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Can you make decent profits without a degree of market risk?

By Rob Hesketh - Topics: Currencies, France, Investment Risk, Investments, Uncategorised
This article is published on: 22nd October 2015

22.10.15

My article last month focussed on types of risk that that can present danger to the unwary investor. My top two risk types were Institutional Risk and Market Risk, but I concentrated mainly on my third risk factor – Foreign Exchange, largely because of my previous experience in this field. I was quite surprised by the interest the article produced, partly because the people who commented weren’t really ‘grabbed’ by F/X risk; but rather more interested in the other two categories. Can the modern investor really fall foul of institutional risk? Is anyone really daft enough to think that you can have decent profits or returns without taking on some degree of market risk? Unfortunately, the answer to both those last two questions is yes. I thought you might be entertained if I gave you some examples that hopefully won’t ring too many bells from your own experiences…

In 2009 I met a very interesting lady who was referred to me by a colleague in Spain, not that that is particularly relevant, but I did end up wondering if she’d had too much sun.   All I knew before I met her was that she was due to receive a large sum shortly, and she wanted some investment advice. I spent ninety minutes with her, most of which was taken up with a battle of hope over reality. This unfortunate lady had been investing for a number of years with an organisation called The Liberty Wealth Club, and was 100% confident that she would be receiving a pay-out of $150,000 from the club in a matter of weeks. The more I listened, the more appalled I became, for this was truly a forerunner of a ‘Ponzi’ scam, labelled and outlawed in the UK as a Multi-Level Marketing scheme. Nothing I could say to her would make her listen. In the end, I told her that I would be delighted to help her invest her funds when they arrived, and we agreed to meet again on that basis. I never heard from her again.

A year or so later I took on a new client with a much more understandable problem. He had bought an apartment in Spain ‘off-plan’, with a view to selling it on before completion, at a healthy profit. As far as I’m aware, to this day he is still the legal owner of this apartment, although he returned the keys and stopped paying the mortgage years ago. It is a nightmare waiting to revisit him.

Another client with a similar problem bought a flat in Budapest, again unbuilt and ‘off plan’. The amount invested was sizeable, and it took four years for a brick to be laid. In desperation he eventually managed to sell it at a 60% loss.

Undeterred, this same client, before I met him I might add, then decided to invest in a forestry scheme designed to give him a regular income payment for the rest of his life. Unfortunately a drought seems to have interfered badly enough for the income to have dried up (sorry) completely.

Recently I have come across a mind-boggling concept called GCR – Global Currency Reset. Please, please, do not let anyone persuade you to invest any of your hard earned cash building up reserves in currencies such as the Iraqi Dinar or the Vietnamese Dong in the expectation that they will soon be revalued overnight and make your fortune. Believe me, this is not going to happen.

Sane people make these totally irrational investment decisions, albeit whilst temporality on the throes of some form of dangerous mental instability, as it is the only justification I can think of. Please do not be tempted to join this group of dramatic under-achievers. Sound financial advice may seem boring; much along the lines of ‘single digit gains’ and ‘realistic investment profiles’. Sound financial advice will however always save you from the nightmares that can result from your own flights of fancy, should you be that way inclined. And believe me, some of you are.

What are the main financial risks as an expat in France?

By Rob Hesketh - Topics: Currencies, France, Inflation, Investment Risk, Retirement, Uncategorised, wealth management
This article is published on: 29th September 2015

29.09.15

Age and wealth are often linked. One increases inexorably in a linear fashion, and the other tends also to increase over time, but always in a non-linear way. Following this traditional route, we tend to become more affluent as we get older, barring financial mishaps and accidents of course. This may have something to do with the notion that as we get older we become wiser. That may well also be true up to a point, but then it can occasionally go horribly wrong. Leaving that unfortunate possibility to one side, how can we expats best contribute to our own financial well-being?

All a bit deep that, but here is what I’m getting at. If I were to attempt to present a snapshot of my average client to you, it would be of a couple in their late 50’s to early 60’s who have retired early after successful careers and family building, based either on employment or their own business. Avid Francophiles, they are now ‘living the dream’ funded by the fruits of their former labours. All is well in their world; or at least that is how it appears on the surface. Underneath though, there are concerns, and these concerns are common to all of us. Age and money.

I think very few of us actually like getting older; I certainly don’t. It is becoming more and more difficult to ignore those ‘milestone’ anniversaries. I think of them more as millstones these days. As I suspect is the case with many of us, I tend these days to look my accumulated ‘wealth’ (cough), and wonder if it will last me out. I think it will, and I certainly hope it will, but I’m pragmatic enough to realise that it isn’t a ‘gimme’ (in Solheim cup parlance).

