1 Jul 2016, 12:18pm
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  • Those stock market rises you’re seeing ain’t real, guys

    I am surprised at the nonchalance in the UK personal finance scene about the fall in the pound as a result of the Brexit vote. I am not making a long-term prognosis about whether or not Brexit is a good thing, but what is incontrovertible is that it has led to a sudden drop in the pound relative to other currencies. To avoid the vicissitudes of other countries’ fortunes I am using IMF Special Drawing Rights to compare the pound with. Let’s have a definition

    The value of the SDR is currently based on a basket of four major currencies: the U.S. dollar, euro, the Japanese yen, and pound sterling. The basket will be expanded to include the Chinese renminbi (RMB) as the fifth currency, effective October 1, 2016.

    Since the SDRs include the pound, a fall in the pound slightly devalues the SDRs, so the picture looks slightly better than it really is for a drop in the pound 😉 If you don’t trust those cheese-eating varmints at the IMF you can see the same effect in the good ole United States Dollar down below.

    A fall in the pound relative to other currencies makes us poorer than the rest of the world. We have to exchange more pounds for foreign goods – these foreign goods include most of the food we eat and the fuel we heat our homes with and put in our cars, it’s not academic. Because of lags in the distribution of goods this shows up as higher prices over time, typically over a year. I was a Remain voter so my view is that this change is a strategic impairment of the pound. This is my opinion – it is perfectly possible that the pound will rise over the coming year as the myriad delights of Brexit make themselves manifest in a cornucopia of joy. In that case my thesis is entirely wrong, and it will all come good. If you believe, nay, if you know that to be the case then save yourself the trouble and stop reading this pusillanimous piffle right now.

    Let’s have a fact check – has Brexit made the pound fall?

    1607_xdrytd

    how many IMF SDRs (ticker XDR) for a pound

    I think that’s a yes, so far. Probably about 10% this year. It’s not the only time, we all got a hell of a lot poorer following the financial crisis. Stands to reason, we make jack shit 1 and sell financial services, and the GFC was, well, a global financial crisis. And that’s what most of the services are, I guess.

    We don't really make anything any more. Source is linked to image (fig 8)

    We don’t really make anything any more. Data source is linked to image (fig 8)

    So we took it straight between the eyes

    the 10 year story

    the 10 year story

    Does it matter?

    Well, Britain imports most of its food and fuel, while we focus on being clever whizzes at financial services, Ricardian advantage to the fore, eh. So you get to pay more for that food and fuel compared to people in other countries. However, there have been deflationary effects on these – the oil price has dropped since the GFC for instance. So let’s narrow this to does it matter to investors?

    Well, yeah. Let’s take a look at the price of VWRL in pounds. Hmm, that’s not so bad, it actually went up after Brexit. I managed to buy some in the confusion, so I am feeling chipper, look at me, ain’t I clever?

    VWRL in the GBP I have got

    VWRL in the GBP I have got

    Now if I were an American and had done that after the initial drop, I would be feeling different. Not bad, but no turbo boosters from the falling pound.

    VWRL in the USD I haven't got

    VWRL in the USD I haven’t got

    So the fall in the pound has made foreign assets dearer for me compared to if I were not buying with pounds. While that makes me think whoopee-do when I look at my ISA screen and I think hey, I am a fantastic investor. Not only did I stay the course through Brexit and even buy, I am up on the deal because all the numbers are going up, it also means something else.

    I have lost my compass

    I have lost my main navigational instrument, and my ISA allowance has just fallen by 10% in real terms compared to the rest of the world. So have my tax allowances, and for those rich enough to worry about such things, so has your Lifetime allowance.

    Now one of the cogent arguments against this mattering is

    Some commentators seem to think that there’s both a perfect level for sterling and that they know what it is. I didn’t hear wailing when sterling fell from over $1.70 in 2014 to under $1.50 in 2015. If it ends up at c$1.40 after the current turmoil, so what? No need to sacrifice our first born to Cthulhu just yet.

    Well, I was wailing earlier in the year 😉 There is something up with me, I am much more nervous about the pound than most other people. It scared me in 2009 as I was shovelling money into foreign assets in my AVCs while Mervyn King was printing money and devaluing the pound. So let’s take a butcher’s hook at the GBP against USD (unfortunately I couldn’t find one for IMF SDRs going out that far)

    GBP against USD

    GBP against USD

    This is not a continuous story of success, or even random noise against a mean, and it’s a headwind against UK investment – even against the Euro we are 20% down over the same period. If I’d held exactly the same portfolio as an American investor over those 12 years, I would pat myself on the back because my numbers on my screen would have risen 40% up on his. And I would be lying to myself. The truth lies somewhere in between, and we normally just don’t see that.

    So I’m not saying I know what the perfect level of sterling is. Devaluation of the currency is how governments charge us for the taxes we aren’t prepared to pay for the services we demand, though this last hit can’t be blamed on the government. So while I don’t know what the level should be, I do know that it’s headed in the wrong direction, has been for years, and I’m getting poorer relative to the rest of the world if I hold cash in GBP. We will notice that in higher inflation in the years to come, particularly if the oil price continues to rise in USD. Of course Donald Trump may help us with that in November, though I suspect we may have other problems then.

    It is true that long term adjustments to exchange rates are A Good Thing. It allowed the Greeks to pay themselves more and more and feel good about that while the Drachma depreciated so tourists could still afford to go there and their rice filled vine leaves were cheaper in British supermarkets in Pounds. And then they joined the Euro. Basically floating exchange rates allow you to be lazy bastards collectively relative to the rest of the world and get away with it. If somebody asks you to take a pay cut of 10% there’s hell to pay and rioting on the streets. If you get the same pay and you currency drops by 10% then there’s the same fiscal result but no rioting. Stopping that happening is the original sin behind the Euro, but that’s a fight for a different day. I am still of the opinion that the Euro will blow one day, and we may be glad of our Brexiteering spirit as blood and guts rain down in the aftermath.

    Those stock market rises you’re seeing ain’t real, guys

    And being less productive is what we have all just voted for, but I am surprised at the simplicity of UK investors so being chuffed at their portfolios going up. Now of course that’s a win on having sat on the cash, or worse still, having sold and then rebuying, but do the thought experiment. Say you bought your portfolio with pounds the night of the Referendum. For some reason it bounces, so you issue the same purchase order now. And it’s dearer, so you get to pay more money for the same portfolio. That is Not a Good Thing. When that happens to the price of food, petrol, Starbucks lattes, wine and German cars that won’t be a good thing either.

    Which is why I wince when people celebrate on the rise in the stock market. It’s not real. Indeed, my portfolio is the highest it’s even been. My pension will be worth less, the cash I hold is worth less, yes I am richer in the ISA but poorer is so many other areas. Oh and I am stuck on an island with these guys.

    1607_stuck

    Deep joy. I’m putting a hold on the champagne.

