Posted in Investing, Personal finance, Savings

Afraid of investing? Not so simple either

There are two aspects of investing that are often in war with each other. Fear and Simplicity.

This post is going to look at these two traits of investors.

While Fear is a natural human reaction to market gyrations and an impediment to investments, lack of simplicity on the other hand is another destructive feature of investor behavior.

Fear

For any investor starting on the journey of personal finance and investment, fear is the first thing that comes to play. Following are very common symptoms and questions.

  • What if the stock market goes into a downward spiral?
  • What if the real estate that I buy goes down in value or the rental property is trashed?
  • Even with perceptibly safe investments like bank CDs and money market, the bank can run into liquidity issues or simply go out of business. 

It is this kind of fear, especially the one regarding stock market that keep investors waiting on the sidelines for months and years. And then when the stock market is up, they become euphoric and participate in the bubble, only to confirm their worst fears when the market tanks.

Simplicity

On the other hand, as an investor matures and gets the thrill of investing in the stock market, real estate, he becomes bolder and starts investing in all sorts of esoteric investments like lending products, life insurance cash value and derivatives, futures, options.

While it is good to constantly look for opportunities to make your investments work, one of the fundamental rules of good investment is : “Invest only in what you understand.”

This has become a cliche since the time Warren Buffet revealed that he has followed this principle throughout his investment career. However very few investors have the discipline to keep their portfolios that simple to understand.

Sometimes it is also done in the pretext of diversification. But there are enough easy to understand investment avenues that give instant diversification.

In this post, I wish to provide some solutions on how to deal with these two conflicting behaviors, which are destructive to wealth building.

Solutions

  1. Confront the fear – know thyself and create a plan
  2. Disciplined investing – Time is more important than timing
  3. Correct Diversification – Choose products with built-in diversification
  4. Asset allocation ratios – How to diversify across asset classes
  5. Unconventional investments – Tear down the cover
  6. Load than buy new – Grow vertically, not horizontally

Confront the fear – Create a plan

The best way to address the fear of the stock market and other investing factors is to have a plan.

A plan consists of a hierarchical set of investments that cushion the risk. The plan has to be highly customized to the individual but here are some generic guidelines.

  1. Have an emergency fund – Keep a stash of money in low risk bank accounts (with FDIC guarantee) that can act as ready money available in a bad economy and job loss, unexpected expenses etc. Typically the stock market takes about 12-18 months to recover when it tanks, so some people can be ultra-conservative (specially if one is planning to retire early) and keep cash to tide over expenses for these 12-18 months.
  2. From your monthly budget for investments, allocate a small portion (10%) to play-it-safe, for example to grow the emergency fund or some kind of fixed income investment.
  3. Invest in well diversified index funds first before any other investment. These are low cost and perform well over a long period of time. The S&P 500 index is known to return about 9-10% over multiple decades of time period.
  4. Assign a time value to each investment account and invest accordingly. For example, 401-k accounts are for long term, brokerage account can be for medium term and CDs for very short term. That way, there will not be any pressure to withdraw or sell when the market or economy tanks.
  5. Go slow and do it right with real estate investment. This is the biggest investment we make in our lives and for most people, it is emotional and hence not done with right investment mindset.

Disciplined investing – Time in the market is more important than timing

There are times when we read about a particular investment or hear about it on the news channel, and want to jump in right away. For example, this year 2019, REITs performed exceptionally well and the Internet is full of articles on how to invest in REITs.

But next year it may not be the same. Does it mean I do not invest in REITs? I do invest but in a defined proportion and in the account that is shielded from distribution tax.

Similarly chasing the highest performing stock or mutual fund will result in only speculation, not investment.

  • Keep your investment in a monthly mode once chosen, by setting up automatic investment plan.
  • If you are well diversified, you do not need to worry about which asset class is over-performing. That is the purpose of diversification, isn’t it?
  • Time in the market is more important than timing the market. This simply says keep investing in the same asset month after month without worrying about Mr. Market.

Correct Diversification – Choose products with built-in diversification

Mutual funds, ETFs, REIT Index funds are all products with built-in diversification.

Yet there are portfolios that I have seen which are over diversified. For example, holding more than 4-5 mutual funds with overlapping portfolios does not make sense.

Here are few models of simple diversification:

  1. Total US Stock Market Index Fund
  2. Total International Stock Market Index Fund
  3. Total US/World Bond Index Fund
  4. Global REIT Index Fund

I personally have the following combination – 6 funds at present but I am always looking to consolidate with less. May be the last two can be combined with a Total World Stock Index Fund.

  1. S&P 500 Index Fund
  2. Small Cap Index Fund
  3. Global REIT Index Fund
  4. US Bond Index Fund
  5. International Index Fund
  6. Emerging Markets Index Fund

Asset allocation ratios – How to diversify across asset classes

While the above Mutual Funds or ETFs give instant diversification, they are still victims of the volatility of the trading market.

The stock market instruments can move higher or lower depending on the overall sentiments in the economy. However due to automatic investing and reducing the risk in  a hierarchical manner, it should be okay to digest this volatility.

