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Welcome to Firstlinks Edition 487 with weekend update

  •   8 December 2022
  • 2

The Weekend Edition includes a market update (after the editorial) plus Morningstar adds links to two additional articles.

Dwight Eisenhower is a towering figure in American history, though he had some quirks that are less well-known. He’s renowned as the soldier who led the invasion of Normandy (D-Day) during World War Two and then went on to become President from 1953 to 1961. However, in between his stints as soldier and US President, he was President of Columbia University. And it was here that things didn’t go according to plan.

Academics at the university came to regard Eisenhower as a simpleton. A popular story among university faculty was that they should never send a memorandum to the general of more than one page, lest he get too tired.

There were also question marks over Eisenhower’s decision making as he regarded most university tasks as not urgent, whereas the university’s academics thought their issues needed to be dealt with as soon as possible.

Ironically, Eisenhower’s decision-making and task management tools are now taught in many university courses around the world (the ‘Eisenhower matrix’).

The tools build upon other approaches toward simplifying priorities such as the 80/20 rule, or Pareto principle, that suggests 80% of outcomes (or outputs) result from 20% of all causes (or inputs) for any given event.

The art of simplification and 80/20 can be applied to many areas of life. For instance, there are only a handful of key decisions that will determine whether you are financially successful or not. Other decisions are likely to be less important and not worth focusing on.

Here is my list of five key decisions that will shape your financial success:

1. What you do for work

An obvious one: work equals income. What you do for work will determine how much you make.

How do you choose what work to pursue? Apple founder, Steve Jobs, believed that you should follow your passions. In 1997, Jobs returned to Apple after a 12-year hiatus, and the company he co-founded was on the brink of collapse. He held a staff meeting to explain how Apple could revitalize itself:

“Apple is not about making boxes for people to get their jobs done, although we do that well. Apple is about something more. Its core value is that we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better.”

Jobs returned to the theme in his commencement address to Stanford University in 2005. “You’ve got to find what you love,” Jobs said. “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

Others think Jobs was wrong. Cal Newport, a professor and best-selling author, suggests you should pursue what you’re good at, not what your passions are. He thinks ‘follow your passion’ is bad advice because most people, especially younger ones, don’t have clear pre-defined passions to follow. There’s also little science to support the idea that matching your job to a pre-existing interest makes you more likely to find the work satisfying. According to Newport, what works better is putting in “hard work to master something rare and valuable, then deploy that leverage to steer your working life in directions that resonate”.

The truth probably lies somewhere between the views of Jobs and Newport. The Bhagavad Gita, the famous Hindu scripture, may have been onto something, by urging followers to find their unique gifts and pursue them with a singular focus.

Cartoonist Scott Adams has a different take on the topic. He believes that to be successful at work, you have two paths:

a) Become the best at one specific thing

b) Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult. There aren’t many people who become best-selling musicians or world-class soccer players. The probabilities of being the best at one thing are extremely low.

The second strategy is much easier. Say, you want to study law at university. Wanting to become a lawyer means competing against thousands of people. However, if you combine law with a technology degree, you potentially become rare and valuable to an employer. And if you can add other skills such as public speaking or writing or something else, then you may become even more valuable. And that will be reflected in the income you earn.

2. Where you live

Location matters. Where you live will have a large say in what type of job you get and the salary that you receive.

Numerous studies suggest that larger cities attract higher salaries. In Australia, Sydney has the highest median weekly earnings of $1,300 per week, followed by Perth at $1,211, Melbourne’s $1,200 and Brisbane’s $1,199.

Job availability is also an issue in smaller cities or states. Currently, Tasmania and South Australia have the highest jobless rates in Australia at 4.2% and 4% respectively, while New South Wales has the lowest rate at 3.2%.

Of course, job availability and salary aren’t the only factors to consider when it comes to location. Cost is another. Larger cities such as Sydney and Melbourne have much higher costs, especially for housing and education. You need a higher salary to cover these costs.

3. Who you marry

Yes, who you marry is critical to your finances. I’m not talking about marrying someone rich, although if you’re that way inclined, don’t let me stop you.

I’m talking more about when marriages fall apart. Divorce is an expensive exercise and one best avoided.

