Simple steps to becoming a wine tasting expert

In preparation for those long summer evenings, whereby we might get the chance to dine alfresco, I thought I would leave financial planning to one side today and talk instead about one of my other passions … wine!

For anyone who wishes to be able to evaluate and taste wine like an expert, there are a few simple tips you can follow.

 The right environment

 First of all, make sure you are in the right wine tasting environment. For example, a noisy or crowded room can affect your concentration, while any distracting smells can impede on achieving a clear sense of a wine’s aroma. You will also need the right glass – not a glass that is too small, the wrong shape or smells of detergent or dust. And there are other factors to take into consideration: what is the temperature of the wine? How old is the wine? Are there any residual flavours left from what you’ve been eating or drinking previously?

 The sight test

 Ensure that the glass is approximately one third full. Look straight down into the glass, hold the glass to the light and give it a tilt so the wine rolls toward its edges. This will allow you to see the wine’s complete colour range – and not just the dark centre – giving you a clue to the density and saturation of the wine. A murky wine may have chemical or fermentation problems, or it may just be a wine that was unfiltered or has some sediment due to be shaken up before being poured. A wine that shows some sparkle is always a good sign.

 Tilting the glass so the wine thins out toward the rim will provide clues as to the wine’s age and weight. If the colour is pale and watery near its edge, this suggests that the wine is rather thin. If the colour looks tawny or brown (for a white wine) or orange or rusty brick (for a red wine), it is either an older wine or has been oxidised and may be past its prime.

 Sniffing for aromas

 When it comes to sniffing the wine, give the glass a swirl but don’t bury your nose inside it. Instead, you want to be hovering over the top of the glass – think helicopter pilot surveying rush hour traffic. Take a series of quick, short sniffs, then step away and let the information filter through to your brain.

 You want to be looking for aromas that indicate that the wine is spoiled. A wine that is corked will smell like a musty old attic and taste like a wet newspaper – this is a terminal, unfixable flaw.

A wine that has been bottled with a strong dose of SO2 will smell like burnt matches; this will blow off if you give it a bit of vigorous swirling. 

And finally…

 It’s now time to start tasting the wine. Take a sip of wine into your mouth (not a large swallow), and try sucking on it as if pulling it through a straw. Again, you’ll encounter a wide range of flavours, and you should find that most will follow right along where the aromas left off.

 Learning how to taste wine is a straightforward adventure that will deepen your appreciation for both wines and winemakers. Starting with your basic senses and expanding from there, you will learn how to taste wines like the pros in no time. Keep in mind that you can smell thousands of unique scents, but your taste perception is limited to salty, sweet, sour and bitter. It is the combination of smell and taste that allows you to discern flavour.

Now that you understand the basic steps with our wine tasting tips, it’s time to experiment on your own. Enjoy!

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Spring Budget 2017

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, delivered his Spring Budget to Parliament on 8 March 2017. In our guide, we consider the key measures and outcomes and look at the impact on you, your family and your business.

This Budget was the last one to take place in the spring. The Chancellor said last year that he wanted to simplify the whole business of setting taxes and government spending, which had become too complicated.

So, Spring Budgets will again become autumn ones (the first will be later this year), while the other big set piece event, the Autumn Statement, will become a spring one (the first will be in 2018).

As the UK begins the formal process of exiting the European Union, this Spring Budget was relatively low-key, with many changes having already been announced.

Opening his statement, Mr Hammond said the UK economy ‘continued to confound the commentators with robust growth’, and promised his Budget would provide a ‘strong and stable platform’ for the Brexit negotiations to come.

The Chancellor increased National Insurance for self-employed people. He also made provision for £2 billion for social care services in England, as well as offering additional help for firms impacted by business rate rises.

Mr Hammond announced a reduction in the total amount of dividends company directors and shareholders can receive from businesses without having to pay taxes, from £5,000 to £2,000. He said the move was meant to ‘address the unfairness’ around the dividend tax advantage, which he claimed was ‘an extremely generous tax break for investors with substantial share portfolios’.

As predicted, there were improved economic forecasts via the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). On the economy, Mr Hammond said growth was expected to be higher – and borrowing lower – than forecast in November.

Want to discuss the impact of Spring Budget 2017 on your personal or business situation?

The Chancellor resisted making far-reaching tax changes in this last Spring Budget, but some of the announcements could have an impact on your personal or business situation. If you would like to discuss your situation, or if you have any further questions, please contact us.

Click here to view our Guide to the Spring Budget 2017.

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The Tailor Made Pension Scheme for the Family Business….