Although the mutual funds provide in-built diversification in stocks, bonds – there can be other investment outside the stock market that will diversify at the asset category level.

The following asset classes can be added to a portfolio to spread the risk evenly.

  1. Cash and cash equivalents like CDs, money market.
  2. Stock mutual funds and ETFs.
  3. Real Estate Investment Trusts or REIT Index Funds.
  4. Private REIT like Fundrise.
  5. Real Estate buy-and-hold as rental properties, own homes.
  6. Commodities like gold, silver.

Unconventional investments – Tear down the cover to reveal the costs

There are ambiguous investments where the returns are packaged in a way to show it as an attractive investment. Some of these are wrapped around insurance products, while others are mere speculative in nature.

Sometimes these are also packaged as guaranteed return products like annuities, fixed income insurance products etc. While there is nothing wrong in guaranteed return products, these need to be analyzed to see what return they are actually producing.

The concept of IRR (Internal Rate of Return) and NPV (Net Present Value) provide powerful tools to calculate the real return that can be compared to more traditional instruments like treasury bonds, stocks and mutual funds.

Recently I was offered a product in India where I have to pay X amount per year as premium for 12 years, and then I will get a guaranteed return of 2X per year for next 12 years. It sounds interesting as it guarantees a cash flow in future and produces a absolute double return of the original investment.

But when you put it through the IRR formula for 12 + 12 years, you will see the return is close to 5%. 5% guaranteed return can still be good, if I am okay to leave the money invested for so long. These products typically have very little liquidity. Hence I would have been stuck in the contract for next 12-24 years for a return of 5%. Why not invest simply in stock mutual funds, which should produce more than 5% and with much better liquidity if kept out of IRA accounts?

Similarly I have been offered Guaranteed NAV plans (NAV – net asset value), where it is market linked but the company is guaranteeing a limited upside. The problem is not that we cannot take advantage of such instruments, but we need to understand that thoroughly.

One question to ask always: How is the company making money out of this? If you probe with this mindset, you will see things that were designed to be overlooked by the investor. For mutual funds, I know the answer is very transparent – through the Gross Expense Ratio in most cases.

Load than churn- Grow vertically, not horizontally

Anyone who has done day trading knows the extremes of churning. However individual portfolios are also susceptible to churning by high-beta fund managers, or the investor himself as he loses patience to hold on to a particular investment.

With 3-4 mutual funds in the portfolio, it takes a lot of patience and courage to stick to them when your investment brain is screaming – Do Something, its been a year!!

The best way to get around this very humane behavior, is to divert your attention to saving and investing more, rather than changing your investment vehicles.

If you have to do something, take a look at your monthly budget, analyze your spending and see if you can LOAD up the existing investments rather than CHURN them.

Conclusion

The above steps address both the fear in the minds of investors and also gives them a simple formula to allocate their investments with complete understanding.

My investments are diversified in the following manner, and are stacked in decreasing amount of risk.

  1. Cash in the bank, money markets.
  2. Stock Mutual Funds – passively managed.
  3. Stock Mutual funds – actively managed.
  4. Public REIT Index funds
  5. Private REIT – Fundrise
  6. Real Estate holdings
  7. Unit Linked Insurance Plans (well understood ones)

This is as much diversified as it can be.

  • #1 and #2 provides enough cushion.
  • #2, #3 and #4 are volatile and longer term, but liquid. 
  • #5, #6 and #7 are the only non-liquid investments, and I am careful to maintain the ratio of such investments to less than 50% of overall net worth. Only real estate can skew this ratio, since this is a high value and often appreciating asset.

Put your best foot forward with diversified shoes, but ones that you feel comfortable in.

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Posted in Budgeting, Investing, Liabilities and Debt, Personal finance, Savings

Five metrics of personal finance

We all know the importance of metrics and data driven decisions. Specially in today’s world, everything is driven by data, big data or small.

Why should personal finance be left behind? Just saving and investing money does not mean much if we are not able to quantify our financial situation and be able to improve it year over year. So lets look at some of the metrics that we can develop or borrow from other financial scenarios.

There are many  financial terms and metrics for evaluating company fundamentals and corporate performance. We can take a small subset of that and use them to measure the health of our finances.

These ratios and metrics really give you a picture as to where you stand, what will happen in a worst case scenario (lets say the stock market goes down) or you lose your job.

It is like your annual health checkup, you may feel alright but you don’t know fully what your body is going through internally.

Without much more introduction, let me explain the 5 key metrics I use to keep track of my finances. They have told me stories that I did not know without calculating them.

Net worth

This is the most obvious and most popular one. There are different viewpoints regarding this, some people say its only a vanity number yet others think it summarizes your financial position.

In short, Net worth is all assets you have minus all liabilities you have to service.

So if you have $1000 of assets but owe someone $200, then your net worth is $800.

What to include in the assets is also controversial. Some people include their home value, while others will say home is really not an asset.

My view is if you are not going to stay in the home throughout your entire life, then you can count its present value (or at least purchase value) as the asset price. The liability section will account for the mortgage balance you have.

