The Global Auction – why learning isn’t earning any more in the West

There have been some interesting studies of work of late, and I took a read of some of these because the general picture I am getting is that the world of work has been steadily getting more and more horrible since I quit the workforce in 2012. A gem of a book that explains a lot of what is happening to work and what happened to my job is this book, which I discovered while web-ratholing via George Monbiot’s recent column. I was always going to be a sucker for his lede

It’s untenable to let salaried work define us.

although perhaps not so much for his line on volunteering 😉

The book is called The Global Auction: the broken promises of education, jobs and incomes, and as I started reading it I immediately thought of a couple I am vaguely acquainted with who have two children. They’re not rich enough to support their desired lifestyle and send both children to public school, so they send just one. This puzzled me as it seems an obvious way to fund an army of therapists in the troubled adult future of the child who is deemed unworthy, but I suspect that it’s a terrible misallocation of capital even in the case of the Most Favoured Child. It’s not particularly that the Most Favoured one is particularly clever or the Most Unfavoured particularly dimwitted. They’re both probably slightly to the right of the bell curve, for all I know they may well be sharper than I am, but the problem is in the conventional assumptions of their parents, that learning is earning.

The prognosis in the book for Most Favoured Child1 is horrific –

We believe that everyone has a right to know that the opportunity bargain based on better education, better jobs, and better incomes can no longer deliver the American Dream.

Continue reading “The Global Auction – why learning isn’t earning any more in the West”


Taking back control

How the holy heck did we get from this

to this

There was once upon a time when Britain had a reputation for diplomacy and pragmatism, but I guess that died with the generation before the boomers who are in charge of things now. This seems like a slow surrender, a bizarre interpretation of Taking Back Control. While I didn’t agree with Brexiters, I could see there were values  there – but oh how easily they are tossed aside. The FT has a point that Brexit is a cargo cult for gentlemen of a certain age.

Hardly any of today’s Tories actually remember Britain’s golden age of ruling India and winning the second world war. Even the party’s ageing members are merely the children of the Dunkirk generation. Economically, they have been the luckiest cohort in British history. But they and many other Tory MPs feel the shame of late birth. They disdain the UK’s tame, vegetarian, low-stakes, Brussels-based, post-imperial incarnation, which in 70 years offered nothing more glorious than the Falklands war. Now they have their own heroic project: Brexit.

A collective incompetence seems to have afflicted  the British body politic. Usually before going somewhere it pays to work out what the preferred destination is, whereas at the moment we are stuck with an ‘anywhere but here’ narrative. The parallels are more with the Psychology of Military Incompetence

arrogant underestimation of the enemy, the inability to learn from experience, resistance to new technologies or new tactics, and an aversion to reconnaissance and intelligence.

Although there’s much to be said for the drunk’s adage that to go there you wouldn’t start from here, it’s possible to envisage a successful Brexit, either in terms of the economy and some sovereignty or in terms of sovereignty and repelling immigration. Sadly at the moment we seem to be headed for a general clusterfuck that will cheer nobody at all. Drafting a view in government of what a successful Brexit looks like would be a damn good start. At the moment I am reminded of Chuck Colson’s poster

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

and at the moment the sack-holder isn’t anywhere near London by the looks of it. Get a grip and get a clue, guys.

Investing for Brexit

The Ermine has two retirement resources. One is my DB pension, which is easily enough to live on at the moment – it is deferred for only a couple more years, because the Ermine is grizzled of fur and will reach normal retirement age for most of that pension accrual, some time after Brexit, sadly. But it’s denominated in pounds, and there’s an inflation cap on it. Neither of these had been a particular concern until June 2016.

The other is my stock market holdings, which are in two ISAs for platform diversification. I hold equities and ETFs with TD Direct, which by a quirk of fate don’t incur platform fees because TD make its money on the buy and sell commission. The ermine is not a source of rich pickings here, as my aim is to never sell in the case of the HYP or a world index ETF. Sadly TD Direct have been bought by iii, and I fell out with them a while ago for stupidly hiking fees in an attempt to make us all churn our portfolios. That good fees fortune may not stand.

I also hold funds with Charles Stanley, or rather a single fund, the excitingly named B2Q6HW6, which tracks the FTSE World (ex UK) Index. The original aim of this was to lean against the home bias of my HYP.

Brexit changes the risk balance

The classic view is a DB pension is steady as she goes, as close to gold as you can get, whereas equities are an exciting but unreliable floozy on the side. Brexit changes that because it is likely to hammer the value of the DB pension in real terms by devaluing the pound. It’s a massive risk to the UK. The rest of the world will probably tootle along just fine. Now it’s entirely possible that the Brexiteers are right and nothing of note will happen, or having flung off the yoke of the EU we will do well. Trouble is, I am very heavily exposed to the UK – the ISA is worth only about half the notional value of the DB pension, so even if it was all in foreign assets I’m more than half exposed to the UK. And what I’ve experienced so far of Brexit is inflation, and we ain’t even left yet. Now on a contrarian basis there’s an argument for buying the UK, but I felt a bit bad writing that last time, and @hosimpson and @Neverland  weren’t sold. No, I can’t really convince myself either. There might be a case to do that if I weren’t in the eye of the storm – a Frenchman could consider a small contrarian punt on the UK, but the trouble is if the  UK goes titsup so does my main pension. I don’t need any increase in UK exposure.

There are some things I could do with the pension – I could draw it a couple of years early, shovel those years into my ISA. But then I get to pay tax on my SIPP that I haven’t cleared out yet. I could take a pension commencement lump sum, which commutes some of it to cash, and invest that, but the rate isn’t terrific.

Doing nothing is iffy, I am sitting on half a house worth of cash much of it borrowed from my ISA and a Brexit steamroller coming to pummel the value of that into the ground.