So then I start to look at the variables. What can possibly go wrong? What can I do to defend myself against the risks? What are the risks? I am after all a financial adviser; all this should come naturally to me. To an extent it does, but knowing what is out there doesn’t mean that you necessarily know how to beat it. It does help though. Here is my top three on my list of risks to worry about:

Institutional Risk   –   Basically this means that you put all of your money under the floorboards in the attic, but next year your house burns down, floorboards and all.

Market Risk   – How could putting all your money into VW shares possibly go wrong?

Exchange Rate Risk     –   This is where Murphy’s Law comes into play. Whatever the rate is; whatever you do will be wrong. Otherwise known as Sod’s Law.

Obviously, it is a good idea to work on avoiding these risks wherever possible. I thought long and hard before listing them in this order, but I do think that Institutional Risk stands out. After all, it can wipe you out completely. It can also be avoided completely. The other two cannot be eradicated, although some would argue about F/X risk.

Indeed there was a time when I would have argued that F/X risk can be avoided. In a former life (I’ve told you this before I know), I used to be a foreign exchange dealer in the world of international banking, before it became unfashionable. One of my jobs was to explain to corporate and private clients that F/X risk was the enemy, to be identified and eliminated at all costs; unless of course your job was to make money trading (gambling) in it.

Ten years ago I brought this dogma into my new career as an IFA in France. How long do you intend to stay in France? (forever). Where are your savings? (in the UK, in sterling)… Over the years, the subtleties started to emerge. The collapse of sterling against the Euro; the resulting exodus of thousands of UK ‘snow birds’ from Spain because their UK pensions wouldn’t support them anymore, and the growing realisation that our old enemy ‘age’ was always going to play its trump card; they all contributed to the much changed conversations that have with my clients these days. Strangely though, it is another banking term that now dominates my thinking, namely hedging.   ‘Hedge your bets’. To be honest, I tend to question anyone these days who says that they will never return to the UK. Statistics show otherwise. We tend to base our current view on our current circumstances, preferring not to think about what will happen if we end up on our own. How many UK expats are there, I wonder, in French care homes?

Since the Euro came into existence the £/€ exchange rate has been as high as 1.7510 and as low as 1.0219. In anyone’s language that is an enormous range. Coincidentally we currently sit at almost exactly the half way point between those two extremes, but I don’t see that as any reason for complacency. We need to take this risk very seriously, especially if we accept the possibility that we will one day have no more use for Euros. I have a firm view on the best way to manage this risk, but I’ve run out of space in this edition. If you want to discuss it, you know where to find me.

QROPS – Qualifying Recognised Overseas Pension Schemes

By Rob Hesketh - Topics: Le Tour de Finance, Pensions, QROPS, Retirement, Uncategorised
This article is published on: 4th August 2015

04.08.15

I’d like to revisit the topic of pensions this month; specifically QROPS pensions. I’m sure you remember that it stands for Qualifying Recognised Overseas Pension Schemes. I spend a lot of time talking to clients these days about QROPS. I don’t want to bore you with loads of technical detail here; I want to concentrate on the core reason why you should consider a QROPS if you are non UK resident or are considering becoming so. Much has happened this year in the UK pensions industry, and it has tended to cloud the picture regarding expats and their retirement savings. Let’s try to regain some clarity.

If you’ve moved to France, or are considering a move here, you need to at least consider a QROPS as an option. It gives you the right to move your pension fund out of the UK jurisdiction altogether, and have much more control over your pension pot, and protect it from internal taxation and other forms of interference from the UK system which is focussing more and more on how to tax your assets.

I’m talking to a client in this position at the moment. His name isn’t Steve, but we’ll call him that anyway. He has a £400,000 pension pot made up of four different pensions accrued over his working life. He and his wife are UK resident, but intend to be French resident soon. I’ve given him all the background information, and he has come back with a very succinct question:

‘I think it quite likely that I will live in France for many years, but equally likely that I will return to the UK at some stage in the future. As my pension will revert to UK jurisdiction when that happens, is it worth my while paying the overseas trustee fees while I am outside the UK?’

Steve is 65 years old, and he thinks he will return to the UK when he is 80. Let’s also assume a modest net return of 5% per annum of the QROPS pension. This of course cannot be guaranteed, but is the current performance of my preferred investment fund over the past 5 years. Let’s assume that he decides to do a QROPS transfer.

Now let’s move forward in time by 10 years. Steve’s pension fund is now worth £550,000. (the mathematicians amongst you will of course realise that he has been drawing down some of this pension to supplement their other sources of income) He’s quite pleased with this, but would be less pleased to learn that in two weeks’ time he will be killed in a tragic car accident.

