 98.5% 133.3% Total expenses - $96 000pa 74.9% 101.4% Summary The steady reinvestment of July distributions should give a small upward push to monthly results through to December. This is tempered by an effect of the growth in the overall size of the portfolio, and its exposure to equities. As a simple example - a daily movement in equities of 0.5 per cent at the beginning of the journey meant a loss or gain of just over $3 000 in a day. The same movement now with the current portfolio would mean a gain or loss of nearly $6 000. This makes the path less clear - as new contributions can more easily be swallowed into a daily market movement. The portfolio value effect has generally been - to borrow a phrase - a little akin to watching the movement of a yo-yo being used by someone walking up or down some stairs. Psychologically, it detaches effort from reward in a way that still feels relatively new in this journey. An interesting post to think about in this context, is this from Collaborative Fund, which shows the sharp, volatile multi-year paths equities can take to reach a single destination. Usefully, it also points out the futility of many 'fine adjustments' to sectoral exposure, and unnecessary complexity in portfolio construction. A further truth illustrated by the data in the piece is that general consumer sentiment, and economic growth, do not align with stock returns in any systematic way. In short, buying or selling shares because of a view that the economy or consumer confidence is strengthening, or weakening, is a futile guesswork, which has no historical basis in the past behaviour of returns. These findings and new realities are reminders that taking the actions that support forward progress and continued regular investments are the immediate focus. This matters more than whether the portfolio sits above or below an arbitrary number on any given day. Planning and readiness for that day is the priority. The post, source citations and full charts can be viewed here.
Cryptocurrencies on pace to close volatile trading week positive following Ethereum Classic addition to Coinbase Index Fund and the launch of the BOLT privacy overlay for Zcash on the lightning network
Developments in Financial Services
Binance is launching a JV with Liechtenstein Cryptoassets Exchange (LCX) to launch a fiat to cryptocurrency exchange, Binnace LCX. The exchange/platforming will be based in Liechtenstein and offer trading between Swiss Francs (CHF) and euros (EUR) against major digital currencies pairs with the potential for new trading pairs in the future.
bloXroute Labs, along with a partnership with a team of student at Northwestern University, are experimenting with a trustless scheme to address the scalability limitations of Bitcoin’s P2P platform. At the moment, with the Lightning Network, Bitcoin transactions capacity is capped at 82 BTC. According to Sarit Markovich, professor of strategy at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, the bloXroute solution is scaling at 100x better and are targeting 1,000x.
BOLT, a privacy overlay for the lighting network that will be applied to zcash, was formally launched on Github today. BOLT will obscure transaction, balances and sendereceiver identities. The BOLT upgrade to the zcash protocol is considered a soft fork.
Coinbase, according to CEO and co-Founder Brian Armstrong in an interview with Bloomberg, is adding 50k new users a day. Assuming this run-rate, it implies Coinbase will add 350k new users a year.
DGE, a South Korean blockchain developer, who launched its native cryptocurrency TMTG a few weeks ago that is linked to value of gold is attempting to partner with global gold exchanges (after agreements with the Korea Gold Exchange and Vau Diamond Exchange) to create a stable ecosystem for TMTG. In the opinion of DGE, many cryptocurrency developers do not consider the stability of their coins and its impact to the ecosystem these cryptocurrencies support.
Ethereum Classic is +18% this morning after crypto’s inclusion into the Coinbase index fund after being added to the Coinbase Pro trading platform. At the moment, Ethereum Classic has a 0.91% allocation in the fund.
Huobi, the Singapore-based cryptocurrency exchange (and third largest cryptocurrency exchange in the world), has announced partnerships with Yatai International Holding Group, Vnesheconombank, Chi Fu Group, Asia International Finance Holdings, and Dbank Group to create cryptocurrency trading exchanges/platforms in the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Canada. The five companies will use Huobi’s Cloud service which will provide the different platforms with the tools they need to open their exchanges on a proven framework.
LINE, a Japanese social messaging app, announced that is forming a USD$10mm blockchain venture capital fund. The company believes the decision to create a blockchain venture fund will make LINE one of the first publicly traded companies to formalize token investments through a corporate fund structure.
