17 Feb 2017, 2:53pm
economy housing personal finance:
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  • a look back in anger at the endowment, a popular investment of yesteryear

    Twenty-eight years ago I perpetrated the worst financial mistake of my entire life so far. I bought a house, in the hugely overvalued market of 1989. It seemed a good time to look back at how this happened, because today the Pru, one of the partners in crime regarding endowment mortgages, tells us that one in four retirees have never recovered from that kind of 1980s style cockup, and are carrying mortgage debt into retirement.Not only that, but three more waves of the the financial instrument of wealth destruction otherwise known as the interest-only residential mortgage will be crashing on the battered shores of British residential mortgagees in the next 15 years. I was only the advance guard.

    Very few people are rich enough to have saved enough money to be able to service big existential debts like a mortgage in retirement, so the financial whizz-kids seem to be selling these guys equity release plans to fix the failure of their younger selves to live within their means by eschewing one or more of holidays, kids, pets or general consumerism. I recently came across the documentation for that piece of feckless financial foolishness, so I thought I’d deconstruct it here. Obviously Brits have learned in the intervening three decades, so our housing market is not at sky-high earnings multiples with people signing away a quarter of their gross earnings nowadays. Or maybe not…

    You don’t have much control over when you come of an age when you need to find somewhere to set up house, most of the choices in that respect were taken by your parents and determined by the human life-cycle set by Nature. There’s a window somewhere between 25 and 35 when you need to tackle this issue. Your experience of housing will depend on what phase of the market cycle housing is in, plus some wider long-term societal changes, many of which are adverse. Cycles in the housing market a long – 10 years is not enough to see a whole cycle. I was a single man competing with an increasing number of dual income households because women were entering the workforce in larger numbers. I had already been driven out of the city of my birth by rising house prices and I really really wanted to buy a house, so much that I ignored alarm bells, massive factory sirens, red lights set at danger and just about every other indication that I was paying way too much. All I could afford was a two up two down where most of my colleagues from previous years were able to buy a semi on a typical graduate salary at The Firm. This even shows now – as an old git I am thinking of moving upmarket rather than down, because my hatred of the property asset class ran so deep that I never moved from the semi I bought a decade later.

    feckless financial foolishness deconstructed:

    Buying a house at that time was bad enough, but I compounded my mistake by choosing an endowment mortgage, because I was a foolish and greedy 28-year old. My parents had said the only way to buy a house was with a repayment mortgage, and made a decent case of as to why. So I listened to the sales patter of how a endowment could make even more than the capital, all tax-free, and the pound signs lit up in my eyes and in about half an hour I doubled down on the error of overpaying, signing up to this promise

    So putting my 28 year older and wiser head on my 28 year old body, let’s take a look at what is wrong with this. If the promise had held good I would have paid 25 × 644.52 = £16113 to get £41500 in 25 year’s time. Which is a fantastic deal, what’s not to like? Ker-ching. Oh and my mortgage gets paid off if I die early. To be honest that’s not my problem, I suppose I should have made a will, because that was never going to benefit me – strike one. What I heard in the sales patter was a very good chance of doubling the money. What the dimwitted 28-year old failed to take into account is that I damn well should expect to double my money in 25 years time – at the time half the value of money died through inflation every 10 years, so in 25 years that profit would be worth diddly squat. I was clearly not reading the documentation right, because it only offered an extra 15k using the most racy projections, sustaining an investment return of over 10% p.a. for twenty-five years straight. Easy peasy.It’s the selective focus bias – you see what you want to see.

    To get this putative win, I had to take an investment product described in the vaguest terms I have ever seen – never mind active or passive management, there was no idea of fees or anything else, it boils down to a statement of –  we will give it a go, but nothing is guaranteed, sunshine.

    There is no transparency whatsoever, but hey, the salesforce can say anything to big this up. If this offer came across my desk nowadays, the second word would be “off”. At least I can say I made some use of the intervening three decades to get a little bit wiser.