As tends to happen in later years, Steve and his wife had discussed what they would do if one of them died. Steve thought that if he was the one left, he would stay in France, but his wife, we’ll call her Jane, thought it more likely that she would go back to the UK to be with the children and grandchildren. This is indeed what Jane decides to do, and to facilitate this, she decides to take the full pension pot as a capital sum to enable her to buy a decent house back in Cambridge. She will invest the proceeds of the sale of the French house when, and if, it sells.

Because Steve decided to transfer under the QROPS system out of the UK pension jurisdiction, Jane will get every penny of the £550,000 pension lump sum. If Steve’s decision had gone the other way, and he had decided to keep his four pensions in the UK, Jane would be looking at a tax bill from HMR&C of 45% on the majority of the money if she took it as a lump sum. Her tax bill would be in the region of £210,000 at current rates.

There will have been additional costs in having a QROPS pension, principally to remunerate the overseas trustees who take on responsibility for the administration of the pension under HMR&C rules. There will also have been savings. UK pension funds are subject to UK Dividend Income Tax. The rebate of the 10 per cent credit (ACT) was withdrawn by Gordon Brown, costing pension funds billions in tax.

It is therefore difficult to quantify how much extra a QROPS costs, if anything at all. What we can say with a fair degree of certainty is ‘not as much as you might think’. In Steve’s case it probably cost about £9,000 over the ten years in trustee costs, but £8,000 of this was recovered immediately when he invested his pension money into the QROPS bond. That doesn’t happen with all QROPS, but it can currently with Spectrum.

As far as insurance goes, and I regard this as an insurance policy for while you are abroad, the cost/savings ratio looks pretty impressive. I always practice what I preach; my own pension fund is safely housed in two separate QROPS, well away from the UK tax–grabbers.

With regard to the changes that have erupted on the UK pensions scene this year – Pension Freedom – as the chancellor likes to call it; I think my views are well documented. I see this as a tax raising scheme, nothing more and nothing less. It may be that in the future QROPS schemes will be forced to fall in line with the new UK stance, but that has little to do with the many compelling reasons to look at a QROPS transfer.

QROPS is one of the topics that we will be featuring at our next ‘Le Tour de Finance’ seminar. Our industry experts will be presenting updates and outlooks on a broad range of subjects, including:

  • Financial Markets
  • Assurance Vie
  • Pensions/QROPS
  • Structured Investments
  • Currency Exchange

The date for the seminar is Friday, 9th October 2015 at the Domaine Gayda, Brugairolles. Places are limited and must be reserved, in advance. This venue is always very popular and so early booking is recommended. Please complete the reservation form here

Remember our old friend the Assurance Vie?

By Rob Hesketh - Topics: Assurance Vie, France, Uncategorised
This article is published on: 10th July 2015

10.07.15

In last month’s article I maintained that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Whilst that met with general agreement, it did provoke some interesting responses; mainly exploring the ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ theme so loved by fans of The Clash. Here is an excerpt from a mail I received from a regular critic of my articles. I left the first line in, out of vanity:

Just for a change, I rather liked your piece in the A&A.  Very sensible.

Although for me this is home.  Eventually cremated here and ashes scattered over France.  It’s in my last wishes. But here’s a thought for another piece for you, progression from your current article. Although I myself have no intention whatsoever to return to the UK – I intend to die here – I read that one of the things that can go, as you get really old, is your ability to speak a second language.  If that happens, and should I finish up in a care home, it will be difficult both for me and my carers. In that case my family, most of whom do not live in the UK, might reasonably consider I would be better off in the UK………….

And so be it; let’s explore this theme a little. I’m sure Charles Green (not his real name) would never be packed off back to the UK by uncomprehending carers and uncaring children, but it is an important point. I for one would not relish spending my bath chair days in what I perceive to be the alien environment of a French care home. Coincidentally, I met a couple last week who have retired from UK care home ownership to live in France. I put it to them last week that if they were to open a home in France solely for UK elderly clients, they might be very successful. Unfortunately my idea was shot down in flames. They retired from the business due to increasing bureaucracy and paperwork in the UK, and certainly wouldn’t dream of trying to recreate the same nightmare in France. Can’t blame them I suppose, but it still sounds like a nice idea to me, from a future consumer point of view.

For obvious reasons, I need to steer this article towards financial concerns. I talk to virtually all my clients about retirement provision. It’s not uncommon to hear that actually people would quite like to spend all of their money before they ‘shuffle off’. The problem, I always point out, is timing. It’s one thing to put in place a programme of concerted spending that will exhaust your funds when you reach the age of say 85, but most inconvenient to yourself and others when you last until you are 103. Life can of course be great fun, and we should always enjoy it while we can, but let’s be under no illusion here; none of us gets out of this alive. Money comes in very useful while you are living, and my view is that if there is any left after you die, it might be put to good use elsewhere.