    Notes:

    1. we actually manufacture more in real terms value than we did in the heyday of manufacturing in the 1970s, but do it with far fewer people

    Brexit damage limitation

    We have decided to quit the EU. It was a democratic decision with a gap of over a million between the sides, so it’s pretty clearly what the majority wanted. Unlike many Remainers and a large part of the London/finance set that make up the PF blog community, I have sympathy for the part of the Leave community who say their wages and jobs pushed down by the free movement of people after the A8 accession of countries that were much poorer than the UK. I believe their choice is not in their long and medium term interests nor in mine, but I can see where they came from.

    The little Englanders and harkers back to Empire I have little time for. Let’s hear it from Boris Johnson on this

    We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen, and with a much smaller domestic population and a relatively tiny Civil Service. Are we really unable to do trade deals?

    We used to run the biggest empire in the world because we industrialised first and had the edge on being able to clobber other places into submission. Things have changed in 100 years peeps. The modern predilection for everyone’s a winner would have no truck with the entrance exams for the Empire Civil Service.

    I want to preserve my capital against the own goal that is Brexit. I may have sympathy with many of the people who voted Leave, but I don’t want to sponsor their decision any more than I have to.

    You wouldn’t start from here (after the Brexit result)

    as the classic joke says. Fortunately I am not coming from a standing start. I started a while ago. In 2009 my HYP was largely FTSE100 based, I’m fortunate in not having great exposure to banks because I can’t value them and only a small exposure to property/housebuilders because UK property scares the bejesus out of me. But I didn’t like the geographical bias and started to shore it up with an outer circle of index funds in emerging markets, Dev world exUK and more recently VWRL world equity trackers. I was aiming for focusing less on finance and more on Life, because I was dealt a good hand by Osborne in being able to use my DC pension savings to front-run my main pension.

    My main problem is that I hold sterling assets. And the big problem is that sterling will become increasingly worthless as trade and foreign investment falls. We’ve already taken a massive hit in the financial crash. I am particularly exposed to this as people still working may see their wages rise with future inflation, where as my networth is the accumulation of previous earnings. On the other hand I have advantages – redundancy is not a threat to me and I don’t owe anyone any money.

    XDRs are a basket of currencies, against the £

    XDRs are IMF Special drawing rights,  a basket of foreign currencies, against the £. I use XDRs because individual currency pairs just show relative changes, XDRs are the luminiferous aether of forex which gets us away from all this relativism…

    Okay so a lot of it (more than half) are foreign assets denominated in sterling, so the fall in the pound will merely give me a false impression I am a great investor by raising the numbers on the screen  rather than make me fundamentally poorer in these assets, but in the end my pension is in Sterling which is most of my effective networth. Unlike some I don’t consider my house in my networth so I am neutral on that and I don’t own any rental property, so if house prices fall I don’t feel that is a bad thing.

    price of gold in pounds

    price of an ounce of gold in pounds

    Oh and I bought a lot of gold last year, because the ermine is a skittish creature and the 2015 valuations of the UK stock market and the US stock market, together with the infinitesimal chance of Brexit 1 scared me, and people thought gold was trash, witness the GBP/XAU chart. OK so I sold some of it before the referendum to half-split the profits which was a bad move in hindsight, but I still took a profit, and I will hang on to the ballast of the rest for a while. Unfortunately I also hold a lot of cash because I have only recently crystallised my SIPP. My dear fellow countrymen have made me 25% poorer in real terms last week, this will come through in the price of imported goods like food and fuel and pretty much anything I do if I stick a paw outside this sceptred isle.

    1606_wilson

    Harold Wilson was quite right in my schooldays when he said the pound in your pocket will stay the same. It’s what you can get with that pound which changes, so I really need to do something about that cash. I have already started with some of it into VWRL, and will drip feed some of the rest as I extract it below the tax threshold into VWRL. I will accept the risk of a market crash in five years time when I will have run the SIPP flat; I will start coming out of the market in four years time and if I take a hit on the SIPP I will start to take income from the proceeds of the ISA. And if it all turns into tears in falling rain, well, that’s just the way things pan out.

    I owe Monevator a few beers – my original HYP was heavily UK based with big fish from the FTSE100. But his diversification articles were compelling, and I shored the UK core up with Devworld Ex UK and emerging market index funds. In the HYP I was fortunate enough not to have a predilection for banks (how do you value a bank?) or house-builders, though my REITs look like sick puppies 2. For some perverse reason my ISA ended up on the week 3 though it took a hit early Friday. But I have bought more gold and more VWRL. The obvious choice is in many ways Lifestrategy100 but the GBP version is too UK biased, hence a favouring to VWRL. World equities are tanking too, but the pound is tanking faster.

    I’m interested in ideas though, what if anything do readers think as a way of losing less capital through the troubled times to come? Or is it as simple as sometimes you have to stick your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye… This one is big, and it’s bad.

    Notes:

    1. as perceived at the time, but you should always bet a bit against your prejudices
    2. It’s not like these bad guys are underwater yet, but it’s getting that way
    3. denominated in the increasingly worthless pounds
    22 Dec 2015, 1:52pm
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  • Now is the winter of our future consumer selves

    The shortest day is one where attention turns to Winter, and the promise of an eventual Spring. I’m going to be contrarian and think about a nascent Winter – for the collective spendthrifts that seems to be the Great British Public, from hero to zero and beyond in six years:

    this ain't gonna end well

    this ain’t gonna end well

    I see the party out and about, particularly at this time of year. So does Barclaycard – apparently the lower oil price has done wonders for the restaurateurs of the country.

    apparently Barclaycard process half of credit card transactions in Britian, which I find hard to believe. Anyway, these are the changes in spending

    apparently Barclaycard process half of credit card transactions in Britian, which I find hard to believe. Anyway, these are the changes in spending

    The good thing is that the predicted rate of change in overspending is slowing. And of course everybody is feeling chipper. Bless their cotton socks, the opposition tried to make political capital out of this without doing what I am doing in this post and hollering out like Scrooge

    Britons – you are overspending way beyond your means. Cancel Christmas and Stop It Now

    After all Cameron got into no end of hot water when he said that a few years ago 😉 Learning from the flack he took, which is basically don’t you dare tell people to spend less, even if it is the very thing they need to do, what this came out like was

    Ms Malhotra added: “Of course families need access to credit and the ability to borrow to invest for the future.

    Families do not invest for the future. They live by YOLO.  Families overspend and firefight the mess as best they can later

    No. I’m sorry, but the general level of financial awareness in Britain is just not that high. Families in general have no understanding of the meaning of the word invest. The principles my parents outlined thirty years ago still hold. Don’t borrow to buy wasting assets. Only borrow if you will save more in total (housing – where you expect a relatively settled lifestyle) or earn more than the total cost (education, in some circumstances which are getting rarer). For all else pay cash, and if you haven’t got it you can’t afford it.

    There are very, very few good reasons to borrow money in Britain. Under some circumstances borrowing money to buy a house is one, although I am not so sure that now is one of those times. I borrowed too much money to buy a house. The damage to my personal finances is still visible after 30 years – the only reason I am in a better financial position than some of my peers is I managed to shut down some of the other ways British households misallocate capital by borrowing it.

