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  

Musings on misadventure and market madness

I was listening to a young fellow on the radio who delivered himself of the observation that in lockdown the days are long but the weeks are short, and thought to myself there is wisdom in this 24 year old fellow.

It reminded me of Gretchen Rubin’s similar observation, that I watched on my office PC in my last month at work. If only I had seen that in the low-water mark early in 2011, half-way through my dispiriting passage out of the workplace. The half-way point in any long term goal is always tough, for you have committed enough resources to preclude other courses of action. And yet the final destination is not yet in sight. Rubin’s narration is cheesy as hell, as pretty much anything that involves parents talking about children is. But it is fluent. Part of our problem now is that we don’t know how long it will go on for. These days are long, and make for rumination. Such as

Did I err in jumping out of the market?

I jumped out of a lot of stuff in the second week of March. To put it into perspective I still have two-thirds of my holdings in my Iweb ISA. All my VWRL, all my HYP from way back. But I did make tactical errors in continuing to buy a little bit in 2019 despite the high valuations, although a lot of what I did buy was bonds and gold. But I bought some more VUKE in 2019. Bad move.

I sold all my VUKE, and other stuff I didn’t love. I have a Google spreadsheet of those sales, and it updates the current market values with the Googlefinance option. Those sales are still well worth having made, but the notional reduced losses have fallen by two thirds, because I did not account for the wall of money that was created and thrown into the system. This is not a crisis of confidence. It is an exogenous shock to the system. So far that has been rugby-tackled to the ground, in the view of the stock market, by a wall of money. Jolly good for the market, and us as asset holders. It’s a little bit shit for everyone else, though, no?

The hazard has changed from losses to inflation IMO

I am badly exposed to inflation in the long term, because half my income is an annuity, albeit with some inflation protection, but only up to 5% p.a. Any time inflation goes above that, I get permanently poorer for the rest of my life in terms of income.

Now to get this into perspective, there’s only a need for the tiniest of violins. There is some awesomely bad shit going down. Deaths are up, running about twice average for the time of year. As for the living, many people have lost 100% of their income, and there are some poor bastards who are sleeping on the mean streets of London because they used to work in restaurants and live in lodgings. Now they have no job, no money and no home. Half of the world’s workers’ jobs are under threat. The UK seems to be making a particular bugger’s muddle of handling coronavirus.

The John Hopkins tracker currently shows the UK has roughly 10% of the world’s Covid-19 deaths, which is a little bit crap for a country with 0.87% of the world’s population. Let’s hope that the good folk in London who are of the opinion that most people in the city have been exposed but were asymptomatic are right, because if this is what success looks like I hate to think what the face of failure is. At the moment if you’re a confirmed case1 you have the same chance of pushing up daisies as playing Russian roulette. Let’s look on the bright side. You’re likely to join Graham Greene on the side of the living. But the odds aren’t terriffic. Enter a hospital in the UK and they put two bullets in the chamber before spinning it. You really don’t want to see Arnie  in your hallucinatory dreams in the ICU, do you? Continue reading “Musings on misadventure and market madness”

A Friday the 13th fright

I wake up on Friday the 13th to find the serial liar and philanderer has bagged a clear win. Guess that’s a clear vote for Brexit then. Bring it on, it’s what people still really really want, and at least this time there’s a sort of actionable form of Brexit on the table. I did not contribute to this result 😉

A serial liar in the wild

Yes, I’d have preferred a hung Parliament and a second referendum/revocation. However, that was clearly a minority sport, and this time it’s clear, and it’s for something actionable, unlike the original misbegotten EU referendum which was for an undefined negative. I still despise the weakness of that referendum to settle a catfight in the Tory party, its lack of needing a supermajority for constitutional change etc. But now it’s clear that it’s unequivocal and it’s what most people want, so let ’em have it.

