You have probably heard of Mad Max – its latest incarnation is currently in UK cinemas. You may have heard about the Lifetime Allowance – which has been part of the pension vocabulary since 2006 or “A-Day”. Suffice to say that I believe that the Lifetime Allowance is rather mad.
In the event that you are a politician and reading this, may I ask why you think pensions are important? To my mind, pensions should be encouraged. The end result of a pension should be that people living in the UK are able to provide for themselves above the State Pension, so support their lifestyle. This has several obvious benefits – creating financially independent adults, not requiring State support. Having income means that income tax can be levied and collected to help pay for our society. Let’s also not forget that income is there for using (spending) which enables trade to occur and wealth to be created and so on.
A World of Plenty?
It would seem that politicians generally think not having a rising burden on the State is a good thing. Indeed encouraging pensions with tax relief is the “sweetener” or “bait”. Much like the film Mad Max, we probably don’t want to create a society reliant upon the occassional benevolence of the prevailing “Lord”. Surely we would like a society where all prosper? OK we know the UK has limited resources, so adjust the tax relief, but don’t make it hard or even pointless to save. Even the current regime isn’t tempting enough for millions of people that don’t or cannot save for their future.
At present pension contributions are restricted, which seems fair enough, but the amount that the pension pot grows to is also restricted by the Lifetime Allowance. This is currently £1.25million, which sounds like a reasonable sum, but in practice isn’t as much as you’d like to think, given that it has to last for the remainder of your life. The Lifetime Allowance has already reduced over the years from £1.8m and if the Chancellor does what he suggested he would in the last Budget, it is likely to shrink to £1.0m next April. In other words £250,000 of the Lifetime Allowance will be lost – or more accurately invoke a tax penalty of £137,500.
Mad Max and Excess Tax
If the Lifetime Allowance is exceeded, there is a tax charge of 55% on the excess. OK there are some ways that you can protect your higher pre-legislation allowance, but these are designed by bureacrats and “problematic” to say the least. Essentially this excess tax charge punishes those that save or get good investment results…. let’s not forget that the income from pensions is subject to income tax anyway. So I fail to understand why we don’t simply abolish the Lifetime Allowance and all the protections that have surrounded it. Your pension fund should be just that – a pot that you can actually use with confidence.
Mad Max – Fury Road is currently in UK cinemas, starring Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy and Nicholas Hoult. The Chancellor, George Osborne has his next Budget on 8th July 2015…
Do you want to live the high life? It may seem like a daft question, particularly from a financial planner, but perhaps it is worth pondering a little longer. Most people’s instinctive reaction is to have more, not less. However in Britain we have an uneasy relationship with wealth. On the one hand we often celebrate the underdog and their success, yet quickly turn to mock error and flaw. I’m generalising of course and not speaking for everyone, perhaps anyone…(other than the British media) but I think that there is a phenomena within British media that quickly moves from praise to envy to criticism.
Any assessment of those that have significant fame and fortune will quickly reveal some common threads – feelings of isolation, mistrust and increased anxiety. The greater the wealth, the higher the gates. This isn’t particularly unique to Britain, as the story itself reveals.
We now have a new Government, which about 1 in 3 people voted for. I have clients with a wide range of views and am not about to make the mistake of upsetting anyone (I hope). We live in a democracy, an imperfect one, but a democracy never-the-less. It is tempting to reduce political ideology to a few descriptive words or even a single word. Compassion is one that has been mentioned of late.
So it is timely that an old musical returns to London at The Old Vic – High Society. You will recall the lead character (Tracy Lord) played in the 1956 film by Grace Kelly, is about to marry a man she doesn’t really love, she lost her true love (Dexter) and previous husband to alcoholism. Now reformed, he returns on the eve of his ex-wife’s marriage and we witness the warm charms, joys and dysfuntion of the Lord family and its desire to protect its own reputation (understandably) from the prying eyes of Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie who are reluctant undercover reporters caught in jobs to earn a living rather than following their passions of writing and photography. One might say that a lack of passion is the missing ingredient that all seek to fill through other means, yet it is a lack of compassion that prevents understanding one another, or indeed self. A sobering thought and one posed to Tracy.
Timed to Perfection?
