How are you assessing your investment returns?

Most of the time  when we hear somebody talking about long-term returns, they mean cumulative returns.
You have a starting point which you adjust each year by the total return (price + income) for a number of decades.

Just about every equity index over a 50 year time horizon is going to look pretty impressive on this basis. Exhibit A: S&P 500 total cumulative returns in the graphic ABOVE. Turning $100 invested into $18,000 over the 50 year period. Who does not want a piece of that?

Cumulative returns are the main reason people repeat very sagely, ‘It is not about timing the market but time in the market’.

But in the real world many of the goals and objectives we are planning towards do not have the luxury of a 50 year time horizon.

Maybe you are five years away from retirement, or your child’s education costs you have been saving for from birth, are kicking in a couple of years from now.

When you stop working you will typically begin consuming your wealth and this too is made up of multiple shorter time periods where you will need to cover cost outflows each year into perpetuity.

In this context it would perhaps be more helpful to  to consider the returns we are likely to receive over shorter time periods – Let’s say 5 years.  If we look at returns over the last five years but on a continuous basis – we call this rolling 5 year returns. (The dark blue line in the graphic ABOVE). Each data point shows you what your annual returns would have been if you had invested 5 years before hand.

As you will note from the graph, it becomes less obvious that just buying an equity index will actually do the best job for you. There are quite clearly a few five-year-periods where nothing much happens. Then there are those where very large returns are enjoyed and inevitably periods where for five years running you lose money.

In planning we often use the average of the cumulative experience (the red line in the graphic) to provide a ‘decent’ indication of expected returns. But what this approach fails to capture is the current valuations and therefore the future expected returns.

And as the graphic below shows, even in a developed market like the US you can go for extended periods without earning any returns at all from shares. This is the S&P 500 index from 1998 ( to well after the Global Financial Crisis (2013)).

What is my point?

– You will probably receive returns way above and below the average. You can receive negative returns over a 5 and 10 year period.
– The biggest determinant of future returns is the price you pay for an asset.
– Periods of above average returns are, more often than not, followed by periods of below average returns.
– Extrapolating the most recent excellent 5 year performance of an asset class is almost always wrong for the next 5 year period.
– Paying attention to your cashflows and the timing of those cashflows is very important to your ultimate success.  
– Timing the market may be a  fool’s errand, but buying regardless of valuations is similarly futile.
– Not aiming to pick the best performing asset class year in and year out is a sensible strategy.
– Seeking better consistent long-term average returns will work better when targeting specific objectives.
– Returns should always be evaluated in context of the risk you must take to achieve them. 

You can own pretty much as much offshore exposure as you like these days without having to use any exchange control allowances. There are an increasing number of unit trusts or exchange traded funds which will give you exposure to any number of geographies or themes (tech/healthcare/ESG) without you physically sending your money overseas.

But there are still reasons why you would potentially want to take your money directly offshore.

These include:

  • You can separate decisions between the currency and the underlying investments you own (asset allocation).
  • You can separate the sources of returns between the currency and the underlying assets. (tax efficiency).
  • Your assets are physically offshore and less exposed to any potential changes in legislation or political risk.
  • The variety of opportunities are broader than the offshore options in SA.
  • You can invest for specific future costs or events you expect to have in another country. (Liability matching – like tertiary education at a UK university for example)
  • It can be cheaper to buy exposure to the same markets on an offshore platform.

I am not an advocate of knee-jerk reactions when it comes to investment planning. I certainly don’t want to promote a service using fear tactics. However, I am aware that many people are sending money directly offshore following the recent unrest in our country.

If you have money you would like to invest directly offshore in a managed portfolio, White Investments can help you to set it up using a low-cost international platform.

To find out more please send an e-mail to

*Terms & Conditions apply.

I read and watch a lot of news – It is important to stay informed in my role.

It is also important to be able to differentiate fact from fiction, news from opinion and emotional media baiting from something useful we can use and implement in our own lives.

