Lies, Damned Lies, & Compound Growth

The Power of Compound Growth

Compound growth (or losses!) can be confusing. When it comes to compounding, using quick mental arithmetic to make investing decisions can be detrimental to our financial health. If we don’t take the time to understand the power of compound growth, to feel its power, we might not even find the motivation to start saving & investing. That might prove to be a costly oversight down the road. And it’s very difficult to compensate for those lost years later. Life really is too short.

Try this little brain teaser …

If someone offered you a penny to work all day, would you do it?
No, eh!
What if they asked you to work for a full month but, this time, they offered you a penny for the first day of the month & then promised to double the previous day’s pay for you, every day, ’til the end of the month?
If you think this is a trick question, you’re right. But without grabbing a calculator, how much to you think you’d be owed at the end of the month? Take a stab at picking a number now & I’ll share the calculations further down.

Ever since Jack Bogle gave us the low-cost index fund, there has been widespread support for retail investors, particularly younger investors with a long time horizon, to follow that path. Even the inimitable Mr. Buffett recommends low-cost, index-tracking funds for most of us. After taking fees into account, there aren’t too many actively managed funds that can beat the market index over time. The market has grown by about 10% annually for a century or more. If it works like that going forward, a kid saving $100 a week from age 20 to 65 might have a portfolio worth almost four million dollars by retirement. That’s the power of compounding. If the kid invests in an equivalent high-fee fund that reduces that annual growth rate to 8%, the portfolio would be worth a little over two million come retirement day. That’s the power of compounding in reverse! Fees of “only” 2% eliminated almost 50% of the end value. Fees compound too. Just not in favour of the investor.

The magic of compound growth is tough to visualize with any degree of accuracy. I need a tool or a calculator to compare investing returns over time. Particularly when it comes to comparing a growth investment against one that pays a dividend that gets reinvested. While past performance may not be replicated going forward, historical performance can make for some interesting comparisons. And those real comparisons will probably be very different to guesstimates based on my mental arithmetic. Our heads don’t do compounding well. But compounding might do well for us. If we allow it enough time to work it’s magic. Play with a compound growth calculator. It might encourage you to get started. Once you understand the power of compounding, you should be motivated to get started right away. Compounding takes time & patience. But you’ll never truly get to appreciate its value if you don’t start early enough.

What if you’re old already? I know that story all too well. Each investor has a different risk tolerance, level of knowledge, savings rate, & so on. Even two investors with very similar investor profiles may invest in very different portfolios. Compounding doesn’t care. It will do whatever it can with our investments, with whatever time is available. Based on your investing style, plug in the numbers for your timeline, with your expected rate of return. See if the possible outcomes are close to where you’d like to be by retirement day. If not, you might need to save more, sooner, to get there. Or maybe you’ll see that financial freedom is not too far away for you. A compound growth app might be one of the best games to have on a mobile device!

Does your head do compounding well? What number did you come up with from the opening question?
At the end of the first week, you’d be due about a buck & a quarter. Not even enough for a cup of coffee these days. Pretty awful, eh! By the end of the 2nd week, that would jump to $164. Hardly earth shattering. The 3rd week, however, would be almost $21k. Yes, twenty one thousand dollars. Things are improving now. At the end of the 4th week, the number would be almost $2.7 million. And only three days later, at the end of the 31st day, it would be almost $21.5 million.
The total wages due on that penny starter wage, by the end of the 31st day of the month, would be almost twenty one & a half million dollars. Now, that’s some kind of compounding!
How close was your guess!?!

I like the calculator at the Ontario Securities Commission website here. The graph of results here shows a great image of how the power of compounding works better over time. Go play!

Important โ€“ this is not investing advice, it is for entertainment & educational purposes only. Do your own due diligence & seek professional advice before investing your money.

Investing Game for the Financially Illiterate

Playing at Investing

When I was a kid, investing was some kind of black art, practiced by banking types in the back offices of some tall buildings on Bay Street & Wall Street. It was not something I knew anything about. Getting a “good” interest rate on my bank account was the only way I knew to grow my savings. They didn’t grow much! The investing landscape has changed a lot since then, but some are still fearful of investing today. Because they see it as a casino-like exercise. It can feel like you are playing a game that only others, those financially literate people, can win. That kind of thinking may be dangerous to your financial health.

We can start learning how to invest by playing an investing game. The knowledge you get from playing this game may help you retire earlier, more comfortably, than if you continue to ignore it. If you can pay your bills online & if you play games on your phone, you can play this investing game. It’s just a game, we’re going to use imaginary money. It’s totally free to play. What have you got to lose?

