Category: chris wicks cfp

Brexit …

Brexit becomes reality and the markets react with heavy selling of risk assets, particularly British and European stocks and the pound. The fears have materialised and the issue is taking its toll on investment portfolios. That said, the worst thing an investor can do at the moment is acting based on emotions rather than careful analysis of the situation. With the extreme levels of volatility that we are seeing now, a bad decision can have very costly consequences.

Market Volatility

The markets’ reaction can be best observed on the pound’s exchange rate against the dollar. In the last days before the referendum, it appreciated from 1.40 to 1.50 (7%), as polls started to predict a narrow Remain victory. This morning after the actual outcome it dropped to 1.32 (12% down), but at the time of writing this article it is trading around 1.39 (5% up from the morning low). Similar volatility can be observed on stock prices (British, European and worldwide), commodities and other assets.

The Market’s Reaction Is Not Unusual

While the fact of Britain leaving the EU is unprecedented and extraordinary, the way the markets react to the decision is not unusual. It is similar to the way markets react to other surprising outcomes of scheduled events, such as central bank interest rate decisions or (on the individual stock level) company results. We see a sharp initial move triggered by the surprising outcome (this morning’s lows), followed by corrections and swings to both sides, as the market tries to digest further information that is gradually coming in and establish a new equilibrium level. These swings (although perhaps less extreme than today) will most likely continue for the next days and weeks.

What We Know and What We Don’t

At the moment the actual effects of Brexit on the economy are impossible to predict – we will only know several years from now. Even the timeline of next steps is unclear. The only thing we know is that David Cameron is stepping down as PM (that means succession talks and some internal political uncertainty in the coming months) and that the process of negotiations of the actual EU exit terms will be started in the next days or weeks.

We don’t know what the new UK-EU treaties will look like. There are some possible models, like Switzerland or Norway, but Britain’s situation is unique in many ways. We can also expect the British vote to trigger substantial changes within the EU, as the first reactions of EU representatives have indicated; therefore we don’t know who exactly we will be negotiating with. In any case, this is not the end of trade between the UK and EU countries. The EU can’t afford to not trade with the UK or apply punitive protectionist measures against us.

Where Will the Markets Go Now?

Under these circumstances, no one can predict where stocks or the pound will be one month from now or one year from now. Nevertheless, for a long-term investor, such as someone saving for their pension, these short time horizons don’t really matter. If you invest for 10 years or longer, our view is that you don’t need to fear the impact of yesterday’s vote. Leaving the EU might take a few percentage points from the UK’s GDP and from stock returns, but in the long run it won’t change the trend of economic growth, which has been in place for centuries.

The greatest risk that the Brexit decision represents for a long-term investor is not what the market will do. In any case, it will recover sooner or later. The main risk is the investor acting on emotions, under pressure and without careful analysis of all consequences. The investors who lost the most money in past market crashes such as in 1987, 1997 or 2008 were those who panicked and sold at the worst moment, when it seemed like the economy and the financial system was going to collapse. Those who were able to take a long-term perspective and stayed invested have seen their investments recover and even surpass previous levels.

Our Recommendation

We recognise that this is a momentous event and it will take time to fully digest the implications. For now, it is important that investors maintain their disciplined approach and do not act in haste to sell off their investments. This would only serve to crystallise losses which currently only exist on paper. We recommend that they sit tight unless their goals have materially changed. We also ask them to note that we are not taking this lightly and will be maintaining our portfolio structures under review in accordance with our overall investment philosophy. If we judge that changes need to be made we will provide advice as appropriate and this will be dealt with as part of our normal review process.

 

 

Lifetime Allowance Falls to £1m: Could you be caught?

Pension Lifetime Allowance (LTA) decreased to £1m on 6 April 2016. In combination with previous reductions, it has fallen almost by half from its 2012 high of £1.8m. High net worth professionals like solicitors, barristers and accountants often underestimate the risk of exceeding their LTA. That might become very costly in the future. Above LTA, pension income is subject to 25% tax and lump sum a whopping 55%.

Example
Consider George. He is an accountant and has his own accounting business. He is in his 40’s, approaching halftime of his career. His pension pot is worth about £400,000. George considers himself comfortable, but not particularly rich. He’s heard the news about the falling LTA, but £1m sounds like different world. He’s nowhere near a millionaire after all, so he doesn’t need to worry about LTA.

