Wednesday, December 23, 2020

How to Decide

Following up on her bestselling book Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke’s new book How to Decide makes good on its promise of “Simple Tools for Making Better Choices.”  This is a workbook of sorts filled with reader exercises and space to write in your work.  Readers can get a lot out of this book by just reading through it, but they’ll get more if they try some of the exercises.

A necessary part of improving decision making is avoiding common types of mistakes.  But we tend to believe that while others make these mistakes, we don’t make them ourselves.  Duke does an excellent job of illustrating different types of mistakes and persuading readers that we make these mistakes too.  Perhaps a critical part of getting readers to understand their own failings is that Duke characterizes them as normal human tendencies rather than “mistakes” or “failings”.  Whatever we call them, it’s apparent that avoiding them requires mental effort and building new habits.

A common problem with the way we judge past decisions is that we are overly influenced by the way the decision worked out.  Some good decisions work out badly because of bad luck, and some bad decisions work out well because of good luck.  We see this in sports.  While the football was in the air during a last second field goal attempt to decide the game, the teams were well matched and played a great game.  But the second we know who won, the winning team played a brilliant game in all respects, and the losing team made numerous unforgivable mistakes throughout the game.

Another common problem with the way we think is 20/20 hindsight, or the tendency to see past events as inevitable.  Somehow we go from having no idea what will happen to having known all along what was going to happen.

One part of the book gently persuades the reader to try to assign numerical probabilities to possible future outcomes from a decision.  Not surprisingly, many people respond with some variant of “I have no idea.”  But Duke does an excellent job of explaining that we almost always do have some useful information.  She takes the reader through a series of steps to make even the innumerate more comfortable with assigning probabilities.

A tool most people know for making a decision is a pros and cons list.  Duke explains the many ways that such lists lead people astray.  She teaches ways to remove biases from decision making, but “if you wanted to create a decision tool to amplify bias, it would look like a pros and cons list.”

You might think that being smarter would help in making better decisions, but this isn’t always true.  “Being smart makes you better at motivated reasoning, the tendency to reason about information to confirm your prior beliefs and arrive at the conclusion you desire.”

One challenge with personal decisions is that we are stuck with our “inside view.”  The way we see ourselves in the world may not match reality.  To make better choices, we need to seek out an “outside view.”  But, “if you want to know what someone thinks, stop infecting them with what you think.”

The first three-quarters of the book is useful to individuals, and the later chapters shift to group decision making within organizations.  One problem not addressed is personal agendas.  I’d be interested to know how the group decision making techniques fare when one or more members of the group have something to gain from a particular choice and don’t care what’s best for the organization.

Overall, I recommend this book as a way to understand your own tendencies better.  I challenge readers who think they have no problem with the way they make decisions to maintain this attitude after reading How to Decide.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Short Takes: CPP Starting Age, Huge Bank Profits, and more

I recently made my annual withdrawal from my BMO Investorline RRSP.  Curiously, Investorline added an extra eight cents to the withdrawal.  I suppose it’s possible I mistyped the amount, but it seems unlikely.  I remember typing in the dollar amount and deciding to add the “.00” to the end.  The eight key isn’t beside the zero key on my keyboard.  Is it possible that RRSP withdrawals are reviewed and retyped by an actual human at Investorline, and the person misread the final zero as an eight?  If this is right, I’m surprised the process isn’t more automated.

Here are my posts for the past two weeks:

Transitioning Your Portfolio into Retirement

Quit Like a Millionaire

Choose Financial Independence

Here are some short takes and some weekend reading:

The typical Canadian who takes CPP at 60 instead of 70 “loses over $100,000 of secure lifetime income in today’s dollar” according to a report by the National Institute on Ageing (NIA) and the FP Canada Research Foundation.  I’ve written about this issue many times, but the emotional desire to take money now instead of later is difficult to overcome.  It doesn’t help that financial advisors have an incentive to advise people to take CPP at 60 so they sell less of their investments.  I like the way this report frames the choice as giving up more than $100,000 if you take CPP early.

Tom Bradley at Steadyhand has updated his bank profit indicator for 2020.  Among Canada’s top 6 banks, “the amount of [annual] profit per woman, man and child in Canada, comes in at $1,083.”  This is a staggering figure, and it’s just the profits.  We also pay banks enough to cover their taxes and other expenses.

Justin Bender explains where it makes most sense to use Vanguard Canada’s Retirement Income ETF (VRIF) in a recent video.

Big Cajun Man
ran into some trouble with automatic payments coming out of his PayPal account.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Choose Financial Independence

Many of us dream of financial independence.  Chris Mamula, Brad Barrett, and Jonathan Mendonsa offer many practical ideas for achieving financial independence (FI) and enjoying the journey along the way in their book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence.  They avoid many of the problems we see in the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) book category.

The authors avoid the biggest problem with most FIRE books.  It’s annoying to tell the story of a high-income earner deciding to live like a student his whole life and retire in his 30s, and then say “you can too!”  Although I point out the bad parts of books, I can forgive a lot if my mind is opened to a good idea.  For this reason, I’ve enjoyed FIRE books even if they have some bad parts.  This book manages to avoid the worst parts of other FIRE books.

The authors don’t bother much with retirement.  FI gives us choices so we can “scrap the idea of retirement completely and focus on building lives we don’t want to retire from.”  The life you build can involve paid work, leisure, or any other pursuit you want.

Rather than focus on just one story, the authors draw from the experience of many people who have sought FI.  A common theme is the importance of enjoying the journey.  If you see your pursuit of FI as suffering for several years until you hit your magic number, you’re not doing it the right way.

You benefit from pursuing FI even before you reach your target.  “If you have a mortgage, a couple car payments, a family to feed, and nothing in the bank, what choice do you have when your boss asks you to do something stupid?”  I was able to push back somewhat with my boss in the late part of my career, and this got me more money and autonomy.

If reaching FI seems like an unattainable goal, it may help to break it down into milestones.  The authors suggest “getting to zero” for those in debt, “fully funded emergency fund,” “hitting six figures” in your portfolio, “half FI,” “getting close,” “FI,” and “FI with cushion.”  This last stage is defined as having a portfolio equal to 33 times your annual spending needs.  This is a sensible target for a young person with a long remaining life who doesn’t really know how spending needs will change with age.

The bulk of the book is organized around the main themes of achieving FI: spend less, earn more, and invest better.  In the spend less theme, the idea is to align your spending with your values.  Once you figure out what’s important to you, it becomes easier to cut out spending inconsistent with your values.  Once you settle on how to spend, “What you spend, not what you earn, determines how much you need to achieve FI.”

Here’s a vivid explanation of the spending problem: “We found ourselves working non-stop to pay for a house we couldn’t enjoy, cars that were losing value while being used primarily for getting us to and from work, and unhealthy restaurant meals we ate because we didn’t have time to shop and cook for ourselves.”

The book gives examples of different people who have pursued “lean FIRE” and “fat FIRE.”  We’re familiar with lean FIRE examples where people cut their expenses to easily-ridiculed levels.  But fat FIRE, where you retain some of the finer things in life is possible as well.  It takes longer, but you may enjoy the ride a lot more.

One area where it’s possible to save a lot of money is housing.  Sharing housing is a good way to cut expenses drastically, “but there is a stigma associated with living with roommates as adults.  Why is there no stigma to living paycheck to paycheck in houses or apartments that destroy wealth?”

One of the expenses that goes down as you become wealthier is insurance.  For example, you generally don’t need life insurance if you’re FI.  However, as you become wealthier, umbrella insurance may be a good idea.  “If you were successfully sued, it could have a significant impact on your finances.”

The section on spending less ends with the suggestion to see the world and how others live to get ideas on how you might be happier living differently.  A good quote from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

In the section on earning more money, the book is critical of the advice to “follow your passion.”  They say it’s better to “find a career that interests you and allows you to earn a solid income.  Then learn to love it, or at least like it, while saving a high percentage of your income, allowing you to achieve FI quickly.”

The section on index investing is excellent.  It took me a long time to learn the wisdom in these few pages.  The hardest part for me to finally accept is that “thinking you can improve investment results by developing your investment skill is likely to do more harm than good.”

The 4% rule for retirement spending isn’t too bad for a 60-year old (although I always suggest being prepared to adapt your spending level if your portfolio doesn’t generate the returns you planned).  However, the 4% rule is not well-suited to young retirees because of the length of their retirements and uncertainty in how their spending will change with age.  The authors suggest some sensible changes to the 4% rule.  The first is to drop it to a 3.5% rule, and the second is to build a buffer into yearly expenses.