Pantera Capital announces it has raised USD$71mm for a third cryptocurrency fund. Calling it Venture Fund III, Pantera has already begun to make investments following an allocation to cryptocurrency trading platform Bakkt (that has a JV with ICE).
Ripple Labs continues to focus on expansion plans, even in the face of recent lawsuits from the District Court of California. The lawsuits content that Ripple’s native cryptocurrency, XRP, should be considered a security which the company flatly rejects. In spite of these issues, Ripple Labs remains focused on its overseas expansions plans in Asia and the Middle East.
Ripple Labs has endorsed three cryptocurrency exchanges, Bittrex, Bitso, and Coins.ph as its preferred partners for transactions with Ripple’s xRapid payments system. Management at Ripple Labs is encouraging users in the US, Mexico and the Philippines to use these exchanges while transacting with xRapid. XRapid is a solution for Ripple’s blockchain-based real-time gross settlement system and is meant to facilitate international fiat transfers between financial institutions.
Square announces that customers will be able to buy/sell Bitcoin via its Cash App across all 50 states in the United States.
The Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) is publicly expressing concerns about the acquisition of Beat Holdings, listed on the TSE, by Noah Ark Technologies, a Hong Kong-based cryptocurrency frim. The TSE concerns are related to management’s bias to stay away from the cryptocurrency sector.
The Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) is exploring using a distributed ledger technology (DLT) in place of its current clearing house electronic sub-register system. According to Dominic Steves, Managing Director and CEO of the ASX, shifting to a DLT system would save the exchange as much as USD$23bn. A DLT would permit customers to use nodes instead of sending messages and connect to the whole database instead of having to communicate with several different databases and should help eliminate errors.
Bitmain’s upcoming IPO is coming under scrutiny as investors continue to worry about its long-term viability. Specifically, there seem to be concerns about Bitmain’s reserve of Bitcoin Cash which is considered an illiquid position given the daily turnover in current Bitcoin Cash markets. Bitmain’s IPO is currently being valued at USD$18bn.
Bloomberg is reporting that a Bitcoin-based ETN that is listed on Nasdaq Stockholm will begin targeting US investors. The ETN, Bitcoin Tracker One, is listed and traded in Sweden but is now being quoted in USD$. Traders will buy the ETN in a similar way that they buy ADRs where transactions are in USD$ but settlement, clearing and custody will be done in SEK.
Alexander Petersons, product director of cloud mining service Hashtoro.com and self-proclaimed crypto-enthusiast, believes the cryptocoin industry will begin shifting to cleaner and smart mining by taking advantage of local climates to help reduce electricity consumption. While cryptocurrency critics cite costs of crypto mining as an impediment that will limit widescale adoption of digital currencies, Petersons and the team at Hashtoro.com believe the use of clean energy will help address the challenges of scalability.
Bitcoin.com CEO Roger Ver has hinted the online cryptocurrency news publisher may consider an ICO in the future. The topic was brought up during a conversation with one of Bitcoin.com’s lead developers about developing tokens on the Bitcoin Cash blockchain - - Bitcoin.com published a new tool helping aspiring developers to build tokens on the Bitcoin Cash protocol.
A group of researchers/hackers have claimed to have hacked John Mcafee-backed hardware wallet Bitfi. According to its advertising, Bitfi claims to be unhackable. The researchers/hackers claim to have had complete access to a Bitfi wallet for the past two weeks, tracking data being sent out of the wallet while still being connected to the Bitfi servers.
According to a research report by Citrix, 59% of UK companies have been affected by cryptojacking malware. Cryptojacking malware employs its victim’s computational resources without their permission in order to mine cryptocurrencies for the attacker and leads to a wasteful increase in electric power consumption and the slowing down of affected devices. According to Citrix’s research, 80% of the cryptojacking cases took place in the last six months.
Deviant coin releases its whitepaper ahead of the launch of its hybrid decentralized exchange and its open-source hardware wallet. The novelty of Deviant is that it proposed to create rewards within its ecosystems without the typical centralized control of node operators. The Deviant network offers improved speed with stealth addresses for complete anonymity, encrypted messaging for secure communication, low transaction fees, lower confirmation time, and a limited total supply.
