The Best Investment Strategy – The Lazy Portfolio

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I’ve had many years of experience trading stocks and I’ve even dabbled into Contract For Differences (CFD) and forex. However, while I had my good times and great returns, I’ve also had my “investments” go belly-up or languish for months. If you’re young, “waiting for your investment to break even” may not seem like a bad idea, but if it’s $100,000 worth, and you have to wait a year for it to just breakeven, you’re not coming out of it flat – you’re also giving up the gains had you invested the money elsewhere during that one year. This is otherwise commonly known as “opportunity loss”. When you consider that you can put that same amount into a savings account that gets you 1% per annum, or a stock index exchange-traded fund (ETF) that might get you 8% per annum, you can start to feel the pinch.

Embarrassingly, it was only until recently that I found the concept of “lazy portfolios”. Essentially buying the whole market, it was the perfect answer to what I was looking for: a mix of diversification, lowered risks, indifference to bull and more importantly bear market cycles, returns that beat market benchmarks, and most importantly, takes no time and effort at all to implement and maintain.

Here are the 3 benefits of a lazy portfolio:

1. Saves Time

How do you know what stock will go up (or down)? You don’t. In fact, noone can. Not consistently, that is. So rather than to guess/gamble/speculate or spend hours of your time doing “research” and “analysis”, why not just buy the whole market? Stock index ETFs allow you to do so. When you consider that it is incredibly difficult to beat the market, why not buy the market, and enjoy the gains that the markets make?

2. No Stress

Worried about your portfolio’s performance? Not sure when the next bear/bull cycle will be? Concerned about when to buy or sell? Forget all of that. Use Dollar-Cost Averaging, or Value Averaging, or a combination of both. If you’re using the Lazy Portfolio strategy, you’d be more excited when there are bear cycles because you’d think of them as a great fire sale, and want to buy more then. Compare this to what people would normally do, which is to sell, and you can see how much more stress-less this strategy is.

3. Solid Returns

You might think that with all these benefits, a strategy like this would probably be low-returns as well, but you couldn’t be further from the truth: a lazy portfolio averages 7% annually. That’s the kind of returns that the stock market will average, and you don’t even have to pay much fees for this (we’re talking about something like 0.05% for a Vanguard ETF). Unlike mutual funds or unit trusts, you don’t pay fees of 1% to 5% a year. On an investment of $50,000, that difference will result in $97,866 after 30 years (with a 0.05% annual fee), versus $84,561 (with a 1.5% annual fee). And that’s assuming your unit trust beats the market (many fail to, even experienced fund managers).

Lazy Portfolio For A Singaporean

Interested? Well, as a Singaporean, we have the problems of a relatively illiquid stock exchange as compared to other markets such as the New York Stock Exchange, London Stock Exchange, or even the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. However, the Singapore Stock Exchange is getting better and more liquid with every year. Until then though, I have chosen to invest my funds elsewhere.

Case A: Investing in the US market

I considered the US markets, especially for their popular Vanguard ETF options. However, there is a 30% withholding tax on dividends of US-domiciled ETFs for international investors from a country without a tax treaty with the United States (Singapore is without a tax treaty). That adds up to a fair sum.

In addition to that, I didn’t want to risk any chance of dying and leaving my family the grand gift of a huge estate tax (this can be up to 55%, so don’t think that it’s a small amount). Since the lazy portfolio is a long-term approach, I didn’t want to park my funds in US-domiciled brokers and ETFs.

Here are some links for international investors:

IRS – Characterization of Income of Nonresident-Aliens

IRS – Some Nonresidents with U.S. Assets Must File Estate-Tax Returns

Unless you are a US citizen or live in a country with a tax treaty with the US, you should probably avoid holding US-domiciled ETFs. Read on for my solution to this.

Case B: Investing in the Canadian market

The next best market seemed to be the Toronto Stock Exchange, which has liquidity, and quite a range of ETFs. However, withholding tax was still 25%. That means for every $1 you get as dividends, you will be taxed $0.25. Ouch.

If you are feeling bullish about the CAD currency, and maybe plan on retiring to Canada, then this portfolio will make sense. The Global Couch Potato model portfolio that is recommended is made up of 3 equity ETFs, in equal parts.