This last year we have been bombarded with newsflow around the pandemic. From knowing precisely nothing to being coached by epidemiologists and other experts from all over the world daily. I strove to make sense of it all. I wanted answers.   

The problem is that the more I learned the less I felt like I understood. I think this is because the information was not always complete or so-called experts would contradict one another. I think commentators simply did not (could not) have the answers, so they defaulted to the next best thing, they spoke about it from a position of knowledge based on past experience.

The end result is that you either landed up with an illusion of knowledge – you believe you understand the facts and stop seeking out evidence to the contrary. Or the other option is to actively avoid any news whatsoever – because you can’t work out what to believe you opt to disengage from the process entirely.

Both of these behaviours are sub-optimal and potentially lethal.

The world of money management and investing is the same.

The information we get about investing is often quite one sided. Watching the financial media is not helpful. When markets are on a tear, the newsroom is commonly filled up with commentators wisely explaining why the current rally has more legs and how this time it is different. They can make a compelling argument.

When the markets crash, those same newsrooms are filled up with the “I told you so” commentators which were amongst the select few who ‘saw this coming’…. They too sound wise and all knowing.

The tricky part for us to grasp is how they looked at the same data and came up with a different conclusion.

Both will be right and both will be wrong at some stage…. 

Things that we believe one day, turn out not to be 100% accurate the next. Things change. Markets change. New products, new regulations, new taxes and new government policy mean what we believed today may not be true tomorrow, or perhaps not as true. The information is incomplete for just about every situation.

I guess when you try and simplify a relatively complex subject you run the unavoidable risk of leaving stuff out.

There is no perfect investment solution. There is often not only one right way of getting to a desirable outcome. There are ways of mitigating the uncertainty but not eliminating it.

Having a process and framework through which to navigate this uncertainty can make it more bearable. Being able to add or change variables when the facts change, allows us to answer questions like; How does this affect my current plan/life? Do I need to do anything? Can I do anything better? What are my biggest risks?

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Inner peace

Stressed out about money?

A great plan with a poor investment strategy is as unhelpful as a great investment strategy and a poor  plan.

Find your money journey inner peace.

This workshop will help you to understand and  focus on the things that have the biggest impact on your money journey and empower you to better outcomes through knowledge and action.

Sign up by sending an email to: with the Subject line: I want to make it count on 22 July 2020

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Wanting to get your finances on track but feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information out there?

This workshop will help you to understand and  focus on the things that have the biggest impact on your money journey and empower you to better outcomes through knowledge and action.

Who is it for? Anyone looking to understand the drivers of a successful plan and the importance of getting the basics right.
Venue: Online from the comfort of your own space.
Duration: 2 hours
Cost: R1000 (25% discount for existing clients)

A guy walks into a bar and orders a beer.

Bartender says “That’ll cost you 80 bucks!”

Guy says “But that is more than twice as much as the pub next door charges!”

Bartender says “That’s not entirely true… if you agree upfront to drink at least 6 beers, upon finishing your 6th beer, we will reward you your 7th one for free. If you then keep on drinking your beers at this establishment, after your 10th beer we will refund you for two more. And that’s not all, after your 20th beer we will refund you up to four more beers.”

Furthermore said the small print:“The actual amount of free beers we will reward you with, will depend on your behaviour…..

– If you leave our pub without drinking the pre-agreed 6 beers we are still going to charge you for the full six beers.

– If you slow down the pace at which you drink your beers, or

– If you do not manage to drink 20 beers, or

– If you decide to change to wine,

we ‘”may” reduce the number of free beers or rewards you receive.”

If you suspect that may not be the best deal for you, I would encourage you to go and scrutinize your retirement planning charging structure.

Look up or request from your provider, your “detailed EAC” or Effective Annual Charge. If there is a large number (Positive or negative) under the category “Other”, then you are quite probably on a similar type of “reward” program to that described above, only its going to leave you with a much bigger hangover come retirement.

