Archives for category: Everything under the sun

Now, before I get called up for questioning by the police, I need to say that the title of the post is a reference to a book of the same name. I’m not saying that MHA is lying. I’m just saying that in case they haven’t realised, their statistics needs more explanation and clarification.

There is a very good classic on statistics called “How to Lie With Statistics” by Darrell Huff that was written in the 1950s that every student of logic should read.

That book highlights some of the various ways that statistics, intentionally or unintentionally, can be used to muddy the waters and unfortunately, I think that’s what Minister for Home Affairs, K. Shanmugam did when he warned Singaporeans of how there are “very strong, coordinated efforts internationally as well as within Singapore“. Efforts to do what? Well, according to the mainstream media, to change Singaporeans’ perception of cannabis use.

Now, the minister may possibly be right about how the sinister forces of the western world and capitalism are trying to change Singaporeans’ perceptions of cannabis use in an attempt to expand their markets and ultimately, profits.

The MHA may also be right about the harmful effects of cannabis use. After all, this piece by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker cites some of the studies done on cannabis use and it’s not all good. However, even The New Yorker story is cautious about being too definitive on the data.

The Misuse of Data

In the section on ‘Social Costs’, the article reporting on the issue cited “that the US state of Colorado, which legalised cannabis for recreational use in 2012, had reported an 8.3 per cent increase in property crimes and an 18.6 per cent increase in violent crimes from 2013 to 2016. “

I have no doubt that the statistics are true. Unfortunately, statistics can be misinterpreted and in this case, I think they have.

Why? Because I went digging around about other people’s thoughts on the issue and there are some out there that are in agreement with our minister and MHA and some of those those that oppose them.

Then, I found this report by the Colorado Department of Public Safety. The report is titled “Marijuana Legalization in Colorado: Early Findings” and was written in March 2016.

Now I haven’t read the whole thing (it’s 147 pages long over six sections) but in the executive summary, it clearly says:

It should be noted that the most fundamental challenge to interpreting data related to marijuana over time stems from unmeasured changes in human behavior concerning marijuana. Legalization may result in reports of increased use, when it may actually be a function of the decreased stigma and legal consequences regarding use rather than actual changes in use patterns.  Likewise, those reporting to poison control, emergency departments, or hospitals may feel more comfortable discussing their recent use or abuse of marijuana for purposes of treatment. The impact from reduced stigma and legal consequences makes certain trends difficult to assess and will require additional time to measure post‐ legalization. Additionally, for example, the increase in law enforcement officers who are trained in recognizing drug use, from 32 in 2006 to 288 in 2015, can increase drug detection rates apart from any changes in driver behavior.  For these reasons, these early, baseline findings should be carefully considered in light of the need to continue to collect and analyze relevant data. 

The point is that even if, as per the MHA factsheet, crime rates did go up, can the cause be attributed solely to the fact that cannabis was legalised? In fact, two points raised in the executive summary of the report are:

  • Colorado’s property crime rate decreased 3%, from 2,580 (per 100,000 population) in 2009 to 2,503 in 2014.
  • Colorado’s violent crime rate decreased 6%, from 327 (per 100,000 population) in 2009 to 306 in 2014.

So in fact, property and violent crime rates were higher prior to the legalisation of cannabis. So what gives? What’s the true story?

And the answer to that should be: “We don’t know yet.”

In the case of the statistics quoted by MHA:
– Did the increase in property and violent crimes rate coincide with it being a tougher economy? After all, we know that people who are more desperate turn to crime.
– Is the increase due to a low base or outlier? If 2013 happened to be an abnormally low year for crime in Colorado, any reversion to mean would cause an increase in the rates reported.
– Were the statistics statistically significant?

In short, the point I’m making is that any statistically sound person shouldn’t be drawing conclusions based on a few reported statistics without knowing the context of the numbers or knowing the veracity of the data.

The downside of certainty

From the MHA and the Law and Home Affairs minister’s point of view, the upside of being so certain about the data is easy to guess. For one, they don’t have to amend any laws. Or look bad for being so tough on drugs only to have academic studies say that they were wrong all along.

