Monday, November 26, 2007

Barriers to Entry

To determine whether a company has a business moat ie whether it can defend its turf when competitors come in, we look at what is called Barriers to Entry, one of Porter's 5 Forces. I have identified a few common barriers but I must point out that the list is not exhaustive. Other barriers exist and it takes experience and knowledge to identify them. Again, investing is about life-long learning and hard-work. It is not about get-rich-quick.

Market share
This is the most basic edge a company can have over its competitors. When a company is the No.1 or No.2 in its field, it is simply much more difficult for the laggards or any newcomers to try enter their market. Esp if there are only 2 or 3 big players in the market. This is bcos standards are set and relationships have already been established, and the laggards and newcomers don't have the resources or time to beat the leaders.

Technological edge
This edge can be manifested in several ways. It can be simply authentic technological capabilities, like Toyota with its hybrid technology which it was the first to developed and remain the leader today. Or it can be superior manufacturing technology which allows the company to make stuff cheaper yet have similar or better quality. Like Samsung's LCD TVs.

High initial investment cost
Some businesses require very high start-up cost and this naturally deters competition. Oil/mineral exploration, wafer fabs, a telco network etc. It is simply not business that any Tom, Dick, Harry can start. Sometimes, it can only be started by the government. So when a business can earn a good return and its in one of these high start-up cost sectors, hmm, maybe it can be interesting.

This is one of the best barriers a company can ever build. Buffett prides his See's Candy, commenting how people will always buy See's Candy even when it keep raising prices. Great brands like Coca Cola, Louis Vuitton, Rolex and our beloved Ipod are simply immune to competition. No matter what the competitors do, people will still buy Coke to drink, LV bags, Rolex watches and the Ipod over Creative Mp3 players.

This is the most tricky barrier. Sometimes it works very well for the company in question, but sometimes it simply screw things up. The investor has to become a political analyst to get this one right. Eg. oil fields in Indonesia and Russia. Although major co.s like Shell etc negotiated for rights to sell the oil in these fields some years ago with the respective govts, the contracts were void since oil prices shot through the roof. In the case of Russia, the rights were forced to be sold back to Russian co.s. Suck thumb right? Some value investors stay away from highly regulated sectors altogether.

So, as mentioned, there are other barriers and it takes time and experience to identify them. But when you know the company has got a good business moat, earns a good return, and reward shareholders, then go for it. In Singapore, some co.s that comes to mind would be your mass transport stocks, newspaper, telcos etc.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Index Investing vs Stock Picking

Our guru, Warren Buffett doesn't really like the idea of buying indices bcos it is not really investing per se. He thinks most pple stand a better chance if they follow simple investment rules like those governing Value Investing. But not everyone can be like him.

Another reason why some prefer stock picking is: index fund investing simply takes all the fun out of investing. It is like skipping the appetizer, the soup, the main course and going straight to the dessert. Investment is about pitting your wits against the market right? What's the point of just parking some money in some indices that move only 1% each day?

Well for most folks who really have no time to read up and study but yet want to say they are doing investments, it would be better for them to go buy index funds rather than spend the money on some structured pdts or unit trusts recommended by ignorant / totally unethical bankers that will probably give them poorer or even negative returns.

But for those reading this blog, well, we are different right? We are here to learn to pick stocks and beat the index. Sad to tell you the truth, chances of that happening is roughly 10%. This is a very well documented result and there is even a book that argues if you give darts to some monkeys and they simply throw the darts on some newspaper with all the stock quotes to "pick stocks", the resulting portfolio will do as well as the average fund manager's portfolio.

Nevertheless, the valiant shall not be discouraged. There is Value Investing and there are those Superinvestors fr Graham and Doddsville that made it right? Why not me? Well there are probably tens of millions of golfers around the world, why are we not like Tiger, Vijay or Phil? It takes years of hardwork to be good at anything. Value investing and/or stock picking is no exception.

But having said all that, stock picking is simply too fun to give up for many, including this blogger. Bcos even when you get just one stock right, it's more than enough satisfaction even though you may get another 10 stocks wrong hehe! It is like having kids, I guess. You lose sleep for 10 nights, there are the wailings, the worries when the baby is sick, worries when the baby is too fat, too thin etc. But in the end, that one smile is all it takes to make those sleepless nights and worries worthwhile. Emotional dividend yield 1000%, hehe!

So back to stock picking, although the chances of picking the 10 bagger is pretty slim, we can enhance our chances by sticking to the right investment philosophy. Well the tried and tested method that worked is of course *drumrolls* value investing lah. But it doesn't mean you studied all the literature about value investing then you will make money. Ah Beng knows the golf strokes and theory, but can he beat Tiger? Value investing just increase your chances. Of course, other investment philosophy may work too. After all it's a free market and there are pple who made millions out of day trading.

Maybe the trick is to have a certain % of your portfolio in indices and the rest in stock picking. That way you get to enjoy the best of both worlds. The index part of the portfolio will ensure you earn a good average return of 8-10% and the stock picking gives you the kick you want. So work hard, Tiger is not as high up as you think!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

And how to tackle private bankers?

The private banking industry is booming in Asia and more so in Singapore. Hence we see banks like Citi, UBS, HSBC hiring bankers by the truckloads. They hope that their legions of private bankers will be able to capture AUM (Asset Under Management) and then they can churn their clients to collect lots of fees. Btw, that won't be the official stance, the official stance would be to help HNWIs (high net worth individuals), manage their wealth, do tax planning, investments etc. Sadly, 99% of them (my own guess) will fail to do their jobs.

Traditionally the private banking industry has done good segmentation and actually the name, "private banker" is only reserved for those in the highest hierachy, ie bankers that serve the richest clients, the UNHWI (ultra high net worth individuals, whoa, that's a cool acronym right? Go tell your wife/gf that you will become a UNHWI someday, hehe).