My average client couple; Mr. E. and Mrs. X. Pat, have worked hard during their lives and have garnered enough cash to see them through to the bitter end. I use the word ‘bitter’ deliberately, as I don’t think life has many happy endings. Some of my clients take a rare and altruistic view of their legacy. They may not have children or close relatives, or maybe they just don’t like them. They feel totally at home with the concept of their residual wealth being assimilated into the French national coffers as their contribution to society. Thankfully, to my mind anyway, this approach is rare, and could even be a sign of approaching mental frailty. The vast majority of the people I talk to would much rather that anything left be put to somewhat better use; any use in fact that doesn’t involve the word ‘tax’.

Without any tax planning at all, anything you leave to your spouse will be free of succession tax, and your children will get a moderate allowance before paying the tax, but can end up paying 45% on large sums. Pretty much everyone else need a tin hat to protect themselves from the onslaught from ‘le fisc’. Step children; your best mate; your ex-wife (?), they will all pay 60%. In anyone’s language, that’s a lot of tax.

There is a better way. Remember our old friend the Assurance Vie? He keeps your investments away from the prying eyes of the tax man, and when you eventually need to draw income, he may be able to get you a very good rate on the tax you will then pay. He also happens to come in pretty handy with succession tax. In theory even the richest of investors could manage to pass on all of the invested wealth free of succession tax; all he would need would be a lot of beneficiaries. Each one of them could take away €152,500 without paying a centime in tax. For we mere mortals, this sort of tax generosity should solve the problem quite easily. All you have to do is get your act in gear in good time. You must set up your policy before you get to 70 to get the full benefit.

A bit more thought needs to go into how you pass on property, but it can be done. For now though, I’m just going to concentrate on the ‘spare’ cash. Bank accounts; premium bonds, ISAs; PEPs; National Savings, your old Pru bond that you’ve had since Adam was a lad…   They are all manna from heaven to the French succession tax system, and it will swallow them up. Only Assurance Vie has that nasty tasting Teflon coating that it doesn’t like, and spits out again.

And all you need to do to get an assurance vie is talk to your financial adviser…

In the few days since I wrote this article I have learned of the tragic death of one of my earliest clients; a good and kind man, fallen victim of the carnage so often seen on French roads. This sadness only reinforces my view that life rarely has a happy ending.

You can’t please all of the people all of the time

By Rob Hesketh - Topics: Currencies, France, Residency, Retirement, Uncategorised
This article is published on: 11th June 2015

11.06.15

It’s a sad but true fact that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. While most of us dance a little jig each time the sterling pops its head over the 1.40 mark (however briefly!), others wince and reach for their calculators, working out how much less they are now worth in sterling terms. For various reasons, as we have discussed before, people decide to ‘go home’. The very fact that they describe it in those terms probably makes them all the more likely to take that decision in the first place, but the fact is that the older we get, the more compelling the argument can become to return to our roots.

There are currently two main problems for those who come to that decision today. The first is the exchange rate, and the second is the housing market. How unfair is it that many of us came to France on the back of a strong pound, then congratulated ourselves when it collapsed, only to find that when we need it to stay weak, it bounces back to bite us where it hurts? And, to compound matters, our cherished piece of French real estate turns out to be worth a fraction of our own valuation. I don’t think this is particularly a French issue though, unless we (surely not?) were persuaded to pay more than the property was worth in the first place. I learned many years ago that if you think you might want to move home at some time in the future, plan ahead. Don’t wait until you want/need to sell and bide your time. Advertise early, and wait for that elusive buyer who really wants to buy your home. Easier said than done though, I must confess, although I have in the past been successful in selling a ‘quirky’ house on this basis, and buying a much more sellable property, purely to put myself into a more flexible situation where I knew I could move quickly if I needed to. Even then some ego inflated politicians started a war and held up our move to France for quite a few months.

No, you can’t please all the people all the time, but what you can do is try to give them the best advice at all times. If you get that right, then major upheavals such as moving back ’home’ can be made less of a trial. A good example is investment advice. I estimate that currently around 5% of my clients are in the process of moving back to the UK, or are thinking about it. I know for a fact that all of them are happy that they took my advice to invest in what I class as ‘Expat Assurance Vie’ policies. I call them this because I know full well that they are designed for and aimed at the expatriate market in France. One major advantage is that they are completely portable. It is easy to convert the policy to a standard UK investment bond. You could even have stayed invested in sterling, but if you had switched to Euro, you can switch back. If the current exchange rate deters you, there is nothing to stop you going back to the UK with your investments still in Euros, to be converted when the rate goes back down (as it surely will).