If you find the proverbial red flag under the category of “Other” as described above, I would leave you with a few questions to ponder…

What is the purpose of the complex pricing structure?

Is it to make it easier for you to understand?

Is it to make it more transparent as to what you are actually paying?

If you are concerned about the charges you are paying on your plan, send us a message and we will help you decipher the code.

You deserve better.

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Technology is neither intrinsically good or bad – it is how it is used that defines its worth.

For those of you that are considering using a robo-advisor service, I thought it would be useful to examine some of the more common misconceptions of this relatively new technology. I  hope that it will help you to understand their strengths and weaknesses and allow you to select and utilise them more appropriately.

1. Robo-advisors do not eliminate the need for a basic level of financial literacy

Financial literacy is probably the single biggest obstacle to investors successfully adopting a fully DIY approach to their finances.

All of the hype around fintech, and Robo-advisors in particular, is exciting peoples imagination because in theory it brings previously “exclusive” services to the masses.

But for individuals to successfully make appropriate use of robotic advice tools they will still need to be equipped with enough knowledge to (at the bare minimum) determine which robo-advisor to use.

Make no mistake robo-advice platforms can, and will, still incorporate inferior products, with high management costs while marketing themselves as a low or no-fee advice services.

Additionally, going the DIY route and buying robo-advice is actually only truly helpful if you understand what you have bought and why.

Individuals will still need to understand their strategies and the assumptions* that have been used in getting to their portfolio recommendation so that they are equipped to update the strategy as their life circumstances change.

Understanding their strategy and its assumptions will also hopefully help individuals to manage their expectations and to understand how their portfolios are likely to react during periods of heightened market volatility – Another key element to long-term success.

2. Robo-advisors are not guaranteed to provide suitable advice

A robotic advisor will not question your inputs or help you put them into perspective. The advice and portfolio you receive will be based purely on the inputs you make into a robotic advisor’s Q&A.

If your goals, priorities or combination of goals are not perfectly clear to you, then you may inadvertently run the risk of providing inappropriate inputs to your robo-advisor which of course in turn will inevitably provide you with inappropriate outputs.

Another area of potential concern is that automated response algorithm investing without some human influence (be it your own educated self or a human advisor) can be hazardous to your long term financial well-being.

A good example of this is the so-called life-stage modelling which reduces “risk in portfolios” as people approach their retirement. The “glide-path” is automated, so for example, when you reach five years before retirement, your portfolio automatically reduces your equity exposure by 15% in favour of cash and fixed income. Then with 4 years to go a further automatic reduction takes place and so on. Unless you understand the implications of this you are opening yourself up to all sorts of potential risks – What happens if 5 years prior to your retirement, equity markets are at a bear market trough? Will your automated algorithm model still sell down to supposedly “de-risk” your portfolio right at the bottom of the market?

You will probably find that Robo-advisors are pretty good at individual goals but not as well equipped at prioritising or combining objectives. Helping you to understand your overall situation and the challenges you have ahead of you, prioritising multiple goals, and matching those up to risk appropriate investment solutions (find out more)* may require additional research or input outside of the scope of a robo-advisor.

3. Robo-advisors do not possess superior or advanced investment insight

Robotic advisers are more like sophisticated calculators that will use algorithms to provide you with a ‘model portfolio’ based on your answers to some pre-defined questions.

They do not possess artificial intelligence or technology that can benefit your financial success outside of what a good human advisor would.

They will not dynamically adjust your portfolio or strategy unless you change your own inputs.

They don’t have any superior ability to predict market returns or produce better performance.

You will still be assigned to the same funds you would have had access to outside of the robo-advice environment.

4. Robo-advisors do not reduce your exposure to modelling and assumption risk

Your human advisor and your robo-advisor are probably both using financial models, largely based on the same investment or portfolio theory.

Both are likely to use some form of portfolio optimisation model which incorporates past performance and risk measures to determine an efficient portfolio allocation given your risk and return requirements.

