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The Long and The Short of It by John Kay

The Long and the Short of It

Pink but Perfect!

Many of us watch in amazement as our pension pots stagger from one financial crisis to the next barely keeping pace with inflation. We entrust our life savings to professional fund managers to little effect. Could we do better ourselves? John Kay thinks we can and this book is a great introduction to this.

John is a well regarded economics professor (ex-LBS where I attended his excellent lectures) and his position is based on sound economic principles. His starting point is that although there are a few very good investors (e.g. Warren Buffet and George Soros), most of us (including eminent economics and finance professors) are pretty rubbish. The randomness of the market may make us feel we are skilled in the short term but over the longer term we get fairly average returns.

Given our general lack of skill, Professor Kay shows us how to use economic principles to stack the odds in our favour. Some of these economic principles are as mathematically complex as rocket science and this book thankfully avoids this.

The main practical financial lessons from this book are straightforward and offer quick wins:

  1. Optimize your personal borrowing efficiency by bundling all loans if you have them into a low cost offset mortgage.
  2. Shop around for the best deals using monoliners and avoid financial services conglomerates. For example can save you a fortune if you have never seriously done this before  (I’ve just saved 60% on the cost of home and car insurance, and got better cover in 2.5 hours work which for years I had mistakenly assumed I was way too busy to do)
  3. Optimize your personal tax efficiency using the various tax breaks and allowances available (e.g. partner’s tax allowances, ISAs, CGT, pension contributions, etc.)
  4. Use a low cost execution-only online stockbroker to make your investments which should be in diverse low management cost index tracking assets such as ETFs (few fund managers can outperform them)
  5. Benchmark your asset allocation according to the sort of pattern followed by a typical local authority pension scheme as a starter for ten. Hmm, not sure about this one…
  6. Drip feed your investments regularly into the market rather than in lumps to avoid buying at a temporary market peak and benefit from ‘pound / dollar cost averaging’

John argues that if we follow this approach, economics and the law of averages will work in our favour over the long term and we will be able to retire at a reasonable age.

The great benefit of this approach is that it’s simple, uses little of one’s time and thus allows one to get on with more interesting things in life than finance. Although there is a lot more interesting stuff in the book, it seemed much less useful for the average private investor.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes. It’s well written and I would thoroughly recommend it.

Did I find it illuminating? Certainly but mainly to confirm ideas I had already worked out for myself in recent years.

Was I satisfied with it? Not entirely. Why? Well, for three reasons.

Firstly I would have liked clearer references to some of the underlying theory. For example, how does ‘dollar cost averaging’ work? It would be handy to have more of the theory referenced on-line (I’m being lazy).

Secondly I felt John was teasing us with the efficient market hypothesis (EMH). OK, so the  EMH is illuminating but not true. So what? What are the conditions for it to be true? Under what conditions does it break down? How does my 22 year old nephew use its flaws to earn as much as I do after 9 months working for Optiva? Sounds like it’s time to shovel some expensive grub into him in exchange for a few answers…

Thirdly, as an engineer, I just can’t believe that these systems are totally random. Yes there may be a large short-term random component but if you look back at the different asset classes, their price movements over the long term are clearly driven by economic fundamentals such as cash flow, supply, demand, competition and economic growth.

In conclusion, this book achieves what it sets out to do but invites us to go further. Overall a great achievement and a good read.


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