Pension freedoms: best and cheapest way to invest your pension savings

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Taking control of your pension

We all saw the headlines that accompanied the news of the changes– the predictions that everyone would rush out and squander their hard-earned pension pots on luxury cars, cruises and other frivolous purchases.

The 6 April 2015 Budget saw the most radical changes to private pensions for a generation, giving people much more control over their pension savings than before.

This hasn’t happened– the latest figures reveal that most people aren’t rushing to take out and spend their hard-earned pension pots.

The implicit message is that only the uninformed few fail to heed this advice and those who do end up poorer as a result. We wouldn’t want that to get us!

You’ve got more control over your pension savings than ever before, and the ability to invest as you see fit. How should you go about it?

As investors, we are bombarded with stock tips about the next Apple or Google; we read articles on how India or biotech investing are the next hot thing, or are told how some star investment manager’s outstanding performance is set to continue.

Use a SIPP to take control of your pension today

Follow the markets

What if we started with a very different premise? The premise that markets are actually quite efficient.

Accepting, embracing, and acting on this absence of edge should in my view be a key moment in most investors’ lives.

The absence of edge does not mean that you should avoid investing. Doing so would exclude you from potentially exciting long-term returns in the equity markets or from benefiting from the security of highly-rated Government bonds.

Nor are they able to pick which of the thousands of fund managers have the ability to do it for them.

Even if some people are able to outperform the markets, the majority of us are not. In financial jargon, most people do not have edge over the financial markets; they can’t consistently outperform the market by picking different securities, sectors or geographies from the market as a whole, especially after costs.

What else were you going to do– leave your money under the mattress or in a bank at zero interest?

And since we simply track an index (like the MSCI All Country World, for example) it is very cheap to put together for a product provider like Vanguard or iShares, and thus cheap to us.

You can combine this world equity portfolio with Government bonds in the proportions that suit your risk profile if an all equity exposure is too risky. The lower the risk desired, the more bonds you want.

In equities we should then pick the broadest possible selection of stocks because, just as we don’t know which one stock will outperform, we don’t know which sector or geography will outperform.

Instead we should assume that the current market prices of securities capture all available information and analysis, and that the prices reflect that security’s future risk/return profile.

And what is broader than an index that tracks equities from all over the world in the proportion of value that market forces have already placed on them? With a world equity index tracker we maximize diversification and minimize exposure to any one currency, geography or sector.

Four key tips

My key takeaways to most investors are:

Simple perhaps, but you capture an incredible diversification of exposures via the equities and the portfolio is at your risk appetite when you incorporate the bonds in a proportion that suits your risk.

There is an easy and cheaply constructed portfolio that is close to optimal. Get close to that in the right proportions, which depend mainly on your risk tolerance, stick to it, and in my view you are doing better than 95% of all investors.

You almost certainly do not have edge in the financial markets. Most people don’t, but you should plan and act accordingly.

Think hard about your risk appetite and optimizing your tax situation. Don’t add to this concentration risk with your investment portfolio.

That’s it– two securities: one being an index tracker of world equities and the other a security that represents Government bonds of maturity and currency that match your need. Both equity and bond exposure perhaps via an ETF.

You can add other Government and diversified corporate bonds if you have appetite for a bit more complexity in your portfolio, but the portfolio is very powerful even without those.

4. Be a huge stickler for costs, don’t trade a lot, and keep your investments for the very long run. The portfolio above should only be implemented via extremely cheap index tracking products that charge 0.25% per year or less.

Don’t add to this concentration risk with your investment portfolio.

To put things in perspective, consider that these unnecessary and additional fees for just one saver over their investing lives could buy six Porsches. And paradoxically this is money paid to the finance industry from a saver who could typically not afford to drive a Porsche.

Follow these steps and I think you will have a personal portfolio strategy that lets you sleep well at night, knowing that you have created a diversified and powerful portfolio cheaply, tailored to your risk appetite.

If you think you have great edge in the market and think you could easily make up this 2% annual cost difference then by all means pick an active manager or your own stocks. If not, then the sooner you shift out of the expensive investment products or active stock picking and into cheap index tracking products the better off you will be.

Considering a typically 2% annual cost difference between an index tracking product and an actively managed fund (potentially in addition to the cost of an advisor), as you get ready to retire at age 67 the difference in the savings pot is staggering. You are left better off by perhaps ₤ 250,000 in today’s money simply by investing with an index fund as opposed to an active manager.

To emphasize the point of costs: suppose you are a frugal saver who diligently put aside 10% of ₤ 50,000 annual income from the age of 25 to 67 that you invest in world equities. Further assume markets return 5% real per year in line with historical returns (ignoring taxes).

The portfolio above should only be implemented via extremely cheap index tracking products that charge 0.25% per year or less.

Create a powerful personal portfolio.

You almost certainly do not have edge in the financial markets. There is an easy and cheaply constructed portfolio that is close to optimal. Get close to that in the right proportions, which depend mainly on your risk tolerance, stick to it, and in my view you are doing better than 95% of all investors.

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