Passive Income Part Three – Risk

Passive Income Part Two – Costs ended on a cliffhanger: it addressed why costs are important, but did not get to how costs can be controlled. It.s actually easy: find low cost investment vehicles. To find the right low cost investment vehicles and put them together in a portfolio, an understanding of risk is useful.

What is Risk?

Some say risk is a four letter word. Others say it is the danger of loss. To some risk is that more things can happen than will happen. An economist will say the technical definition which is that risk is the portfolio’s standard deviation. Standard deviation quantifies the variance in annual profits and losses. Economists like it because it can be expressed as a number and being a number, can fit into their equations. It.s hard to quantify ‘shit happens’! The economists’ definition, however, is at odds with how the word is commonly used to express ‘danger of loss’. A portfolio whose returns varies from -1% to -2% each year by their reckoning is less risky than a portfolio whose returns varies between +5 to + 15% each year because the variance in the returns of the first portfolio is smaller. According to the common usage, the first portfolio is clearly ‘riskier’ because it is losing money each year!

For today, however, risk is your tolerance to loss and gain. The more risk tolerant you are, the greater chance you are willing to stomach big losses so that in other years you will have big gains. The less risk tolerant you are, the more you prefer small gains in good years so that losses in bad years are also smaller. This principle works because risk is related to return: the more risk you are willing to take on, the greater your return should be because you are exposed to greater danger. Think of different occupations. A linesman (those guys who connect power lines carrying tens of thousands of volts) makes more money than, say, a deli attendant at a supermarket. That.s because the most dangerous thing in the supermarket is the meat cutter or an irate customer. The linesman takes on more risk and should be compensated for taking risk. It.s the same in the stock market.

So decide whether you.re low risk, medium risk, or high risk investor. There.s actually no way to really figure out until you.re invested (and feel the thrill of making money and the dejection of losing money) so just go ahead and decide. Remember what you decide as we.ll come back to it in a second. Here.s some images to help assiduous readers make their selection.

If you require helmet, reflective gear, and lights to feel safe riding a bike, consider yourself low risk:

Bike Safety Nerd - Low Risk

Bike Safety Nerd – Low Risk

If you will go for the piece of cheese provided you have safety apparatus, consider yourself medium risk:

Safety Mouse - Medium Risk

Safety Mouse – Medium Risk

If you do vehicle repairs A-Team style, consider yourself high risk:

Road Repair - High Risk

Road Repair – High Risk

Classes of Investments

There.s two major classes of investments: stocks and bonds. With stocks, you are a shareholder in the company. You are a part owner, in other words. With bonds, you lend your money to a company. They will pay you back what you lent them plus a little something extra for your trouble. The nice thing with stocks and bonds is that they.re uncorrelated. That is to say, they do not move in tandem. If one.s going up, the other.s going down. Or if one.s going up, the other.s treading water or not going up quite as much.

Now guess which is riskier? If you guessed stocks, then you.d be right. They also return more than bonds (most of the time). But they are also more volatile. That.s why you also need bonds in your portfolio. Think of them as a ballast. When the storm.s brewing and you.re battening down the hatches, bonds are your best friend, not that diamond mine in Botswana.

Now, since there are two classes of investments and when one zigs the other zags, it seems a good idea to have bits of both in the investment portfolio. Stocks are the engines that drive the portfolio.s growth during good years and bonds are the ballast that help you through the storm. How do we figure out how much of each?

Do you remember what type of investor you are from the previous section? If you.re the safety cyclist, a good starting point is a portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds. If you.re the hungry mouse who will go for the cheese after putting on the necessary safety gear, a good starting point is 70% stocks and 30% bonds. If you.ll trust a 2×4 to hold up your truck while doing repairs underneath it, then a good starting point is 80% stocks and 20% bonds.

Wasn.t that easy?

Investment Vehicles

Which bonds and which stocks to I buy? That.s easy: buy them all! There are these investment products out there called exchange-traded funds or ETFs. They.re exchange-traded because they trade on the TSX (the stock market). They.re funds because they.re baskets of many individual holdings which together represent the total market. For bonds, I.d recommend Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond Index ETF. It has a MER (management expense ratio) of 0.19%. For something that holds around 600 different issues of bonds, it.s dirt cheap. Of it.s 600 or so issues, about three-quarters of its holdings are backed by the Canadian government (federal, provincial, and municipal) or government related entities. The remaining one-quarter are issued by companies, mainly investment grade banks and insurance companies.

For stocks, I.d recommend BMO Capped Composite Index ETF. It has a MER (management expense ratio) of roughly 0.1%. I say roughly because they just lowered it and their site frustratingly publishes the ‘Maximum Annual Management Fee’ (which is slightly less than the MER which includes trading costs and other things). I wish everyone would just publish the MER to make comparisons easier. This ETF holds around 230 of the largest companies in Canada: Royal Bank, Manulife, CNR, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Blackberry, you name it, it.s in there.

In the following blogs I.ll discuss how to buy the bond ETF and the stock ETF. Once you.re set up, it.s a few keystrokes and clicks of the mouse. It.s that easy.

In today.s segment, I discussed risk and how knowing your risk tolerance helps you to put together a portfolio. I also recommended two investment vehicles: one for bonds and one for stocks. Notice how low their costs are: fractions of a percent. In Passive Income Part Two, the average cost of a mutual fund was flagged at 2.42%. The cost of a DIY portfolio with my two recommendation is in the neighbourhood of 0.15%. That is to say, by reading this blog, you save 94% off the posted retail price!

Stay tuned for Part Four of the Passive Income saga! Next time, the discussion will be on the burning question I.m sure all of you are asking: how do I open up an investing account? Well, that.s easy too!

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and investing has been how I was able to get out of the rat race to be Doing Melpomene’s Work. I hope others will be able to as well.

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