Friday, March 23, 2012

Protecting Wealth: The Bigger Picture

It may just take luck for a person to acquire or make wealth. However, it would take a lot more to keep holding on to that wealth. At the bottom of the things we do and the way we live life is money. Protecting wealth over a period of time, especially across generations is not easy. There are just too many factors that pose a risk to your wealth and one must be very well protected from all sides. In this article we take a birds eye view at picture of protecting wealth and explore a few strategies or ideas that you can apply in your lives.

Wealth Protection: The True Meaning
Wealth Protection may come with the question: What is wealth? The dictionary definition says it is an abundance of worldly possessions. With the uncertainties prevailing in our lives, it is very important to protect your wealth. Most people focus on growing their wealth but protecting your wealth is just as important. While you can’t always predict life’s changes, you can plan ahead to help protect your finances from being diminished. Without adequate protection, you will be vulnerable to the nasty effects of a chance misfortune which may cause financial losses. Hence protecting wealth must assume a very critical part. Below of the few simple connotations that we can derive for term 'protection':

Types of protection:
> Protection of ownership: 
> Protection of value:
Risks to Wealth:
> Protection from risks / uncertainty: 
> Protection from usage:

Protection of ownership: 
 Ownership protection means ensuring that you and/or your loved ones continue to own the wealth that belongs to you. Often protection of ownership is required to protect against the following risks:
  • risks that arise on ownership issues specially in case of property transfers and inheritance
  • risks to ownership of business assets and capital if legal fool-proof work is not done
  • risks to unattached / personal wealth in case you are suffering from huge losses or claims
The following are few ideas by which we can protect the ownership of our wealth & assets
  1. Legal Documentation: Proper legal documentation and ownership records of all family / personal assets. All the records / documents must be safeguarded and stored at a place which is known & accessible to you and your lawyers/ spouse, etc. in case of any eventuality. Due diligence and audit of title / ownership documents must be done in case of any purchase of assets or business stakes, especially property.
  2. Estate Planning: It is about declaring successors to your wealth and the proportion of distribution through proper estate planning and making your 'will'. One may also look at formation of trusts to oversee large properties or businesses. A non-existent or outdated will may mean passage of assets to unwanted persons and undue financial burdens to loved ones.
  3. Court Attachments: One might do well to keeping business entity distinct from self. This means protecting personal assets safe from payments due to creditors and other claims on business. One idea is limiting your civil liability through formation of Private Limited Company, subject to extant laws. In proprietorship & partnership firms, the personal wealth is not treated distinct from that of the owners or partners. Also from an individual's perspective, retirement benefits like pension, PPF, EPF and gratuity cannot be attached by authorities or under any decree of court.