The authors discuss two other ways to invest, building a business and real estate, although they make it clear that index investing is an easier path.  A good quote on building a business from Lori Greiner: “Entrepreneurs are the only people who will work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week.”  The authors also warn readers that stories of business success “have a massive selection bias, focusing on the ‘unicorns’ who made it while ignoring the many others who, despite taking risks, fail anyway.”

It’s important to emphasize the benefits you get from pursuing FI before you actually reach the destination.  “Having the financial freedom to live life on your own terms is the ultimate reason to Choose FI.  Take a minute to reflect on the idea that you don’t have to wait until you hit a magic number or a certain age to retire and experience that freedom.  You begin to gain more freedom the day you Choose FI.”

One warning I have is for the many of us who get enthusiastic about an activity, say skiing, and buy expensive gear and clothing before discovering we’re not really skiers.  It’s possible to sink a lot of time on FIRE blogs and attend FIRE events without ever doing anything to pursue FI.  It’s better to make a few positive changes in your life than it is to just dream and contribute revenue to FIRE blogs.

In conclusion, this book has a lot of great suggestions for improving your life, and it avoids many of the problems pointed out by FIRE critics.  If you think you may not be on the right financial path in your life, this book may be for you.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Quit Like a Millionaire

Many of us dream of what life would be like as a millionaire.  In their book Quit Like a Millionaire, Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung tell the story of starting dirt poor and eventually retiring millionaires in their 30s.  The book is a cross between a how-to guide and their personal stories that works quite well to keep the reader engaged.  The main criticism is that the authors don’t seem to have realistic ideas about how the stock market is likely to perform, but this doesn’t take away from the practical ideas and motivation to help readers achieve financial independence.

The book covers the usual subjects like education, debt, housing, banks, investing, taxes, travel, and retirement, all woven into Shen’s personal story.  She grew up dirt poor in rural China, and after coming to Canada made a series of steps ultimately leading to wealth.  If she can do it, you likely can too, and the authors set out to show you how.

It’s common to hear that you should follow your passion in choosing how to make a living, but the authors say “don’t follow your passion (yet).”  They believe young people should focus on making money first, and then follow their passions once they’re well on the way to financial independence.

While low interest debt isn’t so bad, “Consumer debt should be treated as what it is: a financial emergency that you have to take care of now.”  “Cut expenses to the bone, even if it hurts.”

The book’s take on whether we should spend on experiences or stuff focuses on brain chemistry.  “Possessions give you an initial burst of dopamine that fades as your nucleus accumbens acclimatizes, causing you to continuously chase that high.  People who spend on experiences get way more bang for their buck.”

Banks and their expensive mutual funds are a barrier to wealth.  “The bank wants your savings—specifically, a percentage of it, every year, forever.  The real bank robbers work for the bank.”

“If you ever want to see a banker sweat, try this: walk into your bank, ask to see a salesperson, and ask to put your savings into index funds.  It’s the funniest thing ever.”  “I did exactly that.”  The “salesperson spun story after story about why I was making a huge mistake.”  “Eventually he resorted to outright lying.”

The authors tell a vivid story about what it felt like to make their first stock trades and to live through a market crash.  I was reminded what it felt like the first time I bought shares through an online broker.  No matter how carefully you’ve thought through your investment plans, self-doubt can hit you big time.

An interesting part of the book is about the authors’ extensive experience keeping costs down traveling.  They manage to spend less overall while traveling than they spend when living in Canada.

On the subject of managing a portfolio in retirement, the authors draw an analogy about bullets, missiles, and feedback loops.  Once fired, a bullet just travels on a path determined by physics.  However, a missile “sees” its target and course-corrects.  Similarly, we should adjust our spending in retirement if our portfolios don’t perform as expected.

“Because I’ll stay invested in equities throughout retirement, my portfolio is naturally hedged against inflation.”  This point about inflation makes sense, but another comment didn’t: “Inflation doesn’t affect you when you travel because inflation is a per-country effect.  By switching countries you sidestep inflation.”  Inflation still happens in a country prior to your arrival.

On life insurance: “The worst thing to do if you’re trying to clarify your needs is to ask an insurance salesman.”  “The only [type of  life insurance] you need is term life insurance.”  “If you retire early, you don’t need life insurance.

When people hit their magic number and decide to retire, they often hit a “Wall of Fear.”  “Instead of feeling excited, they worry about all the things that could go wrong.  I experienced this wall of fear.  It led me to keep working a couple of years longer than I needed to.  The roaring stock market since I retired has given me an even larger margin of safety.

The most serious criticisms of the book relate to expectations for the stock market.  One example begins “At a conservative return of 6 percent per year on average (inflation-adjusted), … .”  This isn’t a conservative assumption for a long-term average portfolio return starting today.  The book discusses 60/40 portfolios and having a maximum of 80% stocks, but this 6% real return expectation isn’t realistic even for 100% stocks.  One wonders whether the strong bull market over the last decade has given younger investors unrealistic expectations.

The authors recognize that the 4% rule is meant for 30-year retirements and not the 60-year retirement they may have.  To combat this, they created what they call the “yield shield,” which amounts to shifting to higher-yield assets, such as preferred shares, REITs, corporate bonds, and dividend stocks for their first 5 years of retirement.  They assume that this yield will be safe in a market downturn and they won’t have to sell stocks while they’re low.  This is far from guaranteed.  There are many types of market crashes.  The yield shield will work in minor market declines, but dividends can get cut and stay low for a long time.  The only way to shore up the 4% rule reliably for longer retirements is to save more money.  I’d suggest increasing from 25 times annual spending to 30 times for very long retirements.  The authors were simply lucky that they retired into a continuing bull market.

The authors believe that the difficult market in 2015 shortly after they retired was a good test of their yield shield.  My own portfolio went up 7.63% in 2015.  This is hardly a meaningful test when their stated goal is to have their portfolio last their whole lives with 95% certainty.  Fortunately, the continued bull market has made the sequence of returns problem moot for this couple.

The authors describe their bucket system that involves making active decisions about avoiding selling stocks when they’re down.  This can work well for market corrections, but not extended market declines.  When you spend from cash and bonds to avoid selling stocks, you’re increasing your stock exposure.  This makes further declines hurt even more.  Once you’re out of cash and bonds and you have to sell stocks, this will hurt even more.

The book describes a number of backup plans in case your portfolio shrinks too much.  The last resort is to earn an income again.  This may seem reasonable in your 30s, but what if you’re 70?  When deciding on how much you need to save to retire, imagine yourself old enough that your most useful skills are gone.  I’d rather work an extra year while I’m young than have to flip burgers for 5 years when I’m old.  It’s certainly possible to be too cautious about how much money you need to retire, but misapplying the 4% rule isn’t cautious enough.

Despite these criticisms, this book is a useful guide to financial independence written in an engaging style with some good stories.  Many people think building wealth is just impossible, and the authors do a good job showing how it is possible.  It may take longer on lower incomes, but it’s still possible.  Most of my criticisms can be addressed by simply saving a little more than the 4% rule suggests.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Transitioning Your Portfolio into Retirement

It's common for investors to want less risky investments as they transition into retirement.  This means that somewhere in the years leading up to retirement, investors plan to sell some of their stocks to buy more fixed-income investments.  What is the best way to make this transition?

Like most things in life, there is no single answer that applies to everyone.  A range of approaches are possible, from a gradual shift over several years to a sudden sale of stocks on retirement day.  To decide which approach makes sense, I’m guided by my rule that I only invest in stocks with money I won’t need for at least 5 years.

Last-minute stock sale upon retirement

Can it ever make sense to wait until just before retirement to sell a pile of stocks to get to the asset allocation you want in retirement?  The answer is yes, if a number of conditions are met.

Suppose you’ve been working for several years at a secure job with the plan to retire when your savings hit a target level.  You’d be happy to retire immediately, or wait 5+ more years if that’s what it takes.  One day you hit your target, sell some stocks to get to your desired retirement asset allocation, and give notice at work.  

Did you violate the rule not to have any money in stocks if you’ll need it within 5 years?  No.  If stocks had crashed any time in the previous 5 years, you would have kept working longer until you hit your retirement “magic number.”  You wouldn’t have been forced to sell any stocks while they were down.

Cases where a last-minute stock sale isn’t a good idea

1. Your employer may force you to retire before you want to.

If you look around the office and don’t see many people over 60, that’s a sign that you may be pushed out before you’re 60.  Try to be realistic about whether your employer will keep paying your salary for another 5 years or more.  If the stock market happens to be down when you’re forced to retire, your chance to sell stocks while they were up would be gone.

2. Poor health may end your career early.

You can’t know for sure what health issues you’ll have, but if you think you may not be able to keep doing your job for 5 more years, it’s time to think about shifting your asset allocation closer to a retirement mix.