Truth is, if George continues to contribute to his pension plan at the same rate, or (more likely) increases his contributions a little bit in the later years of his career, he can easily get dangerously close to the £1m mark, or even exceed it. This does not mean that he should stop contributing, but the sooner he becomes aware of the issue and starts planning, the wider options he has.


What are the options for senior professionals at risk of exceeding the new LTA?

LTA Protection
First, if you are likely to exceed the new reduced LTA (£1m), or already have, you can apply for LTA Protection, which is a transitional scheme to protect taxpayers from the unexpected LTA reduction. Depending on your circumstances you have two main options:

  • Individual Protection for those with pension pots already worth over £1m. Your LTA will be set to the lower of 1) the current value of your pension 2) £1.25m (the old LTA).
  • Fixed Protection for those with pension pots below £1m at the moment, but likely to exceed it in the future. Your LTA will be $1.25m, but no further contributions are allowed.

Other conditions apply and many factors must be considered when deciding whether LTA Protection is worth it in your case. Also note that a similar LTA Protection scheme has been in place for the 2014 decrease in LTA (from £1.5m to £1.25) – you can still apply until 5 April 2017.

LTA Planning Options and Alternatives
If you have higher income and want to save more than the LTA allows, the first thing to look at is an ISA. It won’t help you reduce taxes now, because it’s always after-tax money coming in, but in retirement you’ll be able to draw from your ISA without having to pay any taxes – capital gains, interest and dividends are all tax-free within an ISA. There is no lifetime allowance on ISAs, only an annual allowance, currently at £15,240 and rising to £20,000 in April 2017. Furthermore, you don’t even have to wait for retirement – you can withdraw from your ISA at any time.

Another alternative is to invest in stocks, bonds or funds directly, outside a pension plan or ISA. Capital gains, interest and dividends are subject to tax in this case, but there are relatively generous annual allowances which you can take advantage of – the most important being the CGT allowance, currently at £11,100 (the first £11,100 of capital gains in a tax year is tax-free).

These two options alone provide a huge scope for tax-free investing when planned properly. Those on higher income may also want to consider more complex solutions, such as trusts, offshore pensions or offshore companies, although the use of these always depends on your unique circumstances and qualified advice is absolutely essential – otherwise you could do more harm than good.

Conclusion
LTA planning must be taken seriously even when it seems too distant to worry about at the moment. Pensions are the cornerstone of retirement planning, but not the only tool available. With careful planning, a combination of different investment vehicles and tax wrappers is often the most efficient, especially for higher net worth professionals.

New Pension Freedoms Bring Opportunities As Well As Risks

Recent years have seen some significant changes to the tax treatment and rules governing pensions and death benefits. Many of these changes have been quite favourable, bringing new freedoms and tax saving opportunities. However, these freedoms go hand in hand with responsibilities and risks. We will look at the most important challenges and ways to ensure your investments achieve the best possible performance, serve your income needs and at the same time remain tax efficient – both in retirement and when your wealth eventually passes to your heirs.

The Changes

The Government has recently changed financial and tax legislation in many areas, but there are two things which are particularly important when it comes to retirement and inheritance tax planning.

Firstly, you now have greater freedom to decide how to use your pension pot when you retire. You can take the entire pension pot as lump sum if you wish (25% is tax-free, the rest is taxed at your marginal rate), you can take a series of lump sums throughout your retirement, you can buy an annuity or get one of the increasingly popular flexible access drawdown plans.

Secondly, you now have complete freedom over your death benefit nominations. Before the reform, which came into effect in April 2015, you could only nominate your dependants (typically your spouse and children under 23). Now you can nominate virtually anyone you wish, such as your grandchildren, siblings, more distant relatives, or even people outside your family. Furthermore, the taxation of death benefits has become more favourable. If you die before 75, death benefits are tax-free (lump sum or income, paid from crystallised or uncrystallised funds). If you die after 75, death benefit income is taxed at marginal rate of the beneficiary (lump sum is subject to 45% tax, but that may also change in the near future). The reform has turned pensions and death benefits into a powerful inheritance tax planning tool.

The Challenges

While the above is all good news, there are some very important restrictions and things to watch out for. Neglecting them can have costly consequences. For instance, the Lifetime Allowance not only still applies, but has been significantly reduced in the recent years (it is only £1m now). Besides the annual pension contribution allowance it is one of the things that require careful planning long before you retire. In retirement, pension income is typically subject to income tax, which must be considered when deciding about the size and timing of withdrawals, particularly if you have other sources of income.

