There’s a mystery in my current organisation that I’ve been trying to solve.

Currently, my organisation offers employees who reach the official retirement age of 62 years a one-year contract for the next three years. There is even an option to have that extended to 67. Of course, the employee has to meet certain performance requirements before these options are offered.

Some additional context

My organisation doesn’t offer a pension upon retirement. Singapore has a compulsory savings scheme called the Central Provident Fund (CPF) where workers have a certain portion of their monthly salary socked away until they hit a certain age.

Also, the colleagues in question are not low or even average-pay workers. They would easily be considered middle to upper-middle class folk for the last 20 or 30 years of their careers.

The mystery and my theories

The mystery for me is not what my organisation offers but why would my colleagues want to take that offer up in the first place. I have a few theories but none seem to be wholly satisfactory.

Theory #1: They need the money

One possible reason could be that some colleagues who work until 62 and beyond do so because they need to. In other words, if they retired at 62, they would have problems funding their retirement.

I’m not very satisfied with this theory because I’m pretty sure most of my colleagues have enough put away for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, most of their liabilities such as housing loan(s) and children’s education (yes, in this part of the world, parents usually pay for their education if they can afford to do so) would have already been settled.

Also, if you can’t afford to retire at 62 years old, then is another three to five years going to matter? It might also have been that many moons ago, these colleagues planned their retirement up till 65 or 67 and therefore, they are near the end but not quite. In that case, isn’t that level of planning a little suspect? What person plans to the exact year without having a buffer of some sort?

Theory #2: Retirement is boring

I can understand this sentiment. If you look around, there are many people who say that once their professional lives are over, their minds degenerate quickly because there is nothing to keep them engaged. This is a particular statement many elderly businesspeople make.

The flip side for my older colleagues is that interests can be cultivated or expanded. In fact, most of us have other interests outside of our professional lives. Wouldn’t retirement free up a lot of time to pursue those other interests in a bigger way?

Many older colleagues also tend to be grandparents and I’m sure their children would appreciate their help in taking care of the grandkids. Or maybe it’s finally time for my older colleagues to go out and see the world.

Theory #3: They love the job

Truth be told, there are some colleagues who fall into this category. They love the interaction with their students so much so that they don’t want to step away from it. However, the job isn’t all fun and games. There are many mundane administrative aspects to the job as well as the boring and utilitarian committee work that we’re all forced to be a part of. If they really love the job, they could always become a freelancer. This would allow them to focus on the teaching without having to be a huge part of all the administrative machinery.

If they love the administrative machinations, then that’s a whole other story but which begs the question- why not be part of an administration somewhere else instead? Other administrations would probably pay better.

Also, teaching doesn’t have to be confined to the classroom or the school. Sharing knowledge and guiding others happens digitally and in other venues such as religious organisations as well.

Conclusion

Those are my theories and none of them seems particularly satisfactory. From the viewpoint of a 30-something year old who’s been here for about five years, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to stay until 62. The only sane thing is that they really can’t bear to leave this place because of the joy of work. Therefore, my money is on theory #2 or #3 although there are some holes in that argument.

Having said that, if I could, I would go when I’m ready. After all, age really is just a number. If I was financially free, I would be doing what interests me or what is meaningful regardless of the amount of money it brings me.

“Despair is the price one pays for self-awareness. Look deeply into life, and you’ll always find despair.”
Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept

So I woke up this morning (14 June 2017) to find the beginnings of a soap drama playing out on my Facebook feed. The entire blogosphere basically got into a frenzy about this news and the mainstream media was caught off-guard with the post released in the wee hours of the morning. This is just the beginning of the entire affair.

 

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The post that started the drama.

 

In case you missed it

 

So it appears that Lee Wei Ling (LWL) and her younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang (LHY) are not happy with PM Lee Hsien Loong (LHL) and his wife, Ho Ching’s behaviour with regards to the late Lee Kuan Yew’s residence.