3. You’re not sure how much longer you can stand your job.

Maybe you’re not sure exactly when you want to retire, but you’re sure you won’t still be working in 5 years.  Then it’s time to start shifting your asset allocation.

4. You have a fixed retirement date.

This is the most extreme case: your retirement date is set well in advance, and you don’t intend to find other work.  In this case, it makes sense to gradually shift towards your desired retirement asset allocation during your last 5 years of work.

Conclusion


As you get closer to retirement age, it makes sense to look forward 5 years and think about whether you’ll likely still be working.  If there’s a good chance you won’t still be working even if you haven’t reached your savings target, it might be time to start shifting away from stocks a little just in case the stock market crashes.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Short Takes: U.S. Estate Taxes, a Primer on Ditching Expensive Mutual Funds, and more

I thought I was going to have to replace the locks on my house doors.  At first I just had to jiggle the key a little to get it in the lock.  But then it was getting bad enough that as I fought with it, I wasn’t sure the key could go in all the way any more.  Fortunately, before I called a locksmith, I did an online search.  The locks just needed a little grease.  I can’t believe how well it worked.  The locks had seemed like they were broken, not just a little stuck. There might be better lubricants for the job [a reader suggested graphite spray as a better solution], but I just used WD-40 in the keyholes.  A few seconds later, the locks were like new.  Don’t forget to hold a tissue or rag under the lock to catch the excess; it can make a mess dripping down your door.

Here are my posts for the past two weeks:


CPP Timing: A Case Study

The Capitalist Code

Management Expense Ratio per Quarter Century (MERQ)

The Ultimate Retirement Guide for 50+

The Grumpy Accountant


Inconsistent Pension Envy

Here are some short takes and some weekend reading:

Elena Hanson says Biden is likely to reduce the net worth threshold where Canadians have to pay U.S. estate taxes on U.S. property.

Larry Bates gives a good primer on how to make the switch from expensive mutual funds to low-cost ETFs.

The Rational Reminder Podcast
welcomes Josh Brown and Brian Portnoy to discuss how financial professionals invest.  It turns out that while the pros may invest most of their money in rational ways, they often make some personal choices that deviate from “best practices,” such as holding a lot of cash or picking their own stocks.  The guests strike a defiant tone saying that people have a right to express themselves through their investments.  This is undeniably true.  They even admit that these deviations aren’t likely to beat the market.  However, I’ve often encountered people who cross the line from declaring they can invest any way they want (clearly true) to claiming that they are likely to outperform (very likely false).

Canadian Couch Potato
explains what’s inside iShares’ new ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) asset allocation ETFs.

John Robertson looks into the dilemma facing condo landlords: sell now, rent now and possibly lock in a low rent for years, or wait to rent hoping for higher rents soon.  Mostly, this article reminded me how happy I am that I don’t invest in real estate.  Stocks have performed excellently for me, and I haven’t had to do much work or make tough decisions since I became an index investor.

Big Cajun Man explains the new rules allowing RDSPs to be kept open even if you lose the Disability Tax Credit (DTC).

The Blunt Bean Counter gives a step-by-step guide to tax-loss selling for those who invest in taxable accounts.  He explains a rule I was never certain about: “you have to calculate your adjusted cost base on all the identical shares you own in, say, Bell Canada and average the total cost of all your Bell Canada shares over the shares in all your accounts. If the cost of your shares in Bell is higher in one of your accounts, you cannot pick and choose to realize a loss on that account; you must report the gain or loss based on the average adjusted cost base of all your Bell shares, not the higher cost base shares.”  I assume this only applies to all taxable accounts, and not any Bell shares you might hold in registered accounts.  I also assume this wouldn’t apply to Bell shares you might own indirectly through an ETF or mutual fund.  If this isn’t correct, then the accounting would be a nightmare.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Inconsistent Pension Envy

People without pensions like to call civil servants’ pensions “gold-plated.”  However, when they get a chance to get their own pension, they often turn down half of it.

The inflation-indexed pensions common among government workers are extremely valuable.  Government accounting fictions set the value of these pensions lower than they really are, and taxpayers stand ready to make up the difference.

Fair or not, it frustrates many private sector workers who have no pension to have to contribute taxes for others’ pensions.  But when these frustrated taxpayers get the chance to collect their own CPP pensions, they often opt for payments less than half of what they could be.

The catch here is that to get the largest CPP payments possible, you have to wait until you’re 70 to start collecting CPP.  These payments are more than twice as large as payments are when you take CPP starting at 60.

We can’t blame people for taking CPP early if they don’t have any retirement savings to spend during their 60s, or if their health is so poor that they’re certain to die in their 70s or earlier.  Or maybe they’re so rich it doesn’t matter.

However, huge numbers of Canadians who don’t fall into these exceptions fail to maximize their CPP payments by waiting until they’re 70.  In effect, they’re turning down most of their own gold-plated pension.  This is a strange way of showing their pension envy.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Grumpy Accountant

Canada’s tax system is very complicated.  It takes an army of accountants to help Canadians navigate the tax system and another army of tax collectors at Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to police all the rules.  Author and CPA Neal Winokur thinks we need to simplify the tax system even if it puts him out of work.  He offers ideas to fix the tax system in his book The Grumpy Accountant.  The book also serves as an easy-to-understand introduction to the Canadian tax system.

The book is written in the style of a story, not unlike The Wealthy Barber, which works surprisingly well.  The “story” parts are very brief, so we get to each tax issue quickly, but the story helps to give context as we follow a couple throughout their tax lives.  This presentation, along with the fact that Winokur doesn’t get mired in unnecessary details, helps the reader get a good high-level understanding of the major aspects of Canada’s tax system.

Winokur advocates huge simplifications to the tax system.  He would get rid of all deductions, eliminate taxes on the first $50,000 of income, and cut the federal tax rate to 10% on income from $50,000 to $97,000.  He says these measures would offset so that the government would still collect the same total tax revenue.  He would eliminate all registered accounts, such as RRSPs, RRIFs, and RESPs, except possibly the TFSA.  He also suggests replacing GST payments, child benefits, OAS, and GIS with a simple guaranteed minimum income.

One question I have concerns how all this would affect individual Canadians.  Simplification is a good thing, but such substantial changes would help some Canadians and hurt others, even if the government gets the same total tax revenue.  It’s not clear which Canadians would end up paying more tax and which less.  We’d have to do an analysis of how different Canadians would be affected before agreeing to such sweeping changes.

As proof that simplification is possible, the author points to Spain, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and England where aspects of taxation are simpler than what we have in Canada.  I’d be interested to know a little more about the ways the tax systems in these countries are simpler than what we have.

A common theme throughout the book is complaining about CRA.  A complaint I would add to Winokur’s list is the fact that an estate tax return after a person dies is lumped in with all other types of complex trusts that wealthy people set up.  If you’re handling your mother’s will, and her assets earn some income after she dies, you’re supposed to file a T3 Trust Income Tax and Information Return.  This form handles complex trusts along with your mother’s simple situation.  Here’s one of twelve questions you’ll have to answer: “Does the trust qualify as a public trust or public investment trust that has to post information about the trust on the CDS Innovations Inc. web site under section 204.1 of the Income Tax Regulations?”

One complaint about the tax system I didn’t agree with is the complaint that self-employed individuals have to make double-sized CPP contributions, but they don’t get double the benefits.  Employees pay half their own CPP contributions, and their employers pay the other half.  Presumably, employers offer lower salaries as a result.  CPP benefits are based on the total CPP contributions made on an individual’s behalf.  In this regard, employees and the self-employed are treated the same for CPP.

Another common theme in the book is how much reverence the characters have for their accountant.  One of the more amusing examples is where the main characters realized that their accountant “was a magical wizard with unlimited powers.”

There are some who think that we don’t need to simplify the tax system because software handles it now instead of having to fill out tax forms by hand.  This wasn’t covered in the book, but I think it’s worth pointing out that tax complexity isn’t just about filing a return.  It’s about deciding how to arrange your financial affairs, such as which types of accounts to invest in and which to spend first in retirement, along with many other decisions that only exist because of complex tax rules.  Much of the accounting information we have to collect only exists because of tax rules.

Among the many tax tips in the book is the advice to name beneficiaries on your various accounts.  I’m familiar with doing this for registered accounts to avoid probate, but Winokur says to do it for bank accounts as well.  I’ve been told by others that this isn’t possible for regular taxable accounts.

I recommend this book as a painless way to get a good high-level understanding of how the Canadian tax system works.  The suggestions for simplifying the tax system have strong intuitive appeal, but we’d need to drill deeper to see what unintended consequences they would cause.