Asset allocation and investment management is another challenge. Maintaining a good investment return with reasonable risk is increasingly difficult in the world of record low interest rates. It is tempting to completely avoid low-yield bonds and other conservative investments in favour of stocks, but such strategy could leave you exposed to unacceptably high levels of risk, particularly in the last years before your retirement. A balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds is often the best compromise, but asset allocation should not be constant in time – it should be regularly reviewed and should reflect your changing time horizon and other circumstances.

Death benefit nominations are another area where changes in financial and life circumstances may require reviews and adjustments, particularly after the age of 75, when potential death benefits are no longer tax-free. For example, if your children are higher rate taxpayers, you may want to change the nominations in favour of your grandchildren, who may be able to draw the income at zero or very low tax rate, allowing you to pass wealth to future generations in a tax-efficient way. If you have other sources of income and are a higher rate taxpayer yourself, you may even choose to not draw from your pension at all and keep it invested to minimise total inheritance tax.

Conclusion

The above are just some of the many things to consider. Depending on your particular situation, there might be tax saving opportunities which you may not be aware of. Conversely, ignorance of little details in the legislation or mismanagement of your investments may lead to substantial losses or tax liabilities. The new freedoms (and related challenges) make qualified retirement planning advice as important as ever before.

 

 

Sell in May and Go Away – Should You?

If you’ve been investing for a while, it is very likely you’ve heard the “Sell in May and go away” adage many times. This time every year, all major financial media outlets publish their own pieces on it. The recommendations in such articles range from “it is nonsense – stay invested” to “it’s true and really improves returns”, often also including the very popular “but this year is different”. Where is the truth? Is “Sell in May” just a myth, or does it have a sound foundation? What should you do?
Sell in May and Go Away Origin
It is not known who came up with it first and when. The saying is based on (perceived) stock market seasonality and it generally means that market returns tend to be higher in the first months of a year and lower in the next months. Therefore, it is better for an investor to sell stocks in May to avoid the weaker period that follows.
Unfortunately, the saying is very vague about the exact timing. Should you be selling on the first day of May or the last? Or the 8th May, for instance? Additionally, if you sell your shares, when should you buy them back?
You will find several different variations and interpretations of the saying. Probably the most popular version is one that divides the year into two halves, one running from November to April (better returns – hold stocks) and the other from May to October (stay out). Others suggest you should stay out of the market until year end. Yet another version is “Sell in May and don’t come back until St Leger Day” (the September horse race, or the end of summer).
Are the Returns Really Different?
Despite its vagueness, the “Sell in May” adage (particularly the May to October version) is indeed based on some statistically significant differences between stock market returns in different parts of the year (seasonality). Various studies have been done working with different time periods and stock indices in different countries. Many of them have concluded that there are parts of the year when average historical returns have been higher and volatility lower than in other parts of the year. The month of May seems to be the dividing line between the good and the bad period, although exact date, as well as extent of the return differences, depends on the markets and years included in the research.
In short, historical data suggests that market returns tend to be weaker in the months starting with May, so the “Sell in May” saying does have some foundation. Does it mean you should sell? No, and there are several reasons why not.
Lower Returns vs. Negative Returns
While much of the research shows that returns tend to be lower in summer and early autumn, that doesn’t mean stock investors are, on average, losing money in that period. Although the market declined in some individual years, if you were holding stocks from May to September, May to October, or May to year end every year in the last 20, 30 or 50 years, you would have made money in the end.
When deciding whether to sell in May or not, do not compare the average or expected stock market returns to those in the other period. They must be compared to the alternative use of your capital.
To Sell or Not to Sell in May
When making the decision, you are comparing two scenarios:
1. Stay invested in the stock market. Your return is a combination of the increase or decrease in stock prices and dividend yield (do not underestimate dividends).
2. Sell stocks, invest the money elsewhere (often a savings account or a money market fund) and buy stocks back at some point. Your return is the interest earned, but you must deduct transaction costs, which can be significant and sometimes higher than the interest earned. Furthermore, buying and selling will have tax consequences for many investors.
Returns of option 1 are less predictable and can be very different in individual years, as they depend on the stock market’s direction. Returns of option 2 are more stable, but with transaction costs and today’s low interest rates they will be extremely low or even negative. It’s the good old risk and return relationship.
If your time horizon is long and the outcomes of individual years don’t matter, option 1 (staying in stocks), repeated consistently over many years, will most likely lead to much higher return than option 2. If your time horizon is short (for example, you are approaching retirement), you should consider reducing the weight of stocks and other risky investments in your portfolio – not just in May, but throughout the year.

