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ETFs vs LICs and Strategy 3 Revisited

ETFs vs LICs and Strategy 3 Revisited

Okay, so if you’ve been following me for any length of time you probably know that I’m a big fan of ETFs.

You know, those little exchange-traded funds that grant instant diversification with rock-bottom management fees to provide a great return for extremely little effort. It’s no wonder that famous investors like Warren Buffet and Mark Cuban (US billionaire) are also big fans.

Buffet has been quoted as saying:

“Consistently buy an S&P 500 low-cost index fund. I think it’s the thing that makes the most sense practically all of the time.”

I wrote about the benefits of index investing briefly in ‘Our Investing Strategy Explained‘ post.

I’ve been a big fan ever since reading the Bogleheads Guide to Investing about 3 years ago. And I put my money where my mouth is and currently have over $160K invested in ETFs.

 

“So if ETFs are so great, what the hell are LICs and why should I care? “

 

I’m so glad you asked.

Let’s begin.

 

Listed Investment Companies

GuideToLICs2

FYI when I refer to LICs, I’m referring to the older ‘granddaddy‘ LICs like AFI, ARGO, Milton etc. 

 

Listed Investment Companies (LICs) are first created by an initial public offering (IPO). Money is raised and a fixed number of shares are created for each investor. The money raised is then used for investing in assets such as a basket of shares which together make up the net asset value (NAV) of the LIC.

The shares of the LIC are traded on the stock exchange where investors are able to buy and sell when the market is open.

Sound familiar?

It should because, in a nutshell, ETFs are essentially doing the same thing. But there are key differences.

 

 

Key Differences

There may be more differences than what I’m about to go over, but the ones below are the key differences in my eyes and the ones that reflect my investing decisions.

Same but different

 

Management Fees

ETFs tend to have a lower MER than the equivalent LIC but it’s not as bad as it sounds. If you stick to the older LICs (Argo, AFI, Milton etc.) the highest MER is around 0.18% which is not that bad. It’s still more than double that of an Australian index ETF such a BetaShares A200 (0.07%) though.

The management fees reflect the investment style of the two structures.

ETFs track an index or benchmark whereas LICs try to outperform the index. But given the low MER of the older LICs, some active management is acceptable in my view. I only have issues where the fund managers charge > 1.0% for their services.

WINNER: Generally ETFs

 

Legal Structure/NAV

ETFs are a trust structure whereas LICs are a company as the name ‘Listed Investment Company‘ would imply.

This has some semi-big ramifications.

I’m going to try to keep to as simple as possible because we’re about to get technical here for a second.

To truly understand the differences between ETFs and LICs we must first understand how they operate and what’s the difference between Open-End and Closed-End

Closed-Ended

LICs are closed-ended.

This means that when the LIC had its IPO and raised the capital to start the company, a certain number of shares are issued. Once the company has been established and begins investing the capital on the behalf of shareholders, no more shares are issues. New investors wanting to join the LIC have to buy already issued shares on the exchange. The LIC does not create new shares to deal with demand.

Imagine a new LIC that has started with 4 investors each putting in $1. The LIC currently has a Net Asset Value (NAV) of $4 and there are 4 shares issued to each investor.

Fake LIC

Those four shares that own the LIC are each worth $1 according to the NAV. But those shares are bought and sold on the market. And depending on how bullish or bearish the market is on Fake LIC, will determine how much the share price will drift away from its NAV value either up or down.

If someone offers 1 unit of Fake LIC for 80c, this is what’s called trading at a discount. If someone offers the same unit for $1.20 it’s known as trading at a premium. LICs can drift away from the actual NAV quite a bit.

Can LICs ever increase the number of shares? Yes, they can raise capital and issue new shares just like any other company but this only happens every so often and not something that’s done daily like ETFs.

 

Open-Ended

ETFs, on the other hand, are open-ended and can create or redeem new shares in accordance with the market demand. If someone wants to enter the fund, they don’t need to trade with a current shareholder of the fund (like the LIC does). The fund can create a new share.

Conversely, if someone wants to cash out their share. The fund has to come up with a way to get the cash which may mean selling assets within the fund to give the investor their money.

But who sets the price of each unit? 

