Sunday, December 27, 2020

Books #11: The Starbucks Experience

The Starbucks Experience is an interesting quick read that served to remind us what it takes to be the best. We have to think bigger and broader than our competitors and be the best that we can be. Here's two lessons:

1. Great companies (or great individuals for that matter) are always at 100%. Everything matters and no details can be overlooked. We all have our up and down days but to be truly great, we strive to be the best all the time. Great sportsmen, great companies are constantly doing that. That is what it takes to be at the top of the game.

2. Embrace resistance. Nothing in nature grows without facing limiting forces. To work with resistane effectively, one must distinguish between good and bad criticism. We take heed of good criticism while ignoring those that are not true. It is also essential to correct misinformation swiftly. By taking these steps well, we can then grow.

There are only very few retail food chains that has grown so big and sustained for so long. After reading the book, I gained a better understanding why Starbucks is one of them, always trading at very high PER and is currently a USD 120bn company despite its business being brick-and-mortar and being hit badly by the coronavirus.

This is a stock that I would love to own someday. Happy holidays and wising everyone a huat 2021 ahead!

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Fall and Rise of Disney

In March 2020, when the coronavirus hit the US and everyone panicked and bought all the toilet paper off supermarkets, Disney's share price was flushed into the sewers as well. Its theme parks suffered with catastrophic fall in revenue as visitors number collapsed. Its movie business was similarly hit as people stopped going to the cinemas. Share price fell from USD 150 to USD 85. This stock was labelled as the covid-hit name. Avoid it like the plague!

Fast forward to December 2020, its share price hit USD 175, an all time high. Its market cap at USD 318bn is almost 50% bigger than Netflix and also Comcast, owner of Universal Studios. It has beaten Netflix at its own game with the spectacular success of Disney Plus, its newly launch streaming service. Disney now boasts c.100m subscribers across its various streaming services (Disney, ESPN and Hulu). While this is still smaller than Netflix's 195m subs, Disney has far superior content and should catch up in time. 

The Walt Disney Company (its official name) has always been a unique company. Its larger-than-life eponymous founder/creator built the company by creating a mouse, an animated rehash of a fairy tale about a maiden and a poison apple and then dreamed about theme parks where stars are born. They became huge successes and Walt Disney captured people's hearts and minds as one of the most intriguing rag-to-riches stories in modern times.

About 15 years ago, the company made a few spectacular acquisitions under the watch of Bob Iger, a visionary CEO. In 2005, Disney bought Pixar, the hottest 3D animation studio in town from Steve Jobs. Then in 2009, it bought Marvel Studios for USD 4bn. It was lauded as a crazy move because nobody was reading comics and just a few years ago, Sony paid just USD 10m for Spiderman. Back then (and here's the punchline), the most famous superhero wore underpants on the outside and he wasn't even a Marvel character.

Well, as they say, the rest is history. On hindsight, its success was almost inevitable.

To crown it all, in 2012, Disney bought out George Lucas and acquired all the rights to the Star Wars franchise (again for c.USD 4bn). It then launched the last trilogy in the original Skywalker storyline with a disastrous ending. But fans didn't care, they just couldn't get enough of Star Wars. So Disney created all these spinoffs on the various characters (pic above). The current hit, The Mandalorian propelled the franchise back into people's mind during COVID-19 and Disney racked it all in. This is Disney's way.

As the story unfolds, COVID-19 hit its Park, Experience and Products as well as its Studio Entertainment businesses bad, but its Media Network and Direct-to-Consumer (where Disney Plus and other streaming services are housed) will be picking up the slack and bringing the company's profits back (see table below). In terms of cashflow, the company has also shown its operational prowess by diligently cutting cost and preserving cash. It managed to generated USD 3.5bn of free cashflow in the year ending Oct 2020. 


With its current all time high stock price, this is probably not the time to buy the stock. Today's valuation put Disney at 4.5x 2019 price-to-sales which is based on its pre-COVID historical high revenue and 25x 2018 PER. Again, this was the year it has its highest EPS at c.USD 7. In 2018, it also generated its highest ever annual FCF at c.USD 10bn. Off this high FCF base (who knows when it can do FCF of USD 10bn again, it could be 2022 or 2023 or beyond), it is trading at c.3% FCF yield today. It is not crazy internet valuation but it's just not cheap. We value investors need our margin of safety.

COVID-19 however did present the opportunity to better understand Disney. This is a solid compounder like 3M, Starbucks and Diageo. Compounders just bounce back much faster than mediocre, crappy firms. Disney has the best content and the best platforms: theme parks, stores and now streaming networks leveraging on its valuable first-class franchises, creating value simply by telling stories. Like the heroes in its stories, Disney is also bold, innovative and most importantly resilient. Disney doesn't need vaccine, it has immunity!

In future posts, we hope to dissect its various businesses and better understand this solid compounder. 

This is the way!

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Charts #36: Tesla

Another day, another enigma.

Tesla, a company that hasn't made profits cumulatively over the last 10 years, makes a mere 300,000 cars, is bigger than Toyota, Volkswagen, BMW, General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler and Honda combined!

The automakers listed above make more than 30 million cars annually. 100x more than Tesla. 

It also dwarf the recent inclusions into the famed S&P500 by a mile!

Well, maybe bcos it did finally generate USD1bn of FCF after burning USD10bn since its inception. Remember the market only looks forward, not backwards.

Or, we can attribute it to the Power of QE Infinity. 

To Infinity and Beyond!

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Covid, Consumerism and Diageo

2020 will go down in history as one of the craziest year ever. A microscopic organism wreaked havoc causing millions of deaths. A US President who refuse to concede defeat and handover after losing the election. Meanwhile, in the midst of all these, Chinese spend USD74bn on a single day buying stuff, almost doubling what they bought last year on the same day. That's also 10x more than what's sold in the similar event in the world's largest economy - US Black Friday sales in 2019. 

Intuitively, Covid and consumerism should not go together. We are still in the midst of a pandemic and millions of people are suffering from the loss of jobs and deaths of loved ones. But Covid has shown that we are so used to consumerism and our way of lives that we cannot help it. E-commerce sales went through the roof. Where tourism is again possible in parts of the world like China, people travel and spend. In fact, they spent more than usual. There is even a term for it - revenge tourism.

As such, a stock like Diageo is strangely, doing well despite less on-premise drinking in pubs, restaurants and events. Alongside other alcohol names like Moutai and Heineken but doing less well versus LVMH, the world's most powerful marketing machine. Diageo means day (dia) and the world (geo) in Latin, referencing to its global footprint (it operates in 180 countries) and encouraging people all over the planet to seize the day. Unsurprisingly, its company slogan is "Celebrating Lives, Every Day, Everywhere." 