The financial aspect

Can’t really understand why, on sparking up Iweb, I am significantly better off. Sure, I bought IGWD which is sort of VWRL hedged to the pound, and it has gained some due to the lift in the pound due to some Brexit clarification. But most of my holdings are international equities or indices, and one would expect them to tank in £ nominal terms, giving back some of the gains I received earlier.  While I do hold a fair lump of IGWD it isn’t enough and hasn’t changed so much, However I do have a fair amount of VMID, and that shifted more.

Against my gut judgement I’d invested all my ISA bar about £2k. The Santa rally seems to have come early this year. Will it stick, or will the rising pound reverse the Brexit boom I got a couple of years ago? In the end I will probably be better off that my £ denominated pension income is worth more in terms of the value of foreign stuff that I can buy even if my ISA takes a gut punch. Maybe next year will be the time to buy relatively beaten-down in £ terms foreign assets with my last ISA contribution fo all time.

I predict Brexit won’t be done within five years

Sure, we will be non Europeans, hopefully out by Jan 31st. Will we have a finished trade deal by 2025? Nah. In the words of one of pifflepaffle’s alleged heros when talking about another European adventure1,

this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is probably the end of the beginning.


  1. concerning the battle of Al Alamein but against Rommel 

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 gov.uk. 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. 

School’s not even out and the silly season is well underway

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

The Queen, Alice in Wonderland

Ah, the lazy days of summer, when everyone has cleared off on their hols to spend precious time with their li’l darlings. Tumbleweed in the office, where usually there was an Ermine and a few other diehards to be found, ‘cos what person in their right mind would go on holiday when every other bastard is doing it, raising prices and infesting the joint with their squealing kids little angels and miscellaneous hounds. Mad dogs and Englishmen, indeed.

That’s when the news is slow and you get all those unbelievable stories of 50 pound cats and alien invasions. We seemed to have jumped the gun this year- school’s not out yet and all sorts of impossible things are coming down the pike for us to believe in. Je suis Alice.

Do or Die. That’ll be die then

So there was a clear, though not overwhelming vote in 2016, and the plutocracy has grabbed it by the balls to visit disaster capitalism on us.

Plutocrats, sussing out how to deliver disaster capitalism to get a bit of trickle-up going their way. This project’s bought and paid for, guys, now it needs to deliver a decent ROI

Funny old game, this democracy lark. I sure as hell don’t recall on the ballot paper the choice was Remain, or Leave, cursing Johnny Foreigner and the horse he rode in on. The impression was it would be a more polite affair, rather than the darkest desires in the demented craniums of the ERG ultras and the sort of people who wrote Britannia Unchained Continue reading “School’s not even out and the silly season is well underway”

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”

an engineering cameo at the Royal Bath & West show

There’s no finance angle – it’s a snapshot of an early retiree going along for the ride at a trade show, something I used to do at work.  It was good just being a grunt, rather than the organ grinder

One of the odd things about retirement is doing something that reminds me of my working life, but in a different context. I’ve done enough trade shows for work, both as a visitor but also as an exhibitor. Things like that don’t fall naturally to an introvert. Engineers often become engineers because they are better with things than with people 😉  But you can learn. And so it was that I had a very minor walk-on part on a stand at the Royal Bath & West show in the imagineering tent.

The show itself is an agricultural show, so there’s the usual bits of horsing about, and exhibits of sheep and pigs. Some of the vintage vehicles were pretty neat. Farming kit aplenty, and it would have been a good place to load up on wellies if you are going to the Glastonbury mudfest in a few weeks.

the train set was fun

the train set was fun

I was lucky enough to be there early in the show’s run, an agricultural show can get pretty high when the weather is warm 😉

Imagineering is all about introducing kids to engineering. I’d never heard the word before, though it has a half-century history in the States. Personally I had been pretty cynical about the idea. I’m of the view that if the interest is there, it will out. I learned a fair amount of electronics from picking TVs out of skips (people were throwing out their B&W full-size TVs in the 1970s as they replaced them with colour TVs) and scavenging the parts1. I learned from books and magazines that were written for adults.

Continue reading “an engineering cameo at the Royal Bath & West show”