Investing in Australia

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Australiaflag.gif This page deals specifically with investing in Australia
Australia Securities Exchange, Sydney, Australia

Investing in Australia provides information for Australian residents looking to implement Boglehead-style investing and apply the Bogleheads® investment philosophy. The advent of exchange-traded funds in Australia gives investors the ability to access Australian and global equities and bonds at low cost.

The Australian pension system is centered around the contributory Superannuation system.

Portfolio construction

While nowhere near the breadth and depth of low-cost exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and similar products in the US, there are ample options for putting together a low-cost portfolio in Australia. Vanguard entered the Australian market in May of 2009 with index-tracking funds for the Australian Stock Exchange 300 Index (ASX300), which covers approximately 81% of the capitalization of the Australian stock market;[1] and for US and non-US global markets. Since 2009 the ETF market has steadily grown; by 2015 the market reached maturation.

Some good resources for analysing the various fund options include:

Site Link Description
ASX Managed Funds and ETP product list link Beginning investors select ETP tab
Those more experienced can select the LIC tab
ETF Watch link Slice and dice the offerings on the ASX based on specific criteria

Australian equity

VAS vs LICs

Listed Investment Companies (LICs) are the Australian version of closed-end exchanged-traded funds. They are actively-managed and so not an immediately-obvious choice for people looking to invest according to Boglehead philosophy. However several of them have competitive management fees, and work to minimise transactions (and therefore taxable events). They are a way of diversifying away from the sector concentration apparent in the ASX index, and they sometimes can be snapped up at a discount to Net Tangible Assets/Net Asset Value (NTA/NAV). Furthermore, some of them have been listed on the ASX since the 1930s.[2]

The most common LICs for people looking for an alternative to Vanguard Australian Shares Index ETF (VAS) are Australian Foundation Investment Co.Ltd (AFI), Argo Investments (ARG) and Milton Corporation Limited (MLT). These don't generally trade at a deep discount to NTA, so if you can't get them at a fair discount to NTA then stick with VAS.

ASX sector concentration

Australian market capitalisation indexes tend to be heavily weighted towards financials (approx 43% for the ASX200) and materials (currently 13%, until recently the weighting was much higher). Furthermore, the index is largely dominated by six companies - the Big 4 banks, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto.

Contrast this with the US market for which is much better diversified across all sectors.

The main strategies cited for mitigating this concentration risk are:

  • Single stock purchases to give greater exposure to other sectors (examples would be Washington H. Soul Pattinson (SOL) and Brickworks Limited (BKW);
  • Purchase of international index-tracking ETFs (eg VTS, VGS);
  • Purchase of ETFs that use a different metric than market capitalisation to calculate weightings. Examples would be Betashares FTSE RAFI Australia 200 ETF (QOZ), a "smart beta" ETF which uses RAFI to determine weightings, and Market Vectors Australian Equal Weight ETF (MVW), which is an "equal weight" index.

Note that QOZ and MVW, while promising products, have MER of 0.30% and 0.35% respectively, significantly above the 0.15% MER of VAS and high considering the products are based on a simple formula. There is a risk that if you were to invest in them now, and then a competing product came along with a lower MER, you would either be stuck with the higher-MER product, or you may incur a capital gain if you switched to the new product.

ASX and yield

Australian companies on average tend to return more to shareholders in the form of dividends than their US counterparts. For example the VAS (ASX300 index tracker) has tended to yield around 5%, whereas VTS (US S&P500 index-tracker) has tended to yield around 2%.

Home bias

Australians tend to have significant home bias, holding on average 70% of their equity holdings in Australian stocks, while the Australian market is only 3.5% of the global economy.[3]

Assuming ASX index-tracking funds, such as Vanguard Australian Shares Index (VAS)[4] etc., anywhere up to about 50% of your total portfolio in Australian equities should be fine; more than this and you may wish to consider a larger holding in international equity as the risks of portfolio concentration start to outweigh the benefits from franking.[5]

Franking

International equity

VTS/VEU vs VGS (or VGAD)

Until 2014, holding Vanguard U.S. Total Market Shares Index ETF (VTS - US Stocks) and Vanguard All-World ex-U.S. Shares Index ETF (VEU - World ex-US) used to be the standard way to get low-cost exposure to international equities. However in 2014 Vanguard came out with the Vanguard MSCI Index International Shares ETF (VGS and the hedged version VGAD) which not only has a competitive MER of 0.18% but solves the following two problems of a VTS/VEU setup:

  • VEU holds approximately 6% in Australian stocks, which complicates the calculation if you are trying to get international exposure.
  • Furthermore, as VEU is domiciled in the US there is no facility for Australians to claim the franking credits that would normally be available for holding Australian stocks that pay franked dividends.