Protection of value:
Protection of value means the protection of the purchasing value or worth of money. Due to inflation or price rise, the value of money decreases over time and the thus, in order to retain its purchasing power, the amount money has to rise. Thus, one must always keep in mind the 'real returns' or value of money while committing to any investment or other avenue. In addition to this, the following points should also be kept in mind.
  1. Post Tax Real Returns: After having appreciated the concept of real returns, the next step is to look at post tax real returns, i.e., looking at the returns after tax, and then adjusting for inflation effect. Thus, if an instrument giving 8% returns, taxable at say 30%, the post tax returns will be (8%-2.4%) 5.6%. In an environment with an average inflation of say 7%, the real post tax returns would then be a negative of 1.4%.
  2. Idle Money: In the above above case, if your money is kept idle, you will be depreciating your money at the rate of inflation. One should minimise idle money and put aside money into avenues that preserve capital. Though savings bank accounts with deregulated interest rates are a bit attractive, mutual fund liquid funds and other debt products are options that one should explore.
Protection from usage:
This is a very broader & general idea that highlights the need to have proper management and usage of wealth, especially the business ventures and investments.
  1. Avoiding Personal assets as collateral: Taking up business or other loans by putting your home or other personal property as collateral must be avoided as far as possible. A basic minimum wealth should be kept intact at all times and should strictly be used only as the last resort after exploiting every other opportunity.
  2. Unprofitable expenditures: Unwarranted spending on assets, businesses which is not required. Further spending money on assets that depreciate rather than appreciate over time or incur expenses to maintain rather than generate income are to be avoided. Excess spending on shopping, life-style, etc. is highly undesirable and further, buying unrequired assets on loan is a strict no.
  3. Avoiding aggressive risks, fictitious business venture, get-rich-quick schemes: There are no free lunches and never an easy money. It would be better if we can avoid shortcuts to creating wealth as almost certainly they can be disastrous. Never invest if you do not fully understand how the scheme/business works or if you are not sure of the management's credibility and expertise.
  4. Diversification of risks: The idea is to optimally spread your business risks and investment risks such that your capital and/or income is not jeopardised. It should work towards having investments in and earnings from multiple sources.
  5. Hedging against risks: Business risks or risks of exposure to say commodities, currency, metal prices, etc. can be safeguarded by hedging
  6. Investing in right asset classes for right duration: When it comes to investing, selecting the right asset class is a most important. An overexposure or underexposure to say equities can both be harmful for creating wealth. Matching the right asset class with the right desired duration of investment and your risk profile is what is required.
Protection from risks / uncertainties
After having taken all precautions and necessary planning in management of wealth, still life may throw up surprises or situations wherein all planning may come to fail. There are a lot of uncertainties in life and we should best avoid or reduce taking exposure to such risks and at the same time prepare ourselves for the worst, in case anything goes wrong.
  1. Risks to life & health: An unfortunate event can happen anytime and anywhere to anyone. Specifically, there can be death, disease or illness, disablement, etc. which can put severe financial pressure at the worst of the times. Taking 'adequate' insurance thus becomes very critical for continued financial security of your family. Life Insurance, Health Insurance, Personal Accident cover for self & family members are few very critical covers that one should take after consulting your advisors.
  2. Risks to property / assets: Similarly, protection of business property/ assets, factory, shop, home & home contents, goods in transit, etc. becomes very important and the loss therein may result in liability and financial losses. There are many general insurance products that can be explored. However, as a practice, we should take adequate safe precautions in construction, maintenance & storage of such property.
  3. Risks to reputation / profession / : Apart from the tangible risks, there are also other risks that businessmen and professionals or officers are exposed. Again products like Professional Indemnity, Directors & Officer's Liability, Public Liability, Commercial General Liability, Money Insurance, where one is protected against losses, suits, damages, claims, loss to customers, third parties, any many other risks.

Protection of wealth is a very vast subject. The idea cannot be justified in couple of pages, though a fair understanding can be built up. Wealth protection goes beyond protecting your investment and it extends to protection from the happenings in your lives and the risks that you are exposed to. After all, almost everything, directly or indirectly generally ends up in rupee terms. And when we realise this, our approach to life and everything that we may do will have an element of protection somewhere. Wealth protection is not an act or event but an attitude and philosophy to follow.

