28 Aug 2014, 8:43pm
personal finance
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  • Cash ISAs are king, it appears

    We have not just one but two bearish articles on the stock market now that the hacks have returned from their hols and decided everything looks less fun than on the beach.

    Maybe the teeming masses of our British ISA ‘investors’ are wise after all, as only one in ten of us 1 open a S&S ISA. The Torygraph asserts

    ‘Super Isa’ savers play safe by putting their money overwhelmingly into cash rather than investments in the first month of the new, enhanced tax-free plans

    Blimey, if that’s what they call safety, I’d hate to see what these guys think of a racy high-risk strategy. At least the writer got one thing right – you don’t invest in cash, because it always offends. The one good thing you know about cash is that it’s dying on you. I’ve will have lost about £10k to the depredations of interest-free cash 2 in my AVC fund by the time I get hold of it; fortunately I saved considerably more by not feeding it into the rapacious hands of the taxman so sometimes you have to eat the cost of doing business. In retrospect I should have left some of it in the market, but because I didn’t know when I’d need to draw it I left it in cash. And I’ve seen this safety at work, and t’aint pretty at the moment.

    The advantage of havign termites eat yoru cash is you can see the buggers and you know what the problem is. When the government does it who are you gonna call?

    Termites can also eat your cash, but the government can ruin its value without getting at it. They simply make a lot more of it.

    Not only that but I have a lot of cash outside pensions. That’s the trouble with having a low income – you need to hold a lot of cash 3. If you’re earning a decent wedge then if something goes wrong you slap it on the credit card, roll back your partying for a few months while you pay it off and that’s great. Whereas if you haven’t, you need to hold a lot of cash to cover emergencies. Or do without – Wonga is not an option because it never gets better if you have no income, something that an unfortunately large number of my fellow Britons haven’t jumped to yet.

    I have a cash ISA, from way back, in two halves – 2008/9 and 2009/10, when I thought I had very very few options and was going to be iced from The Firm in months, not three years. I’ve hung on to it because cash does give you some optionality, but I’ve never been tempted to add to it as an ISA, though I did take those nice guys at NS&I up when they were offering inflation-proofed cash. If they did that again to be honest I’d probably draw that cash ISA and whack it into NS&I. But they aren’t.

    Anyway, I’ve held this for five years, over which it’s fallen in value in real terms. Of course the nominal value hasn’t fallen, and indeed inched up, but it’s grim, and it ain’t going to get better. I retain this cash ISA purely for the tax-sheltered value – when I get control of my cash it’s going into my S&S ISA.

    Cash is king but has no earning potential

    Whereas my S&S ISA, which I have been feeding exclusively and to the max has increased by about 20% over the same time, relative to the total cost of purchase as of 2014 – not all of the money has been working for four years. Now there’s a very good argument to say this isn’t because shares are inherently better than cash over four years – over that period all you needed to make money in the stock market was to have a pulse, actually be in it, and not screw up. It’s been getting harder and harder to find much worth buying, and what with the relative strength lack of weakness of the pound, I have looked towards building out – in emerging markets, Asian smaller companies, Russia, and Africa. I could use some of the mayhem in the stock markets trumpeted by the Torygraph to get valuations down from the silly levels, particularly in the US.

    After leaving work and coming to the conclusion that my HYP will soon be able to make up the pension income I lose from leaving early 4 I started to look towards the longer term defence, and while emerging/frontier markets seem on sale this year it is a bit nutty to ignore the largest capitalist economy on earth. Although I couldn’t bring myself to buy the S&P itself at current valuations I managed to hold my nose long enough to diversify a shedload of The Firm’s Sharesave into Vanguard FTSE Developed World ex-U.K. Equity Index Fund which is more than half US. I was going to Bed and ISA that sucker but it’s had the temerity to appreciate by 12%, which puts the kybosh on that idea for this year as I’m capgain maxed. So the Coming Reckoning Of Doom will have a grain of silver lining amongst all the mayhem – it would let me Bed and ISA a whole load of stuff. It’s an ill wind, etc, and of course all the buying opportunities, yay 😉

