During life, we face constant challenges on various levels. This is no different when it comes to implementing and maintaining an investment strategy. I am going to try and lay out a road map to cover various stages in anyone’s financial life and at the same time sketch an investment strategy that should be suitable to most investors. It will still, however, be prudent to discuss your personal investment journey with a suitably qualified financial advisor.
To keep it simple I am going to broadly ignore estate planning and risk management as far as risk benefits are concerned. This is aimed to be a guide to assist you in times of uncertainty caused by life changes or any other eventuality.
First and foremost, start investing! Yes, you do have enough money to invest irrespective of your income!
It is not necessary to invest in complicated expensive products that require large minimum investment amounts. There are investment platforms that do not impose minimum amounts. You can literally invest R5 per month and obtain full exposure to the top shares on the JSE and various global passive funds. Your bank also does not impose minimum investments in simple savings products.
If you can get into the habit of constantly and permanently investing you will almost certainly achieve financial independence and pave the way to a comfortable retirement. If you are about to enter the working environment and start earning that precious salary, make a deal with yourself. Think of your salary at 90% of your actual earnings. Consider the 10% as a donation to yourself that will reward you over and over in the future. If you are already working and you are caught in a debt trap, try and start with a 5% allocation to investments. If that is also impossible, allocate a portion of your next increase or bonus to an investment. Please just start investing!
If you have reached your golden years and you are preparing for retirement or are already in retirement, keep sufficient exposure to growth assets (read my article “The cost of conservatism”). I will unpack some “dos and don’ts” during retirement a bit further on.
When investing there are certain principles that apply:
- Set goals and objectives – these should have sub-sets that cater for different time horizons and specific goals.
- Investments must always beat inflation.
- Always keep a portion of your investments as a liquid portfolio – don’t place all your funds into retirement funds.
- Make sure you have access to emergency funds.
- Investments must be tax-efficient – don’t contribute to retirement annuities (RA) if you don’t pay tax and don’t invest in endowments if you pay less than 30% tax.
- The investment structure must have sufficient flexibility so that the portfolio can be adjusted as life-changing episodes happen during your life.
Great, so let us unpack the above in more detail.
For the experienced investors please bear with me for a couple of minutes. I would like to just briefly cover the basic asset classes and their characteristics as well as elaborate a bit on when to use them and when not to use them! This is mainly for individuals who are new to investing but perhaps all of us can reflect on this for a minute?
This is the most basic asset class that everyone is familiar with. Cash does, however, come in different forms and ranges from cash in your bank account, savings accounts, fixed deposits, and money market funds.
Pros and cons
The capital is broadly guaranteed (can lose value under certain circumstances), but is highly unlikely to beat inflation. It should be used for short term objectives of less than three years. It can be used as income paying pockets within living annuities where income for up to three years can be kept.
Cash is a destroyer of wealth if you are a taxpayer and use cash as a long-term investment. Inflation will reduce the purchasing power of cash over time.
Government bonds (not to be confused with home loan bonds) are loan notes mainly issued by governments and large corporations. The term of bonds generally varies between 10 years and 30 years and are determined and declared at the time of the issuance of the bonds. Generally, the longer the term of the bond the higher the interest (coupon rate) will be. Although bonds have duration terms, they are generally liquid and can be sold (traded) at any point.
Should you buy a bond in the open market, the original purchase value will be paid out at maturity. That means you can either make a capital gain or experience a capital loss if the price you paid was different to the price on the date of issue (the principal amount). Government bonds have two main categories namely normal bonds that offer a fixed term and coupon rate, and inflation-linked bonds that provide a coupon rate on an inflation+ basis over a fixed term.
The coupon rate (interest) of the bond generally pays out twice per year and the principal amount (the amount originally invested) pays out in full on the maturity date. Capital and interest are guaranteed, however, guarantees are always only as strong as the institutions that issue them. The interest paid out is fully taxable.
When bonds are traded prior to maturity capital variances will occur. There are two factors that determine the value of bonds when traded before the maturity date namely prevailing interest rates and inflation which both drive demand for bonds. Without getting too technical, bond yields are converse to their capital values. If one hears that the yield of bond “xyz” has reduced, it basically means that the value of the bond has increased in the secondary market and if the yield has increased the value of the bond has decreased in the secondary market. A rising yield in bonds is, therefore, unlike cash, a bad thing for bondholders but a good thing for bond buyers. Make sense?
Pros and cons
Bonds are a great diversifier and a de-risker in a portfolio. After cash, it is seen as the second “safest” asset class. Since new bonds are generally sold by auction in batches of R millions mainly asset managers, large corporations, governments, and large pension funds buy direct bonds. Previously issued bonds can be bought on the JSE Debt Board (previously known as the Bond Exchange of SA) or via passive funds (investing in the Albi) or via the RSA retail bond. Various fund managers also compile bond portfolios within a unit trust wrapper which is suitable for retail investors. All multi-asset funds have varying degrees of exposure to bonds.