    So what happened? Let’s take a look at the state of play after fifteen years had rolled by, that’s half a working life in my case

    Well, the good news is that I get about £5000 more than I’d have paid in at the minimum guaranteed sum. The bad news is that even with a total return after fees of 8% p.a. sustained for ten years I’d have been £11k short. Now in 2004 £11k looked like a lot of money to me, and I was pretty damn sure that I didn’t want to eat this loss. 1

    It seems that unlike 25% of my fellow endowment suckers I took action during the term of my mortgage to pay the bugger down, and eventually I kicked up enough fuss that Friends Provident paid me off with a bung in 2005, which I also used to make a capital repayment. Then as my career began to flame out and crash and burn in 2009 I started paying down more and more of the capital, adopting a financial brace position against no longer having an income. That’s actually a really dumb thing to do for people who are trying to retire earlier than 55, but fearful people make bad decisions sometimes, and that was mine. It meant I was poorer in the last few years, but I will be richer from about now – the mortgage could have smoothed my cashflow between retiring from work and getting to 55.

    Look at those mad assumptions

    Even in 2005 they were talking about investment returns of 8% a year. That just ain’t gonna happen on a sustained basis, and the lowest assumption of 7% way back in 1989 turned out to be total codswallop. That was the risk-averse cautious assumption – it’s bloody nuts. This was massive sample bias due to inflation – after all, just ten years before I signed up inflation in the UK was running at over 15%. You know what the man from the FCA says

    Past performance is no guide to the future

    Well yeah, but WTF else are you going to go on – Tarot cards or reading tea leaves? Mystic Meg? Inherent in the very fact of stock market investing is the nasty little assumption that you can qualify what you will get in the long run informed by what happened in the past 2. Nevertheless, the 28-year old me could have avoided all those mad assumptions by doing the sensible thing and getting a repayment mortgage. Epic fail in market timing and choice of repayment method.

    Winter is coming…

    What’s really bananas is that people didn’t learn from the endowment mortgage debacle. Look at this chart from this FCA confidential 3 report published on the open web

    Oh boy, there is serious incoming hurt from these maturing IO residential mortgages over the next 15 years

    Wages are stagnating, though I guess the high Brexit-induced inflation has reduced all these guys capital debts by 20%. Let’s hope their wages keep up with inflation, eh, because otherwise Winter is coming, and it will be served up with a good amount of Discontent. Their pain will be worse too, because at least I had a deficient repayment method that would have paid about half of the capital. Since then interest only mortgages were written without any requirement to have a method of repaying the capital at the end, so these big cohorts are coming to the end of their 25 year extended home rental term aka interest only mortgage, and the requirement to actually buy the house will come as a bit of a surprise by the looks of it. Okay, so they have taken a call option on the price 25 years ago, but they’ll still need to whistle up the price or move out.

    Notes:

    1. I am being slightly disingenuous here, because Friends Provident demutualised in 2001 and I got about £7k in shares which I sold immediately, and used to make a capital repayment, which I guess brought the outstanding amount to  about £34k.
    2. this dirty little secret is inherent in the SWR and things like firecalc are doing nothing other than informing you from past performance
    3. I downloaded it on 17/2/2017 from https://www.fca.org.uk/publication/research/fca-interest-only-mortgage-review.pdf
    15 Feb 2017, 2:00pm
    reflections
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  • Of spending time and financial folly

    Three months away from retiring I had been doing a lot of philosophising about a massive purchase I was about to make, for a few hundreds of thousands of pounds in opportunity cost. There was no need to add this purchase to my home insurance, and it wasn’t going to be delivered in a pantechnicon or even by Yodel.

    It was eight years of the Ermine’s time, for delivery with effect of June 2012. It was one of the best things I’ve ever spent a shitload of money on, though it’s oddly intangible and ephemeral. In three years’ time it will be rendered to aught, I will be a few hundred grand poorer than I otherwise would have been. Je ne regrette rien 😉

    Freedomsoul, a wise fellow who has clearly used his 25 years on earth well, reminded me of this in his post

    Nothing…is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who wishes can oust us from possession…It is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight and the quality is vile.

    Seneca the Younger

    I don’t have the benefit of a classical education, so I have to hoover such wisdom up off the intertubes, but I have to hand it to the old boy Seneca, he’s a lot more poetic than the oft-quoted modern form of this principle from Paul Tsongas

    Nobody on their deathbed has ever said “I wish I had spent more time at the office”

    Time to turn this into action.

