I continue to believe the choices for investors are much more challenging than they normally are, as I have written about several times. Though maybe soon, this will just be the new normal (in which case investors won’t have the fairly easy choices they have had for much of the last 100 years).
In previous posts I have discussed the value of real estate investments in this investing climate. Real estate is one way to cope with the challenges of extremely low yields today.
There are many advantages to city property, in the right city. When I was looking at my first house I looked for something that would be easy to rent out. The most important factor to minimize vacancy is high demand. If there is high demand, the worst you should face is the need to lower your asking price.
An additional consideration in buying condos (your only option in large urban centers like New York City, seen in my photo of the Empire State Building) are condo fees. Fees and taxes can make positive cash flow a challenge and they continue when the property is vacant thus creating more risk for the investor. Of course, in popular markets and good times rents are very attractive for owners and price increases can make them great investments.
During downturns rental property that is not in high demand can be vacant no matter the price. And those properties with some, but not overwhelming, demand will face the need for dramatic rent decreases to minimize vacancy (and large declines if you need to sell). My purchase was 3 blocks from a metro stop (close in to Washington DC). All housing near metro stops in DC have high demand and that close in to the city has even higher demand.
In over 10 years I have had maybe 2 months of vacancy – the first year I messed up; I was new to trying to rent places out and believed people were going to sign the lease because they said they would but then they backed out. I think I may have had 1 more month sometime, but maybe not, I can’t really remember.
I have considered tourist property but have decided against it so far. The rental yield are higher but you have higher vacancy rates, which is manageable, but also much more property management issues to deal with. In order to cope with that you need to hire a property manager, for example, Summit Vacations Property Management Company, very carefully. You need to carefully check their experience, reliability and competence.
And even for residential real estate the hassles of dealing with the property management yourself may lead investors to use property managers. This cuts into the advantages of direct real estate investments and so if you are going to use property managers then looking at REITs has to be considered. I believe if you are sensible direct real estate investments would normally return more but the risks are significantly higher and the hassle is somewhat to significantly higher. Likely the decision on whether to use direct real estate investing is more about personal preference than just a decision on which option would be a better investment.
I was recently interviewed on equities.com, read the full interview – Financial Blogger Profile: John Hunter. Some quotes from the interview:
John Hunter: I look for good individual investments, but I also weigh my guesses about long term macroeconomic conditions in making investment commitments. I think there is much more risk to the drastic measures central banks have been making for the past few years than the market is factoring in. I think the poor job regulating risk in the financial system is also very risky at the macroeconomic level.
I don’t have any real idea of what the chance of massive economic failure is, but I am much more worried today than I have been. Pretty much, my worry has remained the same over the last few years. We did avoid an immediate meltdown, though we still had plenty of economic pain. Yet, in my opinion, the risk has remained very high for the last few years, but people seem to think central banks can continue this extraordinary behavior without consequences; I see a great deal of risk in the economy.
Three macro-economic factors make healthcare an appealing investment. First, the aging population should provide a booming market. Second, the huge increase in rich people globally that can afford very expensive medicine again provides an ever-growing market. Third, the broken healthcare system in the USA results in exceedingly high-priced medical care in a very large and rich market.
I also close out the interview with some tips I have shared on this blog over the years
John Hunter: I can’t pick one, but I can pick a few short pieces of advice:
- Save 15%, or more, of your income and invest it wisely. If you want to buy more, then earn more, or save extra until you can pay for it with the extra savings.
- Minimize costs on investments, use Vanguard or similar low fee funds. Buying individual stocks reduces even the costs of Vanguard. There are tradeoffs to diversity of your portfolio when buying individual stocks.
- Pay attention to the overall risk of the portfolio, and even beyond that, your entire financial picture. For example, in the USA we have extra healthcare expense risk that is outside our portfolio risk, but is part of our entire financial picture. Building your portfolio with extra-portfolio risks in mind is wise. Don’t get fooled into thinking about the risks of investments taken individually, even though that is what you will continually be bombarded with.