Sign up for a free account at morningstar.ca. It is free, don’t worry. And at that price, it’s great value. Once you’ve got an account, you can create a portfolio. Let’s pretend we have $100,000 to start with. Hey, it’s a game, we’re going to enjoy it! We will invest 60% of our play money in ticker symbol VFV, Vanguard Canada’s S&P 500 Index ETF. That means $60,000 of our total play money is going into VFV. Just type VFV into the search bar of your favourite browser & you’ll get the current price, or the most recent closing price, per share in the results. Divide 60,000 by that price per share number & play-buy that number of shares in your new portfolio. Just use the whole number or, if you’re that way inclined, you can also use the numbers after the decimal point, it doesn’t matter. Either will be close enough. Next put 30% (or $30k) into BlackRock’s iShares S&P/TSX 60 Index ETF, ticker symbol XIU. Same thing: search XIU for the current price per share. Then put the remaining 10% (10k) into ZSB, BMO’s Short-Term Bond Index ETF. You’ll know you’re in the ballpark if the total portfolio value finishes up somewhere close to $100k, give or take.

That’s it, you’re playing the investing game!

Why did I choose these three funds? Warren Buffett & Jack Bogle recommend the first one for retail investors. Most professionals find it hard to beat the S&P 500 Index over time. This fund contains over 500 of America’s biggest & best companies. I’m in Canada, so I want some Canadian content too. You’ll hear different opinions on how much Canadian content we should have, but the 30% allocation to XIU will do for this game. Sometimes, like up ’til now this year, the Canadian market does better than the American market. The Canadian ETF holds 60 of Canada’s best companies. And finally, traditional advice says we ought to hold some bonds, hence the BMO ETF. The 10% bond allocation percentage is probably more suited to a younger investor. Older investors might have more bonds. We can worry about what the perfect allocation might be when it comes to investing real money. But with only play money at stake, you’ll be able to see the differences between these ETFs in action as the game plays out over time.
There are other similar funds available from other fund providers, I just chose one from each of three larger fund providers in Canada. You can explore the providers’ websites if you want to start learning more. If you are outside Canada, you might have a local Morningstar site to work with for your play portfolio. If not, any free portfolio tracker will work. Wherever you live, you will likely find a locally available equivalent to the American market fund I use here. Replace the Canadian fund with a local market fund from your own country. An Aussie might use a local Australian index fund, for example. And a local Australian bond fund. An American investor could use a Canadian or an international fund for the 30% allocation.

The great thing about this game, unlike many phone apps, is that you don’t have to play it every day to keep your streak going or keep your points count up. You can check your play portfolio every day if you like. Or you can ignore it. A year from now, if your play portfolio is down 30%, you’ll be grateful you’re only investing with play money. But what if it goes up? See what you can learn from the performance of your three ETFs along the way. Compare the results to whatever else you are storing your real money in. The game will carry on playing, regardless of the time you spend looking at it. Ten years from now, you might stumble back into your play portfolio again & who knows what you’ll learn from it by then? If nothing else, you’ll have something to compare against whatever investments your professional advisor has your real money in. If this one outperforms, you can always bring it along to your next portfolio review session & ask why. If this one underperforms, you’ll know you have a good advisor & you should bring coffee & doughnuts!

For the fearful, the uninitiated, & the doubters, this is a one-time, five-minute time investment with the potential for great educational payback. Had I done this years ago, I know the lessons I would have learned from this game would have encouraged me to learn how to invest far earlier than I did.
Play this game yourself. Suggested it to your kids. Or you savvy kids might suggest it to your parents! And to any friends that aren’t already playing.
You might even try this game if you got burned, or even if you got lucky, buying meme stocks & crypto over the past couple of years. How might this boring old play portfolio compare to such investments over time?

Important โ€“ this is not investing advice, it is for entertainment & educational purposes only. Do your own due diligence & seek professional advice before investing your money.

The Real Power of Dividends

Vacation Footwear for Ireland in October!?!

There are some strong opinions out there on which investing strategy is best. Over time, & from a pure numbers perspective, the only thing that really matters is total return. It doesn’t matter whether you get that return from capital gains, dividends, some other kind of distribution, or any combination of those. I suggest to my kids that they invest in low-cost, market index ETFs. They’ve got the time to make that work. No guarantees, of course. Going forward, maybe the American & Canadian markets will do what the Japanese market has been doing since 1989. That might not be a great outcome for them come retirement day.

The closer I get to retirement, the more I worry about running out of money during retirement. Any simulation I run with the 4% withdrawal “rule” always has a few chart lines that wipe out early. And I’m not even planning for an extravagant retirement lifestyle. Not only do I not want to run out of money during retirement, I’d like to think there would be enough left over for my kids to take my ashes back to Ireland when my time is done!