However, as with all things, upsides come with downsides.

So what’s the downside of being so certain as the MHA and Minister Shanmugam are?

The downside is that the justice system will be forced to come down hard on those who still consume and traffic cannabis. And it could potentially result in cases like this* where people in difficult circumstances become unwilling drug mules and if not for the appeals court, an execution would have taken place.

After all, how many things that were once considered to be bad are now not? In Singapore, Men sporting long hair in the 60s was once considered taboo; Fat was once demonised; and of course, homosexuality in Singapore is still a controversial topic.**

The downside of certainty is that over time, what you were once certain about can change.

I can accept that individuals or members of a political organisation or religion have their views based on anecdotal evidence but our government and government bodies need to be held to a higher standard simply because they represent all of us. They should base their decisions on facts and certainty rather than ideology.

Notes:
*I know the case in question is about an illicit drug and not cannabis but as long as cannabis remains illegal, same thing could happen right?
**Homosexual sex is illegal but our society has become increasingly tolerant of homosexual relationships.

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Amazingly, I’ve left 105 reviews on Google. I either have way too much time on my hands or this is a perfect example of how small things compound over time.

I’m just joking. So, I’ve been leaving reviews on Google for a while now and I’m not sure if there’s a right way to do it or not but this is my way of leaving a review on Google and the way I’ll be doing it going forward.

The whole point of this post is just to crystalise my thoughts and remind myself that there’s a guide to leaving a review that I can always refer to.

Why leave a review?

I guess the first step is to even ask: why leave a review?

My answer to that is that it helps businesses gain more customers and a good review from a genuine customer is better than any paid advertisement.

Plus it’s free (for the company).

I never realised the value of this until I was travelling in other countries such as the UK and then I realised how much more likely I was to try a particular restaurant out if it was near me and had lots of positive reviews.

How to leave a review: Ryan’s Way

In my book, I’ll only leave a review if it’s going to be a four or five star review. I tend to be on the forgiving side and I don’t want to penalise the company unfairly if they just happen to be having a bad day.

Of course, rating systems won’t work if no one leaves a bad review but I believe that there are others out there who will be doing that job. Also, this means that I tend to avoid places that have mostly 4 or 5 star reviews but the reviews are few in number.

Also, I tend to attach a photo to my review. This photo is one that I’ve taken because photos add another dimension of clarity to the review but a stock photo would throw the authenticity of the review into question.

I would make an exception to leaving a bad review when I go to a place that has tons of four or five star reviews but I personally had an overall bad experience. In that case, I’ll leave a review that borders on the lower end because I want my review to make a difference.

However, if I leave a bad review, I’ll detail the exact experience that made it bad. For example, the food may have been less than spectacular for that price range but the service was extraordinary. In that case, I should let the reader know that the lack of stars was due to the food and not the service. That way, if management of the restaurant reads the review, they’ll know which areas they need to investigate and improve upon.’

Easy steps to a review

To summarise, I will:

  • leave (mostly) only positive reviews (4/5 stars).
  • details on where the company has gone right/wrong.
  • a genuine photo.

I did a similar post last year.

Wasn’t a long one but it was everything that I felt and still do.

7 years together is obviously nowhere near a lifetime and that’s where we eventually will be but still, I like to think that after 7 years of marriage and counting, we’ve both learned a few things.

I’ve mentioned it before but married life has truly made me a better person. Before marriage, I couldn’t cook, didn’t have to wash the dishes, clean the bathrooms, clean the sink, mop the floors, take care of a cat.

I also didn’t have to worry about how to comfort someone else who’s having a bad day or to worry about someone else’s future other than my own.

If the above sounds attractive or easy, it’s not. (Ok, other than cooking because I kind of enjoy it). While the things listed in the previous paragraph may sound like chores, it’s not exactly a bad thing is it?

In many areas of life, doing the easy thing is exactly the thing that keeps people in a rut. Think of the student who decides to go on to Netflix when he/she is supposed to be studying or the people who turn to some form of escape (like drugs or alcohol) when life gets tough. In many of those cases, avoiding the hard stuff precisely the problem.