In part I blame social media for this new type of expat existence. Originally, when you moved abroad, you kept in touch by mail. Good old fashioned post. If something of note happened, either abroad or in the UK, you would write to your family and tell them about it. If it was very urgent, you’d phone, but that was expensive. Nowadays little Jimmy in Tonbridge Wells starts teething and the whole world knows about it in minutes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete dinosaur when it comes to these matters. I have a Facebook page! But I don’t really know how to use it though. I’ve never found my ‘Wall’, and I’ve never enjoyed being poked. As for Twitter, I’ve never understood the rationale behind it, never mind how to use it. I thought retweeting was military code for a strategic withdrawal.

I suppose it all has its uses, but it makes the world a more volatile place. Sometimes you can just have too much information. Sometimes it’s better to let someone else take over and do ‘stuff’ for you.

Maybe a financial adviser for example…

Misinformation, not just a problem for politicians?

By Rob Hesketh - Topics: Assurance Vie, France, Habitual Residence, Residency, Uncategorised
This article is published on: 14th May 2015

14.05.15

Oh my, what to talk about this week? Whatever you do, don’t invest in opinion polls. Amazingly, we already have a new government; non-committal about staying in Europe, but firm on staying out of the Euro, and we have an EU country, Greece, firmly committed to staying in Europe, but possibly about to be forced to leave the Euro due to profligate bankruptcy. Actually not only bankruptcy, but the next stage on from that; running out of friends, or in fact anyone, who will now lend them money. This is beginning to look like a one way street for the Euro, but beware. Nothing is ever as clear cut as it seems.

Misinformation. Clearly a problem for politicians, but a big problem for us too. What I want to talk about today is the worrying number of new clients that I’ve seen so far this year who have previously accepted financial advice that is clearly flawed. If you took advice on investments before you came to France, or maybe have sought advice from unregulated sources since you got here, you may well be the proud owner of an offshore bond. If this sounds like you, then please keep on reading. You have the wrong investment for successful tax efficiency in France, and it can have severe consequences.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing illegal about holding a Jersey or Isle of Man domiciled bond in France, as long as you declare it to the ‘fisc’, but you may well be in for a nasty surprise when you start to draw money as regular income or one-off cash injections. And whatever you do, don’t die. Not that it will bother you too much at this point, but it will only add to the consternation of your beneficiaries if your local tax office turns its nose up at your non-European, definitely non assurance vie bond.

If your bond is not a true assurance vie, it will not be set up to jump through the tax hoops that the French tax system presents. How do you tell if your bond will be able to jump through the hoops? Well, you’re off to a good start if you talk to a regulated and approved adviser registered in France, who offers you an assurance vie. This must be compliant. Anything else, and you should start to worry. There are a few ‘litmus’ tests you can use. The first is elementary geography. Is your bond issued in Europe? If not, forget it. You do not have an assurance vie, or anything like it. Secondly, ask your bond provider if he will be able to give you certified tax information to enable you to make your French tax return. Unless you can be completely satisfied that you will be told exactly how much of your withdrawal is taxable, in Euros (even if the bond is in sterling), you have a problem, and you have the wrong bond. You will pay more tax on the gain and you will lose out on various other benefits than if you had structured the exact same underlying investments inside an assurance vie. You have, in short, been badly advised. This is not necessarily through deceit or bad practice, but almost certainly through ignorance; both of the French financial system and of its products. Most likely the advice will have come from a UK IFA trying to keep a grip on a client moving abroad, or an international IFA operating outside of his usual area.

Help is available. Spectrum financial advisers are registered and regulated in the countries in which we work. Unlike back in the UK, we do not charge for our advice or time. Taking advice from registered advisers is a no-lose situation. You will get good advice; you won’t be hassled or coerced into doing anything at all that you’re not entirely comfortable with, and you won’t be charged.

A good way to meet advisers is to attend a financial seminar, such as those currently taking place under the ‘Le Tour de Finance’ banner.

You must, in short, satisfy yourself that your financial adviser is qualified to advise you about the conditions that exist in the financial regime in which you are going to live and pay taxes. There are various loopholes that allow non France-based IFAs to operate here from a number of European countries. Please make sure that you choose an IFA who lives and works in your local community.

You have two such advisers writing for the ‘Flyer’ at the present time. Why on earth would anyone in their right mind rely on an IFA in Chipping Sodbury or Crete to advise them on the most important financial decisions of their lives?

Sterling or euro?

By Rob Hesketh - Topics: Currencies, France, Pensions, Retirement, Uncategorised
This article is published on: 31st March 2015

31.03.15

My monthly articles appear principally in the Flyer and on the Spectrum website, although I have seen them crop up in all sorts on unlikely places on the internet. Thankfully, they create a steady stream of calls or emails from readers who have many and varied financial issues to address. Quite often these issues can be well beyond my capabilities as a financial adviser to address, but I will always try to help as much as I can. I do hope for example that my assertion that French motorway petrol stations open on Christmas day was correct; and I would love to know whether the gentleman planning to start selling ice cream from a van outside the Old Cité gates in Carcassonne succeeded in his venture. I also felt truly sorry that I was unable to lend one gentleman €30,000 to buy a plot of land to enable him to fish from the river Aude.

