This won’t be over by Christmas in Brexitland

Ah, bless. Remember July, when we were all camping and heating up the barbie and it was all going to be over by Christmas?

Hostage to fortune, mate, and you lot can’t plan your way out of a paper bag, it’s been firefighting all the way. Do or do not, do not try.The usual wingnuts from the torygraph and unHerd are fulminating, they may as well hold their breath.

We have long argued that the country needs to live with this virus. […]

The alternative is to protect the vulnerable while letting normal life continue for most people. Older people who do not wish to be locked away can make their own choices knowing the risks.

Don’t sweat it, guys, it’s what’s going to happen anyway. After Cominic Dummings’ little escapade because he is such a sociopathic Billy No Mates he couldn’t find anyone to do his childcare in London, you can’t tell any bugger what to do.  We’ll be battle testing herd immunity by default. We got there in the end, 40 years after I played this track at university.

Weed out the weaklings…

And WTF is it with all the over-acting emphasis Bozza? Don’t they have decent drama school and elocution in Eton? Less of the lunging into the damn camera, and perhaps engage brain before opening trap? Nah, it’ll never catch on, and anyway, we’ve had enough of experts. Funny how Boz is so uniquely unsuited to wrangling something with the potential to kill people. I’m not convinced that it’s the end of the beginning yet. Boz really did need to pay attention at drama school. This, dear boy, is how you deliver that sort of news:

BoJo’s emphasis is all wrong and his cadence sucks, he’s trying too hard. If you want to know who to take people with you, listen to Donald Trump – he gets that right. He can talk absolute bullshit but make it sound right.

Socrates called out the problem of the unwilling leader being better qualified than those who really, really want the job, though he didn’t crack the implementation problem. Bozza is proof positive, he’s a good-time guy who wanted to get Brexit done, not fight bugs. Be careful what you wish for…

Capitalism gears up to ream the poor at Christmas

Anyway, it was clearly bollocks that it’ll be over by Christmas. What’s more, capitalism red in tooth and claw is tooling up to ream the poor, and the recently unemployed anyone else.

Beware the plastic

The Bank of England fondly believed that shitting on savers would give borrowers a break.While they did shit on savers they gifted ‘investors1‘ a doozy, which is how after a near death experience in Spring your equity portfolio is worth more, though about 10% of the UK economy has been burned.

Dunno what the heck they are smoking in Threadneedle Street, but it is strong. For starters lending money to people who have just lost their jobs is a risky biz in the first place, it’s about return of capital as well as the return on capital. Personally I’d also charge people more around Christmas anyway, because parents who are unable to tell their kids that Christmas is cancelled this year are unlikely to have the fortitude to do what it takes to pay this borrowing back under adverse conditions. Ten years ago in the midst of the GFC I suggested Charlotte tell her precious ankle-biter that Christmas is off, and the problem remains the same. Different perps, different kids, but Christmas is an elective spend, and it’s likely to be a tough time this year. Elect not to spend, rent and power before pressies. Tragically, there will be many who won’t have the option of either. If you have no assets, there is an argument to hit the old CC hard and fast, knowing you will never pay it off, but the IVA/bankruptcy option does rob you of some options in future. Given this hit is hopefully a one-off, then it’s a hard call. Going IVA/bankrupt may make it harder to rent a place or get some jobs…

Same old shit, different decade

Maybe we should have a guest appearance from Shona Sibary, she of the too many kids and the unawareness2 that you’re actually supposed to pay off a mortgage, plus if you use a string of fixes to borrow more than you can afford you make yourself a hostage to fortune in market crashes.

Lenders gonna lend, and you have to make money. They’re more Chuck Colson than FDR on this,

“If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow”.

If the Bank of England was really that troubled about hard-working families getting a dreary Christmas then they could always lob money out of helicopters themselves, rather than getting credit card companies to do the dirty work for them. I guess Rishi might disapprove, but hey, whatever works, my friend.

As living proof of this incipient reaming of the newly unemployed, I received the following mealy-mouthed missive from a bank:

We want to help you manage your borrowing and ensure your overdraft limit is right for you. As you haven’t used your overdraft for a while, we’re planning to reduce this from £3,150 to £1,300 on 27 November 2020. Your new overdraft limit is still above the most you have used on your account in the last six months.

Well, thanks a bunch. I’ll have you know that I haven’t used my overdraft for the last fricking ten years, I can’t remember ever using it and it will have been cock-up anyway. However, you cynical punks are clearly expecting me to lose my job by Christmas and don’t want to be left holding the baby, eh? Well, you can f*ck right off and stick your overdraft where the sun don’t shine, busters.

Help me manage my borrowing? WTAF?

We’re in the chest-beating and mutual hollering abuse stage on Brexit

It was always going to get to this. Personally I’m of the view that too many Tories want a no-deal Brexit and there’s another four years to spin it as all t’other side’s fault. But perhaps all the chest-beating is just a phase we are going to have to go through.

In this crossfire, the Ermine needs to work out to preserve capital across the Brexit interregnum. I grouped together the bits from shorting earlier this year, reserves and I have enough for next year’s ISA before becoming a net decumulator.

I have ‘invested3‘ in SGLP, I will tolerate some cash in NS&I ILSCs, and some more in premium bonds. Now that does expose me a bit to Government cash grabs in the troubled fiscal future, as well as the lessening of the greatness of British Pounds to buy stuff, but the combined amount is less than the FSCS limit. Not that that pertains to NS&I anyway. I need to work out what I am going to hold the value of next year’s ISA contribution in. Gold via SGLP is one option, but I start getting seriously exposed to the gold price.

There’s still time before Brexit once October is gone, with it’s nasty tendency to downside violence in the markets, and perhaps if we know whether Trump will finish the job of Making America Great Again. Although my shares ISA is rammed, I could start to deploy the next year’s allowance into a trading account, and then bed and ISA the shares into the ISA after March. I am unlikely to be hammered for capital gains on £20k worth of say VWRL, although I suppose it depends on how well Bojo and his mates respond to the FXmarket singing ‘how low can you go’ about the GBP in the background.

There aren’t any good options here. Just less bad ones…


  1. That’s you and me trying to make sense of what will hold value into the storm. assuming you have capital. God knows, but I suspect valuations are not representative of value. This too will pass. That’s better for you if you have 30 years of investment horizon rather than two, but hey ho, I have had a good run since the GFC. If I buy VWRL, I am not under the impression I an ‘investing’ in productive assets at good value these days. More I am disinvesting in great British pounds. It’s a race to the bottom. 
  2. Some of it is she’s having a larf and needs column-inches, her story about running away from Devon and how to fix the First World problem of puppies turning into dogs were designed to get a rise, along with the power of phenergan elixir to quieten your rugrats on flights ;) 
  3. Ah, the i-word again. Nobody invests in gold – it’s noted for not adding value, unlike farms and companies. It’s a pure fear play, trying to hold value against a storm. 

Strong in these padawan, recency bias is

Thus quoth ZXSpectrum48k, over on Monevator. From a fellow who does this as a day job, looking at the legions of wannabe escapees from the office


Socrates was the counterfactual, though he defined the Dunning-Kruger problem in his first sentence.

for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know

Or Plato talking about Socrates.
whatever, there still be truth in it

It is part of the way of the world – the young fellow must be ignorant to his faults to make his way in the world and try and put his ding in the universe. ZX was also talking of the younger ermine, and probably even of me now, after all, how would I know 😉

You don’t often get away with thinking that you know, when you don’t. Particularly in the markets. Somehow TA’s article showed that in a harsh light. Let us look at the thrust of his article Should you use cash to bridge the gap between your ISAs and your pension?

In it, TA postulates saving ten years worth of cash, to bridge your spending over 10 years between retiring early (the RE part of FIRE), and reaching 57, the earliest point the Agglomerator, hero of his journey, gets to access their tax-privileged pension savings (SIPP). I confess I haven’t studied his derivation of that requirement, but I was only a little bit older than his putative future Millennial when I packed in work, I was very early fifties whereas Agglomerator wants to clear the workforce at 46.

Let’s just zoom out a little and put that into perspective, the Agglomerator enters the workforce at 21 on leaving university, and clears it at 46, so he works for 25 years. In that 25 years, somehow he saves 10 years of spending as cash and about twice that much in tax-privileged accounts to see him out. That looks like a massive ask to me, saving effectively 30 years of essential spend1 along with buying a house outright and establishing himself.

Today’s FIRE community is very different from that 10 years ago

For a start, fat FIRE is a much bigger thing than it was in the past. When I started it was about frugality first

UK Personal Finance Blogosphere, Source:

there are only 5/13 left standing (I haven’t counted those that haven’t been updated for over a year). It shows how different the world is now that it was just over ten years ago when I started down the FI/RE track. It was about saving and frugality.

Why was this – it was just after the GFC, people didn’t really believe the stock market would come good. Apart from Monevator, who sounded the clarion call into the low-water mark – git your ass into this market- NOW. However, valuations were such that you could get a decent return on shovelling money into that market. Although you were never going to retire early making minimum wage, you didn’t need the fancy City finance pay packet.

Today’s FIRE community is much, much richer than that of ten years ago. Some of that reflects these high valuations – if you want to accumulate enough to retire early now it’s a much tougher job. A safe withdrawal rate of 5% was conceivable in 2009, it’s much lower now, simply because valuations are higher. You need to be working in finance to get enough. There’s much more emphasis on fat FIRE now – starting off with a lot more, and spending at much higher levels. The frugalistas have been run out of town.

If you’re starting out, that’s not so bad, I have the suspicion that valuations will become more reasonable2 in the not too distant future, you need to keep buying into it. You have three decades.

But if you need to make it all happen in five years starting yesterday, then it’s going to be tough sledding. And I would imagine that a lot of getting-on-for-fifty-somethings are going to find themselves heading towards early retirement this year and next.

Talking of padawan, bless my younger self’s cotton socks, I thought I would have edge in sectors. Then I chased the HYP, is some ways because after a GFC yield was easy to find. Dunning and Kruger would be proud of me. I did do well. But not for the reasons I believed. I have no particular edge is stockpicking. But I was next to an open goal. Truth be told it didn’t really matter what you bought at that time. Valuations were in the dumps. My big win was to buy anything. I would probably have done better buying VWRL, except it didn’t exist in 2009 and before the RDR there were all sorts of dodgy practices to do with funds and backhanders. I was weak on the US market, which has been on a tear for most of that time. But I bought in at a low, and while I would have been better off buying a broad index, getting the timing right trumped sector allocation.

It’s not what I bought, it was when I bought – at low valuations. The rest of the journey was slowly coming to the conclusion that I am still a padawan, though not hopelessly so. I did OK, such that now, marked to market at high valuations (now) I have more capital than market to market at low valuations (the GFC) despite living off investment return over the last 8 years.

TA’s article says I was nuts. I agree, if I were starting now being balls-deep in equities other than three years’ essential spend would be crazy. It was less nuts starting from low valuations, because it is the truth that passivistas never allow to be heard – valuation matters, and the other name for that is market timing  😉 . But Dunning-Kruger probably would have the last laugh, because if TA went back in time to the younger Ermine and said ‘my crystal ball tells me you have to have enough cash to carry you for the next 8 years, what do you know that I don’t?‘ I am not sure that the younger ermine would have puffed up his furry chest and say ‘traveller from the future, valuations are historically low now, so the risk is much lower than it will be in your time.‘ TA wasn’t there, though Monevator said pretty much that at the time in his if not now, when?

A tale of desperation against logic

We are all, of course, the hero of our own narrative. Using the flight  analogy from a few weeks ago, I ready myself for the eight lean years in a flimsy craft, refuelling and seeing fire streaking across the runway behind. I am faced with the choice of wealth or health, and choose health. TA would not have cleared me for take-off, I did not have eight years cash saved, I did not have enough to bridge the gap. But enough to be prepared to take the chance. Against the backdrop of the GFC, the increasing value of the shareholdings stiffened the spine enough that I felt I could make it, though I did have to experience the lean years, particularly at the beginning. But in the years after the GFC, many people were skint. The ask is much, much higher now.

The Ermine cast a cynical eye at the Bank of England’s UK’s implied inflation forward curve (H/T Monevator’s should you use cash to bridge gap between your ISA and pension) and thought to myself flipping ‘eck, you lot must think we are born yesterday.

Look at the sedate trajectory On the one hand they’re expecting to write lots of letters to the Chancellor on how they cocked up bringing inflation down to 2%, indeed this will be a regular event for the rest of my lifetime. The Bank of England has a lot of finance bods much smarter than me, and I am sure that they will say well, hey, this is what is implied by the yield curves, it’s not our opinion. Sort of like a variant on guns don’t kill people, people do. Nothing to do with us, guv, it’s wot the market numbers say.

All over the decadent demise of the Western world there is this refusal to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions in favour of magical thinking. I’m all for magical thinking, but in that case let’s have some magic back, eh, rather than pretending we’re all materialist rationalists. Smells and bells, please. At least some of the ride will be more fun. Meanwhile

You’re having a larf, guys

In an exceptionally paranoid moment the ermine looked at what I expect coronavirus to do to the economy, followed by a quick one-two of Brexit, and figured that I see inflation in my future. In the BofE’s favour, if we take a look at the UK inflation rate history

UK historical inflation (CPI) Macrotrends

it looks not so different from the B of E’s prognostications, if we stick to the last 40 years. We have to go back nearly 30 years to the last time it was over 5%. Case proven, m’lud. Along with history, inflation has ended. Obviously you need some inflation, else capital will sit back on its lardy butt rather than get out into the world making good stuff happen in theory, but we’re sorted as far as inflation taking off. Hmm. In other news

We seem to be suffering a general competence deficit

We seem to be suffering a major competence deficit these days. In the battle between ability and craftiness, everyone seems to be losing their grip. The malefic Dominic Cummings seems to losing his mojo – starry-eyed for Big Data, his feet of clay show when it comes to hiring people to do anything with it. Obviously you ask your mates first, because, well, corrupt bastards are like that. He’s of the view that leadership in politics requires a science degree, but his own ancient and modern history degree from Oxford clearly failed him in his/our hour of need. He’s unable to find competence in handling data.