The statement started off with some very serious allegations of misuse of power and harbouring political ambitions for PM Lee’s elder son. However, that part was very short on details and most of the statement centered around PM Lee and his siblings’ differences with regards to the treatment of their late father’s house at Oxley Road.

What does it all mean?

After reading the full 6-page statement and PM Lee’s response, here are my thoughts:

  • It seemed petty to be arguing over a house but I guess the larger picture here is not so much the house but LWL and LHY’s attempt to paint LHL as a power-hungry person to the extent that he is willing to go against his father’s last wishes. And in doing so, would be detrimental to the future of Singapore.
  • LWL and LHY are obviously not very good terms with LHL any longer. Going public with what is essentially a family matter is damaging to well-known personalities as all three of them are. Arguably, this is most damaging to LHL as compared to LWL or LHY.
  • The allegations of big brother being omnipresent are most probably exaggerated but if true, is a worrying sign of a paranoid personality who needs to be in control at all costs.
  • LWL seems to be the one with the least to gain or lose from this. LHL has quite a bit to lose- he can’t sue his siblings (can he?), those anti-PAP or even fence-sitters may see the allegations as somewhat truthful since it is ‘insider info’, the general public may question his ability to lead if he can’t even get his own brother and sister to back him, and most crucial, his son’s entry into politics, if at all, is now going to be tougher to push through. However, the upside is that he probably plans to step down sooner rather than later anyway.
  • LHY is the question mark here. Given that his son, Li Shengwu has also spoken out on the matter, could it have been a case of LHL not helping his nephew enter politics or is this setting the stage for Shengwu’s entry later on?
  • LWL and LHY’s naming of Lawrence Wong as a figure in all this, if true, just confirms most people’s suspicions that LHL’s cabinet has some yes-men in there. The question is who else and how many? Not the best vote of confidence for the whoever takes over from LHL.
  • In my opinion, LHL’s official response wasn’t the best. It sounded sad and defeated and although he tried to say that his siblings’ hitting the nuclear option tarnished his dad’s legacy, I’m not sure many people would connect the dots. After all, his siblings were accusing him of departing from the path his dad took and he didn’t really do much to refute what they said.
  • LWL and LHY were pretty nice actually that they didn’t bring in any personal anecdotes on Ho Ching overstepping her boundaries. Why? To help their big brother save some face? Or to not give LHL any ammo to sue them for? I guess we’ll never know.

I can sympathise with LHL because I have witnessed some drama in my own extended family. Of course, my own family is nothing like the Lees but the similarities in terms of the clash of egos and views are there. No one would ever wish that the full story gets out and to be honest, no one’s going to be interested anyway.

All in, LWL and LHY really hit the nuclear option with this one. LHY is never going to come back to Singapore after this and dropping this bombshell of a statement while LHL was away on holiday shows how much of a calculated move this was. Bringing LHL’s son into the picture also blocks his son’s entry into politics, if it was on the cards, for the short term. With the upcoming presidential election and next General Election, this release was designed to inflict maximum damage. As for LWL and LHY, I guess they don’t really have much to lose in the first place which explains why they did it in the first place.

The plot twist now would be that this was all done so that whoever manages to bring the family back together will be the next PM.

 

Bill Ackman’s short on Herbalife isn’t new but here comes this super long-form article on the entire saga courtesy of Vanity Fair. (h/t The Big Picture)

After reading it, I got a few thoughts:

  • Ackman’s investors ought to be worried. Very worried. He’s the kind of guy that bets big on ideas and unless you’re savvy enough to measure whether he’s good or just lucky, you may end up either very rich or very poor.
  • The hedge fund world is like any other industry- you have friends and you have enemies. You probably want more friends than enemies because, at some point, you’re going to need help.
  • Managing a fund is a different ball-game from being a retail investor. Ok, I confess that this article didn’t make me think this way but this saga is a good example of how one must contend with other sharks in the market, investor withdrawals, public relations and your reputation if you want to be managing a fund professionally. As a retail investor,  you just find your method and apply it.

Leave any thoughts you have in the comments below.