VGS is an "ex-Australia" ETF, domiciled in Australia, which eliminates the above two problems.

Emerging markets

Fixed income

Bond ETFs

There are several bond ETFs on the ASX, the two most common being:

Name Ticker Description
Vanguard Australian Fixed Interest Index Fund VAF A mix of government and corporate bonds of various durations. Yield is typically higher in order to compensate for the additional risk from exposure to the corporations. Average bond duration is about 7 years.
Vanguard Australian Government Bond Index Fund VGB A mix of Australian Government Bonds of various durations. Yield is lower than VAF. Average bond duration is about 7 years.

Exchange-traded bonds

There is a good list of bonds which can be bought and sold directly on the secondary market here.

Typically the market maker will make a market around the value in the "Valuation Price" column. Once you have decided which bond you'd like to purchase you simply enter the value in the "Code" column as the ticker code and you should be able to get quotes or place an order as you would any other stock or ETF trading on the ASX. For example, GSBG26 is the code for a bond expiring in 2026. It pays 4.25% per year, with two distributions a year, until the bond expires at which point you receive $100 for each bond you hold.

Apart from brokerage there is no MER or other expense for holding exchange-traded bonds so they are a cost-effective way to add fixed income exposure to your portfolio. However compared to bond ETFs above, the price of long dated bonds tend to move quite a bit more in response to changes in interest rates.

As of April 4, 2016, the longest term for an Australian Government exchange traded bond is 23 years.

Fixed income LICs

If you go to the LIC tab on the ASX website's ETP section you can see a couple of Australian Masters Yield Funds toward the bottom. These are closed end fixed income funds. The MER is significantly higher than that for the Vanguard bond ETFs above, but they can sometimes be bought for a significant discount to NTA so are worth mentioning.

Tax-free bonds

There are currently no tax-free bonds in Australia (like municipal bonds in the US).

Cash savings accounts

You can get a good comparison of rates on savings accounts from the Canstar site.[6] The ING Savings Maximiser is a popular choice, though it requires you to deposit at least $1000 per month in order to get the top rate of interest, currently 3.5%. Other options have lower bars to entry.

Bonds vs cash

Considering the effective rate on Australian Government Bonds, as of March 2016, yields about 3.25%, and the Australian Government has a deposit guarantee scheme on cash deposits up to $250,000 per person, per institution,[7] the question arises, "why bother with bonds at all?"

Looking at yield alone, cash savings accounts, as of March 2016, beat bonds by 25 basis points. Furthermore, there is no brokerage cost involved when keeping your money in the bank. And if interest rates increase, the extra interest should be passed on to the depositor. The main difference arises from how the two move when interest rates decrease. Should the Reserve Bank's cash rate decrease from 2% then the bonds would increase in value as they continue to pay 3.25% to bondholders, while depositors would be at the mercy of the new lower rate. As always, your choice regarding cash vs. bonds will depend on your circumstances, but keep in mind that there is more to the story than just current yield.

Gold

Property

Negative Gearing

Paying off loan vs investing in stocks

Emergency fund in mortgage offset account

One benefit from having a home loan is that it gives you access to a mortgage offset account. Putting the money earmarked for your Emergency Fund into a mortgage offset account allows you to reduce the interest paid on your loan, and interest received is not taxed as it would be if you kept the money in a regular savings account.

Buying vs renting

Rule of thumb: For lower tax brackets, renting and investing is better; for higher tax brackets buying works out better as you pay rent with post-income-tax dollars while interest payments (incomplete sentence, missing text (?))

Vanguard ETFs vs managed funds

In addition to ETFs, Vanguard also offers retail and wholesale direct investment to their funds.

According to Vanguard's website, investing directly into Vanguard's retail and wholesale managed funds requires a minimum investment of $5,000 and $500,000 respectively, with the latter having lower management fees. However it's the world's worst kept secret that if you call up they will generally let you open a wholesale account with a minimum $100,000 investment.