When Chasing Interest, Don’t Forget Currency Risk

For many years, interest rates have been extremely low in the UK and most other developed countries. If you are living abroad and your new country’s interest rates are much higher than back home, it is natural to think about ways to capitalise on the difference. The right strategy can significantly enhance your returns, but at the same time there are risks which many expats underestimate or completely ignore.
Do You Want to Earn 0.35% or 14.35%?
At present, central bank rates are at 0.5% in the UK and the US, 0.05% in the Eurozone, and negative in several other developed countries including Switzerland, Sweden and Japan. You can get a cheap mortgage, but you also earn close to nothing on your savings. At the same time, the rates are 6% in South Africa, 7.5% in Turkey, 11% in Russia and 14.25% in Brazil, just to name a few.
Why save at 1% or less in a British bank when you can earn multiples of that just by keeping the funds in a different currency? It makes complete sense, particularly when you are living there and big part of your expenses are denominated in that currency anyway.
Interest Rate Differences and Exchange Rate Changes
You have heard it before: There is no free lunch in the markets. To earn considerable returns, you must take considerable risks. In this case, the risk is that the currency you hold will depreciate and the resulting losses will wipe out or exceed any interest gains. This risk is very real. It happens all the time.
Even with the pound’s current weakness, in the last three years the South African rand has lost 38% against the pound, the Turkish lira has lost 34%, the Russian rouble 56% and the Brazilian real 46%. In spite of their high interest rates, you would have lost money on all of them.
According to an economic theory (named uncovered interest rate parity), when there is a difference in interest rates between two currencies, it is expected (other things being equal, which they never are) that the high interest currency will depreciate against the low interest currency, so the total return will be the same on both. For example, if interest rates are at 0.5% in the UK and 14.25% in Brazil, it is reasonable to expect that the BRL will lose approximately 13.75% against the pound in the next 12 months.
Theory and Reality
In reality, other factors come into play. Sometimes the high interest currency does not depreciate that much and you indeed make money holding it. However, other times it loses much more than “expected”, as seen on the examples above.
The risk of disproportionate adverse moves in emerging currencies is particularly high at times of global liquidity shortage and increased risk aversion, such as in the 2008 financial crisis or the 1997 Asian currency crisis, which spilled over and contributed to subsequent problems in Russia, Brazil and Argentina. The problem with these events is that you never see them coming until it’s too late. Furthermore, even an otherwise stable country’s currency can often be affected only due to market sentiment and its emerging status.
What It Means for Your Finances
The above does not mean you should always keep all your savings in GBP or other major currencies. It means that whenever the currency structure of your income, expenses, assets and liabilities is in mismatch, you are exposed to currency risk. For instance, if you are living in Brazil and saving in BRL, but planning to eventually return to the UK or retire elsewhere, you are to a large extent betting your future on the BRL exchange rate.
Make sure you know what you would do in an adverse scenario, such as a currency crisis, however unlikely that might seem at the moment. Keep at least a portion of your savings in a strong and stable currency, even when the returns don’t look that attractive. It is widely known that rich families in places like China or Russia prefer to keep big parts of their wealth in developed countries, giving up the higher returns they would earn at home. They do it for a reason and that reason is safety and stability.
You can allocate some funds to high-yield currencies and riskier investments, but with the core of your assets, like the pension pot, it should be defence first. Don’t bet your future lifestyle.

