Women, Financial Power and Barriers to Investing

The good news first. Behavioural finance has found women perform well when they do invest. Research work carried out by Terrance Odean, Professor of Finance at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business shows that women tend to trade less actively than men which incurs lower trading costs; they behave more like ‘buy and hold’ investors sticking to their long term goals. The study stated that ‘virtually all of the gender-based difference in performance can be traced to the fact that men tend to trade more aggressively than women.’ Another earlier study talks about the human quality of overconfidence and notes the gender differences. “ Psychological research has established that men are more prone to overconfidence than women, particularly so in male-dominated realms such as Finance. Rational investors trade only if the expected gains exceed transactions costs. Overconfident investors overestimate the precision of their information and thereby the expected gains of trading.”

So, why are women still lagging behind in investing then?

A recent Fidelity UK based study states ‘the majority of women don’t invest in the stock market’,’ ‘women favour the perceived caution of cash.’ Women face penalties that affect their career progression and earning potential titled in the study as ‘The Motherhood Penalty’, ‘The Childcare Penalty’ and ‘The Good Daughter Penalty’ - namely, opting out of careers to have children, paying for childcare and caring for elderly relatives. The word 'penalties' is cringe worthy to hear as it implies being punished for contributing to caring for life itself. And yet the reality is that our economic system does not recognize women (or men) or for making choices for ‘unpaid’ yet hard work.

A lack of understanding about what investments can offer is also a significant barrier. What was disturbing (although not shocking in my experience as a financial adviser) to read was that more than half of the women invested had no idea where their pension fund was invested and over a third didn’t know how much their pensions were worth.

So, opting out of the workforce for legitimate reasons, then having gaps in earnings and living longer result in a real problem - a pension gap. Women are also short-changed by the gender pay gap which contributes to lower pension and investment contributions. Women have a smaller pension pot size than men at all ages, tend to have more money in cash ISAs and less money in Stocks & Share ISAs overall. This worries me and at the same time, also galvanizes me into wanting to educate more and more women about how we can empower ourselves financially.

One of the actions suggested by the study is to increase pension contributions by 1%. To me, this seems too little. I would suggest really working out for yourself based on when you wish to achieve financial independence and what is sustainable as an annual income for you, what would be most appropriate. Make sure you reassess this regularly, at least once or twice a year. The 4% rule is an easy way to work out what you need for retirement.

Another action I recommend is empowering yourself with financial literacy skills. Read your pension valuation statements, Google any terms you don’t understand, fill your feedly with interesting personal finance reading material, call the pension providers help-desk and ask them to explain or help you with reading material to help you understand what you are reading- be persistent with this. And google Trustnet and the names of the funds you are invested in and train your eyes to visually read the information- information is so easily available and you can train yourself to read this if you are willing to persist through some initial discomfort if you feel incompetent. You could also speak to someone you know who is financially more literate than you and willing to help or mentor you. I encourage you to advocate for your own needs - for financial literacy and healthy financial choices. There are so many resources available, you don’t always need a financial adviser necessarily to understand what you are invested in and what the overall value of your pension pot is. And by the way, even highly intelligent, competent finance professionals that I have worked with as clients tend not to look at their pension statements or necessarily take the time to understand them. So, I really want to reassure you that if you have a clear intention and follow through with an action, you can easily overcome this hurdle.

A study from the other side of the pond titled ‘Women & Financial Wellness: Beyond the Bottom Line’ by Merrill Lynch illustrates the issue of the ‘gender wealth gap’ which is the difference between men’s and women’s accumulated assets.

Some of the actions suggested in this study which I liked are:

Break the taboo around money talk-Have you heard of Conversation Cafes? Nothing stops you from hosting one with about 6-8 people; here are some guidelines to follow to help you get going. Apparently 61% of women would rather talk about death than money. I offer you a gentle challenge to break this social conditioning we have and move towards feeling comfortable and confident speaking about money.