Last month I ended my article with the following paragraph: Clients who have Sterling assets do not need to convert them to Euro to make use of the products available to them outside the UK. Those clients who have transferred their assets in Sterling are most probably quite pleased that they did not convert, but what about now? What if we hit 1.40, or 1.45? For my money the only way is down from there, back to my preferred levels. If we do get to 1.40, I will certainly be looking long and hard at my Sterling funds, with my finger hovering over the deal button.

Well, it did indeed happen, and as I write this sterling is worth over 1.40 Euro. Did my finger hover over the ‘deal’ button? Yes it did. Did I press that button? No I didn’t. I need to make two things perfectly clear here. Firstly, what I’m about to type must not be regarded as advice. I’m just telling you what thought process I went through. Secondly, we’re not talking mega bucks (or pounds) here, certainly not for the meagre amount that is lurking in our one and only UK bank account anyway.

It’s quite difficult to express the reason for not changing that sterling into Euro, but I’ll give it a go, at the risk of sounding somewhat deranged. Every one of my pounds somehow feels to me to be worth more than €1.40. That is of course irrational. Anyone who thinks the true rate should be in the region of 1.25 should bite the hand off anyone who offers him 1.40 or better. Yet I didn’t want to do it; I just couldn’t bring myself to sell my shiny £1 coins in exchange for what looks like a bunch of supermarket trolley tokens. Immediate apologies to ‘le Tresorie’ at this point. I suspect that part of me is being a bit greedy looking for a Euro collapse, but would that necessarily persuade me? Potentially not. The weaker a currency becomes, the less inclined I might be to buy it. In essence, I think I’m more likely to buy Euros at 1.40 when the rate is on its way down than when it’s on the way up. I did tell you that I used to be a foreign exchange dealer; funny bunch they are.

The other hot topic at the moment is of course pensions. I know that there is a risk that you might be getting fed up of hearing this, but I am largely opposed to the ‘pension freedom’ that is just around the corner for the UK pension market. I am opposed to virtually all kinds of tax grabs, and I see this as just another example, albeit dressed up as a fabulous opportunity for the over 55’s Or maybe that opportunity is for anyone who can take advantage of the over 55’s, including conmen, salesmen, and taxmen.

For me, the writing is on the wall regarding UK based pensions. They are ‘in play’. Shedding all access restrictions is designed to provide a huge tax income boost for the UK coffers. If it doesn’t work, they will look for another way to get their hands on our savings. Even if it does work there will come a time when more cash is needed to bale out the UK economy. Pensions will then come under more fire, and more ways will be found to raid the coffers.

I will not be a part of either process. My pension funds are safely housed away from the UK jurisdiction. They will be used as pension funds should be used; to provide an income when I retire, whenever that might be. Hopefully that won’t be any time too soon as I’m enjoying myself too much to stop, but when the time comes I won’t be relying on a UK state pension alone. That would not be an attractive proposition.

QROPS is an extremely welcome result of the European freedom of movement of capital. We should all grasp the concept and use it to ring-fence our future incomes.

Living in France with assets in Sterling

By Rob Hesketh - Topics: Currencies, France, Investments, Residency, Uncategorised, wealth management
This article is published on: 19th March 2015

19.03.15

Last month I ended my article with the following paragraph:  Clients who have Sterling assets do not need to convert them to Euro to make use of the products available to them outside the UK.  Those clients who have transferred their assets in Sterling are most probably quite pleased that they did not convert, but what about now?  What if we hit 1.40, or 1.45?  For my money the only way is down from there, back to my preferred levels.  If we do get to 1.40, I will certainly be looking long and hard at my Sterling funds, with my finger hovering over the deal button.

Well, it did indeed happen, and as I write this sterling is worth over 1.40 Euro.  Did my finger hover over the ‘deal’ button?  Yes it did.  Did I press that button?  No I didn’t.  I need to make two things perfectly clear here.  Firstly, what I’m about to type must not be regarded as advice.  I’m just telling you what thought process I went through.  Secondly, we’re not talking mega bucks (or pounds) here, certainly not for the meagre amount that is lurking in our one and only UK bank account anyway.

It’s quite difficult to express the reason for not changing that sterling into Euro, but I’ll give it a go, at the risk of sounding somewhat deranged. Every one of my pounds somehow feels to me to be worth more than €1.40.  That is of course irrational.  Anyone who thinks the true rate should be in the region of 1.25 should bite the hand off anyone who offers him 1.40 or better.  Yet I didn’t want to do it; I just couldn’t bring myself to sell my shiny £1 coins in exchange for what looks like a bunch of supermarket trolley tokens.  Immediate apologies to ‘le Tresorie’ at this point.  I suspect that part of me is being a bit greedy looking for a Euro collapse, but would that necessarily persuade me?  Potentially not.  The weaker a currency becomes, the less inclined I might be to buy it.  In essence, I think I’m more likely to buy Euros at 1.40 when the rate is on its way down than when it’s on the way up.  I did tell you that I used to be a foreign exchange dealer; funny bunch they are.

