I can’t believe how easy it used to be to generate a decent return

Finding a decent risk-free return on your money has got a lot harder in the 15 years MoneyWeek has been around, says John Stepek.


Finding decent returns has got a lot harder

It's MoneyWeek's 15th birthday this week. The first issue of the magazine came out on 4 November 2000.

So I spent much of yesterday taking a trip down memory lane, putting together material for a special 15th anniversary edition (out this Friday).

Lots of things struck me. Even going back to before the financial crisis, there were lots of debates and arguments we were covering that could have come from today's pages.

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For example, we had a cover image back in 2002 the post-tech bubble fallout period which showed Alan Greenspan and Mervyn King in a rowing boat trying to steer between two rocks labelled inflation' and deflation' (our covers were a lot more didactic then too).

That's the same debate we're having today. Of course, interest rates weren't at 0% across the entire world back then, so the debate has taken on a lot more urgency today. But it's a useful reminder that central banks have played a dominant role in the market for as long as we've been publishing.

As I've said many times before, it does make a bit of a mockery of the idea of a free' market when such a lot of investors' attention has to stay focused on the actions of a handful of fallible individuals in a metaphorical rowing boat.

But I won't start ranting about that again today.

Instead I want to look at something that really struck me how much harder it is to get a half-decent return on your money without taking a risk.

The long, long story of the credit crunch

Looking back through our past 15 years of magazines, another thing that struck me was just how long it took for the credit crunch to unfold.

US house prices started falling in 2006. We were talking about the risks of derivatives, describing them on one cover as a house of cards, in September of that year, two years before Lehman blew up.

We had another cover warning that the credit crunch was about to bite in early summer 2007. Northern Rock went bust a month or so later. And the whole of Iceland followed shortly afterwards, in October that year.

In March 2008, when RBS and Lloyds were still entirely independent of the British government, James Ferguson warned in the magazine that shareholders in British banks could expect to see 80% of their equity value wiped out. Incredibly, that turned out to be an understatement.

Yet while it was clear that things were going pear-shaped, for most people it really wasn't until Lehman exploded in autumn 2008 that the extent of the disaster became apparent.

Amazing. All the signs were there, for ages, for anyone who was looking for them. Looking back, it seems like the investing equivalent of marching into a lamp post.

Anyway, it's fascinating to note that even back then, you could pick up annual returns of 7% by sticking your money in a fixed-rate savings account. Northern Rock for example had been nationalised, and was maybe the safest institution in Britain at that particular moment, and that was the rate on offer (briefly).

Nowadays if you want to get 7% well, that's tough. The sorts of things that yield that are what we'd normally think of as risky to highly risky. If you see a stock paying a 7% dividend, the first thing you think is "will that be cut?" (We're talking oil majors and miners here, for example.)

As for bonds, again, you're only going to get 7% if there's a fair bit of concern that it won't be paid out.

The hard graft of generating an income from your investments

So, how can you go about generating an income? You have to work harder, unfortunately.

You can faff about with various current accounts and savings accounts. If you're willing to put the hours in between researching and switching between accounts, and messing about with direct debits, you can certainly generate above-inflation returns from ordinary savings accounts.

You might find it a pain in the neck to keep an eye on the various accounts and the admin involved. I can empathise with that. At the same time, it probably compares favourably with the effort you'd have to put into properly researching a stock, and the return you get is as guaranteed as anything can be these days.

Trouble is, there's a limited amount of money you can put into these. And you're still talking about relatively small returns.

Simplicity is an under-rated virtue in an investment strategy

There are, of course, lots of ways to generate an income from investments, as long as you're willing to take some risk. The key is taking sensible risks where the rewards are worth it.

While I was off last week, Dan mentioned our Unconventional Income' masterclass, which you should take a look at if you haven't already.

(MoneyWeek subscribers should already have been told how to access this drop us a line if you haven't.)

But another option or rather, one you should consider as well comes from my colleague Stephen Bland, who writes The Dividend Letter. Stephen focuses solely on generating income from blue-chip shares. He calls it his HYP (High-Yield Portfolio) strategy. Stephen recently reiterated the principles behind HYP for his new readers here's what he had to say.

"The whole purpose of HYPs is to get away from the almost universal idea amongst investors that shares are there for investors to try and score capital gains. I am the antidote to trading for profit, because in my world, shares are there for people to try and score income that both starts at a reasonably high initial level and is likely to grow with time.

"This is the sole aim of the HYP strategy and it follows that capital fluctuations are all but irrelevant. If after many years, a portfolio has delivered on its purpose of providing that growing income, then it will have been successful whatever has happened to the capital value. This is the fundamental shift in mindset that I am trying to get across to readers.

"Almost everything you may read in the vast and hugely excessive torrent of matter published about the stockmarket focuses upon the hope for gain. In the HYP world we forget all that and invest in shares only for the income they may be able to provide. Chase income, not gains.

"Now it follows that if the primary aim of a growing income is achieved long-term, then something good may happen to the capital value of an HYP too. No guarantees, of course, but that is what has happened in the past. It is though just a side effect of the strategy and not any part of the purpose for which I designed it."

The idea behind Stephen's strategy is logical and all the rest of it, but for me, the key strength is that it's simple.

You can have the best system in the world, but it's no use if you don't follow it. One of the biggest hurdles to good investing is our own behaviour, and the more complicated a system gets, the more tempted we are to tweak it. Either that, or we just get lazy and don't follow it to the letter, and then the problems start.

Anyway, I'll be coming back to Stephen and his strategy throughout the week. Now I'm off to trawl through the archives some more. (And of course if you're not already a MoneyWeek subscriber, this week's the story so far issue' would be a good week to start.)

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.