    Let me tally a number of ways many families fail to invest –

    • in the immortal words of a good lady friend “they pick up financial commitments like pets and children without thinking through the financial consequences”
    • They borrow for university, an asset that is being rapidly devalued through oversupply and becoming an increasingly unaffordable luxury. Once upon a time (1990s to 2010) you could have made a case for investing in a degree. It’s tough  to make that case now.
    • They borrow to buy wasting assets like cars, for God’s sake. You can get a damned fine used car for £5k and a decent runner for less.
    • They borrow to buy shit they don’t need to impress people they don’t like and keep up with the Joneses
    • They overspend on Christmas because they lack the integrity to tell their children that times are harder now. The road back from that sort of inattention is much longer and harder than recognising straitened circumstances at the time and shutting elective spending down until you know where you are.

    There are other subtler ways that people malinvest, but borrowing to spend on wants rather than needs is never ‘investment’. The shortest day of the year seems a good time to recall that borrowing money is a great way to give your future self a hard time. There are going to be a good many consumers whose forthcoming financial Winter will hold no Spring.

    The problem is that very few people invest. And those people, which probably includes many regular readers, are people who are relatively wealthy compared to most Britons. You don’t usually get wealthy by investing, that is what Work is for if you spend less than you earn, but it is often the way you stay wealthy. There is a massive difference between investing and spending. Opportunities to invest are hard to find and come rarely, and usually involve some sort of uncertainty. Opportunities to spend are commonplace.

    Of course families need access to credit and the ability to borrow to invest for the future

    is a chimera. I’m of the opinion that Britain would be a much happier place if there were far less access to credit for British families – like the credit controls of the 1960s and 1970s. The excess of credit since then seems to have made the banks richer and the people poorer, because they are increasingly forced to overspend on housing precisely because of this credit. It is a classic tragedy of the commons – of course I want to borrow more mortgage to outcompete you. But like an ostensibly neutral country supplying arms to both sides, the banks have no specific loyalty to me, it’s when you can borrow more to fight back that this becomes a gun that fires on both ends – we both pay more for our houses and the banks get to lend more money out. What’s not to like? Well, the opportunity cost of what else we could have done with that money!

    Sooner or later we are going to have to nail this problem. Sometimes you shouldn’t be allowed to do what you want to do, and the litany of commonplace consumer cock-ups with credit is getting longer and longer. It’s no fun any more, and the promise of endless financial winter doesn’t sound so great either. We managed to shut down a lot of Money Shops. We managed to slow the number of Liar Loans on owner occupation. We are taking the battle to the tragedy of the commons otherwise known as BTL. There is hope. Perhaps we need to make it easier to repudiate consumer debt, then banks would be more circumspect about who they lend money to, since the old ways of having credit controls is considered dirigiste and fuddy-duddy in these laissez-faire times. What exactly is so terribly wrong about expecting people to have the money up front for their consumer wants?

    Since you, dear readers, are presumably not among these consumer spendthrifts, a happy Christmas to y’all!

    the Irresistible Force and the Immovable Object meet again

    Another day, another sideshow in the Punch and Judy sideshow that is the slow crawl towards Grexit. It’s getting tiresome, because this is a crisis of leadership – problems don’t go away by whistling a dancing tune and come up with ever more outlandish ways of looking the other way.

    At the heart of the matter is that Greece doesn’t like austerity, and doesn’t want to exit the Euro. They can have that, provided there’s a permanent influx of other people’s money. Those other people are getting shirty about this, and are saying that the price of our money is that we get to run your country in a different way. That different way looks pretty rough to me – there’s no way it’s going to stick.

    Greece has promised to pass laws introducing controversial economic reforms by Wednesday. These include reforming the VAT system, overhauling pensions and signing up to plans that ensure immediate spending cuts in the event of breaching creditor-mandated budget targets.

    In the end Greece needs to find the cojones to seize control of their own destiny and quit the Euro – because it’s clear that the price of support is getting dearer and dearer. In the long run things that can’t go on, don’t, but it takes time to resolve the conundrum of the irresistible force and the immovable object. In the long run, of course, we’re all dead – it’s not surprising that most of the Oxi came from the young, who have most long run left 😉 By the looks of it the consensus of avoiding Grexit at all costs is losing the fight as it drags on. One of the flecks of gold panned from the endless tailings of random wibble from G Dubya Bush was

    If money isn’t loosened up, this sucker could go down

    Dubya in a moment of clarity

    Fortune favours the brave and the decisive in situations like that, those that look at the predicament they are in and who take decisive action early to try and influence the outcome. I kinda like the pithy summary of

    “The facts tell us what to do and how to do it, but it is our humanity which tells us that we must do something and why we must do it.”
    — Sully Sullenberger

    Sullenberger was piloting a jet aircraft over New York when suddenly a flock of geese stopped the clockwork 3000ft above the city. Unlike the Greeks and the Troika with their endless river of make-believe deadlines, he had three and a half minutes to bring things to a definite conclusion.

    Tsipras failed the Greek people in asking them in a referendum ‘do you want the particular form of austerity that was on offer in early July’. He should have asked them the straight question

    This much austerity or more, or leave the Euro?

    At the moment it looks like he went to the country, asked them their opinion in an incomplete manner, then tore it up the confusing result 1. This is not a fellow I would want in the cockpit.

    Financial problems don’t get better through fudging them. The Ermine didn’t fudge the problem of my career going down the pan in 2009, within a month I had shifted savings to ISAs and drove my spending down to be able to save the maximum possible. I lived on the minimum wage plus an ISA allowance and saving the ISA with the rest going into pension savings to stop paying tax and NI on it. It worked – I was able to leave after three years and coast for three years more before I can get those pension savings. It wasn’t fun spending minimum wage while working at a higher level, because I couldn’t afford the middle class distractions that compensate for the suckyness of the way the job was going. I was lucky to be able to jump to a different project, but unlucky to run into the wall in the first place.

    Sometimes you have to accept that all solutions before you stink, but that some of them are more ugly than others. The Greeks can either be a lot poorer soon, but then stop getting poorer and possibly turn things round, or they can face becoming incrementally poorer without a clear end stop, dependent on the unknown future grace and favour of others.

    this fine Greek graffito says it well

    a fine Greek graffito

    Greece has a lot going for it – but not in the Euro, and all the time they spend chasing the chimera of less austerity within the Euro the situation is degrading. Everyone with movable assets has been moving them, that much is sensible. The middle class’s savings will be destroyed, just like they were in Germany – twice. They will be destroyed in the fall of the drachma or destroyed in trying to stave off the impact of austerity – basically the choice is death of their savings fast or slow.

    It’s all too easy to choose the slow death approach by trying to avoid making a decision, but it nearly always makes the outcome worse. This ain’t going to end well. Germany can afford to throw money down this money pit, but are getting increasingly unwilling to do so. The question is can Greece afford to live the way that the Troika want them to, and I venture probably not. We’ll get to watch this movie again.