Bonus Read: The link to The Big Picture has a link to an interview with Ben Bernake (on Vox) that looks interesting too.

Well, we’ve already hit June so it’s a little bit late to be talking about this but there’s a common adage in the market that tells people to sell their positions in May and ‘go away’ or stay out of the markets until October or November.

The question is, should you believe it?

There seems to be a compelling case as demonstrated by some academics from the University of Miami as highlighted in this CNBC article.

Fuerst, along with fellow University of Miami professors Sandro Andrade and Vidhi Chhaochharia, reported in a 2012 paper that stock returns were 10 percent higher in the November-to-April half of the year than in the May-to-October period.

 Importantly, this result isn’t solely based on historical American stock returns. In that case, the academics could be making the all-too-common mistake of “proving” an adage by using the same evidence that was used to bring about that line of thinking.
Rather, they examined returns across 37 markets within a 14-year time period that was not tested in a prior paper that also found support for the sell in May effect.
The problem with the paper is that it doesn’t consider any other alternative. After all, the alternative to “sell in may and go away” isn’t just to hold equities from October/November to May. Another more common alternative is to just hold your positions through it all.

Buy and Hold vs Sell in May

Another study found that while “sell in May” may beat “holding from May to Nov”, what’s beats “Sell in May” by a mile is Buy and Hold.

 

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Just don’t go away.

Obviously, with all studies, there are assumptions made and whether actual investors could get the exact returns calculated is another question but I think with this, there’s no doubt that certain myths can be quite costly.

I can’t seem to find it but I distinctly remember a thread on Valuebuddies.com (or one of its earlier incarnations) talking about this exact same thing and it was another forummer who pointed out the problem with studies like the earlier one mentioned. What I also thought I remember is someone posting the calculations of Buy-and-Hold vs. Sell-in-May for the Singapore markets and the results were similar to the one above.

Some anecdotal evidence

I have a colleague who happened, for a personal reason, to sell his entire equities position almost two years ago in May and that saved him from experiencing quite a bit of the downswing in 2015. The problem is that he never really got back in the market and that meant that he’s missed the entire run-up in the market since then plus the dividends distributed.

As for myself, although my portfolio took quite a beating in 2015 all the way up to 3rd quarter 2016, sticking to an investment strategy, the opportunity to deploy more funds into equities as well as collecting dividends along the way meant that my portfolio is actually larger than ever.

Valuations Matter

However, I’m not saying that you should always be fully invested in the market. What’s important is to be able to identify when valuations are getting expensive. During such periods of time, you want to either allocate more of your portfolio towards cash or fixed income.

After all, it’s just mathematics that a 50% fall in your portfolio means that you’ll need a 100% increase in the market in order to break even. Even Warren Buffett closed his partnership in the late 60s when he couldn’t find any more compelling investments. He was also ridiculed in the late 90s/early 2000 for not understanding the dot-com boom. All that were just some signs that the markets were getting too rich.

In short, don’t believe strict rules which make no sense such as “Sell in May and go away”. What you want to do is get a good understanding of how to tell if markets are overvalued or not.

 

Every first Sunday of June, I get reminded of the fact that it’s CFA exam day.

Not too long ago, I would have been just like all the would-be candidates, fretting about what’s going to come out on the exam as well as cramming as many of the arcane formulas into my head as I possibly could.

In fact, as I write this, candidates are probably going to stream out of the exam hall at the Singapore Expo Halls 7-9, trying to grab lunch from one of the few possible options. The last two times I took the exam, the queues were so horrendous that I bought chocolate bars and a can of coffee from the 7-11.

That’s how winning is done

If there’s one thing I can offer to anyone thinking about getting the CFA Charter, it’s probably to tell you to hang in there.

Every end of semester, I show my students a clip from Rocky where he says this.

 

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Ok, it’s suppose to be “keep moving foward”. Go watch the full thing for a dose of inspiration.

