Author archives: Alex Jamieson

AJ Radio – Episode 21 (Recorded 19th February 2019)

In this 21st Episode of AJ Radio we look at forecasts and what we can expect in 2019 for the markets, economy and everything financial. We also flashback to last years forecast episode on February 14th 2018 to see if our market predictions were correct.

How can I tell if my super fund provider is in financial difficulty?

I recently reviewed Media Super’s Annual Report after reading a media article that reported them purchasing a 429-year-old violin as an investment. I thought this was an odd investment for a regulated super fund. Was this a responsible decision given the opaque market of collectables and the high transactional costs associated with such investments? And, how did this get past APRA? It triggered me to investigate Media Super’s investment policy.

At AJ Financial Planning, we spend a lot of time digging around in annual reports so I decided Media Super’s might provide some insight in their investment strategy.  Despite being pretty heavy documents, annual reports traditionally follow a simple format for listed companies. However, I soon realised that Media Super’s report was particularly different to that of a normal listed company.

Whilst looking for the investment report, I noticed that all the financials for this company were crammed into page 78 of the 80-page document. The report also bundles members’ assets in with their financial positions, making evaluation of the fund’s business achievements and solvency even more difficult to accurately determine.

As I read the report, I could not help but wonder why this financial information wasn’t featured more prominent in the earlier pages of the document. After all, an annual report is supposed to provide peace of mind to members of the super fund that the business is solvent and operating in an appropriate manner.

So, where does Media Super’s business really sit? Here is an extract of the profit and loss statements from this report from their 2018 annual report.

As you can see, there is not a heap of detail, but I noticed that the fund, not the members, appears to have made a loss of $14,896,000 in 2018. I went back and looked at the 2017 report, and this recorded an even larger loss of $20,966,000. Looking at these numbers, I would have thought the directors would want to spend some time explaining these losses – if they have been perhaps misinterpreted in some way.

Media Super has reported however that they have $40,099,000 in net assets, in addition to the trustee operating account, reserves and operation risk reserve, so they are not about to run out of money tomorrow.

But it does raise a more serious question about the regulated format of the annual reports a super fund produces and the role ASIC and APRA have in evaluating if the reports provide members with enough necessary information about the solvency of the company and also the performance of the fund’s investment choices.

So next time you are considering switching or looking at your super fund provider, you might want to look beyond the investment returns of the fund and think about whether the provider is actually making a profit or loss. Equally, it might also be a concern if the fund appears to be too profitable, as this could be an early warning sign that they are gouging their members’ contributions.

Like all great investment ideas, it is important that you seek professional advice from a practising financial planner before making any changes to your superannuation fund and, of course, I recommend you contact us at AJ Financial Planning.

Bestsellers on retirement or investment planning: fiction or non-fiction?

A few years back, I attended an executive course run by University of Nebraska, Omaha. It took place just prior to the annual general meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, also in Omaha Nebraska. The focus of the course was to explore a range of fundamental valuation techniques and hear from key executives within Berkshire Hathaway.

Now for those who might not have heard of Warren Buffett, he is among the richest people in the world and Berkshire Hathaway is his company. He is also regarded as one of the greatest investors of all time.

During this event, I was privileged to hear Susie Buffett speak. Susie is Warren’s daughter and it was incredibly interesting to hear her personal perspective of growing up with her father.

In Susie’s presentation she commented on Buffettology (Simon & Schuster UK 2012), a book written by Mary Buffett – Warren’s former daughter-in-law – and David Clarke, a successful portfolio analyst, about Warren’s investing theories. Susie expressed some frustration about the book, suggesting it is fiction rather than non-fiction in genre.

From time to time in the many years I have been a financial planner, books on investing or retirement planning sometimes hit the bestseller lists. Not that often, though, as these topics are typically rather dry. Like any fad, we see a bunch of people try to follow the recommended steps and methods in these books, which profess to provide all the elusive answers to investing and retirement.

In reality, when people try to implement these plans, they often fall short of the promised outcomes described in the book. Then, financial planning professionals like me are left to pick up the pieces.

I think the problem is that people often forget there is a distinct difference between a financial journalist and a practising financial planner.