    Notes:

    1. Since writing this I have learned that referenda are advisory not binding in Greece which makes this a little bit more understandable
    9 Jul 2015, 10:53am
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  • China doesn’t really seem to get this stock market thing

    While our eyes are focused on the slow train crash that is Grexit, over on the other side of the world there is an interesting example of King Canute seeking to hold back the waves. In China they seem to be of the opinion that their overheated stock market, having gained over 100% in the last year, is supposed to stay there. If you’re one of those capitalist running-dogs that is going against the story looking to sell, well, you can stop what you’re doing right there. Hardened Western investors who went through the dot-com boom might ask themselves what the good reasons were for last year’s 100% heft in a generalised index 1

    from Bloomberg

    Shanghai Composite Index from Bloomberg

    So they stopped people with a 5% or more stake selling, and the government lends money to people to buy shares 🙂 There’s something about the point of this whole stock market thing that is being missed here. The Chinese stock market is also a young market, it seems compared to other world markets there are a lot of retail investors buying shares on margin – what on earth could go wrong? This is classic New York 1929 bucket-shop trading. Maybe in a few decades they will  become sober index fund passive investors, but first they have to get the momentum-chasing speculator out of their systems.

    China’s investing culture remains backward and immature.

    Howard Gold

    Markets elsewhere have been on a roll of a long time, and while Grexit is unlikely to hurt too much outside Greece this one could be the second shoe dropping. There seems to be a lot of ruin in China as it tries to reorient itself from its early 2000s economic model to something that matches the post Lehman-crash world. There’s a lot of ruin in most economies, and it doesn’t necessarily lead to trouble, but by its sheer size China could have big knock-on effects.

    Better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than to be a man in a chaotic period 2

    There haven’t been tremendous buying opportunities in the markets for two or three years now. But interesting times lead to interesting opportunities. There’s still too much zombie puffery inflated by easy money after the 2007 crisis. Emerging markets are probably where it’s at in 20 years’ time, and perhaps we will have more opportunities to pick ’em up cheap in the next few years if this sucker goes down. Of course, associated with that will be all sorts of other misery. I’m not doing a Dubya and saying ‘bring ’em on‘. China has big challenges ahead with the whole get rich before getting old thing, and I personally have avoided investing in it 3 because I have no feel at all for the country – my preferences in emerging markets lean towards India, Latin America and Africa from a demographic point of view. Howard Gold is quite right to describe EMs as having gone down the toilet, but I’ll be surprised if they stay there for the ten years he is calling out. I don’t have enough EM exposure, because in the years after 2009 I was building a HYP. And I don’t want to be a dog…

    Notes:

    1. this question being, of course, the one they failed to ask themselves in 1999 – ain’t experience and hindsight a wonderful thing?
    2. May you live in interesting times is a good line, but not Chinese, so it’s not right to to use it for China ;)
    3. other than in generalised index funds

    A long hot summer, perhaps a Grexit – and hopefully a rescue mission

    This is a story too hard to call, and yet it seems to be gathering speed. Hot summers are also good for a decent rumble in the markets, in the immortal words of George “Dubya” Bush

    If money isn’t loosened up, this sucker could go down,

    And here it is from Tsipras himself

    Now I’m sure there’s going to be loads of punters and talking heads, most of them better qualified than I on the whole macro thing, but this is my blog so I’ll add to the wall of noise.

    I think the Greeks are taking the piss wanting to stay in the Euro on other people’s ticket, though I do see the point that the Germans are also taking the piss in a different way. The advantage the Germans have is they are the ones with the money. Fundamentally there seems to be the tension in the design of the Euro and the regulations about fiscal probity and not having it as a transferunion, it’s like wanting things to be light and dark at the same time. We’re about to find out, when push comes to shove whether we will have fiscal probity or we will have a transfer union in the Euro, and the symptom will be Grexit in the first case and Grescue in the second.

    My hope is for Grexit – it is a second shoe that didn’t drop in the 2009 financial crisis. Something unsustainable gets worse and worse as time goes by. I see the point that Europe stiffed the Greeks by bailing out Europe’s banks in 2010. Greece is owed something by Europe, but not everlasting transfer – unless that is democratically agreed not just by Greeks wanting it or not but by Germans and the rest of the Eurozone voting for a transferunion – it’s not just up to the debtors to holler “I want”. Too much of European policy is decided before putting it to the people, and that sort of thing needs to stop until the people can catch up or say “enough of that”. Half the trouble we have is that it’s not clear if there’s enough common cause for a United States of the Eurozone, the symptoms seem to indicate not. A lack of common cause in Europe has been ugly in the past.

    Europe does owe the Greeks something. A Grexit will be a serious shitstorm. Not much can be done to avert the initial storm, but Europe could do well to take inspiration from the United States. Both the Marshall Plan, and indeed how Nixon handled Hurricane Camille in the 1960s rather better than Dubya handled Katrina that attacked the same region.

    The Nixon administration realised they could not fight the storm, but they could chase it, and render assistance the day after. Perhaps something similar is owed Greece – yes, they may have to default, and return to the drachma to regain fiscal sovereignty. In the shitstorm that ensues, Europe should render humanitarian and basic stabilising  financial assistance without strings and given, not lent. It will then be up to the Greek people how they want to live, with some semblance of fiscal probity or with the high levels of tax evasion they seemed to have. In the latter the value of the drachma can fall to adjust, and people still feel good.It’s got form…

    As time went by you needed more and more drachma to buy that 1990s US dollar

    As time went by you needed more and more drachma to buy that 1990s US dollar (I mislabelled the £ and DM which need to be switched)

    I called this too early in February and maybe I call this early now. A long,hot summer is good for damn fine financial crisis.

    Interesting times ahoy?

    Too tough to call at this stage, but it’s worth getting ready. I don’t think that the credit crunch was ever properly fixed – what seemed to happen is QE went into inflating asset prices – that’s houses for you lucky BTL landlords if you can sell at the higher price and share prices for the rest of the PF community. The hard-pressed middle seemed to get the short end of the stick, and indeed are due for a second helping in Osborne’s budget next month. Further afield there seems to be trouble in paradise China though there seems to have been a fair bit of irrational exuberance too.

    I need to shift about half my AVCs to my SIPP, but the remaining half is due to come out in just over five years time, and I don’t need it for income. Although as a deferred member I am a second-class citizen it appears I can still switch from the cash fund I have been in for a while (when I thought I would have to draw it early) to the 50:50 Global:FTSE100 index fund that served me so well between 2009 and 2012. Since I can shift some to a SIPP I am not up against the 25% tax-free PCLS limit any more, so I may well go back in for another bite of the cherry over the next few months, spreading myself over time buying into (hopefully) a falling market.

    At the moment the market isn’t really reacting in any big way. For sure, I may look stupid saying that in the coming week!  The Grauniad says Shares slide as deepening Greek crisis shakes global markets and the Torygraph says World Markets in Turmoil but we’re only talking 2% – at the elevated levels shares have been this last couple of years a 20% fall would probably still be a correction rather than a dive IMO 🙂 Only hindsight will tell us if these are the trumpets at dawn heralding the second phase of the 2007-9 credit crunch. But yeah, looks like times could get more interesting and the stock market a lot less boring than it has been of late.

