Friday, February 26, 2010

On Financial Freedom

Just some thoughts on this term “financial freedom” that has become a much coveted goal in life popularized by Robert Kiyosaki in Rich Dad Poor Dad. Btw apparently Kiyosaki was never as rich as he proclaimed. He got rich after selling his book. Well, some of his ideas are refreshing though.

What is the definition of financial freedom?

I guess to most people, it would be having enough money in your bank to last a lifetime living the same quality of life and thus having the freedom to choose not to work for money.

In the first ever post on this blog, we worked out this amount is probably slightly more than half a million dollars for a conservative guy and $3mn for someone more aspiring. And this amount is highly unreachable with normal jobs since annual salary is about $30,000 to $40,000 on average in developed countries. (Well actually it’s doable given enough time: like 30 years, as we shall see but that defeats the purpose I guess :)

Hence there is a need for passive income (another term from Kiyosaki) to help fund monthly expenditures. However passive income can only come from a few sources:

1. Dividends from stocks
2. Interest from fixed income instruments (bonds, T-bills etc)
3. Rental income from property
4. Pension or annuity payout
5. Cash flow from businesses (which you don’t have to run it)
6. Royalties from books, songs etc
7. Others: sponsorships, fees etc

So, in order to fund an annual expenditure of say $25,000 (roughly 80% of Singapore’s average income), well say the income yield is 5-8% (an arbitrary average yield if you invest in some or all of the 1-7 above), you need a portfolio of $300,000-500,000. So theoretically, if you save enough and put your money to work wisely, you could become financially free in about 20-30 years. Hell, it’s still gonna take a long time!

(Obviously this amount comes up to be much smaller than what was stated in the first ever post bcos one no. simply calculates lifetime expenses (including mortgage and other liabilities) while the other no. is about how to sustain a certain expenditure with returns from a portfolio.)

Of course, if your monthly household expenditure is $3,000, this works out to be $36,000 per year, it should then then take you about 40 years to save up to a portfolio that could generate $36,000 per year assuming that you save 25% of your income and your savings are invested to achieve a return of 8%. Shiok huh? 40 years to financial freedom!

Well some capable souls might be able to shorten to 10 plus years which is not bad, bcos he or she would be 40+, still young!

Let’s delve into this a bit deeper. Why do people want so much to be financially free?

Well I guess according to the definition above, so that they don’t have to worry about money and bills, and can spend their time somewhere else instead of working like having time to engage full-time in a hobby, to play with kids, do volunteer work etc.

I guess this would be the goal for most who proclaims that their goal is to attain financial freedom.

To put it in another way: the crux of this financial freedom problem seemed to be represented in this matrix

    We want Time, Money and Happiness. Job gives Money but takes away Time and maybe Happiness: so how?

    Most people’s solution is to trade 10+ (if possible) or 20-30 years of time, do a Job that gives Money, and after getting enough money, quit job and get Time, Money and Happiness.

    At this point, we should also note that Time and Money does not generate Happiness. So even after you have achieved financial freedom. It does not guarantee Happiness - which I would think would be the ultimate goal in life. So something is missing here.

    Now the question is really then: is trading 10 plus years of life, or for others 20-30 years a good solution to achieve the coveted financial freedom or rather what most people actually want?

    Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    Concerns on ETFs

    I love ETFs. They allow retail investors to invest in indices with low costs, liquidity, give dividends and even have a helpline that you can call everyday to ask about the ETF you bought. What else can we ask for? However, due to time constraint and limited resources, I haven't been able to research and answer some thorny questions on them. If anybody reading this have answers, pls do comment and share the knowledge.

    1. Forex risk

    Most ETFs on the SGX are listed in USD and as we know, the USD is being dragged to hell as Fed prints money like there is no tomorrow to save the economy. Albeit this process will take many many years. However, if our ETF is in USD, wouldn't that mean that we are being screwed? My answer would be no. Bcos the USD is just a medium to reflect the underlying securities. What matters is the underlying intrinsic value of the securities, not the medium. Take oil for example, it is also in USD. But the underlying value of oil will continue to grow because there is not much left. So USD goes down by 20%, doesn't mean oil price will go down by 20%. Am I right?

    2. Counterparty risks

    What if the issuer of the ETF goes down? Like Lehman. What would happen to the ETF? My understanding is that since the ETF would be held by CDP and we do own the underlying stocks with the ETF, it can be liquidated and the money goes back to us. But is that good enough? How about if the issuer decides to close the ETF bcos it's no longer popular, or whatever other reasons they might have, are they obligated to give us money back at a fair value? Say the NAV of the ETF, of which the NAV is thoroughly calculated to reflect the real NAV of the index?