When an Investor wants to buy or sell their units on the exchange, there is a market maker on the other side of the trade. The price they offer is generally very close to the Net Asset Value of the fund.

This is why you can’t really trade an ETF at a discount or premium to the NAV.

WINNER: LICs. The ability to trade at a discount is desirable but the company not having to sell assets during a crisis to meet demand is a big plus. 

 

Investment Style

Traditionally ETFs track an index or benchmark whereas LICs try to outperform the index.

If you actually look into what is in the portfolios of Australian ETFs such as A200 or VAS and compare them with the old LICs, there is a lot of crossover. The whole active vs passive debate is more of a debate when the active fund managers are charging big fees (>1.0%).

I’ve got no issues with a little bit of active management as long as the MER is low. In fact, I like that most of the ‘Grand Daddy’ LICs have a focus on income. This is important to me and something that is reflected with historic returns for those LICs (more on that later).

One issue I do have with LICs is that they can and sometimes do change investment style. The fund manager that has a fantastic track record might retire or get offered a higher wage at another fund. I personally like the fact that most ETFs are legally obligated to track an index and can’t diverge from that strategy no matter what the managers are thinking.

Some would argue that being able to see waves in the market and adjust accordingly is a good thing.

WINNER: Tie. I prefer to track an index but don’t mind a little bit of active management as long as the fees are kept to a minimum. 

 

Retained Earnings

ETFs are a trust and they must distribute their income each year to unitholders. The income from assets within the funds such as dividends, get passed directly from the fund to the unitholder.

ETF Income flow

Because LICs are a company, they can receive income from the assets they own (usually dividends from shares), pay the company tax rate of 30% and keep that income in the fund for as long as they want. Then at a later date, the manager can decide to pass it on, usually as a fully franked dividend to the shareholders of the LIC.

LIC Income flow

This means that the income from ETFs are often lumpy and inconsistent because the market may do well some years and bad others. But if the LIC retains some income from the good years, they can distribute it in those bad years to make it more smooth and consistent.

Sounds like a good thing right? 

This one is something that’s been on my mind for a while.

The ‘smoothing’ of income is often touted as a benefit whenever any debate comes up between ETFs and LICs.

I beg to differ.

I personally don’t want the LIC to retain any of my income. I would much rather they pass on every single dollar to me so I can make the judgement call on what to do with it whether that be reinvested or spent.

This might be a plus to some but it’s an annoyance to me and something I really wish they didn’t do.

WINNER: ETFs. This is my personal preference. 

 

DSSP/BSP

Without going into too much detail, Dividend Substitution Share Plan (DSSP) and Bonus Share Plan (BSP) are offered by two LICs (AFIC and Whitefield respectively). It’s basically a plan offered by those two LICs which allow the investor to forgo the dividend in exchange for extra shares.

This means you don’t pay income tax and get more share instead. It’s great for high-income earners.

This is not offered by any ETF and is unique to the two LICs mentioned above.

If you want to read more about it, check out fellow FIRE blogger Carpe Dividendum’s excellent article.

WINNER: LICs

Fully Franked Dividends

This is actually not a difference but I want to clear up a common misconception about the franked dividends that LICs are able to pay out.

Some investors think that LICs can magically produce more income from the same basket of shares because they often pay out a fully franked dividend whereas an equivalent ETF might only distribute a partially franked dividend.

Let’s say for example that a LIC and an ETF both invested in the same company that paid out an 80% franked dividend of $70 dollars.

Here’s how that money would reach the investor using a LIC.

LIC Franking

Note that the end result for this investor who is in the 37% tax bracket is a grossed-up dividend of $59.22 after tax.

 

So how does it play out in an ETF structure?

ETF franking

 

The end result for the investor is exactly the same. A grossed-up dividend of $59.22 after tax.

WINNER: Franking does not matter when comparing LICs to ETFs.

 

In a nutshell, the key differences are:

TypeManagement Fees (MER)Investment StyleLegal StructureNet Asset Value (NAV)DSSP
ETFAs low as 0.04%Passive. Usually tracks an index and does not seek to outperform.TrustTrades on, or very close to NAVNo
LICAlthough slightly higher for an equivalent ETF, the old LICs generally are all under around 0.18%.Active. Seeks to outperform an index over the long term.CompanyCan trade at a discount or premium to the NAV of the fund.Yes

 

So Which One’s Better?