Increasing interest rates and increasing inflation are the enemies of bonds. If interest rates are expected to increase in the near term, it probably is not a good idea to buy bonds hence the resistance of most investors to invest in European and US bonds today where in both cases negative real yields are currently prevalent. SA bonds currently offer the best yields in the bond market. Do you know why?
Here I refer to listed commercial property, not residential property. These are generally listed shares on stock exchanges like the JSE. Listed property is in many ways like bonds that I explained above. The value of the listed property will largely be driven by the yield (rental income) of the underlying properties within the listed company. Investors who seek high-income providing investments will generally consider property, bonds, and cash to achieve their goal.
Like bonds, inflation and rising interest rates are the enemies of commercial property funds. Listed property does, however, provide different capital growth characteristics than bonds. Up to four years ago property was the best performing asset class on the JSE and acted more like pure equity than a bond. Excessive valuations became clear and what is supposed to be a predictable fairly stable asset class turned very nasty with severe losses recorded from 2018 onwards. Currently, valuations and yields do seem reasonable again. However, exercise caution, it is uncertain what headwinds Covid-19 will further impose onto the property sector with working from home and online purchases being much more acceptable today than pre-Covid placing severe pressure on the office and retail sectors.
In the long-term property is a good diversifier and a way to increase exposure to growth assets in a similar way as equities. Within the property sector, there are different sub-sectors namely, industrial, commercial, office, retail, data centres, and warehousing among others. Property funds and real estate investment trusts (Reits) generally compile portfolios that include all or most of the sub-sectors in varying degrees.
Pros and cons
Property can be considered as a form of annuity income stream. Property Reits are structured in a manner where 75% of distributable profits must be distributed to investors. Distributions are fully taxed and volatility levels of the capital amount have increased over the last four years. Investors can consider increasing property exposure within retirement funds where property exposure is limited to 25% within Regulation 28. However, do so with caution and first discuss this with your financial advisor.
Equities refer to shares listed on a stock exchange. There are a wide variety of sectors represented on every stock exchange across the world. I am not going to elaborate on the various sectors but rather make broad-based comments. Apart from direct individual shares, one can invest in ETFs (exchange-traded funds or passive funds), private equity, or unit trusts.
Unless you have strong views of a particular sector, I would suggest that you invest in a general equity portfolio, either in the form of an ETF or a unit trust. Most sectors are represented within specialist funds or ETFs so if you have a particular view, your preference should be accessible. If you do not have the expertise to make sector-specific calls, choose a general equity fund.
The main differentiator in equities is where the underlying equities are domiciled. As South Africans, we are part of the international community and that provides us with the opportunity to invest in equities across the globe. Globally there is a further differentiator where investment sectors are split into two main groups namely developed markets (mainly US, Europe, Britain, Australia, and Japan) versus emerging markets (mainly China, Russia, Taiwan, Korea, Brazil, India, and a host of others including SA). Since SA represents less than 1% of the global economy it only makes sense for a SA investor to have a healthy exposure to offshore assets, and the younger you are the more that exposure should be. Globally there are more than 60 000 investment opportunities via funds, ETFs and direct shares.
Cautionary: Be careful of too much exposure to offshore assets when you are in retirement. More about this comment later.
Pros and cons
Equities are the asset class that has the highest probability of providing inflation-beating returns over an extended period. It is generally accepted that equities should provide returns of more than 6% above inflation over periods longer than seven years. This stands to reason then that all portfolios should have exposure to equities. How much exposure and what percentage should be allocated to developed markets versus emerging markets will depend on everyone’s personal circumstances. I will elaborate a bit more about this further on. Considering the vast volumes of trading in equities (often at overpriced levels) globally, one must expect high levels of volatility over periods less than five years.
Equities provide the most tax-efficient income of all asset classes in the form of dividends. However, bear in mind that not all shares are equal when it comes to dividends. Some companies by structure just declare more dividends than others. Others retain the profits for expansion, operating upgrades, acquisitions etc. It is widely accepted that dividends are one of the biggest drivers of company valuations. Dividends in simple terms are the remainder of profits that get distributed to shareholders after tax has been paid by the companies. Distributing companies withhold 20% of the proceeds which gets paid to Sars as dividend tax. Distributions received by shareholders do not attract any further taxes.
Right, now that we have covered the basic assets classes (once again apologies to our prudent investors who already know everything I referred to), we can get down to the basics of investments.
Irrespective of what level of investor you are, the following principles are important:
- The price you pay for investments matters. That includes currency.
- Stick to your strategy. Don’t change your strategy/investment objectives unless you experienced a life-changing event.
- Always retain exposure to growth assets. Refer to my article “beware of the cost of conservatism”
- Do not get deterred by volatility. Never move to cash during a market correction!
