Monday 20 May 2019

Vanguard Lifestrategy 60 - Year 4 Update

It is now four years on since my initial purchase of this all-in-one fund in May 2015 so time for another annual update,

I believe the average investor could do well from adopting a very simple, no-frills low cost diy strategy which makes sense, which can be tailored to fit in with a variety of attitudes to risk/market volatility and has every chance of providing a decent outcome. However, I am also becoming more aware of the risks posed by our climate emergency and in February I had a closer inspection of the funds exposure to fossil fuels which I am trying to avoid as I am wanting to more closely align my portfolio with my values and lifestyle. Here's a link to the article.

After some consideration of the options, I have decided to stay with the Lifestrategy for the time being but I have taken a step down from the VLS 60 to the VLS 40 to reduce my exposure to equities generally and to fossil fuels in particular. The problem for me is the 25% weighting of the equities element in the Lifestrategy range to the FTSE All Share Index which is overweight in oil & gas stocks - mainly Shell and BP. In addition, I have urged Vanguard UK to review their range of funds in relation to climate change. I was pleased to have an opportunity to speak with one of their senior management team earlier this month and I am hopeful of seeing the launch of a climate-friendly fund later in the year.

I have also diverted some of the proceeds from my VLS 60 into their SRI Global fund as a compromise. In addition, I have re-allocated some of the funds into HSBC Global Strategy which has a much lower weighting to the UK - less than 5% and therefore much lower exposure to the oil & gas sector.

A One-Stop Solution

The Vanguard LifeStrategy funds offer a balanced portfolio of globally diversified equities combined with some gilts and corporate bonds. You are invested in 11 industrial sectors and 12 different types of investment, 17 specialist funds, spread across 25 countries and some 18,000 individual shares and bonds.

They were introduced in June 2011 and provide investors with a neat solution to match their asset allocation between equities and bonds -  from 20 to 100. The number represents the level of equities held in each fund, therefore the LS40 will have 40% equities and 60% bonds; the LS80 will have 80% equities and 20% bonds.

The single funds LS20, 40, 60 & 80 will hold a blend of around 17 or so of the Vanguard stand-alone equity and bond funds. Each of these will hold many hundreds of individual stocks or bonds - for example, just 1 of the 17 constituents is the FTSE Developed World (ex UK) fund which alone holds ~2,000 stocks & shares.

Therefore, by holding just a single LifeStrategy fund, your portfolio is widely diverse with over 18,000 stocks/bonds from all around the world. The bond element (assuming you do not want the 100% equity) will comprise a combination of UK gilts, global bonds, corporate bonds and inflation-linked gilts. The equities element includes their UK all share tracker, global funds and some exposure to emerging markets.

The big advantage for me is the auto rebalance to ensure the fund always remains at the risk level selected at the start. The funds are frequently rebalanced - possibly daily.

I had a look at annualised returns for each fund from inception to end April 2019 (just short of 8 yrs):

LS20    5.74% p.a.

LS40    7.06% p.a.

LS60    8.34% p.a.

LS80    9.54% p.a.

LS100 10.67% p.a.

Vanguard LifeStrategy 40 Mix

I have therefore moved some of the proceeds from the 60 sale to top up my VLS40 which is the second most popular with UK investors and has £3bn of assets. Just looking under the bonnet of the fund -

40% equity comprised of Developed World (ex UK) 19.6%, FTSE UK All Share 10.0%, US Equity 5.1%, Emerging Markets 3.3%, Europe (ex UK) 1.3%, Japan 0.7% and Pacific (ex Japan) 0.4%

60% bonds comprised of Global 19.3%, UK Gilts 8.8%, UK Corp. Bonds 5.4%, UK Inflation-linked Gilts 5.8%, US Credit Index 5.3%, US Gilts 5.1%, Others 10%

The ongoing charges are 0.22% (worth noting its US equivalent charges 0.13%)

Performance of VLS 60

So, just to complete the figures following the sale - I made my initial purchase in my ISA with Halifax Share Dealing in May 2015. My average purchase price was £136.50.