The application process to divorce is inexpensive. It’s when things get messy that the costs tend to rise. I’m told (never experienced) that arbitration for divorce can set you back $4,000-8,000 a day and going to court will cost $75,000+, though often a lot more.

Marry well and your finances will thank you.

4. Whether you have a family

Whether you decide to have a family or not will have a huge bearing on your wealth. I have a daughter in primary school who does six after-school activities. Recently, I added up the costs of these activities - and I wish I hadn’t. Needless to say, there are plans for significant cutbacks on her activities next year.

The University of Canberra did a comprehensive study on the costs of raising kids until they left home. It found the cost for a middle-income family of raising two children until they left home was $812,000 and for high-income families it was $1.09 million. Keep in mind that this study was done in 2013, and costs have risen since then. However, an average of $400,000-500,000 for each child seems about right in my eyes.

If you decide to have kids, plan and budget accordingly.

5. How you invest your savings

First, you need to have savings. That means your income must be more than your costs. If achieving this is a struggle, or even if it isn’t, making a budget is essential.

If you need inspiration for budgeting, it’s worth reading Thomas Stanley’s The Millionaire Next Door. The book details the common traits of everyday millionaires in America. One of the key traits is frugality – keeping costs down even when your wealth increases.

I also like the idea of zero-based budgeting. This is a concept where you plan each year’s budget by starting at ‘zero’. That means, justifying all spending each year based on needs rather than on what you’ve done in the past. Private equity firm, 3G Capital, pioneered the idea and successfully applied it at companies such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, Burger King, and Heinz.

Once you have savings, you need to decide how to invest it. Do you take the money and buy a house? Do you invest it in a business which you own and/or manage and operate? Or do you invest in stocks?

Whichever route you take, it’s best to start early in life to allow the magic of compound interest to work.

In this week's edition ...

The Commonwealth Bank's Chief Economist, Stephen Halmarick, suggests that the world's major central banks will continue to address 'today's problem' of high inflation for another 3-6 months. Then they'll have to pivot to deal with 'tomorrow's problem' of global growth and unemployment. Stephen suggests this year's aggressive interest rate hikes are likely to lead to a global recession in 2023.

A strange thing has happened in the world of Australian bond funds: shrinking income distributions. Most of us would assume that bond managers have been able to reinvest at progressively higher yields given recent rate increases, and that they'd have the capacity to distribute more income. But as Tim Wong of Morningstar notes, that's not the case. The problem is that coupon income has been offset by sizable capital losses.

Peta Tilse of Cromwell Funds Management notes that more than 20% of Australians believe they won’t achieve their desired retirement standard of living, and half of those who are currently working admit they are unsure how much they will have, or need, when they retire. Peta outlines some of the risks facing Australians who are nearing, or who are in, retirement as well as several ways to mitigate these risks.

Meanwhile, some call it the silly season, others call it the festive season, but Rachel Lane calls this time of year ‘aged care season’. It’s a time when families come together, maybe for the first time since last Christmas, and notice that Mum or Dad or both need some (or a lot) of care. Rachel offers 12 tips on how to best handle 'aged care season'. And lawyer Elizabeth Wang runs through a hypothetical case of an aging couple who question their ability to run their SMSF and look for ways to manage the next step. She suggests there are potential solutions using NSW Trustee and Guardian.

Firstlinks' Graham Hand is on a short sabbatical and he's timed it perfectly to coincide with his beloved soccer world cup. Graham made the early morning trek to Darling Harbour to watch the Socceroos play Argentina and he was amazed by the number of newly-converted soccer supporters. The big question for him is whether this new-found enthusiasm for soccer translates to greater support for the local A-league competition.

James Johnstone of Redwheel thinks that after a decade of underperformance, emerging market stocks are at their most attractive point since the early 2000s. A commodity super-cycle and low valuations could make for a juicy turnaround story in his eyes.

In the weekend update by Morningstar, Vikram Barhat looks at three vaccine stocks that may get a boost if China has further Covid outbreaks as it reopens, and Susan Dzuibinski writes of the five best US listed companies with the most undervalued stock prices.