Family businesses in the UK employ over 9.5 million people and two thirds of this country’s businesses are family owned. We have a great deal of experience in dealing with family businesses, a lot of which comes as a result of the fact that we administer the ultimate family business pension vehicle, the Small Self- Administered Pension Scheme (SSAS).  

These schemes are the made to measure family business pension plan – the family are trustees, members and also have the facility to use the scheme’s funds to invest into the family business by way of a loan to the company (now referred to as pension led funding, but we still call it loan back) or by using the funds to purchase commercial property for the business.

The key here is that the family has control over the investment strategy, the membership (family members only) and the level of contributions (within limits set out by our good friends at HMRC).

In addition to this, the fund can assist with the family’s succession plans in that Mum and Dad can draw their benefits from the pension fund making them less reliant on drawing funds from the business. This enables more to be paid to younger family members working in the business, when they probably need it most.

In our dealing with the family pension schemes, we have grown into the role of family business advisors and developed the soft skills necessary to help families with their future planning. It is not always about the money, but often about how and who is best to take the business forwards and where to have the assets i.e. in the company or the pension fund to help with the future generational planning.

I am probably teaching to the converted in many cases, but please feel free to pass the word on to other family businesses that could benefit from a bespoke made to measure pension scheme or simply have a scheme but are not receiving any proactive advice on what they can do.

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Warren Buffett says low-cost funds founder is my hero

I know I go on about the cost of active investment management, but I am sure you will agree that Warren Buffett has more clout than me.

In his latest annual letter to his investors he referred to Jack Bogle the founder of Vanguard, which transformed investing forever with the index fund, as a hero for protecting millions of investors from the high cost of active investment.

Warren Buffett has estimated that the search by the elite for superior investment advice has caused it, in aggregate, to waste more than $100 billion over the past decade.

Buffett stated: “If a statue is ever erected to honour the person who has done the most for American Investors, the hands down choice should be Jack Bogle. For decades, Jack has urged investors to invest in ultra-low-cost index funds. In his crusade, he amassed only a tiny percentage of the wealth that has typically flowed to managers who have promised their investors large rewards while delivering them nothing – or, as in our bet, less than nothing – of added value.”

Buffett saved his most brutal attack for the hedge fund industry, stating that a number of smart people are involved in running hedge funds, but to a great extent their efforts are self-neutralising and their IQ will not overcome the costs they impose on investors. He then went on to say the problem, simply, is that the majority of managers who attempt to over-perform will fail. The probability is also very high that the person soliciting your funds will not be the exception who does well.

He advised investors of all spectrums to make more use of index funds and went on to say: “The bottom line: when trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients. Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.”

Bearing in mind that investment management fees are generally higher in the UK than the US, UK investors are likely to be even better off long-term by following Warren Buffett’s advice. This is why we advocate the use of low-cost funds by using the likes of Vanguard and Dimensional, so that you, as our client, retain more of the investment performance than you would if you invested in actively managed funds.

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2016/17 Year End Planning

The 2016/17 year end for tax planning purposes is now only a matter of months away with the deadline approaching on 5 April. Effective tax planning is about knowing the personal and business taxes you are liable to pay and acting to legally minimise them. It is also about maximising your net income and creating opportunities to invest and save tax-efficiently for the current and future needs of your business, your family and yourself.

While there is no doubt that the tax system is complex, you should not let complexity deter you from a simple goal: keeping your taxes as low as possible. We have provided some of the key areas you need to consider if applicable to your particular situation.

Personal Allowance

Ensure each spouse uses their full Personal Allowance for Income Tax purposes where possible. Annual income of less than currently £11,000 is not liable to tax. Spouses and registered civil partners should consider the possible transfer of income-producing assets to ensure that Personal Allowances are not wasted.

Personal Allowance for high earners

Your Personal Allowance goes down by £1 for every £2 that your adjusted net income is above £100,000. This means your allowance is zero if your income is £122,000 or above.

Spouse remuneration

If a self-employed person or family company employs a spouse to assist in the running of the business, the spouse could be remunerated fairly to utilise the tax-free Personal Allowance. It is possible to set the earnings at a level whereby no tax or National Insurance Contributions will be due but entitlement to State Retirement Pension and other benefits is protected.

Minor children and teenagers 

Minor children are entitled to Personal Allowances. There are restrictions on the amount of income that a child can derive from a parent, but gifts from other relatives can be considered. Junior Individual Savings Accounts (JISAs) can be funded by parents. Teenaged children can be employed in family businesses providing legal restrictions and national minimum wage issues are taken into account.

