Archives for posts with tag: financial literacy



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In 2013, I wrote this piece ($100,000 before 30) that highlighted an article written in The Straits Times on how realistic it is for someone in Singapore to amass $100,000 before turning 30.

More than a few people in Singapore have already proven that $100,000 by 30 is more than possible (for example, see here). What I thought I’d explore is the possibility of that same person reaching $1,000,000 by 60.

Why 60? Because that’s slightly before the official retirement age in most countries. In fact, the official retirement age is probably going to be 67 or 70 for someone in my generation. However, most people feel that they don’t have enough money to retire on even after working for a lifetime.

I want to show that’s not true.

Of course, a million dollars will not be the same in 30 years as it is today but I think for many people, a million dollars is still a sum that seems unachievable even after a lifetime of work. We’ll also look at the scenario where purchasing power is retained.

Anyway, I want to look at the possibility of a 60-year-old obtaining $1,000,000 because  $1,000,000 for a 60-year-old is kind of the same mental block that $100,000 might be for a 30-year-old.

Starting assumptions

Using the numbers from the “$100,000 by 30” article, I’m assuming the following:

Starting sum at age 30: $122,919
Savings per year: $22,805
Years to compound: 30

The article assumed that the hypothetical person saves 50% of his/her income. For the sake of easy calculation and to be conservative, I’m going to assume that the amount of savings will not change. i.e. the hypothetical person continues to save only $22,805 per year from age 30-60.

Scenario 1: $1,000,000 by 60

Using a trusty financial calculator, I found that with the above assumptions, one only needs a rate of 1.24% p.a. to reach a million dollars by the age of 60.

1.24% per annum for the next 30 years.

Let that sink in. That is a seriously low bar to cross. As I write this, the 30-year Singapore government bond has a 2.88% yield. Assuming rates don’t change much, the latest issue of the Singapore Savings Bonds which everyone loves will also get you there if you keep your money in it for 10 years and repeat the process another two times.

Scenario 2: Retaining purchasing power

Of course, those worried about losing purchasing power to inflation will point out that $1,000,000 today is not the same as $1,000,000 thirty years later. Well, historically speaking, inflation has been roughly 2.5-3% per year. This means that our 1.24% p.a. needs to be something more like 3.74 – 4.24% p.a.

Scenario 3: Becoming an actual ‘millionaire’

In order to retain the purchasing power of a millionaire today, that rate of return needs to be higher. Assuming an inflation rate of 2.5% p.a., $1,000,000 today will be equivalent to about $2,097,567.58 in 30 years. In order to become the equivalent of a millionaire in 30 years time, our $100,000 by 30 person will need a rate of return of 5.12% p.a.

Keep Calm and Continue the Process

Of course, scenarios 2 and 3 are the goals we should be aiming for and that’s not going to be achieved with government bonds but neither is it an unrealistic rate of return. The $100,000 by 30 article assumed investing in a 60/40 stock/bond portfolio which should easily give us 5% p.a. It may not get you to scenario 3 but it won’t be far off.

My point is, for many people, being a millionaire seems like a pipe dream. It isn’t. Not in both nominal or real terms.

If you’re one of those that already hit $100,000 by 30, this post of mine is to provide some comfort to keep doing what you’ve been doing. What you’ve been doing is right, and you’ll be just fine. In fact, if you can bump up the savings rate or get higher returns, you can get there is fewer years.

Now, if you can’t even amass $100,000 before 30, then what are you waiting for?

If so, you won’t take kindly some of the points made in Exhibit A below.

I recently came across this article* aimed at complete beginners on investing and it’s just downright terrible. The sad part is that I’ve seen many people share this on social media like it’s good advice to take.

I hope you didn’t take too much of it seriously because there’s plenty that’s wrong with it and any financial blogger worth his/her salt should be able to point out what’s wrong with it.

Let’s take a look at what’s wrong with it.


Exhibit A – a community-sourced article which has gone viral


The whole article gives you four different options but doesn’t highlight the proper risks and rewards or evidence to back up its claims. In other words, it’s shit.

What Exhibit A gets right

Exhibit A starts off on the right note by asking people to invest monthly. It correctly states that for all investors, inflation is one of the things we need to beat and that by putting your money in a savings account, you won’t be able to beat inflation. In other words, people who save money in their bank account is going to see their savings buy them fewer things in the future.