If the answer to your data processing job is Excel, the question is wrong

Back in the day, the Ermine was chatting to the guy at the next desk, who was tasked with keeping records of set-top boxes. Now I had an electronics, not software background, but he was planning on keeping this in Microsoft Excel. “Your problem there,” opined the Ermine, “is that you can’t do ‘owt with the data. What you need is a database”. This guy was going to try and search for repeating faults and that sort of jazz. Now you can do that is Excel, but it’s a bit like Samuel Johnson’s quip about a dog waking on its hind legs, it’s not so much that it’s done well, it is that it’s possible at all. It grinds to ever slower after about a thousand records – I discovered this the hard way when running the records of a club that had about 1500 members at its high water point. I switched to Access3 after about 500 members.

The trouble is everybody can understand Excel, whereas getting your data into a database is a different level of abstraction. Even in DOS days, dBaseIV had the edge on Lotus 123, though wrangling the forms to make it work was a nightmare.

Excel just isn’t designed to handle huge amounts of data – wrong tool, wrong job. This fellow might have had a hundred thousand set-top box ids, and Excel was only good for 65535 rows back then. You don’t use Excel for massive lots of data. I’d get off that wagon at more than 5000 data points, so you don’t use Excel for tracking your set-top boxes. Or your coronavirus victims

Now in fairness to our Dom, he’s busy getting his mates to do his data munging, falling for the old saw of anonymised data. The trouble with AI and Big Data in particular is that the aim is to de-anonymise everything.  AI looks intelligent because it cross-correlates everything, at scale. The public data Dom’s giving his buddies may well be anonymised on its own, but when combined with other data the keys to the kingdom often show up.

Now is the winter of our discontent[…]
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,

This lot seem to have skipped a few lines of Richard III, and gone straight on to the doing evil. The thing that’s saving the rest of us is the competence deficit – in driving out Brexit non-believers, they seem to also have driven out anybody who can spot a bad idea miles away. Or indeed anybody who’s got a clue. Funny old thing, that… Correlation is not causation, eh, Dom?

Brexit zealotry doesn’t seem to correlate with competence

Perhaps driving out those who had a clue was the point – disaster capitalism unfolding before our eyes. Never let a good crisis go to waste and all that. Perhaps it has to be the way- you need moronic slavishness to the Brexit Ideal to Get Brexit Done, and perhaps afterwards we can engage people who understand the art of compromise. A little bit of that on t’other side wouldn’t go amiss, either, but we have to stick with what we can change…

I’m sure we will trade with other people after Brexit. But let’s get some people who can talk in a civilised manner to others, eh, rather than yelling we have the sovereign right to do exactly as we damn well please, and thanks for all the fish. That’s an awful long way towards the Juche doctrine of North Korea, and I suggest Brits are a little bit too soft and used to their creature comforts to want to pay that sort of price for absolute sovereignty, regardless of what Jacob Rees-Mogg and his disaster capitalism compadres in the European Research Group have to say about vassal states.

I am old enough to just remember 1973. Britain was a lot more self-sufficient in many things then, like food and cars for instance, than it is now. We weren’t that good at a lot of this, which was roughly why we signed up to the Common Market as it was then  – we were the sick man of Europe, economically speaking. However, the issues raised by James Goldsmith of the Referendum Party weren’t ever addressed with Maastricht. Brexit will definitely fix those. A little bit like burning the house down fixes bad wallpaper, but some non-ERG eyes can probably make Brexit work right after a few years. Britain’s economy did sort of work before 1973, and hopefully we have all learned something in the intervening 47 years. Just for God’s sake keep the British Eton-educated whazzocks away from leadership of our companies, particularly any that make cars, it took foreign management to make Britain’s car factories make cars that were worth buying…

work is not the route out of poverty for the ability-challenged or those with more children than skill

I confess I will struggle to drum up sympathy for the Red Wall if they find they are vassals to British plutocrats rather than EU technocrats. True, they weren’t to know of the coronavirus pandemic, but the deep compassion for those who fall on hard times of the crew that they voted in to Get Brexit Done has been hidden in plain sight for a very long time.

I still remember the relatively benign version of that looking for my first job nearly 40 years ago, it scared the hell enough out of me to never take any time between jobs until I packed work in for the last time. The experience of being unemployed in Britain doesn’t seem to have improved between Margaret Thatcher and the punitive and nasty Universal Credit.

Let’s take a look at the latest tweets by the bell-ends at the DWP about Job Entry Targeted Support.

Translated: People on the scheme which get a personal DWP goon on minimum wage who is incentivised to make your life a misery and get you to apply for endless jobs for which your skills and personal circumstances don’t fit you

Personalised, like the red dot from a rifle. The personal adviser will be targeted to make your life miserable. If you want to cop a feel of the quality of the personalised advice, knock yourself out on the careers advice beta to gauge the accuracy.In the case of the Ermine, that’ll be

ORLY? The last time I had anything to do with sports was the very last time i packed my PE kit away at school, in the late 1970s…

Because there is a fundamental truth here. Britain is a rich, First World country. That means the cost of living is higher here than in many other places.

Sadly, Brits are not, on average, cleverer than other people. We’re average. Quelle surprise, eh? As a result, the sort of jobs available in the UK that pay enough to live on need to demand a higher level of skill than the global average, and the bar is increasing all the time4. Because: globalisation. If you thought Brexit is going to fix globalisation, then you should have been more careful about the people you gave the keys to.

Elementary logic shows that the result of increasing skill requirements is that fewer and fewer people will be able to earn enough for the average cost of living. Some of them won’t be bright enough. Some of them will have had children too early in life, or split up with the other party involved. That means you won’t have enough time to get a full-time job. As a society while we mouth platitudes about wanting to make up the difference, by our actions we clearly don’t care that much to be prepared to carry your choices for years and years.

We have hidden this in the past by increasing the number of shit jobs in the economy, things that should have been done by machine or not done at all, and priced these at minimum wage. It is one of the reasons why productivity has gone down the toilet in the UK since the credit crunch. For contrast, I started work when this was about 55 on that scale, and left when it was about 95. Britain got better off while I was at work – not due to me I hasten to add. You need an increase in productivity to address poverty. There has to be more shit to go around per head for the country as a whole to get better off – it is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

UK per capita productivity, it’s less than it was in 2016, and pretty flat since the GFC. Source: ONS

There’s only so far this can go. Another way we are hiding this is to create a punitive DWP system for the un(der)employed called Universal Credit, employ young graduates who can read and write to be mean to people who perhaps have literacy issues or generally can’t stand filling in forms. We incentivise the graduates to disenfrachise as many of their ‘clients’ as possible so that they keep their sort-of middle-class jobs, while making it all look like the clients’ fault that they don’t have the natural ability to get/hold a job that pays enough to live on.

Let’s not even start on what we do to the physically and mentally ill, eh? We just don’t care. Oh and then we wring our hands about the amount of homelessness.

Now I’m not saying I am clever enough to know the solution to this problem, but I have learned over several decades is that whistling a tune and repeating inappropriate platitudes like ‘work is the route out of poverty’ isn’t the way to fix the problem. It would be more honest simply to tell some of the people with insufficient skills or chaotic lifestyle choices that there is nothing we are prepared to do for you. Work is not the route out of poverty, for the simple reason that the cost of living is too high in Britain to keep a roof over your head on anything less than the full-time minimum wage, and there are too many people in the UK who don’t have enough aptitude to add enough value to something to even justify the minimum wage.

Some people are seriously short of basic life skills, like recognising food 😉

Ceci n’est pas food

Microsoft offered me this picture of a field of Halloween pumpkins in some American field. It’s a little bit weird, a tad Magritte, IMO. How do I know it’s American – there are no trees, hedgerows, we don’t have one-armed pylons unless there’s a really good reason and we don’t run our railway tracks with no guarding, and I don’t think I’ve seen boxcars like that.

However, it’s in keeping – Halloween never used to be a retail-fest or even A Big Thing until about 30 years ago, and it’s been pushed like hell, imported from Over There. It’s still rather disturbing that a significant proportion of British parents were presumably raised by wolves themselves in being unaware that you can eat what’s inside pumpkins5. Although I had no idea how they grew, I was aware of this by the time I left home, though it wasn’t particularly useful information as Halloween wasn’t a big thing, and I am child-free anyway 😉

However, I am with hubbub – eat your damn pumpkins FFS 😉 Tossing 90% of the pumpkins we grow is just plain rude. Mrs Ermine grows these smaller ones which look the part but taste better. We don’t need to carve them, but with cucurbits size does not correlate with flavour IMO.

It’s not so much that the big supermarket ones will taste horrible, the main failure mode is to taste of nothing much at all. Think marrows as opposed to courgettes. Having said that, if it tastes bitter, then toss it out. Pretty much a rule of everything to do with eating really, but according the the RHS bitter squash can give you bellyache if it doesn’t breed true. So don’t seed save curcubits unless you know what you are doing.

Last year I was in Morrissons and they actually labelled their Halloween pumpkins as ‘not for human consumption’, which makes me wonder what the hell they spray the buggers with. And quite frankly, parents, maybe you want to ask yourselves, if you buy this sort of contaminated shit for your kids, then what sort of world you are encouraging capitalism to build for them?

  1. I know, he doesn’t keep it all in cash and gets some return on his money. But the maths works out at enough for 30 years essential spend, even if it isn’t deployed in that way. 
  2. Valuations becoming more reasonable is otherwise known as a bear market 
  3. Before all the DBAs take the piss, Microsoft Access was the right solution for a club database, easy enough to a tyro to make it work. If it didn’t, the result was going to be embarrassment rather than death. I’m not saying PHE should have used Access ;) 
  4. I took my O levels in the mid 1970s. The typical class sizes of my grammar school was 31, but after the O levels class sizes were about half, because half the kids had gone into the world of work. They were fixing cars, helping in businesses, all without A levels or a degree. I saw far more people as a child building the Goldsmith’s College halls of residence than I saw on the entire Olympic Athlete’s Village building site in 2012. You wouldn’t need to be able to read and write as a hod carrier in the 1970s, I saw nobody carrying bricks onto the scaffolding up a ladder in 2012, there were mechanacal aids t do that. 
  5. While I despise Halloween for being a jumped up capitalist consumerism-fest, rather than an honourable celebration of the turning of the seasons/harvest festival/thinning of the veil, the truth is that parents who eat their pumpkins with their kids and then carve jack o’lanterns out of them use more of the fruit than I do. Upcycling writ large and they should be applauded! 

ermine egging on the economy

Monday 15th June was allocated to opening non-essential shopping in England, and it seems to have gone down a storm. Boris would like a word with y’all

Boris, me old buddy, the prospect of 10% unemployment1 is heading towards these punters you’re exhorting to shop with confidence. Isn’t it better to shop with confidence you will have a job to pay for your consumerism first? Not sure I’d start with Westfield either, I don’t have fond memories of my last visit to Westfield – a food desert of overpriced junk.

Nevertheless, we decided to go egg on the economy the Ermine way, so we headed off to the South Coast. Mrs Ermine wanted to swim in the sea. She was much taken with it – on the south coast you can see some depth into the water, which is a step up from doing that in the North Sea, which is pretty murky.

Personally I can’t understand the attraction – you get salt in your hair and sand everywhere. I am a weak swimmer, however, and when I hear this sort of thing then I just don’t fancy my chances at all.

Indeed Mrs Ermine started talking of rampant consumerism – she is thinking of getting a snorkel and fins. I was picturing this sort of thing and wondered if that’s really a kindness on a public beach. Suppose it’s one way of encouraging social distancing


Apparently she means flippers. That’s future consumerism. We had more immediate requirements for consumerism, and dropped £60 on this,

a whole lobster in halves

and mighty fine it was too. We got to eat it on a table, but we had to provide that and the eating irons ourselves – we had it in our camper van in the National Trust car park. Call me timid, but I think trying to wrangle half a lobster on one’s knees using a blunt wooden fork could easily end up a tragic waste of fine seafood.

Although we were doing our bit for Britain, personally I think that hospitality is toast. This sort of thing is all very well in midsummer, but it’s going to suck bricks in winter

physically distanced queue to get chow is OK in summer…

plus there’s still rent and maintenance on the buildings that you can’t turn a profit on. Sure, you need the kitchens, but there’s a lot of wasted space on the eatery. Perhaps they will have got that sorted by Autumn, because al fresco dining in the rain isn’t the cheeriest prospect in the world. Margins seem razor-thin in the restaurant trade. Second-hand catering equipment and premises will probably be very cheap next year, perhaps it is down to a new generation of restaurateurs to build the new world out of the ashes of the old. Continue reading “ermine egging on the economy”

What will we do with our world when this is over?

As my ageing mother said a couple of weeks ago, up until this you have not lived through any crisis. This is a woman who was not yet into double digits before the second world war ended.

You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.

Rahm Emanuel

Having switched off a fair part of the economy, it’s a fair chance to ask the question “If we started with a blank sheet of paper, I don’t know, say about May 1979, would we design to get to where we are now?”

if it was meself that was going to Letterfrack, faith, I wouldn’t start from here

apocryphal Irish joke

Let’s take a look at what we have got in the UK compared to what we had. Way back when a young Ermine entered university around that time, inflation was way up in the sky. By the time I graduated,  the economy went titsup in a big way, and it took six months to find a job. I plied my trade in a small company making electronic gizmos. Britain was a different place then.