Individuals with no taxable income

Pension contributions of up to £3,600 gross per year can be made by individuals with no taxable income. The net contribution after tax relief contributed at source by the UK Government would be just £2,880.

Tax-relievable pension contributions

The Annual Allowance for making tax-relievable pension contributions is £40,000, so consideration should be made to utilising the full Annual Allowance for 2016/17 by 5 April 2017. It is also possible to carry forward unused Annual Allowances from the previous three tax years, so it may be possible to receive tax relief in the current tax year on contributions well in excess of £40,000 with a little planning.

Tax-relievable pension for high earners

For high earners, the Annual Allowance definition is more complicated, but those with an annual ‘adjusted income’ of more than £150,000 will be reduced to as little as £10,000 for 2016/17.

Pension Lifetime Allowance

The pension Lifetime Allowance – the total amount of UK pension savings each individual is allowed to build up in their lifetime – is currently £1m. If you exceed the Lifetime Allowance, you could be facing a 55% tax bill. The ‘flexible drawdown’ pension rules now in place from 6 April 2015 onwards allow individuals the opportunity to plan their affairs to manage the level of the money they take from their pension pot to both minimise annual Income Tax liabilities and keep within the Lifetime Allowance. A review of what you could draw down as income from your pension funds before 6 April 2017 could prove worthwhile.

Tax-favourable investments

If appropriate to your particular situation, the use of tax-favourable investments such as Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs), Enterprise Investment Schemes (EIS), Seed Enterprise Investment Schemes (SEIS) and Venture Capital Trusts (VCT) should be reviewed. Up to £15,240 per person (so up to £30,480 for a married couple) can be invested in an ISA for the 2016/17 year.

Timing of income

Taxable incomes may fluctuate from year to year as a result of one-off payments or changes in circumstances. Consideration should be given to the benefits of accelerating or deferring the taxation point of investment income and employment bonuses, and also to the timing of the payment of dividends paid out by family-owned companies.

Company dividends

From 6 April 2016, company dividends are still treated as the top slice of income but will no longer be grossed up, and will be taxed at 7.5% in the basic rate band, 32.5% in the higher rate band and 38.1% in the additional rate band. However, the first £5,000 of dividends will be tax-free to the recipient, no matter which tax band you fall in.

Capital Gains Tax

It’s important to consider utilising your tax-free Capital Gains Tax Annual Exemption, currently £11,100. Each spouse or registered civil partner is entitled to the exemption each year, so gifts between spouses prior to sales of assets may be tax-effective. It may be worth crystallising capital losses where gains in excess of the Annual Exemption have been made. The deferral of sales until after 5 April may see tax paid at lower rates and provide significant cash flow benefits in terms of when tax needs to be paid.

Inheritance Tax

The use of and the carrying forward of the £3,000 annual exemption should be reviewed, together with other possible exemptions such as those for small gifts of up to £250 per individual, regular gifts out of normal annual income and tax-free gifts in consideration of marriage, which can range between £1,000 and £5,000 depending on the relationship with the person getting married.

Review your Will

A review is due if there has been: a birth or a death; a marriage or a divorce; a move abroad; a significant change in the value of your estate; a new business or the disposal of a previous business; a retirement; or a relevant change in tax law. We can help you to work through changes to keep your estate plan up to date.

Want to explore the options available to you?

We all have to pay our taxes, but within the legal framework there are numerous ways of saving tax and making sure you do not pay more than is absolutely necessary. If you would like to explore the options available to you in preparation for the 2016/17 year end, please contact us sooner rather than later.

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Keep your heart out of investing

Hello and Happy Valentine’s Day to you all.   Tonight, I will be spending a lovely evening with Nicky, cooking and eating a great meal and employing the kids as waiters or minders to keep our two-year old son out of the way with his football – just long enough for us to have some quality time together.

The thought of the day ahead, as I planned the menu for the evening, got me thinking about whether there was a place for the heart in investment and financial planning. Oh dear, get a life I hear you say…maybe you are right, but here goes!

Emotion and money seldom make good bedfellows and I think we have empathised this many a time together with the view that investment should be boring.

Hot funds or stocks aren’t guaranteed to keep going up and those that have plummeted may not go lower, in fact the opposite is likely to be the case. We get overconfident in our investment ability and put too much into a certain share or our favourite sector, and fail to diversify. We also try to predict the markets, but do we really think that the Sunday paper columnist (if he could predict the future) would be telling everybody how it can be done or would they just keep it to themselves and make their own fortune?