The Ermine takes a sneak peek behind enemy lines

Most of what I hear of Brexit boosters comes from the Brextremist wing of the Tory party, for the simple reason that they seem to be doing most of the running these days. I obviously hear the endless barrage of whiny Remoaning, to which I am adding here, but it’s always good to hear other voices. I thought I’d look wider, and in amidst a lot of Googling, I came across these guysI confess that I quite like the cut of their jib on a lot of things, since it appears that I share some of the sovereignty issues[ref]I haven’t searched all the Leave Alliance, but I note they don’t really say much about immigration[/ref], though I am nowhere near as worked up about them as they are, and weight the economic hit much greater which explains why I am still a pusillanimous Remoaner.  I also kinda like North’s descripton of blogging as a way to learn 😉

In the search I came across all sorts fo flotsam and jetsam, I was tickled by this piece by an anti-fangirl of Jacob Rees-Mogg, as a cheerful interlude before we get on to what Peter North thinks Brexit will mean, as led on by the no deal wingnuts. In some ways people who voted Brexit seem almost more pissed off by the mess May and her crew is making than Remainers. At least the latter know they lost the fight.

The phoenix must burn to emerge

Bloody hell, and I thought it would be bad, and North is still a fan of the process.

all JIT export manufacturing will fold inside a year… Across the board we will see prices rising… Britain is about to become a much more expensive pace to live. It will cause a spike in crime…  lot of engineering jobs to be axed since a lot of them are dependent on defence spending. It will kill off a number of parasitic resourcing firms and public sector suppliers. it will wipe out the cosseted lower middle class and remind them that they are just as dispensable as the rest of us. 

major rationalisation of the NHS and what functions it will perform. It will be more of a skeleton service than ever… a lot of zombie projects will be culled and the things that survive on very slender justifications will fall. We can also expect banks to pull the plug in under-performing businesses. Unemployment will be back to where it was in the 80’s…. Anyone who considers themselves “Just about managing” right now will look upon this time as carefree prosperity. There are going to be a lot of very pissed off people.

young people actually start doing surprising and reckless things again rather than […] tedious hipsters drinking energy drinks in pop-up cereal bar book shops or whatever it is they do these days. We’ll be back to the days when students had to be frugal and from their resourcefulness manage to produce interesting things and events.

A few years in and we will then have started to rebuild EU relations […] we are looking at a ten year recession. Nothing ever experienced by those under 50.

I really recommend you read the whole thing, I like his style, but I think he graduated at the Nietzschean school of dialectic, perhaps with coaching from Tim Gurner regarding da feckless yoof, who seem to have dropped some smashed avocado into his beer at some stage.

That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

Mind you, I need to be careful what I say, I was/am part of the cosseted lower middle class and an engineer to boot, so already up against the wall in his world. He’s saying that the economic fallout from Brexit will blight a third of the amount of life I have left, statistically speaking. The bear case always sounds smarter. [ref]It seems to be a more general case in more than investing[/ref]It’s poles apart from keep calm and carry on, and it’s a more dramatic story. But this narrative of woe comes from a fan of Brexit. Leave alliance has the most cogent takedown of the no-deal it’ll all be OK with WTO rules stance of the wingnuts – it’s not all about the tariffs guys. But in the end it’s for the Brexiteers to sort out what Brexit means, beyond the gnomic tautology of Brexit means Brexit.

In the time we have left, is there a brace position?

Foreign assets, basically. That FTSE World (ex UK) Index. There’s not enough time and I don’t have smarts enough to do anything better. It’s the world according to Lars  Kroijer but I get to atone for my seven years of nonchalance in not anticipating that my fellow countrymen would suddenly perform an act of economic hara-kiri with the ex-UK slant.

I did have a look to see if I could buy that in a L&G ISA to get rid of Charles Stanley’s platform fee but sadly the L&G ISA index funds list doesn’t include the L&G fund I want. Go figure.

It won’t be enough to compensate, but it may slow the fall a little bit. I will probably have to pay health insurance to make up for the fact the NHS will be eviscerated and life will be a bit more shit in many ways, but we will have taken back control. The same sort of control of the pilot taking a hammer to the autopilot and getting in a flat spin, but goddamn it, it’s his own flat spin till the crunch comes.

OTOH it may well go all swimmingly, bluebirds will be tweeting and there will be the fine sound of leather against willow on a thousand village greens in the joyful sunlit summers that will come when the foul yoke of the EU superstate is thrown off.

Fair enough – so what’s the worst that will happen out of my attempt to brace for Brexit if it all goes swimmingly? I will end up with a ISA that is more or less balanced according to the advice of Monevator’s tame ex-hedge fund manager, albeit oddly with the old HYP core. I guess there are worse things that could happen.

Plus I increase my risk of devaluation due to a stock market crash, since valuations are high, but then I am almost guaranteed another value of cash sort of crash with Brexit, so I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. A market crash usually comes good in a few years, whereas Brexit looks like it will hammer the pound for a decade – and that’s according to parts of the Brexit camp, they have so little faith in the competence of Her Majesty’s Government to know their arse from their elbow. I need to pay back my ISA from the cash from the house sale, pay this year’s 20k in and get me some Brexit ballsup insurance in the form of foreign assets while the pound is still worth more than a bucket of spit.

There aren’t any good answers here. Unlike Rees-Mogg and his band of happy Brextremists I am not rich enough to come out of Brexit unscathed. I will go down with it, it’s a question of how much. I need some light relief. Let’s hear some Moggmentum from Madeleina Kay, JRM No 1 fan – not.

workers will retire from five million jobs in the next 10 years

Government figures tell us that over the next five years people will retire from 12.5 million jobs, and there will be only 7 million young people to fill them. Somehow the authors of the report also assume that another two million jobs will be created. Oh yes, and last year our blessed fellow countrymen decided that they didn’t want Johnny Foreigners coming over ‘ere and taking our jobs. The inference seems to be that we need to get our ageing baby boomers out of retirement to go fill these jobs.

Now a cynical Ermine thinks to self firstly ‘when Hell freezes over’ and secondly – a number of things that are wrong with this scenario. It’s not just investments where past performance is not supposed to be a reliable guide to the future. I’d say there’s this problem with economic prognostications too.

Let’s take a look at what’s been happening with jobs over the last few decades, shall we?

