The impact of the Retail Distribution Review

We had our interview with the FSA this week on their proposed new supervisory structure looking at businesses from a governance, control and culture perspective.

This was a very interesting experience for us as it would appear to have gone well and it was rewarding to be able to clearly articulate to the regulator what we do, how we do it and what it means for clients.

I’ve seen a raft of changes over the last 30 years in this industry but it finally struck me after our meeting with the FSA this week, that the changes proposed with the Retail Distribution Review are the the most far reaching of all.

The idea of identifying your service to clients rather than how you’ll pick them a product I believe is well beyond a vast number of current IFA businesses.

I also believe if your current adviser is not already in a post RDR position, they will not be able to adapt before the deadline date of the end of 2012.

I finally made the decision this week to fully remove commission from all we do for clients in favour of a advice based fee system and it was an enormous weight off my shoulders.

It frees up the mind to concentrate on the right advice and already I see clients more at ease with a monetary system that defines what the advice costs and not about getting the product sold.

A couple of very serious questions will have to be addresses by clients in a short space of time; will my adviser still be there post RDR and will he have a service that I’m willing to pay for?

If you would like a second opinion on your current arrangements, the type and structure of the advice you are receiving and how you are paying for it, please give me a call.

Roland Oliver


National Employment Savings Trust (NEST) – implications for small businesses

Talking with an accountant this week reminded me that the proposed NEST pension reforms had not really filtered through or even hit the radar in some cases yet.
Small businesses owners can be forgiven in the current economic climate for having other things on their collective minds, but a start to understanding what NEST might mean for their businesses should be addressed sooner rather than later.
I’ve laid out the absolute basic details of the NEST proposals and would encourage you or your employer to give me a call to discuss the implications for your own businesses.
• The UK Government has agreed that all UK businesses, regardless of size, should offer a company pension scheme or enrol their staff into the new National Employment Savings Trust (NEST).

• From October 2012 UK employers will be required to automatically enrol employees into a ‘qualifying workplace pension scheme’. This auto enrolment could be to your existing company pension scheme if it meets certain criteria. If it does not meet the criteria or if you do not operate a company pension scheme then your employees will be enrolled into NEST, a low-cost pension scheme being introduced by the Government.

• Staff who are aged 22 or more and currently earning more than £7,475 a year will qualify.

• NEST is due to start in October 2012, with the largest employers joining first and the smallest joining by September 2016. Contributions from staff and employers will also be phased in. Until October 2016, the minimum overall level of contributions will be just 2%, with 1% coming from employers. From October 2016 to September 2017, total contributions will be 5% with 2% coming from employers. And from October 2017, the total minimum contribution level will be 8%, with employers contributing at least 3%.

• As well as the phasing in of compulsory contributions, legislation designed to minimise the burden on employers includes simple qualifying criteria for existing pension schemes and a simple compliance regime for new employer duties such as automatic enrolment.

Please find a more detailed factsheet here.

Roland Oliver


The long term futility of active management

A couple of weeks ago Roland mentioned a few reasons why we strongly believe in asset class investing – buying a complete representation of the market in each asset class and staying away from the two key features of active management: market timing and stock picking.
A lot of research has taken place in academic economics into the true cost of active investing and whether, on average, active managers can consistently beat the average market return after transaction and management costs are taken into account.
We believe this academic evidence, coupled with some solid figures from Standard and Poor’s Indices Versus Active (SPIVA) research, explains why even the most successful active managers of recent times, Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch, stated that passive management is best for most investors.
Using the small space a blog article allows, I will briefly go into more depth below.
This excerpt from The Cost of Active Investing by Prof Kenneth R French explains the futility of the average active manager’s task:
“Whether fund of fund investors break even or not, a passive market portfolio produces a higher return than the aggregate of all active portfolios. Why do active investors continue to play a negative sum game? Perhaps the dominant reason is a general misperception about investment opportunities. Many are unaware that the average active investor would increase his return if he switched to a passive strategy.
Financial firms certainly contribute to this confusion. Although a few occasionally promote index funds as a better alternative, the general message from Wall Street is that active investing is easy and profitable.
This message is reinforced by the financial press, which offers a steady flow of stories about undervalued stocks and successful fund managers.
Overconfidence is probably the other major reason investors are willing to incur the extra fees, expenses, and transaction costs of active strategies. There is evidence that overconfidence leads to active trading. (See, for example, Odean (1998), Barber and Odean (2001), and Statman, Thorley, and Vorkink (2006).) Investors who are overconfident about their ability to produce superior returns are unlikely to be discouraged by the knowledge that the average active trader must lose.”