So, unfortunately there should be no emotion in your financial plan. It is a long term document and there will be mishaps along the way, but if you stick to the plan they will iron themselves out.   Hey, wait a minute, isn’t that is a lot like relationships?  They aren’t all plain sailing either. Except that the plan is there to achieve your financial goals and, if they are achieved, then it makes your emotional life far less stressful, so you can both enjoy yourselves without having to think about the money.

If music is the food of love, feel free to play on, but if your heart rules your head in finance, don’t expect to play for too long!

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If I were a rich man…

We tend to assume that wealth is accumulated over time, often growing fastest in the later working years. Yet, in a broader sense, we are all born with wealth in the form of human capital, which represents the value of the earning potential that we have over our working lifetime.  As younger people have a long time to go before they will need the money, the advice they receive is often that excess earnings should be invested predominantly in equities.  A subtler approach considers the attributes of each person’s human capital which ranges from bond-like to equity-like in nature.  How assets are invested should, ideally, take this into account.  Cash-flow modelling can help those in the accumulation phase of investing to understand the financial impact of changes to their human capital.  Owning sufficient life cover to protect the outstanding human capital should also be an important part of the discussion.

If I were a rich man…

‘No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.’ John Donne, 1624

We are all born rich

Most of us have held a newly born child – our own perhaps, or that of a relative or a close friend – and in its fragile, dependent state wondered what life has in store for him or her. We perhaps frame these thoughts in terms of the current state of the world and the tough climate for young people struggling to get onto the housing and jobs ladder.  According to the Resolution Foundation[1], the younger generation is the first in living memory to be worse off than their parents.  Yet perhaps we should frame our thoughts in a more positive manner, starting with how rich every child is at birth.

We tend to see wealth as accumulated financial assets, large houses, nice cars and the freedom and time to do the things that are important to us. Yet on the very day we are born we are wealthy in terms of our human capital, or in other words, the present value of all the future earnings that we can accumulate over our working lives.  Part of those future earnings are turned into financial assets, which ultimately deliver income in our retirement.

From a financial perspective, our lives can be divided into three distinct phases:

  • Phase 1 – growing up and getting educated: this phase is of enormous importance to our financial lives; there is plenty of evidence to show that investment in education at a tertiary level can have a big impact on future earnings. Investing in education may well have a far larger impact on wealth than the rate of return achieved if the money spent was invested instead.
  • Phase 2 – working: this phase presents investors with a range of choices, not least how to invest excess earnings and protect their human capital from sickness or even premature death.
  • Phase 3 – retirement: this phase possesses its own challenges, particularly how to invest assets to deliver stable retirement income, without running out of money.

Today, investors must take far more responsibility for their financial assets than ever before and maybe need to think a little more deeply and subtly about how to structure their investment assets.

Today is not like yesterday

Up until the mid-1980s the conversion of human capital into retirement income was far more straight forward and considerably less risky than it is now, as companies offered their employees generous defined benefit pensions, i.e. a percentage of final salary that would be paid monthly on retirement, usually with some form of inflation protection. This income, coupled with the state pension, provided a stable, inflation-proofed, risk-free income for life.  Excess earnings could be squirrelled away into extra savings, paying down debt quicker or the purchase of a second home.  Today, £50,000 of inflation-proofed income, purchased at age 65, would cost over £1.5 million via an annuity.  Rejoice if you have a defined benefit pension!

However, for those still working today – and some more recently retired – such income security does not exist. The demise of defined benefit pensions – a sad story of government and corporate mismanagement – is too long a subject to be explored in this short note.  However, the impact of these changes, including the transfer of income risk from corporations to the individual, combined with a more flexible, fluid and entrepreneurial work environment are worth noting.  These changes have a material impact on the process of turning human capital into financial capital.  How one invests these assets, protects the value of human capital and secures a stable retirement income matter.  These are not easy decisions to make without the help of a good financial planner.

Human capital slowly converts into financial capital across a working life

At the start of a person’s life, human capital represents the major part of his or her total wealth, when wealth is viewed in this broader context. As they progress through their working lives, some of their earnings will be converted into financial assets in the form of payments into defined contribution pensions (by employer and employee), other investments and a family home.  At retirement, human capital is exhausted, unless the retiree does some part time work.  Financial assets then take over the financial burden of delivering income, supplemented by other sources such as a state pension and rental income, if they exist.  The schematic below illustrates this relationship in a generic form.