    3. Swap based ETFs

    Some ETFs do not actually own the underlying stocks of the index they are suppose to represent but a completely different basket of stocks and the return of that basket is swapped for the return of the index. This goes for most Lyxor ETFs. So when we buy the Lyxor China ETF, we actually own a lot of European stocks, whose returns are being swapped for the return of the Hang Seng China Index. So what are the risks involved here? One obvious one would be again counterparty risk. If the swap counterparty cannot honour the agreement, then ultimately we get screwed. Say the European stocks collapsed 20% while HSCEI was up 20%. The counterparty cannot deliver, the ETF holders might get short-changed. What about other risks? I don't have all answers though.

    Here are just 3 issues, but I think there are many others that we have not thought about. If anybody has any answers, pls do share, thanks!

    Thursday, February 04, 2010

    The 7 Levels of Market Participants

    This was inspired by the 7 Levels of Photographers by Ken Rockwell, which was perhaps inspired by religion. Well, in any case, here are 7 Levels of market participants, with One being the lowest and Seven being divine. Enjoy!

    Level One: The Tippee

    The Tippee is someone who receives a tip or some advice and wants to make a quick buck out of greed. This level of market participants usually never had a brokerage account and decided that they should make a some money from the stock market bcos everybody else is doing it. They are inevitably tipped to enter the market by friends who give bad advice at the peak of the bull market and are inevitably burnt and vow never to return. Only to do so during the next bullish peak, again tipped by another friend. In normal times, they live their quiet lives in reality, having full-time jobs and enjoying themselves like other normal folks. This level includes grandmas opening a brokerage account for the first time in their lives, taxi drivers, housewives, first time unit trust buyers, retirees and primary school kids.

    Level Two: The Amateur

    The amateur is a market participant who decided that he/she should dabble in the markets and learn about the intricacies of the world of investing. They are usually bold, eager to learn but lacking in knowledge and information. The amateur spends time after school or work to read up and learn more. The amateur has the potential to reach the higher levels of market participant if he/she has the determination to pursue their goals to the fullest, devoting time to learn the tricks of the trade. This level usually includes high school students or undergrads, young working professionals, semi-retired, rational investors.

    Level Three: The Tradee

    The Tradee is a term that I invented meaning someone who gets traded by the market, ie being played by the market. Most tradees aspire to be hotshot traders earning $10k per month but lack the knowledge or the will to pursue their goal to the fullest. Most of them never attain the status of a trader (next level). Well if they did some rational thinking, they would realize even the hottest shottest traders don't earn $10k per month unless their capital base is like close to $1mn. And if you already have $1mn, why bother trading? Tradees also don't have a robust trading system and the emotional stronghold to withstand the markets. Amateur can become tradees quite easily hence this level also includes a lot of young working professionals, semi-retirees, undergrads, housewives etc.

    Level Four: The Trader

    Okay a small no. of tradees do evolve into traders. These guys make the cut by adhering to their robust trading systems and rules. They definitely have their emotions under control as well. Usually they have put in a lot of effort as tradees, learnt their lessons and have proven themselves. They quit their full-time jobs to trade, making good money (unlikely to be $10k per month maybe $4-5k). They do not blog, they don't argue in forums as to whether traders are better or value investors are better. They spend their time analyzing and thinking. This level usually includes mid career professionals, ex-army officers, ex-investment bankers, PhD students and civil servants.

    Level Five: The Manipulator

    Now we get to the interesting stuff. Manipulators are the big boys. Much like Gordon Gekko. Their investment philosophy is buy high, sell higher. They keep asking, where's my edge over the market. Things they do are in grey zones like buying ahead of earnings downgrade by analyst. They had lunch with the analyst and he hinted. They also engage in activist moves. Like accumulating a lot of Company ABC stock, then announcing some plan to restructure the company, to be led by a restructuring guru, who is their buddy. Technically, it is all still legal, but grey. These people would include big names like ex-remisiers, high net worth stock operators, hedge fund managers, ex-prop traders etc

    Level Six: The Value Investor

    Ok this is the level we are familiar with. We buy value. Stocks that trade at a margin of safety below their intrinsic value. Usually mundane companies with a history of stable earnings. We spend a lot of time reading annual reports, looking at financials and if possible talking to industry people, analysts, company management etc. These level can include a whole spectrum of people including working professionals, undergrads, old-timers, fund managers, retirees and bloggers.

    Level Seven: The Legend

    This is the pinnacle. This are people who have seen it all, been there and done that in the world of investing. Usually they have a knack for finding value but they also have a nose for a good trade, has good macro economics background and are very smart and very diligent. They would buy value stocks only when they see a catalyst for the value to unlock. This is unlike dumb value investors who would just wait and wait. They would also go for high probability trades - like shorting Korean Won or Thai Baht after analyzing and knowing that their central banks cannot defend the currencies. They have surpassed all levels and reached the pinnacle whereby their investment philosophy is no philosophy. Using the formless to combat form. Legends are investors with names that people from all walks of life would know of, like movie stars, famous scientists and world leaders.