What Exhibit A gets wrong or ignores

#1 DCA may not be the answer

While the article makes some attempt to tell us NOT to time the market, it’s recommended solution is to dollar-cost average (DCA) into the asset class. Where this goes wrong is that the market, on average, goes up more times than it goes down. What this means is that as your DCA into the market, you end up paying a higher price, on average, for the asset.

Now, being in cash runs the risk of losing out on returns from dividends, coupons or capital gains but DCA-ing into a higher price doesn’t strike me as particularly intelligent behaviour either. I don’t have the data so I don’t have a definite opinion on this but the risk of DCA should be pointed out instead of being hailed as an optimal solution to the problem.

#2 How do you define risk?

The article then classifies the different recommended “ways to invest” according to risk levels.

The problem is: what is ‘Risk’? Is it fluctuations in price levels? Or is it a permanent loss of capital?

Unless you define risk properly, the classification is unnecessarily arbitrary.

Investors with a long time horizon shouldn’t be worried about fluctuations in prices and be more concerned with the long-term returns from the various asset classes. In fact, studies have shown that over a sufficiently long period (such as 15-20 years), stocks have delivered only positive returns.

Of course, investors had to live with the volatility of prices going up and down but with a sufficiently long period, returns were both positive and higher than any other asset class. On the other hand, bonds returned less than inflation over the same period.

So which is riskier? Stocks or bonds?**

#3 Fees matter and funds underperform

The article also suggests that funds are riskier than the global ETF that the three robo-advisors invest in.

Why? Once again, no mention of that.

I’ll tell you why. The biggest reason is that actively-managed funds then to charge higher fees and end up failing to beat their benchmarks. Check out this statistic that from research that was published last year.

Over the last 15 years, 92.2% of large-cap funds lagged a simple S&P 500 index fund. The percentages of mid-cap and small-cap funds lagging their benchmarks were even higher: 95.4% and 93.2%, respectively.

Source: MarketWatch

Once again, no mention of this even though this was one of the recommended steps.


Exhibit A sucks

Yes, I understand that the article is for beginners but beyond telling them to save money and giving them the steps to start investing, the article doesn’t help much.

In fact, if I were to tell beginners something, it would be to understand compound interest, gets a sense of market history, and understand valuations. If you aren’t prepared to do all that, you won’t have an idea what to do when you see your portfolio fall by 30-40% or your losses (on paper) go into six-figures.

Exhibit A is that the kind of stuff that fulfils the adage of how knowing a little can do a lot of damage. Go do yourself a favour and actually read up on proper investing before you do anything.



*Not providing a link to Exhibit A because it’s rubbish that you’re better off not reading it. If you’re really interested, go google the headline.

**Astute readers will also point out that the question depends on whether you are an older person without a job and a need for income to meet daily expenses or a young person with a relatively stable income and expected extra years of life (and thus, investment horizon) of possibly 40-60 years.


This is part four of my 10 things every beginning investor should know post.

#4 Turnover is costly

I touched briefly on this in part one so let’s go into more detail here.

Be wary of managers who buy and sell stocks like they would change their underwear. It’s the same thing with dating people who keep having partners, it’s a signal that these people have poor judgement or don’t know what they are doing.

Before we go into that, what exactly is turnover?

In general, turnover refers to transacting. Therefore, a turnover can be thought of as each buy and sell transaction. In evaluating a portfolio, investors can see how often a manager turns over the holdings in the portfolio but looking at something called the ‘turnover ratio’. Investopedia defines this as such:

The turnover ratio is the percentage of a mutual fund or other investment’s holdings that have been replaced in a given year…

There are a few reasons why turnover is costly. Firstly, transaction fees have to be paid each transaction. This means that for each buy and sell transaction, fees are twice.

Secondly, turning over means that investors incur taxes on short-term gains which are usually higher than taxes on long-term gains. While that may not apply here in Singapore since there is no taxes on capital gains, there is no reason to believe that Singaporeans only invest in funds that invest in SGX-listed companies.

Thirdly, even if the manager matches the returns on the market. With the additional fees paid when turning over a stock, it means that returns are compounded over a smaller base.