Figure 1:  Human capital, financial capital and total wealth

2017 02 07

 

Source: Albion Strategic Consulting

It is interesting to note that in many instances, toward the end of a person’s life, residential property may well be the principle asset, as other financial assets have been depleted.

Careers can be bond or equity-like

When it comes to saving and investing for retirement, i.e. the accumulation phase as it is sometimes known, advice has often been quite generic suggesting that as the investor has a long time horizon, they should invest more in equities to obtain a higher rate of return than holding bonds or cash. In general that makes sense for many.  However, the risks associated with each person’s human capital will vary widely.  This is plain to see looking at three different career paths:

  • Low risk: A tenured professor at a university has great job security and a regular, inflation-linked income that will rise in a predictable manner. Her or his human capital acts like an index linked bond.
  • Higher risk: A salesperson, whose high remuneration is based on commission, and who faces the threat of being fired if targets are not met, has higher earnings risk. His or her human capital acts more like a high yield (lower quality) bond, delivering strong returns when times are good but doing poorly when times get tough.
  • High risk and correlated: An entrepreneur launching an online retail equity trading platform has even more earnings risk. His or her income and rewards are both variable and uncertain and, more importantly, income is likely to be correlated with equity markets. Human capital, in this instance, acts like an equity.

So, if they are all 40 years old and have the same level of financial capital, should they all invest in the same way? Intuitively, the answer is no.  As Burton Malkiel stated in his seminal book A Random Walk Down Wall Street:

‘The risks you can afford to take depend on your total financial situation, including the types and sources of your income exclusive of investment income’

Those with more bond-like human capital could well take on more risk and those with more equity-like human capital should, perhaps, take on less risk with their financial capital. Ironically, it is also possible that those who choose steady, stable jobs may have lower tolerance to losses than the entrepreneur, and vice versa.  One can see the risk of this scenario.  Additionally, two partners may also have different levels of risk in their human capital. Imagine a professor married to an entrepreneur; together they form a balanced portfolio between bonds and equities and their investable portfolio of financial capital should reflect this.

Figure 2: How human capital attributes influence asset allocation

Lower equity content in portfolio Higher equity content in portfolio
Low job and earnings stability High job and earnings stability
Low earning flexibility High earning flexibility
High correlation of earnings to equities Low correlation of earnings to equities
Low earning capability High earning capability (replenish losses quickly)

Source: Albion Strategic Consulting

In effect, investors should invest their financial assets in a way that provides both balance to, and diversification of, their human capital during the accumulation phase. In some extreme circumstances, it might be necessary to adjust an investment portfolio to avoid the specific industry risks that relate to a client’s human capital.

Human capital should be treated like any other asset class; it has its own risk and return properties and its own correlation with other financial asset classes.

Ibbotson, Milevsky, Chen and Zhu (2007)[2]

As an example, one of the saddest outcomes of the Enron collapse in the US in 2001 was the fact that many Enron employees held Enron stock in their pension plans making their human and financial capital highly correlated with devastating consequences.

Protecting human capital risk

As part of a comprehensive financial planning process, two key forms of protection exist that will need to be discussed. The first is protecting human capital using income protection and life insurance.  The second is protecting retirement income through the purchase of annuity.  The astute reader will spot the fact that these are exact opposites; one is a bet on dying early and the other is a bet on living a very long time.

Purchasing life insurance, which is a perfect hedge for human capital risk, needs to be modelled based on the outstanding level of human capital, which reduces with time as human capital is converted into financial capital. Fortunately, when most life insurance is needed (young and with a family), it is relatively cheap to obtain.  In a simple sense, the life insurance cover needs to fill the gap between accumulated financial assets today and the target level of assets at retirement.

Conclusion

The true value of cash-flow modelling by a financial planner is the ability to take both human and financial capital into account and to run severalp scenarios for each. It is difficult to see how a stockbroker or investment manager can structure a portfolio sensibly, particularly where the investor still has substantial human capital, without the insight into, and modelling of, the client’s total asset picture.  No financial portfolio is an island.

so, The next time you hold a baby, remember just how valuable and unique he or she is in so many ways, not least in terms of human capital.

 

 

Past performance is not indicative of future results and no representation is made that the stated results will be replicated.

[1]     Resolution Foundation (2016), Millennials facing ‘generational pay penalty’ as their earnings fall £8,000 behind during their 20s, www.resolutionfoundation.org

[2]    Ibbotson, Milevsky, Chen and Zhu (2007), Lifetime Financial Advice: Human Capital, Asset Allocation and Insurance, Research Foundation of CFA Institute publication.