The revised musical now resides at The Old Vic. Tickets are hard to come by which merely confirms the experience of some memorable melodies from Cole Porter and some very energetic, amazingly precise choreography and direction under the eye of Maria Friedman. The theatre is now in the round and Tom Pye makes quite brilliant use of a very small space with an impressive set. There are some remarkable performances, notably from Barbara Flynn, newcomer Ellie Bamber, Jamie Parker and Annabel Scholey. It is difficult for anyone to follow roles established by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby (Rupert Young) and Grace Kelly (Kate Fleetwood) which I imagine is an unenviable task for actors. Watch out too for Joe Stilgoe, clearly a “chip off the old block” in a role that will remind audiences of the great Richard Stilgoe, his father.
Time to Dazzle and Reflect
The show runs until 22nd August and watch out for a couple of dates, when audience are being encouraged to dress up appropriately (wedding attire I assume – though hats aren’t great in an auditorium). Being “in the round”, this enables some of the audience to be pretty “up close and personal” at the stage edge and whilst you may find yourself singing along to “Who wants to be a Millionaire” and “You’re Sensational” enjoying a thorougly entertaining evening, perhaps deeper reflections on the trappings of wealth without compassion may begin to stir.
Should I do my own financial plan?
You are good at what you do for a living. You are successful by most standards and are keen to keep developing your own skills and capabilities so that you can drive your business or professionalism forward. You know your way around a spreadsheet and understand what a balance sheet is, in fact when it comes to the daily management accounts, you have got it licked. So its not unreasonable to assume that you can handle your own financial planning. After all, why spend money to get a financial planner to tell you what you already know?
Admittedly, this isn’t something I hear a lot, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t being thought or said by those that don’t make a bee-line for my front door. Most people are capable of learning to do their own financial planning, in the same way that most people could learn to be their own physician. Most of the time we are perfectly able to self-diagnose and take over-the-counter medicine for minor ailments without need to bother the GP. However there are moments when we should seek qualified advice and sometimes that will result in being referred to a specialist. Financial planning is no different.
Most people are perfectly able to manage their day-to-day budget and build some savings. Many are quite comfortable with completing tax returns for the straight-forward stuff. However a financial plan is not about the ordinary day-to-day “stuff” it is about helping you get what you want from your life by assessing what you have, what you need to have and helping you get there as efficiently and effectively as possible. There are lots of moving parts to a financial plan and some come and go, depending on the legislation and rules of the day. We aren’t talking about a simple goal “I want £200,000 by the end of 2025” but a complex interaction between your values and reality.
In sport, even the top sportsmen and women have a coach. What does this tell us? that there is always room for improvement? a problem shared? someone to motivate? provide discipline? the list is probably fairly lengthy – but having a supportive “partner” critique and help improve is how I approach this. Because “money” is something we all handle, (for many of our clients at a very “high level”) we can often think that financial planning must be easy… a bit like painting by numbers. Select your own financial products that appear to be the right ones, pick the top performing or top selling funds and you’re done right?
I genuinely believe that most people are capable of doing their own financial planning, but with the caveat that they need to put in the hours of study acquiring the skills and knowledge required – like anything else. However even with these skills and knowledge, one vital ingredient is also required – experience. Take the example of being a surgeon – knowledge is one thing, but on-the-job experience is vital and indeed if you were having surgery, you’d want someone that did this pretty much all day, each day, each week, not someone that does the occassional surgery. Things that are important, that matter, need an expert hand.
Above is an image of some restoration work (on the right) carried out on an ancient mosaic (the left image is the original) held by the Hatay Archeological Museum in Turkey. This recently became widely reported in the media due to the obvious flaws in the “restoration”. Unfortunately, those doing the restoration are blaming others. The question for you – is it good enough?
Is It All About Money?
I came across this short video which I’d like to share. It isn’t very complimentary to those within the financial services industry (which includes me). So why share it? well…. because I agree with a lot of what is being said. I have met hundreds, perhaps thousands of people all with different financial concerns. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have trusted most people that held themselves out as financial advisers, today in 2015 there are still quite a few bad apples, but most of the people I meet are genuinely trying to help their clients… sure, like me they are also trying to run a profitable business and it seems to me that profit is a word that needs reclaiming here in the UK – without it, you dont get to play again next year.