Possible Brexit Consequences and Your Portfolio

Whether you support Leave or Remain, you may be wondering how leaving the EU (or staying in) can affect your investments. Will British stocks underperform if the UK leaves? Will the pound continue to be under pressure until the June referendum, but recover if people vote to stay in the EU? Is there anything you can do to prepare your portfolio for either outcome?
The Brexit referendum is a typical example of an event with known timing (23 June) but unknown outcome. Plenty of these occur in the markets on a regular basis, including corporate earnings, macroeconomic data or central bank policy announcements. While this one is obviously of extraordinary significance, the underlying principles of market psychology still apply.
One of these principles is that anticipation can result in as much volatility as the event itself (if not more). In other words, when investors know that something is going to happen, or might happen with a certain non-zero probability, the market often “reacts” before the outcome is announced. In line with the Efficient Market Hypothesis, prices immediately reflect all available information.
The pound has weakened by 9% against the dollar and by 11% against the euro in the last 3 months. It seems like big part of the damage has already been done. Will it depreciate further? It is impossible to predict.
When anticipating an event, sometimes the market overshoots and then corrects, making a counterintuitive move when the actual outcome is finally known (like the pound strengthening after the referendum even if Leave wins). The saying “buy the rumour, sell the fact” comes to mind. Sometimes it’s the opposite. Other times it’s completely random. No one can tell before it happens.
With the above being said, there are two things we consider highly likely:
Firstly, until the June referendum we will probably continue to see increased volatility in the pound’s exchange rate (saying nothing about the direction). As the first days have confirmed, the debate will be heated. New questions and new fears will arise. Both camps will achieve small victories and suffer small defeats. The perceived probability of leaving the EU will change as new opinion polls will come out.
Secondly, given the high profile and non-stop media coverage of the matter, the economic significance and consequences of Brexit are probably exaggerated at the moment by both the Remain supporters (doom and gloom if we leave) and the eurosceptics (prosperity guaranteed if we rid ourselves of EU bureaucracy).
Contrary to what it may seem, the world has not come to a standstill, waiting for the UK to decide. There are other events and other factors which will continue to influence the economy, the stock market and the currency, before and after the referendum. Some of them will probably have much greater effects than Britain leaving the EU – possible candidates include oil price (the FTSE is energy heavy), interest rates, slowdown in China or the US, wars (e.g. Ukraine, Syria) getting worse and spilling over, or shocks in the financial sector. This time last year, it was Grexit, not Brexit, dominating the headlines. The fact that no one talks about Greece at the moment does not mean that the sovereign debt problem (in Greece and elsewhere) has been resolved. It can strike back at any time and hurt British banks and the economy even if we are already out of the EU.
The above does not mean that consequences of a possible Leave vote will be negligible or non-existent. However, they are too complex for anyone to understand and forecast. We don’t know the referendum outcome. If it’s Leave, we don’t know how the future arrangement will look (in any case, the UK will not cease to trade with Europe). Most importantly, the global economy and external factors will definitely not remain constant, further complicating any predictions.
Therefore we believe that avoiding panic and sticking to your long-term investment strategy is the best course of action. Remember that trying to outsmart and time the market rarely leads to superior results.

Tax Year End Planning Checklist

The end of the tax year is approaching again; therefore it’s time to think about maximising allowances, minimising taxes and taking all the other steps to ensure your tax position will be as favourable as possible going forward. Although there are still almost two months left, it’s better to start now rather than leave it all to the last days, for some of the necessary steps can take some time to process.

When going through the checklist below, you may find this page useful. It contains all the key thresholds, rates and allowances for 2015-16 as well as 2016-17.

Income Tax and National Insurance

If possible, delaying an invoice (if you are self employed), salary, bonus or dividend payment (if you have a company) until 6 April can save, or defer, a considerable amount of taxes. Company owners should also find the right mix of salary and dividends to minimise taxes. Don’t forget to include all of them when making the decision – personal income tax, both employee’s and employer’s NI, corporation tax and dividend tax.

The key figures are:

  • £5,824 = Lower Earnings Limit – minimum to qualify for State Pension and other benefits
  • £8,060 = Primary Threshold – employee’s NI (12%) kicks in
  • £8,112 = Secondary Threshold – employer’s NI (13.8%) kicks in
  • £10,600 = Personal Allowance – basic rate income tax (20%) kicks in
  • £31,786 = higher rate income tax (40%) kicks in

Many company owners choose to pay themselves a salary equal to the Primary or Secondary Threshold, in order to avoid paying NI, and take the rest in dividends. However, if your company is eligible for the Employment Allowance (first £2,000 of employer’s NI free), it could make sense to pay yourself up to the Personal Allowance (£10,600) in salary. Of course, your other income, family situation and other circumstances could alter the figures and must always be considered.

Pension Contributions

Making pension contributions can save you a lot of money in taxes, as long as you stay within your annual allowance, which is £40,000 for the 2015-16 tax year. At the moment, pension contributions are subject to tax relief at your marginal tax rate, which makes them particularly attractive to higher and additional rate taxpayers.