When we wanted castings for a piece of equipment, we were able to go a couple of miles down the road to meet up with the suppliers, they could point to the part of the design that would reduce the yield, tell us why and we got to change that. The people who wound the transformers for us were in walking distance.

In my next job, I travelled by train from SE London to Cannon Street Station. No city, other than perhaps Edinburgh presents a pretty face to the railway line, but I saw light engineering firms here and there from the railway line, amongst the council estates and blocks of flats. As the decades passed, billboards went up ‘you could be home by now’ as the factories were cleared to make way for estates of ‘executive’ homes. Funny how every bugger buying a new house wants to feel they are an executive, I’d imagine a real FTSE100 CEO wouldn’t be seen dead in one of those rabbit hutches.

I inherited this pump made in east London from my Dad, we still use it when making compost to get enough pressure from our water butts to run a sprayer.

They used to make pumps in London – yes, Romford is in London, not Essex

As the entertaining wingnut David Starkey related, today’s Britain is buggered if it can make shaped bits of plastic in any quantity, for that is largely what PPE is. Sic transit gloria for the erstwhile workshop of the world. I’m sure Mr Carter would have something to say about that, once he’s stopped spinning in his grave on his sintered bearings, still serviceable after six decades or more.

Starkey is surprisingly dirigiste for a wingnut. Perhaps he hates globalisation and its inhabitants of nowhere even more than furriners. Maybe here is a way to make a success of Brexit, with hyper-localisation, though I thought we had given industrial policy up with Thatcher in favour of Ricardian advantage and the invisible hand of market forces. Too much of a good thing can be wonderful and all that.

Maybe there is a turning point here. We could draw in our horns and make more stuff, indeed balance the economy, though I don’t think that we will have employment enough for the horny-handed New Tories of the North. But hopefully we could make shaped plastic quicker… We used to have big companies that made the raw materials, with grand sounding names like Imperial Chemical Industries.

Britain decided to maximize the amount of money we could make, by specialising in finance, and tossed an awful lot of the population’s dreams and expectations1 by the wayside. Now although I blame the borked state of the housing market squarely on Mrs T and her cursed Right to Buy sale of votes, clearly the world didn’t stay static over the intervening 40 years, so you can’t blame other pathologies of modern Britain on her. But it did set the direction of travel, a focus on the numbers and Ricardian advantage. Despite the bad rap she has for manufacturing, causal inspection of the share of GDP as manufacturing chart lower down shows that it was the Rt Hon Tony Blair who was in the wheelhouse when manufacturing got run out of town.

Our finest minds went into finance, and there’s some pretty damning critiques of the desperate lack of balance in the British economy from some of these. There’s the short form from ZXSpectrum on Monevator

The UK made a sort of Faustian bargain: low unemployment for high underemployment and low skill base. Taxpayers subsidize many corporates and SMEs, through low taxation and incentives, to provide rubbish jobs on low pay. These jobs should have been offshored to EM markets years ago. It’s unsustainable for UK workers to be paid 3-5x an EM worker for something where they offer no advantage. It’s also results in terrible productivity and low capex.

I’m clearly going to have to pay more tax after this crisis. I’d much prefer to pay people UBI so that they could stare at the ceiling, than see my tax used to subsidize Richard Branson, Mike Ashley or Phillip Green. Machine learning and AI is going to make many middle class people unemployed.

and the long form with knobs on from Tullet Prebon’s Tim Morgan

In the West, a small minority prospers, principally the CEOs of companies whose profits have surged, and bankers who gain from the expansion of the lending sector. On the other hand, the majority suffers, both because of declining wages and because of rising indebtedness.[…]

Our Tim ain’t feeling any more chipper about things now, here’s what he has to say about the much-vaunted V-shaped coronavirus recession that the markets are telling you do go buy into RIGHT NOW ‘cuz everything is up in the sky and going up. There’s an updated version of Tim’s growl H/T FI Warrior which makes the same sort of Limits To Growth angle. For the moment let’s set the LtG angle aside2. After all, I was still in short trousers when the Club of Rome said we were doomed in thirty years, and I am now within spitting distance of The Firm’s normal retirement age, after two decades of extra play.

However, it is clear that since 1980 we in Britain have designed a world of work that is a seriously shit experience for a lot of people after 40 years of TINA. In particular we shifted the UK economy to services, and created an awful lot of crap low-paid bottom end jobs, and a lot of middle-class bullshit jobs. The poor on zero-hours contracts can point to what the problem is with their service jobs. They aren’t reliable, and they aren’t enough to pay the rent, never mind a good life.

Many in the middle-class find their bullshit jobs eat their souls, though they pay OK. One of the problems of bullshit jobs is that they are like Universal Credit for the middle class without the DWP torture, they still lower productivity. Bullshit jobs produce services/goods that nobody wants or needs.

We have maximised money, but not meaning, and muddle along with misery for the many

It’s all very well to clap for our carers, but we will learn what our values are if we collectively stick our hands in our pockets and pay the poor bastards a living wage, and perhaps bring back bursaries so they don’t carry student debt. In general this crisis is highlighting that an awful lot of people who keep the wheels running for us are paid the minimum wage if they are lucky, and don’t have a minimum guaranteed hours if they are unlucky.

And, when we get to stand back a little bit from it all, we discover that an awful lot of better paid middle-class jobs are a bizarre combination of make-work and perverse incentives. F’rinstance, several years ago, we took a look at how some funding organisation was setting up a community project. The first rule of funding is that you have to fund the consultants who happen to be funded by the funders somehow, that advise you on how to use the funding, then how to get next year’s funding, how to fill in the innumerable forms to get the right ticks in the boxes so the funders feel good about the funding.

Personally, I’d pull the plug on the lot, including the National Lottery and all its good causes. There’s a lot to be said for the Hippocratic oath when it comes to fiddling with the lives of the poor. First do no harm. Betting on the horses or greyhounds in the 1960s was more honest than ‘it could be you’ but pretty definitely won’t be. I have some recollection that there was regulation of that but it appeared that the Tote established by Churchill was sold off3 to Betfred in 2008. Ain’t privatisation such a great thing, eh? I’m sure Betfred maximises the amount of money not ripped off from the punters and feeds it back to the sports. Not.

On a more collective level we end up with the deeply borked twisted mess that the DWP has become. They start with a buggered up premise from the get go, which is that work is the way out of poverty. No. It used to be, when the economy had a wide range of jobs for a wide range of talents, and we needed hod-carriers as well doctors. That was forty years ago, guys.

That’s just not true any more, because: globalisation. There are many people in the UK whose skills aren’t up to adding enough value, because it is cheaper to go to somewhere where the cost of living is cheaper and hire that function there – or build a factory to make it there and import the product.

Now there are lovely jobs and lousy jobs, and whaddya know, there are a lot more lousy jobs than lovely jobs. This was spotted 17 years ago, it’s not new. You can’t make a lovely life out of lousy jobs.

That is why they don’t make pumps in London any more – they make money in London, and making pumps is just too low value-add compared with making money.

That isn’t to say we make nothing in Britain any more – the added value of manufacturing has been sort of retained, even as the share of GDP has dropped like a stone

Share of GDP added by the manufacturing sector as percent of GDP
Added value of manufacturing, bn USD, probably slightly declining over time given 30 years of inflation probably make 500bn 2020’s US$ worth less than 300bn US$ in 1990

So what, many might say. After all, my Dad was notably hard of hearing by my age due to working in a glass bottling plant, and he was stone deaf by the time he cashed in his chips.

People may wax lyrical about the mining community spirits but it was still a pretty ghastly tough job. There’s not that much great about a lot of manufacturing jobs, because wrangling Stuff tends to be physical, noisy and hard work. The younger ermine thought I would have to leave the electronics industry due to getting asthma. That first company was probably not COSHH-compliant. The problem turned out to be that we would wash circuit boards in boiling Arklone with the instruction never fall to the floor in that room, because the vapour is heavier than air. I never had trouble with asthma4 since leaving that first job after a year, though soldering was still part of the electronics industry, and fume extraction was not a thing until a few more years. As a design engineer and then research engineer I didn’t do enough soldering for that to be an issue.

Many manufacturing jobs were bad for you, but an awful lot of modern service jobs are shit in a different way. At least many of the problems in manufacturing were soluble with PPE and automation, whereas many service jobs seem to gravitate towards low-end minimum wage zero hour contracts that you can’t live or die on. The micromanagement and metrics of some middle-class jobs lead to chronic stress and the associated strokes/heart attacks.

In Britain Thatcher inaugurated the practice of buying votes by raising house prices. This was achieved by destroying social housing, giving bungs to people who were too poor to buy a house. Credit was expanded massively with banks going into the home lending market. In 1989 a young Ermine as a single man stupidly bought a house on 3.5 times earnings. Apparently you can still do that oop North, but according to the ONS your average English first time buyer earns5 52k, saves one year’s earnings and spunks 237k on the house.

Over a couple of generations, that means a higher level of housing precarity, though house owners feel good about higher nominal values, and they increase inequality by favouring their own children with the loot when they die. Those not so blessed with ancestral wealth also take a hit from BTL landlords hoovering up starter homes, because homeowners are of the view that bricks and mortar = money tree. Present company excepted, that is…

One thing I have always thought would be a good way to eliminate a lot of what’s gone wrong with employment practices is to terminate all agencies and middlemen. If somebody pays you to pay someone else to do something then you are skimming, and should be run out of town. We did it to wholesalers of Stuff, let’s repeat the exercise to wholesalers of people. The Firm used to employ its cleaners directly. They saved money by outsourcing that, goodbye paid holiday and sick pay. Agency is a fancy name for gangmaster. Oddly enough digitalisation has greatly disintermediated buying and selling stuff, but has greatly intermediated employment with agencies and job-search platforms.

What could we do better?

We will have less Stuff. Probably fewer Services. It’s not all bad – you might get to see your kids more. Here are some things I would like to happen. I’m sticking with the UK here, we seem to want the world to get a larger place what with Brexit etc and I am nowhere near clever enough to fix anything wider, but I could probably match the current shower in charge of the UK in basic competence. Ain’tcha glad I’m not in charge. huh?

1) Destroy the low-cost leisure airline industry. Burn it, and encase the memory that it ever happened in glass and concrete, and bury it so deep nobody will ever find it for five thousand years.

Easyjet will resume domestic flights in mid June. There is absolutely no need for domestic flights in the UK ever. Britain is not that big – we aren’t Australia or the United States. I want to see EasyJet, Ryanair, the lot of them destroyed and the ground that low-cost airlines grew in salted and burned. If you have grandchildren, you don’t need low-cost airlines. Because: their world when they are your age.  Let’s quietly ignore the possibility that air travel got Europe into serious shit in March according to the ECDC. The original mistake wasn’t malicious – people weren’t to know then. However, after what happened, if you postulate air bridges – well, it pretty much sums up air travel all round. No externality is important enough to constrain the God Given right to cheap air travel. This is not about people starving like the Berlin Airlift, it’s about the right to fight for towels on a packed beach.

Zooming out, you will never electrify air travel. Sure, you might be able to do it technically in a couple of decades, but you have to plug the entire output of Sizewell B power station into a future electric 747 for an hour to achieve one long-haul flight. Even if you don’t give a shit about climate change or know for a fact it’s all a Deep State cabal, just how much nuclear waste to you want those grandchildren to have to deal with to keep up your flying habit? People used to have one annual family holiday to foreign parts. If we could make work less hateful, perhaps we might not need to run away from it so often. As for commuting by air…

Right, capt'n, where do I plug this sucker in? Photo Dave Croker, Geograph
Right, capt’n, where do I plug this sucker in? Photo Dave Croker, Geograph

I really hate the low cost airline industry. It fucks up our skies which is patently obvious now, it generates needless unholy rumble through most of the day and encroaching onto the nights, it ruins your kids’ future worlds,  it facilitates stag party twattishness, it makes places like Barcelona nd Amsterdam crap. It’s just gone too far. If coronavirus can kill it that is all to the good IMO. Less is more. It’s a proxy for the pathologies inherent in late stage capitalism. It just doesn’t know when to bloody well stop. More is not always better.

2) A four day week isn’t a bad idea, along the lines of making work less hateful

3) Do something about crap jobs. Automate the ones that aren’t worth doing, pay the ones that are worth doing a living wage.

4) String up anybody who even thinks “work is the way out of poverty”  – it hasn’t been for 40 years and it never will be. Talent that matches well paid work opportunities and luck are the route out of poverty, and neither are something you have overwhelming influence over. You can play a good hand well, but you can’t do anything with a weak hand, the opportunities just aren’t there. We have specialised too much.

5) Fix Universal Credit. Turn it into a universal basic income, or for all I care universal basic services. Or at least be honest and say we believe some people’s lives are worthless, we aren’t going to get involved, we don’t give a shit, and basically, kill ’em all. If we can pay Endemol to round up Iain Duncan Smith and have him live a month on UC that should be good for a laugh, too.

6) Destroy bullshit jobs. A Universal Income/Services would save the waste of human potential. And the trees. And reduce the pressure on the transport system.

6) Think about how we feel about poverty. If we collectively are chilled about it, there are enough dystopian way pointers on how to deal with it. If we aren’t, then finding some way of learning to live within our means will mean rationing of some things. Probably including air travel,  and probably including other popular lifestyle choices.

7) Reinstate previous generations’ controls on ownership and share of media6. There was an awful lot wrong with the media in the UK before Mrs T gave it to Murdoch, but I would suggest that while the cure eliminated the disease, the pathology metastasized into something worse. There was at least plurality in the previous disease.

Ain’tcha really glad I’m not in charge? Before I take too much heat for the air travel, note many people would have more time in an Ermine world, you can get to your Alpine skiing second, third, fourth holiday by Eurostar. I’m only coming for your second and up air travel holidays. We’ve probably got enough world for the air travel of the 1990s. But not the amount in 2020 BCV.

How about that Limits to Growth stuff?

