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

How important is a steady income flow to retirees?

When I was working, I got a steady income. As two decades rolled by The Firm shifted about 10% of pay towards an annual bonus predicated on a stupid bunch of metrics to reduce pensionable pay, I always treated such bonuses as windfalls for investment – primarily in reducing the mortgage or as ISA feed later on. So I lived off a steady income.

Reading Monevator’s post on investment trusts there is an assumption that retirees need a steady income flow. I’ve always made the same assumption, but on reflection I think this assumption should be challenged, because a retiree’s life is different to their working predecessor. Two things change in a big way:

No dependent children

Retirees don’t usually have dependent children under 18, though this assumption is probably more true for people coming up to retirement now that those planning it in 20 years time. In this country people tend to have children between 20 and 35, with a peak at 30 according to the ONS. People 1 had children earlier in the past, often in their 20s in the 1960s and 70s. It surprises me quite how nonchalant some people aiming for FI are about phasing this. For all the joyful Kodak moments etc, most people don’t deny that children are a big financial cost, and the sooner you get started the sooner you’re done with it – and indeed you will enjoy their company for longer too. A 25-year old having children will be 43 when the child reaches 18, a 35-year old will be 53. For the common two kids with two or three years gap that spans 46 to 56.

people are having children later in life (Jefferies, 2008, image linked to source PDF)

people are having children later in life (Jefferies, 2008, image linked to source PDF)

There seems to be a recent tendency for children to remain financially dependent beyond 18 2– if they are dependent through university these ages move to 46/49 and 56/59. The early starter will be more employable, while the late starter could be well finished at fifty and in trouble financially if they want to retire early. They will need more money compared to the early starters just at the start of early retirement, at a time when money is particularly short because they can’t use pension savings – the earliest call on a SIPP is drifting up to 57 from 55 now. There is of course the opposing case to be made that having children impacts one’s career early on so you might accumulate more by delaying. If you’re okay with slightly early retirement (60 and up) then this may work out well, as you are into SIPP territory then.

Lower general running costs including housing

One of the things that clobbered me in my twenties was moving so often from one rented place to another – the Guardian’s Jenn Ashworth griped about this but I also had 14 addresses between leaving home and this house. I preferred flat/house-sharing, but that gets less possible as time goes by, because your pals tend to pair up, work elsewhere and so on. The instability of young life is expensive – you can’t accumulate tools and kit and you are always having to adapt – one place has enough kitchen paraphernalia, another doesn’t, all this incidental Stuff adds up.

Then acquiring the first house – you need tools, you need to learn a modicum of DIY, everything is dear. I have all this stuff now – I don’t need new lawnmowers and saws and shit except to replace what’s worn out. With housing I’ve paid down my mortgage. The costs of running Ermine Towers is so much less than it used to be, because there’s little capital spend. Depreciation on a house is about 1% of the capital value or a bit more – if I factor in that about £2000 of utility falls off the house every year in terms of Stuff that Wants Fixing or upgrading it is about right, whereas renting it would cost £7000, though obviously the landlord would get to eat the £2000 operation and maintenance costs 3

When I left early I looked at what my pension was going to pay after working for 30 years for The Firm (I made nearly 24) which was half final salary and targeted that as The Number I had to make up. Half to 2/3 of salary was a typical assumption of DB pensions and presumably this came from some acknowledgement that retirees would not have some of the big costs of their working selves. Often the pension commencement lump sum was there to clear the mortgage, though along with the kids dragging on their coat-tails into what used to be considered adulthood is a knock-on trend for people to have bigger mortgages later in life.

Does all of  this income need to be steady?

Up until very recently there was a big assumption built into the UK pension system that a pension needed to be steady – hence you had to buy an annuity on retirement. In Broke, I read that this was the historical way the middle classes dealt with the income on retirement problem – the destitute poor ended up in the poorhouse.

Of my pension income I’ve lost about 25% by leaving work 8 years early. Unthinkingly, I fixated on a target income set by other people a long time ago. I lost my way in the details, and accepted two hidden assumptions, simply because that was how retirement was meant to look. One was that the amount needed to be half my final salary, and the other was that this needed to be a steady income.

And then I went on a crash course on how to eliminate unnecessary spending between 2009 and 2012 because I wanted to get out and never have to work again. Freedom was that much more valuable to me than consumer doodads and rushed experiences. It was tough, but in that experience I learned what mattered to me and what didn’t.

Discretionary spending

Discretionary spending. Nice, but not essential

I used the experience to drive waste out of my non-discretionary spending 4, but there has been a corollary – it skews the ratio of discretionary vs non-discretionary spending upwards. The former is more than half of the total. I have no income, so I am running down some cash savings. If I knocked out some of the discretionary spend I can easily meet TFS’s £10,000 a year target – this is largely because of the reasons given earlier – my running costs are lowered by fossil savings from my working life, particularly in terms of housing. I don’t have to pay rent and I don’t have to pay 32% tax and NI on earning the money to pay for the rent.

Despite this I am going to invest in delaying my pension to secure a more fixed income, front-running it with a 5 year SIPP. The 5 year term means I can use cash for that rather than equities, which then takes me to the thorny question of my equity investments. They were designed to make up the difference, but my HYP has already reached the target amount thrown off as dividends 5. The surrounding globally diversified passive index shell I can’t qualify in terms of productivity – it increases my networth but it contributes little to my investment income. Theoretically you can take income either by natural yield (the principle behind a HYP) or by selling off units from a fund that is giving capgain, but the problem is ‘how much of this damned volatile capgain may I spend this year’ which is a tough call to make.

Greybeard describes one way of smoothing the income across the business cycle. This is attractive to me, but since it turns out my equity holdings are entirely aimed at the Wants and not the Needs I wonder if I need the stability. Because I am child-free I have an option not open to those who want to leave money to their children, and that is of taking a joint annuity in 20 years time. Annuities get better value when you take them older because they’ll be paid for less time. This would address the stability problem, I would be in my seventies.

On the other hand, I might want to leave money I haven’t consumed to better the world somehow. There shifting to investment trusts in 15 to 20 years may make sense – it is a low-maintenance approach, something like luniversal’s basket of eight would work. Yes, I would be paying something for the management and the income smoothing across the business cycle. But not paying  as much as for an annuity, which destroys all the capital in the interests of a steady income.

