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{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Big fish

A talking head on a video conference. Lots of opinions, but seemingly no legs. He had become a regular feature of my workday, during the endless series of agile project  ceremonies” and bullshit meetings that consume calendars and prevent anything remotely productive from being accomplished.

He wasn’t particularly attractive or funny or wise. No witty anecdotes. No startling insights. Never achieving amazing victories, nor enduring crushing defeats. Just plodding along, keeping his head down. A non-entity. Making up the numbers. Unremarkable in almost every way.

Yet I found my eyes drawn to his little box amongst the gallery of video conference participants. Immediately behind where he sat was a large aquarium. Fish of all colours and shapes languidly swam around, doing whatever it is that fish do during their lifetime spent trapped in a glass prison.

Over the months of video conferences, I had slipped into the bad habit of tuning out and watching those fish. Only half-listening to the status updates full of boasting, blame-shifting, excuses, and prevarication.

The fish became familiar. Each with its own idiosyncrasies and habits. Watching them was relaxing.

It turns out Nemo is a hermaphrodite. Dory is armed with poisonous spines. Both are cannibals.

Now that would have made for a fascinating Pixar movie plot!

For the most part, the fish peacefully coexisted. Most just swam around in endless circles. Eating. Excreting. Laying eggs, then cannibalising their young. An empty existence, devoid of meaning.

However, a couple of larger fish were fiercely territorial. Regularly doing battle over some perceived slight, whether real or imagined. Fighting to the bitter end, until one would break off, slink away, and die quietly alone in a corner.

But overnight something fascinating would occur. The fallen fish magically reanimated, returning from the dead like a zombie in a low budget horror movie. By the time the next day’s video conferences commenced, the fish were once again all present and accounted for.

This had me puzzled for a while, until I noticed the zombie fish was markedly smaller than it had been the previous day. A missing fin had miraculously grown back. Markings slightly different.

When I asked the aquarium owner about it, he laughed and confessed to making a regular dash to his neighbourhood pet store to procure replacements. His young children had selected the fish in the tank, and hadn’t (yet) deciphered the illusion of their piscine pets’ apparent immortality.

Which at face value appeared kind of their father, sparing them from the harsh realities of life.

But when I thought about it, his actions were irrational. Even a little bit cruel.

His desire to hide from the truth and avoid an awkward conversation created a self-perpetuating bad habit. One that incurred both a high body count and a lighter wallet, during the endless game of aquarium wars.

Recently I received a cold call from a financial advisor. Not some offshore call centre operator, but a “senior partner” at a well-known Wealth Management firm that regularly features in the financial press for all the wrong reasons. High fees. Higher churn. Predatory practices. To paraphrase Fire v London’s wise words, a firm specialising in managing wealth from the customer’s wallets into their own.

The advisor claimed I had been specifically targeted as a successful and intelligent high-income earner. I was financially sophisticated. “Smart” money. Someone who, in the run-up to the end of the tax year, could greatly benefit from the firm’s exclusive products and proven expertise in advising thousands of big hitters just like me.

In other words, somebody had trawled LinkedIn for those working in financial services with keywords like “Chief”, “Director”, “Global”, “Head of”, or “Partner” in their job titles. Potential punters who likely earned low to mid-six-figure salary packages plus non-recurring discretionary annual bonuses.

Those caught in the net were then shotgunned out a flattering approach intended to pump up the recipient’s tyres and stroke their ego. The suggestions it contained weren’t all bad.

Annual tax-free ISA allowances are either used by April 5th or lost forever.

Capital gains tax allowances could be deployed to rebalance or exit underperforming positions.

Stuffing cash in personal pensions may offset the 60% effective tax rate paid by high-income earners.

Consider future tax arbitrage by transferring matrimonial assets to the partner on the lowest tax rate.

The approach email contained a smattering of stock images, showing photogenic smiling active white senior citizens. Golfing. Tennis. Yachting. All wearing designer clothing. Sporting designer watches. Rolex for him. Cartier for her. Planting the seeds of subconscious inferiority and envy. How could I lead such a lifestyle? Perhaps this wealth management shop could help?

Of course, the approach failed to mention any of the behavioural factors that separate those who financially succeed at life from those who merely aspire to.

Spend less than you earn.

Invest the difference.

Wait. Patiently.

Unsurprising really, given there is no money to be made from offering such straightforward advice.

A while back, a reader sent me a copy of the Barefoot Investor. An accessible, short, and simple book that sets out an actionable script for succeeding at personal finance. The author managed to squeeze more opinions and “Dad” jokes per page than any finance tome I had previously read, while articulating a napkin sized financial blueprint that a seven-year-old child could follow.

The core message was one of living within our means, while ensuring we enjoy the journey.

The author outlined a suggested allocation for how we utilise our household disposable incomes.