While these tools do provide some useful insights they speak nothing of current valuations across the asset classes – The price at which you buy an asset is directly linked to the long-term returns you can expect to derive from that asset.

For example if you are considering a new lump-sum investment and you answer all the robo-advisor questions in a manner which confirms you are happy with ”high risk”, you will land up with a portfolio predominantly holding equities and listed property. This relatively arbitrary rule of thumb process does not take into account current market valuations. This is problematic because the risk and expected future returns of buying into an equity market which is trading at a Price-to-Earnings multiple (PE ratio) of 24x, is completely different to one which is trading at a PE of 12x. Evidence in research conducted in US equity markets, illustrates that periods of historically elevated PE ratios is associated with low investment returns in subsequent years – this makes intuitive sense but is not captured in a mechanical process.

In addition to these risk and return assumptions, models will use assumptions on inflation to determine future required contributions* which in turn will influence your specific strategy. Understanding what assumptions*are being used and how well they match up to reality in your robo-advisor strategy is therefore crucial to meeting your goals successfully.

5. Robo-advisors are not guaranteed to provide the most cost efficient service

Robo-advisors should by definition significantly reduce or eliminate your advice costs. But you should be aware that advice is just one element of what the cost of investing involves. (Find out more about fees here*)

An ill-informed individual could still be at risk of buying robo-advice services (at low or even no advice fee) which incorporate funds with high fund management fees and high platform fees, which in turn could potentially nullify the benefit of a reduction in advice fees altogether. This will still ultimately lead to a poor financial outcome.

By the way, the best way to eliminate advice fees is the same today as in pre-robo-advisor days. Improve your own personal finance and investment knowledge – Unfortunately that takes some time and effort on an ongoing basis and does not suit everyone.

6. Robo-advisors won’t help much with the behavioural aspects of your investment challenge

Now in theory making your investment strategy as mechanical as possible would actually benefit most people because it would eliminate emotions from the decision making process.

If you have any experience managing your own finances then you will be aware that investing and emotional decision making are not good bed fellows.

But since individuals are emotional beings and prone to making emotional decisions, and since they will maintain the ability to override the robotic advisor, they remain exposed to falling into the same trap that most DIY investors and professionals alike tend to make, namely, selling out of market at the trough of the cycle and failing to get back in so missing out on the upside.

The risk is that people using Robo-advisors will struggle not to intervene with their strategy when markets go into free-fall. Note we said when and not if – that’s the cycle and that’s how markets generally work.

Perhaps even more importantly, behavioural traits and habits, which don’t even fall into the robo-advisor realm of competence, may scupper* many inidviduals hopes before they even get to accumulate any savings with which to approach a robo-advisor.

People frequently fail in their financial goals, and in turn therefore many of their life goals, because they fail to understand and control even the most basic fundamental personal finance decisions.*

A robo-advisor cannot help manage these behavioural aspects of your financial planning journey and so once again you need to understand what you are going to experience as a long-term investor and how to deal with it. This usually involves gaining experience and knowledge.

7. Robo-advisors are not independent Title

A platform that offers a robo-advisor service will utilise their own funds or a chosen suite of product provider funds to make portfolio recommendations based on your objective and risk profiling inputs.

You will not be told if there are better or more suitable options out there for your investment goals. No matter what you input into the system regarding your objectives or risk profile, you can be guaranteed that a robo-advisor will have a portfolio for you.

So in essence you will potentially get the portfolio that ‘most fits’ your inputs rather than a solution that ‘best fits’ your situation.

So a robo-advisor platform is essentially a different distribution channel for product providers to sell their own product or affiliated product.

An independent human advisor should NOT be focused on selling product. They sell a service and then theoretically use the best products and platforms to deliver on that.

8. Robo-advisors don’t improve upon risk profiling techniques

Risk profiling is the process whereby you answer 20 questions which aim to determine your appetite for risk and perception of risk. Based on your answers you will be “profiled” into a pre-determined category, commonly something like: Aggressive; Moderate Aggressive; Cautious; Conservative; Low risk; medium risk or high risk.