Tax efficient saving – right place, right time and right order

Tax-incentivised, tax-free, or potentially tax-free are some of the savings choices on offer. Failing to make the most of these will mean you may pay unnecessary tax on income and savings. However, saving into the right tax wrappers at the right time, and crucially in the right order, can limit the tax paid.

The introduction of new tax-free allowances means that there is now greater scope to save and pay little or no tax on those savings. The new £5,000 dividend allowance and £1,000 personal savings allowance bring the total tax free allowances available in 2016/17 to £33,100.

Tax-incentivised savings such as pensions, and tax-free wrappers such as ISAs, are clearly preferable to savings which are potentially taxable. Consequently, when deciding where to save these should always be the first choice.

But pensions and ISAs come with a savings cap. The tax relief on pensions funding is controlled by earnings, the annual allowance and lifetime allowance. There is also a maximum subscription limit of £15,240 (rising to £20,000 from 2017/18) on ISA saving.

Once these pots have been maximised it may still be possible to achieve similar tax efficient returns on other investments with a little bit of careful management of allowances of course.

Unit trusts and OEICs The new dividend allowance creates an opportunity for virtually tax-free saving by building up a collective portfolio where income tax and capital gains tax can be ‘managed out’ by using the respective allowances.

This can be achieved by keeping dividend income to below £5,000 a year, and realising capital gains annually from the portfolio within the annual CGT exemption (£11,100 for 2016/17).

The portfolio value at which no tax will be due will, of course, depend on investment returns, but they could look something like this if allowances are fully used:

Portfolio size Dividend Yield Tax free income Cap. growth rate Tax free growth
£200,000 2.5% £5,000 5.5% £11,100
£400,000 1.25% £5,000 2.75% £11,100
£500,000 1% £5,000 2.22% £11,100

The order of saving For those who use their tax incentives and allowances efficiently, the order in which they are most likely to fill their savings pots is:

  1. Pensions The combination of tax relief on contributions, no tax on income/gains within the pension fund and 25 per cent tax-free cash make pensions difficult to beat as a means of long-term saving.
  2. ISAs Similarly, investments within an ISA do not suffer tax on income and gains. In addition, the ISA can be accessed at any time without giving rise to a tax charge.
  3. Unit trust/OEICs Building up a portfolio so that dividends and gains can be kept within the available allowances can create a fund which is potentially tax free.
  4. Offshore Bonds Income and gains within an offshore bond enjoy gross roll up and are tax-deferred rather than tax free. But there is the potential for them to be tax free if gains can be taken when clients’ or their intended beneficiaries are non-taxpayers.

The tax saved helps to optimise returns and this, combined with reducing the management charges for investment, means that you keep more of what you’ve saved to spend or pass on to your families.

 

Why sissies make great investors

I was recently forwarded this article by Robin Powell of Regis Media and thought it was worth sharing the contents.

A funny thing happened the day after Christmas.  An unknown rookie basketball player by the name of Chinanu Onuaku stepped up to the free throw line and threw the ball underarm, or “granny style”, towards the hoop. The crowd gasped and then erupted as he scored the point.

Now, I’m less than six foot with a very rudimentary knowledge of basketball. But I’m reliably informed there is academic evidence that throwing the ball underarm gives the thrower the best possible chance of making a free throw. Until now, though, it hasn’t been seen in an NBA game since retirement of granny-style pioneer Rick Barry in 1980.

So, why did no professional basketball player until now try to replicate Barry’s success by perfecting the technique that is proven to deliver the best results?  According to Adam Kilgore in the Washington Post, “players uniformly resisted it, afraid of looking foolish, standing out as childish or unmanly”. Wilt Chamberlin, who briefly flirted with underarm free throws in the early 1960s, apparently reverted to the conventional style because he “felt like a sissy”.

There’s a very similar phenomenon to this in football. Ten years ago, Ofer H. Azar, an economist at Ben-Gurion University of Negev in Israel, conducted an experiment involving professional goalkeepers. What he wanted to find out was how they dealt with a high-stakes decision, namely what to do at a penalty kick, and whether it helped to explain the behaviour of investors faced with making similarly big decisions under pressure.

Azar’s research team analysed more than 300 kicks and concluded that the action that was most likely to prevent a goal being scored was, perhaps surprisingly, to stand in the middle of the goal and do nothing until the trajectory of the ball can be seen. This resulted in a success rate of one in three — far higher than the average.