Our White Paper of the week is from Capital Group where four of Capital's investment professionals share their thoughts on the global economy and how they are investing in a world in transition.


Weekend market update

US stocks dropped late on Friday as the focus shifted to next week’s consumer price report and Federal Reserve policy meeting, and the prospect of still higher interest rates. The Dow finished -0.9%, and the S&P and Nasdaq were both -0.7%. The energy sector was the worst performing, while communications services was the only sector to finish in the black. The yield on the US 10-year note rose 10 basis points to 3.58%. 

From AAP Netdesk: Australian shares snapped a three-day losing streak on Friday as renewed confidence in China's economy on loosening COVID-19 restrictions propelled major miners to six-month highs. The benchmark S&P/ASX200 index closed up 37.7 points, or 0.53%, to 7213.2, while the broader All Ordinaries climbed 37 points, or 0.5%, to 7406.4.

The mining sector was the big gainer, rising 1.9%. BHP gained 2.7% to $47.48, while Rio gained 2.3% to $117.16 and Fortescue added 2.8% to $21.39.

The energy sector fell 0.2% as Brent crude remained under $US77 a barrel, its lowest level since last December. Woodside dipped 0.8% to $34.18 and Santos retreated 0.4% to $7.06, while Beach Energy gained 0.9% to $1.66 as the Kerry Stokes-backed gas company bowed out of a three-way battle for Perth Basin junior gas explorer Warrego Energy, declining to match a $341 million bid by Gina Rinehart's Hancock Energy.

The big banks all remained relatively steady, with ANZ rising 0.2% to $23.64, NAB also up 0.2% to $30.18, Westpac up 0.4% to $23.395 and CBA edging 0.45% lower at $104.9.

From Shane Oliver, AMP:

  • After strong gains since September/October lows US and European share markets pulled back in the last week on the back of interest rate fears (after strong US services sector data added to concerns about the Fed) and then recession worries. Japanese and Chinese shares rose though with the latter helped by optimism about reopening in China. The negative US lead saw Australian shares pull back by around 1.2% for the week, with the falls led by IT, energy, financial and industrial shares. Bond yields mostly fell further, but commodity prices were mixed with oil down but metals and iron ore up. The $A fell slightly, but remains around $US0.68, as the $US rose slightly. 
  • The RBA hiked by another 0.25%, but we think they are at or close to the top. Thanks to the surge in inflation, this year has seen the cash rate rise far more than we were expecting at the start of the year. In hiking to 3.1% the RBA cited high and still rising inflation, solid growth, the tight labour market and a pickup in wages growth. And its bias remains hawkish expecting to raise rates further, although it added a qualifier to its post meeting Statement that it “is not on a pre-set course” making it sound a little bit less hawkish. However, we see the RBA as being at or close to the top as supply bottlenecks have largely dissipated, the lagged impact of the surge in mortgage rates and costs will hit many households very hard in the next year, there is increasing evidence demand is slowing (with now bank card and merchant transaction facility data suggesting a weak start to holiday spending) and the global outlook is deteriorating all of which likely push inflation down faster than expected near year. Federal Government moves cap energy prices will likely also help. Fortunately, the RBA does not meet in January but by February/March there is likely to be clear evidence of a sharp slowing in demand and easing in inflation pressures enabling it to leave the cash rate at 3.1% (which is our base case), or hike just once more to 3.35% (which is a high risk), followed by an extended pause ahead of rate cuts at the end of 2023 or start of 2024.
  • The Bank of Canada added to the pattern of major central banks moving incrementally less hawkish. It hiked by another 0.5%, the same as in October, which was a step down from 0.75% in September. But its commentary was dovish noting signs that “price pressures may be losing momentum” and that “there is growing evidence that tighter monetary policy is restraining domestic demand” and indicating that it “will be considering whether the policy interest rate needs to rise further”. The latter suggests that it may pause rate hikes at its next meeting in late January.
  • A plunge in oil prices to January levels is supportive of peak inflation and central banks becoming less hawkish. The combination of the plunge in oil prices and the rise in the Australian dollar suggests Australian petrol prices should be averaging around $1.6 a litre.

James Gruber

PDF version of Firstlinks Newsletter



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