According to Fama’s efficient market hypothesis, all information is already factored into a stock’s price. The very existence of active management makes this so. When we include the higher fees, expenses, and trading costs, it is clear that active investors are playing a negative sum game.
Mr French concludes thus: ‘If a representative investor switched to a passive market portfolio, he would increase his average annual return by 67 basis points over the 1980 to 2006 period.”

The figures taken from the SPIVA research show that in the US and Australia over a 5 year horizon well over half of the active managers fail to outperform indices. Not only this, the inconsistency of fund performance makes it hard to anyone to pick a winning manager. In the US, over the five years ending March 2011, only 0.96% of large cap funds, 1.14% of mid-cap funds and 2.59% of small cap funds maintained a top half ranking over five consecutive 12 month periods.

I must clarify that we do not believe that there are no active managers who can perform well. But the task of picking the few that do perform consistently better than the market over a long investment horizon is futile.
Some investors do trade actively because they really are able to produce superior returns.
The existence of superior investors, however, does not explain the behaviour of the average investor. Active investing is still a negative sum game. Every pound a superior investor earns must increase the aggregate losses of all other active investors.
We do not accept that the City or Wall Street can predict the future, and we certainly would not bet ours or your money on it.

Malcolm Stewart


Cash flow modelling and utility bills

Whilst working with a client this morning and using our Voyant cash flow process, a couple of very interesting points where raised.

Our client noted that this approach of getting into the real detail of his income, expenditure, assets and liabilities then testing different financial scenarios was the only way to plan. He felt that this was a serious way to approach his Wealth Management plan and it was the first time he felt fully involved in the process.

During the meeting, he noted that since we last spoke a few weeks ago, his monthly payment for electricity was to double.

It’s not been a good week for the majority of Brits as we continue to be faced with ever higher costs across a whole range of goods and services we need on a daily basis.

Clearly our client wanted to factor in this increase in his monthly expenditure and for him knowing what his financial picture looked like, good or bad, was infinitely better than not knowing.

From the point of understanding the effects of increased cost and from the peace of mind that comes with knowing you’ll be OK financially, cash flow modelling is such an important part of a Wealth Manager’s process.

We find that using this approach allows clients to better understand their financial circumstances “in the round” and avoids falling into the specifics trap and confusion over jargon, policies and industry-speak.

Take Voyant away from me now and I’d struggle to do my job.

As we continue to live through these tough economic conditions the value we provide to clients in managing their cash flow models becomes even greater.

Please call us today and we’d be delighted to demonstrate how our Wealth Management Experience, including cash flow modelling, can put you firmly in control of your financial plan.

Roland Oliver


The fundamental need for protection

Reading an article in the paper the other day reminded me that one of the most basic functions of my job is in ensuring that clients are adequately protected with life and critical illness cover. This is arguably the most important but often the least appreciated part of my work.

We all have stories of untimely death or serious illness and how families been devastated but have survived because of having financial protection in place.

I’m not going to go into all the details of what plan, who with or what type of cover at this stage but I am going to point out some areas that must be addressed.

I will not be alone in noting that clients have a reluctance to paying for something “they may not need” and tend to try and talk the cost of life and critical illness cover down to a budget.