I think those that find this blog worthwhile will also enjoy the interview so I hope you read the full interview.
One thing for investors consulting historical data to remember is we may have had fundamental changes in stock valuations over the decades (and I suspect they have). Just to over simplify the idea if lets say the market valued the average stock at a PE of 11 and everyone found stocks a wonderful investment. And so more and more people buy stocks and with everyone finding stocks wonderful they keep buying and after awhile the market is valuing the average stock at a PE of 14.
Within the market there is tons of variation those things of course are not nearly that simple, but the idea I think holds. Well if you look back at historical data the returns will include the adjustment of going from a PE of 11 to a PE of 14. Now maybe the new few decades would adjust from PE of 14 to PE of 17 but maybe not. At some point that fundamental re-adjustment will stop.
And therefore future returns would be expected to be lower than historically due to this one factor. Now maybe other factors will increase returns to compensate but if not the historical returns may well provide an overly optimistic view.
And if there is a short term bubble that lets say pushes the PR to 16 while the “fair” long term value is 14, then there will be a negative impact on the returns going forward bringing the PE from 16 to 14. That isn’t necessarily a drop (though it could be) in stock prices, it could just be very slow increases as earning growth slowly pushes PE back to 14.
Another thing to consider is another long term macro-economic factor may also be giving long term historical returns an extra boost. The type of economic growth from the end of World War I to 1973 (just to pick a specific time, there was a big economic slowdown after OPEC drastically increased the price of oil). While that period includes the great depression and World War II, which massively distorts figures, from the end of WW I through the 1960s Europe and the USA went through an amazing amount of economic growth.
This richest 1% continue to take advantage of economic conditions to amass more and more wealth at an astonishing rate. These conditions are perpetuated significantly by corrupt politicians that have been paid lots of cash by the rich to carry out their wishes.
One thing people in rich countries forget is how many of them are in the 1% globally. The 1% isn’t just Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. 1% of the world’s population is about 72 million people (about 47 million adults). Owning $1 million in assets puts you in the top .7% of wealthy adults (Global Wealth Report 2013’ by Credit Suisse). That report has a cutoff of US $798,000 to make the global 1%. They sensibly only count adults in the population so wealth of $798,000 puts you in the top 1% for all adults.
$100,000 puts you in the top 9% of wealthiest people on earth. Even $10,000 in net wealth puts you in the top 30% of wealthiest people. So while you think about how unfair it is that the system is rigged to support the top .01% of wealthy people also remember it is rigged to support more than 50% of the people reading this blog (the global 1%).
I do agree we should move away from electing corrupt politicians (which is the vast majority of them in DC today) and allowing them to continue perverting the economic system to favor those giving them lots of cash. Those perversions go far beyond the most obnoxious favoring of too-big-to-fail banking executives and in many ways extend to policies the USA forces on vassal states (UK, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Japan…) (such as those favoring the copyright cartel, etc.).
Those actions to favor the very richest by the USA government (including significantly in the foreign policy – largely economic policy – those large donor demand for their cash) benefit the global 1% that are located in the USA. This corruption sadly overlays some very good economic foundations in the USA that allowed it to build on the advantages after World War II and become the economic power it is. The corrupt political system aids the richest but also damages the USA economy. Likely it damages other economies more and so even this ends up benefiting the 38% of the global .7% that live in the USA. But we would be better off if the corrupt political practices could be reduced and the economy could power economic gains to the entire economy not siphon off so many of those benefits to those coopting the political process.
The USA is home to 38% of top .7% globally (over $1,000,000 in net assets).
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Oxfam published a report on these problems that has some very good information: Political capture and economic inequality
I am largely a fundamental investor with the long term time horizon that fits such investing. I however am also a believer in using some more speculative investing for a portion of a portfolio if it fits the risk profile of an investor.