It is possible that this second global financial crisis of the new Millennium is the result of systemic overreach as described by the Club of Rome. Let’s not beat about the bush here- the prognosis for FIRE is dire in this case. If you aren’t there you’re not getting there, and if you are there you may not stay there, and yes, that’s me too. The problem is an overhang of debt accumulated, this covered up the fact that global production hasn’t kept up with global population, and some of the limiting inputs to production are becoming exhausted. These are claims on future resources that will not be honoured because they just aren’t possible.

That narrative makes a lot of sense, but there are other stories playing out. For starters old men have been saying the world is going titsup ever since Roman times and probably before.

an alternative – Spenglerian decline

Secondly there is a power shift in play – the ascendancy of China and the East in general, which is a longer example of the cycles of the Imperial decline of the West. These were the European empires of Victorian times, of which the best know example was of course the British Empire, but I would also say that the American Empire is also into decline, the Project for a New American Century looks like a Spenglerian dream gone wrong.

Old men dreaming of past Imperial glories, back in the last century. Diddums. Now where have we heard that recently?

Trump and Brexit both express nostalgia for past exceptionalism, but this is not just a pathology of the Anglosphere, it’s writ across the Western world IMO.

Spengler’s – The Decline of the West was written a hundred years ago, and the narrative runs true to form, and it predates the Club of Rome by fifty years. Like Asimov in Foundation, Spengler did not predict a catastrophic fall, but a protracted decline. That’s pretty much what this looks like to me. Maybe the Chinese will fix air travel with small fusion nuclear reactors that won’t spew foul shit everywhere in the event of a crash. Maybe we will have five thousand years of darkness until the new Imperium rises. Hopefully humanity will have learned a thing or two across the interregnum.

We could make a better world, and for all I know this may be the impulse that makes us ask some tough questions about would we want to end up here if we started along the track that got us here. We could start with the question anybody contemplating FIRE asks themselves.

Is our current level and form of consumption the optimal way to live, or is there a better way to optimise our experience?

But I fear we will let the crisis go to waste. The desperate urge to get air travel going again is symbolic of the driving impulse for a snap back to how things were before. There’s all sorts of special interest pleading to get back to the status quo.

A lot of that is understandable – this has been a sudden stop for an awful lot of economic activity. But it isn’t unheard of for us to say ‘we want to see less of this sort of economic activity in future’, usually because it has undesirable outcomes, usually externalities, costs paid for by other people who often don’t get a say or a share of the economic advantages.

It won’t happen. The drive towards a snap back is strong, and the countervailing forces are weak and disorganised. Macchiavelli was right

“there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”

  1. The dreams include raising children, having jobs that you could plan a life on, being able to buy a house. The reason their dreams were tossed by the wayside is because they don’t have the aptitudes for high finance. That’s the problem with doing one thing overwhelmingly well, you tend to suck at other things. Specialisation is for insects 
  2. If you want to see how Limits to Growth is going now, take a look at the thirty years on update. It ain’t looking good. 
  3. Blair’s government should be charged with the original idea and doing all the groundwork for this, even though the next government actually pulled the trigger. New Labour was no friend of the statistically illiterate working classes, since t’was they who inaugurated the National Lottery to happen. 
  4. Curiously enough the OSHA doesn’t cite getting asthma as a side effect of CFCs, they reckon it causes you heart problems. You can get away with anything in your 20’s, eh 😉 OTOH the datasheet seems to say respiratory problems were possible. 
  5. I can’t work out if earns means individually or collectively, best not have kids in that house if collectively given what young children do for the household income, eh? 
  6. Goldsmith’s College have a longer form report on UK media shares/ownership  

I’ve got a sneaking admiration for Donald Trump

Go big or go home…and The Donald’s going big in opening up America, standing down the coronavirus taskforce in the next few weeks. It’s probably fair to say there’s not an awful lot of love lost ‘twixt the Gray Lady and The Donald. New York is full of, well, t’other side, and it’s just not Donald’s tribe, though it has been his old stamping ground for ages.

Trump administration officials are telling members and staff of the coronavirus task force that the White House plans to wind down the operation in coming weeks


It’s not unknown for a POTUS to claim a premature victory. We’ve seen this movie before

How did that work out for ya, Dubya?

but there’s a big difference. I felt that Dubya was a bit out of his depth. He probably believed his own hype. It’s all that inbreeding in the presidential families of America. Trump is an outsider. Sure, his dad was steenking rich, we’re not talking the poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks making it to POTUS version of the American Dream.

I’m of the view that Trump is one of a kind – a masterful dog-whistler. Not everybody is responsive to his particular schtick, and it brings an awful lot of people out in hives. But those to whom he does speak, he speaks directly, and they feel he speaks for them. And sure as hell nobody else has been speaking for them since the American Dream started to go down the toilet pretty much since Reagan took office.

The Mule’s childhood was one of alienation and torment. This motivated him to use his powers to get revenge on the Galaxy

He reminds me of the Mule in Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, someone who almost directly controls people’s minds by making what he says resonate with their lived experience. After years where nobody sounds like they are listening to you that is magnetic – because all humans want to belong and for their pain to be witnessed. The Ermine has recently fired up the TV and paid the goons of TV licensing. I heard Trump on the TV news, and unlike hearing it through my PC on the Web, I heard him on my hi-fi.

The Donald needs to be re-elected

And while he doesn’t speak to me and I know he’s a lying sack of shit, I could hear the magnetism in the way he used his voice and understand the appeal. But the Donald comes with problems. Presumably he had attachment issues as a child, anyway he has a deep seated need to think that he is favoured, and it is really, really important to him to win the election.

Over in London they think coronavirus probably has a low mortality rate and the economy is suffering. Citing various posts from the intellectual right-wing website Unherd, some make a cogent case that Covid-19 isn’t such a big deal for most people. To their credit, Unherd supported their assertion with interviews with experts of similar views  – Hendrik Streek, and Johan Giesecke, and these make a lot of sense. it’s only when you look at Unherd’s content more widely that the focus of their particular lens shows clearly.

Their lens may be more accurate in some areas. I find a lot of resonance in Unherd’s interpretation that a lot of the problems in recent decades stem from a general anomie where by measuring everything in money we may have stripped our world of meaning and knowing what we stand for. I am not clever enough, nor privy to the information that shows whether the truth about coronavirus is closer to the Johan Giesecke end of the spectrum or Neil Ferguson’s. I am less convinced by Giesecke’s, not because I have a way of evaluating it, but from the people that are pushing it, who seem driven by the economics. But the low mortality rate we are all overreacting because what does it matter if this is infectious as hell if it doesn’t kill that many people is popular in London, and it is internally consistent. These are clever people making the case. Human societies do not put life first above all else everywhere – cars, pollution and many other things are examples of drawing a balance where some deaths are part of the price of achieving a greater good.

Mandy Rice-Davies might proffer that Londoners would say that. Londoners are young so at lower risk, on average. It’s unlikely to be a lot of fun being holed up in London micro-flats in a mini-heatwave.  Some are currently not doing a job that brings in squillions. Feeling more squillions disappearing down the plughole due to the shuttered economy must be stressful.

It’s less bad for a retiree in the sticks, where in a bike ride of several miles I encountered four cars once I got out of the town. I saw this

the white handkerchief is a Little Egret

avoided a serious gang fight

Why this field hasn’t degenerated into a swan war of all against all beats me

and wondered how this knot was done

Knotted Willow

While there’s some rumbling going on among the more swivel-eyed Tory contingent about opening up the economy – step forward Iain Duncan-Smith channeling FDR in the Torygraph

After six weeks of lockdown, we mustn’t lose sight of how vital a functioning economy is to our health and wellbeing. Perhaps we should remember President Roosevelt’s wise words in a time of crisis: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Iain “I’m all right Jack” Duncan-Smith, who is of the blessed opinion that poor people have a previous monthly salary paid in arrears that they can draw on before they get Universal Credit, writing in the Torygraph 5 May 2020

the trouble is that they are all chickenhawks. What the world needs to straighten out the difference between these courses of action is someone sure of their convictions and with balls of steel and pure conviction. Enter our man of the moment, Donald Trump.

Here’s a guy who knows what he wants, and knows how he’s going to get it. There are two competing ends of the theory spectrum about coronavirus, and sadly we have insufficient data to make a clear call which is right.

One, the London/Unherd view is that it’s not a biggie, most of us have already had it, closing the economy kills people too y’know. The other is that this is so infectious it will let rip as soon as its given a chance, mortality is not low enough that it won’t kill many. The UK already seems to have the highest European death toll, which points me in the latter direction, but whatever.

What we need is strong leadership, somebody who goes with his gut to cleave the Gordian knot in the face of uncertainty. Now strong leadership tends to have rather undesirable consequences of people marching in shiny jackboots and smashing windows in the night, so what we need is strong leadership somewhere else. And in the US of A they’ve got it. They voted for it once, and they’re gonna vote for it again.

Donald’s really keen on getting re-elected. He’s already flung so much Federal Reserve money at the stock market that it no longer reflects reality, even Warren Buffett can’t see where he’s going, the screen is covered with so much money.

But that’s not enough. Donald needs boots on the ground. He’s not going to let a little thing like a global pandemic get in his his way of being re-elected. Not only is he going to ReOpen America, he’s going to damn well Make America Great Again. And for that he needs Americans back at work. lickety-split.  No, not that interpretation of the phrase, though I guess this is Trump…

Now obviously there’s a chance that people might die if the low mortality  view is less congruent with reality than the higher mortality view. But that’s not important to Donald. Strong leaders decide, others take the consequences. Trump 2020 is what matters, so the great engine of American exceptionalism needs to get fired up. As Warren Buffett said,

never bet against America.

Warren’s ADF indicator may be titsup because of the Fed’s wall of money, but Donald Trump knows exactly where he’s going, what he wants and how he’s going to get it. And he’s going to put the pedal to the metal. Real Men accept collateral damage.

Warren scratches head. Which way is up on this damn thing? Trump leans over, smashes glass, sets the needle. That way is up, buddy.

Cheese-eating surrender monkeys and the rest of the world can stick it, lily-livered quislings that they are. But they can hitch a ride on the Trump.

VUSA is your friend. Or pretty much any S&P500 fund or ETF. Never bet against America, because Donald will MAGA. I’m tempted. I am light America. I loathe everything Trump stands for. But perhaps our Londoners are right, and coronavirus isn’t all that. A punt may at least make me feel better when Donald wins again in November. Like Asimov’s Mule, he doesn’t need to make everybody like him – all he needs to do is keep the people who do like him doing his bidding.

This is your captain Warren speaking – it’s going be a long night. Three out of four engines are on fire, the fourth is running rough

I sparked up Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway livestream, well, the recorded version anyhow. H/T Monevator. Some Ermine tips – start about an hour in, and I had to click n the unmute audio to get to hear anything. It was a funny old feeling. Warren’s sitting more or less on his tod in a massive convention hall with hardly anybody out there. It’s all very 1950’s, there’s no top end in the audio and you can hear the 60-cycle hum and noise in the amplifiers. BRK clearly doesn’t spend money on young media-savvy hipsters to tart up the presentation slides either. This is part of his homey schtick of course, but you’re sitting there watching one of the richest people in the world.

He cut a lonely figure on the podium. And while I wouldn’t go quite as far as to say he sounded scared, the headline sums up what I heard. Sure, you can count on the tailwind of American exceptionalism, but you gotta live that long to get into the upswing. And at 89, in some ways it’s in doubt that he will.

He spent a lot of time describing how if you’d been unlucky enough to buy into the DJIA before the Depression, you would have to be ready to fall back and fall back and fall back to hope that the engines of American exceptionalism would fire again into the low-water mark, and it would be 1951 before you break even. He’s not saying this will happen again, many things are genuinely different now. The intercession is likely to be much shorter, and of course he was quick to state he does not know what the markets will do tomorrow or next year.

But he didn’t give the impression he sees a V shaped recovery. He didn’t even see BRK shares as a good buy now. And he’s dumped airline stocks. I wonder what else?

In some ways I was cheered by Warren Buffett. I dumped a lot of rubbish in the first half of March. In a single hit on mainly one day. I had gotten decadent with the long bull market, and had a significant holding of the FTSE100 in VUKE. ZXSpectrum summarised it well on this Monevator thread

The high street was obsolete anyway, airlines should go bust, the petroleum industry needs massive downsizing. The FTSE is not coming back because it full of crap companies with obsolete business models. The S&P and Nasdaq are not.

I’m also more relaxed about higher unemployment. The UK made a sort of Faustian bargain: low unemployment for high underemployment and low skill base.


Machine learning and AI is going to make many middle class people unemployed. We might start getting used to it now and stop stigmatizing those who don’t have jobs. A generation or two from now being unemployed might well be the norm.

I was heavily in the FTSE100, and I was buying rubbish because the yield was decent. My main ISA1 is 13% down on what it was in January, so I showed a clean pair of heels in time. I got rid of a lot of other rubbish, because in a decadent bull run shit looks attractive and safe. It wasn’t.

And WB reminded me of that. I had lost my way, and was buying trash. Quality is worth having now. If you are going to buy, buy quality. WB doesn’t forget that, but I did.

Warren’s patriotic American exceptionalism shtick got on my tits. America is captained by a uniquely talented buffoon of the first order, who is a danger to the world and his own subjects. Trump reminds me of The Mule in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. Just as Asimov’s psychohistorians foresaw the arc of history but failed to model a mutant intellect, the founding fathers of the United States got an awful lot right. They put checks and balances to try and control the temptations that absolute power brings. But they had no model for Trump’ particular talents resonating against a particular slice of history. There is at least cheer to be had in that like the Mule his particular combinations talents seem sui generis; we will get at least another four years of him, but the magnetic combination will probably die with him. So no, Warren, Americans do a lot right, but not so much as you’re cheering. However, in economics ZX48’s observation support WB’s thesis – compared to the US indices ours are full of crap businesses, and the US appears the only place in town for quality.