    Maybe our cash ISA-niks are keeping their powder dry

    Beats the hell out of me what all the punters are doing with their cash ISAs. It’s not even like you can turn that much interest on cash for the tax difference to be worth the candle. Maybe they are mindful of the Torygraph’s second article and waiting for the Case-Shiller to drop back to historical averages. The trouble with that line is that it’s easy to say and hard to do. However, if the massed ranks of cash ISA savers are under the fond impression their money is safe, they need to think again. Knowing that you aren’t safe is better than believing you are, but discovering the power of inflation does destroy your money. You know that compound interest everybody goes on about? Inflation is it’s Mr Hyde – compound interest run by Bad Guys. Tax takes more than one form, and printing cash to devalue the debt takes most financial assets with it, as more and more money chases a finite supply of things of value. Most of the rise in stock market valuations isn’t real either, more money chasing the same or less Stuff. The advantage of the stock market is that the risk is printed on a sign above the door – “here be dragons, volatility and 50% swoons in a couple of days”. Whereas on a cash ISA it’s all marble hallways and apparent solidity, but in the night the termites unleashed by the Bank of England are in there, busily nibbing away and the value of your cash. The tax is the disappearing value, not the small part you pay to HMRC 😉

    There are some ways to greater safety than cash

    If our cash ISAniks really wanted more safety, they could do worse than ponder Harry Browne’s  Permanent Portfolio. (Permanent Portfolio at ERE) It’s one example of diversification across asset classes, wider than the usual trio of equities, bonds, and property/land. And cash has its place there. But you have to accept a lower return, because there are two passive non-income generating components in the mix, cash and gold. They are the sleeping King who will rise up when the Kingdom is in mortal peril – but obviously half your capital base is asleep in times of prosperity, and so far the prosperous times have been a larger proportion of the time than the recessions.

    The advantage of having a few year’s ISA behind me is that the decisions to be made each year form a smaller part of the whole picture. At the beginning, I was desperate for a sustainable income, and I was lucky to start from a bear market and one where income investing was particularly bombed and people could consider swapping income shares for income ITs on a discount. As time goes on preserving what I have becomes more important – and that means building a diversifying shell around the income core. I accept my yield will fall, and yields are generally falling at the moment. But there will come a time when things are different, and there will be a time to buy income again. Hopefully those ITs at a discount – I had only got started with one and was going to buy more but ran out of ISA space in 2009, there is unfinished business there. In the meantime, there is a time for everything – the various sectors fall in and out of favour over time. Buying into the ones in favour (right now US equities, UK residential property) doesn’t work for me. Some people make momentum investing work, but I’m not one of them. Buying sectors that are out of favour works for me, but it’s hard seeing things go down before they come good – I can get a feel for lows but not for market bottoms. Which is why I hate it when markets hit new highs – Mr Market want you to pay so much to get on the dancefloor, I want to sit those ones out 🙂

    the search for safety leads to danger

    Donald Rumsfeld had a point. It’s the unknown unknowns that are hazardous, but believing you have found safety leads you to have apparent knowns that are really unknowns.

    But one thing I know, from personal experience. A Cash ISA is not safe – over several years, never mind decades. Yes, the cash ISAniks will say – but the stock market can halve its value from one moth to the next. They’re right, but there’s a faintly discernible upward trend over the years, whereas cash has a downward trend that dares not speak its name 5. When I was at university in London many years ago, you could get a pint of beer for under a pound. Slowly and stealthily the value of that pound fell away.

    It doesn’t matter than 9 in 10 cats prefer the cash ISA door. Somebody should make a ‘here be dogs‘ sign for that door.

    Notes:

    1. I know they said ten to one which isn’t exactly the same thing
    2. great when you’re borrowing, sucks when you’re holding
    3. If you are going to retire early, before 55, then for God’s sake don’t pay off your mortgage if interest rates are low. They weren’t as low as now when I did that, so the folly wasn’t as clear.
    4. Once again I’m not claiming to be a fantastic investor with hot hands there – the ask is made a lot easier by the fact that my spend rate was so dramatically lower than projected I have been able to defer for a year, and indeed with Mr Osborne’s shenaigans will be able to defer for another year after that. In general, for civilian Sheep of Wall Street spending less trumps greater investing chops
    5. it’s called inflation, and NS&I were the last people to offer a believable hedge against inflation
     
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