Once upon a time, like when an Ermine first rocked up for work in the early 1980s, you could apply for a job, and you’d actually be working for the company on their payroll. That was the case whether you were a graduate engineer or if you were the toilet cleaner. Said firm would also invest in you – they would train you, which was of particular relevance if you had a generalist degree or the company worked in a technical specialism that had unusual quirks. They would also pay into your defined benefit pension – for The Firm at least this even applied to the janitors until the mid 1980s.

The something called neoliberalism showed up, and communications and IT improved significantly. A whole bunch of blowhards like Peter Drucker came along and pretty much said that pitch everybody against everyone else, let the devil take the hindmost and may the best man win.

As a result, CEO pay shot up as a multiple of the average employee’s wage, and that was after they hived off the janitors et al to supply services companies and drove wages down to the lowest levels, so the average employee is drawn from a smaller pool of higher qualified staff. That CEO ratio still shot up, not because CEOs add any more value to companies now, indeed looking at stock market returns they’re adding less than before the millennium, but because they are top dog and they can.

A quick detour through Globalisation, BPO and All That

Then in the 1990s and early 200s we had wave upon wave of business process outsourcing which sent anything you could send off to lower wage economies, this afflicted the English speaking world more than others because of a ready global pool of decent English speakers. This has very materially improved global pay and reduced global poverty in a big way, as the the right-wing nutjob Tim Worstall correctly opines. And repeats himself thusly. As do the not left-of-centre Adam Smith Institute.

It isn’t true that everyone benefits from free trade and globalisation. The net effect on all humans is vastly positive, but there are still those that lose. And that’s a political problem, not an economic one. For the people who don’t win are, largely speaking, those below median incomes in the already rich countries.

Now Tim’s probably rich enough not to give a shit, I figure TW is well over the median income in a rich country. So was (and possibly am) I, but I am far closer to the edge than him, so I am more twitchy. None of these fellows are wrong. All other things being equal, for the sum total of humanity globalisation delivers the goods in the way Bob Geldof and so-called aid just didn’t. It probably wasn’t Sir Bob’s fault – the sort of corruption and baksheesh that aid generates is remarkable, there are many problems in the world that helicoptered money just can’t fix. But even the distorted version of free market capitalism that goes now left all that do-gooding in the dust when it came to alleviating global poverty.

Globalisation also needed a population explosion because it needs growth.

There is some argument to be made that it also enabled a shocking population explosion which has made a lot of things like food, water and climate change a lot tougher to nail in future than they were when I was at school, when there were half as many people in the world. I suspect globalisation only works when there is economic growth, and to have economic growth you need growth in the number of consumers, but I am not smart enough to say that is categorically the case. At the moment the score is Oxfam-nil:Globalisation-1

Communism was also a great idea in theory. Trouble was it went against the grain of human nature. So the trouble with globalisation is that people don’t care evenly about humanity in general. They care about the humanity that is closest to them. Within rich countries we have institutions that sort of temper this instinct, but when the people who are getting the uplift are far away, then the people below median incomes in rich countries who are drifting backwards economically get really, really, pissed off. They let people know, through Brexit and Donald Trump among others. In general they want to put a spanner in the works, because nothing pisses people off more than not getting ahead while seeing other people are.

The effect of globalisation on First World Jobs

It makes lovely jobs lovely, and pretty much the rest of them shit. Q: What’s worse than a zero-hours contract job? A: A ZHC job where you get fined £250 a day if you can’t find a replacement if you’re sick. Or only £150. Welcome to the lousy jobs. I am glad that I had my career while the Iron Curtain was still down – true, we had to watch films like Threads and worry about being nuked in four minutes but at least I wasn’t competing with Vladimir and 1 billion in India, and I was working in an analogue world where the cost of replication was higher than now. That suited me very well, because while I am on the right hand side of the bell curve I am not that far to the right of it, and I am an introvert which is maladapted to the interconnected and always-on world of work now. Collaboration and teamwork – meh. You get ahead by having an edge, and you get an edge by spending time understanding what is going on IMO. Chatter on SMS and social media is for gossip, and meetings aren’t much better 😉

Back to the original premise – a deficit of 7 million jobs?

Well they’re not going to be getting old gits like me back out of retirement to go into the bear-pit of zero hours contracts, are they? The second word would the -off. Because all in all, working is increasingly a pretty shit proposal, and it’s particularly crap compared to my experience of working in the past. Fortunately, a whole different bunch of guys is telling us that Humans Need Not Apply and that the robots will be doing all these shit jobs. Hopefully this deficit of people desperate for crap jobs is going to do some good then, and people will automate the crap jobs they can’t get the retired baby boomers to fill. This will finally lift capital productivity in Britain although possibly not per-capita productivity. Pret a Manger say that 1 in 50 of their workers in British. Well, tough luck – Londoners are going to have to pay more of their bonuses for their coffee and snacks or brown-bag it, and some teenagers in London are going to get breaks they couldn’t get before, until the robots come. Or they will set up camp somewhere outside the citadel and bus in the serfs. I am not so sure I find that such a terrible thing.

There, Mr Government and your hired guns. Fixed that for you. Taking 7 million shit jobs out of the economy is A Very Good Thing in this humble Ermine’s opinion. There’s now’t wrong with encouraging those old gits to punch their cards one last time and clear off, even if there aren’t enough worker drones to fill their shoes. The balance had been swinging from Labour to Capital ever since the 1970s. There are too many crap jobs in the UK, and retirement of the Baby Boomers could be just what the workplace needs at the bottom end.


Sowing the wind in the summertime and the living is easy…

Nearly a year ago the Will of The People™ amply guided by the Will of the Press Barons™ spake of their dreams of throwing of the foul yoke of Brussels, and the Pound took a dive of about 20%. And people said either it was a price well worth paying for freedom from EUSSR tyranny, and anyway, since we make so much of our own stuff and grow so much of essentials like food, the effect on inflation was going to be a mere few percent, so chill out you goddamned remoaners etc etc. In the frenzy of cheer and Enlightenment values we had the Daily Mail calling the judiciary the enemies of the people, perhaps they should have been true to their hearts and used the term Volksverräter

Well, fast forward a year, which is often when the harvest from last year’s sowing is due, and what have we got? Presumably loads of hospital building, increased pay for NHS staff in the pipeline and all that good stuff we had plastered on the side of buses? Let’s hear it from Mark Carney then.