60% for “daily expenses”, our needs and housing costs. Rent or mortgage interest should account for no more than half that amount. The remainder pays for our essentials, think utility bills and groceries, not gifts or takeaway meals.

10% splurged on daily indulgences. The short term wants that make life enjoyable. Books. Coffees. Clothing. Entertainment. Hair and nails. Hobbies. Nights out. Presents. Shoes. Store-bought lunches.

10% put towards saving up for larger, life-enriching, “smile” inducing, delayed gratification purchases. Cars. Furnishings. Holidays. Home renovations.

The remaining 20% was dedicated to financial stress reduction and wealth generation. Paying off consumer debt. Establishing a contingency fund. Saving for a house deposit. Paying down the mortgage early. Creating an investment portfolio.

One intriguing aspect of the author’s approach was the absence of money for investments throughout the early stages. He prioritised establishing a sense of financial security first. Investing came second.

While I didn’t agree with everything the author said, I applauded his recognition that psychology and learned behaviours played a determining part in our financial success or failure.

Relying upon a combination of automation, conditioned response, and positive reinforcement he sought to establish self-reinforcing behaviours and habits.

Recognising that budgets, like diets, don’t work because they demand self-control and self-discipline.

Accepting that depending upon continuous good judgement and sensible decision making is far less likely to succeed than automated habits where there are no decisions to make. Avoiding internal and external influences such as apathy, guilt, temptation, or well-intentioned borrowing from our future selves with vague plans of somehow one day making good the difference.

Retirement savings were one such example. Funded throughout the journey, via workplace pension contributions made from before-tax income. Which meant the investor was “paying themselves first” by squirrelling away the money without ever seeing it hit their bank account.

The author’s approach was deliberately simple. Methodical. Easily understood by the “average everyperson”. People who had better things to do with their precious time and scarce attention than obsessing over spreadsheets or living in a financial fantasyland of predictable trends and free from surprises.

Cash flow was often mentioned. Understandable, given it frames virtually every decision we make.

Net worth barely at all. A number useful for little more than bragging rights. Impacted just as much by externalities such as exchange rates, interest rates, inflation, luck, and market movements as it is by our own individual actions, behaviours, decision making, diligence, and discipline.

This last observation made me chuckle. It follows a similar evolution to that experienced by seasoned personal finance writers.

In the beginning, before they know any better, the focus is all about the numbers. Faster progress. Higher saving rates. Larger net worth. Get rich quick or die trying. Hustle till you drop.

Over time, many writers experience an epiphany.

Wealth is measured in time, not money. A feeling, not a number.

Control originates from predictable cash flow, not a portfolio balance.

Chasing early retirement is often a disguised attempt to run away from themselves.

Real freedom is found in finding contentment where they are and with what they have, rather than constantly yearning for more. In accepting ownership and accountability for the circumstances they find themselves in.

That cold calling wealth manager had tried to lure me in by telling me what a career worth of professional experience told him that someone in my position would find too compelling to turn down.

Access to niche investments, a cool kids club reserved exclusively for insiders.

Plays called by the very best active fund managers in the business. The rockstars and legends of the financial industry.

Exotic financial instruments. Complex and elaborate tax minimisation arrangements.

All the leverage I could eat, boosting potential returns to the moon.

The pitch could be distilled down to a simple: you are one of us, assume your rightful place. It is your due. Recognition for your professional excellence and discerning taste.

My unremarkable colleague enabled his children to live in a similar dream world, divorced from reality and the consequences of their decisions. The fish they had chosen were mortal enemies. Incompatible by design, an outcome baked into their very DNA, just as the interests of financial advisors and their clients can never be truly aligned.

The answers to both challenges lay within, not without.

Honesty. Self-awareness. Simple behaviours, consistently applied.

There is a reason the likes of Barefoot Investor, Jack Bogle, Mr Money Moustache, and Rich Dad Poor Dad attract such a cult-like following: simple lessons that work. Clearly articulated. In a relatable way.

Barefoot says live within your means, automate the journey, and allocate funds to enjoying the ride.

Jack Bogle says don’t try to pick winners, win by picking everything while keeping costs low.

Mr Money Moustache says the higher your saving rate, the sooner work becomes optional.

Rich Dad says investments generate free cash flows. Everything else, your home included, is a liability.

Each of their messages resonates. Intuitively true. Common sense. Obvious in hindsight.

Which raises an uncomfortable question about what all those “sophisticated smart money” investors are really doing? Maintaining dozens of positions at any given time. Churning. Trading. The fees and commissions incurred driving the bar for achieving benchmark performance ever higher.

Are they really any different from those aquarium fish? Looking attractive while swimming in circles. The outcome is certain: somebody is getting fat and happy. The question is will their habits and behaviours result in them becoming the big fish, financially secure and free from worry.