There is a lot of history with this company which is fascinating and insightful but for our purposes let's stick to what is important for investors. Diageo is the world's second largest distiller after Moutai and owns a portfolio of high quality liquor brands including Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff and Guinness. Its full suite of brands are listed above.

Its investment thesis is as follows: Diageo is a global leading spirits company that has compounded growth steadily since its inception in 1997. Its strong brands, coupled with good marketing, high market share and strong global distribution has enabled the firm to generate consistent, steady free cashflow (FCF) and high ROIC. Covid presents an opportunity to be able to buy it at a slight discount. At market cap of GBP67bn and projecting a strong recovery in FCF to GBP3bn in the future, its FCF yield is c.4.5%.

Diageo is also laser focused on shareholders. In its annual report, it listed its top three financial targets: free cashflow, return on invested capital and total shareholder return (see below). Diageo has done pretty well in all three and importantly, these are the exact metrics that investors are now looking at. Price earnings ratio (PER) and Return on Equity (ROE) are still important but they no longer tell the full story as well. 


PER has been the preferred metric for decades but as companies learnt to manipulate earnings and manage this number, it became less and less reliable. As for ROE, it can be artificially inflated simply by raising debt and as such ROIC became a better return metric over time. PER and ROE has also become less meaningful with global QE. Cheap money means lower cost of equity demanded by investors and cheap debt. The former is the reason why we can no longer buy good companies at teens PER.

As we can see from Diageo's numbers above. It has consistently generated both strong FCF and high ROIC. What is impressive is that is has managed 12.4% ROIC despite Covid's negative impact. This goes back to the conundrum we presented earlier. Why are people spending and drinking during Covid? Are we just so consumed by consumerism that not even a pandemic can change our behaviors? Perhaps so. Single's Day crazy buying and Diageo's performance have validated this theory.



Diageo is a  also superb marketing company. One of the first slides on its investor presentation deck showcases its efforts during Covid to help disrupted lives. It sent out 10m bottles of hand sanitizers and spent $100m to help poorer communities. This is both noble and smart. The company is also acutely aware of global issues. Inspired by the #MeToo campaign perhaps, it launched a Jane Walker campaign in 2018 to support the fairer sex. Geez, just looking at it makes one want to buy a set of two! One for John and one for Jane.


In the following posts on Diageo, we shall delve deeper into the business, its positives and risks! Keep walking. 

Huat ah!

Monday, October 26, 2020

Thoughts #22: The Curious Impact on COVID Sectors

COVID-19 has impacted various sectors in dramatic ways and yet benefitting totally different sectors altogether. This post tries to connect the dots and to crystallize some of these thoughts. Hope this helps!

1. Business and long distance travel. This will be impacted for a long time. Some say air traffic will not return to 2019 level even in 2024. As such, airlines are in a lot of trouble. Related to that, inflight meals (SATS), aircraft servicing (ST Engineering and SIA Engineering), hotels, tourism goods, luxury products, demand for gasoline, the whole aerospace industry, in short, the better half of Singapore's listed companies and even business travel solutions - SAP is down 20% in one day!

2. Social distancing. This has impacted restaurants, cinemas, live events, spectator sports, small businesses like massage parlors, pubs and related to that on-premise beer demand, liquor sales, soft drinks and the likes. Auto sales as well bcos you cannot buy a car without touching, feeling, test driving and sitting and talking with the dealer. That said though, Tesla is flying!

3. COVID winners. Conversely, the TMT^ sectors benefited big time. ZOOM, SAAS and remote work solutions took off. Amazon and Netflix benefited from shopping at home and more binge watching. Online learning boomed, together with ZOOM (decimating Pearson, the world's largest textbook seller along the way). Gaming is another big beneficiary and needless to say, vaccine related plays are also commanding sky high valuations.

So what to bet now? I will tend to focus on the beaten down ones to find the gems. Maybe JCNC can be an interesting recovery play when things settle down. People will need to buy their cars, bikes and finance such purchases for their livelihoods post COVID-19. There will be a lot of pent up demand for sure!

Looking back in history many years from now, this would be one of the most unique crisis that people will analyze for years. Let's try can still make some money despite some indices back to all time high! Might have room for STI to chiong. Huat Ah!

^ TMT stands for telco, media and tech. This was a buzz acronym in 2000 during the tech bubble.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Charts #35: Cybersecurity

This is one big growth area for the next five years.

Breaches have increased. Old chart - only until 2017. But should have kept going up.


Spending has increased and will continue to do so.

2019 was big. Well, 2020, with COVID, should have exacerbated the need for more security.

Buy HACK US - cybersecurity ETF. But do your own due diligence. Or check for my update here when I get down to do it.

Huat Ah!


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Trump vs Biden Debate and Lessons for Us

Healthy debate is crucial in investing. This is because we all have blind spots and we need to bang our heads together to check what is wrong with our investment thesis. Did we miss anything? Did we have enough margin of safety? Did we overlook a big risk? I looked at my worst performing names over the years. They were usually stocks that I didn't debate with anyone. I just analyzed on my own and bought it, thinking it was cheap, had a good story and I knew all the risks. I have learnt my lesson. To invest well, engage in healthy debates.

But importantly, the debate has to be healthy. 

Unhealthy debate, which we just saw with Trump and Biden, open a new can of worms or just opened worms that can debate unhealthily amongst themselves. I don't even know which is worse. Maybe watching Trump is worse than a can of worms. If I had to debate with someone like that on stock ideas, maybe I would have lost all my money and my pants hahaha.

Well, back to debate and lessons learnt.

Debate has always intrigued me. We grew up watching debate matches and politicians on TV and it's not about seeking the truth. It is about who can talk well, who can stage a good rebuttal, which may or may not be logical. Sometimes it sounds logical, but if we think deeper, it's just rubbish. Yes, sometimes, it's just outright lies, not just with Trump. There are usually no solutions and no insights. Just a lot of cheap talk. Trump vs Biden was worse. We didn't learn any truths, we didn't even have cheap talk. It was just pasa malam (wet market) rattling and Trump cutting other people off.

So here's the lesson: don't debate with rubbish people. Walk away. 

Joe Biden would have walk away if he could. But he has to fight on. At 78, he certainly still has the grit to keep putting up with shit. If that is what it takes to do the job. Kudos to that. Debating on stocks is also about grit. The desire to seek the truth, to understand the reality, to find out the true range of intrinsic values and then buy at a margin of safety and make money. It's hard work and grit.

Good debating about stocks has to be built on trust. We want to tear down each other's arguments to seek truths. It is not about ego and it is not about arguing who is right or wrong. It is about really seeing what are the scenarios, how they will play out and how to bet such that we can make money. When ego gets in the way, all is lost. 

Questions will be pointing and some with big egos may not take them well, here's a few examples below:

1. You are telling me what the markets know, what everyone knows. Is there a differentiated angle here? What makes you think the market has not thought about this?