Uncertainty for companies about the outlook may also have made them unwilling to raise wages at a faster pace until they have more clarity about future costs and market access

Oh well, guess that’s the price of freedom then, guys. You don’t get ‘owt for n’owt. I was reminded of this as a couple of Conservative dudes cruised round a few days ago wanting to know if they could count on my vote. I’ve been looking forward to this for a while, to ask a genuine Tory how David Cameron could have been allowed to fuck things up so beautifully by asking a question to which he didn’t really want to hear the full range of answers. An affable old Tory gent, Geoffrey Van Orden responded that it will be fine and all right on the night. He was the first aristocratic-viewpoint Brexiteer I’ve come across, because the Ermine is of lowly stock and doesn’t normally move in such circles. I know enough ordinary folk who were into the sovereignty side of things, and tended to be a little bit older than me. That’s fair enough, it takes more than one viewpoint to make up a world, and at least these retired folk aren’t subject to the vicissitudes of finding work. Nor have they had the possibility of going abroad to earn money and escape the tyranny of British housing and its vile BTL landlords ripped away from them, so although I don’t agree I can see they hold a valid different opinion. I have also run into a couple of the xenophobic sort of Brexiteers, I try and avoid the lowlife scum end of the spectrum. But since it is largely the wealthy gentry and their mouthpieces of the right-wing press that brought us this joyful freedom, I was interested to see what an example was like in the flesh.

I noted the public school accent and education, which gave him the edge in verbal dialectics compared to me, although I also observed the entitlement to rule character. He identified me as a Remainer and feigned sympathy for the cause which he clearly doesn’t have. Was clearly chilled about the way Brexit has made political discourse pretty nasty in this country, and is of the view that if a few Poles get roughed up, well, that’s just statistical variation, correlation with Brexit not causation, dear boy. I guess the ends justify the means.

Geoffrey showed me just how much further away from the heat the rich really are

The ermine is hopefully on the right side of the impending Brexit economy suckout, but it worries me. Sure, I read things like this article and with this sage reflection:

The fuse of currency depreciation had been lit, and was quietly making its way towards the tinderbox of rising inflation, higher household debt and increased pressure on spending power.

The average household is now spending an additional £21 a quarter on groceries compared with last year. That may not seem a huge amount, but with inflation on the up that could mean an extra £119 over the course of this year. Airfares, package holidays and energy bills are all rising while wages remain the same.

and think to myself well, if £120 a year is going to push you over the edge then you’re hosed anyway. You way as well stick your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye right now. And FFS, airfares, package holidays – you need to pay your energy bills but cut out the holidays if you find the wolves howling ever closer to the door. To be honest the prescription is always the same, cut the wants before the needs, live within your means, and avoid picking up commitments that you can’t afford to run.

But it’s still a worry for me, I am many multiples of that £120 a year from the breadline but they’ll all add up. Whereas the likes of the old buffer Geoffrey swan blithely through that sort of worry, because they are so far away from being washed away by the incoming tide that they spout about grand plans, which broadly sum up to a Trump-esque “Make Britain Great Again”. I never did understand why they had so many wartime films on the telly in the 1970s but it seems that the sentiment burns on in many Brexiteers’ hearts, particularly if they are of a certain age.

Geoffrey talked lovingly about his fine work with the Indian trade delegation when I reminded him that I am old enough to recall the National Front marching through Lewisham in the 1970s and that sort of intolerance of t’other seems to be on the rise again. Apart from a minor technicality of him doing this as a MEP which will be worth a bucket of spit after Brexit, it really isn’t the days of the Raj any more, and I think some of these old boys are going to have to be pushing up daisies before Britain finally starts to deal with the world as it is in 2017 rather than as it was in the 1950s. Having shitloads of money just seems to insulate you from some of these realities.

I had a really great choice in this election of nothing I like at all. One the one hand is the Maybot going Brexit means Brexit and on t’other side we have somebody who was probably a closet Brexiteer anyway. I had the choice between something I never asked to happen and a genial but ineffective old buffer that reminds me of other aspects of socialism in the 1970s like that creep Arthur Scargill and his band of merry thugs flying pickets exercising their God-given right to stop other people working because they had the power of force.

A plague on both your houses

But we seemed to have had a general election with no overall winner, which was probably the best result for my views, although what I voted for was lost, so thank you the rest of the British public. It seems the despicable rightwing press was largely ignored in their seething spewage. The Tories buggered this up in the first place by having a Brexit referendum at all, and now seem to have lost a lot of their pre-Brexit majority. Good for Theresa May returning to the electorate after such a big change in the background 😉

Theresa May’s WTF? expression

But what I feared more than a Tory landslide was a Corbyn majority. Corbyn has done well and hopefully will do his job in diluting the Empire-dreaming hard Brexiters. It’s not a good result, but it’s probably the least worst. You sowed the wind, Tory PM Cameron, with you damned manifesto promise of an EU referendum. Now the hard Brexit nut-jobs have reaped the whirlwind by being just too full of cock. Maybe we’ll have to try and talk in a civilised way about Brexit, rather than revel in the arrogance of ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’

Oh and though I had no part in it since I couldn’t bring myself to vote Corbyn, I am pleased that

Labour’s gains included the symbolic toppling in Ipswich of Ben Gummer, the author of the Conservative manifesto.

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good 😉

a look back in anger at the endowment, a popular investment of yesteryear

Twenty-eight years ago I perpetrated the worst financial mistake of my entire life so far. I bought a house, in the hugely overvalued market of 1989. It seemed a good time to look back at how this happened, because today the Pru, one of the partners in crime regarding endowment mortgages, tells us that one in four retirees have never recovered from that kind of 1980s style cockup, and are carrying mortgage debt into retirement.Not only that, but three more waves of the the financial instrument of wealth destruction otherwise known as the interest-only residential mortgage will be crashing on the battered shores of British residential mortgagees in the next 15 years. I was only the advance guard.