Monday, November 30, 2020

The Ultimate Retirement Guide for 50+

Suze Orman dropped out of the spotlight a few years ago, but she’s back with the book The Ultimate Retirement Guide for 50+: Winning Strategies to Make Your Money Last a Lifetime.  The book contains solid financial advice for retirees and near-retirees.  The advice is aimed at Americans, but Canadian readers can easily skip parts that aren’t relevant in Canada.  Surprisingly to me, some of the best parts of the book aren’t directly about finances.

My favourite chapter is “Where to Live.”  It begins “I imagine some of you are thinking you might breeze right past this chapter.”  I was skeptical initially, but the advice is excellent.  The main choice we will face is whether to live out our lives in the same home or move somewhere else.

Orman explains the many advantages of moving somewhere more suitable for an older you, but she recognizes that many people are determined to stay in their homes.  If you plan to stay, you should consider making changes to your home sooner rather than later to make it work better for your older self.  Also “Consider whether your home will be socially isolating to an 80-plus you.”

If you plan to move, Orman says to “consider moving sooner rather than later.” “Reducing your housing costs now is like opening the release valve on a pressure cooker.”  The thought of moving becomes more daunting as you age.  If you’re going to move, it’s easy to do before you’re too old.

“What if you lived with an adult child?  A sibling?  A friend (or two, or three)?  Please don’t immediately dismiss this without giving it some serious consideration.”  Recent experience I’ve had with older family members is that loneliness is a big problem as it gets harder to get out to see others.  Sharing household chores lifts the burden and provides some social contact.  This is valuable even before you start having a hard time getting around.

An area where many retirees get themselves in financial trouble is helping out adult children and grandchildren.  Orman has a number of recommendations.  “Resist co-signing for loans.”  “You are never to help a child buy a new car.”  “Getting your own finances in order takes precedence” over helping a child pay back student debt.  “If you are behind on retirement savings, the biggest favor you can do for your kid is not pay for college” so that you won’t “need to rely on them for support in your retirement.”

On buying cars, Orman says “Do.  Not.  Lease.”  “Leasing is a financial trap.”  “If you need to take out a loan, I want you to commit to a term that is no longer than 36 months.”  If you need a loan longer than 3 years, “you are buying a car you cannot afford.”

“I want you to plan on working until you are 70.  Maybe not in a high-powered, mega-demanding position.  But working at a job that brings in some income.”  This is important advice for the majority of people who simply won’t have enough retirement savings to retire much earlier.  Related to working to 70, Orman advises Americans to delay taking Social Security to age 70 to get larger payments.  The equivalent in Canada is to take CPP and OAS at 70 for the larger payments.

Orman has a very sensible view of planning finances in retirement.  “Your focus should be on making decisions today that will give you the most money if you live a very long life.  Honestly, if you die at age 70, you don’t have any retirement planning issues.”  “You should plan on living to age 95; my best advice is to build your retirement income plan as if you will still be alive at 100.”

“Selling stocks after they have fallen is selling too late.  And it creates another problem because you will have a hard time knowing when to get back into stocks.”  Financial “experts” in the media will trot out all sorts of smart-sounding reasons to sell stocks when they’re down.  If your allocation to stocks is too high for your comfort level, you need to wait until stocks are up again to adjust your asset allocation by selling stocks.

Orman recommends being conservative with your savings in retirement.  “Keep two years of living expenses in cash.”  “Plan to spend no more than 3% of your portfolio in the first year of retirement,” and increase this amount by inflation each year.  Later she allows that if you delay retirement to age 70, “then 3.5% or 4% can make plenty of sense.”  She also recommends being prepared to reduce spending if markets crash, or spend a little more if markets outperform.

“There is one type of annuity that is good for retirees.  Income annuities.”  “Not variable annuities.  Not fixed indexed annuities.”  I worry about the lack of inflation protection with income annuities.  Receiving $1000 per month sounds good now, but it won’t be as good after inflation cuts its purchasing power in half or worse.

One section on taxation of index funds in taxable accounts was somewhat misleading.  “If you own index mutual funds or ETFs, you will typically not owe any other tax until you sell the shares.”  She goes on to explain that actively-managed funds often distribute capital gains to shareholders each year.  The truth is that you’ll pay taxes on dividends, and index funds sometimes distribute capital gains, but they’re usually only a small fraction of the capital gains actively-managed funds distribute.

“I don’t want you to own long-term bonds.”  “The risk we need to focus on is what might happen to your bond investments if interest rates were to rise.”  The purpose of bonds in a portfolio is to dampen the riskiness of stocks.  They do that best when we choose short- or medium-term bonds that don’t have huge interest rate risk.  Another thing to consider is that if we look at just holding long-term bonds until they mature, returns are dismal.

Many books offer advice on choosing a financial advisor.  Orman’s is better than most.  “An advisor must be a fiduciary.”  Ask the following questions: “Will you always act as a fiduciary?” and “Will our client agreement include a written statement signed by you that you will always act as a fiduciary?”  When you ask “How will I pay you,” “Fee-only is the only right answer.  That can be hourly, project-based, or an annual percentage of assets the advisor will manage on your behalf.”

If you have a pension, Orman recommends asking “Do you recommend taking a lump sum or an annuity?”  “An advisor who unequivocally tells you a lump sum is the smart move, before studying your situation, is up to no good.”

The book ends with an entertaining personal note on what Orman has been doing in her retirement.  I won’t spoil the amusing story beyond saying that it involves fish.

This book is worth a read for people over 50.  Orman might change your mind about some aspects of your retirement plans.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Management Expense Ratio per Quarter Century (MERQ)

Savvy investors know they pay fees to invest in mutual funds and Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs).  Most of these costs are captured by the Management Expense Ratio (MER).  MERs are calculated by taking the fees charged in a year and dividing by the total fund assets.  By focusing on annual fees, the MER percentage is misleadingly low.  What really matters is how much of your money goes to fees over a lifetime of investing.

For someone who begins investing at age 30 and lives to 85, the total investing period is 55 years.  However, the savings level is low initially and may be low late in life.  When it comes to the cumulative effect of fees over a lifetime, what matters is how long the average saved dollar is in your portfolio from the day you save it until the day you spend that dollar and all the returns it has produced.  For a nice round figure, I use 25 years as the average holding period for saved retirement dollars.

This gives rise to the Management Expense Ratio per Quarter century (MERQ).  This is the percentage of your portfolio consumed by fees over 25 years.  It’s truly shocking how seemingly small MERs accumulate.  A 2% MER corresponds to a 39% MERQ!  This means that over your investing lifetime, a 2% MER reduces the total amount you get to spend from your savings in retirement by 39%.

If this seems impossible, try starting with $10,000 and taking 2% away 25 times.  This gives $9800, $9604, $9411.92, …, $6034.65.  Because of a technicality in the way MERs are calculated, the actual final value is $6065, for a loss of 39%.

Some people mistakenly believe that an MER only applies to returns their funds’ earn, but this isn’t true.  The MER is charged against all of your savings every year.  That’s why the drag on your savings keeps accumulating year after year.

Whenever you see an MER, I recommend translating it into its corresponding MERQ using the table below to better see how it affects your retirement spending.

MER   MERQ         
MER   MERQ         
MER   MERQ
0.1%   2.5%
1.1%   24%
2.1%   41%
0.2%   4.9%
1.2%   26%
2.2%   42%
0.3%   7.2%
1.3%   28%
2.3%   44%
0.4%   9.5%
1.4%   30%
2.4%   45%
0.5%   12%
1.5%   31%
2.5%   46%
0.6%   14%
1.6%   33%
2.6%   48%
0.7%   16%
1.7%   35%
2.7%   49%
0.8%   18%
1.8%   36%
2.8%   50%
0.9%   20%
1.9%   38%
2.9%   52%
1.0%   22%
2.0%   39%
3.0%   53%

For the mathematically inclined, the formula is
MERQ = 1 – e^(–25*MER).

It seems shocking that a 3% MER could consume more than half your savings, but it’s true.  This is why it’s so important to pay attention to fees when investing.

As bad as the MER can be, it doesn’t capture all costs.  There are also trading costs within the mutual fund or ETF.  Confusingly, TER usually refers to the Trading Expense Ratio in Canada, and Total Expense Ratio in the U.S.  If you can get the TER for your Canadian mutual fund or ETF, you can add it to the MER before looking it up in the table above.

There are still more costs:
  • front and back end loads on some mutual funds
  • early redemption fees on some mutual funds
  • trading commissions and bid-ask spreads when trading ETFs
  • currency exchange costs when trading U.S. ETFs
  • unrecoverable foreign withholding taxes on foreign stock dividends
  • income taxes


No doubt there are other costs as well.