Start early- compounding & longevity can work in your favour. If you spend time out of the workforce, remember to catch up with contributions into your pension once you start working again or brainstorm strategies on how you could take care of your children and also take care of your future self financially.

I hope you will take some action to support women investing more, regardless of your gender. As for me, I intend to host a few Conversation Cafes around the topic of money both online and in London; if you want to support this work and get involved, please drop me a line.

Happy Financial Future and if you want to attend one of my webinars about feeling more confident about investing and retirement planning, sign up to my Newsletter. I intend to follow through on doing more to help educate women (and include men) on investing.

The rise of ESG Investing

I met a financial advisor for a coffee a few weeks ago. He wanted to pick my brains about ethical investing. He said he wanted to be 'more green' and wanted my advice on building ethical portfolios for clients. He seemed to think ethical investing was merely about avoiding tobacco and arms; it's moved on a lot, I said, as I rolled my eyes, questioning whether he was willing to be truly committed and informed about the world of ethical investing. I came across this great piece of investment research by Calvert Research and Management called 'The Rise of ESG Investing' which talks about the latest trends and client drivers. It also talks about financial advisors and their attitudes towards ESG. The study is US based. However, I think it translates well to the UK market too. I marked out some interesting bits and listed them below with my comments.

On Millenials

Born between 1980 and 2000, Millenials command wealth, a social conscience and power. By 2020, it is estimated they will make up 46% of the workforce. This is a generation with sway and swag, who hold social responsibility, social justice, equality and environment causes as top priorities.

Research quoted in the report states that 53% of millennials make investment decisions based on social responsibility factors, compared to 42% of Gen Xers, 41% of baby boomers and 39% of seniors. I don't see too many millennials in my advisory practise and I really enjoy seeing them when I do; but it is encouraging to see the younger generations voicing themselves so clearly.

ESG Takeaways

Advisers should incorporate basic ESG questions and filters into their initial discussions of goals and objectives with current and prospective clients and take a proactive approach to identifying needs and interests. 

I strongly agree. I don't push ESG investments as a 'right' or 'preferred' way of investing; it is not for everyone, and yet, the client has a right to make an informed decision - ESG or not. I imagine advisors enjoy offering a broader menu of options to clients and those who have worked hard to acquire expertise & conviction in ESG investing reap the benefits in attracting investors interested in responsible investing.

For many advisers, portfolio performance is a non-issue when it comes to ESG considerations. It ranks near the bottom of the reasons advisers utilize it; for non-users, ESG's limiting of investment options ranks near the top of considerations. Just 29% of advisers believe there is a positive correlation between corporate financial performance and ESG factors. While manager selection for ESG strategies may be limited compared to the broader universe of funds and managers, the menu is increasing in size. Overall, investment research broadly suggests that the performance of socially conscious funds has a "positive tilt relative to the overall universe of funds". While returns may not be a real hurdle, there is an increasing breadth of options - and potential strategies - that advisers can utilize.

Returns aren't a hurdle. True.

There are around 113 funds that meet the ESG/Ethical criteria as regulated funds for clients in the UK so yes, the universe is smaller. Also, the menu of available investment options excludes passive funds (there are a few, but they don't meet enough criteria to be included in any meaningful way) which means clients may pay a bit more for an ethical portfolio which necessarily includes actively managed funds and consequently higher fees than passive funds. However, more and more, I see a greater abundance of options including with company pensions, such as the L&G Future World fund focused on climate change, which is encouraging.

Adviser usage of ESG factors

The strongest indicator of adviser utilization of ESG factors was the level of client interest in social and environmental issues and, secondarily, the adviser's own knowledge of responsible investing as well as their performance of the importance of evaluating ESG factors for client portfolios.

