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This August officially marks ten years of investing.

Ten years is a long time and I’ve learnt some things along the way. However, my investing journey is by no means over and I’m pretty sure there are many more things I will have to learn.

This post is going to be a reflection of the steps, missteps and lessons I have learnt so far. (Beware: long post ahead)

How I got started

Investing was something I read about from Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I know the book is controversial (see the criticism the book got) but that’s the first time I even got the idea of being an investor.

However, that idea never really took any shape until one day in 2006 when I saw a flyer on campus that the business school at the National University of Singapore (NUS) was organising a talk by Robert P. Miles. Robert P. Miles was invited to give a talk about his book, Warren Buffett Wealth. That was my first introduction to Warren Buffett.

Subsequently, I read whatever I could find about Warren Buffett and Value Investing. Of course, it didn’t help that I had no idea how to read a financial statement. By nature, I’m not one to go through the details with a fine-toothed comb and I was studying for an undergraduate degree in Economics. Not exactly the kind of major that teaches much about accounting.

Thankfully, the mid-2000s had some resources online. I’m forever grateful to Value Buddies and its predecessors (Wallstraits and subsequently, Afralug). Some of the regulars there have been generously sharing their wealth of experience and that really sped up my learning.

I bought my first stock (technically, it’s a unit since it’s a Reit) in 2007 and still hold it to this day. To be honest, I didn’t buy it because I had great insights or superior analysis of its financial statements. I bought it because I figured that Singapore’s ageing population will be spending a lot more on healthcare in the years to come. Thankfully, that investment has paid off handsomely.

Of course, that investment wasn’t all smooth-sailing. Buying in Aug 2007 meant that basically, I was buying at the top of the market. For those too young to remember*, Aug 2007 was as high as markets got before things started to go to hell. End 2007 to September 2008 was just a long descent into hell and Lehman Brothers’ collapse just caused everything to fall off a cliff.

Getting through the Global Financial Crisis (GFC)

The GFC seemed so long ago but anyone who lived through that would have seen their investments get totally wrecked. I’m pretty sure some of my investments were down by 50-75% at one point.

The silver lining was that having just started out in the market, I didn’t have a lot of skin in the game. In fact, that was the best possible time to commit even more money. So did I make tons of money from that period? Not really. There was always this constant fear of whether the market would go down some more. And by the time, the market was in an uptrend, you start worrying about whether another shock will hit the system.

That, however, provided me with a good understanding and experience of classic market psychology. It’s a lesson that not everyone may learn or may even learn too late. A very senior colleague of mine who made his retirement nest egg in the GFC by buying tonnes of stock at what was almost the market bottom basically sold out in May 2015. He was vindicated by the horrible second half of 2015 but practically missed out on collecting dividend income in 2016 and the run-up in late 2016 till now.** On the contrary, I stayed in the market and my portfolio is roughly 7% higher based on pure investing returns for the same period. In short, market timing is a difficult business.

Investment Record

First off, a disclaimer. I’m not putting my investment record here to brag or in hope that someone will recognise my prowess and give me a job. In fact, you’ll see that my record is nothing to brag about. My objective is to show that any average person can achieve decent returns in the market with a solid plan, plenty of patience and a decent understanding of markets.

In 2007, I started with a portfolio of roughly $6,000. This may not seem like much but I can assure you that it was a substantial sum to a university undergraduate at that time. Unfortunately, I was young and not smart enough to know what records to keep and where to keep them (this was all before we had cheap gigabytes and cloud storage) so I only kept records of how much my portfolio was growing. It was only in early 2011 that I began to keep records of both my investment returns (that is pure investing returns not inflated by me adding more money) as well as the actual growth of my portfolio.

From 2011 till now, my investment returns (capital gains and dividends reinvested) or what’s more commonly known as Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) is about 7.51%. However, the actual growth of my portfolio is 18.85% p.a. for the same period.***

So what gives? As I’ve said before elsewhere on this blog, that big difference is down to mainly two things: (1) I started from a low base. In early 2011, my portfolio was below six-figure territory. Just by saving $1,000 a month, that would increase my portfolio by somewhere about 12%. (2) Savings are key to building your portfolio because that acts as a buffer or insurance. When markets are down, that continual addition to the war chest helps you add positions when the markets are cheap. When markets are expensive, you just build up your cash position to take advantage of when markets (eventually) get cheaper.