Now, I’m not saying that people combating alcoholism or drug addiction can simply will it off. What I’m saying is that the initial decision to pursue the easier path is sometimes the cause of all our troubles. In the first place, if we embrace what is not necessarily the most attractive option, it may be better for us.

In short, when we should have listened when we were told to eat our vegetables. The funny thing is, over time, we can learn to love our vegetables.

And this is where my wife comes in. Unlike me, she knows the value of a disciplined mind and hard work. And she has the brains to back it up. All the best decisions in our marriage have come from her. The biggest one so far is to adopt Teddy, our lovely tabby cat who rightfully took his place as king of the house.

Growing up, I used to tell people that I had quite a bit of luck (with studies, exams, friends and all that). But even that was an underestimation given how lucky I am to have met my wife* and to for us to feel the same way about each other.

7 years and more to come.

Note:
*There really is some element of luck to this because I very nearly didn’t go to the university that I went to and if didn’t, I would have never have met my wife.

Postings have been light because I’ve been away on holiday.

The upside of it all is that I managed to get through two really great books and I highly recommend both of them if you’re looking to get smarter about the world.

Book 1 – The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy by Dani Rodrik

In the book, Harvard economist Dani Rodrik provides a compelling argument of how the conventional mantra of freer trade, financial liberalisation, and lower trade barriers may not be the best solution for all economies.

In my opinion, this book is a great counter-balance to the theories that every economics student learns at university. It’s also a great insight into how the economics profession seems to go through fads and that this latest fad hasn’t worked out all that well (cue the global financial crisis as well as crises in Argentina in the 1990s).

Anyone interested in world trade issues, the World Bank, IMF, globalisation, free trade, and politics should read this.

Book 2 – Billion Dollar Whale by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope

This amazing account of the 1MDB scandal focuses on Jho Low’s role in the whole affair. It’s a tale of how the immense greed fueled the actions of a few individuals. They siphoned billions of dollars from a state fund to their personal accounts and went on a spending spree that few individuals would ever experience in several lifetimes.

It’s also a tale of how Hollywood, the global banking system, and corrupt political systems endorse or enable such shenanigans to take place. After reading the book, I would be really, really disappointed in myself if I were Leonardo DiCaprio.

Despite Bill Gates recommending the book, Billion Dollar Whale has its flaws. For one, it focuses too much on Jho Low’s role in the affair which kind of diminishes the role played by other actors in the story. Second, it leaves out more technical details on how rules were circumvented or how Low managed to hoodwink supposedly smart people into carrying out the transactions. I would have loved to know more about how Low, or others, managed to concoct and execute the schemes that they did but I suppose that the authors did so to keep the main narrative going without having readers bogged down by more technical aspects of the various deals.

I’m currently making my way through ‘The Sarawak Report‘ which is the other exposé on 1MDB that focuses more on rot in the Malaysian political system. That should also be interesting.

First quarter 2019 is over! The yield curve has inverted, the economy looks like it’s slowing down but hey, the markets have recovered swiftly from last December’s sharp drop. So who knows what’s going to happen?

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

Why happiness is easy to venerate, hard to generate (The Undercover Economist)

Tim Harford highlights the biggest problem for social justice warriors and all the positive thinking people. It’s one thing to come up with a nice-sounding, politically-correct paradigm that you can hardly find anyone to disagree with. However, it’s another thing to actually produce scientifically reproducible results to justify the claim. Read the article for some points made about Bhutan’s oft-lauded ideal of Gross National Happiness.

THAT TIME A VIDEO GAME HAD AN ECONOMY ALMOST AS STRONG AS RUSSIA (Today I Found Out)

Another one for the annals of obscure research turned important. Who knew that virtual worlds could be a useful way to model how economies in the real world work?

Is home ownership for everyone? (Property Soul)

Great read because it challenges the commonly-held assumption that home ownership is a must.

The Singapore Government loves to sell this line of thinking but you must remember that the original thinking behind this idea is that home ownership gives a sense of belonging and therefore ties people to the country for a longer period of time. No doubt, this is important for nation-building but remember that’s good for the government. What’s good for the government is not necessarily good for you.

