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Weekend reading: Where are all the billionaires?

Weekend reading: Where are all the billionaires? post image

What caught my eye this week.

How many more billionaires would there be if the millionaires of yesteryear had embraced passive investing1 and saved themselves a bundle?

That’s the provocative opener in this short video from Robin Powell, the man behind The Evidence-based Investor blog.

Robin’s subject – Victor Haghani of fund manager Elm Partners – makes plenty of sensible points about keeping costs low and investment aims simple. The video is a nice five-minute introduction to the case for passive investing.

However the class warrior in me is rather glad that the super-rich continue to pour billions into expensive hedge funds.

If we’re to ease wealth inequality, we certainly don’t want the 1% to care as much as us about getting their fees under 1%!

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  1. Of course they couldn’t, over the time period discussed in the video featured here. Which isn’t just pedantry – it’s very possible that making investing easier and cheaper has reduced the expected returns for equities and other assets going forward. []
A dice where one side is a skull

Consumer champions like ThisIsMoney and Money Box regularly report on people who’ve come unstuck with an investment scam, pseudo-bond, or other moneymaking scheme.

These media outlets do a good job highlighting dodgy financial advice – and outright scammers and crooks.

But too often it appears that neither the punter nor the journalist is aware of the investing risks that were being taking by these hapless members of the public, even when a particular scheme was legal.

Typically the victim – Phil, a 52-year old school teacher, Camilla, a 33-year old care worker, or Basey, a 19-year old student – doesn’t seem to have thought very hard about where they were putting their money.

They wanted easy gains, and they brushed aside any thoughts of investing risk.

I’m not saying there aren’t criminals after our money. Even the legitimate financial services industry has its sharks.

But we have to take responsibility, too.

As I look at the doleful portraits in a newspaper story about an investment scheme gone wrong – perhaps a ripped-off stay-at-home mum miserably holding a tomcat, and being hugged by a supportive but excessively bearded spouse – I have some sympathy.

But often only some.

Many people seem to spend more time deciding how to cast their vote for The Voice than they do thinking about investing their money.

And their aspirations can be crazy:

  • “Sure, buying farmland for £10,000 that in two years will be worth £100,000 when it gains planning permission seems like exactly the sort of brilliant investment opportunity I deserve – and that should just fall into my lap via a cold phone call!”
  • “I don’t know much about platinum mining in South Africa, but I like the sound of 15% a month!”
  • “I work hard! Why should I accept 1% a year in a rip-off cash savings account when I can get this Triple Enhanced Gilt-Reinforced Trusted Society Bond paying 10% with just some technical small print about my capital being at risk?”
  • “Better than Bitcoin? Make mine a double!”

Such foolishness makes it harder for the rest of us.

Perhaps even worse is their tendency to go all-in with their life savings.

Never go all in. Assume every investment can fail you.

I wouldn’t even put all my wealth into the behemoth of trust that is Vanguard.

Yet some of these people will apparently sign everything over to a stranger who knocks on their door on a Wednesday night.

One investing risk or another

I’m probably being mean. It’s often pointed out that people who fall victim to scams often do so because they’re otherwise sensible who didn’t realize they’d wandered into enemy territory. In other areas of their life they’re competent, and that breeds a complacency.

There but for the grace of the regulator go I, and all that.

Yes, there are people with a lifelong history of chasing unicorns and rainbows to a steadily impoverishing affect. I’ve met a few.

But other people were just trusting or naive at exactly the wrong moment. The world would be a sorrier place if it was only populated by grizzled financial survivalists like us (I assume every investment I make can fail) who are always looking over our shoulders.

Also, frauds are one thing, but the investing risks that catch people unawares are subtler. Often the promoter transforms a visible risk into a hidden risk, and the mark is none the wiser.

You remember my slightly tongue-in-cheek first law of investing?

“Investing risk cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be transformed from one form of risk into another.”1

And so Phil, Camilla, or Basey sees one risk, but ignores another:

  • Scared of the risk of inflation, Phil invests in a higher-yielding offshore bond, not realizing it’s held in a different territory or that he can’t get his money out with less than 12 months notice.
  • After reading about expensive markets, Camilla resolves to start investing in supposedly safer stocks like utilities for the steady dividend, but is oblivious to newspaper reports about tougher government regulation and politicians threatening re-nationalization.
  • Terrified that High Street banks might go bust, Basey opens a peer-to-peer account and looks forward to a higher returns, but is surprised when struck by bad debts.

The fact is all investments are risky and can lose you money.

If you can’t identify the risk with an investment in advance, you shouldn’t go near it.

Types of investing risks

There really are innumerable ways for things to go wrong, so please see my bluffer’s guide to the main risks.

Then, next time you consider making an investment, think about which of these risks you’re taking, whether you’re comfortable with it – and whether there’s the potential for sufficient rewards to compensate.

Remember too that if something has an 95% chance of success, it wasn’t necessarily a scam if it fails. You could have just been in the unlucky 5% of dice rollers.

