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My disinterest in investments as an investment specialist

When we write our pieces, we have a reasonable idea of how popular they will be. The list of the most popular articles on Morningstar.com.au is predictably filled with pieces on shares. Given our audience, this makes a lot of sense.

We have self-directed investors that are largely invested in equities – and are hobbyists. We are an equity research house, and our readers enjoy the ‘art’ of investing. We enjoy providing in-depth analysis on companies. They enjoy picking the winners and investing towards their financial goals.

Most of these investors are looking to make well-informed and thoughtful decisions about investments that will impact whether their achieve their financial goals -whether that be a comfortable retirement, paying for education, purchasing a home, or travel. Investment selection is important.

I’m not here to try and change the perspectives of that camp. I’m here to provide the perspective that successful investing does not mean constantly searching for new investment opportunities.

The foundation of that widely held belief is that at any particular moment there are investments that are good and will outperform in the immediate future, and ones that are bad that will underperform. This view is reinforced and encouraged by professional investors who are selling investments and their ability to navigate markets to find opportunities.

I’ve come to an approach that flips this conventional wisdom around.

Selecting individual investments for my portfolio is not my primary concern and is the final step in my process. Other concerns, like having a well-defined budget and clear investing goals, come first and lay the foundations for everything else. Hence why they are shown at the bottom of this diagram showing my approach:

I arrived at this approach for technical and circumstantial reasons.

Let’s start with the technical. In 1986, Brinson, Hood, and Beebower’s seminal paper ‘Determinants of Portfolio Performance’ attributed 93.6% of investment performance to asset allocation. The paper focused not on the return level, but on the variation of returns. A 1991 update to the paper concludes that active decisions on investment selection by pension plans (which were used as a basis for the study) made little improvement to performance over a 10-year period. The paper championed a focus on strategic asset allocation over the long-term to increase the chances of reaching successful outcomes.

There were several adaptations of this research by other academics, including Ibbotson and Kaplan’s report in 2000 – ‘Does Asset Allocation Explain 40, 90 or 100 Percent of Performance?’. Ibbotson and Kaplan focused on the key question for investors – what percentage of the actual return comes from the asset allocation decisions that they make? Ibbotson explains the results in a CFA Institute paper from 2010:

“Asset allocation policy gives us the passive return (beta return), and the remainder of the return is the active return (alpha or excess return). The alpha sums to zero across all portfolios (before costs) because on average, managers do not beat the market. In aggregate, the gross active return is zero. Therefore, on average, the passive asset allocation policy determines 100 percent of the return before costs and somewhat more than 100 percent of the return after costs. The 100 percent answer pertains to the all-inclusive market portfolio and is a mathematical identity—at the aggregate level.”

Ibbotson’s point is that because most investors can’t put together a portfolio of individual investments that beat the index, the only driver of returns is the asset allocation of their overall portfolios.

The second guiding principle to my investing strategy is a focus on factors in my control as I try to build wealth and achieve my goals. That is my savings. It is minimising taxes and fees and limiting the impact of poor decisions on my investment approach.

I have rigid savings goals that are governed by my Investment Policy Statement (IPS). I try to consider these as non-negotiable fixed costs.

I have not read any academic papers on the importance of saving. I don’t think any academic is going to get accolades for pointing out the revolutionary idea that capital is important to build wealth. The math isn’t difficult. If I contribute $1,000 a month and am able to contribute $100 extra, it is the equivalent of a 10% monthly return. Of course, there is an opportunity cost attached to extra contributions – you don’t get to spend the extra money. You don’t have this same cost with investment returns. I’ll touch on my experiences with savings and how it has formed such an integral part of my perception of successful investing further down.

Academic arguments are interesting but they often ignore the realities of life. Nassim Taleb writes about this in his book ‘Skin in the Game’. He speaks about ‘skin in the game’ being contact with the real world that informs your decision making. Taleb explains ‘The knowledge we get by tinkering, via trial and error, experience and the workings of time…is vastly superior to that obtained through reasoning.’

He refers to Pathemata mathemata - a Greek concept that describes how the abrasions on your skin guide your learning. Investing has not drawn blood (yet), but I strongly believe that your circumstances, temperament and experiences guide the type of investor you are and the investing strategy that will maximise your outcomes.

Different investment priorities in practice

There are two types of investors that prioritise security selection. There are investors, and there are speculators. New investors tend to go straight into selecting investments because strong returns from an asset class (maybe even one asset in particular) was their reason for entering the market. We saw this with the influx of new investors in 2020 and 2021.