2.  What if the stock falls through your worst case scenario? Have you modelled a second and third wave and its negative impact? What will be the risk vs reward then? Can you still say the rewards outweigh the risks?

3. If this is the case, why hasn't the company done what you have just described? Surely the company has thought about it. They live and breathe their business. You just do desktop analysis. What are the chances that you are wrong and the company is right?

4. There are reasons why the stock is cheap and has not rerated. What is different today vs one year ago or two years ago? The market is not stupid. What have you overlooked?

5. You are saying growth will be much higher and hence current valuation is justified. What makes you think you are smarter than all the analysts out there projecting growth numbers? 

The lesson here is to be like Biden. Take it in strides. It is not about me and never mind the tone of the questions. Never mind getting cut off. The quest is to win and make constructive changes to benefit the country. That's Biden. For investing, the quest is to get to the truth. If it means making money, then it's worth it. The struggle makes the analysis better and makes us sharper, better investors. 

Happy Children's Day, Huat Ah!    

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Charts #34: COVID Economy Pulse Check

 Two interesting charts to share from FT.

Is it just a matter of time for economies to come back or will the world really change and we take many many years to go back to 2019 levels?

Human beings want to go out. Can we really stay at home and WFH forever? We may not see it now, but the world should normalize again and we go back to our old ways with some incremental changes - use ZOOM a bit more, wear masks outside etc.

Friday, August 28, 2020

2020 Dividend List

This year's dividend list is out! Dividend related topics have consistently been popular and this year we would like to introduce Poems screening tool to generate your own list. Poems have been one of the strongest Singapore brokers over all these years, despite it not being part of a bigger conglomerate. Perhaps, it's precisely because it's not part of any conglomerate that it understands what the small investors need.

Here's how the screener looks like (below). There are only a couple of factors to choose from, but it's good enough. For this year's list of Singapore stocks, I have chosen just a few criterias:

1. Market cap of more than a billion

2. ROA and ROE of more than 4% and 12% respectively.

3. Dividend yield of 3%.

Poems stock screener for SGX

This year's list is interesting given the backdrop of the global pandemic. While some global markets have recovered, Singapore has not. Many of our large caps are directly affected by COVID, like our beloved national carrier, and related to that, our aerospace names like ST Engineering and SIA Engineering (both shown here). Next, our oil and gas names are affected. With nobody flying and moving around, oil demand collapsed. Oil prices went negative in March! 

So, Keppel, Sembcorp and Sembmarine were impacted badly. They in turn hit our banks. With these names making up the majority of the STI, this could be why global investors shunned Singapore's stock market. Given our dependency on the big global players for export and trade and tourism, our economy and businesses are also impacted badly. But fear not, QE Infinity will save the day!

With or without QE, there are always interesting individual stock names. 

Jardine Cycle and Carriage is a stock discussed before. There could be an opportunity to buy here given it's now below its rights issue price in 2015! It went all the way to $47 and then collapsed during COVID, since no one's in the mood to buy new cars. The lesson to be learnt here is that Singapore, because of our environment, will have very few long term buy-and-hold stocks. I thought JCNC could be one,  unfortunately, it did not turn out that way. I am glad I took profit when it was doing very well. So, one has to truly stick to Ben Graham's philosophy of selling when these stocks are near its intrinsic values. 

Most of our Singapore names are not compounders, i.e. their intrinsic values do not go up exponentially. In fact, some of them do not go up. So we must sell when they trade near their intrinsic values and we buy only when there is a huge margin of safety to stocks' intrinsic values. Some of the names today might have that margin of safety today: Singapore Exchange, Thai Beverage. These companies have good business models and rarely trades cheaply. So at teens PE and 3% dividend yields, it's worth looking at more closely. 

Poems stock screener for NYSE

For the next list, we have our NYSE stocks. Poems allow for screening for a few exchanges and it is worth going through exchange by exchange. For the purpose of this post, I am doing just for NYSE. Using almost the same criterias, the screen churned out an interesting long list of names. Just to name a few: 3M (discussed here as well), Blackstone, Coca Cola and Kellogg. All of these give at least 3% dividend yield. 

So while markets are near all time high, there are still cheap interesting names. We are seeing the very similar dichotomy seen during the dotcom bubble. IT and tech names populated people's mindshare and old economy names were forgotten. Today, the FANGs stocks make up more than 20% of the US indices and Nasdaq is at all time high. Tesla, making 300,000 cars is bigger than Toyota making 10m cars. Meanwhile, interesting old economy names like 3M and Coke continue to generate 30-40% ROEs but are trading at significant discount to loss-making companies. 

Markets are as such. While they are efficient, they reflect the thoughts of all its participants and sometimes, these thoughts do not make sense. That said, we must always remember wisdom from the greats - John Maynard Keynes quote comes to mind:

"The market can remain irrational longer than you can stay solvent."

Don't bet the house on buying this list of names or go shorting FANGs or Tesla. Be prudent and do due diligence before betting. An investment operation is one, through analysis, provides capital protection and promises a satisfactory return. Anything else is speculation. Cheers!  

Huat Ah!

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Charts #33: Global REITs

 Found a good chart depicting the global REIT space.

The world has changed since COVID-19, but I don't think retail and office will collapse 30-40% over the long run. Humans are creatures of habits and we eventually revert back to our old ways.

Although, travel will take a much longer time to comeback, so hotels need to have sufficient cashflow to tide over the next 1-2 years. Hope this helps!

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Books #10: Ray Dalio's Principles

I have not been able to put this book down for the last few weeks. Even though I read the very first version when it was published as a memo in pdf format many years ago. It was already very good then and I printed and kept a copy. But the book is 100x more awesome. If you have not read it, pls go pick it up today. This is one of the best books written ever.

For the un-initiated, Ray Dalio runs the world's largest macro hedge fund called Bridgewater. He is a multi-billionaire, made from investing and he attributes his success to his principles for work and life. Hence the eponymous book. He has never published his investment track record, but like Warren Buffett, he probably made most of his money in the earlier years. Bloomberg published a league table (below) a few years ago.

Bridgewater's returns

Well, track record aside. The book is a page turner because every sentence just made sense. At the core of it, as Ray puts it, life is about seeking the truth and embracing reality. More often than not, we do not want to face reality. We somehow believe that if we think hard enough, or want things bad enough, we can bend the truth. For instance, we want a nice body. No belly fat, good muscles, ideal BMI of 20. Yet, we do not schedule even an hour per week at the gym. We snack on potato chips, drink alcohol thrice a week and eat ice-cream all weekend. This is not understanding the truth nor reality. 