Obviously, as time goes by, your savings will contribute less and less towards your portfolio growth. The growth in your portfolio will come to consist of only your investment returns and that shouldn’t really be a cause for concern because when that time comes, you will probably have reached your financial goals. In fact, the more you save each month, the quicker you will reach financial freedom assuming of course that your spending stays the same after having zero income.

Three steps to get started

Step one, read as much as you can. You should not be reading about the theoretical or technical knowledge regarding investments but as much of the history, different schools of thoughts, and the different participants in the markets. In other words, don’t just know how to read the financial statements of a company and be able to do all the not-so-fancy calculations but start to appreciate how markets used to be and how they are now.

Also, not everyone in the market is an investor. Even among investors, there is substantial variation with regards to how long-term an investor’s view is. Get to know how traders and speculators behave because invariably, the siren song of being a speculator is tempting and you need to know when you call yourself an investor while acting more like a speculator. Traders have their place in the market but you have to know if you have brains and fortitude to be one.

Step two, just do it. I’m sorry for borrowing Nike’s slogan but there is really no better time to get started. As long as you are using money that you are prepared to do without for 10 years or more, being in the markets should not be an issue.

Step three, keeping learning and getting continuos feedback. Feedback doesn’t just come from the markets. You should seek out like-minded individuals who want to better themselves. ValueBuddies.com is a valuable place. There are plenty of investment bloggers (e.g. kyith at Investment Moats, Dividend Warrior) out there as well who maintain a good conversation with people who leave comments on their blog.

Environmental factors

A note of caution for those trying to replicate my model. Your investment portfolio cannot exist in a vacuum. If my wife was a high-maintenance trophy wife, the portfolio definitely wouldn’t be where it is today.

Fortunately for me, my wife was raised in a very practical household with parents who are the most down-to-earth people one would ever meet. Our expenses are minimal and our housing expense is way below our means. In a world where mortgages can stretch up to 30 years, we only have 5 years left on your mortgage despite only having bought the place a few years ago.

Of course, circumstances vary among households but I believe that contrary to what most people say about the average person living in Singapore, we are living proof that staying in Singapore doesn’t have to be an exorbitant affair.****

What’s the end goal?

My personal goal is to have my portfolio provide enough income for me and my wife to meet our expenses. These could range from daily expenses such as utilities and groceries to one-off expenses such as medical emergencies and holidays.

Once that goal is met, we will have much more options on how we want to live our lives. I don’t know about my wife but I certainly would explore my creative side much more. I have dabbled in some of these things recently but I really would want to pick up some skills like drawing/sketching, creating web apps, dabble a little in simple DIY tech-related craft (like using a raspberry pi as a security cam), baking bread and cooking at a more advanced level.  Or as my students might put it, I want to become a pro at these things.

If you’ve been following this blog, you will realise the slowdown in postings. I won’t be blogging as much as before because of impending changes on the job front as well as this minor obsession I’ve developed on programming.

Good luck investing! Here’s to the next 10 years.

Endnotes:

*I feel weird saying this but I do have some students who have just gotten in the market and for whom the GFC of 08/09 seem like a distant memory.

**Of course, financial planners will rightly tell you that your age profile matters when it comes to asset allocation. However, converting almost your entire portfolio to cash is not a valid retirement strategy either with interest rates on cash being so low and inflation for seniors (healthcare) being higher than the general inflation rate.

***My investment portfolio consists only of stocks and cash. I haven’t included my property, CPF monies and other assets such as insurance-based financial products that could be surrendered for cash.

****We are by no means extremely frugal people. If I wanted to go to that extreme, I would not have gotten a car and we wouldn’t be taking yearly or even twice yearly holidays to places like Japan, London and my favourite retreat off Bintan.

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.

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.

 

LWL_fbpost

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.

 

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).

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.

