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

The Five ways to SIP

SIPIn India, the mutual fund industry has popularized this term for drip investing, dollar cost averaging or similar. The full form is “Systematic Investment Plan” and allows normal people to invest in Mutual Funds gradually and is proven to build wealth over a long time. 

For me, there is a bigger SIP in Personal Finance – Sleep in Peace. 

It may sound like RIP – but lets keep life going strong in these trying times. We will do another article on that, and in personal finance terms we will call it Retire in Peace.

SIP is a concept that is important throughout your earning and retired life, and defines a way you can manage your Personal Finance to effectively “Sleep in Peace” every night.

As we know with the current COVID-19 situation, many people are losing sleep over their financial situation.

While some can still be corrected with discipline, those following the basic principles of SIP will be unaffected by such pandemics and sail through it.

The Five components of a SIP method

1. Emergency Fund – The sleep in peace fund

The Emergency Fund is the first of SIP rules. It can be called the Sleep In Peace Fund too.

In the current situation where everything is uncertain from jobs to ability of paying mortgages and bills to medical situations, there cannot be a better cushion than possessing an emergency fund.

People who have not been able to build this fund, are now feeling the brunt of their careless handling of personal finances.

One essential comfort zone

2. No Debt – borrower is slave to the lender (there is no good debt)

In US, due to low interest rates on some loans like mortgage and auto-loans, some experts justify using leverage to build your wealth. While that may sound smart in good times, in trying times like now even a so called good debt can nosedive to a bad debt.

For example, the government is now directing banks to suspend mortgage payments (for a short period, of course), giving stimulus to real estate investors and trying to bail out or let leveraged people and businesses go down.

So greed and over-smartness with debt are now taking the sleep away from people who have bought and financed huge houses, expensive cars, invested into rental properties with no-money-down. Here are 3 situations where not having an emergency fund and being over leveraged, is disastrous now.

  • You spend more than 30% of your income in mortgage payment. If you lose your income, even the emergency fund will quickly run out paying the mortgage.
  • You bought an expensive car with bank financing and very low down payment. The auto-loans will not get any relief from Government, and your car may be repossessed in case you fail to make the payments. Also the payments could have been used in more protective ways, if the car was bought with cash in the first place.
  • You invested in rental properties with low down payment (< 20%). What happens now when many tenants are refusing to pay rent due to financial hardship or even just taking advantage of the situation (evictions are deferred now). You still need to pay the bank their share of interest and principal.

The universal truth about Dave Ramsey’s 7 baby steps

3. Do the real SIP – invest in a disciplined way

Now we come to investments and the real SIP (Systematic Investment Plan).

This process addresses two damaging financial behaviors – fear and greed.

I will not rant about the philosophy behind SIP or DRIP investing, it is pretty well known and over-emphasized in investment circles.

The advice from the legendary investor Warren Buffet applies now more than ever.

Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful. 

However in the Sleep In Peace method – be neither, irrespective of what others are doing. 

Keep investing with a plan. I have rearranged my India portfolio recently (just before the market crash) and apparently could have done better.

  • In a zeal to restructure my asset allocation, I invested a large part held in cash into the equity markets in Jan 2020. Little did I know, the markets would come crashing down in another month or two.
  • However I was not overzealous on Equity. I kept a larger part in simple fixed deposit (bank CD), so as not to go overweight in one asset class, Equity. 
  • The current market situation does not affect my peace, since the money I invested into equity markets is planned to be held for a long time (possibly till I retire). 
  • I could have done better if I remained patient and deployed it in smaller chunks over several months  – the real SIP. 

So that’s from a recent personal experience –

If you want to Sleep In Peace, invest with SIP – the systematic investment plan. 

Know yourself and your investments

4. Define and invest in your goals

No matter what is happening in the world, nothing can derail you in personal finance if you manage your finances based on your goals.

Every person has life goals like buying a house, opening a business, travelling the world, educating your children and RIP (Retire in Peace).

If you allocate your money to the various goals and keep adding to the corpus month after month in your earning years, then in trying times such as now – you have nothing to fear. Some of your goals are funded and some are in the process of getting built-up.

Just continue doing what you were doing.

The worst case scenario can be that one or two goals may need to be postponed. For example, if you were trying to retire early and lost your job or income, you may have to work longer for a few years more. But that does not completely cripple you or force you to liquidate your retirement funds.

A simple method of asset allocation

5. Pay your taxes and file your return on time

Taxes and death are certain – everything else is uncertain. 

There is no way to avoid taxes (except the legal ways to reduce or defer it – consult a CPA) and hence every personal finance system has to take into account – taxes. Not paying your due taxes and trying to be over smart, can really take your sleep away.

Whatever it takes, plan for your taxes throughout the year and pay the legitimate share to Sleep In Peace. 

In the US, Internal Revenue Service and in India, the Income Tax Department are both quite aggressive in following up with cover-ups, non-payment and mistakes. And for working professionals like me, who has to deal with both – there is no other way than honesty, prompt action and discipline in keeping track of your tax liabilities and payment obligations.

Keep your documentation up-to-date and file away returns on time to avoid major headaches.

Five components of a personal finance system

Conclusion – Ride the wave and learn something new

While this is the time for great financial worries and the clouds of a multi-year recession looming over us, there could not have been a better time for us to introspect and re-organize.