HomerThinking

If you’ve made it this far, I can almost hear your cries.

‘Just tell me which ones better FFS!’

After consuming all that info above, you’ll be rewarded with a clear and concise answer as to which investment is superior and what you should do.

And here comes the most annoying answer…

They are both great.

Both have pros and cons but either ETFs or LICs are suitable for FIRE chaser in Australia looking to generate a passive income. The most important thing is to understand the pros and cons for yourself and then you can make an informed decision as everyone’s needs, investment style, and appetite for risk are different.

The last point is often overlooked, it’s not so much about trying to achieve the maximum return in my eyes. It’s about choosing a strategy that will generate that passive income but more importantly, a strategy that you’ll be comfortable with through thick and thin. Because any portfolio is easy to hold in a bull market (see negative gearing). But it’s when the shit hits the fan that you’ll really appreciate a well thought out strategy that you’ll feel comfortable in when everyone else is running for the exit.

 

Conclusion

Peter loves Homer

ETFs and LICs are similar yet different. They shouldn’t be seen as enemies, more like best friends and depending on your mood, you might want to hang out with one or the other…maybe there’s room in your portfolio party for both?… Which leads me to talk about…

 

Strategy 3?

If you have read ‘Our Investing Strategy Explained‘, I have been thinking more and more about a dividend focussed portfolio which mainly consists of Aussie shares since they offer a great yield plus franking credits. They certainly feel like the ultimate passive investment to fund early retirement. And our end goal, after all, is to create a passive income stream to retire on.

So after much research, learning from other dividend focussed investors such as Peter Thornhill and Dave at Strong Money Australia and much toing and froing, I have decided to direct all future capital into high yielding Aussie shares in the form of ETFs and LICs.

We currently have nearly $100K in international securities which makes this decision a little bit easier. We are basically accepting the risk of lesser diversification in order to gain a higher dividend yield through Aussie shares.

I completely understand the risk and acknowledge that an internationally diversified portfolio will most likely outperform an all Aussie one in terms of total return. However, I’m confident in saying that the international portfolio will not offer the same level of dividend yield that the Aussie one will.

I wrote a little bit more about my reasoning to move to strategy 3 in our September 2018 Net Worth Update.

 

Historic Returns

I would like to take a second to illustrate just how similar the returns are between most of the older LICs and Australian Index ETFs.

I’m going to be using the historical data of Vanguards VAS ETF because the A200 was only created this year and VAS has been around nearly 10 years. Since they are so similar it should be a fair comparison. And I’m choosing 4 of the most common older LICs for comparisons.

Below are the returns for investing $1M on the 21st of May 2009 (creation date for VAS) in each of the LICs and VAS.

LICs VAS Returns Historic

It’s no surprise that the majority of the LICs returned more dividends than VAS. This is their main focus after all and a primary reason I’m investing in them.

Argo was a surprise returning significantly less than the others in terms of capital gains and dividends.

Maybe even more surprising is that VAS is smack bang in the middle of the pack for total returns. I guess that this just further illustrates that it’s hard to beat the index consistently over a long period of time. Some LICs might be able to do it (in this case MLT and BKI) but others won’t.

 

ETFs AND LICs?

Yes, I’m utilising a combination of an ETF and LICs for the Aussie portion of my portfolio which is what I have decided to focus on for the foreseeable future.

Here’s how it’s gonna work.

I will be purchasing either one of two LICs or one ETF once a month to the tune of around $5K.

 

Why 1 ETF and 2 LICs?

I have already been into why I think ETFs are so great if you’re looking to get exposure into the Aussie market and want to invest in an index style. BetaShares A200 or VAS are the obvious choices in my opinion and with the A200’s MER being half the price of VAS, it’s a clear choice for me.

One of the biggest pros for ETFs for me is that they do not try to pick winners and divulge from an indexing strategy.

LICs, on the other hand, can and do suffer from a fund manager change or investment style redirection.

This scares me.

To mitigate this risk, I’ll be spreading our capital out between two LICs even though what they’re investing in is incredibly similar and might look silly from a diversification point of view. But I don’t really care if others think it’s silly, if it helps me sleep at night then it’s all gravy baby!

