It sucks that I already missed one “Best Reads” last week so here’s making sure that I don’t miss another.

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

Carousell, Sea, Grab Are All Unprofitable Startups – Why Do Investors Keep Funding Them? (Vulcan Post)

In simple words, it’s the credit cycle man.

But yea, if I had cash to splash and I was looking to invest, I wouldn’t touch these with a ten-foot pole. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t think like me and so, new, economically-insane ideas get funded when there’s too much easy cash going around.

Age-Invariant Asset Allocation (Aleph Blog)

Another gem. You don’t learn these sort of things from a textbook. Only from someone who’s been there and done that.

The Investor’s Fallacy (Of Dollars and Data)

I’m a sucker for data-driven posts. This is one to remind me that valuations may not always predict returns so easily.

First weekend of 2020. Gotta make it count!

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

Learning from Julian Richer (Investment Masters Class)

Dodgy website name and logo aside, it’s interesting how many business personalities there are that I’ve never heard of but yet have very interesting stories to share. I think I might pick up his latest book. Even more impressive is the fact that this man’s business is in one of the toughest industries (retail) and yet his stores ” hold the World Record for sales per square foot of any retailer in the world for over twenty five years “.

Why Is Everyone Busting Buffett’s Balls? (Global Macro Monitor)

Good read on how to interpret Berkshire’s decision to hoard cash. Having said that, markets could go higher.

Or maybe not. Since Trump decided to assassinate that Iranian military guy.

‘Nobody is winning’: businesses go cold on food delivery platforms (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Good read on the economics of the food delivery business. Turns out it helps restaurants make more revenue but less profit. It’s crazy how businesses can destroy value and yet be valued like unicorns.

Last one of the decade!

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

As cash-burning era ends and investors seek profits, startups are in for tougher ride (TODAYonline)

All just part of the credit cycle my friends. Be prepared to see an increase in start-ups fail because they can’t secure funding to continue dreaming. It’s just capitalism at work.

By the way, maybe the writing was on the wall when entrepreneurship started becoming a buzzword around my school. I kid you not. At the beginning of the year, my institution actually started promoting the idea of entrepreneurship to every student and not just those from the business school. I even had my director ask me how we were going to inculcate students with an “entrepreneurial mindset” from year 1.

Earning Income on the Side Is a Large and Growing Slice of American Life (The New York Times)

Ah, the global phenomenon that is the gig economy. If you need one reason why inequality is growing in the world, here it is. The gig economy is a winner-takes-all one so for most gig workers, there is a very real need for an increased social safety net.

Limits (The Aleph Blog)

One of the best things that happened in the financial blogosphere in 2019 was the return of David Merkel.

Here is a perfect example of the kind of gems that Merkel puts out:

One of the greatest limits that exists is that of defined benefit pension plans vainly trying to outperform the rate that their risky assets are expected to earn. They are way above the level expected for the next ten years, which is less than 3%. Watch the crisis unfold over the next 15 years.

For many Singaporeans out there, what does it all mean? Well, for starters, I’m sure many Singaporeans won’t be getting the kind of returns their financial advisers told them about when they put all that money into ILPs and endowment plans all those years ago.

Short one to ease into the holiday period.

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

Half of affluent S’poreans may not hit retirement goals: Study (The Straits Times)

The Affluent of Singapore: Rich but not Rich Enough (Investment Moats)

The original ST article on the Stanchart survey and Investment Moats’ take on it.

Why Is This Man Running for President? (Ep. 362 Update) (Freakonomics)

#Yanggang. An update to the Freakonomics radio episode on Andrew Yang.

Photo by john paul tyrone fernandez on Pexels.com

This is one of those end of year posts so I guess it’ll be retrospective and yet forward-looking at the same time. However, being the end of a decade, I thought it’ll be interesting to look at some of the changes that has happened in my life in order to give myself an idea of what to expect in the next decade.

Career

At the beginning of this decade, I was a couple years out of school and working for the civil service. The job paid decent but was the scope of work was way out of my interest zone. Needless to say, I was there for another 2 or so years before I left for a teaching job in the public service.

Teaching foundation level economics has been fun but of course, the lack of depth impedes an understanding of real-world issues. Also, in this current day and age, economics has been applied in areas outside of the traditional business setting but being in the business school, the economics we teach doesn’t stray far from your traditional Econ 101.

In short, teaching economics at the school where I am right now is kind of limited in depth and breadth. Plus, it seems to be a business school phenomenon that economics isn’t all that important. Instead, the flavour of the times seem to be anything tech-related.