But Warren Buffett is a much better investor than me and his point is right. I need to favour quality – companies supplying what people actually want and need. I did well getting rid of the rubbish before it had fallen too far. I am intrigued the WB finds nothing at attractive valuations, because he credits the Federal Reserve with forestalling another credit crunch for companies. He thoroughly approves of the action, compared to the results of inaction, but it has corrupted the signals given by the market because of its indiscriminate behaviour. Noise floods the input, but he prefers that to the deathly silence of no noise and no signal.

And yet if Warren Buffett is saying that the compass spins and knows no North, then perhaps I have not missed the opportunity. My guess is the signals will start to return at the start of November, as we start to enter what is likely to be a long winter low in reserve capacity.

And while it’s all different now are the most dangerous four words in investing. I need to start to challenge some assumptions I have held from 2008. One is I have always been weak on the US – it looked overvalued and as I started to buy a lot of my holdings in the 2008-2014 period. Most of my US holdings are in the half of VWRL, and yes, I was wrong earlier. Don’t bet against America 😉 My market timing scored over sector selection.

In the early stages just after the GFC when I have bought individual shares, I thought more like WB. I still have nearly all those shares, mostly in my HYP. But as an index investor you can’t think like that, because you’re not buying individual shares. And I started chasing meta-parameters like yield, and following stories. The best story is Lars Kroijer, but sadly I picked up that signal late, it was only written in 2015. I still have all my VWRL.

I have been fortunate in being able to shoot the other index crap early enough, but I need to get back to basics. Good quality at the right price – and also perhaps take another line from WB. It is better to buy a great company at an okay price than an OK company at a great price. In index investing that means no FTSE100, not VHYL (which I have never owned) and perhaps I need to suck it up and consider the S&P500, and maybe the CNDX on the NASDAQ100, preferably after Trump has either won or lost and the new administration suckout goes on top of the pandemic recession. In the meantime I will continue to buy little bits of smallcaps which will become more and more bombed out. I am where I want to be with about 2/3 equity exposure now, because I have serious firepower. Buffett gave me the hope that I will have somewhere to aim that in the year(s) to come…

No, Buffett’s message wasn’t quite Bill Ackman’s self-serving Hell is Coming interview, I am glad I sold before he opened his bloody great big gob 😉 But it sure as hell rhymed.

Capt’n Buffett will make it across the water on the one defective engine, but it’s going to be a very long and rough ride to get from here to there. And he seems to believe that there is an outside chance that Dubya’s angle from 10 years ago is a very real possibility, leastways in the time he has left.

  1. My secondary one with Charles Stanley doesn’t revalue in Jan. It isn’t underwater on purchase, but is mainly a DevWrldExUK index fund LGITI, so similarish to VWRL and also about 13% off Jan from its chart 

Shiny shiny starts to gleam as fear rises

Fear usually means a fire sale in the markets. MedFi gives you the graphical take straight between the eyes using the gold price vs the S&P500. Market valuations have been high in recent years so I feel this one will have legs. Officially the selloff is attributed to coronavirus, so let’s start off with a bit of old Leonard, RIP.

Everybody knows the plague is coming,
everybody knows it’s moving fast

You’re going to get covid-19. So am I. Most likely in months, not years. Not sure I’m smart enough to even imagine how they’re going to isolate London, but hopefully some bright minds are on it. Let’s hope they’re not all Dominic Cummings’ weirdos and misfits with their charming views about creating a master race 😉

Our Sab, with the all-knowing clarity of youth. Bless…

Selective breeding works a treat – for us, rather than the selectively bred species. Closing that loop doesn’t seem to end well.

The odds of surviving Covid-19 seem good, so game theory shows us that in the financial aspects it’s the opportunities that are worth looking at. If you aren’t going to survive it then your investments aren’t your problem – in five years’ time you’ll know if you were hardy enough. If you aren’t then you’re not going to experience the downside of getting it wrong. You shouldn’t have money in the equity markets that you will need in the next five years.

It’s early days yet, but I wonder if the coronavirus is gaining extra traction in the markets by pushing a stale long bull run over into its natural nemesis, the bear market. We aren’t there yet, but the markets could get more interesting.

The fear/greed index has shifted into fear

If you’re under 40 this should be a cause of celebration. Firstly because you’re very low risk from covid19, and secondly because you are a net buyer for a long time. A low stock market early in your investing career is all to your benefit.


VWRL in early March 2020

Bear markets declines are steeper than bull market rises , presumably because fear is more contagious than optimism. The bull run has been very long, and for the last ten years stock markets have been inflated by funny money as interest rates have been depressed. The bloodletting could be stiff.

I am not under 40. I have now come to the end of my investing career, I was  unlikely to make a contribution to my ISA ever again, and I will only wash £2880 through my SIPP as cash to collect the free £180 a year from the government because it’s rude not to.

Unlike every other bugger in the FI/RE blogosphere, I am done, I have turned the engine off and pulled out the key. All around there are many FI/RE protagonists intoxicated with ten years of bull run, and the the air is heady and ripe, the smell of Autumn in the stock market all around although it is only Spring in the landscape. Winter is coming.

Over the last few months I had shifted my holdings more defensively, largely as a result of high valuations and my impending shift towards drawing an income from the ISA. Most of that income I can get from the natural yield, and I have a chunk of cash in Premium Bonds that I was going to slowly decumulate over the next few years to boost that ISA top-up to smooth my income ahead of getting the State Pension.

I am not a passive investor, that heavy cash/gold policy was set because I looked at the high valuations of the markets as I came up to drawing down and felt meh about it. I haven’t sold any of what I did have, but didn’t add much to the equity sections at these valuations.It’s fine to draw down from the natural yield of what I have bought.

The natural yield will probably be reasonably stable, as it is largely from investment trusts and the high-yield portfolio. But there’s a lot of gold in my ISA, which was there because of the high market valuations and the fact I don’t have decades of accumulation ahead of me.

no battle plan survives contact with the enemy

I am wondering if I shouldn’t sell some of that gold over the next few months and run the other way, into beaten down ITs. And/or take some of the cash and use next years ISA allowance, which would mean I would have less yearly income in running it down.

Valuations haven’t yet fallen to levels that are usefully lower than say a year ago – f’rinstance if you take a look at VWRL

VWRL in early March 2020

while there is a tip at the end where it has nutted down, but it’s not as if it is down to this time last year. For me to exchange some of the shiny shiny for VWRL I’d say I don’t want t pay more than say £52, as it was way back when in 2016.

If I am going to surrender some of my guaranteed income or my shiny tokens for income, ITs give a good income stream, particularly when bought at a discount due to bearishness. It’s been over ten years since I last saw that advocated, but I took action on that message – and these investment trusts have been paying me steadily for over ten years. I’d like some of those low prices, please.

So I need to take some time out and do some research, ask myself what sort of prices/discounts I would consider ITs better value than some of the guarantees of cash or gold, and start sticking some alerts out. The time may never come, in which case nothing to see here, move along now.

I’m using natural yield, not a SWR

I am not going to sell stocks to derive income. I want more income from the ISA but I don’t have to thrash it; I get over 3/4 of what I want already off the natural yield.

It’s all very well for people to sit in their ivory tower and say sell off units of VWRL to achieve your wanted SWR, but I am not going sell off units of anything, because I only started to get ahead in the markets when I stopped selling equities. I am a jumpy seller and that’s bad. But I do skew buying choices.

Natural yield is despised by people in the accumulation phase – see the stick Greybeard took in this article for advocating investment trusts. ITs form a large part of my high yield approach, much of mine were bought early in my investing career, because IT prices get thrashed more in times of turmoil as discounts open up due to their closed-endedness. Which is a bug when you’re selling and a feature when you’re buying in a down market

Written before the recent falls, this interesting throwaway line in Monevator’s SIPP/ISA article

For eight-year periods or less: save enough in cash to cover your spending needs plus an inflation top-up. The potential upside of equities isn’t worth the risk of grievous loss with so little time to bounce back.

made me change my mind about adding to the ISA for one last time next tax year, because my distance to the State Pension is of this order. I could add to my ISA to top up my income to the amount of the SP, trying to smooth my income, but I could also run down cash savings over a decade to make up the difference that way. At valuations a couple of weeks ago I’d need to spend about 30 times the desired uplift in annual income to get it from the stock market.

Using the rough rule of thumb that inflation halves your money over 15 years I’d need about 15 times the desired annual income to draw cash down over 10 years. The catch is, of course, that drawing down the cash means it’s all gone after 10 years. The plus is that it’s not sensitive to bear markets.

I normally used within five years as the sort of time horizon where one would steer clear of the markets and hold cash, but as I said above, valuation matters. At high valuations the cash-favouring time horizon drags out for two reasons.  You’re paying more for less expected income. Plus the risk of capital loss gets higher.

the smell of fear in the morning

The ermine snout twitches, wondering if there is the scent of one last chance to purchase income at low valuations. That time is not right now, but it may be soon. My investing career would then be bookended by bear markets, a fitting swansong. The first one served me well, more so than anything I could do with what’s developing. There’s only a couple of year’s worth of ISA allowance I could commit to this one so it would be more of a fillip to my income rather than a heavy lift, like the years starting from 2008.

There’s certainly mileage in yanking out some of the Premium Bonds and replacing the amount I borrowed from my Charles Stanley ISA earlier this year, that needs to happen this month. If I decide that I don’t want to buy into the ISA I can shove the money back into Premium Bonds next tax year.

To make this worthwhile I need a bloodbath in the markets. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to swap some income for about a decade into some income for longer. And I need a strong enough immune system to fight down covid-19 to carry off the spoils of war. If not – then it’s not my concern…

I’m going to take time and look at what happened to various ITs in the last crash including their payouts, what their prices were over the years I have been an investor, and determine a price that I would think was really good value to buy. And set these alerts for if/when the price falls below that. I will be looking for valuations closer to 2009-2012 than 2013 to now. The opportunity may never come. But if it does, then sometimes you just have to hold your nose and do it…

extreme FIRE and how to live well

Monevator has a diverting ding-dong started last year that tried to split off the financial independence from the retire early part. I get it, nobody should be made to retire early if they don’t want to. I didn’t take part in it because much of it was a rhetorical construct. In the end being FI is necessary for you to retire, but it’s not sufficient reason. If you don’t want to retire, well, just don’t.

This is a particular case of the general question how does one live well?

This has occupied philosophers and religions since we found ways to have the opportunity to ponder such questions. There are as many answers as querents.

These answers diverge more as you get older. You had much more in common with your schoolmates that you do with the people you work with at 30. This divergence in aims, goals and lived experience continues throughout life. The branches of the decision trees fan out to more and more widely spaced points as they cascade. You are the product of all those decisions as well as what happened to you outwith you control.

FIRE is one aspect of this general problem, but first we should acknowledge that life is a journey, not a problem. It involves change. Your fifty-year old self is not the same as your 20-year old self. If you had good fortune and played your hand well, your fifty-year old self with be deeper, happier, wiser, more tolerant and gentler than your 20-year old self. If not, well, all sorts of other outcomes are possible. By no means all are bad, people are adaptable as hell, provided they don’t ossify first.

Let me call this “out in 20 years approach” extreme FIRE, xFIRE, in  homage to the grandaddy of FIRE, Jacob Lund Fisker, of earlyretirementextreme. He was a great exponent of FIRE ASAP, and his manifesto gives you it straight between the eyes

I posit that most people can attain financial independence in less than 10 years and in less than 5 if they are truly determined. I also submit that many people are not willing to make the necessary changes.

I lapped this up, because guess what? I wanted out in 3 years. Yesterday would have been better, but the numbers showed 3 years. He was a great inspiration.

Worked for me. But I didn’t do it starting at 20. I had almost paid off my house. I had a decent company pension scheme. I was 12 years from normal retirement age, at the then white-collar retirement age of 60. So while I used a lot of ERE’s xFIRE methodology, I built it on a very different foundation.

If you are 20, that option is really tough, and the risks are very high because your retirement is 40 years long rather than the more normal 20.

If you’re a footballer, you better get it done and dusted by the time you are 35. If you work in industries where burnout is rife, like law, finance and IT, look around your office. If there’s nobody over 50, don’t aim to be the 50-something exception in 20 years’ time. Don’t fight the obvious evidence.

Everybody else under 30, take a step back. and think. There are two main columns to the FIRE methodology.

Don’t be a financial muppet

The first is ‘don’t be a muppet’. Don’t buy anything with debt except a house and the tools of your trade, which may include education though not always. All else pay cash and do without until you have saved enough.

Fail to do that and stick it all on 20% APR revolving credit card debt and the best that will happen is you only pay 20% extra for everything you buy. It’s that simple. Don’t be a muppet. There are other aspects of don’t be a muppet to do with consumerism and spending. All of these, twentysomethings, knock yourselves out and take it all the way. There is absolutely no downside apart from the months of cold turkey when you catch up with your previous muppetry and pay it down. If this is unrealistic (the debt is high multiples of your monthly salary) then seek outside help with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Debt Stepchange or the Money Advice Service.  Just make sure it’s a non-profit and never consolidate loans on your mortgage. You heard it here first. JFDI. It’s never too early or  too late to stop being a muppet.

You will observe nobody’s talked about early retirement so far, and financial independence ain’t on the horizon. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for FIRE to stop being a muppet, but even if you are happy to work till you drop start off with not screwing up. Anybody wanting to lend you money is looking to make money out of you, and their gain is less money you can spend on what you want. Don’t be a muppet.