The other reason I’m buying multiple LICs is to have a greater chance to be involved in a Dividend Substitution Share Plan.

So what am I buying and how am I deciding what to purchase? 

ETF

A200
MER: 0.07%
Benchmark: Solactive Australia 200 Index

Why it’s in our portfolio:
BetaShares A200 made it’s way into our portfolio last month after Vanguard failed to respond and lower their management fee for VAS which is currently double that of the A200.

Given that the returns for the last decade between the ASX200 vs ASX300 (pictured below) were incredibly similar.

A200vsA300

Source: https://au.spindices.com/indices/equity/sp-asx-300

I’m choosing the ETF with the lower management fee every day of the week.

 

LICs

AFI
MER: 0.14%
Benchmark: XJOAI (ASX:200)

Why we will be investing:
Other than being a dividend focussed LIC with a MER of 0.14%, AFI is only one of two LICs that offer DSSP. The other LIC is Whitefield (WHF) and that has a MER of 0.35% which is too high for my liking.

A very good detailed review about this LIC can be found by the ever so insightful SMA. Check it out.

 

MLT
MER: 0.12%
Benchmark: XOAI

Why we will be investing:
Milton’s very low MER of 0.12% was attractive and we needed to spread our risk across another LIC so after much research, Milton it was. Milton also seems to be a bit more on the active side compared to the other older LICs which is another hedge against something happening with the index.

Full SMA review if you’re interested.

When To Buy?

So if I’m going to be directing all future capital into Aussie shares through LICs and A200 ETF. When do I know which one to buy since they are all essentially the same investment (Aussie shares)?

Here’s what I’ll be doing each month when we have saved up $5K and are ready to invest:

  1. Check both AFI and Milton’s NAV compared to their share price on the ASX to see if they are trading at a premium or discount (currently developing a web app to make this easier)
  2. Invest in whichever LIC is trading at the biggest discount
  3. If both LICs are trading at a premium, buy A200

 

That’s It…For Now

As of writing this article, for my circumstances and goals, I believe that an Australian based portfolio consisting of ETFs and LICs is the best strategy to produce a passive income for me to achieve financial independence so I can have the freedom to retire early.

But as I’ve always said, if I come across something that’s better than what I’m doing, I’ll make the switch.

My mind is always open to new ideas and strategies.

But that’s it for now… until strategy 4 rears its head 😈

Vanguard Diversified Index ETFs

Vanguard Diversified Index ETFs

*Nothing written below is financial advice. Always do your own research when dealing with your finances

One ETF to rule them all?

OneETF

The majority of the Australian FIRE community roughly subscribes to one of the three combos when it comes to ETFs:

  1.  40% Oz shares (VAS or AFI) 60% international (VGS or equivalent)
    • Pros
      • Great exposure to the entire world with enough Australian shares to take advantage of franking credits
      • Don’t have to fill out a W-8BEN form every couple of years
      • Hedged against the Australian dollar
      • DRP option available
    • Cons
      • Highest management fees (0.164% assuming the above weightings) out of all the three options (more on this later).
      • Have to manually rebalance
  2. 40% Oz shares (VAS or AFI) 60% international (VTS+VEU)
    • Pros
      • Great exposure to the entire world with enough Australian shares to take advantage of franking credits
      • Low management fees (0.101% assuming the above weightings)
      • Greater diversification than the other two options
      • exposure to emerging markets
    • Cons
      • Extra admin to fill out W-8BEN form (less than one hour every few years)
      • DRP option only available for VAS, not VTS or VEU
      • Potential estate issues when you die for VTS and VEU units
      • Have to manually rebalance
  3.  100% Oz shares – Dividend focussed (VAS or AFI) (Thornhill approach)
    • Pros
      • Take full advantage of our unique franking credit systems in Australia
      • Dividends are less likely to be affected during a downturn
      • Hedged against the Australian dollar
      • Don’t have to fill out a W-8BEN form every couple of years
      • Low management fees (~0.14%)
    • Cons
      • Not diversified outside of Australia
      • Miss out on international market gains
      • Capital gains traditional low for this strategy
      • Home bias

All three strategies have their merits but they all require rebalancing with the exception of an all Australian ETF. The issue with that strategy is, of course, you don’t have much diversification as Australia is only roughly 2 percent of the world economy. And with how much private debt Australians have right now… if Australia went through a recession the all Australian portfolio would not fare well.

