15 Aug 2014, 6:30pm
debt economy
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  • What will the power shift from labour to capital make things look like?

    As we wander around the many lovely historical relics that Britain has, usually in the care of the National Trust these days, we think we are looking at the past. Wander around the many rooms, and marvel at the effort it would have taken to keep these clean in a world without fossil fuels or vacuum cleaners.

    Stately pile in Leicestershire

    Stately pile in Leicestershire

    Now everybody in the personal finance world is trying to build capital, to make income. It’s the Holy Grail of pension planning, the vanishing point at the distant horizon, the Ermine sitting in his back garden drinking iced coffee while other people toil to fix the sewers and bring water and power and ideas to him. We don’t do this in the up-close and personal way that the Downton Abbey set do 1. We use machines and energy to do it, and if you see people power substituting for capital you know that someone’s thrown the big red switch and the projection reels are rolling – in reverse, and that the aristocracy will be in the ascendant again.

    Financial Independence is the non plus ultra  – the destination for which we PF types forego all the gratuitous consumerism of our fellow men, living like celibate monks in a brothel. It’s quite a new concept in human societies. Those grand buildings in the care of the NT were serviced by an army of grunts, basically working for The Man. Over a working lifetime, they didn’t get to save enough money to retire, because they didn’t earn enough money over and above their living requirements. Although we often associate this retirement with the welfare state, trades unions and friendly societies were in this space in the early years of the 20th century.

    One of the mantras of the PF world is you can earn a 4-5% real return on capital in a suitably diversified portfolio of assets. This isn’t bad – be grateful you’re living now rather than earlier in the 20th century 😉 In even earlier times, however, the return on capital was better, presumably because the servants never earned enough spare over their needs to retire! On the downside if you were the Man you had to be the first-born son of The Previous Man – capital was inherited, passed down the line by the doctrine of primogeniture. It was a drag if you were the second son, and you were SOL if you were female.

    shamelessly pinched from Krugman who pinched it from piketty

    shamelessly pinched from Krugman who pinched it from Piketty

    I got this from Krugman’s Why We’re in a New Gilded Age but I think he got it from Thomas Piketty. There are a few interesting things here. One is that this is the return on capital after taxes – it can of course be varied using taxes. You’ll note there was a low in the period that had the two World Wars – I guess taxation was high and the destruction of capital too. Another thing that is interesting is that the high-water mark of world GDP growth encompasses my working lifetime – I finished work at the end of it. I guess there’s some kind of limits To Growth forecasting in there, or maybe Piketty’s been reading Life After Growth. Either way we’re seriously into unknown unknowns there.

    It is, therefore, possible, that my story is a blip on the thread of financial planning – the thought that an average grunt who left school owning a kettle and the shirt on his back could command enough resources to retire 34 years later. For that piece of luck I am duly grateful.

    What do we learn from this? One is that the rate of return on capital assumed by a lot of PF thinking isn’t that unusual, from a historical perspective. It is, however, a bit unusual compared to recent historical perspective. We really could do without any more bloody wars in Europe, and the associated high taxation. OTOH there did seem a big stimulus to growth, although on such a coarse scale it’s hard to say that this wasn’t due to progress in agricultural yields or due to electrification. One of the valid questions would be does growth inherently reduce the return on capital, or is this correlation with something else?

    An ermine looking back 30 years, about to enter university. Or not.

    One thing does seem clear, however. We are headed towards a world where capital is getting a larger slice of the pie. We see that in wage stagnation, and also in a fall in growth. One fo the hypotheses for the fall in growth is the increasing cost of energy. So what does the future look like?

    Much more stratified and class-bound, I would hazard. If I were collecting my A levels today, and if there were and older Ermine-head on the shoulders 2, I would question some of the shibboleths and assumptions of the consumer lifestyle and image.

    I would note that the modern world offers three doors for the A level student. One is the route of university and £30,000 worth of debt. Now in the world I have worked through, £30,000 of debt would probably have been worth the candle, but in the world I see before me, I don’t feel that way at all – I have much sympathy for this viewpoint that university is an unaffordable luxury. There are two reasons why this is different today from 30 years ago:

    • 30 years ago, the exams were much harder 3 I think it was 7% when I entered and 11% when I left in 1982 of school leavers went to university at all. The exams screened strongly for academic ability, in ways you aren’t even allowed to think about today because it hurts the feelings of those that don’t make it. As a result of this, there were far fewer graduates in the workforce, the graduate premium was stronger.
    • Poorer students got grants and I believe everyone had their course fees paid for by the LEA, whereas now we have the loans situation, which means a student is indebted by £30,000 as well as the opportunity cost of losing the money they might have earned in the first 8-10% of their working life. Although it’s not exactly the same as going to Mastercard and taking out a loan for £30,000 as Martin Lewis is at pains to explain, the trouble is that with a 50% entry target, university is by definition targets at those of average academic ability and up. As a result the graduate premium is much lower, for the simple reason that the product is a lot more common. It’s true that in there are the same 11% of old, but the problem now is employers have to find them, assuming academic ability correlates with better ability at what they want. One of the biggest problems has been that heft in student numbers – it meant that the taxpayer couldn’t afford to support five times 4 as many so the cost of the opportunity has gone up for the students at the same time as the value of the product has been dropped because the market has been flooded.