Or will they find themselves falling prey to the big fish?


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11 Comments

  1. Brodes 20 February 2022

    Superb writing, Indeedably. I recently got a call from a provider that rhymes with St Lames Pace. Fortunately my almost pathological distrust of wealth advisors will protect me there.

    Such concentrated wisdom here:
    ‘Wealth is measured in time, not money. A feeling, not a number.
    Control originates from predictable cash flow, not a portfolio balance.
    Chasing early retirement is often a disguised attempt to run away from themselves.’

    I constantly fight an internally battle between predictable cash flow (buy to let, dividend shares), and growing net worth (whole world trackers, SWR, and mortgage-based leverage). My experience is that the latter is (has been?) more profitable, but far less comfortable. FOMO on investment returns is a big factor. But so is the absence of predictable cash flow generating assets. Treasuries at sub-inflation yields anyone?

    Looks like I’ll continue working until I figure it out.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 20 February 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Brodes, that is high praise indeed!

      If I may offer a suggestion, focus on total return. It shouldn’t be a case of cash flow or capital growth, you want a combination of both. Some cash flows are “natural“, the dividend streams or BTL rental income you refer to. Others we “manufacture“, those following a “safe” withdrawal rate model for funding retirement for example.

      Chasing cash flow ends up white anting your overall portfolio returns, a tactical win that undermines strategic outcomes. I did some thinking on this a while ago, including the chart below. The green line is an index tracker, the orange is a “high yield” tracker. The difference in performance is the absence of rapidly growing stocks that don’t pay dividends, for example Amazon or Google.

  2. Impersonal Finances 20 February 2022

    Those brokerage houses have long been the subject of my ire, as I was with one of them in my younger days when I didn’t know any better. They are salespeople, not financial advisors.

    I would add Your Money or Your Life and, more recently, Simple Path to Wealth, among the cult classics. Easily articulated common sense.

    Those poor fish!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 21 February 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Impersonal Finances.

      To some extent, all paid advisors are salespeople. Perpetuating problems is far more lucrative than solving them. More medicine. More therapy. More consultants. More coaching. More computer programs. More hair and beauty. More shopping. More broken political promises. Is the nature of the beast, an inherent misalignment of commercial incentives.

      But we shouldn’t judge too harshly, for good or ill they are doing what they are paid to do, and ultimately we are all in sales. Our job retention depends upon it! Key Performance Indicators. Objectives and Key Results. Annual appraisals and performance reviews.

      Thanks for the book suggestions. I had mixed feelings about those two.

      Your Money says denominate your purchases in time, consciously asking whether the effort is worth the purchase.

      Simple Path says save 25x your annual expenses, invest it all in VTSAX, and never worry about money again.

      In each case the core themes were sound, but some of the advice was a bit dubious. At times Your Money was a bit woowoo, offering the kind of “follow your dreams” motivational speaking that leads young people into performing arts degrees and a lifetime of stunted earnings. While some of the steps the Simple Path author took to keep things really simple resulted in an unwise concentration of risk, for example going all in on a single brand of investments and concentrating investments in a single market.

      • Impersonal Finances 22 February 2022

        Both totally fair critiques of those popular books. I felt the same way about Your Money, but can understand why it resonated for so many people as a wake up call of sorts. Woowoo is an excellent descriptor though haha. I am a little bit among the cultists for the JL Collins tome, as a fellow American with complete blind faith in the US equities over time, risk be damned. Just starts Psychology of Money and am loving it so far.

  3. Bob 20 February 2022

    Once again you are right about unintended consequences. In this case the Zoom meeting fish guy.

    At the start of the lockdown a well known and very talented music teacher decided to have a soapbox on Zoom about the opportunity presented to students. He always wears shorts and as he leaned forward into the lens with his bare knees showing, the impression he gave was ranting from his lavatory for an hour.

  4. David Andrews 21 February 2022

    The oft repeated mantra – “it’s about time in the market, not timing the market”.

    However, I don’t see too much wrong with using some funds for speculative investments …. as long as you are able to accept it may all vanish.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 21 February 2022 — Post author

      Thanks David.

      The difference between investment and speculation is one of perspective. You may see my grand plan to finance a luxury retirement using lottery tickets as unwise, I may feel the same about you channeling every spare penny into VTSAX held inside a SIPP.

  5. weenie 21 February 2022

    These days, when I read SJP, I replace it in my mind with Sid James’ Place and I can almost hear old Sid cackling in his old Carry On way as he’s collecting commission from the high fees.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 21 February 2022 — Post author

      Lol, that is very good weenie!

      That’s up there with what a former colleague once opined, that their fees are so high because the wealth managers needed to fund their mistress’s Sex in the City lifestyle (ala Sarah Jessica Parker).

What say you?

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