Many Canadians are getting a poor deal on either financial advice costs, fund management costs, or both.  Most financial advisors offer little to their clients to justify their fees.  Many of the largest mutual funds are “closet indexers” whose management fees are unreasonably high for what is essentially an index fund.  Fortunately, there are good financial advisors and good mutual funds, but it takes some knowledge to be able to find them.  For those who can manage their own portfolios, there are many great low-fee ETFs.

Don’t let anyone try to tell you not to worry about costs.  Be aware of the effects of seemingly low annual fees on your portfolio over your lifetime by focusing on the MERQ instead of the MER.

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Capitalist Code

Ben Stein has an interesting short book called The Capitalist Code: It Can Save Your Life and Make You Very Rich.  He aims it mostly at young people as a combination of financial advice and a defense of capitalism.

The advice part of the book is essentially to save some money to invest in stocks as a way to hitch a ride on the incredible wealth generation capitalism provides.  He says that when “we hook up our lives to the mighty engine of capitalism,” we’re generating wealth to deal with the wide array of uncertainties in life.

On the subject of employment, Stein “will always advise working at one loves,” and “we might as well be prisoners as work in jobs we loathe.”  I agree with this to an extent, but we have to meet the world halfway.  If all the people who love painting landscapes tried to make a living at it, 99% would starve.  You have to choose among jobs that have some hope of paying enough money to live.

To those who might doubt the benefits of capitalism, Stein says “When your professors and your schoolmates tell you that capitalism as we see it in the United States of America right now is an evil exploitive system, they’re lying.  When they tell you that you’re being consistently ripped off by Wall Street, they’re lying and they’re hurting you.”

Stein points to Elizabeth Warren as an example of a professor who is wrong about capitalism.  I think the truth is somewhere between their points of view.  Capitalism works, but we can afford to carve out a small part of the wealth to protect the less fortunate.  The catch is deciding how much wealth to dedicate to the needy.  In my view, the U.S. is crazy to allow severe medical problems to bankrupt some of their citizens.  They also need to deal with some corporations that have become so large that their effects are anti-capitalistic.

Overall, this book is worth a read.  Stein gives solid advice for young people and offers an interesting defense of capitalism at a time when many are singing the praises of socialism.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

CPP Timing: A Case Study

There are many factors that can affect your decision on whether to take CPP at age 60 or 70 or somewhere in between.  Here I do a case study of my family’s CPP timing choice.

Both my wife and I are retired in our 50s and had periods of low CPP contributions because of child-rearing and several years of self-employment.  So, neither of us is in line for maximum CPP benefits.  If we both take CPP at age 60, our combined annual benefits will be $11,206 (based on inflation assumptions described below).  

The “standard” age to take CPP is 65.  If you take it early, your benefits are reduced by 0.6% for each month early.  This is a 36% reduction if you take CPP at 60.  If you wait past 65, your benefits increase by 0.7% for each month you wait.  This is a 42% increase if you wait until you’re 70.

However, there are other complications.  If you take CPP past age 60, any months of low CPP contributions between 60 and 65 count against you unless you can drop them out under a complex set of dropout rules.  If my wife and I take CPP past age 65, we won’t be able to use any dropouts for the months from 60 to 65, so we’ll get the largest benefits reduction possible for making no CPP contributions from 60 to 65.  Fortunately, CPP rules don’t penalize Canadians any further if they have no contributions from 65 to 70.

Another less well-known complication is that before you take CPP, your benefits rise based on wage inflation.  But after your CPP benefits start, the payments rise by inflation in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).  Over the long term, wage inflation has been higher than CPI inflation.  So, when you start taking CPP benefits, you lock in lower benefit inflation.

In this case study, I’ve assumed 2% CPI inflation and 3% wage inflation.  These assumptions along with the CPP rules and our contributions history led to our annual benefits of $11,206 if we take CPP at 60.

If we wait until we’re 70, our combined annual CPP benefits will be $29,901.  However, don’t compare this directly to the figure at age 60 because they are 10 years apart.  If we take CPP at 60, it will grow with CPI inflation for those 10 years.  The following table shows our annual CPP benefits in the two scenarios: early CPP at 60 and late CPP at 70.

Age    Early CPP    Late CPP              
Age    Early CPP    Late CPP
 60    $11,206   
 75    $15,081   $33,013
 61    $11,430   
 76    $15,383   $33,674
 62    $11,658   
 77    $15,690   $34,347
 63    $11,891   
 78    $16,004   $35,034
 64    $12,129   
 79    $16,324   $35,735
 65    $12,372   
 80    $16,651   $36,449
 66    $12,619   
 81    $16,984   $37,178
 67    $12,872   
 82    $17,324   $37,922
 68    $13,129   
 83    $17,670   $38,680
 69    $13,392   
 84    $18,023   $39,454
 70    $13,660   $29,901
 85    $18,384   $40,243
 71    $13,933   $30,499
 86    $18,752   $41,048
 72    $14,211   $31,109
 87    $19,127   $41,869
 73    $14,496   $31,731
 88    $19,509   $42,706
 74    $14,785   $32,366
 89    $19,899   $43,560

It would certainly feel good to start collecting CPP benefits when we’re 60, but by the time we’re 70, we’d never notice that our payments could have been 119% higher.  That’s why we plan to wait until we’re 70 for our CPP benefits.

A good question at this point is what we’ll do in our 60s without those payments.  We’ve already begun dipping into our RRSPs, and we’ll continue this through our 60s.  We’re happy to spend some of our savings early in exchange for much larger CPP benefits later.

To see why we’ll make this tradeoff, focus on our financial position at age 70.  The choice is to have either small CPP benefits and more savings or large CPP benefits and less savings.  The math says we’re better off with more guaranteed income indexed to inflation than we are to have more savings invested in risky assets.  In fact, when we do an analysis of how much we can safely spend, the decision to take CPP at 70 instead of 60 increases our safe spending level.  It seems counterintuitive, but we can spend more safely now in our 50s because of the decision to delay CPP to age 70.

You might wonder whether you could invest the smaller CPP payments in your 60s to do better than delaying CPP benefits.  In our case, if we live to 90, our investment return would have to beat CPI inflation by an average of 6.3% per year.  If we choose to manage our savings to make sure we have enough to make it all the way to 100 years old, the breakeven return rises to 7.4% above inflation.  There is no way we can be confident of such high investment returns, particularly because much of our assets would be in taxable accounts.  My planning assumption is that our stocks will beat inflation by 4% minus taxes and other costs.  It’s clear that delaying CPP to 70 is the better strategy.

What if the government changes the rules?  That’s certainly a possibility.  The government could choose to cap CPP benefits in the future, which would be bad for those who take CPP at 70.  The government could also bring in wealth taxes, which would be bad for those who take CPP at 60.  If the government ever becomes desperate enough to take away retiree benefits or charge wealth taxes on people who aren’t very rich, I suspect we’ll have much bigger problems than whether we took CPP at 60 or 70.

Although taking CPP at 70 is the right choice for us, there are some good reasons for others to take CPP early.  One reason is if you just don’t have enough savings to get through your 60s.  But, just not wanting to spend any savings isn’t a sound reason.  Another reason is if you’re in poor health and don’t expect to live long.  But just fearing you might die young isn’t a sound reason.  If you’re so sure you won’t make it to age 80 that you’d be willing to spend down all your savings before 80, then taking CPP at 60 is likely for you.  There are other narrow reasons to take CPP early that are mainly due to technical rules about taxes and certain government benefits.

The final conclusion is clear.  We’re better off delaying the start of CPP benefits despite the strong emotional reasons for taking them early.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Short Takes: MLM Cults, CPP Timing, and more

You might have noticed I’ve written quite a few book reviews lately.  The books I had on hold at the library were taking a long time to become available (maybe because of the pandemic), so I put more books on hold.  But then they started showing up in bunches.  I’m barely staying ahead of the return dates.  You can expect more reviews in the coming weeks as several of the books I have out now are about money.

Here are my posts for the past two weeks:

Bond Quiz

Value Averaging

Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk

Napkin Finance

Here are some short takes and some weekend reading:

Preet Banerjee
interviews Multi-Level Marketing “survivor” David Pride who needed 3 years of therapy to de-program his brain when he left.  I know there’s a cult aspect to many MLM schemes but had no idea it was this powerful.

Mark Burgess has a sensible take on when to start your CPP.  He also points out the conflict of interest financial advisors have when they advise on CPP timing.

Justin Bender explains the details of the new iShares sustainable investing ETFs in his latest video.

Boomer and Echo
says that health and dental insurance aren’t really insurance.  I agree.  Instead of capping benefits at $10,000 per year, real insurance would cover anything over $10,000. 