This can be an easy oversight. If someone in the media writes about a certain topic, it follows that they must be an expert. Right? But what they are actually an expert in? A financial journalist is trying to keep and grow his readership by providing interesting, insightful and entertaining content in the areas of finance and investing. This is vastly different to the skill set required to provide personal financial advice on a day-to-day basis.

While there are a number of publications by financial journalists that are wonderful for providing critical analysis and are incredibly insightful and thought-provoking, these writers have the maturity to understand what their skills are and, like any profession, they also know their limitations. A few, however, try to do both.

So why do many bestselling books on investing or retirement planning miss the mark? I feel the main reason is they are trying to make the content entertaining and, in some cases, oversimplify or too broadly generalise a concept to the point that it gives the reader some idea but, in most cases, not the full details.

Just think about a book you love that was made into a movie. It is just never as good, is it? The main reason for this is usually that the story needs to be condensed, while the level of visual entertainment needs to be heightened.

To be clear, I am not against people educating themselves on retirement and investment planning; however, like any topic if you are wanting to increase your knowledge the books you should be reading are generally not on the bestseller list; rather, they are academic-type textbooks that might be thought provoking, but typically not an easy read and rather heavy going. 

A handy benchmark is that if you can read more than one chapter at a time without having to consider the information before you move on, you are probably reading the wrong book.

Like all great ideas, aside from bestselling books on investing or retirement planning, it’s important to always seek professional guidance from a practising financial planner and, of course, I recommend AJ Financial Planning.

What next for Australian property?

There have recently been many articles in the media regarding changing property prices. Unlike shares, which can be accurately tracked day-to-day, property is historically an opaque market with less visibility on price movements. However, over the past few years computers with sophisticated programming have been able to track property markets more accurately and provide an increasing level of transparency. This has led to a range of property research reports providing up-to-date information on the markets and as a result, this information has flowed through to media publications reporting ‘booms’ and ‘busts’ that now rival the extremes previously associated with the share market.

Over the years I have often heard people say, ‘Oh, property always goes up’. So, when this recent downturn occurred it might have come as a surprise to some. In fact, these days we are reading or hearing about people who have purchased property, held onto it for five to 10 years, and seen little or no capital growth. And this isn’t just in one market; it’s in growth corridors, large high-rise developments, in different states and territories, metropolitan, regional … Clearly, the good old days of property being a ‘sure thing’ are now long behind us.

The graph below shows ‘Real Residential Property Prices for Australia’.

As you can see, we have experienced downturns in property for the following periods:

1. Q4 2003 – Q3 2005

2. Q4 2007 – Q1 2009

3. Q2 2010 – Q3 2012

4. Q2 2017 – ???

Interestingly, most of the pullbacks have lasted on average around two years. Historically, each pullback has ranged between –3% to –8%. And as household debt levels have slowly risen over time, so too have the more serious repercussions of the downturn for homeowners. It’s worth remembering that the most valuable lesson in leverage is that it can magnify the upside, but also the downside. Early drawdowns were around 3–4%, while more recent ones have been around 8% as household debt has spiralled upwards.

In recent times, we have been alerted to a reduction in borrowing capacities. This was first reported earlier this year by UBS analysts, as banks slowly changed their borrowing assessment methodology to consider individual spending patterns rather than applying a basic assumption of living expenditure. This has led to a potential reduction in borrowing capacities of around 20–40%, to around 80% of the mortgage market being serviced by the major banks.

So, what does all this mean? Well, a person on a gross income of $150K can now borrow around 34% less than before, and is effectively limited to a loan of around $538K.

Coupled with the impact of a slowing source of overseas buyers, we can see why recent moves in property prices have taken place.

How far will this drawdown go? Well, each state, city, region or suburb is unique in its own price movements; however, I would not be at all surprised if we find these overall figures continue to at least a 10% drawdown before this latest down-cycle is complete.

It’s important to realise that in property, as in all markets, a pullback doesn’t mean there won’t be opportunities. It is likely, however, that simply throwing money into the property market with a view to making a profit is going to be more challenging. We need to be a lot more selective in acquiring property and also the decisions we make around the timeframes for holding periods.

Like all great investment ideas, before you consider purchasing property, it is important that you seek out and obtain profession financial planning advice from a practising financial planner and, of course, I recommend AJ Financial Planning.