The second column – take back control of the track of your working life

There’s significant privation to be gone through in becoming finacially independent (FI) earlier than normal in the FIRE sense. It appears Monevator’s definition of RE means people want to quit the rat race after 20 years1. You’re looking to do it in half the time it will take most of your colleagues. You want a good reason for taking such an iconoclastic path. All other things being equal2 your peers will have a lot more disposable income than you. Humans are social critters, you’ll feel that. I only did it for three years, I felt it!

This is all part of this “what does living a good life” conundrum, and people seem to miss out that fact that what looks like a good life changes over your lifetime. It’s more obvious in the early stages: Living a good life at two means not shitting on the carpet, but that’s probably not quite enough to make the grade at fifteen. Once we’ve nailed the muppetry, to see if the view of xFIRE is worth the climb, we need to broaden the frame of reference.

The seven stages of life

What does a well-lived life look like? It depends.  I did sciences rather than arts, and philosophy is firmly on the humanities side of the Two Cultures so I start from the wrong side of the tracks. But a general education, a life’s worth of reading and an inquiring mind hopefully compensates a little for my absence of Oxbridge PPE…

There’s a lot of woo in this, but the stages of life are found across human endeavour and through the ages – Shakespeare’s All the World’s a stage, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Carl Jung’s work on individuation.  In the spirit of holding contradictory viewpoints a la Scott Fitzgerald, I thought I’d run with it, because the metaphor speaks to the human condition.

Your twenty-year old self should be different from your fifty-year old self, else you aren’t doing something right. I would hate to have the concerns of my twenties now. I struggle with some of the reincarnation bits of that, but compared to the Immortalist society freezing their heads in search of the Elixir of Life 3, who am I to call it.  Savant cryogenicist man-children like Ray Kurzweil  didn’t invent this. Old men looking for the Elixir of Life is a search thousands of years old, ever since terror management theory became a thing in the Palaeolithic.

Old men have been looking for the Elixir of Life for millennia. This is the White Rabbit making the Elixir on Life on the Moon, from ancient China

What I liked was the resonance with my observation of humans changing over the stages of their lives. I have passed through some of these stages – the forecast of a fall in grades in the third stage (adolescence) surprised me, but it was true of me in the lower-fourth, and looking back, for those reasons. As indeed was the quarter-life crisis, which overtook me at university in my second year undergraduate level. All those angsty Millennials writing in the paper have a point that some things are tougher now, but being twenty to thirty is always hard because you’re taking on a lot of change, most of which is new to you, and you are changing your social role in the world.

The adult stages of life are indistinct in our culture, but they are still there, unsignposted. The modern world is delaying some of these stages of life compared to previous generations. “Adult” children seem to remain dependent on their parents beyond 30 to a degree that would have been shocking in the past.

The adolescent to mid-life FIRE-aspiring you must throw switches that route your life differently from your peers. But the facts of FIRE don’t change – if you haven’t got your shit together and started along the track by the time you are 30, you ain’t retiring by 45. Retiring by 55 is ten years early and very doable. 50 can be done with serious effort, but ERE does have a point. Most people won’t want to take the hit.

So young pup, give up a little bit of life now if you can, so your older self may have a choice, though I confess I am with Monevator – don’t kill yourself to get out in 20 years.

I am closer to Monevator than I thought on xFIRE, even though I used it

I disagree with him on some things, like that work is a meaningful part of life in and of itself. In one respect I agree. There’s a nasty hair-shirt streak developing in the xFIRE ethos.

My younger self would have struggled with suck it up, work sucks, keep your eyes on the horizon in my 20s. At the start of your career you have greatest freedom of action and least to lose by trying a different track. To sign away twenty years of your life to trying to get away from a working situation you detest is selling yourself short. You owe it to yourself to ask if that’s the best you can do.

I lived the counterfactual view: 20 years of your life is far too long to stay somewhere mediocre when you only have maybe 40 healthy years left – get a new job first, your house is burning down! I was OK with London apart from the price of rents and houses, but I wanted more money and more interesting work, so I changed job three times in the 1980s, improving my situation both in terms of pay and congeniality.

I never solved the housing cost problem so I left London, because no job I could get was going to solve the housing problem for me. I’ve spent a lot of time bitching about work here, but for 27 out of thirty years I was okay with work. There was enough interest, people were good in the main, and particularly in the early days at The Firm I was learning a lot of interesting new things from some really bright people. I could still have made a decent fist of being a gentleman aristocrat if I’d had a trust fund, but work wasn’t a terrible second best.

I used xFIRE at the end, but that’s a very different thing from using xFIRE for 20 years. What’s wrong with xFIRE from the get-go is that you are telling your young self that the next 20 years is going to be hell. Form may follow thought. Just as work isn’t a panacea or even a serviceable reason for living, it may not need to be hell either.  Provocatively, perhaps xFIRE is more suited to desperate old gits at the end of their working lives than Page 1 of the Book of Working Life for twenty-somethings 😉

There’s a Jungian stages of life aspect to this too. Susan Roberts says

The young person’s task is to get into the world

Early adulthood asks us to establish ourselves in society — through vocation, relationship, and a stable material life. Now the idealistic youth must bank his or her fires in order to adapt to the world on its terms. Hopefully, in all the striving for worldly accomplishment, the twenty- or thirtysomething will not lose sight of the original vision, but find ways of working his or her gifts in spite of the compromises demanded by reality.

suck it up, work sucks, keep your eyes on the horizon is an avoidance technique. In the world but not of it, not quite failure to launch but probably not engaging. While I reject wholeheartedly that work is the non plus ultra of meaningful achievement in the second half of life, perhaps it has its role in the first half. Roberts’ description is a decent account of the accommodation I found with work – I wanted to rise above the first technician job, the second studio engineer job, I wanted to design, to innovate, to originate, which is why I eventually aimed at research. I did not lose sight of the original vision. For twenty years I lived it.

Having given that point, I am now going to take a pop at some things that are red herrings in my view.

well-paid part-time as FIRE-lite? Yeah, right

Here’s a canard. You don’t have to go nuclear on your career, you can just do some well-paid part-time work. Nothing I have experienced in three decades of the world of work supports this view. There are inherent problems with part-time – other people will be learning faster because they are full-time. They will get better quicker other things being equal. People bitch about there being a penalty for taking time out of the workforce but it’s not rocket science. Practice makes perfect.

I lived this prejudice. The Firm was dead keen to reduce its costs by encouraging part-time working in the 2009 crash. I didn’t entertain the idea for a heartbeat. If my career was flaming out, then at least full-time I could make the most of the last years – three years gone part-time was probably equivalent to another ten years shelf-stacking at Tesco to make up for the money I wouldn’t earn. I’d still be there. There was a second fear, because if they can get along fine with only half of you, there’s an obvious extrapolation to be made.

Of course we officially applaud people taking time out to do more important projects in their lives, but if it’s my business that takes the hit when you’re telling me that your choices in life are more important to you than my company I hear the message. I’m likely to take the line that I’ve very happy for you, but don’t do your important project at my cost. Fortunately, I’ve never been anywhere near being in charge of HR with such unreconstructed views, but I didn’t originate this, and I’ve seen some small companies stiffed that way. There are some great paying part-time jobs, but not as many as full-time. Why is this? Part-time cleaners are interchangeable. Part-time CEOs? Not so much. It’s also a right pain in the arse for full-time workers to interface to the particular part-timer with domain knowledge on job-shares and continuity sucks. Which are all part of the reasons why part-time work generally pays less, if you don’t want to hear it from me, hear it from the office of national statistics4.

If you want a high rate pay, go full-time for better odds. Low pay is 2/3 median, high pay is over twice the rate at 1.5  median

So when Monevator nonchalantly says you can save yourself the trouble of saving up a quarter of a million pounds if you can earn £10,000 p.a. for the lifestyle you want, I think WTF? I can’t even think of something I could do to earn £10k p.a., other than work in a shop. I could probably earn more than that if I worked full time, but from what I’ve seen of the world of work it has become more demanding and always-on rather than less. Don’t fancy that much.

OTOH, if contracting is your taste, then I can see there is much less of a problem. I believe indeedably uses this method, favouring recreation in the warmer months and work in the colder ones. Hats off to him for innovation.

Some of that objection to part-time is I have no desire to go contracting. Contracting comes with self-promotion and always hustling, and I’d rather crawl over broken glass than hustle. I have done occasional hit and run jobs since retiring. I earned an higher hourly rate with one than my working self ever did, but not on a sustained basis. And having to do 10k worth of that a year gives me the creeps, indeed having to do anything for x amount of money gives me a very bad feeling indeed. What part of financial independence am I missing here? FI for me is not having to sell my time for money. End of. To paraphrase Kate Moss

No consumer shit tastes as good as financial freedom feels

I have enough to buy more consumer shit than I want, and arguably consumerism is/should be a little bit less important as you get older. Erich Fromm summed it up in the title of his book, To Have to To Be. When you are young, Stuff makes more difference to your life, because you start out with now’t – you first kettle and your first chair and your first house make a huge change to your lifestyle. That lessens with time.

There is an argument that stuff bought you better security in the past than it does now

The percentage of workers who are freelance instead of salaried grows each year. House prices are prohibitive in any place with a strong labour market. […] the greatest wealth now comes from the accumulation of invisible capital, not physical stuff: startup equity, stock shares […]

Meanwhile, crisis follows crisis and mobility now feels safer than being static, another reason that owning less looks more and more attractive.

Some of us are cut out for that part-time required sort of FI-lite (thin FIRE? sputter? unFIRE? extinguished? never ignited?) , but I’m not one of them. I had a working life as a full-time employee with no break between getting my first job and leaving work for the last time other than a one-year MSc.

I’m an all or nothing guy here. It would be a bit rough to work thirty-five hours a week for less than my money does sitting on its backside. That isn’t a good message for me. Easier to work a decent job at a decent rate and parlay your savings into a decent stash than work some shit job.

Now that’s just me and my unreconstructed ideas about work that were probably set forty years ago. I could see the rationale for elective spend, if you need to work part-time for essential spend then you ain’t FI. If part-time working nets you 10k so you can go on holiday more often and that lights your fire, then have at it.

Do what thou wilt, and harm ye none.

Your time gets more valuable as you get older

Supply and demand. There’s less of it left, bud. The young just don’t get this, because, well, they’re young.

As a well-known vinyl record from my youth said

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

I would agree with Pink Floyd that the fourth stage, midlife, is where may people stall. Overly invested with the meaning that served them well for 20 years up to then, they freeze rather than abdicate that source of meaning. For some (more often chaps) it’s work, for some it’s the contents of the nest that if done right should become empty in the natural order of things.

At least becoming overly invested with work doesn’t do anybody else any harm. Helicoptering your kids can seriously arrest their development, much must happen between the third (adolescence)  and fourth stage else Philip Larkin’s prognostications of This be the Verse may come to pass. You will recognise those children later on – arrested at the puer aeturnus stage. The gold of character is at times forged in the furnace of adversity.

As an example I did not gain understanding from the crisis of confidence in my third year at university. After many years I did eventually learn to let it go, it was a product of time and stage, not a curse set to play out again and again.

Had an external force alleviated it, however, then like getting a childhood illness in adulthood, the injury may have been worse because the transformation would not have happened. I wonder if our Western societies fail us in having no real rites of passage across the stages of life, particularly those early ones. Passing your driving test or getting your first credit card don’t really match up to slaying a boar, or a walkabout. With no model of transformative challenge, is it any wonder that Western adults can freeze at the crossroads of midlife, clinging to the empty shells of old forms that have served in the past, but now stand in the way of change?

Midlife is a big hazard, because you are established enough that you can get away with stalling it, clinging on to past glories. Compared to the fusillade of transitions across childhood, you’ve settled in steady as she goes for 20 years and think you have it sussed. The words of Carl Jung indicate the problem: What is great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.

The problem isn’t that the world changes. You do. Worse still, the tendency is to regress, to capture a lost youth but without the innocence. This inflates the sales of sports cars and persuades flabby men with a beer gut that their Russian bride thinks he’s 21 year old hunk.

In her section finding lasting values in the afternoon of life, Susan Roberts says:

Few of us today have the financial resources to become renunciates, and so we may have to keep working into our elder years.

Hmm, having this option is what FIRE is all about. It’s an option, and just like a stock option, it is an option, not an obligation to retire early –

But whatever our outer activities may be, our attitude needs to change if the afternoon of our life is not to be one long process of decline and ourselves to become embittered old people.

[…] a flowering of its qualities of imagination, depth, and understanding. With nothing to prove and no one’s approval to seek, the old person may gain a delicious freedom to return to the original vision first kindled in him or her in youth. He or she may then become a character, a wise old man or woman, and ultimately an ancestor, a bearer of values that outlast the fleeting concerns of the present moment.

To reach this point, one must submit to the archetypal tasks required by each stage of life. By allowing the deep processes of nature to work on us, the acorn of our destiny may grow into the mature oak tree of our fully-realized individuated self.

Clinging to the chimera of you are what you do may not be the best way of doing that. But in my observation fewer than half of those who make it to old age achieve individuation.

And yes, I am making the case that perhaps the meaningfulness of work is a truth that may be more of the morning of life than its evening. It was in my case. It was much more important to me at the beginning of my career, a big part of who I was, neither of my parents had gone to university and my Dad worked with his hands. As I grew older it mattered less, I have now rendered unto Caesar the value of a working life, exchanging my human capital for financial capital. It is time to move on, to embrace the seasons.

It really doesn’t matter whether you retire or not at some point earlier or later than anybody else. To make it possible5 your  younger self needs a motivational story. “just suck it up for as long as you have been alive and there will be a pot of gold over the rainbow” is not inspirational.

If your older self thinks the same about work as your younger self your development has become arrested, and you will not individuate. The hazard of that is of a long process of decline and ourselves to become embittered old people. You may, of course be fortunate enough to avoid physical decline and die in your sleep. You may project all your energies into the grandchildren. It is not mandatory to deepen as you get older. Just try and avoid the embittered Victor Meldrew, eh, for all our sakes.