But goalkeepers very rarely do that. Instead, they typically try to guess which way the ball is going to go before the player’s foot has actually made contact with it, diving left or right, to try to be in the right spot when the ball arrives. The researchers found that diving left resulted in success 14 per cent of the time, and diving right only 12.6 per cent.

Crucially, when they asked why the goalkeepers who took part in the experiment why they didn’t just stand and wait more often, it emerged that the overriding reason was the fear of what others would think of them. In particular, they didn’t want to give the impression to the crowd or their teammates that they weren’t trying or taking the situation sufficiently seriously.

What fascinates me is how analogous these two examples from the sporting world are to the response that many people have to evidence-based investing. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell them that this is a good way to invest or that is a bad way; some people will always act irrationally.

Humans are very much social animals. We pay huge attention to what others are doing, and to how other people perceive us. As a result, we’re often scared to do the opposite, even though we know, on a rational level, that’s just what we should be doing.

No, buy-and-hold indexing isn’t cool, it isn’t macho and it won’t make you the most interesting guest at a dinner party. But the evidence overwhelmingly tells us it’s the best way to invest.

Go on, be a sissy. And, as William Bernstein would say, “Let them laugh. The joke’s on them.”

Making Tough Decisions in an Uncertain World

Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary, certainly added to the lexicon of the concept of uncertainty with his infamous ‘known-knowns; known-unknowns; and unknown-unknowns’[i] interview, when describing the link between Al Qaeda and the Saddam regime in Iraq. While it confused many, it does provide us with a useful framework for understanding the uncertainty that we all face as we seek to put in place sensible plans for our finances, not least how to invest our liquid assets.

We face a number of critical decisions on our life journeys from young, family and career-orientated adults, through the inflection point of leaving the workforce and hopefully onto a happy, healthy, long and financially secure retirement. These include decisions such as: when to retire? How much is enough? How much can we spend? What should we invest in? Can we afford to gift the children some capital at this point?

The challenge we face is that these decisions are made against the backdrop of great uncertainty – in our lives, the capital markets and the rapidly changing world we live in. However, we must make those decisions if we are to give ourselves the best opportunity to achieve the things we aspire to do, with the wealth that we have. These sorts of decisions would be easy if we knew that we were going to die at the age of 99 and could obtain a return, year-in year-out, of say, 4 per cent above the rate of inflation!

But that is not the real world – our lives and the markets contain much more uncertainty than that. Perhaps the most valuable contribution that a good, unconflicted advisor can play now, and in the years ahead, is facilitating you to feel empowered to make the best decisions that you can in the face of this uncertainty. Let us take a look at this with a little help from Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary.

What are the ‘known-knowns’?

If we look at the ‘known-knowns’ we can come up with a list that acts as both a starting point and platform for making decisions. It includes:

  • How much wealth you have today, where it is and who owns it
  • Your current income and expenditure
  • Your current rates of income tax and potential inheritance tax liability
  • Your vision of what you want your money to achieve for you (financial security, help for the children, philanthropic works)
  • The principal options for investing it, which are simply being either to lend it to someone (bonds) or to become an owner of companies (equities)
  • The returns that have been exhibited on an historical basis for investing in bonds and equities of different kinds
  • The fact these returns do not come in straight lines
  • Some basic principals of investing that we know to work effectively.

What are the known-unknowns

Now we step into perhaps less comfortable territory, not least because we are faced with thinking about our own mortality:

  • We know we are going to die, but we do not know when, either in our own case or in the case of our partners or other family members
  • We know that life takes many turns and that the future that we envisage for ourselves may well not to be the one that we experience. As the old adage reminds us ‘Life is what happens to you when you are busy making plans’
  • We know that investment returns do not come in straight lines, but we do not have much of a clue as to what the returns on investment will be this year, next year or indeed over the lifetime for which we will be investing. We can make some sensible estimates, but these are by no means guaranteed
  • We know that there are some really smart investment professionals out there who could manage our money for us. The unknown is that we have no reliable means of identifying, with any certainty, who they are today
  • We know we could do with some help, but do not necessarily know who to turn to or who we can trust.

 

What are the unknown-unknowns

Well if we knew what they were, they would be ‘known-unknowns’. In the financial world, these potential events have become known as ‘Black Swans’. The phrase was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his insightful book Fooled by Randomness[ii], which makes the point that just because most swans are white, it does not means that black swans do not exist. He describes a Black Swan event as “being beyond the realms of regular expectations; carrying extreme impact; and which is prone to us concocting spurious explanations as to why it happened and how it could have been predicted.”  Interestingly, he also views it as being the inverse – i.e. the non-occurrence of events that seem highly likely. What could these be?

