The Art Of The Possible

It occurs to me that as a Financial Planner, a large part of our job is to help people see what is possible.

We are often confronted with goals and desires that people believe are ‘impossible’.

“I want to retire at the age of 47 and go travelling”

“I want to quit my day job and start a new business that I love”

“I want to go on a 5 year round-the-world trip and write a travel book”

“I want to work just 3 days a week so that I can spend more time with my grandchildren”

“I want to gift my son and daughter £300,000 so they can finally buy a home of their own”

There are all real-life examples of ‘impossible’ objectives that Financial Planning has made possible.

Very often, the biggest barrier to making these things happen is us.

We get trapped in our own mis-conceptions about what might or might not be possible:

“People just don’t retire at the age of 47 – its not the done thing”

“If I work just 3 days a week surely I am just being lazy”

“If I make a big gift to my children, I might not be able to afford to retire”

We are often also terrified by what everyone else will think:

“What will my children say if I quit my job at the age of 47?”

“Will my friends think I am mad if I go travelling for 5 years?”

“My wife will think I am crazy if I walk away from my regular pay check to start a business that might not work out”

The truth of the matter is that other people are either; A – not that bothered by what you wish to do or B – more supportive than you might imagine.

Our own misconceptions are often just that – misconceptions.

With some creative thinking and planning almost any dream can be made a reality. I was reminded at our seminar last night of all the people we have helped to make the impossible possible!

New Year, New Markets?

The last quarter of 2018 was indeed challenging for markets with various factors combining to generate significant volatility over the quarter and some softening of market performance.

The biggest contributors to recent market performance have been the US / China trade war and resulting stop-start trade talks. In addition an unprecedented guidance adjustment from Apple, citing weakness in China, caused the company to lose both its much hyped $1 trillion dollar market cap and its crown as the worlds largest company.

The market clearly sees Apple’s performance as a proxy for other companies as the announcement cased a general stock market sell-off.

In the following weeks other companies have cited some weakness in trading, especially in China and many UK retailers are struggling with a weaker Christmas sales period as has been widely expected.

As we approached the end of our investment review for quarter 4, we saw a spike in volatility and as such delayed our review work by approximately 2 weeks to allow for a like-for-like comparison.

Over the holiday period volatility persisted and between Christmas and New Year, we saw some of the most significant moves ever recorded in US stock market history. Over the 3 months to the end of December the US Market was down by around 11.9% and the UK fell by around 9.5%. Given their diverse, global nature, the Buckingham Gate portfolios are behaving as expected and are significantly softening some of these losses.

As we have entered 2019, relative calm seems to have returned for the time being and markets are showing tentative signs of recovery, although it remains to be seen if this will persist.

Ironically, despite the near constant media attention, Brexit (or the potential lack of) does not seem to have caused too much concern for markets, although the weakness in the UK market compared to others over the past 12 months suggests that much of the current uncertainty is now priced in.

It remains to be seen if any further clarity will be delivered by the parliamentary vote over the coming weeks or if (as is expected) a ‘no’ vote takes us back to square one in the Brexit process.

The Buckingham Gate investment committee will continue to monitor events carefully, however we don’t see that the events of the past 3 months are particularly unusual or unexpected.

The past decade has seen record breaking growth in most major global markets and so some easing off is to be expected. In addition, despite much media commentary about high volatility, the level of volatility we are now seeing is almost exactly the average. 2016 and 2017 are actually the exceptions to the rule given the extraordinarily low levels of volatility seen over these 2 years.

The largest indicator of a more permanent downturn in markets is a recession and although there has been some softening of data in some markets, recession would seem to be a way off at present.

There are some potential upsides to bear in mind. Brexit might not be as damaging as some people expect, the US and China could quickly rectify their troubles and retailers could quickly turn things around.

We will be managing the portfolios with our investment partners cautiously, taking into account the market environment we find ourselves in.

We would like to wish all of our clients and contacts a very happy and healthy 2019!

Reflections on 2018

As 2018 draws to a close, there is a lot to reflect on and consider.

First of all we have the seemingly never ending Brexit discussions and negotiations with the final date for the vote now set for the week of January 11th.

If the vote is ‘no’ as seems to be widely expected, then this opens up another can of worms about the possible options. The BBC produced a very useful decision tree highlighting the possible paths that could be followed after a ‘no’ vote and I think I counted over 20 different combinations when I looked.

On the other hand, if Theresa May is to pull out a surprise ‘yes’ vote, then at least we will have some clarity over the future direction of travel, regardless of your views on the ‘deal’ itself.

It is important to bear in mind that Brexit is very much a UK issue. Markets elsewhere in the world do not seem phased by Brexit or the surrounding game of politics. They have other things on their minds. Talking to an Austrian chap at a recent business coaching event, it was interesting to hear how they see Brexit. Most Austrians, he informed me, simply think we are mad for having initiated the whole process in the first place. Given the resulting chaos – perhaps they are right!

Elsewhere there have been plenty of goings on to keep people occupied and despite the fact that we can’t get away from it here in the UK, Brexit is barely mentioned (nor does it need to be) in some of the other global markets such as the US and China.

Although we have seen some market volatility in the latter part of 2018, this is simply a return to ‘normal’ levels which are in contrast to the unusually calm 2017.

We have started to see some minor interest rate hikes across the major western economies. As I have written about before, although this could be a bit painful for markets in the short term, it is a very necessary part of our recovery from the decade-old financial crisis and is (at last) a small sign that things are returning to ‘normal’.

Although I will never try to predict what the following year holds (the last 2 or 3 years have taught us to expect surprises, both political and financial if nothing else) it can often be helpful to review the fundamentals of the global economy. I would encourage you to read this article from 7IM which provides some useful insight on the state of play and a calm, rational analysis of things potentially to come in the future.

Regardless of what is happening out there in the world, we remain long term investors. We don’t try to time the markets and we don’t panic when things seem tough.

As I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a happy 2019, I shall leave you with the words of Warren Buffet – a calming influence when the world seems to be going mad:

‘The most common cause of low prices is pessimism – sometimes pervasive, sometimes specific to a company or industry. We want to do business in such an environment, not because we like pessimism but because we like the prices it produces. It is optimism that is the enemy of the rational investor.’

 

Reflecting On Brexit

The past few weeks have certainly been interesting not just from an investment perspective, but also politically as well.

As I pen this note, the Brexit deal would seem to be getting ever closer to a conclusion, however, Theresa May still has one almighty hurdle to jump in the form of getting the deal agreed by parliament back in the UK.

Ironically, this could well be the toughest part of the whole process for our embattled Prime Minister. Regardless of your opinions on Theresa May in general, I think we can all agree that her job at the moment is near impossible. I certainly don’t envy her!

As I have spoken about before, I believe that the next few years could be punctuated by things which are good news in the long term causing short term market volatility.

If this does come to pass, it will be the opposite of the rather strange environment we have found ourselves in over the past couple of years since the Brexit vote, where things that have been perceived as ‘bad news’ have been very positive for the markets.

The Brexit vote itself is one such example.

Of course, before the event, there were prophecies of doom and destruction in the event of a leave vote and indeed we did get some serious market sell offs … for all of 2 days.

After this, something unexpected happened. The de-valuation of sterling actually turned out to be positive for markets and indeed, this factor has probably been the biggest contributor to UK market performance over the past few years.

This is one example of bad news being good news for markets. The election of Trump could well be another.

As we move into 2019, I expect this trend to reverse.

If we do (ever) agree a Brexit deal, I would imagine that we might see sterling strengthen somewhat. This is good news in general for UK PLC, but could be bad for UK markets in the short term.

In a similar vein, increasing interest rates and the unwinding of quantitative easing (both good things in the long term – signalling that we are finally getting back to ‘normal’ economic health), could drag on markets in the short term.

These things, despite the short term pain they might cause, are totally necessary for the economy to build a solid foundation on which to grow into the future.

The past decade of growth has been partially fuelled by artificial stimulus and this process has to come to an end at some point.

The ending of the artificial stimulus programmes around the world could well be the best thing to happen to markets in a long time, creating a solid and stable base for the next period of growth which will inevitably be to follow.

While unsettling, the volatility we have seen over the past few weeks does not concern the Buckingham Gate Investment Committee greatly. This type of market ‘wobble’ is fairly usual as we start to approach the end of the market cycle.

That’s not to say that the cycle is over at this point, but we should be prepared for a slightly more volatile ride ahead.

The main predictor of a significant market correction or a ‘bear market‘ is a recession and although global economic indicators (job numbers, GDP growth etc) are not the best we have ever seen, they are not bad either.

There is certainly nothing in the figures to indicate a recession at the moment, although things can and do change quickly.

As usual, we must insert that caveat that the past is no guide to the future and things can be unpredictable in the wonderful world of investments.

I shall keep the blog updated with my views. All eyes now are on the 11th December and the deciding vote.

The Generational Divide

I have been speaking recently to clients about the so called ‘generational divide’ – the seemingly vast wealth of the baby boomer generation with their burgeoning property and investment portfolios when contrasted with the apparently hopeless state of the millennials finances.

I have long argued that these types of generalisations are very unhelpful and don’t really serve to achieve anything.

In fact, I think media narratives like this have the potential to become self fulfilling prophecies if we are not careful.

If millennials are bought into the fact that they are ‘doomed’ to rent for their entire lives and they they will never retire, then this is probably what will happen.

I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about this issue and, in our own small way, we are committed to doing something about it.

Next year we will be launching the first Buckingham Gate ‘next generation’ workshop to hopefully teach our client’s children some of the lessons that have made them so wealthy.

This is the subject matter that really should be being taught in schools but definitely isn’t (and if anyone thinks a 30 minute ‘general studies’ session on personal finance qualifies as sufficient financial education to prepare young people for a lifetime of financial decisions they are sorely mistaken).

We will also be covering some of the slightly more advanced wealth building strategies that have served our clients so well.

I will keep the blog updated as we finalise the plans for the workshop next year and we will be announcing the date early in 2019.

We hope to see as many of your children there as possible.

Trust Tax Consultation – Nothing To See Here (Yet)

Please forgive the unusually technical nature of my blog today, but this is an issue that impacts on many of our clients and potential clients – trust taxation.

Many people would have seen the media reports about the consultation that HMRC has launched on the taxation of trusts (among other issues I might add).

The consultation is focusing on the taxation of trusts, their operation and administration and also checking that the treatment of trusts is fair and equitable when taken together with the other possible methods of estate planning.

In principle, none of this is a bad thing.

My Good Friends – The Media

Now as you might expect, the media have vastly over-done the potential impact of this consultation. Some headlines have declared that ‘IHT trusts will be stripped of their tax advantages’.

This makes for a good headline (and no doubt draws readers and traffic to websites to drive ad revenue), but is it actually true?

Well, as with any consultation, the strict answer is – we don’t know.

A consultation is just that, a consultation.

HMRC are seeking input and ideas on some of the questions posed by the consultation.

What we can glean from the questions though is the direction of travel and nothing in the consultation document itself (unlike some of the media commentators, I actually saw fit to read the whole document before making prophecies of doom) has given me major cause for concern at this time.

First of all, many consultations result in no change at all. Either the consultation does not deliver a viable alternative to the status quo, or the whole things just loses steam and falls off the radar. This has happened countless times before.

But, even if we do see action, I think much of it could be positive.

The consultation document first talks about simplifying the taxation of trusts (nothing about the rates here, just the operation). This would be incredibly welcome given the current complexities of accounting for income tax, capital gains tax and inheritance tax across the settlors, the trustees and the beneficiaries of a trust.

Three different taxes accounted for across three different groups of people can and does get messy sometimes and any simplification to this system will do nothing to harm the appeal of trusts.

The document also talks about the fact that the 20% entry charge on gifts into trusts could be perceived as unfair when compared to the unlimited potential gifts we can make to other people.

Although nothing is certain, the language here hints to me that HMRC could be playing with the idea of removing this charge which would again be most welcome.

The only potential downside is that there is hints of an increase to the 6% periodic charge. While this would be unwelcome, it would also be relatively un-important for the majority of our clients on the basis that we usually manage trusts to be below the nil rate band allowance, meaning that no tax is due in any case, regardless of the rate.

The consultation document recognises the benefits of trusts in financial planning and in society and so I don’t see any prospects of trusts being ‘outlawed’ (again, contrary to some headlines you may stumble across).

As with many things, ‘wait and see’ will be the best approach here.

Firstly, the consultation may come to nothing, in which case, no action will be required.

Second, the consultation could provide benefits to trust planning, in which case we will look at how we can take advantage.

And, if we do see any negative changes, we will analyse them and plan around them, just like we have planned around numerous negative tax changes before and no doubt will again in the future.

Despite the headlines, I don’t believe that the consultation (in its current form) is particularly dangerous.

Taking action based on sensationalist headlines on the other hand – well that could prove very dangerous indeed.

What Is The Money For?

I attended a seminar recently and a very interesting question was posed for suggested inclusion in client meetings and in questionnaires. It was simply “what is the money actually for?”

A simple enough question, but one which I suspect many people may not have a simple answer to.

Money is a strange thing and it makes us behave in very peculiar ways.

It is also a very emotional thing, despite the fact that human emotion (generally speaking) leads to poor financial decision making.

You see, we often meet people who have accumulated very significant wealth. I do wonder however if people really know what the money is for.

Very often we meet people who are still working in jobs they dislike because ‘they need to’.

When we look at the numbers however we often get a different story. On occasion we find people have actually worked for too long. This is fine if you love your job, but how would you feel if you worked for 3 years longer than you needed to in a job you hated?

When we ask what the money is for, many people will say financial security, despite the fact that they don’t really have any definition for what ‘financial security’ really means.

While I fully appreciate the benefit of the emotional comfort money can bring (in fact, I did my masters dissertation on this very subject), I fear that just saying ‘financial security’ is a very easy way to avoid doing some of the thinking to truly define what is required to achieve this fabled thing called ‘financial security’.

As with the vast majority of money related goals, it is usually possible to put a number on this. We just have to do the thinking work first. For some people, financial security means having enough money to live on for 6 months – pretty easy to define. Multiply monthly expenses by 6 and there you have it.

For others, financial security might be having enough money to live on for the rest of their lives. A much more complex calculation, but with the right maths, we can still get there. Granted, you would need to build in some assumptions and you would most likely wish to add a large contingency pot on top of the final number, but the point is you still arrive at a number.

When we run the numbers in this way, we often find that people have significantly more than they need for whatever goals that they wish to achieve (financial security included) and so at this point we come back to a slightly re-worded version of the question; ‘what is the excess money actually for?’

My conclusion, is that most people don’t know. They have worked very hard to accumulate a pool of assets, but perhaps not then thought about what to do with any excess funds over and above their own needs.

This is where the conversation often turns to lifetime gifting or philanthropy – two things which have been shown to deliver the very greatest levels of satisfaction, but which people often shy away from out of fear of running out of money.

With the right planning beforehand, this needn’t be a concern and this opens up possibly the greatest and most noble thing any of us can do with our money – help others!

 

A Case In Point

I wrote last week about the market volatility we had seen and the importance of keeping a level head during times like these.

In that post, written in the midst of large market falls, I encouraged investors to keep calm and carry on. I also mentioned the potentially damaging effects of missing just the best 10 days of market growth within a 15 year period.

Although last week ended at a low ebb for the markets, things quickly started to recover on Monday and have continued to do so this week.

For those people who think that they can time the market, they would have needed to correctly predict on Tuesday the circa 7% falls that would transpire on Wednesday and Thursday. I have seen no evidence anywhere online of anyone making those kinds of predictions.

They would have also had to be brave enough to go back in late on Friday, just in time to catch the gains that have been made this week.

Especially when looking at the US market, I suspect history will confirm that some of the days this week will feature in the ‘top 10’ days list in years to come. If you are out of the market even for just these few days, you risk cutting your total return in half.

Unless you have a crystal ball, I would contend that no one would have made the decisions required to prosper in the markets over the past 10 days.

This leave us with the only reliable option – to remaining invested throughout. This means we capture all of those best 10 days. Yes, we have to accept some temporary volatility along the way. But that is all that it is – temporary volatility.

Please don’t let something as normal and expected as a bit of market volatility throw your financial plans off course.

Keep Calm & Carry On

Keep Calm & Carry On. Sage advice in times of market stress.

Countless research has shown that missing just the best few days of returns in the market is enough to significantly dent your total investment return.

Research by Fidelity has shown that if you had your money invested in the FTSE All-Share from the end of June 2003 to the end of June 2018 (15 years or approximately 5500 days), you would have earned a very nice 8.9% annualised return. Not too bad by any standards.

If you miss just the best 10 days of performance (out of those 5500) then your total return falls to just 4.6% per annum.

Miss the best 20 days and it falls further still to only 2% per annum.

If you miss the best 40 days of returns (again to stress, out of a total of 5500) then you actually get a negative return of -2% per annum.

The same research has been replicated across many different markets all over the world and the results are very similar.

This shows the importance of remaining invested, even when markets get turbulent.

In this world where investment decisions are made by computers in milliseconds and the distance from the stock exchange determines which trading house wins, anyone who thinks that they can time the markets is either lying, deluded or both.

Research has also shown that so called ‘investment experts’ and analysts have a pretty much exactly 50% chance of success when trying to predict when markets will go up or down. You might as well flip a coin to predict the direction of tomorrows markets, it has as much chance of being right as anyone else out there.

Im pretty sure on Monday of this week no one predicted the falls we have seen on Wednesday and Thursday. If they did I am yet to hear about it.

The point is that markets move very quickly.

If you attempt to time the market, the chance of missing those best 10 days is very high indeed. Markets can and do recover quickly and the biggest gains (i.e. those best 10 or 20 days), tend to follow significant market falls.

We only have to look back as far as February to see a similar phenomenon in action. In the early days of the month, the S&P 500 dropped around 8-9% over just a couple of days. Of course this was widely reported in the media with the usual collection of colourful language such as ‘turmoil’, ‘chaos’, ‘panic’ and, my personal favourite, ‘bloodbath’.

What received almost zero mainstream media coverage was the subsequent recovery. Only weeks later the S&P 500 has recovered the 8-9% it lost and it then went on to break new record highs only a few weeks after that.

Calm seems to have returned this morning on the markets. Could this be the start of the next recovery, or just the eye of the storm?

The truth is that no-one knows, but the time-tested investing adage of ‘time in the market, not timing the markets’ is as valid today as it ever has been.

Keep Calm and Carry On. It’s the only way to invest.

 

 

The Perfect Week In Retirement

When we work with clients on their retirement planning, we often ask them to complete an exercise we call the ‘perfect week’.

In this exercise, clients are asked to map out what the perfect week looks like for them in retirement. We create a grid with the days of the week along the top and we divide each day into an AM, PM and evening slot, making a total of 21 ‘slots’ to fill for the week.

Most clients find this exercise fairly simple. Most of us have a pretty good idea about what we would like to do for a week in the ideal world.

Most people will build in some form of travel (perhaps spending the whole of their perfect week on holiday). There will often be meals out with family and friends and ‘experience’ activities like going to the theatre or sailing.

This exercise is incredibly valuable, but it is not the full story.

Retirement is about so much more than just a single week.

As such, we then ask clients to think about repeating this exercise 52 times for each week in the year (to be clear, this is a theoretical exercise – we don’t ask people to actually fill in 52 perfect week sheets).

At this point, people are often a little stuck. It is really easy to visualise a single week or even two or three weeks, but planning out a whole year is a bit harder.

Most people don’t want to (or couldn’t afford to) be on holiday all of the time, so some more thought is required to map out a year.

Once people have given some thought to the 1-year picture, we then ask them to repeat this exercise 30 or 40 more times. This is because there is now a very real possibility that retirement could last 30, 40 or dare I say 50 years for some people.

Thats a total of between 1560 (30 years) and 2600 (50 years) weeks. That’s a long time to plan for.

But plan for it we must. Research has shown that those people who spend significant time planning their retirement are quantifiably happier when they actually do retire than people who have done very little or no planning.

The irony here is that the average American (and one assumes the average person in the UK also) spends longer planning a 2 week holiday than they do a 30 year retirement!

If we are to live a long, and more importantly happy, retirement, we really must give retirement planning the time it deserves.