Your older self may come to the same conclusion about early retirement as your younger self, but if the reasons are different, that is good. Let the option lapse. Give your freedom fund to your kids, or the cats’ home, or shovel it out of a helicopter over your home town. Your younger self will have lived a bit less large. Insurance against adversity always costs.

I have seen people who fall apart after retiring. Often they fall because their sense of meaning is bound up with work. What was true in the morning failed them in the evening. Some struggle because they are skint, or they become infirm. Some fail to maintain their human relationships and web of life, or don’t build these up before they retire. There are many ways to screw up in life, ain’t that a thing? That perhaps many fail does not mean all will fail.

Happy New Year to y’all, and a cautionary tale of work I came across.

I had been in the States working on a project when it became apparent that an internal takeover was going to bust my project in Feb 2009. Americans look after their own, while The Firm now owned that subsidiary this work was going to move over there and out of my division. Project work was drying up due to the financial crisis.

Your job gets more brittle as you get older

One of the problems you tend to have as you get older is that you specialise more. You also get paid more, if you are any good. That makes the shape of the sort of holes you are going to be a good fit for quite specific and therefore rare. Monevator nonchalantly says

get a new job first, your house is burning down!

That’s a young man’s game. It might be an argument for living in London6 rather than Ipswich, because your pool of potential alternative employers is larger. Selling up and moving would cost me a year’s wages, and we owned a smallholding at the time. I just didn’t have the get a new job option – there wasn’t more than 10 years of work to play for. So I chose to play a weak hand, as it happened quite well.

I was fortunate enough to be able to use a different legacy skill for my final project, But before I got that project, I faced this exchange which summarised the working environment. Let’s call the chief scumbag Graeme F, he was my division head’s boss7. GS stands for generally satisfactory, the performance management mark of 3/5 (average). My boss had made mine “needs improvement” before I got that work. I had already applied for voluntary redundancy, though it would have been premature. The shithead GF demanded a conference call with me and my division head just before 17:30 hours because he “had some news he thought I’d be interested in“. These are notes made at the time – the first thing I did next day was buy a telephone recording coil so I would have an incontrovertible record of that sort of intimidation should it happen again.

Friday March 6th 2009

GF: [We are] Raising the bar next year. will be harder to improve GS

Me: This sounds like a threat to me (this was verbatim, I could hear the bullying sneer in dear Graeme’s voice.)

GF no, effectively saying how it is

Me: okay carry on

GF: you cannot get [voluntary redundancy] on a GS

Me:  outline that I am going away from that anyway, outside opportunity needs [VR] to work, time has passed, [The Firm] looking better, new projects etc

GF: but we may be able to do something else for you

Me: ok

GF: offers three months’ salary plus gardening leave to go

Me: that is not enough

GF: seems taken aback

Me: I will not change the course of my life for such a small amount

GF: reiterates stuff about raising the bar

Me: I say ok I hear what you say, sorry if the news didn’t get to you, wasting time etc

Graeme didn’t meet his target that day. Three months VR after 20 years was derisory, plus I would have lost an advantageous Sharesave. I was at the very outset of a three year journey out, I couldn’t get there from here. Another entry in the log celebrates my division head (who brokered this delightful meeting as the offer of a great opportunity) getting the bum’s rush without VR. How did that happen?

Finished at fifty is a thing

They even made a TV programme about it. All sorts of people will holler in yer ear if you don’t like you goddamn job so much go get on your bike git a new one you lazy bum. Hello IDS, Digby Jones, I’m looking at you . The trouble with that specialisation is my division head was shit outta luck as far as finding another job for a division head at a FTSE100 like The Firm. There weren’t any, and there was a large pool of competitors – the guys the CIO had let go in the days before. The CIO’s management style was to call all division heads one after the other into the office, and ask each one to describe a weakness of the just departed fellow. A commenter elsewhere described the CIO’s modus operandi as

replacing British IT workers with resource from India here and remotely –  decimate the workforce.

Lots of guff about new tech, agile, under the hood it will be nothing but using the cheapest IT workers they can get.

That sort of environment, young fellow, is why your older self needs a RE ejector seat and parachute. He may earn more as he gets older, but his position gets more brittle as it gets more specialised, and more susceptible to hatchet men like that CIO.

I was able to switch direction out of IT and use a legacy analogue RF electronics skill on my final project, which is how I was left standing after that division head left. More by luck than by judgement, a specialism that fitted another set of odd-shaped holes was in demand at that time. So after three years I brought the damaged wreckage of my career to a successful landing and was even glad-handed on my leaving do as having left on a high. It could easily have gone differently, and I would be stacking shelves rather than writing this.

You don’t forget that sort of learning in a hurry. What I learned was never rely on selling your time for money again, it makes you a hostage to fortune.

Even if that hadn’t happened, I was already past the apogee of life, and hopefully the individuating self would have gotten the message through:

Self, you need to start looking for new ways to be, because what is great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie

In my life one of those things was work. Had that crisis not happened I would still be working, running on the old default assumption of working to NRA. In hindsight that would have been a dreadful waste of my time.

We are all headed for different waystations on the branching railway lines of life, maybe this will be different for you. But if you see no things that were desperately important to you in the morning of your adult life become less so, then ask yourself how you are so invariant in the face of change. The sun is making its way across the arc of your life. Change with it, for the moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.

  1. I am a RE failure by that definition, I worked for 30 years, so 10 years behind schedule. I am still a long way to getting my State Pension, and not even at the NRA for my works pension 
  2. One of the tenets of the FIRE movement is that not all things are equal and many people spend like muppets or carry revolving debt. All this is true, but you just can’t bring the difference in lifestyle down to zero by spending smarter though perhaps it won’t be half their disposable income. 
  3. For some reason unbeknownst to me extremely bright materialist rationalists are drawn to cryogenics likes moths to a flame (for example). It is possible I am just too dumb to understand, but it seems obvious to me you must not lose state. I do not find it impossible to conceive that humans could live forever, but I’d say you must not die first. Reanimating a hunk of meat strikes me as a hiding to nothing. Sure, future alien visitors might be able to recreate humans from DNA like Jurassic Park, but these would be new humans, not the deceased living again with all their past memories and foibles, in the same way as your children don’t remember your schooldays, first love or skills in Latin though they may look like a mini-you. 
  4. ONS ASHE Fig 5 
  5. Parents can try, but there be dragons in that territory. The dead hand of parental capital coming at some unspecified time to transform their lives easily robs the children of agency, because it doesn’t seem worth it for them to make the effort to try and save something that will be lost in insignificance to the inheritance. There is a similar problem with the legions buying lottery tickets – Lady Luck seems to be a harsh mistress when she pays out, because the recipient has not learned the value of the windfall. No idea how the aristocracy used to fix this problem, though it seems they did as many estates have been in the same ancestral hands since 1066 
  6. Just kidding. I left London in 1988, and my career went titsup in 2009. That’s twenty years of outrageous London prices I haven’t had to pay in rent, I left there because I couldn’t afford to buy a house. That Guardian millenial’s lament that “House prices are prohibitive in any place with a strong labour market.” held true before. I had a decent job and savings, but I was living in one room. 
  7. Researching this on Linkedin, it is probable that Graeme F was a hired gun brought in from elsewhere in The Firm to ping people out from my campus. I guess like management consultants on the cheap, outsiders will be more ruthless because they don’t know anybody locally 

passive investors, are you destroying your children’s world?

Most of the brouhaha about the rise of passive investing comes from the intuitive feeling that passive investors are only along for the ride, they don’t know or care ‘owt for what the companies they hold passively are up to.  Insofar as they are not engaged shareholders, they don’t guide the companies they own collectively, and the burden of shareholder feedback falls upon a smaller band of active investors.

Most of the argument about this in the FI sphere is a concern on corporate governance and returns, and there are various forms of rebuttal. The dumb passive billions are like the carriages on a train following the remaining active engines, but they switch to a different locomotive depending on the outcome, the fickle bastards. So it comes out alright in the end, is the received wisdom – the passive crew are amplifiers to the results of the active guys, rather than sponsors of their yachts. So the dumb money is safe1, because it follows the smart money.

The Anglo-Saxon business model eats the future, quoth the British Academy

who make the case in an extensive report that the narrow definition of the aims of the corporation in the English-speaking Western world makes companies focus on making money to the exclusion of all else. They are required by law to make as much money as you can for your shareholders. There is an implied “by legal means”, but globalisation means that there is a race to the bottom because what’s legal there isn’t necessarily what’s legal here. That this has been damaging to Western working populations can be seen by the changes in the workplace, particularly since the global financial crash – disaffected Western aspirations voted for Trump, and Brexit.

One of the problems of globalisation is that it has massively reduced the leverage of government regulation. The UK government could regulate to reduce practices that harm the environment, but the activity so discouraged will then migrate to a jurisdiction that doesn’t have such scruples.

On the other side, as buyers we qualify our investments by the desired rate of return. This is marginal enough as it is – the common assumption is a 4-5% real return on investment integrated over decades. The corollary of that is that you need a capital of 20-25 times your desired annual income. Shift that down to 2 to 3% and that starts to become 50 times your desired income; doing that in a 30 year working life starts to look really tough.

A quick spin through the top components of a whole world index fund

Do big firms eat the future? A glance at the undesirable practices of the biggest components of a well-regarded recommendation of world index fund VWRL isn’t happy reading for those with a social conscience:

Apple Inc: Failure to adhere to Chinese labour laws. I’d charge ’em with price-fixing, planned obsolescence, anticompetitive practices, non-replaceable batteries2 and refusal to engage with third-party or DIY repairs. Pictures of workers and pollution here

MSFT: I couldn’t dig up that much dirt. Yesterday’s men, they tried to rule the world and failed, though they were done for antitrust offences ISTR. Bill’s still rich as Croesus

AMZN: So bad Wikipedia has a page dedicated to AMZN criticism. Closer to home they treat people like shit in distribution centres. I think their riposte boils down to ‘treating people like shit is part of our business’ and while it’s true that I left work because I was treated like shit at a critical juncture, it’s notable that for the vast majority of my working life treating people like shit wasn’t a widespread part of my work experience or that of people I know.

FB: Suborning the political process, getting rich on fake news, making sociopaths of us all, aiding and abetting Dominic Cummings, refusing to stop meddling in elections by showing different things to different people. Selling personal data to the highest bidder, lying about it until caught. The problem was manifest from the get-go as the youthful Zuck described his punters as dumb f**s. Evil courses through the company’s veins. If I were God for a day social media is a class of product/service I’d uninvent and rewire human brains so it could never be dreamed up again. Yes, it’s nice that Grandma in York can keep in touch with the grandkids Down Under but the collateral damage in terms of human misery is appalling IMO

JPM: I couldn’t come up with any dirt but they paid a $13bn fine for something to do with the GFC. Presumably they have enough money to pay decent lawyers to get them off the hook, so it must’ve been bad.

Two lots of Alphabet, Google’s holding/parent company: How’s that ‘Don’t be evil’ thing going down with y’all? Oh and this

on Youtube, owned by Google. It’s either irony, hubris or advertising, and I am not clever enough to determine which. Orwell called it forty or fifty years too early with “if you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.” Usual charges against Big Data, suborning the common weal, all that stuff. I’m kinda tickled that the Google search of what’s wrong with Google assumes you have technical problems, rather than searching for the central heart of darkness. Chapeau for the subtle control of framing, guys. What’s wrong with Google? Nothing to see here, move along now.

JNJ: I couldn’t dig up that much dirt.

VISA: I couldn’t dig up that much dirt.

NESTLE: Baby Milk Action. ’nuff said, although the £25 Kit-Kat should get an honourable mention just for taking the piss, I can’t make the case that it’s evil.

It may help me retire early, but I’m not sure I can actually feel good about owning VWRL. Perhaps I can tell myself that’s only 12% of the market cap (and mainly American) and that the levels of evil were dropping as I went down the list to the smaller fry, but to be honest I’m not sure I want to know what the rest of them get up to after this exercise!

On the other hand if you try and stick to being ethical you get slaughtered in the markets. Sin pays. You can read countervailing arguments, but it’s people talking their book. It is interesting to observe that ethical investment screening locks you out of nearly two-thirds of the UK’s largest firms. This suggests ethical passive investing just isn’t possible in the UK market. Passive investing only works if it is representative of the market by capitalisation, and a third just isn’t representative. Turn the telescope round and the British Academy chaps have some point – two thirds of the top British firms are harming the public good somewhere.

Maybe nobody will be able to retire in future if this is cleaned up, the rate of return will be so dreadful you just aren’t going to live long enough to save enough to get out of the rat race. Historically, capital accumulated very slowly across a human life, to the extent that dynastic and ancestral capital ruled society. You still see the background radiation of this in that 25000 landowners own half the UK. and the largest share of a third is the aristocracy, where the land has remained in the same families since William the Conk declared himself owner of all of it after 1066 3.

The problem is that money is power, and power corrupts. Most of these firms get an edge through scale. With the exception of FB, they all provide a useful or valued service, they just happen to cut corners in parts of their operation, and globalisation weakens limits on their ability to cut those corners in dark places. We’ve seen some of this movie before – the robber barons of the Gilded Age, and a lot of the pollution and abusive work practices echo what happened4 in the industrialising West in the last century or two. Tim Worstall would probably say that sort of exploitation is a price worth paying. It worked in the West and it’ll work for the global poor.

Globalisation was good for humanity in general, but not for most people in the West

In the article the crisis of capitalism Milanovic argues that

The western malaise is the product of uneven distribution of the gains from globalisation. When globalisation began in the 1980s, it was politically “sold” in the west – especially as it came together with “the end of history” – on the premise that it would disproportionately benefit richer countries. The outcome was the opposite. Asia in particular was a beneficiary, especially the most populous countries: China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia. In Europe, as in the US, it benefitted the 1%. It is the gap between the expectations entertained by the middle classes and the low growth in their incomes that has fuelled dissatisfaction with globalisation and, by association, with capitalism.