    All round this seems to be a policy failure. We haven’t asked the fundamental questions, which are

    what is university for?

    • if it is to provide better work cannon-fodder, is this what companies and the available work want?
    • is it better if companies train their staff themselves – vocational training used to be a lot better – the Ermine was trained in how to use a lathe and other gear by companies, not schools, even though it was a peripheral part of what I would be doing, I have never used a lathe directly in my line of work but needed to know what could be done with one.
    • Is is right to normalise debt to our young adults so early in life – a student debt is more money than I have ever borrowed in my life other than as a mortgage

    At the same time I note that there are other routes

    • England is an expensive place to go to university, particularly if you are English – European universities where under EU rules you have equivalent access to courses and support may be a cheaper option (and often taught in English!)
    • The modern world offers the entrepreneurial and talented more opportunities to get to market and a much more efficient business operation than was possible in the past. You don’t need a university degree if you don’t have to convince an employer to employ you – code an app needs knowledge, not a degree and you can learn an awful lot of things online nowadays. Against that the odds against the successful entrepreneur are bad. Many are called but few are chosen to succeed.

    The good thing is you have far more options. The bad thing is that the value of the default option has been mullered – price up and value down. I personally wouldn’t go to university in England if I were 18 now, though I would consider Europe 5.

    Minimize debt in a slow-growth world

    One of the macro reasons is that in a low-growth world, debt is a very-dangerous thing indeed, because it’s hard to outrun with wage inflation. Debt also means mortgages. Part of the romance Britain has with house price inflation is because one generation did well out of that (it was my Dad’s generation, not mine – I got slaughtered by housing in the UK). The oil shocks of the 1970s caused high inflation and labour had the whip hand – enough power to drive up wages. They didn’t get any richer, because productivity didn’t go up, but inflation did and their wages kept pace with inflation, reducing the value of the debt in real terms.

    Labour will be much, much weaker in the coming thirty years 6. Globalisation and increasing automation will see to that. We may get inflation, but wages need to keep up with it for house price inflation to be A Good Thing. Otherwise we get what we have now – the real value of houses rising and fewer people being able to afford them, and that is not a Good Thing – for anybody 7

    In a low-growth world, even those student loans are going to be more onerous. So beware the debt, or at least investigate getting it down, first by asking whether university is necessary and a good match to your skills and aspirations 8, and if so considering the foreign option while it’s still open to you. Hopefully Cameron’s plans for an EU referendum won’t bugger that up.

    Logan's Run

    Logan’s Run, I suppose there are some compensations for the YOLO set

    Student debt is an obvious one to minimise, but lifestyle costs are one way that the young do get through money 9. You do need some conspicuous consumption to wine and dine and play the mating game, but a little bit of excess goes a long way, as long as it’s the right sort of excess. There’s a limit to how long it’s wise to take the YOLO mantra, unless you plan on taking a Logan’s Run approach to extreme early retirement. I avoided debt in my twenties by being exceedingly tight with housing 10– I shared houses and targeted the lower, more tatty end of the market. I regularly pass one rental in town aimed at students that has a rate of £56pw – that’s probably the end I was running at. And debt due to consumerism is bad, again particularly so where labour is weak. The normalisation of consumer debt and student debt are the most toxic features arising since 1980 for personal finances. If you can’t pay for your consumer goods in  cash, you’re not worth it. End of.

    If we zoom out even further, that power shift from labour to capital is harming productivity in the UK – it means it’s cheaper to hire people to do some jobs that capital. Take the humble car wash. In Britain garages used to get great big furry roller things that you’d drive into and put a coin in and it would wash your car for you while you were inside, not a human in sight.