We use Voyant cash flow modelling to determine the actual financial cost of someone dying early or suffering a critical illness which tends to bring some serious reality to the levels of cover needed.

Often clients will have some protection in place (flogged by a bank in many instances) which the level of cover bears no resemblance to the actual level of risk. There are a lot of fans of nice round numbers out there and clients are usually at a loss as to why a particular level of cover has been arrived at.

Establishing with clients the real cost of early death or serious illness by more rigorous methodology is paramount and the costs of providing this cover are then seen in the right context.

I find that people do understand the need for cover and are much happier to have the right level of protection in place once they see the real amount of money required to make sure their family will be financially protected if the unthinkable happens.

Once we have the right numbers established, then using the appropriate trusts to ensure swift dispatch of any monies in the event of claim should be a given.The option of using Relevant Life policies were possible also adds a very welcome 20% corporation tax saving on premiums.

So to summarise, don’t leave it to chance; make sure the amount of cover is relevant to the level of risk and get the proper amount and type of cover you need.

If you need us to give you a more accurate figure as to how much cover you might need, contact Malcolm Stewart our Voyant guru on 0131 273 5202 and he’d be happy to help out.

Roland Oliver


Offshore bonds for university fee provision?

As my 16 year daughter gaily announced that she’s found another University near London that she might like to try, it did strike a chord that the financial burden for children goes way beyond standard school fees.

You could argue that the cost of children never diminishes or goes away completely, but that’s another argument for another day.

Whatever the eventual cost and in whichever location, having funds available to help ease the pain is the thing to do.

There are a number of ways to plan for further education fees; using the maximum ISA allowance each year, savings accounts, collectives and even using tax free cash from pension can all play a part.

I’d like to focus on how an Offshore Bond could be a vital addition to your further education fund armoury.

As I touched upon in a previous blog, the tax regime in the UK is punitive and using the tax free growth status of an Offshore Bond to provide fees by way of assignment to a non-UK taxpayer (like a Student) is worthy of consideration.

The Offshore Bond also has further advantages over other forms of saving in as much as there are no upper contribution limits (like an ISA or pension), access at anytime and a wide range of investment options which can include our Dimensional run passive portfolios.

A higher rate tax payer can take advantage of tax free growth offshore and potentially could provide annual University fee help to their children by then assigning policy segments to them. Providing the recipient is a non-taxpayer, there will be no tax to pay.

Care needs to be taken when accessing benefits from an Offshore Bond if you are a higher-rate taxpayer and I would discuss this in more detail in individual cases.

Add the ability to take tax deferred income for 20 years and a range of Trust options, then the Offshore Bond is a very handy addition when considering funding for further education fees.

This is a very brief introduction to the concept of Offshore Bonds and I would be happy to discuss this subject or any other of your financial planning needs at any time.

Roland Oliver


Taking the active vs passive debate a stage further

When I explain to clients and other industry professionals that our investment philosophy is passive, I usually get the response “So you just use index tracking funds and don’t bother changing things if market conditions alter?”

This usually has the initial effective of getting my blood pressure up then once I’ve calmed down, I try to give my more measured, rational explanation.

So, I’ve laid out my thinking behind the philosophy that drives our passive investment strategies and why we use Dimensional Fund Advisers to create our risk-based portfolios.

Market efficiency and its offspring, passive investing, are counterintuitive for many investors. It is human nature to believe that you can beat the market (or identify someone who can) through intelligence, insight, and hard work. This belief is constantly reinforced by the City and most of the mainstream media. Yet even when you are able to firmly plant the seeds of information to overcome those beliefs and intuition, a passive investment approach may carry the negative connotation of inactivity if not properly explained.

Although Dimensional Fund Advisors are characterised by some as passive, it is only passive with respect to activities that don’t add value—mainly stock picking and market timing. You could argue that Dimensional is very active, however, in managing important considerations such as costs and consistent exposure to targeted risks or asset classes. With this in mind, I don’t think the categorisation of “passive” or “active” investing is as black and white as some suggest.

