Earlier this month Money Box, the BBC Radio 4 programme decided to find out how easy it was for a complete novice to do their own investing. He has a sum of £5,000 representing his life savings, which is otherwise held on deposit in his bank earning less than 1% interest.
Financial Planning Basics
It is true to say that basic financial planning is straight-forward, yet most people fail to do the most basic tasks. Financial advisers may therefore spend considerable time, helping clients to get the basics in place. This was touched on in the programme, but very briefly. In essence, ensuring that your finances are under control, knowing what you spend and what you earn, having suitable reserves (3-6 months of spending). Having a Will, adequate financial protection and clearing debt etc.
As a result the starting premise of the show is how to invest £5,000. In truth the vast majority of financial advisers are not really interested in this level of work. Its not financially worthwhile and its not satisfying work. A good planner will take investors through a risk assessment, invariably a questionnaire which helps start the process of explaining and understanding investment “risk”. In truth this ought to be a straight-forward process, but it often isn’t. DIY investing is fine for low levels of funds, but when the sums get bigger, so does the complexity.
How much is a pint of milk?
Sadly Wesley didn’t really do DIY investing. He asked for advice and then went to the investment company to find that they required £100,000 as a minimum to invest directly through them. Alternatively he could access the fund through a platform. He then asked a very good chap Mark Polson, who assesses platforms for people like me, about which platform to use. This is an art and science. However, Mark rightly points out that using a platform will cost typically 0.25%-0.35% for using their administration. That’s £12.50 – £17.50 for a £5,000 investment. I’d call that peanuts, though I’m sure Money Box would disagree.
Investing is not gambling. Gambling is gambling.
I was also disappointed to hear the description of investing as a “gamble” from someone in the know (Candid Money). It carries risk but it is not gambling. Thankfully ludicrous questions were kicked into touch and Mark also pointed out that “best” and “cheapest” are two different things. Paul Lewis also seems to think that charges are a loss. They are a cost of investing, not a loss (and free banking isn’t free, its cross subsidized by loans etc).
The DIY Investor
I have lots of sympathy with people that find financial planning expensive and also have had bad experiences. I recently met with a potential client who is a DIY investor, but really wanted to know how to minimise capital gains tax. He was a bright guy, but fairly unusual, holding shares in just two companies worth a good six-figure sum. Whilst he seemed to appreciate the risk he was taking, I had serious doubts. He had no clear idea of the returns achieved and not kept any good records. For all I know he may be a genius investor (unlikely) but my suspicion is that his approach was born out of an understandable mistrust and fear of being ripped off, yet in practice he was (and is) in serious problems should his two shares take a turn for the worse. The main winners will be HMRC as he has not used any capital gains tax or ISA allowances over the last 20 years (use it or lose it).
DIY is spending time to save money, yours.
DIY investing is not something to be undertaken lightly. I am learning new stuff almost each day and I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. Frankly, any professional skill can be learned by most people. Yes I could even learn to be a brain surgeon… but do I want to? am I actually playing to my natural interests and skills? if time is short, why would I waste it learning about stuff an expert can do for me? (and with whom I have a professional relationship). I tend to find people tend to fall in one of two camps – spend time to save money, or spend money to save time. DIY investors are the former (by doing it themselves) but beware it takes a lot of time, whereas you could focus on the things that actually improve your employed skills and therefore your income, or simply spending time on doing the things you love. Oh and Money Box – “ad valorem” is a fee based on the value of a portfolio, in short a percentage. There is definitely a need and place for DIY investing, but check where you are really coming from before you embark on this rather lonely and arduous venture. You don’t want to find that all is lost…
It occurs to me that as a nation, we are avoiding many rather important questions. I love Britain and the freedoms we enjoy. I want a fair welfare system. However, until politicians, economists, financial advisers and the public at large face a few important questions, we seem destined (in the main) for more people reliant upon State support. In essence we collectively seem to agree that it is better for each of us to gain financial independence from the State or any other source of funds. There are variety of questions that come to mind, which challenge this assertion.
- Why is it easier to get into debt than to save?
- Why is it easier to borrow money at 100%+ interest than 4%?
- Why is it easier to open an online gambling account than an ISA?
- Why do more people play bingo than save for their pension?
- Why do more people spend more money on a mobile phone than invest into their pension?
- Why do so few people write a Will?
- Why do more people take out travel insurance than suitable financial protection?
- Why has betting become so popular and investing so problematic?
- Why have we become such a litigious society, yet unwilling to take personal responsibility?
- Why do so many people complain about low interest rates, yet do not invest?
- Why is the financial community obsessed with the risks of investing but not the purpose?
- Why do so few people take action?
- Why do so many fail to review their arrangements?
- Why do so many pay for a gym that they don’t attend?
To my mind, it seems that financial planning is rather like a diet. I accept that this is a contentious statement. Most people do not like dieting (by which I mean observing, controlling and restricting what is consumed). A “healthy” diet is only one part of the equation, we all know that regular exercise when combined with a good diet will yield results. I am someone that wrestles with this very issue. The problem most of us have is that we want quick results, we are generally unable to take a long-term perspective. Little wonder, given a culture obsessed by image and reaction. It doesn’t really matter how much you spend on a gym, how many books you read, how many videos/DVDs you watch, how much kit you buy… it all boils down to what’s going on in your head. Despite many motivational guru’s that have some considerable results for a few people, we all know that there are very few short-cuts and its all about a long-term perspective and a change in lifestyle. A key question is really are we prepared, willing and able to change? I don’t subscribe to the belief that this is a simple “change of attitude” but it certainly requires change.
I am open to thoughts, insights, suggestions and answers..
Dominic Thomas: Solomons IFA