Normally you need to make the contributions before the tax year end (5 April), but this time it is recommended to act before the Budget Statement, which is due on 16 March.

There is high risk that Chancellor George Osborne will announce important changes which may affect the tax relief. The exact outcome is not known, but experts have been speculating about a flat rate replacing the marginal tax rate (this would effectively reduce or eliminate the tax relief for higher and additional rate taxpayers). The Chancellor has also mentioned the idea of cancelling the pension tax relief altogether and using a completely new mechanism for taxing pensions in the future, perhaps similar to ISAs (after-tax money in and tax-free money out).

It is not clear if this will eventually materialise and when any changes would come into effect. However, pension tax relief has clearly been one of the Chancellor’s primary targets in the effort to reduce the deficit and raise tax revenue. In light of the uncertainty, the safest approach is to make pension contributions before 16 March to avoid potential disappointment.

Note that if you didn’t use your full allowance in the three previous tax years, you might still be able to get that money in, on top of this year’s £40,000. The previous three years’ allowances were £50,000, £50,000 and £40,000, respectively. One condition is that your total contribution must not exceed your earned income for the current tax year. Another thing to watch out for is the lifetime allowance (currently £1.25m, but falling to £1m in April), as exceeding that could be costly when you retire.

NISAs

If you have the cash, you should always use your annual NISA allowance to the maximum. A NISA is a tax wrapper which allows you to build savings and investments without incurring taxes on income and capital gains going forward. The allowance is £15,240 for 2015-16 and it is use it or lose it – if you don’t deposit the money by 5 April, this year’s allowance is gone forever. You may also want to use your partner’s and your children’s allowances (£4,080 per child under the so called “Junior ISA”).

If you have existing cash ISA accounts, now is also a good time to review them and check the interest rates. Banks like to lure savers with attractive rates, only to slash them after 12 months or some other period. In such case you may want to transfer the funds elsewhere. There are two things to keep in mind:

  • Always transfer from ISA to another ISA directly. If you do it via your regular bank account, once you have withdrawn the money, it loses the ISA status (and withdrawals do not increase your annual allowance – that will only change the next tax year).
  • Each tax year you can only deposit money to one cash ISA account and one stocks and shares ISA account.

Capital Gains Tax

You can often save on capital gains tax even outside ISAs. There is an annual CGT allowance, which makes the first £11,100 (for 2015-16) of capital gains tax-free. You need to realise these by the tax year end; otherwise the current year’s allowance is lost forever.

Depending on the investments you are holding, whether there are unrealised gains or losses and whether you want to sell any of them, the decisions to make can become quite complicated, but may save you a lot in taxes. A potentially large CGT bill can be reduced (by crystallising losses) or deferred (if you wait with the sale until 6 April). On the other hand, if you are well within your CGT allowance you can crystallise gains to reduce future taxes.

Always keep in mind that tax issues are an integral part of any investment strategy (and tactics), as taxes can affect net return substantially. At the same time, don’t forget to consider transaction costs.

Inheritance Tax

If your estate is likely to exceed the IHT threshold (£325,000 for individuals or £650,000 for couples), you may want to take steps to reduce it. Estate planning can obviously become very complex, but the easiest thing you can do is make gifts to your beneficiaries. These are subject to annual allowance of £3,000. If you didn’t use the allowance last year, it can still be used now (making it £6,000 in total), but after the tax year end it is lost. As long as you live for seven years after the gift, it is out of your estate.

Other Considerations

The above are the most common points which apply to most people. Depending on your circumstances, there may be other opportunities, further allowances and other things to do before the tax year end. In any case, it is best to discuss your entire financial and tax position with your adviser, as some actions might have unexpected consequences. Don’t forget the key date is 5 April, with the exception of pension contributions where it is safer to act before 16 March this year. Also remember that some actions will require longer time to process and don’t leave everything to the last days.