The point is that each one of these strategies is missing something and require manual intervention whether it be rebalancing, extra admin work or more diversification.

Wouldn’t it be good if there was an ETF that took care of all this for you?

 

Vanguard Diversified ETFs

 

Vanguard Diversified ETFs

So what are they exactly and what’s the difference between buying this ETF vs one of the three options mentions above?

To put it simply, any of the four diversified index ETFs above offer a complete one stop shop solution for anyone looking to invest.

They solve a few problems that our three options above had

  • Diversification – Exposure to over 10,000 securities—in just one ETF.
  • Auto Rebalancing
  • DRP option
  • Hedged against the Australian dollar*
  • It wasn’t listed above as a con, but all four diversified index ETFs are actively managed using Vanguard Capital Markets Model (VCMM)

The two big ones that stand out are of course the auto-rebalancing but also maybe surprisingly the active management component.

Rebalancing is not hard to do, but it’s something that if left unattended can most certainly affect the performance of your portfolio over the long term. As for the active management component. You may be wondering why there is any management at all? I thought Vanguard is all about minimal management to keep fees low and it’s really hard to beat the index anyway??? I’m not sure about this part beating the market either but I guess we will have to wait and see how it performs. It uses a modeling system called VCMM to simulate potential outcomes and pick the correct balance for your desired portfolio out of the four options above.

VCMM

*As pointed out by Chris in the comments. The diversified ETFs are not 100% hedged. Please check the PDS for each ETF to find the amount of hedging

Who Is This Suited For?

To be honest, it’s a bloody good product for 99% of people. What they are offering here is as close to the perfect ETF as I’ve ever seen given the management fees and what it offers.

The best thing about this ETF is how idiot proof it is. A completely n00b could buy one of the four diversified ETFs (depending on their investor profile) for the rest of their life and get respectable returns with minimal effort.

People avoid things that appear confusing and hard. That’s why robo investment companies like Acorns and Stockspot are in business. They essentially are providing what this ETF is providing at additional costs because they make investing super easy and friendly. With the other three options listed above, it can be daunting to explain to a complete n00b how to rebalance. As soon as they don’t understand something, the majority of the time they can get spooked and give up altogether.

That’s why this ETF is so special. You can confidently recommend this product to anyone and be sure that they can’t stuff it up or get confused.

  1. Set up a broker account
  2. Buy this ETF when you have the money to do so
  3. Turn on DRP if you want
  4. Do tax when it comes around
  5. Repeat forever

So if this ETF is suited for 99% of people, who is the 1%?

 

Why I Won’t Be Switching To These ETFs

This is something I have been wanting to bring up for a while now.

Has the Australian FIRE community forgotten just how important management fees are?

I have been seeing a lot of people recommend VDHG, which as I have mentioned above is a fantastic product. No doubt about it.

The only issue I have is that at a MER of 0.27%, it’s more than double that of what my MER currently is (0.101% or option 2 above).  They are both very low fees, but I plan to have a portfolio of a million+ within the next 5 years and hope to live for another 50 years at least! Now even though the management fees are very low, over a long period of time it does add up!

I have actually been working on a web app recently (so close to being published) that works out lost investment potential from management fees which gives you a visual of what I’m talking about.

combo1

Management fees are unavoidble, but how much you pay is your choice to an extent. I have calculated my current investment potential loss from management fees to be $48K over 50 years at $1M invested.

If I change the management fees to be 0.27% we get the following

combo2

Holy shit!

We went from paying under $50K over 50 years in investment potential loss from management fees to over 5 times that amount at over $250K!

Ok, I need to clear a few things up about the above graphs because it’s a big deal.

What am I actually talking about when I say investment potential loss? I’m referring to how much management fees are costing the investor when you factor in that the money paid to management could have been invested and compounded at 8% return (that’s what the graph is using as a return rate).

If I had $1M in my portfolio with my current weightings I would be paying Vanguard $505 a year. If I had $1M with any of the diversified index ETFs, I would be paying Vanguard $2,700 a year.

The difference between $505 and $2,700 a year over a lifetime adds up!