Fourth, turning over means that the manager must consistently find winners. It’s just pure odds. Let’s be generous and say that the odds of picking a winner are 50%. Having the manager pick just once means that the manager’s odds of picking a winner are 50-50. However, the more times a manager has to pick, the lower the odds (as a total) are because to pick two winners in a row would mean that the odds are 1/2 multiplied by 1/2 which now gives us odds of 1-in-4. Even if the manager has a secret sauce which increases his or her odds of picking winners, the odds that winners are picked must necessarily fall over time due to mathematical laws and as other market participants start to follow the same kinds of strategy.

To sum up, in the words of legendary economist Paul Samuelson:

“Investing should be dull. It shouldn’t be exciting. Investing should be more like watching paint dry or grass grow. If you want excitement, take $800 and go to Las Vegas…”


This is part three of my 10 things every beginning investor should know post.

#3: Even active investors find it hard to beat the market

Alternatively, this should be titled “Even the pros (probably) can’t do it”. We touched a little on this in part one but this post will be a full exposition to convince readers that even the pros find it tough to beat the market. Do note that this is a blog post so being a blog post, this is by no means an academic thesis on why the pros can’t do it. But the evidence I shall present is quite damning.

The Stats

There are people out there who actively look for managers that can beat the market and in a given year, there ARE managers who can beat the market. However, the problem is that a star today almost invariably turns out to be a dog the next year or within the next three. Check out John Paulson’s record for a perfectly textbook example of this. Even managers that have done well for decades can see their records erode over a single event (think Bill Miller).

Studies have also shown that over the long-run, hardly anyone beats the market. So, if you’re a beginning investor and have no clue as to what things like indexed funds, synthetic ETFs, MTNs, Structured Products, Accelerators or Dual-Currency products are or how they work, why take the moonshot chance that things will turn out good?

Behavioural factors lead to closet indexing

The reason for the lack of outperformance among professionals can also be attributed to some behavioural factors. As famous economist and investor, John Maynard Keynes once said, “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

Studies have shown that active fund managers, despite being paid to beat their benchmarks, often end up mirroring their benchmarks so that they don’t do too badly in a given year.

So, the question is, if there is a good chance that your active fund manager is going to end up putting together a portfolio that basically mirrors the index or benchmark he/she is being compared against, then why pay those higher fees at all?

As a beginning investor, it honestly isn’t worth the trouble on taking that bet that things will pay off handsomely when the odds show otherwise.

So general principle number 2 is simple- if you can’t beat them, join them.

#2 If you aren’t willing to invest the time and effort, go passive

Warren Buffett, who’s as good as a stock picker as you’d get once said that for the majority of people, their best option is to go passive. It’s not that stock picking can’t be done, it’s just that it’s terribly difficult.

As we saw in #1 costs matter, even the pros have a hard time staying ahead of the market. If indexing didn’t exist in this world, guess who the pros would be making money from? After all, for every seller, there must be a buyer. If you thought you were getting it at a good price, guess who’s selling to you? And if you thought that things were getting expensive and sold, guess who’s buying?

It still amazes me how many retail investors use price as a signal rather than a basis to form an opinion about valuation. Using price on its own is one of the worst signals I can think of EVER. Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose a year ago, a stock was selling for $0.30. Last week, it was going for about $0.15. That’s a massive 50% discount from a year ago. Would you consider the stock cheap?

Well if you did, guess what? That’s the exact price history of Swiber which just decided to announce that it’s going to be liquidated. I don’t know what shareholders will be left with after creditors and bondholders get their share but the market doesn’t seem to be too optimistic given that it last traded at $0.11. By the way, Swiber IPO-ed at $1.50. There’s been some stock splits and what-not but baseline is, Swiber was a terrible stock.

So, for beginning investors or those unwilling to put it theirs dues, save yourself a whole lot of trouble and just go passive.

For some reason, an article titled “How much do you need to earn to be above Singapore’s “average”?” was making its rounds on my Facebook feed. Although I know that these kind of headings are link baits but what can I say? I’m a sucker for these kind of articles.

It’s painful to read stuff like this from a website in Singapore that is supposed to be promoting financial literacy. After all, this is supposed to be the reason why their site exists.