 

 

 

 

Bear Market Coming? Stick with Your Strategy

Following a multi-year rally, 2015 wasn’t particularly successful in the global markets and, so far, the start of the new year hasn’t been any good either. The UK’s FTSE 100 index is below 6,000, lowest in more than three years. It’s times like this when various doomsday predictions start to appear, warning against events “worse than 2008”, using words such as “crash” and “meltdown”, and pointing to factors such as rising interest rates, growing political tensions, China, rising commodity prices, falling commodity prices and many others.
The truth is that no one really knows what is going to happen. Not the TV pundits, not the highly paid bank strategists and stock analysts, not even the Prime Minister or the Bank of England Governor.
That said, when you have significant part of your retirement pot invested, it is natural to feel uneasy when you hear such predictions, especially if they come from an analyst who got it right last time and correctly predicted some previous market event (he was lucky).
When the markets actually decline and you see your portfolio shrinking in real time, the concerns may become unbearable. Fear and greed get in charge, both at the same time. It is tempting to think about selling here and buying the stocks back when they are 20% lower a few months from now. Easy money, so it would seem. Nevertheless, that would be speculating, not investing. The problem with the financial industry (and the media) is that these two are confused all the time.
Time in the Market, Not Timing the Market
While some people have made money speculating, academic research as well as experiences of millions of investors have shown that it is a poor way to save for retirement. When a large number of people take different actions in the markets, some of them will be lucky and get it right purely due to statistics (luck). However, it is extremely difficult to repeat such success and consistently predict the market’s direction with any accuracy.
In the long run, the single thing which has the greatest effect on your return is time, not your ability to pick tops and bottoms. The longer you stay invested in the market, the more your wealth will grow. You just need the patience and ability to withstand the periods when markets fall, because eventually they will recover and exceed their previous highs.
Time Horizon and Risk Tolerance
The key decision to make is your risk tolerance – how volatile you allow your portfolio to be, which will determine your asset allocation. While personality and other personal specifics come into play, the main factor to determine your risk tolerance is your investment horizon. The longer it is, the more risk you can afford and the more volatility your portfolio can sustain. If you are in your 40’s and unlikely to need the money in the next 20 years, you should have most of your retirement pot in equities. If you are older and closer to retirement, your portfolio should probably be more conservative, because you might not have the time to wait until the markets recover from a possible crash. It is important to get the risk tolerance and the asset allocation right (an adviser can help with that) and stick with it.
How to Protect Your Portfolio from Yourself
Because the above is easier said than done, here are a few practical tips how to protect your retirement pot from your emotions and trading temptations:
1. Have a written, long-term investment plan. It is human nature to consider written rules somehow harder to break than those you just keep in your head. It is even better if you involve your adviser to help you create the plan. Not only is an adviser better qualified and more experienced in the investment process, but another person knowing your rules makes them even harder to break.
2. Do not check fund prices and the value of your portfolio every day. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t review your investments regularly. But the key is to make these revisions planned and controlled, rather than emotion-based. You will be less likely to make impulsive decisions, which more often than not are losing decisions.
3. Maintain an adequate cash reserve. This should be enough to meet any planned short-term expenditure and also provide a reserve for unexpected expenses. It will help you avoid the need to encash investments at a time when investment values are low.

Would you like to discuss this article with an adviser?

The Seven Roles of an Advisor

What is a financial advisor for? One view is that advisors have unique insights into market direction that give their clients an advantage. But of the many roles a professional advisor should play, soothsayer is not one of them.

The truth is that no-one knows what will happen next in investment markets. And if anyone really did have a working crystal ball, it is unlikely they would be plying their trade as an advisor, a broker, an analyst or a financial journalist.

Some folk may still think an advisor’s role is to deliver them market-beating returns year after year. Generally, those are the same people who believe good advice equates to making accurate forecasts.

But in reality, the value a professional advisor brings is not dependent on the state of markets. Indeed, their value can be even more evident when volatility, and emotions, are running high.

The best of this new breed play multiple and nuanced roles with their clients, beginning with the needs, risk appetites and circumstances of each individual and irrespective of what is going on in the world.

None of these roles involves making forecasts about markets or economies. Instead, the roles combine technical expertise with an understanding of how money issues intersect with the rest of people’s complex lives.

Indeed, there are at least seven hats an advisor can wear to help clients without ever once having to look into a crystal ball:

The expert: Now, more than ever, investors need advisors who can provide client-centred expertise in assessing the state of their finances and developing risk-aware strategies to help them meet their goals.

The independent voice: The global financial turmoil of recent years demonstrated the value of an independent and objective voice in a world full of product pushers and salespeople.

The listener: The emotions triggered by financial uncertainty are real. A good advisor will listen to clients’ fears, tease out the issues driving those feelings and provide practical long-term answers.