These are not decisions I have to take now. In general, in finance, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best to keep options open. Things change over time, unforeseen shit happens.

what I'll see as I go out of the park to reach the library. Beats wrangling Excel for a few years IMO, not everything going wrong stays wrong...

what I saw as I went out of the park to reach the library. Beats wrangling Excel for a few years IMO, not everything that goes wrong stays wrong if you keep your options open…

After all, I wrote this before wandering through the park to go to the library to pick up a copy of Nate Silver’s the Signal and the Noise precisely because shit happened but it broke me out of a rut where I could have been spending the next six years at The Firm staring at screens and every quarter having to dream up meaningless crap and lies to keep the performance management system happy because the top brass decided to manage by numbers and wouldn’t trust my boss to know if I am doing a good job or not. After leaving, had I closed off other options drawing my pension early, I would have been sore when Osborne’s changes altered the landscape giving me the front-running opportunities I can take now. Options are good, as long as they don’t depreciate the asset too much.

Or split stable and volatile incomes – and spend electively going with the flow

There’s a case to be made that a retiree should look for lower volatility income for their needs, and let the wants go with the flow. On a 100% DC pension that might favour investment trusts (and later on an annuity) for the needs part of the portfolio, with a decent amount of headroom for the unforeseen rises – after all any retiree quitting now really ought to allow for an increase of about 10 times in the real cost of the oil price across a 30-year retirement, with a corresponding knock on cost in domestic fuel.

The wants part of your income could be invested with a higher equity exposure – anything from stockpicking to a world index tracker, and here you sell off units/shares each year to cover your next year’s elective spend. If the stock market goes through a rough patch then go on fewer holidays and more staycations, if it does well then salt away a bit to live larger in future and take more exotic holidays and eat out more. A retiree is in a great position to vary their wants spending according the the volatility of the stock market – to some extent you can also manage needs by shifting running costs along the Châteauneuf-du-Pape with caviar 6 <-> tap water and ramen axis.

This sort of thinking probably benefits the extreme early retiree – quitting the rat-race at 40 or mid-forties. If you can live with the volatility, and let’s face it most UK extreme early retirees had some connection with the finance industry so are probably better qualified for this than the likes of me, you can probably do better spending electively with the ebb and flow of the market than going for stability across the whole income stream.

Smooth the volatility with a 3 year cash pipeline

If you don’t like the investment trust option you can soften the ‘how much of this damned volatile capgain may I spend this year’ question by pipelining it through a multi-year cash buffer. The only indicator you have is the market value – tie your elective spend to x% of that 7 and one year you are partying in Sydney, the next you are in a tent in North Wales.

Lovely place, Wales, but I still don't want to have to use a tent to save money ;)

Lovely place, Wales, but I still don’t want to have to use a tent to save money ;)

I could use a three-year cash buffer and drip x% of the market value in at one end and spend a third of the buffer each year – that would make a three-year boxcar average which would probably soften the worst hits (bear markets tend to fall faster than bull markets crawl out from the wreckage, but three years is a long bear market. Just don’t mention Japan, okay?). That would be a lot of dead money if this were three years of my entire income but if it’s a part of it that’s not so bad.

Using Ishares ISF as a proxy for the FTSE100 a 3 year buffer gives me an easier ride in the year on year change

Illustration of buffering using Ishares ISF as a proxy for the FTSE100 a 3 year buffer gives me an easier ride in the year on year change – a 15% variation rather than 30%. Note ISF is not a total return fund, but the dividend yield is a lot less than the YoY variations. I have deflated the ISF share price by RPI relative to 2001

Does the three-year pipeline being in cash cost on average more than the investment trust premium? Say you start with £1,000,000 8 Your cash buffer, at three years of 4% SWR is £120,000

After all, let’s say on average equities give a real return of 5% and you lose 1% to the extra IT costs giving you a 4% p.a. real return with no cash buffer, or a 5% return on 88% of your capital, let’s be charitable to the Bank of England and say inflation is 2%, so you eat a 6% loss on the 4% going through your three-year buffer as it falls out the end. You therefore have to put 12.7% into that buffer, so in reality you’re getting 15% return on 87.3% of your capital.

Each year on average the ITs turn your £1M into 1,040,000 and you get to spend the 40,000. With the buffer, each year your index funds returning 5% p.a turn your £878,000 into £921,900, of which you now take 4.2% to top up your buffer, leaving you with £885,000. Although I confess it wasn’t the answer I expected, you’re better off using the cash buffer and keeping fees lower, as your capital slowly creeps up in real terms or you could spend a little more. Over two decades this ends up in a doubling of capital reserves taking the buffer route as opposed to the IT route.

Of course you can spend your retirement opening a bazillion current accounts and yomp the cash through the latest best paying account du jour to improve the return/lose less to inflation. Or pass the cash buffer through Zopa and a couple other P2P joints – don’t reinvest what your borrowers pay back but keep adding every year – this makes a pipeline well suited to the 3 year term and you will get your money from 3 years ago back, with interest.

Decumulation is a bastard to get my head round. Initially I am going to decumulate cash, and that isn’t particularly challenging. In the equity part I can take the natural yield of the HYP section easy enough. But working out what to do with the foreign index stuff I’ve used to diversify the HYP isn’t clear to me at all, so far the 3 year pipeline through 1/3  Zopa 1/3 some other P2P operation and 1/3 cash 3year term account is the best I can come up with for that. Fortunately I don’t have to start doing this on equity savings for another 5 years, some clarity may come out of the murk by then.

Notes:

  1. these people are women, the stats don’t track the guys
  2. The torygraph is pumping this up a little bit. In the 1970s many more children left school at 16 and could find decent jobs, it isn’t so surprising that more children were financially independent when they start earning at 16 rather than at 21 – 11% of school leavers went to university when I was 21 compared to about half now. It isn’t so much the dependent children at 25 that flabbergasts me, it is the late twenties to early thirties crowd
  3. These costs are shockingly lumpy – you need about five years of savings to smooth the costs. Presumably this afflicts BTL landlords too, particularly amateur landlords with just one BTL property – the statistics improve as the number of owned houses rises
  4. non-discretionary spending is on Needs, discretionary is on Wants
  5. This is because I won’t draw the pension early, so the difference to make up is less
  6. yeah, I know you’re a barbarian if you have Châteauneuf-du-Pape with caviar, but sod it, being your own person is one of the joys of getting older – if Jenny Joseph can wear purple and red then if you want to drink red wine with caviar just do it
  7. where x is your SWR of choice – typically 4 to 5%
  8. to make the numbers easier, for illustration. Consider paying an IFA if you start with that much – your time is worth more than mine

front-running a DB or State pension with a new Osborne style SIPP

I’ve written about this before, but it is getting close to doing it for me, hence a worked example. This is particularly useful for people with a legacy DB pension although the technique also works to smooth your income between retiring and getting the State pension, which is another defined benefit pension 1.