Harvard isn’t noted for being a hotbed of Marxist anti-globalisation thinking, but their Dani Rodrik made a similar case in 1997 in his book Has Globalisation Gone Too Far5, observing that lower-skilled wages have fallen in real terms in the US and then Europe since the 1970s. This fall predated my entry into the workplace. I did not observe this at first, because my experience of the workplace was different from my father’s6. He was a maintenance fitter, I worked in industrial research. The suckout took thirty years to reach me, but reach me it did – I retired eight years earlier than normal retirement age for The Firm to escape this deterioration in the workplace.

It’s quite chastening to see that the pathologies dragging us down now were foretold in 1997, exactly as I reached the halfway mark of my shortened working life. Of course, the problem with working out which portents of doom to heed is that  there are so many of them, most of the things that could go wrong don’t go wrong. The bear case always sounds smarter. It’s still eerie to see that over twenty years ago a forecast of the troubles we  face now was written:

Globalization is exposing social fissures between those with the education, skills, and mobility to flourish in an unfettered world market―the apparent “winners”―and those without. These apparent “losers” are increasingly anxious about their standards of living and their precarious place in an integrated world economy. The result is severe tension between the market and broad sectors of society, with governments caught in the middle. Compounding the very real problems that need to be addressed by all involved, the knee-jerk rhetoric of both sides threatens to crowd out rational debate.

The standard answer to that from Calvinist work-is-good-for-you believers is adapt to creative destruction, get on your bike, or die, suckas. Bollocks to that – life is about more than work, I don’t want to hustle for the rest of my days, because I loathe hustle and self-promotion. Had I been born ten years later, that escape route wouldn’t have been an option open to me.

There’s no good reason to put up with a deteriorating workplace if you can buy manumission from The Man. Arguably the stagnation in living standards since I left work meant I haven’t gotten relatively poorer as a result of rising wages in the time I have been out of the workforce. Observation shows that in the West, and in Britain in particular, work is getting more shit for most people. Rodrik was right.

There’s a case to be made that Brexit was partly a rejection of globalisation, the line that if I am going down, you lot are going down with me. Time will show if they get what they wished for. Let’s hope they like it, eh? They’re not going to get a do-over.

Globalisation is much more popular in Asia than in the West, according to Milanovic

But the dissatisfaction with globalised capitalism is not universal: a YouGov survey showed a very high degree of support for globalisation in Asia, with the lowest support in the US and France.

It stands to reason – it has been a win, particularly for the Asian middle class.

Who has gained from globalisation, 1998 to 2008. Tea-leafed from Milanovich’s report in the Harvard Business Review, “Why the Global 1% and the Asian Middle Class Have Gained the Most from Globalization”

Right-wing nut-jobs like the Adam Smith Institute’s Tim Worstall makes a cogent case that globalisation has been a good thing for humanity in the round. He is probably right in that nobody has experienced an absolute terms retrenchment7, but if I had followed my Dad into a blue collar job and Tim showed up in a bar telling me “chin up old boy, your end of the boat had to go down for the greater good, but though you can’t buy a house your telly’s sharper and your phone isn’t screwed to the wall like your Dad’s” then he might end up with a robust and physical riposte, because I don’t particularly care about humanity if I am feeling shat on. He’s also got an answer to the tosspot8 David Attenborough yammering on about environmental issues and that there is no problem that exists in the world to which the right answer is ‘more human beings’, basically don’tcha worry your little head about that, capitalism will fix that too.

Even on a white-collar income, Dani Rodrik’s declining trajectory is shown in my life. I discharged my mortgage ten years later in life than my Dad did, on his single household income. The arrow of time still points in the same direction, the retrenchment in home ownership9 in more recent generations. Worstall would say so what, Millennials will live longer than previous generations, and they have far more choice in what to spend their incomes on. If he makes the case in some hipster east London bar through a mouthful of smashed avocado on toast, he may be met with some pushback in the form of “as long as those things we can afford don’t include buying a house or having children, yes”.

Is your passive FI/RE dream eating your children’s future?

The British Academy lays out the charge on page 27, Corporate Financing that the arm’s-length passive ownership is not only detrimental to the common weal, but it amplifies the actions of bad actors

Traditionally, corporate financing has been concerned with the interests of investors alone. Stock market listed companies in the UK and US are dominated by dispersed passive shareholders who do not provide the active engagement with companies that is associated with larger share blocks in other countries around the world.

In particular, universal shareholders who hold the global portfolio of shares through index funds have risen to the fore. To the extent that there are engaged investors, they take the form of short-term hedge fund activists who hold blocks of shares in companies for an average of between two to four years.

What is for the most part missing in the UK and US are long-term, engaged holders of blocks of shares who act as true owners of corporate purposes . Since one cannot have a relationship with the anonymous, the absence of identifiable holders of blocks of shares undermines the provision of long-term relationship forms of equity finance. The result is not only insufficient governance and stewardship by investors but also a deficiency of committed owners of corporate purposes.

I am not clever enough to see if they are right, but at least some of that seems to have a grain of truth to it. This bell has been tolling for some time – 8 years ago I watched the programme Finished at Fifty that showed a stark contrast between the lifestyles of a Chinese middle class aspirant in an economy with rising prospects and a fifty-year old Brit who had already been offed from one job, carried too much mortgage for his stage of life, lived high on the hog and wasn’t looking at the road ahead. Some of the anger I had in that post is because I saw myself in him, and I was half-way through extricating myself from that sort of folly. We hate seeing in others the dim reflection of our Shadow, and that was why watching this berk do what I had done two years before got on my tits so much…

The stench of decline in the West has grown worse since that programme, in the English-speaking world it’s names are Trump and Brexit, and they harken back to making America Great Again and its Mini-Me Brexit Putting the Great back into Great Britain Again over here.

Putting the Great back into Britain

It just ain’t gonna happen, guys. Sic transit gloria mundi. Well, it’s going to happen for the better off, but although I am over halfway up the UK wealth scale10  I am nowhere near safe from that firestorm, and I don’t even have the right to live elsewhere any more11 any more because of these nostalgic dreamers of Imperial glories past selling their jingoistic story.

Jacob Rees-Mogg will do all right out of it

Jakes will do all right out of it. Of course he’s not influencing Somerset Capital Management‘s investment decisions since he’s an MP. So that’s all tickety-boo and above board then. But the engine of globalisation is driven by our money as well as his. Perhaps I am closer to Tim Worstall than I like to think. It’s not a good feeling.

  1. I am sure one day there will be someone with enough cash to be able to flush this dumb money by pumping and dumping enough stocks along the index rebalancing cycle, but it hasn’t happened so far that we know of. 
  2. The battery works on a chemical process and has a finite number of cycles before it loses capacity. Once upon a time you could change the rechargeable battery in a mobile phone just like in any other electronic doo-hickey. Apple led the way by glueing the damn thing inside the case, so you get to throw the whole thing in the trash when the battery is knackered. 
  3. The Domesday Book of 1086 is the first and last comprehensive record of land ownership in England. Unlike any other self-respecting European country the cadastral records of the modern Land Registry don’t cover 14% of the country because the aristocracy don’t want you to know how rich they are. Land is their preferred method of preserving capital across the generations. Estates aren’t sold when inherited, so they can do this on the Q.T. 
  4. for instance the Dhaka garment factory fire of 2012 has echoes of the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster in NYC a hundred years earlier 
  5. Yeah, that’s an Amazon link. I am part of the problem, as I’m sure are most of you. Don’t like His Jeffness? Google it…oh never mind 
  6. My Dad retired just after his 65th birthday, having worked at that company for 23 years, but he started work at 14, so he worked for 50 years in total. 
  7. I find this hard to square with the increasing signs of overt poverty in the UK, the increased amount of visible homelessness, the food banks that Iain Duncan-Smith regarded as just the third sector picking up the slack rather than the direct result of his vile disdain for the lower orders not being able to ride out the five-week delay built into Universal Credit welfare reforms pour encourager les autres. But let’s not pick the fight with Sir Tim Worstall, eh? 
  8. If you’re about to pound the keyboard giving me what for about the dastardly disrepect shown to Sir David, may I respectfully suggest to you that your irony detector has failed in service. 
  9. You can make the case that home-ownership isn’t as well suited to modern insecure working patterns. The trouble is that the rental market is too skewed to favour landlords in Britain, with virtually no security of tenure what with the section 21 eviction at short notice without reason, though there are moves afoot to change this. That won’t take things anywhere near the sort of security of tenure German renters have, for instance. 
  10. the median UK household wealth is about £260k according to the ONS 
  11. I suppose I could buy Maltese citizenship but Brexit has shown just how frail supranational entitlements of residency really are. You gotta admire Maltese chutzpah, when the EU gave them a bollocking for selling citizenship they simply raised the price (to more than I can probably afford) and said that that was all right then. Malta’s got other serious problems – it is far too close to obvious geopolitical hazards, the government seems to have issues with journalists who find out too much. Before Brits point fingers at those Maltese fly-by-nights note that the UK government sells citizenship on a sliding scale of £2,000,000 to £10,000,000. Interested? Apply right here on The extra £8M readies buys you three years off the settlement delay, and you can fast-track the application for 500 nuts (on top of the £1600 fee).  We don’t give you all that US bollocks about moral turpitude. Acts of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes to his fellowmen are absolutely fine with us. As long as you do your crime and skip the country where you perpetrated it within 12 months, or your criminality is more than 10 years ago we’ll whistle a dancing tune and welcome you and your money with open arms. What’s more, unlike those money-grabbing Maltese the money is still yours, all we ask is you lob it in a UK bank and convert it to sterling. Ta muchly. Obviously if you wanted to get EU citizenship you are SOL, but £2mill ought to get you a suitable gated pad with a concierge, so you don’t need to fear the revolting proletariat in the years to come. Toodle pip old boy and the best of British luck in sharing your ill-gotten gains with us investing sagely. 

Playing With FIRE

This post is partly about the eponymous movie, featuring outgoing FIRE exponents like MMM. It will be shown in Birmingham on the 5th of July, well done Cashflow Cop for getting this shown outside the Great Wen. But I couldn’t help thinking about the other meaning, too…

The Ermine is an introvert1, so I fought the FI battle as a loner. For sure, I learned from other people – Monevator for how and sort of why2, Early Retirement Extreme for why though not so much how, I was too old and too wedded to some creature comforts to live the ERE life.

At that time the FIRE blogosphere was ruled by introverts too, unlike now, where I’d say extroverts rule the roost. I’m glad I started when I did, because I could relate to people’s narrative. We were crawling from the twisted wreckage of the credit crunch. The credit crunch had squeezed The Firm I worked for, and what had been a decent job for 20 years started to go bad, fast.

I read this post shortly after what I interpreted as a manager trying to run me out of the company. I was more than a decade away from retirement and needed a fast track out. I had been living the usual life of hedonism, though I didn’t carry consumer debt.

The world looked very different then – as Monevator described people’s emotional state was in the pits, the financial world was ending. I read that, and yes, I was one of the people that thought he was barking mad. Rather that yell abuse, however, I asked myself “what if this nutter is right, there is some logical coherence in what he says”. If he were right, this was a remote chance to stick a rocket on my exit plans. So I bought. That committed money to a remote chance, but that money wasn’t anywhere near enough to buy me out of 10 years of working. Looked at in that way, it was a rational choice, though a long shot.

I chose individual shares and a HYP approach, because I thought I was smarter than perhaps I was. I still have most of those HYP shares. It didn’t matter what you bought then, everything was down the toilet. It mattered that you bought.

Swimming in troubled waters – if I will fall, may I fall slowly, all is lost

I recall coming across the song Désenchantée from a colleague, and even with schoolboy French I got the feeling and it matched my mood playing on my work PC as I put half or the 2008/9 allowance into a Cash ISA and half into an III S&S ISA.

I had been slaughtered in the dot-com bust a decade before. Intellectually I saw the logic of Monevator’s words, but I did not feel that there was any hope, after all, it hadn’t worked out that well last time. I invested that money because I saw I was going to fall, though not when the end would come3. I did not have 10 years of working life left ahead of me. Your late 40s is often a troubled time of life,  you cannot live the afternoon of life by the principles of the morning.

The next month I did the same again, in the new tax year, but I also signed up to the company salary sacrifice AVCs and pushed my pay down to virtually the minimum wage, investing in a 50:50 UK:Global index fund. The other options were cash or 100% UK. I did not do this because I was an optimist, I was of the view that this was most likely a lost cause, but that there was a worthwhile chance.

The modern FIRE landscape is a very different place from that lonely and desperate world

We stand on the ramp of a long bull run from those troubled times. Extroverts are optimistic guys, they need to feel things can only get better. Let’s hear it from MMM on the practical benefits of outrageous optimism. Pete isn’t the sort of fellow to play Désenchantée on loop as he throws overboard the trappings of a comfortable middle class lifestyle into the bottomless stock-market pit for a low chance of a big win. He knows he is going to clean up and face-punch the bad guys. Every last one of them. Self-doubt is for pussies.

His story is better, and it’s been turned into a movie. Well, there’s more to it than that. Apparently it was shown in London earlier this month. I totally agree with Cashflow Cop that it shouldn’t just be the Londoners that should get the benefit. CfC has been instrumental in getting this sorted so it will be shown in Birmingham on the 5th of July. Take a look at Cashflow Cop’s site more generally – he is a UK FIRE aspirant who doesn’t live in London or work in finance. As for the movie,

It’s all rather American, but the principles of financial independence are the same. Go and see it for inspiration, particularly if you are an extrovert.

But leaven the feelgood story with the knowledge that…

Continue reading “Playing With FIRE”