The teacher: Getting beyond the fear-and-flight phase often is just a matter of teaching investors about risk and return, diversification, the role of asset allocation and the virtue of discipline.

The architect: Once these lessons are understood, the advisor becomes an architect, building a long-term wealth management strategy that matches each person’s risk appetites and lifetime goals.

The coach: Even when the strategy is in place, doubts and fears inevitably will arise. The advisor at this point becomes a coach, reinforcing first principles and keeping the client on track.

The guardian: Beyond these experiences is a long-term role for the advisor as a kind of lighthouse keeper, scanning the horizon for issues that may affect the client and keeping them informed.
These are just seven valuable roles an advisor can play in understanding and responding to clients’ whole-of-life needs that are a world away from the old notions of selling product off the shelf or making forecasts.

For instance, a person may first seek out an advisor purely because of their role as an expert. But once those credentials are established, the main value of the advisor in the client’s eyes may be as an independent voice.

Knowing the advisor is independent—and not plugging product—can lead the client to trust the advisor as a listener or a sounding board, as someone to whom they can share their greatest hopes and fears.

From this point, the listener can become the teacher, the architect, the coach and ultimately the guardian. Just as people’s needs and circumstances change over time, so the nature of the advice service evolves.

These are all valuable roles in their own right and none is dependent on forces outside the control of the advisor or client, such as the state of the investment markets or the point of the economic cycle.

However you characterise these various roles, good financial advice ultimately is defined by the patient building of a long-term relationship founded on the values of trust and independence and knowledge of each individual.

Now, how can you put a price on that?

Gravel Road Investing

Owners of all-purpose motor vehicles often appreciate their cars most when they leave smooth city freeways for rough gravel country roads. In investment, highly diversified portfolios can provide similar reassurance.

In blue skies and open highways, flimsy city sedans might cruise along just as well as sturdier sports utility vehicles. But the real test of the vehicle occurs when the road and weather conditions deteriorate.

That’s why people who travel through different terrains often invest in a SUV that can accommodate a range of environments, but without sacrificing too much in fuel economy, efficiency and performance.

Structuring an appropriate portfolio involves similar decisions. You need an allocation that can withstand a range of investment climates while being mindful of fees and taxes.

When certain sectors or stocks are performing strongly, it can be tempting to chase returns in one area. But if the underlying conditions deteriorate, you can end up like a motorist with a flat on a desert road and without a spare.

Likewise, when the market performs badly, the temptation might be to hunker down completely. But if the investment skies brighten and the roads improve, you can risk missing out on better returns elsewhere.

One common solution is to shift strategies according to the climate. But this is a tough, and potentially costly, challenge. It is the equivalent of keeping two cars in the garage when you only need one. You’re paying double the insurance, double the registration and double the upkeep costs.

An alternative is to build a single diversified portfolio. That means spreading risk in a way that helps ensure your portfolio captures what global markets have to offer while reducing unnecessary risks. In any one period, some parts of the portfolio will do well. Others will do poorly. You can’t predict which. But that is the point of diversification.

Now, it is important to remember that you can never completely remove risk in any investment. Even a well-diversified portfolio is not bulletproof. We saw that in 2008-09 when there were broad losses in markets.

But you can still work to minimise risks you don’t need to take. These include exposing your portfolio unduly to the influences of individual stocks or sectors or countries or relying on the luck of the draw.

An example is those people who made big bets on mining stocks in recent years or on technology stocks in the late 1990s. These concentrated bets might pay off for a little while, but it is hard to build a consistent strategy out of them. And those fads aren’t free. It’s hard to get your timing right and it can be costly if you’re buying and selling in a hurry.

By contrast, owning a diversified portfolio is like having an all-weather, all-roads, fuel-efficient vehicle in your garage. This way you’re smoothing out some of the bumps in the road and taking out the guesswork.

Because you can never be sure which markets will outperform from year to year, diversification increases the reliability of the outcomes and helps you capture what the global markets have to offer.

Add discipline and efficient implementation to the mix and you get a structured solution that is both low-cost and tax-efficient.

Just as expert engineers can design fuel-efficient vehicles for all conditions, astute financial advisors know how to construct globally diversified portfolios to help you capture what the markets offer in an efficient way while reducing the influence of random forces.

There will be rough roads ahead, for sure. But with the right investment vehicle, the ride will be a more comfortable one.

Article by

Jim Parker, Vice President, Dimensional Fund Advisers