Fortunately for me, my interests and skills lie not just in economics but also in finance and in the next decade, the plan is to move further and further away from economics and more into the finance space.

Which area of finance? It should be in corporate finance and business valuation.

Health

It’s funny that I’m down with flu as I write this but my health hasn’t really changed much over the last decade. If anything, it has gotten slightly better.

I put on a fair bit of weight after working and in December 2017, I reached peaks that I had never reached before. That was the trigger for me to be more aware of my diet.

The thing is, I love beer.

So I searched and searched, and eventually I learnt that there was something called intermittent fasting. Long story short, I followed some version of it where I skipped breakfast except for a cup of coffee with evaporated milk, no sugar. And then I ate lunch at around 11:30am or so, followed by dinner at around 7:00pm.

I not sure I even did it right because some people say that you can’t have anything that has even a little bit of sugar in it (which the milk has) but anyway I lost about ten kilos and my weight has been at a comfortable level since.

I’m also sure it’s because I had light lunches on some days of the week but otherwise, I didn’t restrict my diet to any food groups. It was all about making sure you don’t overdo things.

The not-so-good part is that I haven’t managed to exercise regularly. Every time I’ve started to hit the gym again, the momentum somehow gets disrupted and the next thing I know, a week or two goes by and all my gym gains have gone down the drain.

I really need to start making a gym routine part of my week because I can literally feel my body getting weaker once I go without exercise for just a week or so.

Currently I try to do my gym sessions during lunch but I realised that’s not exactly a great idea because my timetable changes every semester which would be a deal-breaker for establishing a routine.

We’ll see how things go from here.

Life

Well, life is the big one, isn’t it?

At the start of the decade, I had a girlfriend. Now, I have a wife and three cats. Scratch that. Make it seven. How we got to seven is a funny story but we’ll get to that later.

So my wife and I have been married for almost 8 years now but it’s more than 10 years since we’ve met and gotten together. We’re not the perfect couple but we’re perfect for each other.

We can get upset at each other but we’ve never shouted at each other. We mostly just give each other the cold shoulder for a while before we realise that it’s not worth it and then we apologise and make up.

Most of the time, we just enjoy the simple things in life and each other’s company. Things like reading good books, eating good food (in moderate quantities) and relaxing.

In that way, we’re kind of like cats.

So, two years ago my wife (it’s always my wife who has the better ideas) asked if we could adopt a cat. She’s always liked cats but never owned one.

Since we don’t have kids, I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a cat to come home to and from what I read, cats are definitely lower in maintenance compared to dogs (or kids). I had dogs growing up so I kind of an idea about what kind of care you need for dogs.

And that’s how we got our first cat, Teddy. He wasn’t the cat we were going to adopt but then the rescuer suggested that as first-time cat owners, we adopt him because he was friendly and easy-going.

That turned out to be totally true because Teddy is the most low-maintenance cat I’ve ever met because you pretty much just have to feed him and make sure he has a clean litter box, and he’ll be a happy camper.

Then some time this year, the same rescuer asked if we could take in a kitten that was part of a litter rescued from Pulau Bukom, an island off Singapore, which is part of the oil refining industry in Singapore.

So cat number two, Pepper, came into lives and she has been a little ball of terror because she came with a parasite issue which caused diarrhea, refuses to leave Teddy alone hen all he wants to do it chill, and is super noisy when it comes to feeding time. But we still love her anyway.

Then a few months after we got Pepper…

One day as we were walking home, we noticed a cat hiding away at the bicycle rack, at the block of flats next to ours. We’d never seen her before and there are community cats in the area so it’s unlikely that another stray would have ventured into this area since cats are pretty much territorial. Plus, she was too friendly to humans which made us suspect that she was abandoned.

And so cat number three, Mudpie, came into our lives.

What we didn’t realise was that cat number three, was pregnant with four kittens. By the time we found out, she was two weeks away from delivering and so we now have seven cats at home.

They turned out to be such fluff balls

I think the next decade will easily see a mean reversion in terms of cats.

Wealth

Ah yes, and finally, all about the money.

I’ve been tracking this number ever since I started investing but my records for the early years haven’t been well-kept. The good thing is that I now have at least a decade worth of records so I can see exactly how much my wealth has grown.

The short answer is: a lot.