These profiles are then linked to a model portfolio, which will typically have more equity and property in them the higher up the risk spectrum your answers take you, and more cash and fixed income the lower down the risk spectrum you fall.

While this process is required (not least of which by regulations) it is in my opinion of limited real value on its own.

In practice most people want equity like returns while taking cash like risk, which is clearly unrealistic. So risk is determined more by the objective, the time horizon and the contributions one can afford to make, rather than by the risk individuals would like to take.

Another point is that in the real world peoples risk profile changes. It changes when life circumstances change (we get older, we get wiser, we have kids, we get retrenched, we win the lottery). Our risk profile frequently changes when knowledge or financial literacy improves – understanding that cash is a risky investment if your objective is long-term wealth creation can be something of a conundrum to the novice investor.

Individuals using robotic advice services will need to understand the link between their risk profile, the model portfolio they are allocated into and the probability of then achieving their goals.*


I hope that this article (and the links to others) has provided some ideas, food for thought and insight into the journey you will take to your financial freedom. It is intended to support your decision to use a roboadvisor rather than dissuade you from it.

In my opinion a good robo-advisor service will be perfect to use for certain long-term objectives, which remain relatively static and will require little change in strategy for some time (such as monthly contributions to retirement 30 years away).

There are many factors that can influence an individuals ability to successfully meet their investment and life goals. An individual who wants to embrace this technology needs to work at understanding how best to use it. They need to understand their own limitations (and those of a robotic-advisor), improve their own financial literacy levels and fully take charge of their futures. 

Until you are up to speed you may need to combine the services of both human and robotic advisors to get you where you need to be.

In my opinion, good human advisors will not be replaced by roboadvisors, they could be enhanced by them. A better educated client will know this, understand this and hopefully use this.

* I have spent a lot of time writing periodic blog articles referencing topics, concepts or ideas which are designed to educate those who are interested in progressing their own financial wellbeing. Of course many do not take the time to read them but if you are going to start going down the DIY route and using a robo-advisor I think some of these articles will be very useful to you. I think they will help fill in some of the gaps that a robotic service cannot. Please take some time to read them and let us know what you think or give us other topics that you may want covered in the future.

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Whether you know it or not, if you have a proper investment plan in place you have made (or hired someone else to make on your behalf) some rather large assumptions about the future.

One of the first steps towards saving and investing for a future goal is to have an idea of what that future goal will cost at the point in time when we need to pay for it. From this point we can determine:

– how much we will need to contribute,

– how much we will need to earn (investment returns) on our contributions

– and what type of investments we will need to purchase to give us the best chance of achieving our goals.

In financial parlance we get to the answers to all of these questions through a process called financial modelling – A financial model is a tool designed to help quantify future goals and better quantify what we need to do to get there. A financial model will also provide a framework against which we can measure our progress over time.

Since no one has the ability to accurately predict the future we have to make some assumptions or educated guesses about certain future outcomes that go into the model.

Herein lies the greatest risk and weakness of a financial model – You can get it to tell you pretty much anything  you want to hear based on the assumptions that you choose to use.

The quality of the inputs directly correlate to the quality of the outputs – In other words what you put in is what you get out so it’s a good idea not to use rubbish assumptions.

Whether you use a financial advisor, a robo-advisor or have gone the full DIY route you should be aware of and understand what assumptions your plan is using when projecting your future financial outcomes.

A more sound knowledge of these factors should allow you to create plans with outcomes which are likely to be more accurate and therefore beneficial to you long-term. You should also be in a position to identify when sales people are merely using pie in the sky assumptions to flog more product.

With a few working examples we hope to shed some light on two of the more common areas of modelling risk that are likely to impact on your investment plan.

In our working example let’s assume my goal is to pay for my 8-month old son’s high school education. I would like him to attend a reputable non-private boarding school  – The 2016 fees for this institution (tuition & boarding) is R95,000 per year for Grade 8-12.