Here are some of the philosophies we share with Dimensional that may better explain the subtle differences.

Don’t speculate. Invest.

Rather than relying on speculation, blind faith, or anecdotal evidence, our philosophy rests on a solid foundation of core principles from the science of investing.

With capitalism there is always a positive expected return on capital.

Capital markets are very competitive due to voluntary exchange between buyers and sellers. There is a buyer for every seller; for markets to clear, prices will adjust to new information and reach a level where there is always a positive expected return to providers of capital. Investors would not risk their capital without the expectation of a positive return. We believe in Dimensional’s approach because they invest in a way that strives to capture a fair share of the capital market return based on the risk assumed.

It is difficult to identify superior investment managers in advance.

Capitalism breeds competition, and that makes markets difficult to beat. With millions of participants competing in capital markets, it is hard to identify in advance anyone who can systematically beat the market since past winners may have just been lucky and won’t necessarily win in the future. We believe in Dimensional’s approach because it eliminates the risk of choosing the wrong manager by following a broadly diversified approach that does not rely on stock picking or market timing.

Diversification is the only antidote for uncertainty.

Although diversification neither assures a profit nor guarantees against loss in a declining market, a properly constructed and well-diversified portfolio is a key component of a successful investment experience. Again, we believe in the Dimensional approach as they design portfolios that attempt to capture certain risks and eliminate others, depending on your preference and capacity for various types of risk.

There is no free lunch. Risk and return are related.

Higher expected returns only come from bearing more risk that cannot be diversified away. Much like a racing driver who chooses to drive without a helmet, you should not expect to be paid more for taking risks that can easily be avoided. Our approach at Oliver Asset Management focuses on eliminating risks that you should not expect a reward for taking, such as concentrating your portfolio in just a few stocks.

Control what you can.

If speculation is futile, and trying to choose winners is more often a loser’s game, what can an investor do? The answer is to concentrate on what can be controlled: managing the transactional costs of investing, reducing the impact of taxes, and taking a long-term view. Above all we approve of Dimensional’s approach because they implement portfolios in a way that is cost effective, tax efficient, and above all, disciplined.

Market efficiency and the active or passive decisions are loaded with misconceptions that can lead to debate and confusion rather than constructive dialogue and understanding. More importantly, it can distract our attention from the most crucial element of all: discipline!

It is this discipline that is one of the key advantages to having a good Wealth Manager. If part of the recipe for a successful investment experience is to stay the course, we can provide that key ingredient of educating you in these philosophies and keeping you disciplined through good times and not so good times.

The whole approach described above is our fundament investment belief at Oliver Asset Management and it’s a subject that I will continue to bring more information to you on in the coming weeks and months.

Roland Oliver


Working for the Government?

I had a friend that years ago had worked out that with his given rate of tax and National Insurance, he was effectively working for the Government until mid afternoon on a Tuesday before he made any money for himself.

Given our current levels of tax, I wonder what he’d make of things now?

He could well be working until late Thursday with top rates of tax being 50%.

We know that reducing the tax burden is one of the 5 key concerns of our clients and that this has never been more acute. I hear from people on a daily basis that they are looking for ways to pay less tax.

Interestingly, they always want to look to the esoteric methods rather than the tried and tested.

So please speak to your adviser and make sure you’re maximising your ISA allowance, pension contributions, CGT annual exemptions, IHT allowances – use a relevant life policy through your limited company if your able and save corporation tax on your life cover premiums.

If you want more, then certainly look at the improved tax breaks Venture Capital Trusts & Enterprise Investment Schemes offer since the last budget (be well aware of the higher levels of risk that might be involved here.)

In short, pay your tax but make sure you take full advantage of the ways you can pay less.

I’ll be discussing the ways you can use financial planning tools to save tax in more detail in the coming weeks.

Call me anytime to discuss this further or any other aspect of your financial planning needs.

Roland Oliver