  • A computer virus that wipes clean all electronic records of stock ownership?
  • A nuclear explosion at Fort Knox’s gold reserves (as was nearly experienced in James Bond’s Gold Finger).
  • That all financial assets deliver negative returns in the years ahead.
  • Others? Your guess is as good as ours.

How we incorporate these events into our thinking is taxing, but we must try and do what we can to ensure that we incorporate robustness and flexibility into our planning

Is there any help? (the quick answer is yes)

It is all very well working out our own Rumsfeldian list, but how does that help us to manage the uncertainty? The short answer is that it helps us to identify where the risks lie as we try and plan and to put in place sensible strategies to mitigate the unknowns that we face. It also illustrates the need to run a range of scenarios, in some instances, so that we can form some insight into what the various possible outcomes may be, where we draw our red lines, and what choices we face in these circumstances. This is where a professional financial planner adds considerable value.

Carpenter Rees exists to help its clients make these decisions with clarity and confidence in the face of the uncertainty of life and markets.

Insightful, structured, and yet flexible financial planning process, combined with a robust investment process, are the essential ingredients for maximising the chances of enjoying a financial outcome. This is turn provides a lifestyle, that is not only acceptable, but hoped for – ‘Yes you can still go to South Africa to play golf, again, this year.’

A sound process that helps to frame the problems that we face correctly helps us to make better decisions as a consequence.

The essential blend of financial planning and robust investment process

 Making Tough Decisions in an Uncertain World

Sound financial planning is, somewhat surprisingly, one of the best-kept secrets in the world of private finance. Akin to the preparation of a balance sheet, profit and loss statement and forward-looking management accounts, which allow companies to manage their assets, liabilities and cash flow into the future, financial planning does the same at an individual level.

Life-time cash flow modelling tools can help to gauge quantum and direction of decisions, and assist with scenario planning as needed. However, numerical precision needs to be avoided as it sets a false sense of certainty in an uncertain world.

Discussing the issues with an advisor, running a range of scenarios and gaining a sense of the likelihood of achieving the outcome you wish for (and the risks to it), helps most clients to feel much clearer and more comfortable about their wealth, their future and the decisions they may face along the way.

A good financial planning process helps to identify the three components that define how much investment risk a client needs to take: the first component is how much risk can they tolerate, which is a psychological trait; the second is defining their financial capacity for losses, which is a function of their wealth and future lifestyle needs; and the third is the financial risk that they need to take to achieve their goals. Discussing how to align these three components is one of the most important financial conversations that anyone will ever have. Only once this is agreed, can a sensible and suitable investment portfolio be structured.

In investing there are no absolute right or wrong answers, only better and worse solutions. Better solutions are founded in process that encompasses insight into the problem (what should we invest in), are focused on reducing uncertainty (with as little risk as possible) and a robust and consistent decision making process (should we go right or left at this decision point?) As Albert Einstein stated “Make it as simple as possible but no simpler”, which has been our mantra as we have built and implemented our evidence-based approach to investing. In essence, it encapsulates the following core principles:

  • Capitalism works and we should use it to do the heavy lifting as we try to generate returns from our portfolio as either owners (equities) or lenders (bonds). Finding the right balance between the two is key
  • Markets work pretty well – they are a zero-sum game before costs. The evidence tells us that few professionals ‘win’ over the sorts of time frame we are interested in and they are well-nigh impossible to identify in advance. Using ‘passive’ funds that seek to deliver the return of the markets make sense
  • The mix of assets we choose to hold dominates the return journey that we will experience – it is what we focus on
  • We seek to take risks carefully that deliver adequate rewards over time
  • We diversify all portfolios broadly; at the security, geography and asset class levels
  • We keep an eagle eye on costs of all kinds to ensure that you receive as much of the return on offer from the markets as possible
  • We rebalance this mix of risks regularly, back to the level of risk that is most appropriate for your circumstances

Whilst many would argue over Donald Rumsfeld’s political contribution, his framework for thinking about the great uncertainty that exists in our world, our lives and the capital markets is a useful one. In the face of this uncertainty, we need to use the ‘known-knowns’ as our starting point and the ‘known-unknowns’ as a basis for analysis and scenario planning to get a tighter handle on the possible range of future outcomes. The ‘unknown-unknowns’ are a reminder of the limitations of our knowledge and our need for flexibility and resilience. Sound financial planning and robust investment process are two key elements for managing this uncertainty.

We hope that you have enjoyed this paper. Please do not hesitate to call if you have any questions or comments on it.