This Net worth number may sound like a vanity or it can give you a milestone to reach. For example, for many people reaching the first million in Net worth is a big deal.

A positive net worth signifies healthy finances, on the other hand a negative net worth means trouble as the person is over-leveraged.

The Net worth vs. Cash flow debate

Quick ratio

OK so you have a positive net worth and want to celebrate. Not so soon.

In reality, majority of your asset may be made up of not-so-liquid instruments like house, cars, jewelry etc. Moreover your liabilities may be mostly short term debt like credit cards. Lets take some numbers.

You live in a $300,000 house, and has only $1000 cash. You have a mortgage of $250,000 and $25,000 credit card debt. What is your net worth?

Net worth = $300,000 +  $1000 – $250,000 – $25,000 = $26,000.

So you have a positive net worth, mainly due to the Home Equity trapped in your house.

However the cash you have is not enough to pay your credit card bills or possibly even the monthly minimum amount (after other expenses). This can cause trouble or through interest charges can slowly eat away the net worth and push it towards negative.

Hence it is important to have a cash cushion to cover your short term obligations. And short term obligations may not mean only credit card debt, they could be impending quarterly taxes, property taxes, insurance premiums and any other short term debt. Typically all payments to be made quarterly or annually within the next one year can be added up as short term obligations.

The Quick Ratio is then calculated by:

Quick ratio = (Cash and cash equivalents) / (total short term obligations)

With a Quick ratio of above 1, you know your finances are well equipped to cover upcoming obligations.

One essential comfort zone

Debt/Equity ratio

Personal Finance Equity is really the Net worth that we calculated first.

Lets say in the positive net worth, you have a mortgage in terms of a long term liability.

But think of a dire situation, when you are asked to pay off the debt at a very short notice. Such emergencies can be losing a job and not able to pay the monthly payment. The lender may demand a complete pay-off or a short sale of the home.

For example repeating the earlier example in section Quick Ratio:

Net worth = $300,000 +  $1000 – $250,000 – $25,000 = $26,000.

Here the debt of $275000 cannot be covered with the Net worth.

But lets say you also have $350,000 of investments in long term accounts like retirement portfolios. Now your net worth is $376,000 which if worst comes to worst, can be used to pay off all your debts and save you from foreclosure or bankruptcy.

This can be measured by yet another useful ratio.

Debt/Equity ratio gives how much of your net worth is leveraged. In the above example with $350,000 of investments,

D/E ratio = ($250,000 + $25,000) / $376,000 = 0.73

D/E ratio below 1.0 is safer as you know you can be debt-free if you want, though you need not liquidate your investments immediately if they are earning more than the interest on your debts and you have a good Quick Ratio above 1.0 to cover your immediate payments and obligations. 

The Paid Piper of Hamelin

Emergency coverage

Since we are already talking about dooms day, it cannot be complete without the concept of emergency funds. Almost every personal finance book or article starts with this concept. But there is a large deviation in the range of the amount to be saved for emergency fund, some say 3-6 months, 1 year or even just a set amount.

Lets approach this as a scientific ratio like we have done so far.

We will calculate how many months you can survive covering your true expenses if you lose your income.

Emergency coverage = (Emergency fund value) / (monthly living expenses + monthly payments)

Note that monthly payments may not mean only mortgage or car payments, it should also account for monthly share of any annual obligations like taxes, insurance etc. Typically it should not affect your lifestyle (barring non-essential and lavish expenses) if you have to spend out of your emergency fund these many months.

The Emergency Coverage directly tells you how many months can be covered by the reserve fund. It is an individual choice to select the number, but typically 6 months is a good norm.

Budget – Grow the tree upside-down

Savings ratio

So far all the ratios indicate the current state or health of your finances. None of them talks about or helps grow the Net worth.

The savings ratio is pretty simple and easy to guess from its name. How much are you saving from your take home pay? It could mean saving for long term investments like retirement funds, children education fund or general investing.

However it should exclude savings done towards goals which are ultimately expenses in the short term – vacation, down payment of a car or house, or for meeting upcoming obligations.

The real savings should contribute to growing your Net worth on a year on year basis for a long term.

Savings ratio = (money saved away per month for retirement and investments +  principal part of mortgage payment) / (take home income per month)

If the numerator includes amounts which are deducted pre-take-home like 401k, then it may make sense to consider a gross income as the denominator.

The Savings Ratio indicates growing net worth, and can be turned into a goal – for example I will achieve a 20% savings ratio this year. 

Investing in the High Five portfolio

Conclusion

These five ratios can be used to monitor personal finance health, and growth of net worth in the long run.

Also the simplicity of these ratios make the math very easy, you can also set these up in Excel and just update the variables on a monthly or yearly basis.

Finally these ratios with the recommended values give you the peace of mind. The following set of recommendations are a good thumb rule.

  • Net worth > 0 [choose your goal or dream here]
  • Quick ratio > 1.0
  • Debt/Equity ratio < 1.0 [0.5 is even better]
  • Emergency coverage > 6
  • Savings Ratio > 20%
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