But now, everyone wants to call themselves private bankers, so even those behind the counters whose jobs are to con aunties and uncles into buying some crazy pdts by offering them free umbrellas call themselves private bankers.

Anyways, the job of the private banker is to help clients manage their wealth. But their commission is based on two criteria. 1. How much money they can con their clients to put with the bank. 2. How many pdts they can con their clients to buy.

The second criteria is what makes it most unethical bcos they must continuously sell clients new pdts in order to hit their tgts. ie like maybe 10 pdts per mth or something. And next mth, it's another 10 pdts. So they have to ask the client to buy pdt A today, sell pdt A next mth, then buy pdt B and sell B next mth and buy back pdt A etc. But we know that investments can only generate good return over the long run right? Btw long run means 10 to 20 yrs hor. If you buy and sell stuff mth in mth out, you are just generating comission for the banker, which is what they want and will not help you build your retirement nest egg.

So what is the best way to tackle the private bankers and the best way to do investment? The short answer is you don't have to talk to private bankers.

For most people, the best way to invest would be to buy index funds that have the lowest fees. Index funds are funds that try to mimick the performance of an index, like the STI, Hang Seng, Nikkei, S&P500 etc. They don't employ fund managers who claim that they can beat the benchmark, they just buy whatever is inside the index and hence most of these funds have no sales charges and minimal mgmt fees.

In Singapore, MAS has made some regulations on unit trusts/funds that cap the sales charge at 3% or something. That's actually still too high bcos investment on average only give you 8% per annum. So you pay on 3% on your first year of performance, you are left with 5%, that's a mere 2% better than fixed D! Imagine buying a PC and you need to pay the salesman 20-30% ie $200-300 of commission! On top of them, you pay 1% mgmt fee every year, usually for fund managers that will underperform the benchmark. So my own personal policy is to refrain from buying unit trusts whenever possible. But sometimes, unit trust can help you gain access to some sub-sectors that are not easily investable, eg. environment/green stocks or energy stocks etc.

Look for index funds that have 0% sales charge and probably 0.5-0.8% mgmt fee per year. Lower fees mean higher return back to you. One of the biggest index fund seller in the world is the Vanguard Group. It may be hard to get their pdts in Singapore though. That's when you get the help of the private banker, ask them to source all the index funds available. If they are any good in the first place, they can help you. My guess is: it's more difficult than striking lottery.

After you buy the fund, just leave it there. Don't be bothered by the daily or weekly or even monthly fluctuations, over the long run, all indices will go up, if history is any accurate, you will earn 8-10% per annum, ie you double your money every 6 to 8 yrs. When you have more money to spare, you should just buy more of the same. Of course, you can exercise some judgement and buy indices of growing economies, like China, India etc. Or diversify globally, ie. have some of these hot economies, but also of US and Europe and Singapore.

That is the simple truth about investment, just buy index funds, and you will do ok. Disappointed huh, why so much hype around financial advisers and private bankers right?

But what about stock picking? Next post!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

So how to tackle the insurance agents?

I thought maybe I should provide some (even though still imperfect) answers to my questions in the last post.

On insurance, if the agent cannot help you then who can? For my own journey, I talked to other agents, then I talked to friends, and find out more from the net and newspaper and talked to experienced folks to try to get to the truth.

At first I thought surely there would be some good agents out there. After all, some agents do earn big bucks by selling insurance right? Sooo, I called up pple, asked for appointments, but soon realized that they were all the same. They are TRAINED to sell you the useless stuff, and TRAINED to "taiji away" the difficult questions.

Whenever I asked about term insurance, they would say,

"Oh, but they only cover you until 60 you know?"
"But after 60, my kids are grown up, I don't need too much insurance." I say.
Then they change topic, "But if you buy this life plan, it's like a savings plan, you still get your money back, plus 3-4% per year."
"But meanwhile I pay $2,000 per yr for the next 20 yrs to earn 3-4%? And get covered for $50,000?"
"$50,000 coverage will grow to $50,512 over time! Ok what about this investment link product, it is very good blah blah blah"
What the heck...

I even got one agent who claimed to have advised millionaires on how to buy insurance and still give me stupid recommendations. So in the end, I gave up. I started talking to friends and read up. And here are some conclusions that I gathered.

Use less than 10% of your annual salary on insurance, I recommend 5%. But agents will quote you 20%, saying its MAS regulation. I find it hard to believe. I don't spend 20% of my annual salary on ANYTHING, not even mortgage! 20% on insurance? WTF!

But for 5% you have to try to maximize coverage, it has to be at least 5 times your annual salary to be meaningful. So this is tough job for 99.999% of all insurance agents. Try to find one who can do that, someone young, willing to work hard and help you. My experience: no agent can, so you gotta do it yourself. And that is to buy SAFRA insurance, one of the cheapest around.

Don't get swayed by the agents. They try to bend your rules, like 5% is not enough! Or you cannot see it that way, bcos this 20% will go to your savings blah blah. They should follow your rules, not the other way.

Don't buy investment linked products, usually you overpay for commission and stuff. If you want to do investment, do it separately.

Agents like to blackmail emotionally. Like if you die, your family how? Your kids so young how? And they will say, "I know one friend, cancer, no insurance, pay $200,000 etc". Stop them. I KNOW it's a disaster to die without insurance. But tell me the facts. The premium, the coverage etc. And Get me the cheap value-for-money policy, damn it!

So the ideal scenario, if your annual household income is say $60,000, spend $3,000 on insurance, buy minimal life (you need life policy to get term), say $20,000 and get lots of term, say $250,000. So you spend $3,000 to get insured for $270,000. That's probably an ok deal.

Not sure if most rational people are doing this. Pls comment ok!