The American dream suggests that you can have it all, you simply need the discipline to get there. This is true for some, but certainly not for all – and yes I am aware that there will always be exceptions… the classic Cinderella story of rags to riches. However most people aren’t interested in making a fortune, what they tend to want is the ablity to maintain their lifestyle, have options to travel and to bring up their children (if they have any) in a healthy, safe and encouraging environment. Only this weekend I had an email from someone saying that they don’t care about money… most people don’t. What they care about is their life. Money simply provides choices, it doesn’t provide guarantees and can offer some security but most of this is illusion. Don’t believe me? imagine an invading alien army (I know -daft right!) landing in London… the value of your home, size of your bank balance or ISA is suddenly rather irrelevant. Yes, I know its unlikely… I’m merely making a point.
Financial planning is not really about money. Thats why I don’t have tabs on the website telling you about all the products we “sell”. However I will admit that sometimes I think it would be a better marketing strategy, as that is what people actually look for, not financial plans. Financial planning is about you. Your life plan. As the financial planner, my job is to ask decent questions and explore the answers (or range of answers) together. I am meant to represent your interests, helping you to make better decisions and trying to ensure that your money doesn’t run out before you do.
For the record, we are further ahead in this regard than those in the US – and I for one am grateful for our NHS and not having US healthcare costs. If you follow me, then you’ll know that since formation in 1999 we have charged fees for advice rather than commissions. Our clients know what they pay us. Fiduciary is absolutely the right term. Anyway, here is the video:
Pension Freedoms and a Lamborghini
I’m sure you will have come across newspaper reports that some people are concerned that the new pension freedoms, (which come into effect from 6th April 2015) are likely to mean that some people make some daft decisions about their pension pot. You have probably heard that some may go a little mad and buy a Lamborghini.
This is an issue that I have talked about with clients recently, not because they were thinking of buying a Lamborghini, but I simply wanted to explain what the nw pension rules really mean. Admittedly as I don’t own a Lamborghini I’m not that familar with their prices. I’m not an avid Top Gear fan, though I do like Grand Prix. So just by way of a guide, perhaps you may like to know the reality of using a pension to buy a Lamborghini.
Making the wild assumption that you would want a brand new car, the cheapest model I can find available in the UK is the Aventador LP 700-4 which starts at £260,040 (I love the £40!). I’m sure the reduction in petrol prices will help, but I imagine that this is a car that with a top speed of 217mph and a combined urban/extra urban fuel consumption of 16 miles per gallon is also going to be expensive to run, let alone service.
On the Road Price
Assuming that this is an “on-the-road” price you need to write a cheque for £260,040 to the dealer from your pension. As of today a pension isn’t a bank account and does not come with a cheque book. But from April 6th you will be able take all of the money out (if you are 55 or older). The new rules allow you to take all your money out should you wish to – you don’t have to buy an annuity. However the original rules still apply, in that you can take 25% of the fund as tax free cash, the balance is deemed as income and taxed at your marginal rate of income tax (as it would be if it were an annuity). So, to buy the Aventador LP700-4 you need to pay £260,040, there are two ways that you could now achieve this.
1. Use the tax free cash – you could have a pension pot worth £1,040,160 and be able to take out 25% as tax free cash (£260,040).
2. Use the entire pension pot.You need a pension of tax free or have a pension pot worth at least £393,000. This would mean that you could take £98,250 as tax free cash and £294,750 as income (but suffer 45% income tax) leaving a net income of £162,112.50 and so have £260,362.50 to hand over the the Lamborghini dealer. Ok not all your income will be taxed at 45% – just the income over £150,000.. but most will be taxed at at least 40%, some at 20%, you would forfeit your personal allowance and in so doing pay an effective rate of tax of 60% on part of the income.
It would take someone with either considerable additional resources, or perhaps a very short life expectancy to decide to buy the car with their pension… essentially costing £393,000 rather than £260,040. It may surprise you and probably alarm you to learn that the average pension pot “at retirement” is about £30,000, so for most people, they are more likely to be able to buy a model Lamborghini car which will cost between £6 and £3,654 (according to the site) or perhaps you fancy a T-shirt starting at £43.
Given that your pension, in combination with your other resources is meant to last for the rest of your life, the key is to ensure that it doesn’t run out before you do. This is precisely what we do for our clients, figure out what income you need to support your lifestyle, how much is needed, what returns required and making some assumptions (which we review together) about inflation (currently 0% here in the UK) and life expectancy. When it comes to avoiding living on the street, you really dont want a pension withdrawal strategy that is too fast and too furious.