Risky business

The presence of risk does not mean an investment is a bad one. All investments have at least some risk.

What matters is whether price is right for the risk you’re taking, whether you can afford to take that risk, and whether you understand what you’re getting into.

As the great investor Charlie Munger says:

“Tell me where I’m going to die, so I won’t go there.”

Let’s be careful out there.

  1. I’m convinced I was first to coin this as a play on the law of thermodynamics, incidentally. I have recently seen it credited to someone else on the web who first used it long after me. Anyway, I am not ripping them off and I assume them not me. Great minds and all that! 🙂 []
Weekend reading: Higher bond yields trump lower bond prices, eventually post image

What caught my eye this week.

I answer comments on old posts every day on Monevator. A great many ask whether investors should still own bonds, given rates are “sure” to rise – and hence bond prices fall.

In the UK it’s still mostly an academic question. But US yields have been going up fairly swiftly. The Federal Reserve has been raising interest rates, and there are more signs of higher inflation in the US, too. Bond prices have fallen as a result.

My reply is usually some mix of the following:

  • Your bonds are there to cushion big share price falls, not to provide a huge return in themselves.
  • People have been predicting a bond bear market since 2009 (and in truth before that).
  • But inflation (and hence lower real returns) is what really kills you as a long-term bond investor.
  • A moderate correction that sent bond prices lower and yields higher would be good for long-term investors.

That last point is the hardest for people to accept. We’re so conditioned to obsess over the level of the stock market, for example, it’s easy to miss the importance of reinvesting and compounding returns. The same is true with bonds.

This week Sellwood Consulting wrote a very clear post explaining why bond investors shouldn’t fear rising rates. It is about US bonds, but the same logic holds true in the UK.

If you own bonds and yields rise, the value of your bond holdings will indeed fall. But thereafter you can look forward to a higher yield, and over time reinvesting this in now cheaper bonds can be more valuable.

Don’t hold too much in bonds, though. Not because they are super-risky – but because they’re not!

If you’re a long-term investor, being overly cautious can see you miss out on much higher returns. Michael Batnick explains why in his Irrelevant Investor blog this week.

Happy reading!

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Painting: Two friends compare their investments.

Working out the best online broker or platform1 to use in your investing can be frustrating.

Just when you have got your head around shares versus funds, corporate bonds versus James Bond, and you’re finally ready to start investing, you discover dozens of different brokers to choose from.

All have their own similar-but-different fee structures.

We have long kept track of the different broker platforms and what they charge via our fee comparison table.

But comparing the charges levied by say Hargreaves Lansdown with those of Interactive Investor can be fiddly work.

Details matter. Some brokers charge lower fees for trading but sting you with high withdrawals fees. Others offer cheap trading, but make additional annual charges for each different kind of account you open with them – once for an ISA and again for a SIPP. There may be entry and exit fees, too.

You also need to compare fixed annual platform fees – for instance £15 a quarter – with the alternative method of levying a percentage fee – say 0.25% year – on your investment pot. Which is more cost effective for you?

What’s more, the winner of this equation will probably change as your nest egg grows! You’ll need to run the numbers every few years to keep your costs as low as possible.

Get tooled up to compare investing platforms

If you find all this fun then you’re in the right place. We’re investing nutters around here.

But most people frankly do not.

Out in the wider world, people use interactive tools to compare things like insurance products and energy bills.

Well, that is now possible with investing platforms, too.

We’re hosting an interactive comparison tool created by our partners at Broker Compare. We hope it will help casual investors get their money onto a suitable investment platform with a lot less hassle.

In fact anyone who wants to hone in fast on the best potential brokers will find it a quick way to generate a shortlist of candidates.

True, if you want to work out precisely what you’ll pay – in your specific situation – you’ll always need to do the sums for yourself.

There are just so many quirks out there, and any tool needs to make a few assumptions. Only you know exactly how you plan to invest and why.

But for many people, getting a good idea of the best platform to use quickly is the most important thing.

They’d rather know approximately what they’re going to be charged than laboriously figure out the exact costs from a dozen or more competitors.

Compare the brokers and save hundreds of pounds

Monevator regulars love to debate the minutia of different platforms with all the passionate enthusiasm of trainspotters arguing about the best non-standard railway gauges found in the wilder mountainous regions of Europe.

And long may that continue. (You’re among friends here.)

But the average person has little idea of their broker’s fees – or how what they’re paying compares to the competition.

For these people, five minutes with a comparison tool could be a quick way to save hundreds or thousands of pounds.

So what are you waiting for?

Note that just as with the price comparison websites we all use to compare energy bills or mortgages, Monevator may receive a payment from a broker that you visit or sign-up with via the table or tool. This does not affect the fees you pay – it’s made by the company to us for introducing you to their business.

Happy hunting – and let’s save some money!

  1. We tend to use the words ‘broker’ and ‘platform’ interchangeably. A broker is a stock broker – a person or company who trades and holds investments on your behalf. The platform is their website that lets you see and adjust your investments. []