At the start of the decade, my portfolio was under $50,000. Today, it’s roughly eight times that. By the way, I only count monies that I can easily convert to cash. This means that I don’t include my CPF accounts nor the property that we stay in.

You could include those but that would mean giving up your residency status in Singapore. If that’s an option for you, then by all means, include those numbers. Otherwise, if you’re a Singapore citizen or PR, you have to ignore those numbers as those don’t mean much until you reach the age where you can cash out.

I’ve digressed so back to the increase in my wealth. Is that record impressive? Not really.

Because it could have been a lot more if not for two things: one, I was and still am, under-invested, and two, I was invested in the wrong places.

Let me explain.

I’ve had a huge allocation to cash in the last two to three years. This is despite the fact that as an investor, I’ve two things going in my favour. One, I’m relatively young and two, I’m still gainfully employed and likely to be in the foreseeable future (iron rice bowl, see above).

Therefore, I should have bumped up my allocation to equities, REITs or anything with a higher expected return than cash as I’ll be able to ride out any bumps along the way.

The second reason is that I was invested in the wrong places. Honestly, I started out the decade thinking that if I could read the financial statements, I would be a lot better than most investors. That is true but only to the extent that one is familiar, or willing to be familiar, with how the economic landscape that any company is in was going to change.

For example, there’s a company that I (like many other Singaporeans) am invested in where the shift towards online media has absolutely damaged the company’s main income generator. And this damage to their old business model means that the damage is irreparable despite their best attempts to diversify into other areas such as malls, nursing homes, and student housing.

Even if they are successful, trading a much higher-margin business where they had a virtual monopoly for one that is much more competitive and capital-intensive means that the whole business is unlikely to provide the kind of returns to investors as it once did.

Therefore, the market correctly priced in lower multiples and slower future growth which explains the situation that the company finds itself in. In case you haven’t figured it out, the company I’m referring to is SPH.

There are a number of other such mistakes that I’ve made in the past decade and honestly, I find it too much work for the extra returns that a broadly-diversified portfolio might return. Needless to say, I’ve had my successes but those aren’t anything to brag about either.

The main reason for the increase in my portfolio is simply the insane savings rate that I have. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, more than half of that increase was due to savings. Another 20% or so due to returns from dividends and the rest from capital gains.

In short, while you are young, you can have shitty investing skills and still see a dramatic increase in your net worth if you save like hell.*

I still obsess about my net worth but ideally, I’d like to arrive at the day where I honestly don’t care about money any longer because what I have is more than enough for my wife and I to live how we want to.**

In the next decade and more, I have to stick to a better investing plan. I’m already fairly disciplined about savings because it’s pretty much on auto-pilot and I don’t spend very much compared to others.

The main focus now will be to stick to an investment plan that allocates a higher return to equities and be disciplined about the re-balancing process while keeping costs low. This will be the way to go as I have many decades of investing ahead of me.

Goodbye 2019 and 2010s

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked much about what’s going on in the world and frankly, none of it has mattered much to me.

We have politics becoming a joke in the U.S., strongmen steadily gaining power in Russia and China and in Singapore, we have our own Orwellian-esque POFMA.

The climate has also gone bonkers with records temperatures being reached and yet, people rode the wave to sell metal straws while the fear-mongering grows over solutions that smart people like Bill Gates are suggesting.

In the business world, startups that blow through cash (think Uber, Grab, the disaster now known as WeWork, or almost any other unicorn for that matter) gets seemingly unlimited amounts of funding for business models that pretend to be a tech spin to an older business model.

Even in my world, the mantra seems to be “tech” and “entrepreneurship” but the powers that be fail to realise that as a business school, it’s unlikely for us to teach “tech” well. And frankly, “entrepreneurship” isn’t something to be taught so I’m not sure how we’re going to justify charging the school fees for that one.

“Hey, splash some cash for us to teach your kids the rules that they have to break.”

That’s probably the most honest marketing you’ll get from a business school trying to teach entrepreneurship.

Despite what’s happened, the 2010s have been kind to me. I’m extremely blessed to be living in a place free from strife, have loved ones that care about me, and seven cats.***

Notes:
* Of course this has diminishing returns as your net worth grows. It’s unlikely that your salary will grow in line with your portfolio and therefore the same savings rate will gradually add less and less to your net worth as the years go by.

**Skeptics will say that the day will never come but based on my current lifestyle, I’m pretty sure I’ll get there sooner rather than later.

