17 Feb 2017, 2:53pm
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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.


    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
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