Yes, we can change reality by scheduling and actually going to the gym. Until then, we must look at the truth in the mirror. The verdict can always change, as Mariah Carey has shown us. The right pic below is unflattering but apparently she is now fit again (in 2020).

Mariah Carey: 90s vs 2018

Beating the markets is all about understanding reality. This reality takes the best minds to figure out. One head is not enough. Warren Buffett had Charlie Munger and George Soros had Stan Druckenmiller. So at Bridgewater, Ray Dalio made the best and the brightest put all their heads together and debate to seek the truth about markets. But it can be super tough. Smart people all have egos and all of them want to bend the truth to fit their own reality. So it takes time to figure out who's really interested to just seek out the truth.

To Ray, only 100% open minded and yet assertive people are able to achieve that. These people seek out others to disagree with them, in order to get to the truth. They will suppress their ego to do that. If they are wrong, they admit so, change their mind, reverse bets and make money. Closed minded, egoistic, smart people are the most dangerous. Naturally, nobody will volunteer to tell you they are closed minded and/or egoistic. So it took Ray 40 years to figure things out. Here's just a few best quotes:

1. Beware of assertive fast talkers, they use speed as a way to push their agenda past other's examinations. Slow them down, make sense of things before conceding.

2. Open minded people ask questions, closed minded people always tell you what they know, even if they hardly know anything. They are typically uncomfortable being around those who know a lot more than they do. Closed minded people will just waste your time.

3. Being open minded is more important than being smart. It is hard to be open minded and assertive. Some people are too willing to accept others' views at the expense of their own. One must be both open minded and assertive.

4. Watch out for people who think it is embarrassing not to know. They are likely to be more concerned with appearance than seeking the truth. These people go for style and form over substance.

5. Don't worry about looking good, worry about achieving your goals. Get over blame and credit and get on with accurate and inaccurate. The need for phoney praise needs to be unlearned.

6. Reflect on pain because pain leads to growth. Remember that the pain is all in your head. To evolve, we need to confront the pain and see clearly the paradoxes. Reflect, learn and resolve them. The past no longer matters except as a lesson for the future. 

7. Don't be naive, most people will pretend to operate in your interest while operating on their own.

8. Everyone has opinions and they are often bad, including your own. Only listen to the believable ones who are open minded. After making sure they have demonstrated believability, with track record, reason and logic.

There are way too many nuggets in this book. Hopefully I can find time to organize more of them. 

Hope this helps! Huat Ah!

Friday, July 24, 2020

Charts #32: COVID Market and Currency Impact

COVID-19's impact on the markets and currencies provide interesting perspectives. Tech stocks has completely outperformed as social distancing forced people to carry out more activities online. Nasdaq zooming passed its all-time high is exemplary.

Source: Asian Nikkei Review


The impact on currencies tell two tales. Developed markets are doing much better than emerging markets. The virus does differentiate. If you live in a developing country, with poorer social infrastructure, chances of death is that much higher. The economies of weaker countries will find it harder to come back after the coronavirus crisis.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Is This The Beginning Of The End For Singapore?

Is this a new dawn for Singapore? Or the beginning of the end for Singapore? What does it mean for Singapore stocks? Or properties? Or just investment into the little red dot in general? These are investors' questions. 

Yesterday, we saw the results of Singapore's 13th election and the first held without any public rallies due to COVID-19. It was supposed to be a breeze for the ruling party, the handling of the COVID-19 crisis while having small hiccups was largely successful hitherto. The Government dough out huge payouts to Singaporeans during the crisis. That's helicopter money in SG style! And according to past experiences, Singaporeans always wanted strong and safe hands to steer them out of the woods. 

Yet, Singaporeans voted the most number of opposition candidates into the Parliament since independence. The ruling party lost the second Group Representation Constituency (GRC) after losing the first one in 2011. The Prime Minister in waiting Mr Heng Swee Keat only managed to secure 53.4% of his East Coast GRC votes. This was a body blow to his East Coast Plan!

Singapore Election Results from 1991-2020

The ruling party, People's Action Party or PAP, has always warned that Singapore cannot afford any mistakes. They are the best steward for this Little Red Dot. They have done it for 50 years and they have the track record. If we screw up, global investors will flee on the first flight out, or the first trading week. We will be doomed. No one owes Singapore a living. We have to make our own. That means not opposing the Gahmen (Singlish for Government).

But is it true?

Perhaps so, until the 2000s. But over the last twenty years, Singapore as elevated its position into one of the top global cities in the world. We have one of the world's most expensive properties and one of the highest standards of living globally. We are often mentioned in the same breathe as London, New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Singaporeans travel all over the world, see other cities and know this.

Our first few generations of leaders brought us here, kudos to them. 

Our properties prices has risen on the back our status elevation and global quantitative easing (QE) by the large central banks. QE has also been elevated to another unprecedented level in the name of fighting COVID-19. Central bankers simply printed money and shoved it down people's chimneys. This is also called helicopter money.

As such, Sky Habitat did not fall from $1,700psf despite my quadrilogy rambling seven years ago. Prices remained sky high as we became the global playground for the rich and famous. We may never see property prices falling, PAP or not. Well's that is barring a super major screw-up if the Opposition takes over, which is hard to imagine.  Hey, Worker's Party MPs also own properties right? So in short, Singapore property prices will continue to go up, as with Hong Kong and the other major cities. In fact, if Hong Kong properties are not falling, then Singapore should be even safer.

But what about stocks? Businesses? Foreign direct investments? Startups?

Straits Tines Index since 1987

Well the Straits Times Index (STI) has plateaued since the mid 1990s and peaked in 2007. We have not been able to break 3,800 since then. This has to do with our inherent strength as a young island-city nation. In the 1990s, the STI was driven by our SOEs: Singtel, SIA, DBS, Keppel and the likes. As our economy grew, they did well. They became big enough to go acquire other companies in the region. But that was that. Our market today is still dominated by these companies. There are no large home-grown listed companies run by Singapore entrepreneurs. 

Okay, there's probably one or two lah. Like Wilmar, part of the Robert Kuok Group, but the man Robert Kuok himself is more Malaysian than Singaporean. Then there is Thai Bev and Top Glove but these are also not started by Singaporean entrepreneurs. Going further down the market cap list, we have Olam (started by an Indian born in India) and Venture (both not in the chart below though). So perhaps today, it is Venture, our truly homegrown listed company run by a Singaporean entrepreneur. 

There was also Creative, but it is way down the list today at just SGD200+m in market cap. There are a few that went delisted or never bothered to list, like our Popian King. But the moral of the story for the STI is this - we produce a dearth of entrepreneurs because of our Gahmen policies which include education, trade, foreign investments, public service affected everything including our talent pool's career paths, our business mix etc that resulted in the lack of entrepreneurs.