If you are not comfortable with the risk of an investment most of the time you shouldn’t make that investment. There is a bit of a conflict, for example, where an investor is scared of any loss from say an investment in a stock market index and trying to save for retirement on a median level income. It is nearly impossible to save for retirement without investing in stocks if you are not already rich, so as with most investment advice there is a bit of difficulty at the extremes but in general investors shouldn’t take on risk they are not comfortable with.
For experienced investors with a high level of financial literacy more speculative options can have a useful role in a portfolio. Though you should realize most people fail with speculation, so you have to be realistic about your prospects. I have used speculative investments including naked short selling, leverage (margin) and options.
Spread betting is another speculative strategy that can play a part in an investment portfolio. Spread betting is not allowed in the USA (with our highly regulated personal investing environment but is available in most other countries). They are somewhat similar to binary options (which are allowed in the USA) and to futures contracts (they are not the same, just those are comparable to get some idea of how you would use them in a portfolio).
Spread betting really is a bet on what will happen. You don’t buy a financial instrument. You place a bet with a company and if the prices move for you and you close the position with a gain they pay out a gain to you and if you close out the position with a loss your capital held with them is reduced by your loss amount.
Since the price to control a position is much less than the notional position size there is a large degree of leverage which increases the affect of gains and loses. Since positions can move against you and must be settled if the loss exceed your deposit with the company you are trading with having a substantial cash cushion is the way I would use such a speculative account. If I decided I could afford to risk losing $5,000 I would deposit that amount.
My purchases would about 10% of the capital in the account (so $500 at first). If that is leveraged at 20 to 1 (just requiring 5% down on margin), that would make my effective leverage just 2 to 1. But if I added other positions that would increase my leverage, say 2 more purchases and my leverage would be 6 to 1.
The way I have managed the speculative portion of my portfolio is to fund it and then pull off part of the gains to my long term portfolio and retain part of the gains to build my speculative account. It isn’t really quite that clear as I have different level of speculation in my portfolio. Options are speculative but have a limit of 100% loss. Selling stocks short (naked shorting) is speculative but has theoretically unlimited losses. Using margin on regular stocks has the potential to lose more than you have invested though most of the time you should be stopped out before the losses are too much beyond your entire account value.
So I don’t really have a clear cut speculative portfolio but I roughly follow that procedure. I have added to the speculative portion when I have had very large gains in a particular portion of my main portfolio.
Another factor with spread betting, shorting and options is that they can actually be used to reduce the risk of your overall portfolio using certain strategies. If you believe there is a risk for a market downturn but don’t want to sell any of your stock holdings you can use spread betting to create a position that will gain if the market declines. That gain then will offset the likely loss on your stock positions thus reducing you risk in a market decline.
Of course, if you do that and the market moves up you will create a loss on you spread betting position that offsets your gains on your stock positions. You could also bet against specific stocks that you think will decline more in a market decline and seek to increase your return of course that has risks (including the market declining along with your stocks but that stocks you bet against could move against you anyway). I have used this strategy with selling stocks short occasionally.
See this site for a bit more on the details of spread betting. An additional risk to consider with spread betting is you need to find a company you trust to be around to pay off your gains. You would want to examine the safety of your funds and that (in the UK) the account is covered by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and complies with the FCA’s Client Assets provisions (and in other countries they have similar coverage). To be safe you should consider whether holding more than the covered amount is wise in your account. The last 10 years have provided examples of the riskiness of financial companies going out of business; that your funds wouldn’t be accessible is a risk that must be considered.
Most popular posts on the Curious Cat Investing and Economics blog in 2014 (by page views).
- Top 10 Countries for Manufacturing Production in 2010: China, USA, Japan, Germany… (posted in 2011)
- Manufacturing Output as Percent of GDP from 1980 to 2010 by Country (2012)
- Government Debt as Percentage of GDP 1990-2009: USA, Japan, Germany, China… (2010)
- Nuclear Power Generation by Country from 1985-2010 (2012)
- Manufacturing Output by Country 1999-2011: China, USA, Japan, Germany (2013)
- Monopolies and Oligopolies do not a Free Market Make (2008)
- USA Individual Earnings Levels: Top 1% $343,000, 5% $154,000, 10% $112,000, 25% $66,000 (2012)
- The 20 Most Valuable Companies in the World – Apple, Exxon, Microsoft, Google… (2014) (
- House of Cards – Mortgage Crisis Documentary (2009)
- Iskandar Malaysia Economic Development Zone
- Oil Consumption by Country 1990-2009 (2010)
- Stock Market Capitalization by Country from 1990 to 2010 (2012)
- Cockroach Portfolio (2014)
- Global Stock Market Capitalization from 2000 to 2012 (2013)
- 11 Stocks for 10 Years – November 2014 Update
- Oil Production by Country 1999-2009 (2011)
- Chart of Largest Petroleum Consuming Countries from 1980 to 2010 (2011)
- Delaying the Start of Social Security Payments Can Pay Off (2014)
- Chart of Global Wind Energy Capacity by Country 2005 to 2013 (2014)
- USA Health Expenditures Reached $2.8 trillion in 2012: $8,915 per person and 17.2% of GDP (2014)
Related: 20 Most Popular Post on Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog in 2014 – 10 Most Popular Posts on the Curious Cat Management Blog in 2014 – Most Popular Posts on the Curious Cat Management Comments Blog –
The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College is a tremendous resource for those planning for, or in, retirement. The center created the National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI) to capture a macroeconomic level measure of how those in the USA are progressing toward retirement.
Based on the Federal Reserve’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances the Center updated the NRRI results (the entire article is a very good read).
The lower the risk number in the chart the better, so things have not been going well since the 1990s for those in the USA saving for retirement.
As the report discusses their are significant issues with retirement planning that defy easy prediction; this makes things even more challenging for those saving for retirement. The report discusses the difficulty placed on retirees by the Fed’s extremely low interest rate policy (a policy that provides billions each year to too-big-too-fail banks – hardly the reward that should be provided for bringing the world to economic calamity but never-the-less that transfer of wealth from retirees to too-big-to-fail banks is the policy the Fed has chosen).
That exacerbates the problems of too little savings during the working career for those in the USA. The continued evidence is that those in the USA continue to spend too much today and save too little. Also you have to expect the Fed and politicians will continue to make policy that favors their friends at too-big-fail banks and hedge funds and the like. You can’t expect them to behave differently than they have been the last 50 years. That means the likely actions by the government to take from median income people to aid the richest 1% (such as bailing out the bankers with super low interest rate policies and continue to subsidize losses and privatize their winning bets) will continue. You need to have extra savings to support those policies. Of course we could change to do things differently but there is no realistic evidence of any move to do so. Retirement planning needs to be based on evidence, not hopes about how things should be.
Related: How Much of Current Income to Save for Retirement – Save What You Can, Increase Savings as You Can Do So – Don’t Expect to Spend Over 4% of Your Retirement Investment Assets Annually – Retirement Planning: Looking at Assets (2012) – How Much Will I Need to Save for Retirement? (2009)
Personal debt levels in the USA continue to be alarmingly high. Thankfully in the last couple of years things have been moving slightly in the right direction. But the debt levels are still far too high.
The chart shows USA household debt in the 60% range of disposable income in the 1980s. It isn’t as if the 1980s in the USA were some low debt era. Personal debt was high then. It rose into the 120% range in the last 10 years and in the last few years dipped to the 110% range.
Given the large amount of debt falling into collection managing that debt has becoming increasingly important to local banks and credit unions. Companies like, Intelligent Banking Solutions, are helping those institutions deal with collections while building a strong business themselves.
As consumers we need to use debt sparingly and without our means or be trapped in a personal financial crisis. It is hard enough to get ahead today without creating problems such as paying high interest rate debt or penalties and fees for failing to pay back your obligations as required.