A DB pension is defined only at a particular retirement age, usually 60 or 65, or use this calculator in the case of the State Pension. With a company DB pension you can often retire earlier, but you will take an income hit called an actuarial reduction if you retire earlier than the scheme NRA. In my case the NRA for most of my DB pension is 60, I will eat the loss from ‘retiring five years early’ for the last three years accrued when it was shifted to 65.

When these schemes were designed in the 1970s and early 1980s there was more goodwill between companies and their workforce which was seen as more of an asset than now, the pension was part of aiming at staff retention, which is largely gone in a faster-moving, possibly more efficient and definitely more dog-eat-dog employer/employee relationship now 2. The actuarial reduction is rarely defined, and gives companies wiggle room to reduce their costs. As a result it’s usually best to take a DB pension at NRA, because it’s nailed down what you get. Individual circumstances can sometimes mean you’re better off to take it earlier, but that’s usually more to do with paying off debts with any tax-free lump sum.

What to do if you want to retire before NRA?

What you ideally want is a short pension to front-run the main pension until its NRA. This pays out between the date of your early retirement and the DB pension NRA. If you want to retire before 55 you also need to save enough money in an ISA or unwrapped to  pay your way to the earliest date you can draw pension savings, currently 55 but scheduled to rise to 57 and further – a gotcha to watch.

When I retired in 2012 a short pension wasn’t an option – if I had used a SIPP I wouldn’t have been able to draw it down, but all this has changed now. So the question is now how much can I save into a SIPP such that I can run the SIPP flat in the (for me) 5 years between getting hold of it and the pension NRA, without paying any tax. There’s not much mileage 3 in a basic rate taxpayer saving tax on the way into a SIPP only to pay tax on the way out, although any sort of higher rate taxpayer will gain a useful amount drawing down a SIPP even above the tax-free personal allowance up to the 40% tax threshold.

Put another way, I want to know how much can I put into a SIPP, such that I can withdraw the 25% tax-free lump sum up front and then a personal allowance worth each year, for (in my case) five years, from 55 to 60. With a NRA of 65 that would be 10 years. It’s reasonable to hold a five-year amount in cash, a ten-year amount would need to have some investment component for inflation protection – either some exposure to equities or some fixed interest bond-like stuff.

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Notes:

  1. a company DB pension is defined after each year you work for the company – they can change the terms for future accrual but not retrospectively for defined benefits already accrued. Whereas the State pension is defined by government and can be redefined – as has been the case recently
  2. until you get to the parasitic executive level, which seems to featherbed a ‘because we’re worth it’ layer of scum to loot shareholders more and more, because of course you have ‘pay the going rate’ to recruit top talent despite the fact that CEO pay used to be about 40 times that of the grunts (US study, Table 6), compared to over 200 times now and there’s been no notable increase in company profitability since then
  3. but there is some – even if you pay 20% tax on all of your SIPP income the 25% pension commencement lump sum saves you a quarter of the BR tax you’d otherwise have paid

of savings rates, metrics and goals

Over the last couple of years the UK personal finance blogosphere has expanded massively – it is a great thing to see many more people taking their financial future into their own hands, and asking themselves what they want out of the whole work-eat-play-sleep tradeoff offered in a post industrial consumer society. One of the great things is that there is more awareness of these options – and that there are choices to be made, at least for some of us.

Most PF bloggers seem to be in the accumulation stage, although there are a few who have passed across the event horizon to the other side like me – The Escape Artist for one, and I greatly enjoyed Living A FI’s post on crossing the Great Divide. My summary of the changes looking back on work to non-work is here. I feel different to most writers, not only because I am looking back from the other side, but also because I lack much of the laser-like analytical focus. It’s been just over five years since I started. I have changed, the world has changed, perhaps my work is done here.

Of measurement, and metrics, and goals

Many of us are quite analytical employing metrics and goals, tracking progress against these goals reviewing them and keeping score. In particular the notion of the savings ratio clearly works for most people. I’m a lazy barsteward and don’t do any of that. I had no idea what my savings ratio was – all I knew is it wanted to be as high as possible to shore up the defences against an earlier exit from The Firm than I had planned. I guess I took RIT’s £0 target and considered anything else a fail.

Metrics never worked for me steer savings. For starters the whole goals and metrics things was one of the things that really pissed me off towards the end of my working life, I have no desire to gamify my life, and I lose the big picture easily if I focus on the details. I have never forward budgeted like you are supposed to – I have always tried to satisfy the Micawber rule by looking in the rear-view mirror and the shape of the road behind me in what I have spent, and adjusting the direction to keep the line on the right side of the Micawber threshold.

The one exception is I track investment dividend income and capgain, benchmarking total return against VGLS100 and the FTAS, unitising every year. I probably need to rethink the benchmark as I am diversifying geographically. Maybe benchmark the HYP against VGLS100 and FTAS and the overall portfolio against some sort of passive world index fund.

It’s difficult to work back and see what it had been when I was working – it was probably in the order of 80% for the three years as I ran out. This was easier for me than most because as I had discharged my mortgage. In theory saving has now switched into reverse – I don’t have use of pension savings yet and I don’t use the proceeds from my ISA. And yet one thing puzzles me – I look at how dramatic the contributions of Saving Hard make to RIT’s networth and wonder what is different. It might be as simple as I am ten years older and therefore the stock of accumulated resources was higher than the flow of savings, but on the other hand I didn’t have huge savings when I started in 2009 because I had favoured paying down debt in the form of the mortgage. I don’t count the value of my house in my networth because its value is more income-like in the rent I don’t pay. Shona Sibary is the cautionary tale of considering home equity as networth and spending increases in it. If you want to make money from residential property do it on other people’s homes, as a BTL landlord. I don’t do BTL and I don’t eat the seedcorn, so res property doesn’t show on my networth chart.

I only have investment gain at the moment to carry things forward until first my SIPP gives me an income that I run down over five years and then my main pension comes in, paid at the normal NRA of 60 for The Firm for the vast majority of my time there.

