An alternative, rational UK budget

The Tory government’s budget is due this week. As is the custom, the chancellor will stand up and propose what he will argue is the best thing for the UK economy. Numerous other customs abound, including the privilege of having an alcoholic drink to ‘steady the nerves’ during the speech.

In reality any chancellor’s proposals have little to do with the right thing for the economy. They are rather what he/she believes are best for his/her political party and its electoral prospects at the next election. In this case the Tory chancellor Philip Hammond is under unusual pressure to ‘go big and bold’, ‘fix the housing crisis’, and so forth – none of which has much to do with the actual needs of the UK economy, but rather the political predicament the Tories find themselves in amidst the chaos of Brexit.

So, in the absence of a bipartisan budget from anybody else, FIREvLondon hereby humbly submits its proposal for a rational budget – designed purely from the point of view of the long term benefit to the UK economy and its citizens.

A fiscally neutral budget

Unfortunately FIREvLondon’s financial resources do not extend to a detailed model of the UK economy. This is just as well because, almost unnoticed, the UK’s enormous fiscal deficit (the delta between government receipts and government spending) has in fact shrunk significantly since its 2009 peak of >10%, and is now at the decidedly modest level of £48bn. £48bn, “decidedly modest”?! you shriek. In fact £48bn represents around 2.5% of GDP. Provided the economy grows, in nominal terms, by more than 2.5%, then the debt will in fact shrink as a proportion of GDP.

There is an argument that with government debt at c.80% of GDP the priority should be to shrink the debt faster. I have sympathy for this argument – especially when the last chancellor but one preached that a national debt level of 40% was a ‘golden’ ceiling above which we must never go – but I am not going to make it here.

So, my aim is to leave the net fiscal deficit unchanged. I am also going to assume no significant change in government borrowing costs; were interest rates to rise significantly my spending projections would increase alarmingly, but for the purpose of tax/spending policy I think it is reasonable to assume no change in medium/long term borrowing costs.

Right now our tax code is riddled with absurdities. For instance

  • We tax jobs. At about 25% per job. Except the really high paying jobs which we tax at about half this level. You can’t make this stuff up.
  • We tax mobility. Via stamp duty. Via high property prices, planning laws etc.
  • We subsidise the rich. Via private schools having VAT exemptions. Via pension tax relief. Via Right to Buy, Help to Buy, etc. Via non-dom. Via EIS. Via carried interest.
  • We subsidise property. Every which way you look. Whereas in fact property is a much more natural thing to tax than people – it can’t move overseas, for starters.

My budget will take steps to start restoring common sense and rational thinking to the tax rates. Here goes.

Taxes on people (living and working)

Taxes on people who live and work are the highest. They should in fact be the lowest.

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Investing in Unicorns

I’ve just discovered a unicorn. Or more to the point, I’ve just learnt that one of my angel investments has become a unicorn. A real one!

Unicorns – myths and reality

What am I going on about, you might be asking? In the investing world a Unicorn is a common nickname for a startup business that reaches a valuation of $1bn+. That’s the type of unicorn I’m talking about. There are dozens, but not hundreds, of unicorns in the world. In the UK the better known ones include Asos, Deliveroo, FarFetch, Funding Circle, Transferwise and Zoopla.

But many so-called Unicorns are not ‘real ones’, to my mind. How come? Because the valuations are often something of a fantasy, and concocted out of funny structured notes for the benefit of the media/credulous staff/others, rather than being a true reflection of the value of the company. I do speak from some experience here, sadly.

For me a ‘real’ Unicorn is one where investors are able to sell shares at a Unicorn valuation – i.e. a price which values the company at $1bn+. Asos and Zoopla pass this test – both are now public companies worth >>$1bn, and their investors have full liquidity. Deliveroo does not pass this test; the large sums being invested at $1bn+ valuations represent money going in to the company, but (to the best of my knowledge) existing investors have not had an opportunity to sell any holdings and, if they did, it would be at a significant discount to the headline valuation.

When is it wrong to take a 40x profit?

So, in my case I received one of those rare but delicious emails this week telling me that I have an opportunity to sell my shares in an angel investment that I made around 10 years ago, and sell them at a significant profit. The total valuation at the offer price is a smidgeon over £1bn. For the record I bought shares at a little over £10/share and can now sell them at £400/share, so this is almost a 40x gain. Happy days! I’ve held these shares so long that the annual rate of return is not as high as you’d think, but it’s around a very respectable 40% p.a.

Read the rest of this entry »


War: time to buy or sell?

My generation’s Cuban missile crisis is on the front pages. All manner of existential questions come to mind.  But as a starter, what’s a simple passive-orientated investor supposed to make of armageddon?

Past performance is no guide to future results.  But history rhymes.  What has happened in prior conflicts?

I’ve taken a cursory look at the UK and US equities markets.  Even for these markets, the most mature in the world, data prior to 1950 is pretty thin.  But I’ve found one study on each side of the pond and overlaid them on top of each other – hey, I said ‘cursory’! The background thin graph is Dow Jones; the foreground thick blue line is UK Equities (from a recent Barclays Equities Gilt Study). Both are nominal price indices – i.e. before inflation and without reinvestment.

2017 08 War stock markets graph.png

Here’s what I observe:

Read the rest of this entry »