Very few people are rich enough to have saved enough money to be able to service big existential debts like a mortgage in retirement, so the financial whizz-kids seem to be selling these guys equity release plans to fix the failure of their younger selves to live within their means by eschewing one or more of holidays, kids, pets or general consumerism. I recently came across the documentation for that piece of feckless financial foolishness, so I thought I’d deconstruct it here. Obviously Brits have learned in the intervening three decades, so our housing market is not at sky-high earnings multiples with people signing away a quarter of their gross earnings nowadays. Or maybe not…

You don’t have much control over when you come of an age when you need to find somewhere to set up house, most of the choices in that respect were taken by your parents and determined by the human life-cycle set by Nature. There’s a window somewhere between 25 and 35 when you need to tackle this issue. Your experience of housing will depend on what phase of the market cycle housing is in, plus some wider long-term societal changes, many of which are adverse. Cycles in the housing market a long – 10 years is not enough to see a whole cycle. I was a single man competing with an increasing number of dual income households because women were entering the workforce in larger numbers. I had already been driven out of the city of my birth by rising house prices and I really really wanted to buy a house, so much that I ignored alarm bells, massive factory sirens, red lights set at danger and just about every other indication that I was paying way too much. All I could afford was a two up two down where most of my colleagues from previous years were able to buy a semi on a typical graduate salary at The Firm. This even shows now – as an old git I am thinking of moving upmarket rather than down, because my hatred of the property asset class ran so deep that I never moved from the semi I bought a decade later.

feckless financial foolishness deconstructed:

Buying a house at that time was bad enough, but I compounded my mistake by choosing an endowment mortgage, because I was a foolish and greedy 28-year old. My parents had said the only way to buy a house was with a repayment mortgage, and made a decent case of as to why. So I listened to the sales patter of how a endowment could make even more than the capital, all tax-free, and the pound signs lit up in my eyes and in about half an hour I doubled down on the error of overpaying, signing up to this promise

So putting my 28 year older and wiser head on my 28 year old body, let’s take a look at what is wrong with this. If the promise had held good I would have paid 25 × 644.52 = £16113 to get £41500 in 25 year’s time. Which is a fantastic deal, what’s not to like? Ker-ching. Oh and my mortgage gets paid off if I die early. To be honest that’s not my problem, I suppose I should have made a will, because that was never going to benefit me – strike one. What I heard in the sales patter was a very good chance of doubling the money. What the dimwitted 28-year old failed to take into account is that I damn well should expect to double my money in 25 years time – at the time half the value of money died through inflation every 10 years, so in 25 years that profit would be worth diddly squat. I was clearly not reading the documentation right, because it only offered an extra 15k using the most racy projections, sustaining an investment return of over 10% p.a. for twenty-five years straight. Easy peasy.It’s the selective focus bias – you see what you want to see.

To get this putative win, I had to take an investment product described in the vaguest terms I have ever seen – never mind active or passive management, there was no idea of fees or anything else, it boils down to a statement of –  we will give it a go, but nothing is guaranteed, sunshine.

There is no transparency whatsoever, but hey, the salesforce can say anything to big this up. If this offer came across my desk nowadays, the second word would be “off”. At least I can say I made some use of the intervening three decades to get a little bit wiser.

So what happened? Let’s take a look at the state of play after fifteen years had rolled by, that’s half a working life in my case

Well, the good news is that I get about £5000 more than I’d have paid in at the minimum guaranteed sum. The bad news is that even with a total return after fees of 8% p.a. sustained for ten years I’d have been £11k short. Now in 2004 £11k looked like a lot of money to me, and I was pretty damn sure that I didn’t want to eat this loss. [ref]I am being slightly disingenuous here, because Friends Provident demutualised in 2001 and I got about £7k in shares which I sold immediately, and used to make a capital repayment, which I guess brought the outstanding amount to  about £34k.[/ref]

It seems that unlike 25% of my fellow endowment suckers I took action during the term of my mortgage to pay the bugger down, and eventually I kicked up enough fuss that Friends Provident paid me off with a bung in 2005, which I also used to make a capital repayment. Then as my career began to flame out and crash and burn in 2009 I started paying down more and more of the capital, adopting a financial brace position against no longer having an income. That’s actually a really dumb thing to do for people who are trying to retire earlier than 55, but fearful people make bad decisions sometimes, and that was mine. It meant I was poorer in the last few years, but I will be richer from about now – the mortgage could have smoothed my cashflow between retiring from work and getting to 55.

Look at those mad assumptions

Even in 2005 they were talking about investment returns of 8% a year. That just ain’t gonna happen on a sustained basis, and the lowest assumption of 7% way back in 1989 turned out to be total codswallop. That was the risk-averse cautious assumption – it’s bloody nuts. This was massive sample bias due to inflation – after all, just ten years before I signed up inflation in the UK was running at over 15%. You know what the man from the FCA says

Past performance is no guide to the future

Well yeah, but WTF else are you going to go on – Tarot cards or reading tea leaves? Mystic Meg? Inherent in the very fact of stock market investing is the nasty little assumption that you can qualify what you will get in the long run informed by what happened in the past[ref]this dirty little secret is inherent in the SWR and things like firecalc are doing nothing other than informing you from past performance[/ref]. Nevertheless, the 28-year old me could have avoided all those mad assumptions by doing the sensible thing and getting a repayment mortgage. Epic fail in market timing and choice of repayment method.

Winter is coming…

What’s really bananas is that people didn’t learn from the endowment mortgage debacle. Look at this chart from this FCA confidential[ref]I downloaded it on 17/2/2017 from[/ref] report published on the open web

Oh boy, there is serious incoming hurt from these maturing IO residential mortgages over the next 15 years

Wages are stagnating, though I guess the high Brexit-induced inflation has reduced all these guys capital debts by 20%. Let’s hope their wages keep up with inflation, eh, because otherwise Winter is coming, and it will be served up with a good amount of Discontent. Their pain will be worse too, because at least I had a deficient repayment method that would have paid about half of the capital. Since then interest only mortgages were written without any requirement to have a method of repaying the capital at the end, so these big cohorts are coming to the end of their 25 year extended home rental term aka interest only mortgage, and the requirement to actually buy the house will come as a bit of a surprise by the looks of it. Okay, so they have taken a call option on the price 25 years ago, but they’ll still need to whistle up the price or move out.