These investors rode the wave of Covid market returns and gained premature confidence in their investment selection capabilities. It was a momentum fuelled rally and buying shares which had done well paid off. A large cohort of these entrants I would classify as speculators making tactical allocations based on recent performance.

This was a perfect example of riding the asset class wave and mistakenly attributing it to the prowess of the individual. Since then, there has been volatility but markets continue to climb and reach new highs. A contraction, and therefore a reality check, is inevitable. We’ve historically had a bear market every 3.5 years – it is folly to think that we will continue to avoid one going forward.

This situation is avoidable when building a portfolio from the foundations up.

Anchoring your investments to a goal means that you will have an intimate understanding of the purpose of each security in your portfolio. It will be part of an allocation to an asset class that is connected to the returns required to reach that financial goal. It will prevent poor behaviour by selling at inopportune moments to try to time the market, or because holding an investment you have surface level faith in drops which makes you nervous.

What’s also worth mentioning about bear markets is that tactical allocation of funds can severely rig the game against you. Over the last 30 years, if you missed the S&P 500's 10 best days, your return would be cut in half. If you missed the best 30 days over the last 30 years, your return would be 83% lower.

This is why timing the market is an issue, but also why an overreliance of tactical asset allocation in your investment strategy can also be an issue. Not being invested in the right securities means missing most of those days. 78% of the best days occurred in a bear market. I don’t want to miss out. I am perfectly content capturing the average return of the market.

Just as bull markets drive new investors, bear markets cause people to give up. Those that don’t quit may find their way to adopting a strategy that focuses more on what they are trying to achieve, rather than the vehicles to get there.

I know this because I used to be one of these investors who focused more on investments than investing. When I first started investing, I purchased funds that had sex appeal with terms such as ‘pure alpha’, ‘long-short’ and ‘innovation’ in the name. I was extremely lucky that I invested during a very long bull run and didn’t get badly burnt.

The good times kept rolling as equity markets continued to trounce other asset classes. As my career progressed, I felt an obligation to start making direct equity investments to ‘justify’ my work. I didn’t get burnt, but I was sitting in a stockpot that was slowly coming to a rolling boil.

I started understanding myself better as an investor through these holdings. I learned two main things:

  • I get incredibly nervous with direct equity holdings
  • I tend to spend a lot of time over-analysing my decision and seeking information to confirm I made the right decision

How bloody exhausting. This is where I realised that a large part of investing is understanding what works for you, and deeply understanding yourself as an investor. Investing was a means to an end for me and not a journey I would actively enjoy along the way.

Fast forward to today. My portfolio outside of superannuation consists of cash and collective investment vehicles – managed funds and ETFs. The investment vehicles are concentrated mainly in equities. My cash portion is held in my emergency fund.

I no longer feel the need to continually justify my investment decisions at every turn of the market. My portfolio is connected to the foundations of the pyramid – to my goals. I have a strong understanding of why I hold each position and why it behaves the way it does through different market conditions. This understanding and the connection to my goals means that I am not tempted by each new opportunity. I have a long-time horizon for my capital to grow and compound. I’ve evolved my perception of investing from maximising wealth to building a model that works best to maximise my outcomes.

This has had a flow on effect of other benefits. I am more tax efficient. I limit selling and that lowers my transaction costs (as well as tax). I am cost conscious. I stay invested for the long-term. I think about how to structure my investments, so they are in the most tax efficient vehicle. These benefits are hugely important when considering total return outcomes. I’ve calculated the actual total return of investments in this piece. It shows the individual impact of return influencers.

I prioritise savings. This is a hard lesson to learn without experience, but I was fortunate to work early in my career at a fund manager where I could see the history of individual accounts. This drove home the importance of contributions and compounding to building wealth.

I worked in Client Services and with transaction histories and account balances all day. It was basically a view of the blueprint to building wealth – I saw how individual investors had built up their portfolios over time. Going into this job, I believed that investing was for the wealthy and had no exposure to it growing up.

Working in this role allowed me to see every type of scenario imaginable played out – including those that were contributing small amounts per week over a long time period. I have not had any lump sum wind fall and I do not expect anything in the future. I know that for me to build a comfortable life, I need to prioritise saving to build my capital base. This approach resonated with me on a graduate salary, and it kickstarted my journey with investing.

Selecting investments brings a lot of people joy. I am much more focused on investing regularly in the right asset allocation and committing over the long-term. I believe that will provide more of a difference to my outcome than choosing between two stocks.

Now, after reading this – you may ask, well, for someone that has such a hands-off approach, why on earth would you decide to make your whole career about investments?