The price four years on, to the point of sale was £186.67 so a gain of 36.7%. This is an average annualised 8.1% p.a.

By comparison, the total return for the FTSE All Share over the same period is around 24% so the combination of 40% bonds and a wider exposure to global equities in the VLS fund has worked very well.

Of course, the bonds provide a much less volatile ride compared to a fund with just equities which makes it easier to remain invested. As I am not the type of person who can handle too much volatility, the step down to the VLS 40 should help me to stay invested and this is why they represent a large percentage of my portfolio.

Here are the total return for the VLS60 for each of the last 7 full years :

2012   9.29%,
2013 11.13%
2014   9.36%.
2015   2.53%
2016 18.27%
2017   8.67%
2018  -3.10%

The appeal of the VLS strategy is its simplicity and auto rebalance combined with good performance compared to other strategies. However, with climate change rising to the top of the agenda all around the world, many investors and fund managers will be assessing the impact of fossil fuel companies and evaluating the risk of continuing to hold such companies in their portfolio.

Personally, I do not wish to profit from investing my money in companies that continue to add to global warming and so holding multi-asset global index funds presents me with a challenge as I attempt to climate-proof my portfolio for the future.

The solution, which I have discussed with Vanguard UK, would be for them to offer investors a choice of fossil-free climate-friendly equity funds and balanced with a mix of gilts and green bonds. I will retain my VLS 40 until the end of this year in the hope they can deliver but time is of the essence - we have declared a climate emergency!

As ever, this article is merely a record of my personal investment decisions and should not be regarded as an endorsement or recommendation - always DYOR!


  1. Thank you for the analysis. I am impressed that you have managed to contact and influence Vanguard to the benefit of investors who prefer to avoid investing in fossil fuels. Well done and also good that Vanguard have taken onboard this feedback. Just a question on the HSBC Global Strategy fund. Is this the balanced or have you chosen the cautious fund to align with a lower level of risk?

    1. Cheers Colin. I have badgered Vanguard and I eventually got to have a conversation with management. Promises and assurances were given but I will wait to see the outcome and timescale...

      However if they have not come up with something by the end of 2019 I will probably move away from the Lifestrategy and look for something less damaging to the environment.

      As for the HSBC, as I already hold the balanced, I have now also acquired the cautious - so 50:50 between the two.

  2. I was recently pondering building a "Lars Kroijer" portfolio (as described in his "Investing Demystified" book) out of more "sound" components than regular market cap weighted index funds (Kroijer advocates holding simply a mix of a global equity tracker and AAA/AA gilts from a government you trust, with a small side-order of corporate bonds and sub-AA government bonds as an optional extra. Now I am pretty cynical about most ESG/SRI funds... companies seem to be admitted by greenwash and box-ticking exercises, and you pay a premium for them. However the following got on my radar as possible components:

    Global Equities: L&G Future World Climate Change Equity Factors Index - OCF 0.3% (c.f ~0.25% for Vanguards global tracker fund or ETF).

    Corporate Bonds: Threadneedle UK Social Bond fund. Big Issue Invest are involved. - OCF 0.3% which is about double what you'd pay for a Vanguard bond fund but not outrageous. There's also a Lyxor "Green Bond" ETF (0.25%) OCF but I'm not sure how available it is or whether it avoids "greenwash".

    Government bonds I suppose you'd just have to go for whichever governments are being most proactive, although there's an interesting trend towards governments also issuing their own "green bonds" to fund specific projects.

    Anyway, just some ideas. I've yet to put significant capital into anything except one of the funds mentioned above, but it's interesting that there are actually some quite cheap credible-looking options out there. I'm a Vanguard fan myself (Lifestrategy and other things), but I do also think they could and should improve their offering in this area.