    Interesting times are also times when it’s more comforting to have paid down the mortgage and be debt-free, with a unreasonable amount of cash, and have most of this year’s ISA allowance free. Mind you, over at Fidelity there are fellows telling you to go a step further and hold physical cash in the mattress…

    Let’s hope for some statesmanship from our EU leaders

    It may be time to surrender a piece of the Eurozone dream in the case of Greece. But I despise the talk of Greece having to leave the EU at the same time, and I hope in the back rooms there are people drafting a different tone. If the Greeks move to the drachma which is probably their best long-term route, the history of the EU and indeed the spirit of the people who set up the Treaty of Rome in 1958 should prevail. Europe fought a second world war because the victors pushed for an ignominious defeat. Greece doesn’t belong in the Eurozone, but it belongs in the EU if that is the wish of the Greek people, and the EU as a whole owes it the grace of assistance across the troubled times ahead. It’s time for a magnanimous resolution, and giving thought to establishing what a successful Eurozone looks like, what needs to happen and whether the people really want that. The markets will be gunning for the next target soon…

     

     

     

    24 May 2015, 11:44pm
    economy personal finance rant:
    by

    36 comments

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  • Middle-Class inflation – it’s big, it’s bad, and it’s eating your lifestyle

    Brought to you by the Ermine department of first-world problems  this Torygraph article ruminating on how terrible middle class inflation is gives me much to sink some needle-sharp teeth into on so many fronts. It misdiagnoses the problem, the sense of entitlement is risible, and hell, there’s opportunity for much fun. Let’s take the headline and standfirst

    How ‘middle class’ inflation is threatening your standard of living

    An extensive Telegraph Money study into our readers’ spending habits reveals the alarming rate at which “middle class inflation” is taking hold

    Telegraph

    Dudes, your lunch was eaten, digested and shat out t’other side years ago. How come you only just noticed? People have had the time to write books about the problem. Ermines have written posts on how the middle class needs to wake the ***k up and get ready to take the sucker punch, middle class families on the brink, savoured the come-uppance of Shona Sibary stupidly selling her house in bits to fund her excessive lifestyle then discovering she doesn’t own her house anymore. The middle class threw the poor and the working class under the bus by voting for neoliberalism in the 1980s 1 that destroyed blue collar jobs, without asking the questions about where this was all going to lead. The Guardian was drawn out with a riposte along the lines of what part of we’re all in this together did you not understand…

    So what is this lifestyle-eating inflation you speak of, Mr Telegraph? Well, the cost of some desiderata has been going up faster than average wage increases – to wit

    increasing cost of luvverly stuff going up

    increasing cost of luvverly stuff going up

    Let’s take a butcher’s hook at what these essentials are. School Fees – despite every child being entitled to free education in the UK and indeed this is wot drug up your ‘umble scrivener that’s not enough for some people, and all those hard-working furreners are bidding up the price. Health insurance. Eh? We have the NHS, and if you are rich enough to be middle class then if you want to jump the queue for your hip replacements then take the Ermine line. It’s about 15k to pay privately. Things like that are what the middle class used to save for before they discovered home equity lines of credit to buy consumable shit. They knew a thing or two, your grandparents when they saved for rainy days, ‘cos they’d seen hard times… Dental care, well, yes, it probably is increasing, but it’s what, £200 a year. You’re not middle class if a 100% increase in that is going to make you sweat, and stop giving your kids sugary shit advertised on TV, at least after they have changed out their milk teeth. Holidays – the middle class used to have one foreign and maybe a UK holiday a year. Now you’re deprived if you don’t have four. The enemy is consumerism, and the enemy is within – lifestyle inflation.

    What are we comparing this with? Average wages covers a multitude of sins, but most jobs created in Britain since the mid 1990s have been  at the lower end of the scale. These are not middle class jobs where people aim to send Tabitha to public school. Some of these are jobs where people aim to make last week’s rent. These are some of the people that you, Middle Class Boss Person Sitting in your Corner Office, downsized or outsourced or just plain fired. You would have to compare middle class wages for this to have meaning. In fairness, the poll of their subscribers’ income indicates times are getting hard for them. Again, there could be sample bias – Telegraph readers are not spring chickens  – indeed a fair number may have retired between 2007 and now time because they’re not picking up da yoof.

    The Daily Mail and The Telegraph have the largest percentages of over 65s, making up almost half of their audiences – at 45 and 46 percent respectively.

    themediabriefing

    One item shows just how damned ungrateful the middle class is. The price of the average new car driven by Telegraph readers is £13,456. When I first read this I went WTF? you can get a new car for that little? The last car I bought second-hand in the early 2000s was ~£5000. These Torygraph readers presumably buy a new car every three years because that’s what one does if you haven’t been educated otherwise. Given that they therefore spend on average a shade under 10% of their gross wages, roughly £4000 p.a. on new cars and this big-ticket item gets 6% cheaper than the last time they bought it you’d think the blighters would show a bit more gratitude.

    A word in your shell-like, Mr and Mrs Middle Class. The good times ain’t ever gonna roll again, because you are in competition with the whole freakin’ world now, rather than a third of it. And most of the rest of the world is generally poorer than you, they’re ready to work harder, because the extra wedge will make a bigger difference to their lives. They want to eat your lunch and your nice sinecures where Mr Wealthy but Dim used to cling to the pipes of capitalism like slime-moulds slowing down the system a bit. Your kids may actually end up richer in absolute terms but feel far poorer and less secure, because being middle class is all about relative status.

    How did we get to such a sorry pass, eh? Let’s take a look at history, shall we.

    A history aside

    We have to go a long way back, to when the definitions of a middle class lifestyle were defined – roughly meaning owning your own house in the ‘burbs outright by retirement, a decent middle-management job, sending up to two kids to private school 2, owning a car and having a foreign holiday a year, though the latter were children of the 60’s and 70’s. This was the deal struck by Whyte’s Organisation Man 3

    Way back in time, there was a hell of a bust-up called the Second World War. Shitloads of capital got destroyed and a lot of people got killed and hurt. The British Empire that had coloured in most of the map of the world pink imploded, because so much of the energy that was used to rule other places had to be recalled to defend the homeland in an existential struggle that is still now worthy of admiration and I am grateful that a flame was kept alive in Britain while the lamps went out all across Europe, twice in 50 years.

    The British Empire in 1915, when the sun didn't set on it. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that...

    The British Empire in 1915, when the sun didn’t set on it. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that…

    In the aftermath of this the world divided into power blocs with different ideologies, glowering at each other across iron curtains and Berlin walls and suchlike – they drew clear borders and so it came to pass that Russia and China were outside the global trading system as perceived by Western middle class consumers and the firms they worked for. And the green bit didn’t endanger Western jobs either.

    First, second and Third worlds. Decoding the colour scheme should be clear enough :)

    First, second and Third worlds. Decoding the colour scheme should be clear enough. You’re with the blue team :)

    Communications were expensive and computers were dear, hard to use and few and far between. 4 There were no useful databases  – there were shocking levels of basic admin work and most middle management couldn’t type – they dictated their memos for others to type out for them. In 1979 at university in one of the premier science institutions of Britain I looked up books in the library using the high-tech solution of…6×4″ index cards in polished wooden cabinets.