- Give compound interest time to work. The earlier you start investing the better.
- Take advantage of rand cost averaging. As market prices drop during a correction, your monthly contribution will buy more units/shares which will accumulate and reward you with solid returns as prices normalise again.
- Warren Buffet says: “Get nervous when others are greedy and get greedy when others are nervous” – believe him! Don’t speculate or fall for scams where abnormal returns are promised. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is…
- Tax must be at the forefront of your thinking when you decide how and where to invest – do not invest in retirement annuities if you do not pay tax and do not avoid retirement annuities when you pay a high level of tax.
- As previously mentioned, avoid endowments if your tax rate is below 30% since the assurance company pays 30% tax on taxable returns within endowments – do not be fooled by comments that returns of endowments are tax-free!
- Endowments and RAs are available via assurance wrappers as well as unit trust linked products. Avoid life wrapped RAs and endowments. They incur penalties when matured earlier than the contract date and carry higher costs than unit-based products.
- Diversification is your only free lunch in investing. Diversify between asset classes, funds/shares, and countries.
Okay, so let’s unpack the nitty-gritty in a bit more detail. I am going to elaborate on some solutions and indicate who should pursue what solutions and who should avoid certain solutions.
Investments can broadly be divided into two categories namely compulsory funds, and discretionary funds.
Compulsory funds refer to retirement funds which include RAs and preservation funds and are regulated by the Pension Funds Act. Living annuities do not fall under the Pension Funds Act but fall under the Income Tax Act even though their origin will always be from a maturing compulsory fund investment.
Compulsory funds are subject to the investment guidelines as stipulated by Regulation 28 of the Pension Funds Act. Broadly this means that you cannot invest more than 75% into equities and 25% into property with an overall limitation of 30% to offshore assets. The Act does allow for a small percentage of exposure to hedge funds and African equities (excluding SA) over and above the mentioned restrictions, but I am going to ignore that in this article.
Discretionary/voluntary funds have no restrictions and can be invested as you wish anywhere in the world. Direct offshore investments are subject to Sars approval with an annual limit of R10 million plus R 1 million travel allowance. Higher amounts can be taken offshore subject to special arrangements.
What are the optimal equity and local/offshore allocation?
That all depends on where you are on your investment roadmap and how much income/cash you are going to require over the next three years. It also depends on what you are paying for the assets at any given time. The income portion of your investment must always be biased towards the currency you live in, irrespective of where in the world you live.
Important – the rand exchange rate adds to the volatility of global assets. Even USD cash can vary by 30%+ (up or down) due to the huge swings that the rand experiences. What should be the most stable investment in the world in fact can turn out to be a very aggressive investment that will destroy wealth over short periods when currency exchange takes place during extreme rand weakness.
A recent case in point is for those who took funds offshore at the end of April 2020 when the rand was trading at R19.10 to the USD. They would have lost around 25% of their capital if the value was calculated today with the rand valued at R14.20/USD. This trend is not unique. If you took funds offshore in December 2001 you would have lost 53% by December 2004, you would have been down 36% in March 2011 if you took funds offshore in January 2009 and if you took funds offshore in January 2016 you would have lost 26% in March 2018 and this is all in US cash! Back to my previous comment – price matters!
Offshore investing should not be made at all costs and above all else unless you believe that SA is doomed and you intend to emigrate financially. If this is not the case, wait until the exchange rate is at a reasonable level. We know that the rand will continue to depreciate but at probably 5% to 7% per year, not at 20% continuously as is often expected and predicted by doomsday prophets.
After all the above, in short, the longer your investment horizon is the higher your offshore and equity exposure should be, but at the right price! On the flip side, the more income you draw in rand, the less offshore exposure you should have but you should maintain a healthy exposure to equities.
Consider the following scenarios:
If you recently started your career, what should you do?
- If you belong to an employer retirement fund, do not contribute further to a retirement annuity.
- If you do not belong to an employer retirement fund and your tax rate is nil or very low, also avoid retirement annuities. If you intend to emigrate in future, avoid RAs.
- Build your discretionary portfolio by investing in a tax-free investment (TFS). Maximum contributions allowed amount to R36 000 per year and can be made by monthly contributions or by lump sum investments. All asset classes can be accessed, and 100% offshore allocation can be taken. Best of all, TFS investments are 100% tax exempt, and funds are fully accessible (but once drawn they cannot be replaced).
- Alternatively, start investing in a unit trust or ETF portfolio with an equity and offshore bias. If affordability constraints prevent you from meeting the minimum contributions, consider investing via a platform like EasyEquities where no minimums apply. Consider investing in a global passive fund or index tracker. (Personally, considering current prices, I prefer emerging markets for long term growth possibilities.)
- Build emergency funds in your bank account. Pay down credit cards and don’t open clothing accounts!