I have met clients who are keen to invest ethically but then are put off by an adviser's own biases; I believe this is more to do with the advisers own level of felt competence in the area than the facts of whether ESG is an inferior strategy as an investment option or not. 56% of advisors cite client demand as the main reason to utilize ESG. Among advisors who don't use ESG investments, 58% said their clients are not interested in ESG factors, 29% said it leads to limited investment opportunities and 22% said it leads to poor or limited returns; I hear that last one most often too when I talk about it informally with advisor colleagues.

ESG factors brought up most often in client meetings

Among all ESG factors, the "E" - environmental - draws the most client interest. In our survey, 39% of advisers said that clean technology was one of the most commonly prioritised ESG criteria in client meetings, followed by climate change (35%) and emissions and waste (26%). 

An ethical investment questionnaire now has so many factors to it including pornography, human rights violations, genetic modifications, product stewardship and animal welfare.  It has definitely moved on from a simplistic negative screen of avoiding tobacco and arms companies. The survey also lists under social and governance issues the factors most frequently mentioned were human rights (22%) and corporate transparency (16%).

Knowledge stands in the way

Just 38% of responding advisers in our survey answered "Yes" to our question, "Do you feel knowledgeable when it comes to ESG investing?" Aside from client demand, advisers cite moral/ethical reasons as the secondary driver for their use of ESG.

38% is quite a large number. So, for clients who are looking to invest ethically or with ESG in mind, going to a knowledgeable advisor on ESG makes sense.

Further resources:

Ethical investing: Positive and negative screening criteria

Three myths about Ethical Investing

Sustainable tourism: A week in Morocco

Growing a Culture of Social Impact Investing in the UK

Loss aversion bias and checking your portfolio

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How often should you be checking your investment portfolio? Does it matter? From the viewpoint of behavioural biases, there is evidence that experiencing losses leads to poor choices. Loss aversion - our intense dislike of losses can cause us to lose even more if we pay attention to our portfolio losing money. It hasn’t been an issue in the last eight years of a rising equity market and yet, being willing to accept a drawdown or loss is an integral part of managing behaviours needed to be a successful investor.

In the book, The Smarter Screen by Economist Shlomo Benartzi with Jonah Lehrer, an experiment helps shed more light on this:

In one lab experiment by Richard Thaler, Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman and Alan Schwartz, subjects were more likely to invest in a bond fund when feedback was given more frequently. Unfortunately, these low-risk bonds also generated lower returns over the long haul. As the scientists noted, “ Providing such investors with frequent feedback about their outcomes is likely to encourage their worst tendencies...More is not always better. The subjects with the most data did the worst in terms of money earned.

Ten years ago, most clients got paper valuations twice a year and so, tended to look at their portfolio valuations twice a year. We now have access to information everywhere, thanks to our magical devices.

The abundance of feedback is not necessarily a good thing especially with medium to long-term horizons in mind- such as a retirement plan twenty years away. Being willing to ‘do nothing’ or hold bonds or investments that may temporarily lose value is necessary for being a successful investor - to avoid impulsive decisions and following the herd.  

Investing is simple, but not easy. Being self-aware and getting to know your own behavioural biases is useful if you want to hold onto your wealth from investing.

Further resources:

 

Book Review: Simple Wealth, Inevitable Wealth

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“The mortal enemy of investment success is fear.” - Nick Murray I was fortunate enough to buy Nick Murray’s book The Excellent Investment Advisor early on in my advisory career. It made complete sense to me, stressing the role of an investment adviser as behavioural coach. I recently heard about Simple Wealth, Inevitable Wealth on a podcast with a US-based financial adviser, I bought it - a 1999 copy set me back about £25 and it is worth it!

Some of my favourite lines from the book are below with my thoughts:

“”Wealth isn’t primarily determined by investment performance, but by investor behavior.””

Numerous conversations with clients have convinced me that we have our unique perspectives and biases around investing which influence our decisions. A great investment portfolio needs to have global diversification, asset allocation, low costs, etc. Given a well-constructed portfolio, clients who have the ability to stay detached and take the long-term perspective with patience and discipline can usually achieve greater financial success.

