Tuesday 1 December 2009

Building My Low Charge Investment Portfolio – Part 1 of 3

Note added 11 January 2009. My calculations below generally use arithmetic means. It may be more appropriate to use compound annual growth rates. See here.

Before I start let me emphasise that my strategy is a long term one. I am not a share trader. In fact, I tried it very briefly and was hopeless. For me the duration of my investment strategy is the rest of my life as I’m using it for retirement planning. Retirement in my definition is that work becomes optional and so I’m trying to get there as quickly as possible. However I guess it might also work for other long term goals – university fees for a newly born child, planning to give a newly born child a head start on their 18th birthday etc.

Now the first thing I did was some reading. I would like to recommend two very good books – “Smarter Investing : Simpler Decisions for Better Results” by Tim Hale and “The Intelligent Asset Allocator” by William Bernstein. If you are UK based I’d start with Hale and if US based then Bernstein. I can’t highlight enough how beneficial these books were in my retirement strategy.

The first two building blocks I chose were equities and bonds.

What returns can I expect from equities and bonds? Firstly I will always try and talk in after inflation terms (I’ll typically use the word Real) as we all want to maintain our standard of leaving. Please don’t underestimate the damage of inflation to your wealth. To demonstrate how damaging inflation is I will use a very good data set that is available from Yale Professor Robert Shiller’s website1 that lists US CPI data. This demonstrates that to have the equivalent of $12.46 in 1871 today would require you to have in your hand $216.24. This has made me always consider inflation in everything I do.

So to equity returns. Hale suggests that for the UK from the period 1900 to 2004 real (ie after inflation) average equity returns were 7.3%. Bernstein suggests that for US 1926 to 1998 equity returns averaged 11.22% however again using the Shiller1 data set as a basis suggests average inflation over that period was 3.2% so a real return of 8%. Using the Shiller dataset from 1871 to present day for US equities suggests that the real average capital gain was 3.5% and the real average dividend was 4.5% for an average real return of 8%. So as close as I need it to be for what I am doing.

Now to bond returns. Hale suggests that for the UK from the period 1900 to 2004 real average bond returns were 2.3%. Bernstein suggests that for US 1926 to 1998 5 year treasury returns averaged 5.31% for a real return of 2.11%. Again as close as I need it to be.
Finally combining equity and bonds as my basic building blocks and having assessed my attitude to risk I came to a 72% equity and 28% bond weighting. In multiple locations I have heard a ‘rule of thumb’ that you should own 100 minus your age in equities. I’m more aggressive than that at this stage of my life.

In projecting retirement dates I’m assuming real average equity returns of 7.3% and for the majority of my “bonds” real average returns of 1%. The 1% I’ll explain in the future when I look at some strategies I’m using to minimise the tax I pay. Assuming I stayed at this allocation and achieved averages I could assume an instantaneous real average return of 72% x 7.3% + 28% x 1% = 5.5% - 0.6% (my current average fees) = 4.9% per annum before taxation. Now clearly I won’t get this consistently as I’ll reduce equity weightings as I get older and nothing works in averages but it demonstrates an order of magnitude. Worst case we have a big crash in equities and/or bonds and I get a return much worse than this. Hale shows the effects and risks of this quite nicely.

Now by rebalancing regularly to take advantage of the fact that over the long term equities and bonds are not perfectly correlated I’ll end up buying whatever is lowest in value and selling whatever is highest to hopefully give a little more of a kick.
I could have probably left it at that and hopefully lived happily ever after however as I’ll show as I blog I’ve gone a lot further than that.

To be continued in Part 2 here

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