The answer to that is – I didn’t. During that story where I had that ‘a-ha!’ moment at the fund manager, I asked myself ‘why doesn’t everyone invest?’. The answer is that some people don’t know this is the way to build wealth.

A lot of those people that could drastically improve their outcomes for themselves and future generations have not been exposed to their version of the ‘blueprint’. It is fulfilling to be able to make this information accessible to everyday Australians and all types of investors.

My investment philosophy is individual to me. It has evolved over time and I imagine it will continue to. That is the beauty of investing. It is being able to take on other perspectives – many of which I am lucky to have shared with me by readers and listeners of the podcast. It is understanding what works for you and understanding that all of this is really just a journey to create a better life for yourself and your loved ones.

 

Shani Jayamanne is a Senior Investment Specialist, Individual Investor at Morningstar Australia. This article is for general information only and is provided without reference to your financial objectives, situation or needs.

 

24 Comments
dan
July 08, 2024

Thankyou.
Youve played the hand you were dealt- and you've locked in certain wealth creation.
Your predicament, strategy and goals would resonate with 90% of the population.
I hope blue prints like this make it to the average person who's trying to better their lives.
Thanks for sharing.

Andrew
July 08, 2024

ETFs and listed managed funds are great. Yes they allow you to cheaply track an index but they also allow you to:

- get leverage to an index GGUS
- go long and short LSF
- focus on a particular theme ASIA

I recommend you consider exposure to these three over a 5-7 year timeframe will help grow wealth

Tom Goff
July 07, 2024

Disinterest and uninterest are very different things.

Peter Vann
July 06, 2024


I think you are saying
1 follow a strategic asset allocation
2 using low cost passive investments
3 keep saving

IMHO, wise advice for the vast majority of individuals.

I add one question, what is RISK when funding retirement expenditure? In my view, risk relates to something about the likelihood of running out of money before you die.

A typical balanced or growth portfolio is less risky for retirement than a capital stable or 50:50 portfolio since the likelihood of running out of money before you die is lower, I.e. these higher growth asset allocations can reduce retirement risk.

Why is this so? The higher expected returns from more growth assets (efficiently constructed) more than compensates the higher investment volatility when funding retirement liabilities (hopefully long term liabilities for most individuals at retirement date).

Peter

Luke
July 06, 2024

Yes CC, if all investors put their equity allocation into index funds it may distort markets, I agree. Humans being humans though, there will always be people chasing extra returns through trading or with shorter investing timeframes than me. The long term equity index returns are available to all retail investors, it simply requires time and patience. In my case 7% real return compounded over 40 years will more than meet my portfolio goals. This will require no input from me on stock selection, I’m free to live my life and focus on my career and family.
I’m perfectly happy for someone to get a greater return than me ( the index) if they put in hours of research etc. countless studies indicate this is harder than it seems. Plenty of investors chase extra return, blow a hole in their portfolio and exit equities permanently, this is a real tragedy, as they will miss out on all the future returns.

Dudley
July 06, 2024

"In my case 7% real return compounded over 40 years will more than meet my portfolio goals.":

'I’ve calculated the actual total return of investments in this piece'
https://www.morningstar.com.au/insights/personal-finance/238878/what-are-share-market-returns-over-the-long-term

See net total real returns [ 2.9% ]:
https://www.morningstar.com.au/_ipx/f_webp,q_100/https://images.contentstack.io/v3/assets/blt0b299fb5208b8900/bltcda1208125078a3f/64f3f7981cee170ee6db6cc4/Returns.PNG
'The return that is actually achieved is what matters.'


Chris Pappas
July 06, 2024

Great & honest commentary Shani,
after more than 40 years of individual "investing", I am in my late 70s, I found your article was reflecting my investment behaviour positively without me realizing it.

michael
July 06, 2024

Thank you for offering up your personal journey. Very interesting.
Many books I have read say something like "you must learn what kind of investor you are" or investing will teach about yourself."

Dan
July 05, 2024

‘Why doesn’t everyone invest?' Because 3 million Australian's live under the poverty line. 2 million Australians experience food insecurity. As one of the privileged Australian's not in a tight squeeze, we need to remember not everyone has the ability to DCA into a low-cost global ETF, set and forget. Good article in principle, and I agree with the thrust of it.

Paul B
July 05, 2024

Most interesting and insightful article. Well done Shani.

