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Duh! Of course geared funds won, but know the risks

When The Australian Financial Review published an article called, "Australia's best fundies for 2019" on 14 January 2020, it was obviously highly popular with readers. Who doesn't love a winner?

But half of the funds listed in the Top 10 'All Funds Report' based on Morningstar's database of 9,846 funds were geared funds. Well, duh! The S&P/ASX200 Accumulation Index was up 18.8% in 2019 and geared fund borrowing costs fell to about 2%. Of course cheap leverage pays off when markets are so strong.

With many investors thinking the good times will continue, there's a temptation to gear into the action, especially with borrowing costs low. What can go wrong? 

How do investors gear into shares?

There are four main ways to borrow to invest in shares:

1. Margin loans, where the assets secure the loan but the borrower remains responsible for any shortfalls.

2. Drawings against the equity in home loans, where the loan is secured against the value of residential property.

3. Instalment warrants, where one payment is made on first investment, and then the investor can choose to make a later second payment to achieve full ownership.

4. Internally geared share funds, where the borrowing and security are managed within the fund itself with no recourse to the investor. These are the successful funds of 2019 referred to in the AFR article.

Here we focus on how geared funds work, and show the asymmetric returns.

How does gearing work?

Let's consider if the market index rises or falls 10%, how much will a geared strategy change in value?

Surely, that’s easy. Assuming a gearing ratio of 50%, if I borrow $100,000 to add to my own $100,000 and invest $200,000, don’t I simply double the return? And if the market is down 10%, then my return will be down twice as much, or 20%. I can live with that risk, so let’s go.

Sorry, it doesn't work like that.

Internally geared funds build the debt into fund structure. For example, a fund geared at 60% (the usual maximum allowed) will take $10,000 from an investor and borrow another $15,000 to invest $25,000 on behalf of the unitholder ($15,000/$25,000=60%). The interest cost is significantly lower than in margin lending because these funds borrow in wholesale markets, currently at around Bank Bill Rate plus 1%, or 2%. However, management fees are charged on the gross assets (including the borrowed amount), so geared funds gross up the fees handsomely. 

The calculation which many geared investors overlook

For a geared strategy to be worthwhile, the ungeared (or market) return must be enough to cover the interest cost plus any management costs and fees. Let's consider what happens in a strong market, which rises 10% in a year. 

The formula, which can apply to any geared investment, is:

Geared Return = (Ungeared Return–Gross Fees) - (Gearing RatioXInterest Cost)
                                                            (1–Gearing Ratio)

The gearing ratio is the amount of debt as a proportion of total assets, and if an investor puts in $40 and the fund borrows $60 on their behalf, the gearing ratio is 60%. Interest is only paid on the borrowed amount, so the lower the gearing, the less the impact of the borrowing rate. This calculation ignores the fact that income may be taxable and expenses may be deductible.

Let's use a typical example of a geared share fund with an interest cost of 2%, a gearing ratio of 60% and fees on the gross assets of the fund of 1%. Assume the normal accumulation index (price plus dividends) rises 10% over a year.

The Geared Return will be 19.5%, being 9% return after fees (10%-1%), less the interest cost (60% of 2% is 1.2%), leaving 7.8% net return, divided by the 40% equity put in by the investor, to give 19.5% (7.8%/0.4).

(The impact of low rates is significant. If the funding cost was say 5%, the return would drop to 15%).

However, here's where the risks come in. If the market is flat, the Geared Return would be -5.5%, being the cost of 1% in fees and 2% interest, divided by the capital of 40% (-2.2%/0.4=-5.5%).

Note that these examples consider total returns, so ‘flat market’ means prices have fallen enough to offset the dividends.

If the index falls 10%, the ‘loss’ on the investor’s capital is a hefty 30.5%

The asymmetry of returns can shock investors. 

How can the loss be over 30% when the market is down only 10%? It does not seem intuitively correct. 

Consider the exact dollars. An investor puts in $100,000 and borrows $150,000 to invest $250,000. The portfolio is down 10% or $25,000. The fund charges 1% on gross assets or $2,500 and the interest cost is $3,000 ($150,000 at 2%). That’s a loss of $30,500 or 30.5% on $100,000. Oops.

By the same reasoning, many investors with margin loans during the GFC in 2007 lost 100%, even when gearing ratios were lower. They put in $100,000 and borrowed $100,000, and then their shares fell in value by 50%. Their loss was not 50%, it was 100%. All their capital was gone.

Here are the geared returns on a typical geared share fund for various levels of (ungeared) market performance (the same calculations apply to any form of gearing).

Accumulation Index (Ungeared) Geared Return Gearing Ratio (debt/assets) Gross Asset Fee Interest Cost
-20% -55.5% 60% 1% 2%
-10% -30.5% 60% 1% 2%
0% -5.5% 60% 1% 2%
5% 7.0% 60% 1% 2%
10% 19.5% 60% 1% 2%
20% 44.5% 60% 1% 2%

The point where geared equals ungeared is when the normal market is up about 3.6%, enough to cover the costs and provide an equivalent return. 

A margin loan invested on the ASX in, say, cheaper Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) or direct shares may save on the asset management fee, but the borrowing cost is much higher, making the geared returns even worse. According to Canstar, margin loan rates are currently between 4.75% and 6.73%, way above the 2% on internally geared funds. 

For example, if the market loses 10%, an investor with a margin loan at 6% would lose 33.5%. 

A geared investor needs high risk tolerance

Gearing is not for the fainthearted, especially when low equity returns are a more realistic expectation. A gearing ratio of 60% will give an investment with 250% of the volatility of the standard equity index.

The same reasoning as above applies to any geared investment, including buying the family home. Residential owners are blessed by not having daily market valuations, so they do not realise when their geared exposure has made a massive loss. Plus they tend to consider property investment longer term, especially the house they live in.

This leads to the type of mindset you need to gear into equities. It is for the highly-risk tolerant and based on a long-term strategy, because short-term losses can be severe.

Also, borrowing within super is complex and expensive, and an SMSF may not be the best structure to learn whether you have the risk tolerance.

Any gearing structure should watch for gearing on gearing. Although almost all listed companies have some level of borrowing, property funds were historically highly geared going into the GFC, and the major feature of their subsequent restructuring has been to move to lower gearing levels.

Investors need far better performance to recover from a fall than the percentage fall itself. For example, if a $1 investment goes to 50 cents, it has fallen by 50%. But to recover from 50 cents to $1, it must rise 100%. 

Next time an adviser or broker suggests an equity loan or internally geared fund, ask a simple question:

“If the market goes down only 10%, how much will I lose?”

If they don't know the answer, they will be shocked when you show them this article.


Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Firstlinks. He was General Manager, Funding & Alliances at Colonial First State, during the GFC, where he was responsible for gearing management (not asset selection). At its peak, CFS's geared funds held $10 billion in assets. Nothing in this article constitutes personal financial advice or considers the circumsances of any individual.





The returns to expect from gearing into shares

The best and worst managed fund of all

The decline of margin lending


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