Charlie Hebdo & Uncomfortable Freedoms
As I listened to the news of the murders at Charlie Hebdo I cried. Battling with writers block at the time I was forced to confront the very free and ephemeral nature of my struggle and that my fear was solely for my own lack of productivity rather than persecution for the outcome of my labour. Anyone who puts their creativity ‘out there’ from blogging to fine art runs the risk of ridicule or dislike alongside the possibility of appreciation. Tracey Emins 1998 ‘My bed’ seems to evoke particular vitriol. Perhaps the gamut of responses is to be more expected in the world of social media where anonymity can afford for speedy and unconstricted ideas to find a mass audience in seconds, but to once again know that people had in the 21st century lost their lives for expressing themselves, their politics, art and ideas was a confronting reality. As a therapist who writes it was particularly poignant to hear that one of those who lost their life was the psychoanalyst and columnist Elsa Cayat.
As someone with strong connections to North Africa I am aware of the polarisation that is often underlined in moments like this, and the inevitable backlash against Islam from those who fail to see the actions of extremists as distinct and non-representative. We can only hope that the long-term legacy of this tragedy can be a reassertion of freedom not reductionist constraint.
In extremis and trauma the casualty is always the capacity to think, to play and explore. The brittle and defensive often compels us to more primitive ways of being; survival, fight, flight, or freeze. In the words of Malala Yousafzai to the UN General Assembly in 2013 “We realise the importance of light when we see darkness. We realise the importance of our voice when we are silenced”. Her response to a regime that sought to exterminate her both as individual and symbol tells us that it is precisely in these moments of oppression and terror that we need freedom of speech, art and creativity, something of ambiguity that leaves us with questions and a sense of not knowing. This is the opposite of traumatic shock. In our transaction with art and literature we are free to choose to look and engage or look away. Around the world there are those losing their lives for that which many of us take for granted. I hope that we can honour their courage by fighting to maintain the place for equality of expression and difference in the written, spoken and visual, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
Money and Power
Perhaps my age is showing, but it is only day 6 of the new year and I am already fed up with the election campaign. I ought to be celebrating our democracy and the opportunity to hear reasoned arguments, however inevitably we seem stuck in a cycle of who will tax or cut most, the prospect of genuine change and improvement for all seems rather unlikely with the inevitable tension around money and power.
In a more reflective moment, I remind myself that this is not a dictatorship and we at least get to vote and I don’t really think we are at the mercy of a despot who has anger issues and a twitching finger poised over an end-all button. This isn’t the case for millions of “voters” around the world who are marched off to vote for egomaniacs. This in mind, a relatively new musical to arrive via New York at the National Theatre “Here Lies Love” is based on a 2010 concept album of the same name, which gives musicals a nightclub injection. If you think that a nightclub is exclusively for the “young” perhaps think agains as, the creators Fatboy Slim (Norman Cook) is 51 and David Byrne is 62. The production has the flavour of community theatre, with the execution of high-end night club. A moving stage and audience, all combine to great effect and an entertaining, immersive experience.
This is the story of Imelda Marcos, her rise and fall from power. Byrne and Cook wanted to explore what makes powerful people behave the way they do. I’m not so sure that this was explored terribly well, whilst displaying a delusional, drugged up Imelda, she isn’t portrayed that badly – a little bit too vanilla in Manilla – little about her excessive flamboyancy and penchant for hundreds of shoes. The story is chronological, revealing the fragility of her marriage, her inability to cope with her rags to riches story and a familar narcissism of Heads of State that seem to believe that they “give their all to their people”.
The Price of Democracy
There was little in the musical that gave me reason to believe such behaviour was understood or how to spot it in others and take precautionary action…so no tips for our elections. The world seems to have done little during the period of martial law and assassination of the opposition including the shooting of Benigno Aquino on the steps of his ill-advised return flight to Manilla on 21 August 1983 (age 50) which you may remember. In the Philippines, the Marcos regime was eventually cast out by a peaceful protest, following a corrupt election (February 1986) against Aquino’s widow following which the public simply decided enough was enough. Marcos and his family took US advice and support then fled to Hawaii along with 24 suitcases of gold bullion and jewellery. Sadly for Imelda this took precedent over her 2,700 pairs of shoes. It is estimated that Marcos stole over $10billion from the country, much was invested into various family related businesses and Swiss accounts. The Swiss have so far returned about $684 million. So for me, this musical, whilst being entertaining does little to understand how and why power corrupts so absolutely. Indeed one might argue that the catchy tunes, flashing lights distract from the real story… but then, perhaps that’s the point.