Dudley
July 05, 2024

"I have not read any academic papers on the importance of saving.": Re: https://www.morningstar.com.au/insights/personal-finance/238878/what-are-share-market-returns-over-the-long-term Future value (today's money), annually, not monthly, makes little difference, INCLUDING contributions: Gross return 10%, costs 2.9%, inflation 3%, invested per year 12000, invested at year 0 100000; = FV((1 + 10% - 2.9%) / (1 + 3%) - 1, 20, -12000, -100000, 0) = $574,913.43 Rate of return, INCLUDING contributions: = (574913.43 / 100000) ^ (1 / 20) - 1 = 9.14% or: = RATE(20, 0, -100000, 574913.43) = 9.14% ----- Future value (today's money), annually, NOT including contributions: Gross return 10%, costs 2.9%, inflation 3%, invested per year 0, invested at year 0 100000; = FV((1 + 10% - 2.9%) / (1 + 3%) - 1, 20, 0, -100000, 0) = $218,295.57 Rate of return, NOT including contributions: = (218295.57 / 100000) ^ (1 / 20) - 1 = 3.98% or: = RATE(20, 0, -100000, 218295.57) = 3.98% ----- Most of 'returns' are due to savings contributed then compounded. Dig deep, shovel up more savings, avoid risk.

Dudley
July 05, 2024

Return to readable format. "I have not read any academic papers on the importance of saving.": Re: https://www.morningstar.com.au/insights/personal-finance/238878/what-are-share-market-returns-over-the-long-term Future value (today's money), annually, not monthly, makes little difference, INCLUDING contributions: Gross return 10%, costs 2.9%, inflation 3%, invested per year 12000, invested at year 0 100000; = FV((1 + 10% - 2.9%) / (1 + 3%) - 1, 20, -12000, -100000, 0) = $574,913.43 Rate of return, INCLUDING contributions: = (574913.43 / 100000) ^ (1 / 20) - 1 = 9.14% or: = RATE(20, 0, -100000, 574913.43) = 9.14% ----- Future value (today's money), annually, NOT including contributions: Gross return 10%, costs 2.9%, inflation 3%, invested per year 0, invested at year 0 100000; = FV((1 + 10% - 2.9%) / (1 + 3%) - 1, 20, 0, -100000, 0) = $218,295.57 Rate of return, NOT including contributions: = (218295.57 / 100000) ^ (1 / 20) - 1 = 3.98% or: = RATE(20, 0, -100000, 218295.57) = 3.98% ----- Most of 'returns' are due to savings contributed, then compounded. Dig deep, shovel up more savings, avoid risk.

Dudley
July 06, 2024

More careful reading of Shani's article reveals 2.9% net real total return (not 2.9% costs):
https://www.morningstar.com.au/insights/personal-finance/238878/what-are-share-market-returns-over-the-long-term

Gross 10.00%
Fees -0.40%
Tax -0.90%
CGT -0.90%
Franking 0.70%
Inflation -4.00%
Behavior -1.60%
Net real total 2.90%
-----
Future value (today's money), annually [monthly makes little difference], INCLUDING contributions:
Net real total return 2.9%, at year 20, invested per year 12000, invested at year 0 100000;
= FV(2.9%, 20, -12000, -100000, 0)
= $496,320.84
Rate of return, INCLUDING contributions:
= (496320.84 / 100000) ^ (1 / 20) - 1
= 8.34%
or:
= RATE(20, 0, -100000, 496320.84)
= 8.34%
-----
Future value (today's money), annually, NOT including contributions:
Net real total return 2.9%, at year 20, invested per year 0, invested at year 0 100000;
= FV(2.9%, 20, 0, -100000, 0)
= $177,136.27
Rate of return, NOT including contributions:
= (177136.27 / 100000) ^ (1 / 20) - 1
= 2.90%
or:
= RATE(20, 0, -100000, 177136.27)
= 2.90%
-----
Most of 'returns' are due to savings contributed then compounded. Dig deep, shovel up more savings, avoid risk.

Dudley
July 10, 2024

How long until returns equal contributions?

Capital required to return 12,000 / y if return rate is 2.9%;
= 12000 / 2.9%
= $413,793.10

Real return rate 2.9%, yearly real contribution 12,000, investment at year 0 100,000;
= NPER(2.9%, -12000, -100000, 12000 / 2.9%)
= 16.67 y

Patrick Kissane
July 05, 2024

Hi Shani, A great article. You say "I asked myself ‘why doesn’t everyone invest?’. The answer is that some people don’t know this is the way to build wealth." As an accountant preparing a lot of Tax Returns, I know that most Australians invest by way of a rental investment property. This has a number of advantages compared to shares. 1) The investment is highly geared resulting in the returns being magnified. 2) "Margin loans", i.e. mortgages are easily obtainable at rates much more favourable than an ordinary margin loan. 3) The risk of a margin call are almost negligible 4) There is less stress than with a share investment. 5) It is a long-term investment with automatic compounding. 6) It is more easily understood than a share investment. I am not saying that an investment property is always a better investment vehicle than, say an ETF, but I do think it should be kept in mind and investigated as an investment when investing.