Market Cap Ranking on SGX

So the stock market is not likely to go ballistic from here. I don't think the Worker's Party will make it worse. Neither can the PAP make it better. It is probably gonna be status quo and global investors know this. We do have to continue to do well with foreign direct investments and drive the economy by attracting global talent and tourism. That way, our local businesses can thrive. The Opposition, or maybe the PAP itself, might screw things up here. We may not like it but we have to continue to grow to 8-10 million people. That is the city's evolutionary path, any city's evolutionary path.

What's the point if a city cannot grow? Let alone a city-nation without hinterland.

In the longer term future, we do have to do something with our education. We have discussed education here some time back. Our pressure cooker education system can produce exam smart students but they are not ready for the future. Our students can only score in exams. If they cannot talk well, cannot program and lack EQ, how do they fight children from the US, China and India? How to compete with A.I.? We need innovative students with more entrepreneurial spirit. Did the Sengkang parents bite on this issue and reject PAP? Maybe so. It is truly an important issue. Of course, the Government knows this. We have time to improve. Hopefully we can.

So in short, no. This is not the beginning of the end for Singapore. 

Our property market has the biggest tailwind behind its back called global QE. Neither WP nor PSP can stop it. Property prices will continue to go up. Even properties in Sengkang. Our stock market has plateaued and will stay so unless we make some radical improvement. We can do this by producing more entrepreneurs, and we need to fix our education system to do that. It is imperative we evolve and do that.

Huat Ah!

Saturday, July 04, 2020

SIA at $10...Dream Long Long...

Here's two interesting charts on Singapore Airlines (SIA) that I found doing simple desktop research in late June. It shows the destructive nature of dilution including rights issue and other forms of equity capital raising. These charts illustrate how dilution works negatively for investors and they are great reminders that we have to invest in businesses with strong franchises which require little need for additional capital constantly.

The first chart below is a snapshot from Google showing SIA's share price since 2008 or so. This chart adjusts for the recent rights issue that SIA or SQ (its flight code) did in order to survive. The share count has since more than doubled and as such Google adjusted its share price accordingly. Historical prices now showed that SQ did not trade above $10 for the past 10 years based on the new share count (which is more than doubled before its rights issue).


SQ's price chart from Google

This is the correct representation. Kudos to Google. As old timers in the Singapore stock market would recall, SQ traded above $10 for most of its life as a listed stock. But it will almost never go back there because of the massive dilution/rights issue. 

The new $10 is $5. To reiterate what I wrote previously (in the post "What To Do with SQ's Rights Issue", the range of intrinsic value (IV) for SQ is probably in the vicinity of $3.3 to $5. Simplistically, I did a back of the envelope calculation which put the median of $4.2 as the new IV. As mentioned, if it falls close to $3, then we have a good margin of safety and SQ could be a profitable trade (but hey, we are value investors, not traders right?).

This second chart below shows SQ's share price but it's from Yahoo! Obviously Yahoo's A.I. or whoever is doing the charts hasn't gotten things right. We see SQ's share price showing some old prices, like SQ was trading at $16 in 2010 (which is shown as $8 in the Google price chart above). The Yahoo! price chart goes way back, so we see what the old timers see, SQ trading above $10 for most of its trading history. That's a mirage. A dream long gone. We see how the price then fall off the cliff from $8 to $3.75 today. Which is true, but with the adjustment not factored in, the whole picture doesn't gel.

Maybe that's why Yahoo! is no more and Google rocks!

SQ's wrong price chart from Yahoo!

When a dilution occurs, the share price has to work doubly hard to get back to where it was. Some companies like to do small rights issues in the name of M&A or other capital needs for growth, causing a 20-30% dilution. If we get lucky, or if the company's management is really good, this dilution is justified and the share price can compound growth and generate good returns to come back. 

But more often than not, this doesn't happen and investors get screwed.

In cases of massive dilution such as those we saw this year in Singapore: Singapore Airlines and Sembcorp Marine, investors are forced to cough out a lot more money and those who do not will never see their capital. Well, for those who do cough up, it's still tough. The $3 rights have 75c of profit given that SQ share price is now $3.75, but what about those lots invested previously at $6? It's just throwing money to stay in the game. The verdict is not out. We may see second waves and more rights issues.

So that's just investing. Buyers beware. We have dream long long to see SQ at $10 again. (Translation from Singlish to English: stop dreaming SQ will go back to $10 one day.) 

Caveat Emptor. Happy Independence Day! Huat Ah!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Book #9: Security Analysis - Chapter 2

Security Analysis is a seminal book written by the grandfather of value investing Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, a professor at the Columbia University. It was published in 1934. I started reading it about a couple of years ago but have yet to reach Chapter 3 (out of over 50 chapters). The book has over 700 pages.

The reason for such slowness is due to the way this book was written. First, it was written by two intellects espousing difficult concepts in investing. The language they used is not common day English and it does not help that it was written over 80 years ago when the usage of English wa probably different. Nevertheless, I believe there is value in finishing this book and as I complete these chapters, I hope to jot down my learnings here.

The first lesson learnt today is about trying to model earnings trend. As it is now vs 80 years ago, analysts like to model future earnings. They could create models for the next 5 years, or the next 10 and based on their model, they believed they can calculate the intrinsic value the stock. This is also what I have done for various stocks on this infosite.

To the grandfather of value investing, this is actually bullshit. The future earnings, in their minds, are not even quantitative numbers. They are merely qualitative assumptions of the future. The way they explained it, only past financial numbers are quantitative. They are track record achieved and they provide an idea how this business can perform and how cyclical or defensive the business can be.

They look for variance in earnings, look at long term (10 years) trends and is very discerning about what is truly quantitative i.e. not disputable. I guess this is simply another verification of how Ben Graham was always looking at hard numbers, net nets and balance sheets because everything else is just qualitative.

So this is it, first lesson from Security Analysis. Hope to come back with more in the future chapters!

Friday, June 19, 2020

Thoughts #21: Venezuela

I have followed Venezuela's cautionary tale with sadness. It is a reminder to me how GFC could have crippled the world. What we see in Venezuela today is what could have happened with we screw up our financial system. Here's a quote from FT:

Nearly 5m Venezuelans have left since 2015 — about 15 per cent of the population — and another million are expected to depart this year. That could make the crisis the world’s biggest refugee emergency, surpassing Syria. Unlike other humanitarian crises, it is a disaster caused not by war or natural disaster but by misrule on a grand scale.



With GDP collapsing more than 60% and hyperinflation rendering its currency worthless, it is a broken country now with no recovery in sight. It is another reminder how commodities (Venezuela has oil and soft commodities and benefitted from the boom 2007-2012) can be the biggest curse.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

When the COVID Wave Strikes, those Swimming in Sembawang needs Rights Issues

Warren Buffett famously said, "when the tide is out, then we know who is swimming naked". Well in Singapore today, it's rights issue buffet for companies that start with S. COVID-19 has brought down our Singapore Inc companies like dominos. We saw Hin Leong, which didn't even had a chance to do rights issue and went belly up. Then our beloved national carrier Singapore Airlines raised S$15 billion in March which was more than twice its market cap. 