    1. Thanks for these suggestions Tim.

      I share your reservations about the ESG funds. However, I just had a quick look at the L&G World Climate Change portfolio and note 3 of the worlds top fossil fuel companies - Exxon, Chevron and Shell - feature in the top 10 holdings so, for me, one to avoid.

      I do hold the Lyxor Green Bond fund and posted an article earlier this year. I would certainly hope the governments will be issuing some 'green' gilts to support the expansion of renewables as we strive towards net zero by 2050 and will await developments.

      Let's hope Vanguard can come up with an all-in-one version of Lifestrategy to satisfy the growing numbers of investors who are looking for a more climate-friendly home for their money.

    2. Ooops... I have to admit I hadn't looked that closely at the L&G fund's holdings, just read the marketing spin (the Threadneedle Social Bond fund I mentioned is the one I actually hold a bit of). You're quite right... very disappointing. (More greenwash in action no doubt; I remember once reading something from an actively managed "green" fund justifying holding something you'd have assumed was completely off limits "because they have recycling bins in their offices".) In fact comparing the L&G fund with the popular VWRL world tracker I see (according to Morningstar) that the L&G is 6.8% "Energy" vs. 6.2% for VWRL, and those top 3 oilers are 0.72/0.64/0.6% of L&G but only 0.71/0.48/0.3% of VWRL (Shell 'A' shares in both cases). So it looks like the L&G fund is actually overweighting these things vs. what a straight global tracker would get you. There's a little bit of information on the index the L&G fund tracks at ; I can only assume that these holdings are being boosted more by the "factor tilts" stage than they are being reduced by the "Decrease the weight of constituents based on their exposure to fossil fuels or carbon emissions" stage and I'm now pretty puzzled who L&G think will be buying this (well apart from people who don't look very closely at it and just think the name ticks the righ boxes :^)

    3. Cheers Tim and thanks for the further analysis.

      Of course, one reason to hold shares in the big oil majors is to influence the direction of travel and to vote at the AGM. I see that Exxon and Chevron have theirs tomorrow and L&G will be holding the board to account and ensuring they actually keep to their commitments under the Paris Agreement. This seems to be working with Shell so I guess small steps in the right direction.

      It would be remarkable if these oil majors could be transformed into renewable energy companies over the coming decade! I'm sure stranger things have happened.

    4. Yes an interesting trend recently seems to me to have been growing awareness about how much shareholder voting power the big index fund providers wield, and increasing scrutiny of how they deploy it. I seem to remember reading things from both Vanguard & L&G on the topic, and they are obviously aware of the need for transparency and to avoid annoying their funds' unit holders with the way they use those votes. I can imagine a future where the way investors chase their own "impact investing" goals isn't primarily by investing in funds which overweight/underweight applicable companies, but by simply moving their assets to straight market-cap-weighted index funds held by index fund providers who promise to deploy the voting power in a way most closely aligned with the investors' values. Definitely a trend to watch.

  3. Thanks for this update, diy - always interesting to read about why and what you are investing in and I hope Vanguard will take on board what you have highlighted and provide an alternative.

    1. Thanks weenie. I'm sure Vanguard will not want to be behind the curve on this given the surge in interest in recent months and the campaigns from the younger people so I am hopeful they can respond to the emergency in a timely and meaningful way.

  4. Just wanted to say thanks for raising this issue with Vanguard - I too have attempted though haven't yet gotten past their boilerplate response. Did you happen to discuss how they apply their voting rights too? made for disappointing reading with regards Vanguard and Blackrock in particular.

    1. Thanks James. I must admit it took several emails over many weeks before they suggested a telephone conversation with management so I hope you keep trying for a more meaningful response.

      Thanks for the link and no, I have not raised voting issues. I am unclear as to what extent Vanguard should exercise rights in the absence of specific instructions from the beneficial owners of the shares such as large pension funds and institutional investors.

      Let us know if you make any more progress!