    Kill off matched betting and get it right out of my life

    I’d already come to the conclusion that matched betting bored me and wasted my time. I am most definitely not saying that you can’t make a very handsome sum, probably in the tens of thousands of pounds a year at the upper end. But I am definitely saying I can’t be arsed. If I was rich enough to be able to buy eight years of my own time back for a few hundred grand 1 then WTF am I doing selling my time to the lowlife scum/bookies of this country at a lower rate? At least at work I was occasionally creating something.

    I lost about £200 to the bunch of thieving scum otherwise known as the betting exchange Betfair (Queensbury rules, about a week and a half after writing the first draft this and providing about ten different items they enabled the withdraw button. I am not sure I have enough ID to pass as a sentient mouth-breather in the modern surveillance state.)

    I am old enough to have opened that bank account in the innocent days of the late 1990s, when I could rock up to the branch, show my photo passcard from The Firm and get an account. It apparently doesn’t match the verification on the electoral roll, and despite supplying a copy of my passport and birth certificate to Betfair, they have still frozen my account and won’t let me withdraw it. One of the things that I found distasteful about matched betting was swimming in the same currents as sharks, it’s not a restful experience.

    Remember Seneca’s dregs that are slight and the quality is vile. No point in pouring some of the good stuff down the drain 😉 You get to the bottom soon enough.

    Gnothi Sauton – know thyself

    Know Thyself in Greek in a stained glass window

    ‘Know Thyself’ in Greek in a stained glass window

    ‘I’m a big picture guy, I am poor at fine detail’, was what I first thought about why matched betting was a mismatch for my temperament and financial situation. It’s something that involves a lot of fine detail, you as basically trying to match one big risk against a counter-big risk. It’s easy to screw up 2.

    There are other aspects of life where this shows too. I don’t bother yomping cash through a bazillion accounts to try and get an extra two percent on the deal 3. Part of this is if I am going to allocate headspace to finance I find getting better at equity investing is a much easier win, even if the result of getting better turns out to be do less and sit on your backside more. Life is too bloody short to chase a few percent here or there on cash, particularly when your fellow countrymen can have a brain fart that destroys ten years of that sort of streetfighting at a whim.

    I’m a slack blighter in other areas. I clocked up a £45 credit card interest fail because I bought something for £3k and failed to actually clear the balance over Christmas. I have the minimum paid by direct debit but pay the main part on manual. And just didn’t give this enough attention in December. Of course when I got the bill in January I paid the lot off plus £100 to stop them adding more interest. Shit happens sometimes. I had the money in December because I don’t buy things before I have the money, but cocked up.

    But it’s the big picture that matters. Diversifying risk and reducing fees in many, though not all cases has enabled me to get up on the Brexit dividend this last year, and that puts crapping out on £245 into perspective. Look after the pounds and the pennies sort themselves out or don’t matter 😉

    Pointless pastimes like learning Morse Code still teach me things I didn’t know about myself

    At the moment I am toying with pointless ideas like dragging some radio gear to high places and making contacts. For the umpteenth time I figured I’d have a go at learning Morse code. Its advantages are few, but mainly that the display and keyboard are compact, the display is visible in the sun because it’s auditory, it doesn’t involve a computer and I can contact people, which is totally ridiculous in the modern world when you could call them up on your iPhone. But what the hell, hobbies are like that. It made slightly more sense when I tried the first time as a teenager when the phone was most definitely fixed to the wall. In those days I didn’t have the money and had other concerns, as teenagers do. Now I have more time, I get to see a decent view and more of the attractive parts of this sceptred isle. Fits in okay with an interest in prehistoric stones, too, they tend to be in out of the way places to, so I get to use the same petrol if I can solve the travelling salesman problem. One needs variation in one’s decadence as well as challenge.

    The usual way of learning Morse is to go on LCWO and use your computer. Two things mitigate against this for me, one is I want to play with radio and get away from the damn computer, and the other is an oddball discovery I never suspected. One of the joys of not selling great wads of time to The Man is getting to learn bizarre and useless facts about life because I can be curious about the world and have the time to dig deeper. Turns out that the way I parse text is way more odd that I had suspected.

    I learned to type as a teenager on an old typewriter 4, using some Pitman book.