A reasonable amount of government debt is not a problem in a strong economy. If countries take on debt wisely and grow their economy paying the interest on that debt isn’t a problem. But as that debt grows as a portion of GDP risks grow.
Debt borrowed in other currencies is extremely risky, for substantial amounts. When things go bad they snowball. So if your economy suffers, your currency often suffers and then the repayment terms drastically become more difficult (you have to pay back the debt with your lower valued currency). And the economy was already suffering which is why the currency decreased and this makes it worse and they feed on each other and defaults have resulted in small economies over and over from this pattern.
If you borrow in your currency you can always pay it back as the government as you can just print it. You may pay back money not worth very much but you can pay it back. Of course investors see this risk and depending on your economy and history demand high interest to compensate for this risk (of being paid back worthless currency). And so countries are tempted to borrow in another currency where rates are often much lower.
If you owe debts to other countries you have to pay that money outside the system. So it takes a certain percentage of production (GDP) and pays the benefit of that production to people in other countries. This is what has been going on in the USA for a long time (paying benefits to those holding our debt). Ironically the economic mess created by central banks and too-big-to-fail banks has resulted in a super low interest rate environment which is lousy for lenders and great for debtors (of which the USA and Japanese government are likely the 2 largest in the world).
The benefits to the USA and Japan government of super low interest rates is huge. It makes tolerating huge debt loads much easier. When interest rates rise it is going to create great problems for their economies if they haven’t grown their economies enough to reduce the debt to GDP levels (the USA is doing much better in this regard than Japan).
Japan has a much bigger debt problem than the USA in percentage terms. Nearly all their debt is owed to those in Japan so when it is paid it merely redistributes wealth (rather than losing it to those overseas). It is much better to redistribute wealth within your country than lose it to others (you can always change the laws to redistribute it again, if needed, as long as it is within your economy).
Insurance can be annoying as you pay for something you hope not to use. I don’t recall ever getting a payment on life insurance, homeowners insurance, disability insurance or auto insurance. And that I haven’t had a claim is good. On health insurance I have had minor things covered like a physical or dentist and that is it.
Health insurance is critical in the USA. One insurance that people often don’t think of however is disability insurance. It is very
Disability insurance is a very important insurance that too many people don’t consider (many jobs offer it, though not all, and some may take a year before you are covered). Studies show that a 20 year old has a 30% chance of becoming disabled before reaching retirement age. In the USA, the Social Security Administration provides disability benefits for total disabilities.
In the USA you may be eligible for social security disability payments but it is a small amount (so not sufficient by itself). But if you are living overseas and not paying social security I am not sure if you are covered, even for the limited coverage it provides.
I am not sure what the situation is for citizens of other countries, maybe they have better safety nets for people (I would imagine Europe does, but many places probably don’t).
I had been living in Malaysia for several years and am now going nomadic (an increasingly popular choice for a small but determined group of people) and insurance is important for people living overseas and traveling. For nomads or frequent travelers global health insurance is good (though usually it will exclude the USA if you are not a “USA 1%er”(or world .2%)/very-rich as the extremely broken USA health care system is crazy – you can be covered globally excluding the USA for about 1/6 of that same coverage excluding the USA, depending, of course on your coverage). Special care for travelers and nomads should be paid to coverage to return you home if you are very sick or injured.
Disability insurance is something thing digital nomads should pay attention to. But it is normally ignored. And it is a bit tricky as insurance companies are generally extremely slow to catch up to what the world is doing and disability insurance seems to be stuck in the old notions about how tied people were to one country (as are other things – demanding physical addresses even if they know you are nomadic…, basing rules on silly ideas about where you happen to be at some point in time with customer hostile breaking of internet services that have been paid for etc.).
Related: Personal Finance Basics: Long Term Disability Insurance – The Growing Market for International Travel for Medical Care – Long Term Care Insurance: Financially Wise but Current Options are Less Than Ideal