Saturday, 6 February 2010

Tax efficient investing – Individual Savings Accounts (ISA’s)

To ensure that I maximise the annual return on my retirement investing strategy I am constantly focused on three key elements:
1. Ensure I have the right asset allocation in place
2. Minimise the fees that I pay by buying index linked investments wherever possible
3. Minimise the tax that I pay

To minimise the tax that I pay I use one tax friendly investment and two tax wrappers.
I have written in the past about the tax friendly investment I use to help me minimise tax – Index Linked Savings Certificates.

Today I’m going to talk about one of the tax wrappers I use which is Individual Savings Accounts (ISA’s). The other tax wrapper I use is a personal pension which I will discuss in the not too distant future.

I’m not going to go into great detail about how ISA’s work as most people are aware of them and you can find plenty of information on the internet including here.

My current retirement investing strategy holds around 9.7% of its assets in Stocks and Shares ISA’s. I do not use Cash ISA’s at this point in time. Providing that you find a Stocks and Shares ISA provider that does not have any fees for the privilege of using the ISA tax wrapper I cannot find any negatives to using them. At the very worst you are break even and neither better nor worse off.

For me the Stocks and Shares ISA is performing a powerful function. To minimise fees for some of my asset classes I am buying offshore based exchange traded funds (ETF’s) which are categorised as non-distributing funds by HM Revenue & Customs. In very crude terms if I was not holding these within the ISA and I chose to sell to rebalance my portfolio the capital gain would be taxed as income rather than as a capital gain. This also means that I could not use my capital gains tax allowance either. As all income (dividends and interest) and all capital gains are tax-free within an ISA I am sheltered from this problem.

As always DYOR.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Bank of England holds the Official Bank Rate at 0.5%

The Bank of England made two decisions today.

Firstly the bank decided to stop quantitative easing as they were happy with the £200 billion of government bonds that they already own. What is now going to be interesting to watch is what happens to government gilt prices and yields now that the government have lost a key buyer of their debt. In December alone the UK government needed to borrow £15.7 billion and I look forward to seeing where the buyers of all this debt are going to come from. The other thing that I look forward to is seeing if the Bank of England is ever going to be able to sell the government debt that they have already bought.

Secondly the bank decided to keep the official bank rate on hold at 0.5% for the twelfth month in a row as I suggested they would on Tuesday. This is the lowest rates have been even if I look back to the year 1694. Even during the Great Depression the Bank Rate only went as low as 2%. My chart today shows the relationship between the official bank rate, the consumer price index (CPI) and the retail prices index (RPI). Normally, as you would expect, the correlation between the official bank rate and inflation is quite high. However currently the bank seem to have lost all interest in controlling inflation so while it heads skyward the bank rate flat lines. I’d really like to know their justification for this when the Monetary Policy Framework under which they operate includes “...Price stability is defined by the Government’s inflation target of 2%. The remit recognises the role of price stability in achieving economic stability more generally, and in providing the right conditions for sustainable growth in output and employment.” I guess we’ll know Mervyn King’s thoughts when he writes a letter to Alistair Darling next month following the CPI heading over 3%.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

UK Mortgage Approvals – February 2010 Update

On Saturday I discussed why I might have been early in my call that we had potentially reached the ‘Return to “normal”’ phase of the UK house market. I would like to revisit this again as I continue seeing data that is potentially starting to point towards a further housing market correction.

The first chart is a repeat of that shown on Saturday. I described how the new interest rates secured on dwellings are still very low at 4.5% compared to the peak of 6.3% and have likely had a big effect on the market. What is of interest however is that this 4.5% increase is 7% more than the low of June 2009 and is trending in an upwards direction with no assistance from the Bank of England.

The second chart today also shows another interesting piece of data. The olive line is the most interesting which shows seasonally adjusted monthly mortgage approvals decreasing for the first time in 13 months dropping from 60,045 to 59,023 in December which is a decrease of 2%.

Rising mortgage interest rates will put pressure on those who have variable rates or are coming off fixed rates. It will also decrease the level of borrowing possible for a new person trying to enter the housing market. Additionally falling mortgage approvals suggests less competition in the market for each house that is for sale.

Could the rules of supply and demand finally start to work in the near future?

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A tale of two Central Banks – Reserve Bank of Australia vs Bank of England

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) announced today that they were keeping interest rates on hold at 3.75% after raising rates by 0.25% a month for 3 months in a row. According to the Financial Times this surprised most economists.

In my opinion the RBA seem to have timed their increases well. In September of 2009 the Australian Consumer Price Index (CPI) saw a low in this cycle of 1.26% and even though this was the case they started raising rates in October. We have now seen the RBA increase rates by 20% from their lows. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me for them to take a pause to see what effect this is having given CPI is still only 2.1% and given the inflation target for the RBA is as follows:

“The Governor and the Treasurer have agreed that the appropriate target for monetary policy in Australia is to achieve an inflation rate of 2–3 per cent, on average, over the cycle. This is a rate of inflation sufficiently low that it does not materially distort economic decisions in the community. Seeking to achieve this rate, on average, provides discipline for monetary policy decision-making, and serves as an anchor for private-sector inflation expectations.”