 

Unless you’re a hardworking, determined genius (and I personally know one) that can get all the material easily and pass all three exams on your first try, that’s exactly the mentality you need to get through all three exams. I remember taking the first exam with a lot of friends and familiar faces but by the time I got to Level 3, I was alone.

I can’t count the number of times I asked myself things like “Am I really cut out for this?” or “Is it a sign to give up?” when I got back the result that I didn’t pass. However, when you eventually do, the feeling is incredible.

As I told a friend who asked me why I kept trying, this charter was my Everest. It was my personal challenge and for many years, it remained so.

So what’s next after getting the CFA charter?

Personally, not much has changed.

I’m not the best person to answer this because I’ve never even worked in finance. I guess a certain level of recognition comes with it which is nice but more importantly, on an intellectual level, the subscription to the Financial Analyst Journal has been awesome and the events organised by CFA Institute Singapore have been great (if only I had the time to attend more of them).

If you want to work in finance, your best bet is to start there and get your CFA charter after. No one’s going to hire you if you have a CFA charter but lacking in relevant work experience – you would be overqualified for entry level positions even if you were willing to take a pay cut and you would be underqualified for mid-level positions.

I guess what’s more important is the content I learned from studying for the exams. If not for the exams, I doubt I would have heard about MM’s Dividend Irrelevance Theory, learned how to calculate the value and payoff of swaps and other derivatives (which is nice to know but a nightmare to work out in an exam) as well as other pretty interesting stuff.

To all candidates, do your best!

No, I’m not that gifted an investment writer to give you such a resource.

Instead, pop over to this gem by Investment Moats to learn more about Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs).

Yes. That’s the exact clickbait-y (which obviously works) title of an article I saw on a site sanctioned by our Central Providend Fund (CPF)* and their answer is:

As an ideal, the correct amount to have saved up – at any age – is six months of your income. Any amount beyond this should be redirected into a retirement fund. This is because savings are just to deal with emergencies, whereas investments are for the long-term.

So if you have an income of S$5,000 a month, your savings are good if they are at least S$30,000. Note that your CPF doesn’t count, as it’s not savings you can immediately access.

That’s actually pretty sound advice.

At first pass, I nearly thought they were recommending you have savings of $30,000, period. I was thinking that it’s a pretty low number but after reading it properly, I realise that the article meant that if you earn $5,000, you should have about $30,000 in cash or equivalents.

What I think is more important is that people take heed of the second part of the first paragraph which tells people to invest any amounts above this buffer of 6 months’ income. Where and how you invest should be determined by the amount of financial knowledge and fortitude you have. If in doubt, consult a financial advisor you can trust. (Buffett’s pearl of wisdom about never asking a barber if you need a haircut comes to mind.)

The later part of the article is quite sad though.

Everyone’s financial situation is different. You may have responsibilities that others don’t. For example, some people have parents or siblings with medical conditions, who need more expensive healthcare. Some people have an income lower than the median, which makes it hard to save. There’s also one element that many people in their 30s have in common.

Your 30s are typically the age in which you’re saddled with your first major financial costs. It is probably the first time you buy a flat or car, and you might be settling down with your first child. It’s quite possible that you did save diligently from your 20s, but your wedding has wiped out those funds.

Seriously, if you find yourself agreeing with that part of the article, you have a serious spending problem. If you have an income so low that it makes it impossible to save any meaningful amount, then you really need to be prepared to work really, really hard.

I was looking through my records and it shows that my 30s (so far) have been the greatest period of my wealth accumulation and to be honest, without a proper savings game plan, it wouldn’t have turned out so well.

Don’t be surprised but there are plenty of 30+ year-olds out there holding very ordinary jobs who easily have six-figure bank accounts or stock portfolios. These are the people that you just never read about.

*The CPF is the name of the organisation that handles the compulsory pension savings account every Singaporean resident has.

The Sunday edition of the Straits Times has the Invest section which was the only real reason that I read anything in the Straits Times. I use the word ‘was’ because I haven’t gone through the paper in a very long time. The main reason is that I had access to copies of the Straits Times get a little more restricted and to be honest, the content in the Invest section seems to have gotten a little less useful.