What I really want to know is what I need to be putting away monthly now in order to have the full fees available by the time he starts his Grade 8 year, which incidentally will be the year he turns 14 (2030).

The two most important assumptions I have to make involve:

(i) Inflation

(ii) Investment Returns

Inflation – I need to know at what pace the 2016 fee likely to increase over the next 14 years?

Of course inflation is not something that is in my control – The school will set their own fee adjustments annually and can range anywhere from 7.5% up to 12% in my experience.

Inflation increases costs at a compound rate so I have got to understand that over a 14 year period seemingly small differences in percentage terms can actually have a massive impact on the quantum of my end goal.

So if I assume an increase of 6% then my Grade 8 cost in 2030 is about R215,000 or a total high school cost of R1,211,000.

But if in reality the cost of my chosen school rises by 9% per year then the Grade 8 cost will in fact be R317,500. The total high school cost at this rate would be R1,900,000.

Feeding that through to my original question of how much I must be putting away monthly to get to my target it becomes clear if I use 6% in my financial model, I will need to put away about R2,700 per month. But if I used a more realistic 9% increase, I will need to put away R4,200 per month (Both assume a 12.5% annual average return).

Using a 6% increase is therefore more manageable monthly but I will be about R700,000 short of the real target if I follow through with this assumption.

Investment Returns – What pace can I reasonably expect my savings to grow at over the next 14 years?

The rate of return that I assume I will receive on my invested contributions will similarly impact on the amount I need to be putting away.

The investment return assumption I input into my model must crucially be on an after fee basis to reflect a more genuine actual rate of compounding. For example, if equity markets are expected to deliver 14% per year then each percentage point of fees that I pay to various parties will serve to reduce my actual returns and therefore increase the amount I will need to contribute on a monthly basis. 1

The actual returns I receive will depend on market conditions and the mix of assets that I use with my portfolio or my asset allocation.

For the purposes of this illustration I will use three levels of returns, which will somewhat clumsily fit into the definition of low, medium and high risk as per the conventional naming methodology. 2

So for the low risk option let us assume a pure cash play with a return of 7%.

For a medium risk portfolio  we will use the average return of the medium equity fund group over 15 years, which as at end of March 2016 was 14.0%.

For high risk we’ll use the average return of the FTSE JSE All Share index over 15 years less 0.5% which is around 16%.

At each level of assumed returns my required contribution amounts look like this:

What is evident is that safety and consistency of returns comes at a price.

– If you want to invest in a low risk fixed return portfolio you will simply have to contribute more to get to your target.

– If you opt for a high risk portfolio then you will need to be clear upfront that your portfolio is going to fluctuate in value quite considerably throughout the life of your investment and there is no guarantee of the final return.

Finally to sum up the message here and to give the clearest illustration of how you can get a model to tell you what you want to hear I have compiled the best and worst case outputs.

Best case – The Product Floggers model

Inflation at 6% and investment returns at 15.5%

A product flogger wants to sell more product and can make the goal easier to achieve and therefore more attractive to potential buyers by using the best case scenario assumptions.  It is not illegal, it may perhaps not even be considered strictly unethical BUT it is most certainly not going to help their clients to actually reach their goals.

Worst case – The Haters model

Inflation is 11% and investment returns are 7%

There are haters out there of course. Those that have previously had bad experiences in the investment market or perhaps have been sold a product floggers model before and feel somewhat aggrieved by the fact that it was doomed to fail from the start. They want to prove that planning and investing is for the birds and so they use the worst combination of inflation and investment returns to make their case.

The truth is the actual outcome will fall somewhere in between the best and worst case. The exact degree is unknown and unforecastable hence the need for assumptions. Financial targeting is necessary but one needs to monitor and know how to adjust the solution if the assumptions prove wayward.

1As discussed in previous write ups, one can make a strong case for arguing that cash is a high risk investment option over the long-term in that it very rarely maintains your purchasing power.   
2Taxation will in reality also serve to reduce the real returns that you achieve on your investments but I have not included this discussion here as it get’s a little more complicated and long winded while the message remains the same. We need to understand what the real returns are after fee’s, taxation and all other costs.

