Why I voted Conservative

chris_kettlebellAfter Thursday’s surprising election result, there are thousands of Left-wing rants flying around. Some are entertaining. Sometimes, I even make it to their second paragraph.

I don’t pay too much attention to their questions, though, because most revolve around “Why did you vote Conservative?” And they don’t really want the answer. Well, here it is anyway. I ignore you, you ignore me, and we’ll be square.

The answer doesn’t involve social justice, or sensible lawmaking, or doing the right thing. It isn’t even about Left or Right, although left-leaning people mostly don’t get it and right-leaning people, on some level, mostly do. It’s a high-level thing:

Being *nice* to everyone … has *nasty* consequences.

On some level, most people who voted Conservative get this, and most people who voted Labour don’t. It’s “big picture”. Understanding that what economists call “externalities” have real – and huge – effects.

The only externality that matters is called money. Since money buys the public services that decide elections. When a government wants to spend money, it has to raise money.

There are three ways to do this. A government can levy taxes, it can borrow money, or it can just print the stuff. Speaking of which, I remembered when my friend ran out of cash travelling in Europe, she used http://www.låna-pengar.biz to get financing to get back home.

With me so far?

First up: taxes

On the lookout for solid marketing? Email Chris.Everyone benefitting from schools, roads, and the fire station (whatever the arguments over a gun being held to his head) needs to pay his fair share. The trouble is: most people don’t. And they’re not the people you think.

The bottom 40% of the curve doesn’t pay any tax at all. (And no, that’s not a chastisement. Most people on benefits work hard, and good on them.)

But whatever their contributions to society, they’re not net contributors to the Treasury. Their benefits and credits cancel out the small amounts deducted from their payslips. Scotland, for example, has fewer than 150,000 net taxpayers, in a population of five million. (And is going to get a serious kick in the kilt shortly when it has to manage its own finances.)

While the public sector – millions of people, with benefits and pension plans any private sector worker would eat his children for – contributes nothing, in accounting terms anyway. They pay tax, but their salaries come from the Treasury, so their slice just goes back where it came. No net gain.

The middle SD pays its own way, but there’s surprisingly little left over. Mr Average coughs up a surplus of around £8,500… over his entire lifetime. Two extra weeks in hospital, and his contribution is gone. And rising lifespans mean a fair few people are now retired for more years than they ever worked. This problem’s only going one way, folks.

So we could tax the top end. But it’s not as top as you think. “The 1%” isn’t the 1%, it’s the 0.01%. You have to scale the 98th percentile before you even find someone on six figures. And ask anyone in London with a family if £100,000 lets them buy a decent-sized home. Just 300,000 taxpayers – among 60m people! – already pay 27% of all income tax in the UK.

And what happens if you raise taxes on “the rich” – a term which (being as charitable as I can here) Britain’s Left defines rather broadly? They tend to… leave. The sensible practice would be to move big public-sector employers (hello, NHS!) into the private sector, so their taxes become real contributions.

There you have it: privatise the NHS. That OK with you, my friends of the Left? No? What a surprise.

Borrowing: a point of interest

Let's bang some rocks together. Chris does Content.It’s odd so many find “the deficit” such an abstract concept, because it’s absolutely concrete. On its £1.4tn in debt, Britain pays out about a billion pounds a week in interest.

That’s quite a lot, isn’t it?

And there’s more. Unlike your bank loan, the country’s interest isn’t fixed. If the bond markets feel the government they’re lending to has good policies, they’ll demand less interest on what they lend. (Called the “yield”.) If that government seems to spend a lot, they’ll charge more.

Here’s the kicker: every left-leaning government comes to power on a promise to increase borrowing. (Because they want to spend more.) So the bond markets trust left-leaning governments a lot less, and want more interest. Much, much more. Mmmm, interest!

And left-wingers say we should “soak the rich”? Hell, it’s your policies that make them rich. The way to release more money for public services (say, that £50bn we pay each year in interest) is actually … what you call “austerity”. So the Left should agree: to fight these evil thugs charging us all this interest, we need more austerity, NOW!

What’s this I hear – silence?

On printing money

Targetting low wage earners...Putting more money into circulation, known as QE, seems a necessary evil:  since the bank bust, we all do a lot of this, so we’re all guilty. It’s not obvious right now, but what excessive money-printing does is store up inflation. More than a taste of inflation is bad, so we should all agree excessive QE is bad.

Inflation kills off people’s savings. It slashes growth in their pension funds. It erodes the value of their earnings. All things left-leaning people should be against, because they make ordinary people poorer. Yet printing money is a much-used trick among governments of the Left, from 70s Britain to South America and Africa today. If you print money to solve other problems, you’re oppressing your people.

So when the Left does its marching-on-Whitehall stuff (bless!) what they should really be chanting is “What do we want? A lower rate of quantitative easing designed to control savings value erosion! When do we want it? NOW!”

But it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

“… but it provides growth!”

Caught in the maze of copy? Call Chris for your escape plan.This is the final cry of the Left: we had more growth under Labour. Well, of course we did. Pump billions into the economy and you’ll get “growth” as measured by economists. In the same way as if you take out £200 in cash from your credit card before going out, your town’s bars and restaurants will experience “growth”.

The question is whether that’s real growth or not. Real growth builds the economy. Not just creates extra cost centres in it. Money spent on doctors’ salaries is not “investment”. It’s a cost.

If you take out the property bubble, the finance bubble, and Gordon Brown’s toga-party-for-the-public-sector, there was zero or negative growth in the UK economy between 1997 and 2010. 

So when those on the Left protest the housing crisis and the bankers, remember this: they’re the only reasons thirteen years of Labour chancellors were able to stand up on Budget Day and say they delivered growth. Maybe you should be thanking them. (And no, I don’t care for bankers either.)

On why I voted Conservative

This is the Why. I voted Conservative because if Britain’s Left really thought about our country (instead of just feeling) they’d be doing all the same things Conservatives do. And it leads to some odd conclusions.

Because most left-leaning voters really, deeply believe they care about others. But when you look at the numbers critically, they’re just doing what they accuse the Right of: lookin’ after me’n’mine.

Around 30-40% of the country leans Labour, and it’s the same 30-40% that benefits from high public spending. In other words, folks, you’re looking out for yourselves. You have a sensible policy of enlightened self-interest. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Can I interest you in the works of a wonderful lady named Ayn Rand?

500px-Nolan-chart.svgAnd if you made it this far, understand this too: I’m a hold-my-nose Tory. I’m not a Conservative; I’m a Libertarian. In today’s Britain, that’s the unoccupied quadrant of the Nolan Chart. The believers in high social AND high economic freedoms, where the main focus of a limited state is on protecting individual rights, rather than granting them to groups. (Or taking them for itself.)

Britain’s Tories score a lot lower on the “social freedoms” axis than I’d like, just as the Lib Dems score too low on economic freedoms. While Labour scores low on both.

But maybe – just maybe – we’re closer than you think.

On pensions, part 4: building a strategy

So you’ve got your Stakeholder Plan and a simple online management tool. How do you use them? Here’s how I do it: a simple investment strategy that takes barely an hour a month to administer.

It relies on three principles: a) the market knows more than you; b) retail pension funds have two good years; and c) charges are your enemy.

First , work out what you want, so you can spend the next couple of decades getting it. A £350 monthly contribution, rising by 10% each year will, over 25 years, grow to a £1.6m pot if you keep an 8% return over costs and inflation. It can be done – but you’ve got to be active about it. Here’s what I do.

Choosing your funds

Risk-taking and yo-yo’ing may produce great returns by chance over a short term, but we’re looking for long-term growth here. Hence my rule: don’t bother with company shares. As a retail investor, you’re there for one thing: to absorb risk on behalf of institutional investors (i.e making sure they make money, not you). No retail investor ever makes money consistently over time.

The vehicles to invest in are pension funds, a spread of investments packaged together (usually on a theme, such as mining companies or technology businesses.)

If you’ve opened a Stakeholder or SIPP, your provider will have a wide range of funds to invest in. They’re sold in “units” (you can buy fractions of a unit, so you never have money sitting there uninvested) and the better fund providers let you choose and swap your investments online. It’s a liquid and transparent market, with unit prices published in places like the FT.

The list of funds offered may run to over 100 entries, so let’s narrow it down using two parameters. First, only go for funds marked “Acc” – accumulators, where any returned income (such as dividends) is automatically re-invested in your fund. (This is a pension; you’re looking to build it up, not withdraw from it.)

Second, only go for funds offered by your pension provider, not “external” funds it offers on behalf of other providers – these will carry “external fund charges”, and it only takes a couple of those to seriously eat into your growth. (One thing pension fund providers aren’t good at, for obvious reasons, is making clear how much they’re skimming off your fund each year.)

I choose my funds on a simple algorithm: whatever’s been doing well over the last year, I invest in. My feeling is that a pension fund has a couple of good years in any investment cycle. I try to catch that fund as it’s warming up, with a few quarters of solid growth behind it and a few more ahead. It means I’m never buying the cheapest, but usually the most solid. The returns you can make here can run above 12% consistently, if you pay attention.

Deciding how much to invest

Remember that £1.6m pension pot that’ll provide an upper-percentile income from age 60+? To get it, you need to invest about £350 a month gross, and get an 8% return over inflation and fees, every year. Realistically that means a gross return around 13%. Keep about half a dozen funds in your pot, and the fees will be around 1.5% a year (the maximum they’re allowed to charge – some providers charge less. Just remember there’s a fee per-fund which may drive your total fees higher. Sometimes it’s pleasantly cheap, though: one UK fund charges an annual management fee of just 0.15%.)

There’s another thing you need to do: tie your contributions to your earnings as they rise over the years. That £1.6m pot needs that £350 to rise by 10% every year. About 3% a year will, over time, only keep pace with inflation. About 6% a year will make your contributions double in a decade… and wages rise at about that rate, so you’re keeping pace while being able to afford it.

The younger you are, the more flexible you can be here. If you’re under 30, that £1.6m pot costs less than half as much each month to build. The moral? Start young.

Keeping it up!

In the private pensions market, a huge percentage of people simply stop making contributions after the first year or two. It’s too hard, too expensive, and they lose faith in something they won’t see the benefits of for decades. (It’s easy to understand why. Many Stakeholder pension providers choose rather low-risk, and therefore low-return, funds for you. That’s why I want to have a say in the choice myself.)

So the last part is keeping your pension top-of-mind.

First, set aside one Saturday morning each month to review your portfolio and make any changes. It only takes two hours and can be fun. Simple rules – like mine, which sums up as always keeping the top 4-6 funds, whatever they are, in the portfolio – work. I tend to keep 10% or so in something solid and stolid, like UK Gilts (which only return a few percent) but over 80% of my portfolio is in moderate-risk funds like smaller companies. That suits my risk profile; yours will be different.

Second, watch the numbers over time. You’re not a momentum trader; you’re looking at long-term performance, not short-term dips. 2011 has, of course, been pretty awful. Look at the graph over the last year; you’re looking for smooth and steady above-inflation returns with a reasonable chance of continuing. There are plenty of websites that’ll track your investments for you. Use them. (Morningstar is among the most complete.)

Third, know what they’re charging and what inflation is today. Add these numbers together and you’ve got a figure – possibly as high as 7% – and that’s the amount your pension provider and the invisible hand of economics are taking out for themselves. And they take it out every year, whether your investments have grown or not.

This is the biggest pitfall in the pensions biz, and it hugely affects your longterm projections.

On my plan, a two-percentage-point difference in overall return is the difference between my pension pot lasting a couple of years and lasting… forever. By “forever” I mean that taking out my planned income, an amount that rises with inflation each year, only reduces the pot by a proportion of its growth over inflation – in other words, I’m living off the interest after inflation, keeping the capital’s buying power constant.

(Think it’s stupid to have a pension pot that lasts “forever”? In today’s world, the fastest-growing demographic is people over 100. You could be living off that pension income a long time. So you need to make sure it’ll last.)

And that’s how I do it. Make your own decisions – but remember, it’s all up to you.

On pensions, part 3: setting things up

So you’re ready to set up your own pension plan. Here’s what I did.

1. First, look at your employment situation. There isn’t much point in being a one-man limited company any more; if you’re a service provider charging a day rate or similar, go self-employed instead. The reason: it makes you eligible for Class 2 National Insurance Contributions for the Basic State Pension. While the Basic only pays out a small amount per week (currently £105 from age 67) it costs a self-employed person as little as £2.50 a week (for 30 years) to secure it.

(You pay Class 4 on top, but only at 9% above a certain level of profits, and it tops out with a marginal percentage of just 2% when your profits exceed £40k.) Being government-provided and linked to average earnings, it’s a great deal (who wouldn’t appreciate an extra four hundred quid, index linked, every month in a few decades for just a few percent downpayment?)

So check you’re eligible for Class 2 Contributions. If you’ll build up fewer than 30 contributing years before you hit 67, apply to catch up. (Having spent part of my life overseas, I’ll only pass the 30-year requirement in my 60s.) Bear in mind an average-salaried individual will pay £200 a month in NI to get the same basic entitlement; if you’re self-employed, that money can be going into your private pension pot instead.

2. Next, talk to a financial advisor if you like, who will advise you to open a private pension plan. If you’re in my situation – self-employed UK citizen with your own business and wild income swings – there’s only one choice: a Stakeholder Pension Plan. They’re designed for people on lower incomes, but since the contributions ceiling is £50k/year – around twice average household earnings – the “low income” bias isn’t relevant in practice.

(If you’re an employee, the first £3,600 per year is eligible for tax relief, so if you pay up to this out of your after-tax income, an £80 monthly investment will be topped up to £100. The self-employed of course don’t get this, but other benefits balance out.) The other great thing about Stakeholder Plans is that money managers’ fees (the killer) are capped at 1.5% per providing company. There are fancier alternatives, like SIPPs, but if you’re looking for a tax-efficient wrapper for financial assets, a Stakeholder is all you’ll ever need.

When choosing a provider, look for three things:

Web-based account servicing. You want the Web because you’re going to be looking at your funds regularly; make sure your provider’s web services are up to scratch. Look for a provider the same way you’d look for a new bank – secure web access and the ability to conduct business entirely online. (I haven’t been into a bank branch in years.)

A broad choice of funds to invest in. The UK’s bigger pension providers, like Legal & General, have a choice of over 60 funds that fit into a Stakeholder Plan. It’s less well known that Stakeholder Plans let you self-invest, but it’s one of their biggest advantages. Make sure the choice of funds your provider gives you covers a broad array of geographies, business sectors, and financial instruments from index trackers to government bonds.

Fee-free fund reallocations. Make sure your provider allows you to flip and switch your money between different funds as often as you like. Some providers even allow an unlimited number of switches per month. At minimum, you want the option to completely re-allocate your pension pot four times a year.

3. Check and recheck. Make sure your employment status is correct; make sure your Class 2’s are being paid by direct debit; test your Stakeholder Plan’s online servicing features. And you’re set up. Next:  my investment strategy.

On pensions, part 2: understanding the concepts

There are only seven concepts needed to understand pensions. First, the two types of pension. Then a word on funds. Then the four mathematical concepts to see them in context. (Remember the basic rule: this stuff ain’t hard. The financial industry just wants you to think it’s hard.)

There are two basic types of pension: defined-benefit and defined-contribution.

Concept 1. Defined-benefit includes those gold-plated final-salary and the slightly-less-golden career average schemes in the public sector. Pay in throughout your career (usually not very much; your employer coughs up too) and you’ll receive a proportion of your salary at retirement. Forever. Not subject to how long you live, not subject to the ups and downs of the markets. Since such deals often rise with inflation too, they’re a great deal.

So great that they’re bankrupting every country that offers them.

Because defined-benefit is inherently unsustainable. Imagine a senior manager retiring at the public-sector average of 58. His employer may have to stump up two-thirds of the salary he earned in her last year … bumped up with inflation… every year for the rest of his life. With today’s lifespans, that might mean paying his pension for more years than he worked. That’s defined-benefit, and it’s killing both our public finances and the finances of private companies offering such schemes.

(So why does the public sector continue to offer them? Simple politics. Promising a pay rise costs money now; promising a pension costs money after the next election. Both are effective in buying public sector workers’ votes and sending the bill to future generations. And in countries like the UK, which has a large public sector, there are many millions of votes to be won that way.)

Concept 2. Defined-contribution. This the only reasonable way to run a pension fund without storing up trouble. You have an individual retirement account, it grows or shrinks with whatever you invested in it, and what you get out relates to what you put in. (A simple savings account is a defined-contribution plan.)

Defined-contribution plans tend to pay out far less than defined-benefit, largely because you’re taking all the risk instead of outsourcing it to your employer.

While it might be great to have someone else taking all your investment risk, it’s happening less and less for private employees; defined-contribution is now all anyone outside the public sector can expect. Taste the difference: a senior civil servant on a defined-benefit retiring today, on £85k at the age of 60, will receive a pension exceeding £5k/mth. That sum will be adjusted upwards for inflation, risk free, for the rest of his life. To get the same through a defined-contribution plan,  you’d need to have north of £2 million in your pot.

Defined-contribution isn’t generous. But it’s sustainable.

(There is one lump of sugar: with defined-contribution, you get to be in control. If you’ve got a taste for risk, you can dial your preferences into your fund and enjoy wild growth if your investments have a good year. I don’t need to mention the corollary, of course.)

However, most defined-benefit plans from employers make it hard for you to exert a great deal of control over them, which is why this blog is mostly about defined-contribution. It’s about what you can do to maximise your pension.

Concept 3: the investment fund. Whether you’re defined-benefit or defined contribution, you pension is part of a fund, a sheaf of investments (shares, bonds, cash) chosen to increase in value over time so the pensioners can be paid. Big companies and public sector organisations might have only one fund for all employees; individual self-investors might buy slivers of many funds bought on the markets. (There are thousands to choose from.)

The only thing worth remembering is that funds are aggregated. One fund may bundle together many investments (such as shares) and sell the bundle as units. (Imagine a basket of vegetables: that’s the fund. Your pension pot contains a bite of carrot, a slice of cucumber, a peck of peas, and so on.)

A £100 unit may contain slivers of a telecoms giant, an oil startup, and government bonds, weighted by the fund manager to produce maximum return. Funds on the markets are very liquid; if your pension pot isn’t in nice multiples of £100, you’ll simply own relevant fractions of a unit too.

Now for the maths: compound interest, pound-cost averaging, weightings, and Projected Value. Relax; it’s all simple.

Concept 4: Compound interest is what you learned in school. Put in £100 at 10% interest, get £110. Leave it there, and next year you’ve got £121. Investment funds carry other goodies like dividends and coupons, and if you reinvest these back into your pension plan (you should) the compounding just works harder. Compound interest is simple.

Concept 5: Pound-cost averaging is the reason you should invest a set amount in your pension each month, before any other expenses go out. It’s a way of smoothing out the stockmarket. Let’s say you’re in Fund X whose component companies did well this month. Their share price is high, so you’ll get fewer shares, but they’re doing well, so you don’t mind. The next month, when the company hits the skids, your regular payment buys a lot more of their shares, so you own more shares and reap the benefits when the company starts growing again.  Pound-cost averaging is simple.

Concept 6: Weighting. Your pension plan is probably in more than one fund; how they’re mixed or “weighted” is a key concept to understand. Fund Y is making 20% and your fund contains its units; why has your pension fund lost money? Because Fund Y comprises just 10% of your portfolio and the rest of it is toxic waste. Weighting is how you balance your pension pot with your appetite for risk. Adventurous young males in good health choose funds in emerging markets and new technology; sozzled greybeards stick to bonds and index trackers. Weightings are less simple but more fun.

Finally, concept 7: Projected Value, or PV. This is how you plan for the future: given average returns of X percent a year (long-term stockmarket returns are surprisingly stable) with n years of contributing N pounds rising at Y percent a year…  accounting for inflation, charges, and risk by Z percent… and you’ve got your pension pot, from which you can work out what you can afford to draw as your monthly pension. Projected value is simple and fun.

That’s all you need. Next: setting things up.

On pensions, part 1: getting the mindset

I’ve worked for myself for over a decade, and spent a lot of years outside the UK or on non-paying projects like an MBA. Wild income swings are normal to me and my risk profile is off the scale, but I do have two fears: a) Getting old, and b) Being poor. Both can be influenced if you take the right actions in good time.

This blog’s about setting up a pension if you can’t rely on anyone else providing one.

(First, a disclaimer: I’m not a financial advisor, and this isn’t financial advice, nor should you take it as such. I’m just sharing what I do on my blog which helps me.)

Financial advisors go out of their way to make pension provision sound complex. Well, there are hard aspects to it – but the hard parts aren’t where you’d think. The hard part is simply getting the mindset: looking at your pension fund as an asset like your house or car. Except that it brings you benefits later on instead of tomorrow. And nudging yourself into that mindset can be surprisingly simple.

The first concrete thing to do is bring your pension into your life. (I have the login page of my account as a browser home page. This daily “nudge” keeps it top-of-mind.) What this does is negate the feeling you’re throwing money away.

(Deferred benefits, i.e pension payouts several decades away, will always feel harder to pay into than your new car or computer that brings pleasure TODAY. But by keeping your pension top-of-mind, it feels an asset like any other. Many providers offer web-based portfolio management tools; make sure you get a plan with decent online services.)

The next thing is to make a regular contribution on your payday, NOT when you’ve “got other expenses out of the way.” Even if you’re in an employer’s scheme, make sure you know how much you’re contributing and ask to increase it if the projections don’t give you what you want when you turn 60+.

(Working for myself, I don’t get the tax relief formally salaried people do, but I treat my monthly gross contribution with the same importance as paying the mortgage. I’m a spender, not a saver; this is the only way I (and most people) can ever save.)

Last, have a monthly ‘money day”. The third thread – whether you’re a hands-on self-investor or leave it to others – is simply to keep yourself informed. Know what your contributions are being invested in, know the weighted return over the last 12 months, know the inflation rate and charges that are eating away at your nest egg.

This is part of the habit-forming needed to get the mindset: I’ve set my pension fund tracker to be among the start pages for my browser, so I’m constantly reminded what’s working and what’s not. The same applies if you’re in a company scheme: are they making investments that give returns, or are they investing mainly in the same sector as your employer? Let’s just say we can all guess which oil and gas company was the primary weighting in the pension fund of… Enron. Know what’s going on.

That’s the mindset. In forthcoming days I’ll be blogging my takes on understanding the concepts, setting things up, and building an investment strategy. Next: understanding the concepts.