Big Cajun Man
got his credit card company to forgive the interest that came from accidentally paying late.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Napkin Finance

When it comes to money and finances, it seems like everything we learn is more complicated than we hoped.  The book Napkin Finance: Build Your Wealth in 30 Seconds or Less by Tina Hay offers very short overviews of a wide range of financial topics.  The format is appealing in some ways, but it’s an American book and much of the content isn’t relevant to Canadians.

The book covers a wide range of financial topics, including compound interest, credit, investing, college costs, retirement, taxes, GDP, and Bitcoin.  Each begins with the image of a napkin with drawings overviewing the subject.  Then there are a couple of pages with further explanations.  The format felt gimmicky at first, but it grew on me.  Before people can understand the many details and subtleties of an area, they want a quick understandable overview for context.

The book contains lots of humour to help hold readers interest.  One of my favourites was “A hedge fund is a fee structure in search of a strategy.”

In most cases, it’s obvious when subjects are only relevant in the U.S., such as discussions of 401(k)s, 529 plans, and Social Security.  However, when Hay calls advisor fees “moderate” and mutual fund fees “comparatively low,” it may not be obvious to some readers that she’s definitely not talking about Canada.

For the most part, the explanations are very good.  One part I particularly liked: “Investors waste a lot of energy (and money) trying to guess when a bull market is ending so they can sell, or guess when a bear market is ending, so they can buy.  The reality is, no one can predict those turning points consistently.  Most investors do a lot better by just holding on through bull and bear markets.”

One subject area explanation I didn’t think much of was “Risk vs. Reward.”  The pyramid from low risk to high risk includes savings accounts, bonds, stock, start-ups, and cryptocurrency.  With the risk-reward trade-off, reward refers to expected returns, not possible returns.  Stocks have higher expected returns than bonds.  However, when we get to cryptocurrencies, there’s no reason to believe that expected returns are higher than those for stocks.  It’s not sensible for investors to move from stocks to cryptocurrencies because they are willing to accept more risk in exchange for a higher expected return.

If we ever get a Canadian version of Napkin Finance, I’d likely recommend it to my readers.  However, this U.S. version could mislead readers looking for basic information about financial topics.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cameron Huddleston’s book Mom and Dad, We Need to Tak: How to Have Essential Conversations with Your Parents about Their Finances, but I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s well written and contains lots of practical advice about the steps we need to take to make it easier to help our parents as they age.  The book is U.S.-centric, so some of the more detailed advice is less useful to Canadians, but is still well worth a read.

A common theme throughout the book is that some steps with helping your parents need to begin long before they need help.  I’ve been in the position of rooting through a house full of papers trying to figure out what accounts there are and what bills need to be paid.  I can only imagine how much worse the experience would have been if I didn’t have a power of attorney document prepared in advance.

It’s tempting to decide that there’s no need to do anything right now because your parent or parents are fine.  However, when the time comes that they need help, you’ll need to know about their various accounts, and you’ll need to have power of attorney.  However, wills and power of attorney documents have to be set up while your parents are still competent.  As for their financial accounts, you’ll want them to at least tell you which banks and insurance companies you’ll need to contact.  The more information you have, the less you’ll need to play the role of “forensic accountant.”  In my case, I almost missed an account with about $40,000 in it.  Maybe there are others I did miss.  I’ll never know.

Huddleston covers many of the reasons your parents may resist talking about their finances with you.  They may consider money a taboo topic.  They may be worried about losing their independence and don’t want to think about aging and death.  They might be embarrassed about their finances, or they may think you’re just sniffing around for an inheritance.  The book covers a wide range of ways of moving forward despite resistance.

An interesting piece of advice is to make sure you and your siblings are on the same page before approaching your parents.  You won’t get very far with a discussion about finances or moving out of a house your parents can’t manage any more if your siblings are fighting you.

In one of the book's many examples, “Jason” used the 2008-2009 recession to broach the subject of finances with his mother.  He asked whether “she had been speaking to anyone about her retirement funds and if she had moved any of her holdings into a safe harbor type of situation to prevent any negative fallout from the market crash.”  This shows the importance of knowing what you’re talking about yourself before trying to help your parents.  Jason has bought into the myth that financial advisors can steer around market crashes.  He was advising his mother to sell out of stocks after they had already fallen to lock in her losses.

Another important subject for discussing with your parents is scams.  Huddleston gives a good list of red flags for scams including fees to collect winnings, calls from government agencies, emergency calls from grandkids, free lunches, and high-return investments with no risks.

Hudleston advises being careful about reverse mortgages because “deceptive marketing is common.”  The book contains no further information other than a reference to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) document.  I found the following: “since January 2012 American Advisors Group’s advertisements misrepresented that consumers could not lose their home and that they would have the right to stay in their home for the rest of their lives. The company also falsely told potential customers that they would have no monthly payments and that with a reverse mortgage they would be able to pay off all debts. In fact, consumers with a reverse mortgage still have payments and can default and lose their home if they fail to comply with the loan terms. These terms require, among other things, paying property taxes, making homeowner’s insurance payments, and paying for property maintenance.”

Overall, I recommend this book to get useful information about making a very difficult time easier.  It’s hard to see your parents or other relatives decline with age, but the experience can be a whole lot worse without proper preparation.  Wills and powers of attorney need to be in place in advance.  Siblings need to come to agreement, and you and your parents need to make realistic plans about either aging in place or moving somewhere more manageable.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Value Averaging

The book Value Averaging by Michael E. Edleson promises a simple mechanical strategy for beating the market over decades by routinely buying more stocks when they’re low and selling some stocks when they’re highest.  It was first published in 1991 and “has steadily grown to cult-classic status” according to William J. Bernstein in the 2007 edition.  Despite the impressive endorsements, the method doesn’t work.  Value Averaging’s supposed success depends on measuring returns incorrectly.

Dollar Cost Averaging (DCA)

As a warmup, the first investment strategy Edleson describes is Dollar Cost Averaging (DCA), which is the simple idea of investing a fixed dollar amount every month (or other fixed time period).  When the market is down, your money will buy more shares than when it is up, so your average purchase price over a year will be lower than the average share price over that year.

To illustrate the advantage of DCA, Edleson compares it to another strategy that he calls Constant Share (CS).  With CS, you buy a fixed number of shares each month.  As expected, DCA usually produces higher returns than the CS strategy.

It’s here that we get the first hint of a problem.  When would it ever make sense that someone would use the CS strategy?  People choose amounts to save based on what is going on in their lives.  It doesn’t make sense that the amount they choose to save would be dictated by some investment strategy.  Just because stocks are down, why would I choose to save less money?

One thought is that an investor might have a large lump sum and is trying to decide how to invest it over time.  However, in this case, investment return calculations must include the returns on the cash held back from the market.  However, Edleson calculates returns on only the money used to buy stocks; he ignores any other savings.

This criticism of an investment strategy dictating the amount investors choose to save from their pay isn’t very serious yet.  For a few years investors really could use the CS strategy and eat out once or twice more in a month when the strategy calls for saving less money because the market is down.

The CS strategy has another problem.  The market goes up faster than salaries do.  Over the decades it would become infeasible to keep buying the same (split-adjusted) number of shares each month.  However, this isn’t a serious concern because the CS strategy only exists to illustrate the way DCA lowers average purchase price.  It’s not offered as a serious contender for how to invest.

A Simple Version of Value Averaging (VA)


To introduce Value Averaging (VA), Edleson describes a simple version.  Suppose you want to have $2400 saved after two years of investing.  To achieve this goal, you set interim targets over the 24 months of $100, $200, …, $2400.  You then invest whatever amount is necessary each month to reach the next interim target.  So, you invest $100 the first month.  In Edleson’s example of a precious metals fund in 1986 and 1987, the first month’s return is a loss of $5.60.  So, you have to invest $105.60 the next month to reach the interim target of $200.  This continues until you have $2400 after 2 years.

You might wonder what happens if the fund earns more than $100 one month.  The answer is that you sell some of the fund to get down to your interim target.  Over the course of the two years in this example, the amounts you had to invest ranged from selling $483 worth of the fund one month all the way to having to save $703 in another month.  These swings are partly due to this being a volatile precious metals fund.  However, when investing over more than just 2 years, such swings will grow larger as your savings grow.

These amounts may not sound like much in today’s dollars, but imagine that your target today is to save $1000 per month.  Then in the book’s example scenario, VA asked you to take back $4830 one month and come up with $7030 another month.  It’s clear that you’re not going to spend $4830 on a couple of dinners, and you likely couldn’t easily come up with $7030 one month out of your pay.  To handle these large amounts, you must have a separate savings account where you’d hold cash that the VA strategy doesn’t want in the market.  Sometimes you’d add to this account, and sometimes you’d dip into to get cash to invest.  If this account runs dry, you might even borrow to satisfy VA’s demands.