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I am frequently approached by people as a sounding board for some new investment “opportunity”.

I get asked about subjects like binary options trading, foreign exchange trading, penny stocks that are yet to be listed and various other schemes.

A common thread is the promise of returns which dwarf those typically available from even the best performing traditional investments.

Most of the time these alternative investment “opportunities” are frustrating simply because they are riddled with all the usual warning signs that make them speculative gambles at best and probable fraudulent schemes at the other end of the spectrum.

The promise of quick riches is a powerful draw-card. Usually the source of these high returns is some black box methodology that no one else has come up with before.

Match your goals to appropriate investments - White Investments

You don’t need to be an investment expert when looking at these options. Apply this simple common sense test to save you a lot of time (and ultimately money) – “If I had an idea or a trading system that delivered super-normal profits overnight without taking any risks would I share it with the world (for a price) or would I just milk the system and live out my days in paradise?”

Understanding the source of the advice you receive and understanding how the advice provider is being paid is another useful distinction to make when considering investment opportunities.

For example, I get paid the same for the investment advice or discretionary management service that I provide, regardless of the products I use or where I decide to place the funds. In my attempt to make a real difference, I provide a service that I think will offer the best chance for a client to achieve their stated objectives, with the greatest degree of certainty.

If I thought any of the ideas or schemes that promote fast profits were genuinely worth pursuing I would get involved. But most of the time investing towards long-term goals is not an exciting, white knuckle ride.

I have created a basic framework to provide an indication of the types of investments I think you should consider and when you should consider using them, to create risk appropriate investment solutions for your life and investment goals.

Framework for Financial Success

Level 1: The Basics (Primary Goals)

These are in my mind investment objectives that should be prioritised as they have a direct impact on your long-term financial well being.

The key thing about the objectives at this level is that if you were to fail at any of them it would have a direct, tangible, negative impact on your financial well being and that of your dependents and loved ones.

Since the severity of failure here is hardly worth considering I suggest we use investments which actively seek out to maximise the certainty of success as far as possible while at the same time minimising the opportunity for poor financial outcomes.

Examples of Level 1 objectives include:

  • Retirement planning – pre and post retirement
  • Education planning
  • Primary Residential Housing
  • Rainy day or emergency funds

Types of Level 1 investments:

  • Collective Investments(Unit Trusts & Exchange Traded Funds),
  • Bank and money market accounts,
  • RSA Retail Bonds

I would argue that buy to let property portfolios are probably too concentrated and illiquid to comfortably fit into this level but I know of a few property bulls that would disagree.

Characteristics of the Level 1 Strategy:

  • Exclusively invested in listed securities – Easy to access relevant investment information, valuations are readily ascertainable, you have reasonable ability to research the options and make informed decisions and you receive regular and detailed statements, including reports on how these investments are performing.
  • Typically adopts a Balanced Approach – Diversify asset classes strategically and tactically. Asset Allocation is optimised to achieve targeted returns in a risk efficient manner.
  • Reasonable certainty about the returns you would expect to receive and how your portfolio would behave through the investment cycle.
  • Makes full use of tax free accounts, tax deferred accounts (Retirement) and other tax saving allowances.
  • Low levels of concentration to any specific single company or sector relative to benchmark.
  • Passive funds dominate.

Outcomes achieved by a Level 1 Strategy:

A well diversified investment portfolio that can attempt to optimise required returns against appropriate risk parameters.

Virtually fully indemnifies a portfolio from any probability of a permanent loss of capital.

Passive investments will minimise costs. Low costs will mean more of your contributions and compounded returns filter through towards your investment goals.

Should require less trading as portfolio is only tactically adjusted and strategically rebalanced.

The Level 1 portfolio should be highly tax efficient.

Goals are specific, measureable and prioritised.

I would say approximately 90% of the public will fall into this category alone. 