Ermine networth

changes Ermine free cash and investments networth – ignoring house equity and any pension savings

The stock market has been on a tear pretty much from when I left work, I have been lucky with that. This would have been tough had things gone the other way – as I crawled from the crash-landing of my career it would have been difficult to look at a gradual networth decline and not extrapolate that to a feeling of general wipeout and fail 2.0. Personal Finance is as much about the personal as it is about finance. The numbers circumscribe what is possible, but what matters is how you feel about the numbers and where they are going. That’s not always acknowledged – this is symbolic, it is part of the myth 1 of one’s lifestream.

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

Albert Einstein William Bruce Cameron

About half of these assets are in cash – I would have reached the other side (getting to 55 to use pension income) before the cash ran out even if the market had wiped out. But it’s as much about how it feels as about how it is. I fought against the fears of a fall in networth as I retired, but in the end Lady Luck smiled upon me – governments pumped stupid amounts of money into inflating asset classes, the oil price fell holding the inflation that would normally create at bay for a few years. I was fortunate enough to have invested in the right things, though over the last few years you just had to show up in the market and be reasonably spread out across sectors. Of course I would like to say that I was a stupendously brilliant investor. But that would be bullshit. So thank you, madcap governments who pumped up asset prices with fistfuls of funny money – I feel better set to face the coming crash than I did in 2012 because I will soon have pension income and once again an answer to that Micawber fellow…

1505_this-too-shall-pass-bracelet

Some of the government activity that made things look better in the markets may turn out bad in the end – perhaps as the decades roll by the centre cannot hold and it will all fall apart in a doom and death spiral. But so far, despite endless prognostications that the world was going to end including some of my own it hasn’t. Maybe it will end with a series of whimpers rather than a bang – after all the middle class is slowly being destroyed in the West and the whole experience of work is getting increasingly insecure, ugly and marginal for many 2, although a small number are making hay. Indeed, apparently by taking my engineering skills out of the workforce, I am a hazard to the economy and destroying Britain’s productivity. 3 To which I can only say f**k that – if you want humans to work longer then stop being stupid with metrics – as Liz Ryan summarised

To hire talented people and hobble them with bureaucracy is the height of stupidity and poor management to boot.

In the long run this too shall pass, indeed. More and more jobs are being controlled, measured and rammed into a rigid structure. I rose four levels up the greasy pole at The Firm – when I started as a young pup I could authorise £500 spend before needing authorisation from the next level up, when I left as a greybeard I had to get authorisation from two levels up get a train ticket to London. The only correct response of humans to that sort of ossification of processes and systems is to get the hell out, and let the devil take the national productivity :) Work is supposed to sustain your life, not replace it.

I am an outlier – much less analytical, and I don’t subscribe to some common PF shibboleths

Maybe because I never worked in a management consultancy, I’m weak on the whole PDCA thing here. Philosophically I just don’t have the faith in in it when it is applied to complex and interactive systems, because it is hard to separate the variables properly, and also you are typically an observer rather than an active experimenter (unless you’re the Fed). As for the check part, the problem here is the dreadful uncertainty of some key variables – obsessing about the exact value of a variable with an inherently massive uncertainty leads to short-termism and massive over- and under- compensations. Lord Kelvin is all very well in his place but mistaking precision for accuracy can turn meagre knowledge into precisely incorrect beliefs.

I’m with Mr Fox here rather than the prickly one – read widely and cover much ground, and read lots of stuff I don’t believe in (the efficient market hypothesis) as well as echo chambers of my own predilections and prejudices. I should know why I disagree with something, what the counterarguments are and I should have the humility to accept that I may be currently believing something that’s wrong simply because sometimes I know jack shit and sometimes see things wrong. I try to  at least do common memes the honour of trying to understand their premises. Nevertheless, I’m big picture fellow rather than streetfighting the details. I leave it to others to determine the details worth fighting – lower fees, yes, all the way, but I still can’t get excited about trying to win a return on cash.

There are a number of common tenets in the PF community – passive investing, an ultimate ~4% SWR, the efficient market and some of the consequences of that hypothesis, that I don’t find common ground with. So be it, I have no desire to push what may simply be my ignorance onto others. So far I have survived six years of investing reasonably well. That’s still not a huge track record and it doesn’t span multiple market cycles. The job I had to do was much simpler and lower risk that for many – I wanted to top up my works pension to compensate for the missing eight years of working, which is easier than establishing a complete retirement fund for 30-40 years of working. I have largely done that now – the HYP pays enough dividends now to make up the shortfall, and being tax-free as ISA savings the target was 20% lower. I will half split future funds, half to build the HYP and half to built a more globally diversified index ETF section of the portfolio to insure against something currently unknown about the HYP philosophy going bad in the decades to come.

The trouble with networth is while financial stock and flow are related, they aren’t locked together, and the variation is called volatility, and afflicts the stock value – the income flow is much less volatile. It was with great difficulty that I finally broke out of the instinctive association of volatility with risk. At some point, to become a successful investor, you have to do the Dr Strangelove thing with volatility 4 and learn to love it. It gives you your opportunities as well as your challenges.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love volatility

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Volatility

Although volatility is sometimes associated with risk, it doesn’t stand proxy for it. For someone with a high proportion of capital in equities the volatility makes the savings rate/rundown rate unknowable over short time-scales of less than about five years, particularly if they are adding to their equity holdings.  I exchange some of my cash savings for equities rate limited by the annual ISA allowance. It is possible to derive some statistical estimates for the income from equities – after all the 4 or 5% SWR principle is derived from a Monte Carlo analysis of historical (US) data. However, the history of statistical analysis on equities is littered with some extremely big fails.

There’s an implication that I have a positive savings rate at the moment despite having no income, because the networth is still rising, though the value is volatile. It’s a bizarre carry-on that investment capital can increase at a faster rate than I spend it, I guess this was the thesis of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, and of course there should always be the memento mori that the stock market has been going absolutely bananas for three years and really cannot go on like that. It’s not like the world has suddenly become free of financial hazard. Presumably it would also be possible for a working saver towards FI to have a negative savings rate even if he were saving as much as he could, in the event that his investment capital were high enough for a stock market crash to diminish his networth faster than he is saving.

This seems to be a problem with some of the common PF metrics – they start to fail you and become noisy and erratic as you approach the destination, because of the uncertainty of the value of equities. The rising uncertainty of the value can be seen as the increasing erratic trace of my networth as time goes by. This is characteristic of any equity based DC pension savings – and mine are buffered by about half the holding in cash.