Enter, a local website that aims to be the destination for timely, relevant, and useful information on personal finance matters presented for the ordinary Singaporean in a bite-sized, interesting, and enjoyable manner. Being run by a group of young Singaporeans in their mid 20s, has no hidden agendas, no sales pitches to make and best of all, no credit cards to charge.

Anyway, the beef I have with the article on that site is that they obviously have no clue what they’re talking about.

The article starts with using GDP as a measure for income. While in theory, there should be no difference in calculating GDP using the income or the expenditure approach*, the problem here is should we even be using GDP as a proxy for one’s income?

Common sense would tell you not to since the salaries to workers are just part of the remuneration for the value created that GDP measures. At the end of the article, the writer even tells us the more important statistic that the median income in Singapore is SGD 3,770 per month which is all you really need to know if you want to figure out whether you earn more than the bottom half. By the way, even that is not completely true to the title since the average and the median in Singapore is far from being the same. Those that don’t know why should go learn some statistics.

So, given the title, most of the article is completely useless because it just tells us what the GDP per capita is (so is the useless calculation of adjusting the per capita figure for just the labour force) and the main point is actually in one sentence somewhere near the bottom.

By the way, the average Singaporean probably doesn’t know this but you can easily get average and median income data from MOM’s website (here and here) that shows you median income over time and even categorised by industry occupation so any one who’s really interested  in comparing doesn’t really need to read a half-assed article to know.

So what’s the value of THIS post?

1) Don’t believe everything you read out there. Most of it is bullshit written by people who don’t know any better.

2) GDP is not a good proxy for worker’s income. However, GDP and wages are correlated which is why, all else equal, most citizens in a country with higher GDP is able to have a higher income than most citizens in countries with lower GDP.

3) People trying to improve financial literacy should just leave economics out of it. There are economic theories that could help people become more financially literate but I’ve found that what helps more is a dose of common sense.

Anyway, the people running that site should be happy that some people who read this are probably going over to check them out but in my book, at their current level, I think that they are the ones who need help.


*GDP measures the market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a calendar year. Since there is a buyer and seller for each good, the value of the good produced is also the income earned by the seller of the good. This is where the writer of the article tripped up since the full value of the good sold doesn’t go to the worker. Not all of us are workers, some are bosses.

– By the way, it looks like they have the guts to acknowledge some of the mistakes in their article by posting some of their readers’ comments in an edit and I wrote this post after seeing those updated comments but my opinion hasn’t really changed much.

2014 has been an eventful year to say the least.

Globally, it was the year of terrible air disasters (for this region, at least) where one Malaysian Airlines flight went missing (MH370) and another was allegedly shot down (MH17). As I write this, an AirAsia flight from Indonesia to Singapore has gone missing (QZ8501). These are terrible events and only hopes that the family and friends of those on board find comfort and peace soon.

As terrible as these events may seem, one cannot forget that there were many more affected by typhoons (Philippines), floods (Malaysia) and famine (in parts of Africa). Some others are adversely affected by the tyranny of a few- think North Korea, wars in the Middle East, shootings in the USA, the  people in the Sydney cafe that was held hostage by a lone madman or the crazy guy that went on a shooting spree in Ottawa.

Bad things happen every year and news channels have a duty to report it. That’s their raison d’être. But just in case anyone thinks that their year has been shitty, maybe a look at my year will make you think twice and take stock of the good things in your life.


It’s been another great year as far as wealth building goes.

The STI did ok this year. It started at 3167.43 and closed at 3365.15 for a gain of 6.24%. Coupled with a dividend yield of 2.5% (I’m making a rough guess here but if the distribution yield on the STI ETF is anything to go by, this is a reasonable long term approximation.), you have a 8.74% gain. Not mind-blowing but nothing to scoff at either. In fact, it’s pretty much at or in fact, just above the long term compounded annual growth rates that one would expect from constantly being in the market.*

My own portfolio saw a 13% return if I count pure investing returns (capital gains + dividends reinvested). I’ll take it. But I won’t expect the same kind of returns year after year on a consistent basis. Including savings added to the portfolio, the portfolio actually grew by 26%.

For those unsure about what the two numbers mean, the pure investing returns (13%) are calculated using a NAV calculation which eliminate the effect of adding more cash to the portfolio. This is a better reflection of the contribution of skill and luck towards returns. The total growth (26%) includes savings which also reflects the added dimension of discipline because I have to forgo current consumption.