Pearls of Wisdom: From the Greats

We know many successful people and it is often our desire to achieve the success that our idols have achieved. However, matching success is not an easy thing, even though we may follow their footsteps. It is not about acting or doing things but is more about absorbing the wisdom and implementing this wisdom to our lives. In this article, we fathom the minds of a few great personalities and bring to you the pearls of wisdom on being and living wealthy.
If a rich man is proud of his wealth, he should not be praised until it is known how he employs it.” - Socrates
Being wealthy in itself is not something to be very proud of. After all, wealth can be acquired by a variety of means or even by luck. The real question is how you manage and employ your wealth. Great fortunes can be wasted or lost or kept idle with the passage of time. Wealth can act as a great tool or medium through which one may pursue things that lead to value creation in money or in kind. When it comes to investing too, employing money rightly is critical as wrong investment decisions will only erode your wealth over time. There is a risk that you may also lose opportunity to build your wealth. Often, the risk is not doing anything is higher than doing something. Socrates thus believed that a person would be better praised for what he is doing with his wealth rather than how much he holds.
Socrates (470-399 BC) was a classical Greek philosopher and credited as one of the founding fathers of western philosophy.
" If you know how to spend less than you get, you have the philosopher's stone". - Benjamin Franklin
At the heart of wealth creation is the idea of spending less than what you earn. Another way to look at it is that a money saved is money earned. This sounds very easy and often heard. But in practice it can be hard to do and hence the need to remind ourselves of it again. With higher spending, most of us find ourselves left with reduced savings and high debts in present times and an already committed future income. This a big alarm to us all and big hurdle in creating wealth. Financial discipline and controlled consumption are very important if one ever dreams of being wealthy.
Benjamin Franklin (1706 -1790) was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and also known as the 'The First American'. A very dynamic personality whose image is visible on 100 dollar bills, he was an author, printer, politician, scientist, musician, inventor, civic activist and a diplomat. 
Individuals who cannot master their emotions are ill-suited to profit from the investment process.” - Benjamin Graham
Our emotions can blind us while taking important investment decisions. Human nature is highly driven by fear, greed & hope which deviates us from taking the right decisions. Truly, a person who is emotional cannot practice decision making with objectivity, patience and common sense. Decisions taken in emotion would generally be self destructive. For success in investing, is is important to be able to shut down the emotional part within ourselves. An unemotional & disciplined investment approach,is a key to building long-term wealth.
Benjamin Graham (1894-1976) was a British born, American economist, professor & professional investor. He is regarded as the father of 'value investing' approach and had many great followers, including Warren Buffett.

You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don't do too many things wrong”. Warren Buffett.
Creating wealth is easy and can be done by any person. It is also something that does not require one to be an expert stock analyst or to be very informed or something that requires lot of effort. The simple, basic and yet powerful principles of wealth creation like investing in right asset classes, investing for long term, keeping emotions at bay, etc. can really help create true wealth. One doesn't need to be expert product choosers or market timers to create wealth. The way and the amount of wealth created by Warren is a testimony to this fact. As long as we follow these basic principles and not do something very stupid that wipes out our wealth, we will be well off. Avoiding mistakes is thus more important and something that we should all keep in mind when we make any financial decision.
Warren Buffett (born 1930) is an American business magnate, investor & philanthropist. Widely regarded as one of the most successful investors in the world, he is the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and is among the richest in the world. He is known for his long-term and value investing philosophy to create wealth.

Far more money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections or trying to anticipate corrections than has been lost in the corrections themselves.” - Peter Lynch
Markets are highly volatile in nature. Market fluctuations often cause investors to change their investment plans. Often we try to time the markets and move in and out of investments to profit from the market movements. However, it is almost impossible to predict how markets would behave. By attempting to do so, investors often also lose out on the returns they could have earned had they stayed put. Timing the market should never be the objective of an investor as it is the business of a speculator or a trader. Frequent changes in portfolio also comes at a cost. It is thus better to channel our energy to earn realistic returns over a longer horizon rather than aim for short term benefits.
Peter Lynch (born 1944) is a stock investor, author & a philanthropist. He earned fame in the investment world with his success as researcher & fund manager at Fidelity Investments.

Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game.” - Donald Trump
Another truth about becoming and staying wealthy is doing what you like most. It would only mean that you are doing something with passion and something that you are willing to learn and only become good at. At the heart of it you are not really chasing money but making money follow you by being good at what you are doing. It is also something that will ensure that you are on the right path and with much greater possibilities to create wealth in future. Further, money can be used to keep track of how well we are doing, acting as a tool for reference and comparison in many ways. When it comes to wealth management, the joy of managing and seeing your wealth grow over time would perhaps give a greater satisfaction than from just holding a fixed quantum of wealth. There is a strong case for you to start liking the process of wealth management today.
Donald Trump (born 1946) is an American business magnate, real estate developer and author. His lifestyle and the role in the famous reality show 'The Apprentice' on NBC made him a celebrity.