- Start accumulating cash for short term expenditure like holidays or getting together a deposit for a car.
If your career is well on its way and you have already started accumulating assets, then consider the following strategy:
- Optimise your contributions towards retirement funds. Contributions of up to 27.5% of your taxable income are allowed across all retirement funds including RAs with a maximum of R 350 000 per year. The tax advantage that one gets from the contributions cannot be underestimated especially if the tax rebate gets re-invested. Make sure your retirement funds’ portfolios are optimised. One can literally get 100% exposure to growth assets under Regulation 28. Read my article “protect your most important asset – your retirement fund” in a previous publication. Another underestimated advantage of retirement funds is that returns within the portfolio are non-taxable which also means that portfolio switches will not be subjected to CGT.
- Invest the tax saved from your RA contributions into a TFS up to the maximum amount of R36 000 per year. Invest in 100% offshore equities. This strategy will enhance the dynamics of your RA portfolio and counter the limitations of Regulation 28. Given time, your TFS investment will be a healthy source of tax-free income.
- Your TFS investment is the perfect vehicle for your children’s future education. TFS investment are available to all individuals including children. This is a must-have!
- Invest accumulated capital (profit share, bonuses, sale of assets, inheritance etc.) directly offshore or locally (depending on your income requirements and how much time you intend to spend overseas). This will provide an offshore nest egg and provide some security during the trying times that we are currently experiencing in SA. Since offshore cash and bonds provide negative yields, the portfolio should have an equity and property bias. A split of 40% in developed market equities, 40% emerging markets equities and 20% property should provide satisfactory returns over time. Exposure to SA bonds within your Regulation 28 portfolio will down weight overall equity and property exposure.
- Invest in a way that 50% of your accumulated investments are compulsory funds and 50% discretionary funds by the time you reach retirement.
Depending on your contribution rate, aim for around 70% offshore exposure, 70% equity exposure and 10% property exposure by the time you retire. The remainder in bonds and cash.
Once you have reached retirement age decide on your drawdown rate.
The drawdown rate should be a percentage of your total investment portfolio including rental property but excluding your primary residence. Your investment portfolio should be structured according to your risk personality, your drawdown rate and your contingency aspirations.
- Be mindful that your investment term remains long-term depending on your age and life expectancy. Generally, when someone retires, we plan up to age 100.
- One strategy is to create an “income pocket” within your living annuity. Within the income pocket sufficient income could be kept for anything up to three years. The funds should remain in rand-based cash or income funds while the rest of the portfolio must be diversified with local and global exposure. The idea is that the income pocket will get topped up from funds that performed particularly well during the three-year period.
The level of income drawn against the investment portfolio should ultimately determine how much local and how much offshore exposure should be held in the portfolio:
- If 2.5% or less is drawn, offshore exposure can be up to 75%.
- If 2.5% to 5.0% is drawn, offshore exposure should be limited to 60%.
- If 5.0% to 7.5% is drawn, offshore exposure should be limited to 50%.
- If 7.5% to 10% is drawn, offshore exposure should be limited to 40%.
- If more than 10% is drawn, offshore exposure should be limited to 30%.
The above reduction of offshore exposure as income levels increase is purely used as a risk management parameter. Remember, the rand does not only depreciate. After periods of abnormal rand depreciation, history has shown us that rand recovery follows and remains for several years.
Earlier on I illustrated the recoveries that followed in 2002, 2005, 2009, 2016 and 2020. These weren’t abnormal events, they are part of our emerging market status fueled by the liquidity characteristics of the rand (the rand is one of the most liquid currencies in the world and is often used as a proxy to reduce exposure to other emerging market regions like Turkey in April 2020).
When the rand strengthens, the rand value of offshore investments reduce. Imagine you took your living annuity 100% offshore and the rand rallied by more than 35% as it has done in the past (and will more than likely do in future). If you draw 10% income from your living annuity it means that your investment value would drop by more than 45% in a year unless the rand depreciates back to its low level in that same year which historically has never happened after an aggressive recovery.
Since living annuities’ income is determined once per year, the income percentage will increase unless you draw less income. Once this happens an unrecoverable spiral start taking place. Also remember, if an investment value reduces by 45%, it must recover by 82% to get back to the level it was (R100 000 – 45% = R55 000. R 55 000 + 82% = R100 000). Not even offshore cash can prevent this scenario. This while income continuous to be drawn. Does my “limited offshore table” above make more sense now?
The above is just a health check to point out that irrespective how bullish we are about offshore investments, one must tread cautiously when you draw income from an offshore bias portfolio.
As with all investments, price matters and a cheap rand is bound to turn around and bite you very hard where it really hurts…
Have a look at my article “Living Annuities: be careful too much offshore exposure can hurt you”.
You are very welcome to drop me a line if you wish to discuss the above in more detail.