ALEX BRUMMER: What you can learn from MY investing mistakes… and even as a financial writer for more than 50 years, I've made a fair few!

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The party ended on a high note with members of my family gathered around our guest performer singing a rousing version of John Denver’s classic Take Me Home, Country Roads. 

Since my elder son Justin and his wife Ruvani moved to Austin six years ago country and western music, in abundance at festivals in the Texas hill country, has become an important part of all our lives.

Every birthday is significant but celebrating my 75th at an Italian wine bar near our home in Richmond, south-west London, felt particularly poignant. Much of last year was spent in cancer treatment and I’m now clear. I made a huge effort to make sure illness didn’t get in the way of my daily City Comment. But the six months of chemotherapy did make me refocus on my finances.

The assumption among readers is that as a financial writer for more than 50 years, everything would be in good order.

Alex Brummer, left, in 2007 with one of the leading financial figures of the past half century, US Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan 

Winning the financial journal of the year award. Alex Brummer writes: I have recaptured my youth with an expensive sports car, can mostly afford business class travel and luxury rentals for summer family holidays

 But the busier you are, the less time you have to focus on your own financial wellbeing. Moreover, as City Editor – commenting daily on companies, markets and the economy – I have lived by an iron rule. If you buy shares or collective investments such as unit trusts, they are for holding – not selling.

When my illness was diagnosed, my immediate reaction was to make sure investments were properly managed. Expert advice was taken from a financial adviser of my acquaintance at London firm, Charter Tax. It was not cheap but the help requested was speedy, sensible and worthwhile.

The prescription was to tidy up my affairs. The first task was to rewrite my will and that of my wife Tricia to take account of changed family circumstances, namely grandchildren.

Secondly, to make maximum use of transferable inheritance tax allowances by setting up a discretionary trust (itself an administrative nightmare).

Thirdly, as someone in full-time employment, with an after tax salary which exceeded outgoings, to use some of the surpluses from current income to help fund the educational needs of family members. A special form was procured from HMRC where such transfers can be duly recorded.

My final personal action was to draw up what I call a ‘death list’. Having lived through the probate of family members, parents and a younger brother, I know what a nightmare it is to track down investments, especially in an age of online banking and broking.

The idea was to provide my legatees with the scattered account details. This is a task which I have still failed to complete. But it is on a ‘to do’ list.

My circumstances are more complicated than most. Many people dream of retirement and as the state pension age has moved up (it will shift from 66 to 67 in 2026) it must seem for many like a mirage which vanishes as you get closer. Ten years after the typical retirement age I’m still a full-time staff writer with an executive salary.

I’m also an old-age pensioner entitled to a state pension, collected over a lifetime of work and have all the added benefits of the elderly, including a winter fuel allowance (meticulously given to charity), a London travel pass and, if lucky, concessional entrance at museums and matinee performances. Those are privileges rarely used as most of the time I am at my desk.

My state pension, on which I pay top rate income tax, is better than most because I decided to wait until 70 years old to start collecting. The accrual rate, the improved payment for delay, is remarkably generous.

The latest notice from HMRC, courtesy of the ‘triple lock’ – which provides the best of average earnings, consumer prices or 2.5 per cent – saw the weekly payment rise to £285.66. Never mind that almost half cruelly vanishes in a harsh form of double taxation. Unfunded state pensions are paid out of HMRC tax and National Insurance receipts.

The Tory election promise to add an extra layer to the triple lock, by raising the tax-free allowance so that silver surfers are not caught in an income trap, doesn’t affect me as a retiree. I fortunately do not depend at all on what is still one of the meanest state pensions among the Western democracies.

My third stream of income is a company pension. My advanced years mean that my Harmsworth Pension Scheme is part of a legacy defined benefit plan. I decided to postpone taking my company pension when reaching 65 years old and continued to take advantage of the company’s generous contribution until reaching my late 60s. 

But at this point I recognised that the actuarial odds were moving against and decided to cash out. I extracted the tax-free lump sum of several hundred thousand pounds and kept some in a rainy day special treats fund. This still left me with a generous monthly stipend of which just under half vanishes in income tax.

The lump sum I transferred to a Fund & Share account at platform broker Hargreaves Lansdown. Much to my chagrin I was among the 300,000 victims who followed HL’s then Wealth List. HL was a devoted admirer of the share picking skills of guru Neil Woodford’s now closed Woodford Equity Income Fund which collapsed in June 2019. The opportunity cost of the £30,000 invested, the money which could have accrued had I put the money into a simple tracker fund, would be in the tens of thousands.

If this was not foolish enough, I also subscribed £10,000 to Woodford’s Patient Capital investment trust now run by blue- blooded Schroders.

My last statement shows an 84 per cent loss. Woodford is still rich enough to indulge his show-jumping and other obsessions and has never apologised for robbing his clients of hard-earned savings.

As someone still working, my company pension, like my other income, is subject to income tax.

Because there are no allowances, the headline tax rate amounts to around 55 per cent. My habit is to use the net sum to fund monthly Isa contributions to the yearly maximum of £20,000 each: all invested in equities and funds.

My financial position as a 75-year-old is fantastically favourable with three separate streams of income. As someone who spent my earlier career burning the midnight oil as a freelancer to pay independent school fees for three children and a whopping great mortgage, I’ve never had it so good. I have recaptured my youth with an expensive sports car, can mostly afford business class travel and luxury rentals for summer family holidays.

These are accoutrements that I recognise will not be available to most readers. Being cash flow rich, keeping the taxman happy, is a lifestyle choice. The ability to express my views on great issues of state during my advanced years is an enormous privilege.

My hope is that experience and a knowledge of financial and economic history means that the paper offers readers value for money and a sound critique of the laissez faire capitalism in which I am a profound believer.