AJ Radio – Special Edition on Insights from CFA Annual Conference New York 2018

Our own Shaun Gilbert recently attended the the CFA Annual Conference in New York.  Hear his insights on how effective company acquisitions are, what can we expect from the trade war between US & China, how to spot a recession, and lots more.

Does your retirement super need to be ‘Zengosaidan’?

I often like to read ‘peculiar’ books that give me some insights into different ways of thinking. I recently came across a book review in The Monocle Minute. It inspired me to buy the book: A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukei Matsumoto (Penguin Books 2018). Now, I am not Buddhist, but I did find this little book an interesting read. In particular, it spoke about the concept of Zengosaidan, which is defined as ‘… a Zen expression meaning that we must put all our efforts into each day so we have no regrets, and that we must not grieve for the past or worry about the future … Don’t put it off till tomorrow …’

I found this idea thought-provoking – particularly when I consider my daily work, which is retirement planning. Because at some point, most people in Australia will stop working and retire. For a lot of them, they will need an asset base to fund this stage of their life. Best-case scenario, they will be 100 per cent reliant, or partially reliant, upon these funds.

However, despite this reality many people drift through life without placing much emphasis on, or at least paying attention to, the preparation required for saving for later life.

Now, I am not saying everybody needs to become an expert in retirement planning. I think the important distinction is we should become engaged with our impending retirement and ensure that when the day arrives, we have no regrets.

We often take a ‘no regrets’ approach to life experiences such as holidays, ticking off the bucket list or achieving other major lifetime goals. However, shouldn’t we be turning our attention towards what steps might need to be taken to ensure that our retirement savings are maximised during our career and particularly in the lead-up to retirement?

Today, the only discussion we often hear about retirement is having ‘no regrets’ about spending the kids’ inheritance and driving off into the distance.

It’s probably time this conversation matured.

I think this philosophy of ‘no regrets’, or Zengosaidan, needs to be front of mind as we approach retirement. For example, consider the following mental checklist:

  • Do you have enough to live on in retirement – for the whole of your retirement?
  • Have you maximised all possible options within your retirement strategy to ensure that you are well placed when you retire?
  • Looking at your retirement picture, what are the financial trade-offs if you make particular financial decisions today?

Believe it or not, virtual reality can make this process a lot easier. In a few years’ time I will be able to sit with a client, get them to put on a virtual reality headset, and then pull up a picture of what they might look like at retirement age. This might help them appreciate what they need to do to help the older-looking them in retirement. Potentially, we can create a real-live model of what retirement will look like if they do nothing, compared with what it will look like if they put into action the recommended steps to maximise their financial position opportunities.

Until this technology catches up with us, though, we will need to use our own imagination for the time being. I think, however, it is important that you keep in mind the following: When you stand at the threshold, about to take the leap from your working life into retirement, and reflect on what you have achieved, you want to be confident that you have optimised your financial situation, so the next chapter of your life can be everything you wished for and more.

Like all great ideas, it’s important that when you think about retirement planning, you don’t go it alone and seek advice from a practising and suitably qualified financial planner and, of course, I recommend AJ Financial Planning.

Which would you prefer: a 7% or 12% return on your super?

It seems like a simple enough question. If you had a balance investment option in your super, would you choose a 7% or 12% return? Yet, before you decide it’s a no-brainer, it’s worth probing a little deeper into what could cause this 5% variance, as the reporting returns are not standardised.

Let me explain.

Using the mortgage industry as an example, when you consider look at taking out a home loan, the lender will normally quote two interest rates. The first is the principal interest rate, which might be around 4.86%. However, right next to it will be the ‘principal and interest comparison rate’, which might be around 5.25%.

You might reasonably ask, what do home loan interest rates have in common with superannuation?

Well, home loan providers have historically been really great at disguising the real cost of a mortgage. Even today, they might advertise a very cheap interest rate, but then they load up the product with fees throughout the life the loan, or top and tail it with some expensive loan application or exit fees. A comparison rate was introduced as a way for loan applicants to quickly determine the total costs of a loan, by factoring in most of the fees and charges incurred during the life of the loan. Essentially, it allows lenders to easily make an informed, like-for-like comparison of the true costs of this financial product.