The other hot topic at the moment is of course pensions.  I know that there is a risk that you might be getting fed up of hearing this, but I am largely opposed to the ‘pension freedom’ that is just around the corner for the UK pension market.  I am opposed to virtually all kinds of tax grabs, and I see this as just another example, albeit dressed up as a fabulous opportunity for the over 55’s  Or maybe that opportunity is for anyone who can take advantage of the over 55’s, including conmen; salesmen, and taxmen.

For me, the writing is on the wall regarding UK based pensions.  They are ‘in play’. Shedding all access restrictions is designed to provide a huge tax income boost for the UK coffers.  If it doesn’t work, they will look for another way to get their hands on our savings.  Even if it does work, there will come a time when more cash is needed to bale out the UK economy.  Pensions will then come under more fire, and more ways will be found to raid the coffers.

I will not be a part of either process.  My pension funds are safely housed away from the UK jurisdiction.  They will be used as pension funds should be used; to provide an income when I retire, whenever that might be.  Hopefully that won’t be any time too soon as I’m enjoying myself too much to stop, but when the time comes I won’t be relying on a UK state pension alone.  That would not be an attractive proposition.

QROPS is an extremely welcome result of the European freedom of movement of capital.  We should all grasp the concept and use it to ring-fence our future incomes.

The currency exchange rate

By Rob Hesketh - Topics: Currencies, europe-news, France, Inflation, Uncategorised
This article is published on: 17th February 2015

17.02.15

Time to revisit an old friend this week, the exchange rate. Long term sufferers of my monthly missives will possibly recall that in my dim and distant past I used to be an international banker, and for part of that time a foreign exchange dealer. It was so long ago that we used to have exotic currencies such as the French Franc; Italian Lire, and even the Deutschmark. Heady days indeed! By the time I escaped from the banking world in 2002 these currencies were dead or, perhaps more accurately, held in a cryogenic state, ready to be reheated if need be. The exchange rate between Sterling and the new super-currency, the Euro, was in the mid 1.60s in 2002, and had declined to the mid 1.50s when I finally got to France in 2003. By the time I bought property here in 2004, I averaged 1.45.

The trend was set, but few people were prepared for it. During the financial meltdown in 2007 and 2008 ‘la merde a vraiment frappé le ventilateur’, and the pound plummeted almost to parity with the Euro by the end of 2008. In 2009 I stupidly agreed to start a weekly column for an internet magazine, giving my predictions for the week to come. I struggled with this millstone for nearly three years. My basic message was that large F/X movements like this are always exaggerated. Parity was plainly nonsense, and the pound ought to recover to between 1.25 and 1.30. It takes some ingenuity to deliver this basic message 130 times, and in 2012, with the pound at 1.25, I called it a day. I still remember the sense of relief when I realised I wouldn’t have to sit down at 4pm on any more Fridays to write about why the previous week’s forecast had been so wrong.

It was a good time to stop, as the rate fell again during the second half of 2012 to 1.15 before slowly resuming its upward trend. Interested parties, and by that I mean all expats, probably didn’t take too much notice as we clawed our way back up through 1.20s and on to 1.25 once more. Then, at the start of November last year, a big market move started, and people began to sit up and take notice. Two months later, and as I write, we are at a shade under 1.35. So what is going on?

Politics and economics are of course the answers. They govern supply and demand, which is the final arbiter of the exchange rate. Germany, the powerhouse of Europe, now has a stagnating economy, and Greece, not the powerhouse of Europe, is stirring up political trouble. None of this bodes well for the Euro. So we can all sit back and relax. The pound is heading back to 1.60. Hundreds of thousands of Brits will be pouring into France waving their new cheap wads of Euro, buying up all the property in sight and sending up the values of our houses at the same time.

Does anyone really think that? I certainly don’t. There is no such thing as a safe bet in the currency markets. You must never forget Murphy’s law. Whenever you really want something to happen, Murphy’s law dictates that the opposite will occur.

I think that we are approaching the time when we need to think about selling Sterling. I don’t think we’re there yet, but we need to be careful. We live, after all, in the Euro zone, and thus most of the money we spend is Euros. We may have pensions or indeed other income in Sterling, but that won’t buy your morning croissant. Until you change it into Euro; it is largely useless while you live here. Of course there is nothing you can do about your UK State pension, if you are in receipt of that princely sum. You will just have to be savvy about when and how you convert it. You can however do a great deal with an occupational pension, and you can do a great deal with your savings and investments. There is no better time than now to take a long hard look at your UK pension pot. Savings and investments held in non-French tax efficient bonds are a nonsense. Come and talk to me about them now!