 

 

Recently, I came across an article about how a fresh graduate from SIM Global Education (SIM GE) who graduated with a University of London degree in Accounting and Finance has been trying to get a job that pays at least $2,500 a month. However, he has sent his resume out 40 times but only received a handful of interviews and an offer of a basic salary of S$2,000 with added commission from sales.

One of those clickbait sites that pass news off as politically charged nonsense basically took the article and even offered additional commentary on how even a S$2,500 salary would be below an average graduate’s starting salary. I’ve also seen further comments on forums about how S$2,500 as starting salary for graduates is a figure from 10 years ago.

The thing is, these people don’t understand Demand and Supply. The don’t understand product differentiation or inelastic demand either.

The simple fact is that the number of people graduating with degrees has gone up over the years. While the proportion of each cohort going to NUS, NTU and SMU may have been relatively stable, we have seen much more graduates from overseas and private universities.

At this point, some people may start to go along the usual anti-government stance of how many foreign workers we have on employment passes in Singapore but before one goes down that path, I suggest thinking of how many of those passes belong to workers in jobs that a fresh graduate can’t or won’t do. If you have those numbers, by all means, make an argument.

The other part of the article that I have a problem with is the implicit assumption that all universities are equal. They are not. A quick look at the University Rankings will show that and any prospective employee should know that any employer knows this. If employers know this, then any prospective employee with a degree from a lesser-known university should have spent their time in university not just studying but thinking of how to differentiate themselves from the bunch. For example, if I went to a business school known more for accepting students who can afford the tuition instead of acceptance due to meeting a stringent entry criteria,  I would have actively participated in business plan competitions, tried starting a business, actively networked to get to know and ask business people or C-suite personnel to be a mentor.

I suspect the student profiled in the article is a sign of things to come. Graduates, as a group, need to expect lower starting salaries in the near future with the increase in the number of graduates in the job market as well as the fact that more entry-level jobs can be automated.

Some days are more special than other. 5th May is a special day for me. This year, I witnessed some students graduate which is probably one of the few days in the year where my job really means something.

This year, I witnessed some students graduate which is probably one of the few days in the year where my job really means something. For most students, I only teach them one module: microeconomics and to be honest, I don’t really care if they remember anything that I taught. After all, how many of them will go on to become economists or even study economics at a higher level? It would great if they learned how to apply some microeconomic concepts to help them make better choices but that wasn’t really what the focus of the module was. What’s more important is that I hope they see me as someone they can count on if they should ever need my help. I wish them all the best and hope that they all realise that their road ahead is long so whatever they do, enjoy the journey and take the time to smell the roses whatever their ambitions might be.

5th May is also the birthday of the future Pirate King. It’s a happy coincidence because the 5th of May also happens to be the day I got married to the most wonderful person in the world. Before getting married and having a place of our own, I never imagined that I would be washing the dishes, changing bed sheets, mopping the floor, cleaning the toilet and cooking on a regular basis. As dreary as the word ‘chores’ sound, I’ve come to realise that doing chores isn’t so bad. It’s a moment where one can just focus on the task at hand and not get lost in random thoughts or “what-ifs”. It also lets one appreciate life a little bit better and I suspect that if the day should come, I’ll be a little more resilient as well.

This year, the Mrs made a remark (in jest or was it a hint that I didn’t get?) that I thought was quite cute. She said that in the past, I’d probably plan a nice surprise, at a nice restaurant while this year, I took her to a ramen restaurant (it was good ramen though). When we’re fifty, it’s possible that we may be at a hawker centre (if they still exist then) having fish soup.

But you know what? There’s no one else I’d rather be having fish soup with.

Holy cow! 1/3 of the year has come and gone. So how’s your portfolio doing?

I just wanted to share a great insight on investing prowess vs. building wealth. Obviously, the better an investor you are, the quicker you’ll build your wealth. However, for mere mortals like most of us, I want to assure you that it’s still possible to build wealth.

Enter exhibit A. (Actually, this is the only exhibit.)

 

navVSwealth.JPG

NAV per share (in blue) vs. Growth of actual portfolio (in yellow)

The blue line (NAV per share) shows how much $1 invested in the portfolio would have grown to. So naturally, this involves removing the effects of adding more cash to the portfolio which basically shows us how good an investor I am.

