Our latest investor profile features Retirement Commissioner Jane Wrightson. Jane describes herself as a ‘life-long learner’ whose most valuable investing lessons were borne out of both the 1929 and 1987 share market crashes.
It might surprise you to know that Retirement Commissioner Jane Wrightson calls herself an “unsophisticated” investor. In fact, she says the older she gets, the more she realises how much she doesn’t know.
Jane’s investing outlook has not only been shaped by her job, where her office is responsible for lifting financial capability and advising on retirement matters – but also by her own family history and lived experience.
Jane’s parents grew up during the share market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s, and she was a young adult in her 20s during the boom and bust years of the 1980s.
The best investing advice she’s ever received was from her father: “Never borrow to invest”’.
“My father was a boy during the 1929 crash. My grandfather was a builder by trade but had a long period of unemployment and the family couldn’t afford to feed all the children, so my father was farmed out to be raised by an aunt.
“My mother left school at 12 years old. It wasn’t uncommon in those days, her solo mother couldn’t afford to send her to high school. The working class “silent generation” never forgot the crash of ‘29. It was steeped into their bones. So that ‘never borrow to invest’ has always stuck with me.”
It was advice that served her well during her first foray into investing. It was the 1980s, just prior to the 1987 stock market crash.
“Back in those days everyone was in a share club. People went slightly mad. Most people weren’t sophisticated investors, and many had been borrowing to invest.
“My mother died and left my sister and me a small inheritance,” Jane says. “My sister asked me to look after her share, so I pooled our money and invested it in the share market. I doubled the money in less than a year and decided to sell, around May 1987.
“After I sold the shares, I kicked myself as the market continued to go up. But once the crash happened, my sister and I realised we were actually very fortunate.”
“The crash really was catastrophic. A large number of companies went belly up and took people’s money with them. It burned a generation – my generation – and created a great deal of caution thereafter.
“The flipside is that I have learned in hindsight I have been too conservative with my investments.”
Jane’s main investment has been property – her own personal home, which she has traded up over time.
“I was kind of investing in reverse – I mostly poured money into a mortgage. Every time I got a pay rise, I would increase my repayments and try to pay it off as quickly as I could. Once you get over the bell curve and your principal starts to get smaller, it comes down really quickly which is invigorating.”
Apart from her current house in Wellington, she also has investments in KiwiSaver, exchange-traded funds and some residual funds in the state sector retirement scheme, which closed a few years back. Favouring a regular, consistent approach meant Jane naturally adopted dollar cost averaging, where you invest a regular amount from your salary or wages.
“The arrival of KiwiSaver has shown many of us the magic and beauty of managed funds, where the experts do it all for you. The older I get, the more I realise I know nothing, and the experts need to do the heavy lifting!”
Jane also has an emergency fund in an easy-to-access bank account. “The general recommendation is to have around three to six months’ expenses saved, but for many people that’s a lot to save to start with. Try starting with a $1000 and then build it up as you can from there.”
When asked what aspect of investing she’s most interested in right now, she says at this stage of her life it’s actually ‘decumulation’ – the plan for spending one’s retirement savings.
“There’s not a huge amount of information out there, and we’re doing some work on this at the moment at Te Ara Ahunga Ora – expect to see more next year. Generally, people split up their retirement spending into five year chunks, and front-load the spending to that first decade when you’re still relatively fit and healthy.
“There’s been a hit to investments with the recent market volatility and that’s troubling my older peers. Some of us might have lost a whole year’s worth of retirement savings. So we have to think about maintaining our funds, using them in a wise way and making calm decisions.”
What does she think about investing when the cost of living is rising?
“In a perfect world you would cut expenditure, not savings. There’s nothing wrong with accessing some money if you need it, preferably just emergency funds. But for people who are more comfortable, it might be worth asking: can I do some more cost control?
“But if you’re living week to week, that’s very difficult, if not impossible. So it’s really important people talk to financial mentors.”
Jane says financial mentors like Money Talks and Christians Against Poverty can ‘work miracles’, showing people how to budget, helping them to get out of debt, and negotiating with lenders on their behalf.
When asked what guidance she would give younger investors, Jane says learning about risk and your own risk appetite is a valuable exercise for any aspiring investor. Sorted has a handy Investor Profile tool which can help you find an investment strategy that suits you best.
“I avoid anything outside the mainstream. You’ll never find me going anywhere near NFTs! And watch out for scams. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Jane’s favourite investing quote is Warren Buffet’s “Don’t invest in what you don’t understand,”’ - a line adapted from Confucius’s “The important thing to know is what you know, and know what you don’t know.”
Having just been reappointed as Retirement Commissioner for another term, this “unsophisticated investor” can continue learning alongside New Zealanders, helping to improve financial outcomes for us all.
*The views and opinions expressed above are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views or official position of the FMA.
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