Home ownership has its pros in that that you are not subject to the mercy of landlords when housing is in short supply and that since, in the long-run, home prices tend to increase, you’ll be relatively protected from an increase in rents over time. Furthermore, homes are an asset that can be monetised (think: home-equity loans, reverse mortgages etc.),

However, home ownership comes with some costs as well. The biggest one would be the opportunity cost of not being exposed to other asset classes. By paying for a house, your main asset class resides in the housing market. In Singapore, most people use their CPF monies to pay for housing, which means that you give up the opportunity to compound at interest that CPF pays you. It also means that you have to be prepared to monetise your house in the event you need to cash out. Buying too much house also means having the albatross of a mortgage hanging around your neck for a good two decades or so.

The article doesn’t cover all the pros and cons but it’s a good start to bust the myth that home ownership is a must for everyone. In fact, some people take it too far by buying too much house.

The yield curve has inverted!

So what’s next? Why does this even matter? Where do I go from here?

What’s the Yield Curve?

The yield curve is simply https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-yield-curve-inverted-here-are-5-things-investors-need-to-know-2019-03-22a two-dimensional chart showing the relationship between the yields paid (on the Y-axis) on bonds of different maturities (on the X-axis). The bonds here are U.S. government securities and hence, the only difference is the length of the maturity (i.e. how long investors have to keep their money invested in the bond until maturity)

By Ldecola – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69078386

So what you can see is that for bonds with longer maturities, the yield paid is higher. For example, a 2-year bond might pay 2.5% p.a. while a 10-year bond pays 3% p.a.

In a normal world, this makes sense. After all, to entice investors to keep their money invested in a bond for a longer period, borrowers need to pay more interest.

Why Does the Yield Curve Invert?

That’s all good and fine but if that’s the case, then why does the yield curve invert? Well, as it turns out, if you hold a bond (which is an asset) but you need cash, you can always sell the bond on the secondary market. However, you’ll will have to accept whatever the market is willing to pay for your bond.

Let’s work through an example.

So, the way bonds work is that bonds pay investors a coupon (i.e. the interest) based on the Face Value of the bond. This Face Value is the principal amount that the investor receives upon the maturity of the bond. So for example, if a bond pays a coupon of 5% on a bond with maturity of 5 years and a face value of 100, then the investor receives $5/year for 5 years and $100 at the end of the fifth year.

So far so good?

However, if you have to sell the bond on the secondary market before it matures, the price that buyers are willing to pay may be less than the face value. This happens because would-be bond investors are weighing their other options given the environment at the time you, the bond seller, are trying to sell your bonds.

If there are more attractive investments out there or there is pessimism in the air, would-be buyers would offer a lower price for your bonds and vice versa if things seem to go swimmingly well.

So using the same example of a bond as above. If the market is willing to pay only $80 for your bond, the yield on this bond is now $5/80 which is 6.25% which is higher than the coupon yield.

This is exactly how and why yields change.

So, what is the inversion? And why it matters

An inversion happens when short-term yields are higher than long-term yields.

The short end of the curve is easy to explain because the Fed rate hikes have most influence on short-term rates and given the fact that the Fed has been raising rates since late 2015 and somewhat accelerated the hikes last year, the short end of the curve must have increased.

But what about the longer-term rates? Going by the logic in the previous section, this means that prices of bonds at the long end are much higher which is why yields at the long end have fallen.

This basically means that bond investors don’t mind getting less return for longer maturities since they expect things to get worse in the short-term and therefore, it’s a good return to “lock in” for the next X number of years. Furthermore, if a recession hits, the Fed will be forced to lower rates to ease monetary policy and when interest rates fall, bonds at the long end see greater capital gains as their Duration is longer*

The inverted yield curve has also freaked people out because the inversion of the yield curve has historically been a good leading indicator of recessions.

Final Thoughts

So while a recession may be imminent, I think we need to keep an eye on other indicators such as unemployment and payroll numbers etc. Singapore will obviously be hit bad in the event of a global recession since we count many of the major economies as our trading partners.