The Ethereum community continues to struggle with DApps topping the number of downloads on the blockchain network that are promising investments with high returns that turn out to be fraudulent. As an example, Team JUST, the anonymous development team behind the gambling DApp FOMO 3D is warning that an indentical version of its game is eating up 1/3 of the Ethereum network’s total computational power and raising USD$7mm over the past week.
Genesis Mining, an Iceland-basd hashpower hosting service, is forcing customers to upgrade their Bitcoin mining contracts following this year’s drop in cryptocurrency valuations. The company is discounting the upgrade price of its Radiant service per 1 TH/s to USD$180 from USD$285. In 60 days, Genesis announced it will terminate open-ended contracts that mine less than the daily maintenance fee.
Hash House, a crypto-themed café and workshare space in the city of Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province in China, has recently launched. Among its many features, Hash House will provide visitors with learnings materials on cryptocurrencies and will hose seminars and meetups on different crypto topics.
China News reports that the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) Business School has received a USD$20mm research grant to investigate the security capabilities of electronic payment systems. Partnering with University of Hong Kong (HKU), the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and the City University of Hong Kong (CityU), the HKUST-led research initiative will focus on artificial intelligence, network security and blockchain technologies.
During an unofficial discussion with Quartz India, unnamed state official in the Indian government, which is examining the impact of the virtual currency ecosystem.
IBM files updates to a pending patent for managing a databases management system (DBMS) using a blockchain database. The patent was initially filed in December 2017 and covers the idea of connecting a blockchain databases with a traditional central database.
Joe Lubin, the co-founder of Ethereum and ConsenSys, does not see the recent sell-off in cryptocurrencies constraining growth of the crypto ecosystem. In an interview with Bloomberg, Lubin suggested the recent run-up in cryptocurrency valuations is similar the previous six bubbles with each bubble more pronounced than the previous.
Joe Lubin, the co-founder of the Ethereum Foundation, during an interview with Bloomberg, claims Ripple is not a blockchain technology and is not a competitor for Ethereum. In Lubin’s mind, Ripple is a payment system, not a blockchain technology. In the case of EOS, Lubin cautions against its decision-making framework and doesn’t believe it is should be treated as layer-one technology yet.
Users can now be paid to participate on the lightning network nodes. The average fee on the lightning network currently is about 1 satoshi. In comparison, the montly income of using the lightning network has been estimated to be closer to USD$2 for a prominent application developer.
Microsoft recent patent applications suggests the company is looking to use trusted execution environments (TEEs) within its blockchain technology. TEEs are pre-determined types of blockchain or other security protocols in validation nodes. TEEs will help assist in the implementation of consortium blockchain networks and will also assist in verifying blockchain transactions on networks where multiple pre-authorized entities must interact.
Saudi Arabia officials warn citizens in a formal joint statement from the Ministry of Trade & Investment, Ministry of Information and Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency that trading Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are illegal in The Kingdom. This press release is in contrast to The Kingdom’s positive disposition to blockchain technology.
Taproot, a protocol overlay for Bitcoin pushed by one of Bitcoin’s most well-known developers Greg Maxwell, will offer a privacy layer which will address Bitcoin critics who believe the benchmark cryptocurrency’s privacy is awful. Taproot, supported by other popular Bitcoin developers, will require the Schnorr upgrade which is still not ready to be implemented. The power of Taproot will be the ability to make smart contract transactions look like any regular Bitcoin transaction, offering anonymity for senders and receivers.
The national government of Vietnam has decided to ban imports of cryptocurrency mining equipment. According to the Ho Chi Minh City Customs Department, 3,664 ASIC devices were imported into the city in C1H2018. The ban of cryptocurrency mining equipment is related to a government investigation into a ICO-fraud that scammed USD$660mm from 32,000 domestic investors. At the moment, cryptocurrencies are outlawed as payments in Vietnam after the Vietnamese Central Bank refused to accept cryptocurrencies as a recognizable form of non-cash payments.
During an interview with Crypto Congressman Jason Hsu, Vitalik Buterin, the co-Founder of the Ethereum Foundation, highlighted his worries about the lack of sustainable applications on the Ethereum blockchain. Buterin is working on a proof-of-stake and charting protocols to help address the current bottlenecks that are preventing widescale adoption of Ethereum. In his opion, privacy concerns remain the biggest hurdle for widespread adoption of Ethereum in the financial sector.
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