Take the latest exhibit, The real cost of avocado toast. The article is obviously riding on the trend of bashing the guy who advised millennials to cut back on avocado toast in order to save for a downpayment on a house. The article does rightly point out that cutting back on certain habits every day and letting that extra savings compound will help you get quite a bit richer.

The problem with such advice is not that it’s wrong but that it doesn’t really provide you with a solution for getting it to work. It’s like telling an overweight person to eat less otherwise the chances of dying early gets higher. It’s good advice but the more important thing is how is the person supposed to use the advice to get results?

Since the article rightly points out that people need to cut back on certain habits, we must also acknowledge the fact that habits are hard to break. It takes a lot of willpower or an insanely good strategy to avoid going back onto the wrong path.

This is where I’ve found that it’s much easier to focus on how much you want to save each month and set up a standing instruction with your bank that automatically transfers that sum to an account that is relatively less liquid. i.e. You don’t normally use that account for daily spending.

Any monies that are left in the account after the automatic transfer to the ‘savings’ account is then left for spending. It’s that simple. People often think that this is not doable but I am willing to bet that it’s possible for the average person. After all, in Singapore, 23% of your monthly income gets put in your Central Providend Fund (CPF)* account and we’ve pretty much learned to live with that ‘savings rate’ of 23%.

So, try it. Start with transferring 10% of your monthly income to an account that you won’t touch unless you absolutely have to and have as much avocado toast you want with what’s left.

 

 

“The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”

I don’t know who to attribute the above quote to because the first time I read it, it was something that Warren Buffett said but online sources say that it’s probably something that Samuel Johnson said.

Anyway, what’s more important is how true that saying is. We are all creatures of habit and particularly when our willpower is low in times of stress, we revert to the very things that we do without much thought. The danger is when some people fail to realise that their habits have taken them down a dangerous path that increases their chances of permanent ruin.

This morning, I watched an episode of a programme called “My 600-lbs Life”. The show follows the lives of extremely obese people in their bid to lose weight and regain their lives. This particular episode featured a man named James K. from Kentucky who is probably the heaviest person ever to appear on the show.

What struck me over the course of the two episodes that aired was that this guy and his girlfriend made all these bad choices that they basically couldn’t unwind. He’s so fat that he was basically bedridden and therefore it was his girlfriend who kept bringing him both the wrong kinds and wrong quantities of food. Her justification was that if she didn’t do so, he would get grouchy, argumentative and basically a pain-in-the-ass.

I know the guy has a food addiction problem and his girlfriend was obvious taking the easy way out by giving him what he wanted when his willpower was depleted. It didn’t help that they seem to be in poverty because at one point, her car broke down and she couldn’t get it fixed and that prevented her from going to get fresh produce which James needed in order to stick to his diet. Seeing all that, it’s obvious they weren’t going to be very successful in their goal.

Which is why I’ve realised that more than anyone else, I’m a creature of habit. I go to the same canteen every day to order the same cup of coffee, I have pretty much the same thing at the canteen in my school. When I’m home, my wife and I are watching the same few channels. Most importantly, I channel a part of my income into my portfolio automatically each month when I get paid.

That’s the trick with habits- habits can be both good or bad. What you want to do is develop good ones that help you meet your goals. And if you have bad habits, you want to make sure that they are inconsequential ones. If they are big, bad habits, then the first thing is to recognise them and set out a plan on how to correct them. It’s the old zen tale of a master who poured tea for his disciple until the cup overflowed. When asked why he was still pouring the tea, the master replied that new ideas cannot take root until old ones are uprooted.

I’m not perfect. I have many bad habits that I should work on. But at least I’m aware.

PS: There are so many people I know of that have developed terrible habits that they aren’t even aware of. Even if they’re made aware, they become defensive and think of all sorts of reasons to justify their behaviour. If you’re aware of your shortcomings, then kudos to you, you’re on the first step to putting things right.