So, which number is more important?

That depends a great deal on what answer you seek. If I want an accurate assessment of my investment luck and skill, then I should look at the first number and traditionally, this is the number when evaluating any investment. This is also the number I keep records of every month.

The second number, for me, helps in two ways. First, it helps me track how close I am to my investment goal. A portfolio of a certain size will give me enough scale to go into investing full-time and this is the number I need to meet. Second, it helps illustrate the importance of savings. This is especially true when you have a small portfolio. Even for a portfolio like mine (in the six figure range), it contributed to about half of my portfolio’s growth for the year. However, this number will definitely get smaller as the portfolio grows bigger as salaries don’t tend to go up by much so unless I save larger and larger proportions of my income, the contribution due to savings must become a smaller and smaller part of returns. But for the young investor and those who have just begun working, I hope it illustrates that savings are important! It will be the “ballast” you need to keep your investing ship going and gets you to your target much much quicker.**

I hope I don’t send the wrong message by posting my returns here because in case anyone thinks I’m the next Warren Buffett (I’m far from where he is), just remember that although I did better than the STI, the S&P500 went up 12.55% on capital gains alone. Throw in a dividend yield of somewhere between 1.5-2.0% and the appreciation of the USD against the SGD, my 13% returns has not beaten a passive strategy of just buying the S&P500 ETF. Even if I was on par, the passive strategy would have required a lot less effort.

The past five years have been very kind to my portfolio (well, accept 2011 where the only gain to my portfolio came from savings). I hope the next five will be kind too.

I’m a big believer in the CAPE ratio (it has its critics) and if you used the CAPE ratio as I did, the best 3 months to have bought Singapore stocks in 2014 were (in order from best to third best): February, March and October.

While I don’t buy the STI directly, this gives a good indicator of the current sentiment in the market. When sentiment is as bad as it was, it’s time to look for bargains. Of course, if you don’t know how to value a stock, then please just buy the STI ETF. As it is now, I won’t be looking to buy stocks unless the markets come down a little or there are bargains too good to ignore.

How much of a drop would get me out of hibernation? The STI has to come down by at least 60 points before I’ll even think about it. For me to start nibbling, it has to come down by at least 160 points.


While I experienced the loss of my paternal grandmother, there was also some relief as she had been suffering for some time. She was pretty much immobile after a bad fall a year or two ago- while she could walk with the aid of a walker, that also meant that most times, she had to be pushed around on a wheelchair or walking was only confined to short distances. With the reduction in mobility, she also stopped cooking which I think was one of the few things that she enjoyed doing.

She was also on a long list of medication which had some side effects such as a lack of appetite and it was the fact that she needed to be on some medication that eventually led to the complications when her kidneys started to weaken.

My grandmother was a practical person. She never hankered after a life of luxury and she hardly bought anything for herself. Her passing was peaceful and being the practical person she was, she wouldn’t have wanted her passing to be any trouble to us. I really think she’s in a better place and just as she would have wanted, we’re not grieving over our loss.

On a happier note, the wife and I have finally moved into our own place. Doing housework took some getting used to but thanks to my wife who had the best of upbringings, we’ve settled into a routine that is manageable.

Our interior designer/contractor really did a fantastic job. The design exceeded our (or more of my wife’s  because mine are low) expectations and while their work didn’t come cheap, they weren’t exorbitant either. They kept to the budget and the quality of work is good. What more could we ask for?

Financially, this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Private housing is painfully expensive in Singapore but Public Housing is another story. My place has a total floor area of 1184 square feet. While that isn’t much in other countries, in cities like Singapore, that is a considerable amount.

The more amazing part is how much we paid for it. Just 289 Singapore dollars per square foot. You’ll never find a per square foot price like that in the private housing market here where 700-800+ dollars per square foot is considered cheap. Most apartments I know are smaller and go for anywhere near 1000 dollars per square foot.