    What a database looked like 30 years ago

    What a database looked like 30 years ago

    Cold war capitalism’s world was smaller, productivity stank by modern standards, far more people were employed and there was far more work for people at lower end of the ability spectrum.  People had children earlier, and jobs were more stable – the residual defined benefit pensions were a carry-over from this era, when employers sought to hold on to staff (and in the case of scientific and technical jobs, invested in training people).

    There is an argument to be made that the number of scientific and technical jobs were artificially inflated during the Cold War compared to what the economy needs which is why there was a push to educate some of the lumpenproletariat in grammar schools and free university education provided you could pass the tougher exams of the time. Again, I am personally grateful for this – I gained from the grammar schools and free university places, but when I entered Imperial College 7% of school leavers went to university. We could afford free university education then, and I would be all for making it free again – provided the entrance criteria were made tightened up again so that these free places went to, say 10% of school leavers. 5

    Then in the 1990s along came the Internet improving communications enormously, the Iron Curtain came down because it turned out that the problems of communism showed up in economic breakdown earlier than the problems of capitalism show up in economic breakdown 6. The Chinese decided they would like to join the party on their own terms.

    This means that a UK worker at the start of their working life now is competing with three times as many people as I did in 1982; the odds are in fact worse because the world population is higher 7 and better communications means that the pool of workers that can be drawn upon is far larger by at least an order of magnitude than it used to be. On the plus side you live in a far richer country, healthcare is better, opportunities for the talented are far-far better, which is the flipside of the better communication, so the average post-Gen X reader of this (if there are any 🙂 ) has probably progressed a lot further in their career than I had at the same age. Many such have travelled and worked abroad and had a wider experience that I have. I’ve worked in international teams but never based abroad – it was by no means impossible but it seems much more prevalent now. 8

    Living standards are normalising worldwide. So far this is a win for humanity but a lose for Mr Daily Telegraph and his kids

    So, roughly boiled down, the problem with the middle class is that they are in competition with a lot of their worldwide peers, but they normalised how rich they expected to be relative to other people in Britain in an era when they were only in competition with the rest of the First World. Globalisation is reducing inequality worldwide, but increasing it in the First World 9. When it comes to specifically their children and their dreams for them, then not only are their children going to face far worse competition than their parents in the employment market did as communications get better. The birthrate in the UK isn’t as high as it is in places that can supply the competing workers which amplifies the competition. It is patently clear to me that middle class parents who want their offspring to have a middle class lifestyle need to start getting on the side of capital for their kids unless those kids are both brilliant and driven. Leave them shitloads of money, because Dim Rich isn’t going to find sinecures like they used to in a more competitive world. Even Halfway Average rich ain’t gonna get ahead through hard work faced with those odds.

    Alternatively they could adjust their expectations of how rich relative to other people they want their children to be. Mr Money Mustache’s takes the battle to the enemy as usual – if you don’t want your kids to join the rat race then maybe teach them not to race rats, which is broadly what the current charade that passes for ‘education’ goes for. We need to teach children to learn and adapt in a changing world, we aren’t making factory units any more. Then there’s the whole automation and Humans Need Not Apply thing. Just like Dustin Hoffman was urged to get into plastics, Capital is your best hope now – don’t buy shit you can’t afford and identify yourself with what you spend money on.

    Seeking validation in what you are as opposed to what you have is also a potential win here- Erich Fromm posited the question in the 1970s. If you’re rich enough to be reading the Telegraph article and thinking ‘that’s me’ then you have the choice – clearly if you are a single mother working five zero-hours jobs to pay last week’s rent you don’t really have this choice, but that’s a different problem from grizzling that the price of wine and holidays is so expensive these days, dahlink.

    Living standards will go down for the middle class – they need to keep an eye on quality of life

    One of the problems the middle class seems to have had is they lost their historic values of thrift and deferred gratification. Once upon a time they knew to put money into healthcare and schools before blowing it all on holidays, wine, eating out and going to the movies. The middle class had annuities to look after them when they got old (before those DB pension) because they saved for it, no doubt encouraged to do so by seeing what happened to the poor in the poorhouse.  Then they got soft.

    Living standards are going to go down because of the shift of power from labour to capital. Mine is, yours is probably. The smart response is to roll with it – because although there’s some correlation of quality of life with living standard, if you deliberately change attitudes to the changes ahead of time you can do more with less, your quality of life need not go down with your lowered living standard. This is because many aspects of quality of life (autonomy and being able to express free will) are not a function of stuff or resources. It won’t be easy but fortune favours the adaptable.

    The middle class are locked into the school-university-job loop. It’s broken for the middle classes – an ever increasing money pit that is less and less likely to pay off for the next generation anyway. Mr Money Mustache nails the problem succinctly

    It may be that most parents of the very-upper-middle class are still operating from a scarcity mindset. If they are addicted to a high consumption lifestyle, earning $600,000 per year but still making car and house payments, they will assume that their children will need to earn and consume just as much in order to be happy. This of course dictates a job in the top fraction of the top percent of the economy, and education with enough prestige to secure such a job.

    There’s a lot of conspicuous consumption in the Telegraph’s list. The school fees etc are all passing on the image of replicating what worked in the past. Fingers crossed that past performance is a guide to future returns despite the rapidly changing world, because if not this is a dramatic misallocation of capital. Above a certain level, quality of life and standard of living are different things. That rings hollow if you’re poor, because it isn’t true for you. But if you’re griping about the price of wine and foreign holidays over the canapes like our DT readers, then you still have choices. Use them well, before you don’t have any choices because you can’t tell the difference between what you want and what you like.

    Notes:

    1. That’s a slightly harsh charge as technological progress would have done that job a little bit later, but they didn’t  help people change, since the postwar consensus was nuked around then
    2. this seems to be a peculiarly UK aberration, I haven’t detected in from US writers for instance
    3. that old  ideal cast a long shadow on the ermine, because I did not grow up in a middle class background, I learned some of this from books and inferred from the values of those around me, particularly those at university, who were mainly from a richer background than me. The deal started to fall through in the early 1990s, paradoxically just as Thatcher was defenestrated. This distorted model jammed my vision to seeing what was going wrong. I learned from my mistake – the OODA loop is a description of how to stay on guard against being trapped by a mental model becoming obsolete. There are many assumptions about the modern world that may unravel – and the principle of being able to preserve value in financial instruments and the SWR aren’t immune from that
    4. When I started as a professional electronics engineer in the eighties there was a single VAX computer for circuit simulation accessed by green-screen terminals via 9600 baud serial cables and all the output was in Courier text – shared across the entire facility of a couple hundred people. Most of the time you did your circuit simulation by building it in the lab and measuring and messing with components – I can do all this at the same time on the same machine as writing this now.
    5. I’m not against those that don’t make the bar paying their way as now – if you want a vanity degree or have an insight that you will get a return on investment knock yourself out
    6. harbingers of trouble with capitalism seem to be the destruction of the middle classes that I’m writing about, rapacious consumption of natural resources to produce worthless tat and increasing inequality leading to revolution as the rough trajectory capitalism is on, so it won’t necessarily end better. A capitalist consumer economy needs consumers and rising inequality is running consumers out of town, a process slowed by rising debt.
    7. when I started work in 1982 there were 4.5 billion of us compared to 7 billion now
    8. As a simple example, I admire and am gobsmacked by Early Retirement Guy who had the bad luck to graduate into the credit crunch recession and took the enterprising solution to take off and travel and see if the dust would settle. I left school after the Winter of Discontent, worked as a kitchen porter over the summer and started university in September. Gap years were for rich kids in those days ;)
    9. A view from the City of London’s Gresham College – the words of Christine Keeler ‘well they would say that wouldn’t they’ spring to mind, but the case is made well. Similarly the Social Affairs Unit and this paper seem to support this view