Asset Classes: A Simple Guide:

Asset Class is a often used word in finance, especially investment & portfolio management. We also used the term many times in our articles. In this article a take a academic look at the various asset classes.

Why know about different asset classes?
Knowledge and understanding about asset classes is a very basic for any person thinks of self as an investor. Though it is not required that one be expert with every asset class, the bare minimum understanding of the nature of main asset classes, the risk profile, returns potential and the way of investing into such asset classes is a humble expectation. In brief, we can put the following reasons for knowing about asset classes:
  • Increased choices for informed decision making
  • Better investment management through asset allocation & diversification
  • Identifying emerging opportunities & risks for investing
  • Being rational, unbiased and confident in investment decisions

How do asset classes differ?
Each asset class is different and there are many points of difference against other asset classes. These differences ultimately impact the investment objectives and performance. The asset classes may differ upon the following things...
  • Nature and characteristics
  • Correlation with other asset classes
  • Risk and Returns potential / trade-off
  • Ideal investment horizon
  • Behaviour w.r.t. markets, interest rates, economic environment, etc.
  • Rules, regulations and taxation

Definition and Types of asset classes:
An 'Asset Class' can be defined as a group of securities or investments that display similar characteristics or behave in similar fashion in markets or economic variables and are subject to similar rules & regulations.

There are broadly three basic asset classes considered by most investment experts: (i) Equity securities (ii) Fixed Income or Debt securities and (iii) Cash equivalents. In addition to this, (iv) Real Estate and (v) Commodities are also considered by many as important asset classes given their characteristics and penetration among investors.
The asset classes can be further broken down through ways, but such segregations are generally mixed together whenever we talk of asset classes at a broader level. For example, Equity can be further broken down as large-cap, mid-cap & small-cap but for the purpose of asset class discussions, we categories them all into equities, even though their risk-return behaviour may slightly differ from each other. Breakups can be effectively used for determining diversification within an asset class. But irrespective of any asset class line-up, each one is expected to reflect different risk and return investment characteristics, and will perform differently in any given market environment.

Our readers must be very familiar with Equity asset class by now. Most would also know that over long term equity as an asset class has outperformed other asset classes in India as well as in more developed economies. Equity basically enables efficient movement of funds from people having excess to businesses that need it to fund growth and business operations. The businesses in turn provide employment, goods & services to public and tax revenues to government and try to make the most productive use of the capital. Equity is a risky asset class and investments should be made for long term. The returns from such investments are in form of capital gains by price appreciation and/or dividend payments by companies.
In India, the equities are largely held directly through stock exchange or indirectly through mutual fund equity schemes. Exposure to equity can also be made through Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and Portfolio Management Schemes (PMS) and indirectly through pension schemes / plans that invest in equities. Insurance products, especially Unit Linked Plans (ULIPs) is an another route well known route. Equity can also be held in form of stakes or Private Equity in businesses. This option, however, is limited super HNI and corporate investors.

Debt is an another asset class which your would be very familiar with. Some of the popular avenues of debt investments are through Fixed Deposits of banks & corporates and bonds issued by governments, RBI and the likes. Small Saving schemes and pension plans by government is an another major avenue of investing. Mutual funds schemes are lately becoming popular with retail investors too. The mutual funds offer a wide variety of products to suit every need and risk profile of the customer. It is a relatively less risky asset class and returns are generally in form of interest payments and/or capital gains due to impact of interest rates changes over time.