***Of course, we’re not going to keep all seven.

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

Cheap Japan: From Disney to Big Macs, prices are frozen in time (Nikkei Asian Review)

Japan provides a glimpse into Singapore’s future if we don’t have population growth. Sounds like a wonderland to live in but remember that if prices are stagnant, wages would be too.

I guess Singaporeans will be happy since trips to Japan will become cheaper.

Does This Make Any Sense? (A Wealth of Common Sense)

Ben Carlson looks at the breakdown in proportion of World GDP, population and Stock Markets by Market Cap.

Once again, just another good reminder that the stock markets are the GDP aren’t quite so correlated like what most people think.

Raising the Best Kids You Can (A Wealth of Common Sense)

I didn’t really want to link to this since it’s not quite investment-related but I think it’s a good piece that touches on the debate between nurture and nature.

Also, some years ago, my school decided that it would be great for students to bring their laptops into the classroom for learning.

Guess how that’s turned out?

The 8th Deadly Sin is Destroying Your Retirement Plans (The Wealthy Accountant)

I didn’t even know there was an 8th. Good read nonetheless.

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

The Big Thing Investors Have Trouble Accepting (The Reformed Broker)

Rather, it’s a link to video interview with Morgan Housel. Awesome stuff.

Singapore property market faces risks from unsold units, uncertain economy: MAS (ChannelNewsAsia)

MAS is sounding the alarm. Sign of a bottom or sign of a top?

Cautionary Tales Ep 5 – Buried by the Wall Street crash (The Undercover Economist)

I really enjoyed listening to this. A series of stories on how to avoid errors in thinking. You gotta live with the loads of ads though.

So what’s new?

Well, what’s new is that this study by robo-advisor Syfe (with press coverage from both The Straits Times and TODAY) brings up two points that other surveys haven’t really brought up.

One, that younger folks aged 25-34 are headed for a comfortable retirement provided they continue their level of savings and low debt rates. And two, that those who owned a home were less prepared for retirement than those who rent.

You can read the full report here but I would also take the report with a pinch of salt. After all, Syfe is in the business of getting more people to invest with them so it’s fully in their interest to ask you to save and invest more.

Another point is that I took the survey on their site (link here) and if this is what the report is based on, then I don’t think the numbers are very accurate because some parts of the survey are badly designed.’

For example, the survey asks if you contribute to CPF but later in the survey, also asks if how much you save without specifying if the amount of savings includes your savings in your CPF account.

Also, the part on home-ownership doesn’t account for how much mortgage you have left or how much is the mortgage being serviced.

All things considered, I think the survey might be a little flawed so don’t take it too seriously.

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

Rituals and Routines (A Wealth of Common Sense)

It seems strange to be reading about habits and routines from a page that focuses on investing but I firmly believe that having a routine is awesome. Mine involves kopi c kosong and a seat in the same area of the school canteen almost every late afternoon.

Angry, little people fight back (Thoughts of a Cynical Investor)

Rare event on our local shores.

All-Time Highs Are Both Scary & Normal (A Wealth of Common Sense)

Linking this here as a reminder to self: Don’t fear the all-time highs. After all, price is just a nominal number.

It’s been a tough week at work. Tough not because I had a lot of things to do but tough because idle minds lead to idle thoughts and my idle thoughts led me to question whether my current job is what I’d be doing if I had options.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy my job and I’m relatively good at it. The pay’s also decent and given my current lifestyle, if I keep at this job for the rest of my working life, my wife and I would easily be financially better off than 90% of all Singaporeans.

But it’s boring

The problem with my job is that it’s usually the “same shit, different day” kind of thing you hear with most dead-end jobs. Many of us didn’t join for career progression but our bosses are kind of forced to ensure that we do something new all each year.

At the same time, people stuck in jobs like ours then to find interests beyond work.

Mine has come in the form of wanting to leave a legacy behind to help cats that get abandoned. Right now, cats that get rescued off the streets are usually placed in foster care which come at great cost to rescuers.

Rescuers have to bear large financial costs of bringing cats to the vet to ensure that they have no major health issues while they also tap on their own network of fosterers. If there are no fosterers, rescuers then have to pay for boarding facilities.

I think there should be a better model.

I digress

The main point is that I’ve been feeling that my current job pays me great for the amount of work I have to do (although I’ve been made to do more stupid things lately.) but I’m pretty sure it’s not something I’m going to end up doing for the rest of my life.

It’s still too early to make an exit but the thought of doing more exciting things is a constant distraction from focusing to do the mundane things.

The gears are in motion…