    England’s shy Tories take the day

    Surprise result to the election it appears, well a surprise to the punditry though not necessarily to the odd canny investor 🙂 Shy Tories turned out in force and David Cameron is back in No 10, without the moderating influence of the crybaby Nick Clegg, who marched his party to their greatest success and their greatest doom all in the same action. I had a temptation to go with the headline England goes John Galt but that’s probably taking it a little bit too far, even in search of a decent headline. Why are shy Tories shy? – presumably because of the Scruton doctrine

    ‘Leftwing people find it very hard to get on with rightwing people, because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with leftwing people, because I simply believe that they are mistaken’

    Most people pursing financial independence will probably benefit on the finance front relative to other possible outcomes, some of the key items of the Tory manifesto are

    • Take everyone earning less than £12,500 pa out of Income Tax altogether 1

    Now on a technicality pension income doesn’t count as ‘earning’ although it’s subject to income tax, but the Tories probably don’t want to piss pensioners off either. The changes in personal allowance are quite transformational for the value of pension income, particularly when combined with Osborne’s changes. Before the Coalition, the personal allowance was £7,200 – with the best will in the world it’s probably a struggle to live well with an income below that even if you have paid your house off and gotten shot of the kids, whereas according to TFS £10,000 p.a. allows for relative luxuries including a serious consumption of alcohol which is just as well since it appears that pensioners are a bibulous bunch going on regular benders.

    I could wish for an end to the theatre of of passing laws to try and embed rises in taxes etc. The whole point of government is to pass laws, and to unmake them, so this is a damn fool waste of parliamentary time. As the old boy Yoda said, do or do not, there is no try. There’s no need for a faux legalistic framework, simply follow your manifesto and don’t put up the specific range of taxes you said you wouldn’t.It’s not like last time, Dave, where you could blame Nick for stopping you implementing Conservative manifesto promises. And let’s face it, you landed the mother of all sucker punches by getting Nick to renege on his no rise in tuition fees 2010 manifesto promise 😉 Nearly all voters have a dog in that race – either their children entering university or their grandchildren

    For those working and earning well I guess

    • we will raise the 40p Income Tax threshold to £50,000

    will be sort of welcome, though it’s not such a huge raise on what it was when I was working, unless it interacts with the notably raised personal allowance, in which case the combination is probably a decent lift on what it was five years ago.

    And yet the Ermine does wonder if we will get the 1980s back. Let’s have a song

    because on page 8 there is

    • We will find £12 billion from welfare savings

    Let’s hope that the theory is true that in the developed world we are all becoming more peaceful and less violent people because of the removal of tetraethyl lead from petrol. Caitlin Moran makes an interesting point in the Times (paywall, but free syndicated version in the Australian – Google is always your friend to read the Times for free – search the title 🙂 )

    Push the highest rate of tax for a few thousand people to 90 per cent and let the bin-men go on strike. Annoying but not fatal. If you are generally secure, a government can inconvenience you, make you poorer or make you angrier – it can, let’s be frank, be a massive, incompetent, depressing, maybe even immoral pain in the arse – but you, and your family, and your social circle will survive it. It is unlikely that the course of your life will be much different under one government than the next, however diverse their ideas.

    By way of contrast, what’s the worst – the very worst – that a government policy can do to you if you’re poor? Food-bank poor? Dependant-on-the- government poor? Well, everything. It can suddenly freeze, drop, or cancel your benefits – leaving you in the panic of unpayable bills and deciding which meals to skip.

    I have been lucky enough to have been in the first category, and now is time to tip a hat to Lady Luck, particularly as I came from a working class background, I grew up in a much much poorer Britain but perhaps a kinder one, and particularly one a bit more meritocratic. It’s not all luck – I didn’t spend money I hadn’t earned other than having a mortgage, which I did pay off, and I didn’t have children I couldn’t afford.

    We are all much, much richer now in material terms, but that is not enough – the contrast between us is widening 2it’s now much, much greater than they were when I was growing up. The rich are richer, strict rationalists will say the poor are richer than they used to be too, but humans are social animals who compare themselves against each other, so there be trouble in this materially better off paradise. And that, sadly, is part of the problem with how rich or poor we all feel, together with macro shifts in employment that are destroying the ability of the Average Joe to earn a living enough to buy a house and raise up to two children. It’s hard to establish what is really the cause of this – some blame the Establishment, some blame the inherent complexity and interconnectedness of the world and a loss of shared narratives, some blame peak oil and resource crunches 3, some blame the rich for ratcheting up the expectations of us all and pricing us out of the markets for fundamentals.  Take your pick, and of course remember the bearish argument always sounds smarter.

    I really hope that those £12bn of benefit cuts (can I nominate the £2bn welfare benefits for rich landowners be included in the roster of cuts) don’t give us another roll-call like the 1980s – Brixton, Toxteth, Southall, Lewisham, the Battle of Trafalgar Square. In a narrow sense I will probably be richer with the result of the elections, though there probably isn’t that much in it – I am not rich enough or poor enough to have been in great hazard from any likely government action. But I am fearful – of social unrest. As a student in London I shot grainy images of the soup kitchens under Charing Cross railway arches. That was not the Trussell Trust, but maybe it’s where it is going.

    Though I am in good health I am fearful of what will happen to the NHS in the next 30,40 years -I will need a larger emergency fund to deal with that, although at least the fear and loathing that is the US medical system is still some distance away.

    The Ermine will become richer soon…

    because I am getting older, specifically at some point I will pass the 55 mark and all of a sudden I will get hands on some of my own savings 4. Along with the saying that coffee is there to help me with the things I can do something about, red wine to help with the things I can’t, it is time to look to some of my values. I used to have a CAF card from years ago, but on that fateful day in Feb 2009 when I realised I was going to retire early I shut down all such activities. I have tried to reactivate this, because although I will become richer I will take every step not to pay tax 5. However, even as a non-taxpayer but an investor I do pay some tax, just not very much, in the form of dividend tax credits. There are in fact two great benefits of using a CAF card. The most specific one is that it makes it possible to take advantage of gift-aid and have it recorded and totted up in a way I can see, and presumably print off in evidence should I ever need to for HMRC, along with my dividend tax credits – I can track that I am not over-claiming.

    It should be noted that you can only set dividend tax credits in unwrapped accounts against Gift Aid – so ISAs don’t count. However, I have significant unwrapped holdings, and once I get hold of my own savings I will prioritise transferring SIPP money into ISA savings over unwinding capital gains allowances. So I will probably have enough unwrapped dividend tax credits for my relatively modest plans, at least until I become a taxpayer again as a pensioner.