On picking a financial adviser:

“Do not care what they know until you know that they care.”

Since you are trusting your financial adviser with your wealth and your family’s wealth, technical capabilities and competence can only take you so far. Trusting in your adviser’s judgment is important and so take your time looking for someone you can really trust.

On Risk:

  • “People greatly overestimate the long-term risk of owning stocks. People seriously underestimate the long-term risk of not owning stocks.”
  • “The great long-term financial risk isn’t loss of principal but erosion of purchasing power.”
  • “The real long-term risk of equities is not owning them.”

Here, he means stocks as an asset class. Important to remember you only invest in stocks if you can stay invested for 5 years or more. If you haven’t ever invested in equity, that would be quite risky behaviour, according to him.

On Investor behaviour:

“The single most important variable in the quest for investment success is also the only variable you ultimately control: your own behavior.”

I have to agree and love that this is within our control. You can’t control the markets, economic forces of nature or will things to go your way. You can choose how you react to all of it.

On the active/passive debate:

“At the end of the day, it isn’t indexing v/s active management. It’s cost.”

The cost of your portfolio has a direct effect on the growth of your portfolio - an important factor in portfolio construction.

Really enjoyed reading this book & highly recommend!

Are pensions better than ISAs?

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Pension vs ISA

If you are saving for retirement and looking for better options than a pension, including comparing to ISAs, I simply haven't found one. As long as you can afford to invest your money, knowing it isn't accessible until 55 (or whenever the scheme rules say), pensions are undeniably the most tax efficient way to invest for your retirement.

A pension is simply a tax-advantaged investment wrapper. It's tax advantages are significant; the money you pay in is topped up by tax-relief. Moreover, the idea is to put money away where it cannot be easily accessed. So, the fact that it isn't accessible. I don't see it as a disadvantage.

Did I hear you say buy- to- let's are your plan for retirement? Please read my blog 'Dark clouds over buy-to-let investments' if you are open to a gentle challenge.

Not understanding how pensions work could hurt you financially. Here is an honest, genuine account from Jason Zweig, author of 'Your Money and Your Brain: How the New Science of Neuroeconomics Can Help Make You Rich', a book worth adding to the 'Money' section of your library.

In 1993, the mutual fund editor at Forbes magazine was contributing 5% of his salary, just half the allowable maximum, to his 401(k). When a friend asked why he didn’t put more into his 401(k), the editor shot back, “Because I can do better with my money than they can, that’s why.” Looking back more than a decade later, the former editor calculated how much this decision had cost him. I know the answer, because I was that editor. The cost of my overconfidence is more than a quarter of a million dollars- so far.

Tax Treatment (Are pensions better than ISAs?)

One area where pensions and ISAs differ is on the tax breaks given to individuals when payments are made, and when funds are accessed.

Pension:

  • Money In: Pensions enjoy tax relief on contributions. For DC schemes, savers will typically pay in an amount net of basic rate tax, with the provider adding basic rate tax to the fund*. Any higher or additional relief is claimed through self-assessment. So a £10,000 pension contribution will require a payment of £8,000. A higher rate taxpayer would be able to claim a further £2,000 tax relief via their tax return, and this will reduce the tax they pay on their other income. So the net cost to an investor paying higher rate tax is £6,000. *Some occupational schemes will collect the gross employee contribution from total pay before tax is collected under PAYE. Employees will get tax relief at their highest marginal rates immediately and do not need to make any claims through self-assessment.

  • Money Out: Up to 25% of the pension fund can be taken completely tax-free. The balance is taxed at the saver’s highest marginal rate of income tax.

ISA:

  • Money In: There’s no tax relief for payments into an ISA.

  • Money Out: All withdrawals from an ISA remain tax-free.

Source: Standard Life: Spotlight on Pension v/s ISA Other related resources: