UK FI/RE folk are fortunate compared to other Europeans

I guess we’re still European at the moment 😉 Though I do wonder if our good fortune is perhaps connected with our impending departure from the continent. I came across Mrs W of[ref]I was surprised there are so many German FI blogs, and surprised to see German blogs are written addressing the second person singular not the formal third person plural[/ref]- who is already FI at 32, this is their story. Basically Scottish lass goes to work in Germany in 2005, meets handsome young Romanian fellow starting college, ten years later they have a couple of nippers and are FI/RE. Even my grizzled and cynical old heart is warmed by the tale of chutzpah, enterprise and general derring-do.

I confess that when I read the story of what makes them FI, invested 100% in a single asset class of German rental property it makes me feel a little bit squiffy for the FI part of their future, particularly when I hear Mr W’s diatribe about the SWR and equities in general. But then I recall that he is still in his early 30’s at a guess, so while I intensely disagree with Mr W’s approach to diversification and cavalier use of leverage,  it will probably work out just fine in the end though probably not exactly as planned. These guys have got human capital in spades. It’ll be all right on the night even if something goes wrong with the FI side of things. This fearful Ermine would be scared of with the mix of leverage and lack of diversification. Unlike the Ws, I have already earned all the money I will ever earn, so I have to be more timid, because I have no human capital in reserve.

What makes you FI/RE in your 30s is very different from what makes you FI/RE in your 50s

The world is too unstable to convincingly clock off in your 30s, unless you have a very serious trust fund behind you. Yes for Petra Ecclestone[ref]Queensberry rules require me to point out that the Graun makes out that Petra earns her crust. Do you believe that explains how you get to own a Hollywood mansion at 25? Me neither[/ref]

Petra Ecclestone. unlike you or I, doesn’t need to earn the money to put into her investments

no for people who have to earn the money to become FI.

In Petra’s case her dad did the heavy lifting, though I believe her mum wasn’t a pauper either. Mr W nails it, however, when he says passive income is worth more than net worth. Back in the dark days of 2009, I took the same line, albeit in a different asset class, and started building a high yield portfolio – at the sorts of valuations one was getting then it was possible to envisage getting there. And in all fairness I still have that HYP, and it’s paying a decent steady return in aggregate for what I paid for it then. The bad odds for FI/RE are written in the stats of the SWR – if it’s 4% then you need to save 25 times your desired annual spending rate that is a big ask for a working life of 20 to 30 years. You ain’t got years enough to get there from here if you are looking to live a normal life of spending most of what you earn.

You can get there if you earn a heck of a lot more than you plan to spend, but you then have the living like a celibate monk in a brothel problem because you will be surrounded by spendy peers. You can get there if you are prepared to work for 50 years, because the faint whisper of assistance of compound interest may give you a bit of a leg-up[ref]A bit like NASA’s ion drive, compound interest’s action is feeble compared Saving Hard, the equivalent of the sturm und drang of chemical propulsion. But it keeps going steadily, and over timescales longer than a FI/RE working life it can add up significantly[/ref]. But otherwise it’s a very, very long stretch. In your working life it’s also good to be able to buy a house, which is a hedge against paying rent, otherwise you will have to lift your savings target to cover renting for the rest of your life, so it’s all a tough ask.

Having an unleveraged stash of wealth it’s the canonical way older people look at becoming FI – you build up enough stock of assets that the flow of income from them is enough to make up for the flow of income you aren’t getting from selling your time or skills for money.

At this point most Brits would yell Get into BTL in my ear and indeed that’s what an awful lot of people do. If you still carry a mortgage on that BTL then it’s a bit like taking out a mortgage to buy the assets in one’s SIPP or ISA, it obviously reduces the upfront costs and you can get a lot more bang for your buck. For someone like me that would be insane, not just because I loathe real-estate as an asset class with a deep and heartfelt hatred born of the way it hurt me early in my working life, but also because I don’t have any earning potential left – my human capital is close to zero. You just don’t carry debt when you are all out of human capital[ref]there are specific times when it’s okay for FI/RE people to carry debt because of the 55 limit on drawing pensions, but as a general rule, don’t[/ref], because it’s a drag on your financial capital. But looking at how Mr and Mrs W do it, I wonder if perhaps leveraged BTL is more healthy in the young than in the old.

We are greatly privileged in the UK in terms of tax-sheltered accounts

We can shelter £20k a year in ISAs tax-free and up to 40k a year in SIPPs tax-free, which is stupendous compared to the paltry $6000 annual limit for the US equivalent of a SIPP, an IRA. In Canada that’s about $15000 CAD, about £9k p.a. Here we have people bitchin’ and a moanin’ about the lifetime allowance of £1M, our North American FI colleagues would find it hard to get that much after a normal lifetime of working. Then there’s free health provision, which is a whole world of hurt for US FI/RE people, which is a lot of money you don’t have to save for.

Then let’s look at the situation in Europe – countries like France have a wealth tax, and countries like Switzerland charge tax on the imputed rent of a house. In Belgium No More Waffles is battling a dividend tax rate of 30%.

There is, of course, a case to be made that is all a byproduct of the way British elites are keeping their money to themselves, tossing a few crumbs for the upper middle classes, making it look like anybody could do that. After all Britain has an ignoble tradition of government facilitating large scale tax evasion through looking the other way as far as tax havens and things like trusts to circumvent the already generous IHT allowances. Perhaps the FI/RE community is just slipstreaming the kind treatment of wealth and its owners, because they have to save much more money at a much higher rate than normal workers are doing. The generosity of the ISA allowance is roughly the same as the median UK household income of ~£23,000. Your average FI/RE saver is chuffed if they get to a savings rate of 60%. Getting to 90% is a serious stretch, so let’s face it, that £20k ISA allowance is one for the rich – FI people earning £50k p.a. net and probably normal people earning at least twice that. The rest will struggle to fill it each year.

Of course all this lost tax probably makes living in Britain a bit more shit for other people, and as a result said elites get an angry howl of rage when they hold referenda. So perhaps we might have had a better collective quality of life if the tax-sheltering regime were not quite so generous, but you have to work with the world as it is.

It’s not all upside, however

There’s trouble brewing in the increasing shitstorm being made of Brexit, where none of the protagonists can agree what success looks like though they all have very fixed but orthogonal views of what it should be. That, combined with flatlining productivity could lead to serious unrest in the years to come. There are some things historically peculiar to Britain – the general godawfulness that is hideously expensive housing. The horribly unequal distribution of jobs with all the investment happening in the southeast and London. You can find cheap housing in the UK, just not near any work of substance. Then there’s expensive tertiary education, which could be circumvented by studying in Europe as Mrs W did, but is no longer an option[ref]Whether the Erasmus scheme that served Mr W (and Mrs W perhaps?) carries on for UK students after Brexit is unclear but probably no because of the issue with free movement despite the Brexit boosterism of the torygraph – even they have to confess the Swiss had to craft a replacement after they voted to can free movement. For the Torygraph scenario to be right the UK Government would have to craft a Swiss style UK Erasmus replacement and fund it for cheaper studying in EU universities than the high cost of studying in England. In other news, a flock of pigs was seen flying to the coast[/ref]

Be grateful for what you have, UK FI/RE people, and sweat it while you’ve got it.

Gratitude is good for the soul, and British FI/RE aspirants have a massive leg-up in tax privilege compared to many other First World countries. Celebrate your good fortune, and hit it while you have it…