I started out with mutual funds way back. When I realised how much I was paying for underperformance, I got out of those. Then I tried picking growth stocks. I wasn’t very good at that & I lost some money. On the bright side, I didn’t have much money to begin with, so there wasn’t much to lose! Professional money managers were up next. Since I didn’t know what I was doing, I figured they would. Turns out they weren’t keeping pace with the market either & I was paying extra for that underperformance. Though I don’t blame the pros, they were creating portfolios based on my risk aversion. And I was pretty risk averse after getting burned by my own poor stock selections. With the benefit of hindsight, had I gone into index funds from the get-go, I would have fared far better. Despite the risks, that’s why I recommend index-tracking ETFs for my kids.

Now that I’m much closer to retirement, I have a different outlook. While I’m a hybrid investor now, investing in both stocks & ETFs, I have a leaning towards dividend-growth investing. It started with those 4% withdrawal simulations. If 4% was enough to live on, why not just have a portfolio that generates distributions of 4% annually? Rather than have to sell shares for income, couldn’t I just live on the dividends & distributions? Of course, you need a portfolio big enough to make that work. But that’s a whole other story! After years of messing around with the dividend-growth strategy, I finally got around to moving towards that approach a few years back. Now, instead of retiring at 83, I might be able to get out at 79! I’m kidding.

I hope! ๐Ÿ˜œ

The anti-dividend lobby tell me it’s the wrong approach. But if I were already retired, selling shares of those beaten down index funds this year would give me some serious grief. While my dividend-focused portfolio is down year to date, it’s ahead of the market by more than 13%. And that comes with my bond allocation having the worst year in the history of the bond market too. That’s not too shabby. Moreover, those dividends are on synthetic DRIP (dividends are automatically reinvested in more shares of the same equity) so that my share count is increasing at an even faster rate, as the share prices get beaten down.

While the year-to-date market-beating performance is meaningless over such a short spell, I’m more focused on the dividends than the share price. A stock down 50% is buying twice the number of shares than before the downturn. So long as the dividends aren’t cut, I’m happy picking up more shares when things are on sale. While the dividend-growth stocks may not match the long term total return of an index fund, the real power of the dividend-growth strategy is psychological!

I’m off to Ireland for a long-overdue vacation today. I have no idea what I’m hoping the market will do while I’m away. But I’m praying I’ll get there, & back, safely. And that my portfolio keeps on chugging out those dividends while I’m gone. ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ชโ˜˜๏ธ๐Ÿป

Important – this is not investing advice, it is for entertainment & educational purposes only. Do your own due diligence & seek professional advice before investing your money.

Market Crash Lessons

What Next?

I’m trying to encourage my kids to save & invest while they are young. As usual, Dad’s advice turns to muck pretty much right off the bat. The markets tanked. I tell them, with great confidence & authority, that it’s just noise. To keep on saving & investing. That they’re just buying the good stuff on sale now. Listen to Dad.

There are lots of experts out there with advice on how to handle market losses. I must admit, I’m not one of them. I failed my biggest test back during the dot-com crash. I sold off all but one of my holdings then. The only one I held onto went to zero. All the stocks I sold would have made me money. Had I held onto them! What do you think I learned from that experience?

Stay out of the market, it’s just a lottery? Yeah, I did that for a while. Too long a while. But no, that’s not it … the lesson I seem to have learned is to be afraid of selling anything!

Nowadays, rather than chase what’s hot, I buy what’s not. Most of my investments are in bigger, bluer, dividend-growth companies. Or in ETFs that hold companies like that. But that doesn’t make a downward spiral any more enjoyable. Turns out big blue-chips can go down too. I have the same dilemma today: I don’t know if I should sell, hold, or buy more. Not knowing, I do what I do best … nothing! My stocks just sit there, showing red, & I do nothing. The automatic DRIP adds new shares on dividend pay days. I don’t need to do anything with that either.

I have neither the quant skills nor the psychic ability to figure out what happens next in the market. Instead, I’m trying to get more comfortable just doing nothing. It reminds me of the few times in my career where the future of my employment was at risk. When I lost my jobs back then, I had no other sources of income. But I survived. Between the individual stocks & ETFs I own today, I own little pieces of hundreds of companies. What are the chances they’ll all fire me at the same time & kill the dividends? Pretty slim, I think.
What are the chances that they’ll all go to zero? While there are no guarantees, that’s pretty unlikely too.

For a lazy & conflicted investor like me, it was almost a relief when I came round to thinking that doing nothing might be best. I still worry every time I see the market drop further. I wish I could just stop looking. I can’t. But, so far, I’m sticking with the do nothing strategy.

Only time will tell if if I can keep on doing that. And if that was the right thing to do. Especially for the sake of my kids! ๐Ÿ˜œ