The Smartphone as a tool of oppression in the Gig Economy

Smartphones connect us with the virtual world, but also bind us. [ref]I don’t speak of it from experience, because the first smartphone I got was after I finished work. And I decommissioned the bugger about a month ago because it was seriously pissing me off. It did most of the things I could do with a computer, but all at half cock, and was poor at answering phone calls.[/ref]

A digital nomad in her natural environment (Bali I think). Smartphones work just fine for people like these
A digital nomad in her natural environment (Bali I think). Smartphones work just fine for people like these, they never had it so good

The smartphone epitomises what has changed about the world of work, and a whole bunch of articles this last week have reminded me that it has changed, in my view adversely for many workers. I am beginning to understand why so many people are pissed off at the lower end of the employment spectrum. At the middle and top end, they are having a blast – the smartphone is emancipation of the four hour work week, the contractor, the digital nomad and all that. All these dudes are whooping it up and going “wassup, you never had it so good?”. Tim Ferris’s The 4 Hour Work Week is the bible for this crowd. . Back in the real world, it’s the lumpenproletariat taking the shaft, along with a lot of disrespect through what has become a tool of oppression.

How low end work used to be in the 1960s to 1980s

The world of work in the analogue world had a lot of hazard and unpleasantness in it, there was overt racism and discrimination is many areas, and humans did a lot of physical work which was terrible for their health. Some of the improvements in longevity and the narrowing of the expected lifespan between men and women of recent years has been due to running some of these jobs out of town. My Dad worked with glass bottling machinery, he was already losing his hearing by my age and was stone deaf by the time he died. There’s a whole gratuitous rant in this post about for God’s sake don’t trash your hearing with loud sounds and use hearing protection with power tools when you’re over 40 inspired by his experience. Blue collar work was a bastard and took it out of you.

Arthur Scargil, 19 years a miner and rabble rouser deploying flying pickets against Edward heath. Met his match with Thatcher in 1984
Arthur Scargill, 19 years a miner and then rabble rouser successfully deploying thugs otherwise known as flying pickets to switch off the lights under Edward Heath’s 1970s administration. Met his match with Thatcher in 1984.

As I child I used to listen to the revolting turkey Arthur Scargill harp on on the radio about how mining was a tough and dangerous job demands oodles of pay, and yet resisting like hell when Thatcher offered[ref]I know it was an existential fight and all that but the miners lost my sympathy when they turned the lights off while I was at school and I heard arrogant SOBs like Scargill tell how they were going to run things by sending thugs round to stop other people working.[/ref] to stop future generations going down t’pit by switching power generation away from coal to natural gas. WTF was going on there? Scargill called a strike to guarantee that uneconomic pits should not be closed, presumably a social service to keep dangerous employment open despite it not making money. Coal mining was typical of a lot of blue collar work in the past – dirty, dangerous but compared to low-end unskilled work now, paid better to compensate for that. This Is Money have an interesting contrast of working conditions between 1952 and 2012. In pretty much all aspects conditions in 1952 were worse. But there was a place in the economy for unskilled labour, and people knew where they stood. On the downside, opportunities were dreadfully limited for women and for the brighter poor.

Many blue collar jobs had a decent level of community spirit among the workforce, which manifested in the strong union presence. These jobs were stable across years, even a working lifetime, largely because work practices didn’t change much. In some manual jobs skill and experience built up over decades. So although there was a lot wrong with many jobs, there were some things right. In particular the sense of community and the dignity in work. Some employers provided pensions which were defined – my Dad was a fitter but benefited from one of these.

A key part of  most jobs in those days was that they were clearly defined into working time and non-working time. When the factory whistle blew and the workforce downed tools they were off the clock and work was out of mind. This was because communications were limited – phones were connected to places not people. I personally feel the smearing of work into non-work has been one of the most pernicious things to have changed over the last 20 years. As John Philpott of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said in 2012

The world of work has fundamentally changed, but it is not a change which is making many of us happy, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

He blamed the invention of new technology, from laptops to the BlackBerry[ref]Doesn’t that date the report – this was a year after the hot summer of rage when da yoof ran amok and rioted in London for better trainers, communicating via BlackBerry Messenger. I don’t know if you can get a Blackberry these days[/ref]  and the iPhone, which is ‘imposing entirely new pressures on staff.’

While it has liberated people to work from home or from outside the office, it has resulted in ‘information overload, created pressure for an instant response, enabled more sophisticated monitoring and surveillance of employees, and blurred the boundaries between work and non-work time.’

It is possible that I have a limiting belief because my idea of the place of work and leisure was formed in the previous generation – Stephanie Buck (H/T Monevator) puts it elegantly:

Leisure came to define a person’s identity during this time, in many cases superseding career identity. Having a hobby was not only accessible, it was a status symbol. It meant one had time to relax, a privilege previously enjoyed only by the very wealthy.

This is probably one of the reasons why I just don’t miss working at all. I have been able to surrender a career identity because it had less meaning to me. That is the upside of my antediluvian understanding of work. I was also fortunate enough to have spent most of the time working in a reasonably congenial environment with enough challenge to be interesting. I don’t recognise most of my job in Buck’s later observation

Instead of viewing work as the inevitable grind and hobbies as core to one’s identity, as in the post-war era, today’s professionals strive to equate career with leisure.

I started work in 1982, in the transition period between that world and the one we have now, and benefited initially from the improved flexibility but the old community structures of the workplace.

That was then – better communications is changing the workplace massively

Communications have improved over the last 20 years – the advent of the Internet and WWW came in tandem with mobile communications where you now call a person rather than a place you expect them to be, and of course you have more modes of communication.