The yellow line (Actual growth) shows how many times the portfolio has grown by relative to the starting date. Of course, this includes savings and additional cash added to the portfolio.

If you’re aiming to be financially free, I can’t think of why building wealth would be inferior to being a good investor. Sure, being a good investor gets you there quicker and probably allows you to enjoy consuming more at the same time but if the goal is to eventually not have to worry about working for money, then getting a big enough portfolio that will allow you to live off a safe withdrawal rate (3-4%) should be your main priority.

My experience so far is that being an average investor will help you get there too.

 

PS: Of course, once your portfolio gets huge enough, your savings will hardly matter. An average household in Singapore makes something like 80-90,000 SGD a year. If the portfolio reaches 2 million SGD, saving half a year’s income (which is near to impossible for most people) will only move the needle by about 2%. Having said that, if your household can’t retire in Singapore on a 2million SGD portfolio with your house fully paid for, you have a spending problem.

An update on the Singapore property market. For background on this, read here. All data from SRX.

SRX_feb17

Using the price of HDB flats as the benchmark, we can see that prices for private property in all categories are at a sizable premium to HDB flats. Among the different classes of private property, the premium for private landed remains the highest although the index seems to be on a downward trend. For non-landed, it appears that resale units are at a lower premium than new units.

SRX_feb17byregion.JPG

As for sales of all (new and resale units) non-landed private property, it appears that the area commanding the highest premium to HDB flats are in the RCR (Rest of Central Region).

Of course, prices will vary for individual projects and units but from a macro perspective, it’s going to be much easier to bargain hunt during periods like the early 2000s and ’09-’10 where there was hardly any premium over HDB flats. In fact, times like 1999 would have been a godsend to property investors.

I guess my two main takeaways are (1) despite the Singapore property market supposedly being in a doldrum, private property prices are not cheap right now and (2) HDB flats do keep their value quite well being the cheapest form of housing in Singapore and therefore is a reasonable benchmark for evaluating priciness (or cheapness) of the private property market.

In not-so-latest news, Minister of National Development, Lawrence Wong came out to caution people from buying older HDB flats* in hope that the government places the flats under a SERS programme under which owners of the old flat get compensation in the form of cash (with the flat valued at market rates) or a choice selection of a new flat in the vicinity.

Of course, the good minister didn’t want his words misconstrued as “all other flats not selected for SERS, which make up a majority, have a chance of their value plummeting should the leases be allowed to run its course” so he came up with additional thoughts on why HDB flats retain their value.

First thing to notice is that the good minister did not say that HDB flats are a good form of wealth enhancement. He only said “store of value” which everyone who has done econs 101 would interpret as keeping its “real value”. In other words, any monies sunk into an HDB flat will retain its purchasing power should you wish to monetise your flat. If you make money from your HDB flat, then count yourself lucky.

The second problem, which other netizens have pointed out, is that Mr. Wong’s example doesn’t reassure buyers who bought older flats which have already run through a good chunk of the leasehold life. (For details, see this link)

This brings me back to a point I made some time ago. Most Singaporeans sink their CPF monies into their property. If your property is going to, at best, hold its value, you better think twice about counting solely on your property to retire.Even

Even monetising your HDB flat through the HDB’s lease buyback scheme where you trade the remaining years of the lease for a monthly income has problems. First, the payouts are not inflation-indexed. Second, inflation for retiree households tends to be higher as healthcare and transportation are two of those components in CPI that rise faster than the average component in the basket. In short, fixed incomes and rising costs don’t make a sound retirement plan.

 

Notes:

*HDB or Housing Development Board flats are Singapore’s form of public housing. The flats are of decent size (compared to places like Hong Kong), decent quality and generally cheaper on a dollar per square foot basis compared to private property. However, all HDB flats are on a 99-year lease from the government. At the end of the lease, the flat is returned to the government. However, with Singapore being such a young country, there hasn’t been a single case of whether the government pays any compensation for taking the flat back or the value of the flat goes to zero.