Level 2: Lifestyle (Secondary Objectives)

This is the level which captures your wants rather than your needs in life. Failure to meet these objectives will not de-rail your overall financial plan.

Since Level 2 objectives are likely to involve goals that you would consider less of a priority and more out of reach, you will probably require higher returns if you are to achieve them. You may therefore be more willing and able to assume greater risk in pursuit of these goals.

You will almost certainly be required to take on more risk to achieve the returns you will need to reach your lifestyle goals.

Examples of Level 2 objectives include:

  • Holiday Homes
  • Dream Car
  • Hobbies
  • Overseas holidays
  • Bigger home
  • Charity

Types of Level 2 investments:

  • Direct share portfolios – high levels of concentration to specific companies
  • Sector specific bets – resources, financials, industrials
  • Small caps
  • Commodities
  • Private Equity Funds & Venture Capital Funds (May be more illiquid – “lock-ins”)
  • Active funds where you believe the managers have a superior ability to deliver performance.
  • Buy to let properties may fit in here in terms of concentration risk and illiquidity but whether they will provide the higher required returns to reach your goals is another matter.

Characteristics of the Level 2 Strategy:

  • Higher degree of fluctuations in the value of portfolio.
  • Less diversification as a result of concentrated positions.
  • Shorter investment time horizons
  • Likely to involve a higher level of trading activity.
  • Investments should still be restricted to listed securities.
  • Less ability to utilise tax efficient vehicles.
  • Accessing these investments is likely to be more costly than those at Level 1.

Outcomes achieved by a Level 2 Strategy:

Increased possibility of higher excess returns.

Greater position concentration will increase the chance for a permanent loss of capital.

Costs will be higher to access either active or specialist funds as well as the increased costs associated with greater trading activity.

Likely to be less tax efficient – trading and shorter term focus.

Goals are still specific and measureable although the certainty of attaining them is diminished by the need to assume more risk to try and make them a reality.

I would say approximately 99% of the public will fall into a combination of Level 1 & 2 strategies.

Level 3: Looking for a little magic

This would include investment allocations to things that could significantly increase your long-term wealth but also have a very high probability of outright failure.

Examples of Level 3 objectives include:

  • Intergenerational wealth creation
  • Philanthropic endeavours
  • Research
  • Changing the world

Types of Level 3 investments:

  • Unlisted equity investments – Trying to pick Google or Apple at the founding stage.
  • Funding at the pioneering stage for unproven innovations and ideas
  • Incubation funding for start-ups (Angel capital)
  • Research Funds

Characteristics of the Level 3 Strategy:

  • High probability of losing capital without hope of a recovery
  • Likely to be very long term in nature to allow for the full value to be realised as the investment moves from pioneering stage to mature company or industry.
  • Very low to no liquidity or ability to trade positions
  • Virtually no formal reporting
  • No real ability to independently verify valuations or conduct research
  • Access is likely to be restricted to invitation only and prescribed minimum investment levels

Outcomes achieved by a Level 3 Strategy:

Outcomes are likely to be binary – All or nothing.

If the investments pay off the financial rewards will be truly life changing.

Wealth created to such an extent it will be intergenerational.


Hopefully the above framework assists in identifying appropriate investment options for all levels of your investment plan regardless of your overall net wealth position.

Securing your highest priority goals before contributing to others will likely mean that there is a trickle down from Level 1 to Level 3 but it is not necessarily associated with a specific monetary value or level of wealth.

Level 1 investment options are necessarily boring, albeit effective over the long-term, and carry a much lower probability of poor financial outcomes.

Level 2 & 3 investments are certainly more exciting and hold the promise of greater rewards but will probably not offer the greatest amount of certainty.

Sustainable excess returns are more often associated with taking on increased risk rather than through some special skill or system – Acknowledging this and matching your goals with appropriate investments will go a long way to enhancing your long-term financial well being.

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Your future becomes your present…

A plan is simply a way to bring your future into the present so you can do something about it.