There will be two more jumps in the networth when my DC pension savings appear in the total – one when I get to 55 and the other when I get to 60. After that the fossil savings from my working life will be mined out, other than my pension after 60 which is deferred pay, a flow not a stock. The implication of that networth chart is that once I get these extra funds/income I will be underspending. That’s what happens when you shoot the demon of consumerism. There are many people who fixate on replicating their income when they were working, and want to be able to buy a new car every three years etc because that’s what a prosperous middle class lifestyle looks like, and good luck to them. My income will be less than when I was working, though it is possible that my disposable income will be a little bit more. The working me put a lot of money into the mortgage, and a lot into spending on rubbish, and the focus needed to get out in three years still serves me. The lesson stuck – consumerism involves a lot of spending that doesn’t necessarily lead to enhanced quality of life. One of the metrics the consumer sucker uses is comparing their Stuff and lifestyle with other peoples Stuff and lifestyles, rather than their own requirements. Busting out the TV and other instruments of consumer mind control like Facebook and social media in general help shift the balance closer to following my own needs and wants rather than those of the admen.

Notes:

  1. myth as in psychological legend, not the alternative usage myth as in fictitious
  2. Lousy and Lovely Jobs: the Rising Polarization of Work in Britain, Maarten Goos, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE
  3. there seems to be much head-scratching as to why Britain’s productivity is falling, and early retirement isn’t fingered by Peston, for example, who seems to point to governments spiking the guns fired by Schumpeterian creative destruction
  4. hopefully without the drastic ending!

New free OU course on Managing My Investments

This course may be of interest to readers,

https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/managing-my-investments/

Or not, but it’s free and apparently from the OU. I’ve never been educated into matters financial other than by my parents and by that fine Monevator fellow so I figured I’d take it for a spin.

1505_learn

The ethical investment conundrum

As an example of living the FI principle, every so often people ask me “what is this investing thing you speak of – isn’t it all just a grand casino”. And I point ’em right over to that Monevator fellow who has done most of the hard work, specifically to the passive investing section. Although for a few pints I will talk the specifics of their situations I try and emphasise it’s all ideas and DYOR and all that – everybody is different ,in philosophy, temperament, risk tolerance and lifestyle. However, there are some things people often miss – a few people at The Firm were pointed at investigating AVCs and some others to consider a SIPP. Pointing people at passive investing is pretty much like buying IBM was in the old days – nobody gets fired for it, though it’s curiously passionless at times.

And then every so often somebody comes along and throws you a curve-ball – in this case it is Mrs Ermine, who is looking at pension investing, and to date the general answer has been something like Vanguard Lifestrategy 100 – do so for 20 years and you’d expect to get about the amount you put in monthly back. This is because of the 5% SWR limit and ignoring compounding, as a rule of thumb it’ll do. This is part of her pension savings, Mrs Ermine is far more entrepreneurial that I am so some of the assumptions one makes for wage slaves don’t really apply.

Unlike myself, Mrs Ermine thinks about the wider issues and comes to the conclusion that she wants to invest ethically. This is totally outside my ken. First thoughts are that it obviously reduces the action space somewhat and therefore will intuitively underperform. It also immediately debars you from index funds; you’re becoming an active investor if you decide that fossil fuels are a no-go area, f’rinstance, along with the whole Guardian thing. I know some other PF bloggers have given this some thought – Keeper of the Cauldron on fossil fuels and on wider ethical considerations here. The search for ethical solutions seems to take Cerridwen into racy territory – Abundance crowdfunding strikes me as having a risk profile way ahead of publicly quoted equities and terribly difficult for members of the public to qualify the risk balances.

A last look at our unscarred friendly skies before flight resume

A last look at our unscarred friendly skies in April 2010 before flight resume

Now I have to admit that the cynical me doesn’t see a world of people deciding to leave fossil fuels in the ground unless something cheaper and hopefully less polluting comes along. I only have to see the 4x4s on the school run, listen to the increasing racket of jets in the sky and look at the concomitant scarring of our evenings with vapour trails and how quickly no third Heathrow runway at the start of the Coalition became a firm proposal for one to think that this is the wrong side of the bet, and that’s without the increasing power drain of IT since you’ll only prise smartphones from the cold, dead hands of the addicted consumers. I’d be surprised if this happens in my lifetime, and to be honest, if it does, I think all our investments are going to be written off in such a zero-growth or negative growth world. Capitalism needs growth like a vampire needs fresh virgin blood. It’s perfectly possible to postulate successful zero or low-growth economies, and indeed we seem to be going ex-growth as it is, but they don’t look like industrial consumerism, and they don’t have endless smartphones, city breaks and foreign holidays in them for most people.

But this isn’t my fight. To invest ethically you have to decide either what is ethical, or conversely what isn’t. At the moment Mrs Ermine is in the latter camp – fossil fuels and industrial agriculture are what she wishes to avoid. It’s probably not exhaustive – indeed one of the issues of ethical anything is that it’s fundamentally difficult to be a blameless consumer if you chase anything to its logical conclusion. One should probably add CAFOs to the list, so Smithfield Foods probably fall into the beyond the pale category as well.

An Ethical Investor is an Active Investor?

To my eyes the two go together, although I’d like to hear different. By definition you’re selecting a subset of the investable universe. Now one option would be to be a stock picker, but that’s probably not how Mrs Ermine wants to spend her time, so it’s probably along the lines of this list of ethical funds. Now I don’t do funds unless they’re index funds and the history of non-index funds isn’t illustrious. I observe that Vanguard do offer a couple of socially responsible index screened funds in this list but again, what does that mean? Are there options for ethical investment trusts?

The investment return is low enough as it is – that 4-5% real return hasn’t got much fat in it. To combine active investment and artificially reducing the investment universe seems to be a tough headwind to fly into. Even in the ITs – take Impax Environmental f’rinstance – over the last 5 years the improvement in NAV seems to have been buried in the -12% discount to NAV.

The whole thing does my head in and I have no idea where one would start. The Ermine, with the libertarian social bias is not going to be an expert in this sort of thing but hopefully some readers have given this some thought. Am I missing any rich seams of knowledge or obvious goto places for ethical investment at low cost?

Rust never sleeps – 20% inflation in five years

In March 2010 I wanted to gift my future self a regular income, and came up with a great way of doing it. Every month I would buy a three-year NS&I inflation-linked savings certificate of £500, in three year’s time I would have a three-year steady income of £500 a month. Ideally that would have been more, but I was saving in pension AVCs and  filling ISAs at the same time.