Who's swimming naked?

Now, we have the Sembawang Corporation Group in trouble. More specifically, Sembcorp Marine (SMM) is in trouble. Its parent, Sembcorp Industries (SCI) and grandparent Temasek are going to save it. Not without caveat though, SCI will disown the child by giving away SMM shares to its own shareholders. But the way it is done, minority shareholders of SMM will need to cough up a lot more money to stay in the game. Yes, minority shareholders in Singapore got screwed, again!

Here's the key highlights of the proposed transaction taken from SCI's website:

1. S$2.1 billion renounceable Rights Issue 

• Sembcorp Marine to undertake a S$2.1 billion renounceable Rights Issue 

• 5 for 1 at S$0.20 per share at 31.0% discount to TERP based on 76.5% discount to last close of S$0.85 on 3 June 2020 

• Sembcorp Industries to subscribe for its pro rata entitlement of S$1.27 billion and take up an additional S$0.23 billion if necessary to a total commitment of up to S$1.5 billion 

• Sembcorp Industries will set off its outstanding S$1.5 billion subordinated loan extended to Sembcorp Marine in June 2019 to subscribe for the rights issue; the loan will convert into equity on Sembcorp Marine’s balance sheet 

• Temasek has agreed to sub-underwrite the remaining S$0.6 billion of the rights issue with no sub-underwriting fees 

2. Proposed Distribution of Sembcorp Marine shares to Sembcorp Industries shareholders 

• After the completion of the rights issue, Sembcorp Industries proposes to undertake a distribution of its stake in the recapitalised Sembcorp Marine to Sembcorp Industries shareholders on a pro rata basis as dividends 

• Sembcorp Industries shareholders will receive between 427 and 491 Sembcorp Marine shares for every 100 Sembcorp Industries shares owned, with no cash outlay 

• The transaction will result in the demerger of Sembcorp Marine from Sembcorp Industries

The chart below shows clearly how SCI will no longer own SMM after everything is said and done. Temasek will still own both entities but SCI's shares in SMM will be transferred to SCI's own shareholders. As such, SCI's public shareholders will own 30.9 to 35.4% of SMM. This effectively demerge SCI and SMM. Some say paving the way for merger between Sembcorp Marine and Keppel O&M. But, we shall see, it is never so simple.

SCI to gives its SMM shares to its shareholders

To sum things up, SCI shareholders got the long end of the stick, while SMM shareholders got screwed. SMM share price collapsed 30-40% today dropping to 50 cents at one point before recovering while SCI share price rose 30-40% to above S$2. The market verified that this is a transfer of wealth from SMM minority shareholders to SCI minority shareholders. SMM shareholders will not see their capital if they do not subscribe to the rights issue. Well, also not that high a probability if they do! SCI shareholders will get SMM shares at the end of day and get to sell them for a bit more profit. 

Similar to SIA's situation, SMM raised an amount more than its market cap. S$2.1 billion vs its market cap at S$1.6 billion-ish before the announcement. So the share price will have to more than double just to get back to where it was. During the best of times, its market cap went to S$11 billion! Barring any miracle, we can say that it will never get near that market cap. For the last five years, its market cap hovered between S$2.8 to S$3.6 billion.

Looking past the last two decades, there are almost as many years as it was free cashflow (FCF) positive as it was negative. It's so volatile we cannot even compute a FCF number. For what it is worth, the average annual FCF is minus S$700m over the last 20 years. It did make an average of c.S$250m from 2000 to 2009 but a huge negative from 2010 to 2019. In short, it's hard to justify any market cap using FCF. Well, it is a similar situation with SQ but airlines, rightly or wrongly, command a higher EBITDA multiple and fortunately for airlines, EBITDA is not FCF. 

Capex heavy businesses

Again as with airlines, the oil and gas industry is highly capital intensive, which means it is always in need of capital to drill, to grow and to compete. Look at the stuff Sembmarine needs to build (above), it sucks, time, capital, manpower. It needs land, large building and factories, permits etc. It's just not good business. To make things worse, companies like Sembmarine has to take on leverage to manufacture these rigs and ships which weakens its balance sheet. So when the tide goes out, or when shit happens, everyone is screwed. 

Once upon a time, I liked that Keppel and Sembmarine ruled the world with high market share in rigs. They got scale, they even monopolized the design of the rigs. They were riding high on high oil and gas prices. COVID-19 showed us high oil price was a mirage, something that just goes up and down. It can also go negative. Well, I guess there's a lesson to relearn here: avoid capex heavy businesses. 

So while Sembcorp Industries shareholders are laughing now, well, SCI is in the same capex heavy shit business. Building power plants and utilities is not like selling ice creams. SCI shareholders might want to think about selling out before the next wave goes in (or goes out) depending on which metaphor you like. Meanwhile, stay safe!

Huat Ah!
 

Friday, May 29, 2020

Book #8: Billion Dollar Whale's Life Lessons

This is a continuation of the previous post.

In the last post discussing Billion Dollar Whale, the book depicting fully the 1MDB scandal and Jho Low's craziness, we learnt a few lessons on fraud detection. Today, we would discuss the last simple trick he used - putting in slight discrepancy in names of bank accounts and incorporated entities.

In order to fool people, Jho Low created shell companies which he controlled in Cayman Islands and other jurisdictions with very relaxed rules and regulations. These jurisdictions are happy to simply collect fees, without doing too many checks, including the previously discussed blatant oversight on lack of beneficiary name during bank transfer.

Jho used an ingenious trick which was to create shell companies with names that were very similar to the real beneficiaries. So it would be like 1MDB Investment Corp Ltd, which have nothing to do with the real 1MDB because the actual entity was 1Malaysia Development Berhad Ltd. Okay, I simply created these names without referring back to the book. But you get the idea.

The book introduced half a dozen of these examples used by Jho Low to wire money illegal to himself or his cronies. This allowed him to siphoned off a few billion dollars from Malaysia. He used the money to party, buy luxury yacht and financed his crazy lifestyle.

Google screenshot of Jho's various party photos

There are two lessons here: always double check when names are similar but not a 100% match and when there is something fishy, make sure we figure the whole damn thing out. The second lesson is that we cannot rely others to do the checks. The 1MDB saga showed that a lot of international wire transfers are simply done unchecked or even if checks were done and questions were asked, those not involved tend to let things slip through. So it ties back to the point made in the previous post. When there is no oversight, then chances are that things will go wrong.