 

Conclusion

If you’re reading this blog, odds are you’re somewhat interested in personal finance and investing. The question you need to ask yourself is whether or not you are willing to learn, educate yourself and do the extra things required for the lower MER ETF options. Or if you think that the higher MER for the diversified index ETFs are justified. I personally choose to keep my MER as low as possible because paying less in management fees is a guaranteed return. You could argue that the diversified index ETFs will outperform my ETF combo but that is unknown without a crystal ball.

If you don’t know what half of the words in this article are even about, then the diversified index ETFs are most likely the best ETF for you. Just pick your investor profile and off you go. And don’t sweat the extra management fees. If the simplicity of the diversified ETF gets you into investing, you’ve more than made up the difference.

Australian Financial Independence Calculator

Australian Financial Independence Calculator

There are countless sites/articles/forums about financial independence (FI) on the world wide web. I’ve often come across really clever, well developed calculators that offer a really good visualisation on how long you have to go before you reach FI. But the longer I searched for the best calculator the longer I realised that they were all geared towards other countries.

 

One of the main reasons I created this site was to offer my fellow countrymen quality information that was tailored for an Australian audience.

 

The biggest issue I had with every single one of these FIRE calculators out there was they didn’t factor in our Super system. The US system, which is the main system upon which I found almost all of the calculators accounted for, has a fundamentally different way their citizens can withdraw from their retirement accounts.

 

To put it simply, in the US you only need one portfolio to be at a certain amount before you are considered FI. But because you can’t access your Super before your preservation age (99% of the time) you end up with two. Your Super portfolio and a portfolio outside of it.

 

So what’s one to do? Do I just keep plugging away at my personal portfolio until I reach my FI number? That seems like a waste since Super has such a big tax advantage. You’re not likely to beat the 15% tax breaks on your Super.

 

But I don’t want to put money into Super because I want to retire young! And I won’t be able to touch the money until my preservation age (60 for me).

 

Decisions decisions decisions!

 

 

Introducing The Australian Financial Independence Calculator

 

 

Australian Financial Independence Calculator_2Australian Financial Independence Calculator

The above are two screen shots from the calculator showing the basic settings and the graph that it generates.

 

You will notice there are two lines in the graph. The Pre Super number is what you will be living off until you can access your Super. The Super number is obviously what’s in your Super.

 

In a nutshell, the most optimal way to reach FIRE here in Australia is to:

 

    1. Step 1. Have enough money to survive until your preservation age (when you can access Super). No matter how much you have in your Super, you won’t be able to retire early and pursue your other goals in life if you don’t have money coming in to live off. Step 1 is not meant to last you forever though. It’s only meant to last you until when you hit your preservation age and can then access your Super. You will notice in the above graph that your Pre Super number goes up and up and up…and then slowly tapers off past $0. This is by design. You want your Pre Super number to be at $0 when you access your Super.

 

    1. Step 2. Have enough in Super to cover all your living expenses forever! You will notice that the red line (Super) has a number of dips.

 

Australian Financial Independence Calculator_3

    1. The green part of the line indicates how much Super you currently have at the start. This will move slowly up (depending on how much Super you have) over the years as your super grows from compounding interest until you hit the pink arrow.

 

    1. The pink arrow indicates the time you have reached your Pre Super number. When you have reached your Pre Super number you theoretically should be able to live entirely off that number until preservation age (assuming all conditions stay the same). This means that 100% of your after tax income will be going into your Super account until you reach your Super Number.

 

    1. Your Super number is not actually your FI number. Your FI number will be reach in your Super account at the very start of your preservation year. But no sooner than that, because that is the most efficient and fastest way to reach FIRE. The calculator works out how many years it’s going to take you to reach your Pre Super number and then does some cool math and works out that you need a certain amount in your Super for it to grow into your FI number the year you can access it.

 

Pretty cool huh!

 

 

Video Of The Calculator In Action

 

Work In Progress 

 

The calculator has some flaws. It’s a work in progress. If you find a flaw please let me know and I’ll try to fix it.

Download Now

 

Enter your email address and not only will I send you the calculator. I will send you updated revisions of it ever time I fix a bug or the laws in Australia change.

 

Australian FIRE Calculator
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