    I’m sure that keyboard is way too high by modern standards

    Funny how all the pictures in that book of how you were meant to hold your hands and sit the right way were women in miniskirts and manicured nails rather than spotty proto-geeks trying to grok code, but that was the Seventies for you. I never learned to touch type where you don’t look at the keyboard, but once in the right position I know where all the keys are and use all fingers. The school end was a teleprinter which saved the programs using punched paper tape, and there was only one, connected periodically to the North East London Polytechnic via an acoustic modem.

    I did that because I was able to get about three lines of BASIC code written in a half hour period on the timeshare computer system at school, which wasn’t any use at all, hence the need to type faster. Presumably they teach kids to type at school nowadays, since it’s probably more useful in the modern world than cursive handwriting.

    I never needed to type any faster than I could think, since I was usually originated ideas, or code, or whatever. Looking at the rate that I am writing bits of this, using a watch and the WordPress words counter, it appears I can type at about 50wpm tops. I can’t really think that fast in a sustained way, but it was the peak over about 10 seconds.

    No problem, I should be happy copying Morse on a keyboard at 20wpm. Trouble is, if things come in one character at a time, I am turned into a hunt-and-peck-er, and I am down to 6wpm. I never realised this, so I have the good fellow Chuck Adams to thank for warming me up to the fact with the manual for his freebie Morse CD image. So I read his manual, which tells me to go get a particular type of gel pen and an A5 spiral bound notebook, and I will find that at lower speeds I can write any character as soon as I hear it, rather than the ‘oh, that was a C, now where the hell is that on the keyboard, damn, the next character has started’.

    In the depths of one’s brain just behind the ears there is a guy with a tape recorder recording incoming sound on a loop of tape about a sentence long and ready to roll tape again routed to the speech decoding systems of the brain in case the first pass didn’t work out, which is why sometimes when you go you what? and by the end of what you have got it the second time round without the need for the speaker to actually repeat. When the tape is playing the ears aren’t connected, so with Morse I get the first two characters and then I’m out for the count trying to use a keyboard. The average data rate of conversational speech is about 120wpm, but I would probably be able to catch the first sentence in copying speech, because I am capturing the words as units, not a string of characters. We used to have people called stenographers who used a special script shorthand to capture speech at 120wpm, I guess these days we use a digital recorder and set a bunch of people in India on the job.

    Chuck is right. I can write much faster than I can type if the signal comes in character by character. I discover trying another system that even if the characters are read out to me in English, so no decoding needed, I am stuffed as far as comprehending things coming in a character at a time at 20wpm. Now in the early 1990s I found out that I could easily read at 300 baud 5 at ~360wpm. Clearly there is more to this reading and understanding speech malarkey. I had no idea all this went on. All the other times I had tried to learn Morse I had no idea that I had no hope of typing at 20wpm or even grasping text read out a character at a time at that rate, so I was never going to get anywhere until I crack that. I can forget using Morse code until I fix these issues. So I am a long way ahead of my teenage self even if I the contents of my cranium is three decades older. Oh and a day where I learn something new is a day well spent, who’d have thought all this language processing is that highly tuned to specific forms.

    I discover it’s now become OK to borrow money to buy cars. WTF?

    Schroders tell me that loads of Brits are buying new cars on the never never. WTF is up with that? Pretty much first rule of personal finance is never buy depreciating assets with borrowed money. Seems to be what people are doing

    This ain’t gonna end well

    This is a bum steer. Modern cars are a lot more reliable than they used to be, and every time I pass a used car lot near me I am staggered at what you can get for not much. I used to take the line that about 5k was a reasonable price for a used car which would give me a good few years’ service, but you can now get pretty good value for £3000. If you can’t afford that much then you sure as hell can’t afford to borrow money for a new car, and wasting assets should be bought with cash or interest-free credit backed by cash. I have never bought a new car, not because I can’t afford to, but I can’t stand the dreadful clattering sound of half its value falling off as soon as you drive it from the sales lot. A bit like Merryn over at the FT, though probably more tight; there’s a breathtaking kind of metropolitan decadence in hiring an agent for £600 to buy you a used car IMO. Even if you do get dashboard ambient lighting 6.

    Dashboard ambient lighting on a Mercedes S-class. It’s the blue glow in a line

    Mind you, given an ambient lighting kit is £117 I guess the used car buying agent may well be worth his salt. Personally I’d go with electroluminescent wire or LED strips from China, but I’m not the target market it would seem. Maybe that’s why Brits and buying new cars on the never never, because they’re getting too decrepit to find their cars in the night. VW tell us

    When you’re driving at night, the glare-free light also helps you to find your bearings and locate things more easily.

