≡ Menu

Weekend reading: DIY disaster capitalists

Weekend reading logo

What caught my eye this week.

When I began investing in the early 2000s, the September 11th attacks still loomed large in investors’ minds.

Of course, that shadow extended everywhere then. The West was at war in Afghanistan and soon Iraq. Terrorist plots exploded or were foiled with numbing regularity. It all hogged the news like Covid or Brexit.

In investing circles there was seemingly an extra moral question, too.

Was it right to try to profit from the share price moves that resulted from this chaos?

I spoke to some investors who had lost friends in the attack on New York.

Others had been able to profit from the gyrations – although the slow, grinding bear market of those years hardly gave one FOMO.

Welcome to the Terrordome

When equities moved in response to this advance in the conflicts or that hideous attack on civilians, vocal investors were split.

One camp believed life – and investing – went on.

We live in a capitalist economy, and markets are vital to its functioning. Giving up on making a profit and improving our lot was what the terrorists wanted. If you didn’t scoop up a bargain due to moral squeamishness, someone else would.

The other camp basically reacted as many of us do when faced with sudden, horrible news: really, is that what you are thinking about right now?

For the little my pennies mattered to the world, I was in the first camp.

I didn’t wish for more ghastly opportunities that scared investors witless. But I stood ready to act if they did.

After all, who knows or cares now who bought or sold shares during the Cuban missile crisis or on the eve of World War 2?

This too shall pass.

I also find it hard to believe that the world would be a better place if markets went haywire and prices crashed towards zero every time something awful happens. Quite the opposite.

And it’s not like I was being torn away from important official business as these dramas unfolded. Making my little trades to support efficient markets maybe even felt like a small contribution from the Home Front.

Convenient thinking, no doubt.

Many did – and do – disagree.

Public Enemy No. 1

The Covid pandemic has been interesting to watch through this lens.

Firstly, you can definitely believe that terrorists want to stop life going on as normal – and that we all need to resist this where we can.

The virus, however, ‘wants’ life to go on as normal, so it can replicate and spread. This time it really was in our interests to disrupt our everyday life.

Then there’s the lockdown trading boom that has taken off with nary a word of ethical debate.

Sure, some wonder what manipulated meme stocks mean for markets, or whether crypto speculators will end up millionaires or bankrupt.

But we saw little if any push back urging today’s bedroom traders to spend more time thinking about virus victims in the ICU.

Maybe the world has gotten tougher, or greedier?

Or maybe we understand that we’ve all had to find our distractions where we could since March 2020.

Either way the explosion in wealth that has occurred right alongside the miserable pandemic has been much reported on – but little reflected over.

Incidentally, I’m sure some of you passive purists out there are now shaking your heads – if not your fists – and grumbling over talk of such greedy opportunism, while you sit sedately in your tracker funds.

Fair enough, but remember the reason you have seen those funds bounce back from the Covid crisis lows is because some active investors looked through the noise and bought back expecting better times ahead.

Indexing is a great strategy – one driven by the decisions of active investors.

911 is a joke

I thought about all this as I found myself enjoying – literally – a recap of the early days of the Covid crash in The Atlantic.

An extract from Adam Tooze’s new history of the Covid era, Shutdown, it’s a reminder of how crazy things got in the early days of March 2020:

The trillion‑dollar Treasury market, which is the foundation of all other financial trades, was lurching up and down in stomach‑churning spasms.

On the terminal screens, prices danced erratically. Or, even worse, there were no prices at all. In the one market where you could always be sure to find a buyer, there were suddenly none.

On March 13, JP Morgan reported that rather than a normal market depth of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. Treasuries, it was possible to trade no more than $12 million without noticeably moving the price.

That was less than one‑tenth of normal market liquidity.

This was a state of financial panic, which, if it had been allowed to develop, would have been more destabilizing even than the failure of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

This all happened little over a year ago, yet I’d almost forgotten how mad things were for a few weeks back then.