For years now The Spectrum IFA Group have been advising clients on pensions and investments and I have been keen to point out that clients who have Sterling assets do not need to convert them to Euro to make use of the products available to them outside the UK. Those clients who have transferred their assets in Sterling are most probably quite pleased that they did not convert, but what about now? What if we hit 1.40, or 1.45? For my money the only way is down from there, back to my preferred levels. If we do get to 1.40, I will certainly be looking long and hard at my Sterling funds, with my finger hovering over the deal button.

Looking forward to your pension

By Rob Hesketh - Topics: France, Pensions, Retirement, Uncategorised
This article is published on: 21st January 2015

21.01.15

Welcome to 2015. Let’s all hope for a prosperous and, maybe optimistically, safe year to come. This is my 60th year on the planet, and the cracks are starting to show. Many thanks indeed to the many well-wishers who sent me messages of goodwill following my hip replacement in December. They were much appreciated. I am up and about again now and, whilst I may leave it a few more weeks before I resume training for the triple-jump, it is good to be able to get around freely. Bear with me, I will get to the financial stuff soon.

With the physical recovery going well, my mental state did take a knock however on an early foray back into the big wide world. Congratulating myself on being able to get around with only one crutch, I decided to take myself off to my local Bricomarché to buy some light fittings. With only one checkout open, I resigned myself to a long wait at the back of the queue. I suddenly realised that the people in front of me were moving aside, and I was being beckoned to the front by the cashier. How utterly charming and, yet, completely crushing. When I protested, I was told that this was normal treatment for ‘handicapped’ people. I was appalled. Not that a DIY chain should treat its clients this way, but at the fact that they should regard me as a ‘client in need’. It was like peering into my dotage. How many years before I will have a long grey beard, waving a walking stick, being pushed in a wheelchair?

Looking back on that day recently, it struck me that there is probably a link with my recent focus on old age and pensions. I know I’ve said before that the older you get, the more interesting pensions become, but I really think that it is true. What is worrying me now is the growing list of younger people who are getting very interested in our pensions, for all the wrong reasons. The younger crowd I’m referring to are politicians who are gleefully rubbing their hands and salivating over our pension assets. There seems to be no political argument over the new pension reforms due in April that are to sweep away all forms of prudent financial planning for old age. They’ve all got their eyes glued on the same pot.

Please allow me to get slightly technical for a moment and explain GAD to you. The initials stand for Government Actuarial Department. Actuaries are very clever people, mathematicians basically, who walk around wired into computers. One of their jobs used to be to come up with a formula that worked out how much you could draw from your personal pension per year without reducing your pension pot too quickly. In short, they were there to make sure that your pension outlived you. 100% GAD meant the maximum you could safely draw from your pension.

Then the politicians started to get interested. Wouldn’t it be a good idea if we let the old fogeys have more of their pensions to spend? That way we can boost the economy for the rest of us and we can tax them as they do it. It won’t be a problem because they’ll probably still die before the pension runs out! Let’s try 120% GAD and see how we get on? Well, OK, it helped a bit but we still need more capital spending. Let’s see how we get on with 150% GAD? The next logical step is of course about to take place in April. Forget GAD! You can have the lot. Use your pension as a bank account. Treat yourself to something special. A yacht? Ferrari? The world is your lobster.

This is, in my view, tantamount to criminal recklessness. You and I may be completely confident in our ability to run our own finances, and I trust that that is in fact the case, but who is going to protect the vulnerable amongst the older generations? Who is going to protect pensioners from double glazing salesmen; roofing contractors; cowboy builders; money grabbing children looking for early access to their supposed inheritances?

And then there are the annuities. These are financial instruments that you used to have to buy with your pension funds. These gave you a guaranteed income for life. You are no longer obliged to buy an annuity with your pension fund.   I do agree with this. The fall in long term interest rates meant that annuity rates fell quite dramatically over the years, and the income you bought became less and less. I suppose then it should come as no surprise when we hear that pensioners are to be allowed to sell their annuities, and receive lump sums instead. More money to spend! More tax to pay! In twenty years’ time this could turn into a monumental national scandal, but by that time our current batch of politicians will be retired, enjoying their protected pensions.

My own personal pensions are now safely housed well away from further potential meddling. I will not be drawing out huge (I wish) sums to finance cars or cruises, and barring worldwide financial calamities there will be enough money to see me out. If I do last another 15 years, whatever is left will also go to my chosen beneficiaries without any tax deducted. Did I mention the 45% tax that will be payable in the UK?