This is the time to take a hard look at your financial and other priorities in life. Locked down inside our homes, with more family time and me-only time – when is a better time to introspect and find your real dreams? 

When the world was open and running, the rush of the morning and the fatigue of the evening left little for us to think beyond the next day.

If you want to sleep in peace when all this is over, maximize this opportunity and start something new.

I am working on starting a financial coaching business where I can help people with their finances globally. What better time to serve the world than now and next few years? 

Who moved my cheese? How to deal with changes in financial plans

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Posted in Investing, Personal finance, Savings

A simple method of asset allocation

As I started to write this post, I decided not to rant about the Corona Virus and its effects anymore. The last two posts were dedicated to the topic and frankly it is becoming a little bit weary to add to all the deluge of information and opinions on it.

Let’s look at the current situation as nothing unexpected, at least financially. Being a financial blog, let us generalize this to another black swan event, and not worry about the statistics of no. of confirmed cases vs. deaths etc.

What is a Black Swan event?

A quick Google search yields the following:

An event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult to predict. This term was popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.”

Lets leave it to that and consider we are in the midst of one such situation.

The keyword in the above definition is “would be extremely difficult to predict”. 

No matter what financial experts say about the markets, about investments, using sophisticated algorithms to trade stocks, the fact remains that such events are not predictable by even the multi-PhDs of Finance.

In the beginning of 2020, most of us did not know that a black swan event is so much closer, although experts have been predicting recessionary clouds for last 2 years or more.

The effect of such an event is the havoc it can do to your savings and investments. Yes savings too, as we don’t know which banks or financial institutions will go under the water, and whether government stimulus can rescue them.

It may be a rare event so far, or some rescued in 2008 but we cannot guarantee with every black swan event. Just in Feb 2020 (when it was still normal business), a very large private bank in India went bust taking with it hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of deposits of very normal people. Ironically the bank was named “Yes” bank.

Similarly by end of March 2020, the stock and mutual fund portfolios are down 20%-50% depending on how much risky the portfolio was to begin with.

The only respite from all of this is to maintain a good asset allocation as each investment avenue has its own risks. Some of the typical risks are:

  1. Cash – Banks going down and Government struggling to insure the deposits.
  2. Stocks – Markets tumbling for an extended period of time due to economic fears.
  3. Bonds – Risk of default as even good companies’ bonds can turn into junk debt very quickly. Lot of mutual funds in India were invested into Yes Bank bonds. Long term bonds can also run into interest rate risk.
  4. Real Estate – Somewhat resilient but affected by vacancy, interest rates, unemployment.

If your finances are severely affected by this storm, how do you achieve a good asset allocation once the clouds are gone and the sun is shining again on the stock market?

KISS – Keep it simple, stupid

Its not overly complicated although some financial experts make it so. Let’s say I want to hold 25% each of the 4 asset classes and distribute my assets accordingly.

Here is a step by step method on how to achieve this. It is better done in an Excel sheet as the calculations can be automated and even graphs can be plotted, although equal allocation is easy to visualize anyway.

  • List down all your assets into one column which comprises your Net worth including your home and any other property you own.
  • Now in a second column, list the value corresponding to the asset. Be conservative, do not add any speculative value.
    • For your home, just take the equity value that you have.
    • For stocks or mutual funds, take the present value.
    • For any bond investment, take the invested value or the expected maturity value (if the term is not too long).
  • Now add 4 columns for the asset classes.
  • The chart should start to look like this. Here is a simple example of a $100,000 Net worth.

Asset Allocation Table 1

  • Now based on the asset class for each, fill the right side columns in the right proportions. For example the mutual funds  may consist of equity funds, bond funds and REIT funds in equal proportions. For each mutual fund, a look at the fund report will reveal the proportions of these asset classes that it invests in.
  • Fundrise is just an example of a private REIT that is considered real estate asset class but in paper form. It is only for illustration and I am not an affiliate of the investment fund.
  • Once you allocate the numbers to the 4 asset classes and add up each column, it will become visible how your asset allocation is skewed.Asset Allocation Table 2

 

  • A visual inspection of the numbers reveals that this portfolio is heavily skewed towards Real Estate due to the largest investment in the Home. This is true for most people, as their largest investment is their home.
  • A more vivid depiction of this can be drawn using the Excel chart.

Asset Allocation Table 3

  • How to balance it? There is no ideal asset allocation as it depends entirely on the person’s situation, age, risk appetite, goals and many other factors. It is only after this simple analysis that one should approach a financial coach or investment adviser.
  • For example, if the person (who’s portfolio we have just analyzed) is not happy with the Real Estate skew, he can allocate future investments more towards Equity or Bonds (or even Cash), than buying more real estate or paying down his mortgage aggressively.
  • Being overweight in Home Equity can mean house poor and the person will find it difficult to raise funds or access cash in times of emergency or other life goals.

Conclusion

The beauty of this asset allocation method is that in a simple exercise which takes less than 10 mins and one sheet of Excel, you can look at your entire financial picture.

  1. It gives you a quick overview of your Net worth.
  2. It gives you the current asset allocation you have.
  3. It tells you where your financial situation is vulnerable to market, liquidity or economic risks.
  4. It tells you what action you need to take (whether to sell some or boost up another) regarding the various asset classes.
  5. It directs how your future investments should be structured.

The value of this exercise is immense and a good asset allocation can let you sleep in peace when the entire world is savaged by another Black Swan event.

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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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