  1. iShares MSCI EAFE IMI (XEF.TO, CAD): International equities ETF, covers the whole world except North American (Canada and USA)
  2. Vanguard US Total Market (VUN.TO, CAD): US equities ETF.
  3. Vanguard FTSE Canada All Cap (VCN.TO, CAD): Canada equities ETF.

The portfolio is no slouch, gaining over 10% every year for a 10-year period.

Case C: Investing in the London and Hong Kong markets

The best markets for Singaporeans seem to be the London and Hong Kong markets. Both London and Hong Kong have no capital gains tax. London-domiciled ETFs will have a 15% tax on dividends (at source – you don’t see this tax on your received dividends), and Hong Kong-domiciled ETFs have a 0% tax on dividends.

  1. ABF Pan Asia Bond Index (2821.HK, USD): The ABF Pan Asia Bond Index invests in domestic currency-denominated government and quasi-government bonds issued in eight EMEAP markets, namely, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand
  2. Vanguard FTSE All?World UCITS (VWRD.L, USD): International equities ETF, covers the whole world
  3. SPDR Straits Times Index (ES3.SI, SGD): Singapore-only equities ETF

How To Start a Lazy Portfolio As A Singaporean

I feel that my CPF acts somewhat as a bond component of my portfolio, so I’m reducing my bond component in my portolio.

What’s Next – Maintaining Your Lazy Portfolio by Rebalancing

The only thing that you need to do is to make sure that your portfolio components maintain their ratios. For my portfolio, I’d just ensure that each equities component is roughly equivalent, and that my bond component doesn’t exceed half of my age (e.g. if I’m 30 years old, it should not exceed 15%). Since I don’t plan on selling, I merely add funds to the component that is lagging.

If, however, you plan on selling some components, then during your portfolio rebalancing (which can even be an annual affair – there’s no “right” time to do this), you would sell some units of your best-performing component, and add those funds to your worst-performing component and try to bring the mix back to their original levels again.

Enjoy!

And that’s it. After this, decide on a regular period in which to make more purchases of your ETFs, and leave your portfolio to do its work, and spend more time doing the things that you love!

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9 Responses

  1. Hi great article, just wondering what you think about stamp duty on UK domiciled ETFs? Is this a big expense ?

    Thanks,
    James

  2. Hi Alvin,
    I have similar idea on the portfolio you proposed actually. I am wondering if “ABF Pan Asia Bond Index (2821.HK, USD)” will have currency risk in the long term due to it being denominated in US currency compared to just getting the singapore bond index fund which is much smaller size fund. Let me know your thoughts on this thanks!

  3. Any update on things here … i have a DBS vickers account – but they dont sell any index funds…

    Looking to
    a) Gain visibility of my investments
    b) Make it simple, easy and automatic

    I looked at State Street , Vanguard etc but i cant do it directly with them

    Any suggestions on brokers etc and how to go about this ?

  4. Extremely useful information – thank you!
    Quick question – you mention that HK-domiciled ETFs have 0% withholding tax. Is that true? If that were the case, it would seem to be the most sensible option.

    I did a bit of searching, and found a (unreliable) source saying it was subject to the full withholding tax, but wanted to get your comments…
    Source: https://www.reddit.com/r/investing/comments/3jy3gw/any_non_americansingaporeanhong_kong_investors/

  5. Could you recommend hedging strategies against fall in USD against SGD? Investing in US ETF is a good idea but there are times where the fall in USD could impact the portfolio sustainstally.

  6. I am South africa, living in Singapore. If I open a Singapore Saxo account would I be able to invest in the Hong Kong Vanguard ETF?

  7. Hi Alvin,

    I am a Singaporean. I am very interested to start the lazy portfolios, Can you share with me more on ABF Pan Asia Bond Index Fund?? I tried to google for reveiws but there is not much info in it.

    I saw Shiny sharing his views on ETF in a forrum mentioning:

    Why the pan-Asia bond fund instead of just Singaporean corporate bonds (MBH)? Owning bonds from other countries just gives you a ton of FX risk for no particular benefit. Is that true?

    Your post is on 2015, may I check currently hong kong stock exchange, there still isn’t any withholding tax right for SIngaporeans?
    And would the ABF Pan Asia Bond Index Fund or the Nikko AM SGD Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF be more prefered than SIngaporean ?And why?

    https://www.nikkoam.com.sg/etf/sgd-investment-grade-corp-bond

    Thank you so much!!

    Cheers,
    Jack Lim

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