Edleson suggests that you might put some money aside, “perhaps in a money market fund,” to deal with the big swings in how much money VA calls on you to save each month.  However, this side pool of savings is an integral part of VA.  When you have money on the side or you borrow, the interest on this money should be part of the VA return calculation.  However, Edleson ignores them.  He does an Internal Rate of Return (IRR) calculation on just the amounts that go into and out of the market.

Edleson calculates the IRR of VA in this example to be 20.1% (per year).  He appears to have taken the monthly IRR and multiplied it by 12.  I get the annual IRR to be 22.1% when it’s properly compounded.  However, returns change if we include the side savings in the money market fund and amounts borrowed.  Let’s assume that you save $100 per month regardless of VA’s demands.  You put any excess cash in the money market fund, and you borrow if necessary.  A quick search on prevailing rates around 1986 gave 7% interest in the money market fund and 10% interest on borrowed funds.  In this scenario, the annual IRR drops from 22.1% to 17.9%.  If you prefer not to borrow and save up $100 for two months before the start of 1986, the annual IRR drops to 16.2%.  Properly taking into account side savings and borrowing makes a big difference.

The VA returns are still better than the 4% you’d have received using DCA in this example.  However, when Edleson continued this investment scenario for another 25 months, the DCA return for the roughly 4 years rose to 6.8% and the VA return dropped to 13.8%.  After properly accounting for side savings and borrowing, it’s not clear whether VA is actually any better than DCA, even for this example.  Costs from the extra trading that VA requires in addition to income taxes if you’re investing in a taxable account further muddy the waters.

More Realistic DCA

As a further warmup below describing the full VA strategy, Edleson describes a more realistic version of DCA.  Over a short period of time, fixed monthly contributions to savings makes sense.  But over decades we expect inflation to allow us to increase contributions to savings.  So, unlike simple DCA, we assume that monthly contributions to savings grow over time.  Edleson gives formulas for calculating your portfolio level each month given your initial contributions, the contributions growth rate, expected market returns, and how long you invest.

Of course, markets won’t behave perfectly, and your portfolio won’t grow exactly according to plan.  To use this DCA plan, you’d have to periodically adjust your savings amount based on what the markets do.

Full VA

With VA, you use the annual portfolio level each month from DCA as a “value path.”  The idea with VA is that you adjust your contributions to savings each month to stay on this value path.  If markets disappoint, you have to increase your contributions.  If markets outperform your expectations, you contribute less or possibly sell some of your investments.

As in the simpler version of VA, “Always maintain a side fund” for holding excess contributions that the strategy dictates shouldn’t be invested yet, saving them for a future time when the strategy calls for large contributions.

Edleson performs a number of experiments using simulated market returns and other experiments with actual historical market returns.  Across each type of scenario, the average advantage of VA over DCA is always less than 1.4%.  However, this is always the result of measuring VA returns improperly by ignoring the side fund.  The drag on returns from holding cash and possibly borrowing makes it doubtful that VA actually beats DCA.

Conclusion

The most serious criticism of value averaging is that because returns aren’t measured correctly, there is no evidence that the method works better than simpler investment strategies.  This flaw alone is likely fatal to all variants of VA proposed in this book.

Here are other articles I’ve written about value averaging:

Value Averaging Doesn’t Work

Value Averaging Nonsense
Value Averaging Experiments

2020-11-18 A Technical Addition:

The VA recommended value path is based on DCA with a starting contribution of C and a monthly growth rate g (C, C(1+g), C(1+g)^2, ...).  Assuming monthly return r, the book gives the value path formula for the future value after t months:

V(t) = C((1+r)^t - (1+g)^t)/(r-g).

Actually, this formula only works when r is not equal to g.

When r=g, V(t) = Ct(1+g)^(t-1).

The formula for V(t) involves 5 different quantities: C, g, r, t, and V(t).  The book devotes many pages to methods of calculating one of these 5 values when given the other 4.  It also gives elaborate spreadsheets for this task.  There are much simpler approaches using common spreadsheet functions.

If either V(t) or C is the only unknown, the calculation is straightforward.  To find g or r:

g = (1+RATE(t, -C, 0, V(t)/((1+r)^(t-1))))*(1+r)-1.
r = (1+RATE(t, -C, 0, V(t)/((1+g)^(t-1))))*(1+g)-1.

Finding t given the other 4 values is trickier, but can be done using Newton's method.  Start by calculating an estimate for t (call it t_0) that ignores g:

t_0 = NPER(r, -C, 0, V(t)).

Then calculate estimates for V(t) and its derivative based on the estimate t_0:

V_0 = C*IF(ABS(r-g)>0.000001, ((1+r)^t_0-(1+g)^t_0)/(r-g),
           t_0*(1+(r+g)/2)^(t_0 - 1)).
D_0 = C*IF(ABS(r-g)>0.000001, (LN(1+r)*(1+r)^t_0 - LN(1+g)*(1+g)^t_0)/(r-g),
           (1+t_0*LN(1+(r+g)/2))*(1+(r+g)/2)^(t_0 - 1)).

Then complete the Newton iteration to get t_1, a better estimate of t:

t_1 = t_0 - (V_0 - V(t))/D_0.

The repeat these 3 formulas using t_1 to get a new estimate t_2.  Repeat to get t_3, t_4, and t_5.  I have found that just 5 iterations are enough so that t_5 is an accurate estimate of t to several decimal places.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Bond Quiz

After my recent post arguing that Owning Today’s Long-Term Bonds is Crazy, I got a lot of thoughtful reaction, but I also found that many people are confused about how bonds work.  So, I’ve put together a short quiz to test your bond savvy.

For each of these questions, we assume that you have just invested $10,000 in a 30-year government bond paying 1.2% interest.

1. What payments will you get from this bond if you hold it for the full 30 years?

a) It depends on how the consumer price index changes over the years.
b) You get $120 each year for 30 years, and at the end you get your $10,000 back.
c) It depends on how interest rates change over the 30 years.


2. If interest rates rise, what will happen to your annual interest payments?

a) They will go up.
b) They will stay the same.
c) They will go down.


3. If interest rates fall, what will happen to the resale value of your bond?

a) It will go up.
b) It will stay the same.
c) It will go down.


4. Suppose interest rates rise over the next decade.  In 10 years you sell your bond and use the proceeds to buy a new 20-year bond paying 3% interest.  What will your 30-year compound average return over the 30 years be if you hold the new bond to maturity?

a) below 1.2%
b) about 1.2%
c) above 1.2%


Answers below

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1. b) Bond payments are fixed.  There are special bonds that adjust to inflation, but this isn’t true of regular bonds.  If interest rates change, your payments stay the same.  Some investors seem to think that owning a bond is similar to a savings account whose interest payments rise and fall over the years.  This isn’t true for bonds.

2. b) Bond interest payments stay the same no matter how interest rates change.  The interest rate paid by new bonds will be higher, but old bonds don’t change.

3. a) When interest rates fall, your bond keeps paying the same interest payments.  These payments will be higher than the interest payment on new bonds.  So, investors will be willing to pay extra to buy your bond.

4. b) At any given moment, all government bonds with the same duration (number years left) are priced to be equally desirable.  The ones with high interest payments will trade for more than ones with low interest payments.  So, when you sell your bond that pays only 1.2%, you’ll get less than $10,000 for it.  The amount less will compensate for it not paying the current going rate of 3%.  So, you’re not gaining or losing much trading your bond for another bond of the same duration.  You’ll get more interest for the next 20 years, but you’ll get less back at the end.  The 1.2% interest rate you accepted initially stays with you, even if you trade for a higher interest rate bond.

It’s easy to lose sight of these bond lessons when you own a government bond ETF, but they still apply.  When you buy the ETF, you’re locking in your nominal return for the duration of each bond in the fund.  Trading between bonds of the same remaining duration can’t change this.  Trading to bonds with different remaining durations can only make a limited difference.  Prevailing interest rates when you buy into long-term bonds are hard to escape for decades.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Short Takes: Simplifying Investing, Owning Bonds, and more

My printer saga from two weeks ago ended with me replacing my HP thing (is it a printer if it doesn’t print?) with a Brother laser printer that a family member no longer needs.  The only amusing part of the installation is that the default printer driver caused black and white to be reversed so that every printed page was almost solid black.  It’s all fixed now after some wrestling with printer drivers, but the test pages drained all the toner.  I guess that works well for whoever sells toner.