However, I think a recession and slowdown has been long overdue and maybe markets have already priced the worst in (or maybe, they haven’t) but we haven’t seen over-extended markets or exuberance like we have in the dot-com or GFC eras.

Personally, I’ve been on the defensive for some years and if the downturn comes, I’ll be one happy camper because it’s probably one of those moments that I’ll be able to deploy some cash.

Notes:
*Duration is a finance thing. Basically, it shows how many percent a bond price will change for a one percent change in interest rates.

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

Neo-Nazis Bet Big on Bitcoin (And Lost) (Foreign Policy)

What do Neo-Nazis and Bitcoin fans have in common? A common sense of anarchy and distrust in the institutions that run the world today. Great read.

STAT FIGHT! want to have money when you’re old? Don’t have kids! (The Basis Point)

Chart says it all. But notice that Couples with children have more money socked away up until the point where they turn 65? Probably the drop in savings after 65 is because these couples help their children fund their marriage, starter home, or education.

Paul Krugman’s latest opinion piece is a must-read for those who think that robots are coming for your jobs. He was absolutely right about the Asian Miracle in the late 90s and I sense he’s right about this one too. In short, it’s not the robots killing the lower income class. It’s politics.

Diversification Isn’t Sexy (The Belle Curve)

A back to basics article on the definition of diversification as it applies to investing.

Sorry, there wasn’t a post last week because I was busy over the weekend. Regular programming resumes and my heart goes out to the victims of the terror attack on the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

Total compliance in financial reporting, but was it misleading? (The Edge Singapore)

Seriously good article on the Hyflux saga. Not one of those that pretends that it could have seen the future but more of a reflection on how accounting principles could have caused blindspots in the analysis of many analysts. Focusing on earnings would have painted a much more rosy picture than how economic reality eventually played out. By focusing on cashflows, one could see that betting on Hyflux was basically a bet that its plans go off without a hitch.

Buy, Hold… Profit? (The Big Picture)

The money shot is the animation that shows how longer timeframes provide positive returns even after accounting for inflation. The problem is: how many people are wired to wait that long? I’m willing to bet ‘not many’.

On Japan Sea coast, small firm shows scars of China’s economic woes (Channel NewsAsia)

A story about how trade woes are affecting a small firm in Japan that makes precision parts for auto-makers. Is it really due to trade wars or is it due to ‘peak car‘? Hmm…warrants more investigation.

Why inflation is good for us (The Undercover Economist)

Many people that worry about the national debt don’t really understand economics. Many people that worry about runaway inflation don’t understand economics either. Do yourself a favour and read this article.

The ‘Hidden Mechanisms’ That Help Those Born Rich to Excel in Elite Jobs (The Atlantic)

Really interesting read for those interested in the issue of inequality and class privilege. No surprises that these things happen but nice to see some academic work that explains how and why these things happen.

I really hate doing posts on politics but there are a few things I needed to share my thoughts on. I’m not particularly for or against the government or for any of these issues (except the cats. I have a cat).

I guess Cynical Investor (CI) may be right when he says “Double confirm, ground not sweet for PAP” and that there may be some truth to the rumours online that the General Elections may not be held this year after all.

However, CI’s point was based on the property market. The points I make here are going to a highlight reel of some of the latest self-inflicted wounds PAP members have made.

Lee Bee Wah losing the cat lovers’ vote

MP for Nee Soon GRC, Lee Bee Wah basically singled out cat feeders as the cause of rat problems in certain HDB estates. This didn’t go down well with cat lovers across the country and it didn’t help that Lee Bee Wah, perhaps because of her background as an engineer or perhaps because she was trying to present the case as if it were to a layperson, explained things as if it were a simple matter of cause-and-effect.

Basically, her explanation came across as:
There are rats in the neighbourhood. Rats are attracted to food left in common areas. Cat feeders leave food in common areas. Therefore, cat feeders are the problem.

To be fair, I agree that there are irresponsible or ignorant cat feeders who leave food out for community cats and that the food may attract insects and rats. However, her narrative means that other probable causes aren’t highlighted.