Commodities may be treated as a distinct asset class since their nature and behaviour differs from the other asset classes. Indians have been traditional investors in 'gold' as a commodity. Other commodities are now finding a favour with investors, albeit slowly. Precious metals like Gold & silver remain the biggest avenue for investment and awareness & exposure to other commodities is very low. The impressive performance of these metals over past few years have made them as asset class hard to be ignored by investors.
The commodity prices tend to follow the cyclical pattern of underlying commodities which is why it is important to understand the demand-supply factors. Needless to say, this is not an asset class for the less informed or the faint hearted, especially for agro-commodities & base metals. Investment is generally for short to medium term and the idea is to profit from price movements or hedge against actual exposure. As an asset class, commodities have been observed to have low correlation with the other asset classes and hence offer excellent potential for portfolio diversification. Investments into Gold specially has also become more convenient & practical for investors with the launch of Gold ETFs and mutual fund schemes.

Real Estate:
Real estate is the original idea of creating assets before the other asset classes become popular among investors. Real estate, especially residential / commercial units, unlike other asset classes, except gold, gives the owners a sense of emotional satisfaction and confidence. Holding physical property has also its own share of social acknowledgment of your financial standing. Land is also treated more than an asset in the largely agrarian economy of India.
From an investor's perspective, the investment in physical real estate has its own share of challenges w.r.t. clear titles, transparency, transaction costs, etc. Emergence of new avenues for investments has, to some extend, made it feasible to get exposure to this asset class with less risks. The returns in this asset class is in form of rental/ lease payments and price appreciation. Real estate are the least liquid of all the asset classes and investment horizon is generally long-term to very long term in nature.

As an asset class, cash and cash equivalents is unlike any other asset class. The purpose of holding cash is either for transaction / payment reason or as a precaution for any eventuality or as a buffer for taking advantage of opportunities in other asset classes/ products. Cash is the least productive of all asset classes and delivers little or no returns and over time looses out its real value as well. Cash equivalent holdings are dictated by convenience, comfort and cash habits of people. As an investor, one should try to minimise cash equivalent holdings to an optimum level that strictly meets your needs. Mutual fund liquid funds is considered as the ideal avenue for putting aside money for short durations, giving advantages of superior post-tax returns, high liquidity, very low costs & convenience.

Other asset classes:
Apart of the above major asset classes discussed, there are also some more asset classes considered by few investment experts. You may come across asset classes like currency, derivatives and collectibles. Currency, as an asset class is distinct in nature and it derives its existence because of the exchange rate fluctuations between countries. Currency is something of great interest to governments, banks, multinational corporates having business incomes arising in different countries, and even to individuals where source of income and consumption are in separate countries. Derivatives is an asset class that 'derives' its value from the actual underlying asset class. It is more of an hedging and trading tool and fraught with very high risks, something which is suited only for the experts. Collectibles is an emerging asset class where investments are made in art, antiques & other collectibles. This asset class is now finding more favour with HNI investors who are looking for some diversification & spice in their portfolio.

Using Asset Classes:
Understanding of the asset classes leads us to the question – Whats' next?. The usage of different asset classes are basically two fold. First, the understanding is useful for purpose of diversification to optimise risk-return trade-off. This is because different asset classes perform differently in different markets and also differently from each other. Diversification only works when you combine assets that have opposite or low correlation with each other. The second idea is to decide and follow the 'asset allocation' strategy. The asset allocation strategy has been cited by investment managers & experts as the biggest deciding factor for long term wealth creation. Financial advisors have propagated asset allocation strategies of tactical, dynamic and strategic in nature to their investors keeping in mind their risk profile.

In brief:
As markets grow and become mature, there would increasingly be arrivals of new asset classes or product options in existing asset classes. As of today, there already exists a wide variety of asset classes and product options within them, something which wasn't available a decade back. The increasing choices of asset classes and financial products brings complexity, confusion & challenges to any investor. An informed and wise investor would always try and understand & appreciating the nature and nuances of different asset classes. The awareness and comfort level can then be used for designing portfolios based on age old principles of asset allocation and diversification.