A comparison of the fees on the Vanguard S&P/ASX300 index-tracking offering for ETFs, retail and wholesale managed funds is as follows:

Product MER Transaction cost*
ETF (VAS) 0.15% $11-16 (ie regular brokerage)
Retail Fund 0.75% nil
Wholesale Fund 0.18% nil
  • Transaction cost is on top of the spread, buying or selling the product

If you don't have access to the wholesale fund then the annual fee on the retail fund may be a bit steep. For example, if you invest more than about $3,000 into the above S&P/ASX300 index-tracking retail fund then in just one year you'll have paid more in fees compared to the ETF to have covered the brokerage on the transaction.

When comparing costs between the wholesale fund and the ETF, things like your investing horizon and frequency of transactions become more relevant. On $100,000 the difference per year is only $30 (100,000 x (0.18-0.15)%). This is more likely to be relevant in retirement if part of your plan is to frequently sell down a portion of your holdings as there is no cost (beyond the spread) for selling out of the managed fund. Still, if your holdings were over $600,000 then the difference would be $180 which would cover 12x $15 brokerage transactions per year.

The one benefit the managed funds have over the ETFs is that they offer several diversified funds. Fees appear to be in line with what they would be if you put together the portfolio yourself, and rebalancing is taken care of for you.

Brokerages

Most banks offer online trading accounts for $15-20 per trade, extra for live market data. There are also several online brokerages such as CMC Markets ($11 per trade). Interactive Brokers (IB) charges commission as a percentage of trade value (.08% of trade value with minimum $6)[8].

Taxation and reporting

Managed funds and Etax

Etax currently does not pre-populate distributions from managed funds (eg Vanguard retail/wholesale managed funds). You have to use the tax statement provided by the fund and enter it manually into Etax.

One of the reasons for this is that Etax cannot work out what your CGT position is unless you tell it to based on the information you enter (purchase & sale dates, 50% concessional amounts etc).

FATCA reporting requirements for non-resident Australians

Investment vehicles

Superannuation

Superannuation[9] is a defined contribution retirement savings arrangement and provides tax-shielded accounts, similar to a 401(k) in the US.

Risks and possible changes

Superannuation has seen several changes since its inception in 1992 and will no doubt continue to evolve. Some of the potential changes discussed include:

  • Increase in Contributions Tax
  • Introduction of a Withdrawal Tax
  • Changes to Preservation Age
  • Compulsory annuities
  • Restrictions on lump sum withdrawals

Previous changes have tended to be grandfathered to an extent.

Salary sacrifice

Self-Managed Super Funds (SMSF)

Insurance Bonds

Annuities

Investment Trusts

Other peculiarities relevant to Australian investors

Safe withdrawal rate

In Australia, studies indicate a safe withdrawal rate to be around 3.5%, compared to the Trinity study of 4% for US residents.[10]

Should I pay off my HECS debt?

Similar to the US, Australians often leave tertiary studies with a large debt burden.

Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) debt has the following characteristics:

  • It is automatically deducted from your salary once you are earning above $50,000;
  • Increases with CPI;
  • Attracts no interest;
  • Lump sum payments attract a 5% discount.

The consensus is that it is better to never take the 5% lump sum discount, and instead use money slated for lump sum payments towards investing goals. This could change in a high-inflation environment, where debt increases due to CPI were outpacing investment growth and salary increases.

Notes


References

  1. S&P/ASX 300, S&P Dow Jones Indexes, Retrieved 20 March, 2016
  2. Listed Investment Companies, Australian Investors Association, Retrieved 2 April 2016.
  3. "No place like home". Vanguard Investments Australia Ltd. 03 October 2013. https://vanguardinvestments.com.au/adviser/adv/articles/insights/commentary/portfolio-construction/No-place-like-home.jsp. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
  4. Vanguard Australian Shares Index ETF, ASX, Retrieved 21 March 2016
  5. You and your shares 2013-14 | Australian Taxation Office. Retrieved March 20, 2016.
  6. Canstar
  7. Australian Government Guarantee Scheme: About the Scheme. Retrieved March 20, 2016.
  8. IB Commission [1]
  9. Super, Australian Government/Australian Taxation Office, Retrieved 20 March 2016
  10. How Safe are Safe Withdrawal Rates in Retirement? An Australian Perspective, FINSIA (Financial Services Institute of Australa), March 2014, Viewed 20 March 2016.

External links

Online SaaS tools

  • Roboinvestment Stockspot
  • Portfolio Management ShareSight, incorporates market announcements
  • Fundamental Research Simply Wall St, recently moved to subscription model