I only managed to do that twice before NS&I ILSCs disappeared like summer rain – when they briefly reappeared I hit ’em straight between the eyes with the full £15k. The low-maintenance high-security non-taxable inflation-proofing of NS&I is too valuable to waste. These NS&I savings I consider strategic reserves against the unexpected. Because the value isn’t destroyed by inflation these savings are an in emergency break glass sort of thing to the extent that I will borrow money for short-term requirements rather than break into this, because once they’re gone there’s nothing else available that will preserve liquid cash across the years without stupendous amounts of faff. I don’t expect much of cash, I’d just like to find the same amount of value when I come back for it rather than have it melt into the ground.

Rust never sleeps, they say, but it came as a surprise to me to receive this statement, on a rolled over echo of that first £500

photoshopped to ice the details

photoshopped to ice the personal details

In only five years 20% of the value of that cash has quietly died in the night; it now takes £600 to represent the same value that £500 did in 2010. (Update – Bruce correctly pointed out I missed that ILSCs offered 1% over inflation for the first three years!) It summarises everything that’s wrong with cash – a great medium of exchange but a dreadful store of value. NS&I ILSCs fix the store of value problem, but since debasing the currency is how promises are paid for they aren’t sold any more.

 

how Britain fell back in love with borrowing

In the Ermine world, people clearing their unsecured debts sounds like A Good Thing in general, after all, when I was growing up there was no unsecured personal debt 1 and people survived, the sun rose each day and they seemed to have fewer financial crises… In the Through the Looking Glass world we have now that’s all bunk. Apparently, more unsecured borrowing is a good-news story. Let’s hear it from PriceWaterhouseCoopers

Just as daffodils herald the beginning of Spring, it’s a sure sign that people are feeling better about their economic prospects when they dust off their credit cards. […]

In the five years after 2008 people worked hard to reduce their debts and managed to clear almost a quarter of their unsecured borrowing. But the latest report shows a sudden and sharp return of unsecured lending

[…] In cash terms, that’s more than ever before and a reflection that many people feel more confident about their finances than they have in a while.

Matthew’s Moronic Money Muppetry

On the radio I hear such a stupendously moronic statement from a mouth-breather that makes me  ask WTF is going on here? Did I stick shift somewhere and end up on a different planet rather than a different lane?

The man-child Matthew tells us something at 16:44 that informed me that the fight is futile, the good guys lost and the bad guys won.

Q: Are you spending money you don’t have:

Err, yes, people do these days, things are expensive, you have big outgoings, …Christmas, I put things on credit card… then you get into a cycle of just paying the minimum amount…transfer the balance again…hopefully that won’t run out

I definitely use credit cards to pay for major times like …Christmas… I’ll spread that over the year, won’t be gone by the end of the year…you wanna have a good time, wanna have nice food and things…it’s important for me to keep a good credit score

Q: when was the last time you were credit free?

6 or 7 years ago

Q: is there any end in sight?

when those interest-free offers run out, and I do pay interest on some things; when that all comes on top of me I will eventually get a loan, and then it will stop..until then it works for me.

Fundamentally my lifestyle revolves around exceeding my income and I think that’s a normal thing

There are times that you weep for all the previous life-forms that struggled their way across the geological aeons, the fish that left the sea, and indeed our own human forebears who endured desperate privation to produce the pinnacle of wisdom delivered by Matthew encapsulated in

Fundamentally my lifestyle revolves around exceeding my income and I think that’s a normal thing

Live intentionally, Matthew. Christmas should be about gratitude, not spending to make corporations rich

Go on Matthew

Go on Matthew. In the unthinking stir-fry that occupies that cranium of yours, ever look at things like this and ask yourself if there’s more to life that rolling over your Christmas consumer debt from year to year?

Now I know you’re not a fellow who’s given to deep thought on the meaning of life and all that jazz, but Matthew, has it ever occurred to you that the purpose of your life on this sparkling blue planet may not be totally summed up in doing as you’re told and buying shit you can’t afford to make other people rich? Let’s take a look at that Christmas thang, for starters. What is Christmas? Why is it there? Ever thought about that, y’know – why do you want to have a good time, drink yourself stupid on wifebeater and pig out? Let me tell you a story

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Notes:

  1. this isn’t strictly true, there were ways and means but usually associated with the threat of violence for defaulters. What we know as consumer credit to buy Stuff was regulated hire purchase secured on the goods

Diversifying an HYP with a global index

Most PF savers have a stock market accumulation horizon measured in tens of years. I don’t – I realised I was going to take the expressway out of the world of work because otherwise it would drive me round the bend. I was James, not Pat, in this story of how to be a wage slave and play the game, so I did the celibate monk in a brothel thing, saved up shedloads of money and jumped out of the runaway vehicle of my erstwhile career and let it crash.

I was dealt a kind hand by the stock market. You didn’t have to be smart in 2009 to do well out of the stock market. You had to get in it, despite everything saying Wrong Way; it wasn’t easy.  I started building a HYP in my ISA in the eye of the storm that was simultaneously terminating my career. On a 4% SWR on my HYP investment capital I can make up the damage done to my pension from quitting early and losing a third of my pension contributions 1. From 55 which is not so far now I can use a short SIPP to give me a DC pension for five years before drawing my main pension at the NRA for The Firm, so no actuarial reduction for 90% of it.

Nothing comes for free – I had little fun in the last three years of working, and I’ve run down some separate cash for the last two and a half years. Later this year I am probably ready to re-enter the middle class income fray, but hopefully without pissing away my income/wealth on the sort of garbage I used to do when working.  I will spend more, but not at wage slave me levels. There is an interesting perspective from one of the Telegraph’s interviewees about realising a pension that is adequate. I shall never be rich or poor, assuming, of course, that society survives reasonably intact. War and hyperinflation can change that in the blink of an eye, of course…

The Coffee Can portfolio and HYP Rule #1 – do not sell

I started off with a HYP because my experience of stocks have shown me  I am a rotten seller – jumpy and fearful, I will bail too early. With an HYP one of the tenets is you don’t have to do that. Over the years I’ve also learned how to benchmark a portfolio. Unitise the sucker – compared to XIRR and all sorts of other ways unitisation is simple, it’s the basis of how mutual funds work except you are the mutual fund manager and, although I don’t decumulate at the moment, it can track how well you are doing as a manager even through decumulation. The instructions are here. My aim is to beat VGLS100, over my investment period and with what I’ve put in over time, because that’s probably what I’d have bought otherwise. So far I’ve done fine. And I don’t have to sell units to derive the 4% SWR income.