    Hmm. What, exactly, is wrong with the old-fashioned courtesy light, particularly now they delay the switch-off long enough that you wonder if you locked the doors when you look back 50 yards away from your car? Anyway, back to the never-never.

    Schroders dig deeper into the PCP farrago and have an entertaining report from the front line:

    [lessons from the financial crisis] Most people, you would imagine, might say an important point to take away from that time was that lending money to those who cannot afford to pay you back is not a particularly sound business plan.

    Some people have apparently reached a different conclusion, however – that while lending money to those who cannot afford to pay it back may not be a good idea in the context of the biggest asset in people’s lives – in other words, their house – everything  will work out just fine if it is only their second-biggest asset – their car.

    Hell, yeah. The story’s pretty simple. If you need to borrow money to run a car then you can’t afford it. Move downmarket or do without. As Schroders say, however, it takes two parties to make a right hash of this –

    Or, if they have learned a lesson, it is a very specific one: that sub-prime is not helpful – but only when lending to people who cannot afford to buy a house. Cars though? Game on.

    One of the things that disturbs me is that ‘other’  in green. Some of it is securitized auto loans. When was the last time were heard securitized? Ah, in the financial crisis. It usually takes a generation to forget the lessons of the past, but I guess everything happens quicker now, it’s all a bit The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind without the good bits. There’s the wider point that if your second biggest asset really is your car then you are seriously doing something wrong, generally along the lines of having too much car, particularly if you need to borrow for it. By the time you are 40 your pension should be a bigger asset than your car. In fact FFS if you are buying new cars your general savings should be worth more than your car IMO, certainly after you drive off the forecourt.

    The timing on that ‘other’ looks very much like P2P to me, and I’ve just upped my P2P by a few grand. I am beginning to wonder if I am not that stupid sub-prime lender in some ways. After all, last time I looked at what people were using Zopa for it looked like this

    which is a litany of conspicuous consumption and financial folly. Zopa still needs an Ermine behind a desk with a green banker’s lamp to introduce these good people to the following infographic

    How to decide if borrowing money to buy it is a good idea

    In general, Zopa punters, the answer is save up or go without more often that it’s not. I guess Zopa would go bust if they took that line. But heck, I can eat the loss of my Zopa stake if it all goes titsup, I will take a far bigger hit on my ISA, because I am not the only dumbass counterparty out there. No doubt the banks are in there too, and while I have no banks in my individual share portfolio, the index stuff is riddled with them. I need to think about this. The Zopa risk premium isn’t particularly big, I will stay with the instant access 7 and start to wind out of the non-instant access.

    It’s too late when this happens

    It always pays to be one of the earlier panickers in financial crises, so when interest rates start to rise I want to be able to suck my cash out of Zopa before all these indebted car buyers start losing their jobs or feel that their mortgage is a more important debt than their Zopa car loans.

    It’s kinda odd that it took us 80 years to get into deep shit again by dismantling the financial firewalls built in the 1930s, and only 10 years comes to pass before this all looks like a great idea again. This is not progress.

    Notes:

    1. opportunity cost – I didn’t have to save this up first
    2. my biggest fail was expecting Betfair to have a modicum of integrity in returning my money – the takeaway is only deposit the minimum with any betting shop to test if they will verify your account. I didn’t actually screw up any of the matched bets and I am up overall despite the shafting. I was only in this biz for a month and a half. The ROI on matched betting is crap when you factor time into the investment, the money is fine.
    3. I’m not hard and fast on that, I save £500 a month of my SIPP pension with the Nationwide because they’ll give me 5% on it and it can be set up once. It’s the stuff you have to do every month and watch what goes where and when I CBA with
    4. for anybody born after 1980 a typewriter is a machine where the keyboard is connected straight to the printer without the computer we didn’t have in those days jammed in the middle
    5. 300 bits per sec in ~10 bit character chunks at 8,n,1 is 30chars per sec. A word is about five character average so 6 words per sec, or 6*60=360 wpm
    6. let’s hear it from Volkwagen for what ambient lighting is and why Merryn S-W or you might need want it
    7. as Northern Rock showed, instant access can fail you when you need it
     
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