Here's the summary of the three financial lessons:

1. Be careful when there is no transparency
2. Be very vigilant when there is a lack of independent oversight
3. Look out for the small discrepancies and figure things out when the parts doesn't gel

The life lessons from Billion Dollar Whale were more interesting, in my opinion. It is also related to what Warren Buffett referred to as people's inner scorecard as opposed to outer scorecards. According to the book, Jho Low lived by other people's scorecards of himself. It was this desire to prove himself that led him down the dark path. Well, that's Billion Dollar Whale's authors interpretation, we will never know for sure, but it's important to understand this scorecard concept.



People who live by how others score them will forever be chasing other people's dreams. Outer scorecard matters, if someone whom you trust and respect gives a realistic scorecard of you and would like you to improve. It then helps to compare our own inner scorecards to these important outer scorecards. So not all outer scorecards are bad, but when all outer scorecards matter more than inner scorecards, then the balance is upset and things can go wrong. 

In the book, Jho Low was being describe as an Asian boy who wasn't in this place during his school years in UK's top elite schools. This planted the seed of desire to prove himself and impress others. He wanted it so badly to the extent that he borrowed his friend's bungalow and put his own family photos to trick visitors that the big house was his. There were other episodes mentioned to put forth the story as well. If true, then Jho Low's story really is the cautionary tale to remind ourselves how living by outer scorecards can screw up everything.

His balance was totally upset. 

The other big life lesson was how Jho Low failed to get himself out of trouble when he had the chance. This was at the time of the so-called "third heist" of USD 3 billion dollars which Goldman Sachs helped 1MDB raised by selling bonds to gullible investors. After jumping several hoops and hurdles, this ridiculously went through all the checks and Jho Low got the money. All 3,000,000,000 US dollars! At that point, he could have used part of the 3 billion to plug his previous holes, which amounted to a billion or so (if I recall correctly). That way, he could have bought time to finally invest and claw back his losses. But he didn't and spent it on luxury yacht, pointless stuff and parties again. So here's the last lesson.

Once we do something wrong, it is very hard to turn back from black to white. It's a slippery slope down, like joining the dark side. Jho Low couldn't stop himself. It was akin to an addiction. Once you crossed the line, your mind tells you just keep going. It's been crossed, no point turning back. I stole a billion, why not steal three? Who's counting anyways? It takes a lot to redeem oneself. It is also very difficult for people from the other side to help. It is almost has to be one's own journey back. We have real life, fictional and historical examples of this: Benny Teo, founder of 18 Chef in Singapore, Darth Vader and St Paul from the Bible. Yes, only one real life example. Such redemptions are truly far and few in between.

So, don't cross the line. 

Circuit Breaker Ending! Huat Ah!

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Charts #31: Asian startups

Here's a dated chart from WSJ. The startup boom ended with the arrival of the coronavirus. Let's see how many will still be around in 18 months.


Grab has come a long way. Hopefully it will be fairy tale ending with rainbows for this ASEAN unicorn. Huat Ah!

Monday, May 04, 2020

Book #8: Billion Dollar Whale's Fraud Detection Lessons

Billion Dollar Whale was published in 2018 and updated in 2019 tells the story of Jho Low and the 1MDB heist in full details. Jho Low was the mastermind (even though he denied it) behind stealing billions of dollars from Malaysians. When the scandal broke out, it brought down Najib in the 2018 elections, in effect, ending UMNO's 61 year rule in Malaysia, our truly Asian neighbour.


Alongside Bad Blood, these two books provided detail descriptions of the financial bag of tricks and things to watch out for in fraud cases. It is worth jotting them down for future references. For me, here's the three warning signs:

1. Lack of transparency and out-of the-norm obsession with secrecy
2. Lack of independent oversight
3. Slight discrepancy in names of bank accounts and incorporate entities

1. Lack of transparency

In both stories, the perpetrators used secrecy as the main reason to put people off track. Theranos constantly site its need for maintain top secrecy because the firm had to take precaution against competitors who might steal their technology. They refused visits to their labs and keep a tight check on its employees to make sure nothing was ever leaked. In reality, there was no proprietary technology, it was all about hiding the scam. In Jho Low's case, he used the authority of the Malaysia's Prime Minister (Najib) and his sovereign wealth fund to fend off the need for transparency.

Without transparency, it is easy to cook anything. As such, investors must always be extra vigilant when companies or organizations use all sorts of excuses to mask transparency. In today's connected world, it is no longer possible to hide anything. You can only go only as far as common sense allows. When a company sue ex-employees for divulging secrets (Theranos' case) or when bank transfer is asked for accounts with no beneficiary's names (Jho Low's case), warning signs are all over. 

2. Lack of independent oversight

Every company has a board of directors. The board has a say in many things including firing the CEO and is accountable to shareholders. Singapore companies like to publish the faces of board members as it is an accomplishment for someone to be a board member of a prominent company. DBS' board webpage is decorated as such (see below).


The board usually made up of both insiders and outsiders. Sometimes, the board has a non-executive Chairperson. This means that the Chairperson is not a complete insider. In other cases, the founder or the past CEOs become the Chairperson. The Chairperson is very important as he is ultimately responsible for the board and thus the company or entity in question.

So when 1MDB first Chairman resigned in 2009. It was a big warning sign. Unfortunately, in our busy, mobile phone addicted world today. Nobody would notice anything if it's not flagged out. It was the same situation with Theranos when multiple board directors resigned as they kept hearing uncomfortable news from outer sources. The bombshell was dropped on Theranos when Henry Kissinger resigned. As such, resignation of prominent external parties is something to look out for.

There are cases whereby the board was already stuffed with conspirators in the first place. This was what happened in 1MDB after the first Chairman resigned. In many small companies, nobody wants to be on the board in the first place. So, naturally, only friends or friendly acquaintances would join the board. This is one reason why mid and small caps are not comparable to large, blue chips companies. The board is the minority investors' last line of defense. If they are conspirators of fraudster CEOs and founders, then there is little hope to see our money.

The other big independent entity is the auditor. The auditor's report is an important piece of document to pick up nuances as highlighted in Billion Dollar Whale. 1MDB rotated through 3 of the big four auditors with most of them highlighting concerns that were crafted into the auditor's report. The thing to look out for would be a disclaimer of opinion or an adverse opinion. A disclaimer of opinion means that the auditor chose not to provide an opinion of the company. 

An adverse opinion means that the auditor found something wrong in the financials but does not have enough evidence to express that opinion. When this happens, regulators would have to step in. As such, both disclaimer of opinion and adverse opinion would usually not happen in writing so what happened at 1MDB was continuous delay in finalizing the accounts as well as change of auditors within a short period of time.

This would be another major warning sign. In the next instalment, we would discuss discrepancy in names as well as other lessons. Stay tuned!

Happy Star Wars Day! May the Force be with You!

