Overdiversity

Diversification is the “only free lunch in investing”, and I love it. However, I came to the conclusion as I started tracking my investment performance rigorously that I had overdone it. Since that realisation I have been rowing back slightly. I appraised my progress recently, and this rather dry blog post sets out my findings.

I track all my investment portfolio holdings in one single investment spreadsheet. One advantage of this approach is that I have a consolidated view of my portfolio which ‘de-dupes’, and makes it fairly easy to see large positions that amass when I buy the same ETF in multiple portfolios.

What is the appropriate number of holdings to diversity accurately? You’ll find as many answers as responders to that question. But consensus seems to suggest 20 holdings is more than sufficient, especially if you are using collective securities such as index funds or ETFs.

When I began my unified tracking I had no fewer than, erm, 228 holdings. Over two hundred holdings.

Almost every single one of my holdings I have personally chosen. With a reasonable amount of consideration, time and of course fees associated. Multiply this by 228 and pretty soon it sounds like a lot of time wasted.

How did I end up with 228 holdings?

Here is the breakdown from late 2013:

  • 29 ETFs. Of these 29 (15%) of them were ETFs, amounting to just over 30% of the total portfolio value. VUKE was originally my largest, at just under 10% of my total portfolio; these days IUSA is my biggest, with about 5% of my portfolio.
  • 57 Funds. Ouch. This was a testament to having used my fair share of IFAs and private bankers over the years. This lot added up to around 25% of my portfolio’s value. The largest holding was about 2% of the total.
  • 122 equities. Half my holdings are directly held equities. They amount to about a third of my total portfolio value. They included, originally, 57 holdings of less than £10k each.
  • 12 bonds. Individually held bonds are quite exotic things really so no wonder I don’t have many. Though my largest is 2% of my portfolio, the total amounts to only 5%.
  • 8 cash equivalents. Eight! Five separate currencies, held in 8 different ways in total.

I decided, roughly when I wrote my Investment Philosophy, that this portfolio was needlessly complex and should be slowly pruned. The complexity cost of such a large portfolio is significant:

  • Higher transaction fees. My minimum opening position used to be around £1000. At this level I am doing a lot of transactions and my in/out fee is over 2% even before stamp duty. With a higher average trading amount I cut my fees.
  • Higher paperwork/admin time. Almost every single one of my holdings spits out income payments. I track many of these individually. Typing in £0.31 of tax credit on a Fidelity account for some <£2000 holding is not good use of time.
  • Reduced mindshare. Warren Buffett has long espoused the ‘20 punch card‘ approach. He has a point. His point is choose wisely, and get it right – and limiting yourself to fewer bigger decisions improves your odds. And of course to stay up to date with 20 investments is far easier than keeping tabs on 228 investments.
  • Carrying deadweights. Looking back at my 5 year old portfolio I recognise holdings that I knew were suspect, but I ducked the challenge of making a decision to liquidate them. When they’re small, the damage they are doing to the portfolio doesn’t feel worth the bother.
  • Diluting my best picks. Some of my best performing investments have been my smallest. I have had a hunch, and invested £2k, £5k, or something similar. If I’d made my entry ticket bigger, and adopted a different approach to selling out duds, I think I’d have made more money without taking on appreciably more risk.

In any case, after quite a lot of gradual pruning, optimising and spring cleaning, my current portfolio looks considerably better on my ‘overdiversity’ measures:

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How many ISA millionaires are there?

A new UK tax year has just begun, and with it a new annual ISA allowance of £20k each. ISAs are an amazing tax-break for investors who are UK taxpayers.  I love them, and have a goal to get my ISA portfolio to £1m+.  I’ve been posting updates annually about this (e.g. here, and the one before).

Why is being an ISA millionaire cool?  The £1m mark is just an arbitrary number, after all – unlike UK pensions which are capped for most of us at £1m. A million quid maintains an allure, even after the ravages of inflation.  And sensibly invested it should produce an annual income of £35k-£40k, tax free – whereas a £1m pension’s income is taxable, if it is taken.

Since the government lifted the allowance to £20k per person a few years ago (an un-noticed marriage tax break for wealthy, i.e. mainly Tory, voters), even ignorant ultra-conservative investors using just Cash ISAs can become ISA millionaire-couples in ‘only’ 25 years. But their £million won’t be worth as much as it would have been when they started, and they won’t benefit from tax-free compounding over the 25 years.

£20k here, £20k there and, pretty soon, you’re talking real money

ISAs in their current form started in 1999, when they replaced other tax-friendly savings arrangements such as PEPS, TESSAs.