The Ermine is a capricious investor, many would say irrational. I aim to buy in bear markets and when people are rioting in search of decent trainers at a knockdown price (revisionist alternative view that this was a correct response to Not Having Stuff here) and things that people hate. I try and take breaks in times like the last couple of years, just buying my own stuff back tax-wrapped instead of unwrapped. It’s a messy approach. Observing that most of the behavioural biases that clobber my returns are usually on the selling side and taking that out probably helped me.

bunch of contract notes from two years of my dotcom days

Two years of my dotcom days. I have a natural tendency to churn ;)

The Do Not Sell was inspired when I read Robert Kirby’s The Coffee Can Portfolio from 1984 2. That sings to me because my errors were in churning, and here was a way to stop that. I like the standfirst

You can make more money being passively active than actively passive

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Notes:

  1. Because of crafty changes made by The Firm to the pension scheme that last third of my working life wasn’t worth a third of the accrual, reducing the amount I had to catch up
  2. the formal reference is DOI: 10.3905/jpm.1984.408988 though I am not educated enough to know what the hell to do with that. A Google Search will be a profitable source of PDFs if you want to read the whole thing

Why doesn’t the middle class understand how bad their situation is?

Matthew – Assets £700k, age 42, two children, SAHM, GSOH. Wants to meet lifetime income of 40k in 2015 terms to enjoy the rest of his life

So he’s in the plush City offices of independent financial advisers Ermine, Ermine and Ermine Ltd and there’s a gimlet-eyed white mustelid  sitting behind a big leather desk with oak-panelled walls and one of those green banker’s lamps on it.

Good grief, Matthew. According to the Trinity study a 4% SWR you will get an income of £700,000 /25 = £28,000 1. That’s not that far short of £40,000, so ease off on the consumerism by about 25%, send that SAHM out to work – those kids are 13 and 15 FFS, and then you can have your well earned break. Next!

Maybe not…

Let this book tell you a story about the middle classes, Matthew

It never fails to surprise me how much the so called middle classes haven’t realised just how deep the shit is that they’re in. Matthew is thinking along the right lines – he’s not that far away from the dreaded 45 so he doesn’t want to rely on making shitloads of money as he was. But there are some unfriendly trends happening, which he wants to think about. He could do worse that listen to the story this book I’ve been reading tells him.

Broke

Broke

The first part of the story is told by the physical book and how it came into my possession. It is clearly a fairly new library book – the Ermine is all for library books, because I can educate, inform and entertain myself for free, and not only that, but I don’t have the problem of storing clutter after I’ve read it. And I borrowed this from Suffolk libraries.

I had to pay £1 for that, because Suffolk Libraries have stopped buying books to a large extent because of cuts. They have been resourceful, and struck a deal with neighbouring county Cambridge. The computer systems can search across both book collections, but as a Suffolk resident I have to pay £1 to borrow from the Cambridge holdings. Now I don’t mind, in the end I can afford to pay the odd £1 to read a book,  but it’s a tiny metaphor for where things are going. One of the reasons Suffolk council had no money is they pay shitloads to their chief executives, step forward Andrea Hill paid £200k to outsource everything, including the libraries. Eventually the charge will rise until it meets the price of alternatives like a Kindle book/secondhand copies on Amazon and then the outsourced operation will go bust. I am pleased to observe we now pay only £150,000 for the head honcho of the council Deborah Cadman, and intrigued by the implied nepotism of her husband getting the job she vacated at St Edmundsbury council. Jobs for the boys, eh? I’m sure it was all above board, and I’m still puzzled why it costs more to run Suffolk than that Cameron chap costs to run the country.

In itself the degradation of the library service isn’t the sort of thing that will impact Matthew’s finances, but it is a harbinger of tougher times to come. There is another service that is degrading which most of us get to use sometime. The same outsourceing thinking is applied to the NHS as decribed in “Serco grapples with watershed [Suffolk] NHS contract” [and makes a pig’s ear of it]. I would be very surprised if in 10 years time the NHS were free at the point of use, or so degraded that if you were used to the sort of lifestyle Matthew were used to you wouldn’t want to wait. Some of my excessively large emergency fund is set against that sort of thing – and I am so far in good health for my age, but I wouldn’t want to wait months for a hip operation were that necessary in 10 years time, so I would pay for that sort of thing privately (it’s about £12,000). There are some things you can’t buy your way out of at any reasonable price; in the end you gotta go some time and you may be better off saving the money and letting it go.

I am about a decade older than you, Matthew, so I will die 10 years earlier. You will experience more of this erosion of public services, so you at least need to think about how you are going to buy your way out of it. Not all of your money is going to go on skiing, holidays and paying your children through university. Some of it will go on health insurance. Hopefully Britain will adopt the German or French method of co-payment rather than the ghastly US system which is fantastic for the rich with the best medical care in the world, but keeps frightened wage-slaves pliant to The Man in fear of losing their health insurance. I believe the ‘free at the point of use’ is part of the problem – there should be a small, flat charge for visiting a doctor, similar to the €23 cost for this in France.

The rich have always lived longer, on average, than the poor. It’s not stupendously surprising, but Matthew would be unwise to ignore the straws in the wind. Like me, but more so 2, he is on the way down, not up in this fight against the 1%. And that’s just the story told by the library charge, the contents of the book will make you blanch, Matthew.

Let us purview the rest of your situation. Ah, children, it’s the way the modern world really gets to the middle classes. On the upside, there are only two, which is good. You need to be rich or poor to afford more these days, let’s hear it for poster child Shona and the trouble her four got her into. The time will soon come when the middle classes will only be able to afford one child if they want to keep it in the lifestyle they believe they are entitled to. Let us assume that that nice man Mr Miliband gets in, so your eldest goes to university with £6000 p.a. fees, and let us assume a student needs £4000 p.a. for accommodation and beer these days, making a nice round figure of £30,000 for a standard three year course. You need to find twice that because you have two children, which in my book is a knock of £60k, 10% of your capital assets

The question, of course, has to be is this a useful allocation of capital? After all, invest it and it’s an instant boost of £1200 a year for her for life, sort of inflation protected. It would be a useful deposit on a house, outside London. You have to set this against the tax-like version of student loans  – see MSE’s discourse on this which derisks the financial case if they take the loans. Bearing in mind that there are the twin massive forces of automation and globalisation tearing middle-class jobs out of the economy, there’s a strong case to be made that university is an unaffordable luxury – basically your children will be less able to build wealth by earning money across their lifetime particularly if they want the lifestyle you had, and inherited wealth is possibly much more important. So if if you want to make sure your children have a decent future then:

  • Don’t have too many, because it splits your estate
  • Have them late, because then they will get the inheritance earlier in their lives, (you will die when they are younger) That also helps damage the career of the primary caregiver less.
  • Teach them the values of grit and determination
  • Don’t autopilot on university. A degree was much more valuable in the 1960s and 1970s when <11% of people went, as opposed to 50%. Looking at some of the illogical thinking, rotten grammar and mush written by university-trained intern journalists now compared to the school-leaver journos of yesteryear the Flynn effect is obviously too slow to have made four times as many people academic in the last couple of generations. We’ve simply lowered the bar, which is a git because now employers can’t tell the bright from the dim bulbs and everybody has to pay because there are five times as many students as there were when the taxpayer supported them through university. I personally would like to see the taxpayer support students through university again, but I’d like to see a much lower percentage go, no more than 15% with full grants for tuition. If you can’t pass the exams, well, I guess there’s nothing wrong in paying for a vanity degree…

Anyway, on to other things

Rule 1 on page 1 of the book of personal finance is know thyself. Without self-knowledge you are doomed

Hmm, so you realise you are “quite risk‑averse”, do you, Matthew? Absolutely nothing wrong in that, and indeed holding nearly half a million in cash would seem to support the assertion. I thought I was mad holding more cash than property, but I tip my hat to your good self. And yet on the other hand

“waiting for a stock markets crash – after which I would dive in”

Matthew, me old mate, do you have any idea of just how hard that is to do? I did it in 2009, and I had to fight the primitive lizard-brain every inch of the way. Do you know what it feels like to lob cash into a diving market and see yourself lose 25% of it in the next few weeks, and do you know how you have to practically seize one hand with the other to stop selling back out because every part of everything is telling you wrong way, step back, run for the hills, Gateway to Hell and total oblivion this way?

That is just not something risk-averse people do. Know thyself. Risk averse people need to be sated with the general long-term lift of the market over many years, which is sort of 5% real though there’s good reason to think it may be a bit lower. Passive, index investing is what you need. Spend the time you save on otherwise obsessing about money with your kids, Matthew, the days are long but the years are short. You’ve already missed five-sixths of your eldest daughter’s childhood and two-thirds of the youngest…

Mr and Mrs Ramsden also want to invest some of the capital in a business venture together. He’s thought about setting up an auction house but Mrs Ramsden plans a tea room.

People in business are not characteristically risk-averse. Else they wouldn’t do it, given the ghastly odds of 50% failure in the first two years, more so in the restaurant biz. Cripes…

There’s hope. A word in your shell-like – cut spending

Unlike some of the other wannabee early retirees, with a bit of  cutting his cloth to match his resources Matthew could do well. He needs to lose that £40k figure – he’s just not that rich. Half of it, however, he do do without breaking a sweat. If he really has had the experience of

20 years of constantly working hundreds of miles away from his family

he is probably used to a high-spending lifestyle while away, all on expenses and making up for the rotten nature of that sort of thing. For a few years I worked on a project that involved international travel about once a month, and that was about right, particularly as I was single at the time so I could use the travel opportunities. But even then, all the married colleagues with kids were frazzled and hated it and were always rushing back. If you are doing much more of that you spend loads of money because, fundamentally, you are bored in the downtime – one hotel room looks pretty much like another, you’re too frazzled from long days to do much tourism  and you are looking forward to the weekend. That’s why such jobs pay well, because they’re a little bit shit in the lifestyle department.

There’s probably room to spend less but live more. I think he can do it. But it’s not a financial makeover he needs. It’s a lifestyle makeover – a what am I doing, what really matters to me, what are the risks and opportunities ahead drains-up. It’s not surprising he wants to downshift after that. He could also do with harmonising these life goals with his wife – after all in five years his children will be adults. If he and his wife want that £40k then maybe they could consider working at a low level, though the way this is going a 20 year gap it’s not going to look good on his wife’s CV.

As for those IFAs –

Okay, they agree with the general principles of the Ermine IFA partnership of cynical mustelids. I found the second IFA to be much more on the mark with the fundamental  issues. Matthew’s primary problem is not that he hasn’t got enough money, it is that he doesn’t know himself, so he doesn’t know what he wants. He knows what he doesn’t want, but ‘anything but this’ is a dangerous way to map your path. You’ll struggle in getting from London to Scotland just knowing you need to get out of London. You might end up in Bognor Regis or the Slough Trading estate.

Word in your shell-like Matthew, one of the aims of life is to know yourself  else you’ll always be a stranger in a pathless land. Some of what he thinks about himself is inconsistent and incompatible. These are not financial conundrums, and some aren’t even solvable by money. There is serious tension between

  • risk averse : buying in a bear market and/or starting a business
  • seeing more of his kids: starting a business
  • featherbedding his kids: retiring early

Either way, the odds are that his children won’t have the lifestyle he or in particular his wife had. Broke is a long-form story of how that got to be that way. The short form is that the 1% are eating their lunch, they have the firepower and the deep pockets. The halcyon days of the middle classes were when there was limited mobility of capital and labour, and automation hadn’t greatly dented the need for people in running companies and administering things. University for those kids is a chimera  – the vet may need it, and at least the job isn’t outsourceable which is very wise even if she needs 4 years at university but the “I dunno” is case unproven. The world is changing, and it’s not favouring their future in a First World country. Now if they were Indian, or possibly African, the hope of middle class parents might be more likely to be fulfilled.

It’s an interesting book, Broke. There be trouble up ahead for people with certain kinds of aspirations… Matthew could do worse than read it.

One fair question to ask is how much of that wedge is inherited, since the BTL he finds such a PITA to run was his Gran’s flat. I’ve charitably made the assumption he’s earned/saved it. If it is inherited, you need very specific and careful skills. The middle class is going to need to learm the characteristics of old money, and if this is ancestral wealth then it’s not his to spend – it is fossil wealth that should be husbanded across the years to benefit his dynastic line, if he wants his children to remain in the middle class. Old money never eats it’s seedcorn.

“never spend your principal 3

That’s why it’s old money 😉 You can spend the income it throws off, but the aristocracy holds its capital in trust for its children. Preferably in assets like agricultural land 4, where old money has negotiated tax-free status for its ancestral wealth.

 

Notes:

  1. The Trinity study was on US stocks and for a 30 year drawdown. Matthew is younger so there are good reasons to suspect he may need more
  2. because he is younger and will see more of the end-game
  3. The child-free can be more relaxed on this
  4. obviously they don’t get their hands dirty farming their estates, they get contract farmers to do that
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