Strange things have happened as a result. In the early days we expected better comms would mean people to be able to do remote working from anywhere, even on the beach. See digital nomad, above – just imagine all of us doing that. At school I was really told that the future would have lots for leisure time and  we’d be typically working one day a week. How did that turn out for y’all?

In fact what has happened is that high-paying jobs have concentrated in London[ref]I know, not all of them, but the drift has been huge[/ref] which sucks in people and money, creating a lot of misery in the middle range of ability because they are all in competition with each other for finite geographical space and skyrocketing housing costs. It really wasn’t meant to turn out like this, but it seems the network effect, combined with the increasing instability of jobs means workers need to concentrate geographically, both to interact more with each other but also to have a better chance of replacing one job with another when they get the chop without having to move or take huge commutes.

We didn’t realise it at the time, but the limitations on communications and physical transport of goods and services was a great equaliser. As a thought experiment, say we still made chairs by hand but otherwise had all the information comms and containerisation and Deliveroos we have now. When a horse limited a day’s range to 20 miles, every market town could support, say, a skilled carpenter. In a globalised and high transport world, you’d only need as many carpenters as you need to make the amount of wooden stuff needed. Put them all in one place, call it Heartwood Valley and transport the goods for next to nothing. The quality of the carpentry will probably be a little be higher, and the price probably cheaper, but there will be far fewer carpenters employed worldwide. House prices in Heartwood Valley will probably rise, both because the star carpenters will be making more money but they all have to live where the jobs are.

So now take finance, management consultants, IT and stick ’em all in London. No wonder grunts can’t afford to live there. This is not a new phenomenon, though the intensity of the effect is increasing. Thirty years ago an Ermine in a modest but above-average paying technical job was driven out of London. Where I was more fortunate than Millennials was that the concentration of jobs in London and hollowing out of the rest of the country hadn’t happened, and that jobs were more stable so the risk of ending up in a one-hoss town was less strategically dangerous than it would be now.

Zero-hours contracts aren’t new

I worked on what would now be called a zero-hours contract, in 1979/80-ish ISTR. As a kitchen porter – the idea was you go to an agency early in the morning and they would allocate work on a first come first serve basis. There was no guarantee of any work at all, but you generally got to know the system. No phones or anything. When I inflation adjust my earnings to now I was working for a lot less than the minimum wage, too. That sort of work allocation existed elsewhere too,  dockers used to line up in the morning on the same sort of basis to get casual work unloading ships.

Smartphones let employers dynamically allocate work to people via apps, that has the opportunity to turn zero hours contracts into oppression. Casual work is casual because anybody can do it – if you can drive you can drive for Uber, for Deliveroo, and pretty much anyone can flip burgers for McDonald’s. The best way to improve your earning power is to get out of this commodity competition for replaceable skills, because if you have undifferentiated skills then competition is always going to drive your pay down to the minimum wage or lower.

The lower than minimum wage is achieved by zero hours contracts – there are fixed costs associated with being available and ready for work – commuting to the workplace, having a car in the case of Uber, not being able to work for someone else or take your children to school. So you are always are risk of taking a hit if you can’t get your hours up enough. Now in the past the agency sometimes did take a dislike to some people and would always call out others for work before them, but at least that discrimination was visible, and done in person. When an app doles out the work you have no protection against that sort of thing and may even be unaware – as the FT’s “When your boss in an algorithm” describes.

The problem isn’t so much zero hours contracts as such, or even app scheduling – after all every taxi company used to have dispatchers who would match the drivers to incoming jobs over the radio. The problem is zero hours contracts combined with unskilled work, where the work allocators can simply pitch the workers against each other, micromanaging jobs and people in a never-ending treadmill. When one hamster falls off the wheel, there’s an unlimited supply of  rodents to replace them.

One hamster is pretty much like another – hamster work is fungible

In that sort of environment the advantages of flexibility accrue to the employers not the workers. To add insult to injury, the welfare safety nets like unemployment benefit are predicated on the job for life, or at least the job for weeks. They just don’t help you fight that sort of here today gone tomorrow employment pattern. These are not entrepreneur hamsters playing the market for their talents. This is unskilled piecework.

The so-called joys of self-employment

The Grauniad asks whether zero-hours contracts really are worse than jobs for life. Sure, for many people with skills that command a premium, contracting and zero-hours contracts can be great. There are the guys that write about how great the opportunities are. Heck, a retired Ermine hasn’t been able to avoid making money totally, and I would be happy with the lack of commitment of zero-hours contracts[ref]that which I do is probably closer to individual contract jobs, I wouldn’t take low end ZHC jobs where you have to be there for them but they don’t have to be there for you, because I am not having people take the piss out of me for money, the second word in my response to such a proposal would be “off”[/ref] – if it pissed me off in any way, I’d just walk away. I can afford to do that because I am financially independent. Financial independence is very rare in a first world consumer society – there are many, many people who have far more wealth and income than I but who are not financially independent because of their spending.

It’s easy to big up the joys of self-employment. Yes, you have the freedom of self-defined work and your time is a little bit more your own. Set against that you have the stress of managing a variable income, you have all the grief of self-assessment and the trials of HMRC, you have to run the business, make the judgement calls on capital spend versus return. You also have to carry a massive cash float to manage contingencies, else you risk getting slaughtered in the first cashflow crisis that comes along.

Those that make self employment work for them tend to be the more entrepreneurial, and those with skills that can command a premium. I look at Liberate Life’s description of how to live life working without a job and it looks like one of Dante’s Inferno’s circles of Hell to me – I hate selling in all of its forms[ref]I chose LL because he is an engineer with IT and electronics which was what I used to do in a former life[/ref] – all that hustling would be a nightmare for me. I am so glad that I managed to get to the end of my working life before these changes happened. Perhaps there is sample bias – if I were 21 again then this gig economy world would be all that I had known and I would follow such a path, which looks a great way to play that sort of hand.

But I knew another way, and to my eyes it was a far better compromise for the majority of people, who are of average talent but want to have some stability, have kids and FFS do something other than thinking about work all the time. It served me well, I like to think I had a little more talent for the scientific, engineering and analytical than the average Brit, though I am nowhere near clever enough to work for Google. It isn’t like the compromise kept everybody down, and if you really wanted to run your own business and had talent then you could knock yourself out and go do that too.