I do remember huge chunks of value falling off my portfolio early on, like sheets of ice shearing off a melting iceberg.

But in the rosy afterglow of Central Bank intervention and the bull market that followed, my memory of the initial drama has faded.

Don’t believe the hype

The truth is I had a good pandemic, trading-wise. I sold down into the falls and mostly bought back before the climb.

By 22 March I was pretty sure the sell-off had become a headless panic and tweeted as much:

Yet re-reading that is suitably humbling. I got some things right but many things very wrong.

Remember when just two weeks of self-isolation seemed worth fussing over? I recall a bunch of Hollywood stars singing that we could make it through – and that was about three days in.

My prediction of the death count, even if I was only thinking about the UK, was also woefully short.

In some ways, however, that’s the point.

When investors lose their bearings you can afford to get a lot wrong and yet for it still to be right to invest.

That’s because at such times your ‘margin of safety’ – typically squeezed dry by today’s mostly efficient markets – becomes a chasm. If you’re brave and you have the spare capital, you can bridge it with some confidence.

Or at least you always have been able to in the West, so far.

Maybe someday you won’t, and such a Tweet will look like hilarious hubris.

(But by then you may well have bigger worries on your mind, if so.)

Brothers gonna work it out

Thinking about how mis-priced securities were in early 2020 makes me wonder if I should simply sit in trackers until such times roll around again.

Remember, I’m the naughty active investor here at Monevator HQ. And a lot of the time my activity feels like running on a hamster wheel for just a few basis points of out-performance.

Maybe I should just wait for those rare moments when the markets go back to the 1950s? When Warren Buffett’s golden apples lie all around on the floor, ready to be scooped up?

Well perhaps, but again that’s probably hindsight speaking.

What’s more, the reason I have hitherto had the confidence to buy stuff that others are throwing overboard in bear markets is because of the months and years of trying to understand where the value was beforehand.

Fight the power

I do feel sheepish about admitting I now look back to March 2020 with a sort of grim fondness.

Only from an investing perspective, obviously. But I appreciate it’s still not a great look.

I saw the same nostalgia in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Indeed people today watch The Big Short not to be horrified but to laugh and toss popcorn into their mouths and remember how insane things were.

One thing is certain, as a potted history of the 1792 crash at Investor Amnesia this week showed, financial panics are old as markets.

So we’ll all be tested once more – on whatever axis of character you believe is most important – before too long.

For now though, have a great weekend!

[continue reading…]

{ 16 comments }

Which portfolio tracking tool to use

New Monevator readers often ask what’s the best way to track and manage their portfolios.

Old hands may rock a custom spreadsheet. One that’s more sophisticated than the software aboard an Apollo spacecraft.

However I’d happily recommend Morningstar’s Portfolio Manager. It’s a free online portfolio tracking tool that does the important things well.

This portfolio tracker automates returns for a wide range of investments. You can easily dial-up funds and ETFs, shares, and investment trusts from its enormous database.

All you have to do is input your trades.

With Portfolio Manager you can track your performance in XIRR money-weighted or unitisation time-weighted mode.

You can also assess your progress against an index, and ever-popular time-frames, such as the last ten years, year-to-date – or even yesterday.

The tool comes courtesy of Morningstar – the financial data powerhouse. It’s number-crunching is widely white-labelled1, including by a number of UK platforms.

Portfolio tracking features

Let’s run through the main features of Portfolio Manager. (You can see Monevator’s Slow & Steady portfolio in the pics below).

Snapshot

Portfolio management tool: snapshot screen

Behold the at-a-glance overview screen! Here you’ll find your investments’ price, market value, number of shares, and asset allocation percentage.

This snapshot lets you maintain a unified view of your investments. Especially handy if they’re diversified across multiple brokers.

Now check out the ‘Add a Transaction to This Portfolio’ zone towards the bottom. Woah!

This is where you fill in your latest trades from your contract notes.

The portfolio tracking tool then automatically updates your portfolio in line with your market machinations.

Performance

Portfolio management tool: performance screen

This is my favourite screen. (Okay, I don’t get out much, pandemic or no.)

With the Performance tab, you can watch your portfolio race your benchmark on the graph at the top.

Here we see the bond-heavy Slow & Steady portfolio (green line) is lagging the FTSE All-Share (blue line) this year.

The same Tron Light Cycle battle plays out in numbers in the Trailing Returns section.

Total Return is your portfolio’s time-weighted, unitised annual performance. The Investor likes this metric. (So does the fund industry.)

Personal Return is your portfolio’s money-weighted, annualised performance. It’s also known as the Geometric Return or Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR). This is what I care about.

The Holding section shows the time-weighted return contribution of the individual investments you currently own. It’s fascinating to see how strategic asset allocation decisions have played out over the years.

Some expectations are confirmed, such as equities beating bonds.

Other predictions have been confounded. Like, for instance, prior calls for a decade of poor returns for US equities. (The US market was the driving force behind the stellar results of the Vanguard FTSE Developed World and Global Small Cap funds).

Note, Morningstar’s returns are nominal. Subtract average inflation to get your real2 returns.

Gain/Loss

Portfolio management tool: gain and loss screen

The Gain/Loss tab shows you the contribution made by every investment you’ve ever held. It’s quite the trip down memory lane. Especially if your past is strewn with ten-baggers and questionable buys you regret like kipper ties.

Fundamental

Portfolio management tool: fundamentals screen

Sometimes I check Morningstar’s Price to Earnings Forward guidance (P/E Forward) to see which investments look good value. Lower numbers are better, in theory. But I don’t really trust this metric.

UK equities looks relatively cheap. If nothing else, that makes me feel less queasy about rebalancing into the FTSE All-Share.

Transactions

Portfolio management tool: transactions screen

You can input your trades, review every change back to the year dot, record dividends, split shares, and set up regular purchases.

Tracking device

I’ve skipped past functionality I don’t use, such as email alerts. I’ve also ignored the extended play you unlock with a Morningstar subscription.

The freemium model gives you five portfolios gratis. That’s great if you’re managing multiple allocations on behalf of family members, or you’re juggling different investing objectives.

(You could use a slot to peer into a parallel universe where you didn’t sell that golden ticket. Although that way madness lies.)

Boring!

Staring at the screenshots, scornful of the shabby interface?

Congratulations, you’ve spotted one of Portfolio Manager’s best features.

This tool is not mobile-optimised. Indeed Morningstar hasn’t made a single UX improvement in over a decade.

It’s not compelling, it’s not addictive, and I don’t want to sneak a peek every ten minutes…

…and such old school clunkiness is an advantage when Silicon Valley is using every psychological trick in the book to bend my attention towards its fruit machines.

Portfolio Manager harks back to a more utilitarian Internet age. An era when tools did one thing well enough, and not every app let you order pizza and ethereum.

Anyway, I’ve used Portfolio Manager for well over ten years. I’ve never regretted it. My manual spreadsheet now gathers dust.

Take it steady,

The Accumulator

  1. That is sold to and rebranded by third-parties. []
  2. Inflation-adjusted. []
{ 32 comments }

How to save money on travel

Image of campervan to illustrate the idea of cheap travel saving money

This piece on how to save money on travel is by The Treasurer from Team Monevator. Check back every Monday for more fresh perspectives on personal finance and investing from the Team.

Since joining the corporate world, I’ve spent less than I’ve earned. It comes naturally to me, as does a desire to save 30-50% of my net income each month.

Even when I do spend money, I aim to get as much value as I can. I avoid impulse spending. I don’t buy the latest gadgets or the most expensive phone.

Being an avid reader of Monevator, I know I’m not alone in this philosophy!

Yet I wouldn’t consider myself a tightwad. There’s a balance to be had between becoming financially independent and enjoying your prime years.

For this reason, I mainly focus my frivolous spending on one thing – solo travel.

At this point I should acknowledge that solo travel isn’t for everyone. That’s why I’m not going to suggest it ‘broadens the mind’, or helps you ‘find yourself’. Such comments can be rather tiresome.

Yet for me, the more I travel, the more I convince myself that it’s one of the best ways for me to spend my money. In terms of the cost to enjoyment ratio, nothing comes close.

Cheap accommodation…

As you can probably guess, my idea of travel isn’t five-star hotels or first class plane tickets. I’m more of a budget airline, bargain hostel type.

Happily, while I’d probably enjoy a few nights in a luxury resort, one of the big draws of travel for me is meeting people and sharing experiences. So I don’t see opting for a hostel over a hotel as much of a compromise.

Luckily, hostels are generally cheap. I’ve stayed in tonnes of them across six continents, with prices ranging from £5 to £25 per night, depending on the country. To book I typically use Hostelworld, but I often check with a hostel directly to see if they can give a discount.

If a shared room isn’t for you, many hostels offer cheap private rooms, too.

When I say I stay in hostels, many people flinch at the thought. Yet stay in a hostel with a good rating (at least eight out of ten on Hostelworld or TripAdvisor) and I’m confident any negative preconceptions will vanish.

That said, I won’t criticise anyone who opts for a cheap hotel or AirBnb instead.

…and bargain flights

As for getting there, I use scraper services such as Skyscanner. I play around with the ‘whole month’ option to maximise the chances of a deal.

If I’m unsure about where to travel to – or if I’m in a bargain-hunting mood – I’ll often select the destination as ‘everywhere.’ This shows the cheapest places to fly to in any given month. It’s led me to a £20 weekend return to Timișoara, Romania, and a £30 trip to Bydgoszcz, Poland. (A hidden gem!)

If I’m planning a long trip, I’ll look into open-jaw flights. This involves flying into one airport and out of another.

Open-jaw flights often don’t cost any more than a typical return ticket. And they can save the need for backtracking, which can save both time and money.

Google Flights is good for playing around with open-jaw options. Use its ‘multi-city’ drop down box.

More tips on how to save money on travel

With the biggies out of the way, here are eight more personal finance travel tips to help you save some dollars, dinar, or dong when you next go abroad.

Get yourself a top travel card

If you use your normal debit or credit card while abroad, you’re likely paying for the privilege. Many cards charge a non-sterling transaction fee every time you use your card – typically 3% – as well as charging for overseas cash withdrawals.

To avoid these hefty fees, bag yourself a specialist card with no extra charges when you use it abroad.

If you’re happy to open a new bank account, Starling Bank doesn’t have any fees for spending on your card abroad. It also offers fee-free overseas cash withdrawals. You can make six withdrawals or withdraw up to £300 each day. That should be sufficient for most of us.

Alternatively, Virgin Money’s new ‘M’ account offers fee-free overseas usage, with no spending or overseas cash withdrawal fees. As an incentive, it’ll give you a £150 Virgin experience day voucher if you switch to the account.

If instead of opening a bank account you’d prefer a credit card, then Halifax Clarity (19.9% rep APR) offers fee-free spending and withdrawals overseas. Plus if you use the card within 90 days, Halifax will pay you a cool £20. You will have to pay daily interest on cash withdrawals though, so it’s best to spend on the card if you can.

Barclaycard’s Rewards Visa (22.9% rep APR) also offers fee-free spending and cash withdrawals. Plus it pays 0.25% cashback on most spending.

If you do opt for a credit card, always, always set-up a direct debit to repay your balance in full. That way you avoid paying interest on purchases. If you don’t, you’ll wipe out any savings you make from using them abroad.

Bag a free GHIC for European trips

You can get a Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) provided you live in the UK. Holding one entitles you to the same medical treatment in public hospitals as a normal citizen living in the EU. If you fall ill while on a European trip, having a GHIC in your pocket could be a literal life-saver. 

Applying for a GHIC is free. If you haven’t already got one, you can apply on the NHS website.

The GHIC is a replacement for the old EHIC (European Health Insurance Card), introduced as a result of Brexit. If you already have a EHIC then you can continue to use it until it expires.

Having a GHIC does not necessarily mean you’ll receive free medical treatment abroad. Some EU countries require citizens to pay for medical treatment. Having a GHIC only entitles you to hospital access at the same rate as locals.

That’s why the GHIC shouldn’t be used as an alternative to travel insurance. Which leads me to the next tip!

Get good travel insurance

Travel insurance is often seen as a grudge purchase – a necessarily evil. But heading overseas without travel insurance is like driving without a seat belt.

Anyone can have an accident while abroad. Say you get run over in a country with extortionate prices for medical treatment, such as the USA. If you don’t have travel insurance, you can forget about retiring early. You could instead face financial ruin.

The good news is that travel insurance can be relatively cheap, especially if you travel often and opt for a multi-trip policy. There’s no set policy that’s best for all. Use a price comparison site to compare the options.

Treat yourself to a free airport lounge pass

While not for everyone, the American Express Gold credit card gives two free airport lounge passes to cardholders. You can use these at more than 1,300 lounges across the world.

While not as luxurious as special airline lounges, they do provide a pleasant place to sit as you wait for your flight. You’re often treated to free food and drink, too.

The card also gives ‘Preferred Rewards Points’ as and when you spend on the card. This includes a 20,000 bonus if you spend £3,000 in your first three months. The card has a £140 annual fee, but the first year is fee-free. You don’t have to pay anything if you cancel before the anniversary of the first year.

As with any rewards credit card, set up a direct debit to pay off your balance in full each month. That way you can avoid having to pay extortionate interest. (56.6% rep APR variable).

I’ve used this deal myself and found it straightforward. For anyone flying out of London, the Luton lounge is a lot nicer than its Stansted cousin. You can visit Lounge Review to compare lounges.

Always pay in the local currency

When overseas, you’ll often be offered the chance to pay in pounds instead of the local currency. While this may seem like a kind offer, it is really a wheeze known as ‘dynamic currency conversion.’ It means the overseas retailer does the conversion for you, often at a terrible rate.

As long as you have a specialist debit or credit card, you’ll be far better off using that to pay in the local currency instead.

If you need cash, use a comparison tool

I’m a fan of going cash-free wherever possible. If I need cash – which can be near-unavoidable in some countries – I’ll use my Starling card to withdraw foreign currency while overseas. The biggest challenge is finding an overseas ATM that doesn’t charge.

Many people do prefer to have a wad of foreign notes in their wallet before heading away. If that’s you, don’t make the mistake of defaulting to your local Post Office. Instead use the services of a travel money comparison tool that will list the most competitive rates.

MoneySavingExpert’s TravelMoneyMax is the best one I’ve come across.

Plan your car hire

If you need to hire a car while abroad then it’s cheaper to book early, rather than paying at the airport desk.

It’s also worthwhile to decline any top-up insurance you’re offered when you collect your car. Instead sort this insurance out yourself through a separate policy to save money. MoneyMaxim is a popular service for this.

Consider a frequent flyer scheme

I’ve done the maths and joining a frequent flyer scheme isn’t worth it for me. I hunt down budget airlines and jump on promotional airfares as and when they arise, regardless of airline.

However if you often fly a particular route or you stick to one airline for whatever reason, do take the time to look into some frequent flyer schemes to see if you can rack up some air miles.

Research is the way to save money on travel

While I hope the above travel tips will be useful to the health of your wallet or purse when you’re overseas, the number one rule of planning the trip is to research before jetting off.

For instance, knowing the best way to get from the airport to your accommodation can be a real time and money saver.

I usually ask myself the following questions:

  • Does Uber (or another taxi app) work in the country I’m flying to?
  • Does Uber work from the airport? Or do I have to walk out of the airport onto a public road?
  • Is the public bus or metro from the airport easy to use?
  • Does local transport accept card payments?
  • Are there any common scams to be aware of?

While you may think these questions are simplistic, I once had a friend visit me in London who decided to jump in a black cab from Gatwick Airport to central London. I heard similar stories of a couple getting a £100 taxi from Reykjavik airport to downtown. (Iceland can be notoriously expensive).

Other cost-cutting tips to bear in mind include heading away during off-peak times, traveling to places that don’t require a costly visa, and planning your accommodation in advance to avoid having to fork out for the last empty hotel room in the city.

If you’ve any tips I’ve missed or you’ve employed any of the above with success, then I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

You can see all The Treasurer’s articles in their dedicated archive.

{ 13 comments }

Weekend reading: Bonfire of the magic money trees

Weekend reading logo

What caught my eye this week.

A bad week for those who long for sunlit uplands swathed in magic money trees.

National insurance rates up. Dividend tax rates up. The triple-lock on pensions suspended.

It’s good that the government has at least made a stab at fixing the social care crisis, with a new cap on lifetime costs.

But otherwise the best that can be said about this week’s machinations is that nearly everyone has something to moan about.

Time to pay

Credulous people who voted to leave the EU on the promise of a £350m a week ‘dividend’ for the NHS – £17bn a year – might wonder why their incomes are now being docked in part to fund the health service.

Those who saw in Tory Brexiteers a plan for Singapore-on-the-Thames might question why taxes on wealth creators are rising and UK graduates will soon face a marginal tax rate of effectively 50% [search result].

Meanwhile those on the left – for whom even the unprecedented hundreds of billions of public money spent on Covid relief measures wasn’t enough – have been reminded that one way or another the bill always come due.

And those who argue – with some justification – that today’s low rates mean it’d be better for the government to keep borrowing rather than hiking taxes are re-learning that politics doesn’t work that way.

All this while the economy stops and starts, supply chains snag, and the US return to work stalls.

A rebuke to those who thought we could just put daily life into suspended hibernation via repeated lockdowns without deep economic consequences.

Tax take

None of this is to argue that lockdowns, the pausing of the triple-lock, extra money for the NHS, or even Brexit was necessarily a bad thing.

Well not today, anyway.

I’m just highlighting that this week’s reality check ought to be felt more widely than simply in one’s (digital) wallet.

It’s a theme picked up by Merryn Somerset-Webb in the FT [search result]:

You might be beginning to feel the sands shifting slightly beneath your feet.

Nothing is quite what it used to be — or supposed to be.

Indeed. When even the cosseted pensioner class starts complaining, the times are surely a-changing.

For us as investors of course, it’s (always) time to take evasive action.

This latest mishmash of tax measures makes things yet more complicated.

But nobody is more interested than you are in getting yourself through this tax maze.

(And yes, National Insurance is just income tax with better PR).

Hands off my castle

Make strenuous efforts to fill your ISA to avoid being taxed on your gains again later.

(Probably) only after contributing all you can to your pension, to truly soften the blow.

But when we recover from this week of tax whammies, we might ask ourselves why those owning property outside of a limited company were spared a hit to their income.

Or why as ever Government policy is hellbent on protecting those who would inherit a family home from the impact of social care costs.

All at the expense of young people from less-moneyed backgrounds who stand no chance of ever buying their own home.

It’s all very feudal.

Most Britons are against inheritance tax paid by those who’ve done nothing to earn it.

Yet they will shake their fist at this week’s tax hike on others struggling just to get by – whether young wage earners or pensioners living off dividends.

I suppose we can’t see the wood for our own magic money trees.

[continue reading…]

{ 36 comments }