For example, People who leave offerings on the ground after prayers during certain times of the month; Kids that carelessly drops scraps of their snacks that they buy; People who spills their drinks at the common rest areas at the void decks.

In short, there’s plenty of other people who drop food on the floor in the common areas all the time. So why is it just the fault of the cat feeders?

Lee Bee Wah again

And if losing the cat lovers’ vote wasn’t enough, LBW* helped the PAP lose even more votes by calling out a large proportion of Singaporeans who wished the government did more during the most recent budget announcement.

You can read the details yourself but her little made-up folk tale where she portrayed the government as a thrifty, kind grandfather who gave his grandson (read: citizens) some money for all the important stages of his life is flawed.

For one, I would be grateful to my grandfather for giving me ANY amount of money because it is a gift. In other words, if my grandfather gave me money, it was something that HE earned, saved, didn’t spend on himself, in order to give it to me.

You can’t compare the government to a kind, thrifty grandfather because the money raised by the government comes from taxpayers in the first place. Even the money earned from the investment returns of GIC and Temasek is built on the capital provided by the taxes collected from citizens, other members of the labour force, and corporations.

I guess we could thank the government for giving you back some of what you paid them instead of siphoning it all away but I think they lost that right when they argued that they should be well-paid in order to attract the best and brightest to do the job.

In order words, we can thank the government for doing their job but we shouldn’t compare any handouts from the budget as a ‘gift’. You can’t really take something from me, then give some part of it back and call that a gift.

The Watain farce

And if LBW’s gaffes weren’t enough, the anchor minister in her GRC** who is also the Minister for Home Affairs decided to weigh in after some conservative Christians complained about a Death Metal band being allowed to play a concert in Singapore. Their complaint was that the band’s song had satanic and anti-christian elements and influences and were therefore, offensive to Christians.

The concert was only supposed to be attended by some 200 people and funnily enough, had been given prior approval by the appropriate licensing bodies. Then somehow, hours before the concert, they were told they couldn’t perform.

The official explanation is that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) asked IMDA (the licensing body) to consider cancelling the performance due to “new and serious concerns about public order, and ground reactions relating to social and religious harmony”.

If I read that right, it basically means that just because a select group of people made some noise which somehow got the attention of the powers that be, MHA was asked to advise IMDA to overturn a decision that was based on the execution of prior rules and regulations.

Now, I’m not sure about you but that’s worrying to me. It means that if I somehow had access to the powers that be, and that if I could justify how offended I might feel about certain people or groups of people on the grounds of public order, then what was once permissible could suddenly become not permissible.

Anyway, the irony is that easily-offended Christians lost this one because now almost everyone in Singapore knows who or what Watain is and for a moment in history, more people in Singapore were listening to their music on Spotify than anywhere else in the world.

The Minister might have been legally right (after all, he’s law trained) on all counts for this one but I think it’s a worrying sign for those concerned about potential abuses of the system.

Final Thoughts

It’s not just an Yishun thing***. There are lots of other things to say about some of the other PAP MPs but the saving grace for the PAP is that the majority of the opposition isn’t much more impressive.

Notes:
*Abbreviating her name because I don’t really want to keep typing it out.

**Voting for MPs in Singapore can be quite funny in some constituencies because you have to vote for a whole team of them rather than just one of them.

***Inside joke for Singaporeans. LBW and the MHA minister are from the GRC that oversees Yishun.

Edges That Won’t Go Away (A Wealth of Common Sense)

Great piece. The best edges are the ones that depend on human emotion and behaviour. The exchange between Bezos and Buffett explains it all.

Hyflux is warning of investing in high dividend yield stocks ( Thoughts of a Cynical Investor )

High dividend yields have always been a flag. Plenty of other great ratios to use when determining if the yields are likely to hold. I probably should do a whole post one day for my own sake.

Great read of the geopolitics of the world and why the Yuan or Euro is unlikely to dethrone the USD any time soon.

Once hailed as unhackable, blockchains are now getting hacked (MIT Technology Review)

Oh no.