Made-to-measure riches

Property, bonds, gold and even cash trade on the sharemarket, writes David Potts.

Property, bonds, gold and even cash trade on the sharemarket, writes David Potts.

Fair enough, the sharemarket hasn't done you any favours, so it's not as though you should return any.

But you can turn it to your advantage, even if you never want to see another share for the rest of your life, which is probably how long you're going to have to work.

Strange as it sounds, the sharemarket offers cash, property, gold, bonds or even a stash of foreign currencies. It can give you a portfolio of nearly everything by barely lifting a finger.

How? By using exchange-traded funds, or ETFs. These pool other people's money, a bit like those online group-buying sites, except you can sell as well, and they're regulated.

In fact, ETFs trade just like ordinary shares but for a small - 0.5 per cent at most - annual fee.

Quite a few just invest in other stocks. For example, the ASX code-named STW gives the 200 biggest stocks for about $42.60, plus brokerage (CMC Markets is cheapest at $9.90 a pop for a trade worth up to $10,000).

Admittedly, your holding in each will be so small not even an electron microscope would spot it.

But then you can buy as many STWs as you like.

The same goes for bonds.

While the government dilly-dallies over allowing bonds to be bought on the ASX, rather than from a special dealer or direct from the Reserve Bank, an ETF can give you an instant portfolio of different ones.

Advisers say you need some government bonds, especially if you're running your own super fund.

There's even a choice. The combo package (IAF) has Australian government and corporate as well as foreign bonds.

Or try rivals IGB (from iShares) and RGB (from Russell), which have only Commonwealth bonds. The main difference between them is that RGB has a slightly lower annual fee of 0.24 per cent.

Then there's ILB with Commonwealth, inflation-indexed and higher-yielding semi-government bonds.

Or Vanguard's VGB, which invests in Commonwealth and semi bonds.

How about RSM, which invests only in semi-government bonds, or RCB's corporate-bonds fund?

Mind you, by delegating your investment to somebody else, you lose the guarantee of getting your money back, which is a key feature of a government bond.

But at least ETFs, unlike shares, trade almost exactly at the value of their assets.

That's because they have what's known technically as market makers, but could equally be called hired-gun speculators, who make money by preventing prices straying from the straight and narrow.

They're contracted by the ETF issuer to provide a quote that's always in line with the underlying market value of the investment.

Usually, they're big brokers or merchant banks, so the chances of their defaulting or going belly-up are remote, though not impossible.

A sure sign of market makers not doing their job properly would be a persistently large discrepancy (10? or more, say) between buying and selling quotes.

But the global financial crisis was an exacting test and ETFs came through with flying colours.

If bonds aren't your bag, there's even a cash ETF, which snagged the ASX code AAA, making it sound very creditworthy, though it beats me why you would want to pay brokerage and a 0.18 per cent annual fee to put money in a deposit.

Unless, that is, it can deliver a higher yield than a term deposit, in which case there's an advantage because you can get out whenever you want without penalty, except for the brokerage.

And, I suppose, it's an alternative if you don't want to go through the rigmarole of proving who you are when you open a bank account.

Fancy a property play? There's an ETF for listed property trusts (SLF) that covers mainly commercial property and a good one-third of it involves Westfield shopping centres in one way or another.

Still, that might not be a bad thing considering commercial rents are typically higher than for residential, and at least you don't have to take out a mortgage. Although it's the ultimate bailiwick against trusting pieces of paper issued by either governments or corporations, even gold can be traded on the ASX. This, at least, saves the problem of where to hide your bullion or having to insure it.

You can buy a gold fund that is hedged or unhedged. Either way, the share price tracks the gold price cent for cent (in US dollars if unhedged, Australian dollars if hedged).

There are ETFs that cover other commodities, too. And buying an instant share portfolio, including foreign shares, is a breeze.

You can choose a bundle of the biggest or smallest stocks, a sector (resources, say), an entire securities exchange (ASX 200 or the Dow, for example) or leading foreign stocks (Apple, anybody?).

However, if you're convinced the sharemarket isn't for you, there's always the bear ETF (code BEAR): it rises when the market falls.

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