Any single person who’d topped up their ISA to the maximum every year since 1999 would have, if they have just topped up their 2018/19 ISA, invested £206k in their ISA.  If this money was invested in a low-cost FTSE All Share index tracker, with no withdrawals, it would today be worth around £380k. A married couple who have doubled up the whole way will be sitting on a combined ISA pot of double this, which is over $1m.  So, in dollars, a pair of wealthy ISA-loving investors would be ISA millionaires if they have achieved market average returns over the last 19 years.

Being an individual ISA millionaire in pounds is much harder.  But if you were saving hard using the PEPs/TESSAs that preceded ISAs, you had a crucial starting advantage.  This is one of the ways that the most famous UK ISA millionaire, Lord (John) Lee did it. But if, once ISAs came along, you achieved only average market returns, you’d have had to begun your ISA journey with £187k of savings.

How could people have begun their ISA journey in 1999 with £187k savings?  The Capital PEP, which would have been the best vehicle to have used, started in 1987 with an annual allowance of £2.4k.  By 1990 it had risen to £6k.  But this means the most you could have invested before 1999 was £64.2k.

What were the chances of turning £64k into £187k in 12 years? As it turns out, the chances were very good.  The 1991-95 boom saw the FTSE All Share return over 20% per year in four of the five years.  So an ‘all in’ PEP investor, achieving average returns, would have had £159k in their ISA account on day 1.  Maintaining average returns and continuing to be ‘all in’ would have got them to around £850k today.

In fact, an ‘all in’ investor like John Lee would have only needed to outperform the market by 1% per year in order to cross the £1m threshold, which they would have done in the last 12 months.  Outperforming the market by 1% per year is no mean feat, but there are certainly countless UK investors who have done it. Of course, in the recent Brexit-y era, the more of your investments were outside the UK the more you’ll have beaten the UK market.

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An alternative, rational UK budget

The Tory government’s budget is due this week. As is the custom, the chancellor will stand up and propose what he will argue is the best thing for the UK economy. Numerous other customs abound, including the privilege of having an alcoholic drink to ‘steady the nerves’ during the speech.

In reality any chancellor’s proposals have little to do with the right thing for the economy. They are rather what he/she believes are best for his/her political party and its electoral prospects at the next election. In this case the Tory chancellor Philip Hammond is under unusual pressure to ‘go big and bold’, ‘fix the housing crisis’, and so forth – none of which has much to do with the actual needs of the UK economy, but rather the political predicament the Tories find themselves in amidst the chaos of Brexit.

So, in the absence of a bipartisan budget from anybody else, FIREvLondon hereby humbly submits its proposal for a rational budget – designed purely from the point of view of the long term benefit to the UK economy and its citizens.

A fiscally neutral budget

Unfortunately FIREvLondon’s financial resources do not extend to a detailed model of the UK economy. This is just as well because, almost unnoticed, the UK’s enormous fiscal deficit (the delta between government receipts and government spending) has in fact shrunk significantly since its 2009 peak of >10%, and is now at the decidedly modest level of £48bn. £48bn, “decidedly modest”?! you shriek. In fact £48bn represents around 2.5% of GDP. Provided the economy grows, in nominal terms, by more than 2.5%, then the debt will in fact shrink as a proportion of GDP.

There is an argument that with government debt at c.80% of GDP the priority should be to shrink the debt faster. I have sympathy for this argument – especially when the last chancellor but one preached that a national debt level of 40% was a ‘golden’ ceiling above which we must never go – but I am not going to make it here.

So, my aim is to leave the net fiscal deficit unchanged. I am also going to assume no significant change in government borrowing costs; were interest rates to rise significantly my spending projections would increase alarmingly, but for the purpose of tax/spending policy I think it is reasonable to assume no change in medium/long term borrowing costs.

Right now our tax code is riddled with absurdities. For instance

  • We tax jobs. At about 25% per job. Except the really high paying jobs which we tax at about half this level. You can’t make this stuff up.
  • We tax mobility. Via stamp duty. Via high property prices, planning laws etc.
  • We subsidise the rich. Via private schools having VAT exemptions. Via pension tax relief. Via Right to Buy, Help to Buy, etc. Via non-dom. Via EIS. Via carried interest.
  • We subsidise property. Every which way you look. Whereas in fact property is a much more natural thing to tax than people – it can’t move overseas, for starters.

My budget will take steps to start restoring common sense and rational thinking to the tax rates. Here goes.

Taxes on people (living and working)

Taxes on people who live and work are the highest. They should in fact be the lowest.

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