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Covid Destroys Crude!

The world was never meant to stop functioning for months on end. But this is the reality now with COVID-19 disrupting normal lives for most of humanity. For one, international air travel has grind to a halt. Singaporeans used to taking flights at least once every couple of months will find this new normal uneasy. Cinemas have stopped operating as we cannot practice social distancing sitting together in front of the big screen. Again, in entertainment deprived Singapore, we cannot wait for them to reopen. But who knows when that can happen.

Restaurants, bars, night clubs, live concerts and many other businesses which inherently cannot adhere to social distancing rules will find it difficult to operate as COVID-19 rages on. Many of these businesses may not survive. With businesses closing, we are talking about job losses. The US has seen over 20 million jobs lost. This is becoming a crisis that is be bigger than the GFC. In Singapore, we are lucky to still have our jobs.

Yet for most of us working from home, we have other worries. Family time is now on overdrive and we are restraining ourselves from committing domestic violence. Si Gin Na* Stop watching Youtube and do your homework! This is mental resilience training, so much so that we miss the office. There is no need for physical resilience, we practically just eat and sleep. So our bodies are transforming from the pic on the left below to the one on the right.

*Si Gin Na means obnoxious brats in Hokkien

Michelangelo's Covid

Actually, it's not a laughing matter. With economies collapsing, livelihoods are at stake. Nobody knows how long this will last. It could be many more months. We have to be mentally prepared. In a blue sky scenario, the number of infections continue to decline (as it has started to do so over the last two weeks), summer comes and we can reopen the economies. But this is now becoming less and less probable. Even if the virus goes away, we are faced with harsh realities with huge number of bankruptcies and millions of jobless people.

We may find ourselves in a very different world after COVID-19 subsides. 

A central scenario could be a slow, gradual semi-reopening of the economies in summer, hopefully the virus does not come back in fall and winter. The vaccines and cures are successful and we see a gradual normalization thereafter. International air travel may come back 2021 and summer Olympics in Tokyo next year could mark the turning point. We may have to accept the new reality - we live with WFH, HBL, social distancing and lockdowns for the rest of the year.

In a worst case scenario, COVID-19 hits us waves after waves. We see a Spanish flu situation. The number of infections goes beyond tens of millions and deaths spike. Efforts in finding vaccines and cures fail and we only defeat the virus after achieving herd immunity. This means months and months of lockdowns, failed reopenings and more lockdowns. Normalization might take years and we look back from the future recognizing today as one of the darkest period of modern society.

Last week, crude oil sort of gave a premonition of this armageddon. A barrel of crude which cost $20-160 over the last 80 years and average $40-60 over the last 10 years fell below zero. In fact, it went to -$40. This meant sellers paid buyers almost $40 to sell them a barrel of oil. Imagine, I make a bowl of bak chor mee and sells it to you for -$4. So you get $4 and get to eat the bak chor mee. Things went absolutely crazy. 

Long term oil price chart thanks to macrotrends

Why did this happen?

We do not have the full picture yet but as the days go by, more and more pieces of the puzzle are coming together. First, while the world stopped functioning, oil producers did not react fast enough to stop oil production. The drastic drop in air, land and sea travel caused demand for fuel to collapse. As such, the oil that is pumped out is not used and needed to be stored. But global storage facilities was never built to store months and months of oil. 

In the US, the main capacity to store crude oil in Cushing, Oklahoma was on the verge of running out. It was speculated that some novice market participants holding the expiring May contract of crude find themselves stuck because if they cannot find storage, they would need to take physical delivery and that was not an option. So in the last minutes of frenzy trading, crude fell below zero for the first time in history. 

This is a reminder that the finance world and markets are actually very complex. Don't anyhow play pay!

But things did not look good afterwards. Now the benchmark has rolled over to the June contract but prices did not recover. It traded at $1 the day after and both WTI and Brent are only at teens a week later. Still 40-50% below what was quoted just weeks ago. The same situation will come in a few weeks and traders might find themselves out of storage, this time not just in the US but globally! So we may see prices going negative again.

In a sense, we are witnessing a historic moment, how a virus - COVID-19 takes on the world's most traded commodity - crude oil and decimates its whole eco-system built over the last 80 years. We saw one US producer Whiting Petroleum going bankrupt and our own oil trader Hin Leong in huge trouble even before crude prices going negative. There will be more casualties along the way. Even Keppel Corp and Sembmarine could face their own issues. The saving grace for Keppel is that its property and telco / data businesses could help offset the weakness in its energy segment somewhat. But I would not be surprised if the stock retests its 2008 low of $3.41. 

Keppel Corp's share price

The other revelation last week's saga taught me was that commodities prices have no floor. I used to believe that a barrel of oil should have some kind of intrinsic value. People use it to power their cars, make plastic, produce electricity. So it should be worth something. When we look at the long term chart for oil, we could make an assumption that maybe a barrel of oil should be worth at least $20 and as oil get scarcer, perhaps it is worth more, maybe $40. Indeed, as mentioned, oil traded at $40-60 for the last 10 years. 

In the last few days, this thesis is turned on its head. If oil has some intrinsic value, how can price go negative? As such, I come to the realization that a commodity may not have intrinsic value. Crude oil is a commodity. A barrel of oil today is the same as that 30 years ago. It is also the same in US or in the Middle East. As such, there is no floor because when it is not needed, people will sell it at any price. Even negative prices. This is the same for copper, wheat and all other types of commodities. The exception might be gold. So between oil and gold, maybe gold might be the right commodity for the same thesis. 

In retrospect, perhaps crude price bouncing up and down all these years was all just speculation on supply and demand.

The same story actually played out in the different bits of the shipping industry. As astute investors would know, shipping is a commodity business. It does not make too much of a difference if you used NOL or Maersk or Evergreen to ship a container around world. So when there is a huge oversupply of ships, the shippers might pay customers and help ship stuff for them. The vivid example I saw in my investment experience was in the bulk shipping industry. 

When China was booming, there weren't enough large Capesize bulk ships and steel mills around the world paid exorbitant shipping costs to ship iron ore and coal to their mills in China and other parts of the world. Alas, good times came to an end and Capesize daily shipping rates fell below operating costs. So logically, the ships should just stop operating, since every single day in operation meant they bleed money, tens of thousands of dollars. But they have to do it for various reasons, the banks would cut the loans if they stop operations and docking these ships incurred cost as well. So it was a nightmare. They ship and bleed every single day. In fact, they are still in the nightmare today. 

So I guess the lesson learnt is to be very mindful when buying commodities and commodity businesses. In times like this we appreciate the boring businesses like Nestle and F&N that see relatively smaller impact and smaller volatility in share prices. While we are dealing with COVID and Si Gin Na in the house, at least we get to sleep better at night.

Stay safe and huat ah!