I recently saw an advert for RSA Retail Bonds that was advertising “risk-free” returns. This kind of thing really gets up my nose and in my opinion it smacks of false advertising…RSA Retail Bonds are not the only culprits – just about all of the banks do it too. “No fees or commissions” or “Risk-free”.
Let’s get this straight – there is no such thing as a risk-free investment. The reason they are advertised as “risk-free” is because they are only ever referring to one kind of risk; that of volatility! These “investments” never refer to inflation risk and they also assume that “default” risk could never apply either!
Broadly speaking there are 2 kinds of risk that really matter to investors: volatility and inflation and they are kind of on the opposite ends of the risk spectrum from one another. Volatility is a short-term risk whereas inflation is a long-term risk.
When things like RSA Retail Bonds claim to have no risk associated with them they are referring to volatility and that is all. They are not claiming to be risk-free, especially when it comes to inflation risk. This is, in my opinion, misleading. You could well invest your money into these kind of investments believing that you are taking no risk at all (because that is what the adverts imply) and then find out that when your investment falls due that you actually have less money (in real terms) than when you started off – all because you did not take enough risk. It’s kind of ironic that in order to counter inflation risk you need to take some volatility risk.
On top of this, any money invested into the RSA bonds is locked in for a minimum of 2 years. The historic returns from these investments have been around 7% pa. By contrast, if you had invested into an “enhanced income” type unit trust fund you would have had returns of ±8-10%* pa for the past few years and would have had access to all of your capital within 48 hours…and all because you took a little bit of (volatility) risk!
So be warned; RSA Retail Bonds are not “risk free” as is claimed. They carry a significant amount of inflation risk, especially after tax.
*typically these funds are designed to generate returns of “cash+2%”pa. This is not guaranteed and there is a small amount of volatility risk that could apply over periods of less than 12 months.
So it looks like the “fuss” is all over and the equity market is set to run even further…I guess it is at times like these that you need to make sure you are “in for the ride” and not sitting on the sidelines watching it all go by. But it is also important that investors do a little “stock take” (pun intended) and understand/remember the following…afterall, has anyone seen the fat lady sing yet?
- Investing takes time – equity markets can be extremely volatile – remember the past year? They can and do move rapidly in the short term (up and down) and so, if you don’t have time, you cant afford to invest into equities solely (diversify).
- You cant time the markets – if you moved to cash a while back (after the market fell) and are still sitting there – sorry for you! You have missed the best part of the rally. You are either in or out – you cant be both and you cant time it right either!
- Learn to ignore the noise around you – have a plan (know why you are doing what you are doing) and stick to it. Don’t be swayed by the noise.
- Cash is not necessarily a “safe” or “low risk” option – it hardly ever beats inflation over time. And as an investor, inflation is your biggest enemy.
- There are probably still some significant risks in the financial system – share prices have run hard in anticipation of earnings…there are plenty of people trying hard to talk the market up but if there are earnings disappointments then expect to see some more down days…
- Inflation risk is still on the upside – big time – just imagine what the increase in electricity price increases is going to do to inflation (we are not alone in this – the UK is facing similar problems). Tradtionally high inflation is not good for shares…but it could still be a while before we see any siginificant increases in inflation.
Bottom line is this – have a plan and stick to it! If necessary find a good financial planner/coach who will guide you through this and coach you to stay the course.
The Financial Coach™
I met with a new client recently who proudly proclaimed that she was a “low risk investor” while passing me her unit trust statement. She has R1.1 million in a money market unit trust fund and it has been there for a few years.
While this might have been a good thing (from one perspective) over the past 2 years, I pointed out to her that while she was in “low volatility” portfolio, she had actually turned herself into a high risk investor without even realizing it. She may have taken the “roller-coaster” effect out of play but in doing so she has exposed herself to at least 3 other (probably greater) risks. They are:
- Income tax: she may have earned ±R110000 interest on this amount, the first R19000 of which interest is tax free, but she will lose ±R32000* to tax. This will reduce her yield from ±10% to about 7% (which is below inflation).
- Interest rates: in the past year alone, rates have declined significantly and cash yields are now below inflation.
- Inflation risk: this is the greatest area of concern and while she may currently sleep well at night, the real value of her capital is decreasing on an annual basis and will probably never grow at a rate that is greater than inflation (see table below).
Investing is about probability and not prophecy. We don’t know which sector will perform best next nor do we know when the rand will weaken further or even if the market has bottomed. We do know, however, on balance of probability (built up over a very long time) that as an asset class, equities will outperform property which will in turn outperform bonds which will outperform cash (after tax). This is a fundamental consequence of the risk/return relationship. Statistics show that SA asset classes have produced the following real returns over time:
Asset class Real return Volatility
Cash 1.9% 1.3%
Bonds 2.1% 7.2%
Property 7.6% 19.7%
Equities 7.6% 22.3%
Source: Prudential Asset Management: 1966-2008, property since 1977
What investors (and advisors) don’t realize is that:
- You can’t consistently pick the winners (you’d be better off buying the losers),
- You can’t repeatedly time the markets (no matter how good you think you are) and c) If you want to accept cash returns as your worst case scenario, then you also have to accept cash returns as your best case scenario.
We need to remember then, that volatility is a function of the risk/return relationship! There are periods (which can extend for a number of years) when the equity markets can be extremely volatile – the way to combat this is to have a well diversified portfolio with sufficient access to cash (short term funds) so as to allow you to ignore the ups and downs in the short term (from a financial planning point of view this should be ±6 months income need).
It is the role of the financial planner to coach their clients to stick to their plans and be patient. What they need to realize is that markets are designed to transfer wealth – often it is simply from the impatient to the patient! The secret to accumulating wealth over time is to have a diversified portfolio (across all the asset classes) and to buy low and sell high. To do this you have to be patient! Remember you are an investor and not a speculator.
“The psychology of the speculator mitigates strongly against his success. For by relation of cause and effect he is most optimistic when prices are highest and most despondent when they are at the bottom.” (Benjamin Graham, Security Analysis 1934)
*this assumes a tax rate of 30%