Fighting complexity

As I mentioned in my January 2020 report, January is the tax deadline month in the UK. And it is the annual tax filing process where the overcomplexity in my financial affairs becomes most visible, and any problems created by that complexity become urgent and pressing.

In previous posts here and here I’ve discussed the complexity that has arisen in my financial affairs. Partly this is a quality problem, reflecting my higher than average net worth, and the journey I’ve taken to build my wealth. Partly this is deliberate strategy on my part – to diversify across providers, to make use of tax sheltered accounts where possible, to spread funds between me and Mrs FvL. And partly this is just creep – the equivalent of middle aged spread: it happens without you really noticing, until one day in January somebody takes a snapshot of you and you realise how unappealing the image is to outsiders!

Reflecting on the consequences of my overcomplexity, I think three problems nag at me:

  1. The burden I shall impose on my executors. I struggle sometimes to manage my finances. My other half, or my family/friends, or a trained financial/legal professional, would be left with a genuine labyrinth to navigate.
  2. The time I spend managing my money. As it happens, I am sad/bored enough to quite enjoy this. But I suspect I would enjoy it just as much if it took half as long, and I would find more productive/enjoyable things to fill my time.
  3. The hassle/time/expense of the annual tax filing process. Let me dig into this a bit below.

I have used the same accountant for years. She knows my affairs pretty well and we have developed a reasonable system/way of working over the years. My limited company has a separate accountant and process, who/which I am largely ignoring in this blog post. Here are some stats from my personal tax filing process for the last tax year:

  • 82 files that I’ve sent to my accountant. These are statements, EIS certificates (for the UK angel investing tax breaks), payslips, etc. These 82 files do NOT include some important material my accountant gets direct from my broker/private bank.
  • 69 pages: the number of pages in my tax return.
  • 110 emails, exchanged between me and my accountant, over the last 12 months. This is going to cost me….
  • 570 rows in my investment tracking spreadsheet, covering both me and Mrs FvL. One row represents one holding in one account across all our publicly traded investment accounts. We have about 200 holdings in total, so each holding is coming up in almost 3 places (e.g. in my ISA, Mrs FvL’s ISA, and my General Investment account).
  • 10-20 hours a year of my time is spent specifically working on my tax admin each year. Plus at least double this on tracking my activities.
  • 1800+ investment-related transactions for just 12 months in my tracking system on Quicken. This covers me, Mrs FvL, and my personal limited company’s liquid portfolio. Every single one of these transactions has been typed in by me. Of these, about 500 are of a dividend payment of less than £50.

I reflected over the Christmas break on what I might do to curb this complexity.

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Annual FI audit

It’s that time of the year when we take stock. Here at FIREvLondon, that means it’s time to do an ‘audit’ of our Finances, and our financial Independence.

Let’s take a look at some of the key questions an audit should consider.

Q1: What state is the balance sheet in?

I review the portfolio performance monthly, and it’s progress against ‘budget’ (i.e. target allocation). As this post highlights, December saw a very strong performance with net assets up almost 23%. An exceptionally strong performance, by historical or future standards, reflecting the 30% gain in the US stockmarket in 2019.

Liabilities remain very much under control too. The margin loan that provides my account with leverage amounts to just over 10% of the value of the assets.

Off balance sheet, the recent move to sell a key residential property and reinvest the money will provide further strengthening of the balance sheet.

Q2: How does the income statement look?

A year ago I borrowed a framework by {indeedably} in which he breaks down his assets and income. He has an unusual way of looking at his state of financial dependence, as shown by his (updated) image below:

Using this framework, 2019 saw me, like 2018, make a clear ‘profit’, or surplus, between total inflows and total outflows. However, from a Financial Independence perspective, i.e. stripping out earned income (and taxes on them), I saw a slight deficit – with outflows exceeding inflows. The chief reason for this was a very high level of expenditure on ‘wants’.

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I’ve paid for my Dream Home – in less than 4 years

With all the Neil Woodford news at the moment, you could have missed the fact that world equity markets are up over 12% so far this year. In GBP, at least. This rising tide has taken me over an important high water mark – my portfolio has recovered to where it was at before I raided it to buy the Dream Home.

For those of you who missed the whole stressful saga, I bought my Dream Home, on a whim, in December 2015/January 2016. To make this more complicated, I ended up funding the purchase very significantly through a margin loan – basically a loan secured on my equity portfolio, rather than a loan secured on the property.

Buying the Dream Home needed me to sell almost half my investment portfolio. I was doing this in the middle of a minor market correction (global equities were 15% off their peak), which felt like a very painful time to sell. In the end, by borrowing over £2m I was able to keep £2m+ invested that I would otherwise have sold.

In those first few weeks after I completed I was pretty exposed. If the market had dropped 30% I would have been panicking. Fortunately, as hindsight shows, it turned out very differently; world equities are up almost 60% since then. Brexit has ‘helped’ here, because the sharp fall in the GBP after the June 2016 referendum meant my (mostly overseas) investments sharply gained versus my margin loan; this is not easy to see in the graph but it is there if you look closely.

With a combination of my investment returns, some liquidity windfalls, my net position (of the liquid investment portfolio, which ignores properties, illiquid holdings, etc) is up around 90% since my Dream Home purchase. I’ve paid down over half the margin loan, and my leverage now is at a very modest level that carries (I believe) very low risk. Thanks to this leverage, in fact my total gross holdings are now bigger than ever before. My net position isn’t quite at record levels, but it is well within the margin of error – and ahead of September 2015, a few weeks before the fateful Dream Home decision.

As an aside, the rental income I’ve received from the old house (which has become an investment asset, albeit not one that I include within my investment portfolio on this blog) has not been a big factor here, because in practice I’ve used those funds to both pay for the old house costs, as well as fund the significant running costs of the Dream Home.

I didn’t anticipate recovering my investment portfolio in under 4 years, without selling the old home. It feels good to know that my money can work so hard in such a short time. So, time to buy another one? Dream on!