This target was introduced in mid 2003 and since that time the arithmetic average has been 2.7% so to me as a simple Average Joe they seem to be doing a reasonable job.

Now to the contrast which is the Bank of England. They have kept the Official Bank Rate at a record low of 0.5% now since March 2009. The Bank of England also saw the UK Consumer Price Index (CPI) reach a low in this cycle in September of 2009 at a rate of 1.1%. However instead of following the lead of the RBA they have sat on their hands allowing CPI to reach 1.5% in October, 1.9% in November and we now have the CPI at 2.9% (with last month being the largest month on month increase in history) and the Retail Prices Index (RPI) at 2.4%. I can’t see how they can allow this to occur given the Monetary Policy Framework under which they operate includes:

“The Bank’s monetary policy objective is to deliver price stability – low inflation – and, subject to that, to support the Government’s economic objectives including those for growth and employment. Price stability is defined by the Government’s inflation target of 2%. The remit recognises the role of price stability in achieving economic stability more generally, and in providing the right conditions for sustainable growth in output and employment. The Government's inflation target is announced each year by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the annual Budget statement.”

I think the Bank of England have now shown their hand and think they can control the inflation genie and allow “just a little bit of inflation”. I’m backing that they don’t raise interest rates this week. I guess only time will tell.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Australian Property Market – February 2010 Update

I intend to keep a close eye on Australian house prices as I build my retirement portfolio. This is because Australia is a very likely retirement possibility (if not sooner) for me.

The first chart shows the quarterly Real (adjusted for the Consumer Price Index) Brisbane and Real (again adjusted for CPI) Australian Eight Cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, Darwin & Canberra) House Price Index with data taken from the Australian Bureau of Statistics catalogue 6416.0 since 1991. This Index was reset in 2003/2004 and so I have “corrected” pre March 2002 data by taking the ratio’s of the pre and post September 2003 to June 2004 data as a multiplier. This chart carries data only until December 2010 and clearly shows a nice dip at the start of 2009 before the latest data point has taken house prices to new record real highs.

My second chart shows Real Annual Changes in price from 1995 to present. In Real terms over this period Brisbane has seen average increases of 5.3% (up from an average of 5.2% last quarter) and the Australian Eight Cities has seen average increases of 4.9% (up from an average of 4.8% last quarter). Unfortunately for me though the trend lines (particularly for Brisbane) continue to head upwards.

In non-inflation adjusted terms over the period Brisbane prices have seen average increases of 8.1% and the Australian Eight Cities prices have seen average increases of 7.8% (up from an average 7.6% last quarter). Unfortunately if you don’t already own a property you continue to be priced out when compared with average earnings. Using the Australian Bureau of Statistics catalogue 6302.0 (extrapolating the last quarter as the data is not released to the 25 February) which looks at average weekly earnings shows that while house prices have had their long run averages increase this quarter, Total Weekly Earnings have stagnated at a yearly 3.8% and Total Full Time Adult Earnings at 4.3%.

My third chart shows what happens when house prices continue to rise at a rate greater than salaries. Over this period affordability of Brisbane houses when compared to Adult Full Time Weekly Earnings has gone from a low of 0.063 to 0.121 meaning affordability has halved and the Median Eight Cities houses have gone from a low of 0.064 to 0.112 which is a huge reduction. This type of shift is just not sustainable but when/if will the market return to a more sustainable equilibrium.

Looking at the big increases this quarter I can’t help wonder if the data is ‘reliable’ and I would like to see how the histograms have changed since 2008. This is because the government has brought forward demand and changed the dynamic in the market by offering first home buyer grants with changing values depending on the date. If I had have bought before 14 October 2008 I would have received $7,000. Using this as a 5% deposit would mean I could borrow $140,000. If I had have bought a new house between 14 October 2008 and 30 September 2009 I would have received $21,000 which again with a 5% deposit would mean I could borrow $420,000. That has to change the supply and demand dynamic in the market. This ‘stimulus’ has now been gradually withdrawn with first new home buyers being reduced to $14,000 between 01 October 2009 to 31 December 2009. Finally, since 01 January 2010 first home buyers are back to $7,000 meaning we’re back to that $140,000.

So if I was a first home buyer I would have bought between October and September with first home buyer stragglers buying also in October to December. I would now be out of the market. I think the Housing Industry Association (HIA) may have seen in this when they reported that new home sales are down 4.6% in December 2009.

It will be very interesting to see what happens next. Australia has rising interest rates and if supply and demand works (assuming no government intervention) second home buyers may now struggle to sell without reducing prices as their pool of buyers has been reduced, along with the pool that remains having smaller deposits. This should reduce prices going forward. This should then flow through the rest of the market. Interesting times ahead...