    The Ermine knows the meaning of the plastic bottle on the Downton promo shot

    The Ermine knows the meaning of the plastic bottle on the Downton promo shot

    Nowadays you see a lot of these car washes broken, but you see loads of signs for hand car wash in supermarket parking lots and btis of waste ground – people with a few buckets, chamois leathers and a pressure washer are cheap, It’s cheaper to pay people to do this now than invest in the machines. That is not a good sign – not a good sign at all. The Ermine knows the symbolic meaning of the plastic water bottle on the Downton Abbey promotion picture. The plot of Downton’s Abbey is running backwards, and the power of inherited wealth and aristocracy is rising again 😉

    Look at the retired colonels of The Telegraph fulminating about death taxes. These parents know in their hearts that the best way for their children to get ahead is for them to inherit wealth, because they will probably not be able to earn it. It’s the most natural thing in the world for parents to want to featherbed their kids, over and above others. And parents realise in other ways that they try and buy privilege for their offspring – the whole independent school fees is also to try and build in advantage. Pass on capital – be it financial or social web capital, because the chance to earn your way ahead is thinning out. The aristocracy will be back. Not necessarily land, this time, financial capital will do, perhaps. Some of George Osborne’s DC pension changes play into this too – now the 55% tax rate on pensions going into an estate is removed.

    So take care about the things you assume about the world ahead. What worked in the past won’t necessarily work that well in future – and loadsadebt and easy money are a particular hazard to getting ahead. Labour is going to be poorer than capital relative to the last 50 years. On the upside, the talented, the crafty and the well-connected will make bank like gangbusters, it’s the average to the modestly bright that will take the shaft – many of those that will be considering that £30,000 debt.

    Wealth warning – this is the scribblings of a jaded fiftysomething that grew tired of the the way the modern world of work is. If you are a twentysomething you have the energy of youth, you have fire in your belly and I wish you all the best of British luck. I don’t think I have said anything that’s explicitly wrong, but the glass is half empty, and one of the specific advantages of youth is that your glass should always be viewed as half full.

    From a personal finance point of view I do believe you should think about taking on a £30k claim on your future earnings very carefully and know why you’re doing it rather than just drift into it because it’s the done thing, and have a clear vision of how doing this will help you earn more than 30k in real terms across your lifetime  and compensate you for three years of not earning. Or if you are rich enough, whether a damn good time and one of the few rites of passage we have in the West is worth it as a consumer experience regardless…

    Zooming even further out, what will that society look like? Staid and sclerotic – who you are will matter much more than what you know or even what you can do. Maybe Downton Abbey with more mod cons and better contraception. Don’t think we’ll be going to the moon. Or Mars. It’s where we are going if Life After Growth is true. But it isn’t predestined, maybe the other side of Wilkins Micawber will show, the one that isn’t normally cited in PF circles

    Something will turn up

    Notes:

    1. I’m inferring this from press reports about the programme, I’ve never watched it personally
    2. because in reality I was much more susceptible to peer-pressure and going along with established norms in my 20s
    3. the exams were norm-referenced (ie a fixed percentage of entrants got As) 
    4. one of the things that pisses me off is the mantra oh my generation pulled up the drawbridge. We didn’t do it deliberately, but did it by being so weak-willed that we couldn’t face telling the less able of our blessed children they weren’t smart enough to benefit from university. This was lily-livered incompetence, not malice as far as I can tell. It is bad, but without knowing how we got ourselves into the shit we can’t formulate a way out of it. Paying fees and maintenance to five times as many people wouldn’t help. We either need to make more jobs that are matched to the lower levels of ability, or eliminate enough undergraduate places to get the proportion to match the jobs we do have. It was right 30 years ago, maybe the proportions want to be higher now because we have a different employment scene and people might be a bit smarter but an increase of FIVE times in 30 years? You don’t need a degree to work a call centre. And society should be honest enough about your ability not to encourage you to spend £30k chasing an empty dream. Which would you rather have – not getting your grades or a place in clearing or picking up a £30,000 debt and lose three years of potential working life to end up in the same position but with a fancy piece of paper? I do accept that the adult world is not serving its offspring at all well here but the answer isn’t pay five times as many people through university as we did three decades ago. Two times, maybe, and there I am all for student grants and fees being paid from general taxation – HMRC will get it back in higher tax receipts later
    5. studying abroad also makes you look more enterprising and go-getting, which everybody likes, and at ease with other cultures which some employers seem to like. But I’m no expert, so DYOR
    6. I mean labour in aggregate. At the moment a lot of capital is being appropriated by the 1% and particularly the 0.1% as income, and technically this is also labour
    7. I guess it is a good thing for buy to letters but that’s it. It isn’t a good thing for owners unless they downsize, as they still need somewhere to live, and it tempts twits like Shona Sibary to live above their means.
    8. this in itself is a beastly tough thing to ask when you’ve just started out – how the bloody hell are you supposed to know?
    9. I am staggered at what the kids of my ex-colleagues buy, though I am pleased to see one old trick is still active – if you want Dad to help you buy a car say to Mum you’re thinking of getting a moped or a motorbike 🙂
    10. only to throw the win away when I did buy a house – you can survive some big mistakes, just not too many
     
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