    The second benefit is in some ways far greater. The trouble with charities nowadays is that they have adopted many of the traits of business, and in particular once they have your personal details they will pester you shitless with requests for more money, and if you’re unlucky, sell your details to some sort of do-gooding sucker’s list to other like minded sorts. I originally got a CAF card to avoid that malarkey. The Ermine has a simple principle when it comes to charities – unless there’s some sort of return, like with my RSPB membership 6 where it actually does something for me to reveal who I am then I want anonymity. Particularly if it’s a charity that deals with human problems, anonymity is king – don’t call me, I’ll call you, because of this selling of mugs lists.

     

    Notes:

    1. Conservative Manifesto 2015 page 5
    2. As an example, CEO pay was about 40 times that of the grunts (US study, Table 6), compared to over 200 times now
    3. I generally fall into this category, though I subscribe a little to the other camps too
    4. Yeah, I know, I don’t so much become richer but I get access to my own money
    5. I will run out of road on that once I draw my main pension, but I still have a few years of flying under the HMRC personal allowance to go
    6. where I get into RSPB reserves like Minsmere that normally charge for free or effectively prepaid with membership. Most RSPB reserves don’t charge.

    Representation without Taxation

    There’s an election in the offing in Blighty, as it’s been nearly five years since the last one. There’s much hue and cry, although to my eyes less separates the three main parties than there used to, much is about the details and less about the big picture. Some of the big picture stuff is changing, and it’s changing is some pretty rum ways.

    Many years ago, in the 1770s in the reign of good ‘ole King George there was a bunch of uppity upstarts in one of the colonies of the Empire that got all het up about paying tax without any say in how it got spent, and their rallying cry was no taxation without representation. They had a point, and the rest is the history of the United States of America, no longer a colony for over 200 years.

    Now one of the aims of becoming financially independent is of course to minimise taxes. One of the curious twists of fate in Britain is that it’s much easier to do that when you have money – you can influence how much tax you pay by using pensions and by controlling your income. As a wage slave I was always a PAYE employee, so the main option I used was using pensions, but the ways of controlling your income are much greater for the self-employed. In particular paying yourself in limited company dividends can be a lot more attractive that paying yourself in cash income.

    However, a more recent accelerating trend seems to be increasing the personal allowance, which lifts more and more people out of the tax system altogether. Of course they still pay consumption taxes like VAT; another curious twist of fate is that those chasing financial freedom probably pay less of this sort of tax simply because you probably buy less Consumer Stuff.

    From a personal point of view, that’s dandy. And yet I do wonder what will happen as this trend increases, and we have a larger and larger number of people represented in elections but who aren’t personally impacted by the grubby costs of all the jam today we would like. Some of this trend is simply the results of increasing inequality of income and wealth, of course – if the 1% own 99% of the wealth and most of the income then it isn’t surprising that most of the tax revenue comes from a smaller tax base. Although I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, I think the Torygraph’s Jeremy Warner makes an interesting case in his article about the tax and benefits system –

    it also makes the government dangerously reliant on those with increasingly less direct interest in what the money is actually spent on, the more so given the growing focus on pensions, health care and other welfare entitlements. The contributory principle in taxation has all but disappeared. By progressively raising the tax-free allowance, the Coalition has turbo-charged this process of disassociation between revenue providers and users.

    Obviously the Torygraph is there to bang the drum for Wealth, but his case is supported by Mona Chalabi’s brilliant Guardian article that shows that higher rate taxpayers contribute the vast majority of tax revenues, though they are only 15% of the taxpayers by number.

    Contrast this with the situation when the Ermine started work in 1982. Ignoring university infill summer jobs and suchlike, this was my first real job, a junior test engineer lining up electronic sensor heads. I was intrigued to find that after compensating for inflation it paid better than the average wage is now. However, the personal allowance in 1982/83 was shockingly low – £1565, so most of that salary was taxable, and the basic rate of income tax was 30% with an additional ~9% national insurance. The young Ermine paid nearly 40% tax/NI on a higher proportion of his salary at the beginning of this career than the 2006 higher-rate taxpaying Ermine.

    People in those days were much more involved in the costs side of the tax and spend equation than they are now – if the personal allowance goes up to £15,000, which of course I am all for, personally :), then a typical two-person household earning the average UK household income of £27,000 need not pay any tax at all if they both earn roughly half. The whole tax/spend/representation thing is very different to how it used to be. Perhaps the argument is that inequality has gone up and so this is inevitable.

    Inequality has risen since 1982

    Inequality has risen since 1982

    There’s some support for that argument in the change in GINI coefficient since 1982, unfortunately although the figures show inequality has increased I have no feel for how significant a shift from ~33% to ~37% actually is.

    Maybe representation without taxation is just what you get as power shifts from labour to capital. I figure it’s going to lead to some strange places at times. It’s easy to make the case to no taxation without representation. I’m not so sure the other way round won’t have difficult birth pangs of its own…

    Working for The Man post 45 is a risky business

    The Man is an unreliable dance parter, the hazard is in relying on working for The Man into middle age. The LA times has a mini series on the shrinking middle class. Unlike the British middle class whinathons and SAHM child benefistas and grizzling journalists that I’ve taken the piss out of earlier these guys are closer to the manufacturing industry end of things, and they seem less culpable than our lot with school fee ambitions for their progeny. All these guys seem to want is a house, two cars and a dog –  one of them sums up the feeling

    The promise that your kids would have a better life than you, with the house, the two cars, the dog and everything else, it’s gone.

    In fairness to the promise it  didn’t go away, it moved eastwards with globalisation. They were probably chuffed with how cheap DVD players and iPhones are these days… But it’s tough to feel good about that when it’s your end of the boat that’s sinking. Two things are common to all their stories:

    They relied on an employer in some form or another. The other is just like me, they failed to lift their eyes to the distant horizons, though they had fewer savings than I had.

    I don’t know the stats for the US, but in the UK most of us work for an employer. Fewer than 10% of us were self-employed when I started work in the early 1980s, rising to 15% in 2014.

    The Man seems to like ’em  25-35…

    You could could be lucky, get all the way to retirement working for him in one form or another. But The Man prefers younger models usually – they’re cheaper, probably more pliable, and in some industries like tech there’s the Zuckerberg doctrine of which more later. For occupations that need some skills he doesn’t like ’em too young, because he can’t see track record, but I’d say late twenties to mid thirties seems to be his favoured the age bracket, old rich favouring the young is not just a dating problem.

    There’s more change in technologies and ways of working now. Pretty much everything a young web designer starting now knows will be hopelessly obsolete in thirty years’ time, and this trend devalues and depreciates skills quicker than before. On the flipside things often improve faster now and we will probably be able to do more with less in those thirty years, whatever the equivalent of the Internet will be then. For consumers and users this isn’t all bad at all. There is a corollary of this.

    Your peak earnings are probably coming earlier in your career than for previous generations

    This is a terribly difficult one to tease out of the statistics. The ONS published this report that seemed to indicate this is true –

    1410_onswages

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