Wrong Place at the Wrong Time
A timely new (2010) musical “Scottsboro Boys” has returned to London, currently playing at The Garrick off Leicester Square. It is the story of 9 black men… well youths really, aged 13-19. Who were in the wrong place (Alabama) at the wrong time (25 March 1931). You may know the story, which is also reminiscent of the Harper Lee novel “To Kill a Mocking Bird”. I didn’t know this particular story, but sadly it is all too familiar… a lynching and swift carriage of gross injustice. It is a depressing tale about stupidity, bigotry and racism in a world that one would hope was consigned to history, but is clearly alive and fuelled by the same misplaced and misinformed fears.
As you might imagine, its a provocative piece, which has some interesting ideas. The juxtaposition of black men playing white men (and women) in a parody of Minstrel Shows, further revealing how misguided and disrespectful such things were/are and culminating in a particularly disturbing “blacked up” segment. The creators draw on ideas from Cabaret and Chicago, using song and dance harmonies to hide but reveal the discord. A criticism I would have is that the show isn’t very energetic, rather “sedate” but then perhaps this is quite deliberate, given the restrictions of prison and a hot box… and the final scene of powerful protest.
The Truth Will Set You Free
This is not a hopeful story, in fact it wasn’t until 2013 that the Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley signed the Scottsboro Boys Act, which exonerated all nine of them. Today America, the “land of the free” is still a tinderbox with unresolved racial issues and it is little wonder that so many are concerned about what seems to be systemic racism, where it would still appear that white lives are worth more than black lives. Whilst it is now nearly 84 years since the original incident, I am left to reflect on a phrase that I use daily – tempus fugit. Time flies… well, whilst it certainly seems to, I guess in practice, it will be a matter of perspective. Whilst I enjoy freedom, without too much genuine concern that it could be curtailed, for those that live with daily prejudice and injustice, I doubt that time moves quickly at all… and if the current state of global politics is anything to measure, it would seem that attitudes certainly do not change quickly. A lifetime of injustice must make time “feel” rather different. A museum, which often acts like a time travelling device, is a reminder of the past, to their credit Alabama have opened a museum to this history. The hope that I take from this is that it takes a brave community to be honest about its past…as it does for us all. Truth is something that I uphold as a virtue and something I bring to my work with clients, but perhaps the greater truth is that truth sometimes takes a very long time to be exposed, sometimes too long is far too late and may not, in fact set you free.
Scottsboro Boys runs until 21 February 2015 at The Garrick, London.
Sometimes, I probably stray a little too far from financial planning stuff within this blog, but that’s largely due to the fact that the clients I work for and wish to attract are people that have similar values to mine. As I have said before, if we are to work together, you may as well discard the glossy marketing and get a feel for who I am… after all there is so much more to both my clients and me than “money”. Anyway, on Saturday night I was part of a small crowd that was warmly welcomed to the home of the Kubrick’s who are generous advocates of local arts (the family of the late Director Stanley Kubrick) to support the launch of a new musician – Hope, my god-daughter.
Hope is only 15 and as you might imagine is still at school whilst making time to learn, practice and write new songs. Who knows if she will have a successful career in music, at this point she’s just having fun and seeing where it may lead. Hope’s parents are some of my closest friends since student days, and sadly her father Toby died of cancer some years ago in 2006 which was the first time that I had experienced the loss of someone close to me of my age. As close friends, Toby and his wife Kym were people that also helped me in the early days of my career, acting a little as practice guinea pigs for my evolving advice. He was also the first client that I had to make a claim for against a critical illness policy. Unfortunately Hope and her older brother have both been diagnosed with the same causal disease (MEN Type 1). This isn’t an appeal, I’m just helping to draw a little attention to her first EP, produced by a new small record label called Jacket Records which should you like can be bought at any digital music store for a few pennies and the largest store (itunes) link is here. She has a website – which you can also find out more information, her first track is called So Much More… I know her dad would have been very proud.