PK
July 06, 2024

Hi Patrick
I like your points on rental investment property. Could you expand a bit on 4)?
I invest in equities only, so my simple view is one-sided based on my own experience, but I at least would have thought putting money away into a share/ETF periodically for the long-term is less stressful than all the friction/stress of buying/selling, tenanting, tax time (neg. gearing) etc.
I'd love more of your insights.

Stan
July 07, 2024

Patrick re. point 4,none of my equities or bonds have ever phoned me at night because they wanted to go out and they couldn't lock the window of the house they had rented from my wife and could we drive across Sydney and fix it.The proceeds of that sale went into our SMSF (and thence equities,listed funds and bonds)which we don't find stressfull at all.

Kevin
July 10, 2024

People always have to make things complicated.They always need the noise and opinions for justification? For confirmation bias?.

As simple as this is people are going to deny it.From memory average income was around $50 K at the turn of the century.My good and bad ( didn't know NAB was going to turn bad then) were CBA and NAB.

January 1999 CBA @ $23 a share,and NAB @ $25. Raising $200K was and always is a problem. You got 4,000 shares in each of them for $200K .All you have to do is get things roughly right .

Doing nothing at all you've collected quite a lot of money in dividends.That helped to pay off the loan.No bad tenants,modernising kitchens and bathrooms.No rates ,repairs and insurance, no hassle at all,apart from riding out the ups and downs of the rollercoaster.Buy more on dips,do nothing,sell some if you want. All simple but not easy.

On retirement people have denied that every day in the past,they will do the same in the future. If they had used the DRP and doubled the shareholding over a period of say 30 years then retire with 8,000 shares in each of them.Some dividends to help pay off the loan,some for the DRP when debt is down to levels that don't cause sleepless nights.

They just keep wanting infinite noise,complication , and opinions.Why they avoid simplicity is baffling.

Dudley
July 10, 2024

"Raising $200K was and always is a problem. ... Some dividends to help pay off the loan":

Borrowed to buy shares?
Initial capital of (Value of shares - Value of loan) [$100,000]?
Tax paid on (dividends - interest)?

"average income was around $50 K at the turn of the century":

Time to save $100,000 in super accumulation account:
Real net return rate 2.9% [Shani], save 50% of $50,000 = $25,000 / y, initially $0, future value $100,000;
= NPER(2.9%, -25000 * (1 - 15%), 0, 100000)
= 4.475 y



Abel
July 04, 2024

Hi Sani. Thanks for this excellent article. Your desinterest is not in the investment process but is in the idea that investing is about security selection. Before I got interested in investing I educated myself to avoid major mistakes, so never thought about security selection, but learned about the different approaches to asset allocation (factor investing, total returns, endowment approach, etc), only to realise in time that different approaches may work well at different times and we don't know which strategies will do best in the future (within our investment horizon). But I find learning about investing interesting and useful. These days is more about making sure the risks I am taking are appropriate for us and there are always areas I find that I have been oblivious to and I need to learn about. Keep the good articles coming!

Matt F
July 04, 2024

really great article, very insightful and honest.

Luke
July 04, 2024

Excellent article. As an accountant for 15 years I’ve seen far too many clients portfolios with large holes due to loading up on individual stocks that go bad. Despite having brokers, advisors etc advising them. Unfortunately these clients equity returns after fees and losses are nowhere near the long term index returns.
Knowing the statistical chances of outperforming the market are low. I want to minimise fees and the liklihood of me developing FOMO and chasing the latest fad, which interrupts the big free lunch in investing, compounding of returns.
I’ve simply stuck with a 100% allocation to a low cost index fund. No changes, no second guessing, just compounding returns.
I’ll accept the average return for a longer than average time frame.

CC
July 04, 2024

If we all just invest in an index fund, it would be disastrous for markets. The inventor of the first Vanguard index fund said as much.
Inappropriate allocation of capital to stocks simply based on size.

SMSF Trustee
July 04, 2024

OK CC so if size is inappropriate then why is it so hard for active managers to do any better than the index return?
Note I use active managers and believe it's possible but I do so because their skills are a bit more clever than holding low allocations to big caps.

 

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