Here are my posts for the past two weeks:

The Elements of Investing

Owning Today’s Long-Term Bonds is Crazy

How to Really Ruin Your Financial Life and Portfolio

Your Money’s Worth

Here are some short takes and some weekend reading:

Robb Engen at Boomer and Echo describes how he invests his own money using VEQT.  The big advantage of his approach is its simplicity.  It makes sense to spend some time figuring out how you’ll run your portfolio.  But for most of us, once we have a strategy, we’d like to spend as little time as possible maintaining it.  Robb definitely achieves this goal.  It’s tempting for me to simplify my portfolio using VEQT, but the amount I save using U.S.-listed ETFs and making careful asset location choices saves me an amount each month equal to a little less than 4% of my current retirement cash flow from my portfolio.  The modest amount of extra work is worth it to me to keep this money.  As I spend down my portfolio in retirement and the savings decrease, I may revisit this decision.

Jonathan Clements looks at the different possible reasons for owning bonds and ends up at the same conclusion I came to for retirees.

The Rational Reminder Podcast has an interesting interview with Moshe Milevsky.  On the 4% rule, Milevsky gave a very easy to understand explanation of why it makes no sense to be inflexible in your planned annual retirement spending.  It occurred to me, though, that this criticism doesn’t necessarily carry over to William Bengen’s work that led to the so-called 4% rule.  Even if you plan to be flexible in your retirement spending in case your investment returns don’t match expectations, it makes sense to do some backtests to check the likelihood that you’ll have to make painful spending cuts.  So, you may choose to see how an inflexible plan might work out, even if you plan to be flexible.

Doug Hoyes explains what joint debt means in this short video.  Hint: if you cosign for someone else, you’re not “secondary” and your liability isn’t limited to 50% of the loan.  If payments aren’t made, the lender will come after you if you seem to be a better bet to get the money back.

Morgan Housel
asks himself a few tough questions.  These interesting questions could be about investing or just about anything else.

Rate Spy takes a swipe at the big 6 banks for trying to trick people into renewing mortgages at rates 3 percentage points higher than they can get elsewhere.  They have an actual renewal letter and lots to say about it.

Canadian Couch Potato gives us some ETF pairs for tax-loss selling.  This allows ETF investors who have investments in taxable accounts to defer capital gains taxes.  In my case, it’s been a while since I added new money to my taxable accounts because I’m retired.  My ETFs have built up some capital gains so that even when the markets dip, the ETFs don’t go into a loss position.  So, I can’t do any tax-loss selling.

Tom Bradley at Steadyhand
explains why you shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV when it comes to investing.

The Blunt Bean Counter says that there may be a silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud for small businesses: a better price for an estate freeze.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Your Money’s Worth

The landscape for financial advice in Canada is confusing at best.  There are many designations that range from essentially mutual fund salespeople to highly-skilled fiduciaries.  Author Shamez Kassam aims to explain it all in his book Your Money’s Worth: The Essential Guide to Financial Advice for Canadians.  This book has a lot of useful information about financial advice (mostly for wealthy people), but understates problems in the industry, and contains repeated pitches for readers to use a financial advisor.

The main topic areas covered are the various types of advisors, investment products and principles, insurance and estate planning, and a set of forms designed to help evaluate and choose a financial advisor.  The emphasis in this book on advising the wealthy starts early in the introduction: Advisors “offer big-picture concepts and solutions, and then coordinate with your accounting and legal professionals.”  There is some information relevant to people of modest means, but the book is primarily aimed at the kinds of clients advisors prefer: rich ones.

In discussing specific parts of the book, let’s start with some good parts.  In a discussion of bond ratings agencies: “Keep in mind that ratings agencies are paid by bond issuers.  If you’re thinking this creates the potential for conflict of interest, you are correct.”  Kassam goes on to explain how this conflict can lead to some bonds getting unreasonably high ratings.

On fee disclosure: “additional transparency requirements were implemented by regulators so that investors can see the amounts paid to dealers.  However, the actual fees charged by the mutual fund companies to manage the investments are still not fully transparent.  The move to enhance transparency by regulators is a welcome step in the right direction, but it’s only a half measure.”

Mutual funds that charge high fees for active management but are really index funds are called closet index funds.  “In the industry today, very substantial sums of money remain invested in active management strategies that are really closet-index type investments.”

On fund fees, “Expense ratios are the most powerful predictor of fund performance.”  While investors chase funds with high recent returns, they’d be better off choosing funds with low fees.

There were several parts of the book where problems with the financial advice industry were understated.  On fee disclosure, Kassan claims that the industry “has taken bold steps to enhance disclosure” with changes that were known as CRM2.  An alarming proportion of investors still think they don’t pay their advisors.  Disclosure of costs remains poor.

On embedding costs in investment products, “there is nothing inherently wrong with the embedded-fee structure, as long as proper disclosure is provided and costs are clearly understood.”  The problems are that embedded costs exist to hide costs from investors, and it’s a rare investor who clearly understands the costs he or she pays.

On segregated funds offered by insurance companies with principal guarantees and life insurance features: “The additional features result in fees that are typically higher than mutual fund fees.  Segregated funds definitely have a place in some clients’ portfolios, but I have seen instances where clients invested in segregated funds but didn’t need the additional features the funds offer, meaning the clients paid higher fees than they really needed to.”  Very few investors in seg funds need these high-cost features.  Costs are often more than 3% per year.  Over 25 years, this consumes a stunning 53% of the investor’s savings.

On fee arrangements where investors pay an explicit fee to an advisor and also pay fund costs: “if an advisor is charging an annual fee of 2% and then using mutual funds for the entire portfolio, it may be a problem.”  This describes an arrangement with outrageously high fees.  It warrants more concern than that it may be a problem.

On the impact of fees, Kassam begins with an extended commercial for the value advisors bring and complains about “articles in the media criticizing the financial industry for supposedly charging unjustifiably high fees.”  Then he gives an example of an investor making 7% (before costs) over 10 years on a $100,000 investment.  With fees of 2.5%, 1%, and 0.25%, the final portfolio values are $155,297, $179,085, and $192,167, respectively.  It’s good to focus on fees, but 10 years isn’t long enough to truly see the corrosive effect of fees.  Extending this to 25 years, the final portfolio values are $300,543, $429,187, and $511,914, respectively.

A problem mutual funds have had is that advisors want to get paid up front for selling the funds, but investors don’t like losing 5% of their money off the top.  The brilliant solution was to try to hide the up-front payment with back-end loads.  This means that if the investor sells within 7 years, he or she has to pay a fee.  Combine this with a high yearly fee, and mutual funds are sure to get the initial payment to the advisor back from the investor either over time or with the back-end load.  Kassam claims that “back-end loads can work for certain investors.”  They work best for advisors and mutual fund companies.

“Novice investors who try leveraged ETFs are often disappointed with the results.”  With inverse ETFs, “some investors may be disappointed with the results.”  The truth is that few investors understand the volatility drag of such ETFs, and they should steer clear.

There were other parts of the book I didn’t like for reasons other than understating problems in the financial advice industry.  Kassam mentions the oft-quoted Vanguard study that “concluded that the overall value of advice can be up to approximately 3% of investment assets annually.”  However, this is only for excellent advisors when matched with clients with little knowledge.  Most advisors are far from excellent.

In a section on the styles of stock investing, only active approaches were mentioned: fundamental investing and technical analysis.  The best option for most investors, index investing, wasn’t mentioned in this section.

“When markets are dropping significantly, (a ‘bear’ market), active managers can protect the downside and outperform by having more cash in a portfolio or by being in more defensive sectors of the market.”  All the research I’ve seen shows that mutual fund managers don’t achieve this.  They actually hold more cash after markets have gone down.

Kassam mentions DALBAR studies supposedly showing that investors hurt their returns through bad market timing.  However DALBAR’s methodology makes no sense.  If they are measuring your portfolio returns over the past decade, and you received an inheritance a year ago, they conclude that you used poor market timing when you failed to invest that money at the start of the 10 years.

On picking stocks, “Your returns will be directly correlated to the time you are able to put toward selecting investments and your ability to control your emotions.”  All the evidence says this isn’t true about the time you put into stock selection.  Average investors are so much less capable of picking stocks compared to professionals that their picks will be essentially random no matter how much time they devote to the task.  Typically, these investors will make less than an index due to trading costs and poor diversification.

In a discussion of annuities, Kassam classifies inflation indexation as one of the “bells and whistles” you can add to an annuity contract.  A big problem with annuities is that people often don’t understand how corrosive inflation can be over multiple decades.  They buy an annuity with an acceptable monthly payout, say $2000, and long after it’s too late to do anything about it, inflation has cut the buying power of these payments in half.  Inflation indexation is important.

While this book has some good information for investors wishing to understand the financial advice industry, there are too many questionable parts to recommend it to readers.