Maybe I am simply at odds with current thinking. There was an interesting thread on MSE where a fellow retired, and got so bored he went back to work, which made me think what was summed up in this post

It’s a bit sad to spend such a large part of your life working, retire, and then realise you haven’t actually got a real life to enjoy so go back to work again. It suggests an absence of hinterland

Whereas now you’re increasingly on call all the time without getting paid for it, at below the mean level of ability you seem to be yanked about on a smartphone string and have to think about work all the time. In particular, the sort of digital Taylorism the FT’s Sarah O’Connor talked about in this podcast and article treats their unskilled workers with a shocking level of disrespect.Not only are these unskilled workers micromanaged via their smartphone apps, but they are stripped of the employment rights that used to protect casual workers from the variability of the workload (by paying them for their time, including downtime during the working days). The work providers talk up the virtues of self-employment and being able to choose how much you work, but decline too many jobs in a row and you’re embargoed for 24 hours, so the choice is pretty clear, do as we say or piss off. Hobson’s choice, not a better work/life balance.

It tickled me to hear John Gapper’s faint public school accent debating the plight of the precariat with O’Connor’s slightly preppy uptalking and lashings of vocal fry. I don’t think they know the territory, though kudos to Sarah O’Connor for doing some fieldwork at Uber Eats. It’s epitomised when Gapper asks Sarah at 2:24

“Are they employed? I means what is their actual status? Are they workers…”

It’s not so much what is said – it’s a reasonable question, but you can hear the arm’s length treatment in Gapper’s tone of voice – these aren’t the sort of people the FT hacks typically consort with. I can almost picture him holding the dirty rag at a distance asking “so what exactly is it that we have here?” 😉

Elsewhere in the FT, however, it seems that there are still a lot of recalcitrant proto-Ermines among the millennial set that aren’t that enamoured with the go-getting entrepreneurial dynamism of the gig economy. Over to Sarah again

young workers seek traditional permanent contracts to unlock the necessities of life …

The traditional permanent job contract is still the key that unlocks a range of life’s necessities. Without one, you will struggle in many countries to secure a loan, a mortgage, a mobile phone contract[ref]I have never attempted to get a mobile phone contract because I am a PAYG aficionado, but presumably as someone without a permie job I would be SOL on that one too[/ref] or even a room to rent.

like all that boring shit like a roof over your head and not having to think about work for 24 hours every flippin’ day.

There’s hope. but not soon

New ways of working have often led to oppression of the weakest party (generally labour) until regulation can catch up with it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with better information and mobile platforms, after all Uber and GPS means relatively unskilled drivers can provide a low cost London taxi service that was previously the domain of cabbies in a guild with The Knowledge. Because these things started in the teeth of the 2007-9 recession and regulation hasn’t caught up, they have spread quickly, because they give an advantage to the work providers and probably the work consumers, at the cost of the work doers. Our definition of employment and self-employment that has been acceptable for many decades isn’t fit for this sort of employment/work. So regulation needs to catch up, there’s probably space in the marketplace for smartphone mediated work matching to give novel services with a better balance between the conflicting interests of capital, labour and the consumers. It’s inherently the way of capital to to misuse it’s power over people, for the reason identified by Baron Acton in 1887

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Capital is a claim on future human work, the power to get people to do what you want. It needs regulation to gentle it away from being purely a tool of oppression, and it takes time to find that balance. Of course there is always the head-banging Ayn-Randian counter proposal for a no-holds-barred let it all get sorted out in the market. I guess once we’ve killed off the weaklings perhaps the water will find its own level. It’s a bit harsh, but I guess it works. For some strange reason it tends to piss people off seeing that sort of thing happen to their friends and family members, so unless there really is a Galt’s Gulch Uber can retire to they will probably have to come to some less one-sided agreement in time.

It’s not all about the money

though at the bottom end it is… Some of it is about dignity and respect. When I boil it down to the essentials, what I came to hate so much about working at The Firm when they laced it up with stupid performance management metrics wasn’t that the pay was crap, it wasn’t. It wasn’t what I did, which was okay and mildly interesting when it was the actual job in my job title, as opposed to feeding the performance management system bullshit. It was the increasingly demeaning and disrespectful nature of the micromanaging performance reviews and endless justification of my existence, the gamification of the workplace. This crap was unnecessary – it was either a deliberate ploy to make people feel so shit about themselves that they would leave, without having to pay redundancy, or it was some sort of management fad. I recently heard from someone still there, at a more senior level than I reached, who was going through this again – he had to justify his existence, say why he was meeting objectives half of which had been imposed without discussion, and I was so glad to be out of there. But at least the pay was enough to reach FI with a bit of grunt.

When you’re working at the casual end of things, your boss is an app, you have the same sort of arbitrary rules plus various ratings for jobs taken, customer feedback etc you have the same disrespect without the compensation of getting paid the FU money.It’s one of the tedious things about buying online from the gig economy. You get bombarded with requests for feedback to up their metrics. Sorry, but I don’t do feedback any more. I just want to pay the money, get the goods and get out of there.

Recently I bought a replacement car battery from Halfords because I had been a jerk and ignored the signs the old one was fading. So I jumped the battery with a leisure battery and got lost on my way to the cheaper joint. Knowing I was at risk of not starting the engine again if I stopped it took the hit at Halfords. Then realised I only had spanners in my car toolkit, not a socket long enough to reach the lower battery clamp, and my 30-year old jump leads weren’t man enough to turn over a diesel engine from the new battery. So I was faced with pay the £10 fitting charge or buy a socket set, well,  I was idle and paid up. It was a pleasant enough transaction, but no, I didn’t actually want to get a card soliciting feedback on my experience. It’s bad enough online, and there’s no need to feed these stupid monitoring systems in bricks and mortar shops too.

No wonder people are pissed off at the bottom end of the gig economy – they are paid sod all and treated like shit. One or the other you can live with, but not both.