What this means for us is that it is extremely unlikely for us to experience a loss on this place if we ever have to sell it. The other cool thing (which I wrote about before) is that because the place cost us so little, we managed to take a floating rate loan that caps the interest we pay at the interest rate that our CPF ordinary account*** pays us. The tenure is for eight years which means that the total interest on the loan is small and with current interest rates at such low levels (currently, we only pay about 1.9% per year), we are effectively getting paid to take the loan. Furthermore, there’s a cap on the interest rates we pay, so there’s only upside and no downside to this loan. (For those who still can’t see it, CPF pays us 2.5% interest while we pay the bank 1.9%. Since we’re getting more than what we pay, the loan is effectively interest free.) The icing on the cake is that we DON’T pay anything out of our pockets for the mortgage i.e. there’s no impact on our monthly cashflow since payment for the mortgage comes from our CPF accounts.

Having said that, we wouldn’t have been able to do this if (a) we didn’t already have a substantial sum already in our CPF accounts, (b) we didn’t both have jobs that pay us slightly above the median (you can check where you stand here) and (c) were willing to wait two whole years for the place to be built. Big thanks to my wife for willing to put up in just one room while we had to wait and my parents for letting stay rent-free for two whole years.

This post has gotten way too long so I’m ending it here. Here’s to hoping that 2015 will be even better than 2014!

*Please don’t expect returns like this by investing in the STI ETF. The State Street one seems to be more heavily traded but the spreads are still wide enough that you won’t get the returns as calculated by the STI. On top of that, you still have to pay State Street for managing the ETF. It’s a reasonable approximation to the STI but don’t expect the EXACT return as calculated using the STI.

**Using the rule of 72, a return of 13% per annum doubles you portfolio every 5.5 years. With a 26% return, your portfolio doubles every 2.8 years. Of course, we can’t expect to see these kind of returns every year and as the portfolio gets larger, the contributions from savings will become less important if one remains an average salaried worker.

***The CPF is Singapore’s idea of a pension scheme where it is compulsory for workers to contribute a portion of their monthly salary towards the fund. The fund has been tweaked to allow for a range of uses, one of which is towards the payment of one’s mortgage.

Mr Han Fook Kwang, former editor of the Straits Times, wrote in his column today (2 June 2013) about how many Singaporeans are unlikely to retire after 60. The nice spin at the beginning was of course how he felt that 60 was the new 30 and that life at 60 should be more of a starting point rather than an ending point. However, Mr Han painted some disturbing figures thereafter.

One painful truth, though, is that for most who have stopped working, their retirement fund, if that’s what the Central Provident Fund (CPF) can be called, will be totally inadequate to finance the lifestyle they have been used to.

Even those earning fairly high salaries will not have enough savings because of the CPF cap which limits their contributions and is pegged to a monthly salary of $5,000.

That’s not just his opinion- an international study has confirmed it.

The research done jointly by the Australian Centre for Financial Studies and Mercer, a global leader in the retirement business, ranked the retirement income system of 18 countries based on 40 indicators in three areas: adequacy, sustainability and integrity.

Singapore obtained a C grading and ranked 13th. The bottom four places were all occupied by Asian countries – China, South Korea, Japan and India – while the top three were Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia.

But it was in the area of adequacy, which is about whether the retirement fund is enough when it is needed, that Singapore was found most wanting. It ranked second from the bottom, ahead of only India.

The CPF’s own figures support this finding: As at end-2011, more than half of those aged 60 and older had less than $100,000 in their balances, below the minimum sum specified by the CPF Board.

Mr Han’s observation shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s pretty obvious that the CPF is a terrible scheme as far as retirement plans are concerned, the interest on the CPF OA isn’t even enough to beat inflation; in recent years, the interest rate on the SA can’t beat inflation either. What irks me is that even the former editor of the Straits Times (who obviously is a brilliant person) advocates more intervention rather than learning.

I listened enviously when a Swiss banker here told me that when he retires at 62, he will be paid at least 60 per cent of his last drawn salary for the rest of his life.

That’s a proper retirement scheme which has three pillars consisting of a national, a company and an individual pension plan.

If it were up to me, I would advocate more financial literacy. The state of financial literacy in Singapore is shocking- anecdotal evidence based on “peer speak and observation” suggest that the common approaches to Financial Freedom here in Singapore are:

a) Work hard and accumulate savings

b) Bet big on lottery (see here)

c) Property

d) Retire elsewhere

There’s more to say on each of the above approaches but that’s another post for another time.