The issue with superannuation is there is no standardised reporting or common ground. Personally, I believe that for the ‘Mysuper’ option, standardised reporting is well overdue. The government introduced these low-cost, default investment products were introduced into the superannuation industry to enable consumers to easily select which investment option might be best for them, given a range of variables.

So, getting back to the 7% or 12% question; it is important that you understand the drivers for such discrepancies. It’s probably time that government decided to introduce changes to avoid the barely disguised tricks of superannuation funds, such as calling a product a ‘balance fund’, but investing the assets at a growth asset allocation (refer to our recent article, Could Your Hostplus Index Balanced Fund be a disappointment?). They might also provide a great return, but then hike up the administrative fee structure and other costs that might not be reflected in the net return reported.

So, similar to the mortgage industry, super funds get up to a number of shenanigans. For financial professionals and expert investors, these are often easily spotted, but to the majority of average, day-to-day investors, it is a bit of a minefield.

I feel that the idea of a comparison rate return is a sensible approach, as if super funds are over-inflating an investment option with risky assets, they would be required to standardise the returns. ASIC and/or APRA could set strict formulas between growth-based assets and defensive assets.

In addition, all funds would be required to adjust their reported return as if the asset allocation was a true balanced investment, which would be 50/50 between growth-based asset to defensive assets. This would mean that investors would have a fairer way to assess the true merits of a super fund, and also be able to have a sensible discussion on their overall net return.

Until this occurs, however, investors will continue to be bamboozled by the returns offered by super funds.

Before selecting an investment option or super fund, it’s important that you seek suitable advice from a qualified, practising financial planner and, of course, I recommend AJ Financial Planning. Contact us today.

Could your Hostplus Index Balanced Fund be a disappointment?

Around $2.5 billion has reportedly flowed into the industry super fund Hostplus in recent times. This influx of funds has largely been on the back of media commentators promoting Hostplus, in particular its Hostplus Index Balanced Fund.

My understanding is that the main thrust for this investment boost was on the back of lower fees and the merits of index investing.

We recently had a client who, after reading media commentary, wanted to move their funds from another industry super fund into the Hostplus Index Balanced Fund. Their existing fund’s fees were 0.19%, while the Hostplus Index Balanced Fund was reportedly charging a low-cost fee of 0.07%. But was switching funds the right decision?

Does the argument start and finish with fees and does index investing mean a better result? To get an overall picture, let’s compare the performance of the Hostplus Balanced Fund compared to the Hostplus Index Balanced Fund. As both are reportedly ‘balanced’ funds (refer to our article ‘Industry funds headed for an asset allocation disaster’ https://www.ajfp.com.au/2017/07/17/are-industry-super-funds-headed-for-an-asset-allocation-disaster/), if these products are true to label, then it should be a fair comparison.

At the time of writing this article, the Hostplus website reported the following performance returns, net of all investment and administration costs.

It is important to note that historical performance is no guarantee of future performance. However, over time it might given an indication of the level of competence of the fund’s managers and the soundness of their investment strategy. Unfortunately, 10-year figures were not available for the Indexed Balanced Fund and are therefore not included. But I believe seven years is a reasonable timeline to afford some sensible analysis.

If low fees are the only matrix for success, then why is this not reflected in the end result – net performance over the longer term for the investor?

In fact, over the shorter, three-year period the performance variance between the two funds was 2.71% p.a. So while investors saved 0.99% in fees, they potentially gave away 2.71% in returns. Assuming a super balance starting point of $100,000, if this variance continued at its present pace, over an investor’s working life it could result in a total loss of return of around $171,839.

In short, when considering investing in a superannuation fund, you need to factor in all the elements. At a minimum, these include the ongoing costs of the fund, and the net return on a like-for-like basis. There are plenty of low-cost super funds around, but very few actually produce a decent return. And while performance is difficult to gauge, competence and quality of management can sometimes be illustrated over the longer term.

Like all sound investment decisions, it is important to seek professional guidance from a practising financial planner. Contact AJ Financial Planning today for a chat.

AJ Radio – Episode 20 (Recorded 22nd August 2018)

In this 20th Episode of AJ Radio we challenge some paradigms of investing and retirement. As the financial world is no always logical, we raise some interesting questions when thinking of the amount of funding for your retirement and if higher returns for investments are better.